PLANTART – BioArt using Plants in the Light of Bruno Latour and Michael Marder

Abstract

Plants and their various, seemingly invisible reactions and processes are gaining more and more interest and attention. While humans have wondered about their relation to their non-human surroundings for centuries, little has been explicitly said about the human relation to plants in Western philosophy. However, movements like BioArt as well as discoveries of complex reactions and traces of intelligence in plants urge us to think about this issue. Compiling thoughts of both Bruno Latour and Michael Marder assists in approaching the question of how to encounter plants and leads to the conclusion, that BioArt offers great opportunities to broadcast the need and challenges of living in respect with the world of vegetation.


Introduction

The human relation to their non-human surroundings has been a popular topic in philosophy throughout the ages. While many answers regarding our relation to objects have been suggested [1] and, with rising interest in recent years, the role of the animal has been discussed [2], relatively little has been said explicitly about our relation to plants in the Western philosophy of modern times [3]. In fact, as Michael Marder observes in his book Plant-Thinking, we tend to overlook plants, to take them for granted or to cut their relevance back onto their use for ourselves.[4]

In Western thinking, it has become popular to use nominalist classifications to organize our surroundings.[5] Like other aspects of life, this system of classification allows us to fit each single plant into a specific category, which turns the individual being into an example of a kind that we have a name and a use for.[6] Thereby, we fail to see the single plant, may it be a tree or a flower, as a singular, original being that, even though it seems so strange and alien to us in some ways, shares at least basic aspects of life with humans, such as growing and the need of nutrition.[7] Scientists and researchers even suggest, that plants might be much more complex and intelligent than we might think.[8] They tell us about mother trees nurturing their sprouts [9], about huge fungus networks below the forest ground connecting trees of different kinds [10], about chemical communication systems [11], plants that wage war or shield others [12] and about different defense strategies when attacked by animals [13].

In the light of facts like these, which make many people rethink their life with plants as well as technological and political processes, an art movement called BioArt has to face more and more critique. BioArt, which means using living organisms like bacteria or plants for artistic installations or artworks, arises from different motivations and uses different techniques while not everybody agrees with its ethical correctness.[14]

Having all this in mind, we should investigate and deliberate on the actual and the proper relation between humans and the non-human, non-animal world of plants. As Marder does in his book PlantThinking, we should ask ourselves how to encounter plants and how to “maintain and nurture, without fetishizing it, their otherness in the course of this encounter”[15]. Can a movement like BioArt help in promoting the plants’ individuality? Or does it, in fact, discriminate and harm the honor of their unique way of being?

Approaching the Issue of Encountering Plants

Talking of the relation between humans and non-humans suggests having a look at Bruno Latour’s work in order to approach this issue. To get rid of the popular distinction between subjects and objects, Latour focuses on distinguishing humans from non-humans.[16] While humans are commonly seen as intelligent beings that can think and act, Latour promotes the thought that non-humans, a category which literally includes everything that is not a human, inhabit their own properties and programs of action and should be seen as agents or actants that influence an action in their own way.[17] Humans and non-humans form collectives of different sizes, in which each entity, each agent mediates the goal and the outcome.[18] As an example, Latour explains that neither a gun nor a person kills on its own, but they both kill together.[19] They share the responsibility since they both contribute in their own way to the act of killing and form a collective, a third agent that emerges from the relation of the original two agents.[20]

This raises the question, in which instances humans form collectives with plants. As strange as this thought might seem in the beginning, as numerous are the examples, the more it is thought through. Collectives are “defined as an exchange of human and nonhuman properties inside a corporate body”[21]. Even thinking back to the early stages of humanity there are plenty of examples for human-plant-collectives: With plants, humans can find or create shelter, nurture, provide material for different purposes, heal, and, last but not least, simply breathe. Furthermore, humans cultivate plants, grant them space to grow, enjoy their beauty, care for them and try to enhance their reproduction and strength. These kinds of collectives live on until current times, while some of them became more complex and more human and non-human agents have entered the stage.

However, as with most collectives, the purpose of these relations always seems to be in the humans’ interest. While in some cases the circumstances for the plants might improve, the actual aim of the collective is to enhance the humans’ life. This reminds of Marder’s critique of the human-plant relation: We regard the world of plants to be primarily useful for us in certain ways.[22] While Latour seems to grant the plant more individuality by including it in the realm of non-human actants, the actual status of the plant seems to stay the same.

Nonetheless, this status may be enhanced to an extend when having a look at the eleven layers Latour introduces as an explanation for how the relationship between humans and non-humans grew over time.[23] Latour suggests that while there have always been collectives of human and non-human agents, they have, in the course of these eleven stages, improved each other’s being by learning from another and granting each other new competences and possibilities.[24]

Thus, because in the first and earliest layer humans involved “in social interactions to repair a constantly decaying social order”[25], they were able to extend their social competences to the non-human world and generate tools in the second layer.[26] This means, that humans started to treat non-humans as partners and ‘team up’ with them in order to fulfill a task [27], for example by using plant material to generate fire.

Learning from this cooperation with non-humans, humans started to use non-humans to strengthen their social stability in the third layer.[28] Here, too, plants can play an important role up until today: Gifting of a flower to one’s love usually is an attempt to enhance goodwill.

This exchange of knowledge and resources between humans and non-humans went on over time, growing more complex and interwoven with each layer. While non-humans and therefore plants still seem to be primarily regarded in means of their function, it is important to note Latour’s focus on the swapping of properties [29] and the non-humans’ folding into humans [30], which makes their relation more close and intimate and pays more respect to the non-human’s individual resources and capacities, rather than regarding it merely as a tool to serve human interests. In fact, while humans seem to be in control of what is happening within the collective, it has to be stressed that they in return rely on the engagement of non-human agents in order to live up to their standards:[31] “Action is simply not a property of humans but of an association of actants[32]. In the case of plants this fact is even more eminent: While the realm of plants would probably be totally fine without any human being on earth, we rely on them to even fulfill basic needs like eating and breathing. Furthermore, it should be noted that in the eleventh layer, non-humans are beginning to be granted political rights, by which, in Latour’s words, they have “acquired properties of citizenship”[33].[34]

So how shall we then encounter plants? Even though Latour barely ever talks about plants explicitly, he investigates political ecology and our relation to nature in his later book Das Parlament der Dinge.[35] Because the term political ecology is, in his opinion, lacking a clear understanding and overthinking of what it contains,[36] he strongly criticizes the popular understanding of it, which he describes as the ‘dealing with the relations between nature and society’[37]. In fact, he sees the need to reconsider all three terms that he understands as the basis of political ecology, nature, politics and science,[38] and comes to the conclusion that the main problem of current political ecology is trying to include nature in politics, which merely decreases the power of politics [39]. Instead, he promotes a ‘parliament of things’, in which both humans and non-humans, or their representatives, fight for their own interests.[40] However, while Latour clearly promotes granting non-humans, including plants, more respect and some sort of ‘say’, especially in politics, he does not quite touch the individual person’s relation to this non-human world. Of course, talking about relations within the collective of all agents can give important cues for the relation between singular agents – but to answer the initial questions, this does not seem like enough. Latour’s statements do nonetheless support Marder’s point of view, which is why they are helpful in defining an answer to the stated questions.

Similar to Latour’s vision on humans and non-humans, Marder, too, calls for regarding plants as agents instead of merely objects.[41] “What is required therefore is the cultivation of a certain intimacy with plants, which does not border on empathy or on the attribution of the same fundamental substratum to their life and to ours; rather, like all intimacy, it will take place (largely) in the dark, respectful of the obscurity of vegetal life.”[42] He suggests ten “offshoots”[43] for dealing with plants, which include:

  • Plant-thinking has to be “a habitus of living […]: that our engagement in plant-thinking actively takes the side of the plant and works for the sake of the plant.”[44]
  • “Vegetation cannot be treated merely as an object, moral or otherwise, since it is also an agent, if non-active, related to its other (inorganic nature, light, etc.)”[45].
  • Vegetal life deserves respect[46] – especially, because it embodies the most basic way of living that is a part of all other living beings like animals as well.[47] Marder believes, that “an offense against vegetal life harms both the plants we destroy and something of the vegetal being in us.[48]
  • We shall treat plants as “singularities, not as examples of a particular genus or species”[49]. However, Marder notes that a plant itself and its parts belong to an organic whole, making even a single plant a plant-community at the same time.[50] Therefore, a “plant is at once the most singular and the most general being”[51].
  • We should respect the temporal dimension of plants, especially when growing crops for capitalist agriculture, which runs at its own, different pace.[52]
  • “The consumption of plants […] should be recognized as one among many possibilities for our interaction with them […]. Plant-thinking does not oppose the use of fruit, roots, and leaves for human nourishment; rather, what it objects to is the total and indiscriminate approach to plants as materials for human consumption”[53]. While welcoming plants as a source for nutrition constitutes no problem for Marder, we should not reduce plants to merely a source of food or income.[54]
  • Since plants cannot express themselves in terms of voice, we should be aware of the “risk of objectifying them or, at best, speaking for them, in their defense, if not in their place”[55]. Therefore, a balance has to be found between representing them “faithful to their ontology”[56] of silence and in the political way, speaking on their behalf, pursuing their rights.[57]
  • Like other living beings, a plant shall have the right to not be dominated by others but to “follow its course […] [and to] thrive in the manner appropriate to it”[58], to be itself.[59]

BioArt using Plants in the Light of Latour and Marder

What does all this mean for BioArt? As mentioned earlier, BioArt stands for using living beings and organic tissues for artistic media [60], “creating intriguing – and often shocking – works of art”[61]. Artists doing BioArt often work in art labs like the SymbioticA [62] in Perth, Australia, and use techniques and high-tech equipment developed in science.[63] The artworks themselves usually are not tied to medical or bio-technological issues or needs, but they can reveal different aspects about the nature of life.[64]

Of course, BioArt does not primarily focus on plants but on living beings of all kinds. However, there are plenty of examples of artists using plants for their work. Tim Knowles, for example, attaches drawing implements to the tips of branches to create pictures painted by the tree, revealing “the different qualities and characteristics of each tree”[65].[66] Michele Brody is another example for an artist who works with plants: She creates living plant sculptures for artistic installations.[67]

Another field of BioArt using plants is called Plant Sonification and deals with the translation of electrical signals of the plant into sound or music. For instance, the record label Data Garden uses plants to produce electronic music and even developed a tool called MIDI Sprout that can be plugged onto the leaves of a plant to generate music using its signals.[68] Furthermore, the sound artist Mileece creates interactive soundscapes with plants that can be affected by touch.[69]

However, as implicated before, BioArt has to deal with a lot of negative critique. It has been questioned regarding its supposed “lack of ethics”[70] and many people see it “as an unnecessary use of living organisms”[71]. Since BioArt works are outcomes of the work of artists, not scientists or researchers, many people feel uncertain about it, even though artists dealing with these topics need to do research prior to their projects as well.[72] Often, the public even assumes that what bio-artists do could be harmful and painful to the organism.[73]

Regarding the enrollment of plants, Cinti furthermore points out, that “the prioritization of aesthetics in bio art practices were seen to obfuscate scientific findings and in doing so reinforce our understanding of plants as we ordinarily experience them”[74], as passive beings without sensorial reactions.[75]

Nonetheless, some people see an additional requirement for art to be defined as BioArt: It should point out and emphasize political and social issues as well.[76] And this may be one of the greatest opportunities of BioArt. It can be used to “provoke social discussion”[77] and to rise the interest in helpful biotech practices, since “art, like all forms of play (and all forms of critique), opens up a space in which we can ask important questions about what we’re doing without having to commit ourselves to a political position”[78].[79] This way, it can help to broach “urgent questions about aesthetics and ethics, usefulness and necessity in relation to a world in transition towards a biobased society”[80] and, in the end, tackle the question about our relation to the non-human world.

How can we evaluate BioArt using plants regarding to the previously compiled thoughts about encountering plants? Like many critics point out, the manipulation of living beings and the ‘being in power’ over the plants seems disrespectful and not in the sense of a just encounter. After all, the life of the plant is in the hands of the artist, who might just decide to do harm or even kill it. Furthermore, since plants cannot speak for themselves, results of BioArt projects could easily be manipulated or misunderstood and even used for own goals and political intentions, which has to be seen as a high risk.

On the other hand, BioArt is a chance to give plants a ‘voice’ and let them speak for themselves. This way, the problem of merely talking about or for plants in their place could be reduced. Their own responses and reactions, translated into channels accessible to the human senses, could spark interest and start discussions on their own, without having to only represent the plants in a political way – merely to assist them in a technical way.

Also, if the artwork is designed to show the life and the activity of a plant, it relies on the individual responses of this specific plant. Thereby, it emphasizes and promotes the plants activity and individuality, which can, in return, enhance respect or even cause emotional responses in the human audience.

Conclusion

As stated above, BioArt creates many opportunities for promoting the plants individuality, activity and even familiarity to the human audience. Thereby it can help a great deal in promoting both Latour’s and Marder’s thoughts on human and non-human agents and lead the way to a more respectful encounter between humans and plants. However, one should always bear in mind the risks that come with powerful opportunities – manipulation, egoistic goals and profit can set the positive effects of BioArt in danger. Also, as Latour states, a problematic situation can arise whenever someone tries to combine and mix aesthetic, political, ecological and ethical values: If this mix is not properly balanced, the risk is high of influencing the result in a way, that makes it either too objective and fact driven, into something that seems calculable and classifiable, or too poetic and romantic, which could make it loose all its independence and relevance.[81] Therefore, special care should be taken on this specific balance whenever trying to promote scientific facts through artistic work.



Bibliography

Aaronson, Xavier (2014): The Exquisite Sounds of Plants. http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-exquisite-sounds-of-plants, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Adam, Clément (2012): Bioart, Ethics and Artworks. http://mastersofmedia.hum.uva.nl/2012/04/18/bioart-ethics-and-artworks/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

BioArt Laboratories: An Introduction. http://bioartlab.com/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Bogost, Ian (2012): Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brody, Michele: Image Portfolio. http://michelebrody.com/image-portfolio/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Cinti, Laura (2012): Leonardo Thinks. http://www.leoalmanac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/LeonardoThinks_Cinti.pdf, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Data Garden: About. http://datagarden.org/about/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Harman, Graham (2012): The Third Table / Der dritte Tisch. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag.

Knowles, Tim: Tree Drawings. http://www.timknowles.co.uk/Work/TreeDrawings/tabid/265/Default.aspx, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Latour, Bruno (1999): Pandora’s Hope (Chapter 6: A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans). Campridge, Massachusetts, London, England: Harvard University Press, p. 174-216.

Latour, Bruno (2001): Das Parlament der Dinge. Für eine politische Ökologie. Edition Zweite Moderne. Aus dem Französischen von Gustav Roßler. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Marder, Michael (2013): Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press.

Miranda, Carolina A. (2013): Weird Science: Biotechnology as Art Form. http://www.artnews.com/2013/03/18/biotechnology-as-art-form/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Pollan, Michael (2013): The Intelligent Plant. Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/12/23/the-intelligent-plant?currentPage=all, accessed on 2015-03-19.

Powision (2010): Latour, Bruno: Kann die Menschheit ohne Thunfisch noch dieselbe sein? – Ein Gespräch. http://www.uni-leipzig.de/~powision/wordpress/magazin/ausgabe_6/latour-bruno-kann-die-menschheit-ohne-thunfisch-noch-dieselbe-sein-ein-gesprach/, accessed on 2015-03-20.

SymbioticA: Home. http://www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

Walden, Stephanie (2013): BioArt: Is It Art? Is It Science? Is It the Future? http://mashable.com/2013/10/29/cutpastegrow-bioart/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

What Plants Talk About. Nature: Season 31, Episode 9 (TV Series). Director: Erna Buffie. USA: PBS 2013. Version: Internet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrG-42uCDj4, accessed on 2015-03-19. 54 min.

Wikipedia: BioArt. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioArt/, accessed on 2015-03-21.

 

Featured Image found at: http://datagarden.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/jill_brain_wave-750-data-garden.jpg.



[1] See for example Latour, Bruno (1999): Pandoras Hope; Harman, Graham (2012): The Third Table; Bogost, Ian (2012): Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.

[2] See Marder (2013): Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, p. 1-2.

[3] See ibid.: p. 2.

[4] See ibid.: p. 3-4.

[5] See ibid.: p. 4.

[6] See ibid.: p. 4-5.

[7] See ibid.: p. 4.

[8] See Pollan, Michael (2013): The Intelligent Plant. Scientists debate a new way of understanding flora.

[9] See What Plants Talk About.

[10] See Pollan (2013).

[11] See ibid.

[12] See What Plants Talk About.

[13] See ibid.

[14] See Adam, Clément (2012): Bioart, Ethics and Artworks.

[15] Marder (2013): p. 3.

[16] See Latour, Bruno (1999): Pandora’s Hope, p. 193-294.

[17] See ibid.: p. 178.

[18] See ibid.: p. 178-179.

[19] See ibid.: p. 176-178.

[20] See ibid.: p. 179.

[21] Ibid.: p. 193.

[22] See Marder (2013): p. 4.

[23] See Latour (1999): p. 201-202.

[24] See ibid.: p. 207-208.

[25] Ibid.: p. 211.

[26] See ibid.: p. 211.

[27] See ibid.: p. 211.

[28] See ibid.: p. 210.

[29] See ibid.: p. 198.

[30] See ibid.: p. 193.

[31] See ibid.: p. 180-181.

[32] Ibid.: p. 182.

[33] Ibid.: p. 202.

[34] See ibid.: p. 202.

[35] See Latour, Bruno (2001): Das Parlament der Dinge. Für eine politische Ökologie, p. 9-10.

[36] See ibid.: p. 10.

[37] See ibid.: p. 12.

[38] See ibid.: p. 10-11.

[39] See ibid.: p. 307.

[40] See Powision (2010): Latour, Bruno: Kann die Menschheit ohne Thunfisch noch dieselbe sein? – Ein Gespräch.

[41] See Marder (2013): p. 182.

[42] Ibid.: p. 181.

[43] Ibid.: p. 181.

[44] Ibid.: p. 181.

[45] Ibid.: p. 182.

[46] Ibid.: p. 182

[47] See ibid.: p. 182.

[48] Ibid.: p. 182.

[49] Ibid.: p. 183.

[50] See ibid.: p. 183.

[51] Ibid.: p. 183.

[52] See ibid.: p. 183-184.

[53] Ibid.: p. 184.

[54] See ibid.: p. 185-186.

[55] Ibid.: p. 186.

[56] Ibid.: p. 186.

[57] See ibid.: p. 186.

[58] Ibid.: p. 187.

[59] See ibid.: p. 187.

[60] See Miranda, Carolina A. (2013): Weird Science: Biotechnology as Art Form.

[61] Walden, Stephanie (2013): BioArt: Is It Art? Is It Science? Is It the Future?

[62] See Symbiotica: Home.

[63] See Miranda (2013).

[64] See ibid.

[65] Knowles, Tim: Tree Drawings.

[66] See ibid.

[67] See Brody, Michele: Image Portfolio.

[68] See Data Garden: About.

[69] See Aaronson, Xavier (2014): The Exquisite Sound of Plants.

[70] Wikipedia: BioArt.

[71] Adam, Clément (2012): Bioart, Ethics and Artworks.

[72] See ibid.

[73] See ibid.

[74] Cinti, Laura (2012): Leonardo Thinks.

[75] See ibid.

[76] See Adam (2012).

[77] Walden (2013).

[78] Ibid.

[79] See ibid.

[80] BioArt Laboratories: An introduction.

[81] See Latour (2001): p. 12-13.

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