There is a nexus between plant science and art— visual art, performance art, video art, that aesthetic realm— which is really important at the moment. And it’s an area or a space where all kinds of art writers and creative writers can engage with these ideas at that nexus of plant science and art and aesthetics. And the reason for that is that new discoveries in plant science, it’s really crucial new knowledge that has just been discovered about the way plants relate to each other, about the way they communicate to each other. The fact that they are sentient and they’re mobile, they have mobility beyond the way we usually thought they had. They can learn and they can remember.
So there is this kind of change, radical rethinking of humanity’s place in the world because of these changes and these new discoveries in plant life and systems and communication, learning, and memory of plants. All of that new information is being taken up by artists and writers and it’s become a kind of intervention in the way we think about humanity’s place in the world. And it’s important because all those sort of engagements change things for us, politically, and culturally, and morally.
There are quite a few international artists working directly with plant science and plants themselves. One example is a woman called Rasa Smite, who is a Latvian artist, and she works with her husband Raitis Smits. And they have done this really interesting community based project. It’s sort of a socially engaged project, where over seven cities across Europe they had exhibitions in gallery spaces where they grew beans in the space, and they invited viewers into the gallery, and they were able to participate and engage with the plants as they grew by sending them text messages or using messages online, and then that was hooked up to speakers, and then they monitored how the plants responded to these something like 40,000 messages across the whole period of the exhibition.
And the interesting thing about this whole exhibition and this whole socially community engaged project was not all, oh, what do the plants do in response to us. The question really relates to a plant theorist and a plant philosopher called Michael Marder, who’s written all these books called Plant Philosophy and Plant Thinking, and he engages with the kind of ideas and philosophies around this new knowledge in plant science. And what he asks us, and what Rasa Smite in her exhibition asked us was not what do the plants think, but what do we think about the possibility or the contingency of plants having a different way of thinking.
Janet Laurence is an artist who works in that nexus of plant science and aesthetics. She’s an Australian artist and she has a huge reputation internationally, and she does these amazing interventions into the natural world. So she works with nature, both outdoors where she makes installations that are permanent public sculptures, and she also creates these natural ecosystems within the gallery space. So for instance, at one of the Biennales of Sydney, she erected this white tent in the middle of the botanical gardens. And inside this quite clinical environment were all these transparent Perspex boxes, and she literally ungrounded the earth and took the plants out of the earth and transplanted them into this kind of complex social cultural setting.
And hooked them up to tubing, like medical tubing, and wrapped them with white gauze, and created this sense of it being a hospital for sick plants. And by doing so, she was creating a new kind of engagement with both plant science and aesthetics, by creating an aesthetics of care, or an aesthetics of cure. And by changing the way we think about plants and transplanting them, transporting them, and changing our interaction with them in that engaging way, it really has ramifications for the way we as humans engage with the natural world.
So if there is this whole contingent and possible realm of being in terms of plant life, a different way of thinking, a different way of communicating, a different kind of sentience that humans don’t even have access to, then what are the ramifications for the way humans think of themselves in terms of the world?
Bioethics, or nature rights, or as it’s also known, earth jurisprudence, is a really interesting area for intervention in that nexus between plant science and art or aesthetics. Because in 2008 in Switzerland and in Ecuador, so it was a pretty important year, both of those countries amended their Constitution and changed their legislation so that the rights of nature could be upheld in a court of law. So in New Zealand the Whanganui River has just recently been afforded rights as a legal entity.
And so I think that these changes in legislation and constitutional changes will really start to trickle down through the community in terms of culture, and morality, and our social engagement with nature, and I think this will really have huge ramifications for that radical rethinking of humanity’s place in the world.