The following text in four parts was the voice-over text of a video installation at CARPA 5. The video (as a very small file) is available at www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/316551/2822/54
This text is part of a video installation based on material documenting my sitting in a tree in Stockholm at the end of the year 2016 and beginning of 2017. The video clips will serve as examples of my first attempts in a project called performing with plants. In this text, I will first refer to my plan and my notes while performing, then reference Michael Marder’s ideas regarding the so called hidden life of plants, then bring in the notion trans-corporeality suggested by Stacy Alaimo and finally say a few words of how my understanding of my practice has changed.
To perform and co-operate with plants and especially trees is an artistic research project, which develops a post humanist and new materialist perspective on performing landscape. Our relationship to the environment has dramatically changed and demands new approaches. A post humanist and new materialist perspective prompts us to consider how the surrounding world consists of creatures, life forms and material phenomena with varying degrees of volition, needs and agency, which we depend on and constantly intra-act with. What forms of action, of performing, could be relevant in this situation? One possibility is to approach individual elements in a landscape, such as specific trees, and explore what can be done together with them, for instance how to perform for camera together.
Aware of the problem of assuming any experience, entity or behaviour to be abnormal as such, since the normal is constituted through material-discursive practices, which designate what is to be considered normal and thus also abnormal in each case, I suggest this practice of performing with plants to be, if not abnormal, at least atypical. While neither the tree nor the human need to be considered abnormal, their collaboration is in this case not restricted to the usual biochemical exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, but assumes an imaginary endeavour of posing for camera together. This assumption could be considered anthropomorphizing, animistic, fantastic, or simply naïve, or then an attempt at a more imaginative and sensuous engagement with the environment.
In response to the call to consider perilous experience, my initial reaction was to shun away from this traditional demand for performance art. As Marilyn Arsem (2011, n.p.) wrote in her manifesto “Performance art requires risk. The artists take physical risk using their bodies. The artists take psychic risks as they confront their limits. Witnessing a performance challenges an audience’s own sense of self. Sponsoring performance art, with its unpredictability, requires taking risks. Failure is always possible.” The main risk I face in these performances for camera is catching a flu, the risks for the tree are unknown to me, although living in a risk society is of course perilous in other ways for both of us.
In preparation for this project called performing with plants, I was sitting in a small beech at Djurgården in Stockholm, a tree I have since then visited a few times every month. In a blog post called Wind and Snow Again on November 27, 2016 I wrote:
Dusk was approaching fast so I hurried down to the shore and walked to my other tree partner at Djurgården. It took me a while to find almost the same place for the camera as last time, since there are no clear markers on the ground. The first test image I made with my ordinary clothes on… For the “real” version I removed my cap, put on my scarf… and decided to sit higher up on the branches… [–]
The wind was getting stronger and sitting in the tree I was gasping for air first, before settling into the “suffering”, breathing slowly, accepting the cold, registering the shifts in the force of the wind. I sat there and enjoyed the beauty of the image, both the one I imagined recorded by the camera, and the one I was looking at while sitting in the tree. At some point, I imagined I could simply hold on until nightfall, but soon gave up. It was too cold, and it looked like quite some time until dusk. There was a group of noisy strollers passing the tree, and I was afraid they would notice the camera and do something with it. Luckily that did not happen. I also imagined that the strong gusts of wind would hit the tripod and saw the camera lying on the ground in the snow, and so on… I kept on sitting for a few more minutes, but then gave up. The cold was creeping into my bones and the wind was blowing into my ear… I did not want to get ill, so I climbed down. [–]
The camera was still standing on the tripod, recording a slightly foggy image; part of the lens was covered with snow, and I wonder how the snow did not show more in the actual image. By now I was really cold, so I quickly packed my things and hurried to the cafeteria at the entrance of the park, the place where I am writing these notes. Although it did not look anything like what I imagined while sitting in my “sculpture nest” in the tree, and though the change between the beginning and the end… was surprisingly small, this session perhaps could be made into a small video… (Arlander 2016a, n.p.)
The main character in Emma Geen’s novel The Many Selves of Katherine North (Bloomsbury 2016), a science-fiction thriller drawing on neuroscience and phenomenology, is a phenomenaut, who enters the bodily experiences of various animals, even reptiles and insects, although her favourite body seems to be that of a fox. These experimental embodiments are undertaken first as research and later as experiences designed for the public. There are no attempts, however, at entering the bodily and sensorial experience of plants.
In contemporary literature, whether fiction or fact, there is no lack, however, of anthropomorphising descriptions of plants. Peter Wohlleben’s account from the German beech forest, The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World (in English 2016), has been published in twenty languages and sold in more than 1,5 million copies, and also severely criticised for its rhetoric. Scientific experiments concerning plant behaviour, however, have recently confirmed that plants have surprising capacities. A study called Learning by Association in Plants demonstrates through experiments with the garden pea, Pisum sativum, “that associative learning is an essential component of plant behavior” (Gagliano et al. 2017, n.p.) “thus qualifying them as proper subjects of cognitive research” (Gagliano 2017, n.p.). Another experiment showed that peas could “hear” water, that is, “roots were able to locate a water source by sensing the vibrations generated by water moving inside pipes, even in the absence of substrate moisture,” which points at the need to understand “the consequences of acoustic pollution” (Gagliano et al. 2017, 151).
On the level of philosophical investigation Michael Marder, perhaps best known for his work Plant Thinking (2013), has in his text Of Plants, and Other Secrets (2012) shown how plants are traditionally associated with the secret, the hidden, the enigmatic. He suggests that this “discursive inflation of secrecy”, with The secret Life of Plants by Tompkins and Bird (1973) as a popular example, is an “overreaction to the millennia-old disregard and neglect of plants… as nearly inanimate things“ (Marder 2012, 17). Marder (ibid., 18) mentions the scholastic philosopher Thomas Aquinas for whom “’vita in plantis est occulta’, ‘life in plants is hidden’.”
Marder (2012, 18) connects the recently (re-)discovered “evidence for the existence of plant subjectivity” with the Kantian transcendental illusion “which makes us believe that, behind diverse actions and behaviours, there is a subject who is their origin and cause.” There is an ongoing quest for a unified origin of the complex behaviour of plants, or ‘signal integration’, which is “the scientific name for the Kantian transcendental illusion” (ibid.), he notes. Marder (ibid.) proposes rather that “plant subjectivity is a dispersed set of effects devoid of a cause, substantial form, integrated source or depth… and so are we.” Following Nietzsche and Hume he suggests that “the human subject is an unavoidably belated fabrication, a doer’s insertion post factum into the deed” (ibid.). Regarding plants, the secret is that there is no secret, he concludes (ibid.).
Marder (2012, 19) analyses Heidegger’s description of facing a tree, an attempt “to see the world for what it is, and not as an epiphenomenal manifestation of withdrawn causes and hidden meanings.” To be released to the realm of Being and “meet the plant without any undue interference, right on the ground where it is rooted” is impossible, however, because without a face the tree “cannot participate in a face-to-face encounter!” Marder (ibid.) exclaims. “The tree itself escapes and seals itself from our grasp as soon as we associate it with a face or posture – in a word, with an anthropomorphic stance” (ibid.). Moreover: “It is hardly sufficient to cast off a metaphysical frame of reference in order, immediately, to receive the world just as it is given to us, since large regions of it are decidedly not given, but are set apart and withdrawn” (Marder 2012, 19.), he adds.
Marder (2012,20) notes, however, how plants do not “construct their subjectivity by separating from and opposing themselves from the rest of their milieu, in the manner of an animal or a human.” Vegetal subjects “operate by way of exposure (for instance to solar radiation) instead of interiorization” (ibid.). For humans “who tend to conflate the psyche with the invisibility of ‘inner life’, existence without depth and a subjectivity open to the world appears strange and incomprehensible. [–] a soul without the privacy of psychic space (that is to say, a plant-soul) can only present itself as an enigma” (ibid.), he writes.
Marder (2012, 21) suggests that the meaning of plant life retains the allure of secrecy today “because it’s a matter of the plants’ self-interpretation and self-expression.” He insists that this is not a metaphor. “The secret of plant subjectivity is that it makes sense of its own world, in its own manner, through its own channels of communication and ways of accessing, processing and acting upon visual, tactile and other types of stimuli” (Marder 2012, 21.).
Marder’s analyses of the relationship of plants to their environment is relevant in this context. He observes that plants seem not to be obliged to separate themselves from their surroundings, to negate their connection to a place, in order to fully become themselves through this oppositional stance, like other types of subjectivity; on the contrary, a vegetal being must “remain an integral part of the milieu wherein it grows” and its relation to the elements is not domineering but receptive (Marder 2013, 69).
“In keeping with twentieth century philosophy, living is ‘living with’, cohabitation in a community mediated not by the immutable bonds of common essence but by the non-essential (or better, pre-essential) difference inherent in existence,” Marder (2013, 50) writes, arriving at this “notion of community by deriving it from difference having simultaneously dispensed with the individual as the atomic unit of analysis” (ibid.). According Marder (2013, 51), “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with” and thus “we have a lot to learn from plants that have mastered this way of being…”
The human tendency to valorise interiority and to assume a separation from the environment is a result of the narrative in Western metaphysics which, according Marder (2012, 21), structures “the emergence and demarcation of the private, inner, psychic space as the culmination of a long process of spiritualization, interiorization and cultivation of subjectivity.” On a material level, human beings are as dependent of the chemistry of the soil and the air as the trees are.
In a blog post called Damp and Dark December on December 10, 2016 I wrote:
Saturday afternoon in Stockholm, wet snow everywhere, hard to say when the snow turns to rain and vice versa … by the time I was at Djurgården dusk was approaching fast. Around three o’clock the light was diminishing; the sun was setting somewhere behind the thick cloud cover. [–] I was impressed by the black branches of the beech – I guess it is a beech, but I am not sure – and tried to frame the image in the same way as last time, only lifting it up a little, so my head would come into the picture. The result is something altogether different again. Perhaps I should accept that this weird snake tree with its boa-constrictor-arms will always embrace me in new ways… (Arlander 2016b, n.p.)
In her book, Bodily Natures – Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Stacy Alaimo (2010, 2) “explores the interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures.” She introduces the concept trans-corporeality to describe human corporeality, to underline how the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world and ultimately inseparable from “the environment” and to emphasize movement across bodies, which is often unpredictable or unwanted. In “early twenty-first century realities”, she writes, “‘human’ and ‘environment’ can by no means be considered as separate” (ibid.). She focuses on issues of environmental justice and environmental health, and gives an account and critique of previous feminist theorization of the body. For her “trans-corporeality as a theoretical site, is where corporeal theories, environmental theories and science studies meet and mingle” (ibid., 3). Alaimo (ibid., 16) emphasizes “the need to cultivate a tangible sense of connection to the material world” to counter “the pervasive sense of disconnection that casts ‘environmental issues’ as containable, eccentric, dismissible topics.”
She argues that “understanding the substance of one’s self as interconnected with the wider environment marks a profound shift in subjectivity” (Alaimo 2010, 20). A recognition “that humans are the very stuff of the material, emergent world” means that “the pursuit of self-knowledge, which has been a personal, philosophical, psychological or discursive matter, now extends to a rather ‘scientific’ investigation of our constitution of our coextensive environments” (ibid.). In any case, “the material self cannot be disentangled from networks that are simultaneously economic, political, cultural, scientific, and substantial” (ibid.). How toxic are we, each of us?
Alaimo refers to Karen Barad’s concept intra-action and writes:
Understanding the material world as agential and considering that things, as such, do not precede their intra-actions are, I think, crucial for twenty-first century environmentalisms in which the existence of anything – any creature, ecosystem, climatological pattern, ocean current – cannot be taken for granted as simply existing out there. [–] If the material environment is a realm of often incalculable, inter-connected agencies, then we must somehow make political, regulatory, and even personal decisions within an ever-changing landscape of continuous interplay, intra-action, emergence and risk. (Alaimo 2010, 21)
She uses toxic bodies as an example:
Civil rights, affirmative action, and identity politics models of social justice – all of which assume that individuals are bounded, coherent entities – become profoundly altered by the recognition that human bodies, human health, and human rights are interconnected with the material, often toxic, flows of particular places. (Alaimo 2010, 23)
As a particularly vivid example of trans-corporeal space, toxic bodies insist that environmentalism, human health, and social justice cannot be severed. They encourage us to imagine ourselves in constant interchange with the environment and, [–] may provoke material, trans-corporeal ethics that turn from the disembodied values and ideals of bounded individuals toward attention to situated, evolving practices that have far-reaching and often unforeseen consequences for multiple peoples, species, and ecologies. (Alaimo 2010, 22)
So why am I sitting in a beech? And why do I ask you to watch me doing that?
In his text Ethics, Evolution, Ecology and Performance Bruce McConachie (McConachie 2012, 98) maintains that the “arts are not secondary reflections of experience; imaginative engagement in the arts provides real experiences that change who we are and can motivate progressive change in the world.” Moreover, he insists that “The experience of art is just as real as other experiences in the material world and all experiences have consequences” (ibid.). Interestingly, instead of emphasizing the importance of live events as one would expect from a theatre scholar, he states: “By rearranging the materiality of our minds, performances in all media can exert performative pressure on our conceptions of social roles, governmental policies, and ecological realities” (ibid.). Moreover, “all artistic practice that successfully foregrounds body-environment interactions is always already ecological” (ibid., 93), he notes.
In cinema studies slowness and static images of long duration have been considered the hallmarks of an ecological approach to film. Scott MacDonald (MacDonald 2013, 19), for instance, defines certain films as eco-cinema primarily because they provide within the film experience an experience of nature that functions as a model for patience and mindfulness, characteristics of awareness that are decisive for a deep appreciation of and commitment to the natural environment. According him, the main task of eco-cinema is not to produce traditional narrative films in Hollywood style to propagate for an ecological awareness, nor traditional documentary films, although they can be useful. The task is to provide new kinds of film experiences, which offer an alternative to conventional modes of watching media and thus help to foster a more sensitive relationship to the environment. (ibid., 20) The efficacy of a specific ‘artistic’ approach has been questioned as well (Ingram 2013, 43) and, following Alaimo and others, one could ask whether a focus on ‘nature’ or ‘the environment’ as something separate is at all meaningful, or rather misleading. The focus on the experience of time is nevertheless relevant.
In my plan, I suggested that understanding the relationship between performer and environment from a post-humanist and new-materialist perspective prompts us to consider how to perform together with creatures, life forms and phenomena around us, including plants. My aim was to examine the implications of this ‘performing with’. Could ‘performing with’ be used as a tool to generate experiences of increased understanding of life forms unlike us, despite the impossibility of direct communication? Could ‘performing with’ help us in shifting the focus from the effects of performance on the viewer or audience to its impact on the performer, considering that we all constantly perform? Today I would like to add: how to make evident the trans-corporeal connections?
When I am sitting in the beech I am adopting the position of a sessile being, albeit for an instant, but I am not attempting to communicate with the tree, to make myself understandable to the tree or to get a sense of the tree’s wishes or needs, nor to translate them to others. I used to believe that trees are slow, and imagined that sitting in a tree for a few minutes would be like a handshake, a time long enough for the tree to register my presence. Apparently, they are not always slow, in reacting to insects, for instance. When performing together, posing for camera together, I am not allowing the tree to express itself, but rather using the tree as my support and context, my partner, without its, his or her, consent. I have accepted that I cannot know what the tree senses or feels, but I know we are made of the same stuff and process energy in very similar ways, despite our many differences. And that we share the same ancestor, LUCA, the last universal common ancestor of all life on earth (Jacobs 2017). We are performing, or perhaps non-performing, in the same image space, much as we are living in the same city. One of the meanings of the Finnish term for performing, ‘esiintyä’, describes rather well what we are doing; we are appearing or occurring together.
I used to think that the act of video recording made the action into a performance. The camera took the role of spectator or witness, the audience: When the camera was on, the performance commenced, and when it was off, the performance was over. Following Karen Barad, I would have to see performance differently and admit that the tree and the shore and all the myriad beings around are performing all the time. For Barad, discourse is not a synonym for language and meaning or intelligibility are not human-based notions. “Discursive practices are the material conditions for making meaning […] [and] meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility” (Barad 2007, 335).
The act of video recording, with all the material-discursive practices involved, means framing an image and cutting it out of the surroundings, and deciding a time continuum with beginning and end, a slice of time in the life of the tree, for instance. And by this agential cut that designates what is spatially and temporally included in the video and what is excluded from mattering, a specific performance is extracted from the general performance that is going on in the world. This cut, however, is not to be confused with a human decision; it is the result of intra-actions involving the camera, the tripod, the tree, the weather, the path along the shore, and all kinds of cultural and theoretical ideas. For Barad (2007, 56), “experimenting and theorizing are dynamic practices that play a constitutive role in the production of objects and subjects and matter and meaning… [they] are not about intervening (from outside) but about intra-acting from within, and as part of the phenomena produced.” And regardless of whether these phenomena are imaginary or not, I would like to add…
Sitting in the Beech – Snow (8 min. 20 sec.) recorded on 27 November 2016.
Sitting in the Beech – Rain (6 min. 50 sec.) recorded on 10 December 2016.
Sitting in the Beech – January 7, 2017 (5 min. 19 sec.) recorded on 7 January 2017.
Sitting in the Beech – January 8, 2017 (5 min. 52 sec.) recorded on 8 January 2017.
Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. Bodily Natures. Science, Environment, and the Material Self. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Arlander, Annette. 2016a. “Wind and Snow Again.” Artistic Research in Stockholm blog. November 27, 2016. Accessed 22 October 2017. artisticresearchinstockholm.wordpress.com/2016/11/27/wind-and-snow-again
Arlander, Annette. 2016b. “Damp and Dark December.”. Artistic Research in Stockholm blog. December 10, 2016. Accessed 22 October 2017. artisticresearchinstockholm.wordpress.com/2016/12/10/damp-and-dark-december
Arsem, Marilyn. 2011. “Manifesto – THIS is Performance Art.” Joakim Stampe facebook page. Accessed 22 October 2017. www.facebook.com/notes/joakim-stampe/manifesto-this-is-performance-art-written-by-marilyn-arsem/10150159437662760
Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gagliano, Monica, Grimonprez, Mavra, Depczynski, Martial & Renton, Michael. 2017. “Tuned In: Plant Roots Use Sound to Locate Water.” Oecologia 184(1): 151. Accessed 22 October 2017. doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-3862-z
Gagliano, Monica. 2017. “The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable.” Communicative & Integrative Biology 10(2): n.p. Accessed 22 October 2017. dx.doi.org/10.1080/19420889.2017.1288333
Gagliano, Monica, Vyazovskiy, Vladyslav V., Borbély, Alexander A., Grimonprez, Mavra & Depcynski, Martial. 2016. “Learning by Association in Plants.” Scientific Reports. 6 (38427): n.p. Accessed 22 October 2017. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5133544
Geen, Emma. 2016. The Many Selves of Katherine North. London: Bloomsbury.
Ingram, David. 2013. “The Aesthetics and Ethics of Eco-film Criticism.” In Ecocinema Theory and Practice, editors Stephen Rust, Salma Monani & Sean Cubitt, 43–62. London and New York: Routledge.
Jacobs, Howy. 2017. “Life – A Tree with Three Intertwined Branches.” Keynote presented at Aboagora – Between Arts and Sciences Symposium, Sibelius Museum, Turku, 24 August 2017. Accessed 22 October 2017. aboagora.fi/programme/abstracts
MacDonald, Scott. 2013. “The Ecocinema Experience.” In Ecocinema Theory and Practice, editors Stephen Rust, Salma Monani & Sean Cubitt, 17–41. London and New York: Routledge.
Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, New York: Columbia University Press.
Marder, Michael. 2012. “Of Plants, and Other Secrets.” Societies 2013 3(1): 16–23.
McConachie, Bruce. 2012. “Ethics, Evolution, Ecology and Performance.” In in Performance and Ecology, editors Wendy Aronds & Theresa May, 91–100. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Wohlleben, Peter. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books.
An ongoing documentation of the project is available on the Research catalogue online: www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/316551
Some of the practices I am engaged with as part of the project are documented with still images on that site and I hope they will result in video works at some point:
visiting two trees in Helsinki a few times every week www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/325189
visiting two trees in Stockholm every month www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/325188
creating a video with the trees in the Celtic Calendar in Helsinki each month www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/327809
performing with some trees I meet when traveling www.researchcatalogue.net/view/316550/354391
Moreover, I am recording a snapshot of plants every day annettearlander.tumblr.com
Annette Arlander DA is an artist, researcher and pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and trailblazers of artistic research. She was professor of performance art and theory (2001–2013) and professor of artistic research (2015–2016) at University of the Arts Helsinki. Her research interests are artistic research, performance-as-research and the environment. Her artwork involves performing landscape by video or recorded voice. For publications, see annettearlander.com