Artists, Scientists & Botanical Experiments

Plants are acquiring new status and visibility in popular media, and not just as the green symbols of environmentalism. Vegetal life is emerging as a critical site of inquiry and experimentation for both artists and scientists. In their hands, plants are coming to matter as more than merely food, fuel, and fodder; indeed, it is plants’ sensoria and sentience that are captivating artists’ and scientists’ attentions. Researchers in the fields of chemical ecology and plant physiology, for example, are designing experiments to parse the phenomena of plant signaling and communication, and finding that plants are responsive, articulate and vocal participants in interspecies ecologies. At the same time, artists are reaching into plant tissues through electronic, acoustic, and filmic media to feel their way through the ethical and political implications of plant responsivity and expression.Through their diverse means and toward their distinct ends, artists and scientists are demonstrating that plants participate actively in their worlds through finely tuned sensory systems.

Many of these scientific and artistic works reference the early-twentieth-century research of Indian polymath JC Bose (1858-1937), a physicist-cum-biologist whose intricately engineered devices could stimulate, magnify and visually record the “throb of life” in plants’ “nervous tissues.” If for contemporary researchers, plants articulate themselves through volatile chemical utterances, in Bose’s laboratory, plant sentience was manifest in “tremors of excitation” and recorded as energetic gesture diagrams by inscription devices that could magnify the “surge of life” in plant tissues. It seems that experiments by Bose and contemporary performance artists do more than demonstrate how plant tissues conduct electrical impulses; these experimental scenes elicit plant nervous response in such a way that plants become transducers of affects and sensations, participating intra-actively (Barad) in exciting an animate ecology that ingathers plants, people, and their publics.

Jo Simalaya Alcampo’s Singing Plants Reconstruct Memory

Today, the plant sciences are undergoing a radical transformation. Scientists are showing that plants are active, sentient, communicative agents that can catalyze ecological complex relations. Plant physiologists have recently dedicated a new journal to the study of what they are calling “plant neurobiology” (Brenner et al. 2006, Stahlberg 2006). These researchers are analyzing the ways that plants transduce chemical and electrical signals through their tissues and are developing new techniques to track the volatile compounds that plants synthesize in order communicate in larger, multispecies ecologies. Researchers are also tracking plants’ slow movements of growth and their affinities for light and other stimuli, their high-speed movements such as spring-loaded seed dispersal, the active intra-cellular transport of water and gases, and the rhythmical movements of plants’ circadian cycles.

At the same time, contemporary artists such as Jo Simalaya Alcampo and Laura Cinti are actively engaging with scientists, conducting their own experiments and re-narrating plants as protagonists that shape human history. As artists track tropisms, temporalities, and electrical conductance through a variety of digital and electro-acoustic media, they are intervening in ethical debates and providing new platforms on which to consider the implications of plant sentience (Cinti 2011). Practitioners in the arts and the scientists are galvanizing new publics as they demonstrate the multiple ways that plants can transform our perceptions of temporality, sensation, and vitality.