Joshi Radin: Why don’t we start with plants?
Giovanni Aloi: What came first? Did it all begin because Linda was working with plants? Brian isn’t your project about empathy in a way? Playing for plants? Do you see that as empathy?
Brian M. John: Absolutely, yes. This started as an idea for something we could do within the show Mercury, which Linda and I were collaborating on. We were thinking about the circumstances we’d set up, and then thinking what can we do with that, how can we activate it in different ways. We knew the plants were going to be in a gallery exhibition context. We asked, “what can we do for them or with them to activate the exhibition differently,” is that fair to say?
Linda Tegg: Yeah I think so. With that in mind it was always and very much a site of cultural production that we had been thinking through the process, or what could be possible. So from the perspective of already being mentally inside the gallery, it wasn’t a large leap to think, oh, the Video Data Bank, an archive of video art works that are being maintained at the school. So, I think there was a confluence there as well.
BMJ: I think we naively thought that because we were going to engage a resource next to us, sharing this institutional space with us, that we would be able to collaborate. We were taking the cultural content that was already around us and trying to see it and activate it differently, and bring people to plants and to the Video Data Bank differently. At the same time, those two kinds of content were, by being put in proximity to each other, becoming something different.
GA: So, can we say there’s a desire to ontologically subvert what the institutional order has set up through a different use of the cultural content produced and consumed within the institution?
BMJ: Yes, although I don’t think it initially started as a subversion, but a shift. It was a generous enough gesture towards both the archive and the plants that it didn’t feel like a subversion, it was more additive than that. I was thinking about how absurd but also how wonderful it would be to take whatever database they had and add this column for every video in their archive, this extra piece of information because of our intervention, that said how good it is for plants. It’s this strange metric that no one would bring to their own archive, but again that’s additive, it’s producing new content, new information. So it didn’t feel like a subversion at first, until we actually started dealing with the thing and got this push back. And they were fine with us doing it, but they weren’t willing to come towards us at all.
JR: They were not invested in our research.
BMJ: We were clients to them.
GA: In a way what it reveals is how those systems of knowledge work—what is relevant to the Video Data Bank is of course what we think, it’s very anthropocentric so, the duration of the film, the data you need to locate material historically and culturally. Who cares about a plant’s perception of it? Right? And I guess that’s part of the strength of what you’ve done. Inserting that column is a disturbance of some degree of that anthropocentric stability whereby we categorize these videos this way. But what about using this metric? That’s hefty, in a way. I like that it’s productive, and then the subversion is generated as something productive. I wonder if we can think of this idea of productivity more carefully, and in what other senses you think it was productive in an additional, expansive way?
JR: I was interested in issues of empathy and creating meaning in communities that were totally outside the art institution of any kind, and that was the position I came in from. I took an interest in nature—Linda’s work was very interesting to me—I was wondering how to evolve those two conversations together. And one of the things that’s productive in the context of Mercury is when you hold that recentering for an audience that wouldn’t normally seek it out, you disrupt normal ways of viewing these elements just by having them in the same space. It’s productive in the sense of disrupting perceived ideas. If it were for plants in a garden or greenhouse or space where you’d normally expect to find plants, it wouldn’t have the same cultural connection that they’re engineering by the site-specificity of that work.
GA: And also I think we want to say something more about the work itself. It’s my impression that there’s a level of empathy and productivity in what Linda did initially by germinating seeds that should have remained dry in supermarket packets. Do you see this as giving the seeds a chance that capitalism took from them?
LT: In a way–I think back and forth about it a lot. It’s difficult to know whether the seeds would rather stay in their dormant form or if giving them an opportunity to grow into plants is a positive thing. From my perspective it seems positive, rather than being eaten. There are other possibilities that I can’t know. I wonder if that is the path that they would want to take. In that sense it considers how we know or unknow other beings. There are other possibilities.
JR: It renders visible something largely invisible. That seems extraordinarily productive to me. Even the conversation about making certain entities visible, or certain processes visible, and visibility itself, is a dialog that happens so much with identity politics or oppressed entities, I think that’s an interesting confluence.
GA: One of the interesting aspects of this project lay in the choice of plants. You did not play with plants with an individualized identity, there were no rose bushes. The plants that were chosen already exist as a pack. Deleuze and Guattari wrote about the pack, as a deterritorializing element, and I’m thinking about the productivity involved as plants are so difficult to relate to as individuals in most cases anyway. They always come off as replaceable multiples. This was particularly visible at the beginning of the project as all seedlings sort of looked like blades of grass for some time.
LT: Yes, that’s how they’re perceived.
GA: I think this posed, in a sense, an embedded challenge. If you show me a bonsai, or a thousand bonsai, and they all have their individuality because we’ve shaped them, and they all have their poetics–one bonsai is not the same as another bonsai.
LT: Well grasslands, in particular, I have this challenge of how they’re perceived by the human eye. You have to shift your perspective in order to see the complexity in it. In terms of landscape, or more so plant communities, there’s nothing we’re more geared to look over and across. To see for our own use, as either backdrop or a site of prospering in terms of agriculture or human expansion. I see it all the time, the difficulty of shifting human perception to recognize the variance of species in that setting.
GA: Kenneth Shapiro wrote an interesting essay on animals and ontological vulnerability. There he weaves a complex argument about the pack attitude toward certain animals, farm animals especially. A multitude of mass-farmed pigs lose their individuality and therefore that loss enables a base-level of objectification that allows us to, in Shapiro’s words, “mow them like blades of grass.” The mowing metaphor is important here as it highlights a generalised and indiscriminate approach. But I think the machine-design, and the way it operates, suggests our relationship to the materiality of animals and plants. We’re not interested in preserving individual blades of grass, and the machine reflects that. It acts like an equalizer.
BMJ: That was definitely one of the challenges presented by Mercury. You can’t anthropomorphize a bunch of small shoots in a large field.
LT: I think it has a lot to do with figure ground distinctions. It might seem obvious, but I think about that quite a lot.
GA: When it comes to plants it’s not obvious, I guess. Or it could be.
LT: That was a challenge we had with A Program for Plants.
BMJ: It seems obvious once you start thinking about plants in this way, but it isn’t for an audience that isn’t following along this chain of inquiry, so when you present them with a field of plants it’s hard to communicate that shift. In A Program for Plants, when we were projecting the videos, everybody wanted the plants to be a screen, which was fine because we wanted to give the light to the plants directly. But that was a point of tension—how to present the video work to the plants, and how to maintain the plant audience as the audience.
JR: How not to create a spectacle for a human audience that involves plants.
BMJ: Yes, how to not instrumentalize them.
GA: That is a big question in aesthetics right now. Are you performing for a human audience or are you really trying to create a connection with this non-human being that you’re claiming you’re engaging in the work? There’s a lot of controversy about whether you’re still performing for an audience of humans rather than doing anything that engages that non-human being.
LT: Specifically about empathy, you pointed out that the seeds in a packet might actually have ‘a desire’ to germinate. But maybe there is a gift in being dormant as a seed. Is a seed totally dormant? I can’t use any words without sounding like a fool here. But is there something in the seed that is happy to just be there?
JR: Would you talk about humans in the same way? Does the egg want to be fertilized?
GA: I think it’s a proposition to say the packet of seeds wants to grow. I think it’s interesting to conceive seeds as being okay in their passive state–some of these can be dormant for 100 years and then they come to life. I think when they come to life in your installation there’s some struggle, because they’re all together. It’s hard to push back the poetics. The aesthetic invites you to push back the poetic, but it makes you wonder what the plants are sensing, feeling. Are they doing something, or are you doing something to them? And is it important to force this line. What do you think the plants made of the music performance?
BMJ: I found one empirical study that looked at frequency ranges and how they affected growth of some corn sprouts. It measured the amount the root tendril of the sprout would grow towards the source of the sound through a water medium. It found consistent results for a certain frequency range. There were different results for the sound I curated–not all of the artists were necessarily working with the idea of this frequency range. I made two different pieces that responded directly to that study, but the range is 200-300 hertz, so it’s on the low side but well within the range of human hearing. It’s not even in that spectrum that you lose as you get older. So everything we hear, to whatever extent this study applies to other plants, these plants hear. So all of my stuff was designed around these frequencies, in both cases modulating music that was originally designed for a human audience–changing it, adapting it to try and create a bridge or a medium between human cultural content and a vision of what cultural content for plants could be.
GA: That’s very interesting. I’m sure you’ve stumbled across the new theories claiming that nature has culture, that animals have culture. Nature is a big term that to me just means representation. It’s really interesting to see how you might insert yourself in this question of what we understand as that.
LT: It would be nice if we could be able to access it.
GA: With the plants you always have a kind of mirror effect. If you were to fill the room with puppies, you would have a reaction. Plants have an enigmatic presence, which requires time. Even if you were killing them softly, it would require a week’s time to see that, and at that time you wouldn’t know what are the other factors in the decline. It’s a key difficulty in measuring the responses of plants, their slow response makes it hard to pinpoint the real cause of their demise. But let’s talk about the idea of Trio A and performing for plants. What was your impression with the performances and what they brought to the plants?
JR: I feel like a lot of the performance work hinged on intention. We spoke a lot about intention with Linda K. Johnson and she brought up the example of experiments on water crystals, which I used to be very dismissive of. I found that when I considered performing for a plant audience as opposed to a human audience, it changed how I felt about it. Linda and I were walking back to the studios, and I was telling her about it, “there I go, anthropomorphizing plants, again, imagining that they’re going to somehow be a more generous and receptive audience than humans.” When the truth is I just don’t know, I have no idea. Perhaps the plants just think I’m full of it, and that I’m a bad dancer. It’s the kind of thing where I found myself peeling off layer after layer of constructed meaning that I was imposing. So getting at the truth of what a phytocentric perspective could be in that context felt very elusive.
BMJ: For me actually learning and performing this fragment of Trio A was operating on a totally different register than the original video screenings for plants or the music that we made for plants where it was not as much about trying to have a literal material impact on the plants–to actually project culture across this species divide, but that it was more about learning through this work. The process of learning the work was more about opening up our own perceptions. By engaging in this strange process you’re opening up all these questions and you’re peeling back all these layers of construction. So for me it was more about that process, revealing these layers of projected meaning that are maybe arbitrary or externally imposed so they’re not very meaningful. So for me it became about boiling down the self and stripping away layers of preconceived notions about these two bodies–the body of the plant and the body of the human. I found it really productive in terms of thinking about ourselves as bodies, and the plants as bodies, and there’s a parity in a way. You strip away until you find parity–we’re basically living human beings.
GA: Living beings acknowledging each other.
BMJ: Right–I was thinking of it a lot in terms of community, shared community. The video was actually doing this thing to the plants–maybe it’s having a material effect on them. But with this I was thinking about how I am a member of a biome with these plants.
JR: It was more about flattening a hierarchical relationship.
LT: I agree, that’s how I felt through the process of taking on this fragment and learning part of Trio A, which itself has no hierarchy, so you can be a body within it. I felt like that was very interesting work to think through, but it was also very difficult to find spaces where it could still be Trio A and also access a plant audience in Chicago in the winter, when most plants are dormant. So that was another aspect I found really interesting in bringing our bodies in proximity with plants through the dance.
JR: It raised questions of absurdity, but it also felt like it raised questions of contemporary occultic practice. In the past there maybe were ritualized dances for the earth or for non-human beings, but how do we understand those relationships now, and how do we understand what they were doing or can we reinterpret that relationship? Yvonne’s original intention that it would be a folk dance, and a modernist folk dance felt relevant in this way, because here we are trying to forge ahead with these relationships using the tool of this modernist piece and performing it in places where we would look absurd.
GA: It’s an interesting point and it makes me think about what Brian said about resisting the scientific engagement and at the same time actually engaging with a folkloric/ritualistic involvement. A lot of contemporary art is concerned with the role of science and what science should and shouldn’t be doing and that science could obliterate any sense of the folkloric or tactile sense, or sense-driven contact with a non-human being. It’s interesting to see how science comes in and out of your work–but then Trio A is a derailment of all of that, a constant turning left and right on the specific uses of science. This strikes me as very healthy, and an exciting place to be. I’m not inclined to listen to the ‘don’t do science mantras’ that are going around now that seem to be a bit obscurantist. Okay we understand that too much science can obfuscate any other reading or relationship with the non-human, but no science at all leaves us in the middle ages–with no empirical relational. I think part of the preoccupation with your project as well as other projects out there is how much can this actually translate into everyday life. Is there something we learn from what you have done that can actually be transposed outside the gallery space. I love it that Joshi was performing inside the conservatory, which can operate as a metaphorical setup just as much as real one. It’s a place of captivity for plants–you had a captive audience. You perform in a place that’s setup for humans to see plants in a certain way, a tropical audience is there for you. And Linda performed in another setup with a captive audience, captive by consumerism. They probably were cloned as well. It would be interesting to know. At the same time they were real spaces. So you moved from the gallery space to outside, bridging the utopianist setup space of the gallery to the reality out there. You could have just decided to perform Trio A to the plants in the gallery—never mind that they were not there anymore, you could have restaged it.
LT: On another occasion we did stage it, given the constraints for an audience of Trio A, when Linda K. Johnson performed it, for an interspecies audience. We marked out a grid on the floor in which one plant and one human occupied each.
BMJ: I agree, and I think it’s really important, this fluid relationship with science, for myself. I think the boundary between science and other modes of cultural production is unnecessary, for myself. It can be opened up and we can use various pieces of this very closed off methodology. You can pull pieces from it, and I think experimentation is one of those pieces that has been crucial to this project from the beginning in the different modes we approached our content. With Trio A there were modes of experimentation. What does it mean to perform this for a plant audience at Home Depot, for the conservatory, at the beach, and then we come back to the studio and what does it mean to perform for plants and humans at the same time. I think it’s fundamental to the project–not having preconceptions about what the answers are.
GA: There’s a sense of the lost cause, which goes back to your point about absurdity. It’s integral to the project, this idea that all you’re doing might be a lost cause. All we’re doing might be a lost cause. It seems meaningful because it’s set up in certain nuggets of accomplishment that we establish value scales for. Science works within them though, to assess certain data. There might be some discovery or some awareness developing from what might be viewed as a lost cause. Something is a lost cause only because it appears that to be a lost cause in a values system that looks at it as a lost cause. But it can become something else as long as you engage with it and see what happens. I guess part of the danger of western thought and more specifically of capitalism, is that it prevents us from engaging in lost causes. It tells us that we should spend our time productively, and structures are in place to get us to be productive and fast. Therefore, the idea of dancing on the beach in the hope that something might happen between you and the plants is pretty much a lost cause in the best possible productive way.
BMJ: Totally. And I think that’s one of those things where the space between art and science can change science. If you think that scientific research has to know what it’s trying to do, but it can be really open, that can change science and has enormous value, but it’s something science is bad at within the constraints of our culture as it stands. It’s not good at allowing open-ended research because it wants everything to be productive. We don’t fund NASA anymore because it’s too open-ended and we don’t know what the value of it will be. Even though we can say oh, it’s produced enormous cultural value, even so, that’s not convincing enough in our short-term focused, productivity-oriented culture. I think that’s one of the points that crosses over to everyday life.
GA: I think this project becomes really subversive when you focus on the ‘lost cause notion’ and the value of open-ended research because I feel that’s where education is going, especially in the UK where I lived for twenty years. I could see this phenomenon where students demand a strict connection between what they are studying and gaining a job right after their undergraduate degree. With art, of course, that becomes a major/impossible challenge. In the US this seems to be less pronounced, at least according to my experience, but you still have graduate students who demand a clearer sense of how what they’re learning today can be put into action tomorrow. And for me learning was never about that. It was an environment where you learned to better yourself and about the world around you.
BMJ: In a scenario like that you’re only trying to achieve what you can measure. In early education it looks like trying to measure education’s effectiveness, and later students wondering how they will get a job. Some things are easier to measure than others. When you insist on an empirical measurement system you only strive for what you can measure.
JR: There’s another aspect relevant to the idea of absurdity which goes back to the plants and nature and current conversation about the end of the world for humans, and end-times, and the significance of acting with that spectre in the background. I think it feels different to take on those engagements, questioning human relationships to non-human kinds, in this context and I feel the absurdity and actually quite serious attempts have dual qualities to me.
BMJ: There’s an urgency to the ethical questions raised by these projects which wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the context and our growing awareness of our species’ role in the larger community.
LT: And historically people have thought it absurd that women have rights, that children have rights, or animals. Totally absurd and laughable. And I think by extending our empathy toward something we see as so inaccessible to us, as plants, then that opens up so many more possibilities for everything else.
GA: Agency is a hot feature in many discourses right now–I’m thinking of vibrant materialism, for instance. In your project plants were enabled to make choices. They chose Trio A for you, for instance…
BMJ: It’s a very mediated agency, but I know what you mean.
GA: Exactly I think I would want to maybe … buzz around some ideas about agency and I love the idea of ‘mediated agency’ because I think that in many cases with the non-human, that’s exactly the format we deal with.
GA: Unless it’s a dog. A dog is able to ask for things like food and to go for a walk. That’s pretty evident agency, right?
JR: The dog is walking you?
GA: Yeah, right? They do. You can start reading plants backwards, I guess. I look at my plants and sometimes I sense that some might not be happy. Although inherently anthropomorphic, can that be a form of communication beyond the notion of biology/mechanics. ‘The plant is not happy’, the leaves are droopy because it needs water. Or can this phenomenon be understood the other way around where the plant is actually sending you a signal of some kind. We’re prepared to do that with animals right? But we’re not so much prepared to do that with plants.
BMJ: To call that agency?
GA: Yes, the idea that the plant is displaying something semiotic for us to decode and act upon. I know that it is a bit of a leap but we’re diving in the realm of the unthought and absurdity, right? So these are my two things that I want to put on the map. Do you have anything else you’d like to put on the map?
LT: I wouldn’t mind discussing collaboration and the destabilising of the self.
GA: As artists?
LT: As artists.
BMJ: As researchers.
JR: As collaborators.
GA: I Like that, you’re collaborating amongst yourselves… you’re collaborating with plants.
LT: It’s a very different process …
GA: And you invited Miko, Cathy, Adam, and Ellery Royston. The plants are in a way partners too, like Linda was saying, because, the plants have made choices within this project and that’s what led to Trio A’s involvement, which led to a big series of events that were not planned, right? So in a sense you are developing this organically and it’s cool to have the three subtitles together but I think in the end you can also retrospectively look back and give it a big title, right? In hindsight this is?
LT: Yeah, we went for A Program for Plants because that’s what we …
GA: Trio P.
BMJ: Oh no.
LT: Well we had Trio A Pressured : Horticultural Fragment which was the title that Yvonne Rainer gave our performances for plants. So…
BMJ: Trio A Pressured (colon) Horticultural Fragment. So whenever Trio A is performed under circumstances that are outside of the original intention of Trio A, whenever somebody wants to do something with Trio A that is not what Yvonne Rainer thinks Trio A is supposed to be doing, she asks that it be called Trio A Pressured. And then the subtitle is for us. So there is a different Trio A pressured.
JR: So the dance is under pressure.
BMJ: So Linda K. Johnson who was teaching us, she had previously done a version for a group of differently abled performers. So that was also a Trio A Pressured because it had to become something a little bit different to meet the demands.
LT: There have been nine I think.
GA: Another aspect we haven’t discussed yet is the idea of consumerism and how we see plants through utilitarian goggles as commodities that we produce and consume, and the fact that the plants come from Whole Foods brings that connotation back all the time and in a sense there is mass-production and social class consumerism in the background. Does this reference frame a context of exploiting in your work? Or could you be seen as undoing an exploitative chain of processes by germinating the seeds? I guess a parallel could be drawn with Joseph Beuys’ I like America and America Likes Me.
JR: We’ve been accused of all that.
GA: Maybe there is something there…
JR: Yeah, sure they/we were accused of exploiting plants in the context of the exhibition. When I showed it for a crit on Saturday, I was seen as performing in a context where these plants had been taken hostage and I was viewed as giving a very compassionate demonstration and being in solidarity with these hostage plants in that context.
JR: And the cut daffodils that Bobby danced for were…
JR: Yeah, you know how can you claim to be doing something for plants when they’re victims of atrocities, clearly.
BMJ: Which is always hilarious the stuff that…
GA: Like zero to a hundred in 2 seconds…
BMJ: Exactly, the indignation that all these iterations/versions of inquiry have brought out in people because it is objectionable questions that they would never raise in another context. But then they look at you it becomes very personal, and they are like ‘how can you do this?’
GA: From ignoring plants to feeling such a level of compassion and empathy that you are accused of committing murder!
JR: Or, saying that you’re just a hypocrite. You say you are doing something for plants and look at you. You’ve done this to them…
GA: I guess there is something really interesting about this notion of captivity. On the way here I was reading on the news about Inky the octopus who escaped an aquarium in New Zealand.
JR: I posted it on my Facebook.
GA: The different online reactions to it are interesting. I was at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago with my animal-studies colleague and friend Susan McHugh who visited us last week. There we talked about animal captivity and the idea that somehow the animals in the aquarium, some of them anyway, seem to be somewhat better situated than mammals in zoos. Of course we know that it is a consideration we draw entirely on our own anthropocentric/anthropomorphic reading of these animal bodies in captivity. But then of course we ended up thinking about what it means to be captive and also the idea that animals are constantly in danger of being eaten by somebody else. We have taken ourselves out of the food chain and therefore we look at that as prisoners who could be equally happy in the wild but of course animals half-sleep because they are always on an ‘alert mode’ because they can never really, truly, fully relax and just not worry about either finding food for themselves or fending off a predator. Although this should not amount to excuse for imprisoning wild animals, it might be a perk captive animals benefit from. The oldest fish in the aquarium was ninety years old. Would it had lived this long in the wild?
GA: And we just thought about what it means to lead such a long life in a fish tank where not much happens. But again, we once again project here our anthropomorphic ideals of a romantic life over a fish. In a tank fish get treatment for illnesses that would otherwise be fatal. They can be considered fish royalty, in a sense. But at the same time it is difficult not to wonder if the fish has gone crazy a long time ago because it’s been in captivity. It’s just totally psychotic and it’s in a comatose state of vegetation, right? And the same thought process can be applied to plants. Can a plant be captive if it has lived in an apartment for ten years whilst it originally belongs to a tropical area? Because plants are always so passive in their appearance and they are situated in pots. Can a plant become ‘ill in a sense that borders onto the psychological’?
BMJ: Seemingly, but…
BMJ: But I think that’s a really interesting question, and specifically the idea of mobility with regards to plants, because again, we think about plants as very immobile and they move but on this slow, different time scale and they’re rooted in the earth. It’s like one of the strange aspects of the co-evolution of plant and human relationships is this. Oddly (house) plants are much more mobile than most plants in the wild, because if this piece of bamboo is like seemingly unhappy in one location then, Sebastian is then probably going to be like ‘Oh no, it seems unhappy, let me try moving it’ you know? To give it more or less light, or whatever, and so in that sense it becomes extraordinarily mobile.
BMJ: And if you open up your idea of agency and action to include a broader definition that allows plants a kind of agency in determining our decisions with regards to them. Thinking about communication more openly, outside of language, then that issue of captivity becomes really complicated and interesting with regards to plants.
GA: Yep, I think so.
BMJ: I mean it's a huge open-ended question. There are no answers.
GA: I guess we’ve gone as far as it sounds, not that absurd, so far. I haven’t thought about it before but there is a kind of linkage of events, being at the aquarium, reading about Inky the octopus and then thinking about plants in captivity. Why can’t plants be captive, you know?
LT: You could view it as plants having it made, they have this human running around trying to meet their needs trying to propagate their seeds to grow more plants. There are anthropocentric systems in place horticulture that enables huge expansion.
JR: It’s interesting to me in terms of attributing agency, we frequently think of successful reproduction as an indication of agency, that is the indication. That all species are looking to reproduce themselves and I just wonder about…
GA: It’s a Darwinian affectation. This idea that it’s always about the strongest species taking over. So we go back to your point Linda, about the seeds in the packet–do they even want to germinate?
JR: Right, but I think that that’s something that we can question. What does it mean to be a successful species? Does it mean to reproduce oneself? Or does it mean to have a better quality of life? And how does agency play a role in that. But I think it is harder, I am thinking of humans because they have been so successful at reproducing themselves, they’re threatening the life support systems of themselves as well as other species. Is that something that we would define as a success or not?
GA: And then you also have to think about the concept of species itself and whether we need to snap out of that too in order to move the discussion further. I think one of the things that was fascinating about Linda’s packets of grains in One World Rice Pilaf is the idea that it was a conglomeration, so those packets, the species idea, is obliterated by this almost random gathering of a selection of seeds. Could it be a species in itself? One created by capitalism? If you look at it in the packaging, could that be a species of plants that successfully subjugated us? Made us dependant, parasitised us by inducing a desire to eat them and therefore to keep growing them. This generates a symbiotic seductive-chain of co-evolution. In a sense you have to start wondering about the differences between plants like the ones in the grain packets and potted plants around us in this apartment. Is there any? These plants have been selected and modified over centuries of co-habitation and co-evolution–in a way they have selected us as well and have made us into what we are. We have also diverted or modified what the idea of species was, so in a sense, I am more inclined to think about individual survival rather than species survival in this context. The idea that this individual plant has a drive to flower and propagate seeds more than this species has a desire to overcome another species. I think that is a reading, that is dictated by an anthropomorphic parallelism with human wars, racial conflict…And I wonder how much of that is valid for all plants. There are plants out there that definitely ‘think in pack mode’ as a network.
LT: That’s how I think of it.
BMJ: That’s what I was going to say. The whole question then becomes complicated when you’re looking at plants and like it makes you realise how focussed we have always been in the history of our philosophy on the individual consciousness and on that level of being but you can really easily zoom in and zoom out and define entities and define the boundaries between a being and an entity fluidly depending on what level you’re looking at. How do you define the difference between a single entity of a plant because it is so…
JR: It's modular.
BMJ: Right. It’s so much more fluid, you can take a cutting off a plant and it can grow on its own. Where is the boundary between that and plant communities are so interconnected in a way that is totally different than us, but then even with us, this came up at the symposium, there are all kinds of other living beings that are part of our bodies that boundary becomes much more fluid, the more you look at non-human kinds.
LT: One aspect about our collaboration that I found interesting is how we edit documents in real time, seemingly endlessly, together. So we have this shared headspace which is quite unique, I think within a collaborative group there is that loosening of the boundary and destabilization, that challenges me.
GA: I like this idea of a collaboration that has a ‘shared headspace’.
BMJ: Its very cybernetic.
GA: It is. Do you think that the plants were a part of that, that technology involving measuring the wavelengths of the light and sound. Do you see that headspace as really branching out into the non-human?
BMJ: I think so, but to varying degrees. This is one of the areas that I would push back against flat ontology.
JR: I would push back against that.
GA: No (sarcastically).
GA: Do you Brian?
BMJ: In case you hadn’t noticed until just now. There is a lot more nuance than some of these thinkers give entities within networks credit for. There is a lot more matters of degree, I think in this case the systems we were working with, the technical systems very much affected the process. I have worked collaboratively in other circumstances in ways that were different because of changes in technology, so the way that you communicate, the way that your communications are mediated, change your intersubjectivity. So the degree to which technical collaboration is now live and present and physical distance collapses. It’s not that different for us now to all sit in my studio and edit one Google document as it is for us to sit across three states and edit one Google document.
JR: We had several instances of that.
BMJ: Right, which is why I bring it up.
JR: Linda was in Arizona, and you were.
BMJ: I was in California and Linda was in Nevada and you were in Chicago. That was us writing the proposal for the grant.
JR: Live time.
BMJ: Right, then we did the exact same thing the other day editing this text in my studio where we’re all on three different laptops, or three different electronic devices at least and we’re collaborating on one Google doc.
JR: I agree with Brian, I would push back. I think that is a result of contemporary technology that enables this kind of…
GA: But remember Donna Haraway’s collapse between the human and technology…
BMJ: Right, it’s totally cybernetic. It changes our network of relationships.
JR: It does change our relationships, but I don’t think you can attribute that to the plants.
BMJ: No no no, I wasn’t trying to say that that’s attributable to the plants at all, but the plants become part of that network where they have a kind of agency within this whole process. But that’s what I’m saying I would push back on, is that it’s the same degree of agency.
GA: One of the things that’s fascinating, and I really find your push back against flat ontology useful here, is because giving in too easily can lead to some sort of romanticized “everything is the same for me”. Although it is lovely to think that I could care in equal measure about a weed as I do about a hibiscus I have been cultivating for five years, this way of relating to the world would lead to a stand still–to an ethical paralysis.
JR: It’s meaningless.
GA: Well it could be, that’s the danger of flat ontology.
GA: This is the same as Linda, and that becomes a bit of a problem.
BMJ: It’s a huge ethical problem. Because I am still very much concerned with duty and responsibility in ethics.
GA: Yeah. But there is something fascinating in this idea of flat ontology if you can allow… what you’ve done is basically allow the plants to have some agency… and I don’t mean “allowed” as a patronizing gesture. I am not saying: “oh let’s allow these plants to have agency”. But you’ve sort of taken a step back, deliberately, lots of times, by saying: “let’s let the plants decide which is the video we like?” And you’ve set up this system through which you could enable that choice to emerge and become visible. And I think that’s interesting, because if you think about the history of capitalism and humankind in relation to nature, this is never the case. It’s never the case of allowing nature to make a decision, it’s always a case of diverting the river. I mean, we live in a city that has actually reversed the flow of the river, which sounds incredible, but it has been done.
BMJ: Insane, yeah…
GA: So, in a sense! But you’re still operating a posthumanist gesture based on, not necessarily a ‘blind embracing’ of flat ontology, but it’s trying to revise the ontologies of power and knowledge allowing the nonhuman to make relative decisions, or operating relative choices within the project itself. And I think that while I understand your resistance towards flat ontology, I wouldn’t want that skepticism to make you lose perspective on that achievement, because that would be a pity. It is a ‘relative agency’, we’re not saying that the plants took you for a walk. But at the same time, I think there’s something really valuable in the fact that you were willing to allow plants to communicate a response to you. That’s a really powerful moment, it’s like “let’s allow the plants to decide, as far as we can let them.” Through a scientific interface, anyway…
BMJ: For me, and this is true outside of this project in other avenues of my work, but stepping back from authorship and pushing process forward often has that result. Even if the system is human-authored, when you set up a system and allow its internal logic to drive whatever the result is, you allow for a revealing of the agency of processes that, whether those processes are organic or inorganic, allows you to think about systems and apparatuses critically in a way that you don’t when it’s like, “I made this work and I made all of these decisions about what it’s about.” So I think questioning authorship in the sense of, like you said, allowing the light output of the videos to be the curator, that can be really critically productive. For me that’s the agency.
GA: There’s also something that never comes up which I think we should just mention for the fun of it, and it’s that we’re going back to chance in a sense, at least to a certain degree.
BMJ: Yeah, absolutely.
GA: …which smells of Dada and Surrealism, and their chance operations in art. But I think there’s a resistance in today’s artistic context to actually claim that there is a direct and honest connection to Surrealism, because then you would fear that your work is being dragged into the realm of the unconscious or into the symbolic of dreams. But there’s something of an inheritance that’s being carried over, right?
BMJ: But for me, chance is more interesting before and after Surrealism, because I’m not interested in the psychoanalytic or the symbolic as much, but in the political. And so I think about it in a more Dadaist sense, or a more Fluxus sense.
GA: And there’s also a point whereby, in Surrealism, chance is very mechanical. Which kind of links to what are you operating with the measuring of the lightwaves. But this is slightly different. I guess I’m slightly annoyed with the notion that nobody is willing to recognize right now that Surrealism was the first movement in the history of art that seriously took up the idea of subverting ontology. So the everyday object that becomes uncanny, that becomes the object of nightmares because it makes you rethink your value scale, because it has not been culturally digested yet… there’s a kind of consistent heritage that’s being diffused and not spoken about.
BMJ: Well, one link is Susan Sontag writing about Happenings as a result of Surrealism…
BMJ: And if you think about all of the…
GA: Trio A and performance…
BMJ: Right, exactly, and if you think about all of the stuff that contemporary art does like to talk about, it’s all in that same period, where she’s writing about Happenings, or comes out of that same line of thinking in a similar period, right after that or contemporary with that. That’s maybe one point of linkage. I love that essay.
GA: It’s just something to consider. Not that I see your project as being Surrealist in nature in any way, but at the same time, it’s always nice to acknowledge some avenues that have been opened by others… that don’t make you so absurd.
LT: There is the chance element in that we setup some parameters, but then there’s the painstaking process of gathering the data that we went through, and that’s an experience that we shared…
GA: And that’s not Surrealist anymore…
LT: … and that brought up a lot of different approaches and ideas about what we were doing for each of us. I could also see why looking to Trio A for the next step in the project made sense in light of it being another technology through which we can think together with plants - the artwork itself.
GA: Hmm… “thinking together with plants.” I like that. That could be the title of the project. Yeah, you’re right, that’s really the nail, isn’t it? Because that’s what you’ve been doing all along, thinking together with plants, and that’s the power of it. And that’s going back to the other point I wanted to discuss, which is the unstable museum. Let’s imagine that in twenty years this project becomes an iconic piece that the Art Institute of Chicago is proud of. How is this going to be represented in the collection in a just way?
GA: Reconstituted, and is it going to be one of those re-stagings of performances? What’s going to be left of this really important ‘thinking with plants’ for future generations to explore directly. Maybe this is analog to the challenges that Carolee Schneeman faced along with all the other performance artists of the 1960s: I’m performing here to an audience, and then my performance gets transcribed, gets photographed, gets videoed at best, what happens to that? But I feel that contemporary art is an engagement with materiality that is progressively becoming more and more unstable. So it’s not just a matter of performance, it’s a matter of your installation being with plants and light, it’s the matter of Brian’s performance involving music, sound.
LT: It’s interesting, thinking about legacy, going back to Yvonne Rainer, and how carefully she controls her legacy. She retracted her openness with Trio A.
GA: It could be a model for the future, couldn’t it? Instead of thinking about the museum, why would it even have to be in the museum? That could be a way of keeping it alive so that other people could engage with this project, under ‘pressure,’ and maybe take it someplace else. It would be really interesting to do it in, for example, a butterfly house, or in an aquarium, you’ve got a big fish tank in front of you…
GA: We’re not going to include this…
BMJ: It’s interesting, I want this cultural moment to… I feel like there have been so many moments where we almost abandoned our intense attachment to authorship and legacy, materials became more malleable, and everybody could take part, and it’s more of a non-hierarchical network of people creating. Like the ‘90s in relationship to the internet offered that moment, but now that hierarchy is reasserting itself, in terms of cultural producers.
GA: There’s also a dispersal of materiality and knowledge, because in the workshop there were a selected number of SAIC students, and they came along, and performed with you.
JR: I’ve been thinking about this collaboration, and this project feels to me like a stepping back of the individual. To hold a space for the collectivity of the human collaborators, and then also the plants. So, it feels like a very non-heroic effort…
GA: I love that.
JR: …and it seems to have all worked out really well, but in terms of the legacy I guess I see it as artifacts and things that we have made - there’s a website, there’s a video, there are certain elements that will by the nature of their medium - but it’s funny, I didn’t think at all about how this could be researched later on. Unless we were to become a part of the Video Data Bank.
BMJ: Which would be…
GA: …which it should…
JR: It would be the ultimate full circle.
GA: Just to wrap up certain important threads: the idea of Joseph Beuys, and I like America and America likes me, and you guys spending time with plants. Joseph Beuys spent time with the coyote, and as we know he said he learned something specific about that one coyote… Did you have a sense of spending time with plants as a revelatory moment about something, or sharing the space with them?
BMJ: I would also introduce spending time with the piece, spending time with Trio A, and learning through that as well, as a counterpart to spending time with plants.
GA: So expanding that, because actually the question that I posed is still hinging on a kind of… What you’ve done is just embracing flat ontology!
GA: I was hinging on an ontology of the living, the humans and the plants, and you’ve brought in all of the other bits. Good, see?
BMJ: Linda, maybe talk about spending time in the gallery with plants, to start.
LT: My experience, spending so much time with the plants. I felt like I was underneath the plants, in many ways, because I was racing flat out to try and create a situation where they were thriving, that was my ideal. But in reality I was just racing to keep them alive in the environment they were in. So, there were a lot of physical effects, and a dispersal of my focus across the field. And then other things happened as well. In the studio, if there was a lot of mold around, I’d get eczema, So I found that our health was co-dependent. And why should I be down on mold? So that’s one example of where I felt like I was sharing the space with these other beings. I also felt like it was my position to keep them alive. I wasn’t living off of them in the same way. Right now, the air quality in my bubble is just, nice. It really is quite different to the air anywhere else in the studios.
BMJ: But it is asymmetrical, right? Because all beings claim space differently, it’s asymmetrical in the sense that you feel like you’re responsible for tending to and keeping the plants alive, and they can’t make the same kind of forceful claims to your space… those kinds of impositions. But there is something really powerful about sharing space, and I think that is also one of the connections to intra-human politics. Claiming space is a really important part of how we participate in culture. We traditionally expected women to take up less space, literally. And so that becomes part of how you claim your own position in a community. And so expanding that is again one of those ways in which thinking about plants can affect thinking about anything else, or thinking about animals can change the way you think about plants and so on, because everyone needs space both literally and psychologically and socially.
JR: I feel conflicted about Beuys’ I like America and America likes me, and his encounter and interaction with this coyote, because I feel like part of it hinges on a certain alienation that some people feel from “nature,” so part of me perceives it as something like an experience of the occult, or… I don’t know why the occult keeps coming back to me, it was part of this Jane Bennett reanimation of matter… and I think about when I was a wheatgrass farmer, and the relationship I had to this wheatgrass, that I was trying to grow in conditions that were much too hot for it, and it kept rotting and dying, and I felt like this terrible mother and I felt so responsible to this wheatgrass that I was supposed to be providing, and I couldn’t make it grow because it just kept rotting. The different interactions one has on a daily level conditions how to see these artworks, where these values are being contested or held up in a cultural context. So I feel like it’s a little bit confused in my thinking, I don’t know, I’m still sitting with it, I feel uncertain about it. Being with the plants… Linda, you said you can turn your compassion on and off. I really feel like that too, that there’s an aspect where I can attune myself to those feelings about the plants, and I can reduce Trio A and the whole Video Data Bank to a condensed gray [for the sake of testing/metering it]. I can instrumentalize that, as much as I can instrumentalize the plants.
GA: It’s part of the idea that you can be spending a lot of time on the project, as you have, and then have your salad in the evening.
BMJ: Well, yeah, basically.
GA: You’re tending and really nurturing one group of plants, and then when you get back home, it’s like, “eh, arugula.”
BMJ: It’s funny, but I don’t feel that way, I don’t feel like I can turn it on and off. There are times when I wish I could turn it on more, be more empathic - I wish I could be more changed by some of this work. I wish that I could access it better, or that I could care more for these plants. In the show, there were times when I wished I could let it in more, but it just couldn’t happen, because there were so many other things that had be done.
GA: Isn’t that symptomatic, though, of why the world works the way it does, and why we relegate plants to the passive position that is so convenient for us. Because if you were too empathic with them, then all of these other things that you need to do wouldn’t happen.
JR: You’d be paralyzed.
GA: Yeah, think about leaving your home and seeing a little plant that needs water, that’s on the edge of the street, and you’re saying, “oh, well I need to go back home and get a glass of water to pour on you.” Your way to the train would be a pretty difficult journey. But you would do it if you found a kitty, right? At the base of a tree meowing… Or a baby bird, fallen from the nest, you’d probably stop and say “what can I do? Can I see the nest? Can I put it back up? Can I take it back home.” So that is enough to derail your everyday activities, but a plant needing water perhaps… not so much. And then you gotta wonder, why is this difference, and is there a point at which you ethically feel that you’re compelled to step into action, or, if you don’t, why don’t you? Is it the being’s replaceability to define its life-value? Is it the lack of individuality that we always hit against? Is this perhaps where the reconsideration of a different ontology might come in, and weave in a different level of empathy? Or is this not what we should even be doing? Does it matter?
BMJ: It definitely matters, but the question really becomes how practical is it? How far can you maintain it? It only matters inasmuch as you can act upon it. If it’s just pure abstraction, if you’re just playing one idea off of another, then it’s a fun game at best. If you subscribe to an ethic that requires a certain amount of responsibility or duty to whatever you consider your community of entities to which you are responsible, whether that’s limited to humans, or limited to living beings, or wherever you draw that line… If you draw that line broadly enough, it just becomes practically impossible. So I think that question is really challenging.
GA: I think part of the idea of empathy and species or groups when you think about Agamben and his parallelism between animals and the Holocaust, and the idea that fundamentally we treat each other in the way that we treat animals. Or that there is a correlation between the ways in which we relate to animals and in which we acted and we act with humans. And I think in that respect, that you can probably stretch that to anything. That there are approaches to the world that reflect in other fields that are not necessarily related. But at the same time, I’m wondering, at what stage do you draw the line? We talked so much about desensitization, and how whatever it is in contemporary culture that makes us less sensitive and less empathic to things that would’ve been more empathy-driven twenty years ago. Is it true, our perception that we’re becoming that way? Is that line lowering or moving up. If I find a potted plant in an alley next to a trash can, which I have found a few times, I go and check what it is. Is it still alive, is it rescuable, is it something that I could house in the garden, but at what stage don’t you bother? I usually draw considerations on the value of the plant itself. It’s like, “oh wow, this would cost me eighty bucks at Home Depot, who would throw away a fire bush?” And then you’ve got a bargain, you take it home.
BMJ: Yeah, my dad calls trees that he doesn’t value, or plants that he doesn’t value “trash trees” or “trash plants”. And I have no idea where that line is…
GA: Right, where is that line? To be honest with you, this is a question that has been hovering around throughout this afternoon, and now is probably the time to pop it. Have you actually thought about the social, class connotation of your experiment with the plants that you were collaborating with? The typology of plants you were growing, to me, in my ontology of plants, smacks of working class. Let’s imagine for a second a social hierarchy of plants, where royalty would be occupied by the super rare varieties in greenhouse-plants, orchids and palm trees… think about the most rare and exotic ones. Then you work your way down, into those that are still kind of sophisticated and rare, but nonetheless mass produced, and you work your way through your bourgeoisie of plants - geraniums, perhaps, and petunias and the pansies, the bourgeoisie of plants - and then you work your way down and you get to the working class of plants, which could be salads and tomatoes and beans and grains.
JR: Grains, you need your grains, you need your staples, you need your wheat, corn, rice…
LT: They’re the factory workers.
GA: Factory workers, exactly. Their existence is to produce fuel and to feed and to make machines work, rather than beautify or think about beautiful things or interesting things. So in that sense, it did occur to me that you’ve been dealing with some working class plants.
JR: There’s something you were talking about, though, in terms of valuing - before we move on to another subject - like what you said, if we absorb that violence of everyday, we would be paralyzed. Last night, when I got off the train at home there was a guy in a stupor, sitting on the bench, he had peed himself in this train station, and I walked right by him. Because I don’t know how to… I don’t know what to do in that moment. And then, there was another thing - a vegetarian friend of mine, once, we were talking and he said, “how can you make a salad out of a being?” He was talking about a chicken salad. But then, how can you make a salad out of a salad?
BMJ: Right, how else?
GA: Don’t get me started on that, ‘cause it doesn’t stay on the academic. That really obnoxious, “I know what life is worthy of ethical consideration…” It really annoys me. Because it’s hypocritical. It’s like, why isn’t a salad a being? It is a being, it’s just one you don’t care about. And it leads to a false ontology of ethics, that is so dangerous. It can be equally dangerous as what Brian is describing as this “I don’t know where my empathy lies”, in terms of drawing a line with what I should be empathic to. That line that shifts up and down or back and forth is a dangerous negotiation that you’re asked to face every day, in a sense, and that ontological security or safety that is at the root of veganism, that somehow a salad is not alive, that it is not a being, and a chicken is, leads to a total false sense of ontological ethicality. Because they are equally beings, they just do very different things, and you’ve decided arbitrarily that this is the one that you don’t want to inflict pain upon, but the other one can be destroyed, consumed, and disposed of at your own will, and it’s arbitrary. I don’t have anything against veganism, but I love vegan people who are able to draw that distinction, embrace it and run with it. It’s like, “yeah, it’s my choice, it’s my decision, and what I’m doing is embracing a contradiction or a construct that I’ve made…”
LT: Yeah, everyone is.
LT: Except for people who are like, “I just don’t care.” They know their position, and then there’s no contradiction.
GA: But you know how there are some vegan doctrines that imply that you actually are ethically elevated, if you operate that decision. Which I find totally bullshit. And I think that should stay in print. On that note… so, we were talking about the social status…
LT: Yeah, I thought that they might be quite bourgeois plants, they’re from a very deluxe supermarket.
GA: Oh, no, I didn’t think of that…
BMJ: That was a critique that came up…
BMJ: …from the beginning.
GA: Because you went to Whole Foods, you’re snotty, right? What was wrong with Aldi? Oh my god, that’s a turning point moment, why did you go to Whole Foods?
BMJ: Versus Strack and Van Tiil, or…
GA: Right, which is more a working class kind of…
LT: Because they had the widest variety.
JR: A lot of supermarkets don’t have bulk food sections.
LT: The Mariano’s down the road has one, but the new Mariano’s doesn’t…
GA: That’s capitalism infringing again on the idea of species, the fixity of species, gathering all of these varieties together and creating a super-species, right? That’s lovely. Or hellish.
BMJ: …or terrifying. Both. It’s both.
LT: So I had some criticisms that were like, “70 dollars worth of food, that’s a lot of money…” And I thought that this is one of the cheapest artworks I’ve ever made., “this is the cheapest artwork I’ve ever made.” It’s different economies coming together.
GT: I really love that point. In my trying to investigate the ontology, I actually stopped at the generic essence of the seeds as trying to map this social hierarchy of these plants. But of course where they come from makes a huge difference. What they’re packaged in makes a huge difference. It’s not just being a bean that makes you working class, it’s…
BMJ: It’s how ‘nice’ a pinto bean you are. There’s degrees.
GA: And who sits next to you. What beans are you sharing your package with? Are you processed, or are you not?
BMJ: But I also feel like the specific conclusion that people came to is very much based on an American notion about food, and about food culture, because there’s this idea that it’s bourgeois to eat organic, or whatever. There’s a problem with an attitude that says that because it’s more expensive it’s more bourgeois, in a negative way, but it’s also healthier, it’s nicer food. There are problems with obesity in the poorer side of American culture, problems because of processed foods, and trans fat, whatever, you can get obsessed with it.
JR: But those are human overlays on the supermarket, consumerist aspect, whereas if you’re asking about just the status of the actual plants that we were dealing with, Linda’s to me are pedestrian grains.
JR: Staples. They grow plentifully, and… I’m saying staples in terms of the human diet, but legumes and grains, they’re not…
BMJ: We don’t value them for their aesthetics potential.
GA: Right, tomatoes flower, but who wants a tomato flower.
BMJ: I mean, they’re actually kind of pretty, but they’re not grand.
GA: They’re not culturally ingrained in our heads as something that we should be… but flowers of the same size actually are, like Forget-Me-Nots are as big as, but there’s a cultural narrative around them, and tomato flowers not.
BMJ: From another perspective they are the most successful, going back to this very Darwinian notion of species success, these are the plants that have imposed themselves upon us, and convinced us to propagate them over and over again in absurd quantities.
GA: Absolutely, yeah.
BMJ: These are the humans of the plant world, in the sense of dominating others, and taking up that space, the literal space for all of these crops. It totally depends on where you’re at, too, which grains have succeeded in that way. It’s not universally wheat, of course.
GA: I’m just thinking that within the scale of supermarkets, I wouldn’t have drawn that social hierarchy if Linda’s seeds didn’t come from that specific capitalist area. I’m sure you’re aware that when you go to places like Whole Foods there is a hierarchy of seeds. And when you look at black rice, or red rice, it will cost you three times more than white rice or brown rice. There’s a sense of poshness in the way they are packaged. Black rice is not given to you in a little crappy plastic bag with an imprint on it, it comes in cardboard, it’s vacuum sealed, there’s a sense that it has been picked by hand on the plains of India… it’s a different kind of marketing. In a way, as long as you’re thinking about plants that are caught up in a consumerist paradigm, then the idea of drafting a social hierarchy of plants is not that absurd. It’s absurd, but not that absurd that it couldn’t bear productivities to actually entertain the thought of such hierarchy. Because obviously the way in which they’re packaged and the monetary value they acquire dictates who buys them, so it’s almost like they are defining the social class that buys them.
JR: Michael Pollan’s tulips would be…
GA: Well, then you think, there are these typologies based on what plants grow in people’s garden, and I’ve seen people that are obsessed with orchids, and in a way that their collection of orchids defines who they are, who they want to be socially. It’s not that straightforward…
JR: But you’re getting more at the anthropology of the humans.
GA: Yeah, of course, but that’s deliberate, because I’m in the supermarket with Linda right now, and I’m really trying to be caught up in this consumerist setup.
BMJ: It has huge consequences for plant communities, though. It has huge consequences for the ecology of the world.
JR: Yeah, so apples and tulips are very successful.
GA: Yeah, think about the fields in Holland and Turkey and… Potatoes, and corn and rice.
BMJ: Corn - drive anywhere outside of Chicago, and take a look around.
GA: The impact of this hierarchy… I think Europe looks at the United States as this corn capital of the world, with a bit of a reductive smear to it, because they look at it as a representation of simplicity. You know, it’s not a sophisticated food, in itself. But then you can make all sorts of things with it. You can make flour, you can make bread, you can make syrup, popcorn…
JR: But we’ve modified it to strip it of any nutrition.
GA: True, true, it becomes a vehicle….
BMJ: Well there’s a huge variety of corn that we don’t even acknowledge that we’ve grown for use as fuel, as food, as different types of food…
GA: But they come back, and they’re the posh ones.
BMJ: Well some of them are, but some of them are the trashy ones…
GA: I want to think around this notion a little more later on. I don’t think it’s essential to the project, but I think that it’s one that is fun to think about. It raises some connections, and I like your connection as well, with the environment. And black rice might not be impacting, in its poshness, the environment as much as born rice or white rice, so there’s a bigger, broader implication in this anthropocentric reading and allotment of the social.
GA: Have we covered everything? I think agency is the only thing that’s been left out, really.
LT: I was thinking about the agency of Trio A as a meme, it does seem to self-perpetuate, in the sense that it carries forth beyond its author to the point that the author has retracted it. It’s in this interesting space as it was created as a folk dance, then once it became a folk dance, Yvonne Rainer didn’t like how the dance was transforming and retracted her openness. It’s actually a very exclusive dance now, that only five people have permission to transmit and every performance has to be sanctioned by Yvonne Rainer.
BMJ: There’s an idea that once an innovation or any piece of creative or intellectual production, once it is instantiated, it then has a life of its own and takes root in an interesting way in terms of globalization, and in terms of the way that something spreads, but needs the right soil, in a sense. An idea needs soil, it needs the right cultural moment. I’ve been thinking about this with regards to Minimalism in music popping up at the same time in New York City and in communist Estonia, because of my interest in Arvo Pärt… how this idea can germinate in these two different incarnations because of having the right soil. And I think Trio A has become this thing, Linda K. Johnson was talking to us about how it had this period of dormancy, like a long winter where people weren’t as interested in it, and then all of a sudden a few years ago it really exploded again, after decades of relative obscurity. It didn’t disappear, but it was really quiet.
GA: Could that also be related to the fact that there’s an implicit recuperation of ideas that were popular in the 60s and 70s right now with New Materialism and Object Oriented Ontologies, but that these are not being brought to the fore quite as openly as they should be. But that’s where the origin is. I mean, some books are coming back into fashion as well. I remember going to a multispecies ethnography workshop at the University of Chicago last year when the Eben Kirksey edited volume The Multispecies Salon came out, and for half of the workshop the response of those that came (there were about 30 people) seemed to be positive, but then those that were alive in the 60s and at the right age to have partaken of certain activities of an artistic, social kind, began to scavenge for references that were not properly and accurately acknowledged in the text. They argued: “isn’t this what such and such was doing, and isn’t this what such and such did,” and “how was this new?”
BMJ: Right, but then if you let go of this intense focus on authorship and who gets credit, then ‘who cares?’ and you can let things…
GA: Build upon themselves…
BMJ: …and fade in and out, and have these different productive moments which I think is much more interesting than shutting it down because it already happened. Because it’s always going to take on a new life in a new context. It’s always going to be different, something that happens forty, fifty years later is going to exist very differently.
GA: The idea of cyborgs that has already come up in this project is something that could be different from a project that could’ve been similar in the 1960s, right?
JR: I see this a lot. I see the themes recurring, as I’ve been revisiting this hippie commune, and the plethora of communes that emerged in that time period, after 1968, because of the social crises that were occurring, and that fleeing urban centers to go to the less populated areas as a response to levels of unprecedented violence and social crises. And there’s a lot of impetus to reorient towards nature now, to reorient towards sustainability and personal responsibility. MIT’s Media Lab has a farming group now, which has these ties to that time period, but it’s done in this totally… When the Media Lab farms, how do they do it? It’s in this cyborgian, techno-heavy way. So, I see these repeating responses but of course they’re going to be different now. And they should be. It’s what prevents us from just regressing.
GA: And repeating.
BMJ: You have to recycle different kinds of cultural material, because so much of what we’re always doing in any field, I feel like especially in art but that’s probably just because it’s my area of interest, but it’s just this combination game that we play by taking elements that we’ve seen, whatever we have around us, whatever we have at hand, and we play them off against each other and try to create new information. Because we’re desperately trying to create something in the face of our inevitable decline, and death, and the end of the universe. We’re always just trying to make something in the light of entropy, against entropy. So of course you play with whatever is around you.
GA: And thinking about agency once more, and plants… Did you situate agency that you can call agency, and to what degree this agency was detectable, in relation to the presence of the plants in the gallery space? You worked around them, and through them, and with them, right?
JR: They got themselves a gallery show. That’s pretty crafty.
GA: They did. Which is a bit of an achievement. Is it possible, even, that there’s an agency… the preoccupation with keeping them alive, is a form of agency, I guess. Something living in an enclosed space that is not self-sufficient, because they require you to provide light and water, makes demands upon your ethicality to act to prevent death. Is there something more, is there something less?
LT: I think there might be something about the space that’s taken.
GA: You talked about the mold as well, which is a form of agency, I guess.
LT: Yeah, the mold. But it’s more mobile, much less passive than the plants.
GA: It’s also not something of the plant, it’s something that affects the plant, and then affects you, right? It’s a different network of interspecies connection.
LT: If you bring forth one life form, then all these others start to come forward. And it absolutely threatens the building and all the systems that are in place to maintain it’s integrity oppressive, as they do not permit any other life forms, to come forward. Plants threaten the surfaces and the structure of the building, and of architecture, and the built environment.
GA: Within a gallery space, especially, within a building that contains art. There’s also a challenge. We haven’t talked about this, but plants don’t happen to be in gallery spaces a lot, and some museums or galleries still don’t know what to do with them. In terms of these challenges that you’ve just mentioned, the idea that you need to water them. Abraham Cruzvillegas at Tate Modern gathered disturbed soil from building sites and housed it in a composition of triangular raised beds…
LT: Like, empty lots?
GA: Yeah, and there was watering happening quite regularly, but it didn’t look like it was regularly enough when I was there, so the plants were growing but they looked… That’s actually something interesting to look at, in relation to your project. My impression was that the artist wanted to allow a random cohort of plants to germinate, so nothing was seeded, only the seeds that were present in the soil that was dislodged were present. The Turbine Hall is a specific site at Tate Modern in which ‘dirty stuff’ can happen. It is not connected to the climate controlled galleries and the fear contamination is different from that involved in the main body of the museum. This had a nature/culture flavour to it.
BMJ: But it’s super interesting, because of its overlays or interactions of systems. As we allow room, whenever someone does a project like ours and is like, “we’re going to push against your rules and try and stake out a space for plants in a gallery,” or whatever, that forces, or at least tries to force the system of the institution to adapt to those pressures, those demands. It gives, and they adapt to each other. There are feedback mechanisms, it’s not a closed system but there are feedback mechanisms. I think that’s interesting in terms of thinking about aesthetics as an evolutionary value, and making room for the aesthetic relationship between species or between beings as having value. I overheard somebody talking to one of the gallery representatives from the Sullivan gallery, and the artist wanted to have a plant as part of their installation, and I was really struck by how matter of fact the response was from the gallery representative to the artist’s inquiry. Because there were rules in place. And I don’t know how long ago that would not have been true, but at a time it wouldn’t have. But the gallery’s representative basically said that it was totally fine, as long as…
GA: As long as these 150 points of restriction are complied with…