“More than ever before, questions of sustainability are underlined by a serious need to radically rethink our relationship with nature itself” (Aloi, 2018a: xxxi)
In order to rethink our relationship with the environment and create a more sustainable and interconnected future, we first need to acknowledge the problems that lie at the basis of human’s conception of the botanical world and understand where they come from.
This text is going to investigate the origins of today’s corrupted understanding of the natural realm, more specifically of plants, and to question the role of contemporary art within this context.
Through the analysis of various artistic practices, it will address how artists have been responding to the ongoing ecological crisis that humans have produced, and which strategies they have adopted in order to reshape our relationship with the plants’ world. The paper will particularly discuss the artwork of Azuma Makoto, Mileece and Hildegard Westerkamp, who, through their artistic practices, have contributed to evolve and broaden our comprehension of the botanical realm. The three artists are presented as a crescendo from the least to the most successful approach; starting from Makoto’s predominantly visual and manipulative practice and ending with Westerkamp’s work, which explores the role of experience as a mean to assimilate knowledge about the vegetal world in a non-invasive manner. While the first two artists present various levels of inconsistencies, as in their use and displacement of plants, which tends to objectify them instead of advocating their cause, Westerkamp’s practice of “Soundwalks” finally presents a first solution to a non-exploitative use of plants in contemporary art. The key to move forward is a shift from the visual to the sonic dimension as a way to experience the world and particularly a revaluation of the practice of listening as a means to produce awareness. Regardless of their approaches, all three artists demonstrate different degrees of understanding of the problems around the ongoing ecological crisis, and they each have adopted diverse strategies to sensitise the public to these matters.
Besides the discussion on the role and possibilities that contemporary art holds in the creation of a more interconnected future, the text is also going to reference evidence regarding the fields of plant bioacoustics, cognition and sound ecology: fast expanding areas of research which have a major part in the search for connectedness and innovative lines of communication between humans and plants.
The eventual permanence of humanity on this planet is a matter of interdependence and until we will fully acknowledge that and act accordingly, we will never be able to survive ourselves. If we truly want to participate in our own future, we need to work on a more integrated approach to the life of plants and seek to establish a balanced relationship with the botanical world.
As Henry David Thoreau argues in his book “Walden”, in fact, it is necessary for people to build a personal bond with nature in order to grow love and respect for the environment (Thoreau, 1854). Contemporary art holds the great potential to change the way humans perceive themselves in relation to the natural realm, it represents one of the most effective tools to raise awareness and lead us to the self-realisation of our misconceptions. Artists have today the possibility to combine science, art and technology and provide people with brand-new experiences that can help them reveal the unseen, raise curiosity towards the unknown and even make them listen to the inaudible.
Yet, maybe the real power of art lies in its simplicity and genuineness and all we really need to do is to be open and “listen to nature’s messages and pass them along to others” (David Dunn, 2013).
The beauty of plants: an aesthetic approach.
“Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge its beauty” (Kant, 1987).
For hundreds of years, a zoological prejudice has prevented humans from thinking about vegetal life as equally worth to animals’ life. This emphasis on the study of animals, also referred to as zoo centrism, has reinforced a conception of animals as superior beings, thus contributing, over the years, to the marginalization of plants, considered indeed relatively passive forms of life (Vilkka,1997). As a matter of fact, nowadays we know so little about vegetal beings, compared to the knowledge that we have of the animal world, that we can barely understand their function and behaviours.
From science and philosophy to literature and art, the botanical realm has often played a secondary role, one that served humans for their own benefits and that almost never addressed plants as primary subjects of interest. As explained in “The Language of Plants”, science has traditionally privileged the study of animals, in attempt to pinpoint what distinguishes us from our closest relatives in the evolutionary scale (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017). Since plants seem so distant from our animal nature, we have been often treating them as inferior organisms, relevant to us for their usefulness as food, medicine, or material rather than valuing and considering them for their intrinsic value – which is the value, that an object or a thing has “in itself” or “for its own sake”, regardless of any other external factor (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2002).
From the time of the first botanical artists, this vision of plants as tools has significantly influenced their visual representation, resulting in decontextualised anatomical drawings and flat analytic depictions of the vegetal beings. The sole purpose of the illustration of a botanical subject, in fact, was its categorization and classification according to its usefulness to humans. Although this prevalent utilitarian approach has prevented people from seeing plants as being alive for a long time, the botanical encyclopaedias, were actually the first pieces of work created and designed to attribute vegetal life some value other than their aesthetic and decorative one. The equilibrium between art and science in botanical books has always been something that botanists have been seeking to maintain: artistic skills and scientific knowledge were equally fundamental in the pursuit of knowledge, citing Stefano Mancuso: “One without the other would have produced unbalanced results” (Mancuso in Trees, 2019:246). The interconnectedness among these two disciplines has survived until recent days, especially in the field of natural sciences and particularly in the subject matter of botany. Up to the beginning of the last century, in fact, a botanist was required to be able to provide, at the same time, the most accurate representation of any botanical species, in their natural context, in the most pleasant way. Regardless of the extraordinary artistic skills demonstrated by these researchers and the high quality of their depictions, as mentioned earlier, the problem within their work, and with most of the bidimensional artworks produced on plants over the years, lies in the objectification of the natural element, which appears as “silenced, immobilized, objectified and extrapolated from its interconnectedness with biosystems” for the consumption of the consumer’s gaze (Aloi, 2018b:32). This utilitarian conception of nature, which still influences people’s perception of the botanical world nowadays, is in large part a consequence of the social and cultural shift happened in the 19th century, beginning with the urbanization and industrialization of rural areas, to the almost complete alienation from the countryside, resulting in our loss of contact with nature and of our sense of interdependence towards the environment. More specifically, the advent of capitalism has promoted the exploitation of natural resources as never before, especially through an intense program of state propaganda educational films, distributed across the United States and Europe during the 1950s. According to Giovanni Aloi, these films not only promoted a strictly utilitarian vision of the world, but they radically “reconfigured our relationship toward plants and the environment through a pragmatic, capitalist framework in which trees and plants represented nothing more than commodities to manage and resources to exploit” (Aloi, 2018a:vii).
As Mark Fisher explains in “Capitalism Realism“, the coexistence of eco-disaster and capitalism is inevitable, since capitals are in constant need of expanding market, meaning that “capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.”(Fisher, 2009:18-19). The objectification of the botanical element in real life has consequently brought to its extreme marginalization in art, where vegetal beings often served as decorative objects or as elements to trigger certain emotions in the human being, but never as a proper subject of interest..
Since the late 19th century, when art was believed to be “primarily about the elevation of taste and the pure pursuit of beauty” (Burdett,2014), the role of plants has often been reduced to ornaments for the domestic space. With the raise of consumerism and globalization, the art and the plant “object” have turned into aesthetic commodities, mere sources of profit for people to show-off and display according to their taste, as a reminder that we can change nature at our will.
This recurrent element of displacement of the vegetal being for our own gain and pleasure, still represents an impediment in our recognition of the real needs of these organisms. The persistent neglection of plant’s agency and the constant disinterest towards their abilities, has led the objectification of these living beings to become an integrant part of our quotidian life, to the point that many times we are not even aware of our negligence towards them at all. This unconscious behaviour is very common in artworks that seek to bring humans in contact with the botanical world through the displacement of this one; as a matter of fact, many times when the vegetal element itself becomes the object-subject of the art piece, it is physically forced out of its own ecosystem into a gallery space, in order for us to be able to comfortably admire its beauty. Although the initial intent of the work might be the one of re-connecting people with the natural element, by displacing its very subject, the piece takes on a series of other meanings, indirectly making a statement about the manipulative and artificial nature of human’s relationship with the botanical world.
This particularly utilitarian approach to art and plants, not only is very common in commercial art, but it still influences the practice of some contemporary artists like Azuma Makoto, acclaimed flower artist affirmed in the field of botanical sculptures. His work revolves around the celebration of the life cycle of plants, especially flowers, and the challenge of their survival strategies in unusual places.
Through the exposure of his organic sculptures to the public, the artist aims at exalting the botanical elements in all their grace, elegance, and strength, with the scope of bringing back in people that sense of reverence that once connected them with the natural realm (See fig.1). Makoto not only tries to celebrate plants, but by creating artworks that put the vegetal beings at the core of their attention, he also invites us to do the same, thus, compensating our predisposition to neglect the botanical elements, a tendency also known as plant blindness. According to Giovanni Aloi, the very role of contemporary art would be the one of “overcoming plant blindness”, defined as our inability to appreciate or even notice the presence and value of plants in one’s environment and the consequent ranking of them as inferior forms of life (Wandersee and Schussler, 1999). This phenomenon is so embedded in our culture that most of the time we are not even aware of it. An example of it, for instance, was presented by Stefano Mancuso during a TED Talk in 2015; he showed, in a survey, a picture of a couple of people immersed in nature. When people were asked to describe it, 98% of them did not even mention the presence of plants in the photograph, even if the vegetation actually covered the 80% of the image’s surface. As the professor explains, this filtration of the “green stuff” was a strategy employed by our brain to prevent it from overloading with too much information at the times when we used to live in the forests. Today we are no longer in need of it, since we do not live immersed in nature anymore, and this feature is only causing us to unconsciously ignore the presence of vegetal beings in our immediate surroundings. Our struggle “even to notice plants as being alive” (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017:viii) is becoming increasingly problematic, especially in a time of ecological crisis, because our negligence towards plants not only produce more ignorance towards them, but it consequently results in carelessness towards them and the environment.
Although Makoto may indirectly support the fight against plant blindness in contemporary art, his methods in doing so are quite questionable and even contradictory for certain extents. With the aim of demonstrating the value of plants, in fact, the artist lights them on fire and drop them from planes; he drags them deep underwater or even launch them into space, just to prove how resilient they can be. In other words, Makoto purposely puts plants and flowers in hostile living situations, pushing them to the extreme of their living conditions, as a way of highlighting their beauty and strength (See fig. 2-3-4). Now, regardless of his initial intention, how can such an exploitative manipulation of plants produce a sense of reverence towards them? How does the artist expect people to grow respect towards something whose respect has been taken away? Even though the artist advocates a return to the appreciation of the existential value of plants, his concern towards their wellbeing seems only limited to the studio-laboratory where he cultivates them: the “Jardin des Fleurs”, where the temperature, humidity, light and even the volume of the music are optimised to produce “organic beauty from nature” (Japan House London, 2018). This thoughtfulness thought disappears in the moment the artist decides to challenge the living beings’ lives just to create a piece of work. The mass destruction of forests or even of entire ecosystems and the increasingly intoxication of oceans and air have already been challenging plants’ survival strategies enough; is it really necessary to cause more destruction in order to prove their worth to us?
Moreover, regardless of the recurrent element of death in his work, Makoto’s botanical sculptures are still referred to as ”breathtakingly beautiful and daring floral arrangements” (Atmos, 2020), as if the witnessing of their death almost becomes an even more attractive event than the celebration of their life. This is just another demonstration that the artist does not truly advocate plants’ needs, instead he turs them into aesthetic objects, pleasant to look at even in a state of decay, which is then perceived as a unique fleeting moment: unmissable. This aesthetic attraction for fading things and ephemerality, although it may seems “emotionally provocative” and may “call us to be present in the moment” (Japan House London, 2018), it really just promotes a utilitarian perception of the vegetal beings, which is in no way beneficial to them nor helpful for us. Instead of introducing a new vision of the botanical world, Makoto is just reinstating an outdated one, and exploitative too; his work is in no way natural or spontaneous, it does not allow people to freely connect with the botanical elements, on the contrary, citing Aloi once again: “flowers become patterns – anonymous blotches
of colour summoning a generic idea of naturalness through utter artificiality” (Aloi,2018a:xxvii).
Such a utilitarian use of these living beings only produces more alienation from the natural environment; it does not bring us closer to plants, but it emphasizes the differences between us, accentuating the fact that humans can have control over vegetal beings and play with them as it pleases them.
Taking Makoto’s latest artwork “Paludarium” as an example, we can clearly see how the bonsai tree has been transformed into a commercial product for the enjoyment of the public (See fig.5). To be more specific: the paludarium was a structure, popular among the aristocracy of the 19th century, whose function was to protect plants from the atmospheric agents and promote their growth. As Azuma himself explains: “people placed a precious plant shipped from colonies inside a glass-walled container and appreciated its growing cycles inside their home far away from the plant’s own home” (Makoto, 2019). Even if this device can actually be beneficial for the plant’s growth and physical health, the question about its real necessity raises spontaneous. Who is truly benefitting from this work? What are the advantages for a vegetal being to be decontextualized and eradicated from its natal environment to be put in a glass container? And more importantly, is the purpose of the work the wellbeing of the plant or the satisfaction of the consumerist gaze? These questions all remain unanswered by the artist, who, by not assuming a clear position against what his work implies,
is indirectly supporting controversial systems of thought such as the one expressed by Professor Peter Singer, who rejects any conception of plant’s agency, their “will to live,” or desire to seek nourishment, which is merely considered just a mechanical response (Singer,2015)
Unfortunately, Azuma Makoto is not the only artist who tends to neglect the real needs of plants in his work in favour of his owns; just like him, figures such as Christophe Guinet, who turns botanical sculptures into commercial products (See fig. 6) or emerging artists like Nathalie Gebert, who displaces plants for the benefit of her work (See fig.7), may be mistaking the basic “requirements” for the survival of a vegetal being for what it is really valuable in its existence. The advance of technology, and consequent increase of possibilities to work with different materials, even living ones, has brought artists to engage more with plants and more generally with the botanical realm, but it is important to remain conscious that this exploration cannot turn into pure manipulation of these organisms.
The fact that we are now able to fully manipulate other living beings as if they were products, does not entitle us to take advantage of them, instead, we should devote our resources to make real comments on the ongoing environmental crisis and employ these new technologies to propose innovative solutions.
In a time that seeks reconnection with the natural environment, it is no longer acceptable to consciously ignore the will of vegetal beings, especially if we choose to work with them, and particularly with the knowledge that there is mind in nature. Even if the first botanists may have introduced a constructed sense of beauty over the visual representation of vegetal beings, their intention was in no way to discredit the value of these complex living beings that they were barely starting to understand, instead they were just trying to produce accurate depictions of them for research and scientific purposes. Today, thanks to all the knowledge that we have gained over the years and the advanced equipment available to us, we have the power to choose consciously the way we see plants, and we are responsible for this choice: we can either decide to stand by an antiquated conception of them that understands vegetal life as something to be manipulated, or we can choose to fully embrace a new vision of the botanical world, one that sees plants as equal living beings worthy of respect and consideration. As artists, we have the possibility, therefore the responsibility, to rethink our relationship with the vegetal world; through art, in fact, we can lead people to overcome their negligence toward plants by providing them with knowledge and awareness of their own behaviours. Art not only has the power to create spaces for self-reflection and analysis, but it also hold the potential to open minds and introduce new perspectives to its audience, without imposing nor forcing them on it; as Henry Focillon discusses it in his book “although it serves to illustrate history, man and the world itself”, an artwork is more than this: “it creates man, creates the world and sets up within history an immutable order” (Focillon, 1992:32).
Finally, there is nothing wrong with the aesthetic contemplation and celebration of vegetal life, as a matter of fact, many times the first impact is what makes the difference in the way we approach something; as Francis Hallé reflects in a passage of “Trees”: “I wonder if our initial relationship to trees is aesthetic rather than scientific. When we come across a beautiful tree, it is an extraordinary thing.” (Trees,2019:201). Aestheticism can surely be our first, visceral way to connect and establish a relationship with the natural world, but we should not manipulate nor distort it in order
to be able to see its beauty. The value of something cannot just be defined by what we see, it should reflect a deeper comprehension of the being, its respect and understanding. Perhaps a hint of scientific knowledge is essential to fully appreciate the botanical world and a more experiential approach to the life of plants may present a more efficient way to connect with them. Plants are not there for us to prove a point; they are complex living beings with value in themselves. It is time to stop using them for our own benefits and start collaborating instead.
Hearing not seeing; sound as experience
In his essay ‘Freedom of Thought’, Adorno reflects on the lack of experiential engagement with artworks operated by art criticism, pointing out the distance of the aesthetic theorists from their objects of theorization (Adorno 1944, 1974).
If we reconceptualise this statement, considering vegetal beings as the “objects of theorization”, we can see the relevance of this issue within the contemporary art scene. As a matter of fact, now more than ever, art needs to adopt a more engaging and interdisciplinary approach, comprehensive of science and new technologies, especially when dealing with issues of sustainability and environmental matters. It is through the creation of new experiences of interconnectedness among humans and the botanical world, in fact, that it becomes possible to overcome this perpetuating “distance” between theorists and their “objects of theorization” while deepening our understanding of them.
In other words, instead of creating aesthetic work that is understood through the appreciation of its form, artists should produce immersive and awakening experiences that put people in direct contact with the objects of theorization, allowing them to explore these through their senses and independently come to their understanding.
If an artist aims at the creation of real engagement between the audience and the piece of work,
it is essential to first define a common ground, a shared language that can allow the public to connect with the subject of the work. In the case this subject matter is a living vegetal being, it will be then necessary to establish a point of encounter, an aspect to which both plants and humans can relate to, so that to produce an authentic experience of exchange between the two parties.
Since plants do not directly respond to visual stimuli, but their strategies of communication are far more complex – including electrical signalling, pressure cues, aural enunciations and ecological interactions with other species and the environment (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017:xviii) –
our approach to them should not be based on a visual interaction, but on an engagement through all the other senses, especially hearing. If the visual aspect of an artwork is usually constructed for the pleasure of the human gaze, in fact, its exploration through sound could indeed open new perspectives and uncover different modes of interaction with it. As Salomè Voegelin states in her book “Listening to Noise and Silence”: “eyes work well as an ordering tool: segregating according to differences and aligning references to build meaning within the field of vision” (Voegelin ,2010:34) while sound is all about relationships and connections. Besides the fact that the simple act of listening can produce immersive and awakening experiences, sonic elements can actually help us overcoming those visual limits that we impose on ourselves by our own sight and reveal the interconnectedness of life; as a matter of fact, sometimes we can even hear relationships among things or perceive their presence without being able to see them. If we take the flight of a plane for instance, we can detect its presence long before it enters our range of sight and even if we see it, it only appears as a tiny dot in the sky, only recognizable because of our knowledge of the sounds it emits.
If our sense of vision concentrates on defining edges and separate contours, our experience of listening is often one of “perceiving the inseparability of phenomena“(Dunn, 1997) such as the noise the snow falling from tree’s branches in winter or the sound of wind among the leaves in summer.
In other words: ”While we often see something as distinct in its environment, we hear how it relates to other things” (Dunn, 1997).
If sound has such a huge impact in the way we perceive the world, we can just assume that it also does affect or influence in some way the experience of plants. Even though vegetal beings lack of a central nervous system and of specialised organs for the senses, in fact, this does not limit their ability to perceive of the world around them. Plants may present less specialised tissues and organs compared to animals, but they function perfectly through “repeated units, many of which are capable of sensing stimuli, acquiring resources, becoming reproductive organs and any number of other functions that are performed solely by specialized organs in animals” (Karban, 2017:3-4).
Despite the fact that their strategies in sensing and interacting with the environment are very distant from humans’, plants are capable of perceiving and responding to their surroundings, while constantly remaining conscious of their own state, as a matter of fact, they perceive the wholeness of their environment as a gestalt, a snapshot of everything all together at the same time – for instance, they are simultaneously aware of the intensity of the light, the shifts in temperature, the status of water, humidity, soil and air qualities etc. – and, even if we cannot see it, they continually adjust numerous traits of their tissues to coordinate their response to the environment (Karban, 2017).
Thanks to the newly emerged researches in plant bioacoustics, we can now affirm with certainty that vegetal beings are capable of both producing and perceiving sounds; as researcher Monica Galiano states: “We have identified that plants respond to sound and they make their own sounds […]
the obvious purpose of sound might be for communicating with others” (Oskin,2013).
More specifically, it has been proven that vegetal beings can “produce sound waves in the lower end of the audio range as well as an overabundance of ultrasonic sounds” and perceive soundwaves as vibrations, through the sense of touch (Oskin,2013); the only question that remains open now is whether or not the significance and purpose of these sounds is the one of communicating.
Going back to our previous quest, we can affirm that sound represents the common ground between humans and vegetal beings, an element that can reveal the participatory relationship which connects us to the botanical world. Through the exploration of this medium as a mean of interaction and exchange, art has the potential to discover new ways of collaborating with the botanical world, including it as an active element of the work. Science and technology have given us the opportunity to create innovative systems of interaction within the respect of the environment, it is then the role of artists to take this knowledge and apply it to their work in order to create something
that can transform our unilateral relationship with plants into one of collaboration.
A contemporary artist that has been incorporating this idea of promoting ”ecology through technology and the arts” (Mileece, 2021) in her practice is Mileece. Her work is about establishing “connections between people and plants” by combining art, functionality, aesthetics and what she calls “tactile-visionary” (Tom Tom Magazine, 2018) (See fig.8). Essentially, she fuses music and nature by transforming the bio-emission of plants, their energy streams, into harmonic sounds, through a unique hardware and software system that she developed herself. Within the purpose of promoting the collaboration among plants and humans, the artist construct spaces where people and vegetal beings are given the same role and power of creation; in her installations, in fact, she is equally making plants and humans composers of her work, embracing a notion of music composition that recalls Nietzsche’s conception of the creative power of nature and the artist’s role of just coalescing within its flux. It is almost as if Mileece amplifies this continuous acoustic flow that is naturally there, a background noise that traverses the world, and turns it into pure melody.
According to Deleuze: ‘A musician is someone who appropriates something from this flow’ (Deleuze,1980), and Mileece is not only a musician, but through her work she spreads awareness of this flow and makes it accessible to everyone. Through her interactive sonic installations, the artist also investigates the complex systems of communication of vegetal beings and tries to transmit a vision of plants as equal to humans. When immersed in her work, the public suddenly becomes aware of its own presence in space, people progressively mature a consciousness towards the sonic effect that they produce on their surroundings while slowly becoming absorbed into this new interconnected reality where they can freely experience sound as a reflection of their being in the world. (See fig.9) The act of hearing is transformed into an experience of perception, listening becomes the way the audience understand its own presence in relation to plants and awareness is built up from experiential knowledge; it is almost as if, as John Hull once stated, “you don’t actually listen with your ears, you listen with your whole body (Hull, 2001:10).
According to the artist, not only our physical presence would affect plant’s state of being, but our emotional state would too; as she explains in an interview, in fact, her mood has an impact on the measurement result performed on plants. But vegetal beings are not the only ones being influenced by our interaction with them; due to our biophilic nature, we too physiologically resonate on all levels with a healthy wilderness (Tom Tom Magazine, 2018), meaning that the wellbeing of an ecosystem physically reflects on our owns. The refreshing feeling that we experience when immersed in wilderness, for instance, is just one example of how surrounding ourselves with nature can produce regenerative effects on our body.
Furthermore, researchers such as Dr Philiph Callahan have discovered that trees and humans’ consciousness operate within the same frequency range, thus making it possible for us to physically attune to a tree’s vibrational state. This kind of experiments, alongside the ongoing research in plant bioacoustics and plant cognition, show on a scientific and conventional level that a deeper connection with the natural realm is possible if we truly seek to establish it.
Although the great impact that MIleece’s artistic practice is having on people’s interaction with the botanical world, questions regarding the effect that her work is producing on the plants that she directly employs remain open. If there is no doubt that her installations are generating positive changes in rethinking our relationship with plants by providing people with experiences of connectedness, there are indeed issues regarding the impact that her practice may produce on the vegetal beings. In which way is she advocating their needs? Is her work producing a pleasant experience for them or are they just being aesthetically arranged to produce something beautiful for the public’s enjoyment? There is a strong aesthetic element Mileece’s work, and not just a visual one, but a sonic one too. Her installations, in fact, are accurately constructed for the spectator to
be amazed at the same time by the almost surreal environment and the melodic sounds. But is all this manipulation really needed? And if so, what does it add to the piece? If on the one hand the artist is aware that both humans and plants are sensitive to harmonics and frequencies, on the other hand how does she really know if the chosen sounds are truly enjoyable for plants and not just for humans? Even though Mileece is limiting the range of employable frequencies to those believed to be pleasant for both humans and vegetal beings, there is no certainty that these harmonics are in any way beneficial for plants, who would not be exposed to them in natural circumstances.
In an interview by Geoff Shelton, the artist states that “You’ve got these things to consider but then you also want to make it beautiful. Because most of the time, that is what really counts when you are trying to create the effect“ (Tom Tom Magazine,2018). If on the one hand we cannot argue that beautiful things are more appealing to the public, and as Jhon Dewey argues “an experience of thinking has its own aesthetic quality […] aesthetic cannot be sharply marked off from intellectual experience since the latter must bear an aesthetic stamp to be itself complete” (Dewey, 1934:45), on the other hand, as artists, we cannot let the appearance of our work undermine our concept.
The aesthetic aspect of an artwork should not be considered “what really counts”, especially if the way it looks is in contrasts with its ideals; if we have to conceptually corrupt our practice in order to make it pleasing for the public then maybe our work is not strong enough to stand for itself. Even though the “effect” to which the artist previously refers to is “a sense of communion between people and plants by using technology; not as an agent of destruction, but one serving union” (Tom Tom Magazine,2018), this chase for the beautiful is not beneficial for anyone. On the contrary, this continuous manipulation of natural beings only risks to create purely artificial artworks, contributing to our further alienation from nature in its real form.
The continuous emphasis on our needs, our future wellbeing, our necessity to learn how to relate to plants is once again shifting the focus on us, thus, conflicting with the initial intent to seek reconnection with nature and appreciate it for its inner value. Although Mileece’s artistic practice claims to be about “changing the paradigm of an individualistic society into one of collaboration where everybody remains intrinsic and expansive with their own skills but come together by putting them together as a collective identity” (Tom Tom Magazine,2018), the focus in her work remains on us and our society. Even though this is not necessarily a negative thing, since we are the ones that need to change and evolve, maybe a shift of perspective is now needed. We must seek to create an inclusion of vegetal beings that does not affect them in a negative way: a less intrusive approach that respects them within their ecosystem. Maybe the solution lies in moving the work outside, by bringing people to plants instead of them being displaced and arranged into artificial compositions; or maybe this interaction needs to happen as a casual encounter, a non-planned meeting, so that to fully eradicate the manipulation of vegetal beings in favour of a more spontaneous approach to conversation. As David Dunn affirms in one of his essays: “Interactive language is dialogue and argument” (David, 1984) then let us not try to make this interaction about ourselves and let’s give more space to plant’s own expressions. The key to a more integrated approach to plants in contemporary art lies in the collaboration with them; we need to start treating them as peers in the creative process and, instead of using them just as passive elements on display, start including them as active parts of the work.
Listening as a new means of experience.
“Sound is continuous; only listening is intermittent” (Jhon Cage, paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau 2004: 224).
If sound has proven to be the most powerful media for artists to raise awareness about human’s relationship with the botanical world, it is then the responsibility of the audience to listen to it and embrace its messages. In an era so saturated with the sounds of civilization, it is easy to confuse this almost meditative act with the unconscious process of hearing, thus not realizing the qualities and awakening effects that focused and attentive listening can have on us. It is almost as if people need to get re-educated to this forgotten practice in order to unlock a sensorial channel that can radically change their understanding of the natural environment. As a matter of fact, even though listening plays a central role within our communication strategies, as human beings, we tend to use the most of our energies to focus on what we see and what we say when in a conversation, and we get so used to this process of visual and spoken exchange that in the moment we encounter a different system of communication we find it hard, almost impossible, to establish a connection.
This restricted approach to the world of communication confines our interaction with the environment to a sensorial sphere that we do not share with the botanic realm, limiting our possibilities to actively engage with it and build a truthful relationship. If we really want to grow a solid connection with the vegetal world, we first must learn how to listen to it and understand it in its natural form. Although becoming aware of our sonic environment could be a start in the creation of this relationship, attentive listening alone is worthless if we do not approach it with an open mind, free of any hierarchical prejudice and scepticism.
Since the early philosophers, the primary subject of discussion and analysis has always been humanity, its existence and meaning in the world. Led by the need to define humans’ purpose in life, philosophers have formulated various theories in attempt to produce plausible explanations,
which have often favoured an anthropocentric approach rather than a biocentric one. For instance, in Aristotle’s “Politics”, the theorist describes the human being as a “political animal” that “alone of the animals has speech […] reason” and “logos” (Aristotle,1920).
This definition not only focuses on elevating the human individual over any other animal being by arbitrarily stating which abilities would make him worthy, but in doing so it does not even take into account any other form of life, implying their lack of any characteristic that “makes us superior”,
such as intentionality, movement, ability to communicate… Assertions like this one, that omit the existence of vegetal beings a priori, as if they are not even worth arguing, have contributed over time to build a corrupted conception of the botanical world, which still affects our relationship with it today. Due to its long history that ties it to the roots of our society, anthropocentrism is far from eradicated from our culture, for instance, its influence can still be witnessed in the writings of Peter Singer, who believes that “what outlines the possibility of granting equal consideration to a non-human
being is an individual’s capacity for suffering and enjoying” (Singer,1993), typical anthropocentric qualities which imply the notion that human behaviour sets the standard for equality.
If on the one hand this reductive perception of vegetal beings is still deeply embedded in contemporary society, on the other end, starting from Erasmus and Charles Darwin’s botanical work, which played a pivotal role in the development of ideas on evolution and the interconnectedness of life, we have come a long way in the study and revaluation of the vegetal world. If in popular culture plants have often been viewed as “organisms that are unable to sense their environment and are unresponsive as a result”, stating Karban, (Gagliano,
Ryan and Vieira, 2017:3) experts now portray them as “active and communicative organisms exhibiting a wide range of behaviours observed in animals” (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017: xi). The notion that language, or as Aristotle would say “logos” is a unique form of behaviour that makes humans superior has today been disregarded, as well as the misconception introduced by Coccia in “Trees” that “intelligence is an animal quality, restricted to a limited number of living beings,
simply because we are conditioned by the equivalence between thought and the nervous system” (Trees, 2019:26). What is missing in the Aristotelian conception of language is the everchanging and evolving nature of this form of expression. As a matter of fact, language is not a static element, nor a fixed one; indeed, it can assume many forms that may not include the use of words at all. Perhaps a better suited definition would be the one formulated by Walter Benjamin, who believed that every being makes use of expression, and that that mode of expression is what forms each specific language (Benjamin, 2009).
Even though our knowledge of the “language” of plants is very limited, their systems of communication are believed to be extremely complex, conveying accurate information about the past and the future through different modalities that are far from our range of perception (electrical, chemical, pressure cues…). In the chapter “To Hear Plants Speak” in “The Language of Plants”, Michael Marder argues that the main problem within the “language” of plants is one of translation; if we want to hear plants “speak”, in fact, we must “leave plenty of room for the untranslatable” and embrace the nonverbal quality of plant’s modes of expression (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017). Since they adopt “means of olfactory, visual, and electrical signals” (Wohlleben and Billinghurst, n.d: 29) as resources to communicate with each other and other living beings, in order for us to
rethink our relationship with vegetal beings, we need to first re-direct our listening towards different cues and open our senses to new, unconventional systems of perception. We could start by re-inventing our own vocabulary regarding plants or even by creating a completely new terminology, a more appropriate one that may not need the use of language as we know it at all. To be said in other words “rather than dwelling on the prospect that plants vocalize their intentions and desires, we should focus on non-verbal, ecological, and corporeal voice as the manifestation of vegetal presence and human recognition of it through our capacities for taste, smell, touch, and proprioception“ (Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira, 2017: xxvii).
Providing that the language of the botanical world is non-verbal, we must attune to its forms of articulation if we want to gain even the simplest glimpse of its modes of being, and the first step towards its comprehension would be to re-educate ourselves to the practice of listening.
Thanks to the work of some researchers and sound artists, the field of acoustic ecology and soundscape studies – which consist of the “study of the inter-relationship between sound, nature, and society” (Westerkamp 2002) – is now fast expanding and has already brought to our attention issues regarding the disappearance of sounds in the environment, such as dramatic change in water sounds and bird song density, as demonstrated by the work of Bernie Krause.
As artists it is our responsibility to raise awareness on these issues and sensitize people to them, through the creation of awakening experiences.
A pioneer figure in acoustic ecology, composer and sound artist whose work aims at ”activate an awareness that sound is a decisive dimension of the world” (Duhautpas and Solomos, 2014) is Hildegard Westerkamp. Through her artistic practice, the artist tries to develop a consciousness towards the sonic spaces around us and their acoustic qualities, with the aim of understanding the listening relationships that connect us with them. Just like Mileece,
Westerkamp too puts a strong emphasis on the personal experience of the work, sharing a philosophy of thought that sees our experience with sound “unfolding as a continuous now” (Stocker, 2013: xiii) meaning that, in order to experience the work, the spectators have to be present in the moment. This participatory presence of the public, is especially important in Westerkamp “Soundwalks”, which she refers to as “a practice that wants to bring our existing position-inside-the-soundscape to full consciousness” (Westerkamp, 2006). On a practical level, a soundwalk is a collective excursion that allow people to experience the soundscape together, as a group, in silence, or, as the artist more precisely describes it: “It is an exploration of our ear/environment relationship, unmediated by microphones, headphones and recording equipment” (Westerkamp, 2006). Such a shared listening experience is believed to heighten all our senses, thus making us more conscious towards our acoustic environment and allowing us to create real participatory connections with it. For certain extents, sound walking can even be considered a meditative act, in fact, it makes us aware of the world happening around us, its ephemeral sounds, the passing of time etc. Furthermore, it is a practice that encourages the audience to be open and freely explore the soundscapes “without a need to define, intellectualise, categorise, or interpret, to listen without expectations, assumptions or judgement, to listen without the compulsion to change things or to act immediately” (Westerkamp, 2006).
By improving our listening abilities, or by just becoming conscious of soundscapes, we can enter a new level of understanding of life in its complexity. Art and science have the power today to make us see the unseen, to reveal the unheard and open our eyes and ears to a more integrated reality, a richer one inclusive of all beings equally. If something is invisible or not accessible to us, we should not disregard it a priori, in fact, it may exist as an “other visible “possible” or as a “possible” visible for another”(Ponty, 1968), meaning that it may just not be accessible to us as a sensible thing, but it is to someone else or something else. There is so much to discover in this world, and we should not let our ignorance of it preclude us from exploring it; the fact that some things may remain unknow should not stop us from seeking to uncover them and if we purposely choose to ignore them, then this should not affect their credibility or question their existence just because not accessible to us. This is loss of respect for the unknown is becoming increasingly problematic in reshaping our understanding of reality. Our lack of awareness towards something does not justify our ignorance of it and, the presumption that a certain thing may not exists just because we cannot perceive its presence or do not have access to it, is turning into our biggest limit. Let us take sound, for instance, in the case we may not be conscious of it, the fact that it is indeed there is not something that depends on our awareness of it; it is not the sound the starts or ceases to exist, it is our experience of it that changes, our state of consciousness that changes the way we perceive it.
The rising of awareness, triggered by the act of listening, is exactly what makes sound art the most powerful tool able to change people’s mind and their conception of the world. Art, in fact, should be about conveying knowledge through personal experience, as in Westerkamp soundwalks, which are an experience that needs to be lived. The personal enrichment that comes from the participation in an artwork is not something that can be put in words, even less expressed through scientific or philosophical language. An experiential reconnection with outdoor spaces is now the key to move forward. Just like Westerkamp, other artists have been trying to produce work aimed at the creation of interconnectedness as a way to contrast the individualistic society we live in. A collaborative effort, for instance, was made by “The Common Guild” in the project “In the Open”, which brought together the work of six Glasgow based artists into a collection of six audio tracks, intended to be listened by anyone interested while walking certain specific routes across the city and its parks. Artworks like this one, that bring people together through the reconnection with the outdoor, remind us that art does not only have an educational responsibility, but a social one too. By putting at their core the cooperation among people and their surroundings, these works are able at the same time to raise awareness without becoming intrusive of the natural environment, giving us hope for a better future, more conscious and interconnected. Citing the environmentalist David Suzuki “Today we can see the beginnings of a new way of thinking about the world—as sets of relationships rather than separated objects—which we call ecology” (Suzuki 1997:198).
In his book “Botanical Speculations”, Giovanni Aloi underlines the urge to rethink our relationship with plants and the environment, as it lies at the core of a possibility for a better future. (Aloi, 2018). Through the development of a conscious, non-exploitative relationship with the natural environment, humanity has the chance to build a more interconnected future, comprehensive of human beings and plants living in harmony and mutual respect. In this search for balance, art acts as a testimony of past events and explores possibilities for the future. Through the combination of artistic, scientific and technological knowledge, contemporary art has now no limit in the search for new means of connection and interaction with the botanical world. Although it has promoted a new level of engagement between humans and plants, the advancement of technology, has also reinforced a sense of omnipotence of the human being over natural resources, with the risk of supporting a conception of plants as materials to employ rather than living beings to connect to. This utilitarian approach to vegetal beings, which influences the work of Azuma Makoto for certain extents, has now been disregarded, in favour of a more participatory inclusion of plants in contemporary art. Stimulated by the latest scientific discoveries in plant cognition and bioacoustics, artistic practices such are the one of Mileece, are now promoting a vision of plants as sensitive and responsive organism, able to communicate with their surroundings and other living beings, therefore worthy of respect and equal consideration. Finally, a way forward towards a conscious engagement with the natural realm in a non-intrusive way has been proposed by the work of Hildegard Westerkamp and her practice of sound walking, where, regardless of all the advancement in science and technology, the artist has chosen to go back to the human senses as only medium of experience. Even though some of them have been more successful than others, artists have been producing life-changing experiences, with the scope of sensitizing the public to the value and appreciation of the botanical world in its natural form. Taking sound as shared element of communication among plants and humans, they have been investigating the properties of this medium and challenged its unique quality of rising awareness about one’s presence within the environment. Although they may not have control over the natural soundscape, artist have been channelling people’s attention towards the sounds of nature, and it is in this present awareness that lies the real potential of an artwork; the physical interaction makes us richer and the participatory involvement stimulates genuine changes. Being present in the work is the key towards the creation of cooperation and the exploration of new partnerships, as a matter of fact: “a philosophy of sound art must have at its core the principle of sharing time and space with the object or event under consideration”(Voegelin ,2010: xii).
The re-education to the act of listening as a practice of sensorial engagement with our surroundings, represent the first step to move forward from an established utilitarian conception of plant life. Once we will attune ourselves to the corporeal language of nature, we will finally be able to participate in the interconnectedness of life and realise that we are just a little part of a magnificent whole. As Haskell affirms in his book “The songs of trees “: “To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty” (Haskell, 2017). After all, maybe the most sophisticate tools of which we dispose are our senses, and the answer to all our problems really reside inside ourselves, we just need to listen.
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