Plants, Art and Writing: P. Gibson in conversation with M. Marder


PG: There are plant artists around the world who are using the eco-transmissions of roots or leaves to create sound artworks. Other plant artists unground natural species from the earth and bring them into the gallery space or create experiences that disrupt or intervene with an ecological state. These bodies of work develop from the history of botanical illustration, gardening, bonsai care and other art-aesthetic preoccupations, even land art. However, contemporary art consistently highlights eco-ethics, the moral question of how to relate to plants. New information in plant science, informs our understanding of status and ethics, as you expound in your books. These ideas are being taken up by artists and presented as a means of advocacy as well as a continued creative representation. Can you respond to this new idea of representation, as both a conceptual artistic interpretation but also as a way of ‘speaking for’ plants?

MM: Although I am by no means a Kantian, I am a little nostalgic for the strict division between the questions of epistemology, practical ethics, and aesthetics, reflected in the three Critiques. The advantage of treating these issues separately is that they can be imbued with as much clarity as possible before being interrelated, amalgamated, mixed, etc. Let’s take representation, for instance. Epistemologically, it refers to the framing of an object by a subject, using preexisting categories, schemas, and concepts. Ethically-politically, it means delegation (speaking on behalf of someone, as you note), the supplanting of one subject or a group of subjects by another. Aesthetically, it implies a faithful recreation of a pregiven reality in a work of art, in which the depicted objects would be recognizable as corresponding to a slice of the “outside world.” So, representation, an essential modern philosophical and aesthetic term, necessarily regulates the relation between subjects and objects or among subjects. That is where my patience with Kantianism, be it avowed or encrypted, runs out. I find the parameters of representation sorely deficient, especially with regard to plant life. I much prefer expression, so long as we understand the literal sense of this word—pressing outwards, albeit without the traditional, Romantic, emphasis on interiority whence this movement proceeds—and detect in it the growing activity of the plants themselves. Artists might facilitate vegetal self-expression, or, at a meta-level, express this expression. Should they attempt to do so, they would not run into the dead-end of “speaking for” plants, which, in the name of ethics, may turn out to be highly unethical, precisely because the flora does not speak in anything like human languages. The advantage of expression is that, thanks to its spatial orientation (ex-, outwards), it can track the articulation of plants and plant parts as material, embodied significations. I repeat: expression allows us to track the articulation of plants, becoming a medium for their flourishing. And I’d love to see artists pick up this vegetal idea of expression without a hidden inner core, without depth.


  1. Human-Plant Contradictions

PG: There are artists who hook plants up to all kinds of sensors (light, thermal, gas, liquid) in order to create artworks. The information measured by the sensors, for example, is then used to create sound or mobilise a tree in a gallery space or effect a dynamic change in the immediate environment or to stimulate audience participation. My question is whether there is a problem here, in treating plants as non-feeling subjects? Sticking probes into tree trunks or affixed onto leaves and roots can cause damage to the plants, perhaps even pain. Is it worth it? What are our moral obligations, as artists and writers, to show vegetal respect?

MM: Well, obviously, there would be a huge public outcry if this sort of art was performed on a live rabbit or a dog, with electrodes attached to its head, measuring brain waves, or to the heart, registering cardiac rhythms. That it seems OK to subject plants to such projects is a sign of the insufficient change in our received ideas that view them as insensitive beings or “non-feeling subjects” as you say. That is definitely an ethical problem. But I also see an epistemological problem here. The techniques you describe are predicated on a belief in the possibility of a global and universal translation. Everything can become meaningful on our terms and on our ground thanks to certain technological manipulations. What is sensed vanishing in the sensing that occludes the meaning of the plants themselves. We can pat ourselves on our shoulders for deriving such “information” from plants, but as soon as it has become nothing but information, the plant has already disappeared. In a way, this is the general paradox of modern signification, where, unlike in expression, the signifier is ab initio detached from the signified. Artists can either keep replaying this frustrating record of total loss, masquerading as total transparency, or they can imagine ways to see, listen to, be and think with plants otherwise.


  1. Performativity

PG: The performativity of plants seems to refer to a state of being where they are not limited by functionality or utility. The attraction of a discourse in plant performativity is that it eschews conventions of immobility or inaction. It allows plant life a vitality, with or without human recording or observation. However does this performativity of plants mark a slippage back into subject-object or human-plant dyads? What possibilities are there for a wider performativity, where plant behaviour and conceptual art can meet on an equal plane?

MM: In a nutshell, the performativity of plants is their mode of being in the world, their affecting and being affected by the places of their growth. Though never complete so long as a plant is living and metamorphosing, this process has its intermediate “products”, akin to stills taken from a film. These are the very identifiable self-expressions of vegetal life I have mentioned earlier. How can we approximate to, or resonate with, the moments of vegetal performativity? The possibilities are as numerous as they are still unexplored. For one, gesture can convey something of the language of plants, because it is an equally embodied and spatial kind of expression. For another—and I have explored this at length elsewhere—artists can attempt to perform growth, which is a formidable challenge, so much so that I have called it performing the unperformable. The artist who, to my mind, comes closest to such a performance is Špela Petrič with her piece “Confronting Vegetal Otherness,” in which for 12 hours a day she cast a shadow on germinating cress. I cannot see how there can be a “slippage” into any traditional dyads here, or in any other exercises in vegetal performativity for that matter, given the irreducible time-lag between the human and the plant: the wildly different time scales of movements, behaviors, or responses. (Even with regard to ourselves, a certain time-lag applies, in that our “involuntary” bodily activity operates at a different level from that of explicit consciousness.) So long as more than one temporality is at play, we are in a situation of an encounter—with the other.  


  1. Three Axes

PG: In your essay in The Green Thread you mention that there is a tendency in philosophy to ignore the outgoing, in favour of the incoming (even when it is a non-arrival). When considering plants, there is not this cutting off or displacement from the source but a continuous growing or possibility. Your three axes of the event unfolding are excrescence (how plants appear), expectation (waiting for germination) and exception (where seeds are extracted for the closed circuit of potentiality and are committed to chance.) These three elements strike me as being useful vegetal processes to apply to the creation and experience of art. Artists create works or performances that are viewed (have an appearance), they await a response from the audience, or critics, or peers, in a state of hiatus. Finally artists’ works are removed from the live experience or real appearance and can be re-performed or re-told or re-experienced via video documentation and reviews etc. This final phase, of how the artworks can continue to grow, falls into your final axis of becoming committed to chance. Can you comment on drawing a link between your concept of the three axes, with art? Where might the act of creating art sit, within the realm of plant life?

MM: Again, I agree with your extension of my vegetal thought to art. It is important to highlight here that we are circling back to the issue of expression as a pressing outwards characteristic of growth, or excrescence. Without a hint of idealism, ex-pression is how artworks grow and make their appearance in the world. A spatial process, it requires time to unfold and mature (expectation). Finally, there is no “cookie-cutter” recipe for a good or successful vegetal-artistic expression, because, in each case, its spatiality and temporality are singular (exceptional), as it hinges on who or what is growing in it. As for your broader question about the place of art, I would like to propose a variation on my definition of philosophy as “sublimated plant-thinking.” Art, in turn, is sublimated plant-sensing. Aesthesis, at the root of sensation and aesthetics, is not the exclusive province of animals and humans; as we know, plants are highly receptive to a variety of environmental factors, from light and moisture gradients to vibrations. To be sure, plants neither think nor see in images, but this does not mean that they neither think nor see. The “imageless presence” of music praised by Adorno is one intimation of sublimated plant-sensing. I trust that you will find many others, as well.  


  1. Writing

PG: Should we adapt the way we write about plants, to accord with the thoughtfulness and regenerative qualities of plant life?

MM: Absolutely! I have tried to do so together with Luce Irigaray in our co-authored book Through Vegetal Being (Columbia University Press, 2016). It was but a beginning of plant writing, briefly outlined in the book’s epilogue. Patience plays an important role here, as does the absolute openness to the other. Connected to this, I always wonder how to give my writing back to plants. My dream for Plant-Thinking was to embed seeds into its covers and to urge readers to bury the book after it has been read, letting it decompose and germinate. Publishing conventions did not permit me to realize it. In The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness, which is a beautiful collaboration with French artist Anaïs Tondeur, writing and thinking constantly revert back to plants and to art in the shadow of a disaster. The blog The Philosopher’s Plant, where our conversation will appear, is an offshoot of the book, with which it shares its title, and its development—at the level of form and of content—is quite vegetal. But, no doubt, more needs to be done, boldly and experimentally, to invent a way of writing that would respond and correspond to plant life.


The Plant Asleep


 Michael Marder


One condescending way in which our cultures have related to plants is by considering the vegetal kingdom somnolent. Just think of German and Russian fairytales, where the forest is described as “dark and sleepy”; French philosopher Henri Bergson’s claim that plants have a “consciousness asleep”; or Lewis Carroll’s joke playing on the literal sense of “flowerbed”: “In most gardens, they make the beds too soft—so that the flowers are always asleep”… There is a grain of truth in such associations if we take into account the incredible dormancy of seeds that retain the possibility of germinating half a millennium after drying up, or if we recall the metabolic slowdown of trees in the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn and winter. But the properly philosophical question is: Why should not this or that vegetal process but the mode of plant existence as such be classified as sleepy? What prompts us to group sessile living beings together with a non-wakeful state of being?

It seems to me that our prejudices against sleep are intimately connected to those we harbor in relation to plants. An active subject, presumably fully awake and in control of itself, is necessarily insomniac because, before its “red” eyes, sleep appears to be nothing but torpor, an inferior form of consciousness, and one that is increasingly unnecessary, a sheer waste of productive time. Our ideal is that of a city that never sleeps, a hyper-caffeinated state of frantic activity with “zero downtime”. We omit from our demonized version of sleep not only its restorative effects for the body and mind alike but also the vibrancy of psychic life that unfolds in it, for instance, by way of dreams. As merchandise, from mugs to baby clothes, sold in various trendy coffee shops across the United States screams in white letters against a black background: “Sleep is for the weak!”

And that precisely is the association that ties it to plants in our insomniac heads. Plants, too, are deemed ontological “weaklings,” which is why, unable to oppose themselves to their surroundings, they can do no more than sleep. The subterranean layer of their vitality, unfolding in the dark moistness of the soil, stands for the unconscious sphere whence, as Freud pointed out, dreams condense from fragments of repressed or unfulfilled wishes. As though the aboveground portions of plants did not have a privileged relation to sunlight, their entire existence is reduced to only one element they inhabit—the earth. Even such “critical” theorists as Adorno and Horkheimer did not hesitate to treat the vegetal utopia of lotus-eaters in The Odyssey as an instance of irresponsibility, oblivion, and escape from reality, which, in its turn, requires hard toil in order to produce the shared possibility of happiness in history. Sleep (particularly, dreaming) connotes escapism from the hard realism of work, and so does the plant kingdom, represented, in the Gospel of Matthew, by the lilies of the field that “do not work, do not spin.”

Ironically, we turn to plant-derived stimulants, such as those found in coffee beans or tea leaves, to shake off sleep and to try to live up to our dreadful ideal of an ever-active subject. We dismiss out of hand the scientific evidence of APs, or Action Potentials, in plants, akin to the firing of neurons in the animal nervous system and more widespread than the oft-cited example of Venus flytrap would lead us to believe. We choose to ignore time-lapse photography of vegetal movements in the light that look very different from (and very much more “awake” than) those in the dark. But, above all, we find it exceptionally difficult to conceive of vivacity and energy that do not imply the incessant to-and-fro of dislocation or manipulation of the “outside” world. When all activity is supposed to be productive, sleeping and dreaming are taken as signs of stoppage or, at best, as useless play, interfering with the serious work of a subject who is conscious and self-aware through and through. Slumbering animals and humans share this presumed inoperativity with plants, as they succumb to the uncontrollable force of the unconscious, which dictates its own laws eluding the nets of simple, linear determinism.

Perhaps the most emblematic work of art in this respect is Goya’s etching “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Although all the “monsters” in Goya’s work are figured as animals (notably, bats, birds, and lynxes), the same logic applies to plants: if our reason is not actively on guard, if its thin veneer does not vigilantly separate us from the non-human within and outside us, the dark forces of the unconscious will not lose any time in swallowing us up. The enchanted, sleepy forest is always ready to close around whoever dares venture into it; vegetal consciousness asleep may suddenly wake up and wreak havoc as in John Wyndham’s 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids and in its 1962 film adaptation. The fear that consumes the human is, therefore, double: on the one hand, we are afraid that our reason would succumb to the sweet temptation of sleep, handing us over to the grip of the unconsciousness; on the other hand, we are terrorized by the possibility that vegetal existence would awake and assert its own indomitable subjectivity, construed as monstrous to the extent that it falls outside the reach of our mastery over the world.

To fall asleep is to reenter, without much preparation or protection, the vegetal dimension of our psychic lives, where our psyches (like the vitality of the plants themselves) are spread over the entire extension of our bodies, rather than concentrated in a single organ, such as the brain. From the vantage point of the subject of reason, sleep is, indeed, a fall, a tumble from the heights of our self-arrogated power to rule over ourselves and, by implication, over everything and everyone in our environs. It feels like a plunge into a bottomless pit—the abyss of life that is no longer individuated, no longer appropriate to us, no longer even recognizable as “ours.” In sleep, we hurry for our rendezvous with the vegetal. Unless another plant substance (contained, for instance, in a caffeinated beverage) delays this encounter by a few short hours.