The following essay is an excerpt from a curatorial essay about the group exhibition, Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening. It first appeared on the Anthropocene Curriculum website; a longer version of the essay is published in Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening (Green Lantern Press, 2016), an anthology of essays, poems, working drafts, and artworks that look at the strangeness of plants.
On The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants (1865) contains sixty-seven pages of Charles Darwin’s climbing-plant studies. Beyond its use as a discursive text that literally describes the habits of plants as they grow, the writing has a conceptual effect: the pattern growth of Darwin’s plants is so precise that the nuance of each entry is easily lost to the effort of reading. It isn’t that the language is so difficult but that in order to access the full experience of his subjects’ growing, one must shift away from expecting a traditional, linear narrative in deference to an intimate, spiraling, and intra-active reflection. Darwin’s 1865 paper therefore becomes a teaching tool to engage more-than-human kinds and the alternative logics they bear.
Reading this text, I was easily distracted. One part of my mind made a simultaneous and absentminded list on scratch paper (email Ellen / send Roger MS / Paperwork for Jim!) while the other skimmed through Darwin’s language in search of “key moments.” Sometimes I doubled back through a paragraph when a verb appeared particularly active — “shoot” for instance, which, when re-read, referred not to the action of a gun but the anatomical part of a plant. At such times, my otherwise-divided attention fused into single focus, alert that perhaps something of note had happened. Instead of finding any event however, I noted my subjective bias. While Darwin measured the activity of plants, I was inadvertently measuring his account, sifting through the text like a naïve prospector looking for gold.
It took a minute to see the irony of speed-reading over plant growth, but when I did, I had a profound and somewhat disembodied experience of my own latent criteria for value and narrative. What did I think was going to happen exactly? A fire in his studio? A Michael Bay action scene? One of his specimens to speak? Something extraordinary, certainly. And how intriguing to juxtapose my plant-reading with an anxious to-do list that assured my future productivity. As though reading about the slow growth of plants inspired a strange discomfort in my own active consciousness.
Darwin’s study thereby teaches an exercise of engagement, illustrating a bridgeable gulf between humankind and vegetal life by way of simple observation. Those patient enough observe these green bodies as they grow slowly, almost imperceptibly, reaching upwards, with quiet, exploratory shoots under the biologist’s careful eye. How bizarre the way these blind beings extend themselves and in so doing offer us, the alien passerby, a glimpse of another non-commercial, though no-less willful, way of life. Darwin becomes an ambassador between plant and human, offering his readers access even when their attention is not equipped for full attunement. Perhaps by documenting that limit, by recognizing Darwin’s own dedicated concentration alongside the implications of one’s preexisting criteria, we glimpse a method for imagining new temporalities, subjectivities, and objectives. What is the drama of a tendril reaching into unknown space — a tentative line of inquiry — soon to double back in its extension, orbiting about the axis of its roots, themselves driven into another darkness? And as if to remind us that patience is required, Darwin notes his own convalescence in conjunction with the study: “To ascertain more precisely what amount of movement each internode underwent, I kept a potted plant, during the night and day, in a well-warmed room to which I was confined by illness.”
I think of Andrew Yang’s New Economies for Anachronistic Fruit (the Jawbreaker Syndrome) (2015) — an installation that includes a gumball machine full of Kentucky Coffeetree seeds, a pile of the same tree’s seed pods unshelled on the floor, a pamphlet, and a potted sapling less than a year old. When installed in a gallery, visitors are invited to pay twenty-five cents for a handful of seeds that they can then distribute in the world. An accompanying pamphlet describes an adaptive relationship that sprung up and solidified between the Kentucky Coffeetree, Glymnocladus dioicus — indigenous to Middle North America — and the mastodon, a once indigenous/now-extinct mammal that roamed the same landscape. The seeds and seed pods of the Coffeetree are so hard, biologists believe they adapted specifically for the mastadon’s massive teeth. Now that the mastodon is extinct, the Coffeetree relies on humans for distribution and, within Yang’s narrative, seems even a little sad as the widow of its evolutionary partner.
If Coffeetree seeds were akin to the candy ‘jawbreakers’ for Pleistocene megafauna, then it suggests that new forms of mutualistic exchange might fill the void of the now-extinct grazers within the dense urban environs in which the tree is found today. An updated ecology based on the model of a candy vending machine might just attract the last large mammal left in the Americas, Homo sapien.
Yang went to Berlin at the end of the summer and left the tree in my care. It seemed happy enough sitting on a windowsill with other plants; an easygoing guest, I thought, keeping company with a few cacti, a rubber tree, and an aloe plant, themselves witnesses of our household’s daily rhythm. I was happy to add to their number, and the small Coffeetree — about six inches tall — arrived with bright green leaves. By September, however, its foliage had turned entirely yellow. Friends came over; we joked that the plant was dead. In Canada, the tree is called Chicot, or Dead Tree, because it loses its leaves for up to six months. It seemed in character that Yang’s specimen would look like it was dying with the changing seasons. Still, the plant’s transition from green to orange foliage and then, finally, to leafless was worrisome. It’s worrisome to possibly kill someone’s plant, especially if you can’t confirm its death until spring.
I brought the tree to a workshop about Romanticism. A video game projected on the wall in the background. The game, whose objective is tending succulents, is marketed as a stress relief activity for office workers: a digital snail, like a long-distance runner, takes endless turns around the gamer’s succulent pot. Yang’s small Coffeetree — the only living plant in the room — had just one leaf by then. It became the subject of a group discussion: Giovanni accused me of killing the tree; Rebecca poked the soil and suggested I re-pot it for better drainage. Someone said there was still green in the trunk; I too eagerly chimed in, ‘Exactly. Not dead; deciduous!’ prompting a dead-parrot joke from someone else. The status of the tree’s aliveness remained suspect. We collectively overwatered the succulents in the video game and I wrote Yang that evening with both sides of the argument. “I’m inclined to think your tree is alive,” I wrote, offering bad photographs as evidence. Yang wondered if we should include the tree in the exhibition. We discussed the significance of displaying a possibly dead plant, deciding in the end that doing so resisted the otherwise predominant pressures of productivity. Our own Bartleby: sitting in a ceramic pot, on an unstained shelf, in the midst of a group exhibition dedicated to plants and lichen.
Economies of Anachronistic Fruit is just one artwork in Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, a group exhibition that took place at Sector 2337 (Chicago, 2015) and Vox Populi (Philadelphia, 2016), exploring the strangeness of plants encountering human structures. Vegetal life-forms are banal in their ubiquity. Undeniably alive, yet silent, they creep upwards with their roots submerged and out of human sight. Like anarchists protesting order, weeds break through concrete. Plants challenge theoretical logic as well, exhibiting unique occupations and desires; engaged in constant growth, they spread out with a will to consume and occupy space. Some even respond visibly: mimosa plants close in on themselves when touched by a human finger. This would suggest some kind of sentience, but what would the character of that sentience be? How do we quantify it? Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening highlights the inaccessible subjectivity of plants, drawing a connection between Darwin’s observational practices and the thought processes that unfold within an artist’s studio, a poet’s draft, or an academic’s computations.
Tim Ingold’s essay, On Basket Making, argues that “the difference between making and growing is by no means as obvious as we might have thought,” suggesting that any delineation between the two falsely inscribes a hierarchical split between nature and culture, or — in his words — substance and form.
Form is said to be applied from without, rather than unveiled from within. The very distinction between a within and a without of things, however, implies the existence of a surface, where solid substance meets the space of action of those forces that impinge upon it. Thus, the world of substance — of brute matter — must present itself to the maker of artefacts as a surface to be transformed.
Troubling that binary further, Ingold suggests a relationship between material and artisan, such that the basket maker must effectively collaborate with grass, working with plant fibers in an ongoing, practiced, and co-evolutionary conversation. The same approach applies to art-making, bookmaking, exhibition production, and plant observation; rather than approach the world as a crude and objective assemblage of materials to be categorized, measured, and fashioned into sensible use, we see a sustained process of interactive development.
Articulating that evolution over a longer time scale, Sebastian Alvarez maps moments when mind-altering plants have intersected human history. “A Pseudo-Ethnobotanical Chronology of Psychoactives (2015) is part of a series of efforts to understand the deeply complex relationship between blood and chloryphyll.” Using a photographic collage of plants that Alvarez foraged around Lake Merritt’s (Oakland, California) cryptoforests and community gardens, the timeline itself is comprised of a Frankensteinian assemblage of weeds and feral ecologies. Different captions spring out from that chimeric plant, highlighting as they go the ways in which psychoactives catalyze social change. “1475‒1500: dervishes spread the use of coffee to medina and mecca,” one caption reads all in lower case letters, “secular use becomes more prominent, in part because wine is forbidden by the koran.” In other captions nearby, Alvarez includes “1200‒1400: vienna codex depicts the ritual use of mushrooms by the Mixtec gods, showing piltxintecuhtli and seven other gods holding mushrooms in their hands”; or “1450: printing press is invented.” Now, suddenly, the very premise by which humanity has so long identified itself — language and writing — seems bound up between plant properties and the technology that might amplify them. The long, extended plant history illustrates human cultures’ entwinement with plant life and influence. As if to mirror that, Darwin always includes himself; the plants never grow alone. Form and substance entwine, exhibiting an embodiment of thought.
When a revolving shoot strikes a stick, it winds round it rather more slowly than it revolves. For instance, a shoot of the Ceropegia, revolved in 6 hrs., but took 9 hrs. 30 m. to make one complete spire round a stick; [. . .] This, I presume, is due to the continued disturbance of the impelling force by the arrestment of the movement at successive points; and we shall hereafter see that even shaking a plant retards the revolving movement.”
Darwin regularly pokes and prods his subjects in order to measure reactions contingent on the subjective limits and aesthetics. To explore such a conversation within an art context highlights the presence of aesthetic expectations, while muddling distinctions between material and form. Is Yang’s tree a sculpture or a performer?
Linda Tegg produces another kind of reconciliation in her grass-ramp installation, One World Rice Pilaf (Terrain, Prairie Grass), 2015, for which she installed a site-specific ramp (294” x 39”) located in the side hallway of Sector 2337’s main gallery. Tegg visited her work every other day to inspect the installation and water it as needed. Additional plants grew in the basement on more trays, and Tegg periodically swapped specimens around, replacing old ones with new ones of various types and sizes. The terrain of her installation was always in flux. The awkward and typically marginalized service corridor was activated by her landscape: its narrowness, combined with the high, bright fluorescence of the grow lamps, buzzed up the verdant and fleshy green ground, electrifying the whole corridor. The piece resonates with Dan Flavin’s minimalist light sculptures — Tegg provides a similarly jaw-dropping experience of light — except that its major element, grass, is alive, active, and amplifying an elaborate network of global and economic forces. Born from Whole Foods’ bulk food bins, One World Rice Pilaf’s seeds are also implicated within the strange industrial and commercial networks of life, further illustrating the entwinement nature and culture. It is impossible to parse form and substance.
The world of our experience is, indeed, continually and endlessly coming into being around us as we weave. If it has a surface, is it like the surface of the basket: it has no ‘inside’ or ‘outside.’ Mind is not above, nor nature below; rather, if we ask where mind is, it is in the weave of the surface itself. And it is within this weave that our projects of making, whatever they may be, are formulated and come to fruition.
Embedded in Darwin’s measurements is background tenderness. When experimenting with water, he occasionally “[flirts] small droplets from a brush over many tendrils.” This experimental approach is inventive, intimate, serious, and playful. And when settled within the world of his study, Darwin’s curiosity becomes contagious, evoking both the iconoclastic agency of plants and the wonder of that agency. Suddenly you see that these plants are moving, and rather quickly. They complete rotations upwards in a matter of hours, growing by visible inches. The plants actively clasp sticks, bending toward and away from stimulation. In fact, it isn’t their slowness that makes them so easily dismissed, but their apparent disinterest in animal concerns. Darwin constantly reminds us that these plants move in relation to the planets, connecting the plant’s activities to a shared cosmos. The so-called background chorus of vegetation steps forward, unsettling the presumed stability of our Holocene. In two instances one of two tendrils produced a flower at its tip; this however, did not prevent its acting properly and curling round a twig.
Suddenly we as a species have to re-conceive our relationships with these beings. The difference between living and inert becomes troublesome. Since this essay’s inception twelve months ago, Yang’s tree is officially dead, and yet an aloe plant on the windowsill at home has shifted, transforming from a polite creature to a rather terrifying resident. Last month its entire body shifted one day to hang over the couch like something out of Little Shop of Horrors. I dislike the plant now: it’s unnerving and grown ugly from the smallness of its pot. I pity the contortions it must have to make to accommodate its limited ground, hearing Giovanni’s voice in my head again and wondering at the plant’s perverse resilience. I must re-pot it, but have grown painfully aware of its potentially endless capacity for growth.
“Coexistence is in our face: it is our face,” Timothy Morton writes. “We are made of nonhuman and nonsentient and nonliving entities. It’s not a cozy situation: it’s a spooky, uncanny situation.” In The Universe of Things, Steven Shaviro recounts a sci-fi story about living tools. When a human mechanic finally conceives of what it might mean biologically and psychically to mesh with inert material he is horrified.  Jane Bennett points out that simple metabolization mixes boundaries delineated by inside and outside, “revealing a vitality obscured by our conceptual habit of dividing the world into inorganic matter and organic life.” Plants have a way of occupying similarly a liminal space between what we designate as conscious things and unconscious (use-able) material. Actually, a field of sunflowers turning to face the sun together, at the same time, is a little alarming. What makes them do that? Darwin likewise offers uncanny moments; for instance, when he describes a plant “reading” the landscape:
The tendrils, by their own movement and by that of the internodes, slowly travelled over the surface of the wood, and when the apex came to a hole or fissure it inserted itself; in order to effect this the extremity for a length of half or quarter of an inch, would often bend itself at right angles to the basal part. I have watched this process between twenty and thirty times. The same tendril would frequently withdraw from one hole and insert its point into a second hole.
Suddenly, it is the plant that measures its environment, exhibiting literacy through choice.
1. “A long shoot projected beyond the upper end of the supporting stick, and was steadily revolving.” Charles Darwin, The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants. London: John Murray, 1875, p. 3, [online](https://archive.org/stream/movementsandhab02darwgoog#page/n14/mode/2up), October 14, 2016.
2. Darwin, Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants, p. 3.
3. Andrew Yang, New Economies for Anachronistic Fruit (the Jawbreaker Syndrome), installation pamphlet, which was published as part of Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, a group exhibition at Sector 2337, Chicago, Illinois, September 2016.
4. Tim Ingold, “On Weaving a Basket,” The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge, London, 2000, p. 339.
5. Ingold, “On Weaving a Basket,” p. 338.
6. Sebastian Alvarez, A Pseudo-Ethnobotanical Chronology of Psychoactives, wall-mounted exhibition text, 2015.
7. Darwin, Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants, p. 6.
8. Tegg’s materials include Whole Foods bulk bin seeds: Small Red Chilli Beans, Extra Large Fava Beans, Black Beans (Turtle Beans), Pinto Beans, Mung Beans, Flageolet Beans, Pigeon Beans, Black Garbanzo Beans, Wild Rice, Soy Beans, Baby Lima Beans, Fava Beans, Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans), Dark Red Kidney Beans, Navy Beans, Steuben Yellow Eye Beans, Scarlett Runner Beans, Cannellini Beans (White Kidney Beans), Adzuki Beans, Great Northern Beans, 32 Bean & 8-Vegetable Soup/Chili, Countrywild Brown Rice Blend, Olde World Pilaf, Lundberg’s Wild Blend, Mayacoba Beans (Canary Beans), Jacob’s Cattle Trout Beans, Christmas Lima Beans, Tiger Eye Beans, European Soldier Beans, Petite Golden Lentils, French Green Lentils, Brown Lentils, Petite Crimson Lentils, Black Lentils, Ivory White Lentils, Red Lentils, Large Green Lentils, Giant Peruvian Lima Beans, Black-eyed Peas, Raw Pumpkin Seeds (Pepitas), Yellow Popcorn, Heirloom Popcorn Kernels, Black Barley, Kamut Berries, Buckwheat Groats, Kasha, Freekeh, Barley (Pearled), Hard Red Winter Wheat Berries, Wheat Berries (Soft White Pastry), Spelt Berries, and Rye Berries.
9. Ingold, “On Weaving a Basket,” p. 349.
10. Darwin, Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants, p. 156.
11. Darwin, Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants, p. 152.
14.Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2013) 266.
14. Steven Shaviro, The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
14. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2010), 50.
15. Darwin, The Movement and Habits of Climbing Plants, 30.
Caroline Picard is an artist, writer, publisher, and curator who explores the figure in relation to systems of power through on-going investigations of inter-species borders, how the human relates to its environment and what possibilities might emerge from upturning an anthropocentric world view. Her writing has appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Flash Art International, Hyperallergic, Paper Monument, The Seen, and e-flux’s live blog.