What Plants Tell Us | esse arts + opinions

What Plants Tell Us

Sylvette Babin

We change through our collaborations both within and across species. The important stuff for life on earth happens in those transformations, not in the decision trees of self-contained individuals.
– Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

At the root of this issue is a love of plants, most certainly, but also a desire to green its pages with lush works. Despite the rewilding trend, as demonstrated by the abundance of houseplants on social media, this love is not new in people’s lives or even, more specifically, in the field of art where flora has always had a prominent role. What seems to have changed, however, is how we look at plant life, a gaze that aspires to shirk the anthropocentric blinders it has had for centuries. As science demystifies the complex universe of plants, we become more open to their sensitivity, intelligence, and agency. In other words, humanity is slowly daring to change the status of plants from utilitarian or decorative objects to fully-fledged living things.

Our issue appeals to interdisciplinarity more than ever before, taking its references from the fields of science, anthropology, and botany. Although artistic research is not abandoned — as evidenced by the diversity of works — plants draw our attention to their chemical composition, evolutionary history, and modes of adapting. Inevitably, environmental concerns and the impact of human intervention on plant biodiversity have a significant presence in the topics covered. As for the artworks, by closely observing the non-individualistic behaviour of plants, they propose, without moralizing, various ways of communicating with nature. Furthermore, since working with something alive is highly unpredictable and impermanent, they raise the issue of authorship and reintroduce the idea of collaboration, so important to new approaches to art.

The issue begins with a reconsideration of ecosophy, a notion developed by Félix Guattari thirty years ago that groups together three forms of ecology — environment, social relations, and subjectivity. Ecosophy calls for a global understanding of the world and introduces the relationship of interdependence, which comes up in several articles in the issue. The reciprocal relationship between species, as well as between ecosystems, stands in contrast to individualism and the general belief in the absolute superiority of human beings. In this regard, it is important to remember that the understanding of an interconnected world is intrinsic to the thinking and traditional way of life of Indigenous people. Lastly, -reconsidering our interactions with plants, by thinking of them as sensory beings, also opens the way to more radical ideas, particularly an ethics of consent, which could be invoked when using plants in agricultural production, monocultures, horticultural trade, and even art.

The plant world is considered through works that focus on the nutritional and healing role of plants, on their migration during periods of colonization, on the impact of conflicts on agriculture and vegetation, and on the behaviour of plants that are genetically modified or contaminated by chemical and nuclear industries, among other issues. Thus the plantain, Thale cress, Damask rose, peony, shea tree, corn, and potato are among the species artists have selected to reflect on the many upheavals that human and plant communities have suffered so that the desire for territorial, political, and economic expansion of a handful of individuals seeking power could be satisfied. Generally solicited for what they are, but also for their metaphorical meanings, the stalks, roots, flowers, fruit, and leaves that appear in these pages sometimes evoke human exploitation, domination, and the collapse of ecosystems, but also, more optimistically, resistance, solidarity, collaboration, and hope for renewal.

At the time of publication, humanity is facing an unprecedented pandemic that will necessarily make us rethink the way we live in the world, in this era of the Anthropocene or, more accurately, the Capitalocene. (1) We are already beginning to see some collective collaborative movements and much calling into question of the capitalist system. Will we also reconsider how we exploit all living things? In his book The Life of Plants, Emanuele Coccia writes: “The world is, above all, everything the plants could make of it.” (2) Perhaps the time has come to listen more closely to what they have to tell us.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

Notes
(1) “The most convincing Anthropocene time line begins not with our species but rather with the advent of modern capitalism, which has directed long-distance destruction of landscapes and ecologies.” Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 19.
(2) Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture, trans. Dylan J. Montanari (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019), 21.

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