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Entry #8 26.01.2022

Phytotone

Charles Rouleau
Cover Image of Woven In Vegetal Fabric: On Plant Becoming, curated by ©Charles Rouleau
In the second chapter of his video piece Nightlife [1], the artist Cyprien Gaillard presents footage of non-native trees in Hollywood that appear to be dancing to a looping sample of the chorus of Alton Ellis’s Black Man’s World. These trees are the “the inhabitants of the margins that give the city its character”. [2] Even though the whole piece presents a disparate assemblage of ideas not all linked to the question of plants, this chapter invites the beholder to ponder upon the marginal place of plants through the process of anthropomorphization. These plants are commingled within urban spaces and entangled within the human architecture. When Timothy Morton writes, “Hasn’t what is called ‘landscape architecture’ always really been a clumsy dance of humans and nonhumans in whose medium the building appears, like a crystal inside a chemical solution?” [3], Gaillard’s work inspires another set of questions: which music are they dancing to? What makes plants groove?

Interest in such questions sprout out of recent research on radiofrequency radiation injuries in trees [4] or bioacoustics experiments [5], which shed new light on the concept of plant listening. For instance, Monica Gagliano has investigated the use of sound by plant roots to locate water [6]. Throughout the tests, seedlings consistently followed the direction of the sound of water in a y-shaped maze. However, when presented with recordings of water flowing, the seedling grew away from the speaker, from the electromagnetic field these were emitting.

The last experiment she conducted was exposing seedlings to two speakers, one playing the sound of water while the other was playing white noise. There was no clear tendency in the growing pattern. Gagliano concludes that white noise could have a similar masking effect on plants as demonstrated in animal studies, questioning the potential ecological implications of such findings concerning noise pollution and its impact on the botanical realm. [7] The outcome of this research underlines the importance of clarifying the understanding of the vibrational ontology of sound. Gagliano’s experiments interrogate the responsiveness of plants to acoustic cues while also showing that they respond to vibrations from an electromagnetic field. Even if the ontology of sound can be understood as vibratory, it is important to note that these vibrations, as physical oscillations and not mechanical vibrations like the ones human can perceive, have a direct impact on plant beings.

To listen to plants is a speculative approach to their being. As noted by Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari, plants are “material and nonanthropomorphic, yet profoundly generative for human thought and practice.” [8] They are speculative companions and force us to imagine new ways of being and thinking. They are everywhere, yet they constantly resist any assimilation into the human context and “thus oblige humans to confront their own status as both vulnerable and powerful components of an expanding universe.” [9] Dominique Brancher proposes to understand this encounter under the scope of a double-bind: they are simultaneously in persistent withdrawal from the anthropos while underlying the latter’s limits of understanding and grasping the world. [10] Thus plants do not listen as humans do, and as Michael Marder points out, Plant-Listening is an embodied listening and relies on the understanding of sound as vibrational.

In the exhibition Woven in Vegetal Fabric: On Plant Becomings, the artist Leonie Brandner presents a work titled “My Ears Are My Eyes”. Such terms, ears, eyes, are anthropomorphic (or at the very least zoomorphic), yet they invite to reconsider what is known as the “anthropomorphic trap”. Natasha Myers, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University and director of the Plant Studies Collaboratory, has interviewed researchers who are working with plants on the way they speak about them. [11] She notes that there is an inherent reticence to discuss plants in terms of sensing or feeling, and that the vocabulary used rapidly harks back to mechanical terms. [12] It is an oscillation between enchantment and disentchantement. Over the courses of many interviews, she conceptualizes the practitioners as “vegetal epistemologists […] [c]aught in the ‘affective and kinesthetic entanglements’ of their own inquiry into plant sensing”, that their sensoria get ‘vegetalized’. [13] She notes that they sometimes let their guards down and describe plants in anthropomorphic terms. [14] When this happens and they correct themselves, Myers asks them to rephrase their sentence in a non-anthropomorphic way and notes that the plant moves from being an active agent to a passive one. [15] One of the interviewees talks about the anthropomorphism used by Michael Pollan in his books and she confesses that it enables them to think “in a way that we know. But plants are not lesser than us.” [16] She posits that anthropomorphism is not a one-way street and that we might use an also anthropomorphizing approach to the plants in order to include them in our political world, to create a new political world with them, even though, because of the double-bind mentioned before, we cannot be sure of what is correct for them. On the other hand, she also recalls visiting Ian Baldwin, a scientist working at the Institute for Chemical Ecology at the Max Planck Insitute in Jena, who told her that he trains his students to ‘phytomorphize’. [17] His students “have to physicalize vegetal embodiments by moving their own bodies to act out plant behaviours and sensing phenomena.” [18] In that sense, speculating about plants being able to listen also invites us to listen like a plant. [19]

In 2008, the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Nonhuman Biotechnology published a report titled The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants in which they came up with an ethical recommendation for the treatment of plants. On this, Marder writes that “subjecting plants to “arbitrary harm” would be considered morally reprehensible, while the actual instances of instrumentalizing these living beings would require moral justifications.” [20] If plants are not grooving to but growing away from electromagnetic vibrations, what are the ethical implications, let’s say, of planting trees near a train line to temper noise pollution? To listen to plants is also to accept our entanglement with the nonhuman worlds commingling with us and the ethics this entails. Whether one is to understand sound as a medium or as material, plants react to it in their own way. The unheard and the inaudible still is and impacts what is visually perceivable. To be attuned to plants is also a question of listening, not in anthropocentric terms, but to try to shift towards and experience it from a phytocentric standpoint. To enable a phytocentric listening means to follow the growing of a sonic becoming. ︎

Charles Rouleau is artist-curator of the exhibition Woven in Vegetal Fabric: On Plant Becoming and his research focuses on challenging the anthropocentric paradigm, fostering empathy for the 
vegetal and investigating the plurality of sound milieus. He is currently completing a Research Master in Artistic Research at the University of Amsterdam.
Woven in Vegetal Fabric: On Plant Becomings is on view at Casino Display from 28.01 - 22.02.22. 




Disclaimer: Some parts of this essay were previously incorporated in a paper written for the ASCA Political Ecologies Seminar 2020-21: “The Ecology of Forms” at the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Analysis.

[1] Gaillard, Cyprien. Nightlife, 2015. 3D motion picture, DCI DCP, 14:56 min.
[2] Goffstein, Sarah. ‘CYPRIEN GAILLARD: Nightlife’. The Brooklyn Rail, 4 April 2018.[3] Morton, Timothy. ‘Creativity or Extinction? Extinction Can Be Avoided’. The Journal of Architecture 26, no. 1 (2 January 2021). pp. 66. [4] See: Waldmann-Selsam, Cornelia, Alfonso Balmori-de la Puente, Helmut Breunig, and Alfonso Balmori. ‘Radiofrequency Radiation Injures Trees around Mobile Phone Base Stations’. The Science of the Total Environment 572 (2016). pp. 554–69. [5] See : Gagliano, Monica. ‘The Mind of Plants: Thinking the Unthinkable’. Communicative & Integrative Biology 10, no. 2. 2017. ; Gagliano, Monica, Charles I. Abramson, and Martial Depczynski. ‘Plants Learn and Remember: Lets Get Used to It’. Oecologia 186, no. 1, 2018. pp. 29–33. ; Gagliano, Monica, Mavra Grimonprez, Martial Depczynski, and Michael Renton. ‘Tuned in: Plant Roots Use Sound to Locate Water’. Oecologia 184, no. 1, 2017. pp. 151–60. [6] Gagliano, Monica, et al. ‘Tuned in: Plant Roots Use Sound to Locate Water’. Oecologia, vol. 184, no. 1. Berlin : 2017. pp. 151–60. [7] Ibid., p. 158. [8] Meeker, Natania, and Antónia Szabari. Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York : Fordham University Press, 2019. p. 1. [9] Ibid., p. 4. [10] Meeker, p. 8.
[11] Myers, Natasha. ‘Conversations on Plant Sensing’. NatureCulture 3 (2015).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid., p.42.
[14] Myers (2015), p.43.
[15] Ibid., p.54.
[16] Ibid., p.56.
[17] Ibid., p.59.
[18] Ibid., p.59.
[19] Marder, Michael. Plant-Listening – THE PHILOSOPHER’S PLANT. https://philosoplant.lareviewofbooks.org/?p=281. Accessed 14 Jan. 2022.
[20] Ibid., p. 180.

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