Working with the Vegetal
Engaging Vegetation in the Arts
This, the 16th issue of Ruukku – Studies in Artistic Research, focuses on artists, researchers, scholars, and artistic researchers who are working with the vegetal in various ways. In the call we invited artists and researchers with an experience of working with plants and vegetation in different ways to contribute to this issue with expositions or articles, accounts of work in progress, and artistic experiments. The title, Working with the Vegetal, came from four one-day seminars at Stockholm University of the Arts in 2018–2019, organized by the project Performing with Plants. While continuing the play with alliterations, from P–P to W–W, the idea was also to expand the notion beyond performing and to ensure that diverse ways of working with vegetation would feel invited. Performance is for many artists still linked mainly to the performing arts, although performance can be linked to everyday behaviour, as the early performance studies scholars leaning on Ervin Goffman and Victor Turner suggested. Following the norms of our society, we do not realize that they are created by our performances, as Judith Butler emphasized, nor do we always remember that performance is not restricted to humans, but rather, following Karen Barad, we can speak of an ongoing performance of the world. Working, however, is much simpler, in that it is a process related to works of art and could be almost anything – or so we thought. The artists, artist-scholars, and artistic researchers presenting their work in this issue have mostly understood working with the vegetal in a very concrete manner, linked to gardening, breeding, and collaborating with vegetal beings in various ways.
As we noted in the call, long before the current pandemic, plants and vegetation are receiving increased attention in the context of the current climate crisis and the rapid extinction of species. With the recent developments in plant science and the post-humanities, artists, artist-researchers, and scholars are looking at plants in new ways. The growing interest in plant studies, to some extent a further development of the burgeoning of animal studies and post-humanist thinking, is influencing artistic research as well. An emerging field of critical plant studies can be linked to discussions in plant philosophy or plant thinking (Miller 2002; Marder 2013; Marder and Irigaray 2016; Coccia 2018), plant theory (Nealon 2016; Myers 2017), to considerations of the rights of plants (Hall 2011), the language of plants (Vieira, Gagliano & Ryan 2015; Kranz, Schwan & Wittrock 2016; Gagliano, Ryan & Vieira 2017) queer plants (Sandilands 2017), plants and literature (Laist 2013; Keetley & Tenga 2016; Meeker & Szabari 2020; Bishop, Higgins & Määttä 2020), and more. There is a veritable "plant turn" in science, philosophy, the arts, literature, and the environmental humanities, accompanied by an abundance of popular accounts of recent scientific research on plant sentience, intelligence, memory, and communication (Pollan 2002; Mancuso & Viola 2015, Wohlleben 2016; Chamovitz 2017; Gagliano 2018).
This interest in vegetation is, however, far from new for the arts. Historically speaking, there is no lack of artistic engagement with plants, from vegetally inspired ornamentation on textiles, pottery, and architecture to paintings, poems, fairy tales, and science fiction stories depicting plants. Living plants are used as material in practices as diverse as garden design, floral arrangements, and contemporary bio art. We could speak of "art's return to vegetal life" and a new way of looking at plants in art (Gibson & Brits 2018; Gibson 2018; Aloi 2018).
Rethinking our relationship to other forms of life that we share this planet with is a central task for artists today. Artistic research can contribute to this project through its capacity to allow, and to generate, hybrid forms of thinking and acting. The five expositions that comprise the core of this issue all experiment with such hybrid forms.
In the exposition "Between plant fossils and oral histories: Tracing vegetal imaginaries from Donbas, Ukraine", Darya Tsymbalyuk brings together artistic practice and scholarly work, narratives and testimonies of internally displaced persons, plant fossils, and drawings to tell multispecies (hi)stories about and from the Donbas region, Ukraine, questioning the stories about Donbas and displacement, as well as the ways they are told.
In his exposition "Mörk Materia / Dark Matter(s)", Timo Menke assembles several ongoing projects on plant-thinking and co-becoming with plants in the framework Cogito ergo Pisum, based on archival findings and found footage, crossbreeding photographic, biosynthetic, and agricultural methodologies. Timo the artist and Timo the grey pea are merged in bio art experiments involving horizontal transfer of the artist's DNA to a grey pea cultivar (Pisum sativum var. arvense). Other ingredients include a depiction of the Tree Man Syndrome and the so-called Green Men, and the exposition culminates in a polyphonic performance.
Lauri Linna, in the exposition "PORK KANA CAR ROT-project and it's offshoot: Keyboard for plants", questions selective breeding, which manipulates the reproduction of domesticated plants and animals, by maintaining a carrot population in an allotment garden, affecting their reproduction as little as possible, and documenting the process from 2016 until 2021. Linna suggests the practice of "non-breeding", even "un-breeding", to breed away the domestication of our production species.
In her exposition "Evolutionary Gardens and Performative Habitats", Egle Oddo describes the development of the Ark of Seeds project and its transformation from a public sculpture functioning as a seedbank into the installation of evolutionary gardens as public artworks and safety zones for biodiversity, which she calls performative habitats. She describes this process, which took several years (2007–2017), and involved conversations with several curators.
In the exposition "We Reap What We Sow, embodiment and urban allotment gardening. Part 1: autumn–late winter, October–January", Polly Hudson investigates how embodiment is illuminated by a relationship with the land, earth, and plants, specifically in the context of an urban allotment gardening practice. The work is part of an ongoing long-term project, "And so we Sow", which looks at the relationship between dance and gardening and reveals the ancient ritual of growing and nurturing plants as a somatic practice.
Most of the peer review comments are published for each exposition, either anonymously or with the reviewer's name disclosed, in an abbreviated and edited form that nevertheless gives an idea of the important role they have played in helping the authors complete their expositions, and also hint at the vivid discussions surrounding artistic research as well as critical plant studies at the moment. They are available for registered users, only – as good a reason as any to register on the Research Catalogue, really.
In order to expand the scope of the issue to also involve artists who do not present full research expositions but wanted to contribute with visual statements and brief project presentations, a selection of visual voices is added to the mix. The expositions by Gustaf Broms, Sara Ekholm Eriksson, Patricia Tewes Richards, Eva Macali, Päivi Maunu, and Britta Olsson are not peer reviewed, but serve as proposals, commentaries, project presentations, or accounts of work in progress; in short, voices related to working with the vegetal.
We want to thank all the contributing artists and all the reviewers for their generosity and patience. And we invite all readers, viewers, and listeners to enjoy these examples of vegetal engagements, and to perhaps feel invited to explore their own modes of working with the vegetal.
Annette Arlander, Jerry Määttä, Malin Lobell
Picture: Malin Lobell: Playing Bumble-Bee. A performative act. Spring 2020.