Sensing the Living, Promoting the Perception of Plants
by: Alexandra Pirici, Artist in residence with Scientist Paco Calvo
Sensing the Living, Promoting the Perception of Plants is a project co-developed by the artist Alexandra Pirici and the scientist Paco Calvo as part of the Studiotopia Art&Science Residence programme hosted by Cluj Cultural Centre.
Their collaboration investigates human perception and creates awareness about plants as living organisms by using the “naked eye” observation process.
As part of our research project Sensing the living, Promoting the perception of plants with Paco Calvo, I’ve been following a climbing bean shoot with the ‘naked eye’ observation method initially used by Darwin, that Paco brought to my attention. I follow the tip of a shoot while it grows and circumnutates, marking points of its trajectory over a certain period of time.
I’m sharing here some thoughts on the process and some images.
Why this method and not a simple photographic time-lapse?
An important part of our research proposal refers to a sensibilization of humans towards other life-forms – in this case, plants - a process that needs to be intentional and start at an early age. By this process we actually mean an acknowledgement of the complexity of our mutual, relational existence. There is no ‘human’ without many other life-forms that make both the interior and exterior of our organisms, in a permanent exchange between these two spaces with porous boundaries. Therefore, an emphasis on ‘relation’ was crucial to the proposal and remains crucial to the process.
We of course acknowledge the importance and ubiquity of myriads of technical apparatuses, machines and designs, with different histories and purposes, that we group under the term ‘technology’. And precisely because different technological designs do different things, we preferred the so-called ‘naked eye’ observation process (which also actually involves a technical apparatus) to a different technical set-up that would involve a digital camera.
A reason for this would be that the time-lapse relies only on the digital camera for observation: the human is mostly removed from the process and only comes at the end, to see the result. In the ‘naked-eye’ observation, the human does the observing. And definitely NOT just the eye, as the name might suggest. While even in Darwin’s drawings the emphasis was placed on the drawing – the final result, and the sense of vision - the actual practice of the method with an expanded attention testifies to the importance of the whole body in the process of observation (in fact an ill Darwin, confined to his room, explains in his On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants how his sons actually made several observation processes possible for him).
The observation of the changes in the position of the plant shoot over time is possible by creating points of reference that one considers every time one wants to observe the new position of the plant shoot.
The construction of reference points is shown in this image:
Drawing by Keith Roberts from Darwin and his Flowers by Mea Allen, 1977.
This actually means that one needs to re-place one’s body in the exact same position, every time, in order to re-align with the reference point. It also means, of course, that the position of the plant pot and the glass-plate should not change at all.
The observation and its accuracy depend on this precise choreography of objects and bodies: objects remaining still, the body taking the same position and performing the same action – the closing of one eye, since the observation is only possible with this particular vision set-up.
Photo of markings for my feet, and previous ones for the support board used for a previous attempt at observing a climbing bean plant on the window sill.
Photo of marking for the process described in this post.
The tracing of a new point in space – marking the travelled distance from the previous one – means sustaining the rest of the body in the correct position while the arm moves to perform the marking. The slight tremble, the muscles contracting, the open eye moving between reference point and new trace to make sure the measurement is correct: all these are part of the process and the final result. And besides the glass (or plexiglass) plate and its support, there is also the wood of the floor: aligned in straight-line patterns, that helped my feet align to it to make it easier to re-align my whole body and my embodied eye to the reference point, leaning on top of the plexiglass panel and the plant underneath. Or the ink of the marker I used to mark the new position and write down the time of observation, and so on.
Photo of one example of body positioning with the left eye closed for observation.
Final drawing/abstraction of the process started on April 16th and ended on April 23rd.
Expanded view of context
In short, observation is always possible only with an observing body and the material involvement of its extended apparatus (whether human or machinic).
Acknowledging the importance of this embodied experience of observation (be it a human body or a camera, for that matter) not only helps to renounce the pretence of a so-called ‘view from nowhere’ that did much damage to scientific research, its epistemo-political frameworks and implications. It also has other use: in this case it helps to concretise a relation between a human and a plant. Observing the plant by frequently being present alongside it, is a commitment to (more obviously) imbricated lives, to sharing time and space, relating two different time-spans, time-scales and speeds of living. It also amplifies and expands attention for the human observer, like meditation practice which actually operates a heightening of awareness and perception. The ‘small’ movements of the plant become important events; we have to accept that a lot happens that we cannot perceive, are not trained to perceive, or don’t have time to – but that might be very important.
The two images I’d like to close with are taken from above and below the plant shoot – observing apparatus relation.
I’m calling them ‘planet & constellation view’. While being aware of how human metaphors or anthropomorphizing might distort our accurate understanding of what actually happens in the biological/botanical realm, I also believe it is metaphors and stories, in general, that help the affective-rational marking and development of our body-minds. Through their hooks and bonds, they might also help us make a first step, as humans, towards otherness. As we openly acknowledge them to be metaphors, they might tell us that size and importance are relative, human-made concepts, and that there is much to discover, understand and become sensible to in apparently small universes that make up and are deeply embedded within larger ones.
Text by Alexandra Pirici.
Find out more about Alexandra Pirici.
Read more about Paco Calvo.
Find out more about Cluj Cultural Centre.
Image credit: Alexandra Pirici
"Sensing the Living, Promoting the Perception of Plants" hosted by Cultural Cluj Centre is part of the STUDIOTOPIA project supported by the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.