Part 3: PlanEt
One of the things which my colleagues and I in World Wilder Lab do is to try to understand signals coming from plants.We have constructed a device called PlanEt which in real time picks up action and variation potential (that is tiny voltages fired on cellular level inside plants – usually as a reaction to some sort of environmental stimuli). I am not a scientist. I am an artist with a very limited knowledge of plants physiology and chemistry. But we had that idea that perhaps if we take enough readings of those signals we might be able to decipher their meanings. And build a “Vocabulary of Plants” which will allow us to understand them better. Funnily enough when we have been showing our first work “Organic Cinema” all over the Europe, we have been approach by many of people hoping that plants really have got some sort of consciousness – that is consciousness as is understood by us – humans. Do they sense? Do they feel? Do they really recognise when one talks to them? According to some scientist (i.e. Daniel Chamovitz) – yes – but not in the way we do. We only can compare their responses to ours because it is easier for us to translate them and relate to them.
But back to those readings. We use technology to gain them. Technology is a mediator for us. Just like a Komba for Baka.
For last few months I set up one of our prototypes every night, connecting it to Orchids which I cultivate at my home and studio. Painstakingly I record readings and make graphs every 24 hours. I look at them and compare them to readings of my colleagues. I try to find something – a pattern – any kind of point of reference which will help to start understand what is going on inside a plant. Indeed – some things were already observed – like a way line of the graphs changes according to circadian clock. Or spikes happening after the plant is watered. But I feel that it is not enough and that it is very predictable and that still doesn’t reflect the real, complex, deep nature of plants.
In fact I feel like I am on Mars, dealing with an entirely new system of species, who defying all known to me understanding of the world. In fact it is worse that being on Mars – Mars is a sphere – so there is at least that point of reference to our beautiful Earth. I feel like I am on a new planet which shape is so abstract, I cannot even begun to walk backwards, not mentioning going forward. Being suspended in this abstraction might be a good thing – after all I am an artist and shall take an advantage of the “outside my comfort zone” opportunities and use my imagination to connect with it. And yes – that is what I try to do very hard – understand the plant talk, translate it for us/humans, so that we can have a meaningful dialogue with them. I dream about having a “babel fish” from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, which can translate any species’ language to something we can understand.
Still – in my limiting umwelt – I cannot imagine how we – urban dwellers – can adopt Morton’s or Latour’s concepts. I cannot stop but thinking about groups of residents walking with smartphones (instead of crowbars) or other tech devices, perhaps dressed up in tribal wearables, gathering around a group of trees to have a summit – discussing how we can co-exist together to mutual benefits. For example – one tree is complaining about the fact that it needs more PH soil. The communicator for the human tribes talks to the pigeon who is a transporter (a drone) to bring a sample of soil from another part of town. Or one particular human tribe is not happy with one tree whose roots started taking over a sewage system. That tree in returns complains that it didn’t get any grooming trim for ages (and well, it cannot do it by itself because it doesn’t have hands). The army of termites then are called to chew on the top branches, so that tree won’t need so many resources from the soil and the root will stop growing. In another part of the town there is a party for a lovely family of ferns. This area needs to be purify and ferns are known from their ability to absorb heavy metals from soil. This party will take a long time – at least few years – but in “plant time” it is like a few days. That “Plant time” causes some problems with communication however, sometimes we need to wait a long time for their answers. During the winter a lot of species will take a nap, leaving humans alone and cold. That is when humans need to hid in their bedrooms and put a heating on (hopefully from renewable sources) and take care of those who are asleep. Some lichen is still awake – plants are using it as internet to communicate – so emergency line is opened. Oh and pigeons. Those are also awake. But they are crucial in this new order for humans to survive. From now on each balcony has a pigeon couple. They are informants – patrolling areas for anything unusual and reporting that back to awake humans.
But that picture can only work if all of us (that is humans and non-humans) have an understanding about the importance of the living in a harmony and a role each of us play to safely navigate this planet. What if through our WWL device we find out that we, humans are not wanted? That everybody is fed up with us? And in fact there is coup in preparation to get rid of human species?
The fact is that we – humans – can be very easily wiped out from this planet. We are very weak part of Nature. It is perhaps why we need so many things to survive – architecture to keep us sheltered from elements, insanely big plantations to keep us all fed, various technologies to keep us warm or cool. For some reason we are still here – so we are somehow important enough in this interconnected mesh of species to keep this planet going. Perhaps we, although weak, have some mission to do. Wouldn’t that be amazing to find out that our role is not to sustain ourselves (as people), but it might something different all together? Imagine how that could radically change our perception on our position on here?
Perhaps I wish to find out something like that from plants through WWL PlanEt device. But one must not be biased. So while using technologies to as agency to understand plants, I cannot stop thinking that in Silicon Valley all tech gurus must put up with rummaging for food coyotes, raccoons, pumas, deers and snakes – species revolting against human expansion in this area, and I cannot understand why those clever engineers and computer scientists haven’t explore technologies which would help them to listen to those animals. At the same time I applaud an amazing initiative in Oslo – where a company called ByBi created a first ever highway for bees. Or WWF idea to use turtles with Go-Pro strapped to them in order to monitor the life of the reefs. In the meantime I will continue taking readings from my Orchids and even if I do not understand them yet, at least I look at them as my colleagues and possibly co-creators in some creative artistic mischiefs.