Locomotion applied to Plants for Public Spaces (old)
The previous chapter "Can plants be music instruments" explored the possibilities of Biosensing with plants. Partially, it reveals some approaches how to translate plant perceptions into electronic signals (e.g. Pulsum Plantae). Movement and locomotion are always connected with perception [Ingensiep2001, p.303; Chamovitz2013, pp. 15] . The perception signal and the movement abilities of a living organism define how the movement will be performed. This interaction has an explosive power in philosophy. These two abilities (perception and movement) determine the differences between plants and animals. More or less, the latest scientific findings reveal that plants are able to perceive their environment and react on these circumstances [Chamovitz2013]. These findings cast doubts on our philosophical classification of plants and animals. This topic has an enormous scope for our ethical consciousness. If we put plants and animal to an almost equal level, than we can't destroy and treat plants like we used to do. It is important to have this background for understanding the ideas behind the below listed artworks. Furthermore, I will focus on the locomotion capabilities of plants and less on their movement capabilities. The artistical expression related to movement were already discussed before.
In ancient times, Aristotle defined in his systematic treatise (Nicomachean Ethics) on the nature of soul and their hierarchical system. Every living organism has at least one soul [Koechlin, pp. 132-135, 199], the vegative Soul. Plants have this soul, which provides them the power of growth, nutrition, and reproduction. Every animal has this soul, as well, and they hold additionally the sensitive soul. The sensitive soul has the power of perception and locomotion. The rational soul (logismos kai dianoia) is only assigned for humans. In this relation, humans own the power of reason and thought [Ingensiep2001, page 600].
This ancient philosophical concept has still a fundamental impact on our scientific classification of living organisms. Philosophers and natural scientists sometimes question this philosophical concept. Especially, the distinction between plants and animal causes frequently classification problems. In 19th century Gustav Theodor Fechner was fascinated about the adaptability of plants. It seems plants can perceive their environment like animals and humans do. They even developed their own system to react on these conditions. This kind of plant movement was one important point for his treatise on plant soul, which he published as a book "Nanna, oder, Über das Seelenleben der Pflanzen (1848)". In 1926, this controversial topic gained more attention becaus of the time lapse movie "Das Blumenwunder" (influenced by Urformen der Kunst - Wundergarten der Natur from Karl Blossfeld | Photos). This movie made the plant's growth and movement visible as nobody has seen before (e.g. Part 1, 2, 3). It transferred the controversial plant soul from an intellectual society to a broader one. The people perceived that plants have a different tempo than humans do. At this time, plant soul and plant perception were an accepted scientific topic. Until the 1970s, pseudo-scientific publications (e.g. The Secret Life of Plants) and esoteric movements abused this topic for gathering more attentions for their own controversial interests.
Today, the philosopher Hans Werner Ingensiep is trying to establish a new scientific discussion about the philosophical idea of plant soul. He presented in his book "Geschichte der Pflanzenseele" (recession) a comprehensive analysis about the history of plant soul. Furthermore, he articulated some new ethical question, which will arise if we change our philosophical concept of plants. In the end, he didn't give an answer if the plant soul exists or not. But he brought this topic back to an adequate scientific level.
Fortunately, art provides a safe space for discussing exactly these kinds of questions. For instance, these events discussed the topic very well: MutaMorphosis - Vegetal Sensoria (check: Monika Bakke about Plant Rights) and Symposium: Erkundung und Imagination - Naturverhältnisse in der Kunst.
Beside of this philosophical and theoretical problem, biologists have a more practical approach on this topic. They investigate and describe the plant's movement. Their results and classifications are more practical oriented than the theoretical philosophical approach. It is important to understand these correlations, because they are perceivable in the next coming artworks.
The most plant movement happens on the same location. Plants are able to arrange their leaves and bloom towards the sun and water. They can even grow in this direction, which can't be determined as locomotion, but it can be determined as movement.
Only one kind of plants makes this topic complicated again. The Parasitic Plants use other plants to live on them. Especially, the well-researched plant Cuscuta strongly questions the ability of locomotion. The Cuscuta is able to search for a host by moving. If it found some then it consumes the nutrient of the host through sort of biting the host. Their previous connection to the soil (their starting point) will be abandoned and dies slowly. The time lapse video reveals nicely how the Cuscuta works.
Aside from this special kind of plants, plant locomotion exists mostly over generations. The same plant can't change its location, but their descendants - in form of seeds - can travel even through whole landscapes. Plants developed a wide range of different approaches for fulfilling their need of locomotion. They can travel through air (wind) and water, which is called Allochory. Animals (Zoochorie) and humans (Anthropochory/Hemerochorie) are favoured hitchhikers, too. Since the humans are able to travel big distances, plants can even reach other continents. Imports of plants are a very common procedure in our culture. The best example for this fact is the potato import to Europe.
The Humans (Anthropochory) are a critical locomotion factor for plants. The next introduced projects present approaches how Anthropochory can be applied for environmental and social design.
Anthropochory in context of Activism, Public Intervention, Design and Art
The next 4 projects present their personal interpretation of Anthropochory. They have diverse range of approaches, which can be assigned to Activism (Guerrilla Gardening), Design, and Art.
Laura Beloff's artwork "A Unit" has the most direct interpretation of Anthropochory, which I ever have seen. She developed an approach of a wearable garden. This kind of artwork is definitive a speculation about our future human-nature relationship.
Akiko Takahashi applied the very old Japanese tradition "Tsurishinobu" to contemporary Product Design (article). She designed an aesthetical portable pot for plants. Her "Mobile Garden" can be placed everywhere and is suited perfectly as a gift. For this reason, her design establishes a very easy human to human interaction through a plant. Additionally, the mobile garden can improve our environment in aesthetical and food delivery aspects.
The same aspects are true for the public intervention "Travelling Plants". Plants inside upcycled PET bottles were placed inside a S-Bahn wagon in Berlin. The plant's journey began at the station Berlin-Wannsee and travelled through the inner city of Berlin. The people were encouraged with a note to take the plants to their home or just place them at another place in Berlin. The people's reactions were very positive and they took the most plants with them. Even more, they followed the instructions of the note and documented their journey with the plants.
The project "Fahrende Gärten" extends the idea of the Mobile Garden and Travelling Plants. Some supermarket trolleys with different plants were placed in Kiel. The inhabitants can visit a special Facebook Group where the locations of the "Fahrende Gärten" were stored. They could go to the garden and upkeep it. Afterwards, they could relocate the trolley somewhere in Kiel. This project is a nice example how inhabitants in a neighbourhood can be connected to each other. Furthermore, it emphasizes the feeling for an individual being a part of a society.
Body extensions through electronics, sensors and motors
Some Artists are motivated by our associated idea that plants can't really change its location. They want to extend the plant's ability to perceive and react on the circumstances of an environment. Locomotion is their answer to establish better conditions for plant health. Some of these chosen artworks address the philosophical issue with plants intentionally (e.g. Jurema Action Plant) and some not (e.g. PotPet). Furthermore, it is an exploration how humans will react on plants, when they behave animal-like.
The installation "The dream of flying" (video) by Chiara Esposito illustrates activity level of a plant. An electronic circuit measures the plant signals and a computer program controls the drone. The result provides the impression that the plant accepts this body extension and is able to control it. The performance behaviour resembles a bird or fly behaviour.
The artist Stephen Verstraete implemented the "Plant Host Drone" (video). The drone is able to search sunny places and drives the plant to this place. The reception of light is realized with photo resistors and the obstacle recognition is based on two collision switches (see instructions). A computer program analysis the signals and tries to find an appropriate location for the plant.
The "Plant Host Drone" is already close to an autonomous system. Ivan Henriques implementation of "Jurema Action Plant" (video) comes this idea even closer. His self-described BioMachine has a water reservoir and more importantly it uses the approach of BioSensing (Koechlin, page 55) for collision detection. He integrated the plant Mimosa Pudica into his machine and measures the Action Potential of the plant when it is touched. If the plant is touched, the leaf will be rearranged and the machine drives away. These two behaviours are very animal-like. In his concept he connects this directly with the question of consciousness inside the plant. He transferred the question of plant soul in an interactive art context.
This question of consciousness becomes uncanny if we investigate the Japanese research project "PotPet" (paper). PotPet is a flowerpot robot, which imitate the behaviour of a pet. The robot can perform three different behaviours. It searches for the appropriate sunny location, which is not too much or too less sunny. Secondly, the plant robot can demand for water. This demand is expressed by driving abruptly back and forward to gain the person's attention. At last, if the PotPet gets water from a human or just from rain, it rotates around its own axis for communicating pleasure. The intention of this project was less philosophical than entertainment oriented. The researches intentions were to create an autonomous behaviour for more effectively plant growth and a better entertainment between human and plants.
The motivation of creating an autonomous behaviour was also important for Gilberto Esparza. His robot "Plantas Nómadas" combines a group of living organisms. Plants are a part of this group. The robot is able to gather water and the living organisms purify chemical pollutants and waste. Therefore, the robot and Gilberto Esparza's concept includes the additional plant ability "purification". Beyond that, he questions our consciousness and interaction with plants like Ivan Henriques, too.
The introduced projects prove that it is possible to apply locomotion to plants. Even more it reveals that locomotion, as Design approach, has a special impact on Environmental and Social Design.
The anthropochory oriented projects suggest ideas how social interactions in a neighbourhood or in an urban environment can be created. Furthermore, these projects presents an effective way how people can be engaged to perform nice gestures to each other. The exchanged objects are not dead objects. They are a living organism, which can improve the aesthetics of an environment. In the best case they can even improve the food delivery infrastructure a little bit. These points prove their sustainable character for the society.
The robotic / drone projects are much more philosophical oriented. The movie "Das Blumenwunder" visualized the plant movements as the humans never could experience it before. The mentioned robotic plant projects took on this role and developed it to the next step. These projects created an experience about our current disconnection from plants and nature.
In my opinion, this last point is very important, because it presents in an obvious style how to connect people with plants again. Moreover, it presents how people, plants and technology can be harmonically combined.
- Ingensiep2001: Ingensiep, Hans Werner. Geschichte der Pflanzenseele. Kröner, 2001
- Koechlin: Koechlin, Florianne. PflanzenPalaver - Belauschte Geheimnisse der botanischen Welt, Lenos Verlag, 2008
- Chamovitz2013: Chamovitz, Daniel. What a plant knows. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giro, 2013
- Ayumi Kawakami, Koji Tsukada, Keisuke Kambara, and Itiro Siio. 2010. PotPet: pet-like flowerpot robot. In Proceedings of the fifth international conference on Tangible, embedded, and embodied interaction (TEI '11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 263-264.