Locomotion applied to plants for Public Spaces
The previous chapter explored the possibilities of biosensing with plants. Partially, it reveals some methods for translating plant perceptions into electronic signals (e.g. “Pulsu(m) Plantae”). Movement and locomotion are always connected with perception [Ingensiep2001, page 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 results cast doubts on our philosophical classification of plants and animals. This topic has an enormous impact for our ethical consciousness. If we put plants and animals to an almost equal level, than we cannot destroy and treat plants like we used to do. It is important to have this background for understanding the ideas behind the listed artworks. Furthermore, I will focus on the locomotion capabilities of plants and less on their movement capabilities. The artistic expression related to movement and kinetic gestures were discussed in “3.1. Visualizing techniques with plants”.
In ancient times, Aristotle defined in his systematic treatise (Nicomachean Ethics) 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 with 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. Current philosophers and natural scientists sometimes question this philosophical concept. Especially, the distinction between plants and animals causes frequently classification problems. In the 19th century Gustav Theodor Fechner was fascinated about the adaptability of plants. It seems that plants could 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 because of the time lapse movie “Das Blumenwunder” (influenced by “Urformen der Kunst - Wundergarten der Natur” from Karl Blossfeld [Blossfeldt2014]). This movie made the plant’s growth and movement visible as nobody has seen before. 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 accepted scientific topics. Until 1973, the pseudo-scientific publication “The Secret Life of Plants” by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins 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” a comprehensive analysis about the history of plant soul [Ingensiep2001]. Furthermore, he articulated some new ethical questions, which will arise if we change our philosophical concept of plants. In the end, he did not give an answer if the plant soul exists or not. However 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” in 2012 and the “Symposium: Erkundung und Imagination - Naturverhältnisse in der Kunst” (2011).
Beside of this philosophical and theoretical problem, biologists have a more practical view on this topic. They investigate and describe the plant’s movement [BrKaNeSo2008, chapter 7 and part 4]. 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.
Most of the plant movement happens on the same location. Plants are able to arrange their leaves and bloom towards the sun and water. They even grow in this direction, which cannot be determined as locomotion, rather as movement.
Only one kind of plants makes this topic complicated. The Parasitic Plants use other plants to live on them. Especially, the well-researched Cuscuta plant strongly questions the ability of locomotion. The Cuscuta is able to search for a host by moving. If it found one, it consumes the nutrient of the host through a sort of biting. Their previous connection to the soil (their starting point) will be abandoned and dies slowly. A time lapse video reveals nicely how the Cuscuta functions.
Aside from this special kind of plants, plant locomotion exists mostly over generations. The same plant cannot change its location, but their descendants - in form of seeds - can move even through whole landscapes. Plants developed a wide range of different approaches for fulfilling their need of locomotion. They 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, evenplants can reach other continents. Plant 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 four projects present the artists’ interpretation of Anthropochory. They have diverse range of approaches, which can be assigned to activism (Guerrilla Gardening), design, and art.
The “Living Necklace” (2007) by Paula Hayes [WiMaMe2010, pages 100-101] and Laura Beloff’s artwork “A Unit” (2012) [BeBeHa2013] have the most direct interpretation of Anthropochory, which have been observed during our research. Both of them take on an approach of a wearable plant. This kind of artwork is definitely a speculation about our future human-plant relationship. Susanne Witzgall criticised the artist’s methods. According to her, the plants have been enslaved and the parasitic attribute is designed in an imbalance relationship to its host [WiMaMe2010, pages 63-65]. From an ecological and sustainable point of view Susannne Witzgall might be correct with her critic, nevertheless the artworks still fulfil their function of emphasizing the relationship between a human and a plant.
Akiko Takahashi applied the ancient Japanese tradition Tsurishinobu to contemporary product design. She designed an aesthetical portable pot for plants. Her “Mobile Garden” (2011) 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 improves our environment in aesthetical and in food delivery aspects.
The project “Fahrende Gärten” (2012) extends the idea of the “Mobile Garden”. Theresa Weinelt placed seven supermarket trolleys with different plants around the cityscape of Kiel. The project holds some similar mobile design attributes to the artwork “Wheelbarrows of Progress – Tropical Rainforest Preserves” (1990) by Mark Dion and William Schefferine [Nemitz2000, pages 44-45]. This mobile design is characterized by its unknown location of the garden. The “Fahrende Gärten” project solved this problem very smartly. The inhabitants could visit a special Facebook Group where the locations of the trolleys have been stored. After checking the location online, they could go to the garden and upkeep it. Afterwards, they could relocate the trolley somewhere else 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.
The biggest version of a mobile garden is developed by Oliver Bishop-Young. His installations “Skip Conversions” (since 2008) use construction waste containers for the mobile garden [WiMaMe2010, pages 56-57]. The advantages of this approach is obvious, a common truck can place the garden everywhere within an urban environment. The gardening design ranges from a beauty approach to a relaxing environment, where people can rest and talk surrounded by a little piece of nature and plants.
Body extensions through electronics, sensors and motors
Some Artists are motivated by our associated idea that plants cannot really change its location. They want to extend the plant’s abilites to perceive and react on new circumstances of an environment. Kenneth E. Rinaldo is one of the pioneers in this field. He connects organic with electro-mechanical elements [Whitelaw2006, pp. 109]. His artwork “Emergent Systems” (2002) uses natural materials, like branches, for his organic behaviour driven robotic installations. His idea of interspecies communication robots got more advanced over the years. Locomotion was one of his artistic expressions to present his concept. The installation “Augmented Fish Reality” (2004) demonstrated the interactions between these two systems [Ars2004]. All his artworks are related to his concerns about our ecology issues we are faced with nowadays. Therefore he tries to solve these problems with various robotic approaches. He is not the only one in the artistic field, who wants to improve the life of our various species through robotics.
Fujihata Masaki and Dogane Yuji also think that locomotion is an appropriate answer to establish better conditions for a plant's health. Their artwork “Botanical Ambulation Training” (2007) measures plant signals and interpret these signals into movements [ICC2007]. The new location and the new alignment of the plants are supposed to serve the plants growth and health. Furthermore, this artwork and some of the next following artworks address the mentioned philosophical issue with plants intentionally.
One of these exemplary projects was created by the artistit Ivan Henriques. His implementation of “Jurema Action Plant” (2011) expresses the idea of an autonomous plant robot fairly well. His self-described BioMachine has a water reservoir and more importantly it uses the approach of biosensing [Koechlin2008, 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 subject of consciousness inside a plant. Therefore, he established a procedure of transferring the question of plant soul in an interactive art context.
This question of consciousness becomes uncanny if we investigate the Japanese research project “PotPet” [AyKoKeSi2010]. “PotPet” (2010-2011) is a flowerpot robot, which imitates the behaviour of a pet. The robot performs three different behaviours. It searches for the appropriate sunny location, which is not too much or too less sunny. Secondly, the robot asks for water. This demand is expressed by driving abruptly back and forward to gain the person’s attention. Thirdly, if the “PotPet” gets water from a human or from the rain, it rotates around its own axis for communicating joy. The motives of this project was less philosophical than entertainment oriented. The researcher`s intentions was to create an autonomous behaviour for more effectively plant growth and a better entertainment between humans and plants.
The motivation of creating an autonomous behaviour was also important for Gilberto Esparza. His robot “Plantas Nómadas” (2008-2013) 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 in Gilberto Esparza’s concept includes the additional plant ability “purification”. Beyond that, he questions our consciousness and interaction with plants like Ivan Henriques does.
The installation “The dream of flying” (2013) by Chiara Esposito illustrates activity levels of a plant and it imagined desire of flying. An electronic circuit measures the plant signals and a computer program commands the quadrocopter 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 any other flying behaviour.
The introduced projects prove that it is possible to apply locomotion to plants. Even more it reveals that locomotion, as a design approach, has a special impact on environmental and social design.
The Anthropochory oriented concepts suggest ideas how social interactions in a neighbourhood or in an urban environment can be created. Furthermore, these projects present an effective way how people are engaged to perform nice gestures to each other. The exchanged objects are not dead objects. They are living organisms, which can enhance the aesthetics of an environment. In the best case they even improve the food delivery infrastructure in small scales. These arguments prove their sustainable character for the society.
The robotic / drone projects are much more philosophical oriented. The movie “Das Blumenwunder” (1926) visualized the plant movements in a way that could not have experienced before. The described robotic plant projects took on this role and developed the artistic approaches for perceiving the omnipresence of the human plant relationship in a strong emotional experience. Furthermore, these projects revealed our current cultural disconnection from plants and nature in general.
In my opinion, this last aspect is very important. It suggests solutions how people can be connected with plants again. In addition, it presents approaches how people, plants and technology are harmonically combined.
[Nemitz2000] Nemitz, Barbara (2000). trans plant. Living Vegetation in Contemporary Art. Hatje Cantz, 2000.
[Ingensiep2001] Ingensiep, Hans Werner (2001). Geschichte der Pflanzenseele. Kröner, 2001.
[Ars2004] Stocker, Gerfried; Schöpf, Christine (2004). Ars Electronica 2004 - Time shift: The World in Twenty-Five Years, Hatje Cantz, 2005.
[Whitelaw2006] Whitelaw, Mitchell (2006). Metacreation: Art and Artificial Life. MIT Press, 2006.
[ICC2007] NTT InterCommunication Center (2007). Silent Dialogue. ICC, 2007.
[BrKaNeSo2008] Andreas Bresinsky, Christian Körner, Joachim W. Kadereit, G. Neuhaus, Uwe Sonnewald (2008). Strasburger - Lehrbuch der Botanik. Springer Spektrum Akademischer, 2008.
[Koechlin2008] Koechlin, Florianne (2008). PflanzenPalaver - Belauschte Geheimnisse der botanischen Welt, Lenos Verlag, 2008.
[WiMaMe2010] Witzgall, Susanne; Matzner, Florian; Meder, Iris (2010). (Re)Designing Nature - Aktuelle Positionen der Naturgestaltung in Kunst und Landschaftsarchitektur. Hatje Cantz, 2010.
[AyKoKeSi2010] 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.
[Chamovitz2013] Chamovitz, Daniel (2013). What a plant knows. Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giro, 2013.
[BeBeHa2013] Laura Beloff, Erich Berger and Terike Haapoja (2013). Field_Notes – From Landscape to Laboratory. Finnish Society of Bioart, 2013
[Blossfeldt2014] Blossfeldt, Karl (1928/1932). Urformen der Kunst. Wundergarten der Natur: Das fotografische Werk in einem Band. Schirmer/Mosel, 2014.