Public Intervention with plants: “Travelling Plants”
The previous chapter described the artwork “Season Patterns”, which captured natural environmental changes. The interactive relationship only existed between the artist and his surrounding natural environment. In contrast to that, the collaboration project “Travelling Plants” with Juliane Springsguth created a direct interactive relationship between plants and humans as well as between humans and humans.
The interaction between humans and plants intended to improve the human well-being. This improvement was applied in an urban context, where the daily life is characterized by stress and appointments [Shoemaker2002, page 140]. Public transport as a public space is a location where people have the time to rest, although the environment does not provide a relaxing friendly atmosphere. Under these circumstances, a setting with plants has the ability to transform a stressful mood to a relaxing state of mind more easily [Shoemaker2002, pp. 181]. The famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted assigned plants a healing power for the human mind [Flagler1994, page 232].
In relation to the relaxing effect of plants, the public intervention project “Travelling Plants” placed a various set of plants inside a Berlin’s S-Bahn wagon. 33 plants created a more visual appealing environment inside this public space. Moreover, the plants were hanged on grabpoles. They provided the plants an arm long distance to the sitting people. This distance was perfect, because the commuter did not get annoyed by the plants, for example when they were not interested in the project. When an interest existed, they could grab the plants easily by stretching their arm. The plants beautified the S-Bahn environment and even more they provided some very basic food (e.g. basil and mint) to the passengers. These conditions helped to transition from a stressful to a relaxed mood. In addition to that, the project induced the curiosity of passengers. On the plant pots were desciptions attached. This informational approach directed people’s attention towards plants and might have an educational impact on them. Especially, the uncommon place for plants in the S-Bahn should encourage people to think more about plants and their importance in our daily life.
Another motivation of this project was to establish a friendly atmosphere for interactions between the S-Bahn passengers. The curiosity and the surprise effect of the public intervention “Travelling Plants” was supposed to stimulate conversation or eye contact between the commuters. The intention was to explore the pragmatic usage of plants as a medium for linking people to each other.
Furthermore, the plants had an attached paper with a call for documenting the plants journey digitally. The passengers were invited to take the plants with them and to send their personal travel documentation via email. This experiment was supposed to explore the plant capabilities as a connector between people and a website. The project investigated if people will stay in contact with project’s website and if they talk afterwards about it in online communities. For tracking this kind of communication the micro blogging tool “tumblr” was used.
Locomotion as a philosophical and ecologic motivation
The chapter “3.3. Locomotion applied to Plants for Public Spaces” on page 73 already described the relationship between locomotion and plants in a philosophical and botanical context. Nevertheless, the combination of locomotion, plants and urban environments has its own mechanism. An urban environment does not provide the natural forces water and wind as it exists in natural surroundings (e.g. forest). Additionally, urban settings do not host many animals. Even the diversity of animals within a city is very limited. Therefore, the ecology of cities does not provide the best conditions for mutualism. From a sustainable or natural oriented point of view this condition is a problem. Plants are not able to distribute their seeds efficiently in an urban environment. The project “Travelling Plants” addresses this problem and enables plants to hitchhike through an urban environment. The S-Bahn is used as a carrier for travelling large distances within the city. Inside the S-Bahn, humans take the plants with them and place them somewhere else, or they give the plant to someone else, as it is encouraged on the describtion on each “Travelling Plant” unit. The people gets a positive emotion in return. This positive emotion is caused the activity of beautifying an environment or to show another person the appreciation through the giving. In a holistic view this suggested process presents a valid approach of mutualism and Anthropochory within an urban environment.
Susanne Witzgall describes and critics the parasitical and symbiotic strategies with plants in the urban design context [WiMaMe2010, pp. 52]. In her opinion the relationship between the host and the parasite (in our case the “Travelling Plant” unit) is very fragile. This relationship is stable when the effects on the host (in our case the passengers and the S-Bahn wagon) is minor. If the negative effect is too big the relationship between the host and even the environment gets disturbed. The already introduced artworks “Living Necklace” (2007) by Paula Hayes and “A unit” (2013) by Laura Beloff are drastic approaches of Anthropochory. Susanne Witzgall describes the attached plant pot on a human body as an extreme way of parasitism [WiMaMe2010, page 65]. The “Travelling Plant” project shared her concerns and therefore the project weakened the approach of Anthropochory through the idea of the “Mobile Garden” (2011-2013) by Akiko Takahashi. This idea of a mobile version of a plant were extended with an additional call that informs the passenger about the plant’s desire to travel.
The upcycling method
The “Travelling Plants” project wants to improve the environment and it can only be improved for mid to long terms by sustainable techniques. Upcycling is one of these sustainable methods. In contrast of recycling, the upcycling approach put waste products together to create a new object. Many waste products were available for this project, therefore the upcycling approach were chosen as the appropriate sustainable method. Old PET bottles were utilized for the plant pot. After adding some additional holes for the plant branches and leaves, the half of the bottle were painted white. It is very important to paint them, because in summer the sun heats up the dark soil too much. This problem occurred during another Guerrilla Gardening project “Wurfplanze” in the summer 2012. The leftover wool threads from another art project were used for the connection between the bottleneck and the self-made hooks. The material for hooks were taken from disposable coat hangers. Three to five hooks could be created from on coat hanger. The hooks were bent in a suitable shape with a plier. Most of the plants were created from self-made cuttings.
Chronicle process of “Travelling Plants”
From February to July a mix of useful plants and some common robust indoor plants were culitvated and maintained. The useful plants were basil, mint, and lavender and the indoor plants were the spider plant and the ivy. While the plants grew, 33 “Travelling Plant” units were built as it was described above.
Many journeys around Berlin were done for finding the most suitable public line through the city. The S7 from Wannsee to Ahrensfelde was the appropriate one. This line starts outside from Berlin and goes through the whole inner city and it is one of most frequented lines in Berlin. Furthermore, the condition at the start station at Wannsee allowed to prepare the intervention and place easily the plants inside the train without the presence of many passengers.
After the plants were fixed in the S-Bahn, the documentation of their travel and the reactions of the people were monitored. The following days the photos and the whole project were documented on a tumblr page. Moreover, the received emails from the S-Bahn passengers were published later on the tumblr page as well.
Findings and results of the public intervention project “Travelling Plants”
The preparation of this project was well done. The idea of building homemade hooks was very good, because the hook sizes could adapted exactly on the size of the grabpoles. That condition was perfect for arranging the plants in the S-Bahn and for the passengers to take the plants with them.
The people reactions on the plants were very positive and caused curiosity. Even a few that did not know each other before started talking together about the project. Furthermore, several plants were taken by the people, only the plants with the English description were not so appealing for the passengers.
The digital documentation of this project got some attention from other local Berlin tumblr blogs. Three of them reposted our project on their blog with positive comments like “Wie viel schöner die S-Bahn aussieht mit etwas Grün aussieht” by the Walking in Berlin blog and “things like this are what make Berlin so amazing” by MY LIFE IN DENGLISH blog. Unfortunately, the e-mail feedback was minor. It might be related to the underscore character in the email address, which is not very easy to type on a mobile phone. Moreover, not every person has an e-mail client installed on the smartphone. A solution with a QR-Code as a linkage to a website, where the people can upload their travelling photos with the plants would be more user friendly.
In the end, all involved members of the public intervention project had a lot of fun and experienced a feeling of happiness during the making. Beyond our own emotions, the people’s reactions met our expectations and were overall positive. In that relation, this project was evidence to us that plants can be used as medium or linkage for human interactions. As a result, we want to perform the project “Travelling Plants” in the future again, e.g. in train connections between different cities, and with a more user friendly implementation of the digital communication technology. Moreover, this project was a driving motivation for embedding data direct to a plant’s body as it is realized it in the next project “Dead Tree Drops”.
Photo Documentation by Louise Markise and Florian Feigenbutz
[Flagler1994] Flagler, J. & Poincelot, R., (1994). People-plant relationships: setting research priorities. Food Products Press, 1994.
[Shoemaker2002] Shoemaker, C. A. (2002). Interaction by Design: Bringing People and Plants Together for Health and Well Being. John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
[WiMaMe2010] Witzgall, Susanne; Matzner, Florian; Meder, Iris (2010). (Re)Designing Nature - Aktuelle Positionen der Naturgestaltung in Kunst und Landschaftsarchitektur. Hatje Cantz, 2010.