Something very strange is currently growing in Midtown Manhattan: a small, subterranean field of lavender, whose livelihood depends largely on the viral power of Donald Trump’s words. You can sense it’s there even before you glimpse the 200 verdant shrubs, set in six rows: the sweet fragrance they release is overpowering, and reaches your nose from a distance.
The urban garden, surrounded by an artificial forest printed on wallpaper, was installed by artist Martin Roth for his exhibition in the basement of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York. Like all his former projects, it carries a literal title: In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. What it’s “nurtured” by, however, many usually find toxic.
Using a Raspberry Pi, Roth has synced grow lights on the small room’s ceiling so the strength of their bulbs corresponds with the activities of nearly two dozen Twitter accounts. Most belong to people in President Trump’s closest circle: feeds included along with @POTUS and @realDonaldTrump are those of Press Secretary Sean Spicer and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. Other accounts represent the mainstream media, from CNN to Fox News. When any of these accounts retweets a tweet, the grow lights brighten, increasing in power if there’s a flurry of retweets; lack of activity, accordingly, results in darkness.
With all of this curious wiring, Roth intends to create a sort of underground retreat that transforms our media-born anxieties into something therapeutic. Lavender has long been used to soothe the mind and encourage better sleep in addition to healing physical wounds; the more these select politicians and pundits fire tweets, the stronger the scent to the installation’s visitors. Of course, not all retweets will relate to Trump, but many of them likely will, considering the fact that controversies are currently flowing out the White House.
Roth’s particular network of accounts also makes us consider the unprecedented role of Twitter as the President’s main mouthpiece as well as Trump’s unabashed bias for and against specific media outlets, which anyone may watch play out on Twitter. Trump often retweets himself while the White House may retweet him; Conway may retweet Fox News; and many media outlets often retweet their own tweets, which scatters more news about Trump’s administration on their readers’ timelines.
Knowing this, then, may deliver more anxiety to the field’s visitors, who can see and smell traces of high Twitter activity but remain in the dark about what exactly is being said online. But whether or not visitors read Roth’s description of his project, the lavender field still unsettles more than it calms. The overhead lights flicker, which is never a good sign, as countless movies have illustrated. The windowless, concrete space is also claustrophobic and reminds of a doomsday bunker. That illusion is made stronger because of the wallpaper, which shows sunlight streaming through trees, like the sad reminders of nature that actually do adorn the interiors of millionaires’ doomsday bunkers.
This artificiality was intentional: Roth searched online for images of “enchanted forest” and created a wallpaper of one of these fantastical visions. The room is thus one of incredibly deliberate simulations, whether visible or not, and it questions what “self-care” means these days. Are our acts of buying candles and soothing oils becoming meaningless excuses to drive ourselves into complacency as we avoid the stream of bad news? Roth translates our social debris into unexpected life that gradually grows, but in the end, this field is only temporary, as is any of its calming effect. How we then move on relies on our own agency.
In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets continues at Austrian Cultural Forum New York (11 East 52nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 21.