In the last few years, the humanities have seen a marked shift in interest towards nonhuman forms of intelligence. The recent “vegetal turn” in eco-philosophy and curatorial practice, for example, attempts to recognize the central but overlooked cultural and ecological presence of plants and to find imaginative ways of engaging with them. The upcoming exhibition The Botanical Mind: Art, Mysticism and the Cosmic Tree at Camden Art Centre, London, looks likely to be a high point on this trajectory towards using creativity and criticality to reveal and correct a modern tendency towards what scientist Monica Gagliano has called “plant blindness.”
The show was scheduled to open in mid-April, but when the ongoing coronavirus pandemic caused its postponement the Camden Art Centre team worked to create alternative ways of accessing the ideas and imagery touched on in the exhibition. The result is The Botanical Mind Online, a dedicated website exploring the key themes of the exhibition combined with new commissions by artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers.
The Botanical Mind Online opens with an introductory video narrated by curators Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark, offering an impressively succinct summary of the project’s journey through a series of complexly interconnected topics including plant intelligence, patterns and geometry, music and harmony, psychedelia, and the notion of the tree as an “axis mundi.” Together, they suggest, these aspects point to “an encoded intelligence in the patterns of nature” — a botanical mind.
The online platform draws on perspectives that offer alternatives to Western rationalism: outsider artists and philosophers, Indigenous cultures from the Amazon rainforest, and recent investigations into plant sentience. As such, it hints that an understanding of the vegetal can help to challenge the destructive dualistic divides that characterize much Western post-Enlightenment thought.
Moreover, The Botanical Mind is a laudable attempt to achieve what eco-philosopher Michael Marder describes as “encountering” plants on their own terms while maintaining a recognition of their radical alterity. This can be seen in Adam Chodzko’s new digital commission “O, you happy roots, branch and mediatrix” (2020). The film uses an algorithm to scan footage of a forest for ciphers — visual traces of a secret language created by the 12th Century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Chodzko has assigned the ciphers a sound from Hildegard’s choral compositions and uses them to spell out the names of plants both real and imagined. The website features a clip from the work which, in the curators’ words, “attempts to become an idea of botanical transformation — at once both a process and its experience.”
Elsewhere on the site, ideas and imagery are collected under a range of tantalizing headings, such as “Sacred Geometry,” “The Cosmic Tree,” and “Astrological Botany.” The chapter on “Indigenous Cosmologies” explains how the patterns found in nature are the basis of sacred geometries found in the visual cultures and music of Indigenous Amazonian communities, many of whom believe these patterns weave the universe together. There is a particular focus on the Yawanawá people, a group of whom Camden Art Centre had been working with to develop a new artwork for The Botanical Mind in collaboration with Delfina Muñoz de Toro, an indigenist, visual artist, and musician from Argentina. As the Yawanawá collaborators are currently self-isolating in their village (Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable to foreign diseases), The Botanical Mind Online presents artworks related to their community. These include two experimental ethnographic films and a series of atmospheric sound recordings by Priscilla Telmon & Vincent Moon, which are presented alongside photographs and musical compositions by Muňoz de Toro.
Meanwhile, the chapter on “Vegetal Ontology” picks up on the theme of patterning and applies it to the biological functions of plants. Gemma Anderson’s “Relational process drawings,” for example, are made in collaboration with a cellular biologist and a philosopher of science. They re-imagine the dynamic patterns of plant life by expressing the relationships between processes on molecular, cellular and organismal levels as musical compositions or dance choreographies.
Much has been made of recent research which shows that plants send each other electrical signals and nutrients through strands of symbiotic fungi, dubbed the “wood wide web.” The Botanical Mind Online effectively makes use of this parallel between plant communication and the internet, using the branching nonlinear structure of a hyperlinked website to subtly hint at plant forms and create a resource rich in multidirectional thought. “During this period of enforced stillness,” the curators argue, “our behavior might be seen to resonate with plants: like them we are now fixed in one place, subject to new rhythms of time, contemplation, personal growth and transformation.”
The Botanical Mind Online continues at www.botanicalmind.online/. The online platform and related upcoming exhibition at Camden Art Center, London, are curated by Gina Buenfeld and Martin Clark.
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