For the Love of Plants

Essi Kausalainen, Travelers, 2016, performance for Bildmuseet, Umeå.

Text and Image: Essi Kausalainen

Sometimes the things we are looking for appear in places and moments we least expect. One such case for me was meeting the researcher Uta Paszkowski of Cambridge University. When asking her, “What are your most important tools as a scientist?” the reply was immediate and intent: ”Imagination and gut feeling.” A warm flush waved through my chest. It is not that I needed a scientist to convince me of the importance of bodily knowledge, but rather, it was my own surprise that sparked me with joy: to find such a beautiful articulation of the body-mind in work — the alliance of the sensory and the rational — in this unexpected context of cutting edge plant biology.

Why does an artist reach out to a scientist to begin with? What is the push, the pull, the guiding force, the motivation? Moreover, why has it become incredibly popular for artists of all kinds to hook up with scientists?(1) There definitely are some shared interests and drives – and worries – as there are individual aspirations and personal reasons. My own motives for collaborating with scientists are similar: at the same time they are very personal and selfish, and profoundly ethical and coercive. And, they have their own complex problematics, too. Unlike many of my artist colleagues, I am not attracted to the looks and doings of all the scientific gadgets, nor am I drawn into the magic of the lab. I have never felt the need to collaborate with a scientist to be able to make my own science. What I am looking for is a companion in dialogue. A companion who helps me to stretch my thinking and to understand its limitations, who helps me to develop a practice where the bodily, sense-based knowledge can be supported and extended by other ways of knowing. The reason why our exchange succeeds in this, does not lie in the difference in the sensitivities nor the materialities of these practices, but in the differences in our ways of articulating our observations.

My ongoing collaboration with plant biologist Matthew Robson started in 2013. And, in the beginning there was a crisis, as there so often is before something interesting starts to happen. I turned to science at a point where I was a bit lost with my practice as an artist. Where, after a period of deep frustration and exhaustion, the work had finally taken a turn into an unknown territory leaving me somewhat perplexed. I wasn’t looking for a guide, as that place was already taken by a plant. I was looking for a translator, someone with a different language and approach who could help me to articulate my ideas.

The plant-guide had possessed me several years earlier. I can still trace back to the moment of realization which turned the delicate asparagus plant(3) dancing in the currents of air on my window sill form a decorative ’thing’ into a living body. It was the moment when I embodied the fact that I was looking at somebody instead of something. Although this insight was a profound one, I still couldn’t see how dramatically it would change everything: my practice as an artist, my worldview and my being with the world.

Our collaboration started immediately, although slowly and tentatively, as I started to explore ways to perform with this plant body. (And later on with other plant bodies, too.) From the very beginning this was not just a professional relationship as it was stained all over by my dangerous desires and love. The moment I saw the plant as a being I fell in love. (Anyone who has met me, even briefly, has quickly learned about my fascination towards the vegetal world.) I love plants in all the ways a human body is capable to love, and as anyone under the spell of passion, I am not shy to share it. Refusing to stick to the platonic level, challenging my intellectual and emotional capacities to their utmost, our relationship is also material and the most sensual one. And, as with all relationships, it has its problems which are not minor because ours is in no description equal.

The vegetal kingdom doesn’t care much about me, and yet it does in its own, particular way. Although plants are very much aware of my presence, for them I am just a part of the environment, a complex system releasing a chemical mixture of gasses and warmth in their proximity like any other animal or a non-relative plant. A potential threat maybe (depending on the plant), but otherwise nothing special.(4) This makes me love them even more. Although I do offer a few of my plant companions(5) a place to live, and take care of their basic needs of nutrition and light, they always manage to surpass my offerings by giving me gifts I cannot equate. Plants not only teach me how to become human, but they also nourish my body: I breathe, eat and drink them. I live and I think with them, and I work with them. And quite often I actually feel they are doing the work for me: they fill me with strange ideas and with joy that carries the whole practice(6).

For some years, I felt happy to rely my practice on our quiet exchange. Plants helped me to develop an active practice of observing and listening – the most crucial skill in understanding their needs and desires. Yet, when their complexity and sensitivity started to reveal itself to me in its vastness, I realized the only responsible thing to do would be to learn more about them. More than my own senses could teach me, especially as the gaze of the one in love is so often a distorted one. (Although love surely equips one with great capacities, seeing clearly and objectively is unfortunately not one of them.) In my respect towards the plant bodies I felt the need to turn towards the world of science: I needed a trustworthy interpreter to help me reflect upon my observations and thoughts. I was also looking for ways to change my unsustainable work habits: to rebuild the practice that had lost its joy and worn me out. I thought that somehow a dialogue with scientific practice (instead of another artistic one) could help me in this, and it did.

During the first five minutes of my visit to plant biologist Matthew Robson, in Viikki Biocentre, I knew I was on the right track. Listening to him patiently explain the plant basics from their sensing capacity to the controversies of the concept of plant intelligence, I felt my mind stretch, just as it had stretched when thinking with plants. Although I had read about these things in books, I was now able to question and to compare, to open a conversation about all the different sources and opinions and emphases.(7) With the help of my plant companions I had already learned to trust complexity. As the language of plant biology is in many ways different from the one of art or philosophy, it felt like a voice not to be missed. Not least because of the hegemony of science in our culture. Nor for the fact that science can help us understand – and therefore to appreciate the queerness of our world, including our own body-minds.

This ongoing dialogue with plant biology, together with my collaboration with plant beings, has changed my practice in many ways, and it has changed it for good. With the help of plants I am constantly learning new things. Most importantly, I am learning to respect our sensitivities and to enjoy. My work has opened into diverse collaborations, and I very rarely make any of my works alone anymore. In addition to plants, these collaborators are mainly humans and other animals from different backgrounds carrying different histories in their bodies. Actually, since the scientist (the voice of science) was added into the dialogue, the physical plant bodies started to disappear from my work. They are still here with me, it is just that they are now playing a more important role in the process of making a work than in the end result. There are many reasons for this. For one, plant bodies are extremely sensitive beings and not all of them enjoy the performance or exhibition settings (although some seem to do so tremendously)(8). Secondly, there is the risk of falling into representationalism, the problem of the plant body being seen as an (art) object instead of a performer. How to avoid that? (Especially as since around 2012 plants seemed to be a part of every other installation piece everywhere.) Since house plants are bred in an industrial scale to be sold cheaply as interior decoration, as disposables, the problems are manifold. I do still occasionally involve living plant beings in my performances and installations, but with much more care. Instead, I am interested in exploring the performativity of our bodies.(9) I am interested in performing the plant logic(10) and by doing so, gaining new knowledge on them and on myself. In my most recent works the focus has slowly shifted from the process within the plant body towards larger ecosystems. Observing a plant being in its active and complex relationship with its environment I am looking for possible ways of becoming with, a process that some might also refer as symbiogenesis, co-evolution, involution, interaction, inter being or intra-action.(11)

The dialogues with Matthew and Uta have also made me think of the questions of language, of communication and of power imbedded in them. How to talk with a plant? How to talk with a scientist? How to talk with a fellow artist, with another human being? How to share your abstract ideas or sensations? By making art? By telling a story? By writing an article? By creating a mathematical equation? And, what is the accuracy and the weight of each of these options? Plants have no difficulty to communicate without language, a brain or a nervous system(12). They are telling us things all the time, but we just miss their messages for not really listening. Or by listening in a very poor and limited way.

Conversations with these scientists, and with the numerous books and articles I have read, have made me aware of the weight of words. No story can be taken too lightly coming from the mouth of a scientist. There needs to be a proof, some evidence, research. There are different approaches, different facts, there is ’choosing to trust’ instead of ’believing in’. (As Donna Haraway also points out in her recent book(13)). As these dialogues have made me much more careful and precise with words, they have not limited my language as an artist. Actually quite the opposite has happened. As I have become aware of the refined nuances in scientific terminology, I have also come to redefine my agency as an artist. As in the mycorrhizal symbiosis the fungi supports the plant in being the plant – and the plant supports the fungi in being a fungi – the dialogues with the biologists have endorsed my art. As the biologists are doing the research already, I feel no need to enter that terrain. I can just concentrate on making the art that celebrates the wonderful stories science has to offer, the mind blowing facts of the most mundane creatures around us, in my own, playful way. Attempting to cultivate the complexity, the sensitivity, the sensuality and the intellect – the life – in all the bodies involved. Against the serious backdrop of the dialogue between art and science, I have managed to emancipate as an artist. The science operates as a fertilizer that allows my compost(14) to grow the strangest things. It allows me to take myself (not my practice) less seriously.

As my own ’enlightenment’ with plant beings so clearly shows, despite all the talking and writing of the post-modern project, we are still acting out the Cartesian cut in our daily lives. I now understand it is not that the plants and animals, and other creatures, aren’t already speaking for themselves. They are. It is just our society, our culture, which acts as if they weren’t. We are constantly cutting ourselves away from listening. The extremely dangerous and problematic dualism, the binaries, are still there in our way of treating ourselves and others, in the very core of our society and our body-minds. We still seem to be in denial with Darwin’s theories, unable to appreciate our animal nature, its sensitivities and intellect.(15) I guess quite many of these art and science collaborations, and the so-called post-humanist performance projects, are part of the urgency, the need to change these structures, the bodies, and the languages rooted in them. This calls for the re-articulation of the practices both in art and science, and the society as a whole. The consequences of these cuts, and the constant amputation of the sensitivities and intellects of the living bodies, are causing too much trouble.(16)

With the support of a plant and its fungal and bacterial companions, and with the help of science, I am trying to ask: what does it actually mean to abandon dualism? What is the art, the practice, of becoming with? How to respect? How to care? As these questions root themselves so deeply, I cannot do my share without the help of my collaborators. Starting from the plant and the acknowledgement of the agency of the plant body, my practice grows into this multilayered, never ending aesthetic-ethical journey of doing, being and questioning. It evolves into the practice of opening and softening. This is of course not a final answer, as there is none, but a very personal attempt to follow trails of joy, respect and love the plants have taught me.

Essi Kausalainen has studied performance art and theory in Turku Arts Academy and the Theatre Academy of Finland. Her work has been exhibited and performed in venues such as Bildmuseet (Umeå), SIC (Helsinki), la Galerie (Noisy-le-Sec), kim? (Riga), Malmö Moderna Museet, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Museum for Contemporary Art Roskilde and Nikolaj Kunsthalle (Copenhagen).


(1) Even CERN has had its own artist residency program running since 2011.

(2) Plant biologist Matthew Robson works at the Helsinki University and has generously shared his knowledge and given me his time both in our ongoing conversation and exchange of e-mails and articles. He has also appeared as a guest performer in my live performances pieces in gallery Sinne (2013) and Titanik (2014), and as a guest speaker in the event Branching out in gallery Augusta (2015).

(3) Asparagus setaceus to be more specific.

(4) For those who are interested to know more about plants’ sensing habits and capabilities I would recommend books such as Alice in the Land of Plants: Biology of Plants and Their Importance for Planet Earth (2012) by Yiannis Manetas and What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (2013) by Daniel Chamovitz. Both originally recommended (and lent) to me by Robson. For the more philosophical approach see Michael Marder’s Plant Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life(2013).

(5) Yes, there are few: monsteras, jade plants, yuccas, madagascar jewels, asparagus, camellia, etc.

(6) In case you have a tendency to get melancholic try visiting a greenhouse of your local botanic garden, preferably equipped with a thermos filled with good tea (a rich, vegetal type of Japanese sencha or a light oolong would be my choice for this) and breath for 30 minutes. Or more if needed. For me this is the most efficient anti-depressant I have managed to find so far. Other option would simply to be a walk in a forest, if your location and the season allow that.

(7) At this point my reading consisted of a random selection of titles from philosophy to biology to poetry to anthropology to feminist science studies.

(8) The plants that have worked with me in long, durational performances or in installation settings, have all responded to the experience with an explosive growth and bloom. But I know these kinds of conditions are not suitable for every plant.

(9) I am especially inspired by Karen Barad’s take on world’s performativity.

(10) By plant logic I mean something that Michael Marder might call plant thinking, with an emphasis on the scientific sources: the current understanding of the plant body interpreted by my human sensitivity. What does a plant sense and why? What kind of information is important to a plant and how does it use this information in its decision making processes and communication and being? How could these processes be explored and performed by human bodies? Obviously the attempt to perform plant logic is doomed to fail, but as an artist I am interested in the aesthetics and actions (and the joy!) this attempt produces.

(11) Becoming with is a term developed by Donna Haraway in her book When Species Meet(2008). Symbiogenis in my thinking refers to Lynn Margulis, co-evolution and involution to some feminist science studies texts such as Carla Hustak‘s and Natasha Myer’s Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters (2012). Inter being is a term I’ve come across in some buddhist teachings, which then have delightfully many connections with the ideas of quantum physics that is where Karen Barad’s thinking is grounded. Intra-action is a term she introduces, and throughly explains, in her book Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning(2007). All of these words have their different emphasis and references. In my practice I tend to take the artistic freedom to mess around with them, and their origins.

(12) The basics of plant communication can be also learned from the books by Yiannis Manetas and Daniel Chamovitz. For up to date scientific articles, see for example the online open access journal AoB plants:

(13) In Staying With the Trouble – Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), Donna Haraway refers to philosophers such as Bruno Latour and Hannah Arendt to emphasize the problematic of ’believing in’.

(14) Compost is one of Donna Haraway’s key concepts which here refers to my artistic practice and my bodily being: the complex and messy symbiosis of becoming with.

(15) By this I mean the idea of human exceptionalism, the idea of human intellect as something superior to all the other animal intellects, which then leads to the incapability to recognize and to respect their different qualities.

(16) In my opinion most of the crisis that we are currently facing – and they are a few! – can be traced back to this amputation. The ecological, the humanitarian, as well as the economical crises are all ghost pain felt for these lost limbs. But if we follow the example of a plant, we’ll be able to grow new ones!