The Sensorial Invisibility of Plants

Laura Cinti

Laura Cinti’s work stretches the boundaries of our understanding of plant behaviour. Cinti is best known as an artist who works with biology, and, in addition to her own practice, she is also co-founder (with Howard Boland) and co-director of C-LAB, an internationally recognised interdisciplinary art platform that generates and participates in both artistic and scientific forums. Past works have included exposing a rose to Martian environmental conditions and producing transgenic cacti that have grown human hairs.

My particular interest in Cinti’s work stems from The Sensorial Invisibility of Plants, her PhD thesis from the Slade. Subtitled “An Interdisciplinary Inquiry through Bio Art and Plant Neurobiology”, the paper and accompanying projects explore plant behaviour, examining the intelligence, motion and sensation of plants, as well as the interactive experiences between plants and humans. In Nanomagnetic Plants, for example, Cinti used biomedical nanotechnology to induce responsive motion in living plants. This involved placing magnetic nanoparticles within the plants to effect movement when strong magnets were positioned near them. The project explored the scientific possibilities of plants that respond visibly to touch, alerting the viewer to the otherwise invisible motions of plants.

NanomagneticPlants02
 
As an artist, Cinti investigates plants as both “wildness” and as an emerging techno-scientific life form. By subjecting these two apparently distinct positions – plants untouched in nature and plants manipulated by humans – to sustained analysis (both scientific and cultural), Cinti seeks to alter our traditional perceptual boundaries. It is at the interface of art and science, Cinti believes, that we can best begin to understand the “wildness” of nature.

Cinti’s work explores a number of significant questions: How does science transform our culture? What is our ethical and aesthetic responsibility to these plants? Will manipulating organisms allow for humans to understand our natural and cultural relationships better? Even if these questions remain, perhaps, unanswered, their mere existence helps to bring together the sciences and humanities – an important ongoing dialogue, today and in the future.

I spoke with Laura to ask her a few more questions…

 

PIGGY

 

What are you working on at the moment?

My research and artworks continue to explore seams between living organisms (real/physical) and their scientifically mediated augmentation (virtual/digital). It attempts to connect, through interfaces enacted by our interactions, the otherwise invisible biological processes of living organisms with their morphology. I am particularly interested in how we can generate new types of aesthetics and extend ways of reading nature through the use of emerging scientific methods.

These ideas are quite literally explored in my latest project with Howard Boland titled LIVING MIRROR – an interactive art installation that attempts to produce real-time images by taking advantage of magnetic bacteria’s light scattering properties by exposing these to alternating magnetic fields.

I draw on a multi-method approach that attempts to combine scientific and artistic methods.

Unique to these bacteria are their ability to swim along Earth’s magnetic field. When they are introduced to a changing (magnetic) field, they rotate synchronically, causing the light to scatter as a visible shimmer inside liquid. By taking pixel values from darker and lighter areas in captured images LIVING MIRROR attempts to programmatically harmonise hundreds of lights pulses to represent the image inside a liquid culture.

Here’s the video showing the light-scattering phenomenon of the magnetotactic bacteria filmed in our lab here in London.

And a prototype that was tested in Amsterdam:
 

Do you see your methods of research as artistic or scientific, or both?

I draw on a multi-method approach that attempts to combine scientific and artistic methods. My outcomes are artistic, but much of the background and materials used are scientific and empirical in nature.

What is it about plant behaviour that you find so interesting?

My interest has been the possible connections we might develop with plants cognitively and emotionally. Their lack of movement hugely impacted the way I, or we, relate to them. Initially this led me to look at how and why motion played such an important role in classifying (rather wrongly) this type of life – from ancient philosophy to contemporary art and science. Plants, in their lack of motion, have been, up until recently, understood as being simple life forms with a limited set of behaviours.

A key aspect in bio-art is to establish relationships with other non-human biological agents.

These ideas were reformulated into a question of what happens if they (non-specialised plants) did move. Further into the research and after a series of experiments that attempted to induce responsive movement to human touch gestures, I came to appreciate the extent that their behaviours were largely invisible and how recent scientific methods were needed to capture and visually bring these forth. What became clear was an emerging gap between the scientific image of plants as sensorial and the image of plants formed by our subjective experience.

Plant neurobiology is disputed in the biology research division of some institutions. How do you see these debates within science and also art?

Indeed, since the 1970s the field has really struggled to be taken seriously in a scientific context due to stories emerging in popular culture such as the CIA lie detector expert, Cleve Baxter, who experimented by applying electrodes on plants to suggest they could sense the pain experienced by shrimps placed in boiling water. However, with new methods in molecular biology a more serious approach was established but, even so, the field is constantly redefining its position. For instance, the field recently changed its name from “Plant Neurobiology” (2005) to “Plant Signaling and Behaviour” (2009).

NanomagneticPlants03
 
Much of electronic art and biologically related art have been focused on similar technologies as Baxter’s experiments arguably due to its accessibility and affordability. In the biological arts, plants have also been seen as having limited sets of behaviours. But given that a key aspect in bio-art is to establish relationships with other non-human biological agents through living artworks it became clear to me that there was a need to renegotiate our image of plants.

My findings show that there is a need for artists to take up molecular tools in order to develop an understanding of living organisms outside speculative, aesthetic, ethical or subjective frameworks and to take into account biological meaning. In other words, I am concerned with how biotechnology has the potential to visualise and tap into invisible biological processes and the importance for bio-artists to take steps in acquiring such insights to avoid producing anthropomorphic constructions and perhaps invite a deeper appreciation of the living through art.

 
 

For more information about Laura Cinti and her work, please visit c-lab.co.uk.

 
 

PIGGY

Amber Stucke

Amber Stucke is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and naturalist. Through drawings, interactive installations, artist books and prints, she connects the strong detail in her work to ideas within artistic research as-well-as to dialogues between art, science and imagination. Stucke received her MFA from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco and has also had additional studies at Goldsmith’s College in London and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her thesis titled Embodying Symbiosis: A Philosophy of Mind in Drawing is published in an international academic journal: Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Her work is represented at Electric Works Gallery in San Francisco and is a participating artist in the Based On Drawing Center, Satellite Berlin in Berlin, Germany.