The third flower power revolution – Sowing seeds of curiosity through art/science collaborations

I finally got hold of ‘Seeds – Time-capsules of Life’ (which conveniently happened to be at the Open University library) to see how ‘matter’ was talked about in terms of plant life. Despite my initial scepticism towards what seemed ‘just a coffee table book’, I found that while taking in this outcome of an artist/scientist collaboration, I had the feeling that never before I have enjoyed reading about plant biology so much and in so much detail since primary school! I now have a strange new feeling of interrelatedness with plants after reading that plants, too, had a ‘flower power revolution’ (slightly earlier than ours, about 140 million years ago in the late Jurassic), pack lunch packs for their children, set out for conquests and settlements in other places of the world, manipulate other organisms through ‘advertising’, set up beauty contests, have ‘retros’ in their society, follow a Kama Sutra of vegetable love-making and wage territorial war against each other. They even have navels and umbilical cords. How scary is that? (I’m only half-joking…)

What I like about this book is that two authors write very much from the perspective of the plant or ‘in the spirit’ of plant behaviour. For instance, both at the beginning and at the end of the book they state that this book is their extension of the ‘strategy of dispersal to new audiences’. This they hope to achieve by using similar strategies that plants employ. While they are thankfully not using scented pages, they ‘copy’ plants by adding colour to the (normally black and white) scanning electron microscope (SEM) images of ‘their’ seeds to ‘attract visitors’ to their ‘plants’ or subject/mission of plant conservation (after all, the book is published in collaboration with Kew Gardens. The authors hope that in addition to the breath-taking shapes and patterns evident in the seeds’ enlargements, the colour enhancement ‘lends the images a mysterious otherworldliness that transforms the spectator from one who just looks to one who sees and wants to know more’.

Indeed, mystery and magic are emphasized in the book, starting with how ‘tiny herbs and giant trees grow from seed’ to seeds not only travelling in space, but also in time. Examples are the so-called ‘mummy seeds’ that still sprout after 2,000 years. But we also learn some sobering facts such as our dependence on plant and plant variety (‘our entire civilisation is built on seeds’) or that the seeds of the noble vanilla plant are designed to ‘pass through the guts of the bats that are dispersing them’ – yum!

Another theme that comes up in the book is that of responsibility. The authors, especially the artist Rob Kesseler, ask whether responsibility for a subject should be left to ‘rational experts’. While this appears to go into the dangerous direction of the distinction between ‘rational experts’ and a ‘feeling public’, I feel that this is not what Kesseler has in mind. He asks in his essay ‘Phytopia – The difference between looking and seeing… an awesome clarity’ whether at the ‘current pace of life, speed of change and diversity of the objects and images that pass before our eyes… [we have] now become expert at recognition at the expense of a more perceptive understanding and appreciation that arises from a concentrated examination of any given subject.’ Through his work with the microscope, after which he returned to the plants from which the seeds had originated, he became ‘aware of the sophistication and power of our own in-built optical technologies’ which gave him insights in the difference between seeing and looking. This in return created the desire to ‘revive the spirit of looking’ in people and help them ‘see’ through a ‘total fusion of contemporary scientific and artistic practice’.

There currently seems to be a strong current of enthusiasm for the fusion of art and science. But where there are many proponents, there are also opponents who feel that this fusion is either ‘preaching to the converted’ or that science uses art to break down resistance to ‘rational’ ideas disseminated by science, especially with regard to new technologies. Seeds banks have also been part of this debate, because of the question of access and their connection with gene banks. ‘Seeds’ is obviously written in support of projects such as the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank (there is a brief chapter about it in the book), and it is persuasive. But my impression is that far from bringing people under an entrancing spell of art-science beauty, the book makes you think about the active workings of the world and your part in it. Let’s hope this ‘seed’ (despite its lack of financial accessibility for some) does manage to find its ways into new and challenging environments.

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3 thoughts on “The third flower power revolution – Sowing seeds of curiosity through art/science collaborations

  1. thanks for this angela! you gave such a stunning review that i’ve actually requested the book from interlending.

    a few points which popped into my head while i read this:

    “The authors hope that in addition to the breath-taking shapes and patterns evident in the seeds’ enlargements, the colour enhancement ‘lends the images a mysterious otherworldliness that transforms the spectator from one who just looks to one who sees and wants to know more”’.

    This makes me wonder what kinds of knowledges are being made through the stylization of these images? Or, to put it another way: how does colour enhancement change how we know the object? I find this stuff really interesting.

    Also, this idea of speaking from the perspective of the seed is interesting. I like the attempt at a situated perspective although it makes me wonder what kind of viewers or lookers are being constructed or put forth?

    I recently interviewed a scientist who has done art-sci collaborative work, and he argued that art can help make science ‘understandable’. Whether or not science is using art to “break down resistance to rational ideas disseminated by science” is certainly debatable, but the ways in which those arguments are being fought over the playing field of visual image is absolutely fascinating in my mind…

  2. Yes, there seems to be a rather passionate debate in the art (and interdisciplinary art/science) community about the effects of art. A lot of times, it sounds like the question ‘what is art’ or ‘what can art do?’ – which is actually a very old (or forever new?) debate! That just reminded me of something I try to dig out for you…

  3. Thanks a lot for using a Spergula’s seed at the first page of your book. I study the Caryophyllacea family in Argentina in the Museo de La Plata, La Plata, Argentina. I use the SEM for seeds and pollen grains, in black and white.
    Sincerely yours, Carola Regina Volponi, La Plata, 22 de abril de 2009.

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