3.1. Assembling ecologies

3.02. confluence 0.1. Performance documentation (detail).

3.1.a. confluence

They are among us. In silence, they plot bright plans. Conductors between skies and earths. They support all that moves. Yet, for most of the time for most of the humans, they are a form sitting in the corner. Urban decor, a garden. This is what we see in the corner of our eyes as we run about important business, around the clock. Yet, they work too, labour hard. All day long, and overnight too. This planetary labour project called photosynthesis keeps going for about 3500-2500 million of years.

Sometimes we stop and pour some water into a glass or a jug, and then water them. We feel good. Sometimes we may even slow down to take off some decoloured leaves, to cut some of the branches to enhance growth, etc. Sometimes their flowers mesmerise and make humans dream. These moments, rare compared to the time an average pet-holder gives to her/his animal companions, are extraordinary meetings across the evolutionary kingdoms. More subtle meetings occur continuously, with each and every breath.

As all the other animals, humans have since always already been most deeply entangled with vegetation. Breathing. Eating. Uniquely, for some time now, for reasons too complex to know, humans have in important ways been against the vegetals1. Imagine a modernity without felling immense swathes of forest, or without extirpation of weeds, or without domestication of seeds, etc. Far from innocent stand-byers, plants played some part in these processes too.

Plants are smart in seduction. They have made their way even into containerised dwellings of modernity, so devoted to building defences from the environment. They have been charming insects for millions of years. And thus gained legs, moving around and about at the speed of flight in an astonishing cross-kingdom symbiosis or interchange of bodily affects. This is not to say that plants desire to be colonised by humans. Properties have been exchanged through asymmetrical exchanges of properties. However, with humans, they may have found an unprecedented nemesis.

I wish to talk about a special type of plant. An office plant. Apart from the necessary elemental particles of air, they are one of the few organic other-than-human entities who gain clearance into the spaces of production of capital. To different degrees of popularity, some plants are office ‘furniture’. They are outsiders within, motionlessly witnessing the ebbs and tides of capital. If they were could speak, they might know secrets deeper than the murkiest WikiLeaks. But they are either loyal or uninterested in these affairs. Their presence however is an intrusion, an act of occupation, a reminder that there is no breathing without them, that capital cannot wipe out the whole of atmosphere. Perhaps the environmental impact of a company could be inversely (or proportionately) correlated with the number of plants in their offices.

3.03. confluence 0.1. Performance documentation (detail).

Plants are perfect office workers. They do their job laboriously, or fail to do so elegantly. If they wane, they are substituted with little fuss and no wave of complaints. Air-purifiers and aesthetic testimonials. Office plants are inside the system physically, but they are external to it. Location does not equate to networkedness. There have been various proposals to ‘include’ ‘ecosystem services’ into economic calculus. This is not a place to discuss these proposals in-depth. I’ve got a much simpler, smaller-scale idea of how to inter-work us with vegetal economies.

I am writing these pages in an office. It’s called J.G.44, situated on the ground-level of the Harrow campus of the University in Westminster. This is one of the two so-called ‘PhD rooms’, assigned to doctoral students only. Since moving to London in fall 2012 on invitation of the University to pursue a practice-based research degree, i have been spending most of my working time in this office. It is just a common ‘PhD room’ with a row of desks with desktop computers along the walls, and a large conference table in the middle. No posters, no book-shelves, no decoration. And no plants. It feels quite sad to spend days on end here. So i bring in a new guinea plant. I am trying to read and write about environmental thought, yet i am sitting inside an office with one window only, and with one plant only. Ecology is usually about environmental problems out there, in the environment. But ecology is also everywhere, everything is local. Any given point is an entry, so i need to start treading through the meshwork of nature-culture nexuses and separations exactly from where i sit. Ecology, the way i think of it, is a practice and thought of living together with other bodies, it is a story about associations, groupings, coalitions and partnerships. My first partner is this little new guinea right here.

How can a new guinea and i ‘work together’, or, how can we know how to do something together?

3.04. confluence 0.2. Performance documentation (detail).

confluence 0.1.
date / location: 9 April, 2013 / Harrow on the Hill
performers: white gerber, yellow gerber, Liubov Kozorezova, me
medium: photography, heartbeat drawing app

confluence 0.2.
date / location: 5 July, 2013 / London, Dalarna.
performers: pink new guinea, pelargonium, Marika Troili, me
documentation: photo-sensitive paper, heartbeat drawing app

♦ project documentation ♦

As many eco-philosophies and environmentalists suggest, one must change patterns of ‘everyday life’2. First experiments towards ‘assembling ecologies’ involved creating very small-scale ecologies of care of two people and two plants. The idea was to interrupt the patterns of work once per hour and engage in performance of ‘tracking-with’, attentively registering a physiological activity of another entity – of a plant and of the other human. The humans’ would ‘track’ each others’ heartbeat for 60 seconds at a time with a makeshift computer app to draw a cardiogram (fig. 2.01.)3. In the first instantiation of the performance—confluence 0.1—the plants’ activity was recorded by a still shot from above with the same exposure throughout the day. Differences in exposure would indirectly indicate the strength of the light (fig. 3.01.―3.03). In confluence 0.2, instead of camera, we used photo-sensitive paper that we would place between the branches of the plant for 15 minutes (fig. 2.02). The resulting documentation displays the micro-performances of ‘tracking-with’ the other body, periods of affective engagement and perception of another human or vegetal body (fig. 3.04. ― 3.06.). Following heartbeats and trying to infer photosynthesis was about trying to ‘track’ with processes that are commonly not perceptible to bare eye, but that is fundamentally the problem of human perception. However, the project gave too much weight to (human) sensing without plugging into the inter-species affective space.

3.05. confluence 0.2. Performance documentation (detail).

The next move was to facilitate and expand sensing through digital technologies. In the period that followed, i experimented with the idea that the Internet of Things (IoT) could provide a platform for creating more egalitarian intra-actions. Acknowledging the wider debates surrounding IoT4, my interest was, first, to introduce technological agency, and, second, to better mediate what it is that plants are doing. Hence, in this segment of the research, i collaborated with physical computing practitioner Emilie Giles in developing interactive garments that would allow the performer to measure the galvanic skin response of another person, and to gather data of plant’s exposure to light (fig. 2.03 – 2.04.)5. Work towards higher integration of digital devices was left aside due to a critical re-valuation of the ideas about cybernetic feedback loops. Namely, through the prototyping process it seemed that possibilities of intra-action were getting reduced, and i decided to move towards more open-ended configurations with larger margins of freedom for the performing bodies. This shift was underpinned by an evolution in the spirit of the research, the gradual transformation towards a more-than-human ethos of practice. In this context, perception is not necessarily the primary concern, and aesthetics becomes only one of the multiple onto-epistemic entanglements. This first period of research was led through the lens of network ontology, but an intimate engagement with bodies—human and vegetal—started revealing the limits of an informational mode of work. An increasing sensitivity towards the autonomous or withdrawn powers of extra-human bodies, which i started perceiving and conceptualising through these early performances and readings, would have a major impact on the projects that followed.

3.06. confluence 0.2. Performance documentation (detail).

b. dancing ecologies

date / locations: September—October 2013 / various
performers: multiple plants, Arduino interface (light sensors, piezo speakers), me
documentation: video

♦♦ project documentation ♦♦

To dance with plants. To slow down our information economies, step by step. What if, in offices, every 45 minutes, the workers suspended all working activity, to then spend 15 minutes dancing with vegetals? What would be economic impacts on production? And health, of humans and of the biosphere?

3.07. dancing ecology 0.10. Performance documentation, video still. 24 September
2013, Harrow on the Hill.

In dancing ecology i exercised a dance to the resonance of the photosynthesis of the plant, a biological process that was translated into sound through a circuit of sensors and speakers. The sensors positioned on different points of the plant captured the intensity of light that fell on its leaves (fig. 2.05). An Arduino circuit translated this data and output it to beeping sound. The work involved dancing around the plant following the rhythm and the pitches produced by the Arduino circuit. I would repeat the exercise once each 45 minutes, suspending my daily activities to create spacetime for the atmosphere. The 15-minutes dances were temporary withdrawals from the circuits of human economy and contributions to an imaginary human-plant economy. This is what i called ‘infra-dance’, a first attempt at a minoritarian infraphysics6.

dancing ecology was practised at different times of the day and in different settings, indoors and outdoors, implying different light situations, degrees to which my body interfered with the light falling on the plant, as well as weather conditions (fig. 3.07 – 3.11). All these factors contributed to creating different melodies and rhythms.

3.08. dancing ecology 0.45. Performance documentation, video still. 2 October 2013, Utrecht.

‘Infra-dance’ aimed to entangle two ways of ‘working’: photosynthesis and dancing, materially connected through the process of breathing, and conceptually through the notion of ‘immaterial labour’7. Counter-intuitively perhaps, i take plants to be immaterial workers, representatives of ‘bio-proletariat’8. They are material networkers, plants materially weave webs of life. This material networking is also affective care-taking of animals by offering them life-necessary oxygen. However, this re(con)figuration of plants into immaterial labourers, is both a recognition of solidarity and a critical operation. Very often, care-taking and affective labour are underpaid or not paid at all. Immaterial labour is often ‘feminised’ or ‘housewifized’, i.e. assumed as ‘natural’ for the female gender, therefore it does not need to be remunerated. Immaterial labour is a wide platform for potential solidarity across classes, but it could also mean solidarity with plants. Their work is invisible to our senses, but even more so, it is invisibilised by the modern organisation of economic apparatuses. Oxygen is one of the innumerable ‘free gifts’ of ‘nature’. It is not even considered a resource in mainstream economics, since it is already there. It does not even need to be mined.

The performance attempted to create a situated human/nonhuman collaboration through a rapprochement of two heterogeneous rhythms of work. My activities oriented towards the ‘human economy’ were suspended, and i’d try to transverse my efforts with a plant and create a more-than-human economy9. But this was not an economy of exchange even though it involved several feedback loops, dancing ecology was a work of solidarity and recognition, as well as celebration of the gift of photosynthesis. Two workers, one nonhuman and one human, were together joined as differential participants in ‘immaterial labour’10, a sort of more-than-human labour alliance11. The idea of ‘dancing away’ the emissions, if practised socially, could lead to further insights and imaginative re-imaginings of economy at large. How would our economies look if they operated on work/dance interplay basis12?

3.09. dancing ecology 0.50. Performance documentation, video still. 4 October 2013, Harrow on the Hill.

Plants are highly sophisticated network operators. Every leaf is a small factory, all part of a larger system of photosynthetic activity. Plants work like a network, they are networks13. If the findings of plant intelligence studies are taken to their logical conclusions, vegetals would be understood as key networkers of this planet. However, human economies are scarcely entangled with these far more complex biotic assemblages.
To wrap up and move forward, dancing ecologies, and confluence from which it evolved, was a year-long learning curve that ‘produced’ little, but opened a number of problems to follow up on. It foregrounded an inner tension in using technology as mediator and/or autonomous agent. The promises of digital sensing, in my view, hardly opened to other realities of the pluriverse. In physical computing, not only the instigator of the action were humans, but it was Emilie and me who coded the interface, positioned the plant and constructed a situation. It was a closed loop system based on representation, allowing little space for other-than-human performativity. I tried to counterbalance this asymmetry by dissolving or flattening my position of privilege by trying to adapt to the plant’s rhythm. It was me who was dancing around the plant, the plant would become the centre of my universe (inverting the centre―environment power relation). However, the dance was based on a narrow band of information, leaving out too large parts of the possible gamma of plant’s affects. This conclusion was conducive in challenging the ontology and aesthetics based on information and translation. Eventually, this was the key contribution of the project, as it invited me to move outside of humanist thought-space and take on board posthuman perspectives. Second, and equally important, dancing ecologies was a carefully conducted experiment in vitro, off-site from the flows of capital and power. It is not sufficient to work ‘on yourself’, as deep ecology or ethics would have it. Following Guattari, social ecologies are inextricable from mental ecologies.

3.10. dancing ecology 0.63. Performance documentation, video still. 5 October 2013, Harrow on the Hill.

dancing ecologies was a condensation of multiple strands of research, and it was propitiatory in shaping an ethos for subsequent research. The project branched out in multiple directions, leading to several workshops14, and project designs15. dancing ecologies was thus a cycle of experimentation with ideas, technology and dispositions. Through dialogues and workshop formats, i questioned and re-iterated the basic premises of the working methodology and slowly gravitated towards posthuman paths. Beyond this, i was intrigued by the mystery of plants and the glaring discrepancies between social practices and their modes of being. From now on, i will be following the subjugated sides of the assemblage.

3.11. dancing ecology 0.70. Performance documentation, video still. 7 October 2013, Harrow on the Hill.

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  1. ivergence of vegetal and human interests may have started with the beginning of the Neolithic, that is with the development of agriculture.
  2. The ‘critique of everyday life’ originates in the work of the geographer Henri Lefebvre and his encyclopedical three-part inquiry published throughout his career, in 1947, 1961, and 1981. Lefebvre treats the question of everyday reality as the under-studied area which is outside economy and politics, and yet, at the time of his writing, was the sphere that capitalism will try to colonise (which, eventually, took place, with the general flexibilisation and precaritisation of work). Though i do not work explicitly in this register, my work is indebted to The Production of Space (1991) and Rhythmanalysis (2004). Especially relevant is also the conjunction of the critique of everyday life and ‘spatial practice’ in Michel Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). From these psychogeographical and psychotemporal grounds my research and practice have veered into posthumanist space, but that would not be possible without the attention these authors invoke into what is interstitial in everyday surroundings, the in-betweens of the power apparatuses. Their work goes in hand with the performance art and, in general, avant-gardes of the 1950’s and 1960’s who tried to dissolve the boundaries between life and art, public and private.
  3. The performer will hold the other person’s wrist and draw the intensity of the beat in a makeshift drawing application on the computer.
  4. For a critical analysis of the Internet of Things, see 1.3.4.
  5. In our iterative prototyping process, Emilie and i chose to work with galvanic skin response (GSR), an Arduino-platform circuit which translates electrical conductivity through finger contact with a sensitive metallic surface. Moreover, conceptually, GSR materialises the concept of ‘feedback loop’ as it requires a person to touch two sensors in order to close a circuit. A further advantage was that a very similar type of circuit could be deployed to measure the intensity of light. We also experimented with the use of conductive yarns that could be sewn into clothing and thus make interfaces ‘wearable’. This would allow for situations of ‘tracking’ to take place in different locations. Connected with this, another result of the adoption of Arduino was that the data gathered through sensing could be outputted on the spot, thus providing an opportunity for instant reaction on behalf of the performers. After several months of prototyping, we produced a sweater with an embroidered circuit that was capable of measuring the GSR of the wearer. The measured data was played as sound emitted by small hand-sewn speakers.
  6. The moniker for ‘infra-dance’, and, more broadly, ‘infraphysics’ was inspired first and foremost by Karen Barad’s ontology of ‘intra-action’. Slight modification in the first word is derived from infrastructure studies. Photosynthesis can be understood as infrastructural work supporting the animal ecologies. Further, infra-dance is also homage to Andrew Pickering’s ‘dance of agency’ (1996). Pickering uses this artistic metaphor to describe how scientists, first, construct an experiment, then see what nonhuman agencies do, then fine-tune the experiment, and so on. Science is a dance or choreography between scientists and the ‘material performance’ of the machine and the bodies involved in the experiment. More on performative onto-epistemology, see 2.1.3.
  7. The notion of ‘immaterial labour’ was introduced by post-Autonomia philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato: “[i]mmaterial labour produces first and foremost a ‘social relationship’ . . . Immaterial labour continually creates and modifies the forms of communication, which in turn acts as the interface that negotiates the relationship between production and consumption.” (Lazzarato, 1996: 137). Lazzarato coins the term to refer to new modes of productivity characteristic of the rising informational economy of the 1990s. Subsequently, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri develop the notion further by distinguishing three types of immaterial labour. “The first is involved in an industrial production that has been informationalised and has incorporated communication technologies . . . [second] of analytical and symbolic tasks . . . [third] involves the production and manipulation of affect” (2000: 293). dancing ecology mobilises the three understandings to different degrees, as it activates information technologies, symbolic manipulation of data (from data to sound), and affect. This last mode, what Hardt and Negri call ‘affective labour’ is the most important. “Affective labour is better understood by beginning from what feminist analyses of ‘women’s work’ have called ‘labour in the bodily mode’. Caring labour is certainly entirely immersed in the corporeal, the somatic, but the affects it produces are nonetheless immaterial. What affective labour produces are social networks, forms of community, biopower.” (ibid.) What is stressed in Lazzarato and, even more, in Hardt and Negri, is that the output of labour may be immaterial or intangible, but it always involves material body work.
  8. Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway use the notion of ‘zoo-proletariat’ to describe livestock animals in the context of bio-capitalism.
  9. Here i am activating the second meaning of the word ‘ecology’ in its original Ancient Greek meaning, oikonomia as ‘economy’. Though this semiotic linkage has important problems, i believe it can be used as a strategic essentialism.
  10. Dance is another form of cultural work that has least to say uneven patterns of pay. This brings in wider considerations about the importance of immaterial labour in the contemporary visual arts context. It is barely possible to do anything without insane amounts of ‘networking’. A similar dynamic can be observed in the academia as well.
  11. In classifying plants as immaterial workers, i am clearly anthropomorphising them, an always problematic semiotic operation with imperialist undertones, especially having in view my belief in ecology of difference. However, in this context it is a conceptual operation of radically expanding the realm of economy to embrace ecology, but in order to increase accountability and responsibility of humans for their part and parcel in the general ecology of economy. For this, i hope that the participating plants do pardon me for their unwilling introduction into the labour force.
  12. The dancing idea has a complicated genealogy. There are some significant meetings of dance and capitalism. One of the seeds for the idea of dancing at the workplace was planted by a friend who works at a bank, who once told me that he enters his office each morning by performing a ‘moon walk’ from the door to his desk in a gesture of freedom affirmation. More centrally, i draw upon one of the artistic forms of protest that lit up in the galaxy of the Spanish anti-austerity anti-capitalist 15-M movement, popularly known as Indignados. Flashmob group Flo6x8 staged a number of flamenco performances in banks. Large groups of women and men, sometimes accompanied by guitar players, would occupy the lobby area of the bank and burst into signing and dancing. In this, they were drawing on social history of flamenco which was born among the lower classes of Andalusia, and was means of expressing social injustice. Dancing as a form of protest or reclamation of freedom reaches farther and deeper still (e.g., capoeira, twerking, etc.).
  13. Plants’ extraordinary communication capabilities are subject of a rather small but on the rise research field. It can be said that everything started with the best-selling book by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird The Secret Life of Plants (1973). The book was spurred by the experiments of a former C.I.A. polygraph expert Cleve Backster, who in 1966 attached the ‘truth detector’ to the leaf of a small plant in his office. It is a fascinating irony that it a technique usually used for discipline and control would open towards space for cross-species recognition. (An interesting contingency or not is also that the arduino circuit that we used in dancing ecologies is basically a DIY replica of the police truth detector. Namely, it is a modification of a galvanic skin response device that Emilie Giles, together with Alexandra Jönsson designed for the workshop Rebooting Computing in July 2012 with Open Systems Association.) Since Tompkins and Bird’s book, a lot of the science advanced in the book was discredited, and the book’s popularity and far-fetched claims may have slowed down research in this area. But lately, the plant intelligence studies have been making major steps (e.g. Pollan 2013) and biosemiotics is making waves. Plants are wired into wider networks too, as their roots establish symbiotic patterns with mychorriza mushrooms, effectively creating world wide webs of vegetals and fungi (this has come to my attention in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World (2015)). An appreciation of this mode of living and collaborating is Deleuze and Guattari’s transposition of rhizome from biology to an epistemological paradigm (1987), to which i will return in chapter 3. Further i am very much indebted to artists/researchers Bartaku and Essi Kausalainen, from whom i have first-hand learned immensely about plant communication.
  14. assembling ecologies was a series of three workshops given to Masters students at the Department of Architecture at the Royal College of Art, London in November 2013, upon invitation by Jon Goodbun. The workshops combined theoretical presentations about actor-network theory, Object-Oriented Ontology, and ecological thought jointly given with Nina Trivedi, together with practical lessons in the basics of physical computing given together with Emilie Giles. The proceedings of the workshop itself are not of relevance to the flow of the research strictly speaking, but the conclusions fortified my doubts about system theories and technological mediation. A different version of the workshop, this time centred around the idea of ‘infra-dance’ was presented at the Inter-format Symposium on Flux of Sand and Aquatic ecosystems at Nida Art Colony (NAC), Lithuania in May 2014. infra-dance with trees, wind and sea consisted in a group discussion about posthumanist ecologies followed by dancing exercise on the sand dunes of the Curonian Spit. The workshops created interesting discussions, but i consider them as a parallel line of inquiry that would feed the research more on the level of concepts than practice.
  15. One of the plans was to develop assembling ecologies into a three-week long workshop that would combine physical computing, dance, and ecological theory. More importantly, many elements from dancing ecologies will come to inform the projects that were eventually realised. Another project was an Internet of Things environment with a host of objects, a plant, and a cat, to be engaged through dance.