On the Movement
of Plants
and the (Im)Possibility
of Plant-Human Choreographies

Artists working in the domain of contemporary choreography and dance are increasingly becoming involved in the problematization of the interconnected and affective coexistence of humans with non-humans, plants not excluding. The phenomenon of transspecies coexistence of humans and plants requires a post-anthropocentric ethics, which in essence focuses on the respect for all modes of life and on care for beings engaged in our commonly shared worlding[1]. For that reason alone, the theoretical framework applied in the present article draws on concepts and categories grounded in feminist new materialism, philosophical critical posthumanism, and critical plant studies[2]. One of the aims underpinning choreographic and dance/movement-oriented artistic projects that involve living plants concerns creation of suitable tools or/and techniques, customised in the course of artistic research.

All the deliberations presented herein tackle issues stemming from the artistic research conducted together with choreographer Agata Siniarska[3], whom I assisted in my capacity as scientific consultant. My analyses rely on the theoretical development of specific artistic and research practice. In the present text, I aim to introduce and attempt to solve the key problem that has emerged during our work: the possibility of creating techniques applicable to two specific practices: the practice of “moving-together with plants” and the embodied practice of “becoming-plant.”

The goal of the artistic project carried out under the working title of Plantimacy was to work out dance and choreographic techniques which could contribute to the overcoming of plant blindnesss[4], a phenomenon of failing to notice plants despite looking at them, as defined by James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler. According to the researchers, plant blindness boils down to ignoring vegetal entities “as such”, i.e., autonomous, existing in their own habitat of their own accord, and to acknowledging them only in the context of their functionality within the human world (food staples, material, decoration, etc.). This inevitably leads to the rejection of their specificity, to the zoo- and anthropocentric allocation of vegetal beings to the lower rungs of the ladder of being, and to treating them mainly as the initial stages of the food chain. As a result, their complex evolutionary heritage as auto- and heterotrophic beings, as well as universal knowledge concerning the unavoidable food interdependencies of living and dead bodies of humans and non-humans, are all disregarded. Plant blindness first emerged and took root in the West, which expanded the biblical figure of “man as one who exercises dominion over the earth” within the modern cognitive paradigm, based on distance, observation, systematization, and repetition. This model is supported by a diversity of systems of animate world classification, among others, the widely recognized 18th-century taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus and Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, whose claims have since been interpreted as evidence of human’s evolutionary superiority over other forms of life. In many non-European and pre-modern societies, unlike the classic scientific paradigm of the West, cognitive systems did not – and nor do they still – privilege humanity. This enables plants, humans, and other beings to form egalitarian, interconnected, and affective multispecies communities[5].

Along with Siniarska, we were keen to expand the practices where a given plant is treated as a partner of human performers. We did not wish to represent plants through the intermediary of translation – of transposing onto the human body movements implied by the shape of plants (for instance, the creeping tendrils of leguminous plants) or triggered by the elements (swaying in the wind). We did not intend either to deal with the artistic expression of the human experience of closeness, empathy or intimacy with plants. What mattered to us was the bioethical notion of vegetal dignity and welfare formulated by the Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH)[6]. The choreographic and dance / movement practices were supposed to produce the corporeal coexistence of the human body and the vegetal one. The deliberations collected in these pages aim to delineate the primary problems and thorny issues that arose as a result of our joint work on the plant-and-human transcorporeality, on plant-moving, and on rendering humans plant-like.

Plant-moving

The notion of plant-moving that I have attempted to posit here draws on my understanding of the already established ideas of plant-thinking and plant-reading. Michael Marder distinguishes four levels of plant-thinking:

(1) the non-cognitive, non-ideational, and non-imagistic mode of thinking proper to plants […]; (2) our thinking about plants; (3) how human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanized and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world; and finally, (4) the ongoing symbiotic relation between this transfigured thinking and the existence of plants[7].

This multi-faceted concept can be justifiably re-contextualised with regard to the field of dance and choreography, by posing questions concerning the ways in which the practice of human-moving can be de-humanised and rendered plant-like. Simultaneously, as part of our project, we embarked on the task of translating the process of reading into the process of moving, following in the footsteps of the analytical thought of philosopher Elaine Miller, whose book Vegetative Soul[8] refers to three contemporary concepts of plant-reading. Such a mode of reading is compared by Miller to

[…] vegetative growth, untraceable to singular or determinate origins, disseminating and productive rather than reducibly polysemic and analytic[9].

The three models referred to by the theorist are as follows: Jacques Derrida’s dissemination, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s rhizome, and Luce Irigaray’s efflorescence. The metaphors and images present in the works of the above-mentioned critics, such as fecund, fertile and meandering interpretation; rhizomatic, nonlinear, multiplicity-affirming, actively sense-making reading; and climbing plant-like quality have opened us to the possibility of conceptualizing plant-moving as a notion to be employed in our further work. We acted on the contention that the plant-moving that we worked towards would be derivative of plant-reading and plant-thinking and as such it would not be determined by any specific beginning/origin, source or aim. Instead, it would be efficacious, proliferative, profligate, chaotic, symbiotic, and relational. Obviously, such assumptions require posing numerous questions concerning the characteristics of a given vegetal organism, primarily the specificity of its movement.

Moving-together with plants

Considering moving-together with plants, one is bound to ask what constitutes the movement of plants, what it derives from, and what activates a given plant. Attempting to find answers is possible on condition that we consider plants to be active, sensate, and communicative beings. Such a definition of plants is not limited to the above-mentioned post-anthropocentric and pre-modern epistemologies, but it also constitutes the research object of plant neurobiology, otherwise known as a science of the behaviour and signalling of plants. Leading representatives of the field include Daniel Chamovitz, Stefano Mancuso, Monica Gagliano, and Anthony Trewavas. Contemporary research, which corroborates the existence of sensory sensitivity in plants, as well as memory, their ability to acquire knowledge, communicate and react adaptively to environmental stress, and even intelligence, enables one to comprehend the motor motivation of plants. Such research-based data prevents one from “mocking” plants, i.e., unintentionally caricaturing the observed movement of plants. Simultaneously, it constitutes a point of departure for further reflection on and practice of moving-together with plants.

Michael Marder, the above-mentioned philosopher of plant life, warns against equating the projection of human experience onto a vegetal entity with empathy towards plants[10]. However, despite his pronouncement, we assumed that within the remit of choreographic and dance practices, which based on the problematization of corporeal coexistence as they are, empathy is typified by an affective, bodily, and pre-conceptual dimension. When the practice of affective empathy for a plant is accompanied by “deep contextual and critical knowledge about the object of our care”[11], then what transpires is commitment coupled with openness to the uniqueness of another entity (in this regard, a plant) and willingness to get to know it. Still, two aspects related to the development of the practice of intimacy remain problematic: the impossibility of portraying our partner (plant partner) in all its spatial expanse and the incompatible temporality of human and vegetal beings.

The human body, porous and permeable as it may be, is after all limited, insulated from the outside world by a reactive membrane. Furthermore, each human organism is specific and genetically unique. When we consider the DNA configuration as a marker of individual distinction, the borders of vegetal existence become problematic. This is undoubtedly related to the reproductive technique typical of plants: asexual reproduction (vegetative propagation). When it comes to the fragmentation of thallus, reproduction by tubers and bulbs, rhizomes and stolons, gemmae, turions, spores and endospores, the new plant remains – genetically speaking – the same plant, regardless of the spatial distance between the two “individuals.” In other words, a plant that reproduces vegetatively is not only – given the human perspective – almost unlimited but also, through proliferation and generation of clones – eternal.

In consequence, the human being tackles the almost unfathomable spatial and temporal expanse of the life of an individual plant. The unsymmetrical or incompatible human and plant temporalities have thus become particularly problematic with regard to motion-based practice: the temporal aspect, temporality and timing are of utmost importance as far as dance and choreography are concerned. Over time vegetal beings have developed complex motor reactions in response to biotic and abiotic factors. Tropisms, nastic movements, taxes, nutation and other motions[12] occur as a reaction to diverse environmental changes: solar day and annual cycles, availability of water, soil density, wind intensity, proximity and access to other plants and objects, touch, and many other factors. Altogether, they impact the general condition of a given plant and its motor functions, thereby defining the rhythm and pace of its life and making it strikingly dissimilar to human life.

Reflecting on and practising moving-with plants are likely to become easier when we apply the category of “transcorporeality”, as proposed by Stacy Alaimo[13]. To her mind, on the corporeal plain (on the plain of the sensitive and desirous matter) the human is inextricably entangled with the non-human, encompassing not only the bodies of plants and insects, but also “the bodies” of soil, water, toxins, and nuclear powerplants. Bodily natures are not separated from each other. Nor do they have clearly demarcated borders – they fluidly segue into one another. Their activities and relations are unpredictable, and for that matter they are often undesirable. Transcorporeality presupposes the dynamic intertwining and permeating of diverse material agencies and bodily natures, implying a motion that pervades all bodies[14]; movement plexuses involve bodies of different sizes (e.g., both microbes and magnetic storms) as well as belonging to different traditional orders – “economic, political, cultural, scientific, and material.”[15] Thus, moving-together with plants within the transcorporeal spacetime necessitates our taking into consideration the environment that we generate together, in which different bodies pursue their own particular interests. The temporal dimension of transcorporeality is problematised among others in the context of geological phenomena: entanglements and exchanges take place not only as a result of the physical permeation of bodies, but also due to their temporal intertwinements. Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Lowen Walker posit “the temporal frame of ‘thick time’ – a transcorporeal stretching between present, future, and past.”[16] I am yet to return to this idea, discussing the notion of the phylogenesis of humans in the context of “becoming-plant.”

Is it possible for us to move together when we are immersed in two incompatible temporalities? How can we move together when it is hardly possible for us to think about and experience our vegetal partner in their own temporal and spatial entirety?

Such problems come to the fore in many artistic projects problematizing human and plant relations. A significant number of contemporary practices that focus on performance with plants amount to mimicry, repetition, and mirroring of movements of a given plant, observed through the intermediary of cutting-edge video-recording technologies, such as time-lapse, which allows one to discern any “latent” movement, otherwise imperceptible to the human eye. Such projects employ the principle of repetition and mirroring of the trajectory of plant movements. As a result, the movements of the plant and the human being are not contemporaneous with each other, and the viewers are offered but a mere illusion of movements shared by the human and the plant.

Together with Siniarska, we were interested in a different type of motion-based practice, whose aim was to establish an intimate relationship with a plant on the basis of knowledge concerning the biological, communicative, and social rationale behind movement. Mindfulness and intimacy have to start with questions regarding what constitutes vegetal movement, what triggers a given plant, and what in turn a given plant triggers. Moving-with-plants is possible on condition (1) that empathetic and mindful translation of motivations accompanying vegetal entities (“non-conscious intentionality”, as Marder terms them) into motivations comprehensible to humans takes place, (2) and that the agency of other factors (bodies) participating in the joint dynamic world-making is duly acknowledged.

Rendering movement plant-like, plantifying the self

The quest to find the possible ways of moving-together of the human and the plant does not exhaust the question of our relations with vegetal beings within dance and choreographic practice. As forms of art, dance and choreography do not just experiment with the possible relations and configurations of bodies, but also problematise the moving body per se, asking questions about, among others, the body’s temporality: its emergence, becoming-Other, and exhaustion. The concept of becoming-Other was proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari[17]. Becoming-plant, rooted in that concept, necessitates locating a plant-like element in the self, one that is close to the vegetal. The human body may be rendered plant-like, or plantified, relative to other bodies, for vegetality is formed and emerges in the mental or somatic experience of entwined bodies-beings[18].

Along with Siniarska, we tackled the problem of how, or with what instruments, one can render oneself, or the human body, plant-like. And then we wondered whether rendering oneself plant-like might enable or facilitate moving with the plant, rather than alongside it or opposite it. The starting point for our quest was the Body Mind Centering (BMC©) system of somatic practice, a somatic education method devised by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen we were both familiar with through numerous workshops. The key part of this method is the unity of sensation (experiencing) and cognition. The key factor is the awareness of the body, its elements and layers, cells, skeleton, fascia, fluids, skin, and the connections between these systems. Body work entails recognising, distinguishing, and integrating various types of tissues and substances, examining the specificity of the movement that originates from each of these, and learning how the individual layers, tissues, or elements were transformed in the developmental process. “One of the basic techniques is developmental movement, in which one uses among others primal movements”[19]. Our project of ‘the vegetal BMC’ is founded on one of the basic premises of the BMC: what is important for the practice of developmental movement is both the ontogenetic development, or the personal development of the human child, and – more interestingly in this context – the phylogenetic development, or the evolution of species, from monocellular to complex multicellular organisms. The process of phylogenesis showcases the concept of “thick time” working in the evolution of species: inscriptions are made on bodies, and those inscriptions can be read. One of the ways in which this can be done is a third-person biogenetic analysis. Another is a first-person, performative, corporeal reading.

An important element of the ‘guide’ to the practitioners of archaeology of the body is the serial endosymbiosis theory, first proposed in the early 20th century by Konstantin Mereschkowski and developed in the 1960s by Lynn Margulis[20]. In a nutshell, the organelles of a eukaryotic cell (a multicellular organism) formed as a result of endosymbiosis, single-cell organisms (such as proteobacteria or cyanophyta) engulfing each other. In the genealogical perspective, it is plant rather than animal cells that performed most of the ‘effort’, becoming the latest – among endosymbiotic cells – example of environmental co-evolution. It can be stated that the emergence of multicellular chlorophyllous autotrophs was the crowning point of endosymbiosis.

Returning to the project of the ‘vegetal BMC’, the practice of developmental movement allows us to work through the movement patterns present in echinoderms, chordates, arthropods, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. We propose going back in time up to the moment when the first eukaryotic cell engulfs a photosynthesising prokaryotic cell. The process of rendering movement and ourselves plant-like requires imagination. Ideokinesis[21], which is what we are talking about, is the process of effecting bodily transformation with the help of mental images (the term ‘mental image’ subsumes not just to visual images, but also the derivatives of other sensual modalities). The image causes an array of reactions, which are in turn reflected in bodily processes; the simulation of an action engages the resources responsible for actually performing the action[22]. Spurred by these images, we perform micro-movements, and other, non-motor activities are triggered, such as the secretion of liquids.

The movement patterns of a photo-synthesising eukaryotic cell can be reconstructed with recourse to insights from evolutionary biology. The imagination and movement practice of BMC© allows the practitioners to experience the movement of the last eukaryotic ancestor of the plant and the human being. It can also be used to ‘trace’ the evolution lines that developed simultaneously to one another, especially the line that yielded the vascular plants as its most sophisticated form.

Translated by

Małgorzata Paprota
and Bartosz Wójcik

References

[1] Cf. “Worlding”, in New Materialism: Almanac, (accessed: 17 December 2019).

[2] Cf. R. Braidotti, M. Hlavajova, Posthuman Glossary, Bloomsbury Academic, London — Oxford — New York — New Delhi — Sydney 2018; D. H. Coole, S. Frost (eds.), New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Duke University Press, Durham, London 2010; O. Cielemęcka, M. Rogowska-Stangret (eds.), Feministyczne nowe materializmy. Usytuowane kartografie, Wydawnictwo e-naukowiec, Lublin 2018; M. Marder, Plant-thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, Columbia University Press, New York 2013; M. Hall, Plants as Persons. A Philosophical Botany, State University of New York Press, Albany 2011.

[3] The issue of human-plant intimacy was the object of our work in Berlin during my study visit as part of the AIR Wro programme, Mobility 7, Strefa Kultury [Zone of Culture] in February 2019, as well as during a week residency by Agata Siniarska, entitled Roślin(tym)ność / Plantimacy and carried out at the BWA Awangarda Gallery in Wrocław in May 2019.

[4] Cf. J. H. Wandersee, E. E. Schussler, “Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness”, Plant Science Bulletin 47(1), 2001, pp. 2-9.

[5] Cf. A. Konczal, “Telling (hi)stories in the Anthropocene: When Forest is Multispecies Relation”, in Posthuman Dialogues in International Relations, eds. E. Cudworth, S. Hobden, E. Kavalski, Routledge 2017.

[6] Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology ECNH, The Dignity of Living Beings with regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for their Own Sake, Berne 2008.

[7] M. Marder, “What Is Plant-Thinking?”, Klēsis — Revue philosophique 25, 2013, p. 124.

[8] E. P. Miller, The Vegetative Soul. From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine, State University of New York Press, Albany 2002, p. 182.

[9] Ibidem, p. 183.

[10] Cf. M. Marder, “The Life of Plants and the Limits of Empathy”, Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review 51(2), 2012, pp. 259-273.

[11] T. van Dooren, “Care”, Environmental Humanities 5, 2014, p. 293, (accessed: 21 March 2021).

[12] Cf. B. Bukała, Biologia. Fizjologia roślin, Wydawnictwo Szkolne Omega, Kraków 2012.

[13] S. Alaimo, Bodily Natures. Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2010.

[14] Ibidem, p. 2.

[15] Ibidem, p. 20.

[16] A. Neimanis; R. L. Walker, “Weathering. Climate Change and the ‘Thick Time’ of Transcorporeality”, Hypatia 29(3), 2014, p. 558.

[17] G. Deleuze, F. Guattari, Tysiąc plateau, ed. J. Bednarek, preface: M. Herer, collective translation, Fundacja Nowej Kultury Bęc Zmiana, Warszawa 2015; in particular, chapter 10: “1730 — stawanie się intensywnym, stawanie się zwierzęciem, stawanie-się-niedostrzegalnym”, pp. 281-376.

[18] K. Houle, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral”, Symposium 19(2), 2015, p. 98.

[19] Body-Mind Centering® Somatic Movement Education in Poland, “About BMC®” (tab), (accessed: 14 March 2019).

[20] Cf. L. Margulis, Symbiotyczna planeta, trans. M. Ryszkiewicz, Wydawnictwo CiS, Warszawa 2000.

[21] Cf. E. Franklin, Świadomość ciała. Wykorzystanie obrazów mentalnych w pedagogice ruchu, trans. Z. Zembaty, Kined, Warszawa 2007; A. Bernard, W. Steinmüller, U. Stricker, Ideokinesis: A Creative Approach to Human Movement and Body Alignment, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley 2006.

[22] B. Bałaj, “Umysłowa symulacja z wykorzystaniem wyobraźni motorycznej. Przegląd teorii i badań”, in Obrazy w umyśle. Studia nad percepcją i wyobraźnią, ed. P. Francuz, Scholar, Warszawa 2007.