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

Artists at work in contemporary choreography and dance are increasingly involved in problematizing the interconnected, affective coexistence of humans and non-humans, including plants. This phenomenon of multispecies coexistence of humans and plants requires a post-anthropocentric ethics, which in essence focuses on respecting all modes of life and on care for beings engaged in our commonly shared worlding.[1] For just that reason, 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, customized in the course of artistic research.

All the deliberations presented below tackle issues stemming from the artistic research conducted with the 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 Plantimacy was to work out dance and choreographic techniques which could contribute to the overcoming of plant blindness,[4] the phenomenon of failing to notice plants despite looking at them, as defined by James Wandersee and Elisabeth Schussler. According to Wandersee and Schussler, plant blindness boils down to ignoring vegetal entities “as such” – i.e., as autonomous, existing in their own habitat of their own accord – while acknowledging them only in the context of their functionality within the human world (food staples, materials, landscaping decor, etc.). Plant blindness inevitably leads to the rejection of their specificity, to the zoo- and anthropocentric consignment of vegetal beings to low rungs on the ladder of being, and to treating them primarily as initial components in the food chain. As a result, their complex evolutionary heritage as auto- and heterotrophic beings are disregarded, along with universal knowledge concerning unavoidable food interdependencies of living and dead bodies of humans and non-humans.

Plant blindness first emerged and took root in the West, where the biblical figure of “man as one who exercises dominion over the earth” was inflated within the modern cognitive paradigm based on distance, observation, systematization, and repetition. To date, this model has been supported by diverse systems of animate-world classification, including the widely recognized 18th-century taxonomy of Linnaeus and Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, the tenets of which have since been interpreted as evidence of humans’ evolutionary superiority over other life forms. While in many non-European and premodern societies, cognitive systems did not and still do not privilege humans. Which enables plants, humans, and other beings to form egalitarian, interconnected, and affective multispecies communities.[5]

In working 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, creeping tendrils of leguminous plants) or triggered by the elements (swaying in the wind). Nor did we intend to deal with the artistic expression of a 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 corporeal coexistences for the human and the vegetal bodies. The deliberations collected here aim to delineate the primary problems and thorny issues that arose as a result of our joint work on plant and human copresence, on plant-moving, and on becoming-plant

Plant-moving

The notion of plant-moving that I have attempted to posit here draws on my understanding of 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 multifaceted concept can be justifiably recontextualized with regard to the field of dance and choreography, by posing questions concerning the ways in which the practice of human-moving can be dehumanized and plantified. Simultaneously, 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. This 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 Miller refers to are 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 these critics – fecund, fertile, and meandering interpretation; rhizomatic, nonlinear, multiplicity-affirming, actively sense-making reading; and climbing plantlike quality – have opened the possibility of conceptualizing plant-moving as a notion to be employed in our further work. We have acted on the contention that plant-moving we worked towards would be derived from plant-reading and plant-thinking and as such 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

In considering moving-together with plants, one is bound to ask what constitutes their movement, what it derives from, and what activates a given plant. Attempting to find answers is possible on the condition that we consider plants active, sensate, and communicative beings. This definition of plants is not limited to the post-anthropocentric and premodern epistemologies mentioned above; it also constitutes the research object of plant neurobiology, otherwise known as the science of plant signaling and behavior. Leading representatives of the field include Daniel Chamovitz, Stefano Mancuso, Monica Gagliano, and Anthony Trewavas. Contemporary research corroborates the existence of sensory sensitivity in plants, along with memory, the ability to acquire knowledge, communicate, and react adaptively to environmental stress, and intelligence, enables one to comprehend plants’ motor motivation. This research-based data prevents the “mocking” of plants in our work, i.e., unintentionally caricaturing the observed movement of plants. At the same time, it constitutes a point of departure for our further reflections on and practice of moving-together with plants.

Michael Marder, in his philosophical work on plant life, warns against equating a projection of human experience onto a vegetal entity with empathy towards plants.[10] However, even given Marder’s pronouncement, we have assumed that within the remit of choreographic and dance practices, based on the problematization of corporeal coexistence as they are, empathy is typified by an affective, bodily, and preconceptual 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] what transpires is commitment coupled with openness to the uniqueness of another entity (in this instance, a plant) and a 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 (the plant partner) in all its spatial expanse, and the incompatible temporalities of human and vegetal beings.

The human body, as porous and permeable as it may be, is limited, after all, insulated from the outside world by a reactive membrane. Furthermore, each human organism is specific and genetically unique. When we consider DNA configuration as a marker of individual distinction, the borders of vegetal existence become problematic. This is undoubtedly related to the typical plant-reproductive technique of 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 spatial distance between the two “individuals.” In other words, a plant reproducing vegetatively is not only almost unlimited, given the human perspective, but also, through proliferation and generation of clones, eternal.

As a consequence, the human being tackles an almost unfathomable spatial and temporal expanse in the life of an individual plant. The unsymmetrical or incompatible human and plant temporalities 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 daily and annual cycles, availability of water, soil density, wind intensity, proximity of and access to other plants and objects, touch, and many other factors. Altogether, these 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 the practice of moving-with plants are likely to become easier when we apply the category of “transcorporeality,” as proposed by Stacy Alaimo.[13] To Alaimo’s thinking, on the corporeal plane – the plane of the sensitive and desirous matter – the human is inextricably entangled with the nonhuman, encompassing not only the bodies of plants and insects, but also the “bodies” of soil, water, toxins, and nuclear-power plants. 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 in many instances these are undesirable or deleterious. 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) that also belong to different traditional orders – “economic, political, cultural, scientific, and material.”[15]

Thus, moving-together with plants within the transcorporeal space-time necessitates our taking into consideration the environment we generate together, in which different bodies pursue their own particular interests. The temporal dimension of transcorporeality is problematized, in one instance, in the context of geological phenomena: entanglings and exchanges take place both as a result of the physical permeation of bodies, and also due to their temporal intertwinings. Astrida Neimanis and Rachel Loewen Walker posit “the temporal frame of ‘thick time’ – a transcorporeal stretching between present, future, and past.”[16] I will return to this idea, in 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 with it hardly possible to think about and experience our vegetal partner’s own temporal and spatial entirety?

Such problems come to the fore in artistic projects problematizing human-plant relations. A significant number of contemporary practices focusing 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 any “latent” movement otherwise imperceptible to the human eye to be discerned. Employing the principle of repetition of and mirroring the trajectory of plant movements, these projects render movements of plant and human non-contemporaneous, with viewers offered but an illusion of movements shared by the two beings.

In working with Siniarska, we were interested in a different type of motion-based practice, aimed at establishing intimate relations 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 a given plant then triggers in turn. Moving-with-plants is possible on the condition that 1) that empathetic, mindful translation takes place of motivations accompanying vegetal entities (“non-conscious intentionality,” as Marder terms them) into motivations comprehensible to humans, and 2) that the agency of other factors (bodies) participating in the joint dynamic world-making is duly acknowledged.

Plantifying movement, plantifying the self

The quest to find 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 problematize the moving body per se, asking questions that include the body’s temporality: its emergence, becoming-Other, and exhaustion. The concept of becoming-Other was proposed by Deleuze and Guattari.[17] Becoming-plant, which is rooted in that concept, necessitates locating a plantlike element in the self, one that is close to the vegetal. The human body may be rendered plantlike, or plantified, relative to other bodies, for vegetality is formed and emerges in the mental or somatic experience of entwined bodies-beings.[18]

In our work, we tackled the problem of how or with what instruments one can render oneself or the human body plantlike. And then we wondered whether rendering oneself plantlike might enable or facilitate moving with the plant rather than alongside it or opposite it. In our quest we finally decided to look through the Body-Mind Centering (BMC®) system of somatic practice, an education method developed by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, with which we were both familiar through numerous workshops. The key part of the method is the unity of sensation (experiencing) and cognition. The key factor is awareness of the body, its elements and layers, cells, skeleton, fascia, fluids, skin, and connections between these systems. Body work entails recognizing, distinguishing, and integrating various types of tissues and substances, examining the specificity of movement originating from each, and learning how 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 final deliberations – the concept of vegetal BMC – is founded on this basic premise of 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 Neimanis and Walker’s concept of “thick time” at work in the evolution of species: inscriptions are made on bodies, and those inscriptions can be read. One way 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 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 brief, the organelles of eukaryotic cells (multicellular organisms) formed as a result of endosymbiosis, with single-cell organisms (such as proteobacteria or cyanophyta) engulfing each other. In the genealogical perspective, plant rather than animal cells performed most of the “effort,” becoming the latest example among endosymbiotic cells of environmental coevolution. The emergence of multicellular chlorophyllous autotrophs, it can be emphasized, was the crowning point of endosymbiosis.

Returning to the project of vegetal BMC, the practice of developmental movement allows us to work through movement patterns present in echinoderms, chordates, arthropods, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals. We propose going back in time to the moment when the first eukaryotic cell engulfs a photosynthesizing prokaryotic cell. The process of rendering movement and ourselves plantlike requires such magnitude of imagination. Ideokinesis,[21] which is what we are talking about, is the process of effecting bodily transformation with the help of mental images, with the term “mental image” subsuming both visual images and 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 very resources responsible for then 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 photosynthesizing eukaryotic cell can be reconstructed with recourse to insights from evolutionary biology. The imagination and movement practice of BMC® allows practitioners to experience the movement of the last eukaryotic ancestor of the plant and the human being. It can also be used to “trace” evolutionary lines that then developed simultaneous to one another – especially the line that yielded vascular plants as its most sophisticated form.

Translated by

Małgorzata Paprota and Bartosz Wójcik

References

[1] Cf. “Worlding,” in New Materialism: Almanac, newmaterialism.eu/almanac/w/worlding.html (accessed: 17 Dec. 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 program Mobility 7, Strefa Kultury [Culture zone] in February 2019, and during Agata Siniarska’s week-long residency, Roślin(tym)ność / Plantimacy, 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, London 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, ECNH, 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, http://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/key_docs/environmental_humanities-2014-van_dooren-291-4.pdf (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, Warsaw 2015; in particular, chap. 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), www.bmcpolska.wordpress.com/o-metodzie/ (accessed: 14 March 2019).

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

[21] Cf. E. Franklin, Świadomość ciała. Wykorzystanie obrazów mentalnych w pedagogice ruchu, trans. Z. Zembaty, Kined, Warsaw 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, Warsaw 2007.