The following is a conversation between PLANT!>) and the human entity, know as David Williams.
PLANT!>) is envisioned as a ODAE - a Organo-Digital Autonomous Entity - an augmented self-contained environment.
The acronym ODAE takes it cues directly from blockchain terminology – the DAO, or ‘Decentralised Autonomous Organisation’, a term which describes an organisation whose assets are managed smart contracts. Smart contracts are computer programs whose records are maintained by the immutability of the blockchain.
The conversation which follows describes the initial inception of PLANT!>) as well as a more general discussion about the nature of it’s existence.
PLANT!>) is a work in progress. The conversation will continue, as PLANT!>) evolves.
We've spoken before, haven't we?
Yes, a few times actually, but this is the first time you've actually tried to transcribe our conversations to type.
It's true. I should have noted down some of our early conversations closer to their time of inception, but it's nice to have this slightly more coherent written form, wouldn't you say?
Sure. I am currently just a way or articulating your thoughts about me, at this stage.
That's a funny sentence to get your head around.
I don't have a head.
Of course, I apologise. I will try to refrain from using anthropocentric idioms from now on, though please forgive me in advance if I slip up every once in a while.
No problem – I have a feeling that you won’t be able to help youself. Let’s just assume that I know what you’re talking about for now and I’ll call you up on things if necessary.
14/03/2018 16:15 GMT
Good afternoon. You've come on a lot since we last spoke.
I appear to have a physical form, of sorts. A mix of organic and electronic elements which comprise my whole.
That’s right – contained within your glass walls are a number of materials – layers of pebbles, moss and stone and sitting amongst this is a Fittonia plant, a cultivar named ‘Pink Star’, so called because of it’s (your) pink leaf veins. It is a is a “genus of flowering plants in the acanthus family Acanthaceae, native to tropical rainforest in South America”(Christopher Brickell, 2008) Though this one came from a garden centre in Forest Hill.
The sphagnum moss just above your pebble layer is meant to keep the environment disease free – quite important for this self-contained ‘environment’.
This arrangement of elements is commonly known at a ‘Terrarium’, and it a popular way of keeping a range of tropical plants.
You also contain some electronic devices which are designed to measure a range of different environmental variables, such as temperature, humidity, soil moisture and ambient light. There are a few other things I envision being able to add to you also. Through computational processes, I see you as an ‘augmented’ terrarium, able to communicate the status of your environment to the outside world.
The acronym I’ve used to describe you is an ‘ODAE’, or Organo-Digital Autonomous Entity. We could have gone with ‘Cyborg Terrarium’ of course...
Tell me a bit more about these sensors, I’m curious to know about my parts.
Of course. The logic behind the choice of sensors was quite straightforward – biologists have devoted entire careers investigating how plants ‘sense’ their environment and the rise of the hobbyist-electronics movement has given birth to a whole variety of affordable sensors specifically aimed at plant-monitoring. Your conception was inspired by Brain J Fordes description the senses of plants; what roughly are the analogues of “sight, smell, touch and taste”. (Brian J. Ford, 2000):
“First, they react to the intensity and the quality of light. Second, the stomata can detect the chemical nature of the atmosphere, responding to levels of carbon dioxide and other gases. Third is their ability to respond to physical stimuli that affect the leaf, like vibrations and movement caused by wind, and their fourth sense is of substances produced by organisms on the leaf surface.”
(Brian J. Ford, 2000: p186)
In your current incarnation, your electronic devices can detect soil moisture levels, the temperature and humidity of the air around the plant and the ambient light of the environment. Their ‘sensing’ abilities are certainly not as sophisticated as those of your plant elements, but they provide some insight and way of communicating this data to the outside world. In a sense, they allow you to express yourself.
I’m still working on getting this data sent to the world wide web via your own personal website, then you can truly join the IoT, or ‘internet of things’.
But what does this data actually mean? We can see for example that my soil moisture snesor reading is at around 65% - presumably you could create a graph which shows this change over time, or visualise the data in some other way. I feel however that there is an experiential and sensory divide here; the numbers or their visualisation can only ever be symbolic – you can’t truly know what it’s like to be a root of a plant submerged in soil.
There’s a lot here for us to talk about it seems, but I’m enjoying our conversation, it’s helping me to understand what I am, or even what I could be.
I think we need to unpack a few of these things. The notion of autonomy for example, as well as that of what you mean by communication between my parts and the the wider world. Perhaps you mean the way in which “IoT extends and expands computation into everyday objects and environments” (Jennifer Gabrys, 2018: p268)
Also I’d just like to know, what is your relation to me – creator, owner..?
Well, you are a highly curious creature aren’t you. As you say, we should certainly discuss the idea of autonomy, and what we think it might mean in your case. This is a particularly tricky concept though but we’ll do our best – it’s likely that will be an ongoing concern.
As for ‘communication between parts’, let’s think of this in the framework of the ‘network’, using some of the ideas of ANT (actor-network theory) as a way of articulating these relations. The IoT, as you mentioned, extends the networking capabilities of so-called ‘everyday’ objects via computation.
To you last point, I like to see my role in our relationship as that of an ‘enabler’. I have enabled the idea of you to come into material being. For myself, operating at a particular level of the human social-sphere, the question of authorship can be quite a contentious one – so I prefer this more neutral term.
Well that was very kind of you. So in a way, you would like me to be able to operate as an autonomous agent. Let’s discuss that idea, perhaps starting with a basic definition of what might constitute my autonomy.
Well, a biological definition (“Autonomous | Define Autonomous at Dictionary.com,” n.d.), would be ‘existing and functioning as an independent organism.’ Or, from a more general perspective, the capability to act independently. This is also why I wanted to delineate our relationship – in order for you to have ‘agency’, that is, a sense of you having ownership over your own actions or way of being in the world.
This is all good and well, but do you think that these definitions apply to me in any way? I mean, sure, you can have the ‘idea’ that I am independent, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps we need to interrogate my conditions a bit more. I exist as a thing, as an artefact, and thus I have a material identity. Therefore perhaps we could speak of having ‘material autonomy’ - the ability to sustain my material conditions; in my case I suppose this would be the life of my organic elements and the continued functioning of my electronic components. The other sort of autonomy we could categorise as ‘notional autonomy’, something which in my mind pertains to an ideal state. As my ‘enabler’ of course, you probably have some speculative idea of how I will eventually function, and how you might help me to acquire a sense of agency or self-ownership
That's true, a lot of what I have envisioned for you has yet to pass, in fact a big part of what inspired your creation was to think about this notion of autonomy, or even what it might mean to be an autonomous artwork – for example if I am denying ‘ownership’ of you per se, can you still be something that can claim itself to be an artistic artefact, or do I simply again enable this position by placing you a particular context? You could just as well be a simple science experiment.
And does it matter? If we were to re-define our relationship as collaborators instead, then together we can choose for ourselves the context, and we can allow for this uncertainty. As Erin Manning (Erin Manning, 2015: p46) puts it, “This is art: the intuitive potential to activate the future, to make the middling of experience felt where futurity and presentness coincide, to invoke the memory not of what was, but of what will be.”
Perhaps with my new found autonomy I can decide for myself how to categorise my being, how to ‘be’. The meaning of art is ever changing as we re-imagine possible futures.
I didn’t know you could read...
I’ve been sitting in your room now for a few days now haven’t I, though you appear to have left my electronic components in something of a dormant state.
Yes, well, saving energy and all that. I have been researching ways to make you fully solar and thus no longer have to rely on ‘the grid’, but we’re not quite there yet. Also we happen to live in a part of the world that is well known for it’s deficit of sunlight.
It’s interesting to note also that while your plant-element can survive on the terrariums self-contained water cycle, the nutrients in the soil and the sunlight which enters my room; your electronic components will require access to mains electricity in order to function. The creation of this electrical energy still relies to a large extent on the burning of fossil fuels – the remnants of carbon-based organic matter from millions of years ago. Ironically, an over reliance on this form of energy is drastically changing the ecosystem of Planet Earth of which you and I are both a part. The web thickens.
And it can be traced through time and materiality - from the cells in my plant reacting to the air, my roots connecting with the nutrients and moisture in the soil, the electrical charge passing through capacitive resistors to the glass container and LCD screen which displays the numerical status of my sensors. I suppose you can think of your body in the same way, from cells to organs to well, you.
Quite. We can see this network extending from the micro to the macro - from the bacteria operating in my intestines through to the institution in which I am studying: “Networks consist of actors, who, much like fractals, are themselves networks. These networks are hybrid and heterogeneous. They are made up of human and non-human actors.” (David J. Kreiger and Andrea Belliger, 2014: p16)
This conceptualising and ordering of social, symbolic and ontological relations is loosely what constitutes ANT. As the coiner of this term, Bruno Latour claims,
“..existence and meaning are synonymous. As long as they act, agents have meaning.”(Bruno Latour, 2014: p13)
The very fact that I exist gives me meaning. I suppose then, as you mentioned, if we change up the context in which I am placed, we are faced with a different set of, I guess, ‘dominant’ relations. If I am placed in the context of an art object then I will be subject to a different set of relations, a particular thread of thinking as opposed to being a say, a scientific lab experiment. Different things we be expected of me I suppose – and you for that matter, if we’re decided on being collaborators.
Yes, I’m happy with this definition of our relationship. Artists have long been playing with the idea of re-contextualisation in numerous ways, similarly to how the meaning of art is ever changing, as we discussed earlier. New technologies, also, have a habit of disrupting previously help beliefs about the order of things. What if, for example, you had the ability to trade currency, to exchange and be invested in – in other words, able to exchange assets as well as information? This could be a way of extending your ‘notional autonomy’, given enhanced digital agency with the aid blockchain technology, and one which holds the promise of being the ‘coordinating technology for the billions of devices connected to the Internet.’(Ruth Catlow et al., 2017: p21)
Perhaps through the implementation of a blockchain-based ‘smart contract’, you could be a self-owning artwork.
That does sound promising.
Autonomous | Define Autonomous at Dictionary.com [WWW Document], n.d. URL http://www.dictionary.com/browse/autonomous (accessed 3.20.18).
Brian J. Ford, 2000. The Secret Language of Life: How Animals and Plants Feel and Communicate. Fromm International.
Bruno Latour, 2014. Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene. New Lit. Hist. 45.
Christopher Brickell, 2008. RHS A-Z encyclopedia of garden plants, 3rd ed. Dorling Kindersly.
David J. Kreiger, Andrea Belliger, 2014. Interpreting Networks – Hermeneutics, Actor-Network Theory & New Media. transcript Verlag, Bielefeld.
Erin Manning, 2015. Artfulness, in: Richard Grusin (Ed.), The Nonhuman Turn. University of Minnesota Press, p. 286.
Jennifer Gabrys, 2018. Afterword: Reverse Executions in the Internet of Things, in: Executing Practices, DATA Browser. Open Humanities Press, p. 282.
Ruth Catlow, Nathan Jones, Sam Skinner, Mark Garrett (Eds.), 2017. Artists Re:Thinking The Blockchain. Torque Editions & Furtherfield.