Growing Liveable Worlds: Ethical Encounters Between Human and Plant Life.

What kind of future ethics will we have for living well with plants? How can technologically mediated encounters with plants be done ethically and sustainably? Will the future of space exploration require us to learn to live well with plants in novel ways?

“As she pulled back the blue and green curtain that closed off a small sleeping pod built into the wall, with just enough room for some comfortable pillows and light bedding, we looked up to a screen – which served to represent a window onto a Martian landscape – with an image of red rock and a barren land laden with dust. Katy spoke about the experience of someone living in a Martian home. She spoke about the dust storms, the implacable cold, the constant threat of radiation, all contained in that image of barren stone. It was at that point I realised the importance of a small garden space to people 109.22 million kilometres from Earth.” – Benjamin Park, Workshop Participant of ‘An Introduction to HydroPoetics’. 

What did the project involve? 

This project generated insights into new ways of living well with plant species. It did so by asking participants to experience a hydroponics technogarden, designed as a ‘Living Lab’. The project’s living lab was a living plant room set within the speculative scenario of terraforming Mars, asking: what plants would we take to Mars, and why? The project seeded and established a range of plants including fragrant herbs, flowers, those with medicinal properties, alongside seeds from plants previously used in space exploration and ancient species such as tree ferns, as part of a ‘garden kit’ that could be exported to Mars. The researchers focus was to provide participants opportunities for rich, varied and unforeseen encounters with these plants and systems.

Using strategies of artistic research, Growing Liveable Worlds considered the multiple ecological relationships between plants, automated hydroponics technologies, robotics and the human sensorium. By looking into the question of taking plants into outer space, the project sought to shed light on how we relate to plants today. The researchers built this project on three main research areas:

Valuing plants: Studies since the 1970s have shown that engaging with plants has positive impacts on human mental health and physical wellbeing. The benefit of plants ranges from passive appreciation of the benefit of indoor plants, to active activity within greenspace, to engaged growing in gardens. The researchers wanted to ask: What kind of future ethics will we have for living well with plants? Do we value them for how they help us, or can we have deeper ethical relations?

Sustainability and material resources: Despite being pushed as a technological solution to food production, vertical farming systems are resource-intensive and often made with non-biodegradable plastics. Growing Liveable Worlds experimented with a more sustainable approach to hydroponics by using alternative bio-media and introducing grey (waste) water in some of the hydroponic systems. The team asked: how can technologically mediated encounters with plants be done ethically and sustainably? What does it mean to grow plants well in these new, hi-tech systems?

Space exploration and imaginative futures: Plants are a biogeochemical force on a planetary scale: if humans develop into a multiplanetary civilisation we will need to use the power of plants to help us. The project’s Living Lab staged a science fiction scene, informed by analysis of the long-standing trope of literary and screen-based representations of plants grown hydroponically in space. The researchers wanted to ask whether the future of space exploration will require us to learn to live well with plants in novel ways?

The hydroponic technogarden sought to engage visitors and participants to reflect on wider questions of science, technology, botany, materiality and ethics. The team hoped to seed new ways to envision human-plant relations in the future, and the present.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Franklin Ginn (Geography, University of Bristol) is a Cultural Geographer. His current research concerns new understandings of plant labour and subjectivity. Previous projects include multidisciplinary studies of high-mountain agriculture in the Himalaya, plant cultures in urban Pakistan, and religious climate activism. He is author of Domestic Wild, and The Work That Plants Do, and co-Editor of the journal Environmental Humanities.
  • Katy Connor (Spike Island) is an artist and hydroponic grower who explores how bodies and experiences are reconfigured within biotechnological environments. She frequently collaborates with artists, academics and scientists: responding to laboratory research at Plymouth, Exeter and Bristol Universities and travelling to remote places, including the High Arctic. Recent co-authored articles were published in Interdisciplinary Science Reviews and NanoEthics (2020). Katy’s studio is based at Spike Island, an international centre for contemporary art in Bristol.
  • Jane Memmott (Biological Sciences, University of Bristol) is a Professor of Ecology and runs a research group that works on plants, insects, pollination, restoration ecology and invasion ecology in field sites ranging from urban Bristol to Nepal. In 2015 she was awarded the Marsh Prize for Ecology, and her Urban Pollinators team was awarded the Mayor’s Bristol Genius Prize (2013) the RSPB Conservation prize (2016) and an OBE for services to ecology and insect pollinators (2021).
  • Ella Good and Nicki Kent (Lead Artists, The Martian House) are socially engaged artists, who have been working together for over ten years. Their artworks create places where people can come together to create things that would otherwise be impossible; experiments people can invest optimistic and practical energy into. Their work uses Mars and space science as starting points to widen public imagination around sustainability and how we live.
  • Bethany Eldridge (Biological Sciences, University of Bristol) is a researcher and ) is a plant scientist interested in root-environment interactions and indoor controlled agriculture. Beth collaborates with vertical farming start-up LettUs Grow as an Innovation Fellow. Beth’s background in performing arts and dance has enabled her to lead public outreach exhibitions at Green Man Festival, Wales.

What were the results?

The team were successful in building a living technogarden. This was found in The Martian House, a public exhibition space led by Ella Good & Nicki Kent and built on M-Shed Square (July-October 2022). The Martian House was open to the public and schoolchildren (via guided tours led by M-Shed volunteers) two days a week. The hydroponic wall was installed on an upper level and accessible through participatory workshops with Katy Connor called An Introduction to Hydropoetics.

Pictures taken during ‘An Introduction to Hydropoetics’. 

Benjamin Park wrote a piece on the experience of the Hydropoetics workshop for Brigstow Blogs entitled ‘A View of Mars’.

A collaborative paper was published by Franklin Ginn and Katy Connor in the journal Cultural Geographies in Practice entitled ‘Vegetal HydroPoetics: an  arts-based practice for  plant studies’. In the paper they outline an arts-based practice of experimenting with plant growth. They describe  a  means  to  interact  with  plants  beyond  instrumentalism  and  beyond  appreciation  at  a  distance through hydroponics.  They  present  several  opening  glimpses  into  a  distinctly  plant  subjectivity that are afforded by technological mediation.

Moreover, the Martian House and the Technogarden were covered by many major news outlets: