Knowing plants: Practicing vegetal curiosity in arts and social sciences

How can we co-create knowledge with plants? How can academic researchers and art practitioners collaborate to consider practice-based approaches to studying plants?

From tree-based climate solutions, green infrastructure or plant-based diets, to ecosystem services and biotechnological innovations, more hope than ever is being invested in plants to help address environmental, social and economic crises. At the same time, profound advances in plant science have revealed plants to be intelligent, adaptive and creative beings. Plants are not just objects, they have their own forms of subjectivity and sociality. The recent ‘plant turn’ in the humanities and social sciences has been driven by curiosity about what plants can do, how their powers are harnessed by social actors, and how arts practice might inspire alternative ways to relating to vegetal worlds.

What will the project involve? 

The purpose of this project is to investigate how we know plants, with a focus on arts practice and engaged social research with plants and their people that takes planty-ness seriously. A one-day workshop will examine different forms of creative practice, reflect on connective themes across different empirical contexts, and explore possibilities for future collaborations. This builds on the applicants’ successful collaboration in the Brigstow project ‘Growing Liveable Worlds’ (2023). It also builds on Franklin Ginn’s ongoing engagement in the plant turn (e.g. previous invited talks in London, Berlin and Sweden, a co-edited book) and will put Bristol ‘on the map’ in this emerging field.

The project will invite five arts practitioners and five academics to Bristol for a one-day workshop, to consider practice-based approaches to studying plants. The participants come from diverse disciplines and types of arts practice. The team are specifically looking to inspire, generate and capture the conversations that can happen when people with shared interests are all together in conversation whilst sharing the same space. The day will consist of short presentations and a facilitated open space session.

The second component of the project is a period of practice-based research to develop a series of sculptural objects and videos. These will be used within the workshop, as prompts for discussion/dialogues and feeding into the conversations. This component of the project will exemplify the values of curiosity and the travel between scientific knowledge and cultural imaginaries of plant life.

This project will employ a series of microscopic/lab-based imaging techniques in order to model HydroPoetic plants at the microscale and bring these to the human-scale. To bring these virtual plant-based forms into objects that can then be touched and held, Katy will work with 3D printing in PLA and ceramics, using facilities at STEAMhouse Birmingham. These sculptures will feed into the workshop: as concrete examples of sensory, instrumental and affective entanglements between human, vegetal and biotechnological spheres.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Franklin Ginn (Cultural 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.
  • Hannah Pitt (Geography, Cardiff University) currently researching skills and work in commercial horticulture.  She explores interactions between community, places, and sustainability. She focuses on these in the contexts of food systems, and engagement with outdoor spaces.
  • Giulia Carabelli (Politics, Queen Mary University London) is currently researching plantfluencers. Giulia is the IHSS Programme Director in Environmental Futures (climate change as socio-cultural phenomenon). In this role, she has developed a 2-year programme of activities geared towards the consolidation of a space at Queen Mary that can gather, platform and support individuals interested in thinking about the future of the environment through plants.
  • Sandra Calkins (Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin) is a researcher whose work has explored how nutritional interventions and life sciences establish factual connections between agriculture and nutrition in Uganda. More concretely, it examines the evidentiary links between the construction of hidden hunger as a problem and biofortification, agricultural strategies to enrich plant genomes with nutrients, as a solution.
  • Michelle Bastian (Philosophy, Edinburgh University) researches plant temporality and works in the areas of critical time studies and environmental humanities, with a particular focus on the role of time in social processes of inclusion and exclusion.
  • Anna Lawrence (Geography, Cambridge University) is a historical and cultural geographer interested in plant-human relations and researching the socio-political lives of flowers in Victorian Britain.
  • Alice-Marie Archer is an interdisciplinary researcher working across architecture, textiles and ecology. With a background in commercial hydroponics, her current research: Knitting cultivation forms for the soilless farm is a practice-based PhD that seeks to provide a counter-story to the separation from place that industrial soilless cultivation adopts. Anna Lawrence’s Website.
  • Anna Souter is an independent writer, editor, and curator with an interest in contemporary art and ecology. Recent publications include ‘Notes towards a vegetal feminism’ (2022). Anna Souter’s Website.
  • Svenja Keune (Swedish School of Textiles) is a researcher who, after exploring electronics to create adaptive and responsive textile surfaces and communicative objects, turned to seeds as potential biological alternative and dynamic material for textile design. Svenja Keune’s Website.
  • Borbála Soós is a UK-based curator and an active advocate, participant, and organiser of artistic and ecological research. Borbála’s practice responds to, disrupts, and enriches environmental thinking and related social, political and decolonial urgencies. Borbála Soós’ Website.
  • Holly Tisdale is a storyteller in site-specific plant-themed performance.

What is to come?

This project is to be undertaken with a view to making a potential funding application for a large-scale award from an external funding body.

Additionally, the 3D reconstruction of Hydroponic plants will feedback into Dr Chris Neal’s work, particularly that of Serial Blockface Imaging Technologies being carried out at Wolfson Bioimaging Facility:

“3D printing would definitely be a first for the Wolfson laboratory – and have an impact across what we do and what we can then offer to other researchers across all disciplines. It would also be a first in our lab in terms of reconstructing stomata and the airspaces inside a leaf as well as any vasculature.” – Dr Chris Neal