Erika Jean Lincoln, Arboreal Intuitions, 20023. Installation view. Photo: AGSM, 2023.

Helga Jakobson | Casey Koyczan | Erika Jean Lincoln | Sylvia Matas | Taylor McArthur

Curated by Lucie Lederhendler

September 21 – November 11, 2023
Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba, Brandon

In dreams, action and movement are not confined by the rules of naming and physics that we must abide in waking life–we can see around corners, decide whether our suspicions and predictions will be correct or surprise us, and understand one thing to be many things. We can do all of this without reflection, without words. The difficulty of understanding the complex lives of plants might not be a difficulty at all if we could hold on to that oneiric state of mind. It is imagination, rather than intelligence, that confounds the division between one sort of life and another, because it is the kind of thinking that responds to itself, rather than to external, physical situations. This is thinking that wonders, anticipates, misremembers, interprets, opines, and cannot be rendered artificially.

Plants are so mundanely and obviously alive and intelligent that academic, artistic, and scientific attempts to prove so shout into the wind. One such experiment, conducted by a German lab in 1987, linked the electric impulses given off by plants to a dictionary containing 900 common words.[1] Since so many combinations of words can form meaning, the scientists were skeptical that what they had invented was a randomness generator, until following a few adjustments to the syntactical algorithm, a magnolia tree expressed the following sentiment:

Plants before all others.
Someone achieves peace in dreams,
without taming–beyond human beings.

The “before,” “beyond,” and “someone” of this phrasing is ambiguous to the point of being menacing. The security of classification systems is noticeably absent—perhaps with proper nouns the magnolia could be more literal.

A visitor listens in on Helga Jakobson’s Terrarium Soundscape, 2023. Photo: AGSM, 2023.

The artists in Oneirophyte take care to literalize their plants, and they do this by stepping back to an arm’s length and wedging an interface between themselves and their subjects. The artist is thus rendered algorithmic while the plant may add nuance to its self-expression, considering context and media as it does so. There is no question here as to whether human perception is sufficient. Not only is it insufficient, but detrimental, drowning out other ways of knowing with its hubris. The works of art are cyborgs with an artist on one end and a confounding intelligence on the other, separated by an artless mediator.

There is something of play in all the artwork in Oneirophyte due to its interactivity, the implication of the human visitor in the plant realm. In all the masses of research that have been done on plant sentience and communication, writers frequently introduce their studies with a defensive tone, and it is often directed towards the Western scholarly and scientific communities, who overwhelmingly agree that without a central cognitive system, plant intelligence is not possible. Any resemblance would be mere wordplay.

Images (left to right): Pictured, left: Casey Koyczan, įdii : past in time, 2023; Pictured, right: Submissions by the Assiniboine Community College Digital Arts and Design class of 2023. Installation view. Photo: Doug Derksen, 2023. A visitor plays Taylor McArthur’s walking simulator Line of Sight, 2021. Photo: AGSM, 2023.

But of course, all language plays with words, and the generative power of art is that it can move at the speed of play, as opposed to Western science, which moves at the speed of evidence. These artists are using digital media to think about plants for the same reason that AI technologies are being rolled out for use in creative fields: seeing what will happen is an end in itself. The tinkering, strolling, and eavesdropping of these practices creates a space that is open to more wondering. Playing with these words—“wondering,” “imagining,” “dreaming”—in proximity to plants widens the scope of all of them, makes them less material, more translucent, more alike, more singular.

There is a joke among cyberneticists about defining the discipline because it encompasses seemingly everything that has a determined structure,[2] from laws of entropy to the events of the central nervous system, from natural selection to self-replicating machines. Today, the word “cybernetics,” which shares its Greek root with “government,” provides the prefix to all things computer: cyberpunk, cyborg, cyber security. Prefixes are sub-categories that reflect a desire to get more specific. The contrary desire accounts for the work in Oneirophyte. Telling a biological story technologically creates a feedback loop–a categorization down to the electron–so massive that it might as well be everything.

Adapted from the exhibition text. Read the full essay here.

Talks and Workshops:

“Interfacing with Nature” with Helga Jakobson
Saturday, October 7, 2023, 1 PM CT | On site

3D Modelling & Printing with Derek Ford
Saturday, October 21, 2023, 1 PM CT | On site

Artist talk with Sylvia Matas
Saturday, October 28, 2023, 1 PM CT | Online

Artist talk with Casey Koyczan
Saturday, November 4, 2023, 1 PM CT | Online

Email to register for in-person workshops, and watch online talks live on our YouTube.

Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba
710 Rosser Avenue, Unit 2.
Brandon, MB. R7A 0K9

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The Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba is an accessible venue, but lacks automatic doors at all entrances. Please contact us to arrange accommodation.

1. Stefan Rieger, “Chapter 4: What’s Talking? On the Nostalgic Epistemology of Plant Communication,” in Patrícia Vieira, Monica Galiano, and John Ryan, eds. The Green Thread: Dialogue with the Vegetal World. London: Lexington Books, 2016.
2. Stafford Beer, “What is cybernetics?”, Kybernetes, Vol. 31 No. 2. 2002. pp. 209-219.