By Annette Arlander
Performing with plants is an artistic research project, which started with the question how to perform landscape today, focusing on plants and especially trees. It soon evolved into exploring what it means to be “performing with” entities unlike us. For Michael Marder “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with” (Marder 2013, 51). “Living with” is a core task for humanity (Marder 2013, 53), or, as Donna Haraway writes: “We become-with each other or not at all” (Haraway 2017, 4). Learning from plants could be a way to start. How can we live, exist, act or perform with creatures, with whom we cannot communicate directly, or even ask for their consent for posing for a camera with them?
The plant kingdom – to use a term that refers to the so called great chain of being with rocks at the bottom and humans at the top and plants just a few steps above the rocks – is so large, that it is hard to imagine any general way of performing with plants. To perform with blue algae and with a pine tree is very different, I suppose. Although we all do collaborate by exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide and other chemical substances in the atmosphere. As an artist, I take that common knowledge for granted, and leave it to colleagues working in the field bio art to figure out how to perform together on a molecular level. In my own work, I stick to the level of everyday actions, like sitting or standing in, on, with and next to trees. Since my year at the collegium is ending, it is appropriate to look at what I have been doing.
In terms of “performing with” I have tried to follow at least some basic rules of thumb in these experiments, like
• Try not to hurt the plant – choose plants that are bigger than you, stronger than you, plants that can share some of their energy with you – like trees
• Visit the plant where it grows, respect its particular relationship to place.
• Spend time with the plant, visit it repeatedly, although you cannot share the temporality of the plant, respect its relationship to time.
Most of the material generated during this project so far is archived on the Research Catalogue (RC), an online database and publication platform for artistic research, together with my plan and my presentations in various contexts. See here
Have I found something new? After all, I have worked with a specific mode of rough time-lapse videos for many years now, returning to the same spot, placing the camera on a tripod in the same place and framing the image as like as the previous ones as possible, and doing this for regular intervals, either once (or a few times) a week for a year or every two-hours or three-hours for a day and night. My basic practice has been to gather material for this type of time-lapse works in Helsinki and in Stockholm, for the duration of a year. I have visited two trees (a group of Elm trees and an alder stub) in Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki a few times every week and two trees (a sycamore in Humlegården Park and a beech in Djurgården Park) in Stockholm once a month or so. These visits are documented with video stills on the RC, but I have not yet edited the videos. Based on my earlier works I have a rough idea what to do and how it will turn out. The trees in Stockholm I will visit once more before Christmas, and the trees in Helsinki a few more times, and that is all.
I also recorded two days with specific trees, with two-hour intervals, on my travels, in August on Lofoten (Rainy Day in Rekdal) and in September in Nida on the Curonian spit (Sunday with a Pine). But that is nothing new, the technique was the same as in earlier works, only my tree partners were unfamiliar.
One thing that is new, in some sense, is a tree calendar, based on the ancient Celtic lunar calendar, where each month is named after a specific tree or shrub. The tree calendar was not part of my original plan, it just occurred to me I could try to create one in January when I thought of various possibilities. This turned out to be more of a hobby, something extra. I decided to find each tree of the month in Helsinki, preferably somewhere near the shore, and spend 5-10 minutes sitting in it, standing next to it or in some other manner performing for camera with it, depending on the tree.
Thinking of the project now, when the video recordings are completed, I realize it did not appear out of the blue; I have worked with Celtic tree lore before. The same trees that form the calendar also serve to mark the letters of the alphabet (beth-luis-nion or birch-ash-rowan). Some of that material was used in creating small site-specific audio plays or recorded monologues to be listened to from headphones hanging from specific trees in a series called Trees Talk or Talking Trees. It is also archived on the RC, here.
In the Celtic tree calendar, not all the plants are trees, in the same sense that we are used to think. For instance, the vine, the ivy or the reed are not even shrubs or bushes, strictly speaking. Another challenge is the fact that some of the trees, like the holly, do not grow as far north as Finland. But with some adjustments, like performing with a holly in Kajsaniemi Botanical Garden, with a creeper or “wild vine” (villiviini) instead of a vine, and with an ivy in a pot, I managed to complete all thirteen months. The small videos created each month are available online, here.
Looking at the sites of the tree calendar on a map of Helsinki, it seems I chose many of them close to home, and one of them, the alder, although it is a very common tree on the shores of Helsinki, for some reason in the neighbouring city, Espoo. The dates of the months in the list below are based on the following version, in Celtic Tree Months.
1. Birch – January (24.12.-20.1.) in Munkkiniemenranta
2. Rowan – February (21.1.-17.2.) in Särkiniemi, Lauttasaari
3. Ash – March (18.2.-17.3.) in Kaivopuisto Park
4. Alder – April (18.3.-14.4.) in Mellsteninranta, Espoo
5. Willow – May (15.4.-12.5.) on Harakka Island
6. Hawthorn – June (13.5.-9.6.) in Observatory Park
7. Oak – June (10.6.-7.7.) in Eugen Schauman Park, Kulosaari
8. Holly – July (8.7.-4.8.) in Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden
9. Hazel – August (5.8.-1.9.) in Herttoniemi shore
10. Vine – September (2.9.-29.9.) in Tehtaankatu yard
11. Ivy – October (30.9.-27.10) at home
12. Reed – November (28.10.-23.11.) in Arabian ranta park
13. Elder – December (24.11.-23.12.) in Kaivopuisto park
So now I have short video clips and images for all the months of the calendar. The next question is, what to do with them? Where to show them and how to write about them?
My recent publications deal with previous projects related to landscape, not plants. And the book I have been editing together with colleagues, Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact focuses on performance as research, not vegetation. Texts on performing with plants, however, will hopefully appear in due time, and will be listed here. And perhaps one of them will describe the making or discuss the implications of this strange tree calendar in Helsinki.
Marder, Michael (2013), Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, New York: Columbia University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (2016), Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Annette Arlander, DA, is an artist, researcher and pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and trailblazers of artistic research. She was professor of performance art and theory at Theatre Academy, Helsinki (2001-2013) and professor of artistic research at University of the Arts Helsinki (2015-2016). In 2017, she has been a postdoctoral fellow in the arts at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, engaged in the artistic research project Performing with Plants. For artworks and publications, see https://annettearlander.com