Rainy Day in Rekdal
Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts, Helsinki
To Cite this Article
Arlander, A. (2022). Rainy Day in Rekdal. p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.
The video that forms a central part of this essay is an attempt to share a moment with a small tree and was part of an artistic research project called Performing with Plants. Performing for camera with a small downy birch on the shore in Rekdal, Lofoten, on 19 July 2017 as a try-out for the performance the following day, resulted in the video Rainy Day in Rekdal (With a Downy Birch) (15 min. 20 sec.), where the rain unexpectedly becomes the main player. Here the video is combined with a voice-over text presenting Matthew Hall’s idea of plants as persons and Michael Marder’s ideas of plant thinking. Rather than regarding plants as persons or persons as plants, one possibility is to consider a continuum between the human and the nonhuman, as suggested by Rosi Braidotti, and her idea of zoe or non-human life as the ruling principle.
Performing with plants, performing for camera, plants as persons, vegetal democracy, plant thinking, zoe.
Rethinking our relationship to other forms of life that we share this planet with is a central task for artists today. Artistic research can contribute through its capacity to allow and to generate hybrid forms of thinking and acting. For example, what does it mean to perform with plants?
Historically speaking, there is no lack of artistic engagement with plants, from vegetally inspired music or ornamentation on textiles, pottery and architecture, to paintings, poems and science fiction stories of plants. Living plants are used as material in practices as divergent as garden design, sonification, floral arrangements and contemporary bio art. Today the growing interest in plant studies is influencing artistic research as well. An emerging field of critical plant studies can be linked to “art’s return to vegetal life” and to looking at plants in art. (Gibson & Brits 2018; Gibson 2018; Aloi 2018). Other discussions have focused on plant rights (Hall 2011), plant philosophy or plant thinking (Marder 2013; Irigaray and Marder 2016; Coccia 2018), plant theory (Nealon 2016; Myers 2017), the language of plants (Vieira, Gagliano, and Ryan 2015; Kranz, Schwan, Wittrock 2016; Gagliano, Ryan and Vieira 2017) queer plants (Sandilands 2017) and more. There is a current “plant turn” in science, philosophy and environmental humanities, accompanied with an abundance of popular accounts of recent scientific research on plant sentience, intelligence, memory and communication (Pollan 2002; Mancuso & Viola 2015, Wohlleben 2016; Chamovitz 2017; Gagliano 2018).
“Performing with plants” was an artistic research project (2017-2019) that aimed to investigate further the question how to perform landscape today? The question is not rhetorical; our relationship to the environment has changed drastically and demands new approaches. A post-humanist perspective prompts us to rethink the notion of landscape, and to realize that the surrounding world consists of creatures, life forms and material phenomena with differing degrees of volition, needs and agency. What forms of performing landscape could be relevant in this situation? One possibility is to approach individual elements, like singular trees, and explore what could be done together with them, for instance performing for camera together. The main aim of the project was to explore such possibilities in practice.
The project strived to explore whether collaborating with trees and other plants could be one way of entering in dialogue with our surroundings that resonates with a post-humanist and new- materialist view on the environment. By focusing on individual elements in the landscape, especially plants, – which we chemically have a symbiotic relationship with, while they produce the oxygen we use, and we produce the carbon dioxide they need – attempts at more sensitive and ecologically sustainable modes of performing were developed. This was done with the hope that the methods, art works and events generated, could serve as inspiration and provocation leading to revised ways of understanding and experiencing our surrounding world.
The video work Rainy Day in Rekdal (With a Downy Birch) (15 min. 20 sec), which serves as the basis for the video essay in the following, was made as part of the project Performing with Plants and moves between performance art, environmental art and media. It was first presented in the context of the conference Radical Relevances (Aalto University 2018) and later as part of the conference Things that Dance (Karlsruhe Institute of Technology 2018, Arlander 2019a). I have described the process of performing the time-lapse work Grey Day in Rekdal elsewhere (Arlander 2019b). All the videos mentioned in the text – The Tide in Kan Tiang (2016), and Rainy Day in Rekdal & Grey Day in Rekdal (2018) – are available as small files online. The voice-over is here transcribed as the central part of the text, framed by this introduction and some concluding remarks.
Voice-over on video
The video Grey Day in Rekdal was performed during one day, 20th July 2017, every hour, sharing repeated moments of relative stillness with the birch, resulting in a rough time-lapse video. The one-off real-time session called Rainy Day in Rekdal, that you see here, made in the same place the day before, is more interesting in this context. The drops of water hitting the lens take over as the main performers of the work, in a rather classic manner, and obscure the human posing with the downy birch, forming a dance of their own. Thus, the work is a good example of the agency of matter (water in this case) and technology (the automatic functions of the camera) and their intra-action, to use a term coined by Karen Barad (2007), as well as one kind of exercise in becoming-with, to use an expression by Donna Haraway (2016).
Invited to participate in the event Between Sky and Sea: Tourist organised by Performance Art Bergen in Kvalnes, Lofoten in July 2017, and to give a talk, “Between Sea and Sky with a Tree”, I used an old work, The Tide in Kan Tiang (2016) as an example. Seeing the magnificent landscape in Lofoten, I immediately thought of creating a companion piece to that work in Rekdal where I was staying. I set out to look for suitable trees; most of them were small rowans with some sturdy mountain birches or downy birches between them, which looked more like shrubs. I wanted to choose one relatively near the house to make the repeated visits easier but did not find anything suitable.
The following day, after my talk, I headed out despite the rainy weather and decided to try to stand with a small birch on the shore, which could be framed to stand there on its own with the sea in the background. While I was placing the tripod, it started to rain more. My spontaneous plan was to record a long enough sequence with the birch to use together with the Tide in Kan Tiang, which is 11 min 52 sec. It was cold and wet, but bearable after all. The surprise awaited me when I looked at the material afterwards. The raindrops really covered the image at times, hiding both me and the tree, and although the overall appearance is rather bland and grey, these sudden blobs made for an interesting video where the water became the main actor. Unfortunately, while I was only planning to do some test images, I did not use an external microphone with wind protection, so the sound of the wind is quite bad at times. This session was only in preparation for the real one, the repeated visits the following day, but proved to be more interesting, after all.
The question of the unforeseen, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable, is at the heart of what we see happening in the world right now. And what we have to be prepared for in some manner. We could ask, is it possible to use old tools to solve new problems? In this example I was trying to use my old tools, to perform with the tide but ended up performing with the rain….
This work is part of an ongoing artistic research project called “Performing with Plants”, and one of the questions I explore in that project is whether it is possible to perform with plants, to perform “with” them, that is, how can I respect plants as my collaborators?
In his book Plants as Persons, a Philosophical Botany, from 2011, Matthew Hall investigates the relationship to plants in various philosophical and spiritual traditions. He examines “the marginalization of plants using the themes of radical separation, zoocentrism (an animal-centered outlook), exclusion, and hierarchical value ordering” and argues “that these notions predominate in Western discussions of plant ontology.” (Hall 2011, 4) Halls analysis shows how “In order to maintain hierarchical ordering, the continuity of life has been ignored in favour of constructing sharp discontinuities between humans, plants, and animals. Shared characteristics such as life and growth have been rejected in order to focus on the gross differences”, he notes. (Hall 2011, 157).
Hall prefers to understand plants as persons, and claims, that “to place plants in the ontological category of persons is neither fanciful nor deluded”. For him “the inclusion of plants in relationships of care is based upon close observation of plant life history and the recognition of shared attributes between all beings.” He attempts “a deliberate structuring of relationships in a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy” and a “recognition of connectedness in the face of alterity”, which “contrasts sharply with what could be termed a Western ethic of exclusion.” (Hall 2011, 11)
Hall “argues for recognizing plants as subjects deserving of respect as other-than-human persons” and “advocates including plants within human ethical awareness”, reminding us that an ethic constitutes an ideal of human behaviour, rather than a description of it. He writes: “In an ecological context, moral action is enacted respect and responsibility for the well-being of the others with whom we share the Earth.” (Hall 2011, 13)
Hall insists that “the recognition of plants as autonomous, perceptive, intelligent beings must filter into our dealings with the plant world. Maintaining purely instrumental relationships with plants no longer fits the evidence that we have of plant attributes, characteristics, and life histories—and the interconnectedness of life on Earth” he notes. Moreover, “in a biosphere dominated by plants … turning toward the other-than-human cannot be at the implicit exclusion of plants from the class of morally considerable beings.” (Hall 2011, 13-14) “Whatever the current scientific debates”, he adds, “the intellectual basis for treatments of plant life as inert, vacant, raw materials is demonstrably false” and thus “the continued denial of plant autonomy and the exclusion of plants from human moral consideration is no longer appropriate.” The questions he then poses are: “What shape should human-plant ethics take? How can we move from a stance of exclusion and domination to one of inclusion and care? How can plants be incorporated into dialogical relationships?” (Hall 2011, 156) This last question is the core problem in performing with plants.
Hall recommends “the recognition of plants as other-than-human persons”, as “a powerful way of incorporating plants within social and moral relationships of care and nurturing. Yet, unlike in the animal rights theory,” he notes, “persons are not exempt from use.” We cannot avoid eating plants. “Uncomfortable or not, there is no dualistic separation of personhood and use”, he writes. “Human persons must act harmfully toward plant persons in order to live and the necessary harm done to plant and animal persons is accepted, ritualized and celebrated as a fact of being alive.” This can be done with “the conviction to only harm plant persons when necessary and to encourage the growth of plants where possible.” (Hall 2011, 161)
Hall maintains that “there are several key areas where an ethic of dialogical respect can begin to focus … and three broad areas can easily be identified.” (Hall 2011, 163)
The first concerns “lessening the wastage of plant lives—that is, treating plant lives as nothing. Wasting plant products, particularly paper and food, drives unnecessary harm to plants.” (Hall 2011, 163) The second relates to “the sheer (predominantly Western) overconsumption of plant products”, which is an “identifiable threat to plant well-being.” (Hall 2011, 164)
A third cause of “harm to individual plants, plant species, and plant habitats is the unnecessary, unthinking use of plants” like “the use of plants to feed massive numbers of animals for the world’s wealthiest nations to consume”, he adds. (Hall 2011, 165)
“Understanding that plants are active, self-directed, even intelligent Beings”, Hall notes, “must be realized through working closely with plants in collaborative projects of mutual benefit. Working closely with individual plant persons also has the potential to shift the view of nature as an organic, homogenized whole—which… contributes to the backgrounding of nature.” The “recognition of plants as persons” Hall insists, “puts forward the view that nature is a communion of subjective, collaborative beings that organize and experience their own lives.” (Hall 2011, 169)
Seen as a nonhuman person in this manner, the downy birch and my attempt at performing with it could be understood as an attempt at contact or a gesture of respect, even if not directly a collaborative project of mutual benefit, particularly not for the birch. In this example, regarding the downy birch as a person to enter into a temporary dialogical relationship with makes sense, although this kind of approach might not be as easy with regard to other types of vegetation.
In contrast to this idea of extending personhood to plants one could think of a new materialist understanding of the birch, the human and the rain not as pre-existing objects or entities, but as produced by specific intra-actions and agential cuts of exclusion and inclusion in the terms of Karen Barad. This topic I have explored elsewhere and will not go into here (Arlander 2014, 2018).
Instead of extending personhood to plants philosopher Michael Marder emphasizes the dispersed life of plants and challenges humans to recognize the planthood in themselves, with his notion “vegetal democracy”, a principle that concerns all species without exception. The division of the world into mineral, vegetal and animal kingdoms, “the great chain of being” with rocks at the bottom and humans at the top is a traditional stratification that influences our way of making and understanding performances. In his study Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013) Marder offers a critique of this legacy by proposing a vegetal anti-metaphysics.
According Marder an inherent divisibility and participation are paramount in the life of plants; a vegetal being must “remain an integral part of the milieu wherein it grows” and its relation to the elements is not domineering but receptive. (Marder 2013, 69.) For Marder “the vegetal democracy of sharing and participation is an onto-political effect of plant-soul” which must “eschew the metaphysical binaries of self and other, life and death, interiority and exteriority”. Moreover, “every consideration of a post-foundational, post-metaphysical ethics and politics worthy of its name must admit the contributions of vegetal life to … the non-essentialized mode of ‘living with’”. (Marder 2013, 53.) What this vegetal democracy might mean in practice, however, Marder does not explain.
How could the idea of vegetal democracy help us develop methodologies for performing with plants? Divisibility and participation make sense in many types of performances, whether in terms of a collaborating ensemble working collectively with their audience, trying to avoid the traditional hierarchies of stage production, or a small assemblage of camera, tripod, human body, and tree, as in my example. Remembering and articulating the material-discursive practices involved (Barad 2007) and the relationship to natureculture (Haraway 2003), the milieu, the “when and where” something takes place, would probably take us a long way towards a more inclusive understanding of performance and thought.
For Marder thinking is not the sole privilege of the human subject, which leads him to introduce the notion it thinks: “In place of the Kantian transcendental synthesis of I think that supposedly accompanies all my representations, plant-thinking posits it thinks, a much more impersonal, non-subjective, and non-anthropomorphic agency.” (Marder 2013, 165.) The vegetal it thinks, which might mean for instance a tree that thinks, refers to a much more undecided subject as well, like in the expression it rains. It thinks is not concerned with “who or what does the thinking?” but “when and where does thinking happen?” he explains, because it arises from and returns to the plant’s embeddedness in the environment. (Marder 2013, 169.).
Marder expresses his belief in a poetic phrasing: “When it thinks, it does so non-hierarchically and, like the growing grass, keeps close to the ground, to existence, to the immanence of what is ‘here below’”. (Ibid.). He defines the thinker as well: “At the core of the subject who proclaims: ‘I think’, lies the subjectless vegetal it thinks, at once shoring up and destabilizing the thinking of this ‘I’”. (Marder 2013, 170.).
So, following this line of thought things not only dance, they think as well. And conversely, perhaps we could say that it rains, it thinks, or – it dances.
(end of voice-over text)
Thus, we can say the downy birch is thinking, too, but what it thinks, is another matter…
To sum up the main problem in a simplified manner: should we regard plants as persons or persons as plants? Instead of extending personhood to plants, as proposed by Matthew Hall, Michael Marder emphasizes the dispersed life of plants, their divisibility rather than their individuality, and challenges humans to recognize the planthood in themselves. My performing together with a specific tree, a small downy birch in this case, could on the one hand be seen to follow the suggestion by Hall to consider the birch as an individual co-performer, a person in some sense. Performing by standing together with the tree, however, could on the other hand be understood as an attempt at adopting a tree-like position, of exploring, experiencing and performing the plant-like in one-self. Moreover, we could ask whether it makes sense to speak of performing together with a tree, implying that the tree performs. I have discussed the possibility of appearing together as an alternative to performing together (Arlander 2019c) and also tried to schematize various ways of plants performing for humans and humans performing for plants or with plants (Arlander 2020, forthcoming). If we accept the idea that it is possible to perform together with a tree, how should we understand that relationship of performing?
Hall’s idea of plants as persons is not compatible with Marder’s antimetaphysics, but the question remains: how to respect the integrity and specificity of individual trees as partners in performance? Perhaps individual need not be understood in the sense of indivisible; rather, we can understand individuality in the sense of being specific or special as a result of the trees situatedness, its responses over time to the specific circumstances where it grows, a form of plant individuality emphasized by some scientists as well (Trewavas 2011, 29). Rather than regarding plants as persons or persons as plants, another possibility is to consider a continuum between the human and the nonhuman, as suggested by Rosi Braidotti (2017), and her idea of zoe or non-human life rather than bios as the ruling principle. From that perspective we, the downy birch and I, are both participating in zoe, while breathing, growing, getting wet in the rain, appearing together on the shore and in the image.
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Rainy Day in Rekdal & Grey Day in Rekdal https://www.researchcatalogue.net/profile/show-work?work=381354
Radical Relevances https://radicalrelevances.com
Sandilands, Catriona. (2017). “Fear of a Queer Plant?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 23, Number 3, pp. 419-429.
Tanz der Dinge / Things That Dance
The Tide in Kan Tiang https://www.researchcatalogue.net/profile/show-work?work=267501
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Biography of Annette Arlander
Annette Arlander, DA, artist, researcher and pedagogue, is visiting researcher at Academy of Fine Arts, University of the Arts, Helsinki, recently professor in performance, art and theory at Stockholm University of the Arts. For artworks and publications, see https://annettearlander.com.