Green fingers: digital and botanical art (1/2)

Gilberto Esparza, Plantas autofotosintéticas

Artistic practices involving video, robotics and biotechnology have completely changed our aesthetic perception of nature. We have moved from depicting "still life" to using living materials. The following is an overview of a few creations with digital combining with plant.

By Lityin Malaw

Ecological warning

In tune with our era, artists have also become watchdogs and sometimes even hackers. Many committed artistic initiatives have arisen from issues surrounding ecology and climate change. Alexandra Regan Toland alerts us to the valuable role flowers play in our urban ecosystems by photographing their stamens and collecting dust from their spores on the streets of Linz. The Dust Blooms: a research narrative in artistic ecology project was exhibited in the Hybrid Art category at Ars Electronica 2017.

The duo YoHa (Graham Harwood & Matsuko Yokokoji) are among activists who document, denounce and expose damage to the environment. Their project Wrecked on the Intertidal Zone is a kind of "exhaustive foray of a place"; in this case the Thames estuary, painstakingly identifying the flora, rubbish, mud, junk, etc. The collective Critical Art Ensemble, also involved in this project and whose fight against "economic rationale" we are familiar with, furthermore rallied against GMOs through a performance where the public was invited to test fruit, vegetables and food items (Free Range Grain, 2003-2004).

Bad seed

The mammoth project involving a vault buried in the ice in the far reaches of Norway, with almost a million seeds stored since 2008, in theory forever protected from any human or natural disaster, emerged as a response to the issue of food risks. In 2016, global warming gave rise to melting permafrost, and the access gallery to this "Noah’s Ark of plants" was flooded…Magali Daniaux & Cédric Pigot staged a sit-in in front of this entrance forbidden to the public, then published an inventory of the place and the context online (video, sound, texts), and a 3D device depicting, like an allegory, desperately empty tunnels like the end of time (Svalbard Global Seed). In this spirit of conservation, they also initiated another project this time aiming to collect plants from wherever their work takes them (The First Garden, 2015).

Magali Daniaux & Cédric Pigot build on green strategies to devise models of society (with) the idea that flora, given its active immobility, plasticity and adaptability, could be viewed as a relevant model to envisage new economic and social structures. This is also the philosophy behind the Vegetation as a Political Agent exhibition that was held in Turin in 2014-2015 initiated by the artist Piero Gilardi, extending the reflections and actions of artists, activists, architects and theorists on the subject.

Vegetation as a Political Agent curated by Marco Scotini at the PAV 2014 (trailer) from Dan Halter



During this event, Dan Halter attracts public attention to the proliferation of invasive species (Mesembryanthemum Space Invader, 2014) with his intervention that resembles Land art — a space invader formed by a bed of flowers. Inès Doujak also focuses on invasion, more precisely the colonisation of living species, reworking the packaging and codes on seed packets in order to expose the theft — biopiracy — performed by multinational companies with their patents and genetic modifications (Siegesgärten, 2007).

Roots & cyberculture

Despite its familiarity the plant world is full of mystery. Artists reveal its darker side through photography, video and 3D modelling. Marie-Jeanne Musiol provides us with her perspective on the aura of plants and their luminous imprints with her electromagnetic photographs (Nébuleuses végétales/Plant Nebula, 2005-2017). The photographer Nathalie Jouan provides an immersive journey to the heart of the plant kingdom through a visual and sound installation that reacts to behaviour (Plant Series, 2005-2008) with a selection of naturalist shots printed on unusual media (Plexiglas, fabric, etc.).

 Marie-Jeanne Musiol
Marie-Jeanne Musiol, Bodies of Light

Based on data provided by the neuroscientist Luc Fourbert, Mâa Berriet developed a video device, a vivid and animated scene that evolves as the seasons go by, retracing the life of a tree over the course of a year (Arbre éveillé/Waking Tree, 2015). Though his animation that runs across a screen leaning against a flowerpot, Vincent Broquaire graphically displays the roots of a plant, similar to an X-ray, as well as criticising in a fun way human intervention regarding living things (Micro-mondes/Micro-Worlds, 2014).

Cybernetic canopies and genetic modification

Some artists approach plants from the perspective of biochemistry. Gardens and cybernetic canopies developed by the collective ecoLogicStudio are notable among installations implementing organic reactions. Real living sculptures combining algae and metallic structures, bioinformatics and design, laboratory equipment and interactive feedback, these complex, "responsive", hi-tech and bright installations provide a vision of the future of ornamental plants (H.O.R.T.U.S, 2012-2013, Algae Folly, Inhuman garden, 2015).

Algae Folly
 Algae Folly, by ecoLogicStudio, supported by INL International Iberian Institute for Nanotechnologies and the City of Braga


There is also a sense of anticipation before the impressive Monolith (2015-2017) erected by Fabien Léaustic. A reference to A Space Odyssey, this moss green piece makes use of transformations that occur in phytoplankton (the plant version of plankton) on contact with light and water. This rigour contrasts with the entangled piping and devices by Gilberto Esparza using however the same photosynthesis reactions with algae and micro-bacteria in a closed circuit. His artificial and self-sufficient biotope (Plantas Autofotosintéticas, 2013-2014), resembling a "botanical bomb", received the Golden Nica Award at Ars Electronica in 2015.

Monolith Fabien Léaustic
Fabien Léaustic, Monolith (2015-2017) Phytoplankton, light, water and mixed techniques.  © Juan Cruz Ibanez

Plantas Autofotosintéticas (Gilberto Esparza) 

However, the ultimate reference, to date, in terms of bio-art applied to the plant world remains the genetic modifications carried out by Eduardo Kac on an unfortunate petunia that he injected with fragments of his DNA. The modified flower by the name of Edunia only expresses its human genes in its red veins, visually changing it into a disturbing "flower of flesh"… A few years after the changes in the rabbit with a fluorescent green coat (GFP Bunny, 2000), this transgenic artwork relates to his ambitious project Natural History of the Enigma (2003-2008).

Edunia Eduardo Kac.
Edunia (2009), GFP Bunny (2000) Eduardo Kac.

Photo Title: Gilberto Esparza, Plantas autofotosintéticas (plantes autophotosynthétiques), 2015.


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