Um-World: Our Static Questions Need Organic Answers

The artworks found in the more-than-human exhibition at Onsite Gallery in Toronto are abbreviated—infinitesimally small, slow-moving, omni-synaptic—communities. Be careful where you put your hands; each movement of your body shifts something in the exhibition-space.

a tree root respires, a ray of sunlight processes the sugar in a plant stem, a water molecule individualises our concept of disease.

Lindsey french, Phytovision, 2018-2019

The artworks found in the more-than-human exhibition at Onsite Gallery in Toronto are abbreviated—infinitesimally small, slow-moving, omni-synaptic—communities. Be careful where you put your hands; each movement of your body shifts something in the exhibition-space. In (Ex)tending Towards, a hand-sensor allows you to control the live-projected 3D model of the 24-hour life-cycle of a tree in Cambridge, Ontario, while in One and the Same, video-footage of wetland reeds starts and stops in response to movement: someone suggests dancing along with them. Half of the artworks are equipped with VR headsets, so that the ordinary paradigm of gallery viewership turns into an immersive cognitive handshake with the diversely-assembled livings—a plural noun which avoids calling non-human beings ‘things’—from microbiotic entities to charismatic megafauna.  

“We are plants,” says Jane Tiley, curator of more-than-human. Or, at least, we have the DNA of our ancient plant lives still within us. As Forest Mind invites in a double-projector documentary screening of a walk with the Inga people on the Colombian side of the Amazon rainforest, our ancient—think: omni-cognitive—biology allows us to access everything a forest may have to teach us in relative silence. Language, on this account, is not central; lessons are transmitted through endless, invisible chemical reciprocations with wildlife, through hormone-altering photonic dapples of sunlight, through a deep listening reminiscent of Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake, who lays so long by the “hitherandthithering waters” of the river Liffey that she becomes: a stone. To paraphrase exhibition consultant, Karen Houle: this exhibition is unimaginable within the traditional mind-body dualism of Western Cartesianism.   

Joel Ong, [Still From] Untitled Interspecies Umwelten, 2021-

In Joel Ong’s Untitled Interspecies Umwelten (environments, or literally ‘around-worlds’ in the German), a live microscopic feed of Euglena gracilis—tiny livings alive in the gallery in micro-cosmic petri dishes—is paired with uploaded dialogue from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Once again, Joycean language is a heightened means of poetic transport: with words we can see the strict borders of our consciousness fade and such things as the motionless hours of plant-life can serve as waypoints in a journey to become different beings. With words and their emotional content in mind, Ong created a bio-semiotic vocabulary of Euglena gracilis’ emotional life. For example, an ouroborosian, self-inclining movement of the end of the body to the other end implies contemplativeness. He then used software and motion-capture to tie the Euglena gracilis’ bio-semiotic, or emotive, state as it exhibited it in real-time to words in the text as they are slowly fed through computer screen. It is a probe into a proto-linguistic subconscious when organic processes, liminally confined to a body-praxis of cellular division, defined the whole emotional meaning of experience: it is like having a very old dream of life in its trans-cognitive formation, where everything matters and the smallest forms of reflective agency translate directly to the shape of organic matter itself. Each head tilt, pause, shrug, cellular splaying, an emotional telos in action. 

During the same tour, Karen Houle recommends going to visit an ancient Eastern Hemlock forest, a forest cathedral; a name reminiscent of the poison Socrates took to end his life: can we return to our own plant heritage only through such a cognitive suicide; a self-effacing rationalism that dissolves Cartesian dualism through a dissolution of the mind—divided on itself—into its pre-cognitive body-parts, or into a gentler intellectual quietism. Houle recommends stillness, recalling the slow movements of two Inga women standing in the river in Forest Mind. The entire exhibition space invites this feeling. Go calmly, it seems to say, so that you do not disrupt the mind-process that works through everything in eonic stages, unfit for the speed with which chimeric, mental transactions take place in subject-object fissures, and, as unwitting nano-species daycarers, look out for the things around you.

Still, any teleology returns us to our mind-body binary, when the cell is mentally re-divided ad infinitum. During the exhibition tour, someone asks Jane Tiley whether the gallerists asked the consent—not only of the Euglena gracilis; but of everything: the droplets which forms the basis of Emerging from the Water, microscopically nude; the trees in Cambridge, Ontario and the drought-struck one, part of Atmospheric Forest, in Switzerland, sensored—surveilled—in an imposed cognitive totality. The question can go further: did we ask the photographed trees of Phytovision if we could take their image, or how about the phyto themselves, derived from the Greek word for plants, whether we could reproduce their perspective? In Phytovision there are seats where the viewer’s buttocks can sense, like a plant would, the forest floor, and in (Ex)tending Towards, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are used to stimulate the characteristic smell of the forest: are these full-bodied experiences enhancements to an intelligent relationship with the natural world or an intrusion into just the world more-thanhuman is trying to sensitively showcase.

Ursula Biemann, [Still From] Forest Mind, 2021

In Dawning, you are invited to break the silence as a bird, where you may sing into a mic and join a chorus of birdsong as the artwork mimics the circadian-timed resumption of avian music at each morning’s dawn. You are also invited to lay on a couch snugly set in the middle of the gallery between two large walls which form an unlikely alcove. This is one of the exhibition’s successes, attributable in no small part to designer Elliot Lahman—that it has been designed, effectively and very comfortably, for slow-moving beings, for plants: sitting, lying down, closing one’s eyes, being still are all welcome. Even as the soil that forms part of (Ex)tending Towards may not be alive, the point of the exhibition remains to connect us with  even our smallest amoebic frames of consciousness. The gallery is one step away from putting down actual living soil on the floor and having us live in it. Its interests, as localized as they are, are just as tied to issues that determine the local wherever it may be: every threatened tree is not just threatened because we extend it something akin to property rights and imagine, on that basis, that some infringement is at work by loggers, but because we may perceive the omni-cognitive Umwelt, the around-world, and its immanent disruption; in Emerging from the Water, as we are meant to observe the chemical universe of water droplets, we are also invited to see how microscopic observation (mis)leads us into positing only microscopic causes.  

Jane Tingley with Faadhi Fauzi and Ilze (Kavi) Briede, (ex)tending towards, 2023

Everything is part of everything else. This is the simplest motivation of the exhibition. How can we imagine the human being at a distance from everything? This is its question. We ought to imagine that the more-than-human is a coded reference, yes, to non-human life, but also to how, in order to reach the (human) being, we must posit every prefix we can, in the hope that, in an accumulation of descriptive non-intersections, of unending Um(s), which should be quickly corrected to Oms, we can reach the very immediate world in which we live.  

more-than-human is, indeed, a great leap in this direction. Its worldly visuals are matched only by its propensity for floral silence. It uses technology courageously, despite its overt organicity. It is an exhibition in which you would like to remain for a long time, to become a plant yourself—or a work of art.  

Aidan Clark is a London-born writer currently studying at OCAD University.

more-than-human is on exhibition at Onsite Gallery, Toronto, until May 13, 2023

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