Olga Cielemecka


Exposition: PORK KANA CAR ROT -project and its offshoot: Keyboard for plants (20/01/2020) by Lauri Linna
Olga Cielemecka 26/05/2021 at 11:00

This is an edited version of the peer review comment, which the author has used as an aid when finalising their exposition:

This submission fits very well into the theme of the issue which is “Working with the Vegetal.” It explores the relationship between the artist-practitioner and the vegetal life (carrots in this case). Work – although unfortunately under-theorised in the piece itself – is a central theme/problem of this project, expanding its meaning beyond the human agricultural labour. It points to the human labour of caring for the garden – the effort, process, and knowledge that goes into farming; the nonhuman labour of the vegetal life that is a source of sustenance for the animal life; animal and plant “retirement”; carrot as a “basic worker”; exploitation/coerced labour of nonhuman bodies in selective breeding, seed patenting, pedigree dog breeding (these are some of the examples that Lauri Linna offers). The project puts on the agenda the question of what relationships may emerge through working with the vegetal – sometimes these are relations of caring, and at other times of violence.

The exposition poses important questions about human co-existence with and dependency on the vegetal world, by examining the practices of care and attentiveness needed to make things grow. It evokes the specific temporality of working with vegetal life with its slowness and the laboriousness it demands of us. Working with the vegetal means to get attuned to its pace, its seasonal rhythms, its slow growth. The project reads like a meditation of the life cycles of the plant other.


Multispecies relationalities – a topic of this submission – are often a focus of today’s critical humanities. Inquiring into human-plant relationalities provides a powerful way to ask how to be in the world in the context of species extinction, climate change, and exploitative, gain-oriented agricultural practices (see e.g. Marder, Kimmerer, Myers, to name but a few).


While I find the meditative aspect of the practice very convincing, the critique of the agricultural regimes based on selective breeding is sometimes unconvincing and requires a more careful argumentation. /--/

In recent years there has been a boom in research and critical reflection on multispecies relationships and the vegetal life. So much so, some even talk about a certain “vegetal turn” that we are now seeing in critical theories. Looking into human-plant relationships becomes a way to ask about human role, place, and responsibilities as we are facing rapid species extinction, climate change, and exploitative, gain-oriented agricultural practices. Some theorists within the humanities who undertook the examination of these themes include Michael Marder, Robin Kimmerer, Natasha Myers, Catriona Sandilands (to name but a few). In plant science, there has been a growing interest in exploring the “intelligence,” collectively, and communication of plant life (e.g. Suzanne Simard, Monica Gagliano). But what may seem like a fairly recent interest has actually been there for a long time, particularly in the work of decolonial theorists that looked into the exploitative patterns of plant patenting, loss of biodiversity, and the importance of vernacular knowledge about plant life (e.g. the work of Vandana Shiva). This exposition both draws on and joins in these efforts, contributing to discussions on how to be with the vegetal world around us in ways that are less exploitative.

The history of breeding and hybridization as an art form is referenced. In this context, vis-à-vis this tradition, Linna suggest a powerful (ethical) idea of non-breeding.

This piece has the ambition to situate its artistic practice in a broad context of historical processes, plant science, and political and societal concerns such as selective breeding, plant patenting, loss of biodiversity, etc. However, the narrative needs more thoughtful investigation into these contexts as well as conceptual precision.

This exposition is in discussion and dialogue with both critical plant theory, plant artistic practices, while gesturing towards activist practices such as guerrilla gardening or urban farming. I would however suggest that these connections and inspirations be made more explicit, acknowledging their trail-blazing role in rethinking human-plant relationships./--/ The process is well documented, the experimental part is convincing, important, and innovative. The discursive part and the argument need further tightening up and perhaps restructuring.


In Pork-kana Car-rot the slow, meditative pace of growing carrots reminds of what Anna Tsing calls “cultivating the arts of attentiveness.” The practice of growing vegetables without selective breeding becomes here a counter-practice in opposition to capitalist, global agricultural regimes, and human control and domination over the nonhuman life. Tending to a vegetable garden can in this sense be seen as a critical intervention against commodification of plants and exploitation of land established under capitalism. What is offered here is a certain ethics of non-intervention that I see as a particularly powerful idea.


The exhibition explores multispecies relationalities and joins what might be called a “vegetal turn” in the humanities and art. Interrogating the human-plant relationships is here key to reflecting on how to be in the world in the context of species extinction, climate change, and exploitative, gain-oriented agricultural practices (see e.g. Marder, Kimmerer, Myers, Sandilands, Pollan, to name but a few).


To untangle the natural-historical-political knots that tie together carrots and humans, the exposition travels several critical routes. It raises the question of selective breeding, history, violence, eugenics, plant evolution, future, as well as plant memories and sentience. This method could be compared to one that in feminist STS theory is often referred to as “following the imploded object” (Haraway). A particular material object is analysed as made up of multiple threads: cultural, technological, historical, biological,scientific, material, etc., and by pulling on them, it points to a broader reality outside of itself. But for this method to be successful and convincing it requires a certain degree of rigour. In this submission the argument instead of weaving together various aspects of the carrot-human relationships, seems to be – at times – coming apart.


That said, the historical, discursive, and critical parts of this piece require a thorough revision and restructuring, as well as language editing.


To begin with, the main argument should be clearly stated early on in the exhibition. The essay at times seems unfocused, and arguments seem to be made in a hurried manner which doesn’t correspond well with the pace of the gardener’s activity nor the carrot life cycles that this project follows.


Secondly, various historical threads need to be further researched and deepened in reference to scientific and historical literature, and then clearly tied into the main argument. This would mean a more thorough documentation of the trade routes travelled by carrots, their cultural and historical roles, science, practices of selection, and the disappearing of many local heirloom varieties. Concrete examples will make for a more convincing argument.


Thirdly, when the essay diverges from the particular human-plant relationship and practice, it becomes less convincing and “jumps,” which are not fully explained or argued for, appear. For example, selective breeding is not the same as eugenics which was concerned with improving the human race rather than plant species. This stretch is very problematic – how can we compare selective breeding of carrots to Nazi Germany eugenics? Such comparisons shouldn’t be taken lightly. When talking about plants and violence it’s important to take seriously the words of Catriona Sandilands, that the relation between violence against certain human groups (women in the particular context she’s discussing) “and violence against plants is metaphoric: it’s metonymic, and it’s intersectional.” We need to be accountable for the metaphors we make. Similarly, the comparison between breeding of pedigree dogs and carrots is not convincing. There are other unjustified “leaps”, e. g., the idea of epigenetics is not explained. I would recommend a deeper engagement with literature on the topic to make the argument line tighter.


While this exhibition seeks a less human-centric way of approaching plant lives, it curiously falls into the trap of both anthropocentrism and anthropomorphisation (example: pollen tube is compared to a penis, plant reproduction to animal or even human reproduction, “the carrots... don’t seem to understand and are a bit shaken…,” “do they [carrots] have the memories of their parents?,” “mother trees can recognise their offspring,” “will they [plants] remember us?”). Both anthropocentrism and anthropomorphisation should be reflected on and problematised as specific and deliberately chosen narrative devices. Perhaps it would be a good idea to experiment and engage with Michael Pollan’s idea (2001) that plants colonized us, humans, which would mean granting them certain agency and reversing the dominant way of thinking which privileges the human perspective. The relationship between carrots and humans is not necessarily violent (as expressions such as “manipulation” or “exploitation” suggest)but rather it is one of seduction. When speaking about this erotic aspect of human-plant relationality, Linna strangely writes: “The sex life of carrots (or any non-human) shouldn’t be something we spend much time thinking of.” It’s a surprising claim given how this very question is central to this exhibition as much as it has been the focus of fascinating artistic and research explorations by, among many others, the Pony Express collective, Ecosexuals, Elizabeth Grosz, Joela Jacobs, queer ecology, Prudence Gibson, etc. Not to mention Darwin!