In this exposition I explore the specific materiality a witches’ broom offers as a collaborator. The exposition presents a series of works with a particular witches’ broom as an example of collaborating with something that is both an object and a living creature. In a few small performances, which were developed with a three-part sound installation and a performance for the camera in 2006 on Harakka Island as a starting point, I varied and combined the witches’ broom, digital moving image and recorded sound in various ways.
Besides looking at the similarities and dissimilarities among these variations the purpose of this exposition is to experiment with changing the language. I have written about this work previously in Finnish as well as in English (Arlander 2011, 2012) and will now try to express myself in Swedish, too. Language was actually one of the inspirations for this work, although the first version of the short text or spell I wrote and recorded as the speech of the witches’ broom was in Finnish. (See the “text” to the right). My first public performance with a big witches’ broom on my back referred to its literal names in Finnish and English. The Finnish name ‘tuulenpesä’, wind’s nest, associates with birds’ nests and their rounded form, while the English name, witches’ broom or witch’s broom, as well as the Swedish expression ‘markvast’ or ‘häxkvast’, refer to the form of a broom. Combining the literal translations gave the title Tuulenpesä – Noidanluuta or Wind Nest – Witches’ Broom. In Swedish it could have been something like Vindbo – Markvast. And at first I really planned to use an old-fashioned broom in the performance, an idea I soon abandoned, though.
One of the reasons for taking up the works with the witches’ broom again is this exposition format, which offers the possibility to present and juxtapose several video variations, including the versions never publicly shown, and thus to shed light on a dimension of artistic practice, which usually remains a private concern. This includes the sidesteps and more or less embarrassing attempts that one prefers to forget when one ends up with something that seems acceptable, as for instance the above mentioned idea of using an actual broom. All publicly presented variations and versions, installations as well as performances, are listed in the demonstration section, which contains the sound material, the entire video works and some documentation of the performances. In the book Performing Landscape, which can be read online, here, I have devoted chapter eight, Witches’ Broom – Variations of an Audio Play, (Arlander 2012, 215-242.) to describing the working process and the variations in some detail, starting from the short text, which together with the witches’ broom formed the starting point for all the variations. There I also mention some artists whose works served as inspiration, like Rebecca Horn with her body attachments and my former student Essi Kausalainen, with her tree root project. Thus I will not repeat the descriptions of the process here, but rather show the variations in chronological order (in the demonstration) and thus display their development. Many environmentally oriented performance-as-research or artistic research projects are exploring the body immersed in the natural environment, in the tradition of the work of Ana Mendieta, or Eeo Stubblefield, like the experiments by Paula Kramer or Ciane Fernandes. These performances with the witches’ broom, however, use an element of the environment attached to the body. The various versions were not conceived of as a planned research project, but emerged as responses to various invitations and opportunities and developed into a method during the process. Instead of arguing for variation as a basic method for artistic research, I expose these versions as examples of the method, in the demonstration.
Another impulse and source of inspiration for this exposition is Michael Marder’s book Plant-Thinking (2013), which made me consider the witches’ broom as a specific type of living being, something resembling a plant without really being one. A disease caused by a fungus, Taphrina betulina, produces the outgrowths called witches’ brooms, which plague some birches creating brushy tangles composed of small twigs growing tightly together, forming tussocks of varying size. This witches’ broom, the particular congregation of twigs I worked with, was a coincidentally chosen (perhaps particularly big or decorative) piece from a heap of similar outgrowths, which all had grown on the same tree, or rather as part of the tree and at the same time as part of the fungus. The witches’ broom is a part of its host, but has a form of its own, too, as a strange detail, an appendage, something inexplicable and eerie attached to the tree. When such an outgrowth is removed from its felled host (in this case a birch that used to grow next to the main building on Harakka Island and broke in a storm) and is attached on the back of a human being, its materiality changes. From being a tumour, a thickening or an exaggeration of the material the rest of the birch consists of, it turns into an indefinable and alien decoration or prosthetic, like a useless wing, clearly distinguished from the skin on the shoulders it is attached to. In the first performances for camera I chose to sit on a boulder of granite rock in order to further accentuate the contrast between the solid stone and the brittle branches of the witches’ broom.
Jane Bennett provided a third impulse for this exposition, in her book Vibrant Matter (2010) where she summarizes her view on matter by downplaying or evading the difference between the organic and the inorganic, the animate and the inanimate, and claims some degree of agency for all matter. A witches’ broom consists of course of organic matter, but it is unclear how animate it is or can be after being cut off from its host. A branch of a birch tree could in fortunate circumstances be rooted and grow into a new birch, but I have no idea whether a witches’ broom could be grafted onto another tree. Perhaps its spores are still alive, waiting for a second chance, although the tussock-like object has been hanging on my studio wall for several years. Like a log of wood, which is certainly not going to sprout in the spring, it is nevertheless organic in the sense of being able to participate in the organic cycle of matter by decomposing into particles to be used by other organisms. All other forms of matter can do that as well, Jane Bennett would probably add, only on a different time scale.
The question of the materiality of the witches’ broom leads to the materiality of the digital video material, the matter I am usually working with. In public performances I have nearly always performed with video projections and in some sense these have been my most important collaborators. Nevertheless, in this case the physical, material witches’ broom plays a crucial role as a part of the human figure, as part of my costume, since it figures on the same plane as the human body in space. In the artistic process, however, the witches’ broom, as opposed to the video material, has not been submitted to any real manipulation or transformation. After I cut it off from the branches of the birch, which I found spread out like rubbish in the yard, picked it up and added a black rubber band to its base, it has remained as it is and has only been combined with other materials like a human back or a sculpture pedestal. Some of the longer twigs have broken and some pieces have fallen apart when it was forced into a plastic box for air transport. Time and usage have worn on it. But this wear is modest compared to the processing the video material has undergone. The real material I work with, the stuff I copy, cut and paste, is the digital sound and image material, although I often choose to use that material, too, in a relatively raw and crude form.
Editing plays an even less significant role than usually in these video works based on performances for camera together with the witches’ broom, since I have used long takes. In most cases the duration of one image is up to twenty minutes. The only editing worth mentioning consists of combining an image with the human figure with exactly the same image without the human figure, with the help of a very slow crossfade. The human figure is thus slowly disappearing from the image or slowly appearing in it. The materiality of the digital video in the performances, as a projection on the wall or on a luminous screen, combined with sound or without sound, and other related questions I have touched at in the above mentioned article (Arlander 2012, 215-242.), and will thus not discuss them here. Rather I try to focus on the witches’ broom, its materiality, and its possible mode of thinking, first with the help of Marder’s ideas.
On vegetal democracy
In his exceptional book Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013) Michael Marder presents the fascinating notion vegetal democracy. Marder derives his concept vegetal democracy from the characteristics of the plant soul and stresses the importance of vegetal life for our attempts at avoiding metaphysical dualism and to understand what it means to “live with” other beings. In order to motivate the notion he analyses historical attempts at describing the plant soul, starting with the legacy of Plato and Aristotle and states, “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with.” (Marder 2013, 51.). In his opinion “all creatures share something of the vegetal soul and are alive in the most basic sense insofar as they neither coincide with themselves nor remain self-contained, but are infinitely divisible below the death masks of their identities”. (Ibid.). For him the “shared divisibility of all living beings, first honed in the acts of the vegetal soul, pertains to the workings of the soul in general”, and for “the psyche to live it must receive guidance from the vegetal principle of divisibility, constantly becoming other to itself; in other words, it must be temporal through and through.” (Ibid.). Marder describes further how the psychic principles already in Plato have analogues in the political sphere, in the form of metaphysical justifications for a fixed distribution of power, Plato’s Republic being a case in point. There desire (the appetitive soul) is combined with the workers, courage (the spirited part of the soul) with the guardians and thinking (the rational soul) with the philosopher-kings. Marder is “adopting Plato’s psycho-politics rid of its hierarchical component” and proposing the term vegetal democracy to designate “the potential political effects of plant-soul.” (Ibid.).
For Marder the principles of inherent divisibility and participation are paramount in the life of plants as well as in vegetal democracy. This means that vegetal democracy concerns all species without exception. (Marder 2013, 51-52.). The generosity of the plant-soul, “giving itself without reserve to everything and everyone that lives, transcribes vegetal democracy into an ethical politics”, he writes, “free of any expectations of returns from the other.” (Marder 2013, 52.). According to Marder vegetal democracy brings together all ”growing things”, because “[l]ike plants, animals and humans too are ‘growing things’, even if in addition to the growth of hair, nails, claws, fur, or feathers, they exhibit other kinds of growth that are experiential, intellectual and so on.” (Ibid.) Marder wants to distance himself from vitalism, however, and carefully explains how we have to “acknowledge the infinite differentiations, the ‘striatedness’ of the field of vitality, as well as the blurring of clear demarcations between life and death in the wake of Derridian deconstruction” with spectrality and survival as the shifting margins. Thus “vegetal democracy does not advocate a naive vitalism that would insulate life and the living from death; quite the contrary, it situates ‘participation in life’ in an intimate relation to mortality.” (Ibid.). In passing one may note that so does a vitalist and matter-realist like Rosi Braidotti, too (see Braidotti 2013, 95, 130-133.). She speaks for an expanded notion of matter, a radical neo-materialism or ‘matter-realism’ and suggests that “‘matter-realists’ combine the legacy of post-structuralist anti-humanism with the rejection of the classical opposition ‘materialism/idealism’ to move towards ‘Life’ as a non-essentialist brand of contemporary vitalism and as a complex system.” (Braidottti 2013, 158.).
According to Marder the vegetal means wild and untameable proliferation, and symbolizes at the same time immobility and unconsciousness, since for instance the comatose condition is regarded as a persistent vegetative state. “The life of plants is situated on the brink of death, in the zone of indeterminacy between the living and the dead,” he writes (Marder 2013, 52-53.). And summarizes: “If the vegetal democracy of sharing and participation is an onto-political effect of plant-soul, then it must, like this very soul, eschew the metaphysical binaries of self and other, life and death, interiority and exteriority." (Marder 2013, 53.). For Marder “every consideration of a post-foundational, post-metaphysical ethics and politics worthy of its name must avow the contributions of vegetal life to … the non-essentialized mode of ‘living with’”. (Ibid.). What this vegetal democracy might mean in practice, however, Marder does not discuss or explain. Some hints can nevertheless be obtained from his idea of plants as multiplicities.
The plant as a collective
“To live is to be superficial and dis-organized: to exist outside the totality of an organism: to be a plant”, Marder (2013, 84.) exclaims. The plant is not an organism consisting of organs, he notes, its parts transcend the distinction between part and whole; they are both members of a plant and independent entities in their own right and constitute a provisional unity of multiplicities. The plant is a collective being, a loose community, which is not interlaced by an inner essence. (Ibid.). The plant, whose forms and functions are fluid, is not an organism but what Deleuze and Guattari term “a body without organs”, a mode of dis-organization, “a pure multiplicity of immanence”, Marder states (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 157, cited in Marder 2013, 84.). He is astonished by these thinkers’ way of choosing a plant, a tree, as an example of hierarchical organisation: “The tree articulates and hierarchizes tracings; tracings are like the leaves of a tree.” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 12, cited in Marder 2013, 84.). The leaf, however, is not an organ of a larger whole or a derivation from the original stem-root structure, Marder points out, but “an infinitely iterable and radically egalitarian building block of the tree, for it is at once the source, the product, and the minute reproduction of vegetal being, from which it may at any time fall away.” (Marder 2013, 84-85.). The plant is overturning the value difference between copies versus originals in a veritable anarchy, he notes, since its “body without organs” maintains conceptual horizontality even in the verticality of a tree. (Marder 2013, 85.).
Between heaven and earth
In everyday understanding photosynthesis, that is, the plants’ capability of transforming carbon dioxide, water and energy to carbohydrates and oxygen is probably the most remarkable characteristic of vegetal life. Plants can combine water and carbon dioxide with the help of the energy in sunlight because of their chlorophyll. The chlorophyll molecules function as some kind of light absorbing antennae, which take in light and transmit it to the reaction centre. (The chemical formula for photosynthesis is 6 H2O + 6 CO2 + light energy → C6H12O6 (glucose) + 6 O2.) Photosynthesis forms the basis of the food chain humans and other animals are part of. Thus one could say that plants are the true creators of our world; they produce both the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, the base our life in its present form relies on. Surprisingly, Marder shows hardly any interest for this fact. He is more focused on historical philosophical ways of understanding the specificity of plants than the plants themselves or their way of life. He mentions photosynthesis once, in the chapter on the body of plants and the destruction of metaphysics, while describing plants as the mediators between heaven and earth:
Put in traditional philosophical terms that achieve their clearest expression in Hegel, plants are the first material mediations between the concrete universality of the earth and the purely abstract, ideal being of light, though, despite the literal meaning of “photosynthesis”, they do not synthesize that which they mediate. More precisely, entirely oriented towards exteriority in their diremption [sic] toward polar opposites, plants meet the elements halfway, in the middle where they serve as the media of proto-communication between diverse aspects of phusis. [--] The ethics of plants, proceeding from the vegetal standpoint, will perennially return to this middle place literally suspended between heavens and earth. (Marder 2013, 66.).
Non-conscious vegetal striving towards the sun is the prototype of conscious life in German pan-psychism and in dialectics, Marder points out, but the plant’s intentionality is not unidirectional, since the roots, too, seek nutrients, sense the humidity of the soil, and avoid nearby roots; it is rather a combination of passive growth and an active “foraging” for resources, he notes. According to Marder, “[c]ontra Heidegger, the plant has a world (if not worlds) of its own, if in this ‘having’ we manage to discern the overtones of a non-appropriative relation to the environment, with, in and as which vegetal beings grow.” (Marder 2013, 159.). He compares vegetal intentionality and their dynamic extension with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s pre-reflective intentionality of corporeity and the body’s non-conscious motility. “For the corporeal and the vegetal intentionalities, the subject/object dichotomy is irrelevant; their acts of living do not ‘objectivate’ that towards which they orient themselves…” (Ibid.).
In creating a landscape the role of plants is crucial, Marder notes, since “the plant makes the land and the sky what they are both in themselves and in their articulation with each other” (Marder 2013, 66.). While analysing their relationship to the environment he observes that plants seem not to be obliged to separate themselves from their surroundings, to negate their connection to a place, in order to fully become themselves through this oppositional stance, an injunction that Marder connects to other types of subjectivity. In order to exist a vegetal being must remain an integral part of the milieu wherein it grows. A plant’s relation to the elements is not domineering but receptive, as when a flower or leaf turn their widest surfaces to the sun, or the way the root imbibes everything, whether nutrients or poisonous substances, in the soil into which it burrows, he adds. (Marder 2013, 69.). Further than that, however, he does not analyse the role of plants in what could be called the primary production of the conditions for animal, including human, life.
Marder presents his reflections on vegetal intelligence as a footnote to Nietzsche’s suggestion that in the re-evaluation of all values “one should start with the ‘sagacity’ of plants.” (Nietzsche 1968, 349, cited in Marder 2013, 151.). To do that one must begin by reckoning their mode of being and “transposing the functions of the vegetal soul onto the discourse of thinking”, he suggests. (Marder 2013, 152.). According to him the “non-conscious intentionality of vegetal life” amounts to an essentialism-free way of thinking that is fluid, receptive, dispersed, non-oppositional, non-representational, immanent, and material-practical, provided that each of these descriptors will first be extracted from their metaphysical context. He tries to formulate a post-metaphysical way of thinking by focusing on “the suppressed vegetal sources of human thought, which is both an idealizing and an idealized permutation of plant-thinking.” (Marder 2013, 152.).
A human being who thinks like a plant becomes a plant, since the destruction of classical logos annihilates the thing that distinguishes us from other living beings, Marder observes, and responds to Deleuze and Guattari’s injunction “Follow the plants!” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 11, cited in Marder 2013, 165.) by engaging in irreverent plant-thinking, on the path of becoming-plant. Thinking like a plant means to think without following the prescriptions of formal logic and therefore, in some sense, not to think, he notes. Thinking is not the sole privilege of the human subject, which leads him to introduce the notion it thinks:
[A]side from altering the form of thought (which becomes inseparable from its opposite, the non-thought), and changing its content (which includes contradictions), “non-identical thinking” indicates freedom from the substantive and self-enclosed identity of the thinkers themselves. 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.).
Marder explores three modalities of it thinks based on the philosophies of Henri Bergson, Gregory Bateson and Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari. Henri Bergson’s suggestion to think with life not against it, relates to it thinks, pointing towards the thinking of life itself as a de-formalizing activity: “In vain we force the living into this or that one of our molds. All the molds crack. They are too narrow, above all too rigid, for what we try to put into them.” (Bergson 2005, xx, cited in Marder 2013, 166.). The life that thinks, however, through us or through a plant, is far from an undifferentiated flux of becoming that sweeps everything into a homogenous mix, Marder stresses. “The living-thinking of life is appropriate, in each case, to the relation of a given organism to its milieu.” (Marder 2013, 166.).
Marder quotes Gregory Bateson’s well-known theses “the unit of survival is organism plus environment” (Bateson 2000, 491, cited in Marder 2013, 167.) and states: “In the face of the insanity of transcendent thought, plant-thinking, immanent to the milieu wherein it thrives, will be the signpost of, or a concrete normative ideal for, the Batesonian version of it thinks.” (Marder 2013, 168.). According to him non-oppositional plant-thinking will mitigate the excessive separation of the human mind from the context of its embeddedness, our life-world. It stands as a kind of guarantor of environmental justice since the vegetal “it thinks will moderate the lethal tendencies of the human I think, neglectful of the non-individuated foundations of thought and of the context integral to its formalization.” (Marder 2013, 168.)
For Marder rhizomatic thought, too, is a form of it thinks, the thinking of exteriority in and as exteriority, the inextricable relation to an outside, to something other, including parts of inorganic nature, other living beings, and the products of human activity. He cites Deleuze and Guattari: “The wisdom of plants: even when they have roots, there is always an outside where they form a rhizome with something else – with the wind, an animal, human beings (and there is also an aspect under which animals themselves form rhizomes, as do people, etc.)” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 12, cited in Marder 2013, 168.). According to Marder the rhizomatic thinking in the writings of Deleuze and Guattari corresponds to the relational character of Bateson’s eco-mental systems and Bergson’s “fitting” of the body to its environment, since “the organism and elements of the biosphere to which it belongs form nodes within the forever-unfinished mesh of the rhizome.” (Marder 2013, 168-169.).
The vegetal it thinks, which might mean for instance a tree that thinks, refers obviously to a much more undecided subject, 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?” Marder explains, because it arises from and returns to the plant’s embeddedness in the environment. All radically contextual thought is an inheritor of vegetal life, as well as texts that lay bare and reveal their own margins, he adds, and lists as methodological inheritors hermeneutics, historicism, immanent criticism, and deconstruction. (Marder 2013, 169.). Marder tries to formulate the lived spatio-temporal conditions of thought, and notes that plant-thinking happens
(1) when the presumed self-identity of “subjects” and “objects” that populate a given milieu recedes, allowing a rhizomatic assemblage to surge up to the foreground, to be activated by sharing difference among its various nodes, and (2) where the spacings and connections, communication lines and gaps between the participants in this assemblage prevail over what is delimited within them.” (Ibid.).
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.). And 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.).
The witches’ broom as fungus
What does all this mean for the witches’ broom and its materiality? What do thoughts about plant-thinking have to do with working with a witches’ broom? The divisibility and participation of vegetal being as the basis for vegetal democracy could be related to the existence of the witches’ broom first as an outgrowth on the birch and then as an appendage on a human back in performances. But the embeddedness of plants in their environment, the model for plant-thinking as radical contextual thinking, is more difficult to reconcile with these works. In contrast to most of my performances for camera, where I have positioned myself in the environment and in relation to some part of it (a rock, a pine tree, a juniper) on location, the witches’ broom is literally detached and cut off from its context, removed from the landscape in order to represent it.
The collective, subjectless being characteristic of plants, however, is perhaps even more evident in life-forms like the witches’ broom, where you cannot distinguish what is a part and what is the whole, where the entity begins and where it ends, what is birch and what is witches’ broom. The witches’ broom is not a plant in a strict sense, but a fungus, which is parasitic on trees and transforms their production of leaves and branches into a chaotic mass-production of characteristic tangles or tussocks of varying size. In the generally acknowledged organisation of life fungi form a kingdom of their own, next to the kingdom of plants, animals, bacteria and protists. They differ from plants in that their cell walls do not contain cellulose. The characterisation of a provisional unity of multiplicities, however, to use Marder’s term, works also for the fungi, and indeed for the witches’ broom.
Associations to the rhizomatic or to literal rhizomes were crucial although perhaps not fully conscious while creating the variations with the witches’ broom, albeit mostly in a visual rather than philosophical sense. The connection is evident in the short text I wrote for the witches’ broom as well. Like other fungi the witches’ broom has a rhizomatic structure, although it appears as a distinct form in the performances, especially when I place it on a podium with earphone cords as a continuation of its twigs. Perhaps the whispers audible from the earphones, the talk of the witches’ broom (see the text on the upper right), the spell of words without any real subject, might with some goodwill be interpreted as the thinking of the witches’ broom, a form of “it thinks”, or should we say “it utters”.
Perhaps Michael Marder’s honourable attempt at expanding the discourse around the non-human to include plants and not only animals should be extended further. The plants are not animals and the fungi are not plants; they form their own group, which contains yeasts and moulds as well as our familiar mushrooms. We could argue for a particular mode of fungal being, which might be quite interesting considering their secret, mostly invisible, sometimes global and often symbiotic or even parasitic way of living. In order to understand the role of the witches’ broom as a collaborator in these artworks it is probably wiser, however, to consider them in terms of an expanded notion of matter.
The witches’ broom as a thing
At the end of her study Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things Jane Bennett (2010) presents a credo for would-be vital materialists:
I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests. (Bennett 2010, 122.).
Amen. – This seems reasonable, although slightly moralising; why think in terms of right and wrong concerning vitality. As a backdrop to her discussion of thing power or the force of things Bennett explains how following the death of Michel Foucault in 1984 interest in bio-power has continually increased. Scholars have focused on the body and its social construction in order to disclose how what we experience as natural is produced by cultural practices. Many theorists have also emphasized “the material recalcitrance” of cultural production, she adds, since the fact that something is an effect of historical norms and repetitions, by no means implies that it is easily changed. “Cultural forms are themselves powerful, material assemblages with resistant force”, she writes. (Bennett 2010, 1.).
Discussing the agency of assemblages Bennett argues for her term thing-power, which according to her resembles “a childhood sense of the world as filled with all sorts of animate beings, some human, some not, some organic, some not” and considers it as “a good starting point for thinking beyond the life-matter binary”, which dominates adult experience. Thing-power points at the efficacy of objects, which exist beyond human designs or purposes, she claims. (Bennett 2010, 20.).
One disadvantage of the term thing-power is, according to Bennett, that it overstates the thingness or stability of materiality, since she wants to theorize “a materiality that is as much force as entity, as much energy as matter, as much intensity as extension”. Spinoza’s stones, oozing meadowlands or a processual minerality are not passive objects, stable entities, nor intentional subjects, but allude instead to vibrant materials, she claims. (Bennett 2010, 20) Another disadvantage with the term is the way in which a “thing” tends towards an atomistic rather than congregational understanding of agency, she notes. The efficacy of an actant depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interference of many bodies and forces, Bennett observes: “A lot happens to the concept of agency once non-human things are figured less as social constructions and more as actors, and once humans themselves are assessed not as autonoms but as vital materialities.” (Bennett 2010, 21.).
Plants are actually good examples to rehearse with, if one tries to overcome the life-matter binary. They are clearly alive, of course, but their way of being is so unlike our own or other mammals that they might seem almost inanimate. They seem immobile, since their capacity for movement is somewhat restricted and their movements are very slow compared to ours. The witches’ broom provides one further step towards a thing. When it is cut off from its host it stops growing, but does not wither like a plant, and thus resembles an object made of organic matter, although its complex form does not associate to manmade things.
Besides the notions vibrant matter or thing-power, both of which could well be used to characterize the materiality of the witches’ broom, the idea of an assemblage, which Bennett takes from Deleuze and Guattari, is useful in this case. The witches’ broom appeared in various assemblages in these works. The most important ingredients in these assemblages were the witches’ broom, the human figure, the recorded chant (audible in earphones) and one or more video projections of a performance for camera together with the witches’ broom, in short, the witches' broom, the performer, the sound and the image separated and combined in various ways. In the different versions of installations or performances with the witches’ broom, which are presented in the demonstration, the witches’ broom appears in various assemblages together with, among other things, rubber band, a human back, a cliff, a sculpture pedestal, a wooden stool, and digital representations of these, as well as various forms of technological apparatuses like an apron with pockets for CD players, a basket with amplifiers, earphones with long cords, recorded whispers and so on. In all these assemblages the witches’ broom seems to retain its character and its thing-power, even though the assemblage (and the performance or installation) changes character due to the various combinations.
To mention a simple example, one of the easiest ingredients to discern is the base the witches’ broom or its bearer rests on; fastened on my back the witches’ broom sits on a granite boulder in the sun or in snowfall, on a block of concrete, on a tree stump, on a wooden stool or on a sculpture pedestal. In the two last cases it sits directly on them as well, without my back as a mediator. Other shifting ingredients in the assemblages are the earphones, which in the first variation outdoors, with the pile of witches’ brooms and branches in the yard, were large headphones in order to be clearly visible and to endure changes in the weather. In the later versions they were small earphones with long cords, connected to amplifiers placed in a basket, or to CD players in the pockets of an apron, or hidden under the witches’ broom on a pedestal. Today I would probably use mp3 players, but definitely not wireless alternatives, since the mess of cords was supposed to associate with the structure of the witches’ broom. Although the emphasis was on simple, low tech and therefore rather heavy technological apparatuses, like DVD players, video projectors, CD-players and earphones, the witches’ broom nevertheless remained the main character, the interesting object, that little something that made the difference, in all these assemblages. This was perhaps most clear in the variations where the witches’ broom was allowed to perform alone, without the human, in the end.
By way of conclusion
Why is the witches’ broom so interesting? It’s vibrant materiality, its thing-power in Bennett’ sense, and its vegetal being, including something that Marder would call “it thinks” are both part of its fascination, as discussed above. What about the language I mentioned in the beginning? While preparing this exposition I thought returning to writing in Swedish would change my way of thinking. The pluri-formed, polymorphic and rhizomatic character of the witches' broom as an entity, which originally inspired me to play with the meaning and sound of words, with the materiality of language, and to combine several languages (Finnish, Swedish, English) for its chant or thinking, did not transfer to the style of writing in this text. Nor did my returning to an earlier language, and the probably increased sense of nuances and presumably more sensual vocabulary this could mean, have any real effect. In fact changing language did not mean much, especially since my key sources were in English. Instead of thinking in Swedish and then translating the text into English, I actually ended up writing most of this in English first, and then translating it into Swedish. Moreover, I changed expressions that were difficult to translate in either language in order to find expressions that would fit both, which suggests that not only does language think for us, but combining languages does that, too. Rather than abandoning my initial hunch, based on the play with the various names of the witches’ broom, that changing language would inspire new thoughts or modes of thinking, I prefer to think that I actually did not change language in any real sense. Not only did I write in English, citing my sources, but I also maintained a semi-academic language throughout. In order to really change language, or one’s way of thinking, – to “follow the plants” (or follow the fungi in this case) – a more thorough change would be needed. Something in the specific materiality of the witches’ broom, its thing-power as well as its plant-thinking, invites to that kind of shift.