The Experimental Life of Plants: Botanical Being in Scientific Practice and Beyond
Location 117b
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Nicole Labruto (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) email

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Discussant Natasha Myers (York University)

Short Abstract

Plants are a vital material substrate for scientific investigation. This panel gathers scholarly and artistic engagements with plants to consider experimentation as a lens onto plants, and to think plants as central subjects in STS, examining their adaptability, rootedness, and synthesizing powers.

Long Abstract

Plants have served as a vital material substrate for scientific investigation, from seventeenth century plant taxonomy, to natural philosophical exploration, to agricultural extension, to contemporary botanical and biomedical sciences. They have played central roles in influencing the movement and transformation of people and landscapes through their ability to grow, change, nourish, heal, intoxicate, overtake, destroy, generate, and regenerate. And scientific experimentation with plants provides insight into changing conceptions and alterations of organisms, ecosystems, and human potential. Plants in scientific practice can be both model organisms and experimental systems themselves, enabling the conversion of life forms, livelihoods, and landscapes.

Science studies scholars have long looked to the implications that field and laboratory practices with plants have had on social categories and material realities. This panel gathers scholarly and artistic engagements with plants to consider experimentation as a lens onto plants: as politically desirable or contentious organisms, as synecdochic for "nature" and ecological relations, and as sensitive, active posthuman subjects. Plant-centric themes include but are not limited to field-, laboratory-, or community-based scientific practices that engage plants as agents in agriculture, urban farming, food autonomy movements, GM controversies, environmental remediation, indigenous resource use, pharmaceuticals and bioprospecting, bioenergy systems, commodity exchange, biotechnology, or experimental botany. The panel aims to think plants as central subjects in STS, considering their adaptability, sessility/rootedness, and synthesizing powers.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


The War between Amaranth and Soy: Interspecies Resistance to Transgenic Crops in Argentina and Paraguay

Authors: Sainath Suryanarayanan (University of Wisconsin-Madison)  email
Katarzyna Beilin (University of Wisconsin, Madison)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how plants resisting transgenic soy shape emerging bioeconomies in Argentina and Paraguay. Using comparative and ethnographic lenses that bring together frameworks in science & technology studies and environmental humanities, we develop the concept of interspecies resistance.

Long Abstract

This paper examines how plants resisting the spread of transgenic soy in Argentina and Paraguay shape the technoscientific politics of genetically engineered (GE) plants. Using comparative and ethnographic lenses that bring together frameworks in science & technology studies and environmental humanities, we develop the concept of interspecies resistance to explore how different plants mediate particular social relations in emerging Latin American bioeconomies. Resistance to GE crops' appropriation of lands and bodies is steadily growing in Latin America. An array of people's movements has been surprisingly assisted by "super weeds", which have mutated and acquired biological resistance to pesticides accompanying GE crops. In Argentina, when activists throw "amaranth bombs"—mud balls with thousands of resistant amaranth seeds-- into transgenic soy fields, they leverage not only the mutant biology of amaranth as a "super weed", but also what we are calling "a productive slippage" with its edible and non-resistant variety. Amaranth, a sacred plant of the Incas as well as one of their most important foods, is equipped with power to take revenge on those who take over its land. In Paraguay, collective resistance becomes a "re-existence," a search for alternative forms of life, as peasants substitute GE-soy (what they call "killer beans") with indigenous plantations that they grow using agro-ecological knowledge acquired from Vía Campesina activists. In this context, global corporate attempts to suppress resisting communities of "super weeds," peasants, indigenous people, and activist groups through technologies of biological and social control reflect the blind spots of this bioeconomy.

Hedging the Apocalypse: Stories From the Practices of Seed Banking

Author: Xan Chacko (University of California-Davis)  email

Short Abstract

Seeds seem like ordinary objects, but we do not yet understand how science can make such small, yet absolutely essential biological entities into coherent objects that can be collectively understood, stabilised, acted upon, and translated across different knowledge practices.

Long Abstract

Cryogenic seed banking has gained favour as the only long term, sustainable venture to prevent loss of biodiversity and secure our access to food in a troubled future climate. There is consensus that seeds are critical to the future of the planet; however, the methods that decide which ones are stored, how they are stored, and how they are defined are often contradictory. In addition, the idea that once banked, seeds can be reasonably expected to regrow, cannot be taken for granted. Consequently, the choices made by seed scientists are political as well as technical. By studying the experimental care practices espoused by scientists involved in the moving, making, and saving of seeds, I study how 'life' is being prepared for the future. Currently doing fieldwork at a large seed bank which functions as a hub for a global collaboration of over 80 countries, I will share my preliminary thoughts on how and to what extent plants are rendered 'immutable' by the saving processes. In this context 'immutable' refers to the idea that the viability, defining characteristics, and future value are reliably maintained over many decades. By tracking the seeds from the moment they arrive at the bank till they are ensconced in their cold long-term homes, the scientists and I are forced to enter a temporal frame dictated by the plants. Thus, this paper thinks slowly with these theorists and practitioners that structure the physical organisation of the seeds and their metaphysical data in the bank.

Contamination and Care: Controlling Sugarcane in a Brazilian Transgenic Laboratory

Author: Nicole Labruto (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)  email

Short Abstract

Based on fieldwork in a Brazilian molecular biology lab, this paper investigates the demands made on scientists by sugarcane. I analyze the regimes of care that guide biologists as they attempt to control contamination and stimulate growth of their GM in vitro organisms.

Long Abstract

Sugarcane has been central to Brazilian economic and agricultural experimentation practices for centuries. As scientists attempt to bolster the nation's production of biofuels in an era of climate change-oriented energy policies, they are looking to genetically modify sugarcane—one of the most photosynthetically-efficient plants—to optimize their ability to convert sunlight into liquid fuel. However, the sugarcane genome, yet unmapped, is much larger than those of other commonly experimented-upon crop plants, and therefore confounds scientists' efforts to manipulate its genetic structure through routine modification protocols. In laboratories, sugarcane requires novel, experimental models of care in order for scientists to promote certain kinds of biological mixture while limiting others.

Based on long-term fieldwork in a Brazilian molecular biology laboratory, this paper investigates the demands made on scientists by this perplexingly complex ancient crop plant. By learning the everyday practices required to create and cultivate transgenic sugarcane, I analyze the regimes of care that guide these molecular biologists as they attempt to control contamination and stimulate growth of their in vitro "Frankenstein" organisms and the transgenes they insert into the plants' genetic structure. By investigating the ways that the mixing of organisms—in GM plants and in contaminated Petri dishes—is central to transgenic science, I argue that care, in the form of controlling contamination, is a vital part of scientific practice and of scientific reputation-making in a global South context, where biotechnology scientists experience anxiety about future funding and job procurement.

Ways of knowing plants: the case of synthetic biology and the Phytobrick

Author: Dominic Berry (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

The majority of laboratory work within synthetic biology has been directed towards single-celled organisms, namely bacteria and yeast. Recently efforts have been made to integrate plant scientists. What is synthetic biology doing to plants, and what are plants doing to synthetic biology?

Long Abstract

The mammalian and microbiological continue to dominate the life sciences, and - perhaps for that very reason - also the research of those dedicated to the latter, whether they be from historical, philosophical, or social science perspectives. Plants however offer a crucial alternative entry point into both the history of biology and biotechnology, and the use and management of biological resources today. I make the case for the distinctive contributions that plants can make to the history and philosophy of science (particularly with regard to experimentation) and the social study of science, through a case study: the emergence of plant synthetic biology. The distinctiveness of plants is causing interesting problems for the latter.

One of the most conspicuous aspects of the entry of plants into synthetic biology, is the introduction of a new iGEM track dedicated entirely to plant synbio, which will be launched in time for the 2016 jamboree. The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is an international student competition that has run annually since 2003. In preparation, plant synthetic biologists have defined a new standard for biological parts (commonly referred to as BioBricks), dubbed the Phytobrick. I give an overview of the work currently being undertaken in (UK) plant synthetic biology. Through laboratory observations, and a series of interviews with those responsible for creating the plant track, I analyse plant synbio broadly in terms of John Pickstone's 'ways of knowing'. More specifically, I pay particular attention to how biological engineering is being pursued in, through, and with plants.

Vegetal Experience

Authors: Oana Suteu (National Filmboard of Canada)  email
Xin Wei Sha (Arizona State University)  email

Short Abstract

The Vegetal Experience project hybridizes botany, plant thinking, dance and visual art in response to two questions: How can movement constitute thought or thought constitute movement? Can there be art neither for humans nor made by humans?

Long Abstract

Natalie Jeremijenko's OneTrees Project ( ) is a clever artistic insertion of unruly subjects into the world: actual genetically identical trees in actual sites around the Bay Area, to be cared for by ordinary folks for 30 years. True, this renders plants outside the categories of food, medicine, weed, but as meta-subjects enrolled in the artist's critique of genetic determinism, they are no less anthropocentrically construed.

Can there be art neither for humans nor made by humans? Can there be ethico-aesthetic experiment without a priori subjects, just as novel entities (such as technical inventions) can co-construct their conditions for existence?

Moreover, ecology shows us that point-solutions and point-thinking may solve a problem at a particular site or meet a particular need yet nonetheless yield global catastrophe.

Since 2009, a linked series of media artists, philosophers, filmmakers and programmers have intertwined readings of Spinoza, Goethe and Marder together with experiments with plants, responsive media, and plant life support systems (ironically named) built with water, soil and natural as well as modulated light. We describe recent work with artists from film and dance (Montreal) and media artists and scientists from Synthesis Center ASU, that will in turn inform a future conversation between philosophy and botany.

Keywords: vegetal experience, plant life, movement as thought, ecology, environmental philosophy, film, dance

Dwarf Shrubs and the Contingency of Form: Plant Functional Traits and Landscape Historiography in the Lesotho Highlands

Author: Colin Hoag (University of California, Santa Cruz / Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

Plant functional traits let ecologists aggregate a plant community's properties. Anthropologists are skeptical of function but the concept is important. Narratives of shrub encroachment in Lesotho show us how to see plant strategies and the local histories that make strategies matter.

Long Abstract

Plant functional traits (PFTs) refer to those physiological, morphological, or phenological properties of plants that define strategies for survival (e.g., seed mass, plant height) and enable ecologists to bypass binomials, instead aggregating the functional properties of plant communities. Anthropologists and others know to be skeptical of "function," given its use in apolitical, ahistorical models of social organization assigned to colonized people. Yet, in the Anthropocene it seems that restoring the function—the ability to productively coordinate—of more-than-human communities is an urgent matter of concern. This paper works in this contentious zone to understand plants' role in transforming rangelands in Lesotho. There, the "dwarf shrub"—a life-form with certain functional traits—has become an important figure of contemporary life, crowding out grasses necessary to livestock and the people who depend on them. Elites in Lesotho take an "ecological", abstracted view of shrubs, envisioning them as indicators of rangeland degradation. The people who live beside shrub-encroached rangelands, however, see not simply degradation but a history of climate contingency, population pressures, and soil conservation programs implemented by elites, which removed a key tool for keeping shrubs in check: fire. That is, they make possible a landscape historiography that respects plant strategies and the local histories that make those strategies matter. My findings are based on 14 months of fieldwork in Lesotho, where shrubs proliferate alongside efforts at soil conservation. Informed by ecological theory, history, anthropology, and STS, this paper attests that form and function need not be ahistorical and abstract.

Flora Luma:  a research-oriented artistic exploration of human-vegetal hybrid reality

Author: Raune Frankjær (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

Flora Luma is a plant controlled installation, co-developed by the author. It utilises bioelectrical signals, to drive color-animation of self-illuminating objects. 

Long Abstract

Flora Luma is a plant controlled installation co-developed by the author. It utilises bioelectrical signals, to drive color-animation of self-illuminating objects. 

Electrical signalling constitutes a part of plant vocabulary, employed for intra- and interspecies communication. Recent findings ascertain plants to be much more perceptive of their environment, than previously thought [1,2]. Terms like plant behaviour and plant intelligence, are entering scholarly discourse and have been the subject of both major articles in respected media [3,4] and artistic exploration [5]. Yet, the public is largely unaware of the richness of plant life and communication. 

Flora Luma is designed to provide an insight into the inner working of plant life.

An organic structure fashioned from optical fibres and cotton, provides the substrate on which the plant's signals are displayed. The fibre-optics are illuminated by color-sequencing RGB LEDs, the velocity controlled by the frequency of the emitted signal. As the plants react to touch, the spectator can directly interact with the plant and receive visible feed-back in real-time. Plant and human become hybrid agents jointly creating unique artistic reality. 

This interaction changes the relationship dynamics between human and plant, from anthropocentric/hierarchical and acted-upon, to one of equal and active partnership, as the plant is revealed as a responsive actant [6]. The installation therefore lends itself to scrutiny and discussion from an ANT perspective exploring the notion of collective being [7] .

Flora Luma will première at the Luminale16 in Frankfurt in March, during which data on the human-plant interaction will be collected.

Participation as if art mattered - art between politics and ecology

Author: Line Marie Thorsen (Aarhus University)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I examine how artistic practices in Hong Kong navigate and mobilize composite scales of aesthetics, ecology and politics. Through urban farming, art collective Farms for Democracy effectively tie the everyday bodily experience of eating into the fight for democratic representation.

Long Abstract

In the autumn of 2014 thousands of people took to the streets of Hong Kong to demand 'real democracy'. Various different citizen groups participated in the protests known as the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central, here amongst the artist collective Farms for Democracy who has set up a camp - or rather, a garden - a long with hundreds of others by the government building at Central. The link may not be obvious, however in a Hong Kong setting the connection between farming, the fight for democracy and the potential of participatory art practices is much more straightforward. Their artistic participation is based on deep concern for the environment, access to nature and secure food production, however, with growing political control from the Beijing government Hong Kong citizens are loosing their very right to raise such concerns.

In this paper I will examine how this artistic practice, immersed in local contestations and apprehensions can be seen as navigating the composite scales of local environmental concern and faraway political encroachment. Through an STS and ANT-informed reading I will argue, that in mobilising urban farming and the intimacy of hearty foods, Farms for Democracy is effectively tying the everyday bodily experience of eating (and food security) into the fight for democratic representation.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.