Laboratory for Other Worlds was installed at the Bellevue Arts Museum from 2022-2023. It explored our connection to the more-than-human world of plants and microbes through the lens of the Environmental Humanities, an interdisciplinary area of study that combines art, philosophy, and science. This exhibition is a series of imagination exercises to de-center the human individual and to create space for non-human perspectives. Viewers are invited to push past the limits of objectivity and rationality to experience the installation as a set of tools or devices for understanding expanded ways of being with the wider world.
This work was inspired by more-than-human participatory research practices undertaken at All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, NY. This work takes into account the idea that human life and death are constituted through many non-human forces, from the microbes in our guts, to the insects, plants, and fungi that we live symbiotically with, to the gods and spirits that we summon, all of which connect us to a larger cosmology and to each other.
The installation is in four parts: Cthonos (a multimedia video installation), Plant Communication Devices, Psychic Corporeal Maps, and the Study Center
Photographs by Mark Woods Studio, Seattle, WA
Material list: saw horses, architechtural salvage, doll eyeballs, repurposed artwork, found and recycled material, paper pulp, grow lights, non fire clay, sticks, tripod, video equipment, digital video
Much of the work incorporates processes of damage and repair, meant to mimic processes found in the more than human world. The result visually mimics micorrhizal networks. Many of the pieces that make up Laboratory for other worlds have been used in past exhibitions. They are delicate and get damaged during de-installations and shipping. Part of my process is to allow the damage to happen, and to repair things in new configurations that I find interesting.
This narrative sci-fi video runs behind the installation, Here you will see an abstracted, industrialized landscape grow a giant eye, which cries a tear that turns into a worm that calls down into the mychorrhizal network, summoning an earthcraft that spills out tentacles and feelers that spread flourishing. The text is a poem made from quotes by Ursula Le Guin and Donna Haraway.
Materials List: Paper machè, pulp (from recycled carboard with plaster, leaf clippings, and catnip), doll eyeballs, paper mâché, spray paint, sticks, a flagpole, found wood, insulation tape, wood, cardboard.
Anywhere can be the center of the world.
- Black Elk
These psychic, corporeal cemetery maps were made to visualize the idea of “body territory:” that communal burial sites can be thought of as an extension of the human body. These are maps of All Faith’s Cemetery in Queens, NY and are rendered as psychic geography, seeing each place on earth as both completely unique, and equally important - along with its individual configurations of plants, animals, and spirits. This place contains multiple, concurrent timeframes and spatial realities that flow from one to another. To translate this cosmological space into Christian lexicon: these maps could be read in the same way as Hieronymus Bosch’s alter piece, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” as simultaneously representing Heaven, Earth, and Hell.
The Earth Tapestry panel depicts All Faiths as transitory space. Hybrid creatures, a combination of grassy plants, winged insects, and human skeletons move through the space both above and below ground. The center of the garden holds a large monument to the dead, as well as to the life that flourishes in the immediate holobiome of the garden. The ring of animalistic mountains around the cemetery has a head, two arms, two legs, and a tail, indicating that while the cemetery is a land, it is also a body.
The Heaven Tapestry Map Panel depicts an intertwined, multispecies organism in which the below and above ground realms are combined into undifferentiated consciousness. Taking into consideration recent scientific thinking about “panpsychism,” the idea that consciousness pervades the universe, this work sees the under- and above-ground realm as suffused with a shared sentience. In this tapestry, we see human remains, tombstones, mycelial networks, roots, stones, land, air, tentacles, hands, and eyes meld into a single body of living tissue surrounded by grassy fur.
The Hell Tapestry Map Panel is based on mythological images of the European world mountain. The mountain is shown as hovering in the air, made from an enormous pile of waste material emanating from the centralized, rational individual who sits in the center of geometrical garden paths. Just as this individual’s defecation is creating the world mountain, his breath is creating a cloud of industrial pollution topped by the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Circled around are the creatures of the world, bleached to white, and chained to a monument representing financial and hegemonic world order. Around the outer circle are human remains, indicators of the endgame, zero-sum logic of mass consumption and inequity.
This exhibition contains a study center where viewers can study and enjoy. Audience members are invited to read, draw, and sit with plants. Everyone is encouraged to share notes or drawings, and to browse the books available for study.
While here, museum goers are invited to take a moment to consider the way the Study Center's off-grid solar panel system is acting in much the same way a plant’s biology does: it is taking energy from the sun and using it to maintain life. Everyone is invited to sit down and spend time with the Center's native plants: Deer Fern, Maidenhead Fern, White Wood Oxalis, Sword Fern, and Mahonia Repens.
The Study Center takes advantage of BAM's distinctive architectural features. The third floor galleries of the building respond to "Gnostoc time" a Christian calendar that is circular, focusing on the harvests and plant growth. Solar panels were installed the windows encircling the third floor, running an off-grid solar panel system that powers the Study Center.
Plants are capable of releasing beneficial chemicals that help cleanse the air and calm the human mind. There is strong scientific evidence that spending time with plants can enhance mental and physical well-being in humans. We evolved with plants, so it makes sense that we benefit from their presence. This is one of the many ways we are entwined with the more-than-human world.
A small library of essential Environmental Humanities writings. Below is a full bibliography:
Donna Haraway, Staying With the Trouble (2016) Duke University Press
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter, A Political Ecology of Things (2009) Duke University Press
Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures (2020) Random House
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) Princeton University Press
Eduardo Kohn, How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (2013)
Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995) Four Walls Eight Windows Press
Stephen Herrod Buhner, Lost Language of Plants: The Ecological Importance of Plant Medicines to Life on Earth (2002) Chelsea Green Publishing
Study Center Index of Terms:
Becoming-With - The Environmental Humanities has been described by Kate Wright for the Duke University Press as an engaged, scholarly response to madness—an attempt to address the systemic pathology of a species disconnected from the conditions of its world. Becoming-with offers a metaphysics grounded in connection, challenging delusions of separation—the erroneous belief that it is somehow possible to exempt ourselves from Earth's ecological community.
Mycorrhizal Network – Mycorrhizal networks are underground networks created by mycorrhizal fungi that connect individual plants together and transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals. Scientists have also found that trees and other plants in wild and sometimes cultivated spaces use these networks to communicate with one another through sophisticated chemical signals.
Holobiome - A holobiome is an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form an ecological unit that in turn, connects to, and is a part of other ecological units and the larger ecology. All species are part of their own, interconnected holobiomes. For example in humans, our holobiome refers to the hundreds of trillions of “guest workers” such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds, and protozoa that live in and on and around each of our bodies. They exist to help our bodies function well and without them we’d have shorter lifespans and less good health. This is true for all species on earth.
Anthropocene - The Anthropocene Epoch is an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.
Corporeal - Having, consisting of, or relating to a physical material body. Much of Western philosophy mostly deals with our minds and the culture that our minds produce, ignoring the effect of our own embodiment, and the embodiment of other species in the world. Materialist philosophy, particularly New Materialism, seeks to consider what it means to be an embodied, corporeal mind.
Body-Territory – An idea inherited from the the Zapitistas, a feminist indigenous South American rebel group that is fighting the effects of capitalism and neoliberal policies that are harming their homeland and lifeways. Their position, which is shared by many First-Nations people, is that for all peoples, the land where our ancestors and family members are buried is an extension of our living bodies. By using a Christian cemetery as a site for research, the artist is considering the ways in which Western culture could benefit from thinking in this way about the dead and their connection to the living.
Extra close up detail of a Lichen Incubator. Lichen need only water and stone to live and thrive. Over millenia, stones that lichen feed upon turn into rich soil that supports all life on earth. The dirt beneath your feet literally took thousands (or millions) of years to create by living beings.
Another extra close up detail of a Lichen Incubator. The dirt and entangled networks embedded in it are what sustains ecosystems, including our farms. When these underground ecosystems are disrupted, or covered with cement, we lose some of the capacity of the earth to regenerate life and soil. The Environmental humanities is considering this conundrum, and helping to come up with an ethical system for thinking through scientific and social situations that determine how we live to allow for us and our ecosystem to thrive.
The artist gratefully acknowledges the collaborators who have helped in the creation of this exhibition:
All of the thinkers and artists living and dead who have inspired this work including Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Debra Rose Byrd, Bruno Latour, Jane Bennet, Eduardo Kohn, Ursula K. Leguin, Elain Gan, and Octavia Butler, among many others.
My colleagues and friends without whose thinking, collaboration, and generous support this exhibition would not be possible including Carl Ferrero, Cynthia Lin, Jill Aukenthaller, Sarah Phillips, Andrew Ranaudo, Todd Weiner, Danielle Abrams, Mary Ellen Strom, Angelina Gualdoni, Jane Marsching, and Deb Todd Wheeler.
Tufts University FRAC Committee for their generous financial support of this project.
Lane Eagles, Andrew Walsh, Zoe Reid, Michael Whittington, and all the BAM crew and staff without whose work this show would not be possible.
And most of all, Steve Rosenstein.
This work is dedicated to the loving memory of Danielle Abrams, whose generosity of spirit inspired many of these works.