Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening, edited by Caroline Picard and Devin King. Chicago: Green Lantern Press, 2016.
The book I review, or rather, reflect on here is the exhibition catalogue, performance documentation, and collection of essays and poems called Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening. Exhibited by at Sector 2337 from October 9 – November 21, 2015 and published by their press Green Lantern Press on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Logan Square, Slowly Opening is an interstice between curation and sylvan and vegetal knowledge. Curator Caroline Picard convenes artists that observe, document, or participate in the inaccessible subjectivities of plants and their relationship with the world. A work that conducts an inquiry into nature and culture, Slowly Opening looks at the ways of being that are shared within community gardens, cacao pods, cryptoforests, museums of lichen, and the psychogeography of small, decorative palms. The inaccessible becomes more accessible within a relationship of care, deliberate attention, and a performance of noticing.
Karen Houle’s Fragments introduce each section, named “Once the Trees are In Position,” “Impatient Flowers,” “Others for Their Colloquial Names,” “The Lichen Museum,” and “Disruptions/Constructions.” Darwin is the strange attractor around which the works revolve and escape. Virgil provides opening guidance. A poem by Chantal Neveu, translated by Nathanaël, is named after a carbon dioxide molecule. These introduce a deliberate attention to the written word and its labor that carry through the book.
Deliberate attention is indeed labor. The exhibition’s institution-in-residence was The Lichen Museum, and a performance of looking took place on the sidewalk outside the gallery. Like their eponymous organism, the Museum is not centered in one place, rather it was and is everywhere. As composite entities, both lichen and the Museum unsettle rigid taxonomies and compulsions toward conservation, but most importantly, observation. Visitors took small eye glasses for a walk along Milwaukee, noses pressed to the ground and walls of buildings in the arduous effort to identify lichen. Noticing becomes performance, attention, play; essays, poetry, probes; translation, reflection, projection. These immeasurably flexible methods are various forms of perception, aisthēsis, perhaps a fulfillment of an Aristotelian criteria for a botanic agency.
Noticing becomes performance, attention, play
Alexander Yang’s New Economies for Anachronistic Fruit (the Jawbreaker Syndrome) (2015) consists of a gumball machine filled with Kentucky Coffeetree seeds, a pile of that species’ empty pods, a pamphlet, and a young, potted sapling. The pamphlet shares the history of the tree and its former interdependence with the Pleistocene’s mastodon, a fuzzy, elephantine partner with mandibles capable of crushing the pods and dispersing them for germination. A ten-millennia-since-widowed species, the forlorn angiosperm embodies a moment within a ten-thousand-year tragedy. Like an artisan and her material, as Picard cites anthropologist Tim Ingold, Yang proposes a relationship between the grower and the maker, one that co-evolves through a “sustained process of interactive development.” (20) Like Milton Friedman’s “Lesson of the Pencil” from 1980, which I expand on in my review of the Intercalations series in this issue, the material history of objects and their relationship with human and non-human evolutionary performance is brought to bear in this exhibition and paratextual arrangement. At each of these scales, care and attention is slowed to an immensely elongated moment, where attention becomes a deliberate labor. As the Lichen Museum’s manifesto reads:
If anything in this world survives, it will not be because it is saved by humans. It will happen through infinite and infinitesimal acts of encounter, and differentiations caused by encounters, and new relationships developing through encounters ... (206)
Like the hyperobject it echoes, the book and exhibition project an image of itself at different scales.
Full-bleed, black-and-white and colored images punctuate the book throughout. Sonia Yoon designed a stunning book for the skimmer, the reader, and one who pauses. Like the written, performed, and made works, the book’s construction prolongs different moments within the exhibition. Elongated moments are enabled through deliberate attention, a decision made through active thought or, as Steven Shaviro expounds, an instinct for survival.
Like the hyperobject it echoes, Slowly Opening projects an image of itself at different scales. One of these images is that of a plant’s desire. Slowly Opening reveals a moment in the slow and imperceptible growth of a plant. This is a moment which reveals the plant’s defenses, need to spread, inclinations toward light and against gravity, its seduction of bees, butterflies, and small birds. These are all toward a relationship of care within its environment. Monica Weston retells the story of Apollo’s rape of Daphne, and even after the river god Peneus transforms her into Laurel tree and even after Apollo continues to reach for her, she recoils. Concurrently, two self-canceling desires are recognized: the desire to escape Apollo through sylvan transformation and the desire to annul his longing for her. As Daphne embodies her new arboreality, she finds neither have been realized, and she is rooted in place, once more the object of his desire. Perhaps Wilfredo Prieto’s work “Walk” is an apostrophe to Daphne. A set of instructions for performing a walk two miles around Logan Square with a decorative plant in a wheelbarrow, Picard wonders what the plant perceives. Does she have desire? Does she feel care? Though no passers-by notice movement through the space of the performance, or even the performance itself, does that mean she does not move at all?
The stability of the Holocene has wrought the Anthropocene. The past’s stability has been nullified by climate reports, rendered moot by recent climate upheavals. Cataclysms which should occur every 100 years are now at a violent acceleration. It indeed seems impossible to afford deliberate attention to watching grass grow while walls of water swell around us. Slowly Opening is one possible solution, an “exercise of engagement,” (16) a bridge between mutual desires for life and the histories of our symbiotic desires that entangle our lot and survival on this planet. If for so long humanity has turned to machines in our latest rounds of survival, Giovanni Aloi opines, why have we omitted plants?