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Jane Tingley

Jane Tingley’s Plant (iPod) Installation

Even before entering the room that houses the Plant (iPod)s, you can hear them, though very faintly.  They appear to be breathing.  Listening more carefully, the lulling tempo of human breath may evoke other sounds: the rhythmic flow of cool water over rocks, muffled, or melded, to the mechanical drone of a motor, possibly the hum of an electric fan.  It is hard to say.  

As soon as you approach the Plant (iPod)s, the cadenced sounds shift into soft whispers.  They immediately speak to you as if they have craved your presence, and as if they seek to enchant you with their stories, told ever so softly. They are very old tales, legends of trees and forests and lullabies, already heard scores of times in different lands and ancient places.  Listening to each narrative, you are reminded how, over the centuries, human lives have been so intimately interconnected with plant life, with non-human nature.  

Sauntering through the grid-like arrangement of whispering plants, you are certain to notice other signs of human culture.  The lush plants appear to have sprouted a variety of synthetic appendages: branches, odd bulbous shapes, geometric patterns, and pod-like forms – all covered with the bark of the cork tree.  Artful, artificial, some of the shapes are carefully sculpted prosthetics that serve to prop up delicate stems or to support the weight of heavy leaves, maintaining an otherwise uncertain equilibrium. 

Here and there, the cork-covered appendages stretch out in unexpected directions, as if they have developed their own independent shoots, emulating the natural growth that develops after pruning.   Integrated with the artificial prosthetic forms in this way, the natural plants come to resemble trees, giving the appearance of asmall forest, an enchanted one. Yet this is evidently not woodland. 

These are clearly not trees, for you can see how the differently sculpted cork pods envelop flower pots, containing the earth and moisture that nourishes each plant’s root system. In addition, similar pods/pots enclose synthetic cultures, granting a support for the electronic (nervous) system, for the sensors and speakers that allow each plant to respond to human presence, to breathe, and to recount its stories.  One can even see how the electronic roots or wires extend beyond the artificial, organic forms, stretching into the environment, very much like exposed veins that spread along the floor reaching, as if searching, for their own ‘electric’ life source.

The organic roots and electronic systems observed in the Plant (iPod)sare themselves an outgrowth of other art installations by Jane Tingley.  They are reminiscent of The Body: thrichobotria of 2004 where a human form, articulated by a system of fine web-like nerves, reaches beyond its corporeal boundaries into the environment, evoking, in this way, the human cutaneous nervous system’s ability to sense the external world through touch and other senses.  Similarly, the responsive environment of Jane Tingley’s Peripheral Response of 2006 exposes the body’s peripheral nervous system, this time by technological means. Robotic shapes, based on medical textbook illustrations of the body’s sensory receptors, respond to visitor’s presence, thus also exploring the interplay between bodies and environment. Even more complex sensory systems are at play in her Plant (iPod) Installation.

What are Jane Tingley’s Plant (iPod)s?

It is evident that plants are given central stage here.  But this is not entirely true.  The Plant (iPod)s exhibit their deep embeddedness in human culture, openly displaying their technological roots. The title, Plant (iPod) Installation, already makes their hybrid quality quite clear, how they are comprised of plant organisms and electronic systems -- not to forget, of course, the human element, the ear that listens.  Even the breathing one first hears is a convolution of human and mechanical sounds.  Not cacophonous in any way, the fusion of human and mechanical elements is harmonious, altogether natural.  Similarly, the hand-made cork prosthetic extensions integrate the plant organisms and the technological components in a seamless fashion, breathing new life into them.  In each of these sculptural forms is found a built-in subwoofer, with metal branches that hold sensors and speakers. But why are the hybrid Plant (iPod)s responding to us? Why do they speak to us? 

What are the hybrid Plant (iPod)s telling us?

The whispering Plant (iPod)sprovide the visitor with the means to experience, in a physical, material way, as well as aurally, the intricate relationship between human and non-human nature/cultures. The age-old stories, told by the Plant (iPod)s, are, of course, ‘human’ stories about human-plant interrelationships: tales of virtue, of morals, of conflicts and of accountability.  They recount how human creativity and imagination are grounded in the magic and enchantment of forests and trees; how non-human nature is a source of music and song, of beauty and art.  More fundamental still are the stories that relate how plant organisms provide humans with a life support system, with a livelihood, and with tools and technologies. Yet some may argue that technology, so entrenched in military histories and modern positivist mindsets, is a cultural phenomenon that alienates one from nature. But is this really so?  Just look more closely at the Plant (iPod)s.

What are the hybrid Plant (iPod)s showing  us?

As hybrids of electronic and natural root systems, integrating human and non-human cultures, the Plant (iPod)s are breathing, speaking (and listening) manifestations of nature/culture.  Further, theyannounce, in an unproblematic manner, the elemental role of technology in the histories of nature/culture. This is only natural since plants and trees have been, and continue to be, the source of our primary technologies.  They serve to house and to shelter us, to clothe and to protect us, to nourish and to heal us.  They provide us with heat and with light, and with the means to make innumerable tools and mechanisms, even instruments like pianos, flutes and violins.  The list goes on.  One might even wonder how the Gutenberg revolution and the dissemination of knowledge, the backbone of the scientific revolutions, would have evolved without paper; and how the industrial revolutions would have advanced without the wood and coal to fire the steam engines.  Even today in our Electr(on)ic Age, wooden poles (Boston Firs) still provide the essential network systems for our information technologies.  Jane Tingley acknowledges this in her work, Branch Prosthetic of 2007, where she attaches branches to telephone/hydro posts, reminding us of their source in nature.  It is only fitting then that prosthetics and electronic systems are integral to her Plant (iPod) Installation as well, particularly since, for good and for bad, diverse technologies have been at the heart of world histories of nature/culture for a very long time.  

Text by Ernestine Daubner, Department of Art History, Concordia University

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