Politics of Plants. Preliminary Questions

Zheng Bo in Conversation with Natasha Myers

Artist and theorist Zheng Bo was the Gropius Bau’s In House: Artist in Residence in 2020, as part of which he explored how plants practice politics. The first phase of his research was shaped by conversations with experts in anthropology, ecology and philosophy, fostering questions for later investigation. 5 May 2020 marked the solar term “Beginning of Summer” (⽴夏), a day when anthropologist Natasha Myers and Zheng discussed the role of plant-human solidarity in the “Planthroposcene” – a term that signals the interference of plants in the heavily debated notion of the Anthropocene. This conversation became an audio-livestream for the Gropius Bau’s audience. During the talk, Zheng took a walk on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, while Myers walked in her garden near to Toronto’s oak savannahs. Listeners were invited to do the same: to take a walk in nature and imagine possible relations between humans and plants. The extract below is a document of their conversation, exploring the political dimension of our relationship with plants, from the colonial impact of seeing them as extractable commodities to the revolutionary potential of centring plants in the politics of our everyday, changing the course of our planet’s future.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hongkong

Bo: For the past eight years, I’ve been working with plants, making installations, short films and workshops, but I realised my practice has been largely intuitive. I read your recent essay, How to Grow Liveable Worlds: Ten (Not-So-Easy) Steps for Life in the Planthroposcene (2021) – a word that you coined, I believe. It’s the hybrid of plant and human. In this essay, you listed ten steps. Step two, you said, is “to break this world in order to make other worlds possible”. I had this picture in mind: in the not too distant future, we will stop treating plants as dumb beings; we will respect their intelligence so we can hear their voices; we will understand their ideologies and preferences, and engage them as equal partners in making decisions at all levels, from local to planetary. This, to my mind, is a very political imagination.

Natasha: Every moment that we’re engaging with plants, whether we’re harvesting food from the soil, whether we’re harvesting medicines from them, whether we're using their bodies for our fuel, or whether we’re using their bodies to build our dwellings; every engagement we have with plants, is political. The things that I’ve been really swayed by, really moved by, really challenged by, are the big questions about colonialism. Every moment that we engage a plant in some kind of conversation, even if it’s a question about aesthetics, we are participating in most often colonial forms of knowledge about plants. In that moment, we are engaging plants like colonisers. And so plants have become use values, extractable commodities that can easily be siphoned off through our commodity chains. One of the very first things we have to begin thinking about is how plants are already at the centre of the politics of our everyday. We have to ask: how are they part of that political scene? How can we centre plants in a new kind of politics? How can we reorganise our political realm around the organisms that give us everything we need to survive, including the oxygen we breathe? It’s about re-centring the beings we must learn to live with, and live well with – centring those in our political arena, so that we can actually change the future of this planet.

Bo: I think there are two branches: to see our everyday relations with plants in a political light – even eating plants, which we do every day, we [can] see that as a political act – and to include plants in our more narrow sense of global arena. Often when we look at plants, we never really see them as potential partners in making joint decisions. Many of us have started to see our relations with plants: to pay attention to our relationship to plants as food, as medicine, as aesthetic partners. But in my mind, it’s very difficult to imagine plants as political partners in collective decision-making processes. I’m thinking perhaps, like you said, there are two ways to do this – at least two other branches to this. One is to redefine our politics, because our forms of politics, whether authoritarianism, or representative democracy, these are human-only forms. The question is whether we should incorporate plants into these forms or whether we need to invent completely new forms. That’s one question. The other is whether we can understand how plants already practice politics. How do they make decisions? I think you already talked about this on the cellular level. If we really understand their molecular mechanisms, we start to see how they make decisions and communicate. So, one question I had in mind was, because we have been mainly thinking about politics on a human scale, as individuals or citizens, how do we really move politics to the cellular, molecular level?

Natasha: Yes, in a paper in 2015, Conversations on Plant Sensing, I took time to talk with scientists who locate the agency of plants at the molecular and cellular levels. In the last six years however, I’ve thought really differently about plants since, recognizing the politics of plant sensing in different ways. At the core of the work around plant sensing is, in fact, an invitation for us to scale up from the molecular – we are too caught up in the molecular level of our explanation of the mechanisms of plant sensing and sentience. However, we’re missing a bit and this comes back to the question of colonial knowledge, which is founded on the erasure of every other way of knowing plants. The evacuation of sentience is the very first manoeuvre that one would have to make in order to bring things down to the molecular level, and to think about sentience at a molecular level. I’m interested in pushing us to think about a different unit. I think the proper unit is the relation. It’s the human-plant relation, which I’d like to centre as a unit of political agency. What's so beautiful about that is that immediately it displaces the self-aggrandising Anthropos, that all too-familiar liberal humanist subject, who is supposed to be autonomous, who is supposed to be able to act rationally.

If we consider a shift to Planthroposcene thinking, a Planthropos displaces the Anthropos, and the Planthropos is precisely this kind of hybrid figure, both plant and human. It is an involving (involutionary) process where plants and people have, over millennia, involved themselves in one another’s lives, to the extent that we are now indivisible from plants. And what’s really powerful about this way of thinking is that it does not just displace the human and centre this sort of hybrid, rhizomous being, but also requires that we work with plant-y notions of subjectivity, with plant-y notions of community, with practices of rooting that are about taking responsibility for precisely the here, the now, the present, where we stand. Plants do this kind of rooting, from which we humans could stand to learn a whole lot. In every relation, you can’t extract the plant from the person, from the food that they’re eating, from the medicines that they’re ingesting, from the clothes they’re adorned in, in their fragrances – all these things. If we can start to recognise our full imbrication with the plant realm, we can start forming solidarities, we can get on their side, we can find out how they want to grow, where they want to grow and how they want to nourish not just us, but every other being.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hongkong

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hongkong

Bo: I also thought about how we understand plants as distributed ‘knowing’ versus us (humans), who tend to believe that we have a centralised knowing, which is centred on the brain. I think now, if we really start to awaken our vegetal being, we start to realise our knowing is also distributed: memory, knowledge etc. are not so much centred in the brain. If I take it to the political realm, I wonder, how do we see political decision making? It’s no longer just brain activity. It has to be distributed political decision making.

Natasha: It’s probably not an easy move [in terms of] every political decision. But to stick a shovel in the ground, or dig up something, or change how the land is being used, or build something here, or tear something down there; every single one of those decisions made around our private properties and enclosures, they all have consequences for plant life. We’re not talking about a kind of representative democracy where there will be a place at the table for the trees. But there will be a place at the table in a Planthroposcene for the people who know those trees, for the people whose land it is, who can speak for those trees. That’s the shift. Plants have their people. Even in the middle of a forest, they have the people who have either protected that forest, or who have let that forest be ravaged; there are people in relationship to every one of the plants on earth. What would it mean to distribute our decision making around people who actually can speak up for the plants? This is exactly what I’m thinking about right now in the work that I’m doing supporting the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle here in Toronto. How do we centre the people for whom these oak savannahs are not just ecosystem services? These are relations of survival. This is something that my collaborators have taught me: these oak savannahs are not bits of nature for science to save, they are scenes of generations of solidarity and survival. So, who do you trust: the people who have had a ten year relationship to an ecosystem and are trying to restore it; the people who survived on this land, living in relation to the trees for millennia; the people who’ve had time to get to know these lands, who should be making the decisions. That could be actionable right now. That’s a shift in the politics of today: how can colonial governments begin ceding their control to Indigenous people?

Bo: When I read that you’re supporting the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle in Toronto that was actually the question I had in mind. Who actually accumulated generations of wisdom in perceiving the desires, the energies of plants?

Natasha: Elders and knowledge keepers are the people who have the teachings that have been passed down, and they are actively working to generate new knowledges and relationships. In some situations, they are having to rebuild and begin anew. The ravages of colonialism are such that we are all colonized in profound ways. Keeping Indigenous knowledges alive requires people getting out on the land for land-based teachings. This is essential in order to do the really profound intergenerational work of healing from the traumas of colonization. A lot of that work is centred around plants, whether it’s cedar or the oaks or the maple trees. Colonial restoration ecologists come into an oak savannah, like the one I work at in High Park, and they look at the maple trees and they want to just cut them down. They say, “Oh, it doesn't belong in an oak savannah. Here's a sugar maple, we’ll just take it down.” Well, that is the most sacred tree for the Haudenosaunee people. This is the source of maple water and maple sugar; this is the source of so many important teachings. Colonial logics are missing the crucial thing, which is that the people who used fire over millennia to steward these oak savannahs actually made that ecology. One of the things that I love about thinking about an oak savannah is that it really is a Planthroposcene; it’s a scene where people have learned to conspire with the plants to grow livable, nourishing worlds. If you take the people out, it ceases to be an oak savannah. It’s in that space that we realise we really need precisely these people to be stewarding the land, if healing is the intention.

Bo: So, it’s not people in general, it’s a people. It’s a type of living.

Natasha: It’s a relation. Bringing people into the right relation with the land is really foundational to this work. The Indigenous earthworkers I collaborate with don’t want to keep people off the land; they want to get as many people on the land as possible. And they want to create opportunities for healing not just Indigenous peoples’ relationships to land but everybody’s relation to land. For them, everybody needs a different relationship to the land [in order] to make the future liveable. So, for the Indigenous Land Stewardship Circle, the work is in trying to figure out a way for Indigenous peoples in cities to take leadership over stewarding urban lands. That would create a Planthroposcene: that would be centring the people who know how to conspire with the plants, putting them at the centre of the decision making. And their leadership could teach us all about the ways that healing land is also about healing community and how doing politics differently could alter all of our futures.

The original audio interview has been edited.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia, 2019

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 4, 2019, video still. Courtesy: the artist and Edouard Malingue Gallery, Hongkong

Natasha Myers is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University in Toronto and director of the Plant Studies Collaboratory. Her current ethnographic projects speculate on the contours of the Planthroposcene, including vegetal sensing and sentience, the politics of gardens and the enduring colonial violence of restoration ecology.

Zheng Bo is an artist and theorist currently based on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. As last year’s In House: Artist in Residence at the Gropius Bau, he explored how equality between species on the planet can be imagined and realised. During his residency, Zheng deepened his research in exchange with scientists and invited the public to talks and workshops.