First I want to create a high level flyby of all the entangled concepts and references that has brought us together for the context of this exhibition called Plant Based. When you first approached me and I was asking about the scope of the exhibition you mentioned everything from Braiding Sweetgrass and aboriginal ways of communing with plants to shamanic practices, the esoteric work of Terrence McKenna, and the internalization or integration of a plant sentience into the human mind. This might also be considered an externalization or projection of a human sentience onto other beings, or things, and evokes the age-old conversation about animism and panpsychism. To be clear, by sentience I mean to refer to self-awareness, reflexivity, a self consciousness that leads to the formation of a collective conscience.
This triggers a flood of secondary references around psychedelia and ethnopharmacology. I would like to ratchet down the scope a bit so we're not spinning out into free associative absurdity, but I also think it's important to let this get as weird as we want. When we first spoke you mentioned UFOs and we discussed the archetype of aliens through modern works like Jung's Flying Saucers : A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. This strange realm of considerations relates to a whole milieu of tertiary ideas; of otherness and othering and the subaltern and the dehumanization of entities that are not like us. Maybe it's too great of a leap, but I would like to attempt to clear a path from psychology and neurocognition on one side to philosophical and cultural research on the other. We will see if we have the energy to get that deep.
My own interest returns to the foundation of this conversation. We seem to be assuming that there is a mind, a human mental or cerebral position that transcends our individualism, that can be influenced (or infected? or inoculated?) with a plant sentience. This is significant and interesting, as this is not simply an entanglement of socially constructed identities or genetically inherited traits - not only the cognition of another mammal, or even another animal - but signaling an integration of something (or some agency) fundamentally different in its cellular structure, chemical composition, physical architecture, and its (dare I say) energetic resonance. Botany is distinct for many structural and ontological reasons and, for myself, this greatly complicates the idea of plant-based knowledge, plant-based empathy, plant-based cognition or reflexivity, and many other things. On this note, we might move away from and outside of the human, maybe even beyond "mind." I want to chart that shift, to try to track it and follow it. Does moving out of our mind imply moving into an imagination that cannot be singularly claimed as absolutely human? Are we talking about moving out of the self and into an immersive collectivism? An integral botanical sentience?
There's absolutely a political orientation here that we might delve into a bit. And many sticky questions about the root or substrate upon all of our other assumptions are stacked. I remember you questioning the legitimacy of the empirical, epistemological, philosophical lineage that heralds the solidity of some concrete objective truth and scaffolds the infrastructure of science. We might put scientific inquiry in relation to shamanic visionary seeking as we ask-after this "wholly other" (as Terence McKenna would say) consciousness of plants. Is it a consciousness of plants, originating with them? Or a consciousness within plants, collected or projected from some other source? Is it even possible to disentangle ourselves from the human obsession with our own origins to contemplate a uniquely plant-based consciousness that is not modeled on ourselves?
I think this is where we might think together about shamanism and virtual realities as interfaces with other forms or flavors of sentience. This might sound out of place here, but I would like to think with you about the potential of the interface, as a metaphorical threshold where “alien” intelligences might contact each other. There's lots to say here about technological portals and ethnobotanical receptor sites, as well as the aesthetic gestalt evoked by both psychedelic and VR experiences, for better and for worse. We might also expand this to other aesthetic forms. We both have a background in painting, so let's bring in painting as an interface, perhaps through the notion of painting serving as a mirror, window, or portal at various points in history.
On a completely other note, I think there are some strong connections to be made to the current situation within crypto. There's a lot to explore here and it might sound intimidating. One point is that I have witnessed a lot of experimentation in instigating a shift away from self-interestedness towards collective coordination and cooperation. This signals a shift from centralized to decentralized agency. I think there's something there related to the hyper reflexivity of human sense-making and the expanded potential of plant-based gnosis.
Within the crypto community, some voices are evoking biomimicry as the ultimate threshold of high abstraction. For example, mycelial networks are reconciled with cybernetic ecological theories amounting to such perplexing comparisons like calling mycelial networks the "internet of nature." Natural ecosystems can be captured by technological consciousness so easily. Trees in a forest are anthropomorphized as individual citizens, cooperating and competing for survival like human society. The mycelial "network" provides the communicative tether for those individual trees to pass "data" between each other, trading and leveraging positions through a naturalized economy. I personally find this idea horrifying and it will take some patience to unpack it together, if we can get there.
There's something fundamental here about the lineage of the mind-body problem in philosophy, biomimicry in engineering, and biophilia in art and design. I want to explore these thresholds or interfaces from both sides. I think the conversation around shamanism could easily slide into a taboo direction and I want to ensure we don't get lost in New Age-ist combinatorics, blending all the ideas together into the same convoluted dough. I think we must resist that temptation in order to ground ourselves within some kind of rigorous examination, but of course, that immediately sets up another problem. We need to continuously remind each other what ground we are standing upon. As we re-member, we are actively dismantling our biases and reassembling them into new configurations. I would propose that this is really the core of what we are up to right now: trying to carefully and attentively change our own minds. Maybe that requires that we can't do it alone and would benefit from the counsel of plant and mycelial allies, or maybe we can generate the same effect of moving outside of ourselves by passing alien ideas between ourselves.
Just to finish that last thought... I think shamanic gnosis might be put into relation to a technological inquiry, even an engineering mindset. I think there's a ripe opportunity to explore the influence of cybernetics on ecology and our understanding of natural systems. What kind of mind are we actively constructing here? Are we attempting to actively deconstruct our own anthropocentrism, and if so, is that going against our own nature? Is that an unnatural inquiry? How can we approach sentience, consciousness, knowledge, or knowing, or some kind of mindfulness beyond the human? How might we identify an entity with agency without imposing that anthropocentric bias? Who is really the alien here? And what does any of this have to do with an art exhibition?
Okay, I know that is a lot to unpack, but I just wanted to throw it all out there to get our primordial juices flowing. What do you think?
I'm going to just throw a few ideas back at you and hopefully not derail everything. What is your relationship to philosophy right now? What is your ambition for philosophy and your understanding of its uses and its abilities?
I could provide some context. Before COVID, I was pursuing a PhD in philosophy, aesthetics, and critical theory. My interest was in exploring the philosophical utility of how we make sense of our own senses through critical sensing and sense making. That might sound like a poem, but what I mean is thinking about how we see and how that becomes meaningful while actively and critically looking and thinking-about-looking-and-thinking differently. I drafted a dissertation about how we make mental models based upon our visual experience. In the tradition of phenomenology, I set out to increase the fidelity of the related concepts as much as possible and became obsessed with fidelity as a concept in itself.
Okay. I'm gonna admit that I've never engaged with subjects to the level of depth and excellence that you have. I studied philosophy for undergrad and it ultimately became a dead end. I realized that I wanted to be making art and was drawn towards the creative and away from the empirical. Art felt like more of an appropriate use of my mental energy. But, you know, your story is curious. You had a lot of philosophical energy in grad school and it seems like you sort of went the other direction.
I go back and forth. I very generally think that any knowledge system needs to be understood in relation to others. Nothing exists in isolation. I'm only skeptical of science when it attempts to hypothesize in a vacuum. When we observe something removed from the system in which it originated we are not seeing the whole picture. Art in itself is not sufficient to explain the full depth and complexity of this life experience, nor is philosophy, but the two together exponentially increase that fidelity. When we start branching out beyond the Germanic lineage of philosophy and Western modern art into the diverse ideas and styles of the world, it gets even higher fidelity. There's also a threshold to that fidelity. With too much complexity, people can't seem to hold on to the concept anymore. I’m very interested in that threshold of complexity and I’m always asking questions to investigate if that threshold is something innate in the human organism or if it's a choice, because people just get uncomfortable. We can only go so far with an image before we need to start putting words on it. We can only go so far with language before we need an image to supplement it. Certainly there’s something to be said for scientific reductionism on this point… but that's the interface, the threshold that I love exploring.
I had this thought about people wanting to explore virtual realities. Content like Ready Player One seems so plastic, so low fidelity in relation to reality. We access this world from so many different perspectives. It is infinitely complex, gorgeous, fascinating, and mystifying. Why do we want to reduce it?
The virtual is a technological construct, a simulation, a simulacra, a reality imposed on top of this one supported by a silicon infrastructure and burning material energy from this reality. We mostly access virtuality as a mental state and visual experience, but soon™ we may be able to explore these alter-realities in increasingly embodied ways. When the screen optics match the resolution of our general experience and the corporeal sensing becomes convincing enough to facilitate total immersion, will it distinguish one reality from another? Is fidelity a matter of conviction? Do you need to be convinced that the world created in the program is just as real as the world we created in the meatspace? Isn’t the virtual construct merely a continuation of the same civilization operating system we have been collectively hacking on for thousands of years?
Nature is not infinitely complex, it just appears that way because of our human fidelity thresholds. How might we distinguish this technologically mediated virtuality from shamanic visions? These rites and rituals facilitate the entering into a certain state of mind, an “altered consciousness” as they say, which may or may not be supplemented or augmented by ingesting psychoactive substances and accompanied by cultural artifacts and paraphernalia, including objects and decorations unique to the physical environments that construct and support the optimized experience. Language and music direct the senses before and during the experience and help us to make sense of what happened afterwards. The shamanic experience itself is characterized by its uncanniness, both more and less realness from our typical conscious orientation. It “appears” both hyper real and less than real and somehow “wholly other” at the same time. The imagery is not generated by a computer and you know you're not wearing a headset, yet one can remain aware that they ingested a mushroom and intentionally positioned themselves in a set and setting that would deeply influence their orientation, so what’s the difference here really? Why is it so “natural” for us to lend agency to the mushroom, to the vine, to the pus that comes out of a Sonoran frog's back? Why are we able to allow those substances to maintain a kind of agency, to cognize a being there, to declare it an ally or a trickster or a teacher or a god? Why are we so unwilling to allow the technologically mediated virtual worlds the same mysterious agency?
This reminds me of that phenomenon where people see forms in television static, or hear voices emerge out of white noise. Is that called apophenia, or pareidolia? I love these questions, yet you’re undercutting the legitimate magic of shamanism. If plant-based shamanism can’t be reduced to a chemical formula, or as a mere stimulation to a part of the brain. Draining all of the magic out of the experience and just focusing on the plant signals a pretty radical shift in the power dynamics, away from the mystical towards the purely human, and elevates us to almost godlike status. My inclination is to move in the other direction, to relinquish the grip on that power. If we perceive the world in a purely materialist sense and distill down shamanic rites into just the compounds that we ingest, this is akin to empirical sabotage.
I love the stoned ape theory. It's a fun one to contemplate, but it certainly required a much wider bouquet of plant interactions to shape and develop the mind. That doesn't take away any of the weirdness, the beauty and the fascination of the story. Plants are literally terraforming the planet, creating the bedrock for life, and whether or not a specific agency emerges from that botanical manifestation, that substrate is where our own consciousness emerges.
Hold on… let's unpack this just a little bit. Plants aren’t terraforming the planet, they are the planet. This reminds me of that Ursula K Le Guin short story Vaster than Empires and More Slow about an alien planet covered with plants that demonstrates its own hyper concentrated, planet-scale, almost telepathic botanical empathy.
I’m currently re-reading David Graeber’s last book, The Dawn of Everything. As an anthropologist and incredibly lucid and astute thinker, he has been systematically deconstructing common sense understandings and myths that we collectively hold to be true and upon which we erect the systems of our civilization, but when we investigate their origins we discover that they have been completely fabricated. To take the stoned ape theory as an example, Graeber simply states that there is no evidence to support the procession of this story, but there is an abundance of evidence that demonstrates that it most likely did not play out that way. As you mentioned, there is an allure to it that is wonderful to bask in, very tempting and inspiring for an artistic sensibility. There is also a dangerous threshold, where we might adopt this origin story for our whole civilization, or for all of human consciousness, build an understanding on a false premise and come to inhabit a false reality. Graeber goes on to outline how bureaucracy and the common sense assumption that civilization requires hierarchically imposed rules when it reaches a certain scale might be merely invented, but perhaps that’s beyond the scope of our conversation.
Is accepting the stoned ape theory a matter of conviction? How might we allow the empirical to interface with the allure of living myths? And at what point do we allow our skepticism to have a seat at the table? How do we maintain a balance between philosophical inquiry based on logical method and a shamanic inquiry based on somatic experience, intuition, oral history, divination, animism and panpsychism? How do we integrate the information from these experiences? What constitutes the plant-based intelligence you are trying to explore in the Plant Based exhibition?
The intention of the exhibition is to assemble works of art that take plants as their subject matter. The artists each approach plants with a very unique perspective. It’s not about appropriating plants as props for rendering a still life, but rather centering on the plant as a highly valued, intelligent, sensitive, or transformative being. It’s like the difference between painting a hired figure model and making a portrait of the president or something. The intention of the artist is very different. There are different formal considerations, a shift in respect and reverence to the subject, maybe even trying to form a relationship and a representation of something that most people overlook. I’d like to open people’s minds to the possibility that plants are not merely inanimate, unconscious, utilitarian matter for our own consumption and pleasure, but potentially gods in their own universe that we pass by everyday, that are infinitely humble and supportive, or maybe wonderfully indifferent to us. How might we imagine the transcendental dimension of plants? Do plants dream of mycelial sheep? When we ingest them, do they lend us their ideas? Do plants inhabit their own “virtual” reality, completely indifferent to us? Have humans become the agents of a botanical scheme to terraform the earth and colonize the human organism? Can plants even be distinguished from the earth? Are plants a botanical hyper-fidelity interface between dimensions of sentience?
Plant Based will be on view August 6-28, 2022 at Tiger Strikes Asteroid: 1206 Maple Avenue, 5th floor, #523, Los Angeles CA 90015
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