DEATHG̶U̶I̶L̶D̶ SPECIAL EDITION: PLANT BASED PART 2
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August 5th, 2022

TRAVIS WYCHE IN CONVERSATION WITH CURTIS JAMES TAMM

I am an artist and researcher currently pursuing a PhD at USC in media arts and practices. I have worked primarily with sound for the last several years. I am currently in northern Idaho, in the panhandle, sitting in my mother's greenhouse.

Maybe you could explain a little bit about your creative practice, your deep immersion in space and place, and your ongoing investigations of extra human sentience. Would we say that’s a fair way of putting it?

Extra human, other than human, beyond human... That linguistic context doesn't quite feel appropriate. It's weird to think about things being beyond other things.

How would you phrase it then? How do you sense, how do you make sense of your senses, and how we can make sense of your sensing as a reader?

The practice that I'm involved with now began when I was very young, when I was an aspiring magician. I used to do magic shows for people that would come to the house. Then I started working with film and it felt really seamless, like a very efficient way of doing magic. I would have people sit down and watch a film and achieve the same effect I was creating through these earlier magic performances. Another transition occurred when I moved into a sound oriented practice. Both of these transitions were really driven by a degree of efficiency. For the last several years, I've developed a practice of one-on-one performances for people that are rooted in experimental music and field recordings.

You're also quite well traveled. From what I can gather you’ve been exploring a kind of sensory potential in various places, in the plants and animals and people… and even the stones that inhabit those places. I’ve invited you into this conversation on the occasion of this Plant Based exhibition to help me pull some threads of what might be required to foster sensitivity, or to sense or to interact with, or maybe to commune with or to relate to, sentience that is not human. Pulling this thread with Ricardo (the curator) has led towards thinking about shamanic practices, the idea of ingesting a botanical material, both symbolically and literally. I'm trying to think through these things, to make sense of them and honor the magic in this perspective while allowing them to sit alongside the scientific, the botanical, and the technological. This exhibition is going to take place in downtown Los Angeles. I’m anticipating being immersed in the density of that industrial and urban place and wondering how it will inflect upon this content. What is this exhibition really about?

I feel called to question the idea that plants connect us with something non-human. I feel a little antagonistic to this growing emphasis on displacing the human from itself while saying that we are also experiencing it. That’s a circular discourse. I wonder if the non-human in this instance might actually be a stand-in for something much more specific. It evokes some of the ideas that are discussed in the writings of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. He's an anthropologist who hung out in the Amazon and proposed that the human is the thing that everything experiences, that the thing that we call the human is actually a manifestation of something that is foundational to life. The emphasis on the non-human positions the human as a type of excess. I wonder if we could form a cosmology delicate enough or flexible enough to really take on the challenge of integrating a place like Los Angeles into a wider concept of nature. I think sound in particular has a quality that can help with some of the paradoxes that emerge when trying to integrate the human into a wider spectrum of plant and animal relations.

I read his text Cannibal Metaphysics. Cannibalism is described as the ultimate taboo across all cultures, a signifier for the ultimate transgression, the ultimate inhuman or even metaphysical transgression. One key idea the book puts forth is how reality is shaped through correlation. The separation of human from non-human speaks more to a style of correlating things, as systems of signs with inherent properties that mean something more than what they are.

What differentiates a species is the signs it is reading and the signs it cares enough about to ascribe meaning to. Perhaps that’s the primary thing that separates one creature from the next, not some Darwinian evolutionary framework as an arbitrary scaffold of biology. Vivieros de Castro describes how humans come first in a lot of Amazonian cosmologies, the total inverse of the Darwinian perspective. 

Where one thinks is just as important as what one is thinking about. Different geographies invoke different styles of correlating signs and meaning. It makes sense that if you are immersed in a landscape like LA that you end up developing a categorical style of thought. You end up thinking in terms of quadrilateral networks where ideas are separated by their categorical significance, right? You end up becoming deeply concerned about the environment or deeply dissociated from it, because all your percepts are experiencing an impoverished wasteland lacking in dream, chaotic geometry, and profound change. You’re not seeing the stars.

We might consider the rites and rituals, set and setting, of Shamanic magic that demonstrates how our thinking, our embodied sense of self, and our way of defining our relations is so contextual, so rooted in the place where we're doing the thinking. 

I think there's a mass delusion that the most important things are happening in cities, like it has been decided. There's so much viable information that's going on outside of the urban landscape. It's interesting to think about the role of language in relation to urban landscapes. I’m thinking about the invocation contained in the word spelling, as in spelling out a word like the conjuring of an incantation. Cities are ruled by language. When I was in Los Angeles recently I could feel this kind of palpitating, percolating pressure of being owned by language. There's something deeply unsettling there. A lot of my work deals with how we encounter what isn't human. And yet, when I go to LA and try to share work at my department and talk about my interests, I drive past thousands of homeless people dying on the street in order to have a conversation about fostering a love of the non-human. It feels completely inhuman. I find that I actually have to develop an entirely different discourse in order to achieve the effect that I want with my research. I can't just talk about it in the way that I would normally. It requires a pivot to become much more meta and self reflexive, like I have to make language contort on itself. That place conjures its own conversation.   

I am very cognizant of the fact that over the last couple of years of being thoroughly immersed in a rural place I've learned all kinds of new words. I've learned the names of the birds and trees. I know their botanical names, but I’m also trying to describe something beyond semiotics. I can recognize the differences from one year to the next based on when the pinion cones open and release their pollen or in the shape and timing of the monsoons on the horizon. If I’m out walking in the afternoon, I can infer the encroachment of a storm and know how much time I have to return to my house before the rain is upon me. I can hear the difference between cicadas and rattlesnakes, and also rattlesnakes from bull snakes impersonating them. How much of this information might be treated as a linguistic mesh emerging from the environment, or simply my own human delusion being cast upon it?

One of the takeaways I pull from Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think and Vivieros de Castro's work is how much of the human is inherent to the foundation of all of those structures. How else would we be able to interpret such signs if we weren't already embedded in those dynamics? This is part of the conundrum of being able to look at a city like Los Angeles and consider it as part of nature. 

I just returned from Rodeo, New Mexico. I was working with a biologist there who's one of the leading experts on rattlesnakes and director of the Chiricahua Museum. We listened to the sound of several different rattlesnake species and it was such an incredible, mind blowing experience. I’ve been thinking about the conundrum of the rattle and the mystery of how it evolved to be the way that it is and what it's even doing. The leading hypothesis is that the rattle evolved from earlier species of snake that used their tail for caudal luring, the phenomena of using their tail to lure in their prey. The missing piece of the puzzle is when it became used for repulsion or as a warning. 

There's this dichotomy between luring and repelling or deterring. There's one species in particular that was just distinct from the rest, Crotalus atrox, that evolved in wide open deserts, in the Sonoran Desert. When placed on the recording table all of the other species would immediately try to hide into a crevice, but when Crotalus atrox is put onto the table it turns into a monolithic sculpture and just rattles. From an evolutionary development perspective this behavior is supposed to be a deterrent, but my experience was the exact opposite. The sound was like a narcotic or a hypnotic lure that seemed very welcoming and almost sleepy, drawing one toward a sense of rest. There were times when I was looking at this incredibly dangerous, venomous creature and I realized I was associating it to something more like a plant, more like a rock, or something in between the two.

I was recently reading about a moth that has developed eyes on its wings that are uncannily similar to large birds of prey in the area, like the pronounced eyes of owls, which are very effective in deterring fish that might want to eat the moth. I became lost in thinking about the complexity of the emergent signals informing each other in this triangulation. The fish sees the moth and interprets it as an owl, sees the owl in the body of the moth, but is the moth aware that it is being seen by the fish or that it is impersonating the owl? Is this mimicry a trait of the moth or an epiphenomenal sign emerging from the gestalt of the environment? It reminds me of the wasp and the orchid in Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, two elegant species that evolved elaborate forms in mimicry in response to the signs of the other like nodes within a complex network, a sophisticated and elegant and mysteriously emergent kind of network. It seems gross to consider this an instance of moth semiotics so much as an emergent ecology of signs that implicates the medium of the moth. In contemplating how to engage with a plant based cybernetics of signs or botanical intelligence, I wonder if we are also implicated within such a distributed flow of signs. The meta seems to melt away into pure informational flow at that point, a gestalt of information we are all swimming in. 

Rupert Sheldrake’s work is very interesting on this point. He articulated a morphic resonance or morphogenic field, almost a continuation of the theory of ether, but supported by empirical forms. The theory describes a kind of lattice, like an energetic scaffolding, a formal substrate which shapes and forms how physical and material properties coagulate, similar to the theory of gestalt in the arts and psychology. We might also make a correlation to Jakob Johann von Uexküll’s theory of Umwelt serving as a foundational base layer or prima materia from which all forms are thought to emerge (even the thought of emergent thoughts, tee hee). At some scale or aperture, everything emerges from this gestalt of patterns, like a pattern language, if we want to put it into Christopher Alexander's terms. 

a) A sea urchin's environment. b) A sea urchin's Umwelt.
a) A sea urchin's environment. b) A sea urchin's Umwelt.

Sheldrake also talks about a kind of memory made accessible through ritual. As you sing a song you are resonating with this morphogenic field of everyone who has ever sung that song and this is what imbues ritual with meaning and significance. Ayahuasca ritual music serves a similar function as a kind of Yates-esque memory theater, a portal for interfacing with memories and experiences that lay dormant just under the surface. We live in a perpetual state of intentional forgetting, as if for survival. I’m thinking again about the paradox of Los Angeles and how much one must forget to endure the maddening delusion of that place.

Maybe you can tell me a little about the experience of where you are now, out in the Idaho wilderness?

Yeah. I have a reading spot nearby, at the mouth of a valley a quarter of a mile from where I'm living. The wildflowers and wild grasses have completely exploded over the last couple months. There's been so much rain. It's been remarkable to witness with all the plants totally popping off. It’s also been a double edged sword because all of the plants that were growing in the orchard and garden have suffered, with their roots becoming completely saturated. There's beautiful wild poppies and St. John's Wort all over the valley in amazing hues of bright orange and yellow and purple. We've been growing an amazing harvest of strawberries and asparagus and salad greens and corn, cabbage, brussel sprouts, tomatoes, and potatoes. The peaches and nectarines are doing very well. There's something about tending to the garden and thinking about it, visiting it every day, checking on it… It feels like a connection with God. There’s something missing when we only buy our food, something that feels very important. To see oneself in the process of tending to plants that will feed you is a profound experience. It feels profoundly spiritual. It makes me realize how impoverished my life has been without having a space like this.


Plant Based will be on view August 6-28, 2022 at Tiger Strikes Asteroid: 1206 Maple Avenue, 5th floor, #523, Los Angeles CA 90015


If you enjoyed this conversation, please consider purchasing an NFT of the writing or accompanying artwork.

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