The following is from a conversation I had with Helga Jakobson just before the Assiniboine Park Conservatory closed this past spring. To see the artistic product of her research, thinking, and recording so far, check out her show, Sympoietic Sound, now at aceartinc. until December 7th.
FULL: What drew you to making work about the closing of the Conservatory?
Helga Jakobson: I started the project because I was so attracted to the layered narrative of the space. We’ve made a building for the plants, and they took over and crumbled it. It’s brought out all kinds of very complicated feelings. Until a week ago, the place was well respected, but then people started snapping the massive plantain fronds, coming in and stealing plants — bringing in garbage bags trying to take full plants, or just huddling things under their coats. It’s like watching how people behave when they’re grieving the loss of their family members, getting into arguments over who gets what. It’s been quite heartbreaking for the people who work here, because they know all of these plants and can see the damage.
There’s a layer of nostalgia about this place. It’s a free public space, a green space you can access in the deepest, darkest times of the year. There are only two other free conservatories in all of Canada. One of them is about to become paid and the other is in a mall. The sad truth is that there really doesn’t seem to be a way to make spaces like this free and accessible to the public. The Conservatory was free initially because there was an economy of volunteer work and donating that just doesn’t exist anymore.
Until very recently, there hasn’t been a lot of daily foot traffic. Because it’s not frequented that often, it’s become a really sacred space for people with dementia and intellectual or physical disabilities. It’s very accessible, open, quiet; it has a safe feeling. I think that goes with the nostalgia. People come in and they’re so sad about it closing, but they haven’t been in years. They associate certain trees with a story, “This is the tree I would come to visit with my mother as a child, and now she’s passed away.” But there are only a few trees in here that are over fifty. A lot of the plants have come and gone. There’s a kind of blurriness of memory.
The idea of being able to keep those moments or the plants in the space exactly as they were and the impossibility of that brings out a roaming feeling of loss. I think as a society we’ve lost the ability to cope with loss and death and entropy. We’re so focused on having and consuming and living.
FULL: It’s interesting to me that the Conservatory is being torn down because the plants have compromised the building — the plants have destroyed the building, and because of that the plants will be destroyed.
HJ: It’s a glorious, triumphant moment for the plants on one end, but then it’s also this sad loss.
The foundation is crumbling. One of the palms is pushing on the roof. The boiler can’t keep up with the temperature. The Conservatory was built in 1914, and it wasn’t made to withstand extremes and fluctuations in temperature. It’s a really big sign of climate change. There was a moment this winter, I’d been recording this coffee tree, and one night the weather fluctuated fifteen degrees, and it was just too much for the boiler to keep up. The plant died. We’re lucky that the building has stayed open long enough for there to be a week of farewell. It’s in very rough shape. The plants made it impossible for the building to keep standing.
FULL: It’s what humans do too.
HJ: Yeah, destroy what keeps you safe. That’s what drew me to the project. You have this narrative of self-destruction, and then you add these layers of grieving, and the loss of public space. It becomes a very complicated sphere.
FULL: How does your work respond to that narrative?
HJ: I’m building a plant symphony. I put it forward to the Conservancy, the organization that runs the Conservatory, that I wanted to record the plants and pay homage to them. They were really excited about it.
In my practice overall, I make these instruments that play spider webs, or I’ve set up Twitter accounts for plants. I’m very interested in ecology and looking at the place that we’re in right now as humans. I often look at it through the lens of Donna Haraway, and her Staying with the Trouble. I’m looking at co-species that work together in sympoiesis or symbiotic ways. I work with organic material to showcase the inner workings and the inner life and the science behind that, but in a poetic way. I’m not building machines that measure really accurate, specific data. They’re tools I’ve built myself. I’m interested in finding ways becoming with and understanding the species that are our companions on this earth. Part of what I look at are systems where patriarchy and capitalism impede or impair our ability to engage with the environment and health.
I’m really interested in this phenomenon called cultural iatrogenesis, which is the lack of ability to autonomously cope with death, dying, and illness through traditional methodologies. We’ve become completely disconnected from plants so we don’t have medicines that we can use to heal ourselves. We have to go to a doctor who will prescribe the thing and we pay for the thing and slowly that creates a loss of cultural capability. So I like building my own machines that will allow me to interface in new ways. In my practice, there’s always an element of ephemerality or trying to find a way to showcase the invisible: giving voice to that which is inaudible to humans. I’m not into anthropomorphizing. I want to build instruments that play, but not sing or speak. I’m not trying to give plants a voice or impose emotion on them or force them to tell a story that’s not their own. I’m trying to keep it really neutral.
With this project, I looked at the Conservatory from a bird’s eye view to see how the plants were laid out, then I overlapped them with the layout of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Instead of saying, “I think the Norfolk pine’s really sad, so I’m going to give them a moaning cello voice.” I’m just trying to assign as per location and then hear what will come from them.
FULL: What you’re saying is interesting, because there are many complications and impossibilities within it, that art gets at or allows not to be fully worked out. Like you don’t want to impose a voice on the plants, but the way they were laid out was planned by humans. The way the WSO lays out their orchestra is planned by humans.
HJ: I think there’s no such things as totally neutral. I’m not an altruistic conduit, I have my own thoughts and agenda, a way that I’m showcasing it. This isn’t science, this is art. It’s important, especially now, to understand what technology is and does. With some of my work, I’m not painting pictures or writing poems, I’m trying to interface using the tools that are of now as a way of making art. I’ve found that to be quite empowering.
FULL: Can you tell me a bit about the tools and what they’re measuring?
HJ: I use a code writing program that allows you to build sensors. I’ve built a bioelectric capacitive sensor. Any water-based organism has an electrical current running through it, because the water in our bodies retains electricity. And when we get excited, there’s more electricity. Different plants have different charges: the more water, the more electricity. I’m using the sensor to track changes in the plants’ electrical charges.
FULL: So you mentioned before that you don’t want to attribute emotion to the plants, but when you’re noticing a change in the charge, what does that indicate?
HJ: It’s because the plants are excited. A lot of the research I’ve done going into this project is based on the Baxter effect. Baxter was a criminologist in the sixties. He would hook up his philodendron to a lie detector, and then go to burn it. When he held the lighter close, the lie detector would spike up, so that shows excitement. We might imagine the plant was fearful or angry. He tried it again, and it didn’t spike, but then when he went back a third time and actually burned it, it spiked again. His idea was that the plant was psychic. It knew what he was thinking and what his intentions were. He started doing a series of tests. He went as extreme as flying in a plane, and hooking up his philodendron as he hooked himself up. Their charts are almost exactly identical. The philodendron was responding to his electrical impulses that showcased fear. When there was turbulence on the plane and his fearfulness spiked up, so did the philodendron’s.
It’s a really tricky thing to prove that your plant’s psychic, and I don’t know how far I believe into these things, but what I do believe is that the plants around us can feel the energy around them and can react, and that’s a scientifically proven phenomenon. There’s research from all over the world that scientists have done that showcase that plants are sentient. They have thoughts, feelings, and relationships, and they communicate with each other. I don’t speak plant, so I don’t want to attribute what the spikes in their electrical impulses are, but what I can say is that they have spiked at different points. For example, these monstera, they do not want to play unless they are alone. When the building closes down, I can record them and I can hear them in a way that I can’t when there are so many people here. They just do not react. I have little subtle relationships with the plants. I have feelings about what they must be going through, but I wouldn’t want to present that because I don’t speak plant.
FULL: What do you know about the plans for the new building?
HJ: The people who make up the Conservancy love these plants, and they really think about the ethics of it in such an interesting and complex way. The head of the new space, The Diversity Gardens, just came back from New York where she was talking to Central Park and The New York Conservancy to see how they run and operate. And the Conservancy met as an ethics board, and set out, “We are talking about living organisms under our care. How do we look at that ethically, and where does that fall?” We’re caring for plants, but the soil is also living. How living is living?
The main building in the Diversity Gardens will be called The Leaf. You’ll be able to look at it from the outside. All the outdoor gardens around The Leaf are free. But, that doesn’t make it a year-round space. Right now, people are protesting the fact that you should be able to go into a green space in Winnipeg year round, that should be your right. And I think there’s something to that, but there’s also the question of where does this money come from?
In the gardens, you’ll be able to walk through different ecosystems like prairie grasslands and so on, and The Leaf be a two-tiered space, so you can look from a bird’s-eye view down. And there’s going to be a butterfly sanctuary. They’re trying to bring in all other kinds of organisms. That’s interesting too, how they’re going to prepare for these systems.
FULL: In light of the fact that the plants destroyed the Conservatory, are they working to plan so the plants won’t destroy The Leaf?
HJ: Yes, that has been planned for. Although, in 1914, there’s no way they could have known that the weather would be so volatile, which is a global climate change issue. So the answer is, “Yes, they have, but who knows what we’re going to do to the earth to make it impossible in the future.”
FULL: As an artist, have you always pursued projects around plants and ecosystems?
HJ: In a way, yes. My practice has always been focused on death and the ontotheological binary between life/death, organic/inorganic, visible/invisible. I try to find spaces that queer that, or liminal spaces that can actually break that ontotheological binary, that allow us to view things not as static, but developing and expansive. That comes into everything in my life — my personal politics, relationships, my art practice, and my world views.
I started out in my art practice trying to emulate skin. I was really obsessed with this layer that creates a barrier between us and the world, and from there it went into houses and different kinds of shells that separate. I started off by doing hyper-real sculpture, and then I began working with organic material. I plasticized leaves and organic material and sewed it together to make my own skins. When you plasticize something that is organic, you are creating something that is in between organic and inorganic. It’s a scaffold.
After that, I started doing performance and relational work around cultural iatrogenesis. I built a body of work called iatroregenerism. I was thinking about how we can regenerate a sense of health and traditional healing. A lot of that is using kitchen witching and story-telling as methods for world making. What lasts after we’ve gone are the stories that we’ve told or our ideas about the condition and climate around us. I became really into looking at how the medical system fails us in certain ways by creating a lack of autonomy. So I thought, okay, I’ll combat that in my art practice. I wanted to work on that in a thorough and analytic sense, so I went and did my master’s. In my master’s, I was in a trans-disciplinary new media program. That’s where I started learning how to code. I began building codes that would help you engage with nature or break that barrier. And that too for me is kind of like kitchen witching, it’s digital witching in a way.
This project is is a natural extension of my longstanding interest in death culture in society, looking at how people cope and asking what new methods you can provide, ways you can talk about loss, and ways you can talk about the environment and where we’re at societally.
FULL: What are your thoughts on the place we’re at societally, particularly through the lens of climate change?
HJ: I think we’re in a really dangerous position because we live in an era where we have not lived a war, not in the same sense as World War I or World War II. All the generations that have come before us have had that. We have had political wars, but nothing to the scale of even Vietnam, where you have so many people going off to fight, and so many young people dying. That does something to your understanding of the importance and value of life. And I think that’s dangerous because we live in a time of constant fear and angst without being able to talk about it through the lens of loss. There’s a weird kind of entitlement that comes out of that, a hyper capitalism, and a life so focused on consumption and willful ignorance to accept the stark conditions that we’re in.
When you read theorists like Donna Haraway or Timothy Morton who talk about ecology in a very contemporary sense, they all point to the fact that we need to find new ways of being together, new ways of understanding kinship, and new ways of creating family so that we’re not producing more people for the planet, but creating value systems with one another and learning from each other and sharing. Donna Haraway says it matters what stories tell stories, it matters what thoughts think thoughts. What you think about, what you’re reading, what you’re soaking into your body starts your thought process, which you share and that creates further thought. The stories you tell are the truth that you live. You live in the truth of your understanding. And when you tell a story, you share it with someone and they bounce back and give you a different insight. And so it really matters what we ingest and what we put out. I think it’s incredibly important for people to be producing culture because it is still is not a given truth that there is such a thing as plant sentience for example. People can test this, and it’s very much a scientific fact. That idea exists but why does it not proliferate? I think it’s the stories that tell stories. So I want talk about that fact and express it in a way that can be engaged with. When it’s written in a study, it’s difficult for members of the general public to access. The cultural producers must act as a ring around fact, science, economics, or what have you — to be the sharers and the story-tellers.
For me, that means building tech instruments that can allow me to extend my understanding of things even in an intuitive sense. Intuitively feeling these plants and seeing them and watching the electrical synapses that happen, it’s based on a scientific fact that there are bioelectric currents that run in the plants, and then it’s my job to play with that and share it.
FULL: What are you hoping an audience will gain from what you’re doing?
HJ: I’m trying to promote individual exercises in understanding. I’m showcasing a new method that I’ve built to engage, and I would like other people to find their own personal ways of engaging. I mean that from the standpoint of looking at plants in a new way, or systems in a new way, or looking at loss in a new way.
In everything that I’m doing, I’m trying to propose a new system because I don’t like where we’re at. I don’t think it needs to be this way. And so I’m doing something on my own, by building my own personal ethics, and applying rational compassion. I want viewers to build their own code of ethics, not by adhering to the same set of ethics as me, but by finding their own rationally compassionate way of existing.
These plants have their own life, so be compassionate to them. Enjoy them and listen to them or don’t listen to them, but just know that they have the same current running through them as you do, and sometimes they have a higher current, and what does that mean? I like to work in ways that create a sense of wonder. I don’t want it to be a bleak message about the Conservatory closing, I want to look at it as the complicated situation that it is.