1. Desember: Rachel Pimm’s “Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom” and “FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh”: plants as “A Thing Like You and Me”
Rachel Pimm’s work deals with the manipulation of nature to suit our contemporary desires and demands. She examines the paradoxes of the on-trend and capitalistic fashioning of nature, whereby the appreciation of nature has become an appropriation. In our era of the anthropocene, the objectification of nature is both through biomimicry as the so-called New Natural and its language in terms of the corporate greenwashing tactic.
Urgently current in her insights, Pimm grapples with how “cultivating nature out of its original habitat and into our homes, offices, leisure, retail spaces and workspaces” affects the natural world. This New Natural is a man-made version of the natural, a “natural… that imitates the artificial”. It becomes a fetishized version in an unnerving utopia for of ever-demanding consumers and corporate manipulators who endlessly cater them.
In her two videos Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom and FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh, Pimm brings to the foreground, in comparable intensities, man’s manipulation of the natural world to become desirable. Here, both works present the desire for a perfect image of the natural, which is a contradiction in itself. Perfecting a natural species through man’s manipulation to suit an idealised image gives an unnatural product. The former video raises ethical issues of the New Natural: Who is man to engineer his own evolution? Will the objectification of nature be its demise? Furthermore, FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh builds upon these issues with the capitalisation of nature.
Interestingly, language plays a major role throughout Pimm’s work. It binds together the existing themes of objectification and manipulation in the works’ context with the urgency of vulnerability and domination in equal measures. Possibly, it is in hope of a re-examination of our current involvement of ecology within our lifestyles.
Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom and the manipulation of nature
In Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom, the voiceover tells of an eager horticulturalist’s quest to create the New Natural. It journeys through the imagination and possibilities of using science and technology to cultivate an aesthetically pleasing object. Simultaneously, the visual shows the “princesses”, who carefully place green, natural objects around a soft and ceramic-built interior set of the horticulturalist’s greenhouse.
The princesses’ labour echoes the domestic setting, as they fold grass-print towels and handle fruits and vegetables as if in the kitchen. It is a reminder that the human impact of this ecology domesticates it and is in fact now far removed from the natural environment. The princesses dress in marble print, as if sculpted to support an attractively soft collision of the organic with the clinical labouring in the laboratories of the biologists, where the New Natural is engineered to the cell.
The ideas engage with eco-feminism, as Pimm’s work presents ideas of the horticulturalist manipulating a feminised and vulnerable group like nature, which comparably suffers the inequality fought by feminists under patriarchal rule. Even with narration, the artist and horticulturalist Amanda Dennis, alongside Pimm, voices the male protagonist’s intentions through the third person. This gives further weight to his authority, as his detachment only frames his inaccessible stance in hierarchy over the ecology of the princesses’ labour and his ability to manipulate of their kingdom nature to his desires.
The New Natural originates from the scientific process of biomimicry, in which nature inspires new, sustainable solutions and innovations, as it brings “biologists to the design table”. Biomimicry functions as a useful tool to enhance man’s possibilities and efficiency, in fields such as science and engineering. As scientist Janine Benynus adds, with the example of nature’s unmatched capabilities to deliver the arrival of spring, comes also the reminder that man, with his new technologies, does not hold the capacity to wholly replicate nature. “We’re not the first ones to build” and we must acknowledge nature as a guide, not as competition.
Despite scientists’ use of biomimicry as collaboration with nature, some have appropriated the innovation vainly such as fulfilling aesthetic desires and gaining capital. In terms of Pimm’s work, it could be interpreted that the horticulturalist uses biomimicry to mock and possibly even patronise nature, in order to produce a natural that “imitates the artificial” purely for aesthetics.
Ethics of nature’s objectification
This raises ethical problems with ecology. Must nature be standardized to follow terms of mass-production and mass-consumerism all in order to keep pace with the anthropogenic desires and trends? Must it be be fashioned to its core cells to compete with our image of the perfect natural? However, is the New Natural to be stigmatised and prevented, or is it now normalised in our morals and expectations of aesthetics?
If the reason for this “misuse” of biomimicry is due to the idealisation of nature, then perhaps its objectification should undergo examination. Questions concerning our ideas of representation can be aligned with Hito Steyerl’s, in her essay “A Thing Like You and Me”. Here, she discusses the need to gravitate importance towards the participation of the object in “acknowledging that this image is not some ideological misconception”, but rather that it is the “material aspect of the image”. She lends this as a calculated response to the common misunderstanding that the object is inferior to the subject.
Treat nature as a “thing”
Concisely put, Steyerl imagines the futility to “ask anybody whether they’d actually like to be a JPEG file” over an idealised image in the material sense. According to Steyerl, participating in the object means a direct involvement with it, thus minimising the chances it is lost in the shadows of the subject and becomes a derivative and abstract ideal of itself. We should alter our thinking of the object as inanimate and respond to it as a realistic “thing like you and me”. Our involvement with nature should not be objectified through idealisation, but rather engaged with as real living organisms.
In terms of Pimm’s Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom, nature is inferior to man’s grasp. Nature is voiceless, and the only language spoken is through the horticulturalist’s desire and narrations of manipulative gestures. In another video, FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh, which will be discussed further later, the retailer attracts consumers through manipulating the real to suit the images of what a desirable plant may be. In such ways, Pimm reminds that it is the fantasies of how nature should suit us that drives our manipulation of it towards an unnatural image. With Steyerl participating in nature is to urgently remind ourselves of its realness as opposed to our fantasies of it, that it may be an object but not inferior.
Furthermore, Steyerl and Pimm both seem to warn of the consequences of continuing to see the object as an image and not a real life “thing”. Pimm comments that her work explores how “our built environment changes, becomes hybridised, privatised and homogenised, and with that, how our behaviours have adapted”. In recognition that people hold the responsibilities of the changing human landscape, it is no doubt to agree we also are to blame for the anthropocentric changes to natural ecologies and how we deal with the consequences may only be elongating the problems. The “hybridised, privatised and homogenised” nature is the New Natural throughout Pimm’s work. She attributes capitalistic and aesthetic desires to the defiance of unnatural reproduction of plant species, which laboratories breed a species “vegetated as clones”. These vegetated clones are lifeless, and by applying Steyerl’s view that the reproduction of the image, whether in Pimm’s case the physical reengineering of a plant’s genes to suit a consumer’s preference or the image as fashionable ideal, one gathers that it is not sustainable nor is it really that ideal. Steyerl explains that an image “will never be full and glorious, as images are bruised and damaged, just as everything is in history”, as if each reproduction stage alters the object to deterioration. Why do this and especially to living species? We too easily reject nature in favour of over-perfected representations. However, evolution is the result of natural processes beyond human knowledge to secure nature’s longevity. Should man interfere, it risks destabilisation and in the long-term, possible extinction.
FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh and the language of the New Natural in the Corporate Utopia
Another video piece by Rachel Pimm, FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh, furthers the concerns of the objectification and manipulation of nature raised in Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom, and deals with these in the context of the current, everyday consumer within the capitalist society. Pimm highlights the significance of their relationship with the retailer, who seemingly takes to replace Darwinian evolution of natural species with a man-made evolution to create the New Natural with capital-attracting qualities. She looks into the range of methods retailers use to manually mutate and also how they form a language of greenwashing to influence consumers. The split screen video installation plays audibly and visually with the language of scientific plant names in Latin and the behaviour of consumers towards nature.
One screen displays the patterning of the Ficus Elastica, a common houseplant, whilst the second screen resonates the audio through the visualisation of the running narration. The voice is translated into a fluttering graphic that imitates the Ficus Elastica’s leaf pattern. As the artist and horticulturalist Amanda Dennis narrates in Pimm’s video, “Just as a more attractive name may be chosen for commercial reasons, more attractive features are also chosen”. The split screens are aesthetically pleasing, but intelligently, they function as a clear indication that the input of the pretty aesthetic is a text laden with concerns of the unnatural methods used to grow plants for sale.
Pimm cites the Ideal Home Show as an influence on her work and one can see the fascination with the utopian outlook of nature incorporated contemporary living quarters explored in her videos. Steyerl remarks that “the commodity…is a condensation of social forces”, which returns to how the source of the New Natural is through popularised desires, helped by events like the Ideal Home Show that draw masses together.
Onomatopoeic language and manipulation
Importantly, the pronunciation of certain words such as the plants’ Latin names are elongated, deconstructed, and then reconstructed with a sense of falsity. This causes the visualisation of the sound to stutter and pause, as if a reflection of the fragmented state of a voice that should in fact be natural, to become a robotic, uncertain or even damaged. Even in its title and throughout the video, the pronunciation of “FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh”’s each syllable is naïve as though to teach something complicated and alien to the consumer, the producer must simplify all aspects of the plant down: including the name and variation information.
Moreover, Pimm’s play with language in Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom, takes form in overlapping voices to establish a mix of confusion and doubt in the narrative. In one case, the positive results of biomimicry grow uncertain, as the horticulturalist fashions a “…masterpiece of the artificial. Yes. He had achieved his aim. Nothing seemed real.” An echo of the word “cheated” overlaps “achieved” to contest that the victory satisfies himself and scientific advancements, however questions the whether it incites a loss for natural species.
Pimm also describes the relationships between “technology and nature, onomatopoeic language and form as they mutate, breed, or hybridise” to stress the biological, aesthetic and ethical consequences of consumer-led biomimicry and mutation preferences. The list of carefully pronounced adjectives, including “glossy, plastic…engorged”, reveals the Ficus Elastica as a commodity with pleasant qualities that reveal to be uncomfortably unnatural. The video piece goes onto describe the plant’s colour variation, mutations and history. FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh concludes with homecare instructions for the plant. It is a collection of advice that in some way hints at the futility of keeping a plant in captivity to nurture under specific guidelines. Homecare for these plants is like a paradoxical security whereby they “can be controlled and managed simply by cutting off-”, just as the video piece abruptly ceases. Does nature have its own voice to in the era of the anthropocene? Is the Darwinian Natural Selection by natural evolution impossible in the anthropocene?
A monstrous Anthropocene that looks good in your living room
Rachel Pimm addresses the difficulty of nature existing unharmed and harmonious with man in the anthropocentric, capitalistic era. This is due to the fact that what we want from a capitalised nature is our idealised perfect image of what it should be. Everything else we buy, for example our kitchens and our cars, is rendered to perfection nowadays, and arguably when one must pay for it, one expects only perfection. As Pimm ends in her video “Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom”, “cloth, paper, porcelain and metal appeared to have been loaned to man from nature to enable her to achieve monstrosities”. To return to representation, Steyerl asks, “what if the truth is neither in the represented nor in the representation? …Or actually – in its corporate media version – a barrage of commodified intensities?” Through Pimm’s work, it seems this perfected representation of nature has a higher price tag than many are willing to come to terms with.
This post was originally published on wormaesthetics.tumblr.com by Angela Chan.
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Link to watch FYE-kuss e-LASS-tick-uh: http://vimeo.com/99910589
Link to watch Princesses of the Vegetable Kingdom: http://vimeo.com/94037342
Hito Steyerl, “A Thing Like You and Me,” in her The Wretched of the Screen, (Sternberg Press, 2012).