Design: Plant Woman
Category: Education and Culture (performance)
Land or Non-Land: non-land
Design Process Used: SADIMET
Design Tools Used: sketches, interviews, Pinterest pinboard, nature observation, rehearsals, costume experiments, sample crowns, You Tube playlist
Implemented: September 2018
Timescale: 3 months lead time, 1 week implementation, 2 days performances
reflection :: design documentation
As part of an interactive performance around utopia created and directed by Sam Bunn I designed and implemented the Plant Woman performance using the SADIMET design process. This project involved set design, costuming, performance, foraging and human interaction.
What did I learn about permaculture from doing this design?
The design itself helped me discover different ways in which images and feelings related to permaculture and deep ecology can be communicated and experienced by end users. Feedback from the performance is that many participants enjoyed the Plant Woman corner of the room, but I am not sure about the longer impact the experience had on them or whether it influenced their relation to nature. As one participant said “I guess I should hug a tree” before giving me a pleasant hug (I consented as much as a wordless Plant Woman can), but after the performance did they go out and hug other trees or talk to their houseplants?
While I was using permaculture ethics and principles to guide my process am not sure if by participating in art making I was doing lived permaculture, or, does permaculture require that we regularly dress up as trees?
Learning more about the theories surrounding utopia is a very nice complement to help me better understand permaculture and what valid practice is. I think that each person in the movement holds an ideal of what “proper permaculture” is and the world we are trying to make. Often we can project our own understandings outward and presume that because people must eat, rely on water and breath oxygen then everyone wants and must do the exactly same way of achieving the future. Thinking that there is one true permaculture can be a trap. On more anxious days I catch myself thinking “My windowsill gardens aren’t enough. Until I have swales, a food forest and a herb spiral I won’t be able to bring around change (when 10% of the population crashes on demand)”.
Of course utopia (aka no such place) is impossible because there is a multiplicity of ideas around what an ideal world could be. That doesn’t mean that talking about utopias or possible futures is a useless act, as imagining different ways to organise society means we can imagine and feel comfortable to make change within the present we currently live.
While I like to imagine that permaculture gives us a precise and shared understanding of the eutopia (aka a good place) we are working towards, I have to acknowledge that within the movement there is a diversity of understandings of what permaculture is. From preppers to neopeasants, regnerative ranchers and vegan permaculture, no money lifestyles through to profitable market gardens, ecovillages and windowsill gardeners as well as those who believe that permaculture ideas stopped with the creation of the one true book (Mollison’s Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual). Often, those different camps of permaculture seem to be in direct opposition to each other (one group’s utopia will inevitably be someone else’s dystopia).
Regardless of the minor factions within permaculture (and the progressive left more broadly) I have to acknowledge that all that diversity and believing and going is experimenting and working towards something better than the world we currently live in. It might not be a good place and we might not be getting there in the most efficient way possible, but it is a better place.
So in the end I figure that using permaculture ethics and principles to develop a performance and getting to dress up as a plant woman is actually a pretty valid way of doing permaculture and imagining better ways of living.
At a more practical level of design reflection it has reminded me that I should not assume what other people’s ideas of permaculture are. I think this is key, particularly if someone comes to me as a client saying “make me a permaculture garden”, or if we are intending to go into collaboration. I know that in addition to thinking about food security and challenging dominant economic structures, I consider permaculture to be a really important way of approaching adapting to climate change. Other people might not have the same meanings and working out what our shared intentions are is very important.
What did I learn about myself from doing this design?
I discovered that I really, really like making and wearing plant crowns and that I would like to find more opportunities to do this in the future.
Being part of this collaboration with Sam along with friends like Leonie, Pete and Fabian made me feel really good. It reminds me that I have been part of other artistic collaborations. It would be great to collaborate again with Sam, and I should be open to further collaborations with people.
I also often catch myself saying “I am not an artist” in contrast to my husband who works professionally in an arts collective. While I don’t do art full time and didn’t go to art school I should feel more comfortable about taking on the role of artist.
How has this design helped me?
This design and the reflection process have helped me to be okay with using permaculture in non-traditional ways. It was a really good opportunity to work with people I like, something which I often feel like I don’t have the opportunity to do.
What went well with this design?
Plant crowns, no allergic reactions, it was designed, implemented and improved. Sam, who gave me the brief was happy and the people who participated in the performance / experience seemed to respond well.
What are my next steps for this design?
This particular design is completed, but I’ll be looking for more opportunities to make and wear plant crowns and to collaborate in art projects
What are my long term goals and visions for this design?
Be a plant-human hybrid and interact with people to provide a two minute nature connection as part of the experimental project Through the Far-See-Er by Sam Bunn.
A darkened space with projections of redwood forest canopy and slime mold moving across soil and mulch. Living and dried plants made shadows. The Plant Woman (me) was dressed in green with a crown of leaves and ivy which in turn added foliage shadows across the video footage. In the background a choir made forest noises.
In the final iteration I silently greeted participants. I invited them to sit down and offered the participants a leaf of their choice (saltwort Salsola soda, tulsi Ocimum tenuiflorum, peppermint Mentha × piperita). Together we listened to our leaves, feel their touch on our skin, smelt and ate them. I then showed a selection of seeds, bones, twigs and shells which represented natural patterns. Some participants chose to take a pattern of their choice.
Sam Bunn asked me to be a “plant woman” for his Through the Far-See-Er art project. Sam’s art practice responds to the lack of eutopian 1 representations in popular culture, especially mainstream film. Over the past two years he has produced two performances that invite audience members and participants to imagine a better world. In 2017 I was part of the Utopian Choir as part of the True Blue News performance.
Through the Far-See-Er was Sam’s final Masters of Arts project. The appointment-only experiments took place over 6-9 September, 2018 during the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria.
A set was created within the Architektur Forum Oberösterreich (AFO) included a fold out temple, fake tram, office space, forest and living room. 13 participants were led through the half-hour experience, interacting with improvising performers, a choir, playing video games and eating food. These experiences were intended to provoke ideas of a better world and encourage the participants to think more about the messages of the future they receive from popular culture.
My “Plant Woman” performance fit between a sequence about livelihoods, automation and good work and a childhood memory experience.
- Contribute to Sam’s performance
- Connect with participants
- Produce no / minimal waste
- Have fun
The development of the Plant Woman set and performance was iterative, but the main phases of development can be described with the SADIMET framework.
I questioned Sam about his vision for the Plant Woman. I observed what clothing and fabric resources I had. I also drew on my collection of natural pattern objects (seeds, shells etc) and plants growing wild on the street, our apartment courtyard and the borders of Leisenhofgärtnerei.
Both Sam and I made sketches. I tested out how to make foliage crowns and attempted to make fabric roots. I chose to hide my feet and used a scrap of green-brown cloth to make a “trunk”.
I provided Sam with a playlist of timelapse videos for the backdrop.
Implementation – Preparation
- Overdye a damaged dress to make it bright green
- Use AFO’s fake grass carpet tiles to cover the floor
- Collaborate with Sebastian Six setup the video projection
Implementation – Performance Days
- Gather cuttings of plants and made a plant crown each day
- Switch on video projectors
- Get into costume and character
- Interact with the Far-See-Er participants as they move through the space
Significant maintenance was not required. However the living plants needed to be watered and had the project extended I would have also needed to light the plants.
Lighting could have been achieved by having a second set of houseplants to rotate into the exhibition. Alternatively artificial grow lights could have been used. I prefer the idea of having a second set of houseplants available as this seems lower impact and would give me more plants in my life.
I loved making plant crowns each day they were looking quite wilted by the evening. Had I needed to keep the crowns fresher for longer I would consider choosing different plants. Research showed that plants like magnolia have heavier, longer lasting leaves which could be preserved with glycerin.
The space felt “wild” compared to the rest of the set. Other contributors enjoyed the space and gave positive feedback. One participant gave me a very excellent hug. I felt calmer due to being immersed in nature. Karin and Sam came through and gave feedback after the first day. Based on this my character didn’t speak with the participants but only used body language.
Improvised performances are always a continual process of observing and responding. Tweaks that took place included improvising scripts for each participant (day 1), remaining silent (day 2, 3), giving participants the leaf before inviting pattern observation (day 3).
Ethics and Principles
Minimise harm to local ecologies (use plants that would otherwise be pruned) and promote nature connection to participants of the Far-See-Er experience.
Support participants and project colleagues feeling of wellbeing and nature connection. Respond to the needs and feedback of people within the confine of the Plant Woman experience. Provide snacks and support for Sam and project colleagues.
I donated my time and efforts to Sam’s project and received a lot back into terms of satisfaction and community time.
Application of the Permaculture Principles
Observe and Interact
- worked from Sam’s sketches
- created a Pinterest board of ideas,
- observed plants available for trimming
- made test crowns
- observed project participants responses
Catch and Store Energy
- used plants from nature instead of plastic plants
- used time between participant interaction to reflect
- damaged plants were used to start new plants
Obtain A Yield
- increase personal happiness from project involvement
- made new acquaintances and strengthened friendships
- provoked thoughts of eutopian nature connections in participants
- got hugs
Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback
- paid attention to Sam and Karen’s stage directions and adjustments
- adjusted performance depending on participant’s reactions
Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services
- used natural plants rather than artificial
- goal of project was to encourage increased connection and respect for nature
Produce No Waste
- set used fabric I already owned, AFO fake lawn
- costume was existing clothing
- plant crowns and sets were composted or used as celebration fuel
- encouraged Sam to buy fabric with maximum reuse potential
- salvaged cable ties in clean up process
Design from Patterns to Details
- repeated the plant crown process day by day
- plants in sets increased each day
- improvisation – had a rough framework of interactions but customised for each participant
- acknowledge my energetic rhythms
- used natural patterns (shells, seeds, bones) in ritual process
Integrate Rather Than Segregate
- became better friends with collaborators especially Fabian
- made the performance part of my life rather than an “extra” thing
- felt much closer to nature due to the experience
Use Small and Slow Solutions
- made small experimental crowns (kept) and some roots (not continued)
- minimal work for most impact – used projectors to fill space with light rather than trying to build props
- silent performance meant that my gestures had to mean a lot
Use and Value Diversity
- incorporated a diversity of plant species into crowns and set
- all guests were valued and interacted with differently
Use Edges and Value the Marginal
- the nature space was a bridge to the woody tunnel to childhood
- used fabric wall shapes to create a skewed projection effect which wrapped the space
- I wore my full costume out of the venue and visited my favourite cafe and sat in a park.
- connections with Fabian – sharing food
Creatively Use and Respond to Change
- each experiment evolved the layout of the space and informed my next performance
- some interactions required quick thinking such as responding to a hug, or giving a natural pattern away if a participant wanted to keep it.
Morton, Timothy. Being Ecological. MIT Press, 2018.
- shared progress photos on Instagram
- I met new people and strengthened friendships.
Evaluation and Costings
- €5 for green dye and salt
- Sam uses eutopia a good place (Greek) in contrast to utopia no such place. ↩