Why PLSS ? (v 0.001); Felix Guattari The Three Ecologies

Dear PLSS creators,

In every "project" we each can respond once in a while to the question "why?"   The responses can be personal or collective.   One could respond more than once in the course of a project, revising one's responses.   This is a third, preliminary response.   How would you respond to the same question?

Like all student exercises, PLSS enjoys some political freedom in its response to the given conditions.  PLSS enjoys some technical and eco-ethico freedom, too.  I see PLSS as an exercise, meta- to, and preparatory for the research work of the TML over the subsequent years.

From the height of 20c euphoria, there echoed the slogan "Man the maker."   We make things; we make tools to make things; we even make sense.   In market and technology, we "make."  Even among artists, "making" is good.  These are all different ways of making, but it seems inescapable that, two and a half thousand years after Zhuangzi and Homer died, we now live in the world  by making -- it's part of our condition as modern humans.    Twenty years ago, Felix Guattari asked whether we could make and act ecologically, which for him meant simultaneously in "the environment, social relations and human subjectivity."  The Three Ecologies works out some of the ramifications of that challenge.


In the introduction, the translator wrote: "It might have been better for us if the Earth had screamed, as it did for Professor Challenger. Instead it has gone eerily, silent."  But plants have always been the silent part of the Earth.   Can we learn to hear that refrain, and could we learn to speak in concert with it?   If it is part of our condition as humans to make -- meaning to make and use technology (remember even language has its technology, e.g. grammar) -- then what are the techniques we can learn that do not merely project the conventional divides of  "media-computational" vs "biological / organic"  vs "socio-political" technologies onto our own working medium and our own working environment?  I think learning to grow plants as new media, and new media as living material will be a strong challenge to our assumptions about both kinds of material (matter, energy, affect).

What I mean by freedom in this instance is that for the TML, the PLSS exercise is valuable not as a direct production of publishable knowledge and technical solutions to problems (though it may well generate such knowledge given a level of craft), but as a watershed exercise for us to learn how to make things in a different way, where the stuff of the making really is a more credible alloy of biotic, machinic, and symbolic materials.  The way we design: the conditioning of the making could also become a credible alloy of what conventionally are entirely disconnected techniques.   That very disconnection is a deep part of our crisis.    The techniques include computation and carpentry yes, but to be credible they also should include social techniques (taking responsibility for the plants who we invite to stay, and for the other members of the TML with whom we maintain the room in living order), as well as aesthetic techniques.  It matters not only what we make, but also how we make -- poetry as well as engineering.   

If the engineering is well-understood and readily available for denaturing and adaptation to alien purpose, then all the better, because then we can move on to the challenges of transversal design and poetic expression.   For example, as a preliminary, we could ask, if we take seriously the fact that what we grow in the TML registers and partly structures the sidereal, HVAC, social, (and maybe someday the computational) patterns in the room, then how can we make that legible?   There are even challenging mathematical, mechatronic problems to solve.   Another challenge: how can we musically compose event structures that accommodate not only our sound and video media but also the patterns of growth and decay of the living plants in their response to the sun and the patterns of people working in the room?   Defining "accommodate" and "event structure" is part of the question.

Now, even if PLSS is an exercise, to make something flourish in the TML could be in fact a genuine contribution worth telling or showing other people.  So, we should aspire to make and learn something that can generate as well as consume portable knowledge.   Can we make something that treats plants as first class entities, in as sophisticated ways as the computational media that we already know how to make?   What does it mean to not treat plants as decoration or use-matter or a source of allegory for designers and architects?  (Biomimetics merely echoes form.  Remedios Terrarium 2008 was a lovely set of allegories, but allegory nonetheless, except for the plants and materials that Flower tended before during and after the event.)  Are there techniques of working with botanical materials -- plant matter, water, earth -- sharply different and distant from the logicist techniques of computational media, that can teach us something about working with non-botanical materials -- video, sound, light, textiles, films, ... legal codes etc. -- as well?   How can we work and live in  EV7.725 with patterns of growth and decay that are quite different in scale and kind than the sinusoidal cycles of media designed as if they are immortal?


Xin Wei

Felix Guattari, The Three Ecologies

PS. It takes some courage to stare at a problem long after it's become uncomfortably difficult.   Ditto for an approach to a problem.  That's why I point to The Three Ecologies, when it would be more comfortable to move on to fresh ad-copy.   There are other writings and art worth studying too.   Please suggest more, and post them to http://plss.posterous.com/ so we can discuss them and draw from them.

Biotop Rooftop Gardening System

Hi this is very good news, Morgan.   We can then do something ethico-aesthetically experimental and expressive.

What could that mean? 
Xin Wei

On 2010-02-14, at 12:53 PM, Morgan Sutherland wrote:

Originally I was interested in making an "easy to construct", "user friendly" plant growing system. It seems that this is already covered:

If I learned one thing from the Sustainability Action Fund presentations it was that we really need to push the research angle because every 'practical' angle you can think of is already being tackled by more capable and powerful groups. PLSS should be considered a research system, not a 'solution'.

Biotop Rooftop Gardening System

Originally I was interested in making an "easy to construct", "user friendly" plant growing system. It seems that this is already covered:

If I learned one thing from the Sustainability Action Fund presentations it was that we really need to push the research angle because every 'practical' angle you can think of is already being tackled by more capable and powerful groups. PLSS should be considered a research system, not a 'solution'. 

Status, Grant Writing

Quick update:

I'm currently writing a Sustainable Concordia SAF grant and a FASA Special Project grant (due Thursday). On Friday at 3:20 2:50PM I will give a short (10 min) presentation about the project as part of SAF Public Consultations at 2149 Mackay, CI-101. 

Jordan, Toby and I have settled on a basic design, sketches of which I will post soon. Toby aims to have one large planting box (with embedded infrastructure for water transport)  constructed by the end of the reading week break (late February). 

I will be getting in touch with the folks from Foam and Metabolicity (Loop.pH) soon. Take a look at this video from Maja at Foam about "Luminous Green" and "Grow Your Own Worlds": 

I've yet to do extensive research into plant sensing technologies. This is on the slate for after Friday. 

Thanks to Laura for helping me with clarifying project goals and grant writing. 

First Review of Existing Work


MetaboliCity is a vision of a city that metabolizes its resources and waste to supply its inhabitants with all the nourishment they need and more. London based studio Loop.pH started MetaboliCity in October 2009 as a design seeding process that included the participation of over 100 volunteers from eco-architects and hydroponic experts to chefs and residents of East London housing estates, working together to co-design a diverse portfolio of solutions for growing food in the city. MetaboliCity is now a growing network of small-scale, distributed urban vegetation experiments that develop solutions to integrate both traditional and hi-tech agricultural techniques into the fabric of the built environment. Be it soilless, solar powered window farms, vertical green cladding that clings to facades or organically grown vegetables climbing up street lamps, innovative solutions emerged from multidisciplinary teams collaborating.



MetaboliCity Flickr

Note: I think this is the group we want to be most involved with. PLSS could be pitched as a "grow lab"

Window Farms

What are Window Farms??

Window Farms are vertical, hydroponic, modular, low-energy, high-yield edible window gardens built using low-impact or recycled local materials.

Goal 1

to start a Windowfarming craze in New York City and other dense urban areas, helping people grow some of their food year-round in their apartment windows.

Goal 2

give ordinary folks a means to collaborate on research and development of these vertical hydroponic food-growing curtains through the community site at our.windowfarms.org The Windowfarms Project operates in what seems a small niche, but we hope it might be what Buckminster Fuller would call a "trim tab," a small part that turns giant ships by being particularly well placed. Growing some of our own food is a simple pleasure that can make a big difference in our relationship with nature. As we choose nutrients to feed plants we hope to eat in turn, we gain experience with a nearly-lost fundamental human art, get a microcosmic view of the food system, develop a stake in the conversation, and come up with new ideas for how to take care of ourselves and our planet in troubled times. Let's make this experience possible for anyone!

Window Farms

Note: this is another group I think we should be involved with, though our project seems to fall outside of their scope.

The Urb Garde

Xavier Calluaud illustrates the Urb Garden’s simple step-by-step process. Scraps of food are deposited into the worm farm, creating nutritious fertilizer. Water is added and the liquid fertilizer is delivered to the plants via a drip system. The water drains down the tank and then is pumped back up to be used with the next batch of fertilizer. As the plants grow, modular bins are easi ly removed for harvesting and re-potting.

Urb Garden at Inhabitat Xavier Calluaud (not much information)


Michael Kritzer’s Herbi is no exception. The hydroponic countertop herb pot is sleek, modern and elegant. But don’t be fooled — Herbi’s not just all good looks and no brain; this little gadget issmart. Even if you are one of those people who can’t keep a stick of bamboo alive, Herbi will grow vibrant herbs for you year-round by telling you exactly what it needs and when. When Herbi needs PH adjustments, nutrients or water, it communicates directly by illuminating a blue LED behind one of four corresponding icons, meaning you don’t have to be a plant-whisperer to have a healthy garden. You can connect up to six little mod units (called “plant silos”) for an herbal medley in your kitchen.

Herbi at Inhabitat

High Performance Hydroponics

I picked up a copy of Urban Garden Magazine at the hydroponics shop on Duluth and de Bullion. Not unexpectedly there is a culture of hydroponic growers who are pushing plants for super high yields. The issue of the magazine I got has an article about sensor-based regulation of nutrients. Perhaps we could push in this direction toward high performance life support.

More to come.

Plant Life Support System

Plant Life Support System is a design for an easy to construct, aesthetically pleasing, open source, and high performance life support system for plants in hostile environments like buildings. We will produce both a physical implementation of the design as well as a set of instructions so that others can construct similar apparatuses. The project will tie into a number of existing open source projects to create communities of indoor gardening systems so as to maximize dissemination. The project will be designed and prototyped at the Topological Media Lab. It will interface with existing media systems in the lab over standard protocols providing sensor data for media applications.

Morgan Sutherland (electronics, project lead)
Jordan Yee (design)
Tobias Glidden (implementation)
Laura Boyd-Clowes (bioethical consultant)
Katie Lee (design)

- a working implementation installed in the Topological Media Lab
- a set of instructions for reproducing our system
- an extensive project log
- possibly a philosophical paper on human plant interaction

- cistern with pump-driven water delivery
- potentially nutrient delivery
- electronic communication and control system
- aesthetically pleasing mounting brackets and containers