[TML][Synthesis] Plant-Thinking Meeting/Seminar: discuss Marder, November 1 - Dec 19 ?

Hi Michael, everyone,

All great! 

I’ve been talking with Oana and most recently Omar about the vegetal studies research
From Omar it seems that most of the interested folks are away or too busy in September.  And October there are other events (e.g. Listen(n) @ ASU; lighting animation workshop, Einstens Dreams workshop) planned related to Synthesis or TML. 

It’s a good idea to do it on a weekly basis.  But instead of stretching over a whole semester, how about we concentrate the Marder-based part of the seminar into 1.5 months during a period when people are prepared to really grapple with the Marder.

To take the reading of Marder seriously, I think it’d be necessary to do this in person, or as synchronously as our portals can deliver.   And we need time for each one to prepare himself/herself with absorbing related works.  I would strongly recommend some of the Aristotle and Goethe.   ( to make time we invest worth the investment. ) 

So our — Oana and my — suggestion is to prep readings and exchange references etc. in vegetal studies stream
now, and do the actual readings  of Marder over seven weeks: November 3 through Dec 19.   
We recommend 
Week 1 Chap 1
Week 2 Chap 2
Week 3-4 Chap 3 & 4
Week 5-6 Chap 4 & 5
Week 7 Papers and Crits (double long session)

It’d be great to aim to deliver some substantial multi-format responses — on the order of a paper, short video, sketches of experiments that really synthesize the insights form the seminar.

Here are two key starting operating rules for this game :

• Avoid allegory — not the depiction of “what plants look like" but how plants grow, and experience dynamical existence.   

• Avoid as radically as possible anthropomorphizing .

Perhaps I can come mid November and mid December.
On the other hand my duties this Fall may well be so heavy that it’d be easier if Synthesis hosted this theoretical phase of the joint TML-Synthesis vegetal studies research stream in Phoenix.

Xin Wei

Sha Xin Wei, Ph.D. • xinwei@mindspring.com • skype: shaxinwei • +1-650-815-9962

Amrine, Zucker, and Wheeler, eds., Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal.

On Goethe and morphogenesis:

Tim Lenoir, “Eternal Laws of Form: Morphotypes and the Conditions of Existence in Goethe’s Biological Thought,” Journal of Social and Biological Structures, Vol. 7 (1984): 317-324.

Reprinted in Amrine, Zucker, and Wheeler, eds., Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Dordrecht and Boston: D. Reidel, 1986: 17-28.

(Tim's scholarship is so broad and deep, probably no one student has understood more than a fraction of his work over the past 40 years.   May we all live long and prosper so :)

Tree Rings, stories from The Atlantic, by Hugh Crawford

My friend, Hugh Crawford at LCC GaTech sent a link to his rich essay about trees.  I include some of my favourites and a link to the essay which just came out in the Atlantic this month.

2014                Every schoolchild learns that trees, as they grow, lay down new wood each year, so the age of a tree can be determined by counting the growth rings, officially called dendrochronology.  Not only do those rings mark time and weather (temps & temps, as the French say), but also they are subtle ridges to the hand and form supple patterns both geometric and chaotic, warm and arresting, fragile and strong. Wood remains a constant in 21st century culture, still forming the basis for much of what we do, how we live, and how we mark out our days. 

1056                The Wooden Pagoda of Yingxian, the world's oldest multi-story timber-framed structure, was built. The trees for a timber frame—felled by axe, squared by broadax, and smoothed by adze—form a structure through massive beams and time-tested joints.  Heavy timbers slot tenons into mortises, dovetail tie-beams to headers, and peg girts to posts.  These beams carry the full load of the structure without nails, screws, or metal fasteners.  The joiners work with care, selecting wood with structural integrity, cutting mortises with long handled chisels and mallets.  It is exacting work, slow and patient, but it is also communal.  A craftsman may linger in solitude for hours over a kerf-wedged dovetailed through-mortise, but when it comes to raising the frame, he is part of an agile choreography of joiners, timbers, and joints, working in concert to raise a frame that will, given proper care, stand for a millennium. After the joiners finish, the beams, in compression and tension, flex and creak through the days, continuing their own dynamic dance through time. 

350 BCE         Aristotle writes his Physics and initiates the Western way of thinking about stuff.  Technological objects are formed matter (hylomorphism), a world made up of compliant, malleable matter upon which humans impose their designs.  Hylē, Aristotle's word for matter and the foundation of all physical interactions, actually means wood.  This bit of etymology prompted Henry David Thoreau to question the notion of art determined by form alone, noting that Aristotle defined art as "The principle of the work without the wood,  and going on to observe that "most men prefer to have some of the wood along with the principle; they demand that the truth be clothed in flesh and blood and the warm colors of life." As a hewer of the arrowy pines he cut to build his Walden house, Thoreau knew hylē not as malleable material but instead as a knotty, twisted living being that can only be known through patient, careful engagement.

1379                New College, Oxford is founded and College Hall is built with a massive oak-beam roof.  In the late 1800s, those roof-beams became infested with beetles, so the school's dons cast about trying to find 40 foot oak timbers of sufficient heft to replace the existing roof.  Someone suggested checking with the college forester to see if there were any ancient oaks in the college's woodlots. As the story goes, the queried forester smiled and informed them that a stand of oaks had been planted when the hall was first built with the express purpose of supplying those timbers when needed. The perfect parable of planning for the future, the story has been contested (the  forest land was not acquired by New College for a number of years after the college hall was built).  Nevertheless, it resonates: the college maintains forest land for production with exceedingly long-term plans. Even though the trees were not explicitly planted to replace that particular roof, those oaks were nurtured over hundreds of years, and, when needed, timbers of sufficient strength and size were available. An ancient version of just-in-time management.

Flower Marie Lunn (MFA Fibres 2011 Concordia), essay "Patterns of growth and perception: the site, the city and the wild"

This is more background material — more earth — for the resurgence of vegetal interests in the TML thanks to the prolific energies of Oana, Nina, Elysha et al.   Flower once wrote a moving letter about what was at stake in our early discussions about minor, poetic speculative architecture.   I can’t find that inspiring letter among my archives, but I send you her AIS essay.

Flower Marie Lunn
MFA Fibres 2011 Concordia
See artist statement below and attached
AI & Society essay "Patterns of growth and perception: the site, the city and the wild"

Flower Marie Lunn at Parisian Laundry, in Collision 7
Artist statement: niche opportunity

My practice is a continued examination of the subtle intertwining of wild and urban ecologies,
and our relations to the local landscapes we live within. To this end, I focus on awkward or disused
architectural architectural spaces as sites of invasion by processes of decay, growth and colonisation.
In a postminimalist tradition, my practice brings attention to the existent shape and texture of the
space around the work through subtle gestures that present or suggest processes of instability that
may already be at work. Taking inspiration from minerals, molds, insects, mosses and plants, I
present interpretations of overlooked ecologies. In a variety of scales, and occasionally within the
landscape itself, my work is a continual inquiry into the nature of our interaction with the non-human
world; our relation to local ecologies as they are or may be, and our response to subversion of our
assumptions about human-imposed boundaries.

To see the world as it is, with its complex layers of interaction between the architectures and
infrastructures of our cities, the ruptures of the derelict and the wild and weedy bits of nature
inbetween, we must focus on the spaces around us. Though it is often a dismissive act, perception is
actually an interaction with our surroundings, a “reaching out to the world.”1 Noticing the presence of
the non-human other, whether plant, animal, fungus or mold, is a chance to see the relations we have
with it, and how it responds to our built spaces. This relational way of seeing “places us fully within the
field of our many relations, sensitive once more to the volume, the width, and depth of being within an
animated landscape.”2 Though displaced, disturbed and fragmented, the wild continues in and
through the margins of urban space, and is no less animate.

This notion of invasion or infestation by landscape elements has been one that has guided my
work; as much as it is possible I view installation sites with a non-human perspective, thinking about
microbes, insects, animals, and plants' approach to a particular site. These organisms
opportunistically inhabit various conditions favorable to them; their presences tracing the elements
they require, ignoring our delineation of space. The UK artists Helen Nodding and Lizzie Cannon
have been of particluar influence here, as well as the manga artist Yuki Urushibara, and the wealth of
documentation from urban explorers the world over, in addition to my own observations throughout the
city. These invasions are moments when the boundaries of our architectures function instead as
thresholds, and indicate that conceptions of fixed boundaries – inside and outside – are ever
impermanent. In fact, scientific redefinitions of ‘limiting surfaces’ indicate that closed boundaries never
really existed in the first place. Like porous membranes, surfaces are the areas of osmotic exchange
when differing environments meet. For then the “limitation of space has become commutation… the
activity of incessant exchanges.”3

1Yi-Fu Tuan, quoted in Sewall, Laura, Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception, NewYork:Putnam Press ,
1999, page 16
2 Sewall, Laura, Ibid, page 124
3Virilio, Paul, “The Overexposed City”, Neil Leach,ed., Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, London:

The bunker corridor of Parisian Laundry is an ideal site for this discussion. Its ceiling is slowly
crumbling, and gaps and holes in the concrete reveal its reinforcing grid, rusting and crumbling as
well. It is a localized area of decay, of dereliction within the boundary space of a commercial art
gallery. It is also an area of architectural anomaly: here the viewer is confronted with the architecture
and materials of the building. With its low ceiling one feels it necessary to bend to get through it, and
for a moment we directly sense the mass and presence of the buildings we habitually move through.
This basement-like passageway is one a viewer either avoids and passes through quickly, or is drawn
to, enjoying the cave-like aspects of it. Either way, it is not a neutral space, but one charged with
intensity. Its decay goes for the most part unnoticed, but for the adventurous who enjoy awkward
spaces and architectural rupture. As I am such a viewer, this is exactly what niche opportunity

In a visual metaphor, the partially uncovered reinforcing structures that form our secure spaces
transmute into softer, organic ones. Their gestures of stability and fixedness become looser, erratic,
as they chaotically explore and reach out into the room. No longer are they dependably obeying our
human purposes; these structures now follow their own agenda, at the very least holding the door
open for organic oversized roots to invade the interior space. These conceivably may continue into
tangled messes and masses of chaos. Having gotten far enough, however, their gestures change into
lines that drop down from the ends, like fine litmus strips, to absorb the atmospheres of the activities
within the gallery. This is in much of the same vein as the soft ambiances the Situationists sought out
in their psychogeographical re-mapping of Paris: “the play of presence and absence, of light and
sound, of human activity, even of time and the association of ideas.”4

A key aesthetic guide for the form of niche opportunity were the poplar roots that are bound into
most of the pieces. A fast-growing species, poplar trees have very vigorous and invasive root
systems that stretch up to 40 m from the trees; if they are growing close to houses it may result in
cracked walls and damaged foundations. It is then not so far-fetched, given the crumbling ceiling of
the bunker corridor, to imagine the roots actually coming through the foundation of the building of their
own accord. However, it is the gestures of roots that are being quoted here; their vocabulary, as their
presence is overshadowed by other materials, becoming something else altogether.
The actual roots are bundled and wrapped with wire, yarn, embroidery thread and fleece.
Echoing electrical wires, data bundles and insulation, they evoke the hidden elements that travel
through a building distributing energy and data. At their initial emergence, they are wrapped in thread
and twine that mimic the overhead grid, as well as textiles that soften interior spaces. As they move
out from their origin, they loosen and become softer until they swell into amorphous ends, before
dropping downwards into another form entirely. In this way they surrender their structural forms,
becoming mere lines bound by gravity, and then begin to dissolve even that.
Routledge, 1997

4 Sadler, Simon, The Situationist City, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998

The aesthetics of wrapping express care or preservation, as in bandaging or mummification. As
I worked, the histories of the roots became apparent; their twists and bends a record of their routes
through underground densities, and veins of nourishment. All this was being preserved and encased
in a more permanent way than their fragile skeletons would allow. Another aspect of wrapping is that
of binding. In our earliest technologies, binding was how we made our tools, our dwellings, our human
world. The binding of two things together continued to be the essence of magic; of the actual to the
desired. There is a coaxing, an intimacy to binding, much like vows, that preserves the being-ness of
both elements while forcing them to work together for as long as the binding lasts. Next to
conventional construction methods of hitting and cutting, binding is an integrative act of responding to
the world, acknowledging its impermanence, while still making something with it. For this reason,
this is very much a textiles piece.

In its intimate relation to the site, however -its specificity- makes it much more about the space,
in a specific moment in time. Late March and April is the spring melting season, when dampness
seeps in, a time when hidden things had been accumulating or infesting our buildings over the winter
are revealed. It is very appropriate, therefore to present this piece during this season of strange
discoveries, of uneasiness mixed with the optimism of the coming spring, and anticipation of a
heightened engagement with the ecologies around us.

Though the details of its construction are very apparent, and it is a somewhat exaggerated
presence in the space, niche opportunity still may conceivably have grown of its own accord,
exploiting the ruptures of an architectural anomaly. Indeed at the opening, one viewer was heard to
remark that she didn't realize there was a piece there; that instead she thought the gallery had a root
problem. That ambiguity for me is the measure of success of my work, for it then invites a closer look
at the art, architectures and non-human beings around us, and potentially at ourselves as “a
constellation of interdependent processes,”5 in continual exchange with our living, growing world.
5Pepperell, Robert, The Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain, Portland: Intellect Books, 2003

Professor and Director • School of Arts, Media and Engineering • Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts / Director • Synthesis Center / ASU
Founding Director, Topological Media Lab / topologicalmedialab.net/  /  skype: shaxinwei / +1-650-815-9962

Polytemporal Timelapses of PLSS Plants

Polytemporal Timelapses of PLSS Plants

Timelapse of Flower Lunn's screen of morning glories in the corner of the Topological Media Lab shows plants in their daily rhythms in concert with the rhythms of people, sun and night, passing clouds, and the room's electric lighting.  Displaying these in staggered time would help compare their relations to their ambient at different times of solar, electric, social days.
What's most interesting is the interference and relation between the rhythms of the ambient and the plants. Timelapse video by Tim Sutton.

Rather than treat the plants as autonomous beings, we thought of the plants as tracing all the activity of their surround (including themselves) with  exquisite sensitivity and material density, infinitely exceeding any trace that man-made sensors could report.   The challenge to us shifts from mapping a few numbers from some sparse set of electronic sensors to interpreting the dynamical growth of these plants  in a non-reductive and non-anthropcentric way.

On Mar 24, 2014, at 12:26 AM, oana suteu <oanasu@hotmail.com> wrote:

hello all,
I wanted to share this article with you and point out the time-lapse experiment at the very bottom of the page http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-01-09/new-research-plant-intelligence-may-forever-change-how-you-think-about-plants (as a note it seems like it was shot in day-light).
Hope to see you on Tuesday for updates on the last meetings and the adoption process.

PLANTS research update


Very happy to see ongoing explorations of the EV building's rich entanglements with photosynthesizing things!! As Xin Wei mentioned, I'm working on an MSc in the UK right now, but I'm at your service to the extent that it's possible. I'll be going to do field work in a month, and will be far away from the web, so if you need my support with PLANTS, best to get in touch soon. 


On Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 9:01 PM, Xin Wei Sha <Xinwei.Sha@asu.edu> wrote:
Dear TMLabbers,

Hurrah for this fresh sprout!

I’d like to point to people who played key roles in earlier generations of plant studies
(this is incomplete — I’m missing at least one

Flower Lunn
Tim Sutton
Josée-Anne Drolet
Katie Jung
Michal Seta
Jane Tingley
Tobias Glidden
Laura Boyd-Clowes
Morgan Sutherland
Carina (Gaspar?)
Alex Gaskin
Nina Bouchard

I’d like to especially recognize the people who actually cared for the plants continuously over the months and years, treating them as living beings rather than objects, with whom there developed a continuous dynamically constituting material relation.   These few people gave the work some ethical credibility.  (Thank you.)  Starting with Flower’s art during her MFA, Josee-Anne nursed 8 generations plant to seed, which gave us some diachronic as well as technical credibility.    After Flower, Laura Boyd-Clowes probably has gone the furthest of us all in her practice and her thinking about vegetal experience, ranging from her leadership in our Spinoza seminar, the reading of Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), to her Philosophy senior thesis, and now her MSc. graduate studies in ethnobotany at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

I also point to our friend and partner : Prof. Natasha Myers, and her grad students in the Plant Studies Collaboratory at York University.   TML and PSC have exchanged ambassadors : Morgan Sutherland and Laura ours :)

With affection and esteem,
Xin Wei


Professor and Director • School of Arts, Media and Engineering • Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts / Director • Synthesis Center / ASU
Founding Director, Topological Media Lab / topologicalmedialab.net/  /  skype: shaxinwei / +1-650-815-9962

On Mar 19, 2014, at 10:50 AM, topological media <topologicalmedia@gmail.com> wrote:

Dear all,

Following last weeks' campfire, were the PLANTS research arose a great interest, we explored some external venues for growing our plants and came to the conclusion it is better for us and them to co-habite in the TML lab (at least before September). Therefore, we will need to design and build a platform for "growing vegetal life forms in the lab along with a technological apparatus for sensing, recording and re-manifesting vegetal activities/forces" (Navid).

Since many of us are interested in the project and there is plenty to do, we decided to create several working-research groups to handle the different immediate practical tasks. We are also interested in organizing discussions with past and future TML affiliates who have experience or interest in the project. The meetings and presentations will be organized by TML, through Nina and Lauren, in a collaboration with the ASU Synthesis Center research with the theme PLACE and ATMOSPHERE, directed by Xin Wei.

The first working research groups will take place in the following days:

Wednesday March 19th, 12-1pm TML lab
first meeting of the GROWING & GROOMING team.

Thursday March 20th, 12-2pm TML lab
first meeting of the SENSING team.

Monday morning March 24nd, TBD, Jean-Talon Market
G&G field trip.

The general meeting of the PLANTS research group, including all working groups was fixed for Tuesdays 3:30-4:00pm (just before campfire, but not during campfire :). Modifications to this schedule will be announced if needed.

Some of you already manifested your choice for a specific working-research group (Lauren, Nina, Elysha, Navid and Oana for G&G; Navid, Julian and Oana for SENSING), but those who didn't please join and let us include you in the group closer to your interest.  

hope to see you all soon,



Michael Marder Plant-Thinking : A Philosophy of the Vegetal

Here in the desert paradise, some of us at ASU are laying ground work for the second research theme to be added to the Synthesis Center’s masthead: 
PLACE and ATMOSPHERE.   We’re beginning an internal grant proposal.  It may be smart to coordinate both the discussion, seed experiments (so-to-speak), and some target funding for this work.


Current reading: 
Michael Marder Plant-Thinking : A Philosophy of the Vegetal (Columbia, 2013)

vegetally, atmospherically yours

vegetal life : Maja Kuzmanovic, How do we rehearse an uncertain future? (2013)

Let's invite Maja Kuzmanovic for the Place and Atmosphere stream in 2015-2016 ?  - xw

Maja Kuzmanovic – ‘How do we rehearse an uncertain future?


The process of reimagining requires being aware of what is, what has gone before and attempts to answer the tricky questions of “what if…” Maja will talk about how FoAM create real life labs to explore these questions using methods such as ‘future pre-enactments’ and alternate reality narratives, attempting to transform speculative fiction into embodied foresight. As the loops between imagination and reality can be either tightened or unwound, reimagining becomes a heuristic process of perpetually walking into a swarm of possible futures, immersing ourselves in what might be and finding ways to thrive in conditions of uncertainty.


Keep in mind Isabel Stengers’ & Pignarre’s proposal in the final chapter of Capitaiist Sorcery?

make an experimental plan

Dear Plant People:
Nina, Julian, Nikos.

Yes -- Nikos cites an excellent research strategy: prioritize research over tool making :)  However, I believe the PLSS / SAF fund ran out already, so the only way would be if some students adopt this project as well as the strategy of buying a solution for data acquisition rather than making yet another one themselves.

Maybe it'd be worth writing up a very small, informal experimental plan:

That way, we can move on to the real fun and potentially fresh contribution, which is mapping and entanglement of human and plant expression!

Xin Wei

On Nov 19, 2012, at 11:40 AM, Nikolaos Chandolias wrote:

Yes, I didn't mean to use it as it is though. Although it might be funny having a plant to tweet you "I am thirsty, come and water me" :), but I understand that is not in the purposes of the lab. 

My suggestion was mostly for having a system implemented that can give us all this kind of data, such as humidity, light and temperature and then use this data for non-human, vegetal centric implementation to the TML's theatrical scene/ environment. However, there might be different ways to do so than the system I aforementioned, but as I understand so far with our current Arduino system the information we are taking is relevant only to the plants soil humidity. It might be of our purposes to implement also other kinds of data that are relevant to the plants vitality.


On Mon, Nov 19, 2012 at 11:03 AM, Sha Xin Wei <shaxinwei@gmail.com> wrote:
Yes, thanks for that.

However I think the TML  could go a different route and NOT vector through human semiotics (obvious crutches like language, tweets, and "social media"  -- hence topological media :)

Shall someone talk with Elio as a follow-on to Elysha's initiative, to look for non-human, vegetal-centric signal analysis.  (Also email Prof. Natasha York for botanical references.)

Also at OCAD Toronto, Prof.  in the DFI program
Kate Hartman, co-creator of Botanicalls, a system that lets thirsty plants place phone calls for human help  

Kate Hartman is an artist, technologist, and educator whose work spans the fields of physical computing, wearable electronics, and conceptual art. She is the co-creator of Botanicalls, a system that lets thirsty plants place phone calls for human help, and the Lilypad XBee, a sewable radio transceiver that enables your clothing to communicate. Her work has been exhibited internationally and featured by the New York Times, BBC, CBC, and NPR. Hartman recently moved to Toronto to join the Digital Futures Initiative at OCAD University where she is the Assistant Professor of Wearable & Mobile Technology.

Kate is was a nice person in the PLSS network.  She   came to visit TML a couple of years ago (or so)

Xin Wei
Canada Research Chair • Associate Professor • Design and Computation Arts • Concordia University
Director, Topological Media Lab (EV7.725) • topologicalmedialab.net/  •  skype: shaxinwei •


On Nov 19, 2012, at 10:40 AM, Nikolaos Chandolias wrote:

Hello everybody,

A friend of mine today forwarded me a really interesting system of Hans Crijns. He developed GrowGuard - a wireless monitoring system for plants - because he grew tired of not knowing why his plants were withering away. GrowGuard is a networked system made to tweet or text you about your plants’ desires for humidity, light, and temperature.

I think that we can might  use this kind of system in parallel to the existing one and get all this other information that might be proved valuable!


On Sun, Nov 18, 2012 at 1:16 PM, Sha Xin Wei <shaxinwei@gmail.com> wrote:
Regarding sloooowwwwww plant changes to sound  Adrian sent me a paper to review last year about mapping plant data to something that dancers could work with.  I'd like to track that down!

On a different note :

Brian Eno, January 07003: Bell Studies for The Clock of The Long Now
1st-14th January 07003, Hard Bells, Hillis Algorithm

Xin Wei

Canada Research Chair • Associate Professor • Design and Computation Arts • Concordia University
Director, Topological Media Lab (EV7.725) • topologicalmedialab.net/  •  skype: shaxinwei •