The Phytopia Project

Phytotopology delineates a new body of knowledge in visual culture.  It is the transdisciplinary study of the way in which the constituent parts of visual relationships between people, plants and place are interrelated or arranged.  It is applied particularly to the condition of fragmented microcosms. These are relatively small, yet visually accesible botanical expressions of urbanised cultural ecology, such as nature reserves, fields, woods, gardens, roadside verges, urban wastelands and cracks in the pavement.   The knowledge framework is a transdisciplinary tree of life that branches into botany, history, biology, art, sociology, economics and climatology.

1 The Background

We live in a time of unprecedented upheaval, when technology and so-called progress have made us richer but more uncertain than ever before. We have questions about the future, society, work, happiness, family and money, and yet no political party of the right or left is providing us with answers. So, too, does the time seem to be coming to an end when we looked to economists to help us define the qualities necessary to create a successful society. We need a new movement that can tell us the truth about how we got here and how we can move on with a strong sense of well being. Rutger Bregman’s vision is a ‘Utopia for Realists’.  It hinges on one overarching principle, which is that ideas can change the world. ‘Never forget’, Bregman argues, ‘that people are the motors of history and ideas the motors of people’. The task for any progressive, then, is to make the un-thinkable thinkable and to bring the horizon of a better future constantly back into view, with a meaning of prosperity more in keeping with well being than money.

Julia Adeney Thomas says that the unprecedented and enormous threat of anthropogenic climate change demands new ideas that will come from the dissolution of artificial barriers between old forms of knowledge to reveal deep complementarity. She points out that attempts at such harmony have been made by both historians and biologists. For instance, ethicist Clive Hamilton argues that “humans have become a ‘natural’ planetary force.”, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty insists that the divide between the humanities and the sciences ‘melts in the heat of global warming’.  Historians such as Ian Morris and biologists such as E.O. Wilson have tried to reconcile disciplinary differences and create consilience across subject boundaries.  These attempts at concilience are described as multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. Multidisciplinary activities draw upon insights from two or more disciplines but simply juxtapose these insights and do not attempt to integrate them.  Multidisciplinarians are also less likely to critically evaluate the insights they draw upon. Interdisciplinary activities involve the combining of two or more academic disciplines into one activity (e.g., a research project), solving a problem by bringing in new information across professional  boundaries.

2 Phytopia

Transdisciplinary activities occur when two or more discipline perspectives transcend each other to form a new holistic approach. The outcome will be completely different from what one would expect from the addition of the parts. Transdisciplinarity results in an output created as a result of disciplines integrating to become something completely new.  Such was the focus of an exhibition entitled ‘Phytopia’ presented in February and May 2019 at the Glynn Vivian Gallery in Swansea.

The exhibition was curated by the artist Edward Chell, who used the visual idea of a Tree of Life to bring together works of 22 other artists to celebrate the influence that plant forms have had on nearly every aspect of visual culture.  The concept of the Tree of Life manifests itself in many cultures and traditions and is understood in a multitude of forms, from the genealogical to evolutionary and from cultural and political hierarchies to plant growth forms. As a public display, Phytopia celebrates the increasingly sophisticated conceptualization of human reality.  For Chell, the exponential growth of branching knowledge structures and the diversity this represents is a metaphor for life itself.

The exhibition is important because it highlights the need for a new subject area to contain and harness the energies embedded in such tree-like pictorial information structures. There are stories to tell; stories about endangered ecosystems and species in the context of the ecological crisis of global warming.  However, the conclusion reached by Julia Adeney Thomas is that it is impossible to treat “endangerment” as a simple scientific fact. Instead, endangerment is a question of value and a question of perspective. She says that what we value, what we are in danger of losing under the pall of global climate change, is most fully articulable not through science but in the humanities.  This endorses efforts by academics to pool their resources in the face of global danger. Therefore, the practical humanistic message of Phytopia is about having the educational freedom to build transdisciplinary personal bodies of knowledge to help those beings in crisis that are undergoing unprecedented change and are dependent on human beings to secure their place in nature.

Phytopia can be seen as a model of thinking about knowledge how to build knowledge with pictures. Chell’s exhibits range “….. from great, bright painted mountains, full of wild faces and gemstones, to tiny ferns etched delicately in copper and protected under glass-topped vitrines. There are enigmatic black-and-white photographs; a swirling, flora-like diagram of global stock exchanges; landscapes made from ceramics; abstract sculptures in primary colours; and floral photographic images printed onto shipping pallets”.

An example of new knowledge creation emerging from Phytopia would be an ecologist’s interpretation of ‘Flowers’ an exhibit contributed Rasheed Araeen (Fig 1) as representing a set of four random quadrats illustrating the variability in the distribution of flowering plants in an ecological microcosm.

Similarly, a page from Derek Jarman’s photograph album shows his garden as an art installation of flotsom and jetsom.  In the background stand the concrete blocks of Dungeness’ nuclear power stations contrasting with the barren botanical wildness of a shingle beach (Fig 2).  This exhibit becomes a metaphor for the crisis of global warming when information is added that constant repositioning of the shingle is necessary to guard against the innundation of the power stations by an exceptional tidal surge in the English Channel.

Fig 1 ‘Flowers’: Rasheed Araeen

Fig 2 Dungeness: garden and nuclear power stations; Derek Jarman’s photo album

In keeping with the invention of the word phytopia to encompass Chell’s distinct, visually creative arena, phytotopology describes the new subject required to contain the data, information and transdicipinary knowledge.   It is the study of the way in which the constituent parts of visual relationships between people, plants and place are interrelated or arranged. Phytotopological stories explore the shadowy world of cultural ecology. Each image encapsulates the hand of man as a placemaker in Earth’s fragile biomes; chopping them into isolated microcosms, a process that cannot fail to have political implications.  Tom Jeffries, who produced an essay for the exhibition, reminds us of how we should think about the relationships between plants, people and place, particularly in an era marked by mass species loss, climate upheaval and economically motivated denialism. Jeffries’ story is not simply one of intellectual interest because it is now accompanied by a growing sense of political urgency. Procrastination is not about preserving Earth’s biodiversity but maintaining Western  lifestyles.

Plants are already responding to the challenges of intense heat, wilder weather, acidic oceans, increasingly virulent diseases, chemical pollution, decreased biodiversity, failed crops, rising political tensions, revolutions and wars, greater inequality and injustice, massive migration, and strains on practices dedicated to knowledge and beauty.   In their adaptations to climate change plants are telllng us that a conjoint understanding of science and the humanites to manage ‘the planet-at-risk’ is inevitable and desirable. Under the threat of climate change, culture and nature seem to converge; anthropogenic climate change “spells the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history.”

The sheer breadth of Phytopia’s art work should alert us to the complexity of any attempt to untangle the relationships between plants, people and place, which is evident at all levels of understanding from biomes to backgardens.  Phytopia offers an important key to the planetary tree of life that is a mind map of the relationships between plants and people, which will play out in places that we love. To re-enforce this idea Tom Jeffries introduced his essay with the following quotes:

“Different meanings tend to cluster around the same sites … As one gets to know a place well, it gathers additional meanings.” — Oliver Rackham, Landscape and the Conservation of Meaning, 1991

“Place isn’t a stage, a backdrop against which we act out our lives: it is part of what we are.” — Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map, 2014

2 Transdisciplinism

An important lesson from Phytopia is that curating and art production increasingly operate directly as expanded educational praxes by being involved with the transdiciplinary interpretation of visual material. Indeed, there has been an educational turn in professional curatorial and art practice.  This emerged by consideration of humanistic, pedagogical models within various curatorial strategies and critical art projects. In particuar art teachers have reoriented to the role of ‘facilitator-curator’ in order to address the non-traditional pedagogic thinking required to facilitate individualised classroom leaning. There is no longer one knowledge that we must all sign up to. Within this context, intended, planned and enacted curricula go hand in hand. Indeed, it is only through a facilitator’s interpretation that a humanistic curriculum can be meaningfully implemented. Teacher-facilitators operating humanistic pedagogys are provided with the curriculum (intended curriculum) and expected to enact it for each student to assemble their own personal body of knowledge (enacted curriculum). A personal body of knowledge is the complete set of concepts, terms and activities that make up a distinct domain of interlinked information, which is assembled as a knowledge representation, where words and things are linked idiosynchratically in a media-coded culture.  

All the artists contribibuting to Phytopia have the science of plant forms as their starting point and are curated as commentators on man made fragmented ecosystems.  Their art works on walls and in encasements are new ‘hybrid’ assemblies of selected pictorial biodiversity to enrich the visual experience. On the other hand, natural resource scientists bring a well-honed, subject expertise to their endeavours to address climate change, but lack knowledge and any understanding of the arts, or other modes of viewing the world, that many feel could make them significantly more effective communicators.

A recent review of the teaching of enviromental art in biological field laboratories suggested that if scientists wish to span the domains of traditional scientific disciplines this must include the arts and humanities to gain more benefits by encouraging new ways of exploring and understanding the environment.  The scientists have to modify their dependence on knowledge acquisition through lectures and demonstrations, whereas the artists have to modify their desire to simply “turn the students loose” for personal exploration. But is this gulf unbridgable? The biologist Lewis Woolpert thinks so. He summed up this conclusion in the final paragraph of  his article for the Observer in 2002 as follows:

“Art does not explain, but it broadens our experience in ways that are not clearly understood. I value it in its own terms but it has nothing to do with understanding how the world works. To pretend that it does is to trivialise science and do nothing for art. We should stop pretending that the two disciplines are similar, and instead rejoice in the very different ways that they enrich our culture”.

Consumerism often fails to fulfil its promise of cultural enrichment because the consumer class has been sold a lie.  Many affluent consumers are now developing what social scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist” goals and values. This emerging way of life involves different ways of cultural enrichment, seeking purpose and satisfaction in life through things other than material riches, including deeper community engagement, more time to pursue private passions, or even increased political action.  In this connetion, Samuel Alexander believes the tipping point will come via grassroots political organisation, rather than waiting for growth-fixated governments to give up the mantra of endless economic growth. This is not to deny the need for “top-down” structural change. Alexander’s argument is simply that the necessary action from governments will not arrive until there is an active culture of sufficiency, the tipping point, that demands a post materialist future.

4 Information into knowledge

Humanistic facilitators in the environmental humanities, whether artists or scientists, undergo a process of planning what is to be taught and translate it into individual learning experiences that are appropriate for each of their students. The necessary skills are for storytelling, drawing on their capacity to be a facilitator of individualised learning, and the exchange of knowledge with others.  To maximise interaction with visual elements of information, Ii is also necessary for both facilitators and their students to engage with digital technology and new international communication platforms to harness graphics, text, video and hypermedia in order to create knowledge from information and share it. An art gallery is the educational model. The exhibits and their makers are the raw data; the descriptions of the exhibits and their makers are the information.  Stories created and illustrated with the information, contained in a picture-text database, designed for information sharing, are personal bodies of knowledge assembled from fragments of information by learners with the help of a facilitator.

To find a suitable database we need go no further than Twitter, the free microblogging, social networking website, which allows users to publish short fragmens of information that are visible to to the public.  These messages, known as tweets, have space for up to 280 characters, a hyperlink to deeper levels, a hash tag for searching, space for up to four pictures and a curation and listing facility. The ability to communicate pictorially is importants.  Twitter says that adding a picture results in a 150% chance of increasing the number of impressions and pictured tweets are 34% more likely to be retweeted. An example of a tweet is presented in Fig 3.

Fig 3 Vulnerabililty of UK coastal nuclear power station to climate change

This tweet contains information from a report to the UK government presenting evidence that coastal nuclear power stations are vulnerable to climate change.  It is illustrated with four images featuring Dungeness power station, showing its position on an exposed shingle beach that is a National Nature Reserve, the sea defence wall and a view of the power station from the famous shingle garden of the artist/film director Derek Jarman.  There is a hyperlink to the government report.

It can be seen that the Twitter platform comprises an information database suitable for archiving and classifying information for turning tweets into knowledge and sharing it widely. Microblogging is deemed effective in educational settings as it enables information to flow between fellow students and teachers beyond the physical boundaries of the classroom.  The role of microblogging in the context of Twitter as an educational tool is to support individuals to participate in process-oriented informal learning. A vast abundance of searchable information passes through Twitter. In this context, Twitter supports the instant, online dissemination and reception of short fragments of information from sources outside the formal structures of education.  Each tweet creates a social awareness stream that provide a constantly updated, live representation of the experiences, interests, and opinions of the tweeter. The receiver can perform Twitter searches at their Twitter search page or in the box of their home page.

Twitter can be used for self-education and to stay up-to-date on topics of interest. To do this, users can follow experts in various fields on Twitter who can be found, for example, through thematically relevant hashtags. Users can also use research hashtags for researching  a topic or use apps like Tweetdeck to subscribe to them. They can create private or public lists to categorise experts from various fields. Users can also subscribe to expert lists created by others.  Tweets can also be embedded in macroblogs. This is a way of making past tweets come alive.

Twitter can be used as a newspaper on any given specialist subject. The specialists are like editors who use their tweets to select what they consider to be essential items of information. Other users who follow a sufficient number of experts (editors) from a field, can be reasonably sure that they are getting all the important information from that particular field. Accordingly, Twitter can also be seen as an academic journal to the extent that some users no longer feel the need to read specialist publications.  However, the majority of viewers, less than about 3%, seldom use the hyperlink facility to delve beyond the ‘headline’ text. This is why Twitter is a good tool for mass education from small fragments of information, but is not good for attracting those who require chunky information in web sites and macroblogs. The following paragraphs highlight the writings of a twitter user who is bemused as to how it all works.

In terms of its mechanism, an ‘impression’ of a tweet is the viewer’s iresponse to the delivery of a post (tweet) to an account’s Twitter stream. The stream is composed of tweets from various sources. Twitter says Impressions are “times a user is served a Tweet in his/her timeline or search results.”  There are a few things worth noting about this. Remember, whenever you post a tweet, that tweet will show up in the feeds of the people who follow you. However, it will also become available in Twitter search, particularly if you’ve used any keywords of a type people search for. It will also show up in feeds for hashtags, but it depends if the people browsing the hashtag view it by “top” or by “latest,” or one of the other filtering options. A tweet is shown in the feeds of the followers of anyone who retweets your tweet. This is why influencer-marketing is so important; a retweet from someone with 50 followers isn’t going to be worth much, while a retweet from someone with 50,000 followers is going to be worth a lot more.

Finally, an impression might not actually mean a person saw the tweet. If I load my Twitter feed and then get distracted by something and close it, I probably gave +1 impression to a 20+ tweets account without actually reading any of them. There is no bonus engagement, no interaction of any kind, but an added impression across the board.

Impressions also don’t care who the viewer is.

Fortunately, Twitter doesn’t count your own impressions on your own tweets. You can’t hammer the F5 key to refresh your browser on your own profile to boost your stats.

Also, you should not conflate impressions and reach. Impressions are the number of views a tweet receives; reach is the number of people who see it. Reach will always be a lower number than impressions for this reasons. Anyone who sees the tweet twice will be worth two impressions, but only one reach.  

In relation to the ups and downs of impressions, The following account, in Fig 4, has only 28 followers but it is public and recieves about 2000 impressions a week.  

Fig 4 Tweet activity asociated with A Personal Twitter  Climate Change Database

In this Twitter experimental account for exploring the topic of climate change the total number of impressions at the end of a tweet’s first day of exposure to the public is around 3-10 times the new tweet was viewed (Table 1).  This suggests that a popular tweet will generate a search of that account holder’s past tweets on that particular topic. However, there is no way to discover how many people were responsible the additional impressions or which of your previous tweets they selected.

Table 1 Relationship berween the impressions (impressions) to two consequtive daily tweets and the total impressions on those days

DateResponse to tweetTotal responsesTime after tweeting
May 47462814hr
May 57565124hr
May 65529814hr
May 75731324ht

The following Twitter accounts are information databases for gathering information about the connections between people, plants and places.

Global Plant Council

People Plants Planet

Kew Gardens

Plants Leeds

5 internet References

Comments are closed.