The short video clip to the left documents an ongoing art installation entitled “Spore 1.1.”
Created by Matt Kenyon and Doug Easterly of S.W.A.M.P. (Studies in Work Atmospheres and Mass Production), “Spore 1.1.” is an oddly alluring network of living and non-living components. It consists of a rubber tree plant, purchased from Home Depot, that is hooked up to a self-contained watering mechanism and calibrated on a weekly basis, according to the performance of Home Depot stock. If the Home Depot stock does well, Spore 1.1 gets watered. If Home Depot stock does poorly, “Spore 1.1.” goes without. Because Home Depot guarantees all of their plants for one year, if one rubber tree dies, another will be substituted in its place.
We suggest that “Spore 1.1.” embodies an intriguing nexus of scientific, technological, and artistic practice, one that raises questions about the boundaries between biological and artificial life, as well as, subsequently, the nature and limits of human empathy. Recent research has demonstrated that placing the health of a biological being in the hands of a person typically elicits empathy, which encourages the empathizer to foster the well-being of the entity under its care (see, for example, this recent article in the New York Times). By placing the fate of the plant in the hands of an automated system, however, the creators of Spore 1.1. have simultaneously elicited and frustrated the empathic impulse. Because viewers of “Spore 1.1” are powerless to care for it, the empathy it generates has a refractive quality, locatable not only in the organic and inorganic material properties of the “Spore 1.1.” installation, but in the larger economic realities that the installation embodies.
The unique combination of biological life and digital information to demonstrate economic and environmental contingencies raises a slew of questions about the role of art in practices of sustainability. Is it possible that we could leverage the emotional response to such installations to build a more inter-connected global community? In other words, if we can care about a Bionic Plant, could other works of this nature similarly work to re-connect humanity to its environment by exposing some of the underlying causes of disconnect? And even if these feelings of empathy are mere anthropomorphic veneer rather than genuine concern, does it matter? If, via empathy, such installations cause people to open their eyes to the dangers of unsustainable consumption, perhaps this is enough.
Individuals, corporations, and the nation
Thanks for bringing Spore 1.1 to my attention. You're right-- it's a fascinating convergence of science, technology, art, economics, and even the idea of public stewardship. It's so interesting how it perpetuates this idea of corporate responsibility-- so popular these days-- as one that's akin to individual attention to a plant. I'm curious as to how this might translate to certain political models, and on which side Home Depot in fact aligns itself. Is a corporation a large plant? Should a national network of stores be considered a robust root system? Is it less threatening to the individual, or to the nation, when considered in these biological terms?
It's certainly important to ask ourselves how individual empathy might be harnessed, through art, to call attention to the ways in which we each might take action to improve the world around us. But it's also important to keep in mind how reassuring it is to us, as humans in general, and as American citizens in particular, that each of our actions in fact matter. Could Spore 1.1 also, through a process of critique, shift our focus towards other, more difficult questions about individual desire, corporate interests, and national ideology?
Timing is everything
I like Lauren's ideas of questioning individual desire and national ideology - ideas particularly interesting to me as I sit in my room in Dublin, on the last day of a semester in Ireland. National ideology here in Ireland is still an incredibly complex and emotionally charged issue, though I have not felt the same sense of polarizing viewpoints that I've felt in the US. Perhaps that is because I haven't seen a television news report, or read a newspaper article that wasn't Euro-centric in the last 4 weeks. I was surprised to see on a recent store receipt that they had charged me for the plastic bag - most people bring their own shopping bags. I think that little changes like these can have a profound impact, both environmentally, and emotionally: if individuals have opportunities to participate in efforts encouraging environmental and corporate sustainability and responsibility (even though the "encouragement" is a fee) they may feel a more personal interest in the larger goals. The larger goals certainly require more individual participation, but many people often either don't know how to help, or are simply not given the opportunity, so they don't participate. It often feels like an "all-or-nothing" solution is required, when in truth, incremental changes can add up to significant impact over time.
Noticing the Little Things
The human need to care for other living beings to fulfill a need within also comes with a sense of anthropomorphism. We tend to ascribe personalities and human traits on non-human living beings (and digital avatars for that matter) in order to feel like we are needed and are important. Another interesting experiment along the lines of Spore 1.1 is Tardigotchi. Tardigotchi fills this need by allowing a bond between human, digital, and a seemingly invisible nonhuman living organism, a Tardigrade. By caring for an alife avatar, the living organism is cared for as well, almost unintentionally. Although this techno-organism fulfills a basic human desire to feel needed, it seems worth questioning our motives and our awareness. Do we actually empathize with, and care for, the non-human living organism or are we still unaware of its existence and needs? Either way, the symbiosis between avatar and organism in the form of a game allows an awareness of even the smallest of organisms and its needs.
Though Spore 1.1 is extremely enligthening on many levels it is worth asking if we are so facinated with the technology, the symbiosis between plant and machine, that we fail to notice the plant itself.
ay, there's the rubber...
An interesting project, and an important set of issues. I like how Spore 1.1 uses the notion of "cybernetic contract" to link systemic payoffs between sustainability, consumption, economics and industry. The potted plant is a particularly curious symbol of life/biology/environment, insofar as it's as factory-produced as anything else in Home Depot--farmed, uprooted, packaged, transported (across international borders), inspected, marketed, sold and, finally, domesticated. And for Northern consumers (I'm writing from Canada), the contrast of potted tropicals with that which grows locally (rarely, if ever, becoming part of home décor), usefully draws attention to the global trajectories taken by seemingly everyday consumer items.
While the artists make Home Depot subject to its cybernetic contract, it’s the consumer role in keeping Home Depot alive that I can’t stop thinking about. And while we could pull the plug on Home Depot and, by cybernetic extension, the plant, in order to break this loop of environmental devastation through consumption and industrial growth, Home Depot’s return policy already renders our resistance action moot. (Though we are not obliged to ask for a replacement!)
It might present less of an empathic struggle to recognize the extent to which our care has been misdirected and to which the plant (firmly potted) has already been compromised. Or, is the empathy we feel for our houseplants of a truly different character than the affinity one feels for the baby room’s paint colour or for the new BBQ?
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