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.