The project of being alive

by Antonia Case on February 1, 2014

It’s not the first time that a movie has been shown to a vegetative audience but for some reason the idea of plants watching movies seems particularly absurd.

On the 5th floor of a building in New York, seven houseplants sit in cinema-like rows below a large screen. The plants are “watching” a travel documentary called Strange Skies, a six-and-a-half-minute video of an Italian sky passing from dawn to dusk and into darkness. The light from the film is projected on the plants’ leaves and the energy is absorbed and converted into chemical energy, the process of photosynthesis.

Rooted in the ground, plants must yearn to travel and the colours of the Italian sky, so foreign to New York plants, will undoubtedly offer much titillation, says conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, who is recognised on the San Francisco art scene by his signature three-piece suit and bow tie. The artificial light from the video, on loop, becomes the plants’ new diet. It literally keeps them alive.

Keats spends his time pursuing his curiosity about the world. He once attempted to copyright his mind on the basis that it was a sculpture created through the act of thinking. He endeavoured to genetically engineer God in a laboratory, made a pinhole camera to take a single 100-year long exposure, and designed a mobile ringtone based on four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. “I don’t have an academic position, even an advanced degree. I have no credentials at all really and that allows me to be the ultimate amateur,” Keats says with zest. “I can operate in all fields with a level of curiosity that is not bound by knowledge or presupposition.”

A discussion with Keats is like wandering into an absurdist, existential tragicomedy. Satire and humour are his weapons; he makes people laugh and afterwards he makes them think. Like his plant recipes, called “gourmet sunshine”, quick and convenient TV dinners derived from varied wavelengths of light emanating from a television set. Plants watching television, how absurd, but then…humans sign up to a diet of television and even subject their children to it, as though it’s a perfectly normal thing to do.

“We tend to live our lives of necessity trying to get through the day and we need to be practical as a matter of everyday life,” says Keats, “but that seems to me not enough. I think we also need to get out of those routines and to reflect. To me the moment of reflection comes when I am able to stand outside of the routines that effectively make me work, that make me think as a matter of course, as a matter of survival…I can reflect on myself from outside. Of course, that is an illusion because we can’t really get outside of ourselves, but I think it is a useful practice.”

Keats studied philosophy at university, but stopped short of pursuing an academic career because academic philosophy became more and more frustrating for him. “Academic philosophy is inherently on paper and in a world that is hermetic. That has to be the case perhaps in order for the rigorous systems to be kept rigorous, but to me that was such an incredibly limiting thing in terms of the possibility of first of all philosophy operating on the world and secondly philosophy operating in the world.”

Keats decided to take some of the strategies from philosophy – in particular the thought experiment – and smuggle them out of the academic world “to try them out in an open-ended way in the world at large, such that the questions that were brought up would be drawn from the society in which we live, and would involve all of us in the process of reflecting on them.”

For Keats, this imaginary world is very much like our own, but with subtle differences. “Those differences,” says Keats, “allow you to see the qualities that you may or may not have otherwise noticed about your life as you ordinarily live it.”

Keats is the overseer of his projects. He sets them up and watches, often with bemusement, as people around him grapple with the consequences. “I’m fascinated to see how involved people get in these projects that at the outset seem absurd,” he says.

By drawing on ideas from different worlds, he tries to slot them together to see if they fit. And if they don’t, what does that say? Like when Keats applied string theory to real estate development and sold subdivisions in the extra dimensions of space. “For $5 or $10 you could buy a subdivision in these extra dimensions of space, in San Francisco during a real estate boom, so it was a pretty good deal.

“But when you spend money you don’t really ask yourself, what do I think of this? Does this really seem legit? I think that real estate is an incredibly abstract idea that seems grounded. It seems like it’s about the buildings all around us, and that is true. But at the same time the idea of owning the land, when the land has always been here and always will, is very abstract. I think that when you take something like string theory and these extra dimensions of space and you begin applying them to real estate law, you no longer feel like the assumptions of real estate both economically and legally are so stable or rational after all.”

According to Keats, the biggest threat to thought in society is society itself. Societal structures are efficient by design and these efficiencies are necessary for society to operate and for us to get on in the world, he says. Yet if we completely embrace these structures, which are in place from birth, they become the operating code, the background.

It’s as though life couldn’t be led any other way. “I think that when we turn ourselves on that we manage to become ourselves in a sense, and become independent operators,” he says.

“One of the great ironies of democracy is that it needs to have a certain level of efficiency in order for anything to get done. But in order for people to participate in it, they need to break free from the structures that democracy and the collective are in the process of building. There’s constant back and forth I guess between being part of that collective and being an individual. I think that the greatest threat and the most pervasive problem is that we don’t make that switch back and forth.”

A project of special significance happens on a tree farm north of Atlanta, where 50 cypress trees turn artist, their delicate branches weighed down by pencils and oil pastels tied with string. Alongside the trees stand 50 easels and pads designed to capture the squiggles, dots and smudges cultivated as the day unfolds.

Keats says the image of trees sketching in the wind stirs thoughts of humanity; our artistic projects and intellectual posturing. Is it all done in the vain hope of feeling superior? Special? Or is it our way of expressing something uniquely human, such as our consciousness?

Keats doesn’t profess to know the answer. In fact he doesn’t think there is one.“The essential thing is to get philosophy out into the world…for us all to be philosophers,” he says.

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