A Workshop in Whitworth Park, Manchester, 5 July 2016.

“The locus of agency is always  a human-non-human working group” Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010).

My practice-based research develops the ‘multimodal book’ as a means of investigating and disclosing people-plant relationships. In particular, I am exploring the possibility of ‘plant agency’ in these relationships.

During 2015 I undertook a series of psychogeographical ‘dérives’ around the School of Art to discover how plants are experienced in everyday life, in the streets and public spaces. I found many inspiring projects designed to introduce plants into the city and to educate and empower people to live more sustainable lives. However, I was confronted by an increasing occupation of space by large-scale building projects and almost total commodification of plants and plant products. People in the streets seemed too absorbed with mobile phones to notice signs of imperilled plants.

While digital media can portray nature in multiple ways, I argue that the virtual mode disrupts semiotic bonds found in living systems and cannot replace direct experience. I aim to encourage intellectual and emotional engagement with plants through direct encounters with accessible nature. During 2015 I negotiated the use of an overgrown site in Whitworth Park as a temporary exhibition space and platform for participatory engagement with plants through direct physical contact.

The aim of the workshop, Weaving the Plant Filigree at ‘Wildspace’ in Whitworth Park, was to explore the sense of identity attained by spontaneous activities with plants. In this creative investigation of plant agency, I envisaged meaningful encounters and imaginative collaborations between humans and plants in the spirit of Bruno Latour. In Politics of Nature (2004), Latour describes a ‘non-hierarchical collective’ for inclusive decision-making in which the agency of non-human participants is recognised.

As a small step in this direction, I invited participants to allow the plants and surroundings to influence their decisions as they worked with living and decaying plant material. An impromptu exhibition of plant-led artefacts materialised from an hour of focused contact with the plants. Elements of ritual, pattern making, shelter, play, adornment and display emerged, and a sense of respect, care, renewal and wonder permeated our activities.

Valeria Vargas, Education for Sustainable Development Co-ordinator at MMU, deepened our experience of the symbolic meanings which forge links between human and non-human communities by introducing the Colombian bag ‘Mochila Arhuaca’ which has special cultural significance. Valeria’s research focus is indigenous thinking in her home country of Colombia, and ethical and ecological issues related to cultural shifts and well-being.

The workshop finale was an impromptu ‘happening’ that arose from sharing stories about our memories of childhood games with plants. In place of a ‘logocentric’ plenary we created a noisy, non-verbal rhapsody by blowing energetically across blades of grass.

Watch out for further activities at Wildspace in Whitworth Park. If you have suggestions for temporary exhibitions, or collaborations please contact me at lin.charlston@stu.mmu.ac.uk.

As featured in the Manchester School of Art, Research Degree Programme Newsletter Autumn 2016