Revealing the Sensorial World of Plants


A review of The Sensorial Invisibility of Plants: An Interdisciplinary Inquiry through Bio Art and Neurobiology, by Laura Cinti.

Laura Cinti’s dissertation is a beautiful and courageous plea for the sensorial features of plants. It relies on an anti-anthropocentric view and offers a critique of aesthetic prioritization in scientific interfaces. “Why do the sensorial features of plants appear to be invisible?” (p.17) and “What potential scopes exist at the intersections of art and science to reveal the sensorial invisibility of plants?” (p.17) are Cinti’s fundamental questions. In terms of methodology, Cinti focuses on three elements that inform our relation to plants: two “images” of plants – scientific approaches and the subjective perceptions – emerge through a new field called BioArt. This tripartite structure allows Cinti to link the active features of plants that have been shown to exist in scientific experiments and their “passive” appearance to our subjective perception. Her thesis offers a fascinating overview of BioArt while also including her own BioArt work. Cinti captures interactions among plants and humans with the intention to create an intimate space “where curiosity and touch meet” (p.17).

Her thought-provoking study provides an original contribution to our understanding of how “techno-scientific” interfaces use biotechnological and electrophysiological approaches to extend our perceptual boundaries and reveal the behavioural qualities of plants. In this way, scientific approaches are incorporated into art in order to exploit the aesthetic content. Also, the role of interfaces and their ability to reveal aspects of plant responses is analysed.

The dissertation is divided into four main chapters with an additional introduction and conclusion. The first chapter traces Cinti’s motivation for expanding her art research with the aid of scientific methods. Cinti here navigates artistic and scientific terrain. She starts by introducing the subjective and scientific images of plants before citing case studies of artists and her own contribution to practice-oriented art research.

Cinti reviews different definitions of bio art. According to the most common definition, BioArt manipulates processes of life in line with modern biotechnological knowledge, materials and applications. Finally, she offers her own definition of bio art as “the metamorphosing of an idea into our world, allowing art to become living and part of our communication” (p. 19).

In the second chapter, the first investigation of links between aesthetics and genetics leads to an overview of living media as artwork. Cinti then reflects on the Aristotelian view of plants as insensible beings and juxtaposes this view with neurobiological ideas that contradict our direct experiences of plant behaviour. Cinti concludes this chapter with a prototypic installation called the Growthoscope. She designed an “orbital” time-lapse growth observatory to explore “the two dichotomies of perception of plants, that is, the subjective image and the scientific image” (p. 242).

The third chapter examines fluorescence and luminescence experiments and the way these interventions affect our perception of plants, first by looking at the artwork of Euardo Kac and the use of biotechnology. By this example, Cinti discusses the manipulations of genes and the creation of transgenic organisms that express specific fluorescent proteins. She also investigates how the creation of a whole fluorescent organism is represented in the context of the aesthetic function and its impact on society. On the one hand, Cinti points out the limitations of fluorescence and luminescence experiments as an aesthetic approach. On the other hand she underlines the importance of fluorescence expressions and their potential use as a method for elucidating “behavioural characteristics and cognitive capacities in plants” (p. 21). The end of the chapter is then devoted to Cinti’s practical commitments and explores how different molecular events are visualized through luminescence.

In the final chapter, Cinti considers the complexities and difficulties of studies on the sensorial capacities of plants. This complexity is exposed by the “motionless behaviour” of plants and our own slow perception of their dynamic response as unfolding in time. Cinti gives a brief overview of this complexity and shows how it is exploited by the use of scientific interfaces and devices. For example, Cinti refers to the performances of artist Miya Masoaka, who obtains and seeks to quantify electrophysiological information that is then translated into art through sonification. In this way, Masoaka reflects on our aesthetic perception of how plants respond and interact. The chapter ends with Cinti’s own experiments, which show possibilities of producing latent features such as interactive motility in plants through new biomedical technology.

In summary, Laura Cinti gives a current overview of BioArt. Her thesis will be of interest to bio artists and to those who have no expert knowledge in the molecular biology of plants. Cinti is not concerned with other, previous artistic movements such as landart, arte povera and conceptual art. Instead, she intersperses her thesis with personal email interactions that show the emergence of a conceptual discourse. Her thesis also includes an interactive multimedia presentation with all her artwork and performances.

A fortiori this dissertation is a courageous plea for the sensorial features of plants. For future work, Cinti hopes to elaborate on the interplay between scientific and subjective images, based on the evolution of scientific images in the direction of abstract models and the integration of scales and layers. Her solutions are suggestions that stay inside the field of BioArt.

Tanja Gesell and Marco Sealey
Max F. Perutz Laboratories, University of Vienna,

Primary Sources

Literature of plants, art, bioart and philosophy
Scientific Journals
Personal exhibitions and performances
Personal Contacts

Dissertation Information

University College London. 2011. 264 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Lythgoe.

Image: Photograph by Author.

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