STRANGE ENCOUNTERS: METAPHYSICS, ALGAE AND KARCINOMA / ŠPELA PETRIČ

‘Strange Encounters’ is the third piece of the ‘Confronting Vegetal Otherness’ series, which looks at plant alterity to reassess subjectivation, ethics, and our attitude towards dividual multiplicity. I felt it crucial to address plant subjectivities as relational and to look…

STRANGE ENCOUNTERS: METAPHYSICS, ALGAE AND KARCINOMA / ŠPELA PETRIČ

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‘Strange Encounters’ is the third piece of the ‘Confronting Vegetal Otherness’ series, which looks at plant alterity to reassess subjectivation, ethics, and our attitude towards dividual multiplicity.
I felt it crucial to address plant subjectivities as relational and to look for access – not to them (the plants) but to my human affects and responses in particular encounters with plants, reflecting what could be a fracture in our phenomenological (non)consideration of plant life. In fact, the word ‘plant’ groups together organisms as different as a single-celled algae, lemon grass or a birch tree; there is little these particular kinds of plants have in common beyond a similar cell plan (an analogous sublation would render a human somehow equivalent to a nematode). Thinking about ‘the plant’ is a form of racism, an unjust generalization that neglects the particular being. In an attempt to overcome my inherent bias, I sought situations of engagement that would lay bare my speciest presumptions and force a different consideration of each relationship to the vegetal. I aimed at instigating novel and strange circumstances, which would resist the subjugation of plants to raw material while ambivalently positing humans in a similar role, following Jeffrey Nealon’s insight ‘that the vegetable … (is an) image of thought that far better characterizes our biopolitical present than does the human-animal image of life, which remains tethered to the organism, the individual with its hidden life and its projected world. ‘In the deconstruction of plant-human relationships, I searched for modes of human existence that could be perceived as equivalent to plant life. Biotechnology’s alienating molecularization of living entities maintained in defined media and sterile plastic containers demonstrate the ‘human-as-material’ and support thinking about ourselves in terms we afford to plants. Much like algae increasingly employed in the production of biomass and pharmaceuticals, so too are human cells in culture becoming an essential component of our body maintenance program. They can be coaxed into the form and function of a multitude of organs, transplanted into pig embryos, genetically modified to eliminate diseases and selected for particular applications. As cells in culture we are fragmented, decentered, de-essentialised, outsourced, bettered, molded and viscerally spread over large areas. The mission became obvious – to arrange the extraordinary meeting of a human and a plant in vitro.Comparing the ‘tech-riders’ of various plant and human candidates quickly narrowed the choice to the toughest, most resilient types of cells of each kind – Chlorella representing plants and carcinoma of the bladder representing humans. The genus Chlorella and its relatives are free living, single-celled photosynthetic algae populating a variety of ecological niches, from fresh and semi-salty waters to surfaces exposed to air such as roof tiles and recurrent puddles. It is both the smallest and the most abundant morphological form of a photosynthetic eukaryote. Cancer is a disease, but its cells represent an actualization of the emancipatory potential of entities within the ecosystem of the body. Much like the single-celled algae, it is a pre-specialized assemblage of cells, an expression of the reproductive potential of a metastable cellular unit, allocating all available resources to indefinite multiplication. It’s also the most industrially productive form of mammalian cells – the raw material for research and vaccine/antibody production.
Their fate in my laboratory is uncertain. I am performing biopolitics, selecting, orchestrating, monitoring, documenting, narrating. The cancer and the algae negotiate the space I allow for them. Biopower penetrates the plant just as it does the human.
I observe them, I observe myself. The human and the plant, in vitro.
Špela Petrič

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