by Jonelle Mannion
December 14, 2017
Sometimes extractions are also inhalations
A waterfall fades to a smoking hole in arid ground, and a large pipe fills the foreground of the frame. A small flower begins to superimpose its bright purple bloom over the pipe, as one image gives way to another. We see empty desert skies, and then a sucking orifice. A mouth? It pulsates. “I may not be human but neither fully are you,” reads the text overlaying the free-associative stream of imagery. Unspecified membranes, human skin, more waterfalls, factory chimneys. “Strip me of your projections, you walking, talking mineral.”
This untitled, ten-minute video is one component of A Wet Chemical Trace, a recent exhibition of work by Miriam Simun, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab. The work grew out of Simun’s many years of research into the Agalinis acuta flower, a species of plant so elusive that its small pink blossoms take on almost mythical proportions. It blooms only one day a year, just after dawn, producing a scent imperceptible to humans.
By some modern alchemy involving three years of work with a specialized team of botanists, chemists and perfumers, Simun managed to capture the flower’s aromatic blueprint and to reproduce it for human olfaction. This chemical facsimile escapes into the gallery space in wispy tendrils from the necks of bulbous glass flasks and silicone tubing that hangs from a series of eight large, bent steel rod sculptures. These erratic curvatures of steel each seem charged with attending to a small potted plant. Affixed with black lights and silicone-covered grow lamps, their vapors waft into the plants’ soil. The gallery, softly humming and gurgling like a mad scientist’s greenhouse, is filled with the acuta’s subtle sweet and musky scent.
The video, which is suspended from the ceiling by silicone tubing, cycles through footage of the scent’s capture: iamges of scientists stalking through fields incongruously dressed in space-suit-like lab clothing are interspersed with clips of land shot from a low-flying plane, along with other seemingly miscellaneous footage, often abstracted by slow motion. The gallery tells us that the video adopts the perspective of the Agalinis acuta’s scent. What we are not told is whether this scent-protagonist is imagined as the true, undetectable scent, or as its fabricated counterpart. Maybe what we are witnessing is its journey from one to the other. “Mycoherence gradually dissipates until the difference between you and me vanishes forever.” Simun’s intention is to disclose an imperceptible process: that of the release into the wild of the plant’s “traces of volatile chemical” (as she writes in an accompanying booklet). Her video is the poetic equivalent of tipping a vial of pink chemical brew into a colorless liquid to make visible its hidden elements. She wants to remind us of the fathomless porosity that exists between the animals, vegetables and minerals of this universe, which constantly backwash into each other’s territory. We ask ourselves are we seeing sweat beads or dew drops? “Before you’ve even seen me,” taunts the vaporous being, “we’ve already re-corporalized each other.”
The small booklet, titled What Is Known, is attached to a chair/sculpture also made of bent steel and silicone tubing. A ruminative detailing of Simun’s journey with the Agalinis acuta, it adds to the suggestion of intimacy between the plant and human beings, and feeds the acutamythology. It traces a brief geological-scale history of the Northeastern United States landmass—home of the acuta—travelling first in reverse from the Lenape people back to the Ice Age, then on to the invasion of lichen, mosses, and wildflowers. Finally, “10,000 years ago, the Agalinis arrived, around when humans came.”
Some would say it was all downhill from there. The Agalinis acuta was granted endangered status in 1988, and remains the only federally protected flower in New York, although we are not told how it came to be endangered. Should we assume that humanity is to blame? The intermingling, or “recorporealisation,” imagined by Simun is a welcome complication of the humans-vs-nature mindset that would depopulate the earth to save it, to save the Agalinis acuta, so delicate it barely exists. It was discovered in 2010 to be genetically near-identical to another Agalinis species called decemloba, and because the decemloba has provenance, taxonomic custom would have it engulf the acuta, only that the acuta is protected by law. “A legal fiction,” Simun concludes in her booklet. Evoking a Robert Smithson-esque inhuman landscape, she writes of a “botanist [who] dreamily imagines a strip of ‘sandy glacial outwash near the ocean shore,’ where the Agalinis might survive unaided by human hands.”
Surviving however it can for the time being, the Agalinisacuta is hemiparasitic, deriving nutrition not only from photosynthesis but also from other plants. The little plant pots in the gallery contain a species called Schizachyrium scoparium, or bluestern grass, to which the acutaattaches its roots, leaching the bluestern’s nutrients. But here, a cycle of reciprocity is contrived: the acuta’s synthesized vapors return nutrition to the grass, human intervention presuming to improve upon nature’s systems. This Simun deems an inevitable part of “the onslaught of history,” with human scientific production posited as a function of biology—the human is an animal after all, their curiosities and inventions a product of nature’s thrust, and their knowledge delicate and evolving. Simun takes a taxonomic loophole by which the acuta exists as evidence of our ever-provisional understanding of life on this planet, of “just how much our construction of biology shifts over time.”
This bears the question: what is at stake when we imagine ourselves to be the solution as much as the cause of environmental ills? How can we know enough to “fix” what we’ve “broken,” without messing something else up? Like the acuta’s contrived scent, the vapors that have begun to crisscross our skies are a new kind of chemical cocktail—of acids, powdered metals, and genetically modified organisms—injected into the atmosphere, we are told, to combat climate change, air spraying that mimics the healing mineral influx of a volcanic eruption. Simun’s work invites us to consider ourselves not volcano scientists, but also to see ourselves as volcanic, both in substance and in volatility—an unwieldy marriage of remedy and destruction—and to consider that the volcano might eject vapors yet undetected.
Miriam Simun: A Wet Chemical Trace
September 6–October 21