Jim Findlay and the Secret Sex Lives of Plants
“For years, some of my favorite French surrealist pornography was Bataille’s Blue of Noon and Louis Aragon’s Irene’s Cunt,” Jim Findlay explained about halfway through our interview. For the first thirty-some minutes, we’d been discussing plants, some 200 of which surrounded us as we sat in the middle of the set for Botanica, Findlay’s new show (Jan 28 – Feb. 25; tickets $10-$30), giving the big gallery space at 3LD Arts the earthy, loamy smell of a warm greenhouse. Asking what else we needed to discuss in terms of understanding the show, Findlay offered that we had yet to talk about French surrealist porn, at which the conversation changed hue from green to blue.
“So I spent some time researching them, because I had wanted to do something that had sex as a major part of it,” he continued. “They’re both books written by a male, with a first-person narrator, about an amoral woman in their past who they’re still obsessed with, and can’t get over, and who’s unavailable. The amoral love of their life kind of thing. Louis Aragon’s Irene’s Cunt is basically 150 pages of he can’t get this woman’s cunt out of his mind,” he explained almost apologetically. “About trying to figure out how to stop thinking about Irene’s cunt. And Blue of Noon is more sort of this story about this guy’s relationship with a woman who’s falling apart at the seams, she’s a drunk and completely amoral. Kind of destroying the world with her sexuality. Just not going to live by the world’s rules. And I discovered that the books are written about–the woman Aragon was obsessed with and the woman Bataille was obsessed with–were the same real world woman. A woman named Colette Peignot, who wrote under the pen name–and was part of the Surrealist movement–‘Laure.'”
Word has been going around about Botanica for a while now, spurred mainly by positive feedback when a selection of the work was shown a year ago at APAP, while Findlay and his collaborators were in residence at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, where the show was envisioned as a twelve-hour long installation performance (“I’ve been calling presenters, telling them, ‘I was just kidding, it’s only 90 minutes long!'” Findlay joked.) Add to that early experiments starting two years ago, as well as a well-received showing at Prelude last year, and it’s a rather buzzed about show–for good reason. The set alone is an incredible piece of design work (by Peter Ksander). The audience is seated at the back of the space, facing towards the front windows of 3LD; downstage-right a small but completely functional greenhouse angles up and off; center-left is a large scientific research station, all brushed steel and clear plexiglass, that wouldn’t look out of place as a setting in CSI; upstage, right in front of the windows, is a rather anodyne living area. Plants are everywhere–in the greenhouse, throughout the living area, in media res on the experiment table. The entire stage-left wall is divided into small cells from which the tendrils of seedlings coil up toward the light or down toward the floor.
Welcome to the biodome in which Botanica takes place.
None of this should seem all that surprising to those familiar with Findlay’s work. A long-time designer with the Wooster Group and a co-founder of Collapsable Giraffe, Findlay is an artist with a well-established reputation. Botanica marks a new phase in his career–an opportunity to define his artistic voice as the primary generator of the work, outside a more collaborative environment.
But for all that about French Surrealist porn, the original inspiration that led to Botanica was far less esoteric and literary.
“It was about two-and-a-half years ago, and I was in Lyon, France working on a show with Ralph Lemon, and I had a dream about Liz Sargent,” he explained, “who’s a woman I’ve been friends with and is a choreographer and installation artist, who used to be a dancer and hadn’t really been performing in New York. But I’d always had this idea that she’d be great onstage. But in this dream…” he paused. “I just had this dream where I saw her in this room that was just filled with plants. I saw her in this environment that was just wall-to-wall plants. The floor was plants and the ceiling was plants. And I just knew immediately that there was a performance in there.”
Findlay’s process was slow and iterative. Along with Sargent, he knew he wanted to work with Ilan Bachrach and Chet Mazur. The four began meeting for exploratory sessions at the Collapsable Hole, the converted garage-space Findlay shares with Radiohole in Brooklyn. One of the ideas that came to inform the piece was the pseudo-science theory of “plant consciousness.” Although Findlay’s research ultimately led to engagement with noted plant experts at such places as the New York Botanical Garden, an early inspiration was the 1970s pop-psychology book The Secret Life of Plants. Partly based in hard science, the work also relied heavily on investigations by the likes of Cleve Backster, a polygraph expert (“If you do any research into it, you sort of discover that anyone who calls himself a polygraph expert is lying,” Findlay wryly pointed out of the oft discredited technique) who experimented with lie detectors on plants in the 1960s.
Based on those initial sessions, they began developing ideas for exploratory improvisations and installations to be presented in mixed-bills, like Avant-Garde-Arama, that would give them to chance to explore human-plant interaction. But fundamentally, it was still based on the image from Findlay’s dream, with the content emerging from the explorations.
“The first thing we did was sort of like an installation improv version at a, Ugly Duckling party at Invisible Dog. And right away, somehow, Chet started having sex with plants,” he explained. “I just wanted Chet in a room with three plants. And at the time I was trying to embed speakers in the plants to make the plants talk. I was always trying to make the plants talk. How to interface with these plants with technology that would bring them alive in a theatrical way. And at that time I had three other performers on remote microphones in the space, so they were forty, fifty feet away, couldn’t see him, but each of them was physically linked to speakers in the plants. So they did a forty-minute improv where the plants competed for his attention. You know, ‘I’m thirsty, I need water,’ so he’d water one. ‘No I’M thirsty, don’t water that one, water me!’ And that kind of somehow, magically led to, you know…” he trailed off with a wave of the hand, as though the result was obvious.
“You put a few performers and microphone there, and someone’s going to start fucking.”
With eroticism brought into the mix, the show began to take shape. The literary menage-a-trois between Aragon, Bataille, and Peignot served as the model for how the characters in the piece interact: two scientists and a caretaker/gardner, living in a biodome and experimenting on plant cosciousness, with a sort of ephemeral female character metamorphosing between human and plant object-of-desire. Findlay admitted that such a narrative-centric piece was new territory for him, but he’d come to embrace it as part of his personal artistic exploration. Although mainly known as a designer, he passed off the job to Ksander, one of the few people whose work we knew well enough to feel comfortable stepping back and letting him handle it without being tempted to meddle.
Instead, Findlay concentrated on working with the performers to develop further ways of using technology to interact with plants. Sonically, the piece is scored with live sound by inserting contact-microphones into plants to be experimented on. “You hear the plant hearing them,” is how Findlay put it. As the performers touch, romance, and torture plants, the audience experiences the sound conducted through the plant’s living material, mixed through a sound-system that combines it with samples of actual recorded plant sounds (using technology well outside a performance’s budget), with the result being an interplay of actual live and recorded plant sounds. It’s particularly arresting to hear the result of tasing one with a consumer-strength electric taser. Findlay and assistant director Maurina Lioce, who was tending to the plants while we talked, were both laughing at their inability to convince audiences during work-in-progress showings that it wasn’t faked. When the performer tases a plant, the audience is, in fact, hearing that plant being tased.
Findlay’s engagement with the show, I suspect, is owed as much to such challenges and the themes the show took on as a transformed into a dark comedy: not only of finding a performance vocabulary for seemingly inanimate objects like plants, but also for the sheer challenge of working with them at all.
“Over the course of this I’ve gone from knowing nothing to being scarily into plants,” he told me. “There’s over 200 plants in here, and at least the hundred that are potted–not the seedlings on the wall–the hundred that are potted I know them all. I know their personalities to a certain extent.”
At the beginning of the processs, “We would kill plants at an amazing rate,” he explained. An important influence in a somewhat ironic fashion was Rob Besserer. Best known to the artistic community as a dancer and performer who’s worked with everyone from Baryshnikov to Meredith Monk, Besserer’s side job is as a plant arrangement designer, a specialty that likely has a more specific name than I’m aware of. (“He calls himself a ‘greensman’ or something like that,” Findlay said.) Besserer helped Findlay and the others understand how to work with–and keep alive–the variety of plants featured in the show, which was a long and tricky process, as they discovered with the sail plants he brought them.
“Some people call them ‘peace lillies’ but I call them ‘sail plants’ because ‘peace lilly’ is so…” he trailed off. “We got them, Rob brought in a bunch of them, and said, ‘Here, try these.’ And we had them for like a week and they were dying, the stems were lying flat over the edge of the thing, Maurina’s calling Rob, saying, ‘Rob, we don’t know what we’re doing, these plants are dying, we’re killing them, what do we do?’ And he’s just like, ‘Put them in the shower.’ Just put them in the shower for like fifteen minutes running and then do the same thing again tomorrow. So we did it for a couple days, and they still looked like the sickest–”
“We didn’t put them in their for fifteen minutes,” Lioce said from across the stage. “I’d put them in there and just leave it running while we rehearsed.”
“Yeah!” Findlay agreed. “We didn’t water them for fifteen minutes, we just left them in there for, like, hours.”
“Rob said they need more water,” Lioce explainded. “He said, ‘There’s no way you can give them too much water,’ so I was like, ‘Well, here’s a shower.’ It worked, though.”
“I mean, they were just flat,” Findlay continued. “Then one day, we came in and they were all…they went from all their leaves drooping over the edge of the thing, literally nothing standing up, and then we came in one day after showering them and they were back up. That was the moment I was like, ‘Holy shit, we did it! We rescued these plants!'” He paused, chuckling. “But yeah, that was the moment I was like, yeah. My little Grinch heart grew one plant size that day.”