Aditi Srivastava Digital artworks inspired by conversations with plants

WordsGeorgina Johnson

We’re all obsessed with houseplants, but have we ever stopped to consider that they might have a voice of their own? How we can truly advocate for the environment in political discourse when we're speaking for the environment, rather than with it? Aditi Srivastava uses generative code art and physical computing to visually narrate the tactile dialogue she has with her leafy green friends, giving a voice to the voiceless. Writer Georgina Johnson speaks to Srivastava about the relationship her work has with anti-colonialism, how she captured plant language, and why we should care about what plants have to say.

When we think about communication, the first thing that comes to mind is the spoken language, how it is used to convey meaning, shapes our lives and allows us humans to connect to each other. But artist Aditi Srivastava wants to go beyond human communication to inspire us to talk with plants: “instead of being concerned with ‘who can speak’, what if instead we focused on conveying ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’?” she says. “This may allow us to think of communication as something that goes beyond [human] language.”

Her digital experiments started because she wanted to explore ways to de-center language as someone whose mother tongue is Hindi and not English, “as someone who continues to revolt against her colonial past and present”, to unravel the social hierarchies that come with that. This shift in focus has been transformative, and a meditation for her.

Because humans lead the discourse around colonialism, plants—the visually dazzling organisms that fill up our world—are reduced to being side characters in the story of human existence. A perspective that puts humans at the center and edges out other life forms is an anthropocentric one. It’s what drives many decisions that are contributing to harming our climate and the future of our home, planet Earth. “The seemingly silent witnesses to our decisions, nonhuman entities are consistently impacted by our choices and in reducing them to mere resources, or a backdrop to our existence, we reveal a human-centric bias that diminishes their political agency,” Srivastava says, and her work, which she’s been testing with her own houseplants, proposes an exciting new way of relating to the non-human.

By linking her houseplants to physical computing devices—either a midi sensor or arduino board—and watching the fluctuations in their bioelectricity in real time, she found that they love tickles, the glide of a soft touch and gentle cuddles, which showed up as rising and falling spikes on-screen. To make this data into artworks, she fed what she recorded through the visual programming tool Touchdesigner; a program that the artist has come to love. “Touchdesigner has been the most fascinating software out there,” she says. “The possibilities of iteration are limitless”.

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Srivastava tried to embrace the unpredictability within the data she collected from her conversations with her plants, but realised that she kept on coming back to her own biases and design aesthetics, pruning out the spontaneous rhythm and pattern in the data: “I took a lot of artistic liberty to smooth out erratic spikes and create a more cohesive flow,” she says. In her own words, she had a sense that she was “inadvertently robbing the plants of their agency…all the depictions of our interactions were filtered through my biases, leaving me to interpret on their behalf.” When considering the future of this work and its message, Srivastava has been able to find solace by viewing it as a starting point that she can rethink the relationship between nature and technology and art and politics from. “If technology today is shaped by capitalist and colonial values, what would it look like if driven by ‘planetary values’ instead?” she asks.

For Srivastava, this time playing and talking with plants has been an education on just how much our imagination can and should stretch for the sake of our planet. She wants her project to encourage more thinking around the social life of plants and to deepen our connection to the natural world. We have so many similarities to nature—we are animals after all. But specifically with plants, their vascular fibers and neural networks are as electric as those that zip and buzz through our own bodies. Nature is wild, and when we try to tame her too much we take away her energy and story.

The questions Srivastava put to herself when conducting this research should be at the top of all of our minds because they might help us take a lead in our own lives, starting from within our homes: “How do we account for the political agency of nonhumans who do not speak or communicate using our language?” she asks. “How does a nonhuman entity then take part in politics and the decision-making processes that further govern their entanglements and relations? How do we get nonhumans a seat at the political table?”