God, silence and plant porn

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Picture this – a successful writer and philosopher undertakes the project of filling a room with rhododendrons, while projecting down from the ceiling film footage specifically designed to be as sexually ‘titillating’ for the audience (the plants, obviously) as possible. In other words, creating the world’s first plant pornography theatre. Taken out of context, this perhaps seems to be the work of a clinically eccentric gardener, with a chronic attachment to the liberal welfare of his vegetables. However, what if I told you this were a work of conceptual art, throwing in a venerable institution like the Tate Modern for good measure? Heck, let’s even say Mr Hirst himself is in on it, with franchises in testosterone implanted chlorophyll (not strictly true).

This isn’t Performance Art with a capital P, but this is an art project – with a difference. Jonathon Keats aims to use the traditional philosophical method of a thought experiment and play it out in real time. There is only one thread which appears to tie together the diverse and multifarious projects he undertakes, and that is an unabashed cultivation of the absurd. ‘The world is a fairly ridiculous place, so the absurdity is rather easy to come by – it’s almost the default.’ Keats aims to stretch, contort and unravel the assumptions underlying our everyday lives – to rewind our cerebral hemispheres back to their childlike states of curiosity about the world around them.
Keats earnestly explained to me what led him to fill this apparent gap in the film industry. Having become interested in filmmaking, he realised that in such a competitive field already overpopulated by many very talented directors, his chances of success were not exactly astronomical. ‘So I thought perhaps I should look towards an audience that they had not.’ As well as being somewhat more populous than humans, plants are ‘incredibly adept at perceiving what film uses as the medium of expression – light.’

Keats however came upon something of a brick wall: ‘I’m not a plant and I don’t really know what they’d like or enjoy.’ However, it then dawned on him that ‘an awful lot of [directors] got their start in pornography and that’s something that really seems to appeal to a lot of people and would also probably appeal to a lot of plants.’ Having acknowledged that ‘what would titillate them would not titillate us’, Keats set about filming a plant’s-eye-view of the lighting effects created as bees hover over flowers during the lusty act of pollination. ‘Taking out all the extraneous information such as colour and shade’, the resulting black-and-white footage was projected at plants from high above and run for several weeks firstly in a Californian gallery, and later at Montana State University.

Deciding that ‘I don’t want to be a pornographer my entire life’, as well as feeling some sympathy for plants (such as asexual ferns) which may not actually enjoy porn, Keats took on a new mission. ‘Plant roots are firmly in the ground, they don’t get to go anywhere. So I decided to make them travel documentaries – filming in Italy. If you’re a plant, of course you don’t really care about the Eiffel tower or the usual tourist hotspots, what you care about is the sky. So over the course of about a month or so I filmed the sky in various weather conditions in Northern Italy.’ This footage was then shown to plants resident in New York at the AC Institute in the lower West side area of Chelsea. Keats solemnly declares total ‘commitment and integrity’ towards this project – ‘I would never film the skies in San Francisco and say they were from Europe, although that would be more convenient. That would be cheating the plants and cheating the art.’

After this intriguing, yet amusing discussion we move onto the somewhat sober trail of discourse this piece aims to raise among the humans observing and talking about such an ‘experiment’. Keats is no idiot and evidently he has deliberately cultivated humour in his work: ‘there’s a sort of reorientation and it starts usually with laughter! It gets back to this very basic idea of absurdity, and back to this very basic way in which I go about my thought experiments creating these fabulistic worlds and alternate universes that feel very much like ours. We think we know our ways around but something is really amiss. Generally the world we experience is by and large on a screen. So putting the plants into our position becomes a way that we can look at the world as if we were foreign to it – we can look at and explore what we do on an everyday basis from outside of ourselves.’

At the heart of his work is a craving, driven by his horror at the ‘cloistered’ activity that academic philosophy has in his mind become, to take his training in philosophy out to the world at large, luring it back into the eggshell-laden sphere of public discourse. He is a philosopher in the most traditional sense, but also a self-confessed ‘dilettante.’ In his exploits to create absurd ‘counterfactual’ situations where ‘all the furniture is on the ceiling rather than on the floor’ he has dabbled in nearly every industry around. This ranged from the intentionally pseudo-scientific (attempting to genetically engineer God in collaboration with scientists at the University of California: God is apparently a form of cyanobacterium), to the financial (creating an antimatter economy according to the laws of quantum physics), to real estate (selling property in the fourth dimension), to theatre (choreographing a ballet for honeybees at the Armand Hammer Museum) and most recently accomplishing NASA’s next aims in space travel a decade or two early (the catch? The astronauts were cacti).

One of the most intriguing of all Keats’ projects however was very much a part of himself. He patented his own brain. Designating it the status of a sculpture created through the act of thinking, he explains, ‘my mind is formed through the act of thinking and is unique to my thought processes.’ The roots of this project lie planted in the traditional struggle of the artist for immortality. Since copyright law gives 70 years of intellectual property rights post-death, Keats reasoned that this would at least give him a seven decade post-life extension.

When contemplating which industry would humour such wacky exploits, Keats settled on the art world. As a channel through which to present his ‘real time thought experiments’ to the public he decided ‘there really isn’t any space in society that is open to that kind of vague proposition except perhaps for the art world. The art world doesn’t really know what it is up to and hasn’t for about a century – ever since the academies gave way to various forms of modernism. This confusion – which is a problem in its own right in some respects – also affords enormous freedom to anyone who decides to be an artist.’ He has not escaped the claws of public criticism altogether, although he is somewhat intrigued at their choice of target. ‘More people got angry because I created a 4 minute, 33 second silent ringtone (read: John Cage remix) that I made available for free, than did when I attempted to genetically engineer God in a Petri dish.’

Although he appreciates any public input into his work, he aims to avoid people ‘thinking that [he] must be making fun of them,’ which he sees as the cause of such resentment. ‘People say, ‘it can’t be that simple, so therefore he must be doing something to show he’s smarter than I am, and therefore he must be making fun of me, and therefore I hate him.” He is not blind to the fact that this is certainly a problem in the world of conceptual art as a whole, although feels that much of this work is probably not quite as frank in terms of what it aims to address. ‘I don’t think art becomes valuable because it is set apart from life, I think it becomes valuable because of the way it is integrated into life. Art has for millennia been one of the most enriching experiences any society has and to lose that would be a sad thing.’

Not wanting to confine himself to the art world of only one planet, Keats was soon exploring the art world of life from other galaxies. He translated signals picked up from outer space into colour, translated time into space, and projected this visually onto a canvas. ‘What it looked like to me was perhaps extraterrestrial abstract artwork, with the caveat that I of course don’t know yet what this would be like, so it could be a still life or portrait for all I know!’ Having exhibited this in a museum shortly after, he wanted to ‘reciprocate on this generous intergalactic loan’ and sent out his own signals of abstract art into the cosmos. ‘I was interested in what goes on in our everyday communication, by taking the extreme case of extraterrestrial communication.’ What he did mirrors the fact that we can never communicate with each other without bringing in our own assumptions – ‘which is how we end up with warfare, but also how we end up with poetry.’

Keats makes the large majority of his living through his successful role as a writer and fabulist. He notes that this in no way clashes with his role as a conceptual artist and philosopher: ‘This is a fantasy world that I create, I am a fabulist.’ Essentially Keats has made a life of not only indulging in childhood curiosity, but ‘returning back to life and acting on it.’ He sees his approach to the world as more banal than most people would allow themselves, rather than that of a surreal maverick. ‘I try to provide a space, aside from that within which we live ordinarily, that may allow us to distance ourselves from life a little bit, to peer in, alter a few measurements and then step back and make a few changes.’ For the sceptics there is always Plato, but I think this guy seems much more fun.

Virtual Words: Language on the Edge of Science and Technology (Oxford University Press) is out now, RRP £12.99

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