Electrified: an exploration

Posted March 27, 2013 by Shelbatra Jashari

FoAM hosted a poetic afternoon tea at the Vooruit in Ghent on Sunday the 10th of June. Our guests had  a glimpse of Borrowed Scenery, FoAM's alternate reality narrative, while tasting wild herbal teas and sweets. FoAM in Brussels and Amsterdam invited Stevie Wishart, Penelope Turner and Claud Biemans to invoke a vegetal atmosphere through music and stories, encouraging the visitors to explore their city from a plant's point of view. Music and stories are two crucial elements that will make a complex reality of Borrowed Scenery, opening on the 31st of August 2012.

“The term BORROWED SCENERY” – as Maja from FoAM Brussels explained in her introduction – “derives from  the  japanese term  shakkei, a  form of gardening that includes the surrounding landscape in the design of the garden. Shakkei might have began as a meditation technique in Buddhist monasteries in Japan, reminding us that humans are a part of increasingly lager wholes, without separation. For FoAM's Borrowed Scenery, we borrow from urban reality, to create an alternate reality where plants & humans co-inhabit the city to create a hybrid vegetal human culture. We use our work to draw attention and 'frame' plants in everyday situations, through storytelling & direct experience as our framing devices. We want to draw our attention to what's already around us, but often goes unnoticed. Plants, for example, are our silent neighbours that we tend to take for granted. To become aware of their existence in unexpected places, we tell stories, not only to describe what's around, but also to invoke an alternate reality, a possible future where plants and humans join forces to create more resilient & imaginative culture. By doing this we stand  on shoulders of two giants: Terence McKenna and Masanobu Fukuoka. McKenna wrote that plants could be our model for society in the 21st century: plants are able to detoxify their environment, recycle waste, preserve biodiversity, use photovoltatic and hydrogen power, exist in an atmosphere based economy; human technologies such as bio- and nanotech can learn from plants about controlled growth, resilience and graceful decay. Fukuoka argues that the ultimate goal of farming is not growing of crops but cultivation of human beings. What would it be like to cultivate vegetal humans – able to purify & fertilise their environments, value community over individual succes, develop introspective qualities & experience both slowness & vigour amongst our hectic & stressfull urban lives? With Borrowed Scenery we'd like to move away from anthropocentric environmentalism, where plants and arts are instrumentalised to promote efficient & sustainable living for humans. We'd like to experiment with an alternative vision, where plants and humans are not just each other's food and fuel, but are entangled through culture and technology as well. We will begin with a story...”

On Sunday the 10th of June, we shared a few of elements of our story-line with the interested members of the public. Stevie Wishart and Penelope invoked Viriditas - a greening force of renewal & invigoration, to accompany us on our journey through a day of human-plant interaction in the city of Ghent. They did this in a musical composition, inspired by Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, herbalist  & composer – and one of the  inspirations for Borrowed Scenery. Their duet was an emotional composition, touching the heart of the greening force within each of us.

I can only recount this experience as being very touching, very individual, moving me almost into tears. Not go into superlatives, I was truly emotionally disarmed by their performance and in my imagination  their voices produced growing plants and seeds. At the same time  this growing force would open up my heart,  just by looking at daylight and hearing their voices. The awareness of the mystic connection we feel with plants, their intelligence, their diligent cycle of growth and decay and also  the continuous power of the softness that unleashes the beauty when observing the poetry of colours and sounds in the plant world... as breathless as a plant can leave us in a surprising spell of  smelling freshness, just that emotion was what Stevie and Penny mesmerised our ears with, like two sirens of benevolence making sure we would have a great day of viriditas under our feet. Their song was a call to an urban wild-plant odyssey we were about to embark on. Together with different experts and observers, poets and artists, curators and plant-lovers, town-journeyers and passers-by, we went on a silent walk through the town of Ghent.

Maja invited us to walk through Ghent, as we possibly did many times, but this time to observe the surroundings through plant-shaped glasses: “so that plants take centre-stage, while everything else receedes in the background. While the music still echoes in our cells, we can walk silently, observing how it is to be in a city with a group of people all paying attention to plants. While watching for & seeing plants I invite you to  to observe your reactions – excitement, boredom, distraction, fascination. Do you slow down or speed up? Are you aware of other people?At the sime time, try to see the city as a place we share with plants, where plants are our silent neighbours, who would perhaps appreciate a tiny bit of our attention, as if saying  'hello, how are you'? Lingering for a few seconds & parting again...”

The silent walk trained our eyes to see even the tiniest sprouts & to quiet our thoughts & feelings until we would just walk & see plants. Meditating on plants in a meandering group turned out to be quite a surreal image for passers-by that Sunday in Gent. After we reached our destination, the secret garden of the Kleine Begijnhof in Violetstraat, Claud Biemans (the wild plant explorer from Amsterdam) began her stories of plants surrounding us: who they are, how they grow & how we humans interacted with them in the past or present. We learned about orchids for examples, how they grow most of their life underground, in growths resembling human testicles – a sensual and 'naughty story when told under the looming tower of the Begijnhof church. Claud is an encyclopedia of urban wild plants and has a story for each herb, blade of grass and other forms of greenery that we encountered on the way. At the same time, Theun & Cocky from FoAM Amsterdam added these plants to Boskoi, the online database of urban edibles and a map of Ghent, that will grow over the coming months during our temporary residence at the 'Candy store' of the Vooruit. They also shared their urban gardening experiences with church gardens and guerilla grafting in Amsterdam.

After the walk, we sipped tea and tasted cakes made by Rasa, Pieter and Louiza of FoAM Brussels, while Maja hosted a conversation about Borrowed Scenery and it's many entangled elements, including physical narratives, urban foraging and gardening, Hildegard-inspired compositions, plant games and urban ikebana. A call was launched to have a a jam exchange session at the Equinox feast in the Candy store, we exchanged information about nature guides and vegetarianism in Ghent and forged connections with EVA (the vegetarian assosication), a journalist who can guide us to visit trees and their histories, a motley crew of urban gardeners, permaculturists and other enthusiasts, whom we hope to meet again in autumn.

“Electrified: an exploration” ended up being a colourful day filled with hints and scents, bearing much promise for fruitful collaborations on Borrowed Scenery in the coming months.