Ray Fenwick: “How to Talk with Plants”

Posted on November 20th, 2017

There are plants and people around me, some sitting on shelves and chairs, others standing on the floor in pots and shoes alike. I recognize some of these others here, but many I do not, and I cannot even guess at most of their names. The greenhouse in which we find ourselves now is awash in greenlight, punctuated by the pulsating rhythm of a bulb blinking on and off from behind a large fan up near the roof. The air is thick with humidity and smells of rich humus, of earthy vegetable matter and dirt. We face toward the de facto ‘front’ of the space, where some audio equipment stands amongst a surfeit of plant-others, and a single human figure as well.

 

Ray Fenwick performs “How to talk to plants” at Visualeyez 2017. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain.

Ray Fenwick is that human. He stands, hands clasped around the microphone he holds close to his mouth, staring at one of the houseplants sitting in front of him. The sound of his breath rushing over the microphone distorts and shudders through the space like indecisive gusts of wind. It is a wet and meaty sound, accentuated by other noises escaping his mouth: lips clapping together or tongue sliding around, along, and between his teeth and gums. Meanwhile, the microphone doesn’t register anything at all from his plant compatriots.

“Hello, I am a kind of meat, and I have feelings and sometimes I try to share those feelings.”

Still, the plants do not seem to care enough to respond.

Fenwick speculates about the possibility of interspecies communication, reaching out with his meat-hand to touch and caress the leafs and fronds of his leafy friends. His sotto voice gurgles in the back of his throat, and the sibilance of his whispers sliding past his tongue resonates in the vaulted space as he experiments with different vocalizations and vocalities. What sort of communion is possible between two beings so radically different? Are they and we so radically different at all?

He warbles and screeches in various efforts at communication, but in the absence of any clear response from the plants present, Fenwick talks instead to himself. His inner monologue is given voice through a large speaker routed through a mixing board and a pedal at his foot. He converses with his own pre-recorded thoughts. The disembodied voice poses questions and raises provocations, and the artist responds in kind. If plants could respond, what could we expect them to say? Maybe they can, but we just haven’t asked the right questions yet. Maybe they do, and we are otherwise oblivious to their retorts and exhortations. Maybe our own thoughts that we interpret as spontaneous creativity and insight are actually psychic missives from our chloroform fellows?

“It wasn’t creativity. It was a message, and you missed it!”

“What am I to you?” He poses the question, ostensibly to the plants around him, but offers the rhetorical query freely to the room. Fenwick’s conversation, with the plants, with himself, with the audience, is a series of similar propositions volleyed back and forth, at times answered directly and at times left to hang with their pendulous metaphysical weight an answer in and of itself. What is the nature of conversation, of relation between beings, irrespective of their apparent similarities and ability to communicate? He posits, in between breathy mouth sounds and some quizzical clicks of his tongue, that perhaps the ambiguity between plants and humans is no greater than that between humans and humans who seemingly talk with relative ease.

Fenwick’s performance ultimately asks us to consider what it means to take conversation as both method and material. He extends the form to logical extremes, addressing putatively non-sapient plants as easily and earnestly as he talks with his own pre-recorded voice. The reciprocal call and response between Fenwick and himself is contrasted with the unilateral monologue he maintains with his planty partners. Each exchange seems to be about as meaningful as the other. The audience is left to consider the degree to which relation—any relation at all—is possible, whether it is between other meaty beings like ourselves or our less animate cohabitants.