Azucena Castro

Microcosms. A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas

Why do we turn to plants to think the ecological crisis? How can we communicate with them? What images do they render? What role do the artist and technology play in rendering the vegetal world? What other modes of perception are enabled through plants? Why foreground the forms of sacred plants in indigenous cosmologies?

These are just some of the questions that arise from the website and archival repository Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas by Jill Pflugheber & Steven F. White. The site pays attention to the processes and methods of approaching plants to draw attention to what it means to investigate our relationship with nonhumans.

The method of “Microcosmic Phytoformalism” proposed by the authors is an approach to the fascinating universe of image experimentation with plants where science and technology play a crucial role. Steven White defines this method as a “critical framework, a lens through which images produced by the confocal microscope can be analyzed”, avoiding harm to the plant specimens. 

From the images of plants produced through the traditional naturalist herbaria that locates plants as objects, to present experiments as the one proposed by Microcosm that highlights the intertwining of the plant world, art and technology, new forms of expressions and sensibilities are enabled to perceive our relations with the nonhuman world. 

The images of plants through confocal microscope compile and build a mobile and multiple panorama, in which human and plant species collaborate in search of a common becoming or a form of communication catalyzed, almost always, by the formal and material qualities of plants. 

Latua pubiflora
Fig 1, Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas: “Latua pubiflora”

The images rendered by microcosmic phytoformalism enable multiple ways of thinking about plants, their movements, inhalations, perspiration, but also propose a decolonial perspective on plants. To illustrate, “Latua pubiflora” (Fig 1) is recovered from missionary registers as the most toxic plant, to opens new ways of perceiving this plant being from Mapuche medicine in southern Chile that foregrounds its healing and shamanic properties in Huilliche traditions. 

In Nation of Plants, Stefano Mancuso indicates how Western anthropocentric cultures have invisibilized plants and challenges that view through thinking about plants as part of a nation, with its forms, histories, and organizations. The platform Microcosmos offers practices, operations and pedagogies that encourage perceptions of plants as an organized community that can provide answers to the most crucial ecological challenges we are facing at present, while recovering ancient and sacred meanings of our plant companions. 

Azucena Castro, Stockholm University, Stanford University

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