Rina C. Faletti
The website Microcosms, opened in 2022, presents the inaugural results of a plant-art project that exhibits a visually striking and intellectually stimulating image collection of living plants taken under a microscope. Electric colors and bold patterns captured through the method the authors call microcosmic phytoformalism, a specialized confocal laser scanning microscopy, reveal intricate structures and unique colorations of special classes of visionary or psychoactive plants used in ancient and contemporary shamanic rituals in the Americas. Going far beyond what might appear to be another illustrative account of the beauty of plant patterns, shapes, and colors at an unseen scale, White and Pflugheber successfully argue not only for the organism as art, but also art as organism. Here the project extends its reach from the patently visual to deeper realities of consciousness, agency, equality of lifeforms. They reveal the depths of the images with written entries for each bio-image type, and with White’s substantial essay, “Microcosmic Phytoformalism: Plant-Art, Visionary Experience, and Eco-Activism.” As companions to the plant-art images, these essential texts provide historical, technical, cultural, experiential, and scholarly background to help reader-viewers understand the primary idea behind this rigorous and passionate project: that humans and plants co-exist and co-create as equally alive, conscious, intentional, capable earthly beings. Microcosms opens a clear path to an eco-activism that brings human and non-human together as a way, as White writes, to “address contemporary political problems generated by scientific realities.” It opens inter- and transdisciplinary conversations between the arts and humanities, the sciences, and the social sciences, to respond to planetary environmental crisis. The intentional focus on psychoactive plants draws focus on the special fact that in viewing the structures, forms, and colors of these transformative plants through the method of microcosmic phytoformalism, the plant-art will transform ways of seeing, into what might be called an altered or trance-like state of consciousness, akin to the special kind of attention that art demands. White and Pflugheber argue that not only the ingestion of psychoactive plants, but the visual apprehension of these plants’ most basic structures, provides a transformational experience that dissolves the imagined boundaries between the human and vegetal worlds. The activist aim of their work concurs with that of the most strident environmental humanities scholarship and of the most sophisticated contemporary environmental art of our time: it makes “a call to urgent, empathic, morally-based activism as conservators, creators, and informed citizens against the political and economic systems that are so irrevocably harmful to the environment.” The Microcosms website is an embodied space “for people and plants to be and to become together,” a space that I hope itself will continue to become.
Rina C. Faletti, Ph.D.Rina C. Faletti is an environmental humanities scholar and the founding curator of Art Responds, a program of art exhibitions and community programs that engage viewers with art that responds to environmental crisis and change. She is co-editor and an author of Hydrohumanities: Water Discourse and Environmental Futures (UC Press, 2022). She has researched sacred/ritual water imagery in pictographic Mixtec codices of pre-Columbian Oaxaca, Mexico. She is a humanities research affiliate at University of California, Merced and teaches art and architecture at California State University, Chico.