Published May 11, 2017

Plurality Of Being by Zach Pearl

For ten millennia, humans have farmed and cultivated life. But the word “cultivar” is relatively recent to the English language, arriving only in the 1920’s. [1] A blend of “cultivate” and “variety”, this neologism reflected rapidly expanding options available to consumers in a post-industrial (and imminently globalized) era. More importantly, it signalled groundbreaking advances in genetics and microbiology around the world. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 or Henry A. Wallace’s hybrid corn seed in 1933 would forever amplify humanity’s capacity to impact its environment. At this time in the early 20th century the role of cultivator-as-curator was quickly transforming from selective to disruptive—a god-like faculty to make new forms of life altogether. Today, the continued proliferation of biotechnologies has transformed our agrarian ways into data-driven industries and has given rise to an economy of information that revolves around the production and consumption of life. A new era of ecology is on the horizon that anticipates and integrates programmable genomes, complex synthetic organisms, and artificial intelligence coursing through our veins. [2]

Facing this ecological shift, Cultivars (Possible Worlds) traces a turning point in our chronology, rearticulating cultivation as a hybrid practice in which technologies of representation and reproduction are intrinsically linked. The same instinct that motivates the human-animal to tame its nature through biotechnology is the same one that compels it to represent its reality through art. The works herein by Elisabeth Picard, the OpenWorm Foundation, Stefan Herda, and WhiteFeather Hunter collate a matrix of sensitivities towards a new (agri)cultural paradigm in which our definition of life necessarily expands and we actively acknowledge our responsibilities as world makers.

Nowhere in the exhibition is this responsibility more clearly conveyed than in WhiteFeather Hunter’s Aseptic Requiem/Requiem Aseptisé (2014/2016). Following instructions on-screen, viewers kneel down before an altar-like plinth on a textile hand-woven by the artist and are presented with digital microscopic video of 3T3 connective tissue cells. [3] Through a 24-hour time-lapse, one sees those cells engaging with filaments of silk while suspended in a peachy brown expanse of culture medium. Their movement is hypnotizing as they warp and bubble along the monumental filament, fortified by the background choral requiem. The subtitles read:

Protocol for Aseptic Requiem: Disposal of Cell
Culture…Pipette all media fr. culture flasks into
waste container…Issue brief statement of verbal
acknowledgement…“Thank you for everything you
have taught me in __ weeks”…

As the instructions continue—requesting that one reflects on the benefits of science yet stating this should take less than 30 seconds—an inner conflict emerges. While the organism on-screen lacks a central nervous system and observable self-awareness, it is nonetheless technically alive. Organisms such as these are often used as instruments to carry out lab work and then casually terminated. Aseptic Requiem provokes us to consider a non-hierarchical ontological order and the possibility that while 3T3 is not sentient it is no less deserving of gratitude or compassion. Similarly, Crystal Garden (2017) by Stefan Herda blurs boundaries between organic life and sensations better accounted for through alien phenomenology. [4 ] Presented again in time-lapse, Crystal Garden shows a grid of petri dishes against a stark black background, each hosting different ‘cultures’ of minerals. These cultures expand and contract, developing rhizomic fissures that recall veins and nerves. Some cultures appear to breathe or pulsate as light fluctuates in the camera’s aperture. Their rhythmic expansion/contraction lends them the semblance of a life cycle and makes it easy to forget their inorganic makeup. Akin to 3T3 in Aseptic Requiem, Herda’s crystals have been purposely propagated, and though they lack skins or organs they do absorb, expel, and reproduce. Each petri dish hosts a microcosm of delicate activity in a span of millimeters, all dependent upon the artist as both instigator and dutiful caretaker.

Likewise, in Depression Flowers (2017), Herda sows a fantastical living sculpture of crystalline structures in an aquarium. Using techniques popular for home decor during the Depression Era, Herda animates coal with household chemicals to produce a vibrant array of foamy minerals. Again, one is faced with ethical questions around acts of creation that require the sensitivities of an object-oriented ontology. The minerals in Herda’s work will never bleed or cry for help, but how can we be certain that they are incapable of feeling? Perhaps they do in capacities that exceed human consciousness? By virtue of their cultivation their existence demands a level of recognition beyond pure utility.

Though doubtful that the human mind will ever be capable of processing non-human thoughts, efforts to apprehend cognition are integral to cultivating empathy. Despite recent innovations in cognitive science, we are still a long way from understanding the human brain. In fact, scientists do not yet even understand the brain of a worm. This deficit is the premise of OpenWorm, an international and distributed ‘open science’ collective of biologists, programmers, and creatives who are crafting the world’s first fully virtual organism: C.Elegans, a.k.a. a roundworm. Under a millimeter and essentially faceless, this unassuming nematode is visualized at to epic proportions and vivid aesthetics. Within a sea of lime green, users can access and interact with the 3D modelled worm via browser or app. Using a simple slider, one can shed the worm’s ‘skin’ to explore its colourful vascular system, organs, and the scaffolds of its in-progress neural network. In this way, OpenWorm also acts as a no-barrier virtual dissection tool, highlighting critical issues around accessibility and sustainability within biology and education. Not only does the possibility of virtual dissection reduce environmental impact but also suggests that virtual organisms can perform as ‘living’ archives—publicly accessible repositories for collective knowledge generated by the interdisciplinary communities that build and use them.

In the work of Elisabeth Picard, there are neither living nor semi-living organisms. But there are strong propositions toward environments that mingle the two. In Waitomo Cave (2016) we encounter the worm as a humble but inspirational creature, this time an emulation of New Zealand glowworms that use bioluminescence to lure their prey and attract mates. Picard abstracts the constellation-like colonies of glowworms as clusters of animated, LED-lit zip ties punctuating a surface of pristine black plexiglass. The plexiglass alternates direction in triangular panels and mirrors the zip ties, creating a seamless pattern of twinkling light. Not only is this biomimicry visually striking, it also suggests the potential for coalescent habitats in which organic and synthetic life forms co-exist cybernetically. Glowworms need clean, unpolluted air to produce light and their reproductive rates correlate with local climate change. Imagine buildings in which access to light is dependent on managing carbon footprint. Picard’s installation opens doors to thinking about how future architecture can incorporate cultivation as both innovative design and guiding philosophy.

Though diverse in their subjects and formats, the works in Cultivars (Possible Worlds) are kindred in their provocation toward a more progressive view of what comprises an ecosystem—a view shaped not only by a natural order, supposedly external to human society, but all those that we produce and synthesize. The pursuit of art, like agriculture, is based in this montage of orders and asks the observer to navigate simultaneous realities—to hold them in equal, proportion and recognize the self-reimagined within. Are we ready to acknowledge this plurality of being, to embrace a posthuman existence? While capitalist systems continuously urge us to ‘evolve’ and identify as passive consumers of prefabs and presets, our future prospects ironically rely on our animal instinct to cultivate, to craft alternatives, and see life itself as technology—a mechanism for possibility.


[1] “Cultivar”. Merriam Webster Dictionary Online. Merriam Webster, Incorporated. 2017. Accessed April 11, 2017.
[2] If you think I’m being hyperbolic, I urge you to consult the latest issue of Cell, Nature or another peer-reviewed biology journal to see the plethora of articles that are published each month touting new successful studies into organogenesis, gene swapping, and nanotechnology in medicine.
[3] 3T3 is a standard line of cells used in lab work, first established by George Todaro and Howard Green at New York University School of Medicine in 1962. The cells are fibroblasts, responsible for the structural framework of most connective tissue in animals.
[4] Here I am referring to a book of the same name by Ian Bogost—Alien Phenomenology or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Bogost uses the term to describe his own method of object-oriented ontology, which seeks to evade anthropocentrism and imagines sensation outside human consciousness. 


About the author

Zach Pearl is an American-born, Toronto-based curator, designer, and educator. He currently works as Artistic Director of Subtle Technologies and as a sessional instructor at OCAD University in Integrated Media and Graphic Design. He is also Co-Founder and Art Director of KAPSULA, a digital publication for experimental art writing. Zach holds a BFA in Graphic Design & Illustration from the Minneapolis College of Art & Design and an MFA in Curatorial Practice from OCAD U. Specializing in new media curation, his masters thesis focused on experimental strategies for exhibiting online art. His current academic research is situated in the emergent field of speculative design, interrogating the future impacts of ubiquitous computing on human desire and cognitive development. Since relocating to Canada, Zach has helped to produce events and publications for a variety of institutions including the Art Gallery of Ontario, Textile Museum of Canada, Vtape, Artscape Youngplace, the Gladstone Hotel, Gallery44, and Eastern Edge, among others.

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