"Amateur Botanist" by Kotryna Ūla Kiliulytė
By Katažyna Jankovska & Maya Hristova
Kotryna Ūla Kiliulytė is a Glasgow based artist who works with lens-based media, photogrammetry, objects and text exploring topics of migration and the relationship between human and nonhuman species, questioning anthropocentric notions and hierarchies. Her works often exist in between fact, fiction and humor. With a fictional dialogue between two nonhuman species presented in the video work "Amateur Botanist" (2019), the artist develops imaginary, hypothetical migration scenarios by which plants may have traveled across our planet with(out) direct human intervention and examines various social and political factors that have led to the emergence and spread of different species in different locations. Combining underwater video footage with photogrammetry generated 3D models of plants, Kiliulytė questions anthropocentric language and notions such as "local, invasive, indigenous, exotic, foreign or native", reassessing established hierarchies and challenging viewers' perceptions.
You were born in Lithuania but have been living in Scotland for some time. How do the differences between these two states and cultures affect your state of mind?
I moved to Scotland to study nearly 14 years ago. This move, and the place itself has undeniably shaped me as a person and an artist. During the first 7 or 8 years, I still saw Lithuanian reality and culture as a default, but then the transition happened and I now find myself constantly in this in between state–neither Lithuanian (I’m part Polish, so never felt Lithuanian anyway), nor Scottish, neither a local nor a migrant, always observing from a distance. It helps me to not take anything for granted, and also to keep a sense of humor when interacting with people, customs, organizations in both countries and in general.
There is a continuity in your creative practice – the topic of migration in relation to the creation of alternative scenarios. However, in a sense the focus is evolving – from human migration and reflection on the past, to the study of nonhuman lives, plant migration and the construction of ecosystems. Do you recognize any parallels between human and animal/plant migration?
I guess this shift of focus happened when I was thinking about notions such as "local", "indigenous", "invasive" or "endemic". It’s often the same language that gets applied to humans and plants. This sparked my interest in plant migrations, both, the ones happening without or despite human actions, and the ones consciously orchestrated by humans. There is no denying that humans have, and still do shape the ecosystems around the world. Often, there is a strong link between economical and political powers, colonial expansion and the shaping of local ecologies. Living in Scotland, I have observed many species which are now seen as invasive such as the very beautiful rhododendrons, that were brought in Victorian times to brighten up the gardens of the wealthy. The same goes for Himalayan Balsam, now often labeled as "aggressive". However, I was also interested in how plants may have spread before humans were a dominant power on the planet. I met up with Dr. Catherine Kidner at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and we spoke about how the seeds or pollen may have potentially spread. The imagery of light/hollow fruit and vegetables floating across bodies of water and spreading across continents like that seemed rather amusing to me, so I knew I wanted to make work in relation to this.
It’s often the same language that gets applied to humans and plants.
Personally, do you perceive humans as part of nature or as rather alien to it?
I see humans, as well as the environment we shape and create as a species, as part of nature. For me, the line separating natural from artificial or man-made doesn’t exist. Humans are part of this planet, part of so called ‘nature’, and have interacted with and shaped their surroundings from the early days of humanity. And so do other mammals, birds, plants, and fungi. I believe that seeing humanity and man-made as an integral part of the ecosystem of this planet might help us think and act about the ongoing climate catastrophe in more effective ways. There is no way we can restore land, landscape or biodiversity of this planet to historical levels or qualities.
It’s dangerous to separate civilization and wilderness as oppositions, romanticizing nature and therefore distancing ourselves from it.
Everything from mold in my bathroom, to Glasgow foxes rummaging the bins, to the microbiome of my gut and seals in the North Sea are manifestations of the same ecosystem. In fact, so are my thoughts, and the digital footprint I leave as I upload my work online.
The first scene of "Amateur Botanist" shows an abstract image of a broccoli floating in the water, its texture reminding us of fractals, each part of which is per definition self-similar. The structure of the broccoli might remind the viewer of a forest as seen from above. Then the camera moves on by "flying over" the surfaces of different "planets"(plants) underlying the notion of self-similarity in nature. By erasing visual hierarchies and dualities such as big and small, distant and close, complex and simple, familiar and unknown, the work opens up possibilities to re-experience the world and the cosmos from a different perspective. By doing something as simple as visualizing the surface of a broccoli you are challenging our perception of it as something we know, something so simple that it doesn’t deserve our focused attention. Therefore, while the work deals visually with the image of what we have–the representation of a broccoli, its abstraction (let’s say forest), and its history, it questions human ways of processing, copying and learning from nature, modifying it, appropriating or misunderstanding its wisdom. What aspects of our relationship with nature did you want to shed light on through the work?
I was interested in playing with scale as a way of reassessing hierarchies.
The way we often talk about ‘nature’ and ‘natural’ has some implied order of qualities and preconceptions. Switching the scale around, animating inanimate subjects, switching perspectives is my way of opposing or questioning these hierarchies. It is also one of the ways to introduce humor to my work. Looking at a mysterious island covered in strange repetitive forest patterns, and after a while discovering that it is a broccoli head floating in a Scottish loch, has made audiences laugh in multiple screenings of "Amateur Botanist" – and these are the most precious moments in my artistic career.
The video piece further questions anthropocentric expressions such "local", "indigenous", "exotic","foreign" or "native" as intrinsic to our human, imperial, Eurocentric language and understanding of the world by proposing a fictional dialogue between two nonhuman species. Thus, the work becomes as much about politics as it is about plant migration which is mentioned only in the broadest of terms such as "you come from the New World." Instead, the focus of its approach lies in questioning the term "New World" itself, and the human need for "attractive" narratives and telling stories. What excited you about the construction of relationships between species outside an anthropocentric paradigm in order to discuss issues pertaining to societal hierarchies?
Once I imagined some of the terms we use to define and describe certain historical and geopolitical events from the perspective of other species, in this case, two vegetables, their absurdity became obvious in all its glory. There are many terms in geography or politics that are based on some rather recent historical events, like the quite familiar "Eastern Europe" vs "Western Europe", but also "New World" or "Near East". They already sound absurd if one is looking not from the West-centrist perspective, but even more so, if assessed from the nonhuman point of view. That’s when I remembered the narratives we are often fed in educational institutions, of new worlds and new lands being discovered and conquered by brave men, their riches brought back, the the locals ending up slaughtered and enslaved.
This is where I switch the narrator, who never felt exotic or discovered, because those are passive qualities, and the narrator is active (even if it is a sweet potato).
Exactly, "I never felt discovered," says one of the nonhuman species coming from the so-called "New World". One of the main characteristics of any nonhuman species is that they don’t use language the way humans do. By introducing language to their imagined dialogue you erase the hierarchies between humans and plants thus decontextualizing the meaning of words and questioning the preconception of knowledge and memory as purely human. What did you hope to achieve with this experiment?
Giving a voice to something or someone who doesn’t have one is partly a rebellious act, partly an exercise in waking up.
Sometimes an act like this is enough to reconsider some older, stagnant beliefs or hierarchies. We are also learning, with the help of scientific research, that plants do in fact communicate with each other, which suddenly opens up whole new worlds: does the mold on bathroom walls know when I’m away from home for extended periods of time, because there’s less moisture from daily showers? Are Glasgow seagulls aware of the pandemic? Is it me waiting for cucumbers to ferment in the jar in the cupboard, or cucumbers waiting for me to eat them once they’re fizzing from fermentation?
In this dialogue, these species talk about how they feel. Thus, you anthropomorphize them in a certain way, giving them what we consider to be exclusively human characteristics. Animals are subject to a great deal of anthropomorphism in our culture – but we don’t see it happen with plants. It suggests an inability of people to empathize with plants. Are you trying to re-define the notion of what we consider as life-being?
I started this work by researching the historical routes that some plants, that are now widely available and familiar to us, traveled from their homelands. I looked at where the wild apples come from (Kazakhstan by the way), how broccoli reached modern-day UK (Romans), where the sweet potato comes from. I was fascinated by these routes, and also saw the geopolitical, historical events that shaped the spread of these plants as circumstances worth talking about from a nonhuman perspective. And since my focus was on plants, seeds, vegetables, it only seemed natural that I let them ‘speak’ to invert the worldview and the hierarchies we are accustomed to. And frankly, as soon as I thought about a talking broccoli, I couldn’t get it out of my head!
You have expanded your creative expression in terms of process as well–from traditional photographic media to working with video, photogrammetry, and, recently, sculpture. "Amateur Botanist" combines digitally rendered 3D models and underwater video footage. For those who don’t know, what is photogrammetry? What were the challenges of creating these digital visualizations and what was your vision when incorporating them as part of the visual narrative? Is it an attempt to imagine the potential for cognitive understanding and deeper awareness in a synthetic being or our reaction as humans to that possibility?
Photogrammetry is a way of creating 3D digital simulations by combining multiple photographs in a dedicated software. So basically I am using a digital camera to take loads of overlapping pictures around the object, for example, a butternut squash, and then process them to achieve the final result. This is a technique used in archive and museum digitization processes quite a bit–one of the themes I was interested in for a while, especially when working on my older piece "Impossible Colonies".
The reason I wanted to use these 3D renders of vegetables in the final film was to extend the "natural realm" to digital. I mentioned earlier that seeing 'nature' as separate from humans and man-made is potentially dangerous, and I’d like to include the digital realm into this new 'nature' we live in. Now the world seems a bit more interconnected: it features the dramatic Scottish hills and lochs, but also a pomegranate from the supermarket, and the car I was in to get to those lochs, and the digital mesh and pixels that my photogrammetry models are made of.
You thematize the idea that as humans we can only think of new territories in the sense of conquering them. You talk about discovery, in the sense of taking possession, as intrinsic to political empires, and opposed to "being" in harmony with the world. Is the need for constant acquiring of territories intrinsic to humans or can it be overcome? [through art for example] Erich Fromm poses the question "If I am what I have and if I lose what I have, then what am I?" Does the lack of possession mean a lack of identity from a human point of view?
I guess humans haven’t always lived like this. As hunters-gatherers we shifted and changed locations, and there are some nomadic cultures surviving to this day, and there have been societal experiments of no personal/collective possession only very recently. However, it is ingrained over the centuries, or millennia, that possession (especially of land) is synonymous with power. This power then controls knowledge and the belief systems that we are entrapped in to this day. Many issues of modern society, like racism, sexism, class divide, and similar stems from these old, power and possession-based beliefs.
Now that we are facing the ecological catastrophe, we must think about other ways of being in the world and with each other. Not to play a quote ping-pong here, but this one by Ursula K. Le Guin seems more than fitting and I can not formulate this better:
"We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art."
In the dialogue, the Roman Empire is mentioned then in the credits we see the various plants appearing with their "slave", scientific, Latin names. What was the idea behind this decision?
The Roman Empire is responsible for the spread of broccoli to current day Britain. It is just one of these vegetables and plants that is now seen as local, widely cultivated, and consumed by the British. What interested me was the amount of time it takes for something, or someone, to become ‘local’. Are rhododendrons going to be seen as part of the classic British landscape in a few centuries? How long does it take for a person to live somewhere to not be asked by taxi drivers where they were from originally?
The plants are introduced as actors and collaborators in the film because they took the center stage. The scientific names, pointing to the Roman Empire and colonialism in general, are used to refer to our partly absurd conventions to use a dead language to dominate the world of science. I also liked the contradiction of the seriousness of scientific names and the absurdity of floating a coconut or a mandarin in the North Sea whilst I wear fisherman’s waders to capture the footage. As you do.
I find it really important that the piece exists on the border of mediums [video, photography, photogrammetry], on the border of materialities–earth and water, artificial and organic, real and digital, but also on the border of histories–wild and domesticated, and borders in terms of our understanding of what is alive and not. All of this taken into account, it is all about thinking outside of dualities, outside this perceived separation between science, art, politics, human, nonhuman, earth, and the universe. In what ways do you see art and photography cooperating with science in the future in order to find solutions for worldwide problems?
Thank you for these great observations, it was indeed an exercise of subverting the accepted qualities, hierarchies, borders, but all done lightly and tongue in cheek. Some of the art (including the photographic medium and any other) that interests me the most is bordering on science or other disciplines. Perhaps by taking from both worlds, the process and result can be fresher, more unexpected. I do believe that questioning and playfulness can get us out from stuck situations, or even provide solutions where there didn’t seem to be any.
There isn’t always space for playfulness, humor, and 'what if' approach in science, and often not in art either. Both take themselves quite seriously, but once you cross and dissolve the boundaries between disciplines or genres, the same rules don’t apply anymore.