A Near-Future Herbarium: Field Guide and Posthuman Collaboration

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Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth and final post in the Digital Natural History series edited by Nick Koenig and Heather Rogers.

E-plants, biohybrids, monster plants, trans*plants or digital plants – what comes in many names, we will refer to as natural-technical plants. Multiple and vibrant in form and texture, these plants have proliferated at an astonishing pace in laboratories and digital natures1 since the mid-2010s. Edible plants such as spinach and beans are, for instance, groomed for future use as energy plants (no pun intended) as well as storages or detectors of heavy metal. Growing silently and stored away in laboratories, peer-reviewed articles, dedicated digital spaces, or design and artist studios, natural-technical plants seem to multiply without much attention – in public and academic discourse. Concurrently, the stories of organic plants embedded in natural environments are manifold and make it into bestseller lists and are at the center of the ever-growing field of Critical Plant Studies.

These parallel movements strike us as indicative of our screen-saturated times in which organic nature became a stand-in for nostalgia of a long-lost time and promises of technologies as the saving grace of humanity. Along these lines, we consider natural-technical plants as indicator species at the onset of the 21st century, in ways similar to the OncoMouseTM and the Flavr Savr Tomato in the 1990s, which were Donna Haraway’s figures for biotechnology and bioengineering, building on her notion of the cyborg in the 1980s.2 Indeed, these plants are only the improved, more refined, and daunting version of Haraway’s cyborgs. As such, engineered plants are not figures of past stories but have been brought into existence uninterrupted. By continuing Haraway’s 1980s story and by pulling natural-technical plants into the foreground (which Haraway had considered only peripherally), we hope to include them in speculations about possible futures that are already science fictions in laboratories and virtual spaces.

With these considerations, we set out one year ago and began creating a repertory of natural-technical plants, which we refer to as “near-future herbarium”: an incipient, growing account of those vegetal stories that have not yet been or are yet to be told. The repertory came with its own obligations as these stories depart from norms of ordering, sorting (out), and classifying. What were the criteria for including or excluding plants from vegetal repertories so far? How to classify these plants and, more fundamentally, how to go about naturecultures-archiving? Which classification systems of herbaria need to be amended? How to integrate these plants into efforts of digital archiving practices of herbaria?  As a next step in the process, we came to think about near-future herbaria in this regard, determined to open up new vegetal paths. We situate our explorations in Speculative Design and Design Fiction, which developed as subfields in the late 1980s and 1990s in the search for pathways to grapple with, imagine, and conjure possible futures.

Drawing for the near-future field guide (Marion Schulze)

In 2021, common bean plants became batteries in the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University. Bought at the seed producer Impecta Fröhandel, the plants’ roots were soaked in an aqueous oligomer-saturated solution. The oligomers polymerized in self-organized fashion in the roots, which turned black as an effect and indicated that these roots were now enhanced in their capacity as electronic conductors. In the peer-reviewed article for Material Horizons, in which Daniela Parker, Yohann Daguerre et al. first published the results of their research, it reads that “intact plants” are “functionalized”.3 Plants figure in the article as “biocatalytic machinery,” “template” and “biological structures” with a wide range of “processes” that can be tapped in by humans.4

Clearly, the article echoes and writes itself into one long-standing biological approach to plants as mechanisms and more or less closed systems, an approach which is still dominant. Does this approach leave room for adaptation and possibilities for new forms of herbaria in this case? The same beans that are used as electronic conductors can also be pressed on paper,5 and digitized later with the usual information such as its scientific name (it’s still a common bean!), taxonomic placement, the location and date of the collection, the name of the person(s) who collected it, as well as additional photographs, description of the plant and its habitat. Some imagination and adjustments are necessary to add the geolocation of the laboratory for future gardens where these beans would grow. Finally, a design fiction that takes the mechanic approach and its tradition seriously,6 seemed adequate to integrate this specific common bean into a field guide, just next to its non-enhanced family member. I thus took the German reference book for botany, the Rothmaler – Exkursionsflora von Deutschland. Gefässpflanzen: Atlasband,7 as an initial point and drew the bean plant anew: the root system had to be extended and darkened and an additional cross section of the polymerized root was needed (Fig. 1). The addition of the physical sign for the conductor was the only slight modification for the plant’s description. This exercise shows how readily the existing classification system and their accompanying field guides can be adapted to environs in which natural-technical plants are a given.

Adapted and re-drawn “Garten-Bohne” (common bean plant, phaseolus vulgaris) with adjusted and translated description from Rothmaler - Exkursionsflora von Deutschland. Gefässpflanzen: Atlasband (1995[1959]:327)
Fig. 1 Adapted and re-drawn “Garten-Bohne” (common bean plant, Phaseolus vulgaris) with adjusted and translated description from Rothmaler – Exkursionsflora von Deutschland. Gefässpflanzen: Atlasband (1995[1959]:327). Image drawn by Marion Schulze, 2023

Posthuman collaboration: generating plants in virtual worlds (Aylin Y. Tschoepe)

Alongside a focus on organic-based natural-technical plants, this sub-project takes inspiration from scholars Rosi Braidotti (2013/2019)8 and Donna Haraway (1985/2016)9 when exploring self-generating virtual plants as posthuman companions. To avoid the trap of creating yet another entirely human made species in already anthropocentric virtual worlds, I collaborated with AI in designing virtual plants and will observe and support in subsequent steps how they interact and take space. Hereby, the AI-collaborator Runway needed to be trained through receiving visual and textual information.

Photos of moss that I took and selected were visual inspirations for the AI-collaborator (Fig. 2). Has this predetermined what kind of plants and natures could self-generate and flourish in virtual worlds? Possibly, but intentionally so. Technologies already have (hidden for many) biases, which needed to be counteracted by proposing moss: not the tamed, colored type that decorates toy train landscapes, but the type of moss that stubbornly persists in the cracks of manmade spaces, and grows on diverse hard and smooth surfaces, vertically and horizontally, from mountain to desert environments.  Moss is a micro-ecology in its own right, and a queer one at that: it defies standards of plant beauty (at least in a Western sense), and forms its own assemblages with flexible constellations. Most species of moss can survive in hostile habitats; even when dried out, they can revive simply through water. Inspired by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “ Gathering Moss,”10 I consider moss a space-making actor, which has much to teach about transitioning its knowledge and matter into virtual spaces – a plant intervention that begins to engender imaginaries of diverse landscapes and coexistence in virtual spaces.

As in any collaboration, there needs to be some kind of shared training – in this case, a machine learning phase to foster a common understanding of terms between AI and human. While this enabled the negotiation of aesthetic imaginaries, it also facilitated the process of a virtual plant following the same logic as its organic kin. With the first AI-created images, it became clear that training necessitated a transition from the visual bias of the AI’s developers and input givers to more diverse human perspectives, which, hopefully,  have been contributed in this encounter. The textual prompt “digital plant entanglements” was chosen so the AI did not take the moss apart, did not create a carpet-like aesthetic, and did not bring about landscapes with flowers and trees or add manmade structures (which textual information such as “moss,” “assemblages,” “ecologies”  and ”agencements” curiously did).

Closeup photo of moss
Fig. 2: Image of moss as micro-ecology from hills near Basel, Switzerland (photo taken by Aylin Y. Tschoepe 2023)
Image of moss as natural-technical plant in virtual worlds
Fig. 3: AI-human collaboration “digital plant entanglements”: image of moss as natural-technical plant in virtual worlds (image created by Aylin Y. Tschoepe and Runway; runwayml.com 2023)

The AI-human-generated image included here is one of many at the beginning of a mutual learning phase and a posthuman collaboration on plants in virtual worlds. This example shows a human preference – or, possibly, an AI-human compromise – when it comes to imagining plants that exist and act in virtual worlds (Fig 3). The endeavor for posthuman collaboration with AI-technologies has shown that it is crucial to reflect critically on the role of the human collaborators/archivists/botanists when it comes to distribution of agency and the process of (machine) learning. This regards not only natural-technical plants, but also, more generally, plants in their diverse forms and textures.

Toward a near-future herbarium

Connecting considerations and observations from the field guide and posthuman collaboration, we are left with further questions for steps toward a near-future herbarium:How do obligations for creating herbaria shift for natural-technical plants in comparison to organic plants? How might these obligations differ or not for the various species of natural-technical plants such as organic-based or virtual natural-technical plants? More fundamentally, can we still speak of organic plants at all,  considering the general uptake of microplastics by current plants or the increase of plants raised for aquaponic and vertical farming? Have plants ever been organic? As we continue to explore possibilities for a near-future herbarium, we begin to understand how natural-technical plants might also invite more transparency when it comes to the distributions of agency in these processes and more attunement towards questions of multi-authorship, authority, ownership, care, and ethics.


1 We understand digital natures along the lines of Nelson, Hawkins et al. who define them as technologies that mediate socio-ecological relationships, often in the form of monitoring and conservation; see: Ingrid L. Nelson, Roberta Hawkins, and Leah Govia, “Feminist digital natures,” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space (2022): 25148486221123136.

2 See Donna Haraway, Modest Witness Second Millennium. FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. (New York: Routledge, 1997) and Donna Haraway, Modest Witness Second Millennium. FemaleMan Meets OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience. (New York: Routledge, 1997).

3 Daniela Parker, Yohann Daguerre, Gwennaël Dufil, Daniele Mantione, Eduardo Solano, Eric Cloutet, Georges Hadziioannou et al. “Biohybrid plants with electronic roots via in vivo polymerization of conjugated oligomers.” Materials Horizons 8, no. 12 (2021), 3295

4 Ibid; see also Gwennaël Dufil, Iwona Bernacka-Wojcik, Adam Armada-Moreira, and Eleni Stavrinidou. “Plant bioelectronics and biohybrids: the growing contribution of organic electronic and carbon-based materials.” Chemical Reviews 122, no. 4 (2021): 4847-4883.

5 This is a reference to Emanuele Coccia’s introduction to Jean-Henri Fabre’s work. See Jean-Henri Fabre, Respiration des plantes (Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 2022), 10.

6 Quentin Hiernaux, “History and epistemology of plant behaviour: a pluralistic view?.” Synthese 198, no. 4 (2021): 3625-3650.

7 Eckehart J. Jäger, Frank Müller, et al. (eds.), Rothmaler – Exkursionsflora von Deutschland
Gefäßpflanzen Atlasband
. (Berlin: Springer Spektrum, 2017).

8 See Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Hoboken, NJ: Polity, 2013) and Rosi Braidotti, Posthuman Knowledge (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019)

9 See Donna Haraway, “Manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology, and socialist feminism in the 1980s, ” Socialist Review, no. 80 (1985): 65–108 and Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble. Experimental Futures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016)

10 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering moss : a natural and cultural history of mosses (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003)

Feature Image: AI-human collaboration “digital plant entanglements”: image of moss as natural-technical plant in virtual worlds (image created by Aylin Y. Tschoepe and Runway)
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Marion Schulze holds a tenure-track assistant professorship in Gender Studies and Cultural Anthropology and co-chairs the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Basel. Trained in Arts, English and Sociology, her research and teaching activities center around gender theories, ecologies of knowledge as well as more-than-human collectives. //// Aylin Yildirim Tschoepe is professor at the Institute for Contemporary Design Practices at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts NW Switzerland. Aylin connects Anthropology, Architecture, Urban Studies, and Gender Studies in inquiry-based courses and feminist spatial research and focuses on body-spatial entanglements, urban activism, and coexistence in more-than-humxn future lifeworlds.

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