Couch potatoes: New York plants go to the movies

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The Independent Culture

From "Avatar" to "Lord of the Rings" plants are no strangers to playing big movie roles, but no one's ever shot a film the plants themselves can watch. Until now.

In a New York art gallery, seven house plants have spent the last seven weeks watching "Strange Skies," probably the first travel documentary for a vegetable audience.

The movie by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats consists of idyllic Italian skies recorded over a two-month period and condensed into a six-minute dawn-to-dawn span.

Sitting attentively in cinema-like rows - a majesty palm partially blocking the view of rubber plants behind - the potted audience basks in an electric version of Italian sunshine.

Keats - who previously used footage of bees pollinating flowers to make pornography for plants - says an aspiring film maker can't compete with the likes of "Avatar" director James Cameron.

"But then I realized there's a much larger audience - there are many more plants than people - that were not being serviced," he said. "I wanted basically to provide plants with what companies such as Disney or MGM provide humans."

In the film, projected onto a fluttering white cloth, clear dawn gives way to high cirrus, the occasional airplane trail, a fleeting cameo fly-by of a bird, then dusk.

At night, beams from a romantic quarter moon hit the trunk of one of the ficus trees.

The movie has no sound and the plants, of course, do not applaud. Other than an alarming loss of leaves among the ficuses there is no discernible reaction.

But Stephen Squibb, a fellow at the AC Institute, which hosted the installation in a Chelsea gallery, said these viewers are unusually riveted: photosynthesis, or the process of turning light into energy, means the movie keeps them alive.

"This is how they eat," Squibb said. The New York natives even get a taste of Italy. "They're literally changing their diet."

Keats sees lessons for visiting humans, who can survey the scene from two minimalist white benches.

"Clearly this is an imperfect representation of place and that's for me part of what the work deals with. How do we experience the world and how reliable is it?" he asked. "So much of the world we get on screens. By watching the plants watching the sky there's something a bit sad and sordid."

One visitor, artist Rob Tarbell, enjoyed seeing plants center stage.

"It's good to see a respectful inclusion of something live, capitalizing on what they benefit from rather than having any aspect of cruelty or a freak show," Tarbell said.

Another visitor, photographer Abbas Ebrahimi, also expressed admiration for the green audience. "Plants are better than us. We die and go, while in spring they come back each time."

But after contemplating the installation for a few minutes, he declared: "It doesn't mean anything to me at all. It's just trees and light."

"For some people it might mean something. Maybe if they smoke grass," he allowed.

Keats, currently doing a residency at upstate New York's Yaddo artist colony, is intent on furthering his exploration of plant sensibilities. He plans a "restaurant for plants" at a California museum.

Before that he's turning to another overlooked population - bacteria.

He hopes to create educational textbooks teaching general relativity and quantum mechanics to the micro organisms in "easy-to-digest doses of amino acid and glucose."

"I figure these books should be beneficial to both microbes and humans: by providing bacteria with a good education, we'll be able to improve their quality of life, and to discourage them from becoming pathogens."

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