A Garden of Peculiarities
By Tessa Laird
Joyce Campbell’s L.A. Botanical is a series of portraits. It is a poisoner’s handbook, a herbalist’s cure-all, a shaman’s bundle, a gardener’s guide, a botanist’s field manual[i], an artist’s scrapbook.
L.A. Botanical is, specifically, a series of ambrotypes, an early form of photography, invented in 1850, the same year that the City of Los Angeles was incorporated as a municipality. At the time, the population comprised a mere 1,610 hardy souls. The population explosion of the following 150 years into the Los Angeles we know today resembles (from an imaginary aerial vantage point) an algal bloom, or bacterial inflorescence[ii] – the visible record of a natural imbalance
Ambrotypes are negative images on glass plates which, when shown against a black backdrop, appear to be positive. The name comes from the Greek ambrotos, “immortal”, a rather poetic way of evoking the power of photography to fix forever the fragile moment. Plants, particularly flowers, have long been the favorite metaphor of poets, painters, and now photographers for the passage of time – they are our most consistent reminder of mortality, and yet our most frequent solace at times of bereavement.
Though the ambrotype predates early moving pictures, Campbell’s use of antique photography can’t help but remind viewers of its sister medium, film, and the attendant connection with Los Angeles as a national and global “dream factory” (or, indeed, that these technologies played their part in swelling the population of the fledgling city). Campbell’s humble backyard blooms become, in L.A. Botanical, stars. The silver nitrate of the photographic process is linked, chemically and etymologically, to the silver screens onto which early films were projected. Campbell’s botanical “immortals” have been bequeathed eternal “limelight” (another chemical process which, due to its use in theatrical lighting, is forever associated with fame).
Campbell’s ambrotypes are also ghostly (Haunted Hollywood?), a reminder of the early spiritualist nature of photography, in which an occult-hungry public happily believed in photographic truth twisting. This willingness to be duped and a desire for belief relates to the state of mind of rootless masses, living in newly industrialised centres. For the urban expansion of a metropolis like Los Angeles meant a concurrent loss of lifeways, be they social and religious structures, or practical knowledge of folk medicine and subsistence agriculture.
Campbell’s insistent use of antiquated technology leads us to recall, not only the birth of Los Angeles, now infamous for its global status as a “dysfunctional city”, but the burgeoning of philosophies critiquing the very social systems that made such dysfunction inevitable. In the 1840s, the young Karl Marx was developing his theory of alienation as a result of capitalism. The abstraction of commodities into fetishes and the reification of labour undermined traditional social relations, not to mention human relationships with the landscape. The industrial revolution ruptured forever humanity’s holistic, cyclic relationships with the natural world. But while Marx’s theories seeded revolutions in Europe and Asia, Los Angeles, with its history of union-busting and McCarthyist witch-hunts, has grown ever more unwieldy. Alienation is a literal status for many of the “illegal” residents of this city – they remain an “invisible” labour force without which Los Angeles would grind to a halt.
People came to this city from all regions of the globe, and the plants they brought with them reflect this multicultural diversity. Campbell’s floregium combines the indigenous with the exotic, tracing the migratory routes of various communities. The botanical diversity expressed by Campbell’s photographs is a testimony to the stubbornness of human desire in the face of natural deterrents. Los Angeles is a semi-arid desert, which has been made superficially lush with the massive, artificial influx of water and labour, both of which have involved considerable levels of corruption (the politics behind the diversion of water from Owens Valley was immortalised in Polanski’s classic film Chinatown). Any sustained attempt at gardening in L.A. requires a significant investment in topsoil and sprinkler systems. Unlike the rainy, temperate country Campbell grew up in, rich in alluvial soil, L.A. gardens do not flourish untended. The awareness that life in this grandiose city hangs in a rather precarious balance, and that under the tendrils of convolvulus and nasturtium lie vast tracts of dry, restless sands, brings to mind Baudrillard’s “desert of the real”.[iii] It also brings to mind the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which were supposedly constructed by Nebuchadnezzar II in what is today contemporary Iraq. The introduction of a lush garden into a desert environment was for the benefit of the King’s exotic courtesan, homesick for greener climes. Los Angeles’ constructed gardens are built for similar reasons, as virtually everyone in the city is a migrant to some degree.[iv]
But Los Angeles has also been a centre for agriculture, and one of its neighbouring cities bears the name of agricultural wizard Luther Burbank, who bred a startling array of fruits and vegetables, including a plum which supposedly tastes like a pineapple, with the arresting name “Climax.” Burbank worked intuitively, breeding a potato that takes his name, from the seed head rather than the tuber. The result was a large, creamy-white potato that has dominated the US market ever since, and made the rapid spread of fast-food chains possible, being the perfect shape for cutting into French fries.[v] Though Burbank himself saw plants as individuals, understanding the “peculiarity” in each, his skills with the plant world were coopted by the drive for standardisation and monoculture that so threatens biodiversity in the USA, and globally, today.
Jesús Sepúlveda puts it succinctly in his manifesto for greener living, The Garden of Peculiarities: “In the fifteenth century, Europeans knew only seventeen varieties of edible vegetables, while in the fourth century, the Hohokam – inhabitants of the region now encompassed by New Mexico, cultivated around two hundred varieties of vegetables. In South America, the Incas designed a system of terrace cultivation that extended the length of the Andes and took advantage of local microclimates and varying humus qualities, harvesting something like six hundred different varieties of potatoes. This proves that horticulture has nothing to do with the standardising drive of civilisation.”[vi]
Sepúlveda’s title is a metaphor – a garden can be a planet or a neighbourhood. Peculiarity is his term for individuality or uniqueness, a quality that must be preserved at all costs in the face of the alienation and standardisation that have become the mainstay of industrial living. A brilliant communal riposte to the concrete jungle of Los Angeles was the South Central Farm, perhaps the largest urban farm in the US, until its recent bulldozing by developers in 2006. The cooperative farm, which fed hundreds of local families, was seeded with the same desire as Campbell’s L.A. Botanical – that an understanding of and cooperation with plants within our urban spaces is essential for survival. The South Central Farm and Campbell’s photographs both exist in opposition
to what Sepúlveda calls the “bourgeois garden” whose objective is luxury. Campbell illustrates that not only is the plant kingdom a comestible cornucopia, but a pharmacopeia that can sustain or kill us. But while pharmaceutical companies make a killing from the chemical compounds that grow in our yards and empty lots, the ancestral knowledge that held the key to the extraction of these free medicines is all but lost.
Campbell’s herbarium is a call to take up gardening tools. If an armed revolution is likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence, then perhaps we need a green revolution instead. Sepúlveda again: “The garden of peculiarities deterritorializes and topples hierarchies. That is its nature. It allows the garden to grow, organically, under the concept of mutual recognition between the gardener and garden. It doesn’t try to control the landscape by making it uniform. On the contrary, the point is learning to live with nature and in the midst of nature, orienting the human effect more toward aesthetic practice than standardisation. Such a lesson starts by recognising the otherness of nature as our own otherness. Only in this way is it possible to dissipate the ego among the ever-growing foliage in search of shelter rather than conquest.”[vii]
Over the last few years artists and writers have realised that technological interconnectivity needs to be accompanied by an awareness of the pre-existing interconnectivity of the plant world. Artist and writer Frances Stark extolled the virtues of The Secret Life of Plants, a cult book in the 1970s postulating that plants think, feel, and communicate, in Artext magazine. New York’s Cabinet magazine showcasing contemporary art devoted an entire issue to Horticulture (subsequent issues featured Pharmacopeia and Fruits). Artlink Australia published an Ecology issue, while artists everywhere are making work that either utilises directly, or references the world of plants – such as the sprawling gardenLAB experiment, produced by Fritz Haeg and Francois Perrin here in Los Angeles. Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire suggests that humans are actually controlled by the plant world, or rather, by our desires, which the plant world cleverly caters to. Los Angeles-based author Mark von Schlegell wrote a science fiction novel Venusia in which society is placated with a daily dose of hallucinogenic flowers – and it turns out the whole novel is actually penned by a potplant. The list of green protagonists is as endless as the variety, or peculiarity, found in nature itself, perhaps heralding the emergence of what psychedelics guru Terrence McKenna called the “vegetable mind.”
But Campbell does not intend L.A. Botanical to be a feel-good selection of pretty flowers. These photographs constitute a reminder of the sublime power of plants to sustain or kill, and an exhortation to understand that which will enable our continued existence on this planet. As McKenna put it in his manifesto for survival into the 21st Century and beyond, “Plan/Plant/Planet”, “Our choice as a planetary culture is a simple one: go Green or die.”[viii]
[i] City Terrace Field Manual is the title of a book of poems by East Los Angeles poet Sesshu Foster (Kaya Press, 1996). It captures the violent bleakness of urban living, occasionally relieved by a burst of green. Large avocado trees are an important signifier for the length of time this area has been populated by Mexican migrants – trees become a trace of human trajectories.
[ii] Campbell’s earlier projects have included the mapping of Los Angeles via its bacterial traces – taking swabs from plant surfaces and soil samples in each of L.A.’s districts, then allowing the microbes to flourish in Petri dishes. The final product is an array of contact-printed photograms of abstract clusters of dots, whorls and blooms – the microscopic life of a megalopolis.
[iii] From Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, 1994 via The Matrix film trilogy, and now Slavoj Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates, Verso, 2002.
[iv] The original inhabitants of Southern California, their plants and their lifeways, leave barely a trace on the surface of Los Angeles. The classic text of indigenous genocide in the United States, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, makes this poignant observation about the natives of Southern California: “No one remembers the Chilulas, Chimarikos, Urebures, Nipewais, Alonas, or a hundred other bands whose bones have been sealed under a million miles of freeways, parking lots, and slabs of tract housing.” (Dee Alexander Brown, Bury my heart at Wounded Knee : an Indian history of the American West, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1971, p220)
[v] For more on the political ramifications of potatoes, see Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire: A plant’s eye view of the world, Random House, 2002. He gives corn the same treatment in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A natural history of four meals, Penguin Press, 2006.
[vi] Sepúlveda, The Garden of Peculiarities, Feral House, Los Angeles, 2005, pp. 136-137
[vii] Ibid, pp. 118-119
[viii] McKenna, The Archaic Revival, Harper Collins, San Fransisco, 1991, p 225. This essay was originally printed in the Fall 1989 edition of The Whole Earth Review, an issue dedicated to “the alien intelligence of plants.”