So-called Plants

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So-called Plants

Jara Rocha, Femke Snelting

Spray installations enhanced with fruit recognition applications, targeting toxic load away from precious mangoes;[1] software tools for virtual landscape design economizing the distribution of wet and dry surfaces;[2] algorithmic vegetation modeling in gaming which renders lush vegetation on the fly;[3] irrigation planning by agro-engineering agencies, diminishing water supplies to the absolute minimum;[4] micro-CT renderings of root development in scientific laboratories:[5] all of these protocols and paradigms utilize high-end volumetric computation. Vegetation data processing techniques make up a natureculture continuum that increasingly defines the industrial topology applied to the existence of so-called plants. These techniques integrate 3D-scanning, -modeling, -tracking and -printing into optimized systems for dealing with “plants” as volume.

Thinking with the agency of cultural artifacts that capture and co-compose 3D polygon, point-cloud and other techniques for volumetric calculation, we brought together over a hundred items in The Possible Bodies Inventory.[6] For this chapter, we selected several “computational ecologies of practice” that allow us to “feel the borders” of how so-called plants are being made present.[7] We write “so-called plants” because we want to problematize the limitations of the ontological figure of “plant”, and the isolation it implies. This is a way to question the various methods that biology, computer science, 3D-modeling or border management put to work to create finite, specified and discrete entities which represent the characteristics of whole species, erasing the nuances of very particular beings. We are wondering about the way in which computational renderings of so-called plants reconfirm the figure-background reversals which Andrea Ballestero discusses in her study of the socio-environmental behavior of aquifers. This flipping between figures and their ground not only happens because of the default computational gestures of separation and segmentation, but also through cycles of flourishing, growing, pollinating, and nurturing of “plants” that appear animated while being technically suspended in time. Such reversals and fixities are the result of a naturalization process that managed to determine “plants” as clearly demarcated individuals or entities, arranged into landscapes along which their modes of existence develop under predictable and therefore controllable conditions. It is this production-oriented mode that 3D volumetrics seem to reproduce.

The Possible Bodies Inventory is itself undeniably part of a persistently colonial and productivist practice. The culture of the inventory is rooted in the material origins of mercantilism and deeply intertwined with the contemporary data-base-based cosmology[8] of techno-colonialist turbo-capitalism.[9] Inventorying is about a logi(sti)cs of continuous updates and keeping items available, potentially going beyond pre-designed ways of doing and being as proposed by the mono-cultures of what we refer to as “totalitarian innovation”, and what Donna Haraway calls “informatics of domination”.[10] Inventories operate in line with other Modern devices for numbering, modeling and calculating so-called plants: herbaria, which function as a physical re-collection of concrete plant specimens; genetic notebooks, which trace lines around and between individuals; Latin nomenclatures, which produce and reproduce taxonomies of species within so-called families within so-called kingdoms; sketchbooks filled with naturalist drawings captured during explorations; and even botanic gardens that arrange lively exotic samples to be experienced in the overseas environments of the metropolis. An inventory can be understood as a workspace arranged for constant managerial return, and — in contrast with a collection or an archive — they allow easy access to items for re-ordering, removal or replacement. Just like almanacs used in observatories or taxonomies at museums, inventories play a role in the becoming of computational herbaria as contemporary apparatuses for the production of knowledge, capital and order.

Possible Bodies attends obliquely to the power relations embedded within inventories, because it provides a possibility to open up methods for disobedient action-research. Following trans*feminist techno-sciences driven by intersectional curiosity and politics, the inventory attempts to unfold the possibilities of this Modern apparatus for probable designation and occupation. Disobedient action-research implies radical un-calibration from concrete types of knowledge and proposes a playful, unorthodox and “inventive” inhabiting of many disciplines, of learning, unlearning and relearning on the go. It also plots ways to actively intervene on the field of study and interlocutes with its communities of concern and their praxis of care. In this chapter, we try to relate to the cracks in the supposedly seamless apparatus of 3D. Curious about the post-exotic[11] rearrangement of methods, techniques and processes that follow the industrial continuum of 3D,[12] we selected various inventory items of vegetal volumetrics to consider the promising misuses of Modern apparatuses, and technical counter-politics as an active matter of care.[13] This text tries to provide with a trans*feminist mode of understanding and engaging with so-called plants not as individual units, but as vegetal forms of computationally implicated existence.

Vegetal volumetrics

The following two items pay attention to processes of vigilant standardization as a result of collapsing the one with the many. They each apply a disobedient volumetrics to resist naturalizing representation as evidence of a universal truth. The items want to cultivate the ability for response-ability[14] within computational presentations of the vegetal. Instead of the probable confirmation of hyperproductive 3D-computation, these items root for a widening of the possible and other computational ways of rendering, modeling, tracking and capturing so-called plants.


Item 102: Grassroot rotation

Author(s) of the item: Stefan Mairhofer
Entry date: 2 July 2018
Cluster(s) the item belongs to: Segmentation
Image: Segmentation of a tomato root from clay loam using RooTrak[15]

En nuestros jardines se preparan bosques (“In Our Gardens, Forests Are Being Prepared”) is a thick para-academic publication on political potential by Rafael Sánchez-Mateos Paniagua, alluding to the force of potentiality that is specific to vegetal surfaces, entities and co-habituating species, which turns them into powerful carriers of political value.[16] Other than productive and extractive, they are informative of the inner functionings, inter-dependencies and convivial delicacies with so-called plants.

Item 102: Grassroot rotation is a poetic rendering of demo-videos that accompany a manual for RooTrak, a software-suite for the automated recovery of three-dimensional plant root architecture from X-Ray micro-computed tomography images. The images we see rotating before us, are the result of a layered process of manual and digital production, starting with separating a grass “plant” from it’s connected, rhizomatic neighbors and in that sense, it is a computationally gardened object. The “plant” is grown in a small, cylindrical container filled with extracted soil before being placed in a micro-CT installation and exposed to X-rays. The resulting data is then calibrated and rendered as a 3D image, where sophisticated software processes are used to demarcate the border between soil and “plant”, coloring those vessels that count as root in blood red. The soil fades out in the background.

In collaboration with RooTrak, the software package responsible for these images, X-ray microcomputed tomography (μCT) promise access to the living structure through “a nondestructive imaging technique that can visualize the internal structure of opaque objects.”[17] But these quantified roots are neither growing nor changing. They rotate endlessly in a loop of frozen or virtual time, which can be counted and at the same time not. The virtualized roots pass through time while the computed loop goes on smoothly... but time does not pass at all. The roots are animated as if lively, but simultaneously stopped in time. Speed and direction are kept constant and stable, providing with an illusion of permanence and durability that directly links this re-presentational practice to the presentational practice of cabinets, jars and frames. The use of animation has been persistent in the scientific study of life, as a pragmatic take on “giving life” or technically re-animate life-forms. After first having claimed the ability to own and reproduce life by determining what differentiates it from non-life, all of this is done in an efficient manner, combining positivist science with the optimization mandate of the industrialized world. But how does the 3D animation complex apparatus do the trick of determining life and non-life? While RooTrak prefers to contrast its particular combination of CT-imaging and 3D-rendering with invasive techniques such as root-washing or growing roots in transparent agar, to us this grassroot rotation seems closer to the practice of fixing, embalming and displaying species in formaldehyde.

The tension between animism and animation can be studied from the dimension of time and its specific technocultural maneuvers present in Item 102. It helps us see how computed representations of the animated vegetable kingdom continue to contribute to the establishment of hierarchies in living matter. What are the consequences of using techniques that isolate entities, which need complex networks for their basic existence? What is kept untold if different temporalities are collapsed into smooth representations of specimens, as if all happened simultaneously?


Item 033: This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom

Author(s) of the item: Pascale Barret
Year: 2017
Entry date: March 2017
Image: 3D print by Pascale Barret[18]

Item 033 features a work by Brussels-based artist Pascale Barret.[19] A 3D object is printed from a volumetric scan of a flowering bush with an amateur optical scanner. The object has nothing and everything to do with so-called plants, because the low-res camera never went through a machinic training process to distinguish or separate leaves. The software processing the data-points then algorithmically renders the vegetation with an invented outside membrane, a kind of outer petal or connective tissue that is sneaked into the modeling stage and finally materialized by the printing device. This invention might look hallucinatory to the eyes of a trained botanist, but for us it is a reminder of the need to re-attune digital tools in a non-anthropocentric manner. Pascale printed the volumetric file at the maximum scale of the 3D printer she had available, breaking the promise of the 1:1 relationship between scanned object and its representation. Because she did not remove the scaffolding that upheld the soft plastic threads during the printing process, these now “useless” elements flourish as twigs once the object had solidified. The item talks to us about a complex switching of agencies. In the first place, the vegetal groupings in This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom are formed by the surfaces that the algorithm computes in-between leaves caught by the scanner, trying to connect their wild in-betweens. The leaves defy linear, isolating and rigid capture by taking on the too obedient mathematics that tries to encapsulate each gap and jump. Their surfaces and their positionality invite the computation of a continuous topological surface, based on straight mathematical axioms and postulates. What interests us here is that the axioms nested in the operations of 3D optics and scanning, are stretched towards a beyond-realistic materialization. This switching of agencies is operating according to a logic that simultaneously defies the realistic establishment of a topological space, while creating a manifold that looks Euclidean. “Plants” become computable, accountable, nameable, determined, and discrete without giving in to the promise of mimesis.[20]

In the way “plants” have been historically described, there is an ongoing attempt to fix the zones where they actually can be, become and belong. But looking closely, we can easily identify paranodal spaces in-between the vegetal and other forms of existence, gaps or porous membranes which exist beyond the positive space of nodes and links. These can be seen as void and sterile spaces in-between known entities, but they can also be taken as wide open, inhabitable areas; places to be in-relation that are non-neutral and also not innocent at all: connecting surfaces that provide with the blurring travel from one isolated unit of life onto another, in specific ways. Holes, gaps or even chasms are zones of the world in and for themselves.[21] Mel Y. Chen’s work on interporousness tries to come to terms with the way interspecies interabsorbence is prefigured by more-than-human power relations. “The couch and I are interabsorbent, interporous, and not only because the couch is made of mammalian skin. These are intimacies that are often ephemeral, and they are lively; and I wonder whether or how much they are really made of habit.”[22] Their work shows how the attempt to separate, segment, identify and onto-epistemologically demarcates sharp edges between the mammalian, vegetal and human modes of existence. It must be considered as a damage due to the persistent cutting apart of dense and complex relational worlds that as a result, do not show cracks and paranodal spaces as inhabitable anymore. How those damaging representations infuse the contemporary computational take on “plants”, is a direct consequence of Modern technosciences and their utilitarian, exploitative foundations, based on the fungibility of some matters and the extraction of others. But if we think of seeds blown by the wind, roots merged with minerals or branches grabbing the whole world around them... formerly disposable cracks and gaps also have lively potential for ongoingness, as areas for circulating matters. From useless to blossoming, from separating borders to articulated and activated cracks, we need a persistent flipping of agencies, ongoing “circluding” moves that are difficult, but not impossible to uphold in computed spaces.[23]

Systemic vegetation

In her work on the involution of plants and people, Natasha Myers invites us to consider renaming the Anthropocene into Planthroposcene as it “offers a way to story the ongoing, improvised, experimental encounters that take shape when beings as different as plants and people involve themselves in one another’s lives.”[24] With her proposition in mind, we now move upwards and sideways from the topological attention to surfaces of vegetal specimens, and the way they are cut together and apart by naturalized modes of (re)presentation, to the quantification and tracking of wide and thick surfaces. From Planthroposcene to Plantationcene, this section pays attention to a set of volumetric operations for predicting, optimizing and scaling full areas arranged as gardens, forests, landscapes or plantations in which so-called plants are made part of a system of intensive worlding, not free from similar options of measurement, control and scrutiny.[25]


Item 117: FOLDOUT

Year: 2018-2022
Author(s) of the item: HORIZON 2020
Entry date: 15 July 2020
Image: “Terrestial scenario (Ground dataset), classification based on radiance: (a) Raw hyperspectral input frame. (b) Corresponding RGB frame. (c,d) Classification without and with spectral overlap suppression, respectively. White: Classified as positive sample. Black: Classified as negative sample.”[26] 

Item 117 references FOLDOUT, a five year collaboration between various research departments across Europe on border control in forest areas. FOLDOUT aims to “develop, test and demonstrate a solution to locate people and vehicles under foliage over large areas.”[27] Dense vegetation at the outer borders of the EU is perceived as a “detection barrier” in need to be crossed by surveillance technology. The project received 8,199,387.75 € funding through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 scheme and its central approach is to integrate short- (ground based), medium- (drones), long- (airplane) and very long-range (satellite) sensor techniques to track “obscure targets” that are committing “foliage penetration”. FOLDOUT says to integrate information captured by Synthetic-Aperture Radar (SAR), Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR), Laser imaging, Detection, and Ranging (LiDAR) with Low Earth Orbit satellites (LEO) into command, control and planning tools that would ensure an effective and efficient EU border management.[28]

To detect “foliage penetration”, FOLDOUT relies among others on “foliage detection”, a technique now also widely used for crop optimization. In agricultural yield estimation or the precision application of pesticides for example, hyperspectral imaging and machine learning techniques are combined to localize leaves and tell them apart from similar shapes such as green apples or grapes. Hyperspectral imaging scans for spectral signatures of specific materials, assuming that any given object should have a unique spectral signature in at least a few of the many bands that are scanned. It is an area of intense research as it is being used for the detection, tracking and telling apart of vehicles, land mines, wires, fruit, gold, pipes and people.[29]

FOLDOUT is a telling example of the way “fortress Europe” shifts humongous amounts of capital towards the entanglement of tech companies with scientific research, in order to develop the shared capacity to detect obscurity at its woody barriers.[30] By sophisticating techniques for optimized exclusion, negation and expulsion, Europe invests in upgrading the racist colonial attitude of murderous nation states. How to distinguish one obscureness from another seems a banal issue, seen from the perspective of contemporary computation, but it is deeply damaging in the way it allows for the implementation of remote sensing techniques at various distances, gradually depleting the world of all possibility for engagement, interporousness and lively potential. In the automation of separation (of flesh from trunk, of hair from leaves, of fugitive from a windshaken tree) we can detect a straightforward systematization of institutional violence.

Apples are red,leaves are green,branches are brown,sky is blueand the ground is yellow.Apples are red,leaves are green,branches are brown,sky is blueand the ground is yellow.Mangoes are red,leaves are blue,branches are green,sky is blackand the ground is yellow.Almonds are blue,leaves are red,branches are black,sky is blueand the ground is white.Mangoes are black,leaves are white,branches are yellow,sky is redand the ground is white.Fugitives are blue,branches are red,sky is yellow,leaves are blackand the ground is white.[31]


Item 118: Agrarian Units and Topological Zoning

Entry date: 15 July 2020
Cluster(s) the item belongs to: Segmentation
Inventor(s) for this item: Abelardo Gil-Fournier
Image: Agribotix™ FarmLens™ Image Processing and Analytics Solution, viewed on WinField’s Answer Tech® Portal[32]

Item number 118 features the research and practice of Abelardo Gil-Fournier, and with him we learn how agriculture is volumetric. He quotes Geoffrey Winthrop-Young to highlight how elemental “agriculture [...] is initially not a matter of sowing and reaping, planting and harvesting, but of mapping and zoning, of determining a piece of arable land to be cordoned off by a boundary that will give rise to the distinction between the cultivated land and its natural other”.[33] Gil-Fournier continues:

However, this initial two-dimensional demarcation gives rise to a practice that can be further understood when the many vertical layers that exist simultaneously above and below the ground start to be considered. From the interaction of synthetic nutrients in the soil with the roots of the plants, to the influence of weather or the effect of both human and machinic labor, agriculture appears as a volumetric activity.[34]

The inclusion of such massive vertical management of soil with the aim of fertilizing it, reorients agriculture from an engagement with surface to the affections of scaling up-and-down the field. To explain the way soil matter is turned into a “legible domain”, Gil-Fournier takes as a case study the Spanish “inner colonization” that organized land and landscapes for plantation and irrigation. Through those studies, it is made materially explicit how the irrigation zones configure a network-like shape of polygonal meshes that distribute and systematize the territory for a sophisticated exploitation of its vegetal potentials. In Francoist Spain, under a totalitarian regime of autocracy, inner colonization was the infrastructural bet which provided the nationalist project with all needed resources from within, as well as with a confident step into the developmentist culture of wider Western, Modern economies. Gil-Fournier’s work facilitates a departure point for a study of the legacies carried by contemporary hypercomputational applications that are currently being tested to, for example, analyze the seasonal evolution of gigantic agro-operations or to detect the speed by which desertification reveals the diminishing of so-called green areas.[35]

Recent space imaging developments have given rise to a spread of commercial services based on the temporal dimensions of satellite imagery. Marketed under umbrella terms such as environmental intelligence, real-time Earth observation or orbital insight, these imaging projects deliver the surface of the planet as an image flow encoded into video streams, where change and variation become a commodified resource on the one hand, as well as a visual spectacle on the other.”[36]

The structural connection between volumetrics and soil observation unfolds when soil itself is treated as a segmentable and computable surface for purposes as different as climate change monitoring, new resource location or crop growth analysis and maintenance. The big-scale top-to-bottom agro-optimization of vegetal surfaces by hyperproductive means, urges us to consider the Plantationcene:

Plantation as a transformational moment in human and natural history on a global scale that is at the same time attentive to structures of power embedded in imperial and capitalist formations, the erasure of certain forms of life and relationships in such formations, and the enduring layers of history and legacies of plantation capitalism that persist, manifested in acts of racialized violence, growing land alienation, and accelerated species loss.[37]

The “enduring layers of history and legacies of plantation capitalism” can be read in the hyper-quantified vegetation praxis that we observed, a continuous flow of similar logics and logistics that forms what we elsewhere termed “The Industrial Continuum of 3D”.[38] Scaling up and moving sideways, the Plantationcene joins the Planthroposcene to tell stories of how the systematization of vegetation happens partially through a set of volumetric operations, for the sake of vegetal extraction and intensive multi-planar exploitation. Such ongoing surveillance of growth continues to produce and reproduce systemic oppressions, and asks us to stay attentive to and eventually twist the flattening monocultures that 3D tools and devices engender.

Lively math

In the first two sections, we discussed the paradigm of “capturing” by scanning plants, and the politics of vegetal topology. Now we would like to turn to the particular technocultural conflation of “beauty”, “scientific accuracy” and “purpose” that is intensified in the modeling of 3D vegetals. We insist that this type of conflation is cultural, because it explicitly depends on a classic canon that turns only certain equilibriums and techniques into paradigmatic ones. This section tries to get a handle on the many levels of aesthetic and semiotic manipulation going on in the “push and pull” between botany and computation. It is written from an uncalibrated resistance to the violence inherent in this alliance, and the probable constraints that computation inflicts on the vegetal and vice versa.


Item 119: IvyGen

Author(s) of the item: Thomas Luft
Year: 2008
Entry date: 18 September 2020
Image: IvyGen, screenshot[39]

Item 119 is called IvyGen, after a small software tool developed in 2007 by a now retired computer graphics professor, Thomas Luft. Luft was looking for a “sample scene” for his work on digitally emulated watercolor renderings: “I was thinking of something complex, filled with vegetation — like trees overgrown with ivy. Fortunately I was able to implement a procedural system so that the ivy would grow by itself. The result is a small tool allowing a virtual ivy to grow in your 3d world.” 10 years later, we find Luft’s rudimentary code back as the Ivy Generator add-on which can be installed into Blender, a free and open-source 3D computer graphics software suite. The manual for IvyGen add-on reads as follows:

1. Select the object you want to grow ivy on.

2. Enter Edit Mode and select a vertex that you want the ivy to spawn from.

3. Snap the cursor to the selected vertex.

4. Enter Object Mode and with the object selected: Sidebar ‣ Create ‣ Ivy Generator panel adjust settings and choose Add New Ivy.[40]

The smooth blending of computational affordances with natural likeness that was already present in Luft’s original statement (promising “ivy that would grow by itself” in “your 3d world”)[41] is further naturalized in these simplified instructions. The slippage might possibly seem banal because computational vocabulary already naturalizes vegetal terms such as tree, root, branching, seeds and so on to such an extent that the phrase “Select the object you want to grow ivy on” at first causes no alarm. It is common in modeling environments to blend descriptions of so-called bodies with those of their fleshy counterparts. This normalized dysphoria is considered a short-cut without harm, a blurring of worlds that does not signal any real confusion or doubt of what belongs to what. The use of “plant” when “so-called plant” would be more accurate, effectuates a double-sided holding in place, that ignores the worlding power of modeling so-called ivy in computation, and removes the possibility for these ivies to make a difference.

Non-computational ivy is a clear example of symbiogenesis,[42] meaning that it is materially, structurally and behaviorally always-already implicated in co-dependence with other structures, vegetal or not, straight or crooked, queer or dead. But the vegetal modeling in IvyGen takes another route. So-called plants are drawn from one single starting point that then is modulated according to different computed forces. Parameters allow users to modulate its primary direction of expansion (the weighted average of previous expansion directions), add a random influence, simulate an adhesion force towards other objects, add an up-vector imitating the phototropy of so-called plants, and finally simulate gravity. The desire and confidence by which this procedural system makes Ivy “grow” itself, is not innocent. Technically, Ivy Gen implements a Fibonacci sequence complexified by external forces that act as “deviators”, and variation is the result of a numerical randomization applied after-the-fact. The Fibonacci sequence is a string of numbers that describes a spiral that mathematician Fibonacci coined as “golden proportions”, and similar ratios can allegedly be found in biological settings such as: tree branching, the fruit sprouts of a pineapple, the flowering of an artichoke, an uncurling fern, and the arrangement of a pine cone’s bracts. It became a pet project for nature lovers, math enthusiasts and 3D-modellers who create an ongoing stream of more or less convincing computer programs and visualizations celebrating algorithmic botany or computational phyllotaxy, the botanical science of leaf arrangements on plant stems. The Fibonacci sequence is a mathematical construct that has just the right combination of scientific street cred, spiritual promise and eloquent number wizardry to convincingly bring patterns in “nature” in direct relation to math and computation, confirming over and over again that aesthetics and symmetry are synonymous and that simple rules can have complex consequences. The obsession with computed leaf patterns reinforces the idea that dynamic systems are beautiful and predictable. In turn, these programs confirm how spiraling “plant” patterns are not just elegant, but that they are inevitable. They can be decoded like computer software, and in the process, computation becomes as stunning as nature itself.[43]

Like in many other modeling set-ups for simulating biological life, IvyGen aligns 3D computation with phyllotaxy without any reservations. It constructs so-called plants as autonomous individuals through “expansion patterns”, which are straight at the core. This is not surprising because the procedural conditionings of computation seem to make political fictions of life which provoke technocratic and scientific truths of so-called bodies, more easy to implement than others.[44] IvyGen re-asserts a non-symbiogenetic understanding of evolution and ecology where growth is a deformation of the symmetrical, a deviation after the fact. Queer angles can only arrive afterwards, and are always figured as disruption, however benign and supposedly in the interest of convincing realism. Luft clarifies that “the goal was not to provide a biological simulation of growing ivy but rather a simple approach to producing complex and convincing vegetation that adapts to an existing scene”.[45] The apparent modesty of the statement confirms that even if the goal has not been to simulate non-computational ivy, the procedural system is seen as a “simplified” approach to actual biological growth patterns, rather than an approach that conceptually and politically differs from it. The point is not to correct IvyGen to apply other procedures, but to signal that the lack of problematization around that rote normalization is deeply problematic in and of itself.


Item 120: Simulated dendrochronology for demographics?

Author(s) of the item: Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, Felipe Shibuya
Year: 2017-2018
Entry date: 18 September 2020
Image: Tailoring X-ray imaging techniques for dendrochronology of large wooden objects[46]

Dendrochronologist study climate and atmospheric conditions during different periods based on tree-ring growth in wood.[47] This particular scientific way to relate to life has to be individual-centered in order to make trees emerge in their ideal form. Dendrochronology is based on seeing a tree as a perfect circle, assigned to such individual. All variations along that specimen’s existence are just the result of modifications radiating outwards from the perfect mathematical zero point. Instead of departing from a complex environment full of forces interlaced in the midst of which a tree grows, dendrochronology reads the aberrations and deviations from the geometrical circle as exceptional interventions deforming its concentric expansion, and by doing so time and time again re-confirms and projects the idealized geometry as the desired centered and balanced life-pattern for a tree. This approach confirms the understanding of the plant’s growth as a predictable phenomenon (i.e. beautiful), which make it become a vector into the probable (i.e. extractive, exploitative ideology) and distances it from the surprise ontologies of the possible.

The project Simulated Dendrochronology of U.S. Immigration[48] takes dendrochronology as a visual reference to represent the development of US demographics by immigration as “natural growth”. “The United States can be envisioned as a tree, with shapes and growing patterns influenced by immigration. The nation, the tree, is hundreds of years old, and its cells are made out of immigrants. As time passes, the cells are deposited in decennial rings that capture waves of immigration.” The work by Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael and Felipe Shibuya two Kantar won a prestigious design prize[49] and seems to be generally read as a benevolent rendering of immigration as being “in the nature” of the United States. As some of their colleagues note, they make “immigration look positive, natural, and beneficial”.[50] But by visualizing immigration data as a severed tree, the infographic almost literally flattens the lively complexity of demographics, first of all by essentializing the category of the nation state as formative of population evolution. Second, by offering only an accountability of “entrances” and not “exits” (e.g. not accounting for deportations). And last but not least, by imposing a mechanism of naturalization over a social behavior inextricably linked to economic, cultural and political conditionings.

As an invasive volumetric study that studies growth with the help of cylindrical samples after very precise planar drilling, dendrochronology as a technique also carries the story of how Modern technosciences in one way or another gaslight the borderline between existence and representation. In other words: the horizontal strata of tree rings present a specific complex and rich worlding, while the disciplinary study of them overimposes a view of what ought to be through the application of comparative and quantitative methods that foreground average behavior as well as the measuring of the distance of that specimen from an ideal representation of its species. How could dendrochronology inform on difference, instead of imposing ideals, inviting the probable and avoiding forgiving comparisons of nation-state demographics as if they were “resembling a living organism”, only subjected to climate inclemencies? The worrying benevolence in the data visualization work, trying to naturalize immigration via the greenwashing figuration of a tree trunk cut, alerts us to technocultural leaps. The equation of vegetal symmetry, straightness and proportionality has deep implicancies. The aesthetic and semiotic manipulation which benevolent data visualization accomplishes, removes responsibility for the conditions that produce its necessity. The naturalization of the thick damage of migrating experiences, violently revalidates a world made up of borders and states that kill. We simply can not afford more deadly simplifications.

Cracks and flourishings

In a conversation with Arjuna Neuman, Denise Fereira da Silva contrasts her use of the term “Deep Implicancy” with that of “entanglement”: “The concept of Deep Implicancy is an attempt to move away from how separation informs the notion of entanglement. Quantum physicists have chosen the term entanglement precisely because their starting point is particles (that is, bodies), which are by definition separate in space.”[51] She insists that by paying attention to the relations between particles, their singularity as entities (just as so-called plants, leaves or petals) is being reconfirmed. In the very matter of the notion, implicancy or “implicatedness” can be understood as a circluding[52] operation to the notion of entanglement, in the sense that it affirms a mutual constitution from scratch.[53]

When attempting a disobedient action-research in volumetrics oriented towards so-called plants, we try to start from such mutuality to understand at least two things. First, what are the cracks in the apparatus of contemporary 3D that is too-often presented as seamless. How and where can those cracks be found and signaled, named and made traceable? Second, how can we provoke and experience a flourishing of volumetric computation otherwise, attentive to its implicancies and its potential to widen the possible? In Vegetal volumetrics, those surfaces that provide bridges for jumping from one unit of life to another, are made tangible in Item 033: This obscure side of sweetness is waiting to blossom. Item 102: Grassroot rotation exposed the consequences of contrasting life and non-life all too graphically. These items call for different a-normative interfaces; ones whose settings would not already assume the usefulness or liveliness of one area over the uselessness and backgroundness of another. Systemic vegetation brought two items together to ask how plants are made complicit with deadly operations. Item 117: FOLDOUT points at the urgency to resist the automation of separation as a way to block the systematization of institutional violence. Item 118: Agrarian Units and Topological Zoning showed how staying with the volumetric traces, keeping memories of and paying attention to certain forms of life and the relationships between such formations might open up possibilities for coming to terms with the systemic alienation going on in plantations. The last section, Lively math, investigated the stifling mutual confirmation of math and so-called plants as “beautiful”, “inevitable” and “true”. Item 119: IvyGen proposes non-normative dysphoria to queer and hence declutch a bit the worlding power of modeling that keeps both math and so-called plants in place. It is how “so-called” operates as a disclaimer, and thereby opens up possibility for the Ivies to make a difference. Item 120: Simulated dendrochronology for demographics? points at the need for eccentric desired life-patterns. Once we accept the limits of representation, visualizations of de-centralization, un-balancing and crookedness might make space for complexity.

Nobody really believes that managing plantations through AI is beyond violence, that so-called plants can be generated, that fugitives should be separated from leaves in the wind. In our technocultures of critique, it is not rare at all to share the views on “of course, those techniques are not neutral”. Nevertheless, after studying the tricks and tips of volumetrics (from biomedicine, to mining, to sports or to court), we understood that once these complex worlds entangle with computation, the normalized assumptions of Cartesian optimization start to dominate and overrule. The cases we keep in the Possible Bodies inventory are each rather banal, far from exceptional and even everyday. They show that volumetrics are embedded in very mundane situations, but once folded into computation, concerns are easily dismissed. It shows the monocultural power of the probable, as a seemingly non-violent regulator of that what is predictable and therefore proportional, reasonable and efficient. The probable is an adjective turned into a noun, a world oriented by probabilistic vectors, in the socioeconomic sense of the “normal”. We are committed to heightening sensibility for the actual violence of such normality, in order to start considering variable forms of opening up cracks for computational cultures that flourish by and for other means. By keeping complexity close, the possible becomes doable.


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