GMO thought experiments

Monster plantbots invade The New Gallery

Although botanists haven’t discovered them yet some bizarre new plant species have cropped up at The New Gallery.

Some glow. Some gyrate on their stalks and roar. One bursts into song. Others can zoom about on wheels.

They are all part of Monsantra a project created by artistic duo Wendy DesChene and Jeff Schmuki. The pair have collaborated for years now creating not only the art (mainly fake plants hooked up to wires) but also an entire back-story and the ersatz company PlantBot Genetics that is behind many of the “species.” This lighthearted shtick is a satire of agricultural giant Monsanto and genetically modified food in general.

“Monsanto [has] been presented as a potential solution to a lot of the world’s food shortage problems and it may well prove to be that” says The New Gallery programming director Tim Westbury. “But I think we’re also seeing that like so many human technological undertakings that involve monkeying with nature there’s a certain point where nature starts to fight back — and she has a very good track record of winning.”

The artists began Monsantra years ago and the project has gone through several evolutions. The roving exhibition was first set up in a portable trailer with their plantbots making appearances in the United States Canada and Europe. The New Gallery’s more stationary presentation is detailed and immersive. Most plantbots have attached controls that will set them moving or roaring and every species has a detailed write-up about its supposed genetic gifts. There are also wall-sized photos and video footage of plantbots on the move.

Skilfully crafted botanical drawings line the walls offering visitors a glimpse into the inner workings of the fictitious plants such as the “Top 40 Radio Waves” that are part of the “Britneyatacum Performada” which belts Britney Spears at the touch of a button.

Between this and other species like the roaring “Rex-Poppy Papaveraceoe Dinosauria” viewers are left with no doubt that the Monsantra doesn’t take itself too seriously.

“No one likes to have ideology rammed down their throat” says Westbury of the artists’ tongue-in-cheek approach. “The whole intention of this project is really just to get people talking about GMO food and what that mean[s] for people who consume it and also the agricultural land that it’s grown on.

“It’s a kind of thought experiment taken to an illogical extreme” he adds with a laugh. “If part of what scientific technology especially genetic technology is allowing us to do is graft technological elements with natural elements is there some future point that we have plants that sing Britney Spears?”

Well probably not. But in the meantime Monsantra is fun funny and interactive — a gentle way to open up a discussion about a huge issue.