"… Wildness challenges the unity of the symbol, the transcendent totalization binding the image to that which it represents. Wildness pries open this unity and in its place creates slippage. ... Wildness is the death space of signification" (219).
- Taussig: Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (1987)
In the middle of Lisbon between Avenue Liberdade and the Natural History Museum lays a little gem of a garden, The Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Lisboa inaugurated 1873. The garden's crown jewel is its subtropical collections with a unique microclimate that enables individual tropical plants to survive.
The Arboretum is on a slope with a water path and undulating waterfalls leading to three small ponds, which add to the garden's humidity and tropical mist, creating a beautiful romantic garden. A layout you usually don't see that much off in scientific gardens, which lean to have stricter divisions and vistas between species. Even the Class section of the park is overgrown and bushy and seem alien to the systematic of the books of classification and methods developed by Carl Linnaeus's Systema Naturae (1735) and later Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859)
STEM is a essay film about the decay of Lisbon Botanical University Garden and the connecting historical migration. The film explores the migration and morphology of plants by examining 17 Brazilian intercepted during the enlightenment from Brazil to Lisbon University Garden until today. Years of neglect of the park have created a romantic environment where the garden is growing wild, with subjects that often have surpassed and outlived its colonizers.
Being a partly romantic garden offers privacy in public, and it's probably not a coincidence that Thomas Mann found inspiration in this garden in his 1954 novel Felix Krull. Felix finds love while passing Lisbon on his world journey. Since Thomas Mann wrote his book, the park has grown wilder after 40 years with an extended lack of resources. A situation that many Botanical Gardens find themselves in today points towards a paradigm shift in scientific discourses. In the 1920s, the garden had 36 gardeners, whereas today, there is supposedly only one left. In recent years, the park has made it into the newspaper by not paying its water bills or watering the plants sufficiently.
Being both a romantic and a scientific garden simultaneously, Jardim Botânico contains a rare aesthetic complexity between human/nature, object/subject, Other/I. The park exemplifies the fragility of the enlightenment projects' sometimes-totalitarian ideology views by blurring the dialectic lines where plants and nature are categorized as objects. Bruno Latour explains with his concept of the H/N-H Human/Non-Human categorization by saying that things, aka plants, can have as much social agency as humans. Even human-made objects can have a social agency and alter our social behavior and living. The film wants to open up alternative views of a multispecies salon where plants and animals are given their own agency.
Plants – like humans - as living organisms can change temperament and adjust behavior to the environment, such as survival from predators, deforestation, and climate changes. Some plants – like the tree Clusias – will, if threatening, strangle and kill other plants to survive. It is not uncommon in the ecosystem where predators make prey that plants will camouflage themselves to survive. Biodiversity depends on evolutionary structure as well as geological and ecological transformations. Plants – just like humans - that survive a transfer or rootstock from being relocated to a botanical garden most likely will change their core morphology.
In the botanical garden, the idea of transfer is central to their collections of species, and seeds from around the world are collected for scientific 'reasons' by researching the aims of extraction. What ramification does it have to displace plants (violently or involuntarily) into another environment, too, in this case, a much dryer and colder place, where all its typical animals and organisms missing from its core environment? How does this relate to us humans that, just like birds migrate between areas and habitats where 220 million humans worldwide are estimated to have migrated? A shocking number that cultural theoretician Homi Bhabha calls a 'new class' is likely to double in 10-20 years. Mindy Fullilove, professor in psychiatry at Columbia University, calls involuntary migration a 'root shock' where some will survive, and others die off from the change of environment.
Besides being an aesthetic celebration of the enlightenment intuitions that are under increasing attacks, these are some of the questions that Stem wants to investigate and questions. The film doesn't intend to parse the claim of essentialist views but merely learn from plants' migration and evolution.
For the film, I asked the Botanical Garden in Lisbon to choose 17 curiosities and spectacles of plants that, with certainty, originate from Brazil. Brazil used to exemplify the transfer with one of the world's most incredible biodiversity. With this list and the help of researchers and biological and botanical historians, and experts from the Botanical Garden in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro, we will find their locations for the sound recording and the sound record itself the plant's origin was intercepted and taken.
The plants are the following: Acca sellowiana, Araucaria angustifilia, Bauhinia forficata, Bougainvillea spectabilis, Butia Eriospatha, Ceiba crispiflora, Ceiba speciosa, Chrysophyllum imperiale, Colletia cruciata, Erythrina crista-galli, Eugenia uniflora, Macfadyena unguis-cati, Pereskia grandiflora, Pilocarpus pennatifolius, Syagrus romanzoffiana, Trithrinax acanthocoma, Tropaeolum majus.
The film is accompanied by Professor James Clifford's thoughts about the traveler. James Clifford is an interdisciplinary scholar whose work combines perspectives from history, literature, history of science, and anthropology. He is the author of The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (1988), Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (1997), and Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century (2013).
Lasse Lau (Denmark)
is an award-winning visual artist and filmmaker who, in his work, looks at the spatial dimension of power.
His first feature film, Lykkelænder– The Raven and The Seagull– engage the complex identity struggles in Greenland’s quest for cultural and constitutional independence. The relationship between Greenland and Denmark is a relationship that is full of fantasy and myths, and these myths are what Lau reflects and reacts upon.
His films have won Grand Prix Nanook – Jean Rouch in France, the Golden Raven in Russia, World Cinema Doc at Kansas Filmfest, Nordic:Dox Award at CPH:DOX*,Best Experimental Film Award at Oslo Film Festival and 1st prize at Fokus Videokunst Festival.
His films have been shown among other at Beirut Art Center, the British Museum, BOZAR, Cimatheque, CPH:DOX, Darb 1718, Edith-Russ-Haus fur Medienkunst, Festival d'arts vidéo Clermont Farrand, Fotografisk Center, Green Lantern, Kunsthallen Nikolaj, Lumiar Cité, Malmö konsthall, Medrar for Contemporary Art, MOMA PS1, Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea Lisboa, Museum of Resistance Torino, OCAT, Smart Project Space, Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art, Westfälische Kunstverein and WRO Media Art Biennale.
Lau works under his own name and as a member of Kran Film Collective (1999-2020), Camel Collective (2005‐2014), and CUDI (2000-2002). Lau studied at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in New York, Experimentelle Mediengestaltung at Berlin University of Art in Germany, and fine arts at the Funen Academy of Fine Art in Denmark.