Aaron Gach, on behalf of the Center for Tactical Magic
The idea for Vital Psigns was based on research regarding a whole range of experiments within science where scientists were able to locate results within in an experiment, but they weren’t able to quantify or qualify those results. There was a particular experiment that was done in the 1970s where scientists were testing whether or not projected thought from humans could influence the growth of plants. They found that the plants that were receiving positive thoughts from humans were performing better than plants that were receiving negative thoughts. But the experiment was considered a failure.
Even though they were able to visually see the difference in plant growth there was no way, scientifically, that they could account for this difference. There was no empirical mechanism that they could point to, and they ran into this terrain in science that is referred to as “meaningless.” This is not to say that the results have no meaning or that the experiment is devoid of meaning, but rather that there is no set of tools within scientific knowledge or inquiry yet devised to account for what it was that they were experiencing. Basically, what that meant is that they could not point to the substance of a projected thought, and they could not account for the value of one person’s projected thought verses another person’s projected thought. They also could not show a nervous system within the plants for receiving projected thought, and even if they could, there was no way to account for how the plant perceived a positive projected thought - positively or negatively or in some other fashion. Since there were all of these factors that could not be accounted for (scientifically), the research was considered “meaningless” and abandoned, even though it had managed to demonstrate some rather remarkable results.
Of course, this experiment only failed in its scientific aims. It certainly succeeded in illustrating the extent to which science becomes limited in achieving knowledge in certain areas of inquiry. And, it also provided a template for looking at other forms of activity (social, political, artistic, esoteric, etc) that may produce results in intangible ways. It also set up an easily set replicated experiment that I could do at home.
So I bought three tomato plants from the local nursery, and I spent seven minutes with the positive plant and seven minutes with the negative plant three times a day just trying to empathize or communicate with each plant. The third plant, of course was the control plant that I didn’t touch. It felt silly at first, but after a very short amount of time, a couple of weeks, I was starting to see the results that the scientists had been speaking of – the negative plant was doing horribly (it had dropped it fruit pre-maturely), the control plant was doing more or less fine, and the positive plant was doing only slightly better than the control plant but the significant difference was that the control plant was not bearing any fruit and the positive plant was laden with fruit. So, that was the impetus for the project.
When the project was made more public it was less interesting to me whether or not the positive plant was doing better than the negative plant. I was more interested in the space that happens between a person and the plants when someone does something that they might have been dismissive of without ever having experienced or attempted it before.
One of the aims of the Center for Tactical Magic is to confront people’s dismissive tendencies about any number of subjects. Ideally, this happens in a way that is going to allow people to open themselves up and consider the potential for different courses of thought or action that they previously regarded as extremely difficult, impossible, or even ridiculous.
This project is not a rigorous scientific experiment in projected thought influencing plant growth. If it were going to be a rigorous scientific experiment it could potentially take place in an art institution, but there would need to be a lot of space and a lot of plants, and a lot more controls. What we show in an art context is simply three plants. One labeled “positive”, one “negative”, and one “control” plant each receiving equal amounts of soil, light, and water. The motivation is not to convince people of the science of the experiment, but to open up a space for someone coming off the street to take a few minutes out of their day to attempt to focus their thoughts and to empathize or communicate with a plant. By providing the opportunity to engage in a radically different form of empathetic communication with another, we introduce a model for working towards positive change, whether environmental, social or magical.
This model suggests that we can work towards a goal even if it defies the conventions of what is previously thought to be achievable. It also suggests that we can bring about fruitful results without having an easy cause and effect explanation beforehand. This is certainly familiar terrain for many artists and musicians, but it is a less familiar approach in many other aspects of life. Further, Vital Psigns establishes a model for collective engagement that depends on individual efforts accumulated over the course of an exhibition/experiment. A single visitor to Vital Psigns won’t see any immediate change in the plants; however, the changes manifest slowly over time by the continual participation of individuals acting collectively.
Vital Psigns isn’t devised to tell people how they should think about certain political issues, but when you ask people to think about what a plant will find negative you often end up with a set of issues that should be confronted. For example, a plant would necessarily find toxic soil negative. A plant would find air pollution negative. A plant would find rampant development negative. A plant would find herbicides negative. So when people begin to project negative thoughts at the plant, they do end up in a political space. They are forced to think about issues that extend beyond that particular plant and to think about the environment outside of the context of Vital Psigns. And the plant can recover. I have never seen the experiment completely kill a plant. That says a lot for the capacity of the plant. But, to me, even more telling is that the plants do quite well when we leave them alone. The control plant always does well. In one of the experiments, the control plant did better than the positive plant. It some senses that says volumes as well.
Sure, some people have remarked, about the plant that receives negative thoughts, that people are being encouraged to torture plants, especially when you see the condition that the negative plant ends up in. Conversely, other people have thanked us for giving them the opportunity to vent stored up negativity on this plant that still has the potential to recover. That release, mixed with the ability to also focus positively on the other plant was for many people a therapeutic experience. With that said, I still sometimes feel bad for the negative plant, but at the same time I think that its important to maintain a balance. I do not think that we can maintain only positive cycles without also paying attention to the negative around us. The challenge is to not only recognize the existence of negative forces, but to work with them in a constructive fashion.
From a conversation between Aaron Gach, co-founder of The Center for Tactical Magic, and Janeil Engelstad in February 2011.