Vital Psigns is conceived as a site-specific installation that explores the notion of “site” in a number of expanded contexts:
1) The institutional site: Although Vital Psigns is based on a 1970’s science experiment it is now presented in the space of art museums and galleries, thus conflating one institutional zone of inquiry and experimentation with another institutional space of varied cultural expression. While art audiences often spend but a few moments looking at a static work of art, Vital Psigns asks participants to actively focus their attention on a living plant for several minutes. The museum becomes a laboratory, and the role of the passive viewing audience becomes that of active participants in an unfolding social experiment. Likewise, the cultural production of amateur science and D.I.Y. experimentation is puton display to be considered as a form of widespread cultural expression.
2) The discursive site: Vital Psigns cannot be neatly situated within a single discourse; rather, it is sited within several existing fields of inquiry and blurs the boundaries of multiple discourses: art, science, history, technology, biology, metaphysics, environmentalism and communication. From a historical perspective, Vital Psigns participates in a long, oft-forgotten history of attempts at human/plant communication which transcend numerous cultures and civilizations over thousands of years, ranging from botanical divination to current military experiments developing “sentinel plants”. As a science experiment, it was originally regarded as a failure – not because it didn’t produce measurable results, but rather because the variables themselves were immeasurable by our current scientific paradigm. Thus, Vital Psigns mimics the methods of science but also occupies a metaphysical site in its attempt to model immeasurable forms of knowledge and understanding. While not explicitly of a political nature, Vital Psigns implicitly suggests that we should empathize with plants and consider the impact of human effects on the environment. As a conceptual work of art designed to exist within and outside of these conversations and others, Vital Psigns relies on the discursive site as a place to cultivate critical discussions.
3) The subjective/collective site: A painting or drawing is often regarded as a form of communication detailing an artist’s internal vision to be experienced and interpreted by the viewing audience. Although many may share the experience of viewing a particular artwork, the subjective interpretation of the work often varies. Vital Psigns is situated with respect to this collective/subjective site that artwork often generates. If we regard artwork as both a form of cultural expression and artistic communication, we must question equally the nature of communication and the ability to externally manifest one’s thoughts or desires. Although Vital Psigns is presented as an art installation, it attempts to invert the aforementioned relationship. Here, the communication is no longer one-way; rather, the artwork communicates to the audience/participant who, in turn, attempts to communicate with the plants. The artwork does not attempt to communicate a completed vision to the audience, but instead manifests externally the results of that communication over the course of the exhibition (i.e., the plants thrive or degenerate accordingly). The messages that participants attempt to communicate are entirely subjective; yet, no individual can hope to see the results of their communication manifest immediately before their eyes. On the contrary, the experiment is designed with the collective effort in mind. Thus, Vital Psigns manifests over time, individually, collectively, and in the space between the audience and the plants.