How do humans perceive a border? It can be a grey line on a satellite map; it can be a stamp and a date on the visa page of a passport; it can be rows of concertina wires mounted around the wall stretching for miles; or it can be an unmarked stream meandering along a ravine.
Each day, Customs agriculture specialists across the nation seize approximately 3,000 prohibited plants, animal byproducts, and seeds. Plants which are not compliant with the import and export legislation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) are confiscated. These plants are taken care of by The Plant Rescue Center program, initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1878. Each individual species is reviewed by the authorities, then regularly assigned and sent to botanical gardens, arboretums, zoological parks, and research institutions in the United States. “Not every plant is smuggled intentionally. Sometimes it is just a matter of not having the proper paperwork, just like people going border to border without visas," notes Kyle Wallick, a botanist at the U.S. Botanic Garden.
Throughout history, the displacement and transfer of plants and seeds around the world went hand in hand with the forced migration of human labor. Thus the very act of planting, gardening, and cultivating plants can be seen as a form of colonial violence. Ordering, naming, organizing, and trading plant species has been integral to ordering the wealth of an empire since the eighteenth century. As a scientific discipline and a taxonomy, botany also became a vast and profitable enterprise as a consequence of the colonists’ exploratory voyages. If the capture and classification of exotic species reinforced the primacy of colonial systems of science over indigenous forms of knowledge, then the botanical garden itself becomes a colonial laboratory. Migrated plants, enacted as archetypes of the foreign, each project a colonial ideology. To this day, plants continue to be transferred from one garden to another, often for political and especially diplomatic reasons, yet it is the political system which imposes ever stricter border regulations regarding the import and export of native and non-native plant species.
Dendrobium sp. adopts a first-person perspective of a dendrobium plant, whose exact identity has not yet been confirmed by botanic experts. The CITES-restricted plant’s journey of dislocation is documented as a personal history from the regulation and confiscation by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to its release and transfer to the Botanic Garden of Smith College. The viewer is moved through a series of field visits and investigations, exploring the plant's geographic origins, medical properties, cultural identities, international travel histories, pictorial representations in specimen archives, and its temporary home at the botanic garden.
The project takes the form of a book, printed by risograph on standard herbaria papers and bound by sewing threads and medical bandages. The design of the book is inspired by the way in which one specimen of dendrobium has been presented at Harvard University Herbaria, which is but one of 1,800 unidentified dendrobium species in the world.
Random errors produced by the Riso printer - ink scuffs and misalignment under layers of printing plates - resonate with the shifts in and misrepresentations of the Dendrobium plant’s identity throughout its attempted classification and continued displacement. The X-ray-like monochromes printed on the semi-transparent sheets are simulated 3D models generated from hundreds of 2D photographs of the plant and its surrounding environment in the botanic garden. The documentation aims to unfold the Dendrobium’s memory of traversing temporal and geographical borders while constantly being scanned by surveillance cameras and X-ray detecting machines.
As William J. Mitchell mentioned in The Reconstructed Eye, "The early development of the technology coincided with the era of space exploration, so digital imaging systems quickly began to play much the same role in twentieth-century voyages of discovery as topographic and botanical artists had played in 18th-century ones: they reported previously unseen marvels and inventoried potentially colonizable territory." In the context of a pandemic where voyage and discovery have been made increasingly difficult with more complex documentations, observing the journey of this one Dendrobium across borders asks us to consider: how, as supposedly global citizens, should we respond to the colonial power structures embedded in border plant policing systems today? How do we disentangle the complex sociocultural, political, and ecological histories of planting and gardening? How might the history of plant migration inspire a new way of looking at human migration and immigration?
A special thanks to the Botanic Garden at Smith College, Harvard University Herbaria, and PPPPRESS @ MIT Art Culture and Technology Program.