The Wardian: Confiscated Dendrobiums and Displaced Identities addresses issues around displacement and migration.
By retracing the personal journey of this illegally traded, ecologically endangered, confiscated - then rescued - Dendrobium orchid, currently held in quarantine at the Botanic Garden of Smith College, this project investigates the mechanisms by which institutions and legal systems transfer and detain plants.
The installation consists of five hand-welded metal structures, the primary artifacts for my research. Each structure stands as an individual signifier of the legislative, the sociopolitical, the biotic, and finally the ethnomedicinal knowledge systems. Together, the artifacts enter in a dialogue which invites the viewer to question, beyond the journey of the Dendrobium orchid, our relationship with one another as living beings.
The story started during my trip to the Botanic Garden of Smith College in 2021, where I encountered a group of arrested potted plants from the border of the United States. While some of them were scattered in the garden, pretending their presence as one of the general and regular plant collections on-site, some were hidden back in the storage room which is not open to the public visitors.
Each day, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists across the nation seize more than 4,000 prohibited plants, animal byproducts, and seeds. Plants that 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. Each individual species is reviewed by the authority, then regularly assigned and sent to botanical gardens, arboretums, zoological parks, and research institutions in the United States. These organizations belong to the Plant Rescue Center Program established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1978 and act as a refugee home for maintaining and caring for those confiscated live plants and exotic plant specimens that have been forfeited or abandoned from the port, under the guidance and regulation of CITES.
The decisions and rules behind the confiscation are mysterious. Botanists from the garden do not know why they would receive certain plants, but when they receive requested calls from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for transferring confiscated plants, they always say yes.
Reviewing a compiled list of confiscated plants preserved in perpetuity at the garden, I am particularly intrigued by a Dendrobium orchid that arrived in the Los Angeles port in 2000 and was archived at the Botanic Garden of Smith College in Northampton in 2001. The flower, originally from Cambodia designated to Pheng Mai, Wichita, Kansas, has been rescued at the Garden for more than 20 years, yet its specific species has not been identified by the experts.
A Speaking Dendrobium is a looped video with artificial and morphing Dendrobium species generated by a machine learning algorithm. 1,000 digital photos of Dendrobium orchids are transformed through the machine’s own rules of re-creating, re-presenting, and deconstructing the natural taxonomy of plants and plant hybrids. The voice-over includes excerpts from interviews with 8 international students, workers, and refugees who anonymously talked about their experiences of being ‘temporarily confiscated,’ or being settled at ‘in-between’ space on the border. The interview scripts are intentionally collaged in fragments and transformed into unnamed AI voices, intertwining with the animated yet artificial purity of the Dendrobium plant forms.