chiseled in the stony
flesh of the planet

Weiyi Chang

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, artists Sarah Jane Gorlitz and Wojciech Olejnik—who collaborate and exhibit under the name Soft Turns—conducted an experiment. In a corner of their studio, they planted several Outredgeous red romaine lettuce seeds in a specially designed container.1 Set atop a tank filled with water and rocks, the artists set up a camera to take a photograph every five minutes, documenting the plant’s growth and development in the round.

In the resultant video, REACH, we see not the gradual blossoming of the plant’s vivid red leaves, but rather the tentative and fragile expansion of its root system. At first, a single white tendril descends into frame, its trajectory decisively following the signals sent by the gravity-sensitive statoliths2 in the root tip. Soon it is joined by other tendrils, looping and coiling over themselves, searching for a firm place to land. Below, rocks—some glinting with the distinctive green-gold flash of embedded circuit boards—seem to float in a vacuum. As the roots descend, other tendrils sprout along their lengths, each stretching further to probe their environment. Background noise in the form of the low, whirring, staticky hum of seismometer recordings from Mars suggests an otherworldly, futuristic scene.

Time-lapse stop-motion is a familiar trope used to capture the gradual growth of plant life, but REACH captures a perspective not commonly seen. Plant representations tend to fall into a few categories: still lifes, botanical drawings, abstracted and decorative motifs, the occasional documentary film. These modes often take plants not as subjects in their own right, but as objects and symbols of anthropomorphic values and ideals. Plant representations most often focus on their aerial forms; we know plants by their shapely leaves, their brilliantly coloured flowers, their inviting fruits, their elegant limbs and their delicate fragrances. Rarely have their hypogean manifestations—their hidden doppelgangers, or what Emanuele Coccia describes as their “chthonic, mineral, latent, ontologically nocturnal, chiseled in the stony flesh of the planet”3 subterranean selves—been seen as worthy of representation or contemplation.

Soft Turns’ experiment was a DIY take on NASA’s VEG-01 study that took place in 2015. Using a specially engineered Veggie plant growth system, VEG-01 marked the first time American scientists were able to successfully grow and harvest a vegetable crop in outer space. Matured over the course of 33 days aboard the International Space System, the inaugural crop of Outredgeous lettuce was hailed as a scientific breakthrough with important implications for the future of space exploration and study.

The VEG-01 experiment distilled plant growth to its fundamentals. The Veggie system was equipped with red, blue and green LEDs adjusted to precisely control and optimize the amount of light delivered to the plant. Capable of holding up to six plant beds, each Kevlar bed contained two to three seeds of Outredgeous lettuce (to mitigate the risk of germination failure) embedded in calcined clay and controlled-release fertilizer. A quick-disconnect water valve connected the root mats to a water source while a fan system diffused cabin air in and around the plants.4

The elaborate VEG-01 experiment was designed to overcome a number of barriers to outer space plant growth. Scientists selected the Outredgeous lettuce variant for its unique resistance to bacteria and contaminants that might otherwise impede the study. Red and blue LEDs were chosen for their energy efficiency, while green LEDs were used for aesthetic reasons, namely, to keep the plants appetizing for the astronauts.5 In order to avoid suffocating the plants in their own oxygen-rich emissions, the fan circulated the air around the leaves to provide the plants with a steady current of human-produced carbon dioxide.

Analysis back on Earth confirmed that the Outredgeous lettuce was not only safe for human consumption, but also as nutritious as earth-grown lettuce. The study marked an important step forward in NASA’s efforts to plan and launch longer missions, including much-anticipated plans to eventually explore and colonize Mars. No longer wholly reliant on dehydrated prepared foods shipped at great expense, the possibility of growing crops entirely in space seemed to be the last step in fully liberating the human from our earthly constraints.

Fantasies of space colonization have a long cultural history, although their proximity to reality has drawn closer in recent years. While the conquest of space was previously dominated by conflicting global superpowers, the contemporary battle for dominance over the skies is shaped by the likes of ultra-billionaires, such as Elon Musk of Tesla and Twitter notoriety, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin’s Richard Branson. Each operating their own experimental space exploration companies (heavily subsidised via various schemes, from partnerships with state-run space agencies to tax incentives to research and development grants), the future of outer-space exploration is motivated by the neo-colonial desire to control and extract resources for the benefit of a wealthy few.

While earlier experiments, like the famous Biosphere 2 project of the eighties and nineties, were ostensibly research-driven experiments, the new crop of space explorers have an explicitly commercial aim in mind. Blue Origin, the aerospace company and pet project launched by Bezos, is unambiguous in its vision of space colonization as means of addressing limits to growth and development here on Earth in a bid to out-source capitalism’s negative externalities. The company’s promotional materials claim, “Blue Origin envisions a time when people can tap into the limitless resources of space and enable the movement of damaging industries into space to preserve Earth, humanity’s blue origin.”6 Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company founded by Branson, has a similarly commercial aim to create a new era of space tourism. In their promotional materials, they reference the famous Earthrise photograph from 1968, which is often credited with galvanising the modern environmental movement, and makes the dubious claim that space tourism will inaugurate a paradigm shift in how we view and treat the Earth.

While the ultra-wealthy toy with their spaceships, the rest of us here on Earth are left to glean through the wastelands left in their wake. Climate change, ocean acidification, mass climate migration, biodiversity loss, desertification, declining agricultural yields—concrete obstacles currently impacting the planet today are ignored in favour of the pursuit of glory and riches. In his book, Survival of the Richest, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff describes an encounter with an unnamed cartel of low-level billionaires, who have whisked him off to a remote resort to assess the viability of their post-apocalyptic plans. His hosts elaborate various scenarios—from underground bunkers to floating man made islands sequestered in international waters—until Rushkoff comes to understand that they aren’t truly interested in the feasibility of their escape plans at all. Rather, he observes, “They were working out what I've come to call the Insulation Equation: could they earn enough money to insulate themselves from the reality they were creating by earning money in this way? Was there any valid justification for striving to be so successful that they could simply leave the rest of us behind—apocalypse or not?”7

For those wealthy few with the means and resources, outer space represents the ultimate escape from the repercussions of their actions. Rushkoff writes, “Those who have made it there through questionable means do not want to look back at the devastation they left in their path. They need an exit strategy, and may prefer to imagine a future where they are forced to isolate themselves from those they have exploited. Then they won't have to feel any guilt, shame, or fear of retribution.”8

Growing plants off-planet—especially utilitarian cash crops like lettuce—isn’t solely or even primarily a question of scientific curiosity; it is also the next step in establishing the foundation of a new social and political paradigm for the select few who can afford to benefit from its commercialization and scalability. While billionaires like the ones Rushkoff consulted may have to grapple with strategies to keep their workforces subjugated and obedient in the aftermath of some unknown apocalyptic event here on Earth, the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful can instead rebuild a society anew away from the 99%—one where they can live out their libertarian fantasies unconstrained by existing social, political and economic structures that might curtail their imperial desires.

Roots were a relatively late development in the timeline of plant evolution. While plants need certain physiological functions, such as photosynthesis, to survive, roots provide supplementary resources and relationships that enhance plant survival. Although their function and complexity varies slightly from species to species, roots primarily gather information about a plant’s environment, its soil conditions, its neighbours and cohabitors, and to transmit essential resources such as water and nutrients to their aerial forms.

Some plant roots form symbiotic relationships with neighbouring species, forming mycorrhizal networks that are then used to communicate with kin-trees in the vicinity. Suzanne Simard describes some of the activities performed by these networks: 

'In some forests, these trees…trade defence signals to warn each other of potential danger, thus increasing the resilience of the whole community. Some trees shuttle allelochemicals, or poisons, through the network if the neighbouring tree species is an unwanted intruder. Elder trees are able to recognize neighbours that are genetically related, or that are kin, and they can send more or less resources to other trees to either favour or disfavour them, depending on the safety of the environment.'9

In this regard, roots serve an analogous function to the human brain, mediating between the plant body and its environment. Coccia notes that, as far back at the Ancient Greeks, roots have been analogized to the human brain: “Plato had already compared our head and hence reason to a ‘root’: the human being, he said, is ‘a plant of the sky… and not of the Earth’ with the roots going up—a sort of inverted plant.”10 Moreover, there is a striking morphological resemblance between root growth and neurons; like the roots we observe in REACH, microscopic footage of neurons show their searching, desperate efforts, as they extend undulating axons in search of other neuronal connections.11 These networks serve similar functions relative to the body, even as they wield radically different physiologies to accomplish their ends.

Until recently, the notion that plants were capable of anything resembling intelligence was considered far-fetched. Lacking the physiological mechanisms believed to be required for basic levels of cognition and thought, plants were relegated to the status of automatons, incapable of intelligence or complex decision-making, driven entirely by genetically ingrained instincts. This approach was reflected in their limited representational modes, which tended to emphasise plants as passive creatures at the mercy of their environments, objects that are acted upon rather than actants in and of themselves. This assumption justified plants’ negligible moral value, which allowed them to be readily exploited and extracted in the pursuit of capitalist accumulation.

In capturing the time-lapse of the growth of roots, REACH undermines this assumption and highlights the affinity between human and plant intelligence. Unlike VEG-01, the artists’ set up a situation that allowed the plant to unfold and grow according to its own rhythms and processes. While the former sought to optimize plant growth by reducing inputs to the most salient elements, Soft Turns provide an open-ended set of conditions that enable the Outredgeous red lettuce to emerge of its own accord, approaching it as an agential being and co-collaborator. As we observe the probing, self-directed movement of the root tendrils, a sense of the plant’s agency and subjecthood enters the field of vision. The roots move, not in haphazard, random growth patterns, but rather purposefully and methodically, implying an internal logic and stimulus beyond human-centric drives.

In so doing, Soft Turns postulates an alternative relationship to the Earth, invoking a speculative future distinct from the one envisaged and enacted by the ultra-wealthy. While the rich seek to escape the Earth (and the rest of us) at all costs—in the process, reducing non-human life forms to their most basic and utilitarian function to perpetuate colonial and capitalist processes of extraction—Soft Turns envisage a hypothetical future where non-human entities like plants are liberated from their utilitarian ends and granted the space to pursue self-determination and autonomy. Moreover, as the roots fill the void, the boundary between figure and ground begins to dissolve, obfuscating the clear demarcations that separate self and environment, subject and object, human and Earth.

This alternative future is perhaps made more poignant by the selection of a cash crop as subject matter, a breed of lettuce whose entire existence has been determined and shaped by human hands. As the roots locate the first floating stones, they begin to expand in new directions and fill vacant regions of space. Attaching themselves firmly to solid ground, we are reminded that even as we direct our minds to the celestial worlds above, like plants, we nevertheless remain indelibly tethered to the Earth beneath our feet.


Coccia, Emanuele. The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Survival of the Richest: Escape Fantasies of the Tech Billionaires. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2022.

Simard, Suzanne. “The Mother Tree.” In The Word for World is Still Forest, edited by Anna-Sophie Springer & Etienne Turpin, 66-71. Berlin: K. Verlag and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, 2017.

Strickland, Ashley. “Space-Grown Lettuce Is Safe to Eat, Says Study. Delicious, Say Astronauts.CNN, March 6, 2020.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. “Veggie Fact Sheet.” 2020. Accessed May 15, 2023.

Other Readings and References

Zimmer, Carl. “The Lost History of One of the World’s Strangest Science Experiments.The New York Times, March 29, 2019.

Weiyi Chang (she/her) is an independent writer and curator. Weiyi has curated exhibitions and programs in Canada, the United States, and Germany. Her art criticism and essays have been published in Canadian Art, C Magazine, and Luma Quarterly and she has contributed to numerous exhibition catalogues published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, Documenta 14, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, and more. Weiyi's research lies at the intersections between ecology, environmental ethics, climate change, capitalism, and time.

Weiyi was a 2019-20 Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art's Independent Study Program. She holds a MA in Art History (Critical and Curatorial Studies) from the University of British Columbia and a BA (Honours) Major in Art History and Major in Philosophy from Western University.

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