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Artist interview: Noortje van den Eijnde

Robin Berkelmans
6 min read
17 Dec 2020
What do a disappointed beanstalk and a high school student have in common? Noortje van den Eijnde talks Botanica Emphatica: an empathy lab – or bootcamp – for youngsters and plant life.
Stockphoto Botanica Emphaticus

Botanica Emphatica

People are mysteriously connected. We can touch each other, hear each other, talk to each other, ... and ‘feel’ each other’s feelings.

Botanica Emphatica explores whether we can expand our (human) empathy network to (non-human) plant life. With touch, sight, hearing, smell and greenery, students are stimulated to really connect with nature. In five interactive experiments they discover and broaden their empathy for plants, by understanding the language of plant based lifeforms.

Noortje van den Eijnde
, who created this workshop together with Jotte den Dulk, explains: ‘Botanica Emphatica is ‘an empathy bootcamp’ or ‘lab’ that explores our (human) empathy network and broadens this to the (non-human) plantworld. In five experiments, students learn how to cultivate a meaningful relationship with plants.

By completing five assignments, they participate in an investigation. In addition to seeing and listening, you will also feel and smell. There is an exercise where you can feel the pain a plant may feel when you handle it too roughly and there is an exercise where you smell grass.’

– Why is that?

‘Many people don’t know this, but when you smell the smell of spring, you actually sense the smell of danger in the air. The smell of freshly cut grass is caused by a stress hormone with which the plant indicates to its surroundings: ‘careful now, they’re chopping our heads off’. They do this to keep other life forms, like insects, at bay.’

– One of the workshop’s goals is to foster more empathy for plants. Shouldn’t we focus on a ‘human-only’ empathy network first?

‘Not necessarily. We are all part of a living system. We share the same space and therefore a shared feeling. Realizing this took us a while though. We call this sort of learning process 'soft wiring'. Back in the Middle Ages (and later, in the 17th century, when René Descartes kicked his dog to prove it felt no pain and followed the same mechanics as a machine, Red.), we had no idea that animals felt pain. Now we know better. Broadening our empathy network to the plant world seems a logical development.’

– How do you measure if Botanica Emphatica’s experiments actually work?

‘We started out by trying the famous ‘love experiment’ ourselves. In this experiment you give two plants (of the same species, Red.), in addition to the right amounts of water and light, positive or negative feedback. For example, we tell one plant how well it grows, how beautiful it is and that we see that it is doing its best. At the other plant we yell that it is ugly and that we hate to water it. We’re in our second round now and the results are clearly visible. During the first round the ‘compliment-plant’ had a lot of babies, while the emotionally ‘damaged’ plant hang sadly.’
– At one point in your workshop you show a video of a ‘disappointed’ beanstalk. Aren’t we just projecting human emotions onto these other, non-human lifeforms?

‘It is difficult to measure whether something is interpreted or proven. Now we put our own spin on these signals. In one of the experiments, we explore how technology could be a more objective interpreter to translate these kinds of signs.’

– All STRP workshops start in 2021. Is there something we can do in the meanwhile to toughen up our post anthropocentric empathy skills?

‘Say nice things. Not just to your fellow human beings but to everyone and everything around you. Compliment your (house)plants. Naming them makes this new found form of contact easier.’