While working on the Borrowed Scenery design, we created a set of User Journeys for the beginning and end of the period of Electrified in Ghent.
Visitors coming to the snoepwinkel in the first week, while the lab and the lounge aren't setup yet, but the patabotanists' materials are semi-unpacked in crates and suitcases, with only a contemplation chair and table in one corner and a makeshift picnic lounge in the middle of the room.
The entrance is a corridor with writing in lingua ignota on the walls. The corridor is unlit, so the pale green light (daylight filtered through the many plants hanging from the ceiling) from the back room had a strange glow. From the corridor there is only a part of the room visible: in the far corner, slightly hidden behind a curtain of plants there is a table and chair made out of dead trees, with one living plant in the middle of the table. In the front, there is a collection of carpets and cushions, with stained papers and books scattered among cushions and used teacups. In another corner of the room there are open crates with lab equipment, electronics, books, framed photographs, kitchen equipment etc. still half unpacked. This part looks like a room that was used just minutes ago, but the inhabitants stepped out on an errand and could be back any time soon. On the mezzanine there is a makeshift bedroom with clothing hung off the railing. The stairs are blocked with luggage, so it is impossible to get to the bedroom. The walls are empty except for a few pinned maps, photos and notes linked with strings. There is a very low sound playing out of nowhere in particular, and filling the room with a buzzing, dripping, crackling texture. Close to the entrance there is a metal lab table with filing containers on it, containing circuit boards, pieces of wood and headphones. In another box there is a set of hand-written cards. In two others there are outgoing and incoming letters.
In the middle of the table there is a (big old?) telephone and hand-written instructions on how to operate it. It is only possible to reach the voicemail of the patabotanists. The voicemail message explains that the patabotanists are away on fieldwork and that the visitor can make themselves comfortable, have some herbal tea and when they're sufficiently rested, the patabotanists would appreciate if they could help with the field work. If they're not up for doing fieldwork, they're welcome to drink tea and read while listening to the vegetal radio, or sit in the plant contemplation station and attempt to slow down to plant time while gazing at the plant in front of them. Instructions can for the different tasks can be found in the lab, but the patabotanist doesn't remember exactly where: most likely in one of the filing drawers on the table. Or the visitors can approach one of the research assistants or the apprentice in the front room.
I come into the snoepwinkel after riding a bike listening to kaffe's sound piece. I'm a bit tired, so I'm very happy that the assistant's tell me that there is a lounge in the back of the candy store, where I can rest immersed in plants and stories about plants. I enter the room, see what's around and find the phone with instructions to operate it. I dial a number and get to the patabotanists' voice mail. After listening to the message, I decide that I prefer to hang out a bit and relax, before heading out to do any 'field work'. I make a cup of tea using hot water from a thermos and fresh herbs from a small herb garden in the picnic area. There are also books in a locked cabinet, with a note to ask the assistant in the front room to unlock it. I go to the crates, dig through them a bit and find a scrap book on patabotany that I'm curious about. I take it out, make myself comfortable on the cushions and spend some time browsing through the book and the research materials on the floor. I find some interesting references about plant perception, mixed with haiku poetry and images from the Voynich manuscript, a recipe for Hildegard of Bingen's gallbladder cake and several descriptions of 'pataplants' hand-written on napkins and seed packaging. I can find only fragments of texts and other materials, but what I find fuels my imagination, weaving together a possible story behind all these fragments, the atmosphere and the 'field work'.
After a while I feel like I've regained my energy and I'm up for a wonder through Ghent. The voicemail message said that I could talk to someone to get information about the walks. There is no one in the room, so I walk to the front room and ask the boy there what I should do if I want to go on a plant field trip. He asks me if I would like to chose a random field trip, or if I want one that would be closer to my interests and experience. I'm curious about the second one. He hands me a questionnaire and explains that I should fill it in and that a research assistant will be in shortly to look over the questionnaire and find an appropriate field work for me. The questionnaire looks like a quantitative statistical survey, with questions and ranges of 'low-to-high' or number scales attached to them. The questions are about my previous plant experience (rating consumption, exchange, learning, cultivation, lounging in parks…), how much I know about edible and medicinal plants, how well do I know Ghent, what do I think about plant sentience, how often have I spoken to a plant, whether I prefer to observe and contemplate or be actively involved in things - collect, annotate, analyse… They also ask me whether I have a smart phone on me and if yes, which one. I have my android in my pocket, I prefer action to contemplation, and I like to lounge in parks and have a little bit of knowledge of edible and medicinal plants, i never speak to my plants and I don't believe in plant sentience. I know Ghent well as I live here.
While I was filling the questionnaire, another person enters the room, dressed in an antiquated petticoat with a lab coat over it, and a badge saying 'research assistant'. She sits down at the lab table and begins sorting through a bunch of notes and plants she brought with her. She sticks a note on the wall saying “how would Ghent grow if a vine would be its urban planner?” She tells me I can bring her the questionnaire when I'm ready.
She looks over my answers and types something into a laptop she brought with her. The laptop is covered with plant stickers and moss. She tells me that I seem to be the perfect candidate for a collecting information about places where people go to enjoy the company of plants (parks, hidden gardens, canal views…) and finding edible plants growing in between these places. I should not walk further than 15 minutes in any direction and should be guided by plants as much as possible (take routes that have more plants on them). She suggest that it would be good if I came back after the walk for a debrief, but that I can also note my findings online.
She gives me an instruction sheet on how to install an app on my phone, that will allow me to add my fieldwork to a database that the patabotanists are constructing, to understand how humans interact with plants in Ghent today. This database will be used in patabotanical human-plant communication experiments in a few weeks. If I'd like to be a part of these experiments, I register using the app and I'll be kept posted about any activities in the lab.
I install the app and she takes me through it. When I find a place or plant of interest, I can take a picture and/or give the entry a name (if I know the name of the plant, garden or park). If I don't know the name, I can write a note describing the plant / garden, so that the researchers can go back to the spot and fill in the missing information. If I know any stories about the plants/places I can add that to the notes as well. In case I don't feel like typing during the walk, I can register and edit my notes when I get back to the snoepwinkel or anywhere else. Do I think I'd like to do that? In that case it would be best to register now, so that I don't have to do it during the walk. I find that a good idea, so I click on the 'register' button, where I can type my user name, email address and a password.
The research assistant thanks me for participating in the research and waves me off.
I walk out and look around to find where I see most greenery. It looks like the road to the right might be most populated by plants. I begin walking and spot a potato plant. I take out my phone and open the app, where I can take a picture, write the name and field notes. I take a photo, name the entry 'potato' and write that I'm surprised to find a thriving potato plant in one of the busiest shopping streets in Ghent. I save the entry, notice that it got a location tag automatically. Next I find a whole wild patch of plants next to the canal, where I know some, but not others. So I take a photo and name it 'canal weedscape' and add a note: 'a very diverse patch of weeds, where I see nettle, asparagus, fig and chamomile, but there is a whole bunch of other stuff I don't recognise'. I walk to a garden I particularly like, take a photo and write 'Klein Begijnhof garden' as its name and a note “to write: dead girl story”. I don't feel like writing the story now, but I think it's an interesting one, so I'll do it when I get home. I walk on and find more edible plants along the way, but by now i'm tired of writing, so I only take photos. I open the map in the app and see that there are a few other entries made by others, close to where I am. I walk to the spots, read the notes and if i can't identify the plant/place from the description, I look at the photo. Some of the descriptions are very matter-of-fact, just saying what the plant is, others are stories, others incomprehensible in a strange language or a set of formulas. On some of the spots there are instructions like “harvest this plant next tuesday when the moon is 3/4 full.” or “Sit next to this plant. Note what you hear.” or “Count how many people look at the plant in one minute”. Even though I don't understand what this is all about and I don't follow all the instructions, it makes me feel good to see that I'm contributing to something bigger than just my own entries and there is a certain mystery to it…
After about 1/2 hour I decide I had enough and go to my favourite vegetarian restaurant to get a snack. Even though I wasn't asked to collect restaurants, I think plants are enjoyed here, so I want to mark it as a vegetal place of interest. I notice the place is already on the patabotanical map. I'm pleasantly surprised. I add a comment with my review of the restaurant, saying that plants are still alive here, as they serve raw food only. I check my email (or the app) and notice that several of my entries got comments and questions from patabotanist-researchers, such as
I'm excited about my notes being noticed and becoming a part of the story, so I'm determined to write up more when I get home and have access to my computer. The food arrives and i'm curious - are the plants communicating to me through my tongue? I notice I eat slower and am more attentive to the plants I eat. At the end of the meal, I get a receipt and a little card: thank you for participating in patabotanical research (all customers get the same card). You can visit us in the Snoepwinkel (address…) and follow our progress here: http://borrowed-scenery.org
Once home, I open my computer and go to the site. I can find the map with my entries on it, with entries of many others. Opening my entry on the garden, I click on 'edit', that takes me to a login screen. I login and can edit the name/tag, notes and can add pictures. I write the story about the Begijnhof garden and save. Then I explore the rest of the site: there is the patabotanists' blog and a link to their twitter stream and a calendar (with things happening in the snoepwinkel and in Ghent). There is also a very entangled wiki where I found the information that was printed out in the picnic area of the snoepwinkel, with links to interesting articles on plant neurobiology. It all looks like a work in progress, with many interesting tangents related to plants and human plant interactions, that my fellow students might be interested in. I tweet the link, write a note about it on my facebook page and go off to meet some friends and talk about how we could make this into a collective experience.
I enter into the snoepwinkel and am intrigued by the display in the back room. There is an arrow drawn on the wall of the corridor, marked 'this way'. After that the writing is incomprehensible. I enter in the space and feel immersed in a sense of calm and slowness. I walk around a bit, taking in the hanging plants, the writings on the walls, the strange collection of objects and books, the subtle sound. I walk to the far corner to a strange tree-chair and find a note that says please sit. Once I sit down, I notice that headphones are hanging on the armrests. I put them on and listen. I hear a soft crackle and occasionally a soft voice saying words in an unknown language. On the table there is a plant with a card stuck in the soil. I take the card out. The card contains instructions on how to contemplate plant time by observing the plant on the table and listening to the voice through the headphones and suggests that I should take the 'guided contemplation field trip' and that the description of this trip is to be found on the lab table next to the telephone. I decide to follow the instructions, sit, gaze and listen. I'm not sure how much time passed, but after a while I feel a deep sense of calm and freshness that I didn't expect.
A group of people walk into the room and begin exploring. I notice they pick up a phone and each of them listens to something. I stand up, walk over to the table with the phone, glancing at the books in the locked cabinet, seeing many things i'd like to read. At the bottom of the cabinet there is a note saying that the reading room will be open from next week, every Thursday from 5-7. I'm definitely coming back for that!
I pick up the phone and dial the number that is hand written on the table. I get the voicemail of a patabotanist explaining what they're up to and how I can help doing fieldwork. I can either pick a trip myself, or ask for assistance. I don't feel like talking to anyone, so I find a filing drawer marked 'field trips' with a bunch of cards in it. There is a note explaining that I can pick a field trip and follow the instructions on the card. I search for the 'guided contemplation field trip card'. I find it easily (there are only a few types of field trips). The card assumes that i sat in the plant time chair for seven Zinzirinz cycles. (done that…). After that I should take the card to the apprentice in the front room. They will provide you with a listening apparatus, allowing me to be taken on a guided contemplation onto the streets, to learn how to observe the city through vegetal lenses.
I get the apparatus from the apprentice, in exchange for my id card (?). It consists of a small log containing a circuit board and headphones. Once the headphones are on my head, the apprentice switches the sound on. I hear instructions to walk, to look, to listen, to imagine… beneath and in between the voice, there is a textured composition, similar to the one I heard while sitting in the chair. The voice tells me to listen as a plant would, listen to the weather, the light, moisture, touch… It suggests that I be guided by sight of plants, as if following signs on a mountain path, signs left by plants rather than humans…
After 15 minutes, the voice tells me to turn around and walk back towards the snoepwinkel, along the same route, but without guidance. I'm instructed to imagine a green corridor, where plants are always in sight of each other, close enough downwind that they can communicate through scent molecules. To see the city filled with humanly-inaudible vegetal conversations. Through the headphones I hear occasional buzzing of insects, wind, water dripping and bird calls, but most of the time there is only the sound of the city, slightly masked through the headphones. A few times the patabotanist asks whether I'm still seeing the green corridor, how's my breath… bringing me back when I start drifting.
I come back to the Snoepwinkel, take off the headphones and suddenly everything sounds so loud and fast. The apprentice hands me back my id and the fieldtrip card, suggesting that I take a cup of tea before I leave and write down a few notes about my observations. He hands me a field-report sheet and a pencil. I gladly accept, as I need a bit of decompression time. I walk to the back room, make myself a cup of tea and lay down on the cushions staring at the plants above. While sipping tea, I write down a few notes and leave the sheet in the collection box. I browse through the scattered papers and find a piece of a story that i find intriguing. On the back it says it's an excerpt from Anathem. I take a photo of that and decide to look it up when I get home. I spent more time here than I expected and I should get going. I feel refreshed and relaxed, as if I spent a whole weekend in a mountain spa. I'm pleasantly surprised. On my way out, the apprentice hands me a card with a URL where I can find how things are going with the patabotanists and in the snoepwinkel and encourages me to come back, as the room and the activities will be changing over the coming weeks. I thank him and assure him that I will be back.
After experiencing both other pieces in Electrified, I'm a bit short of time, but I'd like to see what Borrowed Scenery is about. I ask the volunteer how it works and she explains that there is a narrative about plants as a responsive layer in the city, that can be experienced in the room itself, as well as through different plant-walks in Ghent. I tell her that I only have about 15 minutes and ask her if that's enough. She says that it is a bit short, but that I can have a look in the room, have a cup of tea and listen to the 'weather radio'. If I'd like to go for a short plant walk, there is one that can be done in 5-10 minutes and that she can give me instructions if I'm interested.
I go to the room and am a bit confused about what I'm supposed to do. I find the hot water and dried herbs and make myself a cup of tea, to drink while I'm exploring the room. There is a whole bunch of stuff there that would take a long time to browse through, so I just glance at the walls, where a few notes capture my attention - photos of children with flower-heads with a note “recorded in Luziminispier spring 034221, advanced case of hybridisation” next to a note about the monastery garden in Ghent where the first Belgian wine-grape was grown. What is all this about?! I don't get it but I feel strangely attracted to dig through the materials or just sit and look around. I find the radio and begin changing stations. I hear atmospheric compositions, lectures about flower arranging, mediaeval chants… I feel like an ambient DJ, filling the room with different sonic textures… I'm almost about to walk out when I see a big phone with instructions to call a number. I do that and receive a voicemail explaining about the patabotanists, what they do and how I can help. Now I understand how the walk fits in.
I'm curious to try a field trip, so I walk to the front room and ask the volunteer if I could do a 'field trip'. She hands me a simple 'audience counter', a field-trip instruction card and a map with an area of a few streets marked on it. She tells me that my task is to walk along one street (bagattenstraat) and count every plant I see, no matter how small. I tell her there are no plants in that street, but she tells me to go out and have a careful look. The instruction card says the same: walk slowly and try not to miss any sprout, fluff of moss, or blade of grass and when you find one, press the counter. When you come back, mark your route and write the final number on the map that was given to you in the beginning.
I walk out and look. Even before I made 5 steps I counted 7 plants. I lift up my head and find another 3 on the wall. I walk along one side of the street to the end, looking up, down, left and right, then cross the street and walk back doing the same. In less than 5 minutes and just one street, I counted several hundred plants. I'm amazed. This boring gray street will never look the same again! I give back the counter and tell the volunteer what to mark on the map, as I really have to go. She hands me a card with a URL in case I'd like to come back and explore some more, and finally she gives my ID card back, that I gave when I began exploring the first Electrified piece. Then I rush out to my next appointment…
I come back to Borrowed Scenery, after following the activities online for a few weeks (playing the game, reading the blog and retweeting a few interesting messages). I've noticed from my readings that things have been getting stranger and stranger, and the 'down-to-earth' collection of plant information in Ghent is now invaded with stories about humans taking on plant characteristics, and experiments that can be best described as parascientific meditations or as one of the patabotanists calls it “ exercises in 'applied magic'.
Even before entering the space, I notice the difference: the board in the corridor is full of writing in different languages; scheduled field trips, salons and experiments, testimonials, poems, equations… It looks like a lot has happened since I've been away. The space itself has become a jungle of plants hanging from the ceiling, the walls are covered in framed photographs and drawings. The lab has been setup with a large common table and chairs. There are plants attached to computers, plants in vials, in herbaria, in books. Plants everywhere - not only plants as I know them in pots and on strings, but also blueprints of plants that I've never seen before, hybrids of plants and obscure technologies, of plants and humans… I'm not sure what is real what is fictional in here any more. I find a scientific journal next to a book on 'parallel botany', both written in the same botanists' language, but both sound slightly implausible.
On one end of the table there is a screen with the game I played online and another with the map of Ghent filled with markers about plants, gardens and other vegetal places of interest. One wall has several layers of maps and notes, linking plants to words and words to images of impossible human-plant hybrids, of plant inspired technologies and fantastic landscapes. There are more strange objects and apparatus with written tags on them. On one of the walls there is a schedule with several experiments, one with a call for participants: a plant sentience workshop. I'm curious, so I add my name on the wall and send an email to the research assistant in charge. The contemplation chair is still the same (although now the plant has electronics connected to it. There are more books around as well. The picnic lounge has grown furniture, and looks as a proper elegant receiving room now. There is an old radio in the lounge room, connected to something on the roof. It plays soft textured sounds, making the room sound even more like a forest. Next to the radio there are some hand-written instructions on how to operate it. Different stations listen to different weather data. One of them listens to all, others only to wind, rain, sun… I tune the radio and different textures permeate the room. A few people enter, make some tea and join me in the lounge. They just came back from a field trip with 'plant ears' and are comparing experiences. The conversation sounds interesting, so I ask them how I could go on this field trip. They give me a field-work card with instructions and tell me to talk to the volunteer in the front room. The instructions tell me to install the plant ears app on my android phone and to get headphones from the apprentice. If I don't have an android phone, I can get one from the volunteer as well. I go out and talk to the volunteer. She shows me the phones they are giving out - they look much more 'in character' than mine - case-modded into a piece of wood, looking like a wooden geiger-counter. I decide to take one of them instead of loading the app onto my phone & exchange it for my id card.
The listening device transforms the sounds around me so the cars sound like insects, people like birds, wind is wild at times, it rains when it doesn't. I point the device in different directions and listen to the city with my new ears. It sounds as if I'm in a noisy tropical forest, with unknown and innumerable creatures hidden from my sight. I'm swimming in a thick soup of unseen living beings, rather than walking along a noisy urban street.
When I come back after 20-30 minutes, I find the room full of people, some in uniforms, some not, sitting around and chatting in the lounge. As I hand back the device, I ask the volunteer what's going on. She says that the people from FoAM have their regular Friday afternoon salon. I go in and see one of the uniformed people reading something out loud for a few minutes, then another one takes over and describes a field trip they did that morning. The third person, not in uniform talks about their own botanical experiment at the university. After a while the conversation flows in multiple directions and there is a pleasing hubbub in the lounge and the lab, with drinks and small bite-sized snacks being passed around. By chance I meet the research assistant who's organising the plant sentience experiment and we get talking for quite a while. Before I know it it's 7PM, there is sound of a bell from the radio and the lights begin dimming. The research assistants stand up, as if automated and begin switching off the equipment and cleaning up, without talking. I realise that they might have been 'in character' this whole time, although they seemed quite genuinely themselves. Again the edges between reality and fiction are quite unclear in here, but then, maybe fiction is slowly becoming reality, or vice versa…