A Toxin, a Defense
By Alexander Provan
What follows is Alexander Provan’s introduction to Crying Pine Tree, a performance by Goldin+Senneby and Katie Kitamura at Triple Canopy on January 30, 2020. After reading the introduction, Provan unboxed and planted four genetically modified pine trees while Katie Kitamura read the prologue of a novel that she’s writing about the trees. (Click here to view a video documenting the performance.)
My name is Alexander Provan and, in addition to being Triple Canopy’s editor, I’m designated as the “permittee” and “responsible person” on permit number 19-308-101m, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Biotechnology Regulatory Service, effective as of January 1, 2020. The approval of the permit allowed Triple Canopy to move genetically engineered organisms or products—specifically, four loblolly pines—from a university laboratory in northern Florida to our office. The trees are to be contained in the portion of the office that faces Canal Street, where I and other Triple Canopy staff work, a.k.a., “glassed-in office #1.”
[Point to office]
The pines were engineered by a biological scientist so as to dramatically increase the production of resin, which is stored in canals beneath the bark and includes oleoresin, a toxic chemical that defends against predators and pathogens. When the bark is punctured, the resin is released and oozes to the surface. Essentially, the scientist has overdriven the plants’ immune systems: the idea is to develop a resin-based energy source, or bio-fuel, that also captures carbon dioxide in the air.
This evening, we’ll unpack and initiate the containment of these plants, which we expect to continue for several years. First, though, I’ll conduct a brief training session—developed with the biological scientist—for Triple Canopy staff, as mandated by the permit.
[Begin slide show]
Officially, I’m the “permittee,” so I’ll be accountable if anything goes wrong. But others at Triple Canopy must assist in upholding the conditions of the permit, and they must be ready to take responsibility for the plants if something happens to me. (As I wrote in the application, as part of a request to withhold information about the scientist and the plant from the public: “There are many documented cases of substantial property damage and threats to the safety of individuals engaged in research and development of genetically modified plants, including trees.”)
[Address Triple Canopy staff]
What does this mean? You—Triple Canopy employees and full-time contractors—have to ensure that the pines are monitored for any sign of reproduction, disease, or tampering; are not removed from the premises; are not tampered with by any unauthorized parties; and do not come into contact with other plants or animals, which could have unforeseen consequences—for instance, illness, death, or mutation for individual organisms or entire species, the disruption of the food supply, the degradation of the local ecosystem, etc.
We’ve already told Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the relevant USDA agency, about our plans for the containment and care of the trees. Now, we’ll have to document everything that happens—or does not happen—to the plants, and make the records available to APHIS in the case of an inspection, which might occur at any time, without notice.
We’ll have to check to see if the plants need water and look for stray needles on a daily basis, and inspect the plants for signs of flowers and insects on Mondays and Thursdays. (If flowering occurs, immediately remove the buds, soak them overnight in bleach solution, dispose of them in a heavy-duty trash bag, and contact APHIS for further instructions.) We’ll have to make notes whenever we water or trim the plants, identify insects or buds, etc., and we’ll have to log the date and time along with the name of whomever performs the task.
We’ll need to maintain the security of the “containment area” by restricting access to Triple Canopy staff and those accompanied by them, and ensuring that windows remain shut and doors remain locked whenever we’re out of the office. We’ll have to do all that we can to stop unauthorized individuals from tampering with the plants. We’ll have to make sure that no part of any plant is taken out of the containment area without having been devitalized (and that process having been documented). We’ll have to resist the urge to propagate the trees, whether through cuttings or breeding.
If any of these protocols are violated or neglected, or if any plant (or part of a plant) is released without authorization, we must immediately notify APHIS.
When we’re ready to dispose of a plant, we’ll have to do the following: stop watering the plant for at least two weeks; cut up the plant with shears and soak it overnight in bleach solution; put all organic materials in a heavy-duty trash bag; and make a record of this process.
If we fail to comply, we’re subject to fines of up to \$1,116,156—and to criminal prosecution.
I submitted our first application to APHIS last January. Unlike most applicants, our plan was to … go through the application process. We wanted to learn about the regulation of genetically engineered plants and to see if we had any chance of acquiring some. I had no idea what might happen; I couldn’t find any information, much less advice, about engaging with the USDA’s regulatory system in order to learn by doing, or about caring for genetically engineered trees for the sake of caring for them.
When I first started going back and forth with APHIS, I couldn’t tell if our plan was so banal, our reasoning so artless, as to be reassuring or suspicious to the regulators.
Q. Are you a research firm, scientific institution, or agricultural business?
A. No, we’re a magazine named after a military contractor.
Q. Are you planning to study, cultivate, or exploit the plants?
A. No, we’re just excited to have them sit in the office with us for three or five years.
Q. What do you expect to happen to the plants for the duration of the permit?
A. Well, I suppose they’ll … grow? But … not too much?
APHIS typically works with industrial farms seeking permission to plant fields of genetically modified plants. I was told—several times—that our application was like no other in memory. And, actually, I got the sense that nothing so remarkable had happened at APHIS in years: conference calls were being devoted to our permit, questions were being posed to higher-ups, rules were being rewritten to accommodate “unconventional applications.”
Despite the strangeness of our plan, the biotechnologist at APHIS offered guidance and answered questions with a disorienting mix of diligence, devotion to protocols, and bemusement. Over the course of ten months, he sent innumerable questions, clarifications, edits, and requests for additional materials. Ultimately, I ended up writing:
Movement of these GE loblolly pines is not for traditional scientific research; rather, the plants are a component of a long-term artistic research project on transgenic organisms by the Swedish artist duo Goldin+Senneby. Triple Canopy’s participation in this artistic research project includes: a) the maintenance and observation of the GE loblolly pines within Triple Canopy’s office; and b) the communication of photos/reports/monitoring records from Triple Canopy to Goldin+Senneby.
We are, of course, committed to maintenance and observation, to creating and transmitting records. But we also regard the plants as symbols of a world in which all life is both under threat and subject to enhancement (or even salvation) through engineering. We’re thinking about synthetic biology changing—on material and conceptual levels—who and what we are. We’re thinking of the trees exiting the laboratory and becoming protagonists in a story that might transform the world around them—or, at least, at first, those tasked with watering and monitoring them.
If you were to pierce the bark of an older specimen of GE loblolly pine, you might see beads of sap trickle down the trunk like tears. You might see enhancement to the point of excess, the organism overcome by the power of its own defenses. You might consider the experiments that have been and have yet to be performed on your body. You might sense the pine’s telltale aroma becoming more and more pungent as toxins are ejected from the resin canals. You might recall the vibration of a tuning fork being held against your ankle by a doctor, the unsettling experience of hearing and feeling the same phenomenon, the same dispersion of molecules, at once, while doubting that the two sensations have anything to do with each other. You might squint at the glare from the sun penetrating the walls of a humid greenhouse, or from LED grow lights hanging in the nook of a rental-ready office. You might observe the slivers of pink and purple infringing on the neutrality of the surfaces as you balance the cells that are recognized by your body as part of you and the ones that are understood as alien, the ones that are under attack.
How easily the balance can be altered, the defenses redirected.
On January 30, four loblolly pine trees were delivered to Triple Canopy’s office, courtesy of a geneticist at a university in northern Florida, who had modified them so as to overdrive their immune systems. That evening, an audience assembled at the office for Crying Pine Tree, a performance in which Triple Canopy’s editor, Alexander Provan, unpacked and planted the pines while the author Katie Kitamura read the prologue to a novel that she’s writing about the trees. The pines—as actual organisms and as fodder for fiction—are components of a multifaceted work in progress by the artist duo Goldin+Senneby, which directed and devised the setting for the performance. As part of the work, the pines are to be contained in Triple Canopy’s office and monitored by staff, in accordance with the protocols established by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, for several years. Below is a video documenting the performance. (Click here to read Provan’s introduction to the event.)
A geneticist at a university in northern Florida unhooks a padlock and opens the door to a greenhouse, revealing thousands of loblolly pine trees. Industrial grow lights hanging from rafters illuminate orderly rows of seedlings in beakers, spindly trunks rising from plastic tubs. The plants appear unremarkable, less like the subjects of an experiment than the offerings at a big-box store’s gardening section. But the setting—the trappings of a laboratory, the measurement devices and log sheets—marks the plants as different, as deserving scrutiny and protection. They aren’t meant to prettify an oversized yard or shelter squirrels. They’re vessels for information, designed to reveal something over time—as needles grow from the branches, as bark sheathes the trunks, as resin ducts fill with oleoresin. They’re symbols of a world in which all life is both under threat and subject to enhancement (or even salvation) through engineering.
The modified pines—as actual organisms and as fodder for fiction—are components of a multifaceted work in progress by the artist duo Goldin+Senneby. The geneticist has dramatically increased the production of resin, which includes oleoresin, a toxic chemical that defends against predators and pathogens; he has, essentially, overdriven the plants’ immune systems. When the bark of an older pine is pierced, beads of sap trickle down the trunk like tears. The story of the trees is being told by the writer Katie Kitamura, in a novel that follows an investor who wants to exploit them as an alternative source of fuel, a boon for the clean-energy sector. The investor, who suffers from an unspecified autoimmune disorder, visits the greenhouse to convince the geneticist; he offers her a tree to take home.
For Crying Pine Tree, Kitamura will read the prologue to the novel in a setting devised by Goldin+Senneby. In the coming months and years, Goldin+Senneby will engage in research, biological experiments, and the staging of events involving the modified pines, which will inform the development of Kitamura’s novel, and vice versa. These works—to be created in conversation with and, ultimately, published and presented by Triple Canopy—will ask how we understand ourselves and the world through the interplay of narratives and scientific interventions. How can these seemingly disparate technologies be employed to change who and what we are, and to what ends? How does the bodily experience of autoimmune disease relate to ongoing ecological transformations, which position humans both as experimental subjects and engineers of their own fates? And how might the sites and subjects of the geneticist’s experiment multiply after the pine has left the lab?
Crying Pine Tree is occurring in conjunction with Goldin+Senneby’s exhibition “Insurgency of Life,” on view at e-flux in New York City through February 8.
This public program is made possible through generous support from Jane Hait, a founding member of Triple Canopy Director’s Circle; the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; the Jacques Louis Vidal Charitable Fund; the Lambent Foundation Fund of Tides Foundation; the National Endowment for the Arts; the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; the New York State Council on the Arts; and the Opaline Fund of the Jewish Community Endowment Federation and Endowment Fund. Additional support for this program was provided by the Swedish Research Council.
Seating & accessibility
Seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. In order to ensure that events are accessible and comfortable, we’ll open the doors thirty minutes prior to each event and strictly limit admittance to our legal capacity. Please check Triple Canopy’s Facebook and Twitter accounts for updates, as we’ll indicate if events are sold out.
Triple Canopy’s venue is located at 264 Canal Street, 3W, near several Canal Street subway stations. Our floor is accessible by elevator (63" × 60" car, 31" door) and stairway. Due to the age and other characteristics of the building, our bathrooms are not ADA-accessible, though several such bathrooms are located nearby. If you have specific questions about access, please write at least three days before the event and we will make every effort to accommodate you.
- Goldin+Senneby is a Stockholm-based artist subject established in 2004 by Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby. Goldin+Senneby often focuses on speculation and contemporary financial markets, and employs the practices that distinguish those markets. Goldin+Senneby’s retrospective, “Standard Length of a Miracle,” was on view in 2016 at Tensta konsthall in Stockholm and in 2017 at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Goldin+Senneby has had solo exhibitions at e-flux, New York; CCA Derry-Londonderry; Kadist, Paris; and the Power Plant, Toronto, among other venues. In 2015, Triple Canopy published Headless, a detective novel, ghostwritten by K. D., that culminated Goldin+Senneby’s eight-year investigation of offshore finance and human sacrifice. In 2019, Triple Canopy published “Eternal Employment,” a listing for a never-ending job at a train station in Gothenburg, written by Lina Ekdahl as part of a project by Goldin+Senneby.
- Katie Kitamura is the author of the novels A Separation (2017), which was a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Premio von Rezzori, and The Longshot (2009) and Gone to the Forest (2013), which were finalists for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award. Kitamura is the recipient of fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and Santa Maddalena. She teaches in the creative writing program at New York University. Her previous contributions to Triple Canopy include “LANGUAGE Inc.,” a leaked document that reveals the corporate privatization of public speech, and “Les Fleurs du terminal,” a reflection on Headless, the Goldin+Senneby murder-mystery.
- Alexander Provan is the editor of Triple Canopy and a contributing editor of Bidoun. He is the recipient of a 2015 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and was a 2013–15 fellow at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics. His writing has appeared in the Nation, n+1, Art in America, Artforum, Frieze, and in several exhibition catalogues. His work has been presented at the 14th Istanbul Biennial, Museum Tinguely (Basel), 12th Bienal de Cuenca (Ecuador), New Museum (New York), Kunsthall Oslo, and Hessel Museum of Art (Annandale-on-Hudson, New York), among other venues. Measuring Device with Organs was recently published by Triple Canopy as an LP.