From reading books so delicate they almost crumble as their pages are turned to plunging into the excitement and crowds of festivals such as SXSW in Texas and SPILL in London, Sydney-based artist Cat Jones has experienced a diversity of sensory environments in the course of developing her latest project, The Transcontinental Garden Exchange .
The Transcontinental Garden Exchange is described as an ‘international experiment in communication and exchange between humans and plants; a united act of gardening to elicit social change’. It is as complex as it is ambitious bringing together history, sociology, conceptual thinking, sexual politics, science and art.
We walk past plants everyday. We think of them as benign, Jones explains, but it’s fascinating how they can form the basis of complex conversations about social and political movements. We barely pay them much attention yet we are symbiotically connected in ways science is still struggling to understand.
In her characteristically self-depreciating way Jones describes herself as ‘just an artist’. However she can also be described as a collaborative, interdisciplinary performance maker and media artist, artistic advisor, curator, mentor and creative producer. She has been a co-director of Electrofringe , an international festival of experimental, electronic art and culture. Currently she is on leave from her role as artistic director of PACT centre for emerging artists to develop her project thanks to an Australia Council for the Arts Established Artist Creative Australia Fellowship.
While the scientific and environmental aspects of the Transcontinental Garden Exchange are something of a new direction for Jones, in other ways the project continues themes of anthropomorphism and communication systems that have run through her own work. It also continues Jones’s interest in facilitating creative opportunities for other people. With this project she is experimenting with conceptual frameworks that allow artists and non-artists to contribute toward multiple forms of public outcome that come together as a single body of work.
Jones’s development research falls roughly into three areas: studying the social, historic and political influence of plants and botany; responding to the latest research and scientific understanding of plants; and professional development.
The Fellowship has allowed her to take part in the Melbourne Festival’s Hive lab attend Transmediale in Berlin, and meet up with international artists, like Heather Barnett, as well as visit Kew Gardens and in Belgium’s the Jardin Botanique.
In the rare materials section of London’s Wellcome Trust Library she studied precious 17th and 18th century botanic texts and engravings. They provided an insight into how the development of botany precipitated changing social and political attitudes, from access to education for women to post-colonial intercultural relationships.
She also undertook an inspiring residency in Brussels at fo.am, a concept-led company that specialises in the relationship between plants and humans.
Over the next six months Jones will look more closely at current scientific research attending a plant signalling conference in Vancouver and undertaking a residency at SymbioticA in Perth. She also hopes to collaborate with a group of biohackers during an upcoming residency in New York.
Coalescing such a complex body of material into a single artistic public outcome is not only overwhelming it may be impossible, Jones says and how it will resolve is something she is still debating. Currently she is looking at the idea of a performance installation that creates an environment in which a number of different public outcomes and social engagement experiences can take place.
In late June, Jones will present the first of her public outcomes for the Transcontinental Garden Exchange in San Francisco as part of the PSI 19 Conference at Stanford University. She also has plans for a presentation in Sydney.
The Creative Australia Fellowship provides support for an artist to invest time in their practice, to drive innovation and push creative boundaries. For Jones that has meant going outside of the ‘art world’ and meeting extraordinary people working in trans-disciplinary and specialist research fields.
When you’re an artist in a place like Australia, Jones explains you’re often completely immersed in the art world. ‘One of the most amazing things for me is…not being completely immersed in that world,’ she says. ‘Making an artwork not in an artistic environment is one of the significant things that I wanted to get out of [the Fellowship] and I definitely have.’