Caroline Rothwell’s Infinite Herbarium

Caroline Rothwell is a Sydney based artist whose work explores the interface between culture, industrialisation and nature. Her work provokes important questions about what we choose to see and archive, and more importantly, what we don’t. Infinite Herbarium, a multi-channel projection and participatory experience created by Caroline, in collaboration with Google Creative Lab, is currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney (MCA) as part of The National 2021: New Australian Art and concurrently at The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney.

Infinite Herbarium aims to expand our experience of the vast, diverse botanical world — creating connections between people, plants and the ecosystems they inhabit. Participants’ encounters with real world plants are filtered through data sets and historical archives using machine learning techniques. The result is what Caroline calls a ‘morph’ – a curious hybrid of two species, neither one nor the other. Infinite Herbarium is a web application as well as an installation – snap a couple of plants and see what happens yourself! It’s quite wild. 

Caroline and I recently sat in a dark room in the MCA surrounded by monumental plant morphs growing and shrinking on screens around us, and spoke about Caroline’s work and thoughts on humans, nature and art.

Caroline Rothwell. Photo: Jenni Carter

Can you please tell me a little of the Caroline Rothwell back story?

Well, I’ll give you the plant based back story! My mum was Irish, melancholic, musical and a great producer of vegetables and gorgeous gardens and my dad was an eccentric industrial chemist. My aunt was an Irish fungi expert, not trained, more of a street expert who people tracked down. And a favourite uncle is a wheat scientist in Canada. I didn’t realise until a few years ago that the complex world of plants is in my blood.

I went to art school in London, before moving to New York to start my Masters. In the meantime I married a New Zealander (who I met on a beach in Greece!). We moved to Australia in 2004 after living in New Zealand for 10 years.

I’m aware of being not from a place. I’m aware of my own ignorance. I suppose I’m always trying to learn. One of the ways I connect with place is via the land and the unique and extraordinary biodiversity of the Australian environment.

Caroline RothwellInfinite Herbarium (still),2021, installation view, The National 2021: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, single-channel digital video made in collaboration with Google Creative Lab, high definition, colour, sound.  Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist, photograph: Jacquie Manning 

Now, lets talk about Infinite Herbarium. Can you please tell me where this project grew from?

I spend an awful lot of time digging around in archives, both analogue and digital. I find it revelatory. And I thought, ‘well, maybe I can get other people interested or bring the archive forward in a slightly different way’. I’m also interested in digital space, especially in relation to machine learning. It’s generally the territory of 20-something blokes so I thought as a middle-aged woman I might get involved with those data-sets and influence the algorithm! I collaborated with an amazing team from Google Creative Lab.

And there are really big questions around data, of course. Like who owns it, who shapes it? The people who control the data, control the story.

That’s exactly right. I’m always fascinated by what’s collected and what’s not collected, what’s archived and what’s not archived. And the danger is that if we just keep regurgitating the archive and slimming it and slimming it from a very mono-cultural perspective, it just keeps reducing. I am interested in trying to draw out elements that are slightly less seen, less known.

We chose datasets from the Biodiversity Heritage Library that were very beautiful scientific illustrations. Basically, the idea was to try and create some connection, sense of curiosity around the archive and also question its authority so while people are gathering information an animated artwork morph is evolving in response to that archive.

In the multi-channel projection at the MCA the morphed plants take on a sort-of bodily form – they feel like lungs and hearts, and they’re bigger than human. I really wanted to create a monumental sense of plant life. I’m fascinated by plant blindness and our lack of understanding of plants. We couldn’t exist without plant life. I’m trying to co-connect us. 

The other side was with the web app experience. When people are out in the world they can photograph a plant and the Infinite Herbarium will attempt to classify it for them. It gives people a bit of knowledge about the plants around them. Like, that plant that you see on your doorstep every day is actually from South America, and this one’s possibly an endangered species…

So, how does it work?

Say you’ve photographed an apple and a strawberry, it tells you what each plant is, giving the botanical name and a short description. Then it feeds the photographs that you take in as patterns and locates the patterns within those data-sets from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Your morph is created and you are presented with an animated form that you can download to keep in your own digital herbarium. 

The interesting thing is it’s a completely data-driven project, but it totally relates to my sculptural work and my other practices.

When I saw the Banksia integrifolia specimen at the National Herbarium years ago, collected by Banks and Solander, I got quite emotional. Its one of my favourite plants, and there was something quite moving about seeing the type specimen used to slot it into the Linnean system of binomial nomenclature. But now, I also see that this one plant pressed on a piece of paper represents the erasure of an entire world, so much loss. How do you navigate the charged territory of the archive?

I actually think that the plants are a way for me to think through land and environment but also colonisation and invasion. I step carefully and try to leave enough room for potential. A couple of years ago I made this series with some of Joseph Banks’ Florilegium prints where I bought four of the original prints and cut them up.

The actual originals?

The actual prints.

And you cut them up?

Yeah. They’re ones from Kurnell, Botany Bay. I’ve got a show, Horizon at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery next month where they’ll be showing. I basically got these four prints, sliced into them. and wove tongues that I’d painted through the prints.

I sat with them for months before I could actually make the cuts – it felt kind of sacrilegious, but I’m happy with them. And for me, they’re political works because the tongue is consuming, it’s taking, it’s devouring. The Banks story, I mean, those prints as well as being undeniably beautiful also represent the devaluing of indigenous knowledge – the collecting, re-naming, claiming of place by Banks for the empire.

But the tongue is also this other thing, it’s loving and has potential. I’m always interested in that, it’s got potential for care and what’s next?

Untitled 335, 2019, watercolour on Arches paper collage, on Joseph Banks’ Florilegium a la pope print from copper plate engraving, 300gsm Somerset mould made acid free paper, 76 x 59 x 3 cm.

Untitled 7, 2019, watercolour on Arches paper collage, on Joseph Banks’ Florilegium a la pope print from copper plate engraving, 300gsm Somerset mould made acid free paper, 76 x 59 x 3 cm.

The artist acknowledges and pays respects to the Gadigal and Bidjigal people who traditionally occupied the Sydney coast and the Gweagal people of the Dharawal language group who traditionally occupied the Southern Sydney area.

Untitled 72, 2019, watercolour on Arches paper collage, on Joseph Banks’ Florilegium a la pope print from copper plate engraving, 300gsm Somerset mould made acid free paper, 76 x 59 x 3 cm.

You said in a recent interview that plants are political actors, how plants and landscapes represent the ideologies of a particular time. I wonder, if you were coming from another place and trying to distil where our culture is now through looking at our gardens and our landscapes, where would you say we are?

You know, on the one hand, it’s amazing, some of the things we’ve managed to do. Like putting land for national parks aside and having these incredible spaces for the Commons. But it seems to me that caretaking of habitat has diminished. You know, the shareholders, the profit, that’s all that seems to matter. The idea of caretaking needs to be fought for. It is fundamental, particularly in our current state of extraordinary biodiversity losses as the climate changes.

When I moved to New Zealand, I found this book called The Weeds of New Zealand and on the front cover was the silver fern. The book was published in 1926 and for me was like – kaboom, okay, in 1926, what is now the national icon was once a weed.

How quickly we move!

Yeah, exactly. It is amazing how quickly we can transition our thinking, which is hopeful.

In a sense, you’re putting your energy into this space of transition, into creation and emergence.

Yes, I’m thinking a lot about plants, planetary health and human health. The data around plants and our own existence is just phenomenal. I think it takes something like seven full-grown trees to provide enough oxygen for one human per year.  I’m fascinated by data and trying to somehow give visual reference to that. I’m trying to hint at things and draw people in, to invest time and energy and thought into these worlds.

I think everything I do at the moment is about symbiosis. I’ve always tried to make us on a parallel with the natural world, not on top of it. I’m interested in illustrating the symbiotic relationship we need to foster between our urban infrastructure, the natural world and our technological existence – trying to look for interconnection.

Lung, 2021, installation view, The National 2021: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, canvas, gypsum cement, stainless steel, paint, mixed media, photograph: Felicity Jenkins

For example, that lung sculpture I was just showing you, came out of me reading a news story at least 10 years ago about this Russian man who had a big growth on his lung. The doctors thought it was cancer. They operated on him and pulled out a tiny pine tree. The story goes that he’d inhaled a pine seed and the seed had germinated inside the dark warmth of his lungs. I’m fascinated by that story, I loved that sense of him inhaling a pine needle and then nurturing it, yet it became toxic to him as it grows – kind of a reverse plant / human relationship you know…

Now, lets talk about making art with carbon emissions. Do you just go around and scrape the exhaust pipes of cars?

Well, it started when I was thinking about the massive change wrought on the planet since the industrial revolution and also thinking about the little foundational species that don’t get a look in, in our stories. In this case insects – and I was reading about the peppered moth. In industrial Northern England in the 1800’s, there was this little pale colour moth and as the trees got covered in soot, its camouflage failed it. So, the lighter colored moths got eaten, and the darker colored moths survived.  And I thought it would be interesting to actually start to document these disappearing species out of the emissions that were causing their demise. 

It’s absurd and it’s dark and the process is pseudo-scientific. A curator from the US was interested in the process and invited me to make a big external wall drawing in Philadelphia (as part of COP21), which is the fifth most carcinogenic city in the States because of all the industrial emissions. I asked to them collect a bit of smoke-stack pollution for me and they casually delivered this huge wheelbarrow of emissions. It was so much, I only needed a cup full and still use it in work today.

Carbon Emission 7 (Currowan), 2021, (still) single-channel digital animation, loop, Ed. of 8

What do you mix it with?

For that one, I just mixed it with water because I was painting on the outside of a building so it could wash away. But the ones in this exhibition are mixed with a binder medium, to create a paint. Painting soot onto glass somehow feels like a consideration of the industrialised city. I then document and digitally animate them.

The carbon emissions I’ve used previously are fossil fuel emissions and people now collect them for me from their car exhaust pipes. I’ve also started using charcoal from bushfires too. I’m interested in the meaning in materials.

Im reading a book at the moment, about extinction and how its represented culturally. And something that is made clear in it is the idea that we need to have cultural stories attached to species if we want people to care. And it made me a bit depressed because Ive always thought that it is possible to appreciate something just for its being-ness, not because of how it plays into my own particular story. What do you think about this?

I occasionally get invited to make public art proposals, and I read these urban planning place-making documents where they nominate threatened species for the community to engage with. And the chosen species, are frequently beautiful fluffy marsupials. 

But I don’t think we’re like that, I think that if we’re presented with the whole system we engage bigger… You know, I saw a beautiful thing on my Instagram feed this morning – a drop of seawater magnified 20 times and it was a whole magnificent world. I don’t think we require one iconic fluffy species; I just think we require knowledge. That’s the inconvenient truth, isn’t it? 

Yes, absolutely. I do think, though, that for anyone whos making art or writing about this time from a more-than-human perspective, there are big questions to navigate.

Yeah, I mean, there’s always two or three avenues for me; there’s the concept, there’s the politics, which go hand in hand, but there’s also the kind of gut feel of making it, you know?

Which is, I suppose, where you have to rely on your own way of walking, your own way of breathing, through work.

Absolutely. Thank you, Caroline.

Carbon Emission 5, Constructivist Rococo (still),2020, installation view, The National 2021: New Australian Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, single-channel digital animation, loop, image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia © the artist, photograph: Felicity Jenkins