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A Tweet-Powered Garden Grows in Midtown Manhattan

For artist Martin Roth, everything is political, even lavender herbs. In his new installationIn May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan Nurtured by Tweets, he did put this ethos to action in the lower level of New York’s Austrian Cultural Forum.

Six rows of 200 lavender plants grow under fluorescent lights. When someone like President Donald Trump tweets, the strength of the light source intensifies. They are connected to a computer that monitors Twitter activity from top political influencers in the U.S. and their retweets. In response, the lights hum loudly, impossible to ignore, and almost— but not quite– resembling the sound of bees buzzing or birds chirping.

The lights were on full volume when I arrived at four in the afternoon on a Monday. President Donald Trump had tweeted about an hour before, “We will NEVER FORGET the victims who lost their lives one year ago today in the horrific #PulseNightClub shooting. #OrlandoUnitedDay.” In less than 24 hours, the statement was retweeted 20,000 times, received 8,500 comments, and garnered 78,000 likes — just another ordinary moment in the 24-hour online news cycle.

Every few minutes, the lights would drop suddenly without warning, dimming the room. A moment later, they’d turn back on, continuing to flicker and leaving the gallery with an eerie and uncanny feeling that it is operated by an unidentifiable external source. Roth’s unusual juxtaposition of nature and politics compellingly captures the unease of today’s volatile political climate.

Six rows of 200 lavender plants grow under fluorescent lights. When someone like President Donald Trump tweets, the strength of the light source intensifies.

This installation is filled with contradictions. Wallpaper depicting forest trees fills the gallery space– a contrast to living and growing lavender plants, and an illusion of nature that illustrates how alienated the gallery is from it. Lavender is known for its calming properties, often used to ease anxiety or help transition into sleep. The herb’s soothing quality, as well as the inherently slow pace of gardening, sharply contrasts with the constant, anxiety-invoking 24/7 news cycle.

Knowing that the tweets are in the room but being unable to see them creates a subtle agitation, a reminder of how much the news cycle relies on the tweet’s visual component. There is no writing on the wall that explains what the viewer is looking at or any visual evidence that tweets are “nurturing” the garden, besides the printed content upstairs. By incorporating the tweets without visuals, Roth alludes to an important question about the other ways the reverberations of politicians’ tweets impact the environment that are still unarticulated.

Even though the lights are synchronized with each other, the lavender patches have grown unevenly. Some patches are wilting and almost dead while others have fully bloomed. It could be that the chaos of being “nurtured” by tweets has created this scattered result. Yet, the installation is also proof that the lavender plants are both fragile and durable in the face of volatile conditions.

Lavender’s soothing quality, as well as the inherently slow pace of gardening, sharply contrasts with the constant, anxiety-invoking 24/7 news cycle.

Martin Roth, who was born in Austria and is currently based in New York, has consistently explored the friction of nature and artificial spaces in his work. In this installation, the untraditional method of gardening also reflects how the environment’s future is entirely dependent on public policy.

Located on the lower level in a room with no windows and spotty cellphone reception, the exhibit is at once suffocating and a respite from the chaos of the public political sphere. On this hot and humid summer day, it also provides a cooling shelter from the unforgiving weather outside. Despite all the noise and the light’s constant flickering, sitting on the steps and watching the garden is unexpectedly calming.

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In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan Nurtured by Tweets will be on view at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Manhattan (11 East 52nd Street, New York, NY) through July 21.

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