Study for a Glass House Study for a Glass House



The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both pow­er­ful­ly affect­ed. Build­ings, land­scapes, &c. were exhib­it­ed in pro­por­tions so vast as the bod­i­ly eye is not fit­ted to con­ceive. Space swelled, and was ampli­fied to an extent of unut­ter­able infin­i­ty. This, how­ev­er, did not dis­turb me so much as the vast expan­sion of time; I some­times seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, some­times had feel­ings rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a mil­len­ni­um passed in that time, or, how­ev­er, of a dura­tion far beyond the lim­its of any human experience.”

—Thomas De Quincey, Con­fes­sions of an Eng­lish Opi­um Eater

While read­ing Thomas De Quincey’s descrip­tion of the sub­lime time-space mind expan­sion made pos­si­ble by the inges­tion of an exot­ic psy­chotrop­ic, I couldn’t help but be remind­ed that plants occu­py a priv­i­leged space not only in con­struc­tions of a tex­tu­al imag­i­nary but also in the preser­va­tion of his­to­ry. Through the ages, plants have been an essen­tial agent to trans­form­ing our con­cept of time, extend­ing beyond our indi­vid­ual life spans. An exot­ic plant cap­ti­vates De Quincey’s Euro­pean imag­i­na­tion, releas­ing it from social con­straints, and releas­ing its cre­ative juices. In the exhi­bi­tion at hand, Study for a Glasshouse, Abbas Akha­van intro­duces native plants into a vit­rine in order to deter­ri­to­ri­al­ize Dale Estate doc­u­ments that are repro­duc­tions from the PAMA Archives Col­lec­tion. A colo­nial dis­course under­writes each project. Plants are used to loosen the civ­i­liz­ing forces at stake.

Plants live on a dif­fer­ent time scale. Root­ed in place, but able to dis­sem­i­nate in seed form, they are slow mov­ing crea­tures, with the abil­i­ty to grow rather quick­ly under ide­al con­di­tions. Some trees have been record­ed as liv­ing up to 4000 years. Many plants have a rhi­zomat­ic life form, prop­a­gat­ed across a shared root sys­tem, hold­ing a shared age­less’ mate­r­i­al con­scious­ness. Their tem­po­ral­i­ty is nec­es­sar­i­ly dif­fer­ent to that of humans. When humans began tap­ping into the nour­ish­ing and use­ful chem­i­cal prop­er­ties of plants, our lives were extend­ed and enhanced—agriculture meant grow­ing plants as food that could be stored for future use, while manip­u­lat­ing plants into cloth­ing meant an abil­i­ty to live in dif­fer­ent geo­gra­phies and cli­mates, and the pro­duc­tion of paper meant the abil­i­ty to record mem­o­ry and thought for preser­va­tion into the future.

Human inter­sec­tion with plants is there­fore one of rad­i­cal becom­ing, and often­times height­ened expe­ri­en­tial inten­si­ty, across a lifes­pan, but also across mil­len­nia. Tap­ping into plants’ secret­ed poten­tials can mean open­ing up unfore­seen human poten­tials. We as humans would nev­er have evolved the way we have with­out the life-extend­ing prop­er­ties of plants—their abil­i­ty to nour­ish, heal, pre­serve, and exceed mere’ life. Plants have chem­i­cal prop­er­ties that can pro­vide a sense of expand­ed time; think of the mind-alter­ing tox­ins and life-extend­ing elixirs inher­ent to plants, as well as the exten­sive prop­er­ties of their patient, plod­ding reach (their creep­ing, waver­ing move­ment), which has helped extend our own foot­print in space. As a light­weight tech­nol­o­gy, paper can eas­i­ly trav­el, almost as eas­i­ly as their seeds, prop­a­gat­ing genet­ic mate­r­i­al, ideas… In fact, plants have become insep­a­ra­ble from human evo­lu­tion. This extends into the destruc­tive poten­tial of colo­nial expan­sion. The con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of the native” by colo­nial” thought and species is a cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non that has rad­i­cal­ly altered the world. A vio­lence that spreads through the pros­the­sis of lum­ber­ing wood­en ships, car­ry­ing for­eign seeds and species, and hence new agri­cul­tur­al tra­di­tions abroad.

Colonists spread their cul­ture to the New World in the form of ideas and inva­sive species. Ros­es were under­stood to be civ­i­lized and beau­ti­ful, and increas­ing­ly com­mod­i­fi­able. One could buy, rather than cul­ti­vate, that instant aura of civ­i­liza­tion and good taste per­me­at­ing the home. This cul­ti­va­tion was made pos­si­ble due to indus­tri­al ener­gy pro­vid­ed by coal and oil. An intri­cate net­work of tun­nels and pipelines heat­ed the green­hous­es, and smoke escaped the com­plex through a 91-metre chim­ney, which dom­i­nat­ed the Bramp­ton land­scape. It is impor­tant to remem­ber that oil and coal are ancient plant mat­ter trans­formed into inten­si­fied ener­gy poten­tial over mil­lions of years.

Their slow nat­ur­al pro­duc­tion is quick­ly burned into quick prof­its and instant plea­sure, beyond the time and space of life’s nat­ur­al rhythms. To extend the indus­try beyond the imme­di­ate ter­ri­to­ry, a spe­cial spur line” was built to link the green­house com­plex of the Dale Estate to the Cana­di­an Pacif­ic [rail­way]… to deliv­er coal… in all sea­sons.” In turn the rail­way con­nect­ed Brampton’s green­hous­es to Toron­to, such that by 1956 the Dale Estate green­hous­es were respon­si­ble for half of provin­cial pro­duc­tion” of fresh cut flowers.

– I imag­ine Study for a Glasshouse as the artist has explained it to me. In a long vit­rine he will place pho­tos of rows and rows of green­hous­es. Hand-writ­ten speech­es about the role of flow­ers in soci­ety. Pho­tos of the Duke and Duchess of York’s roy­al vis­it to the fac­to­ry. I imag­ine the list of end­less Vic­to­ri­an names giv­en to new strains of ros­es. On one leaf from each rose is brand­ed the fac­to­ry name, Dale, using a per­fo­ra­tion device. With the auto­graphed rose, nature and cul­ture join to repro­duce their ulti­mate cap­i­tal­ist-colo­nial prog­e­ny. About two-thirds of the way across the vit­rine, one begins to find traces of soil and sprout­ing ver­dant mat­ter, which becomes increas­ing­ly dense as one reach­es the far end. Grass­es, moss­es, and wild flow­ers sprout from the soil, and by the end of the exhibition’s term, wild­ly pro­lif­er­ate. Con­den­sa­tion accu­mu­lates inside the her­met­i­cal­ly sealed cab­i­net. One is wit­ness to a native inva­sion” of a col­lec­tion of domes­tic-indus­tri­al archival mate­r­i­al. One fol­lows the estate’s rise to pow­er, from its ear­ly bur­geon­ing through indus­tri­al experimentation—accelerating growth and max­i­miz­ing yield, while search­ing for the most beau­ti­ful strains of botan­ic life forms through hybridiz­ing techniques—all the way to its decline, stem­ming from the trans­for­ma­tion of the econ­o­my, nation­al to glob­al, indus­tri­al to informatic/biotechnical.

But what dif­fer­ence does Akhavan’s artis­tic inter­ven­tion of native flo­ra species make to the Dale Estate’s his­to­ry? Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Glasshouse has tapped into what Jacques Der­ri­da has described as an uncon­scious death dri­ve under­ly­ing every archive, but also to its unin­tend­ed poten­tial thanks to the human abil­i­ty to insert new mean­ing in the uncov­er­ing of past vio­lences that demand new tex­tu­al inter­pre­ta­tion: “[T]here is no polit­i­cal pow­er with­out con­trol of the archive, if not mem­o­ry. Effec­tive democ­ra­ti­za­tion can always be mea­sured by this essen­tial cri­te­ri­on: the par­tic­i­pa­tion in and access to the archive, its con­sti­tu­tion, and its inter­pre­ta­tion.” The archive is not only a repos­i­to­ry of his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry and arti­facts for preser­va­tion and future knowl­edge acqui­si­tion. It cap­tures a past violence—authority cap­tured through foun­da­tion­al nam­ing, ter­ri­to­ri­al­iza­tion, plant­i­ng roots, the lay­ing down of laws and rules of con­duct, and doc­u­men­ta­tion of exchange.

Every archive could be under­stood as the insti­tu­tion of a firm­ly plant­ed assem­blage that sur­rep­ti­tious­ly silences oth­er posi­tions. The insti­tu­tion of mem­o­ry also requires for­get­ting. Preser­va­tion also requires destruc­tion. An enforce­ment of what is deemed wor­thy ver­sus what is deemed unde­serv­ing of preser­va­tion and memorialization.

Hoary ver­vain, Solomon’s seal, wild berg­amot, wild columbine and gera­ni­um, wood­land  sun­flower and dog­wood. Con­trast these to the Cana­da Queen, Lady Cana­da, Lady Will­ing­don, Rosedale, Dorothy Dale, and Sun­beam. The first list of names rep­re­sent plants native to the Bramp­ton area. The sec­ond list rep­re­sents the names of ros­es cul­ti­vat­ed at the Dale Estate green­hous­es for over a cen­tu­ry using indus­tri­al flower pro­duc­tion meth­ods. Indus­tri­al cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion as we know it went hand in hand with the col­o­niz­ing project. Prof­it at the expense of the weak­er posi­tion. The dri­ve to grow strong strains and stocks. The com­pul­sion to repeat this vio­lence across the con­ti­nent could be under­stood as a will to defy death. And an inabil­i­ty to deal with it.

Cap­i­tal­ism is a rep­e­ti­tion com­pul­sion, a will to pow­er, to progress, to human expan­sion, against the inevitabil­i­ty of death. But it is an ide­o­log­i­cal­ly com­pro­mised posi­tion that priv­i­leges preser­va­tion of one con­cep­tion of life while reap­ing death for all oth­ers. Ear­li­er I pro­posed that the archive had some­thing to do with the death dri­ve. One side of the death dri­ve is exter­nal aggres­sion, the com­pul­sion toward prop­a­gat­ing civilization/cultivation, which stymies and even kills off oth­er forms of life. To be buried secret­ly, ever so sweet­ly, under a bed of ros­es. This is counter to the state of qui­es­cence that char­ac­ter­izes the inter­nal­ized death instinct. Trau­ma can be at the root of this inter­nal­ized form. The desire to choke the rum­bling engines of progress through the intro­duc­tion of the qui­et creep of plant life. This is per­haps the phan­ta­sy that Akha­van lays out for our eyes. It is per­haps a way of pay­ing respect to the sti­fled voic­es and suf­fer­ing lives that are at the foun­da­tion of indus­try, civ­i­liza­tion, and archives; it lays bare the colo­nial vio­lence that qui­et­ly unfolds across reams of mulched plant life and coal dust, ink on paper.


Dale Estate,”– Estate-ENG.pdf

Jacques Der­ri­da, Archive Fever: A Freudi­an Impres­sion,” Dia­crit­ics vol 25, no. 2,Summer 1995, p. 11

Thomas De Quincey, Con­fes­sions of an Eng­lish Opi­um Eater, edit­ed by Alethea Hayter, New York, Pen­guin Books, 1971, pp. 103–4.