For a long time, the discussion on artistic research in Finland focused mainly on doctoral studies. However, only artistic research conducted on a ”voluntary” basis raises the key question of what artistic research can do and what it can be used for. In the following article, I will briefly present two of my artistic research projects and, through them, highlight a few perhaps generally interesting issues, such as those related to documenting the process and publishing outcomes.

For both projects, my point of departure was that the key task for artists today is to rethink our relationship with the environment. Artistic research can contribute by enabling different hybrids and mixed forms of thinking and action. The background and starting point for both projects was the idea of performing landscape, a long-term artistic research project that I carried out when working as a professor of performance art and theory in 2001–2013, on Sundays, as a sort of amateur painter or, in this case, as an amateur researcher in addition to my actual work. The project was related to the series of video works titled Animal Years (2002–2014) that I worked on for twelve years on Harakka Island. As I have already discussed the initial stages of this project elsewhere (Arlander 2012), I will not present it here. The main point is that I became interested in plants through landscapes, while contemplating what factors are forming a landscape and how I could perform and act in relation to individual factors in a landscape.

Performing with Plants (Esiintyä kasvien kanssa), was my first official artistic research project, situated first in the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies with funding from the Kone Foundation (2017) and then at Stockholm University of the Arts with funding from the Swedish Research Council’s Committee for Artistic Research, Vetenskapsrådet – Kommittén för Konstnärlig forskning (2018–2019). During the project I was also connected to University of the Arts Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts as a visiting researcher. Unlike that project, artistic research was only one aspect of the simultaneous project funded by the Academy of Finland How to do things with Performance, Miten tehdä asioita esityksellä? (2016–2020), where I was the principal investigator and collaborated with Hanna Järvinen, Tero Nauha and Pilvi Porkola at the Performing Arts Research Centre. Within the framework of the project, I returned to the Animal Years series and considered how it could be reactivated from today’s perspective. In my own research I focused on plants and, in particular, trees.

Performing with Plants was an artistic research project, which further developed and specified the question of how to perform landscape today, a question I had worked on in different ways for several years. In the plan, I stated that the question is not rhetorical. Our relationship with the environment has changed fundamentally as a result of global warming and man-made disasters, and requires new approaches. A post-humanist perspective encourages us to rethink the whole notion landscape and to consider how the world around us is comprised of creatures, life forms and material phenomena, each with varying degrees of volition, needs and agency. In my plan, I asked what ways of performing, realizing or activating landscape could be meaningful under these circumstances. And I suggested that one possibility would be to approach individual aspects of the landscape, such as specific trees and explore what can be done together with them, for instance, how to perform for the camera together with trees.

Through the project, I strove to participate in new-materialist and post-humanist discussions by: a) developing art practices and making artworks that can critically question the existing conventions and habits in our relationship to the environment; and b) reflecting theoretically, based on practical exploration, on the meaning of collaborating with plants and, in particular, trees. I also stated somewhat simply that the significance of the project ultimately rests on the importance of the plants themselves – plants are producing the preconditions for life on the planet in its current oxygen-based form. Today, I would add that phytoplankton should probably be credited for that. As the title suggests, the project was about performing with plants, but I soon noticed that I worked mainly with trees, which led me to define the next project to focus specifically on trees.

Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees (2020–2021) was an artistic research project linked to the University of the Arts Helsinki Academy of Fine Arts and realized with the support of a working grant awarded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation. Originally it was more of an art project, which began with the same basic assumption and question as the previous project: how to rethink our relationship to other life forms with which we share this planet? Within the framework of this project, I strived to encounter individual trees that are remarkable in their context or rather unremarkable and spend time with them alone or together with the public in order to create video works and video essays. The title of the project refers to Thomas Pakenham’s photography book Meetings with Remarkable Trees (1996). The project formed a sort of counterpoint to the book by questioning what is remarkable or worthy of attention, and what is unremarkable, by focusing on individual trees. The medium used in this project was not photography, but performances for a video camera and recorded voice.

Even though people often fear “not seeing the forest for the trees”, this project considered the opposite risk of not seeing the trees for the forest, and paid attention to individual trees. The intention was not to deny that trees form networks, ecosystems and symbiotic relationships, not only with other trees, but also with fungi, bacteria and micro-organisms, and are in constant interaction with their environment like humans. Nor to dispute that forests or forested areas are needed to function as efficient carbon sinks, to improve air quality in cities, strengthen flood resistance and so on.

Emphasising individuality is a risky strategy in today’s neo-liberal capitalist society, where the importance of individuality is exaggerated in any case. However, paying attention to individual trees can be an important first step in decolonising our relationship with “nature”. As the late eco-feminist Val Plumwood pointed out, colonialist thinking highlights a major difference between “us” and “them”, and sees all ”them” as similar, stereotypical, not individualised (Plumwood 2003). Thus, attending to individual trees can help us see trees as life forms with which we have a lot in common, despite the undeniable differences.

From the point of view of post-humanist thinking, the key issue for the usually highly anthropocentric performance art is how to relate to other creatures with which we share this planet. How can we treat trees as co-performers, not just as an environment, a mere background for human performers? In the wake of animal rights, consideration has also been given to plant rights and plants’ special ways of existence, plant intelligence, communication, memory and learning. The popularisation of botanical research, the emergence of environmental humanities and environmental post-humanities, philosophers’ interest in plants and so-called critical plant studies have created a kind of vegetal turn, and there is also talk of arts’ return to vegetal life. Of course, plants have always served as a subject and inspiration for art and part of our everyday aesthetics, not only as such, but also in ornaments on textiles, ceramics and architecture or as material for stories. Ultimately, following philosopher Michael Marder, plants can be seen as artists themselves, whose performance is their very self-creation.

Both projects are linked not only to posthumanist thinking (Braidotti 2013), but also to critical plant studies, of which I had little knowledge at the outset. The discussion on plants has highlighted a wide range of perspectives, such as plant rights and the idea of plants as persons (Hall 2011), the question of plant language (Vieira et al. 2015), plants as challengers of gender perceptions (Sandilands 2017) and the role of plants in biopolitical thinking (Nealon 2015). The philosophical discussion on plants and plant thinking has been stimulated particularly by Michael Marder, but also by feminist philosophers such as Elaine Miller and Luce Irigaray, who has collaborated with Marder (Marder 2013; Miller 2002; Irigaray 2017; Irigaray & Marder 2016). Emanuele Coccia’s book The Life of Plants has been published in Finnish under the title Kasvien Elämä (Coccia 2019). Plants have also attracted wider public interest in the form of horticulture or house plants as well as the “secret” life of forests (Wohlleben 2016). Discussion on plant behaviour and plant intelligence has been eagerly popularised (Pollan 2002; Mancuso et al. 2015; Chamovitz 2017; Gagliano 2018). Plants have also been highlighted in art, and scholars have talked about looking at plants in art (Aloi 2018), art’s return to vegetal life (Gibson & Brits 2018; Gibson 2018) and also about vegetalised performances (Nikolić & Radulovic 2018). I have briefly presented this discussion elsewhere (Arlander 2019; Arlander 2020). In this context, it is probably enough to say that when I began performing with plants, I had no idea what kind of tidal wave I would be throwing myself into.

How to document and share a process is a question that I will be examining next in light of the experiences of these research projects, and which can be interesting regardless of the subject. I discuss a method that I used in both projects, which is based on my documenting, archiving and also publicly sharing process materials and “semi-finished products” almost immediately. I recorded the progress of the project work in detail on the RC (Research Catalogue) platform from the beginning of both projects. The RC is one possible tool for documenting and publishing an artistic research project; similar methods can be applied also on other platforms. RC is an open-access and public searchable database that archives artistic research. It is also a free self-publishing platform; use for this purpose, however, requires registration. Its content is not reviewed or controlled except with regard to the terms of use, and thus it allows for a wide range of approaches to art, research and their exposition. Instead, RC-based portals and peer-reviewed publications follow their own selection and review criteria. The RC platform is maintained by Society for Artistic Research (SAR). SAR was founded in 2010 to publish JAR (Journal for Artistic Research) and to maintain the Research Catalogue platform.

Private persons can use the RC platform in a variety of ways, such as for publishing in a journal (JAR, RUUKKU, VIS), for self-publishing (although I do not recommend it), for searching for already published material with the search function, for building a personal archive, for sharing a process publicly, or as a collaborative platform when working with a certain group. As a study tool, RC is useful because it enables active documentation of artistic work for one’s own use and the organisation of material into expositions that can be used as mindmap-type tools for reflection. Saving, sharing and publishing are separate functions on the RC. I can save and archive materials without sharing or publishing them, and I can share materials publicly during an ongoing process without publishing them. After they are published, expositions can no longer be changed. The structural openness of the RC platform is also essential, as its “graphical” option allows the exposition to be built spatially in the desired form and not necessarily linearly as in the “text” option. Although the basic purpose of the RC was initially to serve as a publishing platform, other features, such as easy archiving of previous artistic research or sharing of the research process as it progresses, are often more important to the individual user. For me, planning an artistic research project and outlining how it can be documented and shared using the RC platform go hand in hand.

In the two research projects mentioned above, I built a RC site for the project in slightly different ways, learning from my experiences. The first of the example projects, Performing with Plants, is structured as a left-to-right timeline on the RC so that the turn of the year serves as a node to which I’ve linked separate pages for performances or other practices that I began at the time. For each entry, I attached links to work notes, conference programmes, etc. posted in my blog. I also added the project plans and links to previous publications on the subject to the beginning of the timeline, and a separate page presenting the results to the end.

The latter project, Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees is structured “more audience-friendly”, like a portfolio, using images with captions that open into their own pages. The images represent either a specific tree or a group of trees that I encountered at a certain time and place, such as during a certain residency period. This version also progresses from left to right, but instead of in one timeline, the tree images for the first and second years are arranged in their own rows. The publications, lectures, presentations and exhibitions also form their own rows or timelines. In this project, the RC platform serves more clearly as a constantly building archive, as I add not only still images, but also texts that I have written and videos I have edited as small files. In addition to this, I have also created a separate WordPress blog for the project, which works better as a channel for informing about the project and posting news, and complements the project archive on the RC.

In both cases, the importance of the project archive that I compiled for the RC lies, above all, in the fact that all materials and basic information can be found in the same place and are not only easily accessible to me, but can also be shared and viewed publicly. For example, I can refer to specific pages when I write about a particular work or a specific subject. My strategy is to show all materials immediately, raw, and to document my work directly and openly using video stills – daily if necessary. Although I have chosen to make the archive public, it could in principle be kept entirely private and published only at the end of the process. In my way of working, documenting and sharing the process coincide, because I share the stages of collecting materials, even though I am not even sure whether the materials will become an artwork at all. In a certain way, documentation itself becomes a kind of work. Of course, this is only one possible strategy, which might not be suitable for everyone or for all ways of working. In any case, when planning a project, it is worth considering and testing how to structure and articulate your way of working as well as how to, on the one hand, document and record the artistic research process and, on the other, how to share and publish it.


“Performing with plants” project archive

“Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees” project archive

Aloi, Giovanni. 2019. Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Leiden: Brill Rodopi.

Aloi, Giovanni. 2018. Speculative Taxidermy: Natural History, Animal Surfaces, and Art in Anthropocene. New York : Columbia University Press.

Arlander, Annette. 2020. Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees in Johannesburg and Environs. Arts Research Africa, The Wits School of Arts, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Arlander, Annette. 2019. “Resting with Pines in Nida – attempts at performing with plants.” Performance Philosophy, 4(2): 452–475.

Arlander, Annette. 2019. “Performing with Plants – Appearing with Elms and Alder.” In Etappeja – Kuvataideakatemian tohtoriohjelma 20 vuotta / Waypoints – The Doctoral Programme at Academy of Fine Arts 20 Years, edited by Mika Elo, Lea Kantonen, and Petri Kaverma, 33–56.

Arlander, Annette. 2012. Performing Landscape: Notes on Site-specific Work and Artistic Research – Texts 2001–2011. Acta Scenica 28. Helsinki: Theatre Academy Helsinki. URN:ISBN:978-952-9765-96-6.

Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK; Malden MA: Polity Press.

Chamovitz, Daniel. 2017. What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Coccia, Emanuele. 2019. The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Gagliano, Monica. 2018. Thus Spoke the Plant: A Remarkable Journey of Ground-breaking Scientific Discoveries and Personal Encounters with Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.

Gibson, Prudence, and Baylee Brits, eds. 2018. Covert Plants: Vegetal Consciousness and Agency in an Anthropocentric World. Santa Barbara: Brainstorm Books.

Gibson, Prudence. 2018. The Plant Contract: Art’s Return to Vegetal Life. Leiden: Brill.

Hall, Matthew. 2019. “In Defence of Plant Personhood.” Religions 10(5): 317.

Hall, Matthew. 2011. Plants as Persons: A Philosophical Botany. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 2017. “What the vegetal world says to us.” In The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature, edited by Gagliano, Monica, John Charles Ryan, and Patrícia Vieira, 126–135. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Irigaray, Luce, and Michael Marder. 2016. Through Vegetal Being: Two Philosophical Perspectives. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mancuso, Stefano, Alessandra Viola, Michael Pollan, and Joan Benham, eds. 2015. Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. Washington: Island Press.

Marder, Michael. 2015. “The Place of Plants: Spatiality, Movement, Growth.” Performance Philosophy 1(1): 185–194.

Marder, Michael. 2013. Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Miller, Elaine P. 2002. The Vegetative Soul. From Philosophy of Nature to Subjectivity in the Feminine. New York: State University of New York Press.

Nealon, Jeffrey T. 2015. Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Nikolić, Mirko, and Neda Radulovic. 2018. “Aesthetics of Inhuman Touch: Notes for ‘vegetalised’ Performance.” RUUKKU – Studies in Artistic Research, no. 9.

Pakenham, Thomas. 1996. Meetings with Remarkable Trees. New York: Random House.

Plumwood, Val. 2003. “Decolonizing Relationships with Nature.” In Decolonizing Nature Strategies for Conservation in a Post-Colonial Era, edited by William Mansfield Adams, and Martin Mulligan, 51–78. London: Earthscan Publications.

Pollan, Michael. 2002. The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-eye View of the World. London: Bloomsbury.

Ruukku – Studies in Artistic Research no 16 Working with the Vegetal.

Sandilands, Catriona. 2017. “Fear of a Queer Plant?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 23(3): 419–429.

Vieira, Patricia, Monica Gagliano, and John Ryan, eds. 2015. The Green Thread: Dialogues with the Vegetal World. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Wohlleben, Peter. 2016. The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World. Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books.


Annette Arlander

Annette Kristina Arlander is an artist, researcher and teacher, and one of the pioneers in Finnish performance art, and a trailblazer in artistic research. She graduated as director in 1981 and Doctor of Arts in theatre and drama in 1999, worked as a Professor of Performance Art and Theory at the Theatre Academy from 2001 to 2013, as Professor of Artistic Research in Uniarts Helsinki from 2015 to 2016, and as Professor in Performance, Art and Theory at Stockholm University of the Arts from 2018 to 2019. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Academy of Fine Arts of Uniarts Helsinki. More information at