Interview with Ida Toft: Materialisms and Designing Games For Plants

Interview with Ida Toft: Materialisms and Designing Games For Plants

I approached Ida Toft a few weeks ago with the idea of doing an interview on their art and research practice. I met Ida Toft at Concordia University, where I'm currently finishing an undergraduate degree, and they are in the middle of their PhD research. In early May, Ida invited me to an art show at Psychic City, where they had an installation of live plants and other materials. I got the idea for this interview some time after the show, and Ida graciously agreed to participate.

We decided to record the interview in Ida's kitchen. From the large window next to the kitchen table I could see a small balcony gardening box outside full of small, leafy plants. The conversation was had over mint tea, in the company of a very stern-looking cat who settled, watchful, at our feet. Ida spoke about both their art and research into materials and plants, of finding different ways of investigating through game design what the French often refer to as altérité. Ida is a games studies researcher from Denmark who likes thinking deeply and critically about games and technology. Their work, reflected in our conversation, creates bridges between the philosophy of growing plants and games theory.

The following is more or less the first half of the interview, with spots here and there edited for clarity and continuity. The second half of the interview will be posted in the coming weeks. Enjoy!

Gersande: Would you like to introduce yourself? A little bit about your background, and how you came to study plants?

Ida: Sure... I am an academic. I am often called an artist, which is interesting, but it does kind of frame what I do in a way which is helpful, sometimes, or at least frames it in such a way that it opens up what I do to some interesting conversations, which is useful. So those two terms are what I'm using at the moment to describe myself. And I'm studying my PhD at Concordia University on technology, art, in the independent program. I think the Hexagram [Centre for Research-Creation in Media Arts and Technologies at Concordia University] had a really good frame. They called it technocultures, art and games, which I think are good terms to describe what I do.

G: What do you mean by technocultures?

I: Yeah, I mean, the term culture is a bit...  I mean, it kind of provokes this idea of a distinction between nature and culture which is kind of unfortunate. Actually, I have to say that I'm a bit hesitant to use that word culture, or technoculture, but it does say something else than, for example, engineering. Technoculture is not just about what we do with technology, or how technology functions and it allows us to think about technology as much more than just wires and electricity, but as an ecology of all kinds of things that just kind of exist together and influence each other in ways that are not particularly traceable. Culture and technology includes all kinds of materials, like humans and plants, and animals and rocks; it also include non-material things such as language, memories, and emotion.

G: I like that description of technocultures as an ecology of the material and the non-material... Speaking of the material, what got you interested in studying the nonhuman, or aspects of it?

I: The nonhuman? So, the question about plants, play, and game design for plants, came from when I was on my way home from Berlin from a conference. It came out of this frustration, that I've had for a long time, about how game studies, at least in the mainstream sense, are very concerned with particular things. When it's not concerned with formalism or structuralism, I guess, it's very concerned with representation, or studying games as if they are texts, which is not the way that I think about games. So the question of designing games for plants became a very practical way to poke into those conversations, in a way that creates questions, like an intervention.

G: What kinds of questions do you ask?

I: I started asking questions related to game design for plants. Specifically I started with: "Do plants play?" I created a series of questions on my Facebook wall, which started some quite interesting conversations. And I came up with these questions during a game theory class I was taking—in fact it became a way of not getting too bored about the conversations that were going on.

Another question that I asked, well... I would think about game characters in a game designed for plants. From game characters I started thinking of dolls, because I'm more interested in the materials. I started asking: what would dolls be for plants? Would it be plastic plants? I mean, of course not, you know, but it is a research question, an intervention. It is not something I have an answer for, when one asks: how would plants recognize themselves? I mean, plants probably wouldn't recognize themselves in some plastic. This is again the question of the representational. I just struggle with understanding these conversations of representation and I wonder how I can communicate how absurd I find them.

G: When we're talking about the representational in videogames, we're talking of human representation, right? About representing ourselves?

I: Yes. I do find these questions absurd, because so much has changed when we take a human and change them into a few pixels.

G: What are some of the changes that need to be made when you represent a human being in a videogame? We're veering off-topic a little, but I was wondering if you wouldn't mind elaborating a little on that, when you pixellate them?

I: I mean, it's a complete change. We are not made of pixels. Our legs move in a different way. We only represent what we need in order to recognize that it is a person, that it's supposed to mean "me". That can be really removed, that can be a square.

G: We tend to personify and anthropomorphize a lot.

I: Yeah, I would call that recognition—you can see a square with some other squares underneath and a square, or circle, on top and we can recognize that as human, but it's very far from being a human, from being me. 

G: Right.

I: I mean, I understand these conversations and these questions to some extent, and I understand how it means a lot for our imagination that we see ourselves represented.

G: But you have other questions?

I: Yeah! I am trying to find ways of talking about it. I should probably also emphasize that I don't mind games with stories or with interesting characters or world design, it is just that my interest is elsewhere.

G: Why plants?

I: Plants were a way of thinking about things that are not on this representational level, that are not about humans or human attributes. Although I think I very quickly realized how difficult it is to escape these, in terms of the ways in which we understand the way plants work, and what they might enjoy or not, is extremely caught up in the ways that western academic institutions have constructed truths throughout history. But I still thought that, in a very practical way these questions could articulate something else. I tend to say: something that is less human but I actually don’t think so. I think what I am trying to articulate is also very human. But we can call it “exclusively human.”

I wanted to get away from the human, without being too essentialist. That kind of always ends up being the two options in game studies, or academia more generally I guess: you can either essentialize, or then the alternative to that is to look at culture, in the sense of how people make sense of thing. And then that becomes so very human, in that way I explained before, it becomes just layers of human-ness on top of each other. There is something missing, which, I mean, I am of course not the first one to say that.

G: And then you also encounter that question again, of nature versus culture.

I: Yeah. Then there is also that tendency of not paying attention to materials at all,  of having no way of thinking about them, or of our relationship to them. I mean, there are a few people that are thinking about it, but it really tends to stop at functionality.

G: Or consumption?

I: Yes, or consumption. Which is also, again, very human.

G: What do you mean precisely by the word "materials"?

I: In this case, I mean the physical. All of the physical. So the plant question becomes a way of really thinking about the game, and its players, on a level that has nothing to do with the representational and humans. And it is difficult—of course, it is impossible! It's a question that cannot be answered.

G: What is, exactly, that question that cannot be answered?

I: What kind of games plants would like? Or whether plants are able to play. We can look into plant studies, or plant science, into what the plant scientists are saying right now: plants are aware of each other and communicate, and their sensory systems are extremely acute. They're extremely social, and the way that plants "talk" to each other is almost like language, because they have this register of chemicals that they can recognize and use to "speak" to one another. The question is then: are we taking our own language system and placing that onto plants?

G: So we're bringing again our anthropology, and our culture, into how we interpret these plants?

I: Maybe. I think it's very interesting to remember how social and active plants are. And to remember that they are not machines. All plants are different, and they move around in super curious ways. And I think that's actually similar to what play really is.

G: We find play in the animal world often. There's been a lot of theorizing in the animal science world about play, how it's the way baby animals learn about the world. Play is experimentation, the natural conclusion to curiosity. So if we look at plants and the way they move, or interpret, the world, and we ascribe curiosity to plants, then we sort of get close to this idea: do plants play?

I: Right. I think we get into how play scholars have not come to an agreement about what play is. Huizinga for example has pointed to how it is connected to ritual, and with rituals comes culture. So we come to the question if plants have culture. And then we always end up in speculations—that's really important to keep in mind. We cannot know. We cannot know.

G: It's thought-provoking.

I: It is. It's also giving us something back, to our understanding of games, and of materials, in a way... I don't know if I made this clear: I want to create an appreciation and an understanding of materials in a physical sense, of the quality of materials. That's something that I think game studies has a hard time talking about.

G: I want to ask you more about that, but I'd like to confirm: do you distinguish the nonhuman and materials?

I: No.

G: Why?

I: To me humans and nonhumans: rock, plants, people—it's all materials.

G: Why do you think academia has a hard time with that?

I: I think it's too qualitative.

G: Rather than quantitative? As in, there's no way of getting at some sort of truth?

I: I think that there was a way of talking about it, but was a very essentializing and totalizing way of talking about it. Such as: games are systems for education, or games are the latest step on an evolutionary ladder of rhetoric. It's just like people used to say the colour green makes us calm.

G: Or nature makes us more calm?

I: Yeah, these kinds of absolute statements.

G: In ecocriticism you find some criticism regarding the idea that nature is holy, or divine, that going back to nature is going to make everything better, either within society or within a person. It becomes a way of essentializing nature and of stripping it of what it actually is in order to replace it with a fantasy of nature. Essentializing nature becomes a way of ignoring what it really is, in a material way as well.

I: I know mostly European philosophy at the moment; I'm looking into other things but I come from Europe and that's what I learned. It's very difficult to talk about these things with the language and vocabulary we have made—thinking about plants is a way for me to try to learn how to talk about materials, but I'm still not sure I've found a way to talk about them.

G: We maybe don't have the vocabulary or the language to describe all of these things. We don't think that way. English is not my first language, and it's not your first language, maybe it's because we're both speaking English. But I also sometimes wonder if in my own language, which is French, if I would have the language to speak about it, or if it's all been subsumed or erased, become part of the background—or it's become folklorized: part of this quaint folklore that's easily ignored and cast aside in the name of other, more "serious" things.

I: Something I'm very happy about, something which is maybe unusual about me, but folk tales weren't ignored or cast aside for me throughout my childhood. It was something that adults around me really cared about. But it's not just the folk tales—I'm really interested in materials. When I used to make performance art, or more performance-oriented games, I used to think of the players as the most central material to my practice, and "other" materials as extra objects or props that aided the gameplay, as less important.

And now when I think of materials, I really think about it in a different way, much more broadly. And I'm just so tired of humans, often.

G: Do you think that the tiredness of humans, of anthropocentrism, do you think that has something to do with your personal life? With coming to Canada?

I: I wonder about that. I can't know, but it could be, it could be. When I first came here, I noticed that people, at least in the specific contexts that I'm a part of, were very eloquent, very good at talking. It's important to be precise with your language. Even though I spoke English in Denmark, it's not the same. Things like body language are not present in the same way here. It's much more word-based. And personal space here is very large—people don't touch each other here. Here we don't pay attention to body language, and if we live in a very word-based culture, it makes it very human I think, very intellectual.

G: So you came to plants to interrupt the human-centric vision of game studies. We've spoken a lot about the philosophical stuff, I was wondering if we could talk a lot more about the concrete stuff that you do as art projects?

More coming soon!

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