As a means of survival, coded language and symbols have always existed in queer culture. The argument that homosexuality is unnatural has a long standing history of being used against the queer community perpetuating erasure. By examining the expansiveness of gender expression, sexuality, and queer cultural references to plants, my audio/visual project Unearthing Queer Ecologies, seeks to draw connections between the human and non-human realm deeming queerness natural.
Using a process called bio-sonification, this ongoing project generates sound and video from vibrations of plants. Electrodes are attached to plants and then translated into information that can be assigned to different digital sounds. I use samples of these recordings to create electronic compositions that trigger morphing imagery including two illustrations in the Folger Library from The herball or Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard and Flowers from Shakespeare’s garden by Walter Crane. By using these images in the video aspect of my work, I hope to give the listener context of the source of the sounds and their cultural significance with the understanding that meanings change over time and with circumstance. I see this creative process as a playful way to fill in the gaps of queer history using a combination of personal experience and research.
While creating a timeline of queer historical and artistic events that reference plants, I was drawn to the lavender and violet illustrations in The herball or Generall historie of plantes — lavender and violet are two words, colors, and plants that have various associations with LGBTQ+ history. Dating back to the 7th century, the poet Sappho’s writing described erotic desire for “women with violet tiaras.” The act of giving flowers to someone else carries meanings that varies depending on the culture, flower, and sometimes gender identity. In the 1920s, gifting violets within the lesbian community meant that one was displaying sapphic interest.
Lavender has many associations to queer culture, most infamously “The Lavender Scare.” This event occurred in the 1930s in the United States, when there was a state sanctioned executive order to purge homosexuals from the federal government resulting in a national witch hunt of the LGBTQ+ community linking the color / plant to homosexuality. Predating this event in 1920s Germany, cabaret nightlife birthed the song “Das Lila Lied” which translates to “The Lavender Song” in English. This song became on of the first documented queer anthems with the chorus reading:
We are just different from the others
who are being loved only in lockstep of morality
who wander curiously through a thousand wonders
and who are only up to the trivial.
But we do not know what the feeling is
since we are all children of a different kind of world
we only love lavender night, who is sultry
because we are just different from the others!
In the late 19th century, the public began demonizing the color lavender as effeminate because of this connection to queerness. Lavender became a celebratory symbol after the 1969 Stonewall riots, with lavender sashes distributed to a massive gay power march symbolizing empowerment.
The Walter Crane illustrations of men and women personifying plants and flowers in Shakespeare’s plays undeniably embrace a certain sense of flamboyance. The lavender illustration features an effeminate figure adorned in draping sprigs of lavender that create a dress-like outfit. Above the figure is bright red text that reads “Hot lavender.” While I believe this text references lavender grown in the summer months, it is not currently referred to as “hot” in the 21st century which adds a touch of humor to the plant couture. This playful interpretation of lavender led me down a rabbit hole of exploring the context of plants used in Shakespeare’s work. So far, my favorite reference to plants in his work has been in The Winter’s Tale. In (Act IV, Scene 4) an exchange between Polixenes and Perdita, Perdita exclaims:
I’ll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them,
No more than, were I painted, I would wish
This youth should say ’twere well, and only
Desire to breed by me. Here’s flowers for you:
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ th’ sun
And with him rises weeping. These are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age. You’re very welcome
It is fascinating that even in Shakespeare’s worlds, certain types of plants are meant for certain genders and in this case, a specific age group. By pairing the images of the personified flowers and the botanical illustrations from the Folger’s collection with futuristic digital imagery, I hope to create a conversation between the past, present, future, and merging of various worlds. In my digital compositions and video explorations, sound is what triggers various imagery to dissolve into one another and reveal something new. Through this process, I seek to reinforce the idea that as time moves forward, cultural implications change and new meanings are formed.
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