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Can plants think? They could one day force us to change our definition of intelligence

Can plants think? They could one day force us to change our definition of intelligence

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
John and Penny/Shutterstock

Stuart Thompson, University of Westminster

Some might balk at the idea that plants made of roots, stems and leaves could have intelligence or consciousness. But scientists have actually been hotly debating this idea for decades.

A recent paper sought to finally draw a line under this question by dismissing it completely. It argued that the key physical features found in conscious animals are missing in plants. All such species have an information processing network made up of nerve cells arranged into complex hierarchies that converge in a brain. Plants, on the other hand, do not have nerve cells at all, let alone a brain.

But what if assuming that all intelligence has to look like ours were to limit what we could discover about the way plants really work? Plants may have very different physical systems to us, yet they do respond to their environment and use a sophisticated signalling network to coordinate the way all of the different parts of the plant work together. This even extends to other organisms that plants cooperate with, such as fungi. There’s even an argument that such a system could lead to a form of consciousness.

It has long been known that electrical signals which look quite similar to those that carry information in nerve cells are also observed in plants. So it might be possible that these replicate the functions of an animal’s nervous system.

Many of the interesting and complicated things our brain does are due to interconnections between nerves and the chemical signals that carry information from one nerve cell to the next. Evidence that chemical and electrical signals work together in this way in plants is thin, but could a complex communications network be created in a different way?

Some types of electrical signal can travel throughout the plant following its transport system, and the shape of the entire plant and the transport system that connects it reflects a history of responses to its environment and attunement to it. Cells in plant transport systems have structural interconnections which could carry signals in an intricate and flexible way, while the signals themselves seem to have complexity, with different triggers stimulating different and distinctive electrical patterns.

So electrical signals in plants may have the potential to carry and process information. The problem is that, unfortunately, we know little about whether they actually do or what their function might be if so.

One impressive exception is the Venus flytrap. Each trap has a number of minute hairs inside it. Whenever they are touched they generate an electrical impulse. Two pulses close together cause the trap to close, and three more to close further to crush and digest prey.

Electrical signals also trigger the dramatic leaf drooping in Mimosa pudica and guide the bending of sticky “tentacles” to trap prey in the insectivorous plants known as sundews. Perhaps plants can use nerve type signals in an animal-like way when they need to, but are usually doing things that we find less obvious.

Marco Uliana/Shutterstock

Indeed, by comparing plants with organisms with mental processes that look like our own, have we made it impossible to recognise a consciousness different to ours? The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “If a lion could talk, we would not understand him.” How much stranger would a plant’s “thoughts” be?

Plants certainly respond to their environment in complex and nuanced ways, using information shared between cells in the same plant, and their neighbours. They can respond to sounds, and produce defensive chemicals when they “hear” caterpillars chewing. Sunflowers track the sun each day, but they also “remember” where it will rise each morning and turn to greet it during the night. Trees in a forest coordinate with one another, computing convoluted jigsaw like patterns in the canopy that optimise light gathering.

An important question is whether all of this could a result of simple pre-determined responses. Does this “behaviour” require anything that might be like our intelligence?

Perhaps true intelligence requires a single command centre to collate inputs and decide actions and an animal-type brain is the only way to create complex consciousness. Indeed some definitions of consciousness assume a central identity aware of itself. Are such things possible without a brain? It has been suggested that shoot and root tips do this by pumping out chemical messages that direct the rest of the plant. But while this might work in a small seedling, a large tree has hundreds or even thousands of shoot and root tips.

Decentralised consciousness

Yet what if consciousness can spontaneously emerge from webs of interactions in complex systems? This is speculative but we have seen that plants can use intricate networks of signals to collect and relay information. Without a centralised brain, how strange and incomprehensible such a consciousness might be. Distributed across a federation of cooperating cells rather than controlled by a single general. “We” rather than “I”.

Ultimately, this may all be semantic. Authors Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan claimed that: “In the simplest sense, consciousness is an awareness (has knowledge of) the outside world.” If so, it would be universal to all living things. What would differ would be the nature of experience, some simple and others rich and individual. Maybe that is all that we can say.

After all, we cannot “know” even what it feels like to be another human. But the experience of being a plant (or part of a federation of plant cells) would be unimaginably different to ours, and trying to find common terms to describe both is perhaps futile.The Conversation

Stuart Thompson, Senior Lecturer in Plant Biochemistry, University of Westminster

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Plants can tell time even without a brain – here’s how

Plants can tell time even without a brain – here’s how

Got the time?
Sameer mishra/Shutterstock

Mark Greenwood, University of Cambridge and James Locke, University of Cambridge

Anyone who has travelled across multiple time zones and suffered jet lag will understand just how powerful our biological clocks are. In fact, every cell in the human body has its own molecular clock, which is capable of generating a daily rise and fall in the number of many proteins the body produces over a 24-hour cycle. The brain contains a master clock that keeps the rest of the body in sync, using light signals from the eyes to keep in time with environment.

Plants have similar circadian rhythms that help them tell the time of day, preparing plants for photosynthesis prior to dawn, turning on heat-protection mechanisms before the hottest part of the day, and producing nectar when pollinators are most likely to visit. And just like in humans, every cell in the plant appears to have its own clock.

Our eyes and brain rely on sunlight to coordinate activity in the body according to the time of day.

Read more:
Can plants think? They could one day force us to change our definition of intelligence

But unlike humans, plants don’t have a brain to keep their clocks synchronised. So how do plants coordinate their cellular rhythms? Our new research shows that all the cells in the plant coordinate partly through something called local self-organisation. This is effectively the plant cells communicating their timing with neighbouring cells, in a similar way to how schools of fish and flocks of birds coordinate their movements by interacting with their neighbours.

Previous research found that the time of the clock is different in different parts of a plant. These differences can be detected by measuring the timing of the daily peaks in clock protein production in the different organs. These clock proteins generate the 24-hour oscillations in biological processes.

For instance, clock proteins activate the production of other proteins that are responsible for photosynthesis in leaves just before dawn. We decided to examine the clock across all the major organs of the plant to help us understand how plants coordinate their timing to keep the entire plant ticking in harmony.

What makes plants tick

We found that in thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) seedlings, the number of clock proteins peaks at different times in each organ. Organs, such as leaves, roots and stems, receive different signals from their local micro-environment, such as light and temperature, and use this information to independently set their own pace.

If rhythms in different organs are out of sync, do plants suffer from a kind of internal jet lag? While the individual clocks in different organs peak at different times, this didn’t result in complete chaos. Surprisingly, cells began to form spatial wave patterns, where neighbour cells lag in time slightly behind one another. It’s a bit like a stadium or “Mexican” wave of sports fans standing up after the people next to them to create a wave-like motion through the crowd.

Plant cells communicate between their neighbours to coordinate the time. James Locke, Author provided

Our work shows that these waves arise from the differences between organs as cells begin to communicate. When the number of clock proteins in one cell peaks, the cell communicates this to its slower neighbours, which follow the first cell’s lead and produce more clock proteins too. These cells then do the same to their neighbours, and so on. Such patterns can be observed elsewhere in nature. Some firefly species form spatial wave patterns as they synchronise their flashes with their neighbours.

Local decision-making by cells, combined with signalling between them, might be how plants make decisions without a brain. It allows cells in different parts of the plant to make different decisions about how to grow. Cells in the shoot and root can separately optimise growth to their local conditions. The shoot can bend towards where light is unobstructed and the roots can grow towards water or more nutrient-rich soil. It could also allow plants to survive the loss of organs through damage or being eaten by a herbivore.

This might explain how plants are able to continuously adapt their growth and development to cope with changes in their environment, which scientists call “plasticity”. Understanding how plants make decisions isn’t just interesting, it will help scientists breed new plant varieties that can respond to their increasingly changeable environment with climate change.The Conversation

Mark Greenwood, PhD Researcher in Cellular Biology, University of Cambridge and James Locke, Research Group Leader in Systems Biology, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Plants can tell time even without a brain – here’s how appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Molecular Landscapes

For the past 20 years, I have focused my artistic effort on the biological mesoscale–the scale level bridging the nanoscale of atoms and molecules to the microscale of living cells and tissues. This is an interesting level of scale to explore, because there currently aren’t any experimental techniques to image it directly. Rather, images are synthesized by integrating experimental data from microscopy, structural biology, bioinformatics, and a variety of other scientific sources. “Molecular Landscapes” presents three ongoing projects that explore the mesoscale realm.

Two complementary techniques are used to create these images. In cases where atomic coordinates are available from techniques like x-ray crystallography, images are synthesized using computer graphics. For larger systems, traditional painting techniques with watercolor and ink are used to build images from the body of data that is currently available. A similar non-photorealistic style is used in both approaches.

Coronavirus: Know Your Enemy

This painting was created as part of an informational news feature at the RCSB Protein Data Bank responding to the ongoing coronavirus crisis ( It captures the moment when a virus enters the lungs, with a cross-section through the virus surrounded by respiratory tract mucus, along with antibodies and other defensive molecules from the immune system. My goal with this painting, and with previous portraits of life-threatening viruses, is to demystify and put a face on these submicroscopic foes. The crown-shaped form of the virus is based on electron micrographs and atomic structures from the 2003 SARS virus, which is similar to the current SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Coronavirus 2,000,000X (2020, watercolor and ink on paper).


“VAX” is a series of watermedia paintings exploring the molecular basis of vaccines. These paintings are tied closely to the science–they are designed to be accurate representations of the biological processes–but they also serve as a personal celebration of a miracle of modern medicine. The series currently includes three paintings that explore different aspects of vaccine function.

“Poliovirus Neutralization 2,000,000X” (2019, watercolor and ink on paper) shows aggregation of poliovirus by antibodies in a vaccinated person, neutralizing the virus and preventing infection.


“Influenza Vaccine 2,000,000X” (2019, watercolor and ink on paper) shows a modern recombinant vaccine created by biotechnology in the process of binding to the surface of a B-cell. This will ultimately lead to production of antiviral antibodies.


“Immunological Synapse 2,000,000X” (2020, watercolor and ink on paper) shows a key moment in the dialog between cells of the immune system, when an antigen presenting cell (top) is displaying a small piece of a virus (red dot at center), and using it to stimulate the action of a T-cell (bottom).


“Crystallographs” explores the complexity and beauty of X-ray crystallography, one of the major experimental methods used to determine the atomic structure of biomolecules. This is a nostalgic piece for me, rekindling an interest in biological symmetry that started with my early training (the DNA crystal is from my postdoctoral studies). These digital images on fabric also explore the increasing commoditization of science. Purely exploratory research has become something of a rarity–currently much of biostructural research is justified with the ultimate goal of improving medical science or biotechnology. In this series, inspired by the work of the Festival Pattern Group from the 1950s, I find an orthogonal utility for biomolecular structures in decorative art.

Orthorhombic Nucleosome Array: PDB entry 6hkt
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Trigonal DNA Oligonucleotide: PDB entry 167d
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Tetragonal Phage Portal Protein: PDB entry 5jj3
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


Hexagonal HIV Capsid Protein: PDB entry 6ay9
(2020, detail of digital print on fabric)


More information may be found at:

All images copyright and courtesy of David Goodsell

A previous article by David Goodsell can be found at Nanotransport (Interalia Magazine, May 2016)


The post Molecular Landscapes appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Lab-grown mini brains: we can’t dismiss the possibility that they could one day outsmart us

Lab-grown mini brains: we can’t dismiss the possibility that they could one day outsmart us

It may not be science fiction anymore.
80’s Child/Shutterstock

Guillaume Thierry, Bangor University

The cutting-edge method of growing clusters of cells that organise themselves into mini versions of human brains in the lab is gathering more and more attention. These “brain organoids”, made from stem cells, offer unparalleled insights into the human brain, which is notoriously difficult to study.

But some researchers are worried that a form of consciousness might arise in such mini-brains, which are sometimes transplanted into animals. They could at least be sentient to the extent of experiencing pain and suffering from being trapped. If this is true – and before we consider how likely it is – it is absolutely clear in my mind that we must exert a supreme level of caution when considering this issue.

Brain organoids are currently very simple compared to human brains and can’t be conscious in the same way. Due to a lack of blood supply, they do not reach sizes larger than around five or six millimetres. That said, they have been found to produce brain waves that are similar to those in premature babies. A study has showed they can also grow neural networks that respond to light.

There are also signs that such organoids can link up with other organs and receptors in animals. That means that they not only have a prospect of becoming sentient, they also have the potential to communicate with the external world, by collecting sensory information. Perhaps they can one day actually respond through sound devices or digital output.

As a cognitive neuroscientist, I am happy to conceive that an organoid maintained alive for a long time, with a constant supply of life-essential nutrients, could eventually become sentient and maybe even fully conscious.

Time to panic?

This isn’t the first time biological science has thrown up ethical questions. Gender reassignment shocked many in the past, but, whatever your beliefs and moral convictions, sex change narrowly concerns the individual undergoing the procedure, with limited or no biological impact on their entourage and descendants.

Genetic manipulation of embryos, in contrast, raised alert levels to hot red, given the very high likelihood of genetic modifications being heritable and potentially changing the genetic make up of the population down the line. This is why successful operations of this kind conducted by Chinese scientist He Jianku raised very strong objections worldwide.

Human cerebral organoids range in size from a poppy seed to a small pea.

But creating mini brains inside animals, or even worse, within an artificial biological environment, should send us all frantically panicking. In my opinion, the ethical implications go well beyond determining whether we may be creating a suffering individual. If we are creating a brain – however small –– we are creating a system with a capacity to process information and, down the line, given enough time and input, potentially the ability to think.

Some form of consciousness is ubiquitous in the animal world, and we, as humans, are obviously on top of the scale of complexity. While we don’t know exactly what consciousness is, we still worry that human-designed AI may develop some form of it. But thought and emotions are likely to be emergent properties of our neurons organised into networks through development, and it is much more likely it could arise in an organoid than in a robot. This may be a primitive form of consciousness or even a full blown version of it, provided it receives input from the external world and finds ways to interact with it.

In theory, mini-brains could be grown forever in a laboratory – whether it is legal or not – increasing in complexity and power for as long as their life-support system can provide them with oxygen and vital nutrients. This is the case for the cancer cells of a woman called Henrietta Lacks, which are alive more than 60 years after her death and multiplying today in hundreds of thousands of labs throughout the world.

Disembodied super intelligence?

But if brains are cultivated in the laboratory in such conditions, without time limit, could they ever develop a form of consciousness that surpasses human capacity? As I see it, why not?

And if they did, would we be able to tell? What if such a new form of mind decided to keep us, humans, in the dark about their existence – be it only to secure enough time to take control of their life-support system and ensure that they are safe?

When I was an adolescent, I often had scary dreams of the world being taken over by a giant computer network. I still have that worry today, and it has partly become true. But the scare of a biological super-brain taking over is now much greater in my mind. Keep in mind that such new organism would not have to worry about their body becoming old and dying, because they would not have a body.

This may sound like the first lines of a bad science fiction plot, but I don’t see reasons to dismiss these ideas as forever unrealistic.

The point is that we have to remain vigilant, especially given that this could all happen without us noticing. You just have to consider how difficult it is to assess whether someone is lying when testifying in court to realise that we will not have an easy task trying to work out the hidden thoughts of a lab grown mini-brain.

Slowing the research down by controlling organoid size and life span, or widely agreeing a moratorium before we reach a point of no return, would make good sense. But unfortunately, the growing ubiquity of biological labs and equipment will make enforcement incredibly difficult – as we’ve seen with genetic embryo editing.

It would be an understatement to say that I share the worries of some of my colleagues working in the field of cellular medicine. The toughest question that we can ask regarding these mesmerising possibilities, and which also applies to genetic manipulations of embryos, is: can we even stop this?The Conversation

Guillaume Thierry, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Bangor University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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I go undercover into arms fairs – and secretly draw caricatures of the ‘hell’ I find there

I go undercover into arms fairs – and secretly draw caricatures of the ‘hell’ I find there

© Jill Gibbon, Author provided

Jill Gibbon, Leeds Beckett University

The arms multinational BAE Systems is in the final stages of a deal to sell 48 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, despite mounting evidence of war crimes in Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks against civilians but the Saudi-led coalition has bombed Yemeni schools, markets and hospitals, killing more than 10,000 people including children, while survivors face disease and starvation with the collapse of infrastructure.

Fragments of bombs made in Britain and the US have been found in the debris of some of these attacks, yet both countries continue to sell arms to the Saudi regime.

Such deals take place in arms fairs, away from the public eye. I have drawn undercover in fairs in Europe and the Middle East for the past ten years, in an attempt to understand how international arms sales are normalised and legitimised. Access is restricted, but I get in by dressing up as a security consultant with a suit, heels, fake pearls, and a sham company. My performance is a metaphor for the charade of respectability in the industry.

A sales rep.
© Jill Gibbon, Author provided

Arms fairs emerged from the globalisation of the military industry in the late 1990s. At the end of the Cold War, defence budgets were cut. There was a brief opportunity to convert military production facilities into civil areas such as medical equipment, transport and renewable energy; instead, arms companies merged into multinationals, expanded into security, and focused on a global market. Arms fairs were set up to provide venues for these deals.

The largest, DSEI (the Defence Security Exhibition International) takes place every two years in London, with similar fairs in Paris, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi. Here, weapons are displayed to an international clientele including countries at war, unstable states and repressive regimes.

DSEI welcomes 75% of the countries that the UK Foreign Office has listed as “Human Rights Priorities”, where “the worst, or greatest number of, human rights violations take place”.

A tank salesman.
© Jill Gibbon

Inside a fair, missiles, bombs and bullets are arranged under spotlights; guns are available to try out for weight and size, and to aim at imaginary targets; mannequins pose in camouflage offering private military services and tear gas; tanks are open for viewing. “Lethality” is a sales slogan. Manufacturers boast of the precision of their products, as if war could be refined through science.

As with most advertising, such claims turn out to be exaggerated when the weapons are actually used. Bombing is inevitably inaccurate, compromised by an inbuilt margin of error, malfunctions, mistaken intelligence and the weather. The difference between a combatant and civilian is also increasingly unclear, as Yemen shows. Yet such claims make war more likely.

String quartet.
© Jill Gibbon, Author provided

Many stalls hand out gifts as an alternative to business cards – stress-balls in the shape of bombs, grenades and tanks, branded sweets and pens. A gas mask manufacturer has condoms with the slogan, “The ultimate protection”. Waiting staff hover with trays of wine, beer and grapes, while a string quartet plays Handel and Mozart.

Grenade stress relief.
© Jill Gibbon, Author provided

There are also promotions. The BAE subsidiary Bofors has a live satellite link to its weapons testing facility in Sweden where a military vehicle explodes in a cloud of light and metal. Alongside the video screens, bowls are filled with toffees in wrappers saying, “Welcome to hell”. Brochures explain that the Bofors test centre is “Hell for your product, heaven for your investment”. The impact on people of the weapons that pass through the test centre is oddly missing. In an arms fair, missiles are forever products.

How to draw this? My drawings veer between caricature and observational methods. Mainly, I focus on the etiquette that gives the industry an appearance of respectability – the handshakes, pinstriped suits, hospitality, and violins. I also draw cracks in the façade – a lewd advance, a rep slumped in a chair with his head in his hands, the continual, desperate drinking. Brecht used the Latin word gestus to describe an attitude that expresses a social role or condition. In his plays, gestures are frozen so they seem strange. Perhaps drawing can be used in a similar way.

© Jill Gibbon

Or, perhaps the gifts are sufficient in themselves to reveal the strange amorality of an industry that uses war as a sales opportunity. The BAE Bofors toffees might be intended to convey the impact of a test centre on weapons with the slogan “Welcome to hell” – but sweets are usually meant for children.The Conversation

Jill Gibbon, Senior Lecturer in Graphic Arts, Leeds Beckett University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post I go undercover into arms fairs – and secretly draw caricatures of the ‘hell’ I find there appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

Through his art, a former prisoner diagnoses the systemic sickness of Florida’s penitentiaries

Through his art, a former prisoner diagnoses the systemic sickness of Florida’s penitentiaries

Moliere Dimanche would use anything he could scrounge up – pieces of folders, the back of commissary forms, old letters – as canvases.
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

Nicole R. Fleetwood, Rutgers University

In 2007, Haitian-American artist Moliere Dimanche was sentenced to 10 years in Florida state prisons, where he ended up serving eight-and-a-half years.

While imprisoned, he made art – a series of pencil drawings on the back of stray sheets of paper – to document the brutality of his time spent behind bars, much of it in isolation.

In 2017, I was introduced to Dimanche, one of the dozens of currently and formerly incarcerated people I have interviewed over the past several years for my forthcoming book on visual art in the era of mass incarceration.

Often using state-issued material or contraband, imprisoned artists use a myriad of genres and styles to create political collages, portraits of other imprisoned people and mixed-media works that comment on abuse, racism and the exploitation of prison labor.

In Dimanche’s story, I see the stories of thousands of others in U.S. prisons who are using art and creativity to shine a light on their experiences and advocate for systemic change.

A malignant system

Florida prisons, in particular, have become notorious for their pervasive culture of neglect and abuse.

In 2016, investigative reporter Eyal Press wrote about the torture and routine abuse that took place in the mental health units of Florida’s prisons.

Central to Press’ account was the case of Darren Rainey, an incarcerated man with a history of schizophrenia who was scalded to death when prison officers forced him into a shower of boiling hot water.

According to The Miami Herald, at least 145 people have died in state penal facilities so in 2018, making Florida’s prisons among the deadliest in the country.

In response, many inside have resisted or continue to resist the inhumane treatment and prison conditions. Earlier in 2018, prison laborers in Florida organized a strike to protest unpaid labor and brutal working conditions. (Many of the participants were punished with solitary confinement.)

In August, incarcerated people in Florida joined others across the country in a nationwide prison strike. Their demands include being paid prevailing state wages for their labor, reforms that would allow prisoners to file grievances when their rights are violated, and a reinstatement of Pell grants in all U.S. states and territories.

While these strikes can certainly bring attention to dire prison conditions, the stories of incarcerated people can also emerge in creative and clandestine ways – in drawings, photographs, paintings, letters and poetry.

Incarcerated activists like Kevin “Rashid” Johnson – whose Guardian essay denouncing prison labor as “modern slavery” went viral in August – also use art to communicate with the public.

Because prisons are institutions of constant surveillance and censorship, art can serve as a crucial conduit for self-expression and as a tool for survival – a way to earn money, document prison conditions and stay connected with the outside world.

Drawing to survive

After Moliere Dimanche was sentenced, his family was unable to financially support him. From the costs of phone calls to commissary items to the expenses of visits to see imprisoned relatives, prisons can be a financial drain for families already struggling to get by.

Dimanche soon realized that he could use art as currency for toiletries, clothing, cigarettes, writing utensils and coffee. Other incarcerated men – and even some prison staff – commissioned him to make portraits, drawings and greeting cards that they would then give to their loved ones. He also designed tattoos and fashioned a tattoo gun and ink from prison supplies.

Dimanche ultimately created a series of fantastical, highly symbolic, allegorical drawings during his time in solitary confinement. They are bold, cartoonish representations. Filled with dark humor, they provide a sustained lens into the abuses inside Florida’s prison system.

Moliere Dimanche realized that his drawings could accomplish much good: He could take care of basic needs, document his experience in prison and relay messages to the outside world.
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

While art gave him a way to provide for his basic needs and acted as an outlet for creative expression, Dimanche also became an expert of the state’s penal system and how it stifles the rights of the imprisoned. Early into his sentencing, he began to study law and to advocate for himself and others.

He became a writ writer – a jailhouse lawyer – filing grievances and writing briefs on behalf of fellow prisoners and himself.

But he believes his legal advocacy only subjected him to more punishment and surveillance. He was held in solitary confinement for much of his sentence.

Even in isolation, he continued his writ writing and making art.

In a piece called “Pills and Potions,” Dimanche depicts himself as the Monopoly Man, and converted the Monopoly board into the Florida Department of Corrections, with each property representing a different prison.

‘Pills and Potions’ is an allegorical drawing that depicts Moliere Dimanche as the Monopoly Man ‘bouncing around from prison to prison.’
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

“I had been bounced around so much for writing grievances,” he explained,
“I just depicted myself as the Monopoly man running around the board, bouncing around from prison to prison.”

“I had to find a way to laugh about some of this stuff.”

There’s nothing funny about some of the brutal forms of punishment depicted in many of his pieces.

There’s what Dimanche calls “the strip” – a punishment in which guards “take your linen, they take your mattress, and they take your clothing, and they put you in a cell for 72 hour restriction and you don’t have anything in there … and it’s absolutely freezing in that cell and you have stay in it without clothing or anything the whole time.”

According to Dimanche, “saving a life” involves a corrections officers shackling a prisoner to supposedly take him to a medical appointment. But once he’s out of the cell and out of sight, they slam the prisoner’s head against a wall.

Dimanche also documents a common abuse practice in Florida where officers gas people confined to their cells. These practices have led to reported deaths. Dimanche calls one form of gassing “Black Jesus”: Guards lock someone an isolation cell and gas them through the porthole. The gas, he explains, “comes in a big black can and it’s known to make people scream for Jesus.”

Dimanche titled one of his pieces after this punishment by gassing, and depicts a guard gleefully spraying a hanging Dimanche.

‘Black Jesus’ is a searing critique of the ingrained racism of Florida’s prison system.
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

“Black Jesus” also highlights the racism of Florida’s prisons, where an ACLU study found black people are subjected to more abuse. In 2017, two former Florida prison guards who were Klan members were convicted of plotting to murder an imprisoned black man.

Dimanche witnessed this racism firsthand. “I was in a couple of institutions where it was revealed where a lot of the correctional officers were Klansmen,” he said.

In “Black Jesus,” he portrays a man who is half dressed as an officer and half dressed in a Klan robe to symbolize, according to Dimanche, how each group uses force to “reinforce old Jim Crow ideas.”

A connection is made – and a bond forms

Eventually, another prisoner in solitary confinement put him in touch with Wendy Tatter, an artist living in St. Augustine, Florida. Tatter’s son had also spent time in Florida prisons, and Dimanche wrote to her asking if she’d be interested in seeing his art.

Tatter recalled to me Dimanche’s first letter – sent in September 2013 and written in a tiny font, so he could cram as much information as he could on the few sheets of paper available to him.

She agreed to see his work, and he started mailing her “these gorgeous original pencil drawings.”

She told me that each was made with a broken pencil and no eraser. They arrived “on just random pieces of paper that he managed to find” – on the backs of order sheets, Manila folders and old letters.

One of Dimanche’s drawings was made on the back of a canteen order form.
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

The two wrote back and forth for three years until his release in 2016. Since then, he and Tatter have worked together to exhibit his work.

On Sept. 9 – the day that the national prison strike ends – Moliere and Tatter will host a program on mass incarceration and prison reform at the Corazon Cinema and Café in St. Augustine, Florida.

“Even though there’s a lot of talk about prison reform now, it’s bigger than sentencing guidelines,” Dimanche told me. “We have to address the physical abuse in prisons.”

Lack of transparency and access to prisons and detention centers makes this work extremely difficult.

Dimanche hopes that his art will open some eyes, and eventually end the American tradition of locking up, neglecting, exploiting and abusing millions in prisons across the country.The Conversation

Moliere Dimanche wears a T-shirt he designed using his prison art.
Moliere Dimanche, Author provided

Nicole R. Fleetwood, Associate Professor of American Studies, Rutgers University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The post Through his art, a former prisoner diagnoses the systemic sickness of Florida’s penitentiaries appeared first on Interalia Magazine.

David Haines and the Black Mirror/Facing faces

Portrait of a Boy With Two Hearts (2015). Pencil on paper 113 x 140cm

David Haines and the Black Mirror

Now, this image of ourselves is obviously not ourselves, anymore than an idea of a tree is a tree, anymore than you can get wet in the word water.”

Alan Watts quoted in ‘Two Way Mirror,’  a two channel video installation by David Haines

Every new medium is a Russian doll.  The radio and the cinema sit inside every television, just as the television sits inside your smart phone.
Because there have been so many Russian dolls over the years, each containing the other, it’s easy to forget that the mirror is a medium, or that the simple act of making marks on paper is a technology. David Haines invites us to consider these things in the reflection of the black mirror. (1)

We carry the black mirror everywhere. It blindly reflects our image when it sleeps and every time we wake it up (with the swipe of a finger) it illuminates our desires. It sorts our personal chaos into order. The black mirror is a good servant. It files, classifies, orientates, and informs. In this respect the black mirror surpasses its master. Because the black mirror’s actions are unconscious, it is able to chart a map of the unconscious.

Casper With Gloves and Sneakers (2015). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 164 x 129 cm

In a group of portraits, images taken from a cam sex site, a series of young men look at themselves. The view is parallax, Narcissus is refracted. A man, his face in repose, gazes at the camera on his laptop. To see himself he must look away from the eye that records his image. We see a boss-eyed double image through the layers of mediation, the video and the shiny glass, the code churning unconsciously beneath the surface.

We never see ourselves, and when we see ourselves the image we see is not part of us. You might catch your image on the surface of a still pond. You may surprise your self as you lope past a shop window; your image may move unexpectedly on a Skype call; you may see your ghost on the black mirror of a sleeping smart phone. Our image is always mediated, always de-centered. Our image is reserved for others and implicitly addressed to others. Because the black mirror extends us and because it surrounds us we forget that, like every interactive technology, the black mirror is a technology of self. It records an image of us whilst simultaneously constructing us, presenting us, and teaching us how to behave.

Still Life with Flyer ( Sweat) 2017. Graphite and nero pencil on paper 27.5 x 36.5cm

Still Life with flyer( Fur- Real) 2017. Graphite and nero pencil on paper 29 x 38cm

A series of Trompe-l’œil drawings, Still Lifes with Flyers, are unlike Haines’ other portraits, they do not survey an interior, subjective, space. The bodies are on display, they project an image produced explicitly for others. But the medium on which the image is carried tells a specific history. It records the wear and tear of being folded, it tells the story of its circulation as a medium; this is in turn translated into a drawing.

Still Life with Screen, Cutout and Chicken Legs (2017). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 56 x 50.5cm


Still Life with Screen, Cutouts and Heart (2017). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 60 x 56cm

A further series of still life drawings, this time with  iPads, screens, cutouts, meat and bones takes this abstraction further. This is not a formal abstraction – in the sense that they divert from realistic depiction or break down into simple forms – but rather they invite us to read images of ‘real things’ on different registers: as things in ‘real space,’ as reflections of those things, as two dimensional cut-outs nested within a prospective three dimensional space.

Composition with Screen, Cutout, Hand and Plastic Bottle (2017). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 39.5 x 38cm

Still Life with iPad, Cutout and Celeriac (2017). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 33 x 33 cm

In the two large drawings Meatboy and Bob Starr  and Your Fluffer  the moiré pattern (the matrix of the printed image) slips between the register of dots and the register of an image. This is set against figures of a much finer definition where graphite and the grain of the paper tangle in a tight net of information. (2)

Meatboy and Bob Starr ( 2016). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 201 x 140 cm


Your Fluffer (2017). Graphite and nero pencil on paper 205 x 184cm

As we travel through the different levels of abstraction the subject is mediated and remediated. Of course, the image is not the thing it depicts, any more than the menu can be mistaken for the meal, or the map mistaken for the territory it charts.

In Haines’ work every medium reflects another but this does not leave us abandoned in a hall of mirrors because we are grounded in the materiality of the drawings, we are drawn to the specificity of the medium – this particular sheet of paper, these specific particles of graphite.If every image draws us to a receding horizon, beyond which the ‘real thing’ is situated, in Haines’ work we comprehend the different levels of abstraction that allow us to negotiate with the reflection of ourselves that is always fugitive, always extensive: a projection, a reflection, an image in process.

Steve Rushton

Steve Rushton’s Masters of Reality is published by Stemberg Press

(1) Charlie Brooker on his TV show Black Mirror: “If technology is a drug – and it does feel like a drug – then what, precisely, are the side-effects?” The Guardian 1/12/2011

(2) Here I use ‘abstraction’ in the sense Gregory Bateson’s used it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1980). Bateson’s notion of abstraction provides the basis for a holistic aesthetic and ecological epistemology. Bateson identifies Alfred Korzybski as the originator of the phrase the map is not the territory.


Facing faces

David Haines, when I gaze at his works and, more often than not, covet them, remains a strange artist. There is really no point in going into his methods and techniques, into their enigmatic virtuosity and untiring capacity to present so much complex and, I guess, labour-intensive surface treatment as a true sight, or a bewildering delight. The relation between what must have been his absorption in the finding and then the making of the images and our oh-so rapid absorption of them and by them is unsettling in its asymmetry. It generates both turbulence and desire in turbulence, crafting each time a singular enigma of our own desiring.

Dylan’s Reflection (2017). Graphite on paper 16 x 17.5cm

But in these drawings of faces and torsos something new has appeared before us, befallen our look. Until now Haines work has presented a recognisable iconography, hermetic, secretive, as unyielding in its private use of the plethora of public images from the internet, their fragments or their apparent stories, as it was relentless in its extreme exploitation of what we trivially call representation or realism, alluring in the ways that it made precision itself into a near delirium. You could then think, at the same time, of the Signorelli of his Last Judgement or the arcane assemblage of a cabinet of curiosities;

Arnold’s Reflection (2017). Graphite on paper 18.5 x 20.5cm


But here the single figure or body or face, albeit adorned with textures and tattoos, comes to the fore to fill its space, to front it; and even as it does so it goes out of focus and blurs; the unsettled outlines behave like, but remain distinct from the smudgy backgrounds, and this blur itself outstares us as something other than the immediate presence of the ‘subject’. Now I think of another artist of the high Renaissance, of the uncanny and ever so slightly unfocussed figures of Dosso Dossi, sometimes conventional, sometimes hermetic, but ever withdrawing from view in the very substance of their presentness. With Haines, as with Dossi, there is a peculiar movement in which the image, even as it draws us to it and then stares us down, does so by staring down itself.

Dosso Dossi: Apollo, fragment

Circe, fragment.

In Haines’ new work precision is lavished on the indistinct. In defeating our gaze, in despite of its promise of a fleeting sexual encounter, the commodity of flesh so freely offered, the image does so through self-defeat, through the startling contradiction of seeing within the image its own precisely controlled desire for invisibility. And they, the whoever within, fragile enough, ripped from the half infinity of the electronic, at what now might they be looking?

Adrian Rifkin



David Haines forthcoming exhibition will be opening in Amsterdam on March 28 2020 at Upstream Gallery. Info here:


All images copyright and courtesy of David Haines

All images are made by Ger-Jan van Rooij

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