Plant is a World: The Sounds of Remembrance

By Vince Ha
Edited by Kelly Lui

I must preface that I have not seen Jo SiMalaya Alcampo’s interactive Singing Plants: Reconstructing Memory installation in person; my interaction has been through secondary sources such as videos, written documents, casual chats with those who have, an interview with the artist, and other traces that the installation has left behind. I want to make clear that this essay is not a piece of art criticism but an engagement with the work, meaning that any misreading of the installation speaks to my lack of knowledge, understanding, and experience; it does not speak to any lacking in, or around, the artwork.

Before discussing Jo’s installation, I want to take a detour, a prelude, to activist-scholar Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life and late master filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring. These excerpts can provide a foundation to our exploration of cruelty and suffering, a sense of hurting and of hurting others, especially at a young age, which can leave indelible marks in our memory.

In her book, Sara Ahmed recounts the vivid details of her relationship with her father. She highlights the power of words as tools, as weapons, when her father calls her a willful girl—how this word evokes a figure, a notion, which carries a complex history along with the accusation:

My father would often call me willful when he was being violent. I was one of three sisters but the only one that my father was physically violent toward; I experienced that violence as being singled out. I find it hard now to disentangle this violence from my memories of becoming feminist. There was one experience when I was beaten with my own ruler. The ruler had holes in it: intended as different shapes you could trace onto paper; squares, circles, triangles. Those shapes became shapes left on my own skin; squares, circles, triangles. I remember that feeling of being marked by violence in the very shapes of my childhood….

I began to scream really loudly when he went for me. He would stop very quickly after I screamed. Why did this work? So often people do not recognize their actions as violent; we know this. Hitting a willful girl, after all, has been justified as discipline and moral instruction: for her own good. By screaming, I announced my father’s violence. I made it audible. And I learned from this too: becoming a feminist was about becoming audible, feminism as screaming in order to be heard; screaming as making violence visible; feminism as acquiring a voice.

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press, 2017), 72-73.

By announcing the act, making it audible, Ahmed materializes the violence, making it visible, which carries with it the capacity and potential to stop, or at least pause, the violence. Similarly, Jo’s work suggests that being a feminist is not just about becoming audible but also about listening, to sentients and non-sentients alike. The technology, a haptic electronic grid, acts as an intermediary, translating the sonic frequencies beyond the human range to warm, sweet sounds, a reminder that entities around us are always communicating—their energies always responding, reflecting our ecological relationships. The act of voicing and the act of listening to other voices require our whole being—our heart, spirit, and emotions—to better gauge the standing of our exchange. In Jo’s work, the act of listening is at once celebratory and a potential to reduce harm that we can inflict on others.

Credit: Jo Simalaya Alcampo

In our interview, Jo shared that they came to Canada at the age of five and that they grew up in their Lola’s garden in the Philippines, under the protection of banana leaves from the scorching sun. In their playfulness, they would push metal caps through the leaves, making star-burst shapes and letting the light stream through the wounds. In their installation, the banana leaves are punctured and sutured by silvery, conductive threads, allowing the plants to interact with visitors, voicing through Maguindanaoan Kulintang gongs and bamboo instruments from the Cordillera region of the Northern Philippines. A melodic chime, a mournful chant, all speak multiple parts of a singular story or, perhaps, multiple parts of several stories. While the installation expresses issues of family, unspoken and intergenerational traumas, of listening, silences, gaps, non-sentient testimonies, and Filipino indigenous practices, this essay cannot trace all the valances available in Jo’s work. However, I constantly find myself pulled towards an inward spiral, centering on memory and forgiveness. I wonder how much of their work is a re-visitation of the capricious cruelty of childhood, this sense of unawareness, an avidyā of consequences.

More importantly, what does it mean to come back, after so many years, to ask for forgiveness? Or, on the other hand, what does it mean to be the one(s) to forgive? And, as someone who also works with documents and traces, I am intrigued by Jo’s proposal of what it means to listen.

In the first Spring segment of Kim Ki-Duk’s film, we see a young protégé, left in the care of an older monk living in a floating monastery on a serene lake. Their lives are quiet and simple, guarded by a double gate without walls, separating the spiritual from the secular realms. One day, by a creek, the young monk, consumed by his playfulness, ties a pebble to a fish, a frog, and a snake. He watches with glee, laughing as the animals struggle with their new, imposed burdens. From afar, the elder monk observes in silence. That night the master ties a boulder on his protégé’s back while he sleeps. In the morning, the old monk calmly instructs his disciple to release the animals from their suffering. “For if the animals are dead,” he tells his young pupil, “you must carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.”1 But when the young monk returns to the creek, he finds that two of the three animals are dead; he cries, realizing the consequences of his actions.

This awareness of hurting and of hurting others, especially during our informative years, punctures our memory. It foregrounds our capacity to forgive and our desire to ask for forgiveness, including the forgiveness of others and of ourselves. We often hear the old saying, “forget and forgive.” While I understand the general sentiment, the argumentation rings false. When we forgive because we forgot, it is not forgiving; it is forgetting. It is precisely through memory that we work through forgiveness, an active and reiterating process. While “forgive and forget,” on the other hand, might suggest that the process of forgetting comes after forgiving, not before. It too is a poor model. Memory is a slippery thing. We might forget something today, but the possibility of remembrance is always there. If we can only forgive when we forget, then it is not true forgiveness. We must be able to forgive even when the memory of hurt and pain is vivid. Similarly, courage means the capacity to proceed while holding on to fear; or true generosity comes at a cost to us, not a discharge of our surplus. In their work, Jo has invited generosity, courage, and forgiveness from themself, their participants, and their viewers.

It is precisely through Jo’s choice to return to the experience of hurting, of remembering, of listening, of working through memory that we can see forgiveness and remembrance, or simply “forgive and remember.” Perhaps, the forgiveness is done by the plants, done by other spirits invited into the space. In our interview, Jo also shared that during a thunderstorm, the plants might unexpectedly sing, possibly reacting to the magnetic charges in the air. Sometimes they would randomly communicate with other plants or can sense individuals with strong energy fields. These instances speak to a happenstance, an unpredictability, of new memories between Jo and the plants. Likewise, when given the chance, happy memories will come into a renewed relationship, not to replace the painful ones, but to work in tandem reflecting a more honest portrayal of the becoming of that bond.

While I am captivated by the idea of Jo transpotting the banana plants of their youth to a new environment, or a new context through their presentation of the Musa Acuminata, a species of banana plants not native to the Philippines, I do not have the space for an in-depth exploration of this concept in this essay. Perhaps, we can reconvene another time, another essay. But the fact, and the honesty, that these plants were purchased from Plant World in Etobicoke, which is now sadly closed, did not dampen my understanding or engagement with the work. It did, however, make me wonder what it would mean for Jo to return to their Lola’s garden to do this work? And should the original plants still be standing, still waiting, how would they respond? Before we depart, I would like to invite you to engage with Singing Plants, however you can, with whatever material you can access, and let it transform your own thinking and questioning of what it means to listen, to forgive, and to remember.


1 Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring (Sony Pictures Classics, 2004).

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