Do plants have feelings? And more specifically, what do they feel when they’re strapped to the chest of a person careening down a huge slide? You might want to go to Florence to find out.
Part art installation, part scientific study, “The Florence Experiment” is the latest work by German artist Carsten Höller, set in the 15th century Palazzo Strozzi, a museum in the city center.
In the first part of the installation, housed within the courtyard of the palazzo, two large intertwined slides send visitors spiraling down some 160 feet. The luckiest ones – about 50 each day – are also given a plant to take along for the ride.
“It’s an exhibition, but also a scientific experiment to investigate the possibility that plants could detect human emotions,” said Höller in a phone interview.
Höller, who has a background in entomology and has often explored the points of contact between arts and sciences, has built many slides before, including the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide at London’s London’s ArcelorMittal Orbit Tower. But this is the first time he’s bringing plants into the mix. “Going down a slide creates a very peculiar state of mind, which I like to describe as a citation from a book by Roger Caillois: it’s a kind of voluptuous panic, inflicted upon an otherwise lucid mind,” he said.
Once the human and plant combo has completed the descent – which Höller defines as “a very intimate moment” – the plant is taken to an on-site laboratory where it’s analyzed. For this part, he has teamed up with Stefano Mancuso, head of the Plant Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Florence.
The plants that have been sliding strapped to someone’s chest will be compared to others that have been sliding without people and to a control group that hasn’t been sliding at all. “Ideally we should be able to publish this in a scientific journal, because it’s being conducted with scientific rigor. Even if there’s no response, it will still be a result.”
At the movies
The second part of the exhibition, titled “Plant decision-making based on human smell of fear and joy,” consists of two movie theaters screening excerpts from horror films and comedies. Visitors who are watching these films supposedly produce different volatile chemical compounds, which are released into the surrounding air.
The air is collected into two separate ducts and pumped outside to the façade of the palazzo, covered with eight Wisteria climbing plants. The plants are growing on Y-shaped structures and might have the ability to “choose” to grow into either the joyous or the nefarious air. “So if there’s something like a human olfactory signal of fear or joy and the plant could detect, it could decide if it wants to go one way or the other. That’s what we’ll find out,” said Höller.
According to Arturo Galansino, director of Palazzo Strozzi, the exhibition recreates a classic Florentine couple: “Art and science. They’ve been together for centuries, creating incredible things in this city, think about Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, until the generation of Galileo Galilei art and science worked together forming a single group,” he said in a phone interview.
Galansino notes that the slides are completely free-standing and they don’t touch the Renaissance building in any way. “It was challenging to do this in a 15th century palace, we had to work with double effort to make it possible, and to take the air from the basement ventilation system and lead it to the façade without making any holes in the structure.”
There are some limitations to access the 60-foot tall slides: visitors must be between 130 cm (4’3”) and 195 cm (6’ 5”) of height, weigh no more than 120 kg (264.5 lbs) and be at least 6 years of age. There is also no guarantee to be given a plant, which is strapped to the person’s chest with a special belt.
“From what I’ve seen, visitors are shocked, in a very positive way. I see joy in their eyes. It’s fun, but they also take it very seriously, understanding our message of ecology and respect for nature.”
The Florence Experiment is at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence until Aug. 26, 2018.