By Michael Calore
I can't say I’ve ever been tempted to merge with a tree. Well, maybe once in college, at a time when I may or may not have been on drugs. (My mother is likely reading this, so let’s just say I was not.) But as a woo-allergic atheist adult, the urge to willfully commingle my DNA with that of my tall leafy brethren had not crossed my mind.
Or, it hadn't until last week, when I found myself peering into the pulsing touchscreen of something called the RegisTree and being asked to determine my fate. The RegisTree—a knotty trunk with a computer, camera, and printer embedded in its sapwood created by the artist Romie Littrell—presented me with options: aqua, digi, mycoverse, bee, seedling. “Choose a collective you’d like to merge with,” it commanded. I tapped a picture of a dewey leaf, and the RegisTree’s screen superimposed a glowing green network of xylem and phloem over the image of my face. Something in one of the limbs clanked and hummed, and a keycard came spitting out. One side showed a photo of the new and improved plant-me, flashing my tinted green grin at the tree’s low-res camera. The other displayed some ominous words, written in rainbow-colored block letters: “This Will Be the End of You.”
Ominous, yes. But it's not a mantra; it's the theme of the interactive art pop-up The End Of You, currently showing at Gray Area's Grand Theater in San Francisco. That name might sound doom-and-gloom, but it's also a reminder that every end is also the beginning of something new. By asking visitors to imagine what life would be like on an Earth that has attained consciousness, the show—a collaboration between all the artists involved—is inviting them to view the current environmental crisis through an oddball transhumanistic lens. It's asking people to imagine how they'd interact with plants, animals, rivers, and oceans if they were them—or could be. If the natural world became sentient, would that be the end of humanity or the first step toward saving us from ourselves?
Answering that question is largely up to the visitor. At least one of the show's exhibits, Yulia Pinkusevich's The Luxuriant Prolific Undying, left me less than hopeful. In it, the viewer is invited to step onto a corner of the floor covered in rock salt, sit under the hovering root ball of a cedar tree, put on some headphones, and participate in a guided meditation hosted by an unnamed entity (Mother Nature? Some alien hive mind?) that refers to itself in the second-person “we.” Over the course of a few minutes, I went from feeling relaxed and mellow to becoming anxious that the root ball was trying to suck me into its consciousness like some terrible, bark-covered Borg.