Skip to main content

Sex toys for plants and Century Cameras: the conceptual art of Jonathon Keats

His cerebral pranks mix science and performance — and call attention to the changing planet

By Glenn McDonald

San Francisco conceptual artist Jonathon Keats once opened a restaurant for garden plants, offering gourmet photosynthesis. He’s developed a series of cameras with 100-year exposure times, designed to chronicle environmental decay for future generations.

And then there was the line of sex toys for plants — tiny attachable vibrators that approximated the wing-beating frequency of pollinating bees — to raise awareness of colony collapse disorder. Keats reasoned that since we derive so much biomimetic technology from nature, we should give nature the benefit of some of our tech — a nice gesture, really.

Keats calls himself an “experimental philosopher,” and he’s made a name on the international art scene with exhibits and permanent installations that function as living thought experiments. But they’re science experiments, too, using calibrated equipment and working hypotheses. In 2004, Keats tried to genetically engineer God using actual laboratory protocols: he consulted geneticists, developed modeling systems, and bred several generations of fruit flies to try to figure out God’s place on the evolutionary tree.

Keats’ projects are part performance art, part cerebral prank. They’re often funny, until you look more closely and realize they’re dead serious, too. He gets inside of the scientific method, then starts misbehaving, all to poke us in the frontal lobes and get us to think differently about our relationship to our environment. He says he wants to bring people into a state of curiosity.

“Without it, society is not going to be able to function,” he says. “Self-reflection is necessary for collective consensus, for democratic processes. It’s the only way to move through this world that is going to be better for more of us rather than worse for all of us.”

And the upheaval of the current year — the way we’ve been knocked out of our routines and forced to face down uncertainty — gives him hope that life might finally start to imitate his art.

When you have a conversation with Keats, 48, his thoughts come out as fully formed paragraphs, footnoted on the fly. You get the feeling you’re dealing with a mind that doesn’t have the usual restrictor plates the rest of us employ regarding what’s relevant, what’s probable, what’s possible. Trained as a philosopher and logician at Amherst College, he follows rationalism to its logical conclusions, then grabs some lab equipment and keeps on walking.

Among Keats’ current projects is something called The Greater Holocene Initiative. It goes like this: Right now, according to geologic time classifications, we are in the Holocene epoch, which began about 12,000 years ago, after the last ice age. But a movement within the scientific community argues that our civilization has impacted Earth to such a degree — through climate change and mass extinctions — that humans have triggered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene.

The Pioneers of the Greater Holocene did not actually exist when Keats first started documenting the movement. Instead, it was an idea that he treated as a reality.

Keats’ thought experiment is this: What if, through collective action and grassroots organization, we can hold off the Anthropocene epoch and instead mark it as a brief digression — a blip, a wrong turn? Instead of the Anthropocene epoch, we could have the Anthropocene episode within the Greater Holocene epoch.

“Inspiring empathy for our imperiled epoch before we obliterate it, the Greater Holocene Initiative is the first project to explicitly counteract Anthropocentric fatalism,” Keats says.

Enter the Pioneers of the Greater Holocene, a grassroots movement that enlists private citizens to transform their immediate surroundings and stave off any big decisions on geological relabeling. Pioneers preserve specimens and actively “rewild” cities by planting native seeds wherever they might take root, including empty lots and sidewalk cracks.

This is where it gets deliberately and delightfully confusing: The Pioneers of the Greater Holocene did not actually exist when Keats first started documenting the movement. Instead, it was an idea that he treated as a reality. He went ahead and headquartered the notional group at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery, then scheduled membership events and encouraged people to sign up.

They did. The Pioneers are now an actual group of grassroots activists, whose accomplishment will be documented at the University of Nevada’s Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum early next year.

This is how Keats works, in those gray spaces between the imagined and the actual. He crosses the wires by tinkering in the realm of things that might exist — in a parallel universe, or an alternate timeline, or a future in which we actually get our act together on this planet.

Not all of Keats’ pieces have ecological themes, but a growing number of them do. “It’s a major concern in society, and rightly so,” Keats says. “I feel an obligation to explore it, and I enjoy doing so. I have a lot of projects with ecological ramifications right now.”

The concept of time has captured Keats’ attention of late. He’s currently running a natural clock prototype in Alaska to replace the atomic clock system that rules our mechanized global transactions. The Alaska River Time project tells time by monitoring water flow in a system of glacial and spring rivers. The idea is to return our attention to the deeper wisdom of natural cycles. Time speeds up or slows down with the waters. There’s serious math involved.  

Artist Jonathon Keats poses with a prototype of his Century Camera in a subway station in Berlin, Germany, in May 2014. Keats wants to install 100 cameras with exposure times of 100 years in Berlin.

And again, this isn’t just a dreamy concept. Keats has tapped into flow meters installed in five different Alaskan rivers. Data is gathered from gauges maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey, with measurements reported every 15 to 30 minutes on the USGS Water Data website.

He’s also working with the Nevada Museum of Art and The Long Now Foundation to develop new timekeeping mechanisms based on the growth of a bristlecone pine tree, the longest-living complex organism on Earth. To measure time this way, he’s developed a system of indicators that measure tree girth over hundreds of years. If all goes well, it will serve as a super-slow-motion clockwork mechanism for future generations.

“The tree will almost certainly grow out of sync with Gregorian years,” Keats says of the bristlecone, which has a lifespan of more than 5,000 years. “For instance, if it grows faster in the future because of rising carbon dioxide, it may tell you that the year is 3500 when your smartwatch says it’s 3127.”

Like all his ideas, Keats’ timekeeping systems are not just jokes or provocations. They’re functional. They’re designed to encourage us —plead with us, maybe — to think differently. He thinks the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruptions to the status quo may finally be giving us the pause we need to do that.

“For such a long time, we’ve been operating in a way where we allow environmental conditions to worsen,” Keats says. “And it’s because societal memory is not sufficient. … But with pandemic — through all the ways in which the world has shut down — we have a chance to think.”

Published on

Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Image provided by AP Images 


A new film with a dead star? Thanks to CGI and deepfake technology, it’s possible

James Dean 2.0 may be coming to a theater near you

By Stav Dimitropoulos