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Text - Plant Room - an installation of epiphytic Bromeliad plants in a boiler house - © Lloyd Godman

The Plant Room - Lloyd Godman 2006

As an artist it is rewarding when a work created nearly 10 years ago offers a relevant dialogue today. In 1997, while completing an MFA at RMIT I worked with Bromeliad plants using them for a series of installations. Bromeliads are a family of epiphytic plants from South America. An epiphyte is a plant that uses another plant for support but takes no nourishment from it – they are the antithesis of a parasite. In 1998 I installed a large collection of Bromeliad plants in the boiler house or plant room of a local institution. The plant room had three coal burning furnaces and I was able to install the plants on one of the furnaces out of operation. The concept behind the work was to play off incongruity and contrast - the epiphytic plants and the parasitic coal burning boiler.

With climate change, the Kyoto Protocol and CO2 dramatically imposing on our lives, the intensity of context and meaning in the work has grown in the intervening years.

Behind the occupation of space and time in any large city complex, lies a constant we take for granted. As if an unseen force holds each of these urban universes precisely in place, environmental conditions remain magically stable. Pointing towards the heavens, shiny steel and glass towers seduce us; below the in the darkness of concrete catacombs or in another distant location lies a mysterious machine. Directly or indirectly the services or climate within our concrete jungles are maintained by Plant rooms. In the presence of a comfortable climate – we become unaware of their existence, and so they become conveniently absent. Not only are Plant rooms hidden from view but access to them by the public is denied.

Ironically the synthesized stable climate in foyers, vestibules, atriums and offices provide environments for décor plantings of luxurious exotic plant species like orchids, lilies, palms, and epiphytic bromeliads - perfect environments. But in contrast the planet's climate is in a state of entropy.

But in the arcane chamber is a roar of fire as oxygen is consumed with fuel to produce heat from stored non-renewable energy. Coal or oil is consumed to provide the comfort level we have come to expect. Plant rooms are the unseen engines that drive the climatic conditions of our built environment. As we go comfortably about our business in the synthetic atmosphere, plant rooms provide a range of climatic conditions we take for granted - heating- hot water, air conditioning, ventilation, power, light etc. Clean, pure water magically pours from cisterns while the waste is carried away out of sight in a gurgle. Behind the veneer is a series of pipes, ducts, wires, vents and drains.

Factories that produce our consumer goods demand even larger plant rooms and services and consume ever more energy than our cities.

Ironically, the fuels that drive these plant rooms can be traced back to real plants with roots, trunks, branches and leaves, great forests that once graced the surface of a much younger earth. The elegant process of photosynthesis (where energy from the sun is transformed by plants) created the vast resource we now rely on for our energy needs. Coal and oil are simply stores of energy from the sun. Fossil fuels created by plants over eons of time would not exist without vast tracts of forest. Our life style is decedent and parasitic – it consumes fossil fuel reserves that took millions of years for plants to create. It is an existence that infuses the atmosphere with excessive amounts of carbon.

Research from air bubbles in ice cores indicates that the present levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher now than they have been for hundreds of thousands of years. Not just marginally higher, but ten times higher than the highest levels recorded.

The sudden awareness to reduce CO2 emissions, the Kyoto Protocol and the carbon credits initiative are designed to reduce the effects of CO2 and ultimately climate change. But to blame the present climate-change crisis solely on rising CO2 levels is mis-guided . To believe it can be rectified with a scheme where certain nations with rapidly growing carbon emissions are exempt, and the buying of carbon credits is a convenient excuse for some members of humanity to continue with environmental parasitic activities. The idea that if we reduce CO2 levels the climate will self-correct and we can continue as normal, does not take into account:
• the increasing devastation to the earth’s plant room
• the demand for a higher standard of living for a large percentage of the population
• the necessity for continued consumer growth that underpins economic success.

In the larger environment we inhabit, plants are crucial to the stability of the climate - they create a sympathetic environment that sustains life as we know it on earth.

We are just beginning to realize how the great forests that clothe areas of the earth in green are the plant rooms of the planet. How they evolved to create an apposite atmosphere and how they temper what would be an otherwise fierce and impossible climate. For it is not only the distance from the sun that gives earth its unique climate but the combination of effects that plants both on land and sea have on the environment. Without a sufficient area dedicated to plants, the planet would simply become both too hot and too cold for us to exist. During the day the heat of the sun would become searing while during the darkness of night any heat would escape and the land would quickly cool and freeze. It can not be understated how important plants are to the welfare of the planet – they should be treasured, nurtured and protected.

Plants use CO2 to grow – Air containing carbon dioxide and oxygen enters the plant through openings called stoma, where it gets used in photosynthesis and respiration. Waste oxygen produced by photosynthesis in the chlorenchyma cells (parenchyma cells with chloroplasts) of the leaf interior use the same openings to exit, thereby enriching the atmosphere with oxygen and locking up carbon in the plants’ cellular structure. Also, water vapor is released into the atmosphere through these pores in a process called transpiration. With the present abundance of CO2 in the atmosphere, plants have responded by growing faster - there is evidence to suggest the stoma in some plants has recently evolved to become smaller. (in these cases, the stoma does not need to be as large to gather the CO2 gas). This might appear to be an ideal situation where the more CO2 we produce the faster plants will work to soak it up, and the quicker we can exploit them for further development. The reality is that in our increasing demands on our green planet, we are asking a shrinking plant room or engine to do an ever larger job. It’s like asking a small family car to pull a huge road train - every year the car gets smaller the train longer and heavier.
Interestingly as a means of conserving water Bromeliads are different to many other plants, they reverse the day night photosynthetic cycle taking in CO 2 at night and releasing oxygen.

The fact remains that there has been too much deforestation and too many emissions - the engine that drives the planet is too small for the job we are expecting it to do. There simply are not enough trees to credit for the carbon we emit into the environment as a species.

Climate change affects plants, and while some benefit from the change allowing an extended geographical range, others suffer. Climate changes are likely to subject all plants to a more extreme range of conditions – heat, cold, drought, flood, winds and salt. while it is admiral to plant as many trees as possible, there is a huge difference between a single plant isolated in a barren landscape and a plant embedded in the rich ecosystem of a gigantic forest. The forest creates its own climate – the single tree struggles in an alien one..

To solve the environmental problems we have created, we need to evolve more like Bromeliads; we need to develop epiphytic habits. Not only do we need to protect the remain parts of the planets Plant room the machine that services our atmosphere, but we need to extend the extent of our forests and give the machine a larger engine.


Plant Room - Installation - December 1997


Installation of epiphytic Bromeliad plants in the Plant Room (boiler house) at the Otago Polytechnic which contains 3 coal burning furnaces for heating the building complex. Lloyd Godman - December 1997

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plant room panorama section 1 plant room panorama , Lloyd Godman plant room panorama section 4