In 1990 Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney published a landmark text called Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity . It warned of the dangers facing agriculture and plant cultivation because of the recent advances in genetics. At one point in the book, they recount a short anecdote concerning a trip they made to Amsterdam in 1982 where they were taken to see a gnarled old tree in the city’s botanical garden. ‘Tucked away in a battered greenhouse without any sign of distinction, gardeners showed us the living remains of an ancient coffee tree. Not just any coffee tree—the coffee tree.’ The tree had grown from a single cutting the Dutch had shipped from Indonesia in 1706. When it took root in Amsterdam, the first cuttings were sent to Louis XIV as a gift. In the next ten years the French used this cutting to ship out samples to Martinique while the Dutch themselves sent more to Surinam. From this one tree then sprang the entire coffee industry of Latin America.

It’s a typical 17th-century story of technology, imperial exploitation and transglobal communication. The cultivation of any crop has always had economic implications but this fact was redefined on a massive scale by European colonists in this period, frequently fuelled by the use of slave labour. Fowler and Mooney, though, saw this example of the coffee tree simply as a forerunner to the complex world of food production that we have created today. Although writing as early as 1990, they foresaw a world in which food and plant diversity would be threatened by the private control of the biotech industries. One recent story from CBC News in Canada in 2001 confirms their fears and the accuracy of their predictions: ‘Monsanto took Percy Schmeiser of Bruno, Saskatchewan to court for illegally using the company’s genetically modified and pesticide-resistant canola seeds … Schmeiser admits the canola was growing on his 1,400-acre farm, but argued the seeds blew over from a neighbour’s farm or from passing seed trucks. Monsanto argued that it owned the plants since it owns the patent on their altered genes. It says farmers must pay each time they use seeds containing the genes or destroy their crop. The company had argued it was a simple case of patent law, and it deserved to be paid for what it owns.’

Study for Spring from spring_alpha, Chad McCail
Study for Spring from spring_alpha, Chad McCail

The Schmeiser case should also be seen within the context of a global campaign to deny patents on a strain of Basmati rice to the Texas based RiceTec company and protests by the Indian government when the Monsanto company were awarded patents on Nap Hal, a strain of wheat used to make the chapati, a staple food in Northern India.

These battles, of course, sit alongside the more familiar court cases involving MP3s, illegal downloads, and music and movie piracy claims cited around intellectual property. Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor, has argued that in the field of culture the use of patents and copyright is stifling creativity, reducing our ability to engage in dialogue with various works of art via sampling, ripping, and remixing. He does not argue that patents and copyright are a bad thing, just that they are now being misused, creating monopolies rather than protecting an artist or inventor’s rights: ‘Patents are not evil per se; they are evil only if they do no social good. They do no social good if they benefit certain companies at the expense of innovation generally. And as many have argued convincingly, that’s just what many patents do today.’

Using patents and copyright laws as tools of control rather than flexibly legislating for a creative culture is the danger Lessig highlights. And, in a world where companies have patents on rice, wheat, maize, soya, and sorghum, the term ‘culture’ recovers its etymological roots in ‘tilling’ and ‘ploughing’.

For artists, the debate over the freedom and flexibility of intellectual property is vital. For some, though, it connects to a wider political investment in the creation of a more fluid culture. In Chad McCail and Simon Yuill’s current project—spring_alpha (—for instance, the two worlds of art and agriculture come together quite naturally. A networked game system based on some of McCail’s drawings, the project invites players to test out alternative forms of social practice either by changing narrative elements of the game or by changing the underlying code that governs it.

The basic scenario of spring_alpha begins with citizens reclaiming the land and the production of their food: ‘It is spring. A high-density council estate is apparent, bordered by a railway and a river. Many of its occupants have worked in the nearby slaughterhouse and arms factory. Their experience in these industries had engendered an overwhelming desire for an alternative means of providing for themselves and their children.

‘Two years ago they decided to grow food on the land around their homes. Vegetables now thrive where there were roads, trees and bushes line the embankment and a greenhouse has been constructed beside the river, its course adapted to allow watercress to grow along its banks. Further upstream a large reedbed cleans the water before it enters a deep trout pool.’

This is an event based on a long history of such idealistic situations stretching back through the communes of the sixties to the reclamation of the commons by the Diggers in the 17th century after the civil war. Their leader, Gerard Winstanley, proclaimed that: ‘The Work we are going about is this, To dig up Georges-Hill and the waste Ground thereabouts, and to Sow Corn, and to eat our bread together by the sweat of our brows. And the First Reason is this, That we may work in righteousness, and lay the Foundation of making the Earth a Common Treasury for All, both Rich and Poor, That every one that is born in the land, may be fed by the Earth his Mother that brought him forth, according to the Reason that rules in the Creation.’

Landlords and local villagers soon put paid to the schemes of the Diggers and few utopian societies since have thrived for long. In spring_alpha the makers claim that ‘The basic aim of the game is to change the rules by which the society in that world runs.’ It offers the possibility of discovering alternative ways in which to organise a society that could potentially filter back into real life. Just as importantly though, spring_alpha is a game and reminds us that changing the world ‘is done through hacking and altering the code that simulates that world, creating new types of behaviour and social interaction.’

Study for Spring from spring_alpha, Chad McCail
Study for Spring from spring_alpha, Chad McCail

The game is itself a zone beyond the confines of the restrictive proprietary world of daily life. With free access to the codes and tools used to create it, the game offers a transparent, open source environment in which the audience can participate fully and influence the direction of play. In many ways, the game is like one of Hakim Bey’s ‘temporary autonomous zones’—‘like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere, before the State can crush it.’

Bey’s formulation may seem unnecessarily apocalyptic but the recent events surrounding the Critical Art Ensemble prove that his vision of the state is not so far-fetched. CAE are a group of artists who, for instance in Free Range Grain, chose to create live, performative actions around the testing of common foods for genetic modification in portable, public laboratories. In another project—Molecular Invasion—they created a science-theatre workshop to reverse engineer genetically modified canola, corn and soya plants. Instituting a programme of what they term ‘Contestational Biology’, the artists in CAE aim to make visible the process of closure and restriction engendered by contemporary patents: ‘Any form of molecular capital can now be appropriated—it is an open frontier. As with all named and controlled objects, genomes, enzymes, biochemical processes, etc., will all be privatised. What was once communal and controlled by common authority is now usurped by separating molecular or chemical value from holistic phenotypic value.

In May 2004, however, the sudden death of one Hope Kurtz, wife of fellow CAE member Steve Kurtz, escalated from a simple 911 call for help to an FBI investigation after a Task Force discovered the test tubes and Petri dishes used in the performances. Since then the Justice Department has sought to charge Steve Kurtz under Section 175 of the US Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, as expanded by the USA PATRIOT Act, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 10 Sec. 175-Prohibitions with respect to biological weapons.

Kurtz’ case continues but it already demonstrates the seriousness of the issues involved in contemporary agriculture and horticulture for artists and growers alike. At times it may seem as if the scenario for the battle over crops and plants has been lifted from an old Ealing comedy (Passport to Pimlico perhaps) in which the quaint local community fights against vast odds to preserve their modest ways of life. Allotments, for instance, formed out of the Enclosure Movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries have now become the frontline for many in the battle. And seed databases, a long-established source for the free exchange of rare or exotic seeds, have now assumed an inestimable political importance. ‘Terminator’ seeds are already with us and the war has already begun.

Francis McKee is a writer and curator based in Glasgow