Considering Reorientation Of The Self with Artist Jonathon Keats

Gray Area Foundation
Experiental Space Research Lab
11 min readFeb 1, 2020


This year, Gray Area opened the doors for our first large-scale immersive exhibition entitled, The End Of You, inviting visitors to explore multi-sensory installations that encourage new ways of perceiving the self within the living world. Throughout last fall, artists participating in the Experiential Space Research Lab have been reimagining ways to radically shift perspective through the power of immersive art.

As a member of the Research Lab, conceptual artist Jonathon Keats engages experimental philosophy as a creative medium. Keats probes the nature of personhood and the personhood of nature, challenging and expanding perceptions of identity. In this interview, we talked to the artist about his practice, his experimentations in interspecies collaboration, and absurdity as a critical thinking tool.

The Primordial Cities Initiative, 2019

Describe your background and what led you to form your hybrid practice.

I studied philosophy in school, and I found it exhilarating and also deeply frustrating. I had this naive idea that philosophy was what Socrates did, asking the big questions, engaging everyone in conversation in a way that led to a kind of a broadening of culture and society. I found that I was able to only really take in a limited gamut of subjects in limited ways whereas in the art world, I could do pretty much anything, because the great thing about the art world after Duchamp, is that it’s completely open as far as what constitutes art. I found that I could operate within that realm, so I abandoned philosophy only then to come back around to it on my own terms.

From my formal training, I’ve drawn the aspects that seemed most interesting and most useful, and then misued them in order to pursue my own interests. These interests are very broad. In many ways, I’m asking one of the most fundamental questions of all: “What if?”

Century Camera, a series of 100 hidden pinhole cameras capturing century-long exposures.

As a philosopher, what critical tools have you continued to engage with in your conceptual art practice?

To me one of the most interesting endeavors in philosophy is the Thought Experiment. It has allowed me to engage with my conceptual art practice in a way that was inspired by philosophy, but on my own terms. Philosophy is a way to explore alternative realities, that then allows for a deeper understanding of the world and the potential to envision other futures, beyond the linear progression of the habits and assumptions that we currently have.

And yet on the other hand, Thought Experiment in philosophy has typically been a mode of argumentation, a way in which to trick your opponent into contradiction to be able to prove your position. I’ve never really had a set position, rather, I want to undertake an open ended investigation. An exploration of the world through curiosity is really what motivates me. So that was another reason why philosophy really didn’t work for me. I realized I could do philosophy and I could undertake the Thought Experiment as a real experiment and as an open-ended exploration with others in a way that would allow others to be a part of the investigation.

What is the motivation behind your practice?

Curiosity is the driver of all of this. I think that we all need to be more curious than we are generally allowed to be as grown-ups, to allow for an open-mindedness and an engagement with society that is essential to living in a democracy and being a responsible citizen of the world. So the result of this is that I am really most interested most fervently in whatever seems right now to interest everybody. Because those issues are where the processes that I undertake are most urgently needed. So in other words, trying to understand political processes, the relationship between science and religion, and how we can live in the environment sustainably.

Nevertheless, it’s this very broad attempt to engage any and all bodies of knowledge that I think ultimately allows for me to do the sort of work that I do. Which is to say, this crossing over of disciplines, bodies of knowledge, and ways of thinking that potentially lead to unexpected insights. And often by means of this orientation as a means of reorientation, we can perhaps engage anything and everything without the assumptions that we typically bring in order to be able to have greater insight into what seems obvious or what seems familiar.

The Photosynthetic Restaurant, gourmet sunlight for plants as catered by Jonathon Keats.

How do you consider your audience throughout the creative process and what responses or emotions do you hope to elicit through your work?

The act of defamiliarisation is crucial to me. I find that in particular, absurdity is one very good way to bring others into that realm of the unexpected, where none of us really know what to make of what was seemingly very familiar. One example is my ongoing project of making movies for plants. Plants are an ideal audience because they perform photosynthesis, and that’s really the essence of film: light. So starting out in “pornography” for plants, filming honeybees pollinating flowers, and projecting that directly onto plants’ foliage — and then moving from there into travel documentaries, since plants never get to go anywhere. It seems to me that it would be interesting for plants to experience other places. While I go about my filmmaking with total seriousness and as much integrity as I can, I think that that absurdity of trying to make the best movies I can for plants is potentially going to make you laugh initially.

Plant audience viewing R Rated content at Cinema Botanica.

The secondary audience for these films are the people who watch the movie of a plant watching a movie, which invites you to reflect on your own experience of the world. So much of what we experience, we experienced vicariously and much of it is mediated, though we take them to be direct experiences. While I’m neither for or against those mediated experiences, I think that we need to reflect on them in terms of their meaning and how they map onto reality in a broader sense.

Cinema Botanic, featuring explicit scenes of cross pollination.

So, it’s easy to get into that sort of philosophical conversation and to get very bored as a result of how arcane it becomes. Whereas I think that if you bring people into it by way of this absurd phenomenon of a plant watching a movie, you can potentially put off all of the arguments and all of the assumptions and really start to engage in a conversation about the nature of reality. How do we understand and engage with the world in which we live, what might be missing, and how do we imagine other possible worlds? How to be both positive in the sense that the gap or that which is missing may actually be poetic, and might lead us to be able to imagine other possible worlds?

Cinema Botanic, 2007

It seems you have this intention of guiding your audience towards alternative realities or plausible futures, by using tools like absurdism, de-familiarisation and disorientation. Can you discuss a past project that involves some of these elements?

I’ve been very interested in biomimicry and this remarkable process that we have of deriving innovations from other organisms. We apply those innovations to products that ultimately effectively rob these organisms of what they’ve come up with and lead to a world that’s more difficult for their survival, strictly for our own benefit. This led me to think about how maybe we ought to reciprocate. What would it mean for us to make our inventions available to other species for their benefit?

So,I started working on this ongoing project with the Center for Sustainability and the Environment at Bucknell University with the intention to make our inventions useful for other species. For example, birds are inevitably going to the wrong place at the wrong time now as climate has changed. So what might be possible if we were to have an air traffic control tower system for their purposes, allowing for more coordinated migration centered around what is necessary for their survival? For reptiles that find themselves increasingly in urban environments that are very much unlike their habitats, we can try to make urban camouflage available for them, like developing a military camouflage technique for turtles. So these are, at some level, practical engineering propositions, but they are, on another level, highly impractical and fundamentally absurd. That inherent absurdity is ideally a provocation to consider any number of things.

Building an air traffic control network for birds is not particularly tenable, and it is reflective of this larger fixation: people want to address problems with the technology that we have, but do so by building another bigger and more complex technology. I think that when we see this happening in trying to solve a problem for another species, we begin to reflect on the process and whether there might be other ways that we could go about it.

Keats reverses the one-way exchange of bio-mimicry by providing plants with sex toys in his Reciprocal Bio-Mimicry Initiative at Bucknell University.

What might innovation become, if it were not simply a matter of trying to compensate for the detrimental effects of the technology that came previously? What could we potentially learn from other species or ecosystems? Biomimicry maybe is not about taking thistles and using them as inspiration for Velcro and making a lot of landfill. Maybe biomimicry is really about trying to think about how ecosystems operate in ways that are able to achieve a sort of dynamic homeostasis. Or perhaps it’s an ecosystem that could inspire systems we could build, or modifications to the socio-political systems in which we live, ones that might allow for a deeper integration with other life forms and the world as a whole.

What are past projects you’ve worked on that resonate with Gray Area’s Experiential Space Research Lab?

One project that is relevant is one I started working on with Hampshire College several years ago. I was thinking about how to address some of the most intractable problems in our society. And I realized that humans just are not very good at doing so, based on what I’ve seen in terms of economic inequality, environmental devastation, and all the rest. So I was thinking about whether there might be other organisms that are better at this than we are, or at least not carry some of our biases.

Slime-Molds as visiting scholars at Hamphire Univeristy

I started a Think-Tank at Hampshire College where the visiting scholars were non-human but instead, they were Slime-molds (Physarum polycephalum), a really remarkable organism. For instance, if you map out where all the cities are in the United States with oatmeal, which is their favorite thing to eat, it seems they form tendrils that are effectively identical to our highway network. So they’re really good civil engineers. But the bigger picture is that they are very good economists — they’re very good at solving complex problems in terms of finding efficiencies. The idea of the Think Tank is that we are perfectly capable of doing the civil engineering ourselves when it comes to highway systems, but we’re not so good at coming up with what’s optimal when it comes to the question of, for instance, growth versus maintaining an environment that is survivable.

The slime moulds had a number of different research tasks put before them while they were visiting scholars at Hampshire College. We then published a circular that included the dissemination of research results to the Trump administration and the United Nations, which hasn’t had much of an effect, as far as I’m aware. This project was really about, first of all, trying to understand what the slime moulds might tell us in very direct terms about problems that we face, and secondly, this project was about reflecting on how we engage with problems and how our biases are operating, inevitably in our thought processes. What sort of interspecies relationships or dialogue might lead to a recontextualization of our relationship with a world that is much larger than just the world of humans?

Slime Molds, Plasmodium Consortium

Outside of your work as an artist and philosopher, you have also contributed to a wide range of publications engaging with a breadth of topics and industries. What makes your critique distinct is your ability to fuse unlikely topics together, like SF real estate and string theory, in order to shift the perspective towards a complex issue. What is your process of drawing these odd yet appropriate connections in your work?

It is an act of getting outside of one body of knowledge by addressing it from inside another body of knowledge. It is really about getting outside of one practice or one system, by attempting to reconcile it with another. With both of those systems breaking down in relation to each other, they can then potentially each rebuild in ways that get around some of the obstacles and other assumptions that may have prevented them from growing beyond their initial condition.

So yes, it’s a matter of mixing things up. Apophenia I think is crucial. The recognition of patterns that are not there, (as long as I’m aware of the fact that I’m fooling myself) lead to some insight that I would otherwise never have.

Jonathon Keats is a conceptual artist and philosopher widely known for his conceptually-driven, interdisciplinary art projects. Using thought experiments as his medium, his work questions assumptions about self, society, and technology. In addition to authoring six works, his work has been shown at institutions including LACMA, The Long Now Foundation, Berkeley Art Museum, Crocker Art Museum, and many more.

The End Of You is the culmination of a year-long collaboration between Gray Area and Gaian Systems, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, to explore the potential of immersive art for social impact through the Experiential Space Research Lab. The open call for participation, Reworlding: The Art of Living Systems, invited artists to propose novel experiences to cultivate planetary thinking. The End Of You was on view at Gray Area from February 7–March 1, 2020.

The Experiential Space Research Lab is an initiative by Gray Area studying how artists can work with immersive environments as critical thinking tools. The Research Lab supports a diverse team of artists exploring the potential of immersive art as sustainable creative practice, and as a tool for engaging with our world. Through research, field surveys, prototyping, and the production of new works, the Experiential Space Research Lab will ultimately develop a playbook for artists interested in creating immersive digital art experiences.

This interview was conducted by Miriam Abraham, Gray Area’s Creative Development Intern.

Portrait of Keats by Hannah Scott.



Gray Area Foundation
Experiental Space Research Lab

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 nonprofit in San Francisco, CA applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode