Early Version at Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, CA. An Interactive installation for Philodendrom, electrodes, computer
Pieces for Plants is an interactive installation for the American semi-tropical climbing philodendron, electrodes and laptop. It was shown most recently in New York City, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival’s Homemade Instrument Day. Versions of this piece have also been performed at the Lab in San Francisco, and Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, California, Ircam, Paris, France New York University.
Pieces for Plants has also been presented in the musical setting of an instrumental ensemble, where the plant acts as an active participant and soloist.
In this installation, highly sensitive electrodes are connected between the leaves of the philodendron and a laptop computer. The electrodes and computer give “voice” to the plant, providing a sonic indicator of the plant’s electrical activity and its physiological response to its surroundings. Thus, people can approach the plant, and hear the plant’s response to their presence; as they move their hands around the plant at varying speeds, the plant’s responses are audible. In this way, participants are encouraged to consider the possibility and potential of a plant to have an awareness, to have the ability to communicate, and to have a plant-like consciousness.
In their natural habitat, climbing plants need to make decisions such as “which tree should I climb now, the one to the right or the left? Is this stake better than this fence to climb?” Climbing plants can “sense” where a stake or tree might be located, and grow towards the direction of a potential pole on which to climb.
Background of Pieces for Plants
Since 1990, I have been designing and using various interfaces and creating compositions and installations for the traditional Japanese koto, including “virtual kotos” with a random-access library of over 900 sound samples. Some of my works used sensors and various gestural continuous controllers, including ultra-sound. Others mapped the movement of insects with infra-red beams and sensors, or deployed lasers and receiving sensors across buildings and alleyways.
In 2000, after having created compositions that employed brainwave monitors, electrocardiographs and other medical equipment, I began looking to the Plant Kingdom to pursue the use of biological and physiological data to create sound pieces. Working with plants in my studio, I was astonished by their ability to respond consistently to my walking in and out of the room, and approaching the plant. I becoming increasingly aware of the sensitivity of the plant, and gained greater empathy and awareness of their behavior, needs and responses.
If the plant has recently been transported in a car, or exposed to excessive noise and/or human stimulation or proximity, it will become over-stimulated, shut down, and send out massive and undifferentiated amounts of data. After 45 minutes of calm and quiet, the plant will be able to return to its state and be ready to interact with people again.
Others have worked with plants employing various methods, technologies and philosophy. The heyday of research into plant perception and response harkens back to the 1970’s. The Cold War era was fertile ground for Western products and ideas that competed with the Russians in areas such as ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). Inventive and entrepreneurial individuals such as Cleve Backster and Paul Sauvin gained notoriety and cult status, though both were working outside standard scientific institutions in proposing theories that plants had potential uses in the areas of espionage, mind reading, and the ability to discern criminal or enemy activity.
According to the Backster Foundation, “Backster was Director of the Keeler Polygraph Institute and worked for the CIA on interrogation tactics and a criminologist using lie detector tests. According to Backster’s research, plants had thoughts and emotions. He maintained that plants could detect plant “assassins,” that plants had memories, and that they could tell if someone was lying or had intent to harm the plant. Paul Sauvin, another contributor to this lineage of plant applications was a devotee of parapsychology, ESP and the phenomenon of remote hypnotism. In the sensitivity of plants, Sauvin also saw a means of detecting a potential hijacker at an airport and de-railing a train set via a plant.