Danni Zuvela and Karolin Tampere (August 2018)
This exhibition is a collection of artworks on plants and sound. We have many relationships with plants, and while these are chiefly sensual (how they taste, how they feel, how they look), one sense that is often missing from our relating is sound. Extending out of the desire to redress that imbalance, this exhibition brings together a body of works that tell stories of plant-sound and the humans who listen to it.
As a collection of texts—an informational assemblage, a gathering of sources, an archiving—it is a kind of library. A sound library; a song library; a library for listening. This library is broadly organised around some of the larger themes prevalent in the field of plant listening, which include sonic works made from bioacoustic observation of plants; music and artworks made for plants; and performance works through which plants themselves, in differing ways, may ‘speak’. This library for the ear is offered in a two-part program, which may be experienced in either order: Music by Plants—sounds made by plants or their close intermediaries—and Music for Plants - sounds that in some form or another are addressed to, or presuppose, a non-human, vegetal listener.
This is a library that is also a garden. Like any garden, it is differentiated from the world at large—from the outside, from neighbours, from wild spaces—by its borders and choices, its boundaries and selections. The larger field, the space of plant listening research, is vast. Exploring how humans have thought about and responded to plants and sound involves taking on a long and storied history feeding into the proliferation of vigorously flourishing present-day practices (traditional, botanical, musical, scientific, artistic, mystic), all rooted— perhaps not entirely surprisingly—in the experimental.
We have curated this garden with an ear for the concerns of critical sound art and experimental music, reflecting our shared interests as practitioners and organisers. Such a garden could not hope to be compendious and it is not the intention of this exhibition to be encyclopedic, or even extensive, as generous for spectators as that eventuation would be. Rather, our wish for this garden—our co-planted capsule collection—is that despite its small nature, its assembled representatives make a productive, if slightly wild combination of sound and listening experiences. (Like any garden, a planned riot of assonances and contrasts, of representations and correlations, challenges and aesthetic pleasure). Our intention is less to have landscaped a fully-finished ground of mature plants than it is to have started a nursery of strong seedlings with abundant lives to live after our initial selecting, setting and watering them into place.
This garden that is also a library is presented to gallery visitors in a greenhouse. We chose this form for the interesting ambivalence around the greenhouse as a building typology. On the one hand, the greenhouse is a constitutively protective, even nurturing form: its shelter, climate control and maintenance allow tender plants to receive the horticultural attention they require from vegetal infanthood onwards (shallow roots need frequent water and safekeeping). The intervention of a greenhouse is to empower plants, not just to grow but also to thrive, particularly in those settings in which even bare survival may not otherwise be possible. It exists to shield those within from the wilder elements without. In some ways, we could regard these purpose-built plant shelters as architectural expressions of human care for the vegetal world.
On the other hand, the greenhouse is a particular industrial form that is not just important to, but actually a direct enabler of the very systems of mass exploitation of nature that are responsible for planetary ecological crisis: the long-standing relationship between the prevalent term for global warming and the structure it describes is more than a metaphor. Far from being a general history, the effect of the greenhouse has been to enhance the internal dynamics specific to capital. Since the eighteenth century at least, developments in glasshouse technology - making things grow where they haven’t, wouldn’t or shouldn’t - contributed crucially to imperialist economies built on ideologies of natural subjugation, biopiracy and botanical profiteering. The intertwined processes of colonisation and capitalism are fundamentally material, and, in the engine room of the greenhouse, materialised. As the super-charger of plant productivity in the form of enhanced value-generating ‘yields’, we could regard the industrial greenhouse as an architecture of real subsumption, emerging out of the way in which capital takes hold of and circulates through the non-human, formally key to capitalist-imperialist worldmaking processes.
Yet perhaps there could be another way yet to conceptualise the greenhouse, one in which the trapping of certain energies is not bent to the expression of dominionist ideologies or the revolutionisation of production processes, but rather is a signal of potential forms of agency accessible, hidden but still latent, within those systems. For instance, in the sphere of home and community gardening, domestic greenhouses—of a piece with those echoed in our exhibition design—function as small-scale organic workshops where biological knowledge and skills may be practised and the promise of autonomy from industrially-produced food plants, flowers and foliage shared and developed. Plants, and humans, grow in the practice and cultivation of independent vegetal literacy.
4. Greenhouse in the white cube.
The setting of the art gallery is also a place where aesthetic, social and political literacy may be grown. However, for various reasons (historical-institutional; architectural-logistical), the setting of the art gallery, while good for the showing of visual artworks, may not always be as suited to the practice of artists working with sound, or to works of sound and listening which reward focused close and attention. By establishing the exhibition’s listening rooms across the two greenhouses, we hope to suggest a reformatting of space, drawing on the structural resonances of the hothouse and the sanctuary to reorient the viewer’s experience from viewing to listening.
5. If to hear is to hold.
The human ear cannot listen to plants unaided. This is not the same as saying plants are silent. Rather, plants are silent to us - even if, to themselves, they use sound, they make sound. This means that to listen to plants, to go beyond their human muteness, is to engage a listening practice that begins by extending beyond the human.
Specialised equipment must be used to sound plants in their acoustic worlds for human audibility. However the questions about what we are hearing and how we hear it go beyond the technological. For to attempt to listen beyond the human raises ontological and political queries about how we can hope to listen to another species whose being is so near and yet so incommensurate with our own, and what our responsibilities are when we do so.
Is it even possible to try to listen without imposing a human frame of reference onto the plant subject? Just because we can listen, does this mean we should? How can we listen ethically to a defenceless subject on whom we would eavesdrop, with the best of intentions? Should plants perhaps be regarded as a kind of subaltern being - the presumption to whose voice enacts a reproduction of the very dispossessive power that renders them speechless in the first place? If so, does this render all attempts to sound the non-human other problematic? What does listening in context mean with a non-human other? How do we respect what we cannot and should not hear, to hear and hold silence and the sounds that exist at the very edges of sound - the undersounds and nearly non-sounds, silences, gaps and non-loudnesses?
6. Music By Plants.
These questions frame the listening collections in each program. Music By Plants considers the question of sounding and listening to plants themselves in a series of sound pieces made by working closely with plants. The artists in this program have woven these sonic experiences from intense observation, recording and/or response to plants and their environments. These working relationships with plants are more than just casual, with hook-ups beyond the mechanical affixing of electrodes and wires and sensors and receivers. Here, there is deep curiosity, sympathy, passion and transfiguration. The plants in this program are every bit as fundamental to the production of sonic experience as their human interlocutors; plants are musicians, composers and directors, which is to say, plants here are collaborators.
Leah Barclay’s STRATIFICATION is framed around a large Kapok (Celba petandra) tree, a fast-growing tree reaching up to 60 metres in height, of great cultural and ecological significance in many parts of the world, but particularly the Amazon basin. Using geophones and hydrophones buried (planted) at the plant’s roots, acoustic ecologist Barclay relays the sounds of water and nutrients in their transport through the plant’s systems. However, to more fully convey the experience of the tree - what a tree hears - Barclay’s composition spreads out, beyond the sounds of the tree itself, to draw together environmental field recordings from each layer of vegetation of the tree-world. By weaving together the sounds of forest floor, understorey, canopy and emergent layers Barclay not only generates a listening experience wholistically from the perspective of the tree itself; she also produces a soundworld that expands from the bioacoustic into ecoacoustic, sounding the dimensions and dangers of the greater Amazon rainforest ecology indivisible from this individual tree within it.
In Margrethe Pettersen’s DEN LEVENDE ERFARING (LIVING EXPERIENCE), plants also speak but this time through human intermediaries. The music the plants make here is a medicinal music, through the remediation of human vitality in dialogues with biologist Karin Anne Bråten, botanist Torbjørn Alm and the Oskal family, which share experiences of the different roles for healing plants spread throughout Sápmi and Norway, and as used by noaider (shamans). In the north of Norway, traditional knowledge of plants has been commonly shared through oral traditions, across generations, creating a day-to-day verbal-herbal archive. However as with other cultural traditions, these knowledges are endangered by the ongoing threats to cultural survival - structural inequality, environmental degradation, and the silencing effect of forgetting. Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), Sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata) and Hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) speak, in this act of documentary ventriloquism, of their botanical, corporeal and social properties.
Makiko Yamamoto’s vocal works BANANA A-PART; […]; ONION, IN CONJUNCTION pushes into the gaps of human language to invoke, convey and meditate on plant-being. In ONION the artist reflects on the extent to which human-vegetable understanding can be described through human-articulated thinking as it manifests through language, spoken and textual. Through a vegetally-informed process of deconstruction, the artist teases apart the layers of human thinking that construct the naturalness of the common onion (Alium cepa) through language.
BANANA A-PART takes this tactic further, disentangling signifier from sign by breaking the human word-sound into smaller and smaller individual clumps, phoneme by phoneme, character by character, into ever-issuing phatic atoms. As cavendish bananas (Musa acuminata) are genetically identical to, and part of, their original plant, and thus form a collective organism larger than any other on earth, Yamamoto’s increasingly estranged echoes can be read as an attempt to realise through sound this monoculturally clonal nature, and the possibility under which an individual is always already mass.
The plant voice becomes more literal and more recognisably musical as the Music By program moves next into multi-layered electronic collaborations between humans and plants. Plants and Animalia are an experimental music duo merging Felicity Mangan’s animal field recordings with Christina Ertl-Shirley’s (CES) live and field recorded plant sounds. Christina’s live work marshals the internal metabolism and chemistry of plants - external sensors on leaves and in soil, wires embedded in stems and compost - to control self-built electronics in a green hardware-driven performance.
Over the last year, as Plants and Animalia have played shows, Christina has increasingly not just performed but travelled with plants (typically, Prunus laurocerasus; Clivia; Notocacteae; Chlorophytum Comosum; Crassula ovata; Philodendron). She has toured with them and played many shows with them; they are, effectively, non-human bandmates. The strength of the electrical impulses they generate are mutable, unpredictable and contingent on how the plants are feeling at a given time - like their human counterparts, some days they are firing, other days they misbehave a little and sometimes they may not work at all (and other times they just need a drink). In this performance, Christina’s plant sounds layer shimmering synth-like melody and lines and cracked rhythms through Felicity’s complex fauna sounds, constructing a finely-drawn four-dimensional space of shifting post-natural textures.
Nature continues to reference synthetic sound in the next work, Kalle Hamm and Lauri Ainala’s PERUNA (RHUBARB), which also makes music with plants using bioacoustic sensing technology. Through composed of putatively similar delicate plant sounds, here the bioacoustic environment generated is more forceful, insistent, even driving, as the sounds of the humble rhubarb - a vigorous grower - are amplified and foregrounded to create a vegetable electronic music replete with insistent bassline and abstract melody.
Hamm’s other work in the program, with Dzamil Kamanger, GARDEN OF INVASIVE ALIEN SPECIES, is presented as a video. Framing the visitor’s entry to the exhibition, this work offers a moment to pause in the space of the unwanted, the unwelcome and the alien in close observation. In this benign audiovisual surveillance, these blacklisted plants are allowed to express themselves naturally, if not neutrally, of their field-captured vibrancy and tone. The artists collaborate with four widely-recognised invasive plants - Himalayan balsam (Impatiens glandulifera), Persian hogweed (Heracleum persicum); Japanese rose (Rosa rugosa), and Big-leaved lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) - heard as directly recorded electro-magnetic vibrations, without digital manipulation or editing. Hamm’s work draws directly, and deliberately, on the tradition of plant-sounding experiments - including the formative 1920s experiments of Jagadish Bose in India and those of Ivan Gunar in the Soviet Union, among others, in the 1960s and 1970s - to sound plant voices through electrophysiological techniques.
A very similar principle underlies Daniel Slåttnes’ sound work with the plant, STUEPLANTA FEAT. DJ PRINTA/THE HOUSEPLANT FEAT. DJ PRINTA. Like Christina Ertl-Shirley and Kalle Hamm, Slåttnes uses principles of electrophysiology to harness the plant’s energy and convert it to sound. In contrast to those long-term plant-sound practitioners, however, Slåttnes’ collaboration is all the more fervent for its relative newness, the swelling energy of mutual discovery a charge which runs through this combination like the crackling of a live cable or the beating of a human heart. Slåttnes assembles a musical contingent consisting of himself, the house plant and a house party DJ, who together build a composition echoing and amplifying the artist-plant mutual attraction and vivid energetic exchange.
7. Music for Plants.
Making music for non-human listeners might seem far-fetched, but in many ways, it is the natural extension of the human practice of listening to plants. After all, if we know plants make and use sound to make sense of their environment, does it not follow for us to think about making sound for them? Since the wave of interest in plant feelings sparked by the dazzling - if flawed - 1973 publication of The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s influential book which narrated the plant-consciousness experiments of Bose and many others, hundreds of albums in the sub-genre of ‘music for plants’, some of which are also interesting to human listeners, have been produced.
This program presents two works in this tradition, Laurie Anderson’s LOVE LIFE OF PLANTS and Monica Winther’s RECORDING FROM EXHIBITION LOST IN PARADISE and PLAYLIST FOR PLANTS, which are for the listening pleasure of a vegetable other. But the program also takes a broader stance on what might be considered music for plants, including other sounds which rearrange themselves around a vegetable listener, in the form of a sound work made for a specific species of plant (Margrethe Pettersen); an experimental lecture about a future without plants (Nathan Gray); a conversation about what it is to know a plant (Daniel Slåttnes) and a reflection on the ecosystem as participant in the renewal of cultural strength, and resistance to colonisation (Libby Harward).
Mangroves (Avicennia marina and Rhizophora mangle) are a special plant. Like all plants, they are life-giving in their exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide, but these important coastal fringe plants also shelter and nurture marine life, acting as essential nurseries for myriad baby fish and crustacea. Their destruction, therefore, represents among the greatest environmental crimes our planet abides, and is common practice in the tropical and subtropical lands of Australia, where the venality of property values customarily outstrips environmental and cultural values. Taking place within the sacred mangroves of the artist’s ancestral lands in the Quandamooka (Moreton Bay), Libby Harward’s work makes sound for these mud-rooted protectors as listeners who are indivisible from Country that is at least 60,000 years young.
Her conceptual composition - MINYANG NYINDA YARINYA? MINYANG NYINDA YAGAY BA? / WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? WHAT ARE YOU DOING? layers the sounds the plants hear - field recordings of rippling saltwater, sucking mud, onshore breezes and fleeting seabirds - with interjections made by the harsh metallic clanking of star pickets, banged together in the artist’s hands like contemporary clapsticks (traditional ceremonial instruments). The sonic counterpoint Harward creates between the beachscape and the sound of iron stakes driven into the earth to assert and demarcate ownership of the land establishes a dialectic between the sounds of nature, and the sounds of white possession. This is punctuated by softly-spoken select moments of language, alluding to the invasion of the continent by imperial forces, while respecting the fundamental distinctions in Aboriginal culture between the right to know, the right to speak, and the right to speak for and to repeat knowledge. The listener may hear how, structurally, this work echoes Indigenous ways of knowing and being in non-linear conceptions of time as cyclical, hoop-like and continuous, with past-present-future unfolding simultaneously, as in this composition we have the sounds the plants have heard, what they are hearing and what they will hear coming up, all presented without hierarchy, in a state of continuous disclosure of the sound world of the mangrove before, during and after colonisation. Close listeners will also hear the gurgling, bubbling sound that signals the beginning of a new cycle, the incoming tide (yunggulba) surging into and filling up the crab holes in the mangrove mud.
Margrethe Pettersen’s track in this program also imagines a specific plant as listener. Her work EMPETRUM NIGRUM considers the duality animating the traditional plant, the black crowberry. This is a hardy, low-growing northern plant, which grows very slowly but becomes extremely strong and sturdy. Crowberries are very nutritious but can also cause intoxication; it is a plant that is native to alpine regions but also, sometimes too readily, dominates those areas and the other plants that would live there through the deployment of phyto-toxins - the chemical weapons of the vegetable world - to control the soil in the areas it overtakes.
EMPETRUM NIGRUM engages sympathetically with the complicated crowberry, positioning it as the listener for this work, which is heard as though from its position: we hear the approaching footsteps of reindeer and the snuffling of their snouts as they forage for berries among the foliage. Their droppings are a source of such nutrients that stands of crowberries are a known marker, particularly in traditional cultures, of reindeer presence. Because of this, the sound of approaching reindeer to our ears simply sounds like a large mammal approaching - but holds a highly specific meaning, somewhat akin to the chiming of a dinner bell, for the crowberry.
Nathan Gray’s lecture-performance THE STATION channels three different voices from three different eras in the future: A huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii) tree reflecting on Earth’s self-destruction; a biologist who studied plant consciousness, narrating from the edge of extinction from a space station orbiting what is left of Earth; and a boy trying to shake the persistent sense of joylessness that comes with life on an artificially-resuscitated planet. Gray’s use of synthetic field recordings and extra-terrestrial sound effects both situates the work speculatively, and in the case of the tree narrator’s ‘larynx made of wood’, sympathetically. In its unflinching confrontation with the Anthropocene, THE STATION is at once a radiophonic cautionary tale, a contemporary eulogy, but also a song of hope, in its suggestion that one of the most important things we could say to plants, at our current point in history, is that we are now listening to them.
Laurie Anderson’s LOVE LIFE OF PLANTS is from an album - one of many on the topic in human history - called Music For Plants. Laurie’s work on this album, part of a 2003 compilation by artist Peter Coffin, features a soft synth melody that is gradually inundated with a swarm of glittering chirping sounds. For a plant, insects in many cases can mean predation, but the ensuing bright throbs, hum and warbles after this swarm-sound suggest less the onset of rapacious insectoid destruction than the potent inter-species polysexual raptures of pollination.
Laurie’s work is joined thematically by Monica Winther’s PLAYLIST FOR PLANTS, which the artist produced in response to our request to know more about the music she shared with her plants in her studio and from her own interest in plant the stimulation of plants by music. This text-based work extends the music for plants genre into the conceptual with a list of recommended tracks for the musical appreciation of vegetal audiences. Monica’s playlist includes the legendary Mother Earth’s Plantasia compilation by Mort Garson - a classic in the music for plants category, an early full-length example of the genre whose jaunty Moog beats its Canadian composer felt would assist plants to grow faster, and which featured the affectionate tagline “warm earth music for plants…and the people who love them”.
Monica’s vocal work was first performed at her LOST IN PARADISE exhibition in 2015 with Kristine Marie Aasvang and a pair of feathery maidenhair (Adiantum) plants. Alongside Monica, Kristine’s performance also caresses plants and ears as she lends her voice to otherworldly, Hildegarde von Bingen-esque harmonies intertwining with Monica’s voice as it soars, dips, hums and chants. The unearthly quality of the sound gestures towards the possibility of rituals beyond the human register in this looped and layered invocation of vegetal being/s.
Through what is called ‘forced growing’, rhubarb - Rheum rhabarbarum - grows incredibly quickly. As it grows, the light-deprived plant re-routes energy from the job of leaf support to the stems, the former yellowing and withering as the latter thickens and reddens. The rhubarb bulbs swell and burst, releasing tightly-crinkled leaves in a process that is audible to the human ear without any technological aid. A room full of fast-growing rhubarbs is a cacophony of squelchy, creaky, snappy sounds - popping buds, rubbing stems and squeaking leaves. Recordings of this phenomenon are of course easily available online, making rhubarb one of the few plants known - and knowable - to humans as a sonic being.
Across the US, UK and Australia, “rhubarbrhubarb” is a term for bullshit. This apparently derives from the use of the phrase in stage and screen, where it has for nearly a century been spoken by cast and extras to simulate the effect of an undifferentiated crowd or hubbub. Spoken en masse, these strung-together syllables produce an overall sound that masks the personality of individual sounds in the convincing imitation of background chatter.
Could there possibly be a link between its human-legible soundfulness, and the ease with which this plant entered performance vocabularies? In other words - did the rhubarb plant’s speaking speak to us, or even - perhaps - through us..?
A vegetable that is eaten as a dessert whose name signifies nonsense but also the possibility of sound with meaning beyond the semantic: the rhubarb is a plant that gets us thinking. Its buds even look remarkably like a bright green brain; like the human organ, the rhubarb packs as much leaf as possible into the most efficient space, a skull-like bud capsule. One of (very) few plants to be common in both Northern and Southern hemispheres, the rhubarb is a feature plant for this exhibition project, acting as a kind of envoy, here to bridge the human and vegetable worlds.
As Daniel Slåttnes says in the final work in the program, Å LÆRE Å KJENNE EN PLANTE/TO LEARN TO KNOW A PLANT, in which he explains his journey into plant listening, to become embedded in these concepts is also a kind of destabilisation; an uprooting of thought; an ungrounding in the face of plants’ irreducible otherness.
What do they want?
What do they mean?
We cannot understand each other fully
We can never share everything.
But we can share time.
This exhibition invites you to spend time with plants, listening to them, and also as them, in the shared space of sound. We can’t know what it is to be a plant, as they can never understand us, but also we know we can know each other. Can sound help us to develop greater sensitivity towards both knowing, and, holding a space for not-knowing? Is it possible to imagine a space where we let go of some of what bioacoustic scientist Monica Gagliano calls our ‘illusory human exceptionality’, to extend plant-thinking into plant-listening - a phyto-centric approach to collective listening as a form of political and social engagement between human and plant? To do that, we would need to enlarge our idea of listening, to open and expand the overlap where our worlds touch, to encounter the plant not as other but rather as subject; that is to say, as both voice and listener.