We listen, all the time, whether we like it or not. Sounds come unbidden to our ears; we (generally) have no say in hearing. We feel the beat in feet and cheeks and skull and trunk and sternum, and heart. We can’t unhear.
So we are aware that we listen, and we—more or less—understand how. But can we take a moment or two to consider other important questions about listening—namely, to whom do we listen, and why?
This program, Why Listen, proceeds from these questions as it attempts to open up the act of listening in social, scientific and political space. It is an inquiry into both the consensus constructing communication—and, indeed, creating communicators—and an attentiveness to the vitality of voices beyond the conceptual.
In asking us to pay attention to voices beyond the human, it suggests we might need to do something we fundamentally cannot—to de-centre our human selves as the listening subject, in order to allow others the agency to sound and to be heard.
Why Listen is an umbrella for a suite of other investigations, including Why Listen to Animals? (2016; 2019); 2018’s major investigation, Why Listen to Plants?, and more to come.
why listen to plants?
Are plants conscious? We know that plants sense danger, threats, nutrients, light, insects, us—and each other. We know that some plants use soundwaves to sense their surroundings—identifying potential stakes, water sources and predators. Does this mean they listen? If they can listen, can they also somehow ‘speak’—and if so, what might they be saying?
Whether or not plant communication can—or should—be regarded as “intelligence” is a question that has occupied philosophers since ancient Greece. Following on from centuries of botanical investigation, recent debates in the controversial field of “plant neurobiology” have brought the heated, apparently irreconcilable disagreement in the scientific community about very notions of plant “sentience”, “intelligence” and “consciousness” to the fore.
As our acoustic and political sensitivity evolves, so do artistic modes of sounding and listening—which is why we think that to listen to plants is a powerful way to radically decentre the human, in favour of a much more generous, but potentially destabilising, conception of the world.
The proposal that we listen to plants continues a line of thinking begun in 2016’s program Why Listen to Animals? Why Listen to Plants? presents a slightly more challenging proposition. As scientific thought expands to incorporate consideration for non-human sentience, ethical considerations arise as to the human use of, and regard for, the many forms of plantlife. It seems we can no longer regard plants merely as self-replicating machines that convert sunlight and minerals into food for us—rather, we need to challenge our thinking to regard plants as actors and manipulators of their environments; in other words, as subjects.
As an enquiry into listening, this project offers a platform for reflecting vegetal thought—or as philosopher Michael Marder puts it, the ways in which “human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanised and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world”.
For this program, we are collaborating with artists who work at the intersection of theory and live performance. These artists use various strategies to extend vegetal thinking into sound and listening, from guided walks, talks, readings and lecture performances to experimental music, installation, herbalist pedagogy, and folk songs.