Listen, But Do Touch
What type of music could a band of plants make? The outside-the-box-thinking crew at Data Garden has figured it out. They organized an installation this past weekend at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) called Data Garden: Quartet that left plenty of people intrigued, awed and enamored by their work. Data Garden is an online journal and record label that encourages the discovery of electronic music through the windows of history, science and community. The collaborative was recently invited by experimental media project Megawords (who are running a library and exhibition in the museum in conjunction with the photography exhibit of Zoe Strauss: Ten Years) to present “the first bio-reactive and plant controlled work of art at the PMA.”
Inspired by the work of London-born artist Mileece, as well as Tom Zahuranec and Richard Lowenberg, who have interfaced plant life with custom-built synthesizers in the 1970s, Data Garden fitted four tropical plants with specialized electronic sensors that were handmade using new, vintage and repurposed electronic parts, in order to convert the physiology of their specimens into data with the help of a computer. In turn, the data is “translated into commands used to control quadraphonic audio compositions in real time.”
For the installation, four tropical plants were chosen: a Philodendron, two Schefflera and a Snake Plant. Each one was provided with its own voiced instrumentation, and the data from each plant controlled the texture of sound as well as the notes that were being played in the room through Bose speakers.
The Philodendron was chosen to be the synth lead, and gave melody to the music compositions because the plant is known for being psycho-reactive (meaning that the effect of a human’s energy is observable in the plant’s conductivity without it even being touched). It was noticed that when the Philodendron was not getting much variation in conductivity, it would get silent, allowing the “backing instruments” to take over. But when it was stimulated either by people touching it or by a person walking by with particularly strong energy, it would produce notes.
Schefflera #1 was used to provide the rhythm tone particles. The plant transmitted the sound of the raw data of its own conductive variation. However, it was limited to the key of C. Schefflera #2 held things down on the low end, and acted like the bass, which provided an underlying movement to the compositions.
The Snake Plant was used to add ambient wash, lead/rhythm mix and effects. Since “the band” already had melody, bass and arpeggiated texture, this plant was chosen to provide a more lush atmospheric texture, which was created by combining the sounds controlled by the Philodendron and Scefflera #1 and adding effects to the chain. The Snake Plant orchestrated these effects and changed the reverb, delay and resonance of atmospheric drones. All of the notes were samples, sine waves and digital synthesizers that were being triggered by the plants in an audio workstation that ran through an iPad.
People were excited about touching the plants and hearing the changes in sounds. By doing so, they were altering the conductivity of the tropical plants with their touch and actually producing music with the plants by combining each other’s conductivity and biorhythms. The most evident and fascinating example of this occurring was in a group demonstration where everyone in the room was asked to hold hands and the person at the end of the line would touch a plant. The participants created their own sort of energy circuit, and you could immediately hear its direct effects on the music. What originally sounded like tranquil, new agey soundscapes that would be found in a spa shifted to something a bit more frenetic. The room was abuzz with delight and wonderment after the demonstration, creating a noticeably communal vibe among strangers.
We experienced many unintended, powerful phenomena, truly beyond expectation. And while not in the most scientific or controlled experiment, hundreds of our guests were moved by what they were able to hear and experience….There are colors of light surrounding us which our eyes can not see; our Data Garden: Quartet installation is a tool to peer into the invisible worlds of plants and their environment. What will you find in the Data Garden?
(Data Garden’s Sam Cusumano)
Data Garden is planning to do more installations in the future. If you’d like to help them do this type of work on a much larger scale, please feel free to kindly donate to The Switched-On Garden 002.
Data Garden: Quartet
April 13-15, 2012
Philadelphia Museum of Art
26th Street Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia – Art Museum District