Talking with Data Garden: Co-Composing with Plants

From Data Garden’s interactive fall 2012 exhibition, The Switched-On Garden 002. Photo by Inna Spivakova, courtesy of Data Garden.

Data Garden received a research grant in 2012 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to explore relationships among music, plants, and technology. Co-founders Alex Tyson and Joe Patitucci answered some of our questions about co-composing with plants.

What is Data Garden?

Joe Patitucci: Data Garden is an arts organization and record label making advances in digital music technology and distribution. We encourage the discovery of new electronic music by examining its history, as well as advances in science that made electronic music possible, and by creating spaces (physical and digital) where the electronic music community can engage in dialogue.

What fuels your thinking about music and composition, particularly as it relates to your collaborations with plants?

Alex Tyson: In 2003, I discovered an album of plant-generated music by media artist Mileece Petre, titled Formations. The artist on that record used custom interfaces to interpret signals that were amplified from plant leaves. Further investigations brought me to Richard Lowenberg, who also experimented with plants to produce various electronic media. Lowenberg produced artwork for The Secret Life of Plants film, which is equally inspiring. While researching these projects, Joe and I founded Data Garden. The idea of using plants as a “music delivery system” was appealing on an aesthetic level, both sonically and visually. It also served as a fun technical challenge, as there is little research in the field to work from. Our fellow artist and brilliant engineer Sam Cusumano has been essential to our bio-sensing projects.

JP: The biggest influences for me are the generative ambient works of Brian Eno and his demonstration of how simple rule sets can create complex forms. Eno’s early ambient works were comprised of short compositions played on piano, looped on tapes of different lengths. This created an effect whereby the relationship between the timing of melodies of the different instruments was in constant flux, resulting in musical compositions that evolved outside of the artist’s control.

I come from a songwriting background but it was limiting. I moved on to doing field recordings, working off of the patterns and characteristics of everyday sounds. I would find a melody in a recording of wind, play along with that on guitar or a keyboard, and then build new compositions from there. For me this was a way to bring outside forces into my process and to create something that would be impossible to come up with on my own.

From Data Garden’s interactive fall 2012 exhibition, The Switched-On Garden 002. Photo by Inna Spivakova, courtesy of Data Garden.

And this idea of establishing systems wherein plants both compose and perform music makes them collaborators of sorts?

JP: The sound in QUARTET, a piece we presented at Bartram’s Garden this year, was designed to allow a near infinite number of patterns to emerge within a predetermined number of parameters that fixed key and time. All notes and effects are triggered by the change in conductivity of the plants in real time. It’s as if we’re giving plants synthesizers and allowing them to “bang on a piano” with their changes in conductivity. This process results in musical forms that wish I had the ability to play or reproduce. At the same time, it’s nice to just sit in a room and surrender to the experience.

The word “collaboration” implies in some way that the plants are willfully working with us. While anything is possible, I can’t confirm that’s the case. Whether or not they have a say in the matter, it is likely that we are feeding off of each other’s energy.

AT: QUARTET monitors the activity cycles of plants. The data stream is always evolving as the plants grow or rest. These cycles are audible. It’s almost as if you’re hearing a collaboration between human musicians who are playing their own unique time signatures.

From Data Garden’s interactive fall 2012 exhibition, The Switched-On Garden 002. Photo by Inna Spivakova, courtesy of Data Garden.

What is plant conductivity, and how is that translated to music?

JP: Tropical plants are basically vessels of salty water. In QUARTET, we send a very small amount of electricity into a plant and measure how much of that electricity is conducted by that plant. This information is graphed as square waves by a psycho galvanometer, which is the same circuit used in lie detectors. When the amount of electricity conducted by a plant changes, the characteristics of these square waves—the frequency, amplitude, and wavelength—also change. These changes are very slight, however, so to use them to control digital synthesizers, we must first run an algorithm that amplifies the changes by about 10 times. After this data is scaled, each plant is given its own monophonic instrument with its own range of notes that can be played. This results in completely new compositions from moment to moment.

So, the presence of different people around the plants can result in different musical results?

JP: When I sit in a room with the QUARTET plants, the changes in the patterns of the music are very subtle. However, there are some people who, just by walking into the room, can create a drastic change in the music. I’ve made it a point to ask for a little background information from everyone who has had this type of effect on the plants. There were five such people that I identified when we had this installation up at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year. One was a pregnant woman, one identified herself as an energy healer, one was a botanist, one was a florist, and one was a reiki instructor. With the exception of the pregnant woman, these people self-identified as being either very in touch with plant systems or experts in channeling psychic energy.

Do you believe that different types of psychic energy can impact the conductivity of the plants in the same way that electrostatic energy can?

AT: We don’t have conclusive data to answer that question scientifically. But in my opinion, absolutely.

JP: There are many wavelengths of light that we cannot perceive, including those that make up psychic energy. Maybe plants are able to pick up these wavelengths as different colors of light. Or maybe plants are just structured to function as antennae for many forms of energy, including sunlight and psychic energy. Maybe they can even process psychic energy the same way they would process other forms of light. It’s hard to say and we don’t claim to have the answer.

We set out to create a piece that encouraged people to enter a mind-space where they could relax and think about how energy is channeled and expressed. We found that the same technology we built for QUARTET could be used as a monitoring system for people who want to do their own experiments and test theories related to plant consciousness, human psychic energy, and the processing of different waves of light. It’s our goal to develop a community of people who conduct these experiments and then crowd-source this information, allowing us to make discoveries together.

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