The Language of Plants
Momentum 8: Tunnelvision - The Reader / Mousse Publishing / 2015
Jonatan Habib Engqvist: The idea of synaesthesia seems to be a central in your work and it would be noteworthy to hear some of your thoughts on this. Linguistically, synaesthesia might be regarded as a private language ¬– as it to a certain extent is language only known by its speaker. In this way, one could claim that it subsists as in highly subjective bubble, or as a form of tunnel vision. Do you think that a synesthetic experience be translated and communicated to others?
You created an electro-acoustic composition accompanied by a score entitled Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle
in 2008. The composition was based on research into the chemical communication between nettles when caterpillars from the Comma butterfly troubled an individual plant's leaves. Basically you translated into sound the complex communication that takes place between the plants which we normally only can sense through smell. How do you see your role in this process?
Christine Ödlund: I thought about the possibilities of transcending the language barrier between humans and plants. As human beings, we can only experience a fraction of the chemical language of plants, and the strictly scientific approach to the subject appears too abstract for me. I see art as a far superior tool in order to get a sense of this plant language with its dissimilar relationship to time. Synaesthesia as artistic method makes it easier to shift perspective and focus. Above all it facilitates contact with other forms of intelligent life.
JHE: Plants are very competitive organisms. They are always competing for space, nutrients, sunshine, and water. Plants have to endure disease, insects, and weather. They must have defence mechanisms and sensory structures to battle these factors. Plants also have to confront each other; they also have ways of detecting each other and a method to compete with their surrounding neighbours. You have conducted a series of experiments where you, among other things, have played different music for the plants. Could you say a bit about this?
CÖ: Bio-acoustic research has pointed out the advanced capacity that plants have to both recognise and answer to sound waves. At the University of Western Australia, they have for instance investigated how young maize plant's root tips produce high, frequent clicking sounds and how their roots react to specific sound frequencies by extending towards the source.
I have in my most recent exhibitions with the title Music for Eukaryotes
modified an experiment based on Dorothy Retallack's work from the 1970's. In the book Sound of Music and Plants
, she describes her experiments with plants that where exposed to different kinds of music in climate chambers. Among the kinds of music played there was classical music, Indian sitar music and acid rock (like Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix). After a number of weeks the experiment was over and the plants analysed. It turned out that the ones that had listened to Ravi Shankar had grown, that they were healthy and had a well-developed root system. The plants that had been exposed to Led Zeppelin were however in very poor condition. Her conclusions commenced to slide out of the scientific argumentation and ended up in a moralising speculation, namely that what is bad for plants also applies to human beings. This transition exposes certain identification with the plant kingdom, which I find interesting.
JHE: Your work refers to both science and mysticism or para-science. What is your take on Theosophy?
CÖ: The protagonists of the theosophical movement are of great significance. Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) who in 1875 founded that theosophical society in New York had the ambition to unite science, philosophy and religion in order to create an alternative system of thought. Theosophy became a tremendously popular movement and above all came to influence the artists, writers and composers of the avant-garde. The theosophical movement appeared at a time that had a lot of notable similarities with our own: Globalisation, the effects of industrialisation on the environment and new revolutionary scientific discoveries and conquests.
I came into contact with theosophy via music and the musical thought-forms described and illustrated in the book Thought-Forms
from 1901. In this book the theosophists Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, among other things, describe clairvoyant experiences of music that materialise and manifest themselves in colour, form and movement. A musical thought-form is according to the authors a kind of Chladni
-figure that only someone who has developed their heighted sensibility can feel.
To me, these thought-forms had many similarities to the graphic notation systems of electro-acoustic music. This entailed that I could relate to these thoughts both as a visual artist and as a composer. The main difference is that what the theosophical movement terms clairvoyance, I would rather call synaesthesia. Through a combined interest for art, music and science – with synaesthesia as a working model – I have found inspiration in theosophy's unconventional methods of acquiring knowledge, which many times is reminiscent of the artistic creative process. Art as an investigative tool in the borderland between science and the metaphysical is unparalleled.
JHE: Plants are surprisingly sophisticated and can sense up from down. They can discern light, colour and have a tactile sense. They sense smells. It is perhaps not so strange if you consider that all organisms need to sense their environment in order to survive. Even algae move toward the light to allow for photosynthesis and light is of course essential for every plant. Chlorophyll allows plants to convert energy from light into sugars. Does light impact plants in ways other than just supplying them with energy? Do different colours even influence their growth and development?
CÖ: Plants have developed colour vision. This means that they can register shifts in colour in the shade and filtered light through for instance the green of foliage. A group of light sensitive pigments in the plant called phytochromes
react to red and blue light. Apart from their role in regulating the diurnal rhythm, they also help the plant to orient itself, and get to know it's environment and it's "neighbours".
Christine Ödlund is an artist and composer. She lives and works in Stockholm.