Johan Börjesson in conversation with Christine Ödlund
Music for Eukaryotes / Trondheim Kunstmuseum / 2015
JB How long have you been interested in the communication
CÖ For as long as I can remember, at least on an intuitive
level, but it became a more concrete interest after reading
The Secret Life of Plants
by Peter Tompkins and Christopher
Bird. David Attenborough's bbc series, The Private Life of
, has also been an inspiration.
JB The first works of yours I became familiar with were some
scores you composed in 2008 in connection with a project
at kth (the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm), in
which research was made on the chemical communication
between nettles. Could you please tell me a bit about this
project and your role in it as an artist and composer?
CÖ The chemical language of plants is a complex form of
communication, which our human senses are too dull to
comprehend, but which at best could be experienced as
smell. I wanted to translate a conversation between plants
into sound, and turn this chemical progress into music
to obtain a sense of how a conversation between plants
evolves over time. I contacted Professor Anna-Karin Borg
Karlsson, who is the head of a group of ecological chemistry
researchers at kth. They are studying how plants and
insects interact on a chemical level, and I was granted access
to a very generous amount of test results from experiments
conducted on plants, such as stinging nettles. Over the years
we have collaborated on a number of projects, and I have
spent many an hour in the laboratory, which is an incredibly
exciting environment. ¶ My first work in ecological
chemistry resulted in an electro-acoustic piece accompanied
by a score entitled Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle
. The music
describes what happens when a stinging nettle is attacked
by a caterpillar. The piece is based on experiments in which
the chemical stress reactions of a stinging nettle (Urtica dioica
have been measured periodically as caterpillars of the
Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album
) chew on its leaves. It
was important that the work was based on scientific fact,
without merely being a scientific illustration. Rather, the
goal was to work with a personal artistic method in which
synaesthesia is the underlying model for examination. In accordance
with these guidelines I sniffed each and every component
that constituted this chemical stress call (which were
available as concentrates in small glass dishes). Each substance
was then given a smell description, a matching colour
and an acoustic profile. Based on this, I composed a score
and placed all the data onto a timeline where the span of 24
hours equals one minute of music. The experiment showed
that it took 24 hours before the plant reacted to the attack,
and another 24 hours passed before the stress signals peaked.
The signals then continued at this peak until the attack
subsided. Furthermore, it was discovered that surrounding
nettles responded to the warning by halting their growth
above ground, instead channelling their energy down into
their root systems until the danger had passed. ¶ This work
has been displayed in different incarnations and on different
occasions, for example at the Swedish Museum of Natural
History, Stockholm, as part of the exhibition Changing Matters
- The Resilience Art Exhibition
(2008), in Park Life
(2010) and at mot (Museum of Contemporary
Art Tokyo), in the exhibition Art & Music - Search for New
, co-curated by Ryuichi Sakamoto (2012).
JB Using music seems natural, as what is represented takes
place over a period of time, and also considering your studies
background in electroacoustic compositon. At the same time,
what you are reproducing is moving on an emotional level:
the plants are communicating and protecting themselves
against something eating them! Their reaction is depicted in
the music as a growing unease in the harmonies, and, if my
memory serves me right, as little explosions while the attack
takes place. This is my experience of it; a musical depiction
of the process, rather than a soundtrack or an emotional
commentary. Did you ever consider turning up the level of
CÖ No. I was interested in approaching this in the most scientific
way possible, and in this respect "sonification" has its
advantages, in translating and analysing abstract phenomena
into something the human ear can discern. Frequency,
amplitude and tempo are the descriptive tools here. The
score grows in intensity as the chemical components' levels
increase as the plant is more and more stressed. The idea
was to keep my own feelings out of the score, even though
the method of using synaesthesia in this work is based on an
emphatic relationship with other life forms, in this instance
the stinging nettle.
JB In the works about the chemical communication between
plants you are depicting an event which can be
sensed via smell in the form of a visual score for an audio
work. In a way, synaesthesia is inbuilt in the project. The
phenomenon of synaesthesia – different types of sensory
experiences translating into each other, or being connected
somehow; pictures of sound, the colours associated with
smells, etc. – suggests there is a correlation between our
close surroundings and our sensory organs beyond what
we can rationally understand. The communication of
plants also holds such a correlation. We read this communication
as "distress calls", "fumbling" or smells, based on
our own sensory perceptions. In a way, sensation occurs
when the nettles respond to each other's warnings, but it
is hard to imagine what, or who, experiences the sensation.
¶ These aspects are explored in the name of both science
and what one might refer to as mysticism, or para-scientific
tradition, such as theosophy, which emerged around
the turn of the last century. Art is a third approach to this.
Your art contains both nods and direct references to both
science and mysticism. What is your take on theosophy?
How should we look at these motifs, for example Sound
Visible and Invisible
CÖ Theosophy is a philosophical theory which emerged in a
time when a number of scientific discoveries, most notably
Darwin's theories on the origin of man, conflicted with
the established religions' authority, Christianity in particular.
The industrial age and technological progress spelled a
troubling development. In a time of great social inequality,
especially between the sexes, a Russian adventurer, philosopher
and pre-feminist arrived in New York, and in 1875 she
formed the Theosophical Society. Her name was Helena
Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), and she had an ambition
of uniting science, philosophy and religion into one alternative
philosophical theory. Theosophy became a very popular
movement and would become a significant influence
on the artists, authors and composers of the avant-garde.
¶ I first encountered theosophy through the music and the
musical ideas that were described and illustrated in the
(1901), in which theosophists Annie
Besant and C. W. Leadbeater describe, among other things,
clairvoyant experiences of music materialising as colour,
shape and, according to the descriptions, even movement.
The authors find that a musical thought-form is a type of
Chladni figure, which only those who have developed their
sensitivity are able to detect. (Ernst Chladni (1756-1827)
was a German physicist who discovered that certain figures
are formed through acoustic vibrations). To me, these
thought-forms shared many similarities with the graphical
notation in electro-acoustic music, but also reminded me
of sound graphs or electromagnetic waves. I could relate to
these ideas on both an intuitive and an artistic level, except,
where the theosophists would refer to clairvoyance, I would
call it synaesthesia. Through my interest in art and science
with synaesthesia as a working model I have found inspiration
in theosophy's unconventional methods for obtaining
knowledge, which often resemble the artistic creative process.
Art as an investigative tool in the borderland between
science and metaphysics is unsurpassed.
JB You are skilled at drawing. Most of your works are, or are
based on, drawings. Was it a given that you would work
with these themes through drawing as well?
CÖ Yes, I feel that drawing is the most efficient method, and
the most accurate form of rendition from thought to materialisation.
JB Which artists have influenced your work?
CÖ That is a difficult question. There are many. Generally
speaking, I would say artists with visionary dispositions.
To name but three; Eliane Radigue, Hilma af Klint and
Maryanne Amacher – two composers and a painter.
JB When uniting scientific research and theosophical style,
I see it as a kind of allegorical quest. Similarities between
mysticism and the knowledge system and forms of science,
and the communication between plants and people, are
juxtaposed and thus almost turn into reciprocal explanations.
The Chladni figures resemble how we intuitively
try to express sound through images. The oscillations in
your scores, which portray the slow developments of plant
communication, resemble a plant sending out its tendrils.
¶ How does your process work when picking a motif? Do
you spot a certain resemblance and choose to use it as a
theme? Or do you roam intuitively within a field?
CÖ I roam between parallel schemata. Creative thinking. It
could be abstract systems in which metaphors or mathematics
are referenced. It could be oscillations between phenomena
on a subatomic scale to a cosmic scale. Theosophy,
as an example, emerged from a break with what is today
regarded as modern science. They thought there were scientific
truths in religion, and spiritual aspects to science.
They both possessed soul. This is an inspiring synthesis.
¶ Today, bio-acoustic research has proven that plants have
developed the ability to perceive and react to sound waves.
The notion of building a bridge across the language barrier
between people and plants was the starting point for
the artwork Stress Call of the Stinging Nettle
(2007). In this
exhibition, Music for Eukaryotes
, I am taking these themes
a step further. ¶ There is a recurring artistic style in my
art, but I do have a keen interest in the study of possible
cross-connections between our senses. This causes shifts
in how my art is executed, which works as a catalyst for
my artistic practice. Each work has its inner logic, but the
systematics change ad hoc.
JB You include living plants in your exhibitions. At Galleri
Riis in Stockholm last summer, the first exhibition room
was filled with nettles, spreading a rather sharp smell
throughout the entire gallery. The exhibition in Trondheim
also includes plants. I interpret them as being like dialogue
partners for your drawings and other works. Could you
please explain their function?
CÖ At the Galleri Riis exhibit I worked with synesthetic methods,
which may resemble the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk
However, my works are of a much more open nature, and
therefore differ from the Wagnerian idea of the "total work
of art". I worked with drawings, video installations, music,
sculpture and living nettles, which I cultivated from seeds in
my studio. Within months they developed into full-grown
plants with character and integrity. The nettles' language
of smell may vary from a fresh scent to a powerful, almost
animal smell. The communication of these plants was highly
perceptible in the gallery, and through its elevated status
as art it could even get the upper hand on and overpower
us fellow eukaryotes. The title, Music for Eukaryotes
to the close relation man has to plants from a phylogenetic
point of view. The lab equipment in the exhibit refers to the
tools that are used to decipher the secret language of these
organisms. The drawings are smells transferred into sound,
and then into images. My own voice is also drawn, hinting
at the notion of a possible bridge across that language
barrier. Drawing and sculpture alternate between a macro
and micro, or nanoscopic, perspective, but also between
control and chaos. It is this oscillation between science and
metaphysics, i.e. the movement, which is interesting to me.
¶ The Trondheim exhibit also includes a modified experiment
with plants, based on Dorothy Retallack's work at
the Colorado Women's College, Denver, in the 1970s. In
her book Sound of Music and Plants
she describes her experiments
in which plants were exposed to different types of music
whilst in climate controlled chambers. For example, they
were exposed to classical music, Indian sitar music and acid
rock (Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, for instance). After a couple
of weeks the experiment was completed and the results
were analysed. It turned out the plants that had 'listened' to
Ravi Shankar (Indian sitar) had grown, were healthy and had
a well-developed root system. The plants that were exposed
to Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, were in a terrible state.
Her conclusions slipped away from scientific reasoning and
into moral philosophy; what is unhealthy for plants is also
unhealthy for people. This suggests a certain kind of identification
with the plant kingdom, which is intriguing to me.
¶ Recent research at the University of Western Australia
has shown that the tips of the roots in young sweetcorn
produce loud, repeated clicking sounds, and that the roots
of the plants react to specific sound frequencies by stretching
towards the source of the sound. These discoveries
suggest that the prevalent Aristotelian notion that plants
are passive, emotionless, automated beings is outdated and
JB Do you have a favourite plant?
CÖ Stinging nettles! Ferns are fascinating too – they can
choose which sex they want to be.