Johan Brjesson in conversation with Christine dlund
Music for Eukaryotes / Trondheim Kunstmuseum / 2015

JB How long have you been interested in the communication of plants?

C 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 Plants, 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?

C 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 at Marabouparken (2010) and at mot (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo), in the exhibition Art & Music - Search for New Synaesthesia, 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 emotion?

C 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?

C 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 book Thought-Forms (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?

C 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?

C 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?

C 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?

C 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, refers 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 lacks foundation.

JB Do you have a favourite plant?

C Stinging nettles! Ferns are fascinating too they can choose which sex they want to be.