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FYI on DIYs in PHL: Data Garden

- by Q.D. Tran

Data Garden is an online journal and record label encouraging the discovery of electronic music through the windows of history, science and community. When we intially heard about the collaborative being invited by Megawords (who are running a library and exhibition in conjunction with the photography exhibit of Zoe Strauss: Ten Years) to present a project that would have tropical plants hooked up to specialized electronic sensors to make music, our interest was piqued. Their Data Garden: Quartet installation will be open to the public this weekend (April 13 - 15) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It will be “the first bio-reactive and plant controlled work of art at The PMA.” Now, you are probably wondering: What does this mean? Well, rather than cutting and pasting their nicely chosen words from the post on the Data Garden website to try to superficially explain, we decided to hit up masterminds Joe Patitucci (a.k.a. Tadoma), Sam Cusumano and Alex Tyson to find out what the Data Garden: Quartet is all about. And we were right! It is pretty damn interesting so now we are really looking forward to seeing it in action this weekend, and we think that you should definitely join us. But first, we suggest that you get a little more enlightened about the installation as well, and check out our interview with the Data Garden crew below.
 
The Deli: How did you come up with this idea?
 
Joe Patitucci: We were kindly invited by Megawords to do an installation in their space and we wanted to do something that really expresses what Data Garden is about. Through all of our work, there is this exploration of the connection between plants, music and technology so it was important that we create something that brings those three aspects together in one piece. Alex has taken on a strong interest in psychobotany for some time now and this just seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore that more.
 
Sam Cusumano: Alex and Joe approached me in February with the concept of having plants play synthesizers. There are many documented experiments where electrodes attached to plants are used to translate state changes into graphable, audible data. We have extrapolated on much of this work, in hopes of providing an aural environment where guests would be surrounded by the subtle changes and fluctuations occurring within plants.
 
TD: What inspired this exhibition? Is there anyone’s work that you modeled this after or is this something that is completely your own?
 
Alex Tyson: I’ve been interested in plant music since hearing the album Formations by London-based artist Mileece. The generative compositions on that record are inspired by the structures of plant growth. After hearing her later work that uses biofeedback as a live-performance tool, I started doing more research on earlier plant-art experiments. I came across Tom Zahuranec and Richard Lowenberg, who were interfacing plants with custom built synthesizers in the 1970s. Some of their work was briefly featured in the film The Secret Life of Plants. These projects definitely inspired our framework for Data Garden: Quartet. 
 
TD: Why did you use tropical plants? Is there a reason why those certain plants were chosen?
 
AT: Tropical plants have large impressive foliage, are resilient to low-light and look handsome when hooked up to electronic sensors in ceramic planters.
 
TD: How do the electronic sensors work?
 
SC: The sensors are “psycho galvanometers” which graph changes in galvanic response (electrical “skin” conductance/resistance) by producing a square wave of variable frequency and pulse width. Built from a 555 timer IC and a handful of electronic components, each sensor is attached to a leaf on a particular plant using an electrode of silver wire and conductive gel.
 
TD: Did you make them yourselves or are they something that can be purchased?
 
SC: The “psycho galvanometers” are built by hand using new, vintage and repurposed electronic components. The devices are not perfectly matched - each exhibiting a slightly different sensitivity and voice. There are commercially available electronic kits which provide a similar circuit to the one employed in this experiment, and there is a wide variety of EEG equipment that is commercially produced at high costs for medical research.
 
TD: How is the data converted?
 
SC: I chose to use variable square waves in order to most easily bring the data into a computer environment. Utilizing a FireWire digital audio converter, each of the four plant’s signals are brought into an open source graphical programming environment called PD (Pure Data). I have constructed an algorithm in PD which analyses the incoming signal, translating to numeric representations of pulse width and frequency over time. The data stream is stored, reviewed and scaled in PD, and then is sent through MIDI to Ableton’s Live. The instrument created can provide a window between our human senses and the subtle periodic and atemporal changes occurring within plants.
 
TD: Have you discovered in your experiment that the presence of certain people replicate similar compositions?
 
SC: Plants operate at a very different metabolic time scale than humans - both moving at slower and faster rates. In research, plants have been found to have very long, slow cycles throughout the day and night, interspersed with short bursts of activity. It is therefore very challenging for humans to perceive and understand the processes occurring within plants. Certain varieties of plants exhibit high levels of activity, and even appear to react to human presence. It will be up to guests visiting the installation to listen in on the world of the plants.
 
TD: How long did it take you to get this project to come to fruition?
 
SC: I have been able to pull the technological side of the installation together over the past six weeks. Many hours of research on plant biology and electrode sensory techniques were interspersed with the construction and modification of electronic circuits. Learning the PD programming environment was greatly facilitated by lavish documentation and tutorials available on the Internet. It took some weeks to come to the understanding that plants operate at different time scales than humans, and to build interfaces which could represent both immediate changes in plant state as well as long term fluxions. By sampling data every few seconds over many long hours, I have been given a glimpse into the plant’s metabolic and psycho reactive changes.
 
TD: Do any of you have an engineering or bio backgrounds?
 
JP: I come from more of a music/band background. I self-produce electronic music and have recorded some bands here and there, but I am hardly an engineer. Sam is the mad scientist when it comes to getting data from plants, Alex produces beautiful sounds with his synthesizers and I am very experienced with Ableton Live. It’s a great collaboration because all three of us are able to work to our strengths and create something new together.
 
SC: Describing myself as a self-taught engineer, I have an educational background in computers, electronics and communication. I have been building and modifying computers and electronic equipment for the past 20 years. I have pulled together these decades of electronic experimentation and experience in order to produce this installation over such a short timeframe. And then there is the Internet, the place that all information exists, for a price, and if you can find it…
 
TD: How do you feel electronic music relates to plant life?
 
JP: I grew up watching a lot of PBS nature documentaries from the late 70s and early 80s that had really nice synth pastorals so I’ve always associated electronic music with nature on an emotional level. As time has passed, I’ve also gained a broader view of the history of humans and technology. The domestication of plants was one of the most important technological breakthroughs in human history. I think we can say the same for the development of electronic technology. I can’t really think of any two other developments made over the last 20,000 years that have had such an impact on human society. So, plants and electronic technology have this connection in my brain, and music is my preferred form of artistic expression.
 
SC: In this experiment, electronic music is used as a human sensible means by which guests can perceive and understand the changes occurring within plants. What amazes me is that plants are able to sense humans, but we are quite ignorant to them. Humans tend to need loud beeps and bright flashing lights to attract attention. Electronic music provides that macroscopic interface between the human mind and plant biology.
 
TD: Do you plan on recreating this for other exhibits in the future?
 
JP: Data Garden is definitely looking to do more installations like this in the future. Right now, we’re working on raising funds for The Switched-On Garden 002 so we can do more of this type of work on a much larger scale.
 
SC: Yes, I do hope so. I would be very pleased to put on this exhibition at a slightly larger scale (dozen or so plants) in a natural light filled environment to provide a more natural cycle for guests to listen in on.
 
TD: What would you like people to take away from this installation?
 
JP: For me this comes down to an exploration of the source of creativity. Why am I driven to make music? Where does this desire to create come from? We often say something comes natural to us without thinking much about what that even means. My interest is in playing with this idea of natural forces, exploring how they can be used to generate sonic compositions and observing how those compositions differ from something I would create on my own. 
 
While the plant data that triggers notes and samples seems almost random, the ways in which we humans are channeling that data into specific actions/notes/samples is not random at all. It's similar to the idea of having the drive to write a song, and then executing on that. The drive is kind of a randomized energy that needs to be channeled into specific actions to result in music. With Data Garden: Quartet, we are allowing the plants to provide the drive/will, and we’re using our skills to direct that energy into actions that result in sound that humans can enjoy. It’s an experiment where we are replacing our creative will with the creative will of plants and exploring whether those two wills are separate forces. I’d like people to walk away from this piece exploring their own ideas of the source of creativity.
 
SC: The purpose of many of my installations is to provide an environment for guests to explore and ask questions about the world around them. Both electronics and biology are bold and mysterious to the public at large. This experiment creates a situation which can interest and invigorate the minds of guests, in hopes of inspiring conversation and exploration. I try to present experiences that change the way people look at everyday objects and the world around them. I want to provide a forum for explorers to touch something palpable in their world, to listen to and witness changes which are usually invisible. We are continually bathed in colors of light which our eyes can not see. I want to inspire people to reach out and employ new means of sensing, and to understand how our tools work!
 
TD: Do any of you have your own garden or enjoy gardening?
 
JP: I grow a lot of arugula, basil, kale and misprints of Data Garden albums.
 
AT: I enjoy gardening, but my backyard is sadly too shaded. I have houseplants.

TD: What's your favorite thing to get at the deli?
 
JP: Walt Witout.
 
AT: Coffee.

 

 

will

 
 
 

 

Data Garden: Quartet