Why Listen to Plants?

As humans, we are often guilty of considering ourselves at the centre of all existence. What it means to be, see, think and feel is measured against the anthropocentric experience of seeing, thinking and feeling. But as science continues to reveal, the non-human forms of the natural world are far greater and more intelligent than ever imagined. A community of the most ancient kind, the plant kingdom is interconnected by a deep-rooted ability to send messages back and forth across species – emitting warnings, emboldening sexual advances and encouraging growth. It is the dialogue of plants and their vegetal consciousness that is the inquiry of a fascinating exhibition, Why Listen to Plants, taking place in Melbourne this month.

Image by Lucien Alperstein

Why Listen to Plants? is a pedagogical exhibition and public program that challenges the way we think about communication, listening and the natural world. It asks questions like: are plants conscious? What do they speak of? What can we learn by listening to them?

Taking place across three weeks, with each framed around a different social protagonist (microbes, fungi, bees), the event features a diverse range of local and international artists and performers who explore the concept of creating and interpreting sound. You’ll find fascinating people with big ideas like Monica Gagliano, the Djirri Djirri Dance Group, Makiko Yamatoto, Honeyfingers and Milkwood Permaculture, and more. Whatever your wildest, inner most plants-meets-sci-fi delight, there is a performance/workshop/lecture at Why Listen to Plants that will address it.

We caught up with the event curator, Danni Zuvela, to get the low down on everything plant-speak related and learn more about what this exhibition might reveal about the way humans communicate and cultivate relationships.

So, Danni, why should we listen to plants? Plants have a lot to say! Plants have soundful worlds – they make sound and they use sound, it’s just outside our human hearing range. That in itself tells us that what we mean by ‘sound’, and also ‘listening’ is set up around human categories or definitions.

By listening to plants, we can expand what it means to give voice to non-human others, and also what it means to listen.”

How do plants communicate with each other and other communities in their natural surroundings? One of the ways is with chemical signals. We have known for some time that they can release chemicals to ward off or attract other insects who might be wanting to snack on or pollinate them, for instance.

Plants also communicate throughout the soil. Underneath the ground are intricate mycelial networks where plants are busy talking to each other through tiny filamental hyphae. They send “messages” to each other via this ‘wood-wide-web’.

More recently, some scientists, in the field of what’s called bio-acoustics, have been exploring how plants use sound to make sense of their surroundings. Plants, it turns out, use sound waves above and below ground. Tendrils grow towards supportive structures like branches (or trellises) and roots grow towards water using sound frequencies.

Plants don’t just perceive sounds, they also emit them. With the right equipment, it’s possible to listen to the sounds a plant’s electrophysiology makes – the sound of its electrical systems and the transit of nutrients and water through leaves, stems and roots.

There’s a fascinating world of little sounds going on underneath your feet and all around you; it just happens to be occurring outside the range of your ability to hear it.

Image by Keelan O'Hehir
Image by Zheng Bo

Tell us a little about this event. What are some of the questions being explored? Overall, we were interested in the idea of plants as subjects (rather than objects, which is how they are usually regarded). We started with the question, are plants conscious? But then we realised that since the answer to that question appears to be a yes, maybe it’s not the key question after all. Thinking about our relationship to plants as subjects who perceive and make sound raised another set of questions, like, What might a plant have to say?, How should we encounter plants? and What does it mean to listen without ears, or speak without a mouth? We built a program including an exhibition and public program of talks, workshops and performances in order to explore these questions, and that’s what you’ll experience at Why Listen to Plants.

How does sound affect an audience in a way that other mediums don’t? Sound has an affective power that is very immediate, bodily, and also social. We are affected by sound in a material or physical way and the experience of sound/listening artworks can feel more intimate than the critical distance we are accustomed to when engaging with purely visual artworks. Then again, you can look without really seeing, and you can hear without really listening. So one of the ways sound can maybe affect an audience is by providing an occasion for listening with close intent, whether that’s to a talk, or a sound or audiovisual artwork, or a performance using voice (or silence).

What is vegetal consciousness? Vegetal consciousness is plant thinking; it emerges from such deep sense of time and interconnected with others that the ideas of the individual and the many merge into the same thing.

I like the way the program is divided into three weeks, with each period themed around a different social protagonist – microbes, fungi and bees. How did you select these themes and how does this help to tell the story of the exhibition and events program? There are so many different ways to approach a plant-based program! We knew that what we didn’t want to do was an atomised approach with plants examined in a taxonomical or classificatory perspective.

Rather, we were thinking about other ways to explore plants and their agency in the ecologies in which they operate.

By working with the different organisms that are perhaps somewhat hidden at first, but that have these important symbiotic relationships with plants, we can ‘listen’ to plants in ways that may be fundamental and deeply interconnected with plants’ own experiences of the world.”

A plant knows life through the fungal systems communicating between the ground; pollen tells us stories of the life of the environment around the hive. Plants are never really a singular thing; they have an irreducibly multiple quality.  Working across disciplines, from our own place in sound and contemporary art into microbiology, mycology and melittology (bee science!) enabled us to provide a sense of this multiplicity and generate a constantly unfolding conversation around the exhibition and performance program.

What can Why Listen to Plants? tell us about our own ways of being, particularly the ways we communicate and cultivate relationships with each other? This program is about enlarging our idea of listening to encompass non-human others. Like plants, we are all beings co-existing across multiple interdependencies with our own and other species, and these run the spectrum from parasitic and co-dependent to mutually supportive and enabling.

By practising acts of listening to, and with, non-human others, as we do across this whole program, what I would hope for is that in some small way it helps us to maybe get closer to, or hold a different space for and appreciate, the various entanglements we have with each other.

Why Listen to Plants is a program of talks, workshops and performances presented by Liquid Architecture and RMIT Design Hub. It runs from 22ndNovember – 8thDecember 2018.

See the full program here.

Image by Charlie Sofo
Image by Keelan O'Hehir