Haptic networking in Why Listen to Plants?

Why Listen to Plants? Curated by Danni Zuvela, co-presented by Liquid Architecture and RMIT Design Hub, RMIT Design Hub, Melbourne, 22 November – 08 December 2018

The proposition of listening to plants supposes not just aural amplification of a plant’s sound or expression, but a learning from the plant-state as a model for human engagement. Curated by Danni Zuvela of Liquid Architecture, Why Listen to Plants? is an exhibition and program of talks, workshops and performances presented over two and a half weeks at RMIT Design Hub. While the exhibition itself focused on a practice of listening and how plants could be rendered aurally expressive, the concurrent programming modelled the reciprocity, mutualism and collective intelligence of plants through its expansive focus on collaboration and networked activity. This programming emphasizes a condition of plurality in plants, motioning towards Hannah Arendt’s notion of plurality as the condition of human action needing to be seen or witnessed by those around them, and suggesting that from plants people can learn something about living and acting together as a collective.[1] To model a plant-based plurality actively encourages literal networking, sociality, haptic connections and collectivity.

My first visit to Why Listen to Plants? was to see a number of my friends who were performing in Ivey Wawn’s choreographic work Greyness and Infinity. Fittingly, Greyness and Infinity uses microbial connections as a metaphorical means of accessing or proposing social togetherness through networks of care, sensitivity and sociality. As I took a seat on the bench that runs the perimeter of Design Space, seven performers moved across the floor. The space was strewn with square mirrors, discarded sneakers, neatly arranged plastic sandals, trumpets with earbud headphones affixed to the mouthpiece. An eighth performer sat in the corner typing into a laptop. Viewers watched this typed record projected in real-time on a large screen, which both notated and highlighted an unfolding of action by the minute.

As the performers lay together, held each other, and moved individually, conversations and questions between them were spoken at varying levels of audibility. Networks of conversation and permissions to touch were engaged through chains of questions that were never directly communicated to the addressee, but spoken through a chain of other bodies:

– Ivey, can you ask Jim to ask Arini if she would like her head cradled?

– Meghan, can you ask Lucian to tell Shota to tell Ivey that I would like to have my head cradled? Thanks.[2]

The performance consistently references microbial activity as a model for these social networks it engages. In the constantly evolving typed account of the work, terms such as Simple organism, Cradling, Chain or Multicellular Migration describe the movements of actors in the space. Over time, it becomes clear how these terms refer to and instruct the performers’ movements. At one point, the performers slowly start apoptosis—they stand in place and bounce at their knees, referencing the death of cells in an organism that occurs as a normal and controlled part of its growth or development. A few minutes later, I watch as the score notes:

13:07 – everyone is contemplating the secret life of cells [3]

This nod to collective consciousness is actualised in the seventh iteration of Sinkhole in a subsequent visit to the Design Hub two weeks later. An ambitious collaboration between Rebecca Jensen, Arini Byng and Jess Gall, the work develops and evolves with each repetition and adjustment to the score. Sinkholes are referenced as disposal sites for waste or excess, created by a collapse in the surface layer of the ground. Arini told me that with each re-staging of the work, the script is shifted to ‘sink further into the sinkhole’, each time seeking to push the relationships between the performing bodies and the score to new limits of difference and structural collapse.

The performers begin by droning with their voices as they stand facing the wall, before writing invisible words on the wall with their fingertips. After moving to the centre of the room they link up like Venn diagrams, before falling in formation. The score is determined around the motions of bodies coming together and falling apart, a constant battle of magnetic energy and violent repulsion. A performer speaking through a microphone takes a bite of an apple and it crunches noisily around the space, as the sound is amplified and played through the speakers lining the walls, the interiority of her mouth encompasses the expansive space of the gallery. The spoken score’s iterant punctuation of the performers physical, bodily sounds narrates their movements with phrases such as ‘zones of weakness under surface’ or ‘for the good of the hive’.[4] This text provides context for the networked relationships that are elicited and challenged by instability throughout the work. The ambiguities of collective movement and thinking are collapsed as performers break off from the group, collect to all flop together on the floor, or work as a team to unfurl the rolls of paper used as a concurrent prop, barrier, and image.

Networked collaboration takes non-human form in Dylan Martorell’s home-made instruments producing droning sound initiated by a number of activated connections between synthesizers, organs, computers, hand-made musical instruments, piping, kinetics structures that ‘play’ other instruments (including eerie disembodied fingers), propellers and lights. As Martorell moves around the room triggering different instruments, microphones pick up the quieter sounds made and project them loudly across the space. I can distinctly hear bees buzzing and birds singing on a track in the speaker to my left. What initially begins as a network of electrical and sonic connections between the built instruments that Martorell plays, expands socially, as a number of other musicians join the offering of noise. At one table, a man plays a desk-top organ alongside kinetic disembodied fingers playing a small keyboard. Soon after, a pair of saxophone players starts a droning note at one end of the room, slowly walking the length of the space, re-mixing and interfering with the spread of sound as they move through the room. A higher pitch cuts through the rest of the noise and a bagpipe player descends the stairway into the gallery. The volume of the bagpipe pierces through everything else and is fed back to listeners via the microphones and speakers. Human breathe, instruments, machine, and technology combined to create a cacophony of noise that expresses that productive condition of plurality, collectivity and networks beyond the scope of human interaction.

Though just a fraction of the works presented through the Why Listen to Plants? programming, these three performances operate in modes beyond what can be neatly considered the choreographic or sonic and express the reality of a plurality that extends beyond human influence and action. While networking and collectivity are practices regularly utilised to enact social or political change, an engagement with non-human modes of expression and communication encourages a turn to what cannot be predicted, modelled or regulated in the power of working together. Here, listening with plants in mind reminds us of those networks of power and energy that we, as people, cannot comprehend or control.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition: Second Edition, trans. Margaret Canovan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 7.

[2] Ivey Wawn, Greyness and Infinity, Design Hub, Melbourne, November 2018, choreographic work.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Arini Byng, Jess Gall and Rebecca Jensen, Sinkhole, Design Hub, Melbourne, December 2018, choreographic work.

Greyness and infinity (Keelan O'Hehir) -2745.jpg

Ivey Warn, Greyness and Infinity, 2017–, choreographic performance.

Keelan O’Hehir

Sinkhole (Keelan O'Hehir) -6313.jpg

Arini Byng, Jess Gall, and Rebecca Jensen, Sinkhole, 2018, choreographic performance.

Keelan O’Hehir

Dylan Martorell(Keelan O'Hehir) -7031.jpg

Dylan Martorell, Untitled, 2018, sound performance

Keelan O’Hehir

Jacqui Shelton is a visual artist working in Narrm (Melbourne) and a recent PhD candidate at MADA, Monash University. She has been exhibiting in Melbourne and abroad since 2010, and has recently produced performance projects in association with the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), Tarrawarra Museum, Liquid Architecture, TCB Art Inc., and Avantwhatever Festival. She was an artist in residence at NARS (New York City), Arts House (Melbourne) and the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture.