Dialogue and Symphony: The language of plants

The Language of Plants on exhibit at the Toronto Botanical Garden. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

Dialogue and Symphony: The language of plants


In a project originally conceived for the Grow Op 2015 exhibition, artists and landscape designers Yi Zhou and Jasmeen Bains of the Studio for Landscape Culture created The Language of Plants, an installation in which the (normally inaudible) sounds emitted by plants are combined to create a bio-acoustic symphony. Ground editor Lorraine Johnson and frequent contributor Victoria Taylor, OALA, who curated Grow Op 2015, recently spoke with Zhou and Bains about their project during a walk through the black oak savanna of High Park in Toronto.

Lorraine Johnson (LJ): Could you talk about the genesis of your project The Language of Plants?

Yi Zhou (YZ): The impetus was the call for proposals for the Grow Op 2015 exhibition. We really connected with the theme of landscape and culture and how the two intersect. We started out with a brainstorming session to think about what culture is, what we can draw from culture. We kept coming back to the idea of language as a foundation of culture, as an indicator of culture, as a producer and a product: what are the characteristics of language, how do we use it as humans, and also how do we use it as landscape designers? We were looking at different aspects of urban design, horticulture, botany, all of these different aspects that come together to inform how we design spaces.

Jasmeen Bains (JB): In this project, as artists, we wanted to think of plants as a system and encourage people to look at them as a system rather than as individual specimens. Yi was researching articles and came across the fact that plants make sounds and communicate with each other.

YZ: It started out as a conceptual question: what if there are voices in the plants that we could listen to? I didn’t imagine that there would be a scientific basis behind that. So we dug into it more. Can we learn from plants in a different way by listening to them? Can we discover harmonies, can we make music, can we learn more about the characters of the plants? There’s an entire, growing field of bio-acoustics.

In collaboration with our audio consultant, Simon Nuk, we created a synthesizer through sound programming software. We looked at what scientists had found in terms of plant sounds (they had looked at different species of trees, different species of perennials, grasses) and we took all this information and condensed it into a framework for understanding the plants as a series of sounds. We looked at how the sounds change over the course of a day in six-hour intervals. We looked at how they differ from species to species, and also how similar types of plants may have common sound qualities. The sounds are primarily produced from the everyday process of transpiration as water is pulled up from the roots, through the xylem, into the leaves. They differ based on anatomy and where in the plant you are listening. Trees make very different sounds from grasses, for example. In the black oak, water travels up a really long, woody columnar section in the trunk of the tree, so it has a different quality of sound.

LJ: So you’ve synthesized the sound for each plant in the installation?

JB: It was like reverse engineering of the sound. We took spectrograms from scientific literature and considered what physiological aspects related to the species we were studying, and then reverse engineered those spectrograms for our species based on comparable qualities in the other spectrograms.

YZ: In these studies, the plants are hooked up with sensors that detect both high frequency sound vibrations (ultrasonic acoustic emissions) and super quiet sounds (audible acoustic emissions). The spectrograms are visualizations of these sounds, generated by a computer as it is receiving inputs from the plant. We looked at that and came up with twenty to thirty parameters that would control a different portion or quality of the sound in which each part is responsible for a different quality of that sound: how loud it is, how quickly it gets loud, how quickly it softens, the period between each loud beep, how long that lags, how long before the next one, and how that changes over the course of six-hour periods for all of the plants. Those were some of the parameters.

I feel that we’ve just been a facilitator for the dialogue, a translator for the natural occurrences of this ecological system.

Diagrammatic panels from The Language of Plants exhibition. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

Diagrammatic panels from The Language of Plants exhibition. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

Diagrammatic panels from The Language of Plants exhibition. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

JB: We just unveiled something that was there but nobody realized it or understood it because it was out of their hearing range. We just made it so that people could access it in an easy way.

LJ: You added the wonderful feature of the viewer being able to adjust the sound, so the participant is making the symphony.

JB: We also wanted to identify that you could listen to each plant as an individual, but then you could also create you own mix, your own ecology.

LJ: Did you get to the point where you thought the plants had personalities?

JB: Yes! There were ones that we liked and ones that we didn’t like. I didn’t really like the sound of the black oak, it was so…

YZ: …buzzy and static-y.

JB: Blue-eyed grass was my absolute favourite. The sound was soft, and it reminded me of the way it looks.

YZ: I really liked the wild columbine. It didn’t sound like any of the others.

JB: It was interesting that the little flowering ones were the softest and gentlest.

YZ: A key part of what we like to do with our projects is to make them participatory and engaging.

Victoria Taylor (VT): The Language of Plants was the first project for your Studio of Landscape Culture. How is your practice in the studio separate from or similar to what you do in your day jobs?

YZ: We have another member of our studio, Tyler Bradt, and we all wanted an outlet for the kinds of projects that take chances, are different, and aren’t always limited or constrained by real world concerns.

JB: Sometimes the working world doesn’t allow you to explore those things, or explore them to the depth you want to. It might sound cheesy, but we want to make a difference in the world, and sometimes the constraints of a professional practice don’t allow you to do that to the degree you want to.

YZ: Or to do the kind of research that allows different types of design approaches.

VT: It was great for the public to see your work at Grow Op; for the visitors to experience your installation and the power of how using other creative and research processes can inspire so many new conversations about landscape and the world around us.

At Grow Op 2015. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

At Grow Op 2015. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

YZ: It’s funny because in school we’re always taught about a multi-disciplinary approach. When you get into professional practice, everything is very structured and there’s not really the room—or sometimes even imagination—that is required to make the approach truly multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary.

LJ: What are some of the ways you want to change the world with the work you do?

JB: I think that we have to change our relationship with nature and ecology and plants. The mentality of us versus them, our space and their space, hasn’t worked so far. Ecological function is seen as an extra. If you’re working on a streetscape, and you suggest making it a pollinator pathway, we need to change the mentality and say sure, it might look different, but let’s accept it as having value.

YZ: We need to change the focus from what our landscapes look like to how they work. In all of our projects, there’s a very deeply embedded ecological foundation. It might not be the thing that hits you over the head, but it’s always there.

LJ: What is the Studio for Landscape Culture working on now?

JB: We have been looking at [Toronto] school closures and trying to create an interim use for the grounds and the buildings themselves, something multi-disciplinary.

YZ: The closures are in the lowest income areas, where the schools are most important and the community relies on them.

JB: There are after-school programs, daytime programs, adult learning programs—these are really important in those areas, and we need to keep those facilities alive regardless of what the daytime use is. That’s an ongoing project still in the research phase.

We’re also looking to do more installation work. We’d love to make The Language of Plants into a walking tour. We could create it in such a way that you could be listening to and experiencing the plants one on one. If it were a tour through High Park, for example, it could be choreographed so you could listen to the sounds of different plants as you were walking through them.

YZ: It would be another way to experience the landscape, by incorporating the audio with the sensory, visual, and tactile. We love working with installations and experiences where you can bring everything together at a small scale so it’s accessible and digestible.



The installation on exhibit at Grow Op 2015. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

The installation on exhibit at Grow Op 2015. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

At the Toronto Botanical Garden. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

At the Toronto Botanical Garden. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

The Language of Plants, on exhibit at the Toronto Botanical Garden. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture

The Language of Plants, on exhibit at the Toronto Botanical Garden. IMAGE/ Studio for Landscape Culture