Are plants conscious? We know that plants sense danger, threats, nutrients, light, insects, us – and each other. We know that some plants use soundwaves to sense their surroundings – identifying potential stakes, water sources and predators. Does this mean they listen? If they can listen, can they also somehow ‘speak’ – and if so, what might they be saying?
Whether or not plant communication can – or should – be regarded as “intelligence” is a question that has occupied philosophers since ancient Greece. Following on from centuries of botanical investigation, recent debates in the controversial field of “plant neurobiology” have brought the heated, apparently irreconcilable disagreement in the scientific community about very notions of plant “sentience”, “intelligence” and “consciousness” to the fore.
As our acoustic and political sensitivity evolves, so do artistic modes of sounding and listening – which is why we think that to listen to plants is a powerful way to radically decentre the human, in favour of a much more generous, but potentially destabilising, conception of the world.
The proposal that we listen to plants continues a line of thinking begun in 2016’s program Why Listen to Animals? Why Listen to Plants? presents a slightly more challenging proposition. As scientific thought expands to incorporate consideration for non-human sentience, ethical considerations arise as to the human use of, and regard for, the many forms of plantlife. It seems we can no longer regard plants merely as self-replicating machines that convert sunlight and minerals into food for us – rather, we need to challenge our thinking to regard plants as actors and manipulators of their environments; in other words, as subjects.
As an enquiry into listening, this project offers a platform for reflecting vegetal thought — or as philosopher Michael Marder puts it, the ways in which “human thinking is, to some extent, de-humanised and rendered plant-like, altered by its encounter with the vegetal world”.
For this program, we are collaborating with artists who work at the intersection of theory and live performance. These artists use various strategies to extend vegetal thinking into sound and listening, from guided walks, talks, readings and lecture performances to experimental music, installation, herbalist pedagogy, and folk songs.
Curated by Danni Zuvela, with Karolin Tampere. Why Listen to Plants is presented with The Lofoten Sound Art Symposium (LSAS). The exhibition is part of Why Listen, which is an umbrella for a suite of other investigations by Liquid Architecture, including Why Listen to Animals? (2016; 2019); 2018’s major investigation, Why Listen to Plants?, and more to come.
Liquid Architecture is an Australian organisation for artists working with sound. LA investigates the sounds themselves, but also the ideas communicated about, and the meaning of, sound and listening. Their program stages encounters and creates spaces for sonic experience, and critical reflection on sonority and systems of sonic affect. In conjunction with Lofoten Sound Art Symposium they have commissioned two new works by artists Nathan Gray and Makiko Yamamoto.
This project is generously supported by Creative Victoria.