Artist Tully Arnot's multi-sensory VR work, Epiphytes, explores plant communication, posthumanism and alternate forms of perception. To create Epiphytes, Arnot partnered with evolutionary biologist Monica Gagliano, who pioneered the brand-new research field of plant bioacoustics, for the first time experimentally demonstrating that plants emit their own ‘voices’ and detect and respond to the sounds of their environments. Her work has extended the concept of cognition (including perception, learning processes, memory) in plants.
In this film, Arnot spoke about his practice and why he chose VR as a medium to express his ideas, and the pair discussed the importance of slowing down, 'listening' to, and looking more closely at the communication lines and biological relationships that exist in the plant kingdom as a means of giving us a different perspective on our own world.
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Tully Arnot: Epiphytes is an immersive virtual reality world. It's multisensory, it's a representation of a natural environment, but not quite a reality. It's trying to imagine a plant-based perspective of what a plant might see or feel around it.
My first plant-based works were artificial working with fake plants from IKEA that I took apart and put motors on and reanimated in a sense. It was tapping into the idea of plant blindness. The idea that people don't see different plants around them as unique, but just as interchangeable green things. Creating those earlier works, I was really conscious of trying to use humor to encourage audiences to let their guard down and then address real issues after that.
A lot of my work is working with technology. I think my earlier practice was thinking about the everyday in a sense and challenging the way that we see familiar objects around us and over the last number of years, that's much more the everyday is technology, the everyday is the screen. So I've moved towards that. VR was a natural extension of that practice. I think it's an interesting technology because so many people that I put in the headset, it's still their first time going in it. So it's not as widespread as it might be in the future, but it still really represents a concerted push towards this multi-layered reality that we might be headed towards. Within the artwork, there's a strong sense of the simulation of the natural and whether an artificial reality will end up substituting for that in the future.
Monica Gagliano: My name is Monica Gagliano. I'm a research associate professor of evolutionary ecology, at the moment directing the Biological Intelligence Lab at Southern Cross University up in Lismore.
TA: I first encountered Monica Gagliano's work through an article by Michael Pollan in The New Yorker called ‘The Intelligent Plant’. The article broadly was looking at plant feelings and all of these different things and there was a bit of a sort of sixties idea to some of that research, but her work was really looking at the hard science of it and I was really inspired by seeing new technologies or new ways of exploring this medium that were solid science. I found out she lived in Australia and reached out to her.
MG: One of the research areas that I've developed is called Plant Bioacoustics, and it's a relatively new field and it's about sound and plants. The very short story of it is our plants use sound in their everyday plant business life, and so these are sound mediating transactions in their dealings with other animals, other circumstances around them, as well as our plants use and emit their own sounds. Possibly we are at this point not sure, but hypothesizing that these sounds are used to also mediate those transactions that the plants themselves are producing. And these transactions can be from dealing with potential pollinators or dealing with potential predators as well as looking for resources like water and nutrients in the environment. So basically it's like sound, plants and the two together.
TA: Stopping and listening is always an important part of engaging with natural environments. Vision isn't your most important sense in a forest or in a place where sound is going to be how you discover where an animal is. If you are into birds, how you know where the birds are.
MG: I understand that for most of us as humans, it seems a little difficult to perceive or conceive the idea that plants could use and listen to and produce sounds because they don't have vocal chords, they don't have ears. But we also already know that even within the animal kingdoms we have several examples and species that don't have ears like we do, for example, but they can totally use sound. A good example are snakes. We use the jaw bones to detect the vibration and in other cases like fish, the ears are there, but they are internal, so we don't see them, but they're pretty much structured very similarly to ours in comparison. So, basically, the real question here is sound ultimately from a physics perspective is a mechanical vibration, a mechanical wave. So if you have a body, you qualify. And from this perspective, plants have bodies and therefore they qualify.
And even if we, at this stage, we don't really necessarily understand how they do it, but from a behavioral perspective we know that they definitely use sound and they use it, as I said, to manage and to liaise with the environment and other animals. And a good example emerging from the research in the, I would say the last 10 years, has been work from colleagues in Israel looking how plants increase the amount of sugar in their flowers when they perceive the arrival of a bee. Even this response happens even to just the sound, the recording of an arrival of a bee. So there is no bee and the plant is preparing itself to be more attractive. My own work was focusing on water and similarly the plants will respond to the sound of water and will direct the growth of the roots towards that sound even if there is no water to be found.
TA: Soon after starting with VR, I realized how powerful it was as a sound tool. The soundscapes you can create in virtual reality, you can do things that you couldn't do in reality. You can really constrict the bleed of sound, you can filter the way that different sounds interact with each other, or when you enter a specific space, one sound will change, become more clear, become muddy as you walk away, and it was a really exciting tool to work with. Thinking about how we can create a soundscape that is somewhat like a natural environment, but also something that couldn't exist in reality.
A simulation and artificial elements of nature are part of the work. So there's some folly that's fake nature, but then there's just recordings and some of them were almost incidental. I went camping and bush walking over the last few years and recorded morning bird song or things that I was attracted to, and those recordings found their way into the overall soundscape of the work.
The plant perspective guided the color palette, thinking about plants generally being green given that that's the color they reflect, but they're absorbing the magenta, the reds, the blues. And I understood a plant perspective to be reflecting those colors. It's also something that's quite diffused. The edges of everything is quite blurred. It's trying to represent the visual in a non-visual capacity.
At times, I think of it as an experimental documentary, but it also really depends on the audience and the way they want to engage. The work occupies about 50 square meters. It's on an eight meter diameter circle, so it's something where people can free roam. We specifically worked with the Quest VR headset because it's untethered. There's no computer, there's no laptop that you carry around with you, there's no cables, so it feels much easier to enter that virtual reality with something that's not very heavy or not really distracting you. And when you enter the space, you can walk around. There's no one way to do it. Some people kind of stand still, some people just roam around the whole space. You can lie down, you can crawl around. And having created the work, I've gone through it dozens of times and now and then I'll just lie down and experience it in a very still, static way. And there's something that you get from that experience you don't get from walking around.
The landscape was crafted, it was actually crafted in virtual reality. There's some pretty great apps that you can just go in and you are in VR creating something for VR. They were representations of, in a general sense, my childhood backyard where I grew up. And I think that was important because the introduction also has an audio description, a description that you would give for blind or low vision audiences describing the natural environment. So as you go in, there's the environment slowly building around you while the narrator is describing what it is.
Tully Arnot – voiceover in Epiphytes: Welcome. Let's take a moment to slow down, taking a long breath in and a long breath out.
TA: Meditation is part of my practice, I guess as a person, but as an artist too maybe. And I didn't want to be too heavy with that as the introduction, but it was more thinking about slowing down and breathing together as a way to help facilitate a really good experience of the virtual reality.
Working with Josh Harle, who's a computer scientist and philosopher and everything, he's a really interesting person in the way that he approaches technology maybe in a similar way to Monica, trying to think about how he can approach technology from outside or from ways which haven't been done before. He did all of the hard stuff in the project. He did the VR and the coding and the electronics. He was quite a guiding force in a lot of the ideas and where we went. And as I said, he has a very strong background in philosophy and was able to help guide a lot of that side of it too.
MG: So why Epiphytes?
TA: I grew up around a lot of epiphytes and, as you would know, epiphytes are a plant which are an organism that grows on another plant. And I saw that existence of absorbing moisture from the air, absorbing nutrients from just litter, leaf refuse and being connected, but being in harmony, being in a symbiotic relationship with something. I saw that as just a way of being maybe a suggestion of how audiences can reflect on how they interact with each other, with other species, with ecosystems in general.
MG: I guess when I saw the title, what inspired me was that, as you just said, the epiphytes, the two bodies need to find a balance between the needs of each other. And so there must be a really high degree of sensitivity towards your own need as one of the members of this collective and the needs of the other. And because plants are sessile and the epiphytes choose to sit on someone else that is not going to move around, again, it speaks of this almost hypersensitivity to the circumstances as they change and the needs and as they fluctuate. So it almost inspires a little dance between you as the self, a plant or whatever and the other that lives with you. And so it's a beautiful model, as you said, for inspiring us maybe to be a little bit more sensitive.
TA: Okay. I guess in a more broader philosophical sense, and I know as a scientific term, but I also think a lot about the idea of the holobiont. In a human sense, it would be you and all your organisms in your stomach or the creatures on your skin existing as an ecological unit. And thinking about it broadly, I think about how we are all part of these ecological units, all part of a holobiont that if you think in this way, then you're going to be more sensitive to that.
MG: It's like we are the epiphytes, all of us on this planet, living on this planet. And we have gone a little bit astray I think. But the idea is we are here to all live in a harmonious way in relationship with this planet and everyone else on it. So, I thought it was a beautiful choice. I like working with artists because they are allowed to ask question that I am not officially allowed to ponder. And so it gives me this liberty vicariously through the artist to be able to explore possibilities.
TA: As an artist, I'm interested in the unknown and I'm interested in encouraging audiences to think about things or see things in a way that they haven't before. And science is the same. I think that curiosity is part of what drives Monica. It's what drives a lot of artists. And I think in a sense the spaces between those fields or the unexplored space is where I exist.
MG: What science is for me is primarily exploration of the unknown. And I believe that if we use always the same method to ask the same question or even different question, but always with the same method, we are just reducing it always to a specific valve through which that knowledge is supposed to go through, even if that knowledge might not fit in that valve or through that channel. And I become very aware through my own personal experiences that there are other bodies of knowledge, including obviously indigenous bodies of knowledge, which are not only enormous, but potentially even better ways of looking at the question that I'm asking.
TA: I think any additional awareness for the life of plants or the perspective of plants, I think it's beneficial in terms of thinking about greater things like climate, thinking about the interconnections in ecosystems, but also just how we treat other species, how we treat other humans. Plants to me are more about harmony or symbiotic relationships.