sounding with            philodendron

sam anthem

In the most common ways humans interface with them, houseplants serve as decorations—to add beauty or ambience to a domestic space; or to carry such semiotics to a commercial space so as to make the consumer feel at home. There have been especially in the last few years interesting disruptions of this status quo propagated through social media, one of which is what is often called “plant music”—the attachment of biosensors onto plants and fungi as triggers and voltage inputs for synthesizers. Claiming to allow people to “hear” the plants, these kinds of sound work counter the otherwise decorative passivity of houseplant; however, as I will argue here, many of these works not only rely on misleading listeners on the functionings of its own apparatuses, they also fall short of adequately addressing the capitalist-colonial logics that have historically and presently subtended the passivity of the houseplant. I will then present my own pursuits collaborating with a philodendron houseplant, collaborations that utilize the same kind of sonification technology. This audiovisual essay will accordingly constitute an alternative artistic output for the biosonification apparatus, based on a necessity and urgency for critical framing.

How can artistic work with plants simultaneously avoid obfuscating the human hand that plays a role in the production while nonetheless centering the agency and material entanglements of that very plant?

Part I

sampled TikToks featuring biosonifcation technology “allowing plants to make music”
Over the past few years, despite the technology having existed for decades, videos of biosonifcation technology attached to plants has taken social media by storm. There is no shortage of videos with one to five million views on TikTok featuring plant-based biosonification. And during a period of time where human presence on the earth is characterized by overextraction and environmental destruction, there is something compelling about underscoring an agency and life of plants. Nonetheless, nearly all of these popular videos fall short of accurately explaining how the technology and sonification are working in all steps of the process. The videos show electrodes attached to plants, which are often measuring changes in electrical resistance, and then accompany it with the “sonified” sounds of ambient, tonal, synthesized music, and paired with causally-misplaced language such as the following: 

“Did you know that your plants can make music? The sounds you’re about to hear were made by the plants in this terrarium” (@worcesterterrariums, TikTok); “What does a Venus Flytrap sound like?” (@PlantWave, TikTok); “This is what a monstera sounds like” (@growwithjessie, TikTok). 
 Plants cannot make “music”, Venus Flytraps do not sound like Pink Floyd’s “Echoes”, and Monsteras do not have the ability to play classical guitar, though as a plant-lover who used to play classical guitar I would very much love this to be the case. And based on my own experiences talking to non-musicians who have never heard of MIDI (a digital instrument communication protocol), there is a genuine scale of those who are either convinced plants do sound like this to those who have just lack a technical language to voice hesitation in the first place. A moderate fraction of these TikToks include some description that explain that the sonification devices are measuring electrical activity; but even these still employ rhetoric of sonic causality that fails to address the primary agent of human-crafted synthesizer or virtual instrument patches. The reason that this misleading language and framing of the biosonification technology matters is twofold: first, this kind of etiological maintenance of the Ozian magic of the technology serves well commercially; and second, not making clear exactly how and where human and non-human agencies intersect results in an act of personification that does the opposite of decentering exceptionalisms attached to human agency.
 Regarding the commercial—the largest source of popular media videos featuring the technology comes from the social media account of a biosonification-to-music device’s company¬: PlantWave. A majority of their TikToks demonstrating the tech on different plants and trees end with the text, “Every plant produces different patterns and melodies” (@PlantWave). This is not accurate at all. The PlantWave phone app allows the user to select the instruments, tones, and scales that will constitute the musical styles “produced” by the plant. And while it is true that there is some melodic variance between differing plants, the music is already so tonically constrained that it has very little bearing on the affective qualities of the sound—which is what their TikToks lead viewers to believe, creating an illusion that appropriates real desires to identify active agency of plants into a product selling scheme.
The secondary problematic comes arises from the ways in which the dominant framing of “plant music” hides the human part in the sonification process. The forms of biosonification that has flooded social media often make use of expansive virtual or analog synthesizers. What is often being read in the plant is the change of electrical resistance across a circuit produced by at least two electrodes placed on a single plant body. What the raw data would really capture are therefore numerical changes in ohms, the standard unit of measurement for electrical resistance. Accordingly, though quite boring, a more honest biosonification of a plant through this apparatus alone would feature perhaps only one changing value, such as a tonically-stable sine wave with volume changing alongside resistance, for example. What happens when the human hand enters and makes the process sonically complex without bringing awareness of that effect is a personification of the plant’s agency—the ambient synthesizer patches or harmonically tonal guitar strum production is irrevocably tied to a human aesthetic language. To imply that plants produce such means that they carry our language for us. And in a way, the idea promulgated by TikToks like PlantWave that each plant species produces a totally different kind of music appeals to an expectation for individuality very much specific to modern social subjects. Also, a short but impactful observation would be that these framings do not teach us anything about the plants being sonnified themselves. All heretofore considered, the framing of vegetally-engaged biosonification as plant music, aesthetically pleasing minimalist musics as the sound of plants, fails to escape in any meaningful extent an anthropocentric relationship to plants.
I would at this moment like to be clear that the popularity of “plant music” in social media still resists, even if through deception or commercial motivation, the aforementioned passivity applied to houseplants and plants more generally too. And though it is agreeably urgent to address what Giovanni Aloi defines as “plant-blindness”—“our cultural inability to conceive plants beyond the prefixed cultural schemata” (Aloi xx)—what replaces that “cultural schemata” must be chosen with care, accuracy, and a strict sensibility towards decentering anthropocentric logics. Part of my dissatisfaction with popular usages and framings of the biosonification technology, paired with my feeling that there was nonetheless something irrevocably appealing and fascinating about the technology, inspired me to invest in a DIY-open source resistance-based biosonification apparatus created by Samuel Cusumano, also known as Electricity for Progress. Once finished, I decided not to just immediately attach the electrodes to a plant, pick a nice instrument, and bop my head. Rather, I began researching more in depth than I had ever before a houseplant of mine that I wanted to better understand and sensorially relate to in my quotidian life: a heartleaf philodendron.

Part II

Philodendron — a genus of plants in the Araceae family — native to mostly tropical regions in Central and South America and the Caribbean — has 450-500 species — constitutes many of the most popular houseplants

Heartleaf philodendron — a.k.a. Philodendron hederaceum — a climbing vine — adaptable in varied humidities and light settings — one of the most common houseplants in the Global North

My heartleaf philodendron houseplant came into my life right around the same time that I both began soldering my biosonification device and also started my MFA in Sound program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, the Sound department has a decades old Yamaha Disklavier player piano—an acoustic piano with mechanic hammers that can play specifically triggered notes. Simultaneously and perhaps independent of each other, I wanted to better understand and explore these three things: this plant, this piano, and the biosonification device. Eventually, I was able to get the apparatuses to communicate. What came next had no better name than improvisations, which as George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut wrote in their introduction to The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies has an open potential for posthuman engagement: “Spanning a wide range of disciplines in the humanistic, natural, and social sciences, [the posthumanities such as new materialism, vitalism, and assemblage theory] examines concepts—like adaptation, self-organization, uncertainty, translation, and emergence—that could be profitably viewed through an improvisational squint” (Lewis and Piekut 20). When seeking to displace anthropocentric logics that often reinstantiate themselves through authoritative claims to certainty, the clumsy, explorative, open-eared, and relational modalities of improvisation appear fruitful. My improvisations with the heartleaf philodendron took two decipherable forms, each with its own significance. 

“Nothing makes itself; nothing is really autopoietic or self-organizing. … earthlings are never alone. That is the radical implication of sympoiesis. Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding-with, in company” (Haraway 58).

The first modality of improvisation I explored involved hooking up the biosensors to the plant; having changes in electrical resistance then trigger varied notes on a chromatic scale (i.e., all notes rather than a harmonic exclusion of some), varied durations, and varied velocities; and then playing the piano myself in a more jazz-traditional free improvisatory way. 
To you, my listener, and to myself as a collaborator, I strive to think not too strongly in anthropocentric subject-object causal terms—the plant is not playing the piano with me. Rather, to be unequivocally specific, what triggers the piano notes are imperfect traces of changes to electrical resistance in this houseplant, changes caused by natural cellular rhythms such as ion transport and metabolic activity as well as environmental conditions like temperature, light, and humidity which have an impact as well. Accordingly, a source of the piano sound is tied to an agency localized in the plant as a body, but it is important not to raise the plant as if it were an emergent entity with a total control, desire, or directionality for this sonifying apparatus. For sake of communicative cohesiveness, at this point forward, when I refer to the heartleaf philodendron, I refer to it not as a single entity but as an assemblage of agencies that span various scales but especially the cellular. 

While, durationally, engaging in this improvisation, I simultaneously reflect on that which I hitherto learned about the plant and its histories. Before European settlers, numerous indigenous groups in the neotropical regions used philodendrons and their fibers for a variety of purposes. For example, Karajá peoples of the Amazon’s Upper Xingu River region wove philodendron fiber into ritually important headdresses and the Guaraní people from regions in modern day Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay used the plant species to make medicines and insect repellent in addition to rope, baskets, and weapons (Larsen 33-34). When European settlers came, interest in tropical aroids like philodendrons came as a botantic manifestation of the colonial exotic gaze. Imperial capitals in Europe would go on to extract, import and independently cultivate numerous philodendron species between the 18th and 19th centuries, mainly for appeals to worldiness and collection in royal gardens and nurseries. 
 In the states, philodendron took off in the 20th century primarily through a commercial force, in addition to a war-effort-promotion implication of the tropical plant too. The modern popularity of the heartleaf philodendron, in particular, as a houseplant has a clear trace: 
“As early as 1869, August Fendler collected five specimens of Philodendron cordatum [hederaceum] from Brazil for the Missouri Botanical Garden, which in turn delivered cuttings to the Bourdet Floral Company for trial as a possible commercial plant around 1912. These events made the plant—which is also known as the heartleaf philodendron—into the ubiquitous houseplant that it is today” (Larsen 56). 
Also during WWII, as Christian Larsen argues, a movement in modern home design media began promoting tropical plants such as philodendron to U.S. consumers to achieve “propagandistic goals, a way to ‘stimulate lasting good-will and hemispheric unity, vital for national defense, among the peoples of the Americas’” (Larsen 69). Larsen’s essay, “Transplants: Domesticating the Philodendron’s Tropical Mystique in the Americas and Euope” accounts for numerous other ways that philodendrons are embedded in histories of colonial, patriarchal, and white power.
What changes to my improvisation with the philodendron after having learned all this and more, not only for me as the human collaborator and my audience, but also you, the reader-listener here? First, it does feel simultaneously somber and privileged to attach the philodendron houseplant to biosensors and play piano with it in an art school’s facilities—just thinking about the colonial histories of extraction and appropriation this plant species has faced, on one level I too as a white European American am so obviously entangled in these historic forces as a beneficiary, as someone who has the colonial privilege to have the philodendron as a houseplant in my apartment in Chicago, Illinois. The solution is of course not to throw out the plant and forget about it—rather, as this project and essay should suggest, I have chosen to pursue these histories further and let them affect me artistically, personally, subjectively, bodily. 
By adding my hands to the piano, I enter a dialogue with these colonial histories. Here, what clashes with the philodendron’s sonic part are my own entanglements in my familiarity with piano playing, the (colonial) Western 12-tone system, and personal predilections for harmony and consonance. There are times in the improvisation where I quite obviously tends towards the traditionally tonal, I respond with chords, and yet, as a result of not constraining the heartleaf’s sonic outputs in any particular scale, my moments of consonance are seldomly resolved by the philodendron’s counterpoint. Such a dynamic might be considered an embodied metaphor of my coming to terms with my own plant-blindness, with my own embeddedness in these extractive histories. 

The second modality of improvisation I pursued was quite different from the first. Here, I am not playing the piano—rather, I am hooking myself up to the same biosonification apparatus as the philodendron. We become part of the same circuit. The apparatus has no subjective-categorical distinctions between plant and human—to it, we are just one body with collective changes in electrical resistance sending chromatic notes to be played by the player piano. 
Agency in this modality becomes much more equalized, much more porously shared. On the level of touch as told on the level of physics and electrons: “every action has an equal but opposite reaction”—there is no touching of my finger to a plant leaf without the leaf touching my finger too. And sharing the circuit, individuated causality becomes obscure. The parts each body plays in the sonification is not clear to the apparatus or the listener. Furthermore, it is not the case that the rate of electron flow changes while electricity flows through the plant as opposed to the human body—while individual electrons in various parts of a circuit can collide in differentiated ways, current in a closed circuit is the same; changes in resistance in either body will simultaneously alter electron flow in both bodies. Said differently, capacity to alter the dynamics of electron flow is equal for both bodies. The philodendron and I are an assemblage, which Jane Bennett defines as “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements” whose agencies interact and overlap to form “an open-ended collective, a ‘non-totalizable sum” (Bennett 23-24). And because what the biosonification apparatus cares for is not magnitudes of resistance but changes of it, what emerges from the fleshy, bodily encounter is an agentially symbiotic ecosystem, whereby the sound of the piano is produced irrevocably as a phenotype of these bodies-as-porous-assemblage. 
Overlapping the plant-human-body improvisation with the colonial, special, and power entanglements that the two actants of the sonified encounter share marks this assemblage particular as a racializing assemblage, which as Alexander Weheliye illustrates, “construes race not as a biological or cultural classification but as a set of sociopolitical processes that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans” (Weheliye 4). Weheliye continues, “Racializing assemblages represent, among other things, the visual modalities in which dehumanization is practiced and lived” (5). Philodendrons as background décor rather than agents carrying with them material, political, colonial, and extractive histories, fall clearly under this kind of visual dehumanization whereby other less-than-Humans are implicated too. By joining the circuit with the heartleaf philodendron, we “intra-actively” (see Barad) alter the others capacities to act: sensorial logics are reworked to underscore the material agencies of the plant and let its body signify such; and my body too is shown to some degree a clearer picture of its colonial entanglements. 
 Philodendron as a material paradigm for both contemporary U.S. American relations to Latin America and past settler European extraction strengthens the aforementioned imperative to counter plant-blindness and give didactic space for the active agency and histories of colonially-entangled houseplants to teach its human housemates and space-sharers important lessons. Vegetally-engaged biosonification has the capacity to active and promulgate these lessons, and without necessarily sacrificing the “music” of it all, as the bilateral touch and call-and-response point towards alternate species-relations that do not necessarily center the racial-colonial-beneficiary Human. 

Works Cited

Aloi, Giovanni. Why Look at Plants?: The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Brill, 2018. 

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. duke university Press, 2007. 

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. 

Larsen, Christian A. Philodendron: From Pan-Latin Exotic to American Modern. The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, 2015. Lewis, George, and Benjamin Piekut. 

The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies. Oxford University Press, 2016. Google Scholar, W

eheliye, Alexander Ghedi. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Duke University Press, 2014.