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Make music by poking plants at Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Tech meets nature in Adrienne Adar's new exhibit, creating a new way for people to interact with botany.

May 21, 2019 Scott Enman
A visitor at the London exhibit. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Adar

A new botanical exhibit in Brooklyn invites visitors to interact with plants in a whole new way — by listening to them.

Adrienne Adar’s “Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations,” which opens today at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, amplifies potted plants and turns them into musical instruments.

“To audiolize, to listen to them, I think gives them more of an individuality; to understand that they are doing things all the time and moving and feeling things in their environment,” Adar told the Brooklyn Eagle.

The experimental project from the Los Angeles-based artist features plants with handmade sensors — either buried in the soil or inserted directly into the plant — that generate unique sounds.

Touch one part of a cactus, and it responds with a noise that sounds like a robot. Rub the pot, and it might croak like a frog.

“It’s not just this inert object that pleases you,” Adar said. “It’s something that you communicate with in a way.”

The exhibit has been showcased in London, Korea, China and at Google’s headquarters in San Francisco. It’s not only a playful activity, but also one that garden employees hope will encourage visitors to learn more about ecology, sustainability and plant growth.

“The garden is always looking for opportunities where art and science intersect and how we can connect our visitors to plants in different ways,” Kate Fermoile, director of exhibitions, told the Eagle.

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“Any deeper interest in plants will deepen people’s interests in nature. As they deepen that connection, they become more aware of our ecology and hopefully make their lives more sustainable.”

The artist buries sensors in the soil of potted plants or she inserts them directly inside the plant. Photo courtesy of the artist
The artist buries sensors in the soil of potted plants or inserts them directly inside the plant. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Adar

Most of the plants will be located in the garden’s Visitor Center, where attendees wearing headphones can touch them and listen to the noises they make.

A massive yucca plant in the Discovery Garden will also be hooked up to sensors and headphones.

Attendees can also tune in to natural botanic rhythms — like the sound of a plant sucking up water through its roots.

An attendee listens to the sounds of the plant in London. Photo courtesy of the artist
An attendee listens to the sounds of the plant in London. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Adar

Adar was inspired by the old folktale that if you stand in a cornfield, you can hear the grass grow.

She built a flowerpot, planted corn and hooked the stalks up to large speakers. Visitors can try to hear the corn growing. Once the corn gets taller, it will be connected to sensors.

“By touching and listening to what the plant is physically feeling through its body, it also speaks to what our actions do to the plant,” Adar said. “So if you’re going to hit it very hard, you’re going to hear that sound. If you touch it really gently and curiously and symbiotically, you’ll be ‘rewarded’ by this sound.

“There’s a reciprocity that I think is really important and makes aware that this empathy can be derived to another living thing.”

“Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations” runs through Oct. 27.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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