Elena Bauer

Introduction

Plants are really important for our lives on earth. They transform the energy from the sun into chemical energy, that all animals (us included) use to fuel their bodies.

But most of the time we consider them something closer to a rock than to a living organism. They are really alien to us because they are so different.

They do not have a brain, but reactions within signalling pathways may provide a biochemical basis for learning and memory in addition to computation and problem solving. Since they do have a hormonal system instead of a nervous system it makes them really slow compared to animals.

Broad topic: Plant communication and intelligence
Question: What could make it easier for us to understand plants better?
Task: Make plants faster, give them abilities that makes their similarities (or differences?) to animals stand out more?


1. Draw
pflanzen

I noticed, that the Indian cress on our kitchen table was looking different all the time, so I started to draw it every day.

 


2. More research

I did some more research on the current state of scientific research on plant intelligence and communication. I also spent time considering the critical voices and the controversy around terms like ‘plant neurobiology’.
Then I ended up checking out existing projects.

Existing projects and what to learn from themPlant Projects

Botanicalls – Plants can call you or twitter when they need water. You can buy DIY kits.
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot – rêvolutions – Moving trees at the Biennale 2015.
Plants making music – This thing has been done numerous times in different ways. All the projects basically use plants as interactive interface to play and transform sound. Some claim, it’s the plant itself reacting to the touch that creates the signal or current but I honestly doubt it. The plants are just conductive.
Jurema Action Plant – Nearly the same thing as in rêvolutions, done 3 years ago. A plant on a robot, that moves when you touch it. This is one of the few projects where I think it actually does use signals from the plant itself, because the dropping of the leaves in the mimosa pudica  is really regulated by electrical signal transduction (Source).

Communication Plant Computer

When it comes to communication between electronics/computers and plants, one major problem I can see is that plants do in fact not communicate through electric currents but mainly via biochemistry. Scientists have measured electric currents in the root tips of plants (study) but so far no one really understands all of this and it seems quite sure that in the whole plant the cells do not communicate with each other in the same way that animal cells do.

This obviously makes it hard to translate the ‘language’ of the plant into something we can perceive or understand. And I feel like most existing projects didn’t solve that particular problem, yet.

This link here provides a good summary of the existing projects and the challenges that come with this topic. (It actually could have saved me a lot of the research if I had come across it earlier, haha)


– If there are no useful electric signals from (most) plants, is it cool to work with sensors that measure ‘the same’ data as the plant’s sensors? (e.g. humidity, light, temperature…)

– Are there ways to work with biochemical signals? Either work with electronic sensors (e.g. CO2 sensor?) or with our own human senses (smell, touch?).

– Am I overlooking other ways plants communicate? (color, pattern, honey/fruit)

– In what ways do plants change their environment? Should we purposely give them some power to influence and change the artificial environments we build? Can plants (help) design stuff?


3. Collection of ideas

I was thinking about ideas and I started to write them down and draw lots of them.
But too many aren’t really that good because they’re rather complex and don’t really hit the spot.
slightlymoving-klein

Slightly moving

This plant has thin, transparent strings attached to it’s leaves. Eventually the electronic parts pull one of the strings ever so slightly that one leaf moves a little. The observer really has to pay attention to find out if the plant is moving or not. (The inspiration for this comes from the piece in the Zero Exhibition that had us all stand there and watch for ages to find out if it was indeed moving or not.)


onmyway

On my way to the light

A light sensor measures the light the plant gets. If the light source hanging over the plant is switched off, the sensor detects that and the plant moves very slowly to the next lamp.

cananybodysmellme

Hi there, can anybody smell me?!

Many plants send out biochemical signals in the form of scent. Here, lots of these plants (herbs like thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, lavender… etc.) are placed in an enclosed space to collect their scent (their ‘language’). There is a way to open the normally closed thing and breathe in the intensified smell and think about the possible message behind the chemical signals.


4. Make stuff!

So far I wasn’t convinced. So I tried out something else.

seedpaperpattern

I started to experiment with garden cress seeds. I want to find out how the little plants alter the material they grow on. I started with paper (a tea bag, precisely) and cotton fabric and I attached the seeds with a self-made starch-based glue.

seed-paperseed-fabric

Now I’m going to test what happens and how it changes the fabric when I water the seeds. I also wanted to buy some clay and have the seeds grow on it, but so far I couldn’t get any. It would be nice if the roots are making some kind of ‘print’.

The next images show an attempt that was a bit doomed to fail: I attached a pen to the hanging branch of one of my house plants that’s living on a shelf next to my desk. When my own movement and the air flow caused the plant to move the pen drew lines and dots on a piece of paper underneath. But then I left the room and that stopped anything from happening, obviously. So that’s what caused the big dot.

I thought to myself that maybe I should rename the whole project ‘One human’s desperate attempts to talk to her plants’  🙂
Lines generated by pen attached to plant

Lines generated by swaying plant.


Maybe it’s time for a Redefinition of the initial topic?

Broad topic:
Plant communication and intelligence
Communication design with plants / Designing with plants
Question:
What could make it easier for us to understand plants better?
What can come out of a (somewhat forced) ‘collaboration’ of plants and humans?
Something useful? Something beautiful? Exploitation? Or symbiosis?
Task:
Make plants faster, give them abilities that makes their similarities to animals stand out more?
Design physical objects with the help of plants!
Maybe hint to the potential that could lie in the communication.
Exhibition: Also show the difficulties of the communication.


Self-made paper

I made my own seed paper.

Making paper by recycling wrapping paper, empty toilet paper rolls and egg cartons is actually quite easy. Lovely Werner supplied me with the tools. I spent the afternoon trying different things like adding flowers or other plant materials and garden cress seeds to the paper.

But especially the seeds proved to be very tricky. They started to stick to anything rather than the paper, no matter in what way or during which step of the process I added them. In consequence they tore the paper apart and it was a really difficult and annoying process that made it nearly impossible to e.g. arrange the seeds in patterns or make a larger piece of paper.

I think the problem are the garden cress seeds, which soak up a lot of water and thus get super sticky.

I’m going to try again with different seeds that hopefully won’t cause that problem. Because in the end I’d really like to make a big (A3) sheet of paper with some kind of seed pattern.

Seed circle on paper Seed paper with pattern seed paper closeup

Seed paper works: when you water it, the seeds start to grow.

Seed paper growing

Articles I was looking at recently and just want to save down here for myself to remember…
Silent dialogue or silent criesGroworldDo it yourself, plant!Slow Life

12 Comments

  1. What activities of plants could you make visible apart from growth (by making plants faster)?

  2. You could try not to catch the actual chemical signals but maybe the plants reaction to these signals, like decreased growing speed, wandering roots or maybe a closing blossom.

    How can the Mimosa plant react so quickly to touch? what kind of chemical reaction is going on there?
    Maybe there are some specific interesting plants.

  3. The broad topic is interesting: “How can we understand plants better?” And obviously this is not easy to answer since there are several “communication barriers”:
    – Plants and humans live in different time dimensions (plants are slooooooooooow).
    Do we want to focus on this topic? How can we build physical bridges between „our“ time and „their“ time? Timelapse-Videos? Sculptures of various stages of the plants?

    – They use chemical interfaces that are not accessible to us (or computers).
    Do you want to explain those processes to us? (physical data sculptures, models of the processes, etc.)

    – They might not be interested in what we have to say (and vice versa).
    What is it that plants could tell us? That they want water? A bigger pot? More sun? Hmm… I am not sure a digital interface could be a solution for this.

    I keep thinking of Front Design and their fantastic “animal designs” ( http://www.frontdesign.se/front.swf ) If animals can do it, can plants also be designers?

  4. Great Illustration!
    Cause i also read the book and was overwhelmed by the possibilities offered from the plant communication, i can understand your confusion 😀
    I would also agree with the others and Focus on data or Facts that you can controll and understand.
    > Maybe it would be interesting measuring for example humidity with sensors and exploring how exact a human finger can measure it? So is it helpfull to use a sensor for that or can we maybe even better “feel” what the plant Needs?
    > Maybe mesure the richness of the green in the plant?

    And like you said once: maybe we should by ourselfes develop again a Feeling for plants and how to care for them instead of doing everything automaticly.
    Maybe creating an objects/plant pot than encourages that caring for the plant.
    Sounds like a childrensbook at first glance (“my first potplant and me”) but it can be also a form of Meditation and raising awarness for ourselfes and the time thats been passing.

  5. I like the way you’re leading the reader through your research and creative process. Also the way you entitled the ideas is very funny!
    Maybe you can think a little longer about the scent-aspect. I THINK IT IS SO INTERESTING! Is the scientific research about it very vague or do you think scent would be too hard to measure and work with?

    1. Thank you 🙂 I’m trying to make it easy for you guys to understand where I’m at because then you can give me feedback. And so far you have all given me heaps of good advice and interesting new thoughts. So thanks to you!

    2. Concerning the scent-aspect you are right with both your questions. At this stage is seems like we are not 100% sure why the plants use every single scent-based signal. It is clear that flowers produce some scents to attract pollinators and that some herbs (like thyme or rosemary) smell how they do because they actually contain substances that are toxic to insects and with the smell (and taste) they also repel animals that try to eat them. But then humans actually like to eat them because of their scent. Maybe for us the ‘toxic’ oils are actually good (can treat diseases)? And then the plants could also be using the scent to communicate with one another, as for example tomatoes have already shown to be doing.

      And then of course it is hard to measure scents, especially electronically, because there are not many easy to work with sensors available. Analyzing chemical signals and mixed ‘scent cocktails’ is quite hard if it goes beyond e.g. CO2 sensors.

      So that’s why I figured the only easy way to work with scent would be to use our own nose, because it is actually not the worst sensor.
      OR, I could see how other plants or animals react after perceiving the scent, but that’s even harder to do, I guess.

      But maybe you have a different idea about how to work with scent in a cool way… 🙂

  6. I would call it “desperate attempt” at all. I’d rather call it: One human perceptive insight into her plants. For me you are on a journey to reveal and exhibit your relationship with your plants and maybe make people think about plants from an different angle. That seems to be the most important point to make.

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