The secret history of Music for Plants

How new-age artist Peter Coffin has spent 12 years convincing Laurie Anderson, Ariel Pink and Philip Glass to compose albums for those green things to hear – and what inspired him in the first place

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“Stuff They Don't Want You to Know - Plant Intelligence”

“Plants Behaving Badly. Murder and Mayhem”

“PLANTS can SPEAK! WATER has memory. The universe is conscious! Scientific PROOF!”

“THE FOLLOWING PERFORMANCE WAS CREATED SPECIFICALLY FOR PLANTS.”

These titles are all sourced from online videos. All of them exaggerate their truths – to varying extents. Three are the product of those anonymous YouTube conspiracy theorists that hide behind our screens, the natural successors to the quack scientists and new-age mystics of times gone by. See also: the faked moon landing, Walt Disney’s sexual agenda. One, however, is the product of artist Peter Coffin and his new film – created to mark Peter Coffin's ongoing Music For Plants project and the current exhibition, Livingand premiering today to launch Dazed's new Masterpieces art series. When it comes to the actions of the popular conspiracy-maker, plants are a tool for performance along with so many other not-quite-knowns; when it comes to Peter Coffin’s Music for Plants series, the performance is only ever created for the plants and for us to consider.

Artists have worked around and with plants throughout the history of art. Film auteur Derek Jarman channelled a queer ecology into his iconic Dungeness garden, where flotsam and jetsam collaged a strange beauty in communion with native plants; Claude Manet realised an “outside studio” in his Japanese style garden at his home in Giverny, producing the Water Lilies series and its ever-shifting patterns of light. It is Peter Coffin, though, whose life’s work uniquely places the plant – usually the object of artist’s fascinations – as a recipient of art, and an active listener. It is what he dubs his obsession with the “life of the object”, an artistic pursuit that has led to his interactions with things that are distinctly “out there”, yet familiar: a custom-made UFO that flew over the Baltic Sea region in ‘08, Southwest coast of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in'1- and most recently the Mojave Desert, an unexpectedly pink cloud in clear blue sky. Moreover, though his projects have been continually inspired by nature – trousers have tree trunks, and human hands grow extra digits, like branches – it is Music for Plants (2002-present) that confronts green matter most directly.

“When it comes to...the popular conspiracy-maker, plants are a tool for performance along with so many other not-quite-knowns; when it comes to Peter Coffin’s Music for Plants series, the performance is only ever created for the plants.”

Music For Plants grew out of Coffin’s “Untitled (Greenhouse)” installation in 2002; for this, he invited musicians, DJs and sound artists to play in a greenhouse in order to investigate the beneficial effects of music on plants. The resulting CDs, Music for Plants volumes 1 and 2, featured artists including Ariel Pink, Laurie AndersonMice Parade, Philip Glass, Yoko Ono and Sonic Youth. Peter worked with the Kitchen, New York, to co-produce the second volume that he curated. Now, a third volume is being articulated anew in New York: the Living exhibition, at Red Bull Studios New York, will operate as a recording studio for brand new compositions.

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Recording in the Greenhouse, 2002, featuring Black Dice Peter Coffin

With Music For Plants, Coffin is the latest in a storied line of individuals who have been inspired by unusual phenomena in plants. So – who planted the seed? The artist’s practice finds its genesis not only in those nature lovers of art history, but also in the search for plant intelligence – or, more especially – plant feeling that dates back at least as far as the Victorians. That era, marked by its dual fascinations with the macabre and the modern, the supernatural and scientific, is punctuated by efforts to gauge paranormal perception in plants. Darwin, inarguably the most prominent scientist in convincing us of our intrinsic connections to all living things, even wrote on the subject in his The Power of Movement in Plants – he wrote of the plant roots as acting “like the brain of one of the lower animals”. The most influential scientist in the search for plant sentience came later in the 1900s, however, with Dr Jagadish Chandra Bose, of Bengal. Considered one of the fathers of radio science, Bose combined botany, biology and physics to conduct his influential series of experiments on plants. Finding that plants reacted to the same stimuli as animal muscles – light flashes, plucking, pricking, screaming – he also found that plants grew quicker amongst pleasant music than harsh sounds.

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From Jagadish Chandra Bose's notebooks, 1900s

Perhaps the most direct influence on Coffin’s practice, however, was a certain book (and subsequent Stevie Wonder-soundtracked documentary) that topped the NY Times Bestseller list in 1973. That book was The Secret Life of Plantsin which Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird’s combination of genuine plant science, controversial experimentation and mystical nature worship truly captured the spirit of the times – and, at a time when New Age thinking was flooding the mainstream, the public’s imagination. Whilst attempts to repeat the quack studies documented in the book have proved hard to replicate in the decades since – one memorable claim in the original is that plants can read minds (!) – its influence is nevertheless felt today. Not only have scientists proven that plants “hear” each other, recent research suggests that they somehow “hear” the sound of flowing water (inverted comma-usage being a familiar sight in this area). At the very least, those secrets unearthed in '73 woke the world up (as science must so often do) to the uncomfortable truth that we humans are not so unique. Plants may be as sentient and sensitive as ourselves, and whilst they do not need us, we will always need them: do they simply remind us of our weakness? For Coffin, speaking in 2007, the music-for-plants phenomenon stems from “how we understand our reality”: “the desire to comprehend the things we don’t, and may want to, understand.”

How far should art intrude on science? Can imagination free up science, as well as free us of its rules? Neuroscience or botany, sessile signallers or active thinkers; whether plants are truly the protagonists in their own dramas will remain, necessarily, unanswerable. That question, finally, is not for Peter Coffin to answer.

Instead, Music for Plants asks us to merely imagine. Imagine a being capable of listening; a being with limitless potentialities, inhabiting a world of its own that we can never fully know. Imagine, then, and watch Music for Plants.  Just remember – it’s not really for you. 

“THE FOLLOWING PERFORMANCE WAS CREATED SPECIFICALLY FOR PLANTS.”

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The "Living" exhibition space at Red Bull Studios New York, 2014

Click here to watch the first film in our brand new art series, Masterpieces, in collaboration with Red Bull Studios New York – featuring Peter Coffin and L-Vis 1990.

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