Echoes from the Semiospheres
James Treagus, Maite de Orbe, Pietro Bardini, Lucie Stepankova
Investigating the means by which entities can be defined by their relationships rather than their conventional classification, ‘Echoes from the Semiospheres’ is a multimedia piece resulting from the research of the electrochemical mycorrhizal transmissions of the roots of a peace lily plant and their sonification. Through micro-voltage sensors and digital processing, these frequencies are harvested and manifested in two ways. Firstly, the data are presented in a humanly inaudible form which challenges the anthropocentric views applied to plant intelligence, communal behaviors and non-verbal means of communication and knowledge-making. Secondly, the collected data are programmed to interfere with Claude Debussy’s impressionist piano piece ‘Claire de Lune’ as a demonstration of the existence of these processes and for the audience to hear.
Multiple symbiotic relationships between fungi and host plants compose underground networks of collective conversations between neighbour vegetable bodies. This example of decentralized systems, also known as the Wood Wide Web, (Rhodes, 2017) has challenged normative notions of cognition and intelligence (Parise, Gagliano, & Souza, 2020). By studying these languages as a portrayal of the complex structures generated by the participating organisms, the project aims to expose the agency of non-human knowledge (Krajewska, 2017) as well as to highlight the limits of human perception in order to question assumptions of human sovereignty (Morton, 2012). It is through the use of technology that this wisdom can be observed but never interfered with. This vast interwoven grid of communication is in constant flux and it cannot, by any means, be understood by us (Maeder, 2016).
By challenging the conventional hierarchies so symbolic of anthropocentrism, this project is grounded in the idea of estrangement from the natural world, in other words, the engagement with nature as something other and distant from that which is considered human (Hailwood, 2012). This division succeeds to consequently alienate and objectify non-human natural environments. We argue that by leaving this alienation behind, alternative living experiences and environments alone (umwelt) (Uexkull, 1977) and interconnected with each other (semiospheres) are revealed.
Through the use of the body as a localized site for understanding (Payne 2017) by providing a first-hand experience mediated by raw data and sound, ‘Echoes from the Semiospheres’ erases borders and hierarchies and invites the audience to withhold the uncomfortableness (Anderson et al. 1996) of being displaced from the center of attention, as the resultant sound composition is, due to our human condition, ungraspable.
Sounds and Ethics
Finding an appropriate approach to the conceptualized sonification of the rhizomatic intelligence investigated in Echoes from the Semiospheres was one of the crucial objectives of the project. This process was divided and is presented in two parts. In the first instance, we are presented with an inaudible composition formed by the measured and recorded micro-voltage emissions of a peace lily. The second part then takes the form of an artefact where these recorded emissions are scaled to become available for human consumption.
The initial composition emerges as the process itself through which we are tapping - or listening - into the electrical signals of our subject. The kind of engagement we propose calls for an alternative way of understanding listening. Listening as separate from hearing. Listening not as a physiological process but as a practice that has much more to do with noticing the unfolding worlds beyond the sonic. The worlds that we cannot - with our limited sensibilities - perceive, yet we can feel into them.
The elemental idea behind allowing the process to be itself without alteration and sonification in the first part of the project was to investigate how we can relate across difference (Morton, 2017) to species other than human, to stimulate curiosity about what surrounds us, and to evoke a sense of alienation arising from its inaccessibility. Through exposing this alienation, we are hoping to direct focus to the separation we created between ourselves - as humans - and nature. We feel that it is of utmost importance to acknowledge this severance (Morton, 2017) and to start working towards reinstating ourselves back into the network we are intrinsically part of.
It is also important to mention the subject of ethics which was one of the recurring topics during the various stages of the development of Echoes from the Semiospheres. Perhaps most importantly, we discussed the ethics of our interactions with our subject - the peace lily - which we hoped to approach in a non-invasive and respectful manner. Initially, we discussed the possibility of creating a feedback loop where we would capture the micro-voltage data, sonify them and feed those back to our subject to be able to observe the alternating reactions and therefore establish a recursive form of communication. We soon scratched the idea as we felt that working with assumptions about what would be perceived as non-invasive by our subject would be going against the very core of our initial intentions. If we cannot accurately quantify the neurophysiological impact our interactions would have on the subject, we equally cannot substantiate our sonification choices meant to represent the subject’s communication - with us or regardless of us.
In terms of the sonified composition, we were deciding between using synthesis, digitally processed nature field recordings, or similarly altered Western music. Following from the above disclosure of our lack of understanding of the actual sonorities corresponding to our subject’s own choices, we decided to withdraw from using synthesized sound. Using synthesis, our agency - in comparison with the agency of the subject - would be largely disproportionate in the subject’s disadvantage. The use of nature field recordings would be as equally inadequate due to their connotations of the romantic wilderness, those very connotations that we aim to avoid as they play an active role in our severance from nature (Cronon, 1996a). At last, we decided to use Claude Debussy’s classical piano composition “Claire de Lune” which would be digitally modified through feeding the data collected from our subject into a custom-made signal processing unit in Max MSP. By choosing a Western classical music piece - representative of the normative white male Western thought and the romantic vision of nature as something to be adored as an object outside of ourselves - and by letting the data collected from our subject tamper with it, we are making a statement about the agency of nature as a force that has an impact on us as much as we have an impact on it.
We knew that we wanted our sound composition to be, at least from the perspective of a human audience, unlistenable. However, we also recognised early on that the presentation of an inaudible track had the potential to leave the audience unsatisfied. This website was our solution.
We are highly critical of the humanisation of a natural other, in order to bring it within a human comfort zone and make it easily digestible and understandable. It is our contention that a certain amount of alienation, or estrangement, from the non-human, is essential for its understanding. Or, in other words, we must come to terms with and understand that not everything in the world is understandable (Hailwood, 2012). The alienation of the audience is the very point of this work -- it is not intended, as so much data visualisation is, to make visible the invisible, but rather to make visible invisibility.
Presenting a work which is unintelligible and leaving an audience unsatisfied are two different things though. If the work was to be successful in foreground invisibility, and aid in understanding the unintelligible, then merely presenting a sensory void would not be enough. A fragment alone, in saying nothing, says nothing. What it requires is context to its silence.
In order to not undermine the concept of the work the form that this context took required careful consideration. The modes and methods of plant communication form invisible webs of connection, but these invisible semiotic webs are also present within our own human methods of understanding and form the bindings of our umwelten (Uexkull, 1977), though they are often obfuscated from us. A neat linear bibliography, for example, in its ordered aesthetic, tends to obfuscate the web of inter-referencing between multiple texts and even the reader’s own limited interaction with the cited materials.
So too, a heavily referenced and drawn-out academic text, in directly addressing the audience, would have re-centred them, making their needs once more the focus of attention, and falling back into the trap of smoothing and de problematising understanding. In order to circumvent this, we decided on the design of this website, to provide the context necessary to understand and appreciate the composition, albeit itself in a de-contextualised format.
The ideas, references, methodology and rationale behind our work are all here, everything needed to give context and understanding is present, but they are not laid out in an easily digestible, linear format, as might be traditionally expected. Instead of being assumed as given they are dissipated and obfuscated. Instead of neat quotes, we present whole pages of text which begin and end mid-sentence, ripped from their original context no more nor less than any quote. Individually they mean little, together, and with our unlistenable audio recording, they are echoes from the semiospheres.
Echoes from the Semiospheres
During the research process for this project, we encountered several discussions related to the geological era divisions known as Holocene, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and Chthulucene mainly. Scientists belonging to the areas of chemistry, sociology, anthropology, biology and arts left this period of history unnamed due to a multiplicity of subjectivities around these decisions. Interestingly, we found that, in between all these narratives, many refer to a different nomenclature to describe this time. These writings do not name a settled period of time, but rather to physiological and physical shifts that occurred and the resulting relationships that formed. Therefore, they leave behind the aim to have defined borders and objective histories. They have referred to this transition as the ‘Era of the Semiospheres’. This etymology refers to the merging of individual perceptions of oneself and one’s environment, also known as ‘umwelt’.
Although this period is over documented, as a consequence of the increase of individual use of technology, no truth can be found in the real world that will satisfy every situated experience. For that reason, and for the purpose of this project, we have undertaken a research process to compile different narratives into one that aims to be open and inclusive. Our only intention is to rescue this forgotten tale of the events which meant the biggest shift in the story of humankind. Previous to the beginning of the ‘Era of the Semiospheres’ a great depression took over as global pandemic. Many say that because of individualism, this was not even considered a pandemic but, what entities coincide on is that, in the 2000s of the Roman calendar, human color perception began to subtly change.
(Due to the change in live forms from that period and our contemporary, we understand that some of the concepts used might seem bizarre ‘happy endings’ or ‘Sun’ or ‘lines’. As these concepts are currently not in use, we have not been able to find a translation for them. Therefore, we ask beings for humbleness when understanding other cultural forms. This includes non-romantic visions of this era, as it created chaos and discomfort for many, or feeling of superiority towards them).
It dates back to the early 2000s of the Roman calendar that this tale refers to
Of a period of time in which there was a specie under the family name of sapiens
From which we biologically are related to
That stood on two feet
And claimed to possess fire
And later claimed to possess the earth
These humans acted as individuals from their own environments
And one day after another, after one precise day
humans to this hanging space sphere
to a difference in the color of things.
It was believed to be a sickness at first, as some had
anticipated pandemics of blindness.
But those stories were defined as fiction
and aimed a good solution from a humane perspective,
what they called happy endings.
Some claimed that at first all colors got mixed up,
some worried about the incoming light of the ‘Sun’,
but the refraction did not have to do
with the soil getting transparent
to their eyes.
that unveiled that the ground in which they used to walk
appeared now a viscous maze of a detritus mass,
of components that they had never seen before.
Some claimed vertigo,
some didn’t ever walk again.
So used to looking above,
some realized they were in the ground
and panicked to the idea that it had always been there.
Some thought that the trees were smiling.
(We now know they did)
They saw this broad connection of wires.
They saw the grounds were alive.
And with this viscosity came the episode known as
‘The loss of lines’
Lines, which used to define objects they could grasp
became blurry and frizzly,
They had just realized that solid was not solid
and from this many suffered distress,
others got used to it and starting merging with their surroundings,
And this was the origin of us.
As soil became invisible,
the air did the opposite.
Now it is known that this era was strongly dependent on sight to communicate
but this was only because the air appeared transparent as well.
They became grounded to places,
and slowly they as well merged with each other.
And more time passed,
all these processes are slow
as we know
they are slow
if one knows how to be.
There was a crisis
for those who resisted
who avoided to listen
and become the wires they had once seen under the ground.
They could still speak
as we also can
and they did also see
although we’re probably the last generation that will do.
But they developed the perceptions that the ground allowed
and learned to listen to the sound of none of their voices
but of those who had been unknown.
As they merged, they could perceive more
and think each other's thoughts
and nonhuman thoughts.
Slowly they stopped thinking of themselves as humans.
When this happened, the storing of information gradually changed.
The last document there is knowledge of
Was written in a language called Esperanto
And was a poem that said the following:
Kiel Ĝi Ŝajnas Al Mi
En la vasta abismo antaŭ la tempo, mem
ne ekzistas, kaj animo miksiĝas
kun nebulo, roko kaj lumo. Kun la tempo,
animo estigas la nebulan memon.
Tiam malrapida tempo malmoligas sin dum ŝtono
dum ĉiam pli senpezigas la animon,
ĝis animo povas liberigi sin kaj ambaŭ
estas liberaj kaj povas reveni
al vasteco kaj dissolviĝi en lumo,
la longa lumo post tempo.
Later, as their previous world became abandoned
from their previous frenetic activity,
the semiosphere (combined of animal, plant and fungi)
expanded and appropriated their wires connecting to computers
which were powered by entire interconnected communities,
allowing stories to be written again.
Strengthening the relationships between
delocalized systems of knowledge
which we belong to now.
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