Wageningen University & Research and KunstLab Arnhem are working on a collaborative project known as Bio Orchestra, which translates plant growth into sound. People can experience the inner life of plants through sound as part of an interactive installation that opens on 2 October 2018 in the Forum building on Wageningen Campus.
Sander van der Krol, a molecular plant physiologist at Wageningen University & Research, wanted to find a powerful way to demonstrate genetic shifts in plants. 'By linking a plant's genetic ‘switch’ to the light-emitting gene of fireflies, we can see how dynamic the plant's genes are. But as soon as you make a minor change, like alter the temperature, so much happens that it's hard to see things clearly. I'd been looking for a way to use sound to illustrate gene expression. If you can give each gene a specific note and link those notes to a set of genes, you can create chords. The artists are using this to develop a full musical score, which is what we hope to achieve with Bio Orchestra.'
Connecting music and numbers
During the annual Bio Art & Design Award competition, Van der Krol met Tom Kortbeek, the artistic director of KunstLab Arnhem. Kortbeek is passionate about using art to create new cross-disciplinary connections. Entirely by coincidence, he was also working on the idea of using plants to make music. 'Through my discussions with Sander, I discovered that plant data conceals a hidden world I never knew existed. Where Sander sees the beauty behind graphs and tables, all I see is a jumble of incomprehensible numbers. By using music to bridge the numerical gap, we can bring the dynamic world of plants to life.'
You can find out how music is linked to the genetic expression of plants as of 2 October at Forum, the main building on Wageningen Campus, which will host an interactive installation consisting of several panels that resemble synthesiser or organ pipes. By pushing genetic buttons and flipping the genetic switches, you can compose your very own musical score. Instead of organ pipes, the installation contains samples of the model plant Arabidopsis, in various stages of development – from week-old seedlings to month-old plants with completely different gene expressions. Sound artist Falk Hübner translated the different gene expressions into melodies, rhythms and effects based on plant input.
Van der Krol shared his idea for Bio Orchestra in a workshop for fellow plant researchers at the annual International Congress on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR). In addition to positive responses, this also resulted in several research films which the composer will use to create a musical score. Falk Hübner is expected to present his first composition at ICAR 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Video artist Tanja Busking, who worked on a documentary about Bio Orchestra, will provide the accompanying film clips to support the composition.