Inside the Spiritual World of Plant-Based Instruments

Two biofeedback artists invented the MIDI Sprout to help people better understand the natural world by using plants to create music.

A group of contemporary philosophers, known as transhumanists, have some wild ideas about the future of human evolution. They believe that we will soon escape the confines of our mortal bodies and upload our consciousness into silicon chips. The idea is to leave behind the inefficiencies and decay of organic matter, and to transcend the physical. But not everyone agrees that this future is ideal. Artists Joe Patitucci and Jon Shapiro think that to survive our ambiguous future, we need to get closer to our senses and the natural world around us, not leave them behind. To do so, they've created an instrument called MIDI Sprout that uses plants to make music.

Patitucci, an artist and musician, started the conceptual record label Data Garden in 2011 as a place to release his ambient electronic music. Rather than put out his music on vinyl or cassette, he settled on printing album download codes on pieces of biodegradable paper embedded with seeds, so they could be planted in the ground and grow into flowers.

In 2012, Patitucci, along with Data Garden co-founder, Alex Tyson and engineer, Sam Cusumano, put on an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art called Quartet which used hacked lie detector electrodes stuck to four plants to translate their electrical impulses into MIDI data. The installation generated so much interest that Data Garden launched a Kickstarter to bring the instrument used in Quartet, MIDI Sprout, to the public. Since then, MIDI Sprout has been used by experimental electronic artists and biofeedback enthusiasts (those who are interested in manipulating data collected from their bodies in real time) around the world. Patitucci and Shapiro are now looking at how to bring MIDI Sprout to a wider commercial audience.

THUMP spoke to the Data Gardeners about how the MIDI Sprout project inspires their spiritual practices, the benefits of biofeedback, and why the new frontier of technology may be remembering our body's innate capabilities.

THUMP: How does MIDI Sprout actually work?
Jon Shapiro: It measures micro-voltages on the surface of the leaf, and any change in the electrical current. Put simply, it's basically how a lie detector works. When the FBI is interrogating you, they're measuring if the connectivity of your skin goes up as they're intimidating and causing you to freak out and sweat. Essentially we just hacked a lie detector test. Instead of just beeping when there's a shift, the output is just a stream of MIDI information, which a synthesizer can read.

How did the Quartet exhibition result in the creation of the MIDI Sprout?
Joe Patitucci: [During the installation], we would get a lot of questions from people like "Hey, what's it like when you add water to your plant?" or "What's it do in the day versus at night?" There are so many variables involved in those questions and we just wanted to get people to start experimenting for themselves.

What factors change the electric currents on plants? What does it tell us about what's going on with the plant?
Patitucci: We don't really know. There are so many factors that exist outside of what we can perceive as humans. There's the visible light spectrum, then there's a lot of light outside of that that we can't perceive but that plants are processing. We've experienced a lot of correlations between shifts in energy in a room and a shift in the data that's coming from the plant. We look to environments where people are engaged in physical activities, like yoga or meditation or breath work, to open up these spaces as places for people to explore with their own intuition and with their own bodies where these changes are coming from. It's about understanding the energetic shifts that are happening in the room as you're hearing changes in the music.

In your Kickstarter video, you say that Data Garden believes the effects of biofeedback are a positive influence on people. What are those effects?
Shapiro: There's something in biofeedback therapy called the internal locus of control. Basically, it's when people realize that they are capable of changing the outputs of a system [with their bodies or minds]. In traditional biofeedback therapy, with EEG [a device that measures brain activity] biofeedback, they'll wire your head up and you'll try to think about certain things and try to make a ball go across the screen or a light flash on or off. You never know exactly what it is you're doing that's causing that effect, but you kind of get the hang of it and all of a sudden you feel like you have some agency and control and that's when you see all of these biometrics indicating peacefulness or stress reduction.

Patitucci: When I first did Quartet at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2012, there were a few times when there were major shifts that happened within the music. These major shifts corresponded to when a specific person walked in the room. I would just see them walk up to the plant, they didn't even touch the plant, they just walked kind of near the plant and then all the sudden the music that was coming from that plant changed.

I asked them: "Excuse me, this is what I just experienced. Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?" Invariably, they would say some form of, "Oh, that makes sense," and go on and tell me what they do, like, "I'm an energy healer, I'm a reiki master, I'm a botanist, I'm a florist, I'm pregnant." Over three days sitting in this room, the people that had these huge effects were either connected deeply with life forces or energy. It opened me up to [the idea of] plants as energy monitors. How can I connect to these other subtle forms of energy without needing to use digital technology? How can I connect to these subtle realms through the body or through intuition?

Why do you think it's important to have a connection with the organic world without using a digital interface?
Shapiro: The first step in our evolution was getting to the top of the food chain. Now that we're here and we've created a life for ourselves which is clearly unsustainable as it is, there is this process of going back. People who are skeptical will say, "Why do you need a piece of technology to connect with nature?" The whole notion of the word nature is also a piece of human technology that you can trace back to the 19th century, coming out of the industrial revolution. This idea of going back to something that's been there the whole time and looking at it a different way, that's the practice.

What's next for Data Garden?
Patitucci: I just launched a beta site of this thing called Plants.fm. You can listen to my plants streaming from my studio any time. MIDI Sprout is very much geared toward a boutique electronic market. The next step is bringing what we're doing with MIDI Sprout to more people in a more consumer-focused product.