by Tom Emmerling
PHILADELPHIA, PA - Usually, when faced with the age-old question, "Is it Art?" I tend to just default to, "Sure, why not?" if only for the sake of moving on to more interesting discussions like, "Is it Good?" The installation "Data Garden: Quartet", a cheeky project presented by indie photog magazine Megawords at the normally-staid Philadelphia Museum of Art, actually finally gave me some pause when considering this question.
In this exhibit, dubbed: "the first plant-controlled audio composition", extremely subtle changes in the electrical fields of four different plants were measured in real-time and converted to data, which was then used to control simple oscillators and filters - the basic components of synthesizers - to generate sound. This was not sound in any way generated by the plants, mind you, but simply random electrical data which were then assigned to specific computer-generated sounds by the human creators of the piece. To be fair, the data was not truly random, as the electrical fields of the plants could be affected by a number of environmental factors, including the presence of people in the room or the time of day.
But let's not kid ourselves. The same random set of tones could have been achieved by measuring and transforming any data stream, be it plant auras, washing machine vibrations, or the type of randomizer that is part of most computer-based synthesizers. To their credit, the artists involved seemed very aware of this, but did their best to hide their smiles and keep a straight face in such a proper venue.
Which brings us to the music. (This is a music blog, after all, not an art blog.) The sounds chosen by the artists were appropriately slow-moving and spooky, as one would imagine plant-generated sounds to be. This was the sound of a Discovery Channel doc on forest creatures, not any sort of new musical frontier. Musically, pretty much a non-event. Art? Sure, why not.