Arts / Music / Technology

Mileece Petre & The Hidden Voice of Plants

Connection to the natural world is something that has been long lost for most people today, with a general desensitisation towards the functions of the planet and the behaviour of the life it contains becoming ever more frequent. The work of artists like Mileece Petre becomes even more pivotal and exciting considering this, as she helps connect plants and humans through the medium of music.

Mileece is a multimedia and sonic artist who creates interactive ecoscapes generated and controlled by electromagnetic signals given by plants using hand made sensor based musical instruments. Using a variety of methods such as GSR (Galvanic skin response) and EEG (Electroencephalography) to detect the electrical responses that plants give, Mileese creates compositions that are not only inspired by ecology but directly controlled by plants as she expresses biodata as sound.

“If you look at ecology, things are so sensitive.” Mileece said “We’ve created a very abstract world for ourselves, we forget that life is all so sensitive and connected because we’ve desensitised ourselves so much.”

MoMA Stage Feet

In 1999, Mileece became inspired to use plants in her compositions after watching the documentary ‘The Secret Life of Plants’. The film featured musician John Lifton, who influenced Mileece to build on what had gone before.
“John had taken really huge synthesizers and hooked plants up for the World Fair in the late 60s,” Mileece said. “I thought, ‘this is great but it’s not articulate’ so I wanted to use modern technology to make it much more articulate and in 2005 I designed by own hardware and interfaces.”

The Secret Life of Plants had a slightly esoteric, drugged out theme, odd sound effects and scenes showing plant-print leggings dancing through the woods to the Stevie Wonder soundtrack.

“People don’t like that,” Mileece said. “They’re like, ‘look, is it hard up science or is it bullshit?’ You can look up the plant experiment that was done by Mythbusters, they tried to disprove plant biofeedback and of course they couldn’t, so it’s basically a video of them going, ‘oh my god!’

Mileece admitted she struggled to continue with her projects over the years, hosting numerous presentations and arguing with scientists along the way, putting immeasurable sweat and dedication into her work.
“It’s opened up a lot of general consensus and I got into Museum of Modern Art in New York twice performing with plants,” she said proudly. “I also got Miracle Grow, which is a Fortune 500 company, to endorse plants as sentient beings.”

While studying Sonic Art at Middlesex University, Mileece learned to use programming language SuperCollider. Unhappy with other programming languages such as MAX MSP, learning to code was a must for Mileece as she sought after the highest possible sound quality available for her compositions. Many artists attempting to emulate this kind of work rely solely on GSR technology, the use of both GSR and EEG allows Mileece even greater control over the sound of her compositions as both work in slightly differing ways. GSR measures electrical resistance in the surface of the leaf and EEG measures the direct current given by the plant.

“Galvanometers measure resistance but they have limitations, it’s the more rudimentary of the technologies you can use to do this project and was used by Cleve Backster and people like that during the 60s.”

Cleve Backster, who passed away last June, was a key figure in the research of biocommunication that happened during the 1960s. During an improvised experiment to teach FBI agents how to use polygraph machines for lie detection, Backster found some extraordinary results. He placed electrodes on the leaf of a Dracaena plant reading galvanic skin responses as he measured the time taken for water to reach the leaves, the responses were remarkably similar to that of a human. When the plant was burned the responses were extremely high, prompting to start of Backster’s lifelong research in plant response mechanisms.

“I got to meet Cleve, it was really difficult,” Mileece said. “I had to get through a lot of layers and really prove myself, I really feel that my involvement in this project is entirely because of those people. You know, whatever I do must reference them directly. I think that’s the right thing to do, as that’s where it comes from.”

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While studying psychoacoustics, Mileece had to understand how the human brain interprets sound. One of the most important factors to consider when creating music using biofeedback is that the sounds are aesthetically beneficial for both human listener and the plant.
“If a plant is doing X, how do you explain that to a person through sound,” she explained. “And then how do you do that within an aesthetic context so that when we’re listening to these plants and when we’re touching them and we have this biofeedback, it sounds beautiful and we want to be engaged, not only that but it sounds beautiful for the plants.
“In fact research for this has indicated that you need to be very aware of that,” Mileece said. “Plants are very sensitive to sound, they have little mechano-receptors in their leaves that can interpret acoustic oscillations, so they hear and respond to different sounds.”

As well as recording plant music, Mileece travels to remote natural locations and records for eight speaker sound installations, combining soundscapes with linear compositional elements such as programmed beats.

“I go out and record locations, icebergs or jungles and stuff like that. I’ve only really finished two tracks and I did those for the two shows at the Museum of Modern Art last summer,”she said. “I had an installation at Kew Gardens for three months where people could touch and interact with plants at this thing called Pineapple Island.
“The other day I walked into the house and my new equipment was all hooked up,  I heard these noises and my friend was like, ‘what’s that’ and I said, ‘oh it’s the plants, the plants in the studio are making noises, they responded to us coming into the house!’” Mileece said with a smile on her face. “And that kind of stuff is all proven. I’ve had an installation running for a while and I’ve touched a plant thats not connected, and I’ll get a response from one that is, it’s really weird.”

Mileece is currently involved the in the building of the TreeWe’vr Interactive Plant-Pod Dome and Travelling Forest Bus. The geodesic dome is home to an array of interactive plants that are part of Mileece’s plan to create a worldwide online network where listeners can subscribe to plants and hear the sounds they are creating, from anywhere in world.

“Your plant has an IP address and send its data online so you have a data hub on the internet that has all these plant biofeedback streams coming in and you can select any one of those streams from anywhere you are,” said Mileece. “Those streams might be from a tree in Borneo might be from your grandmother’s geranium or whatever, you can select any plant you want and there’ll be a bunch of visualisation software to go with the sounds you hear.”

The plan is for Mileece to allow listeners to pay based on time they spend listening to the music, stating that subscription based purchases make more sense for generative music compared to methods such as one-off fees, which is the option she reluctantly had to go with in 2001 when she released her first CD.

“The point is to a commercial modular product that you can use to fund the philanthropic work,” she said. “I’m going to the Amazon with Amazon Watch and we are bringing back live feeds of the plants there and mixing the sounds in with environments such as the dome.”

These hybrid environments, part remote wild environments mixed in with local physical environments will result in creating a kind of an installation where you garner a physical connection and a mental empathy with plants from across the world, which is really the point for Mileece.

“These sounds will be coming from a wild place that you would probably never get to, it’s imperative that children and adults understand that we are connected to these places,” Mileece noted. “They are part of our lives intricately. They are the lungs, they are the breath.”

Mileece’ father was part of the largest fuel cell producers in Europe, since that venture ended he has been building technology alongside Mileece to run the dome and bus projects, using a combination of fuel cells, anaerobic digesters, wind and solar power.
“The possibility of what this project will produce is tangibly effective to deal with deforestation and the general economic exploitation of plants. The plants that are out in the wilderness that will be hooked up for example, you have to subscribe to because thats how we derive the money to sustain those ecologies. The point of having a biofeedback device, like why I’m working with Amazon Watch, is to go into these tribal areas to help them maintain their wild habitat by putting eyeballs on it and also economically helping them, through things like sponsor a tree.

“A lot of people assume that you get different sounds from different plants, but you get the same type of electrical response from most plants as you do humans,” Mileece explained.

“The most important thing overall is that it sounds amazing,  that it sounds incredible and as a musician that’s so exciting because I write this program and I press compile and then this incredible music comes out and I’m like, ‘oh my god, this is beautiful!’ I’ve been reluctant to release it because I feel like it’s so different when you actually experience it in real life and that’s what I want people to have, the full experience.”

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