Rootkit

[Image: Work by Diana Scherer, used to promote an event coming up on December 14th, in Wageningen, Holland, where the artist will be speaking].

The work of German-born artist Diana Scherer explores what she calls “the dynamics of belowground plant parts.” She uses plant roots themselves as a medium for creating patterns and networks, the purpose of which is to suggest overlaps between human technological activity and the embodied “intelligence” of living botanical matter. “This buried matter is still a wondrous land,” she writes.

The results are incredible. They feature roots woven like carpets or textiles, imitating Gothic ornament with floral patterns and computational arabesques underground.

[Image: “Ornament with Thistle” by Daniel Hopfer; via Wikimedia].

Compare Scherer’s work, for example, to traditional Gothic plant ornament—that is, geometric shapes meant to imitate the movements and behaviors of plants—but here actually achieved with plants themselves.

Scherer calls this “root system domestication,” where, on the flipside of an otherwise perfectly “natural” landscape, such as an expanse of lawn grass, wonderfully artificial, technical patterns can be achieved.

[Images: All images by Diana Scherer, from “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication”].

The idea that we could grow biological circuits and living rootkits is incredible, as if, someday, electronic design and gardening will—wonderfully and surreally—converge.

You simply step into your backyard, exhume some root matter as if harvesting potatoes, and whole new circuits and electrical networks are yours to install elsewhere.

[Image: From “Harvest: Exercises in Rootsystem Domestication” by Diana Scherer].

After all, the soil is already alive with electricity, and plants are, in effect, computer networks in waiting.

Scherer’s work simply takes those observations to their next logical step, you might argue, using plants themselves as an intelligent form-finding technology with implications for the organic hardware of tomorrow.

For more images, click through to Diana Scherer’s website, and, for those of you near Wageningen, consider stopping by the artist’s live Q&A on December 14th. Someone please commission a landscape-scale work from Scherer soon!

Landscapes of Data Infection

seeds[Image: An otherwise unrelated seed x-ray from the Bulkley Valley Research Centre].

There’s a fascinating Q&A in a recent issue of New Scientist with doctor and genetic researcher Karin Ljubic Fister.

Fister studies “plant-based data storage,” which relies on a combination of artificially modified genes, bacteria, and “infected” tobacco plants.

Comparing genetic programming with binary code, Fister explains that, “First you need a coding system. A computer program is basically a sequence of 0s and 1s, so we transformed this into the four DNA ‘letters’—A, G, C and T—by turning 00 into A, 10 into C, 01 into G and 11 into T. Then we synthesised the resulting DNA sequence. We transferred this artificial DNA into a bacterium and infected the leaf of a tobacco plant with it. The bacterium transfers this artificial DNA into the plant.”

Even better, the resulting “infection” is heritable: “We took a cutting of the infected leaf, planted it, and grew a full tobacco plant from it. This is essentially cloning, so all the leaves of this new plant, and its seeds, contained the ‘Hello World’ program encoded in their DNA.” The plants thus constitute an archive of data.

In fact, Fister points out that “all of the archives in the world could be stored in one box of seeds.” Now put that box of seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, she suggests, and you could store all the world’s information for thousands of years. Seed drives, not hard drives.

It’s worth reading the Q&A in full, but she really goes for it at the end, pointing out at least two things worth highlighting here.

saguaros[Image: “Higashiyama III” (1989) by Kozo Miyoshi, courtesy University of Arizona Center for Creative Photography; via but does it float].

One is that specialized botanical equipment could be used as a technical interface to “read” the data stored in plants. The design possibilities here are mind-boggling—and, in fact, are reminiscent of the Landscape Futures exhibition—and they lead directly to Fister’s final, amazing point, which is that this would, of course, have landscape-scale implications.

After all, you could still actually sow these seeds, populating an entire ecosystem with data plants: archives in the form of forests.

“Imagine walking through a park that is actually a library,” she says, “every plant, flower and shrub full of archived information. You sit down on a bench, touch your handheld DNA reader to a leaf and listen to the Rolling Stones directly from it, or choose a novel or watch a documentary amid the greenery.” Information ecosystems, hiding in plain sight.

Acoustic Forestry

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

We saw David Benqué’s Fabulous Fabbers project here on BLDGBLOG a few months ago, but his more recent work, Acoustic Botany, deserves similar attention.

Acoustic Botany uses genetically modified plants to produce a “fantastical acoustic garden,” where sounds literally grow on trees. “Desired traits such as volume, timbre and harmony are acquired through selective breeding techniques,” the artist explains.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

As Benqué writes:

The debate around Genetic Engineering is currently centered around vital issues such as food, healthcare and the environment. However, we have been shaping nature for thousands of years, not only to suit our needs, but our most irrational desires. Beautiful flowers, mind altering weeds and crabs shaped like human faces all thrive on these desires, giving them an evolutionary advantage. By presenting a fantastical acoustic garden, a controlled ecosystem of entertainment, I aim to explore our cultural and aesthetic relationship to nature, and to question its future in the age of Synthetic Biology.

There are thus “singing flowers,” “modified agrobacteria” that ingeniously take “sugars and nutrients from the host plant to encourage the growth of parasitic galls and fill them with gas to produce sound,” and “string-nut bugs” that have been “engineered to chew in rhythm” inside hollow gourds.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

The symphonic range of sounds is then fine-tuned and modulated inside an acoustic lab using specialized equipment; out in the field, this takes the form of pruning trees into living chords, so that “harmonic note combinations” can bloom on a single branch.

Upscaling this to the level of all-out acoustic forestry would be an extraordinary thing to hear.

[Image: From Acoustic Botany by David Benqué].

I’m reminded of at least two quick things here:

1) Several years ago in the excellent British music magazine The Wire, there was an article about Brian Eno and “generative music,” in which the acoustic nature of backyard gardens was described quite beautifully based on the seasonal popping of seedpods, the rustle of leaf-covered fronds in evening breezes, and even, if I remember correctly, the specific insects that such plants might attract and support. Does anyone reading this have experience with planting a backyard garden based on its future acoustics?

2) Alex Metcalf’s Tree Listening project (which I have also covered elsewhere). “The installation,” Metcalf writes, “allows you to listen to the water moving up inside the tree through the Xylem tubes from the roots to the leaves.” Headphones hang down from the tree’s canopy like botanical iPods, and you put them on to lose yourself in arboreal surroundsound. Imagine a shortwave radio that allows you to tune not into distant stations sparkling with disembodied sounds and buzzing voices from the other side of the world, but into the syrupy tides of trees spiked with microphones in forests and sacred groves on every continent.

More images of Benqué’s project can be seen on the artist’s website.

(Spotted on Core77, thanks to a tweet from @soundscrapers).