When I got home I watched the whole documentary online. Like the Penquo performance, it took me back to a time of biorhythms, ecosystems, the Whole Earth Catalog, a time when Stevie Wonder was still weird, radical, visionary. Wonder's soundtrack for the film -- based on a 1973 book of the same name by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird -- is incredible, and makes you wish he could have seen how well it fitted the gloopy, organic, fractal visuals.
If the Penquo performance, and the Secret Life of Plants film, evoked the Californian New Age, it also evoked something Japanese -- a certain combination of Shinto nature reverence, gadget fascination, and the Zen Buddhist theme of giving sustained attention to emptiness. The most interesting scene in the film brings all these things together. Scroll the YouTube video above (a chopped clip of bits of the doc) to 6.15 and you'll see bits of a scene where "Dr and Mrs Kenneth Hashimoto" attempt to converse with a cactus.
Because I like the music so much (Stevie Wonder has made a delicate Japanese pastiche which sounds remarkably like Mamoru Fujieda's Patterns of Plants) and because I wanted a non-chopped version of that scene, I've hosted an mp3 clip of the scene as it appears 40 minutes into the complete film. The commentary describes the Hashimoto Experiment:
"During recent years, gardening enthusiasts throughout Japan have been privileged to witness the remarkable demonstrations of Dr and Mrs Kenneth Hashimoto. Dr Hashimoto, Managing Director and Chief of Research for the Fuji Electronic Industries, has constructed special instruments which translate the electrical output of plants into modulated sounds, giving voice to a cactus. Relying on her phonetic apparatus, Mrs Hashimoto looks forward to actual conversation with her cactus. Convinced that it possesses an intelligence, she is determined to teach it the Japanese alphabet."
There follows a sequence in which Mrs Hashimoto and the cactus converse. Now, this is more like performance art than science (it's quite similar to the Rice Experiment I conducted in public last year). It's obviously "rigged", in the sense that electrical impulses in the plants, as they respond to Mrs Hashimoto's voice, have been made to trigger human voice-like sounds and create the illusion of conversation. A bit like space aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, plants are being anthropomorphised here.
Why else would plants in 1979 reflect so accurately the concerns of humans in 1979? The space program, "making contact", Buddhist-inflected spirituality, technology as a conduit for humanist concerns (Dr Carl Sagan!), synthesizer music, the Soviet Union (seen in the following scene conducting its own plant experiments); these are all hot 70s memes. It's suspicious, isn't it, that mute plants would tell us exactly what we wanted to hear about?
The experiment itself is deeply suspicious, by which I mean scientifically dubious but excellently reflective of ambient cultural concerns. Here's a blog account of the way the Hashimoto experiment (can this really be the head of the same Fuji Electronic Industries that brought me so many excellent digital cameras? And why is his name "Kenneth"?) unfolded:
"In Japan, Dr. Ken Hashimoto wired up a cactus to a lie detection system that electronically transposed voice modulations. Hashimoto had altered the equipment so that the modulations were transformed into sound. He failed at his own attempts to "converse" with the plants by sending them voice messages changed to modulations; however, his wife, described as an "avid gardener," was rewarded with "an instant response from the cactus." Thompson and Bird relate that "transformed and amplified by Dr. Hashimoto's electronic equipment, the sound produced by the plant was like the high-pitched hum of very-high-voltage wires heard from a distance, except that it was more like a song, the rhythm and tone being varied and pleasant, at times even warm and almost jolly" (p. 43-45). Not content to hear the "voice" of the cactus, the Hashimotos went further, apparently becoming "so intimate with the plant that they were soon able to teach it to count and add up to twenty."
At Staalplaat after the performance we nattered like plants, adding our experiences up to different totals. I spoke about how both Penquo and Naoko Ogawa's beautiful film (of her own jewelry glancing with light and reflecting sound in different daily ambient conditions) both encoded Shinto and Buddhist ideas about nature and nothingness, and therefore required the whole history of Japan to exist. Californian David Woodard talked about the experiments where Bach and Heavy Metal were found to please plants, and punk rock displease them (so that's one part of the 70s plants can't be held responsible for). Emma Balkind urged me to watch the BBC documentary on Permaculture and Peak Oil she's embedded on her blog. Others mentioned Kaffe Matthews, The Lappetites, Toog.
Just like the Secret Life of Plants film, we discovered our own concerns, interests and cultural references in the mute Penquo performance. The plants -- deep in their secret life, incommunicado on the chopping block -- didn't contradict us.