For a few years, I had this persisting memory of a postcard I saw while I was doing my exchange studies in Germany. The postcard had two images on it. Side by side a human finger pressing a button of a synthesizer and on the other side an image of the foliage of a houseplant. My mind started making combinations of these two images: pressing a button – plant – plant button – button finger – finger plant – plant button – plant pressing – plant finger – and finally after a talk with my fellow artist Jaakko Leeve – plant pressing a button. How would that be possible?
In 2018 I applied for a PhD Studies in another Nordic country. The university was hiring a few PhD students for AI related projects. They were seeking engineers, health care professionals, and artists. I made a PhD application for a project dealing with speculative AI–plant relationships, including this idea of a plant pushing a button. I wasn’t selected for the position (neither were any other artists… What a surprise!). In 2021 Špela Petrič had the resources and opportunity to do a work called PL’AI where an AI robot system plays with cucumber plants (Kersnikova Institue, 2021), the work was shown at the Evolutionaries exhibition at the MU Hybrid Art House, Netherlands.
While I was developing these ideas of plant-AI relationships and the plant pushing the button, I was also interested in observing plant movements and I started to do some time-lapse photography with houseplants in my studio and some Mimosa pudicas that I got from the Kaisaniemi Botanic Gardens. After weeks of time-lapse photography with several plants, I started to focus more on the mimosas that seemed to be moving their leaves the most. The movement also resembled the beanstalks of Paco Calvo’s tests: they seemed to move their leaves like they were trying to observe the surroundings. The leaf would make a kind of a circular motion and it took around 15-20 mins for it to make a full circle with its leaf. The movements of the Mimosa leaves are very mesmerizing.
Mimosa’s leaves have four parts that they can move, resembling the four fingers of Mickey Mouse. From all my previous readings and research I knew plants could sense surroundings and remember things, I started to think: how could the finger-like leaves learn to press a button?
I thought of mechanical solutions – strings and bells and whatnot. But then I started to think about electronics. There were several sensors that could be used to detect plant leaf movements. I wanted it to be as non-invasive as possible since I had already seen enough artworks with needles stuck to plant bodies measuring their electrochemical reactions. Like with many things with plants, this seemed violent: stick needles in a plant and make them hear or feel their inner reactions. I wouldn’t like to be in their situation, having needles forced into my body with people listening to my EEG waves for the sake of art, not even understanding anything that was happening. So I wanted to have something very non-invasive that didn’t harm the plant in any way.
I developed the first prototype of Plant Button with the help of fellow artist Marloes van Son in 2018. It was a sensor that detects the movement of a plant’s leaf over it. In the first version, activating the sensor would play the sound of the river Kuusinki, located in Kuusamo, Finland. Mimosa pudica had access to this button for several weeks and from time-lapse photography, it seemed to stay for longer periods on the button as time went by. You can watch a demo video of the first prototype being pressed by Mimosa pudica. The plant's activity would decrease after around two weeks if the sound file remained the same. It felt like the plant was getting bored with the same sound. After changing the sound file the plant was again more actively moving on top of the sensor.
From this prototype, an advanced system was developed that had 5 buttons that all played a different sound sample. This version was shown at the Ääniaalto IV festival in 2019 at an exhibition at Galleria Akusmata. Later that year the system grew with 6 more buttons/sensors that could turn on electrical appliances. The collection of 11 buttons was renamed as a Keyboard for plants. This system was exhibited at Galleria Oksasenkatu 11, Helsinki, Finland in December 2019. In the summer of 2020 the audio system was updated to a better system that could play several sounds at the same time, making the development of more complex sound events possible.
In the Oksasenkatu 11 exhibition the Mimosa pudicas could turn on the following things:
Sounds: 1. Small waves on the shoreline rocks of Lake Kitkajärvi in Kuusamo, Finland 2. A cat purring 3. Rapids of the River Kitkajoki 4. Thunder 5. A music sample
Electric appliances: 1. Plant lights over other plants. The movements of the Mimosa would imitate clouds passing over the sun: when the leaf was on the sensor the light would shine on the other plants, when it wasn’t on the sensor they would be “under the cloud” and the light was off. 2. Regular lights 3. A table fan 4. A table fountain 5. UV light 6. Humidifier
There seemed to be some kind of a preference by the plants for sounds and appliances. The most favored sounds were the sound of the thunder, a cat purring, and music samples. The best-liked appliances were the fan (not directed at the Mimosas), plant light, table fountain, and the humidifier. It remains unclear if the plants understood the connection between their movement and the changes happening in the space. Certainly, they don’t know that they are pressing buttons, as “to press” and “a button” are human concepts. But maybe something was picked up by them and for whatever reason, the aforementioned buttons were activated more often.