Listen to the Sounds of Succulents at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden

An ongoing installation encourages visitors to interact with prickly cacti, palm plants and potted succulents

Visitors interact with living sound artworks in the "Sonic Succulents" installation by Adrienne Adar Elizabeth Peters/Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Normally, individuals determined to touch a cactus are rewarded with a sharp pang of pain. But at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations exhibition, interacting with the prickly plants yields a different result: namely, a chorus of otherworldly twangs, hums and squeaks.

The installation, created by artist Adrienne Adar, features “audiolized” plants equipped with vibration-sensitive devices. As JoAnna Klein reports for the New York Times, when visitors touch these growing succulents, the sensors send otherwise inaudible vibrations streaming into listeners’ headphones.

“To audiolize, to listen to them, I think gives them more of an individuality,” Adar tells the Brooklyn Eagle’s Scott Enman, “to understand that they are doing things all the time and moving and feeling things in their environment.”

Speaking with Klein, the artist adds that her work strives to provoke reflection on humans’ relationship with plants: “How does it make us think about them differently?” she asks. “How does it change our minds and our relationship to them? Because they’re doing their thing, and what are we going to feel like if they’re not there anymore?”

According to Eco 18’s Giselle Chollett, Sonic Succulents includes both one-on-one headphone-enabled experiences and speaker-amplified pre-recorded tracks. Per Enman, these listening experiments center on either plant-human interaction or plants’ “natural botanic rhythms.” In one section of the show, visitors can tune in to the sounds of a giant yucca plant growing; in others, stalks of corn and plants absorbing water via their roots take center stage.

As Adar explains to NPR’s Dana Cronin, she draws inspiration from scientists such as Monica Gagliano, an ecologist at the University of Western Australia whose research suggests plants are sentient beings capable of learning, remembering and communicating.

“People are more open to thinking about plants and how they exist on their terms,” Adar tells the New York Times’ Klein. “Things don’t have to live like humans for us to understand them anymore.”

Sound plays a largely unheralded but crucial role in plant development. Per the Times, previous studies have found that auditory cues can increase mustard plants’ chances of withstanding drought; delay tomato ripening; and encourage growth in mung beans, cucumbers, rice, strawberries and kiwi. In addition to influencing plants’ likelihood of survival, sound guides interactions between plants and animals: When certain plants hear the buzz of a bee, for example, they know to release pollen. Carnivorous pitcher plants, meanwhile, attract bat prey with the help of acoustics.

“By touching and listening to what the plant is physically feeling through its body, it also speaks to what our actions do to the plant,” Adar says to the Brooklyn Eagle. “So if you’re going to hit it very hard, you’re going to hear that sound. If you touch it really gently and curiously and symbiotically, you’ll be ‘rewarded’ by this sound.”

She concludes, “There’s a reciprocity that I think is really important and makes aware that this empathy can be derived to another living thing.”

Sonic Succulents: Plant Sounds and Vibrations is on view at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden through October 27.

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