On a balmy summer’s day in June 1976, four artists gathered inside the tropical conservatory of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Among the towering palms, fruiting banana plants, and gargantuan monstera leaves, they set up a stack of audio- and digital-processing systems standing 5 feet tall. Their tentacle-like cables ran amok, wrapping around trunks, latching onto leaves, and burrowing into bushes. At the cables’ ends, small gold needles harvested bioelectric information from the plants, which the machine translated into a psychedelic glitching video and live music score. The audio-visual output fluctuated as visitors came and went, the plants’ CO2 levels responding to the shifting sunlight, children’s squeals, and fading foot traffic. Visitors to the conservatory that day unwittingly partook in one of the world’s first bio-sensing artworks.
Titled The Secret Life of Plants (1976), or SLOP for short, this video performance was a four-way collaboration between artists John Lifton and Jim Wiseman; audio technician Tom Zahuranec; and its organizer, audio-visual artist, architect, and activist Richard Lowenberg. The team completed the work while Lowenberg was an artist-in-residence at NASA.