The Pioneering Artist Who Harnessed Science to Communicate with Plants

Alice Bucknell
Oct 16, 2019 6:08PM

Documentary image of a performer with EEG biotelemetry system. From The Secret Life of Plants feature film. © Richard Lowenberg. Courtesy of the artist.

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.

John Lifton with his rack of plant sensing, signal processing, and music synthesis systems in the Plant Conservatory in Golden Gate Park. © Richard Lowenberg. Courtesy of the artist.


Watching the video work in 2019, SLOP is a fantastically lo-fi cornucopia of weird robot noises, psychedelic color bursts, buzzing clunky TV monitors, and cool-headed moustached artists with long hair and bell-bottom jeans trying to conceal their geeky glee. The video was originally commissioned as a scene in the feature-film adaptation of Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins’s 1973 book of the same name. And while much of Lowenberg’s footage was deemed too “out there” for the big screen—the soundtrack was in fact replaced by Stevie Wonder’s now-famous album of the same name—SLOP is garnering a newfound relevance in the age of the Anthropocene, as humanity must renegotiate its relationship to nature and the environment.

Born in Israel in 1946, Lowenberg emigrated with his parents to New Jersey in 1951, where he grew up on a small farm. In 1964, he began studying architecture at New York’s Pratt Institute. It was a creative high time in the city: He befriended classmate Robert Mapplethorpe; entered the experimental performance scene with the Judson Dance Theater crew through the influence of his professor, the director Robert Wilson; and served as Robert Rauschenberg’s studio assistant in his downtime.

Richard Lowenberg (and Paul Demarinis) testing EMG biotelemetry system and video interface during rehearsal in San Francisco. © Richard Lowenberg. Courtesy of the artist.

Despite his involvement in these creative circles, Lowenberg found that his interests in art-science crossovers were not being nurtured. He dropped out two months before graduating and headed west. Though not obvious at the time, this decision would propel Lowenberg into a 50-year collaborative practice with artists, architects, engineers, musicians, scientists, animals, and plants—as well as NASA and the Pentagon. His specific interests were centered on ecology and information ecosystems, and he began searching for new forms of cross-species communication.

Lowenberg reached a turning point in 1969 in the Bay Area, when he first got his hands on a brainwave visualizer at UC Medical Center’s Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute. Returning to New York later that year, he began experimenting with bio signal-play with avant-garde filmmakers Steina and Woody Vasulka; worked for futurist architect Buckminster Fuller; screened his audio-visual feedback films at the Whitney; and ran an inaugural screening program at The Kitchen, a nonprofit art space in Chelsea founded by the Vasulkas in 1971.

Tom Zahuranec making adjustments on the Tcherepnin audio synthesizer, interfaced with the plants and the video, to create “music.” © Richard Lowenberg. Courtesy of the artist.

As Lowenberg’s network grew to include radical thinkers working across art and science, so did his access to groundbreaking technology. But for him, it was never really about the tech. “I was thinking from an ecological and social perspective, at a time where people were, and still are, obsessed with data,” Lowenberg reflected. “I saw these new technologies as a sensory aid, a new and exciting means of communicating with other species, for we are all natural systems speaking through our sensory capabilities.”

Lowenberg returned to the West Coast in 1973, where he established the Bio-Arts Lab, an umbrella label for the next 11 years of his work on plant and animal collaboration. It involved interspecies communication that included orcas in British Columbia, dolphins at the San Francisco aquarium, and—thanks to the connections of a Stanford scientist—Koko the Gorilla, who was famous for her grasp of American Sign Language. These endeavors led to experimental productions with nascent technologies such as holography and thermography and, ultimately, collaborations with NASA and NATO. But how did Lowenberg accomplish such feats?

“Leverage,” he explained. “I’d pitch my project as research that would ultimately enrich the scientists’ work.” Often, Lowenberg would trade video documentation for equipment or access to animals. “It wasn’t about having access once—it was about building sustainable, symbiotic relationships between people in the arts and sciences.” In doing so, Lowenberg fostered collaboration at a time when both fields were more porous and open to cross-disciplinary intervention.

These connections resulted in a range of ambitious and offbeat projects. In the late 1970s, he worked on “Gravitational-Field-Day,” a collaboration with NASA that saw a gymnast, a dancer, and a high-diver bob around in neutral buoyancy tanks simulating space and battle against wind tunnels. The funding was cut by the Reagan Administration in 1981. The following year, Lowenberg teamed up with the Smith Kettlewell Visual Institute and San Francisco State University to organize an experimental performance wherein blind dancers wearing SonicGuide echolocation devices navigated a Californian eucalyptus forest. Ultimately, these projects were about testing the limits of humanity’s mental and physical strength, and about creatively visualizing the great scientific achievements of the era.

A plant and one monitoring device, with gold needle electrodes at the base of the root and stem, providing a varying signal, like a heartbeat. © Richard Lowenberg. Courtesy of the artist.

But even for Lowenberg, there were limits. According to him, he was rushed out of Italy in 1986 following his controversial exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which revealed the locations of all communications infrastructure supporting nuclear weapons facilities in the country (gleaned from his collaboration with NATO, which granted the artist creative use of its military technologies).

Whether Lowenberg is creating music from the biological activity of plants or teaching a gorilla how to take a video selfie, at the core of his practice is the push for a total integration of art, science, and technology. Looking at these works 50 years on, at a time when many artists are exploring our relationship to the environment in the context of climate change, what can Lowenberg’s expansive, boundary-defying practice teach us? “Art exists primarily on a personal level, but we need to work at a scale that makes a difference,” he suggested. “My life’s work can be summed up in a single inquiry: Can we use technology to create new relationships between ourselves and the planet at the same scale at which we destroy it?”

Alice Bucknell