Katharine Oswell


Digital Media Network

HSS8120 Project Work: “Post-performance Ponderings: When is an opera an opera and when is tininess truly tiny?

Not long has passed since the presentation of the tiny opera, my collaborative project between myself and the plants. Here is the filming of the performance, thanks to Ryan for sharing:

On reflection I can see that a lot happened differently in performance from what I had intended yesterday. The main thing I can see is that the graphic score wasn’t entirely functioning, not technically, but responsively from me. I had wanted my vocal to increase in vocal amplitude, and well I just didn’t do that, and I was quite arbitrary with my choice of when I sang. I mean, of course, that the plants were telling me what to do, but ideally that would have been via the graphic score.

There was some disconnect from a structural, interactive perspective. It was a one woman show, and it’s not surprising that the live performance resulted in some aspects that were unexpected.

I enjoyed adding the element of a backstage, and there was even some character with front-of-house. Something which came to me in the morning, and then I toyed with the idea of issuing tickets. After Scarlet’s game with the tissue paper, I wondered about those then being tickets for entry to my opera. Then I changed my mind. I would have loved to have made tiny programs. I was getting a bit overwhelmed with all the elements of opera, something which is a hugely dramatic practice, sometimes lasting days as we see in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, the four-opera cycle. I decided to leave the rest to improvisation, something which is simultaneously a security blanket and panic-inducing.

As Pete pointed out, there are two key elements to today’s project, the idea of the small opera, and the plant interactive project. Opera exists with a narrative, however mundane, or secret that may be, and I felt that my continuing studies with plants enabled me to give them a stage, a voice. Their tiny voices (electrical signals, water-content, whatever their communication methods may be) were able to be amplified, in a an area of ‘high art’, an historically elitist area of music theatre. Opera however has always found ways of giving voice to those without voice, and this is seen in many of Mozart’s operas, where the soubrette, usually a maid, is a puppeteer of the complicated interpersonal relationships between the aristocracy.

I’m looking forward to taking this project forward, with sights to create a cycle or series of mini-operas, incorporating more plants, perhaps remotely. I would like to ponder HCI further, and question how people can interact with the plant ‘synthesiser’ as I’m starting to see it. There’s a lot of fun to be had with learning more about which areas of soil to press create which sound. Learning it as an actual instrument, perhaps is a more appropriate way of using it musically, as opposed to creating a graphic score. As far as the graphic score work goes, I will try to get ahold of some Ag/AgCl electrodes, so that the plants can be autonomous in their communication. Then we can see what kind of graphic scores they decided to share. I just hope I haven’t miffed them too much with all the prodding…

HSS8120: Project Work “A Secret: an opera from the plants”

Tomorrow is presentation day and I will be presenting a tiny opera

A tiny opera I came across in my research, which stands as being the world’s shortest opera in the Guinness Book of World Records is Peter Reynolds’ opera ‘The Sand of Time: an opera in four minutes’.



So, what constitutes an opera?

There’s a score, storyline, text, an orchestra, soloists, a chorus, a set, costume, lighting, scenery, makeup, hair… and of course singing.The structure is basically an overture, followed by arias and chorus numbers. They usually end in the death of the leading lady….

So, what constitutes a tiny opera?

The tininess of this opera comes about in a few ways.

The score itself is minimal, with the image taking on a monochrome appearance, and only affecting a change in amplitude for the singer.

The soloist is solitary, with the vocal parameters limited to just amplitude

The chorus (of plants) is achieved through EMG sensors reading their action potentials, the tiny electrical signals they use to communicate within their cell structures.

The storyline is a secret*

The text consists of one vowel [a] and one consonant [t]

The orchestra is also the plants

The set is the desk

The scenery is the contents of the desk

The costume is monochrome

The make-up is monochrome

The lighting is the desk light

The death of the leading lady is quietly undramatic

A little more on the score:

The change in size of the white circle is affected by the signals from the plants.

A growth indicates the singer must increase in vocal amplitude. This is an opposite reaction to the sound we hear from the plant chorus. The singer will simultaneously be ‘live composing’ the opera score, through the interaction with the stage colleagues, the plants.

The voice must sing the same pitch for the duration, only affected by intake of breath and the change in amplitude.

*A Secret:

The inspiration for this piece came from the Peruvian Amazonian shamanic practice of receiving songs from plants. These songs are called ikaros and are used in combination with various plant medicines, in order to heal or protect the shaman’s community. I wanted to connect with plants in a way that brings my digital, Western life, and art practice into this sacred shamanic practice. Shamanic healing is an important part of my life outside electronics and I was interested in seeing where they could meet through electronic means.

I like the idea of transmission of information through unexplainable means, such as psychic knowing, or remote viewing (the practice of seeing actual locations in the mind’s eye, and describing events occurring).

In this vein, I will also be intuitively receiving a story from the plants that they wish to share tomorrow. The plants are aware of the rules of the leading lady dying, so at least I can prepare for that part.

Also, sometimes it’s worth remembering that one note is all that is needed:


HSS8120: Project Work “Paul Nash, conscious plants and the ever-pervasive need for expensive scientific equipment”

The last few days have been all about plants. I’m particularly interested in plants, in their stillness, their quietness, their persistence.

I went to see the Paul Nash exhibition at the Laing. Surrealist geometric shapes pervade the harsh landscape of a First World War battlefield. Many battlefields, in fact, beams of light which could simultaneously be searchlights or “God’s Fingers”; sunshine through the clouds. The characters that stand out are the charred, severed trees. Those trees were collateral in a war that wasn’t theirs.*

Nash’s use of geometric shapes, inspired by a contemporary of his, Giorgio De Chirico, bring a sense of processing, of mental effort, to face the horrors of war still awake in his mind. A way to compute his PTSD, perhaps.

His later work moved into found objects, with the Surrealist view that an inanimate object has a lifeforce, a ‘personage’. The Tate writes about it nicely here: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/paul-nash/room-guide/life-inanimate-object

It’s this realm that I find myself working in, the “personage” of plants, inanimate materials, or objects. How do they communicate with us? Do they? In my own, personal, not-grounded-in-science beliefs, I know that plants have a kind of spirit. But that’s a kind of ‘faith’. I like to get to the bottom of things however. Why do I believe this? In fact, they’ve been researching this for a long time, with a lot of spurious claims, including the rather famous ‘polygraph experiment’, where interrogation expert Clive Backster decided to hook-up his machines to some office plants. His findings led him to conclude that plants are indeed conscious and can feel pain. This has been debunked due to the experiment not being carried out in any kind of ‘scientific’ conditions, but it inspired others to jump on board the idea of ‘plant consciousness’. Currently, a Stefano Mancuso in Italy is heading the research at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (http://www.linv.org/about-us/), looking especially to a plant’s ‘action potentials’; the electrical signals emitted to allow a plant to communicate to various parts of its whole, or with other plants.

Needless to say, there are also artists working in this field. Looking to the work of Mileece:


We can see in this example of her work, Mileece has created a control box, to manipulate the sounds of the plants, as she touches them. I’m not quite sure exactly what’s going on in the box, I do know that the sensors she has used are Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) sensors. These are some notes I made during watching this video:



midi converter

binary converter to

code – supercollider


This is the order of events, perhaps some of these things are contained in the box. But asides from that, I’m pleased to see her use of Supercollider, a language/program that I’m just learning to manoeuvre.

In Augustine Bannatyne-Leudar’s work:


We see his description of the technology used to enable a forest installation. The trees’ action potentials are measured using silver chloride electrodes. This is fancy stuff, these are expensive sensors at around £85 a pop, and you need two so as to read the resistance, I believe.**

In contrast to these two artists’ work, I will transpose the action potentials into visuals through Arduino to Processing, which will result in a graphic score. In the Amazon rainforest, the curanderos or “shamans” will commune with plant spirits and receive healing songs called ikaros from these spirits. This will be a kind of electronic homage to this very ancient, sacred practice. Can electronics be sacred? I think so, but that’s for another time.

I’ve started to experiment with my own sensors, trying to get something from a daffodil my mum gave me (hey, a gift! … which is the etymology of the word ‘datum’). For the purposes of Tiny Datum, it’s not looking promising, given that the reason Leudar uses the silver chloride electrodes is that they are sensitive enough to read the action potentials.

Then looking to Mileece, she also states that she’s using science-grade equipment. I’ve bought some GSRs at £8, but perhaps needless to say, at that price, I’m struggling to get any variation in signal. Do the plants need to be a bit sweaty? Her plants are covered in water droplets… More experimentation is required, and it seems like the submission on the 19th will have to fall into the prototype bracket.

This is the issue that I stand at. Not to mention the need to devise some kind of parameter for my vocal response at the other end. That’ll be my presentation, a performance of this graphic score.

* Aside: This is consistently seen in the raping of the planet by large corporations, something I’ve witnessed firsthand with the ousting of the indigenous B’nong people of Mondulkiri province Cambodia, whose land is being taken and rubber trees planted in exchange for nothing. Angry thoughts on second-reading, that didn’t quite have a place in the above text.

** Aside 2: I am going to try and get a more technical write up of everything that’s going on here. This is a good resource: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-3040.2006.01614.x/full. However, I’d like to get a document of my own written out, if only for my own understanding to continue to develop.


Seriously I can’t find where it stops, it just gets tinier and tinier. It’s like the smaller it gets, the bigger it gets. This is what’s been preoccupying my mind since the brief was set. I was thinking about Big Data, and how the smallest increment in most Big Data sets is probably the single human and their data. And then you’ve got a whole human to unpack.. and then it goes deeper and deeper… to cells and molecules and atoms and all that stuff (and that’s just the body..)… So then I started thinking about microscopes, and how you need them to be able to see deeper than what our eyes can see. And so I was thinking about eyes too. And contact lenses and I wondered what contact lenses would look like under a microscope. I suspect not much, but it’ll be nice to see all the same. I learned something interesting about eyes, that the eyeballs are the only living cells visible on the surface of the body. A shaman friend’s observation, rather than anything concretely scientific; I like to think it’s true. The whole ‘eyes are the window to soul’ thing.

Asides from this assignment, I’ve been thinking about all the plastic that ends up in nature, the ocean especially. I found some fishing wire on a beach, when on a walk at Kielder reservoir. On another walk, up at Holy Island, I found some lovely shells and seaweeds. I checked these out together under the microscope and they look pretty cool.

Fishing wire, shell and seaweed under microscope

I think the plastic of the fishing wire looks like cyborg tentacles, it makes me think how our humanness, our naturalness is entwining slowly but surely with technology, and electronics. When I look at my practice, as it emerges (it never used to be a practice, it was just… singing practice), I am seeing a juxtaposition between the very natural use of the singing voice (but also I suppose the freakiness of an operatic voice to some ears), the human body’s fleshy vulnerability versus the steadfast nature of the exponential development of technology we’re seeing in the 21st century, not least with AI fast approaching.

Here is an article I read recently which exemplified that technology is aiding in sustaining our planet, by raising awareness, by helping preserve through scientific study, but also that technology is of course inspired by nature for instance with the neonatal surgical tape which is modelled on spiders’ webs.

However, the brief does invite us NOT to take on political ideas, given that this is where Big Data excels. So I’ll leave behind the environmental concerns and the collision/marriage of nature and technology, and take a more lighthearted approach. Although the microscope is cool, so I’ll probably keep ahold of that.

I’m throwing around some stuff in my head. It’s that time of year, the liminal space between years where life feels a bit confusing and you don’t know what day it is. I started writing this as the Christmas holidays began, on the train travelling south to stay with friends in St. Albans. Now that Christmas has been and New Year approaches, I’m feeling that space of cocoon, where you’re suspended between years, and not sure whether it’s too early in the day for a gin and tonic.

The new year always makes me think of releasing and beginning. Getting rid of what no longer serves me and bringing in new ways of being. This is my first ‘artwork’ technically, as I’m coming from my classical voice background. Needless to say there’s apprehension and confusion. It feels alien and abstract and sometimes I wish I could just learn an Italian aria and be comfortable. But comfort is boring, I want the challenge and that’s why I’m here on this course.

As for this module, it’s been an introduction to electronics and technology in a way I hadn’t imagined. A new world has opened up to me, which is simultaneously exciting and daunting. So much to learn! So much to try out! Sometimes it renders me immobile because of the overwhelm, but I’m working on that, there’s not time to be immobile on this course.

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