Photos from a 2007 exhibtion at Fondation Vasarely, Aix-en-Provence, France.


ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING

Eduardo Kac


"Essay Concerning Human Understanding" was a live, bi-directional, interactive, telematic, interspecies sonic installation I created with Ikuo Nakamura between Lexington (Kentucky), and New York. In this work, a canary dialogues over a regular phone line with a plant (Philodendron) 600 miles away. The piece was exhibited in the context of my show Dialogues, realized in 1994 simultaneously on the Internet and in museums and galleries. "Essay Concerning Human Understanding" was presented publicly from October 21 to November 11, 1994, simultaneously at the Center for Contemporary Art, University of Kentucky, Lexington, and the Science Hall, in New York.



This diagram illustrates the link
between the bird and the plant.
Click on the image above to see
the full diagram.


Placed in the middle of the Center for Contemporary Art, the yellow canary was given a very large and comfortable cylindrical white cage, on top of which circuit-boards, a speaker, and a microphone were located. A clear Plexiglas disc separated the canary from this equipment, which was wired to the phone system. In New York, an electrode was placed on the plant's leaf to sense its response to the singing of the bird. The microvoltage fluctuation of the plant was monitored through a Macintosh running a software called Interactive Brain-Wave Analyzer (IBVA). Ironically, a program designed to detect human mental activity was employed to inspect the vital activity of an organism generally understood as devoid of consciousness. The information coming from the plant was fed into another Macintosh running MAX, which controlled a MIDI sequencer. The electronic sounds themselves were pre-recorded, but the order and the duration were determined in real time by the plant's response to the singing of the bird.


text

When this work was shown publicly, the bird and the plant interacted for several hours daily. Humans interacted with the bird and the plant as well. Just by standing next to the plant and the bird, humans immediately altered their behavior. When in close proximity, the interaction was further enhanced by the constantly changing behavior of the bird and the plant, which responded by singing more (bird), activating more sounds (plant), or by remaining quiet.

By enabling an isolated and caged animal to have a telematic conversation with a member of another species, this installation dramatized the role of communication and telecommunications in human lives. The inter-species communicative experience observed in the gallery reflects our own longing for interaction, our desire to reach out and stay in touch. This interactive installation is as much about creating art for non-humans as it is about human isolation and loneliness, and about the very possibility of communication. As this piece projects the complexities of electronically mediated human communication over non-human organisms, it surprisingly reveals aspects of our own communicative experience. This interaction is as dynamic and unpredictable as a human dialogue.

The canary in Lexington, KY.
The Plant in New York.



"Essay Concerning Human Understanding", YLEM, Vol. 15, No.4, August, p. 4; also published on the Internet in Leonardo Electronic Almanac, Volume 3, No. 8, August 1995, MIT Press.


Bibliography (selected)


Back to Kac Web