Art project gives voice to plants at Assiniboine Park Conservatory

As the Assiniboine Park Conservatory gets ready to close down for good this spring, Helga Jakobson is giving a voice to the plants who call it home.

Winnipeg artist is using the electric currents in plants to create music

Winnipeg visual artist Helga Jakobson is harnessing the tiny electrical currents produced by the plants at the Assiniboine Park Conservatory to create a symphony. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

As the Assiniboine Park Conservatory gets ready to close down for good this spring, Helga Jakobson is giving a voice to the plants who call it home.

Using special equipment, the Winnipeg-based visual artist is harnessing the tiny electric currents produced by the plants and using computer software to convert them into sound.

And she's using those sounds to create a symphony.

"It's a very sad, sad symphony, it's very low key, low energy and very melodic and I can't help but wonder if that's because the plants know that their time is ending here," said Jakobson, 31, who has spent the last month working with the plants.

Jakobson uses a computer to record the sounds created by the plants bioelectric currents. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

The conservatory, which is more than a century old, has exceeded its lifespan and will close permanently in April to make way for the final phase of the park's $200-million redevelopment, which includes the new Canada's Diversity Gardens.

When Jakobson heard that the conservatory would be closing it gave her an idea.

"I reached out to the conservatory and said I'd like to record the plants before the place closes and they were really excited," she said. "I think [the conservatory] is really focusing on how to create some sort of legacy for [the plants] and for this space, even though it has to be closed down.

"I wanted to document the atmosphere in here and I wanted to do that through sound."

Harnessing the sound of plants

To make the plants sing, Jakobson uses alligator clips to connect the plant to an instrument that reads the plants' bioelectric capacity, which is then connected to her computer.

Jakobson is then able to give each of those spikes in electrical current a musical note.

"It's a way of letting a plant to express its internal life," she said.

The computer program allows Jakobson to choose different synthesized instrument sounds for each plant. To create a full symphony sound, Jakobson has enlisted the help of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which sent her copies of the layouts they use to set up their orchestral sections.

As the Assiniboine Park Conservatory gets ready to close down for good later this spring, Helga Jakobson is giving a voice to the plants who call it home. 2:30

She's used those blueprints to arrange the plants into groups of different instrumental voices.

"For example over to my right I have the brass section, and just behind me is the woodwind section," she said pointing to different plants in the space.

There's also a cello section, a bass section, violas and violins, and a percussion section.

Not all plants can be saved

The conservatory building was constructed in 1914 and remodeled in 1968. Its last day open to the public will be Easter Monday, April 2.

Once it closes the building will be demolished, and while some of the plants will find new homes in the zoo's Toucan Ridge exhibit, not all can be saved.

Fernand Saurette, a biologist from the Université de Saint-Boniface, calls the conservatory a "beautiful greenhouse" that's come to the end of its lifespan.

"It's reached its climax where it won't grow any more, the plants have reached the ceiling and the roots are creating problems for the foundation," he said."It's grown to a point where it's unmanageable."

Fernand Saurette, a biologist from the University of St. Boniface, says the conservatory has reached the end of its lifespan. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

After spending years studying plants, Saurette looks forward to eventually hearing Jakobson's symphony.

"In science we're always discovering new things, the energies of different living organisms [but] we don't understand all the energies," he said.

"So if she has tapped into a new form, which is more of a sound, great and more power to her to express that and to find out what the plant is saying."

Jakobson says she feels a responsibility to document the plants' final days at the conservatory through art.

"I think that we can become very disconnected from [plants] because we don't understand how their life functions," she said.

"I'm really hoping that it'll be a good dedication to them. I want them to be able to speak for themselves."

Once she has the symphony recorded Jakobson will develop the work and then plans on sharing the songs with others.

"Now that I know each of the plants — I've been sitting with them for so long — that I really feel they're friends of mine, like I know them," she said with a laugh.

"I'm really sad that they won't be here and won't be together."

With files from Erin Brohman and Cameron McLean