Music For Your Plants In and Out of the Anthropocene

Norman Orro (b. 1986) is an Estonian artist and a graphic designer who also teaches graphic design at the Estonian Academy of Arts. On 26th of October, 2018, Orro performed his project Music For Your Plants at the Kiasma Theatre. I had the chance to talk with Norman about the project and its relation to the concept of Anthropocene, about speculative composition, white cubes et cetera.

Music For Your Plants is a project that has been going on since 2010. That’s eight years. Very anthropocentric to say, that’s a long time… How has the project progressed?

“It started as an impulse of doing music and later turned into a more rational mode of thought. I don’t really pay attention to time that much, it’s more about keeping the emotions and integrity intact. At first Music For Your Plants was a group. There were three of us in the beginning and it was… How would I say… Almost like a prog-rock outfit, like a band, yet it got more electronic as time went on. We explored a bunch of sonic flavors, but in the end, I started using the computer more, as it kind of encompasses all instruments, so it gives more space to composition and thinking, more than the physical instruments do. We were exploring world music in the beginning with guitars and drums, yet now the networked computer itself has become an ultimate World Music instrument.”

I was listening to a recording of a radio program about World Music just a few days ago, and what stayed with me was this idea that for some communities, music is not about the music itself, but rather it is an integral part of a situation or a moment. In a sense, music is a method to create and be together, not an end in itself.

“This is actually very similar to what club music enthusiasts preach, and I agree. Also, the term World Music obviously has a marketing history, but I believe it’s possible to recapture and recondition labels and steer them towards more positive connotations. World Music means all the world playing at once, a babel of sound. It means a discourse of different world music(s). It means a conflict of interests between cloud tribes and native tribes, a conflict of techno utopia and humanistic values. World Music is about the world.

MFYP‘s music used to be a gathering too but it turned towards more introspective, speculative composition later. Feelings that are evoked can be a source for or can be coming from a utopian idea. I am also interested in big, almost idyllic spectacles. In desperate times we need invocation for a space and time that is different than ours, appealing for a better future.”

Norman Orro ja Rene Mäe, Xenotica, 2013

You mentioned speculative composition in our earlier discussion and I’d like to hear a bit more about what do you mean by that?

“How I work with any new track is an example of speculative composition. Some like to work by first laying out basic things, beats, instruments, melodies, but I choose to meditate and envision a world and then see how that world would sound like. Then I work backwards from that – what events, tonalities, feelings etc. it could include? What instruments do I need to create this soundscape? This is what I mean by speculative composition. But still, there is a lot of physicality in otherwise fluid software composition, as you can dream complex structures, but you need to find a way to express that in sound – and the language of sound is still very materialistic even in the digital world. There is only a certain amount of sound you can push through the speakers at once, due to physical limitations. “

This reminds me of a friend who, when composing, first chooses his “limitations” i.e. the instruments and such he can use in the digital sphere. A bit counterintuitively, limitless possibilities hinder creativity.

“I have been thinking about different limitations myself, as I’ve felt I need more. I wanted to experiment with imagining music for gallery spaces, so that’s how I started the ongoing album Music For Exhibitions. I wanted to push myself further and face conceptually new environments… It’s been a really interesting journey, as I have learned how sound is so much below other mediums in exhibition situations. It’s really hard for me, too, to think about the sound only, so I usually start to immediately think about the visual impact as well.”

Gallery spaces often have a similar aura as churches and other such holy places – they’re essentially quiet spaces for contemplation and for possibly encountering or appreciating something sublime. I find this quite problematic for not all art should be approached with the attitude and position suggested by gallery spaces. And as sound is usually invisible, it has the potential to interrupt such spaces.

“That’s the main issue I have really, as this church-vibe is so prevalent. It also feeds into a particular sense of self-censorship as you start composing; are people going to be bothered if I do this or that, if I unload a sonic array of bullets in the gallery. I usually choose to be quite serene about it instead, because music kind of automatically forces you into the sublime. But I agree, everything should be louder and the gallery aura dismantled at times. I recently had a good experience at an opening where the show itself was pretty light and fragile but there was quite a party going with people dancing in the space and enjoying themselves, a very good combination.”

It seems like Music For Your Plants and Music For Exhibitions are at the two ends of a spectrum of speculative composition – with MFYP, you compose for imaginary spaces, and for MFE you compose for real-world exhibitions.

“The line between real and unreal is very thin and the exhibition mindset somehow connects them, but as an artist I feel it’s important to sometimes get back out of this space and out of this dichotomy to seek other means of expression. Both directions are good for different emotions and topics.”

Norman Orro, Down to Earth, 2017

Now I would like to get to talking about the Anthropocene, which, I would say, has been quite a vivid paradigm in contemporary arts during this decade. I first encountered Anthropocene as an idea during my studies in 2007-2008 (I majored in art philosophy) and was mesmerized by the shift in paradigm and perspective it provided and was very happy to see it taken up by so many artists during the early years of this decade. Since then, though, it has started to “taste like wood” as we say in Finnish – the shift in perspective that initially felt quite revolutionary has now started to feel like a burden, something that too often just ends up aestheticizing nature and its dichotomies and thus also somehow distancing us from the ecological disasters and global warming taking place. Having worked on a project that touches upon this thematic for such a long time, what is your perspective on the whole idea at the moment?

“First, the benefit of the word of Anthropocene is the sense of time and change it brings with it, like you said. It is easy to forget that. The reason why it feels overused, is that it’s often used as a buzzword. In simple terms it basically means “human time”, and it is proposed to mark a point in time where human activities have made a remarkable dent on otherwise geological processes. Academics are still in debate about its usefulness, but regardless of that, the effects of human activity are here to stay and should be discussed further. Call it the Great Fuckup, it doesn’t matter.

I think much of the discourse around Anthropocene is about the nuances of blame, of causation, and of virtue signaling even. Especially in academic circles. Because it includes the word ‘human’ in the title, people go nuts and start pointing fingers.

It’s quite paradoxical as the problem we are discussing is very blunt in a way – the world is literally on fire because of very certain human activities but we out here discussing what font to use for the title. It’s like keeping the company meeting going forever because you don’t want to go back to work.

The discourse has roughly divided into two camps. One camp interprets the term as enabling human agency towards the earth and sees it as problematic, as it could be interpreted as if humans are having power over earth – which they really do not. It’s much easier to fuck things up than to fix them.

Others see the term as a positive warning – we have the power to fuck things up, let’s be careful. So, one side says the term is enabling and the other says it’s critical – kind of fighting for different sides of the same coin. Meanwhile policymakers and companies have understood the basics of the problem for three decades already (Exxon knew of climate change in 1981), they just don’t want to deal with the blame and consequences.”

Have you nevertheless decided to use and work with the term Anthropocene?

“I have used it explicitly once in a work called I Drink to Forget the Anthropocene. I think it’s a useful concept and I think we shouldn’t take it lightly. It’s not like a Pantone seasonal color or a trend in philosophy, it’s something heavier. It’s a shift in thinking that will occur whether we use this exact word or something else. We can’t drink it away and ecological problems can never be passé.

Short answer would be that I am using the idea, but not using the word so much. I’m investigating the topics branching out of this concept.”

Norman Orro, Down to Earth, 2017

So, where have your investigations led you?

“This is too big of a topic to say something clever about. As we try to encompass the enormity of this earth system we are dealing with, one of the critiques is that we are not getting the whole picture. But I think we are getting too much of the picture, too much of the world. When you investigate it as a system, I find it important to chop it up into images and sounds to make it comprehensible on a human emotional scale. To make the complexity acceptable or at least realize it’s there.

In my artworks I try to combine simplicity and complexity, because you can lure people in with simplicity and then show them the complexity. For example natural disasters in their visual representations on TV also function a bit like data compression, chopping down data that would kill you in real life, to comprehensible bits (Weather Channel hurricane). An image of hurricane Katrina is a logo for all hurricanes. Because we live in an attention economy, or better said – attention ecology, we need constant signaling that these problems exist. There will never be enough visualizations of the drama that is Earth.”

I get your point, but at the same time I have the feeling that the more we see visual representations of natural disasters and such, the more normalized they become, and I fear that does not encourage or drive people to act but rather numbs us.

“Then we need less stereotypical images. Also, I think these things need to be normalized, as nature is not separate from us. Climate reality will happen, is happening. Borrowing from a psychology idiom – to solve a problem you need to identify it, accept it and deal with it. I think the ‘numbing’ part means we’re in the accepting phase but ignoring it, the pain is not strong enough. Many people would oppose the usage of ‘we’ in this context altogether, as some definitely bear more guilt than others.”

I would still argue, maybe leaning to Jean Baudrillard’s ideas about hyperreality, that we’ve begun to perceive representations i.e. images of natural disasters as being more real than the reality from which they originate from. There is this particular kind of a distancing that’s taking place – through the processes of aestheticization and such, we’ve become more concerned with representations than their actual source. We are more familiar with the calamities facing us than before yet at the same time more indifferent than ever, I’d argue.

“I agree that it’s happening in the context of visual culture, but I think we have to differentiate between specific situations here. To a sensitive person images and excess information can definitely be numbing, but for others outside the bubble it might bring insight only after repeated exposure. Anyhow, getting numb or bored of disaster images is a bit of a privilege that can’t hold for much longer. Better start prepping or start fixing. Also, I think arguing over different degrees of realness is a bit of an academic jargon – sometimes everything is real.”

Ok, time for the last question. Where does the name Music For Your Plants come from?

“Foremost it was about not playing for people, kind of excluding humans, excluding the urban drama that is so often associated with music. And, of course it’s referencing Muzak, the 50s and 60s library music records; music for machines, elevators, plants etc. So, there was this slight obsession with object-oriented ontology before it was a thing yet, and maybe Estonian roots of paganism and animism also subconsciously played into this.”


Text: Jenna Jauhiainen