The Interface

Ear to the Ground

Artist Ruben Olguin combines art and science to explore the relationship between plants and human sound

Artist Ruben Olguin’s 3D-printed sound vessels series, “Anthropogenic frequency,” explores the relationship between plants and human sound. The series is part of form & concept gallery’s Arrival 2022 exhibition, featuring more than a dozen artists whose work challenges contemporary ideas of art, craft and design. Through May 28. (Byron Flesher)

“Humans are such noisy bastards that we affect community structure just by being loud.”

So proclaimed a tweet circa 2012 from a scientist in the Netherlands responding to a paper examining the effect of anthropogenic—human-generated—noise on piñon pines, one of a growing body of scientific work studying the impact of noise on ecological systems.

New Mexico artist Ruben Olguin also read the paper—along with many others investigating the topic—in part because he reads white papers “for fun,” and because the topic dovetailed with both his background as a sound designer and observations he had amassed in nature. He began to focus on acoustics and incorporate his growing understanding of sound frequencies into his art.

The culmination is his series, “Anthropogenic frequency,” part of the Arrivals 2022 exhibition at form & concept gallery (through May 28), which features more than a dozen artists working in innovative ways with textiles and other craft forms. Olguin’s series consists of vessels 3D-printed in plant-based plastic filaments infused with wood. Those filaments hold the sound of specific frequencies “isolated to the optimal sound to stimulate the plant growth of specific plants,” such as basil, corn, tomato and mung bean.

The experience is interactive: To hear what the plant hears, you put the bottom hole of the vessel near your ear and “listen for the presence of anthropogenic frequency.”

The idea began germinating when Olguin was a graduate student at the University of New Mexico studying Pueblo pottery. His great grandmother was from Nambé Pueblo, which fed his interest in learning about “how traditional public pottery was made.” One aspect, he says, involves “going out into the middle of nowhere” to collect clay, minerals and other resources.

He began noticing certain sounds that were “prevalent” everywhere he went and, given his background in sound design, began researching certain sound waves he characterizes as mechanical—the noise from the highway or the sounds of airplane traffic, for instance. “I started to think about how I [could] produce something that could capture that noise. And I started to look at how Pueblo pottery could be used in that way,” he says.

That path of inquiry led Olguin to German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, after whom the Helmholtz resonator is named, a device that captures specific noise frequencies. In Olguin’s case, “I started to make pottery that would capture specific frequencies.”

Integrating an ecological focus into the work came naturally. Olguin works with the Seed Broadcast, a community-based ecology project and journal (seedbroadcast.org) and says over the last few years, “I’ve been making a lot of work that’s sort of ecologically based.” And he had come across another research paper, this one looking at the effects of sound on corn, specifically frequencies that made corn germinate more quickly.

The scientific discoveries piqued his interest, but the conclusions also resonated with Olguin’s knowledge of Indigenous customs. “In the Pueblos, speaking to, singing to and drumming along in the fields is a common practice,” he says.

“Anthropogenic frequency” incorporates specific frequencies’ impact on specific crops, partly derived, he says, by isolating the instruments and song patterns on recordings of Pueblo singers. He already had a growing interest in 3D printing, and this project was an apt use for the technology. Using a 3D printer allowed him to be precise in the work in a way that clay would not have allowed. Moreover, he says, “the process of the 3D printing is actually very similar to Pueblo pottery. In Pueblo pottery, we use a coil method for building up our forms, which is one coil laid on top of the other on top of the other, which are pressed together to complete the form; 3D printing emulates that process pretty closely.”

The work reflects Olguin’s natural orientation toward science and technology, but also integrates them with reverence for the natural world.

“These vessels that I’m making are essentially like holders of sound,” he says. “You can use vessels to hold a lot of things: water, food, grains, seeds. These ones, in particular, are holding sound.”

I visited those vessels several times, holding them up to my ear like seashells. The idea is the same, Olguin says: “They have a hole in the bottom; there’s a flute with a hole in the top. And the volume of air that’s in the base and the length of the flute have a way to target specific frequencies.”

That being said, the vessels themselves also are quite lovely to behold, visually and with touch. That too, is intentional, Olguin says, as he likes to allow the “craft of the work” and its aesthetics to engage viewers “all on its own. And then as you get into it, you can go deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. So people have a way to engage with my work on a lot of different levels. And so you don’t necessarily need to know all that information to appreciate them.”

The backstory, though, carries both a hopeful message and a warning.

“These plants that we have cultivated over thousands of years are dependent on our presence to be successful,” Olguin says. Technology can’t substitute for that co-evolution, he adds. “We need to be present amongst their growth. You can’t just allow drones to sort of monitor your fields.”

The tension between the natural world and technology embodied in the vessels also reflects an ongoing theme in Olguin’s work about his self-identification as Mestizo, with both Hispanic and Indigenous ancestry.

“I’m always coming from this blend of colonizer and colonized, simultaneously. And that also allows me to engage with technologies in different ways: as a colonizer engaging with the colonizer technologies and as a colonized person, who is trying to unravel how these colonized sort of systems are integrating with the cultures and systems that we have today.”


Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at]sfreporter.com. Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.