A Row of Trees

The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit

Una Hamilton Helle – Voicing the Genius Loci – an ongoing process

Voicing the Genius Loci – an ongoing process

Genius Loci

The genius of the place (Italian ‘genius locii’) can be defined as ‘the spirit of the place’. Contributed to the Romans.


Although I was trained in lens-based media, sound has crept into my art practice more and more. Especially so in the strand of work that I see as an ongoing search for the genius loci of place. Early attempts at discovering/catching/communing (I don’t think my intentions were particularly clear at the time) with such a ’spirit of place’ were through the medium of large format photography. For one project I went in search of ley lines across Britain, photographing burial mounds, road crossings and other topographic markers that supposedly formed straight lines across the landscape. This search through the camera lens often incorporated the added temporal element of a long shutter speed, as if more time spent “soaking up the energies” would yield greater results.


This flattening of time and space into a 2D image mostly garnered further questions, if not exactly doubts (although the question of photographic evidence has always been murky territory), but most of all it felt more like observing and much less like participating with the land. In other, bigger words, and in hindsight, it felt like my use of technology was further upholding the distanced, supposedly neutral gaze that enabled Western colonialism’s dehumanising relationship to its “subjects”. I had always thought of my search for a genius loci as a question of whether events could leave an “imprint” on the atmosphere of a place. As more non-Western and pre-Enlightenment ways of thinking gradually crept into my awareness, I started questioning whether this ‘spirit of place’ was less of an atmosphere, and more a spirit in the animistic understanding of the word. Not that the two were mutually exclusive.


Equally, inspired by how sound has been used to engage with sacred or special places, the manifestation of this ‘spirit’ became, in my mind, more embedded in resonances. Many thought-threads seemed to point in this direction; There was the theory I heard that suggested that the spiral patterns at Newgrange (a prehistoric passage tomb in Ireland) were the result of aural rituals, vibrations visualised – like an ancient equivalent of the patterns you can get from water or sand in the meeting with amplified music. Or that the bluestones of Stonehenge were chosen for their resonant and percussive qualities. There were the countless oral song practices, of which the old Norwegian ballad Draumkvedet (The Dream Song) is but one of many that narrate journeys to places beyond the physical; a dream-time, deep-time, myth-time, perhaps. There is the practice of song lines, the aboriginal Australian memory tradition of navigating places and times, ancestral and topographical, systems of such complexity and place-basedness that an outsider such as myself could never even pretend to gain a coherent understanding of how they work. But in the midst of all this non-understanding some sort of sense and cohesion seemed to be forming, and I suppose this position of uncertainty is the privilege of art as a medium to think through.

All Flesh is Grass exhibition, Kim?, Riga, 2020


Science is also catching up to this broader perspective: Modern physics is now confirming what many creation mythologies around the world already state, that everything is energy. On a related level, plant scientist Monica Gagliano has conducted research that proves plants omit and react to particular sound frequencies. Her lab experiments with pea seedlings showed that their preference, i.e. the direction they grew towards when given a choice, was 2-300Hz, the same frequency as flowing water. This was the basis for my work ‘The Word for Water in Plant Language’, a guided meditation accompanied by a modular synth programmed to play the same frequencies. This was displayed in the collaborative exhibition ‘All Flesh is Grass’ at Kim? in Riga, 2020.


Channeling Araucaria Heterophylla (film still)


‘All Flesh is Grass’ was a research-exhibition initiated by curator Erik Martinson during the first Covid lockdown, and was premised around 70s botanical thriller ‘The Kirlian Witness’. In the film, the protagonist uses electromagnetic equipment to measure responses from a plant, almost like a makeshift lie detector, after the plant has “witnessed” the murder of her sister. The process used is not unlike how the modern PlantWave or MIDI Sprout devices work, which is to translate electrical waves (what they call biofeedback) from the plants into “sonic data” (i.e. MIDI tones). When I interviewed Gagliano (Becoming the Forest, Issue 3) about these types of devices, she put forth the view that this was a patronising way of “giving voice” to plants, as the translation of their interaction is narrowed down to a very limited signal and output. With this in mind, my research works for the exhibition attempted to go through a similar process with pot plants. I hoped however, that my process would open this interaction up rather than close it down, by using the human body as the signal receiver, and the human voice as the interface.


Embroidering transcription of plant frequencies (Dracaena Marginata)


But how to be a receptacle for a being that is so different from oneself? The first obstacle that becomes apparent – beyond the obvious physical differences, our modular vs. non-modular builds for example – is that the timescale of humans and plants are so different. Again, technology can give us a clue towards, if not fully convey, this profound experiential difference, through time-lapse recordings of plants growing. Movement we don’t perceive with the naked eye becomes apparent through the lens. There is also the difference in life span. Trees, for instance, can afford to move slower because they will live longer, so one can imagine their perception of time is more stretched out than ours. The ancient Yew trees of English graveyards, and the Redwoods of California tell us as much (as does the apt characterisation of the Ents in Lord of the Rings). Based on this profound temporal difference one can only imagine, akin to the many sounds from outer space that have been shared in the last few years – essentially other types of waves that have been “sonified” so that human ears can pick them up – that one would have to treat plant signals similarly in order for us to hear their song. Some type of translation would be needed.


So when I turned to my pot plants to commune the first thing I did was get myself into a meditative state. I had to slow down time, and get ready for some deep listening. As with all meditation, the slowing down of the breath was crucial, as was the opening up of the imagination. Once I got myself into a state that felt “in tune” with the plant, the next part of the process was to receive its signals. Not knowing what to listen out for I had to go with my intuition. Paraphrasing magic practitioner Josephine McCarthy, “Imagination is the interface in meeting with the magic of place”. She also mentions that clumsiness and awkwardness in meeting the other for the first time is part of the process. If nothing results from it at first, you keep going. Eventually tones did come out, a voice was heard. And the results were different with different pot plants. The recordings are not much to listen to, they don’t make much “sense”, perhaps as should be expected. Whether I actually “tuned in” or not I cannot say for certain, but I certainly feel more connected to my pot plants after this process.


Notation of the Genius Loci of a lone pine on a cliff face, overlooking Hallingdal, Norway


Later on I headed out of lockdown and into the Norwegian forests, to a place I know well but am always trying to get to know better. There, whilst reading eco-philosopher and sleight-of-hand magician David Abram’s musings on phenomenologically relating to landscape, I tried the same approach again. Not with pot plants this time, but with specific topographies, small eco-systems that I felt a calling to as I walked; a mossy forest floor, a grassy ledge where a moose had slept (evidenced by an indent in the grass, fresh droppings), a cliff face with a small, lone pine clinging onto it, a scorching hot bog under a spring sun. Again I got into a meditative state and attempted to let the place channel itself through my voice. Again heightened awareness, but also clumsiness, and again not much to listen to. I have no criteria or language for judging the “validity” of what came out, but what did appear made its way into sound. And that sound was later translated into marks on paper, which were superimposed onto an image of the place in question, making a portrait of sorts. Some transcriptions were embroidered onto cloth for the exhibition. These were partly inspired by traditions such as the icaros – patterns on cloth that are simultaneously weaves and healing songs, and which I had learnt about from curator Gina Buenfeld and her visits to the Shipibo people of the Amazon. The Amazon is a far way away from the Norwegian forests, but patterns exist in the folk traditions here too. If they also contained such a multiplicity of meanings however, they are not meanings I know how to read, they have been lost through the passage of time. As such, my attempts at singing the landscape are part of a wider attempt at deciphering these meanings again, as well as create new ones. Going backwards to go forwards and backwards again.



The entire locality–soils, plants, animals, everything, yesterday, today, and tomorrow–taken as an organism. Coined by Theodore Gaster. The Neoplatonists called it the anima mundi (World Soul).


Notation of the Genius Loci of a late spring marshland, Hallingdal, Norway


Notation of the Genius Loci of a large rock in the forest, Hallingdal, Norway


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