BIO-SENSING ART in the 1970s


Artist and eco-systems designer Richard Lowenberg discusses his pioneering efforts in bio-sensing art and his proposition for a slow-tech movement.

Data Garden interviews
bio-art pioneer
Richard Lowenberg

The artist has exhibited internationally since the late ’60s- trailblazing the fields of bio-sensing, video-media-performance arts, tele-community development, information ecology and bio-regional activism & planning.

Brainwave and plant music from The Secret Life of Plants

Brainwave and plant music from The Secret Life of Plants, 1976.

Thanks for joining us for our first interview! Can you brief us on the origins of your bio-communication art?

In 1970, I began actively working with new portable video systems, and with Woody and Steina Vasulka (Kitchen founders, 1971), explored the interface between various analogue audio and video synthesis systems; not to make programs, but rather to play in the realms of electronic signals, feedback and noise. I also met Peter Crown, Ph.D., physiological psychiatrist, and together we built simple EEG biofeedback systems, which we used as interface with audio/video synthesizers, and we had weekly evening presentations at the Kitchen.  Our tools and abilities were limited.

Jim Wiseman working with the Paik/Abe Video Synthesizer.

Jim Wiseman working with Paik/Abe and Sandin Video Processors.

In the mid-70’s I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, in large part to attempt collaborative art-science work with NASA Ames Research Center. A number of creative projects resulted from the ‘informal’ collaboration among artists and scientists/technologists through 1981, beginning with use of multi-channel bio-telemetry devices and remote sensing systems with dancers (EMG muscle monitoring); wind-tunnel and multi-spectral imaging (thermography, holographic interferometry and schlierren) experiments; CTS satellite communication/performance projects; and gravitational simulation and performance experiments (Gravitational-Field-Day), which were funded in part by the NEA, and came to an abrupt end shortly after the presidential election of Ronald Reagan.


John Lifton prepares a plant for live performance.

In early 1976 the producer and director of an about to be made feature film, based on the book, The Secret Life of Plants, brought John Lifton to San Francisco to work with me on sequences we designed for the film. I also brought in Tom Zahuranec and Jim Wiseman for this project, which shot sequences at the Plant Conservatory in Golden Gate Park and at the World Stage soundstage in Hollywood. John, who I had previously met in London and worked with in Telluride, CO through the mid-90s, is an architect/planner and composer who built early digital audio processing systems, and had premiered Green Music (plant sensing) in London in 1975. Tom worked at Mills College and was interfacing plants and other bio-signals with a Tcherepnin audio synthesizer that he helped to build.   Jim was a video artist/videographer who built his Paik-Abe synthesizer  while at CalArts and his Sandin Image Processor while at the Chicago Art Institute. I provided the multi-channel bio-telemetry (wireless FM transmitting) systems which we monitored up to six dancers’ brain waves and muscle electrical potential signals, as voltage-control inputs to the audio and video systems, in compositional sync with John Lifton’s multi-channel audio output generated by gold needle electrode sensing of plant physiology. The film ultimately used little of our recorded performances, was not widely released (production conflicts) and is difficult to find copies of. Plants were only one of many living organisms that we worked with, along with environmental monitoring/sensing/transducing, as basis for creative media-performance works: Bio-Dis-Plays.

Tom Zahuranek routes amplified plant energy into Tcherepnin and other synthesizers.

Tom Zahuranec routes amplified plant energy into handmade Tcherepnin synthesizers.

What were the some of the difficulties of interfacing living systems with video synthesizers and early digital computers?

The works alluded to above, were being done during the period of transition from analogue to digital technologies. They were designed, yet trial and error efforts. Many informal experiments, as well as public performances were conducted over many years. Each time, allowed us to involve other collaborators (David Rosenboom, Paul Demarinis, Virginia Quesada, Henry Dakin, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Keija Kimura, Margaret Fisher, Judith Azur and more), new technologies and processes.  More than ever, bio and eco-systems sensing and processing continues to be an area of rich creative exploration, tool-building and performance/installation by many others, currently.

video feedback: jim wiseman

Video feedback produced by Jim Wiseman.


There was a popular horticultural interest in the 1970s, as well as the study of ‘plant consciousness’. Have you found any evidence of this in your work?

Plants are sensitive, in-tune, living beings. We still barely understand their physiology (such as photo-synthetic conversion of light into energy). I have always been careful not to project inferences on the meaning of the simple signals which we were sensing and processing. They are part of our complex, inter-dynamic, co-evolutionary environment, which we simply wanted to tune into and present publicly, without explanation.

In your 2005 proposition for a slow-tech movement, you’ve stated:

“…technological progress is rapidly outpacing and out of sync with social progress and development.”

Do you feel that today’s art benefits from or is hindered by technological advances?

Technology takes many forms, being an evolutionary by-product of our human relationship to our surrounding environment and circumstances, physically, socially, conceptually. Current technological development is largely fostered by our political-economic systems, which in part, promote ‘consumerism’ and large scale ignorance of ecological processes; resource extraction, to materials processing, to waste production. The arts have also been largely complicit in a myopic understanding and involvement in the use of technologies, with primary interest in so-called media technologies (not energy, medical, military or transportation technologies).

Artists, given their self-endowed freedom of expression and livelihood, have also led the way technologically, and scientifically, from the beginnings of human development (from writing, and printing, to photography and sound recording, to inner and outer space exploration.

Baja site performance, 1972.

BAJA site performance, 1975

For the last many years, a key area of my creative work has been focused on ‘economics’; what and how we value tangibles and intangibles, as the framework for social cohesion and development. In that context, my interests and works address the nature of ‘information’, within a better whole systems understanding of ecological economics; care of our household. Finally, I have learned that all of my works in the realms of the senses, have primarily been about people, about how to respect and work together, about how to collaborate beyond short term project goals, and about how creative intention, attitude and example can inspire people to needed transcendence.

How has your early work influenced your current work as a large-scale information architect and community planner?

As stated in the beginning, the early biofeedback experiments were part of an ongoing exploration and creation of works which look at portions of our electromagnetic information environment. As an artist, my central interest is in how we (all things) sense and communicate. In playing with NASA (plus Stanford Medical Center, SRI, Xerox PARC, Washington Research Center, etc.), I also became familiar with the ARPANet, satellite communications, the Home Brew Club and Community Memory, which laid a foundation for what by the late ‘80s had evolved to be termed ‘community networking’ initiatives. Telluride, which John Lifton and I were involved in the regional master planning of from the late ‘70s through the mid-‘90s, became a pioneering test-bed for ‘community networking’, as our InfoZone project made Telluride the first rural Internet POP and first wireless WAN in this country in the early ‘90s. Since then, I have had the opportunity to direct a community networking project based in Davis, CA, and by invitation have had involvements in local-global Internetworking efforts throughout the US, as well as in Japan, Europe and Latin America. In 2006 I settled in Santa Fe, founded the 1st-Mile Institute, joined planning firm, Design Nine Inc. (led by Andrew Cohill, Ph.D., and contracting inter-nationally), and have been contracted to lead New Mexico next many years of broadband networking and networked society-building, for the State. Our evolving ‘information society’ and ‘information revolutions’ continue to be about how we sense and communicate. Our tools are simply ‘sensory aids’. My early path continues to be on-course through the still poorly understood ‘information environment’.


Richard Lowenberg:

Interview by Alex Tyson

See Data Garden’s work with plants:Data Garden QUARTET

Listen to an album of plant-controlled music.

Filed under interviews on 20-09-11 by alex

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  1. really interesting interview. would love to hear some of these recordings.

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