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George Mason University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (CVPA) announced the public sound and light installation Arcadia, created by artist Sam Nester and offered in partnership with the School of Art’s Murals at Mason and Mason Exhibitions initiatives. The groundbreaking exhibit, which features plants as musical composers and visual performers, opened in November 2020 and will be accessible through December 2021 via its dedicated Twitch livestream at twitch.tv/masonarcadia, as well as in person from outside the Presidents Park Hydroponic Greenhouse on Mason’s Fairfax campus.
Arcadia uses modified biodata-sonification sensors to convert the natural, real-time biorhythms of Virginia native plants into Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) data. Data collected from the plants is sent to a computer that processes it with Ableton and Max MSP and then outputs real-time sound through a variety of MIDI instruments. Plant signals controlling the MIDI instruments also control an LED light display corresponding to the pitches of the MIDI instruments. The audiovisual experience creates a synesthetic art exhibition where the activation of one sense triggers other senses, evoking a state of wonder.
“Arcadia represents an inspiring fusion of worlds—the natural and the digital, the visual and the musical. This kind of boundary blurring speaks directly to a vision of a better future, and we are thrilled to share it with the Mason community,” stated Rick Davis, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Regarding the name, exhibit creator and artist Sam Nester explained “the term ‘Arcadia’ references Greek mythology and the utopian ideal of natural harmony. Arcadia was the home and domain of Pan, the god of music and the wild, and the title references this marriage of nature and music. Bringing the environment from the background around us into the foreground from our increasingly urbanized existence, this installation aims to be an Edenic return to nature and humans in balance.”
Yassmin Salem, Coordinator of Murals at Mason and Mason alumna, added “Arcadia makes sustainability a topic of inspiration and reflection for a wider audience. Environmental consciousness is a shared value at Mason and public art is a great tool for casual viewers to reflect on their relationship with nature. This exhibition will catalyze wonder through a variety of programs that use intersectional social justice as a frame to explore sustainability, environmental justice, healing, and consciousness.”
Arcadia applies contemporary artistic practice to engage cross-disciplinary research and inquiry. Over the course of the year, the exhibit will have a number of collaborators and research partners who will utilize the data, monitor the plants’ health, and manipulate the MIDI stream for a variety of activities and events. Two of these partners are the Center for Well Being and Counseling and Psychological Services, who are currently featuring Arcadia as an integral part of the “Mindful Mason Moments” guided meditation series. Similarly, Doni Nolan, the Greenhouse and Gardens Program Manager and current Biosciences PhD student, is making use of the exhibit to conduct research on the propagation of American ginseng (wild ginseng is a threatened plant in Virginia) and soil microbiome health—both of which support her ongoing research about root rot in hydroponics and her development of an organic integrated pest management (IPM) program that adds beneficial microbes to prevent and treat root rot.
University Curator Don Russell supports Arcadia’s integration of researching, saying “I would like to see contemporary artists collaborating in all types of research, not only by influencing the research process, but by creating an accessible and communicable result: a work of art—especially studies of the environment, social justice, health, technology, psychology, history, community development, and political science, to name a few.”
Following the conclusion of the Arcadia exhibition, all of the native Virginia plants will be relocated to various sites on Mason’s Fairfax campus. The medicinal plants will be transplanted to the Green Studio, in collaboration with Associate Professor Mark Cooley, and the edible plants will be moved to the Innovation Food Forest under the care of Greenhouse and Gardens Program Manager, Doni Nolan.
Russell further adds, “Arcadia invites us to wonder how we use technology to have an authentic relationship with the natural phenomena that surround us at all times. I urge all of us to consider how we can re-center ourselves at this crucial moment in our shared history.”
Details about Arcadia are available on the official Mason Exhibitions page, including an introductory video. Additionally, the recording of a live Mason Arts at Home performance—featuring Sam Nester, members of the Brass Project Ensemble, and fellow experimental musicians—can be viewed here.
Arcadia is made possible with generous funding from Mason’s Office of Research, Innovation, and Economic Impact; Institute for a Sustainable Earth; Institute for Digital InnovAtion; the Office of Sustainability’s Patriot Green Fund; the Center for Well-Being; Counseling and Psychological Services; and Provisions Research Center for Art & Social Change. Collaborators include Amanda Jarvis, MIX Maker Manager, Mason Innovation Exchange; Doni Nolan, Program Manager of the Greenhouse & Gardens Program; Mark Cooley, Director of the Green Studio; Dr. Andrea Weeks, Director of the Ted R. Bradley Herbarium; and Paige Seber, a New York City-based Lighting Designer, who helped Nester with initial lighting concepts.