John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
The immense plants live under the Space Needle and blast anybody passing underneath with a harmony of voices.
When a city needs a psychedelic landscaping job and the guy who sold Jack the giant beans isn't available, Dan Corson's the person to call. The Seattle-based artist has a portfolio stuffed with alien-looking botany projects, from a lawn of green lasers in Florida to streetlights in Portland shaped like carnivorous plants and now, under the Space Needle, 40-foot-tall flowers acting both as lamps and troubadours that croon when people get near.
The Pacific Science Center commissioned this trippy artwork for its novel design and use of solar electricity – the petals of each "flower" are studded with photovoltaic cells that allow them to shimmer in vibrant hues. (How the science center had time to erect this installation while under attack from giant spiders is a mystery.) Corson initially wanted to call the piece "Humming Heliotrope" but settled with "Sonic Bloom." Those names are references to the sculptures' auditory component: The flowers can tell when people are nearby, and respond with a glorious, churchlike chorus of ooooohhs! and aaaahhs!
Similar to Jim Sanborn's sculpture "Kryptos" at the headquarters of the CIA, Corson's towering field of flowers includes an element of secrecy. The stalk of each bloom is striated like a barcode and holds a coded message; however, the artist is playing it close to the belt and won't say what is hidden. He did have plenty else to talk about in a recent (and slightly edited) email exchange, beginning with an alternate vision for the project involving weird science's go-to instrument, the theremin:
Can you explain a little bit about the project's background?
Originally I was going to have four flowers "hum" and activate with their own tones, and a fifth that was going to be an optical theremin that would be the "lead singer" while the others acted as the backup band. Optical theremins work within a narrow range of light to produce a wide range in sound, and as we explored the idea, it turned out to be (from an optical and aural perspective) not the best solution. So I worked with a friend and local sound and electronics engineer to fine-tune a system that would work.
Are these flowers supposed to be any particular genus?
The flowers are not specific but are inspired by a certain stage of development of the flower of the Australian Firewheel Tree, Stenocarpus sinuatus [Ed: also known as the "White Beefwood"].
The frosted acrylics that extend beyond the spine of the petal were specifically designed to glow during overcast Seattle days. They also light up at night from "stamen lights" that allow the solar cells to be seen from the adjacent Space Needle.
How would you describe the collective music they make?
The tones range from the key of D minor to D major over a few octaves. They are a looped sample of choral voices. Some of the samples have more vibrato in them. Some people have said it was like being in a "temple of the sun."
The tones are activated by individual microwave-motion sensors. I was always thinking that a group could compose music with these by having a person stand at each flower and a conductor would point to the performers to create the sound. I have had people already come up saying they want to compose a dance for the space.
Why'd you include the bar codes, and can you give a hint to what they mean?
I wanted to use stripes and knew the color palate I wanted to explore. So then I thought about the order of them. I looked into Morse code (I had done that before) and then looked into other cyphers and decided in the end to do barcodes. I liked being able to make a puzzle that did not look like a puzzle and also encourage kids of all ages to explore different layers of the project. It will not be easy but with a bit of sleuthing, it should work.
Images used with permission of Dan Corson