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Imagine walking into the ruins of an abandoned building. You might expect to find a space that is decrepit and forlorn, engulfed by cobwebs and eerie silence. Instead, everything around you is blooming. The verdant garden unfolding before your eyes is made more vibrant and alive by the soft rhythms pulsing throughout; the sounds seem to emanate from the leaves and petals themselves.
This was the vision artist Martin Roth had conceived, before he passed away in 2019, for the City Club building, an overgrown Victorian house in central Newburgh, New York. Using bio-sonification, a system that translates the internal frequencies of plants into musical notes, he would create an electronic soundscape that shifts as they grow or sway in the wind, or if visitors interact with them.
“Martin described it to me initially as a way to amplify the ‘heartbeat’ of the plant — which I always thought was such a beautiful way to think of it,” said Kelly Schroer, founder of the local nonprofit Strongroom.
The seed was planted, so to speak, in 2017, when Schroer invited Roth to collaborate on a project in Newburgh. But the artist’s untimely death at the age of 42 and the onslaught of the pandemic stalled progress. Now, based on Roth’s notes and renderings and conversations with the artist, Schroer is bringing his concept to life, with the first immersive “plant concert” set to debut as early as this month.
Newburgh, a Hudson River city 60 miles north of Manhattan, boasts New York State’s largest historic district after NYC, filled with architectural treasures that span the gamut of 19th-century styles. It was the birthplace of Andrew Jackson Downing, the eminent landscape designer and champion of Gothic Revival whose legacy shaped urban parks and public spaces in the US, including Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted’s proposal for Central Park. Along with Vaux, Downing designed the grounds in the White House and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, and several buildings in Newburgh — including the ornate brick house known as the City Club in the early 1850s.
One of the last remaining works by Jackson Downing and Vaux, the structure fell into disrepair and narrowly survived a demolition campaign by the Newburgh Urban Renewal Agency in the 1970s. But in 1981, when the building was in the hands of a new owner and finally undergoing restorations, it was gutted by a devastating fire that left just a shell of the landmark.
When Roth came across the building, he was enchanted by the way plants had taken over the structure: vines hugging its worn-down façade and poison ivy running rampant in the interior.
“I will work closely with the natural environment of trees and bushes that already exist inside the site, but alter it, and in a sense cultivate it, with more colorful plants and flowers, and a winding path,” he said. “I believe that if you change reality just a little bit, everything changes.”
The idea of a path was an homage to Downing, Schroer explained, whose romantic style of serpentine roads and meandering trails embraced nature’s organic lines, forms, and flows.
Roth is remembered for his poignant conceptual works that intertwine natural and constructed environments to address difficult questions. For a 2018 exhibition at the Lower Manhattan gallery yours mines & ours, he displayed a desert holly plant taken from the garden of Stephen Paddock, the mass shooter who killed 58 people in Las Vegas, in an ethereally-lit installation that raised the urgency of gun reform.
The artist previously experimented with bio-sonification at the Hessel Museum of Art in 2015, hosting a plant concert in a makeshift cornfield. He used a similar sensory device with two probes that attach to a plant’s leaf and to a small metal rod inserted in the soil near the roots, and visitors were also encouraged to touch the leaves and stalks.
“The [City Club] piece is really in line with Martin’s work, which isn’t just the completed installation — it’s the act of making it, the changes and the interactions that occur,” Schroer said. “Being aware of the plants and trees as a kind of active collaborator is really what it’s all about.”
A Kickstarter campaign for the project has met its initial $10,000 goal, which will allow the project to open to the public this month and host concerts through October, but Schroer is hoping to fundraise up to the stretch goal of $20,000 to help expand public programming. Strongroom is also seeking plant donations, especially shade-tolerant shrubs, grasses, vines, and flowers.
“It’s sad to say, but often when an artist passes away, that’s when people realize he was a visionary, when he is already gone,” Schroer said. “There’s very few artists that make you reconsider what art can be. That’s how I feel about Martin.”