The Edge
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The Edge

The Sound of Moss

The Buzz with Thomas Marcusson

Have you ever thought about what sound moss makes and how it communicates internally? Thomas Marcusson, Creative Innovations Director at The Monkeys in Sydney, Australia has explored the juxtaposition of AI and plants in an artwork he calls DJ Moss where he’s been able to do something he loves: Combining two unexpected parts with each other to create something completely different and unpredictable.

Born on Sweden’s west coast, Thomas studied Mathematics in Gothenburg and then moved to Sydney to do Graphic Design and Arts, “since I did both Mathematics and Art, I’ve been able to combine these things in my passion which is to create interactive artworks. I get to use both sides of my brain, one is coming up with random ideas and the other more logical side makes it happen”. He’s been living in different places all over Europe, North and South America, New Zealand, and ended up going back to Australia where he’s now been based since about 1,5 years back.

DJ Moss is his most recent interactive artwork where he plays with the idea of elevating the most basic plant form, moss, to the status of a DJ and letting people hear the signals it uses to communicate internally through electronic music. “I figured out a way of actually measuring the signals moss uses to communicate which is through a chemical flux. So once it changes the chemical and sends signals to the branches, you can measure it. That change then influences how the moss is choosing the music”, he explains. Using two vinyl players — which he hacked so they could go backwards and forwards — playing nature sounds such as bird songs and river sounds, he wanted to create a setting for the moss that it recognises and can be inspired by while the back and forth movement of the vinyl represents the scratching of the turntables often used by DJs. The moss’ signals are being sent to a computer turning them into electronic sounds that change in rhythm and layers depending on the moss’ mood, “since the theme of the exhibition was the juxtaposition of AI and plants, I tried to represent the divide of having the analogue from the vinyl combined with the electronic music”.

Listen to Thomas explaining his installation during our interview on Zoom

“I really wanted to play in the space of asking questions such as ‘what happens if you work with something that is between a computer and a person? There’s something very human about DJing so what if I use this simple form of life, will it be more accepted than just an algorithm choosing music for you?’ We’ve become used to algorithms handing us musical recommendations but when it comes to being on the dance floor and experiencing music in the moment with others, we feel more comfortable if it’s coming from a human. So in that sense, it’s been a really curious artwork to work on, exploring the agency within plants and the very human idea about DJing.”

A laptop, two vinyl players and the moss installation each of them placed on a white pillar in an exhibition space.
Image via Thomas Marcusson

Due to the strict bio laws in Australia, Thomas needed to get new moss when exhibiting in Tasmania. Luckily, he found the perfect “moss dealer”, an elderly woman who provided him with high-quality moss. “Gathering different kinds of the plant from various places is an opportunity to explore their different characteristics, some might be more active whereas others might be communicating in a completely new way.”

The fascination for this plant growing in shady spots goes way back to his childhood in Sweden, “I remember having a primary school teacher who was obsessed with moss. Every second biology class she made us all go on moss excursions. I think we even called her the crazy moss lady so I guess that interest stuck with me from a young age”. Not only did he take that with him from his growing up but Thomas is a true outdoor enthusiast citing a traditional Swedish quote that says “there is no such thing as bad weather, there are only bad clothes”.

SOUND OF THE FUTURE

When asked about how sound will develop in the future, Thomas thinks we will shift more towards highly sophisticated and computer-generated sounds whilst holding on to something that is more lyrical, poetic, and human. He uses Bob Dylan as an example who faced a big backlash when he started playing on electric guitars, “today it feels so alien that back then people felt betrayed just because he started using electric guitars” and that’s where Thomas draws a similarity to today, “many of us frown upon the idea of a computer writing an entire piece but in the future, we’ll probably accept a much greater input by computers, just the way people accepted electric guitars at some point”. He doesn’t seem too convinced that the human part will be removed completely and puts it this way, “music is art and art is probably the most human thing to create. Therefore I hope that there will always be a human factor involved”.

When it comes to experiencing sound in innovative ways, Thomas sees new experiences complementing existing ones rather than replacing them. “A metaverse concept will be a great addition but it won’t be a direct competition to a real concert because the experience is so different as half of the joy is actually seeing the person who wrote your favourite music in real life and feeling the closeness to them”. It’s the human part that Thomas keeps getting back to, regardless of what he talks about. Another example he mentions is when he lived in Brazil and got to enjoy samba bands in different places. The experience of watching them sit at a table, eat, drink and play music is — to him — very far away from being replaced by any digital means.

DO THE UNEXPECTED

Having had the chance to dive into Thomas’ world and his thinking, there’s another thing he keeps referring to apart from his fascination with the “human” in everything. It’s the concept of always looking in unexpected places and doing the unexpected when working on new ideas. He once worked on an anti-bullying campaign using binaural sounds to create an impactful and real experience, as it mimics the 360° experience of being able to tell where the sound is coming from. “If you want to challenge clients, you need to look in unexpected places. If you just go for the predictable, everyone will have looked in the same place already so you need to look in places that haven’t been explored yet. To me it’s a healthy, creative process which might not always lead to anything but it’s a good exercise worth doing to see what you stumble upon. And those times you combine two unexpected things with each other and it works, you have something truly unique. You’ve found something where few other people bother to look and you’ve created something impactful.”

He also brings up his interest in starting collaborations across Accenture Interactive describing it as “a global Mötley Crüe of different expertise put together to solve a problem”. Meeting people, forming relationships and picking each other’s brains, or even collaborating on his next artwork.

Thomas Marcusson in front of one of his previous installations.

Finally, I ask Thomas about his favourite sound and after giving it some thought, he responds… “I’ve always been drawn to water so my answer is the sea. Waves rolling in and washing over cliffs”

Visit Thomas’ website

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