ACMI announces multi-sensory VR project exploring the sentience of plants

ACMI’s newest exhibition will be Tully Arnot’s latest work Epiphytes, a multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) project exploring the sentience of plants.

Set in an abstract depiction of Tully’s childhood backyard, epiphytes consists of an environment with a diffuse, changing magenta palette. Dependence on sight is de-escalated in favor of sound and smell to influence the user’s physical responses in virtual space. The work celebrates alternative forms of plant communication and consciousness, and invites the user to question their own perception.

Developed during the Australian bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic in response to the ongoing climate crisis, epiphytes uses suggested forms of nature such as shadows from an invisible canopy and moving, amorphous shapes to evoke feelings of solastalgia – emotional distress over the loss of natural environments.

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At the same time, the work encourages a more symbiotic and connected way of being in the world and draws on the premise of the artwork’s botanical namesake: the epiphyte – an organism that feeds on the air, water and natural waste of its surroundings in order to sustain its Giving back to ecosystem.

epiphytes includes interviews with evolutionary ecologist Monica Gagliano, acoustic archaeologist Umashankar Manthravadi, and echolocation teacher/blind researcher and activist Thomas Tajo. By arranging these sound elements in the VR environment, Tully aims to spark curiosity and exploration in his audience while creating a conversational dialogue between these three disparate theorists.

Field recordings of local birds and other ecological sounds complement the theorists’ recorded conversations, along with sounds representing water and nutrients flowing through trees, suggesting a natural environment that is either fabricated or faded. The audio is spatially controlled, using virtual reality as a powerful acoustic tool to represent sounds that cannot be produced in reality.

“With the support of ACMI and the Mordant Family VR Commission,” says Arnot. “I had the opportunity to use VR to imagine the perception of plants and explore multi-sensory ways of being in the world. My hope is that by decentering the human experience, the project will encourage audiences to think about more caring and connected relationships we can have with each other and with our ecosystems.”

Visitors to ACMI can experience epiphytes with the Oculus Quest 2 wireless virtual reality headset, which allows them to freely explore the virtual environment. This headset is recommended for users over the age of 12, but the content is accessible to all ages with parental supervision.

Tully Arnot: Epiphytes runs November 4-27, 2022 in Gallery 3 at ACMI, Fed Square, Melbourne. Admission is free, reservations are recommended. Visit the ACMI website For more information.