Mileece is a visionary artist who began making generative, interactive music with plants in the early 2000s. Her debut album, Formations, was critically acclaimed, the BBC calling it “Beautiful, real musical science,” and Q magazine, “Beauty soaked… twinkling electronica.” But for Mileece, it was not about pretty music, but a relationship with ecological intelligence that her music facilitated and made audible. She went on to create interactive ecospheres around the world, plant-filled ‘soniferous edens’ in places like MOMA, Whitechapel Gallery, Sonos Studio in LA, and in geodesic domes for kids in Bhutan and at a school in LA, to name a few.

Mileece’s roots in electronica, art, technology and innovation run deep. In 1961, her grandfather worked on the IBM team that programmed the first computer-generated song. Mileece’s parents ran a recording studio and were music video pioneers, creating iconic videos with artists such as Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder, and Queen. Mileece’s father, Nick Abson, became a renewable energy entrepreneur in the ‘90s and she worked with him as a teen, developing hydrogen fuel cellszero-emission fuel cells whose byproduct is pure water. Her work as a renewable energy ambassador is very much intertwined—literally—in her work as an artist, as her installations, with their complex technical set ups, run entirely off the grid.

Video of Mileece at MoMA, NYC

I spoke to Mileece via Skype in her converted airstream trailer in LA. She was preparing to leave for Europe where she is performing at the Ableton Loop Festival in Berlin, before continuing on to London to install the sound design for a huge project by Marshmallow Laser Feast called Treehugger at the Southbank Centre, billed as “the world’s first VR experience that aims to shift our mindset from consumerism to conservation, through a huge replica model of a giant sequoia tree and a Vive VR headset.”

We talked about the nature of consciousness, eco-psychology, solutions, parties, how to get people interested, her expanded vision of art, and much more.


How do art and ecology meet, for you? Why is art the primary way you’ve chosen to speak about ecology as opposed to, say, being a scientist, or a conservationist or a lawyer?

In essence I think nature is the greatest artist there ever was. In terms of our contemporary and anthropocentric conception of art, I have only very recently called myself an artist, for the sake of other people understanding and contextualising what I do, but not because I actually feel like that. I don’t look at it as merging art and ecology, but more as facilitating an experience of ecology that we don’t often get in the urbanized landscape. I fabricate environments and experiences that mimic my impression of what the world was before we manipulated it. People perceive that as the creation of an art environment or an art experience. Of course, if my mother were sitting here she would say, ‘but a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do that, and that’s what makes you an artist!” I don’t agree with her. I think that allowing yourself the scope to just flow in the manufacture of something can be an artful way of expressing your livingness. And thus manifest a piece of art.

It’s a lack of imagination that we live in a world that is teeming with biodiversity and yet can’t connect to it somehow. We haven’t been able to bridge the gap that we have created, physically, between us and wilderness. So that’s really key in why we have rampant ecological destruction and ongoing assaults onto the essential systems of life—vegetal, elemental and animal—on this planet.

Most of us are not interested in what it takes to ensure conservation, we’re interested in our virtual interactions, and we’re interested in going to places to have parties with each other, and we’re interested in ourselves. This sense of being laden, and negatively oriented to loss that dominates so much environmental discourse—we’re just not responding to it. We’re not really geared at the moment to try to take responsibility for things that we feel we don’t have any control over, and don’t really have a connection with. We’re at a loss for how to enable change, especially when dialogue of change is usually baked into the threatening philosophy that we need to move into a kind of austerity in our use of resources, which might effectively reduce or remove our access to technology. Which is very threatening given technology is how we derive our sense of community and communion now.

So saving the world is no longer a viable option. Now we look at how do we try to maintain what’s left. How can we do that, and what would it look like if it could be a really positive experience?

So I feel that our best bet is to be realistic about what we want out of life, collectively. And what we want is a world that is burgeoning with technological evolution, where nature is subdued so that we are never cold, never too hot, we have all the food that we want, we never get ill, hopefully we don’t die, and every little minutiae of labour is dealt with for us by bots and machines, and the air is clean and everything is nice and sorted out, and we get to play. And there is nothing wrong with that. That would be great.

Except in that equation, we have to also come to terms with the fact that we are biophilic in nature. We must be around ecology for our physiological and psychological well-being, it’s just the way it is, which is completely understandable if you think about the fact that we are of ecology. So in the seeking and manifestation of this techno-utopia, which we are desperately trying to achieve, we have to create symbiotic systems with nature. This means that we need to move from a mentality of ownership of nature to a mentality of relationship with nature. And although technology is the driving force behind the exploitation of the planet, it is also most likely the best hope we’ve got to rekindle our lost communion with our planet.

In my lifetime and in your lifetime we have transcended the tipping point of ecological crisis on a grand scale as we’ve watched atmospheric greenhouse gas levels reach over a critical point of no return. So saving the world is no longer a viable option. Now we look at how do we try to maintain what’s left. How can we do that, and what would it look like if it could be a really positive experience?

Mileece

I’m looking at systems that use technology to render wilderness environments visceral within an urban context. These are hybridised systems between in-situ living organisms and remotely rendered ones, like my BioLibrary project. How do you create systems that are copacetic and integrated so that you can create food, you can clean the air, you can create sanctuary-like environments for our minds, that are safe and easy to do in terms of making and propagating, and don’t use new mineral extractions from the earth? We need to start recycling the minerals we already have and develop technologies in that way, and systems to implement those technologies.

But to get anybody into an environment like that, the sales pitch can’t be, “This is because the earth is waning and you have to find out how not to die”—the more effective sales pitch is, “Your mind’s going to explode when you go into this place because you’re going to be overwhelmed by this incredible environment and what it does to your brain, which you can’t miss because there’ll be a party.” And once you have the boozy party, people will just want to come back because there is a natural affinity to being in environments like that. So that’s the art.

When you put it like that your art seems more like problem solving.

Yeah, I mean there’s definitely real solutions that I’m working out with my ‘installations’, they’re very solution oriented—I wouldn’t really bother if it was just conceptual. The important part behind it is that there are solutions, and we haven’t had a platform to express them because there is a media blackout on little people doing great things.

Great things like zero-emission energy production?

Yeah. I mean how do you power all of this stuff? How do you power the technology of the future? If you’re proposing, as I am, that the technology of the future has to be symbiotic with nature, you have to figure out how you’re going to power it. I grew up making hydrogen fuel cells with my dad, and I’ve just not seen them embraced the way they could or should be. The people who promote them—BMW and Daimler, Benz with Ballard Fuel cellsand other big fuel cell companies have made them pretty inaccessible, whereas it’s a technology that’s based on very, very simple principles and really shouldn’t be relegated to double-PhD guys in lab coats who need millions of dollars in subsidies to manufacture them. So this is about introducing platforms to expose the public to hidden or misrepresented technologies that are accessible to us now.

Put it this way: there’s never ever any time where nature is more stupid than we thought! Never. It’s always far more intelligent than we thought. Always.

And if we knew about them, then the dialogue that’s pushed upon us—stuff like clean coal vs. nuclear—as the only true gigawatt producers that we can rely on for base-load power—would be discredited in principle. So again, it’s a matter of how do you get people to be interested in these things? Like, I’m not. I don’t care. I just want my computer to turn on. So my idea is that first people wander into one of these environments I’m building, and then they find out that in fact they’re run off these symbiotic systems.

So your environments run off of hydrogen fuel cells? Could you explain how that works?

Yeah. We’re building waste-to-energy systems. So in a way these installations are also a PR firm for clandestine, underground renewable energy systems, and a way to get people interested in them without force-feeding anybody, and without having to try to face off with the energy industry which has got another 100 years of making insane profits before the earth is so scorched we won’t be able to live here, but they don’t care because we’ll all be dead by then.

So this is the conundrum. And the solutions are: close the energy loop. We generate in our stomachs over four hours what we’ve been digging out of the earth that took 4 million years to get there. It’s the same stuff. It’s a mixture of hydrogen and carbon and we’ve all farted and know that it’s methane—that’s natural gas. So we’re fracking, when meanwhile our natural gas—the same natural gas—is being flushed down a toilet, literally, into a waste treatment plant and into the biosphere as waste! But it’s the same stuff. So that is a major factor in why we’re having trouble, because it perpetuates the fossil fuel industry, and it perpetuates an output of noxious waste, and doesn’t use what we’ve got efficiently. But who wants to talk about that? Not that many people. So we just do these art projects, make these lovely environments and invite people to participate, and no we don’t have to plug into the grid!

Mileece

We work with a low-temperature fuel cell that doesn’t have to be heated up to work. Electricity is created is by extracting oxygen from the atmosphere and joining it with hydrogen to create electricity where electrons that are thrown off of the molecule as H2O forms, and you get a stream of electricity and a stream of high temperature pure water. So that’s how it works. It’s fairly simple. It’s the reverse of electrolysis.

Could these hydrogen fuel cells power our cities and our cars?

Yeah. My dad, Nick Abson, made the first three London taxis in 1999, the first housing units, the first bus, and the first boat over 15 years ago. You can find out more at Cenergie (it’s an old website now, but will give you the idea).

In terms of making art with plants, of having this working relationship with plants, do you think of it as a kind of collaboration? (Is it even possible to collaborate with beings that don’t have a central nervous system?) What is that relationship like?

I just realized that in some way, it’s actually quite a selfish thing, because with all of those variable inputs, I’m not responsible for a lot of what comes out. I really like that. I like being able to make a lot of music where I don’t control it. I’m not standing there going la la la, playing guitars and being responsible for hitting the right note or making the right sound—that’s a lot of pressure taken off me. It’s also exciting for me because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve derived a lot of excitement from that. So in a way I’m using them, to avoid being the performer.

But you know I have very, very crude technology. I’m moving into a new realm of development now, working with a plant physiologist who happens to work at a large electronics company. We’re working on new types of technologies to read plant data and I think I’ll learn more about that interaction the more precise the equipment gets.

We want to go to Mars—I mean what for? What for? That must mean that everybody’s pretty sure we’ve fucked this place up—but this place, even in a fucked up version is a much nicer place to be than Mars.

I’ve been doing this for a long time now. I had the idea for this project after watching The Secret Life of Plants when I was 19, and then I first put the system together when I was 24–25, and I’m 38 now. And so it’s a little stagnant for me at this point. That’s why I’ve kind of stopped doing installations with it, and am working on developing a new way of sensing stuff, because I want to move beyond the kind of data I was getting. So I’m making wireless stuff that is more sensitive, less prone to other extraneous frequencies, and can read different facets of the plant in different ways.

What else are you working on right now?

I’m just about to leave for Berlin to do a tiny plant installation at Loop Festival for Ableton. Then I’m going to London for the Treehugger opening on the south bank. It’s a project run by Marshmallow Laser Feast where they’ve scanned a redwood and modelled the redwood into a kind of 3D sculpture that you can touch and hug using VR. You can also put your head in it and see how the vascular system of the tree works! I did the sound design for it, using plant music and some 3D soundscapes I recorded for the project.

I’m also working on an online book for a project where a girl discovers the secret language of plants. It’s not my project, I’m just doing the sound for it.

And you do all the programming yourself?

Yeah, I’ve built all of the synthesis myself, and then I’ve working in collaboration with my friend Scott Carver who is on the programming team for Adobe After Effects and also built Audition. He builds all the front-face dynamics processing for the actual signals, which is shit that’s way way beyond what I can do. I do the sound synthesis, build all the synthesizer engines and stuff and then he’s put them all together in a software.

And you use SuperCollider?

Yeah.

Why do you use SuperCollider as opposed to Max/MSP or something?

Because it sounds better. I listened to an oscillator in MSP and I listened to an oscillator in SuperCollider when I was 20 years old, and SuperCollider sounded better so I used that. It’s harder. It’s all text. So if you put a semicolon in the wrong place, nothing works. You have to learn the language, whereas MSP has boxes you stick together with cables.

There was all this incredible work on plant communication and sentience happening in the 1960s & 70s that then got discredited as ‘pseudoscience.’ What happened to that?

If you think about it, the world’s economy really works off the exploitation of plants. There is very little you could point to in our economy that doesn’t require them. Plant intelligence threatens our whole post-indigenous ethos where humans are superior to nature, and the Cartesian view of the earth where plants are inanimate and animals are subconscious. If that’s true, we can take from these creatures and plants as we feel because they were put here to serve us. That’s the current moral derivative of our predominant religions.

If we were to suddenly question who has dominion over the earth, we would be questioning god. If god isn’t giving just us these rights, and suddenly other things are conscious, that means god has given to them too, and we aren’t their superiors anymore. In that respect I think it also threatened science that has declared itself capable of ordaining consciousness. Or denying it. So that’s a difficult thing: it challenges religion, it challenges science and it challenges our markets.

At the very least, all this would open up dialogues as to well, what does this all mean? As far as I’m concerned that is something that should happen, and actually is already happening. There is a scientific discrepancy now with how that’s managed, and I fully believe that the modernized version of how we understand consciousness will win. We just weren’t ready for it before. And that happens all the time with things that are full of truth. The people who present it get executed. And then decades later, or hundreds of years later, other people go, yeah well, that’s right! And then that’s the black swan—the thing that was never anticipated happens, and then the previous understanding never, ever exists again.

Mileece

Fuel cells were invented in 1850-something. That’s so often what happens with innovation, innovators and new discoveries that threaten our understanding of things. We are creatures of habit. We are very afraid of our universe. We don’t know where it came from. We don’t know where we came from. We don’t know where we’re going. And we hang onto things in our tangible existence for dear life, literally. So whenever those things are questioned—our faith, or our understanding of these things—we have to reorient the threads and the branches that we’re hanging onto, and we freak out. So it takes a long time to adjust.

How do we know that plants are sentient?

Lots of ways. Scientifically speaking, plants have these really tiny conglomerations of cells that can take readings of their environment and send that information to the rest of its body, and they can record that information and make decisions on it, which is how, for example, vines find poles to grow up. That’s consciousness! We say consciousness is when you can perceive information, and make judgment on it, and then act accordingly. So plants do that. There’s a great TED Talk on this by Stefano Mancuso, an Italian scientist who studies plant neurobiology.

There is so much amazing information coming out about plant communication through fungal networks and stuff like that. It’s just amazing, the earth is this living thing and there’s so much information going everywhere, and we don’t know shit. We’re destroying so much of the planet before we’ve even understood it. If you just think about how a flower and bee relate to one another, and you don’t call that intelligence, you’re not paying attention. There are so many incredible ways that that relationship operates. It’s really unfortunate the way we talk about consciousness and sentience. We really like to box it in, and we really like to classify things. It’s actually a form of ignorance and a lack of our own consciousness that we do that. It does nothing but show us how un-evolved we are to think that that could be true. So I would turn that back on ourselves: how unconscious are we to assume other things aren’t conscious, or declare them as unconscious? It’s a mark of our own lack of sentience I think.

Put it this way: there’s never ever any time where nature is more stupid than we thought! Never. It’s always far more intelligent than we thought. Always.

Which in a way gives hope for us: if we’re part of this vast intelligent world, maybe we could catch up.

mileeceThat’s our job. That’s why we’re alive. Our job is to keep evolving, which means that we take the spectrum of possibilities that intelligence enables us to control, and we direct it the same way that what got us here did, which is for the benefit of proliferation. Everything that has happened on the planet is for the benefit of the proliferation of life. So I feel like that’s what we’re doing. And if we’re not doing it, you’re part of the problem, and it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of us not doing it. Because it’s hard work—it’s an internal struggle, it’s a collective struggle, and there’s no blueprint, there’s no map. We have to be able to perceive our own patterns and our own methods so that we can stop cycling through the same stages of evolution and actually move forward into the future.

We want to go to Mars—I mean what for? What for? That must mean that everybody’s pretty sure we’ve fucked this place up—but this place, even in a fucked up version is a much nicer place to be than Mars. So maybe it’s the woman in me—I would claim it’s the logic in me—that says, much better placed efforts on developing systems to prolong wellbeing on this planet. And so that’s what I’m trying to do.