Institute for Inconspicuous Languages: Reading Lips
Exhibition opening: Wed, 15 March, 7 PM
The journal Science has recently published an article in which scientists described the first meaningful exchange between a ficus tree and a human being that could, in a broader sense, be considered a conversation. The insightfully envisioned experiment required utmost patience and full commitment from both parties: over the course of eighteen years (2025–43), the young ficus tree (Ficus benjamina) and the human had to negotiate a shared semiotic code. The linguist and polyglot M. L. began the experiment by establishing a basic set of communication signs. Like all plants, ficus trees maintain rigorous control over the amount of water they absorb through the roots by opening and closing leaf pores. Each ficus leaf has thousands of such tiny openings called stomata. M. L.’s idea was to read stomata just like people with hearing loss read lips to comprehend speech.
In the first four years of the experiment, using the Pavlovian conditioning method, M. L. could teach the ficus tree the basic signs for ‘more’, ‘less’, and ‘stop’, adjusting the level of light according to the openness of its mouths on the underside of each leaf. If the change was too rapid, causing the ficus tree to drop its leaves as these plants often do, the new leaves would remember the code. In the following fourteen years, M.L. and the ficus tree perfected the code of light and lips to the extent that this could be deemed the first scientifically recorded conversation between a plant and a human.
Institute for Inconspicuous Languages: Reading Lips is an attempt to repeat this experiment.
Programming and sensor integration: Bart Peeters
Programming of the computer vision: Klara Nosan, Tim Oblak
Expert advice: Luka Šajn, Žiga Emeršič, Miha Turšič
Technical execution: Scenart
Acknowledgements: Faculty of Computer and Information Science at the University of Ljubljana and Waag, NL
Production: Kersnikova Institute – Kapelica Gallery as part of the project European ARTificial Intelligence Lab
Artwork co-funded by: Creative Europe Programme of the European Union, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia and Department of Culture of the Municipality of Ljubljana
Technical and expert support at Xcenter: Simon Gmajner, Jure Sajovic
Exhibition at Xcenter is part of the program of the konS modul ≡ Nova Gorica.