Courtesy of Murals at Mason

Experience the sights and sounds of nature with a non-traditional art installation


The Presidents Park Hydroponic Greenhouse is now home to a living art installation — where the plants inside serve as the performers. “Arcadia” is a piece of community art designed by Sam Nester, brought to the Fairfax campus by Mason Exhibitions and Murals at Mason.

The installation uses biodata sonification to convert the biorhythms of the plants into sound and light. The artist attached Musical Instrument Digital Interface sensors to the roots and stems of the plants, which then transcribe the energy of the plants into signals that set off different musical pitches or colored lights.

The result is a stunning visual and musical performance that cohesively ties together nature and engineering, as well as an element of mindfulness.

“It’s a very interdisciplinary art project, and that was complimentary to the goals we have with the organization overall,” said Yassmin Salem, the project coordinator for Murals at Mason.

The installation is broadcast live 24/7 on a Twitch stream, allowing students and community members alike to experience “Arcadia,” and every Thursday the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being hosts a guided meditation over Zoom. This virtual space serves as a place for audience members to practice mindfulness and meditation, aided by the peaceful sounds and colors of the plants. 

“Arcadia” is the first installation in Murals at Mason’s “ELEMENTS” series, a public art series that aims to connect public spaces with art and the elements: earth, air, fire and water. In fitting with that theme, the name “Arcadia” stems from Greek mythology, representing a harmony between humans and nature. 

“We have been interested from the beginning in stretching the traditional idea of what a mural is,” Salem said.

Faced with restrictions from the Fairfax campus that keep them from painting directly on the exteriors of buildings, Murals at Mason has gotten creative in finding ways to display public art. Previous murals have been printed on mesh or vinyl, or even projected digitally.

“We’re really on  board with the idea that art doesn’t need to be kept in a museum or something separate from the world. It should really be integrated into communities, accessible for all types of people and really organized with community collaboration,” Salem said.

Beyond its presence as a mural, “Arcadia” serves as a way for Mason students and faculty members to further their environmentally-focused research. On the School of Art’s website, it is described as “a research platform for student and faculty experiments involving musical composition, botany, neuroscience, wellbeing and environmental sustainability.” 

There are a broad array of plants featured in the installation, including blueberries, witch hazel, ginseng and many more — all of the plants are native to Virginia, and most of them are edible or medicinal. Upon the completion of the project, they will be relocated to the Innovation Food Forest.

Doni Nolan, the manager of the Greenhouses and Gardens, plans to host a virtual presentation about the research elements of the project. Information on that presentation will be posted to Murals at Mason’s Instagram

As part of their goal to collaborate with other parts of the Mason community, “Arcadia” has also been involved in other projects. On Dec. 15, Mason Arts at Home hosted a concert titled “Hear Nature’s Song,” which featured five performers. Nester challenged participants to take a sample of music from “Arcadia” and incorporate it into their musical creation.

A second concert is set to take place on April 22, this time featuring student musicians and performers, and two outdoor fitness classes per week will be held with Mason Recreation throughout April.