The devices I construct create a dissonance that leads to an incalculable changeable situation resulting in unpredictable outcomes.

David Bowen

Harmless, humble, and ornamental: a philodendron, the common houseplant, has become a viral phenomenon on the web, this October. 

The footages picture the small plant randomly waving around a machete by using a jointed robotic arm.

Am I talking about a philodendron as if it was a being in the fullness of its rational faculties moving around a huge knife? 


plant machete by David Bowen, 2022

This is the spiky point that David Bowen, the artist behind the artwork called plant machete, wants us to land on: a question. 

“Essentially the plant is the brain of the robot controlling the machete determining how it swings, jabs, slices and interacts in space” states Bowen, who used EEG biosensors in plant machete to connect the robotic arm to the “will” of the plant, just involving natural electric stimulus coming from the leaves and the soil.

By using an Arduino microcontroller and adhesive sensors pads, he collected the signals in order to process them in a Raspberry Pi, the computer board which maps the data and transforms them in real-time movement that activates the physics of the bionic-like arm engine.


plant machete by David Bowen, 2022

The signals that bring the device to life are detected by sensing the noises surrounding the plant, intercepted directly via the individual leaves. In simpler words, the leaves of the plant intercept the surrounding noises, transform them into electrical signals and these signals set the entire system in motion.

As for some music experiments involving the signals of any kind of vegetable, from mushrooms to succulents, to play synthesizers, the game Bowen has chosen to play is one of the absurd, instead.

Bowen’s work often intersects the natural world with mechanical systems for generating dynamic situations as new living systems from scratch. 

In plant drone, for instance, a drone is connected to signal data coming from the leaves of a plant which guides the flying object equipped with an ultra-bright LED. A camera then catches unique drawings in the sky.

Or just before collaborating with plants, as Bowen likes to assert, he mixed data coming from natural events into countable results. 

As in fly tweet, the project where flies are collected inside an acrylic sphere living along with a computer keyboard: when the flies move over the keys on the keyboard, they are recorded in real-time. The data collected are messages that appear as records of random activity within the larger sphere of social media and networking.

The flies, taken as a human-reach investigable natural model, were also involved in another project, FLY CARVING DEVICE, within which the video sensors transform their random movement into CNC control data.

“With robotics, custom software, sensors, tele-presence and data, I construct devices and situations that are set in motion to interface with the physical, virtual and natural world.”

David Bowen

Bowen is currently an Associate Professor of Sculpture and Physical Computing at the University of Minnesota, whose work has been featured in exhibitions at Intercommunication Center Tokyo, Eyebeam New York, Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, and many others, all over the world. 

Behind his entire inspiration lies the need to generate new paths, new relationships between what is commonly perceived as real and what is real but is out of sight. 

The connections are graphically developed becoming the visualization of a certain phenomenon, such as lost satellites around the globe, such as the plastic pollution in what was considered the latest uncontaminated portion of the world, such as the violence perpetrated without humanity. 

So the plant machete installation seems to encapsulate the gratuitousness with which violence is perpetrated: the artist purposely chooses a plant and a robot to carry this message, silent subjects. 

Are we aware that this is real? That a plant and a robot are controlling a gun?

We move forward with technology, with connection, with robotization. But do we ever wonder if all this matter was used for other purposes?

David Bowen’s work plant machete is a provocation that has the appearance of a speculative work, whose message remains suspended. Questions arise but the answer is just our own reaction.

As in the moving project Can’t help myself (Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, 2016) the deliberate anthropomorphic similitude juxtaposed with graphic violence speaks to us on an intimate level. In contrast with the dramatic pose of Yuan and Yu's mechanical arm, Bowen’s fiercely brandishes the machete displaying the brutality as a show, where is no moralization of the outcome. 

And that is precisely the dramatic aspect.

Just stimuli, violence unfolds without reason or a rational filter, to the point that it can even be claimed by a plant, which perhaps we would do well to reconsider as a subject capable of blindly killing us if its energy is misused.

Info and credits

Pictures: all images courtesy of David Bowen
Artist’s website: