Tomatoes and music make strange bedfellows–except when it comes to salsa.

By Megan Bailey

When approaching Tomato Quintet, an installation near the primary entrance to the Zero1 Biennial’s South Hall, viewers were greeted with a music stand. Adorned with green and red tomatoes and above a full bucket of the popular fruit, the music stand presented viewers with a musical score and a map of the bizarre, cone-shaped tent behind it. The tent featured several tunnels protruding from the central cone as well as a dim glow and various electronic beeps and moans emanating from behind its mysterious mylar.

Tomato Quintet in South Hall, ZERO1.  Photo Credit Andy Muonio

This tent seemed to be alive. In a way, it was: housed in the central dome was 1 cubic meter of ripening tomatoes. As fruit ripens, a complex interplay of gases taken in and released by the fruit causes the cascade of genetic, enzymatic, and cellular changes that often make it softer, sweeter, and a brighter color. Tomato Quintet was recording how two of these gases­ ethylene and CO2 along with temperature, light, and air movements differed between that cubic meter and the rest of the tent. Each variable made up a member of the quintet, playing its values as a unique sound output.

Tomato Quintet at South Hall, ZERO1. Photo Credit: Andy Muonio

As if the ripening process was not aleatory enough, the quintet invited audience participation. Viewers could crawl through the tent, subtly altering the balance of gases, light, temperature, and air movement therein, changing the arrangement of electronic beeps with their presence.

I entered through the zippered flaps after awaiting the exit of the teenage boys in front of me. The tent hallways were lined with various speakers, and I wondered which member of the quintet was “playing” each recording: Were the gurgling, bubbling noises controlled by the ethlyene levels? Was the temperature or air flow altering the volume or speed of the Latin music? As I made my way to the Mecca of ripening fruit in the center (a plexiglass jar of tomatoes that were, despite it being the last day of the Biennial, still mostly green) I strained to focus on each speaker. Neither my movements nor heavy, intentional exhalations made any noticeable difference on the musical number.

Tomato Quintet at South Hall, ZERO1.  Photo Credit: Andy Muonio

I exited through the opposite side of the tent, guided by the arrows made of sod, with many questions. Could and did my presence affect these variables significantly enough to change the musical output of the quintet? How exactly are ethylene, CO2, and the other components involved in ripening again? The score from the music stand only provided a rather confusing diagram. And what was with the unlabeled monitor, displaying various oscillations over time, on the outside of the ethylene cycle portion of the tent?

 All good ideas need some ripening before they are truly sweet. Yet, while visitors to Tomato Quintet’s ongoing performance may not have left with a clear understanding of the fruit ripening process, how their bodies affect it, or what contribution they made to the John Cagian production, perhaps they still were provoked, as was I, to think of how both organic processes like the ripening of fruit and man-made processes like the performance of music are both a combination of planned or predictable elements with those of unplanned, “random” (though still measurable) variables. Then again, perhaps man-made processes are all an extension of the organic, being orchestrated by the complex neural circuitry of our brains.

In any case, I had fun playing my way through the make-believe tent of transforming fruits and noises, and I later fantasized of linking my kitchen music to my fruit basket. I’m not sure when the promised salsa-serving and musical playback of the Tomato Quintet’s performance took place, but I wanted to indulge in some salsa of my own (the edible and danceable kind) and chew on the contemporary collisions between biology and technology that the Biennial highlighted.

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