They’re cute and wiggly—but are they art?


Music for Worms and Compost by Paul Dickinson is a sound artist’s interpretation of the elemental pulses of a simple life cycle. Inspired by Mary Appelhof (1937-2005)—also known as “Worm Woman” and the undisputed queen of vermicomposting—Dickinson (shown below) has adapted this homely, somewhat messy process to the pristine environment of the contemporary art gallery. His purpose: further experimentation with ambient sound and the creation of a connection between technology and the visceral processes of nature.

The installation employs crates of compost and red worms fitted with infrared cameras and microphones, which are fed into video monitors and speakers set up in the gallery. The tiny “performers” are fed regularly by gallery staff as they go about their business of transforming shredded paper (Dickinson likes to use confidential documents) and kitchen waste into nutritious compost.

I saw the installation during its January 13 opening at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo. To be honest, you couldn’t hear any of the music; the people were way too loud—typical art opening. But I had lots of fun checking out the worms and the in-progress compost. In fact, I’ve volunteered to be a worm feeder for as long as the exhibition lasts (only until Feb. 17). I’m looking forward to being in the gallery when it’s quiet enough to hear the worms.

So, are they art? Sure, I think so. I’m very interested in experimental music and am a longtime fan of such composers as John Cage, Terry Riley, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, and others. These artists often used random or unconventional sources for music, put together in innovative ways. Using the process of composting to create an environment of sound is an interesting strategy.

Below is a very brief clip showing me and Paul with a couple of the worms. Silly is what we were aiming for.

Video and stills by Cheryl Jackson. Visit the Appelhof site at Worm Woman Visit Hallwalls at Hallwalls

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Thank goodness for the disclaimer about the safety of the worms or PETA could be all over that gallery.

    Without hearing the sound made it is a little difficult to call this installation art. What does a digesting worm sound like? They are mostly gut. Hmmm?

    Being more visual than auditory, I have always been a little deaf to base and more so after two decades of power gardening tools, I would be stretched to find the art here. My most recent post does combine picture and sound. I try.

    The mind that thought this up though is fascinating. I would really like to see a closeup of one of those worms outfitted with a camera and microphone. Now that would be art.

  2. I actually have a CD of this. I’ll try to post some sound from it over at gardening while intoxicated.
    The sound of the people at the opening totally drowned out the worms in the video.

    (Um, never posted sound files by themselves–know it can be done though.)

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