Forests have played a crucial role in the development of human culture. The word forest, deriving from the old Latin word ‘foris’, literally means ‘outside’, or outside of human civilization. It is this exteriority that has made the forest a particularly fertile ground for our myths and our stories to grow and evolve. Not only have forests provided raw materials for our constructions, they have also contributed to the development of our culture: “From the family tree to the tree of knowledge, from the tree of life to the tree of memory, forests have provided an indispensable resource of symbolization in the cultural evolution of humankind” (Harrison, 8). Yet despite this deep cultural connection, we continue to have an unbalanced, parasitic like relationship with nature, where we treat trees and natural elements simply as raw material in support of our infrastructure, lives, and cultural development.
A subtle shift in perspective has taken place in recent years, that suggests a renewed recognition of the liveliness of trees and of our obligation to protect the rights of the forest. Scientific discoveries have proven that trees are living beings, are highly social, have families, can learn, and can even communicate with each other (Wohlleben, 7). In New Zealand in 2014, the Te Urewera Act was passed, granting legal personhood to the national park of the same name. In the same country in 2017, parliament passed the Te Awa Tupus (Whanaganui River Claims Settlement) Bill, which conferred a legal personality to the Whanganui River. This bill guaranteed the river’s ‘personhood’ and along with it the same rights and responsibilities as a person. The government did this as a solution to a land dispute with local indigenous peoples, but in offering this formal recognition of life it also provides a strong rationale for changing our relationship with natural resources on this planet, and to reconsider how we consume them. If we begin to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the sentience of the ecosystem of a forest, perhaps then we might begin to realise the necessity of protecting them as valuable individuals.
Foresta Inclusive is a technologically (Internet) connected indoor and outdoor art installation that links the ecosystem of a forest through a sculptural sensor hub, to an art installation within a gallery. This project proposes to make perceptible to the human senses, the slow and subtle movements of trees and surrounding ecology, in order to find ways to create a context for in-gallery human/forest interaction and collaboration. This work is not meant to replace real life experiences within a forest, but rather to materialize the often-invisible life movements of the forest and to use technology as a tool to give voice to nature within a human cultural space. Foresta Inclusive is a work-in-progress and therefore includes the continued development of three main conceptual/practical components:
Physical connection to the forest: During the Ayatana residency entitled ‘Germinate’, which involved connecting artists with scientists and other plant specialists in Gatineau (QC) in June 2019, I identified the visual metaphor I wanted to work with for this project. I am interested in shifting the relationship between human/technology/culture and the ecosystem of the forest, from a parasitic type relationship, to one that is mutualistic or commensalistic. A mutualistic relationship is where both parties benefit from the interaction, such as protozoa in the stomach of a termite, which digests the consumed wood in the termite’s stomach, allowing them to get nutrients and sustenance and in turn the termite offers a safe place for the protozoa to live. A commensalistic relationship is where one-party benefits, and the other is not affected, such as orchids that grow on trees. It is clear that human/culture/technology needs nature, but what does nature need from us? Perhaps it needs us to recognize its ‘aliveness’, and therefore embrace the ethical implications that comes from that recognition.
Historical/Contemporary Data Collection: For this project I will collect live data from a forest and also historic climate data from the same geographic location using dendrochronological studies. Dendrochronology is the scientific method of dating tree rings by using core samples taken from live trees or wooden constructions made from old timber. Data collected using this method can also provide historic information about the climate and atmosphere, so for example we can learn if there was a drought in 1652. As a co-investigator in a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Grant ‘Environments of Change’, based at the University of Waterloo, I have access to the forest at Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, UK and also the scientists, climatologists and historians affiliated with the project. While this forest is relatively young, I will have access to historical climate data dating back to medieval times given the age of the wooden structures of the area. For collecting the live data, I am developing a solar powered sculptural sensor hub, comprised of a number of sensors (temperature, particulate, humidity) and a GSM enabled microcontroller that connects to the Internet remotely. This system will send real-time data to the Internet of Things platform Shiftr.io, which is essentially an enabling protocol that lives on-line, linking the connected sensors with the user application, in this case the artwork in gallery.
Materialization of collected data: On the gallery side, I will materialize this data in the form of an installation comprised of light, sound, projection and objects. This part of the project is unmaterialized as of yet, except for a number of small prototypes. I will use the historic/live data to create an atmosphere within a gallery, but also create an experience, where the movement of the viewer body can explore the historic and lived realities of the ecosystem of the Herstmonceux forest.