This art installation shows you what a tree is feeling in real time
Jane Tingley uses a dazzling constellation of data to empathize with the experience of other living beings
Jane Tingley's digital art installation, Foresta Inclusive, is evocative of fireflies glowing in the night sky, or clusters of distant galaxies as observed through a telescope. The data visualization reveals the inner life of a tree living in Kitchener, Ontario, in real time.
Presented as part of the 2021 CAFKA biennial, the artwork has two main components: a sensor hub and an outdoor installation. The "ecosensors," attached to the tree's trunk and branches, gather information about the tree's experience in its environment — such as soil humidity and air temperature — and send it to a display installed on outdoor screens in Kitchener. (A version of the installation can also be viewed online.)
The artwork is mesmerizing at first glance — but it becomes even more intriguing as a layered conceptual framework emerges. Through interactivity and sculptural metaphors, Tingley has the ambitious goal of inspiring the viewer to reconsider human beings' place among species.
The subtle movement of trees and their surrounding ecology is often imperceptible to humans. "Trees are moving at a slower pace and it's hard to really see something that's on such a different time scale. It's hard to see it as vibrant and alive," says Tingley.
The installation is designed to raise questions about what it means to be alive and have agency. What does it mean to be in dialogue with something that does not share the same language nor temporal reality?
Tingley believes that by confronting the viewer with the dynamic nature of trees, the viewer has no choice but to acknowledge their "aliveness" and consider the ethical implications of that recognition. She is drawn to the growing body of research on tree communication that shows that trees are much more social and cooperative than we thought. Ecologists like Suzanne Simard and Peter Wholleben have shown that forest trees are communal, form alliances with other species, share resources, and warn their neighbours of impending danger like insect attacks. It's becoming apparent that nature is being ruled by more than just competition and survival of the fittest.
The artwork's eight ecosensors monitor wind, rain, light level, soil temperature, soil humidity, and VOCs, which are organic chemicals that act as airborne signals. (VOCs are one of the ways that trees communicate with one another.) The information gathered by the ecosensors is sent to an installation that displays the information as it's being collected.
The econsensors, which are hollow on the inside and contain electronics, also serve as sculptural metaphors for cooperation in the natural world. Tingley carved the sensors out of cork to look like protozoa, which are microorganisms that have mutually beneficial relationships with termites. Protozoa allow termites to digest wood in exchange for a place to live. It's one of the oldest examples of mutualism ever discovered between an animal and microorganism.
"The protozoa speaks to me. There is something about this relationship and how enduring it is that I find really compelling," says Tingley. She contrasts this with "parasitic" interactions in which the parasite takes from the host and may eventually kill it.
"Historically, at least in the Occident, we look at nature as a commodity for exploitation. We look at trees as something we can freely cut down for timber. I find that relationship problematic. It's a type of relationship that's more parasitic."
With this project, Tingley says she was studying symbiotic relationships and asking how we can shift our current parasitic relationship with nature to a more mutualistic one.
"It's clear that we need nature and everything it provides. So then the question is: what does nature need from us? I think to shift our current relationship, we need to spend more time on protection and stewardship."
The Foresta Inclusive sensor hub is wifi-enabled and sends live data to a platform called shiftr, an interface that helps visualize the data that's being gathered about the tree, which can be harvested and materialized in any location. shiftr also generates a live data visualization — the image with the glowing, moving particles. For this exhibition, Tingley materialized the particles in the air, like dust and pollen, as well as the wind speed, ambient temperature and light levels gathered from the tree's immediate environment.
"The colour of the particles is generated by light levels," she explains. "The background colour is controlled by air temperature. The amount of particles you see are controlled by the amount of particles in the air at a given time. The wind is used to create a flow field, think of them like currents in water. The particles are pushed around by these currents."
Interactivity is a crucial part of Tingley's conceptualization of the artwork, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, it wasn't a part of the materialization of the project for CAFKA.
"I think if I were to do this in a gallery, post-COVID, this would be a wall-sized projection indoors and I would have some sort of touchless interface that you can move your hand around and you can move the particulates," says Tingley.
She stresses that she's not interested in replacing experiences outside in nature. Instead, her interactive installations are complementary, offering new ways of thinking about different kinds of intelligences and fostering a deeper sense of empathy and responsibility for the forest.
"I'm trying to create emotive spaces. I want to create spaces that the body can go into so that people can start to experience the data I'm collecting," says Tingley. "I want to create spaces where people are actively interacting with the visual phenomenon so that they're interacting with the natural world in a way, and are active agents in the co-creation of an experience."
"And then maybe if you interact with it, maybe that helps you understand how alive this other entity is — this other-than human 'person' is."