Trees in Winter
A Weather Driven New Media Installation
The stark expressive form of a large leafless tree was filmed against a background of changeable stormy winter skies. The horizon line was positioned low down in the picture plane; in the background, low wooded hills recede into the distance and in the lower foreground a slope of dry, frost bleached, grasses. The scene is of life clinging to the damp warmth of the earth in the cold twilight of the northern winter. The wind chafes at the last few remaining dead leaves and the branches shake as if stricken by the onset of a terrible fever. The occasional human presence, figures huddled against the winter chill, hurry by as if blown by the wind and rain. The shrill cries of starlings, blow through the frozen air, like static from a short wave radio. The clouds slide by behind the tree, behind the world, aging pack ice on a cobalt blue sea. The tree stands massive against the sky like a human lung, fragile yet strong, holding it’s breath until the first draft of southern air blows green through the blackened branches.
The footage of the tree was shot in three separate takes each one taken from a different angle to the tree. The camera was positioned every 15 degrees along the radius of a 45 degree arc.
The footage was shot over a period of several hours using time-lapse photography to emphasize the changing relationship between the tree branches and the cloudy sky. Each of the single frames was time exposed to emphasize the recording process, and the tonal relationship between tree and sky, between object and ground. The shutter speed was random and ranged between 1/4 and 1 second. Time exposing manually ensured that every frame received a different amount of light. For example, (at the two extremes of exposure latitude,) in some frames the cloud detail burned out and foreground detail is correctly exposed, in other frames the cloud detail is correctly exposed but the foreground is silhouetted against the sky. In each individual frame the relationship between the tree and the sky is unique. Projected at 24 frames per second, the image will flicker.
The sound mix, like the images, is driven by real time input from the weather. The ingredients of the mix will include distant human voices, bird cries (starling and raven), wind sounds, a passing aircraft and a specially written program simulating the harmonics of the Aeolian harp. Input from the weather station tend to push the system towards instability, shifting between modes of generative sonic representation, and thereby constantly creating new and unexpected combinations from the same set of sonic components.
The Interactive System and Installation
The system operates as a live, wind powered edit suite where all of the edit decisions are made by nature in conjunction with the custom-made interface. Weather conditions on the outside of the gallery building are measured in real time by a small weather station situated on the roof of the gallery. This includes an anemometer, which is a device for measuring wind speed, and a wind vane, which measures wind direction.
The input from the wind vane is fed into the customized software program, which uses this information to ‘decide’ which of three video signals (viewpoints) are to be projected at any one time. If there is a wind shift to the left, footage shot from the left viewpoint will play. If there is a wind shift to the right, the right viewpoint footage will play and if the wind direction is constant and steady the centre viewpoint will play. In this way the wind will precipitate a visual dance about the central axis of the tree.
In addition, the wind speed causes the footage to speed up and slow down so that clouds, light and the movement of people are seen in ‘gusts’, and if the wind stops blowing, the footage hovers back and forth over three or four frames; relatively still, but ready to move at the next breath of wind.
As well as being fed into the video switcher, the signal from the anemometer and wind vane is hooked up to a console with a graphic display representing wind speed and direction. The console is prominently exhibited in the gallery as part of the installation. In this way the viewer may choose to move beyond the expressive nature of the image and sound; and in so doing discover a second level of meaning imbedded within the system as a whole.
The ‘shape’ of the work, at any particular moment in time, is governed by the forces of nature, which surround the building. Just like the trees in the landscape, the representation changes its form and appearance in response to input from the weather. The flickering, ephemeral nature of the projected image combined with the changing winter light to create an uneasy equilibrium between the power and presence of the tree, the transitory nature of the light and the clouds, and the human presence in the landscape. The over all feeling of the work oscillates between somber and elegiac and reflects the vulnerability and transitory nature of all living systems.
On closer reading, the system as a whole, suggests an environmental model where technology can work collaboratively with natural forces, as distinct from the more prevalent and familiar models, where nature is dominated by technology. The imagery of the tree, together with the sound is unpredictable and infinitely variable from one moment to the next. The output of the system(image + sound), is a self regulating or “emergent” property, generated by the operating system’s real time interaction with the weather.
The imagery of the tree, together with the sound is unpredictable and infinitely variable from one moment to the next. The output of the system (image + sound), is a self regulating or “emergent” property, generated by the operating system’s real time interaction with the weather.
“…Systems theory, a science that looks at process and change in response to input from the environment, sees living systems and social systems in terms of the dynamic relation between the parts and the whole.
In all my films and installations I use the simple structuring capabilities of moving image technologies, such as variable-frame rate, in-camera editing and multiple projection, in combination with natural phenomena such as wind and tides and the rotation of the planet, to produce works in which mind, technology, and nature are not seen as separate things divided along Cartesian lines, but as interconnected parts of one larger dynamic system.
“Some of the most interesting applications of Systems thought..are to be found….in the field of micro biology where a new definition of life found expression in the Santiago theory:
“At all levels of life, beginning with the simplest cell, mind and matter, process and structure, are inseparably connected…. The Santiago Theory (Humberto Mantura and Francisco Varla) proposes a concept of cognition in which the mind as a separate ‘thinking thing’ is abandoned in favor of a model in which mind is not separate but part of a process, the process of cognition which characterizes the existence of life…. Cognition as understood in the Santiago Theory is associated with all levels of life … and … consciousness is a special kind of cognitive process which emerges when cognition reaches a certain level of complexity…. The relationship between mind and brain, therefore, is one between process and structure…. (Fritjof Capra on the Santiago Theory)
“In this worldview the phenomenon of consciousness is not separate from nature, as it is in Cartesian scientific thought, but is instead an essential part of all biological processes. This new understanding of nature focuses on the relationship between the parts and the dynamic processes where the flow of energy gives rise to new forms, placing human beings and human consciousness back within the complex fabric of nature and not on the outside like some disembodied brain looking in.”
“A Systems View of Landscape” Chris Welsby 2004. First published : “Experimental Film and Video” Edited by Dr Jackie Hatfield. John Libby, Publishing. UK 2006