In Development Interview: PluginHUMAN and 'Pulse: The Life Force of Trees' — Experimenta

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In order to get to know our commissioned artists for Experimenta Life Forms a little better we are publishing a series of interviews about their works. This week we spoke to Betty Sargeant from PluginHUMAN who discusses her research into trees and their ecosystems that she has undertaken in the Amazon, Panama, Taiwan, India and Australia, and the environmental impact of art making.

Experimenta: What was the impetus for this project?

Betty: Through this project, Justin and I are telling the story of five trees that are situated in unique international ecosystems around the world. In doing this, we’ve taken a number of research field trips. Two of these trips were part of artist in residence programs where we were embedded in some of the world’s most remote and remarkable natural environments. During these times we’ve been able to learn from and respond to the environments that we were surrounded by.

Experimenta: Why did you decide to focus on trees?

Betty: We’ve developed a fascination with different biological systems in the Amazon, Panama, India, Australia and Taiwan. Trees are one of the major factors in the systems that we’ve focused on. These trees are connected to major waterways and they are of course part of a wider biological network. But for this installation, we decided to select one tree from each of these environments and tell some of the trees’ stories. Part of the story is around the ways that these trees have had to adapt due to climate change. Our installation focuses on individual trees but it’s in the context of the trees’ wider environment.

Experimenta: You ‘collect data’ from trees. Can you explain this process?

Betty: Our data collection has involved weather, environmental and audio recordings. We made our own weather and environmental recording units. These units have a series of sensors that are attached to Ardunios – small programmable circuit boards. These systems allow us to record temperature, wind speed, wind direction, barometric readings, moisture levels, and light levels. We use these weather and environmental recordings to control the colour, intensity and patterns in LED lights. This means that changes in the trees’ environments cause changes in the LED lights. Our final installation features five LED light sculptures and each sculpture represents a different tree.

 We’ve also collected audio recordings. We used a hydrophone to record underwater. Justin and I recorded the life that exists in waterways that are beside the trees we were studying. We also used contact microphones to record under soil and within trees. We placed mics into deep tree crevices and under bark to get subtle readings of what was occurring within the trees’ structure. And we used field microphones to record environmental atmospheres. These are recorded sounds of animals and life that exist around and amongst the trees, because the wider environment relates to the trees’ survival and reproduction. We edited these recordings into an atmospheric soundscape that accompanies the installation’s five light sculptures.

Experimenta: How would you describe your work in relation to a scientific approach? Because in a way it sounds very scientific, like you’re trying to understand and document but it also feels like you’re trying to build empathy or intimacy, perhaps, with the material that you’re collecting.

Betty: Empathy is really key to the work that we’re doing. I suppose that the work is quite scientific at some stages of it, particularly when we’re in the research phase because we try to be accurate with our methods and with the data we’re collecting. But fundamentally we look to actively build an empathetic connection between ourselves as artists and the environment that we’re working in. And the goal is to translate that data so that we can help audiences build an empathetic connection between themselves and the environment. Research shows that in terms of climate change, people can get overwhelmed and switch off when they’re faced with loads of statistics. But if we can build empathy between people and natural environments, then perhaps we can switch them back on to caring about the environment. Perhaps then they will be more inclined to take action on climate change.

Through this installation we look to uncover hidden elements from five significant international ecosystems. We use scientific and technological equipment to help uncover new ways of understanding these environments. By placing the environment front and center, perhaps we as people can learn to adapt more to the needs of our natural world, rather than having the expectation that it will continue to adapt to us.

Experimenta Life Forms International Triennial of Media Art

Exploring how biological and artificial life are challenging human-centric thinking, Experimenta Life Forms will be Experimenta’s 8th national touring exhibition. It premieres in 2021 and will tour nationally until 2023. 

‘PULSE: The Life Force of Trees’ by PluginHUMAN is an Experimenta Commission.