FeaturesDialogues: climate care

XXIX.1 January - February 2022
Page: 48
Digital Citation

Open forest: Walking with forests, stories, data, and other creatures

Andrea Cabrera, Markéta Dolejšová, Jaz Hee-jeong Choi, Cristina Ampatzidou

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Forests are often thought of as archetypical pristine, natural environments that provide a place of refuge, myths, and sacredness, and a way of understanding oneself and others. As complex ecosystems, forests are vital sites for production and preservation of life, food provision, habitat, recreation, sensorial and aesthetic enjoyment, and hope [1]. They also feature prominently as canvases for the industrial extraction of natural materials, which has resulted in the dispossession of many Indigenous people, who were and continue to be the forests' most advanced guardians. Forests are also on the move, shifting shapes in response to increasing temperatures, collapsing biodiversity, and expanding development [2]. In these complex and entangled times, there is an urgent need to better understand, care for, and imagine forest futures. In terms of climate care, forests can be muses, observation targets, or a questioning presence; forests can be all that but not only that [3] (Figure 1).

ins03.gif Figure 1. The old-growth forest at Hyytiälä Station, Juupajoki, Finland.

Our shared interest in forests brought us together as the Open Forest Collective (https://creatures-eu.org/productions/open-forest/). We have vastly different experiences and relationships with forests, but our desire to better understand and live with them has recently led us to spend some time walking in, through, and with various forests. These walks vary in forms: we walk physically and remotely, together and apart, side by side and connected through our screens, sometimes in actual forests and sometimes through data-based representations of them. The Open Forest project is a journey of collective, experimental inquiry into different forests and other-than-human dataflows. In practice, the Open Forest project consists of a series of performative actions, observations, and speculative research instruments including online portals and stories that explore diverse forest dataflows. Our work takes place in different areas, including ones located in what today are known as Finland, Australia, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Colombia.

back to top  Insights

There is an urgent need to better understand, care for, and imagine forest futures.
The Open Forest project is a journey of collective, experimental inquiry into different forests and other-than-human dataflows.
It is important to encourage the questioning of existing forest data, how it is produced, and by whom through performative drifting across space-times.

In Finland, for example, our walks often take place in the Hyytiälä forestry field station, a historical forestry field site in Juupajoki founded in 1910. Hyytiälä has become a center of international multidisciplinary research, covering topics in the Earth system ranging from the depths of soil to atmospheric processes. We have been especially intrigued by Hyytiälä's SMEAR II station (Station for Measuring Ecosystem-Atmosphere Relations), which monitors the functioning of trees, soil processes, and their atmospheric interactions in a specific patch of forest. Trees, patches of soil, and tall masts that scratch the clouds are equipped with a variety of sensors and other measuring devices that provide continuous and comprehensive measurements of fluxes, storages, and concentrations of important substances in the land-ecosystem-atmosphere continuum (Figure 2). SMEAR II is also a world-leading field station measuring the cycling of carbon, water, and other nutrients. Its extensive collection of measurement data provides information on the effects of climate change across boreal forests in the region.

ins04.gif Figure 2. Sensors at Hyytiälä's SMEAR II station.

In our first walks we mostly explored the high-tech SMEAR II landscape and interviewed researchers, tree physiologists, and data managers about their work at the station, as well as about their relationships to the forest. On later visits, we invited other members of the Open Forest Collective and interested friends and colleagues to join our walks remotely, through a videoconferencing platform (Figure 3). Having others walking with us in this hybrid way turned out to be rather interesting: Those of us present physically in the forest took the role of experimental tour guides, narrating historical facts and research insights about the station, showing details of the sensors gathering data about biochemical exchanges between trees, soil, and the atmosphere. Those walking online listened, asked questions, and shared their observations as seen from their remote perspective. Combining our diverse views and knowledge, we have started making sense of the SMEAR II forest and some of its dataflows. Resonating here is the concept of walking as an experimental technique to conduct research and mobilize collective inquiry [4].

ins05.gif Figure 3. One of the first hybrid walks organized with the Open Forest crew.

Parallel to our trips to Hyytiälä, we set up a temporary workshop station in a vacant commercial shopping space in Espoo, Finland, that served as a place for us to start piecing together the materials collected so far. We wanted to make the process open, inviting colleagues, friends, and various forest stakeholders as well as passersby to join us either online or physically (local Covid-19 safety measures were followed) and reflect on our evolving observations and learnings. We displayed our photographs from the SMEAR II forest, our observation notes, quotes from the interviews, and existing publications referring to the research work conducted at the Hyytiälä station (Figure 4).

ins06.gif Figure 4. Open Forest workshop space in the A Bloc shopping center.

Workshop visitors could browse through these materials, chat with us or sit down for a short interview, and leave a reflection in the form of a short story—anything from comments on the presented materials to personal forest experiences was welcome. These stories are the seeds of the Open Forest Catalogue, a speculative research artifact compiling various imaginative insights about forests and their more-than-human ecosystems. The catalog is still in the making; we plan to release it in an online form in early 2022.

Mapping the urban environments experienced through dérive was a co-creative exploration of alternative and counteractive urban futures.

In June 2021, we set up a larger Open Forest installation at the Research Pavilion No. 4: Helsinki exhibition combined with two hybrid forest walks through the SMEAR II station (Figure 5). Participants joined remotely through a video conference, either from the research pavilion venue in Helsinki via three screens in the installation or from elsewhere via their own digital devices.

ins07.gif Figure 5. Open Forest installation at the Research Pavilion No. 4: Helsinki exhibition.

Those present at the pavilion could further engage in two physical participatory workshops focused on the co-creation of forest stories that followed up on each walk and were guided by an Open Forest researcher. To make this format possible, two Open Forest researchers in the SMEAR II forest conducted and broadcast the hybrid cyber-physical walks, while a researcher in the pavilion guided the interactions with participants there (Figure 6).

ins08.gif Figure 6. Experimental, remote walk through the SMEAR II forest conducted via videoconferencing.

While walking and listening to the guided forest tour narrative, participants were invited to observe, comment, and ask questions in a group chat and later share their forest stories via the Feral Map, an online interface connecting diverse, more-than-human data and stories (Figure 7).

ins09.gif Figure 7. Feral Map Web interface.

The Feral Map came to life as part of the More-than-Human (MtH) Dérive project codeveloped by the Open Forest crew in Australia. Key inspirations for the work are the Letterist International's and Situationist International's artistic strategies around détournement, a creative misuse, divergence, or subversion of existing expressions, and dérive, an unplanned drift through a landscape and "a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances" [5]. To challenge the oppressive, modernist, capitalist regime reified through postwar urban design, dérives invited people to "drop their relations…and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there" through drifting. Mapping the urban environments experienced through dérive was a co-creative exploration of alternative and counteractive urban futures.

MtH Dérive takes a similar approach but with a focus on more-than-human worlds. It offers a set of simple dérive prompts across nine categories—Becoming, Space-time, Decentering the Human, Sensemaking, Do-it-together, Tracing, Thresholds, Listening, and One word (plus Magic 8 Ball, a randomized selection from all prompts)—interrelated and critical to attuning to more-than-human worlds (Figure 8).

ins10.gif Figure 8. More-than-Human Dérive categories.

The Feral Map provides an open space where people can share their MtH Dérive experiences and other stories on an interactive map. The initial dérive built upon Urban Forest open data maintained by the city of Melbourne. Melbourne's Urban Forest consists of more than 70,000 trees in central Melbourne; its open dataset includes each tree's common and scientific classification details, age and physical qualities (e.g., diameter), and location. Forest walkers can add—or ask a tree to "carry"—their story on the Feral Map (Figure 9).

ins11.gif Figure 9. A sample story shared on the Feral Map.

As part of the Open Forest collaboration, the map has been extended with open tree datasets from the Hyytiälä station and urban forest data from Helsinki, Vienna, and Barcelona. In addition to adding stories to existing mapped trees, we included the option to add various "creatures" that can also carry stories. These creatures include the Ambience, Animal, Boundary, Care pace, Glitch, Happening, Nocturne, Plant, Sensor, and the Whisper (Figure 7). Some aspects of the map are deliberately ambiguous. For example, some creatures appear on the map during specific local times; the Whisper locations are randomly distributed within 2 degrees latitude and longitude of one of the 30 global cities, raising questions about power, values, and structural inequalities in the global landscape.

By inviting Open Forest walkers and other interested people to share their forest stories using different kinds of media, sensory impressions, and expressions, the Feral Map and the Open Forest Catalogue aim to entangle existing datasets with data that questions and obscures the currently collected and available—mostly quantitative—data about forests and their creatures.

The experimental forest walks and dérives; the installations and co-creation workshops; the catalog and the Feral Map—all are designed as tools to encourage the questioning of existing forest data, how it is produced, and by whom. Through performative drifting across spaces, times, and space-times [6], we want to collectively imagine and take care-full actions toward more resilient and flourishing more-than-human futures. With Open Forest activities, we hope to reimagine and help rearrange relationships among various entities with different connections to forests: scientists, citizens, city officials, sensors, environmental data, climate change, trees, and other nonhuman species. One of our aims is to expand the landscape in which stories about forests and the diverse creatures living in and around them can be told, and care for them can be enacted. We hope to create an occasion for discussions around various forest-world-making possibilities to better understand how various forest creatures could be rendered accountable to their mutual needs. We are interested in how forest data and forest stories can be made and told otherwise by extending the participation in such storytelling beyond human. Some of the key questions we've been exploring include: What kind of forest stories are produced, and by whom? How might we find other ways to tell forest stories? What would it mean to have forests and creatures within them telling stories from their perspectives? (Figure 10).

ins12.gif Figure 10. Walking in, through, and with forest.

The stories that we have been collecting come in diverse formats and shapes: Some are personal accounts of human-forest relationships expressed in words and pictures; others are numeric datasets that, for instance, capture the exchange of volatile organic compounds between a forest and the atmosphere. Some are told by local forest dwellers and foragers, others by trees, sensors, forestry scientists, and data managers. All of them contribute to an evolving more-than-human account of a forest as a creature on the move [2], whose different voices and parts might help us make better sense of large-scale eco-social phenomena such as environmental change and the place that environmental data has in world making, among others. Other experimental walks are planned to take place in forests in Siipo (Finland), Central Bohemia (Czech Republic), Sibundoy (Colombia), and Barcelona (Spain). Drop us a line if you would like to walk with these forests too.

back to top  Acknowledgments

This project has received funding from the Academy of Finland Grant No. 324756 and the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 870759. The content presented in this article represents the views of the authors, and the European Commission has no liability in respect of the content.

back to top  References

1. Kohn, E. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human (First edition). Univ. of California Press, 2013.

2. Gabrys, J. The forest that walks: Digital fieldwork and distributions of site. Qualitative Inquiry (Sep. 2021); https://doi.org/10.1177/10778004211042356

3. De La Cadena, M. Runa: Human but not only. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, 2 (2014), 253–25; https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.2.013

4. Kanstrup, A.M., Bertelsen, P., and Madsen, J.Ø. Design with the feet: Walking methods and participatory design. Proc. of the 13th Participatory Design Conference: Research Papers - Volume 1. ACM, New York, 2014, 51–60; https://doi.org/10.1145/2661435.2661441

5. Debord, G. "Definitions". Internationale Situationniste. Paris (1). K. Knabb, trans. June, 1958; https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/definitions.html

6. Choi, J.H. and Galloway, A. Movement, time, and space, two ways. Interactions 28, 2 (2021), 24–25; https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3450146

back to top  Authors

Andrea Botero Cabrera is a Colombian-born, Finland-based designer and researcher working at Aalto University. Her work engages with the possibilities and contradictions of participating in the creation of environments, tools, and media that afford more relational and caring interactions among and between people and their environments. andrea.botero@iki.fi

Markéta Dolejšová is a design researcher working across the interrelated domains of social and ecological resilience and food-system transitions at Aalto University. Her practice-based research uses experimental design methods and is typically situated in co-creative settings. marketa.dolejsova@gmail.com

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi is director of the Care-full Design Lab and Vice-Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow in design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. jaz.hee-jeong.choi@rmit.edu.au

Cristina Ampatzidou is a research fellow at RMIT Europe for CreaTures (Creative Practices for Transformational Futures). With a background in architecture and urbanism, she has been alternating between academia and practice, having worked with Amsterdam, Groningen, Erasmus, and TU Delft universities, as well as the Architecture Film Festival Rotterdam and Play the City. cristina.ampatzidou@rmit.edu.au

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