Open Forest is an experimental inquiry into various forests and forest data sets. The work consists of a series of performative actions, observations and speculative research instruments. In the project, we walk with various forests, including a highly instrumentalized forest field station in Finland, an urban forest in Australia, a protected forest area in the Czech Republic and forest gardens, or chagras, in Colombia. The work invites participants to reflect on the relationships between various entities and creatures with different connections to forests, such as scientists, citizens, city officials, sensors, environmental data, trees, and the overarching climate crisis. One of our aims is to expand the landscape in which stories about forests can be told, and care about them enacted.
Open Forest is premised upon direct public engagement, offering several entryways into and levels of participation with the work: exploring various forests and forest-data through engagements with interactive installations and artifacts, joining hybrid cyber-physical forest walks, and co-creating new forest-stories.
By inviting people to share stories using different kinds of media, sensory impressions, and personal expressions, we hope to entangle the existing forests datasets with data that question and obscure the currently collected and available – mostly quantitative – insights about various forests and their creatures.
In Finland, the creative work and research are situated in Helsinki and its surroundings (e.g., Sipoonkorpi National Park ) and in the Hyytiälä forestry field station in Juupajoki. Facilitated by designers and researchers from Aalto University, the first seeds of the Finnish part of the project were showcased in the A Bloc shopping center space, where we worked for six months (November 2020 – April 2021) and interviewed various forest stakeholders including forestry researchers, tree physiologists, artists, and forest data managers about their relationships to the forest.
Following the A Bloc installation and interviews, we have been organising a series of hybrid, experimental forest walks inviting both physical and online participation of diverse participants. The first five walks (September 2020 – June 2021) took place at, and were physically broadcasted from, the SMEAR II station in the Hyytiälä research forest.
Two of these SMEAR II walks were performed as part of the 4th Research Pavilion Helsinki where they were accompanied by workshops and a week-long public exhibition. During the walks, we narrated stories of the SMEAR II station, showing details of sensors and other research instruments gathering data about various exchanges between trees, soil, and the atmosphere.
Participants were invited to reflect via a group discussion and share their own forest stories via the Feral Map, an online interface enabling exchanges of diverse more-than-human data. The initial version of the Map drew upon Urban Forest open data maintained by the City of Melbourne and later grew to include tree datasets from Helsinki, Vienna, Barcelona, Central Bohemia, and the SMEAR II station in the Hyytiälä research forest.
In Australia, the creative work is situated in Melbourne and facilitated by designers and researchers from RMIT University focusing specifically on open and alternative data generated within the local urban forest – a complex ecosystem of more than 70,000 trees each with unique IDs.
The RMIT group has co-creatively developed the Feral Map, which was launched as part of their shapeshifting More-than-Human Dérive portal engaging people in playful ways of sensing and listening to perspectives of diverse forests and forest creatures. Inspired by the Situationist International’s artistic strategies, the portal invites people to drift and “drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, 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” (Guy Debord).
More-than-Human Dérive proposes that, through drifting, we might augment sensing and knowing what surrounds us to include more-than-human stories, ‘voices’, and perspectives by exploring new ways of mapping with expanded, multisensory ideas of data. The first Dérive took place in May 2021 at the Melbourne Knowledge Week and invited driftings through the Melbourne Urban forest. The second Dérive happened at the online Uroboros 2021 festival, as part of the CreaTures Feral Creative Practices program track.
In the Czech Republic, we have walked with a patch of forest in Central Bohemia, in the protected landscape area Křivoklátsko – a unique ecosystem with a mosaic of species-rich habitats. Sixty-two percent of the total 628 km2 area consists of broad-leaved and mixed coniferous forests and contains a high species diversity (about 1800 vascular plant species alone and 84 native species of trees, shrubs, and other creatures).
The Bohemian walks are guided by Chewie the dog – a creature with extensive sensorial knowledge of the local forest landscape. We follow Chewie as a forest expert, trusting his instincts and sense of direction, drifting through forest places and spaces that we might never discover otherwise.
To document our drifts, we experiment with the OsmAnd map tracker, getting gpx outputs with details of each drift’s distance, altitude range, time span, and average speed. More importantly, however, we sniff, listen, touch, and observe the local surroundings carefully. This more-than-human approach to forest-walking has revealed some local elements that would otherwise stay hidden to us. Like the small swamp back there in the deep forest where various creatures come to hang out, bathe and drink, or the comfort of the soft moss bed that spreads all over the forest floor.
In Colombia, the Open Forest walks take place in Bëngbe Uáman Tabanoc, on the eastern edge of the southern Colombian Andes. Tabanoc is the ancestral territory of the Kamëntŝa people, what is known today as the Sibundoy Valley. The valley is surrounded on all sides by steep mountains, and usually covered by clouds and abundant rains, its waters are funneled into the valley, forming the headwaters of the Putumayo River, a major Amazonian tributary. There is an incredible plant diversity in the valley, partly explained by its unique geographic context.
Open Forest walks in Tabanoc are guided by Kamëntŝa women, who are known for weaving colorful patterned sachets called tšombiachs. The belts document – in intricate and complex ways – stories and environmental knowledge of the territory and their relationship with their forest gardens past and present.
In November 2021 – February 2022, some insights from the unfolding Open Forest experiment in the above-mentioned forests are showcased at the Data Vitality exhibition organised by Aalto University (FI). In the meantime, we are working on the interactive Open Forest Catalogue compiling all the forest-stories, observations, and insights collected throughout the project.