Open Forest is a participatory artwork performing an experimental inquiry into different forests and forest data sets. The work consists of a series of performative actions, shapeshifting portals, and speculative research instruments exploring diverse forest data flows. It helps to reimagine and rearrange relationships among various entities and creatures with different connections to forests, such as scientists, citizens, sensors, environmental data, climate change, non-human animals and trees. One of our aims is to expand the landscape, in which stories about forests and the creatures that live in and around them can be told, and care about them enacted.
As a participatory project, Open Forest is premised upon direct public engagement, offering several entryways into and levels of participation with the work: exploring various forests and data through engagements with interactive installations and artifacts, joining hybrid cyber-physical forest walks, and co-creating new forest data-sets and stories.
Open Forest is distributed across different locations:
In Finland, the creative work and research are situated in Helsinki and in the Hyytiälä forestry field station (Juupajoki) and 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 centre space in November 2020 – April 2021, where we worked for six months 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 stakeholders and audiences. The first five walks (September 2020 – June 2021) took place in the SMEAR II station in the Hyytiälä research forest managed by Helsinki University. Two of the SMEAR II walks were performed at the 4th Research Pavilion Helsinki where they were accompanied by two workshops and a week-long public exhibition.
The hybrid walks were physically broadcasted from the Hyytiälä forest and participants could join remotely via Zoom, either from the Research Pavilion venue in Helsinki via three installed screens, or from anywhere else via their own digital devices. Participants at the Pavilion could further engage in physical participatory workshops guided by one of the Open Forest researchers.
During the walks, we narrated stories of the SMEAR II forestry research 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 and stories. The collected stories, insights, and data have been forming the first bits of the Open Forest Catalogue – a speculative research artifact that will be released in early 2022. More experimental walks that will contribute to the catalogue are planned to take place in various forests in Helsinki, in Central Bohemia (CZ), and in Colombia.
In Australia, the creative work and research are situated in Melbourne where they are facilitated by designers and researchers from RMIT University, focusing specifically on open and alternative data generated within urban forests. The RMIT group have 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.
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 initial version of the More-than-Human Dérive and the Feral Map drew upon Urban Forest open data maintained by the City of Melbourne and now also includes tree datasets from Helsinki, Vienna, Barcelona, and the SMEAR II station in the Hyytiälä research forest. Other “creatures” than trees can also be added to the map. 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 creatures in and around various (urban) forests.
The first Dérive took place in May 2021 at the Melbourne Knowledge Week and invited driftings through the Melbourne Urban forest, a complex ecosystem of more than 70,000 trees each with unique IDs. The second Dérive happened at the online Uroboros festival, as part of the CreaTures Feral Creative Practices program track.