trees: Pinus sylvestris
An artistic-scientific observation system

Sonification and artistic realisation: Marcus Maeder, Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology, Zurich University of the Arts
Scientific data and analysis: Roman Zweifel, Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL)
ICST members of staff involved: Philippe Kocher, Jonas Meyer, Thomas Peter


The goal of our research project ‘trees: Rendering Ecophysiological Processes Audible, funded by the SNSF, was to connect sounds that occur in plants with ecophysiological processes and thus make audible in an artistic manner phenomena and processes that are not normally noticeable. The acoustic emissions of a tree in the Swiss Alps were recorded with physical acoustics and DIY sensors, and all other non-auditory ecophysiological measurement data (e.g., the trunk and branch diameters, which change depending on water content, the sap flow rate in the branches, the water present in the soil, air moisture, solar radiation, etc.) were sonified – that is, translated into sounds. The recordings and sonified measurements were implemented in a number of different media art installations, which at the same time served as a research environment, in order to present and examine the temporal and spatial connections between plant sounds, physiological processes, and environmental conditions in an artistic-scientific observation system.

Most of the sounds that occur in a plant arise due to drought stress. Thirsty plants make an inaudible noise; acoustic emissions from plants lead to conclusions on their state and on the environmental conditions. During our research project it became clear that our observation system could make another fundamental phenomenon tangible: namely, how plants in the Swiss Alps react to ever-longer periods of heat and drought in the course of climate change. The reconstruction and staging of the life processes and environmental conditions of a tree in an artistic-technical environment has led to new forms of observation and design with an innovative instrument: correlations of measured values and patterns in natural processes become aesthetic effects – abstract measurement data are reflected in images and sounds. The intention of our artistic-scientific observation system was to create an all-encompassing experience from very different and complex data sets, and thus to draw a holistic picture of the life processes and environmental conditions of a tree that is under pressure from changing climatic conditions.

The installation trees: Pinus sylvestris was presented at the UN Climate Change Conference COP21 2015 in Paris at the invitation of French president François Hollande.