The link between trees and various climatic processes is usually not immediately apparent. Trees and plants do not live merely on moisture from rain, sunlight (which drives gas exchange), and nutrients from the soil: they absorb carbon dioxide from the air and produce the oxygen that we breathe, maintaining our climate and biosphere. Gathering ecophysiological data by measuring the local climatic and environmental variables and the physiological processes within a plant in response to changes in these variables has become an important method of researching climate change and vegetation dynamics (Zweifel 2015). It helps determine the physiological thresholds of plants in terms of increasing temperature and, consequently, drought stress (Eilmann and others 2011).
A tree under pressure
Scots pines in Valais have experienced high mortality rates for some decades now: this phenomenon is believed to be caused by the effects of climate change – for example, longer drought periods (Dobbertin and others 2006). A downy oak (Quercus pubescens), for example, is able to withstand the current climatic conditions whereas a Scots pine is pushed beyond its physiological limits despite both tree species having coexisted there for thousands of years. Consequently, shifts in the abundance of tree species are observed (Rigling and others 2006). The ecophysiological knowledge acquired is used to explain the underlying processes: hence the interest in cooperation between a biologist and an artist to study the complex relationship between tree physiology and the climate, on one hand, and to explore the possibilities of acoustic and artistic representations of ecophysiological processes in trees, on the other (Maeder and Zweifel 2013). Rendering audible the way in which water transport or trunk diameter, for example, are influenced by sunlight, humidity, and wind allows us to identify and better understand plants’ responses to climatic processes.
Art and science
The background to many projects and works in the context of ‘ecological art’ or ‘sci-art’ is that in recent forms of media and technical arts, practices and works have been created in an overlapping area with the natural sciences, which take up, modify, and transform the research methods of scientific disciplines in order to refer to ecological contexts and problems (Weintraub 2012). Images of nature are conveyed by the sciences and arts in the form of descriptions, illustrations, sketches, and models via the creation of verbal and non-verbal symbolic references and knowledge configurations (Goodman 1978). Increasingly, the artistic-medial type and quality of the observation and staging of connections in nature are coming to the foreground. This represents an integrative research concept, an artistic science or scientific art, which is able to produce new medial modes of experience and creations of meaning, thus enabling a differentiated picture, a new experience of our environment (Maeder 2017).
Currently, our everyday forms of reference for nature are increasingly taking place through mass media – through digital technologies. These forms of reference define the aesthetic norms in the production and reception of the image and symbolism of nature. A key role is played here by environmental arts and sci-art, for they clarify and intensify the meaning of objects through the creation of new media experiences. The media and aesthetic practices (in particular also the applied arts) that are involved in the production of meanings – of narrations in the mass media – draw their know-how from the visual arts and sciences, particularly from artistic-scientific aesthetic overlaps. These can be found wherever findings ‘become beautiful’: in the media-technological simulation and exploration of phenomena in nature, both artists and scientists are confronted with aesthetic problems. For example, how objects that evade a sensory experience or a clear classification can be made tangible, examinable, assessable; or how scientific and artistic ideas and findings can be contextualised for both a public within science and art and a public external to these, in order to unfold an action-oriented effect. The issue at hand is an explanatory gain in statements on phenomena, which comes about by means of experimental links between empirical research methods and aesthetic means of presentation. In our artistic-scientific observation system, new links are undertaken with an empirical object: empirical research methods become aesthetic practices and vice versa, and a practical research-related potential for communication is revealed. The artistic imagination takes on the role of designing aesthetic models (here, in the form of an artistic-scientific observation system) for a new classification and interpretation of phenomena in nature.