Together with the visits to the sycamore in Humlegården and to the beech on Djurgården in 2017 I wrote blog posts alternating between Swedish and English. Here below is a compilation of the blog posts in English.
First Attempt at Humlegården1
As part of my artistic research project “Att samarbeta/ sam-agera med växter” or “performing with plants”, which I am planning at the moment, I have decided to choose three trees in Stockholm to perform for camera with and to visit repeatedly during a year. My plan is to begin with at least one tree in January 2017, although I probably will start the official VT funded project in Stockholm only in 2018. And thus, I am looking around now, searching for suitable trees, doing some attempts, like the one today in the park Humlegården. The first tree, one I remembered from my visit a few weeks ago, was not as easy to collaborate with, as I imagined.
The other tree, an old sycamore, which I noticed already during my first visits, and which seemed “too easy” at first, seemed to me now to be the ideal partner for this exercise.
I also tried to move the camera on tripod a little closer, to see if the sculptural form of the divided trunk could be used better.
More experiments next time, but I think this could perhaps be one of the trees, really…
Wind and Snow Again2
After a clear morning the snowfall started before noon, and seemed to get worse, so there was no use waiting for it to pass. The sun sets early, between three and four in the afternoon so there was not much time to spend. I decided snowfall could be nice in the image, the flakes were big (and wet) so I hurried to Humlegården to begin with. I had my pale pink scarf with me this time, and hoped to have the park for myself due to bad weather. But snow is not considered bad weather, of course; there were lots of families rolling big snowballs on the ground. The wet snow combined with the dry leaves made for huge snow balls that small children were excitedly pushing around. I made one test image with the camera a little further away, in order to show more of the park.
Quickly checking the result made me decide to stick to my previous framing, more or less, and also to wear my pale scarf and remove my red cap. So, I sat for a while leaning on the big trunk, a rather comfortable seat, actually, but wet and cold. I remembered that I used to carry a small piece of plastic to sit on during all my years sitting in various places on Harakka Island. For these images in Stockholm I have not yet created a proper routine.
Time seemed to be flying and dusk was approaching fast so I hurried down to the shore and walked to my other tree partner at Djurgården. It took me a while to find almost the same place for the camera as last time, since there are no clear markers on the ground. The first test image I made with my ordinary clothes on, and was not very impressed by the image.
For the “real” version I removed my cap, put on my scarf (on top of my coat, since it was getting cold) and decided to sit higher up on the branches. The tree is very comfortable to sit on and has a veritable nest for sitting in. I decided to sit for a little longer, hoping for the snowflakes to hit the camera lens and blur the image a little, like the raindrops in Falmouth.3
The wind was getting stronger and sitting in the tree I was gasping for air first, before settling into the “suffering”, breathing slowly, accepting the cold, registering the shifts in the force of the wind. I sat there and enjoyed the beauty of the image, both the one I imagined recorded by the camera, and the one I was looking at while sitting in the tree. At some point I imagined I could simply hold on until nightfall, but soon gave up. It was too cold, and it looked like quite some time until dusk. There was a group of noisy strollers passing the tree, and I was afraid they would notice the camera and do something with it. Luckily that did not happen. I also imagined that the strong gusts of wind would hit the tripod and saw the camera lying on the ground in the snow, and so on. I kept on sitting for a few more minutes, but then gave up. The cold was creeping into my bones and the wind was blowing into my ear… I did not want to get ill, so I climbed down.
The camera was still standing on the tripod, recording a slightly foggy image; part of the lens was covered with snow, and I wonder how the snow did not show more in the actual image. By now I was really cold, so I quickly packed my things and hurried to the cafeteria at the entrance of the park, the place where I am writing these notes. Although it did not look anything like what I imagined while sitting in my sculpture nest in the tree, and though the change between the beginning and the end was surprisingly small, this session perhaps could be made into a small video….
Damp and Dark December4
Saturday afternoon in Stockholm, wet snow everywhere, hard to say when the snow turns to rain and vice versa. I headed first to Humlegården, around two in the afternoon and thought I would have plenty of time, but by the time I was at Djurgården dusk was approaching fast. Around three o’clock the light was diminishing; the sun was setting somewhere behind the thick cloud cover.
In Humlegården I made two “sittings”, one close and one further away. I was careless with my scarf; it was not covering my back properly. In the close-up version one can also distinguish the plastic bag I am sitting on. The image is strangely “soft”, perhaps the camera tries to follow my gaze and focus on the other trees in the park…
At Djurgården I was impressed by the black branches of the beech – I guess it is a beech, but I am not sure – and tried to frame the image in the same way as last time, only lifting it up a little, so my head would come into the picture. The result is something altogether different again. Perhaps I should accept that this weird snake tree with its boa constrictor -arms will always embrace me in new ways…
Almost Sunny January5
This was my second weekend in Stockholm this year, and the weather was great for sitting with trees, dry and not too cold, almost sunny today. In the same manner as during the previous weekend I made a session in Humlegården and at the shore of Djurgården immediately on arrival on Saturday, in the early afternoon, to be in time before the early dusk and its bluish light. And I made a second session on Sunday before noon at Humlegården and directly after that in the early afternoon at Djurgården. There the sunlight made quit a difference; people passing by cast their shadows on the branches. At Djurgården the line I drew with my foot in the snow to remember the place of the tripod from Saturday to Sunday last weekend was still visible as a dark patch on the ground, and made the adjustment of the image a lot easier. I hope I will slowly learn approximately where the tripod should be, so it does not take so long to find the proper place.
I realized that by sitting in trees I am actually recycling a strategy I have used before, during the year 2006 on Harakka Island in Helsinki. In Year of the Dog – Sitting in a Tree http://www.av-arkki.fi/en/works/year-of-the-dog-sitting-in-a-tree/ and Day and Night of the Dog http://www.av-arkki.fi/en/works/day-and-night-of-the-dog/ I deliberately showed only my shoulder in order for the tree to have the central stage. The images I am making now are much more focused on me as a human performer, what a paradox!
Spring in the Air?6
A weekend trip to Stockholm means that I can visit my two tree partners twice, once on Saturday afternoon and another time on Sunday morning. On Saturday the sun was shining and it felt like Spring, despite the calendar showing February. I did not even wear my black trousers, it seemed so dry …
On Sunday it was even warmer, without the sun, and now everything was muddier, when the ice was melting, but that does not show in the images, though…
On Sunday afternoon I went to Skeppsholmen to see the newly opened Marina Abramovic retrospective at Moderna Museet. I did not have much time and many of the classic pieces would be interesting to return to; probably I will. The show is like a course in the history of performance art, although many of the later pieces are installed in some manner, too. Some small works I did not know from before caught my attention, because they involved trees. One of them was a sound work, a photograph with headphones from her early years as an art student in Belgrad, The Tree 1972/2017, sound environment 10:00 min, loop.
The idea of recording the environment from the point of view of a tree is beautiful, although what I could hear in terms of sound was mainly birds chirping and the traffic. But I could imagine developing something based on that work… And then another more recent one, which was more in her style (and in my style, I would like to add, if it would not sound so immodest) Sleeping Under the Banyan Tree, 2010, Video (bw, silent). 56:43 min.
Working in black and white and without sound is of course not at all my style, and alluding to the Buddha being illuminated while meditating under a banyan tree is not that either. But Marina sleeping there, well, why not? It is more the idea of using video like a (slowly) moving still image and to tune into the slow and site-bound existence of a tree. Especially in this context where most of the works are dramatic and violent, this seemed like a soft aside, and I prefer to see it as romantic rather than pretentious…
Spring, Trees and Supermarket7
Spring in Stockholm, and the Supermarket art fair, two good reasons to come and visit my tree partners. Humlegården was quiet on Saturday morning, but closer to noon the path along the Djurgården shore was packed with people. There was still some ice on the water below the beech, but most of the bay was open. The clouds came and went, and with the sun the landscape changed completely. A couple of sea birds, probably great crested greves, were diving near the ice, and I wondered whether they were able to dive below the ice, skilled divers as they are, but obviously they would not take unnecessary risks.
In the afternoon I visited Supermarket art fair at Telefonplan, and listened to some interesting discussions. What stayed in my mind was a strange work, a mechanical mobile with a living ivy in a pot, with strings attached to it and to a machine, so it kept constantly moving; it seemed like a strange form of plant torture to me, eye-catching but disturbing as well.
On Sunday the sun was shining warmly and I visited the maple in Humlegården without problems. On Djurgården some complications developed. The ice was gone, the sun was warm, but there was a family – a father and two kids – parked, literally, by the beech. The kids were running around, but the father had a chair with him and sat next to the carriage with his phone. I placed my camera on the tripod and prepared to wait for a while. I sat on a nearby bench and watched other children come and climb in the tree and then go, but this family would not budge. Finally, I asked the father if he had any idea for how long they would stay, and he said one hour or so… I thanked him, packed my things and went to have a coffee. While returning I saw he was still sitting there, so I decided to return in the evening instead.
On Monday morning I was out early, and now there was less traffic, of course. In Humlegården a group of dog owners had gathered next to the maple, and some of the dogs came to look at me and began barking furiously while I was sitting there, but no harm was done. Then I walked down to the Beech at Djurgården and enjoyed the peace and calm of a work day.
While walking back and forth to Djurgården I thought about what to do with all this material. I can create my usual rough time-lapse videos for sure, but is that interesting? One option that occurred to me was adding all the video clips from the same place as layers on top of each other, with partial opacity, for instance. Would that produce another type of “time-image”? And is it really necessary to work with one year? Perhaps, if I want the seasons to run in a cycle… Over this weekend the spring has definitely arrived, the crocus flowers are everywhere and the buds are big in most of the trees. Some bushes even had small green leaves.
Buds and Leaves and Blooming Trees8
Spring seems to develop much faster in Stockholm than in Helsinki, perhaps because of the longer distance to the sea in Stockholm. Some trees still have buds, but others are blooming or spreading their big leaves. Some maples or sycamores are in bloom, but the one I am sitting on and with, in Humlegården is among the slower ones. The strange crippled beech at the Djurgården shore, which I am sitting in and with, is blooming, with small leaves appearing fast. Why do I call it crippled? Because it is probably cut down when young, and for that reason it has started to grow sideways, having lots of branches growing quite low rather than one trunk reaching towards the sky. And at least one of the branches has been cut, too. I am actually sitting on such a stump in the middle of the “nest” that is formed by the branches.
On Saturday I could sit in peace with both trees; there were plenty of people around, but they enjoyed themselves each in their own manner, and let me do the same. A big black woman was struggling with a bike on the grass in Humlegården. She tried to learn to use it, and it was hard, but she persisted. I felt a lot of sympathy for her, since I am not very good at bicycling myself, although I learned the basics as a child.
On Sunday there were even more people in the parks and everywhere on the streets, too. While walking towards the beech I was worried that it might be occupied by climbing children, as sometimes is the case. On Saturday some kids came by and asked if they could climb when I was finished and was packing my things. And I was glad to encourage them to climb. But no, today I had the beech for myself, until about half way in the recording; suddenly I heard a child’s clear voice say “hej” and I replied without turning my head. I sat for a while more, while the kids were climbing and laughing and their father was trying to calm them from further away. When I came down I said to him that I was done and they could well climb if they wanted.
Later, enjoying a cup of tea in a nearby cafeteria I skimmed through the video clips and noticed that the children were not visible in the image; they had climbed on the other side of the tree. Their voices are audible, though. And why not include climbing children in my video, if need be. After all I have thought about making some form of event around the tree, projecting the video back on the site of its making, and perhaps inviting the audience to sit in the tree as well. This would be possible provided I find electricity somewhere near, or then a projector with a battery. But that is something to think about later, “den tiden den sorgen” as you say in Swedish.
In any case the flowers of the beech (I am almost sure it is a beech) look beautiful now.
Sycamore or Maple?9
After almost a month since my last visit to the trees in Stockholm everything looked different. The beech formed a green shade, almost like a tent I had to enter to place my tripod and camera before climbing up to my hiding place between its branches. And the maple I have been comfortably sitting on proved to be no ordinary maple at all, but a sycamore or sycamore maple, Acer pseudoplatanus. It seems that the maple common in the Nordic countries Acer platanoides, is called Norway maple in English, “skogslönn” in Swedish and “metsävaahtera” in Finnish, literally “forest maple”. My friend in Humlegården is called “tysk lönn” or “German maple” in Sweden and “vuorivaahtera” or “Mountain maple” in Finland. The flowers are different, and the leaves are different, too. I probably made the mistake of assuming my friend was an ordinary maple because of the leaves on the ground – there are two ordinary maples growing next to it so the dry leaves get mixed.
This lack of awareness seemed particularly grave since I was returning from an event focusing on plants. Plantarium was a two-day symposium or conference organized by Marianna Szczygielska and Olga Cielemęcka at Linköping University on 1-2 June 2017. The key-note speakers were Michael Marder, who spoke with the title “On Lack and Plenitude in the Vegetal World” and Catriona Sandilands who spoke with the title “Phytopolitics: Four Forays in Vegetation”. The workshops or participatory performances were “downward facing plant / happy plant pose: a multi species yoga session” led by Mirko Nicolić and “Vegetal Speed Dating” led by Christina Stadlbauer and Regula Heggli. In the evening there was a screening with a short video by Malin Arnell and Pablo Zueta titled Sporing Lips of Transposed Desire (2011) and a documentary film Pojktanten (in English She Male Snails) by Ester Martin Bergsmark (2012). Most of the work the second day took place in small groups where we discussed the papers and materials sent in advance. I was placed in a group led by Monika Rogowska-Stangret and really enjoyed the feedback and discussions, although time felt short, as always. I showed a small video work, The Tide in Kan Tiang, as an example of performing with plants. My abstract in the collection of abstracts read as follows:
Performing with plants. A small tree grows in a rocky cove near Kan Tiang beach on the Island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. On one of the last days of the year 2015 I stand next to it for a day with two-hour intervals in order to experience the tide together with it. The resulting video work The Tide in Kan Tiang (11 min 52 sec) was shown in gallery Forum Box (mediaboxi) in Helsinki in April 2017 and serves as an example of performing with plants in a simple and everyday manner. This work I could show and present as part of the workshop in Linköping. It is an example of a practice, which forms the background to an artistic research project recently begun, “performing with plants – att sam-agera med växter”, funded by the Kone Foundation at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (2017) and Vetenskapsrådet at Stockholm University of the Arts (2018-2019). Since the project has only started I am eager to find researchers interested in related topics, to learn about current developments and would gladly present the plan for the project briefly in Linköping. See website with ongoing documentation: here. Moreover, I include links to some previous publications dealing with works related to plants in my bio, although I think I could probably best contribute to this event as an artist.
While returning to the trees in Stockholm I remembered the question posed by Essi Kausalainen, an artist who has worked a lot with plants, in another seminar on plants. She asked why I framed my images horizontally and not vertically, to include more of the trees within the frame. And that is a good question with many and complicated possible answers, related to video projectors etc. Horizontal framing suites the crippled beech quite well, because it is growing more like a bush, sideways. The sycamore maple, however, I wanted to try to capture in some vertical still photos:
And of course, I did my usual video recordings, too, on Saturday afternoon and Sunday around noon. This time I used an external microphone, but forgot it for the first session with the sycamore. Thus, it is possible to listen to the difference in sound quality between the two versions, at least when editing.
Performing with trees as stillness practice?10
The term ‘stillness practice’ in the title occurred to me when I tried to articulate in what way my current project of performing with trees could be related to movement practices, somatic practices or choreographic practices in their broadest sense. Although it started as a pun – stillness rather than movement – the term is actually a fairly apt description for what I am doing or trying to do while performing with trees.
The piece I was trying to describe – The Tide in Kan Tiang – was not conceived as part of the project of performing with plants. At that time (December 2015) I was more interested in the tide than in the tree that I was posing for camera with. But looking at the work now I realise that standing next to the tree every hour for a day could be described as a stillness practice. Of course, the term immediately associates to all kind of meditation or mindfulness practices, and why not.
When I visit the trees in Stockholm, the time schedule is completely different, but stillness is part of the practice here, too. I return to the sycamore and to the beech during one full year but only a few times a month, often with something like two weeks between the visits. While sitting in the tree I am practicing a kind of stillness, though. And here, too, the process – both in terms of the topic, the changes in the environment over the year, and as a mode of showing the production process of the work by documenting each session in a rough time-lapse manner – is at the core of the work.
The reason I am thinking of process is another text I was working with this weekend, and trying to put the finishing touches on. It is called “Process as Performance or Variations of Swinging” and is not about stillness but swinging and process, for a book with the working title Performing Process: Sharing Practice, edited by Emma Meehan and Hetty Blades. It is through them that I have come to realize how much more related with choreographic or movement practices than with theatrical practices, my work is today. Officially I place this project, too, at the intersection of performance art, environmental art and contemporary media (or video) art. The same project of swinging together I have used as an example in an article called “Performing Landscape – Swinging Together or Playing with Projections”, published in Body, Space, & Technology Journal Vol. 16. But I have not yet published anything about this project of performing with plants.
A Sycamore, a Beech and Prince Eugen’s Oak11
A relaxed visit to the trees in Stockholm, the sycamore in Humlegården and the beech at the Djurgården shore, took place this time at the beginning of the week, on Tuesday and Wednesday. Two takeaway cups placed neatly next to each other under the beech tree awaited me on Wednesday. Garbage is irritating, but these were placed so deliberately, that I could not help but finding them funny. Otherwise no surprises or interesting incidents:
On Tuesday I continued my walk to Waldemarsudde on the other side of Djurgården. The popular museum there is instigated around the old home of Prince Eugen, who was a landscape painter himself. Some of his works include trees as well, like the studies for larger paintings “Sommarnatt” (summer night) 1903 and “Alar” (alder trees) 1904.
The park around the old castle and the museum is beautiful, too, with some ancient oaks. One of them is called Prince Eugen’s oak and is somehow reconstructed or artificially supported at the base. It is fascinating to think of a tree trunk as some “dead weight” for the tree to handle. Perhaps there is a living “highway” under the bark, while the rest is more or less dead. And the two “cities”, one below ground, focusing on water and minerals, and another above ground, in the foliage, focusing on light and carbon dioxide, and the whole process of photosynthesis. So, water and minerals are transported up as raw material for the “factories” there, while nutrients are transported down to support the “mining part”. Where did these industrial metaphors come to my mind? From the weight and coarseness of the dead bark?
Apropos climate change research12
Two days of intense discussions on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research applications related to climate change in various ways, organized by Formas, a Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, ended early enough to give me approximately two hours to visit the trees in Stockholm before sunset and my return to Helsinki. That was enough, although it was already rather dark below the beech. I was happy to meet so many dedicated experts and prominent scholars, among them Stacy Alaimo, whose book Bodily Natures: Science, Nature and the Bodily Self I greatly admire. Rushing from those meetings to sit in a tree in a park was somewhat of an anticlimax. This work is linked to climate change very loosely, at least in terms of immediate relevance. I am contributing neither to the mitigation of, nor the adaptation to, climate change in any obvious manner. Still it felt good to do something, however small, after all the discussions and plans. And posing for a camera in, on and with a tree could nevertheless contribute to heightening the awareness of our symbiotic relationship to plants, or rather our complete dependence on them for maintaining the conditions for human life as we know it – depending on what I do with the video material, of course. It was in any case great to rest with the trees for a moment, but I made many small mistakes, so I had to repeat the sessions several times. At Humlegården I first forgot to put the microphone on, decided to discard the first silent take and perform again. In the second session, the close up, the camera had stopped after seven seconds, for some unknown reason, so I had to repeat that session, too. And on top of this absurdity, I forgot to put on the microphone at Djurgården as well, so I sat in the beach twice there, too. A small group of yellow mushrooms was growing on the branch, not exactly where I normally sit, but close enough to make me careful not to crush them by mistake. Their colour was a perfect camouflage with the leaves…
Winter, or at least some snow13
During a quick visit to Stockholm, Sunday to Monday, 19-20 November, I had time to visit the trees twice. On Sunday afternoon the sky was grey and the weather chilly but dry; dreary November darkness as usual. On Monday at noon the environment had changed completely due to snowfall during the night. The snow was not visible on the streets, but in the park, it made a big difference, and turned the paths slippery, too.
On Sunday my mind was still filled with experiences from the PARSE conference in Gothenburg the days before with the theme Exclusion, which served as an umbrella concept for various topics. I listened to all the open key note speeches, which are now available online. And I followed some strands, like the one on indigeneity, which I am not really familiar with, but which Naomi Klein, through her book This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs the Climate has convinced me of being enormously important to all of us. Bringing with me Anna L. Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World – On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins as something to read, prepared me for the choice of that strand as well. All open lectures were actually challenging in some way, although Marina Gržinić’s “Exclusion and the Dead” is the one I remember best, because it provided such a remarkable ending. It was a real luxury to be able to participate without a presentation to be nervous about.
On Monday I was already focusing on my own work, inspired by the snow, I guess, and also planning for the future. I realized the year is coming to a close and remembered my first attempts a year ago, which are actually edited and available online as Sitting in the Beech.14 Could I invite people to sit in the Sycamore and video record them from the opposite side, thus showing their faces, and combine those images with a compilation of these images I have been recording, showing my back? To see what the background would look like from that direction, I took some photos. And should I finally start experimenting with vertical imagery, which suites most tree partners much better than the landscape format? Why not? I began by making some snapshots of the beech at Djurgården.
Last visits to the trees this year15
This was the last time I visited the sycamore in Humlegården and the beech tree in Djurgården, at least this year. Although I will probably visit the trees again at some point next year, today I did the last recordings of this one-year project. 2017 has been my first year performing with plants, which involved visiting these two trees in Stockholm and two other trees in Helsinki. The performances with the trees in Stockholm are documented with still-images on a separate page on the Research Catalogue, here. The actual material is moving image, video, and I will begin editing it in January, in my new study somewhere at DOCH (Dans och Cirkus Högskolan), I guess.
This time the weather in Stockholm was wet, the sky cloudy and the atmosphere therefore rather gloomy, despite all the Christmas lights and decorations. Both my visits took place before noon, but the images look like evening. Perhaps there is something wrong with my camera adjustments.
While sitting in the Sycamore, leaning against its wet trunk, I realized how little I pay attention to the tree I am sitting on and performing with. I touch them but rarely really look at them. The other trees nearby, in front of me where I sit, and their old bark full of moss, I am much more familiar with. Finishing a great book by Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble – Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press 2016), which is all about various forms of becoming-with and sym-poietic thinking, (see this brief lecture by her on vimeo) has sensitized me to my lack of knowledge and understanding regarding my collaborators. That is something to start working on next year. Her SF tools – speculative fabulation, speculative feminism, science fiction, science fact and string figures, so far – are not the first ones that I would grab, attuned as I am to down-to-earth documentation and breathing as meditation. Perhaps I should learn composting from her to begin with. Looking more closely at the tree I have been sitting on was the least I could do, now, so I took some close-ups, although that has not much to do with sympoiesis, I admit.
More of this next year…
Thank you for the year 201716
Rather than writing a separate summary of my activities in Stockholm this year, I refer to my summary “With Trees in 2017”, here.
A very special thank you, however, to my collaborators in Stockholm in 2017, especially the sycamore in Humlegården and the beech at Djurgården, for patiently supporting me and posing with me for the camera in rain or shine, and to everybody else I have met during the year in Stockholm. I am looking forward to beginning to work with editing all the material that is listed on the project site here.
My best wishes for the coming year 2018!