https://vimeo.com/245014501

“(Forests are)..sensorially far too various and immense for anything but surfaces or glimpses to be captured. They defeat view-finder, drawing paper, canvas, they cannot be framed;..”

(John Fowles, The Tree, 1979)

My current project, Digital Forest, is perhaps an attempt to do the impossible, I aim to capture the essence of a forest, in all it’s sublime theatricality and sensorial diversity, and distill it into an immersive experience, which will be shown in a large gallery space at Royal Holloway University from April 2018.

My research so far has proved that Fowles is, of course, right; forests resist being fully captured by view-finder or drawing paper, which is why I’m not trying to mimic a forest directly, but am filtering my rendition of a forest through a very particular lens, that of recent discoveries and theories in science and psychology. Specifically, I am using ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ (Kaplan; 2001) , which demonstrates that walking through a forested or green space reduces stress and restores attentional resources to the extent that people perform far better on tasks requiring intense concentration if they have walked through a ‘natural’ verses an urban environment. My research will explore and even test some of the possible factors that produce this positive effect on attention and create an environment, which will be an abstract installation, but that has a similar effect on attention. To help me, I am collaborating with Professor Polly Dalton, the director of the Attention Lab at Royal Holloway University, and whose research centres on multi-sensory attention. We have been collaborating for many years now but this is our first big art commission.

 


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Having gone through the revelatory, exciting, crazy and exhausting process of creating the forest, I finally have a moment to upload some photos from the completed installation.

My aim was to create a space where people could relax their attention in a similar way as they do in forests. Comments (some shown below) show that the installation definitely achieved this for a lot of people. We have yet to experiment on enough to participants to know whether this can be verified more than anecdotally. I’m hoping I will be able to blog soon about some results from our experiments.

Small selection from many comments:

It’s incredibly easy to spend a good chunk of time in there (at least 30 minutes this time). An incredibly important installation. I’ll be back. Wonderful’.

‘Peaceful and physically engaging. Loved it’

‘Fascinating experiment’

‘Beautiful – made my skin tingle. Loved the depth’.

‘This was the best, very calming’

‘So restful. I loved it’

A video of the installation can be found at: https://vimeo.com/277805428


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Not only has the a-n bursary allowed me to spend time in the studio intensively experimenting with different projection techniques and editing videos, it has also given me the time to research forests. I have done this by immersing myself in various forests, watching, taking notes and photos and filming. As I watch and listen, I am constructing sequences for the installation, which will have time based passages, such as a rain sequence.


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The sound in the installation will be a very important part of it and is being created by sound artist and composer, Nye Parry. In order to explore the kind of sound that will be in the installation and discuss issues relating to sound I decided to interview Nye. Here is our Q&A;

MB: How do you make the sound of a forest?

NP: As I understand your project the task is more about producing the effects of a natural environment in the spectator (or listener) than trying to simulate the precise sound a forest makes. What is it about this kind of natural soundscape that we find relaxing or stimulating or restorative? For me that has a lot to do with space and spatial perception. Our ears are highly attuned to the perception of space. Every sound we hear carries with it information about where we are, where the source is and what the that spatial relationship consists of. When I hear someone talking in the next room I not only perceive that it is a person talking and possibly (but not necessarily) what they are saying, I can also tell something about the spatial characteristics of the room they are in, the room I am in, whether the door is open or closed, where that room is situated etc. The sounds of the forest are incredibly diffuse, there is a surprising amount of reverberation due to the large number of surfaces the sound reflects around but it is also possible to perceive sound over a great distance. These are some of the ideas I am trying to work with.

 

MB: If you are not trying to sound exactly like a forest, what kind of sounds are you working with?

 

NP: Despite my previous statement, at the moment I am actually working quite hard to imitate forest sounds particularly the way the wind moves through the trees, the approach and retreat of the rustling sounds that result. That said, I am using foly techniques more than field recordings. By using many small loudspeakers I can break down the effect into constituent parts – little rustles spread across a wide area for example, rather than reproducing the complete sound in one location. I am not rejecting any approach at this stage from synthesizing sound using noise generators and filters to recording paper chains and twigs. For your little research film I also drew heavily from a piece I wrote in the nineties called Spring (from the Seasons – https://soundcloud.com/nyesonic/spring). This uses digital sound design techniques, particularly convolution, to produce a variety of almost naturalistic but still obviously digital sounds. In a way it has elements of the digital forest about it and I was interested in the way you recognise the sounds to be like something but don’t believe it to actually be that thing in the same way as in a painting you see both the surface of the canvas, the brushstrokes and also the object depicted. Roger Scruton refers to this as ‘double intentionality’ (Scruton, 1997, pp. 86-7)

 

MB: You mention using many speakers to create the effect of movement. What kind of technologies are you employing?

 

NP: Much of my work deals with space and the way music can be perceived as a navigable landscape rather than as a narrative arc. One way I have explored this in previous work is by breaking down sounds into individual partials and distributing them across anything up to 60 separate small speakers. In many ways I differ from a lot of composers who work in multi-channel formats in that I am fascinated by point sources rather than the movement or panning of sounds. When we hear the wind in the forest we are of course not hearing the wind itself, which makes no sound, but rather the effect the wind has on a large number of relatively stationary objects (the trees and their leaves). So I have decided to use lots (probably 32, maybe more) of small speakers again above the heads of the gallery visitors. I will use some multi-channel amplifiers built by Jamie Campbell (http://www.glisferox.co.uk/) that I first used in an installation called The Exploded Sound (http://www.nyeparry.com/exploded/). These will be controlled by a computer which will be adjusting levels and filtering sounds on the fly to create the movement effects I am after. They may also respond to some of the projections. I use Max/MSP for programming which gives my great flexibility to make changes right up to the last minute in the exhibition space. I love the process of installation, the way a piece really only comes together as a symbiosis of the space and what you bring to it and I always make a lot of decisions during the install.

 

MB Thanks Nye for taking the time to answer these questions

 

NP: My pleasure – I am really looking forward to this project!!!


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I visited, along with the composer Nye Parry, the brand new exhibition space at Royal Holloway University, where Digital Forest, my installation in making, will have its first public showing. (From April- July 2018)

It was really exciting to see the finished exhibition space, which is 100 square metres. It gave me a much clearer image in my head of what the eventual work will look like, and while on the train home I quickly did a sketch of where some things might go in the space, as otherwise I couldn’t stop imagining it. The space, apart from being really big, is state of the art, with controllable temperature and lighting etc and moveable walls so I can configure it as I want. As it is so new it has lots of convenient additions such as plenty of power points, which can often be an issue when installing my work as I use a lot of equipment. This installation is likely to involve the use 15 projectors – all with films that are timed to come on and go off at specific times, so along with DVD players, amplifiers and computers, I will be doing a lot of plugging in! The space is also a perfect fit for my work because it is totally self- contained and can be completely blacked out. My work always involves projected video, which I design to sculpt the space, so any light source other than the projector, or projectors, themselves, really intrudes and at worst can destroy the whole piece. Often curators don’t seem to understand this, and want to place my work next to other light based works or near emergency lights, which can’t be switched off. However, here there are none of those nightmares, just a blank canvas space, into which I will choreograph light, image and sound. I am really enjoying working on this project in the studio and can’t wait to see it installed.


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I have been hard at work experimenting in the studio trying to create an experience that replicates the effect of a forest on attention. In the first blog I outlined the aspects of a forest that psychologists believe cause this effect. One of the areas mentioned is the balance between prospect and refuge, therefore, I am currently focussing on the change in depth of perception often encountered in a forest. For example, the way after walking through through a dense area, you might suddenly happen upon an expanse of seemingly infinite trees. I am experimenting with and developing some illusional and theatrical tricks in order to create a feeling of canopies and vistas opening up, even within the confines of an exhibition space.  It involves lots of two way mirror material and video projection. Creating the illusion will involve getting the light levels, type of projection, timing and the distance between the mirror surfaces just right, there is a lot of experimentation and fine tuning to be done.

The images show my initial experiments, at this point it still seems like it will take a lot of work – and some magic – to turn this into an experience like a walk through a forest. I can see what I want it to look like in my mind, but finding ways to transform mind pictures into reality is always the biggest challenge of all.


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