you are variations [vol. ...]

a research series on tree ecosystems as live audio-video environments

'you are variations [vol. ...]' is a series of research projects on acustic and visual environments
built and fed by ecophysiological and metereological data.
In this series it becomes possible to observe and listen to environmental processes of diverse ecosystems.

Swiss artists-in-labs 2011 at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL

with an essay by Dr Harriet Hawkins,
lecturer in Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK


My residency at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL started on March 01 and ended on Nov. 30 2011, with a final presentation at the institute on Dec. 9 2011.
I came to the WSL to study ecophysiological processes within trees and creative processes within me. The idea was to compare them, accompanied by the quest for insight in the very manner of connections: do growth processes comment, inform, and reflect each other? Can cultural and natural growth processes be brought into relation?
According to the contemporary environmental situation the project takes place against a background of serious concern regarding the trends in climatic change, and correspondingly deals with issues of overall temperature increase, and related water cycle modifications: changes that unfold in most diverse and yet unknown manners, but that certainly do take place, unavoidably, globally, as well as in each local microclimate.
This report tries to summarize the context and the process the project undertook, together with some concluding remarks and documentary material about its outcomes.

chronological timeline

phase 01

Each single tree is the materialised optimum performance of most diverse and complex processes, an ensemble of organisms and environment, involving processes of ordering, exchange, and transformation.
In a first instance the work tried to get a sense of physiological process within trees by looking at the anatomy and morphology of the gestalt of trees from root to leaf. The fascination circled around the tree’s body as comporting an corporeal and incorporeal dimension.

While ecophysiological processes indispensably unfold over time, the response time of each single organism - and maybe especially of the environment and climate systems - is not necessarily immediate, but shows overlaps of most divers timings, interactive accelerations, and in-built delays.
Parallel to structural and functional insights about the core building structure of trees, its’ body, I became aware in the very first phase of my research that trees have particular rhythms and follow their own, specific timing.

For to approach this peculiar sense of time I started to study stomatal morphology, distribution and behavior, together with data on gas exchange gathered by the WSL, and basic literature on stomatal conductance.
Stomata are small pores on the surfaces of leaves that regulate the flow of gases in and out of the plant. Stomata respond to a wide spectrum of signals: daily and seasonal rhythms, the weather, local soil and air conditions, intracellular signaling etc. Stomata move according to a most peculiar and different sense of time then we have, along with a completely different scale and sensitivity. Accordingly, the development of a forest is a process so slow, it can not be observed directly. A different concept of time is necessary for to understand the growth and streaming of a tree.

For to take into consideration the great complexity of all the factors involved in this research, I started to encompasses the study of self-generating and self-organising processes by comparing processes within trees with processes within my work, under the specific environmental conditions and climatic shifts of nowadays. Are the processes unfolding my work – even ever so distantly – related to the processes unfolding a tree? Perhaps some dynamics involved – in one way or the other - apply to all of us, to trees as much as humans. I was curious.
My interest in forms of self-generating and self-organising processes - contrary to ideas, demands, and expectations of concepts, designs, and planning – comes from experiences with my own work, which actively installs, welcomes, and befriends itself with the unknown and unexpected. The work started to experiment with co-creating conditions and exploring methods that allow the processes unfolding becoming tangible.

I was interested in results that seemingly withdraw and escape from my or any mind’s or design’s will: I observed principles of self-organisation in the artistic material. I noticed processes of self-production in the creative process. I confided in the factual, as much as in intuition, coincidence, and chance.
I like invisible matter, hidden processes and unpredictable events .

It was in the second month of my residency that I started to collect the documents, imageries and ideas I gather in the form of books.

The first book is called Alnus glutinosa, Carpinus betulus, and Acer pseudoplatanus.
It collects information on the three species in the form of basic scientific facts on: soil, roots, and their interactions; on stem anatomy, morphology, and architecture; and on leaves and their gas-exchange with the air.
Daily thoughts and observations I made while working build additional layers.
The experiment with this collection consists in the overlap and intertwining of images, data, and texts from different - although related - sources, in search for yet unknown connections, relationships, and sense.
I was especially interested in the resulting constellations, the overlaps that occurred, and the relating transitions.

Trees are experts in non-obstruction, and interpenetration.
They are made and fit for certain aspects to be determined and certain not, allowing complex orders to become by itself. Trees work with the coexistence of dissimilars, a blending and transformation of most diverse elements, meeting in several overlapping cycles, each with its’ own centre: an ongoing circuit of processes with their own rules and timings. There are many central points, and each circle deserves attention, while no one circle can be isolated and looked at by itself.

It was clear that a following-up edition in the form of a series of books will concentrate on conifers, especially particular pine trees of the alpine region, in relation to dendroclimatological methods and technologies developed and applied at the institute.

phase 02

In a second phase of my residency at the WSL from May – August I continued and expanded the study of ecophysiological processes within trees and creative processes within me, aiming towards a deeper understanding of ecosystems as a whole, including their boundaries and limits, as much as their internal processing and their interactions with the environment.

Parallel to the decision to concentrate and experiment with books as medium and format accompanying this research I started to experimented with a first transposing of young oak trees’ root growth into minimal sound shifts: data on root lengths and and root depths were related to pitch shifts of sine waves, while the roots’ environment was composed by sound clouds according to the physical soil composition, building a slightly vivid, sonic background for the root-sound to grow into: A new project started, the series ‘you are variations’.
It is planned as a set of permanent sound installations, as well as live concerts and events, which allow comparison between ecophysiological processes driven by different and changing environmental conditions:

How do changes in climatic conditions modify the water cycle and water availability of trees?
on the interpretation and transposition of meteorological and physiological data into sonic soundscapes:
daily water cycles through Pine trees in Swiss dry alpine and wet midland ecosystems

The first sound installation in this series entitled ’can I ask you a question?’ [computer, six speakers, subwoofer, chalk]
was built as test set-up and basic prototype and took place at the WSL on August 22 2011.
The sound installation ‘can I ask you a question?’ transformed meteorological and physiological long-term monitoring data of two different forest ecosystems into two comparable soundscapes.
The objectives were twofold and intertwined:
- to research the interpretation potential of scientific data on the water availability for pine trees;
we distinguished between the potential and the actual water stress
and compared the characteristics and relevance of water cycles in differing ecosystems
- to experiment with sonic and visual data transformations
resulting in live/on-site sound- and eventually light-installations,
as well as in concerts and events with a defined time-setting

Environmental data sets describing soil moisture-, sapflow-, leaf gas exchange and meteorological conditions from two contrasting long-term monitoring sites were transposed into two soundscape, rendering the differences in water availability and plant response of pine trees growing at the respective regions sonically comparable: one long-term monitoring site at the xeric forest plot Visp, Valais, with a continental climate typical of the central alps getting remarkably dryer in the monitored years, and one from the moist site Vordemwald on the Swiss Plateau.

Climatic changes such as temperature increase and modifications in the precipitation pattern affect these forest ecosystems differently. In particular the trees growing at the xeric site are exposed to extreme drought conditions, triggering changes in e.g. tree growth, tree resistance to pathogens or insects, and tree mortality. The long-term measurement of the soil water conditions availability to plants in the rooting zone provides useful information on the drought sensitivity of these forests and allows the modeling of water fluxes between biosphere and atmosphere.
The measurement of sapflow combined with gas exchange and meteorological data (leaf- and air temperature, relative humidity, solar radiation, precipitation, wind speed and wind direction) provides complementary information on transpiration and photosynthetic rate and completes the water cycle.
The harmonized and synchronized data are used for acoustic modeling of the water flux through the tree:
from the soil, passing through the root cells, and stem vessels, and evaporating through the stomata into the atmosphere.
The data sets of ‘can I ask you a question?’ were selected on the basis of the long-term monitoring program LWF
and analyzed by experts from the Research Units ‘Forest Dynamics’ and ‘Forest Soils and Biogeochemistry’.

Parallel to this first attempt to use LWF data as artistic material feeding sound compositions we set up a think-tank within the Research Unit ‘Forest Dynamics’ of the WSL .
It entailed the mutual decision to cooperate closely and structurally in the continuation of artistic and scientific experiments in transforming ecophysiological processes into tangible events.
In my dairy I wrote:                  “this is not a straight line                  this is the beginning of a circle                  the beginning of embracing”

Reflecting upon my work process at the institute during the first six month I seemed to continue to encompass the study of self-generating and self-organising processes. I especially try to expand my understanding of self-organization in physical terms involving energy -, resp. entropy cycling; working towards the study of ecosystems as complex, integrated systems composed of interacting biotic and abiotic components: that is, ecosystems as metabolisms cycling energy and matter. The study follows the basic experience that living organisms and physical factors are intrinsically connected, building ecosystems that continuously transform energy. Within the water cycle I especially focussed on the critical thresholds ‘temperature’ and ‘energy’.

phase 03

But how to weld together the sum total of all the specialized portions of what is know into a whole?
I tried to pause and to formulate the questions that came up in the two volumes:
- Tree 9-2071 Pinus sylvestris, 1919 - 2008, Pfynwald, Valais, CH [volume 01: temperature]
- Tree 2-395 Pinus sylvestris, 1915 - 2009, Pfynwald, Valais, CH [volume 02: energy]

‘Tree 9-2071 [volume 01] ’ documents my inquiry and list my questions, ‘Tree 2-395 [volume 02] ’ collects the questions addressed to me by the staff at the institute. Both volumes are conceived to create space for to welcome and value our issues, the questions themselves.
In both books each page comes in three-fold:
- the questions displayed according to the tree-ring chronology of Tree 9-2071’s and Tree 2-395’s density profile
- notes on the principles regarding energy transformation processes boosted by the water cycle through pine trees
- drawings from illustrations of Pinus sylvestris

In giving each question the time and space to correlate with brief scientific remarks, as well as with drawings of Pinus sylvestris, the questions are set into an interwoven context indispensably reflecting the residency’s timespan: they unfolded over a 9 month residency period at the Research Institute, and live on in the time the reader takes to be with these books.

In both books the questions are following the tree-ring chronology of Tree 9-2071’s and Trees 2-395’s density profiles as their growth pattern, measured by the tree-ring cell size, the maximum latewood density and the ring width by means of X-ray radiodensitometry and image analysis .
Both books ask:
what “temperatures” were decisive for the structure and growth of these trees?
what “temperatures” were decisive for the structure and growth of these works?

The last book, ‘tree 8-2018 - you are variations’ builds the background for the compositional audio transposition of the water cycle as soil-plant-atmosphere continuum [spac] in the form of sound installations and live concerts:

Subsuming the book contains a set of instructions I set for myself for searching out an unknown goal by exploration. I tried active experimentation: to keep spaces and events open for interactions yet to be made.

Like any musical score, ‘you are variations’ is a statement about organization, in this case the intricate cycling of water through trees during a one year cycle. It is the organisation of the tree that determines the organization of the sounds and the timing, as much as the organization of the speakers, the players, and the orchestra. The sound installations and performances re-enact waters’ soil-plant-atmosphere continuum during one year - in this case the year 2011 - by setting to sound one day for each season, that is four sections forming a continuum. ‘you are variations’ became a molecular polyphony: it opens in three independent, interconnected voices with the early morning, when the son is not yet on the horizon, and the environment starts preparing itself for a new cycle. It closes again right there.

The process kept generating its own structure. Once the process was set up the sounds run by themselves.
They may oscillate for some time, varying within a small range and then shift rapidly.
They do not present discontinuities. Rather, they present a hybrid, vivid interplay conducted by data waves forming slowly and quickly shifting textures:
- the gaining and waxing temperatures determining the tempo of the pieces function like the weather does, as orientation tool and social organizer, creating shared physicalities;
- and like the weather giving the invisible air surrounding us substance, air humidity and precipitation create proximities and depth, they determine the volume and give body and dimension to the piece.

Energies transform. Matter cycles. ‘you are variations’ changes accordingly.
In building temporal ensembles the environment, the forest, the weather, the sounds and the listener share an intimate and personal, as much as a political domain: partaking together in becoming.

Organic systems are probabilistic: the exhibit diversity, flexibility, adaptability, while this variety is not unlimited. Three independent and interrelated sections emerged from this study to which I gave the subtitles:
part I [soil], part II [plant], part III [atmosphere], with the three parts functioning as a whole.

While the work is fully scored – for electro-acoustic sound installations, as well as for live performances – it contains plenty of basic suggestions for interpretation and improvisation.
- The computer generated version is set up for a minimum of three to a maximum of n loudspeakers
placed vertically according to the three parts, preferably in a silent environment next to Pine trees.
- In the live performance the players practice the score. They do not address the sounds, nor themselves,
to the audience, which is invited to view the series of books. Merging with and dissolving into the three parts of the water cycle score, the players gradually become an integral part of the performance environment itself, acting as the plants do, sending sonic massages immersed in place and transience.

The electroacoustic sound installations, as well as the live performances, convey a strong sense of place and involvement, a sense of personal and spiritual significance. ‘you are variations’ in its core is a collaborative work:
the close collaboration of several scientists, diverse artists, and the living trees of these two forests.

I realize only now that its underlying, generative idea is the gradual awakening and release of sonic energy,
energy which I think of as coiled and latent, with an embedded power which nourishes when summoned.
It is this gradual awakening and releasing in all its different timings, shapes and variations that these trees tell about.

Maybe the work suggests to expand and transform our concept of art through looking at nature, not in an assignment of nature to music, but in an attempt to perceive nature in a complex and interwoven continuum with culture. Nature changes at the slightest move. The concept ‘nature’ is of modification, not of essence. These modifications are generative: when a natural body grows it is in movement. It does not coincide with itself, it coincides with the transition, its own variation. In growth a body is in an immediate, unfolding relation to its own now-present potential to vary. The link to the title comes in here with the thereby added remark that what we conceive and feel of nature are variations in intensities: a process understood as nature – culture continuum of variations, always as co-growth in variations of transitions in a continuous process of becoming.
A process, by nature, is relational. The only autonomy is of unfolding relations, where the natural and the cultural feed-forward and back into each other. It is our decision – subjectively and collectively, while not universally; intentionally, and not necessarily permanent – , to listen to and enjoy data from nature converted into sound as music and art.

In the proposed allocation of data to sound both values are abstracts and deeply rooted in our culture.
The sound you hear is not the tree, it is affected and inspired by the tree.
The transposition I worked on for 9 month is not a form of representation, reflection or mirroring of these trees.
Rather, it is a transduction - maybe the very mode of operation of becoming itself - a self-propagating movement seeding several further self-organizations, each differing in nature from the last, but connected by its shared generative impulse, resulting in a creative uncertainty with emphasis on the genesis; and in a vision of change as insistence that what emerges does not conform or correspond to anything outside itself, nor to its own condition of emergence. In other words, ‘you are variations’ suggests to address trees as beings, and not as traces; beings that by their very nature are always in a state of becoming by differing, emerging always on the different.
‘you are variations’ does not reflect these beings, or this becoming, or these processes of formation. It does inflect it.
In this sense the resonations of ‘you are variations’ can be seen as attempts to convert distance into intensity.
It is a qualitative transformation of distance into immediacy of relation to tree and self.

I set the sound. It happened in a series of unspectacular moments over the course of 9 month, in the same way as I set down many cups of coffee on different tables during the working process. I did not transform or complement the sound. Nor did I need to pursue a permanent assignment. It arises when our listening moves away and is freed from being pragmatically and representationally oriented.
Attaining this musical state requires a profound listening, an immersion inside of sound-matter and its energy.
When I listen to the daily cycles shifting within a year my ears feel like caves. It is in theses caves, with time as its’ conductor, that I find myself looking for a sonic cognition.

I hope this gradual approaching and converging – reflected in the focusing in and merging with an intense working process - makes possible that shift of attention away from “he” and “she” and “you” and “me” towards “it”;
that getting inside the sound bears the potential to lead you inside the tree, not for to represent the physical event, but for to become the actual embodiment of the event.

The works developed during this residency are personal alba. Often I was filled with an ambiguous sensation
when I imagined these series of books and soundscapes out there in the open: that an artistic interpretation
of a dry forest in Salgesch and of wet woods in Vordemwald have become untethered, finding re-enactments
in far-flung places like Venice, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Zürich, etc., where the work - and with it ecophysiological processes of these forests - are conceived to re-take place.
I deliberated for a long while over how to share these gestures – the trees’ and my own - with others.
Aren’t trees and their environments best left alone?

It was the working process itself, together with the repeated contemplation about it, which gave me the impetus
to share my joy to get to know these trees, to open this research up to others, and to invite others into it.

It may not be an easily graspable subject: ‘you are variations’ draws attention to the complex water cycling and sophisticated energy balance of trees in different environmental conditions.
If even one person connects with the own environment and its conditions as a result of listing to the sounds,
leafing through these books, reading the texts and interpreting the scores, it will have been worthwhile.
And if even one tree is reached and greeted by the work, then it will be good.

What I have learnt?
That inventions require experimentation. That the emphasis is on process, before any signification and coding.
That such collaborative working methods take time. And that it is time to take this time.

It may be that art and science need each other, entirely aside from questions of contemporary fashion or institutional power, but for their own reciprocal health. It is in the connection that the environmental issues we have to deal with take on an added importance.
Reopening the question of what constitutes an experiment and what counts as experience in my eyes is perhaps one way to get both’s – the art’s and the science’s – attention.

When I arrived a buoyant source precisely in the middle of the refectory was shown to me, a chromium-nickel-steel-winged water fountain. For 9 month I gratefully drunk from it every day.
Now, far away from this canteen, I still ask myself how artistic work can keep on contributing to its’ flow.
It most be an art in the form of an extraordinary generosity: an art of removing itself, creating space for the other:
“the other” not as “the scientist”. The other is the tree: an observer, a perceiver, a knower, a thinker, and a potential actor; a transformer.

Thank you for this award.

Amsterdam, January 2012
Christina Della Giustina

The data sets of ‘you are variations’ were selected on the basis of the long-term monitoring program LWF
and analyzed by experts from the Research Units ‘Forest Dynamics’ and ‘Forest Soils and Biogeochemistry’
of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

We study the impact of climate change and management on forest ecosystems.
Focusing on ecosystems' resistance and resilience with respect to biotic and abiotic stressors and disturbances, the unit develops
science-based knowledge to improve concepts for sustainable forest management in a changing environment to ensure
the permanent availability of the large array of forest ecosystem goods and services.
A strength of the unit is the combination of multiple approaches along the method chain consisting of forest
long-term monitoring, high-resolution field measurements, experiments and mechanistic modeling on various
spatial and temporal scales, from the plant cell to landscapes and from seconds to centuries. This combined,
multidisciplinary approach is the basis for an integrated indepth ecosystem analysis.

A particular research focus is the water cycle in trees and forest ecosystems affected by climate change.
The effect of drought on various forest ecosystems is studied on 16 long-term forest ecosystem monitoring
and experimental plots, in a model ecosystem facility consisting of 16 open-top lysimeter chambers,
in a large scale irrigation experiment, several rain-out shelter experiments and field observational studies.

In 2011 Christina Della Giustina is artist in residence in the research unit.
Her artistic practice entails working at the lab’s 16 monitoring sites, gathering, structuring and transposing the measured data on a diagnostical, statistical as well as a real-time level.
Her focus is on water cycles and meteorology and the question of how to render dynamics particular to specific environments publicly accessible and perceivable. Focusing on the ecophysiological processes of trees, she transformes the long-term monitoring data sets from different drought-sensitive forests into sound scores for interactive light-/video-installations and live concerts. As a result the actual ecophysiological processes driven by climate change become locally sensible on-site.

As a catalyst this series of interactive installations and live events enable diverse urban, suburban, and alpine communities
to explore the complex interplay of shifting environmental cycles in this rapidly evolving arena of climate change on global,
as much as on locale scale.

The think-tank within the Research Unit Forest Dynamics
of the Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Birmensdorf, CH
consists of:
Dr. Andreas Rigling, Head Research Unit Forest Dynamics, Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL
Dr. Marcus Schaub, Head Ecophysiology, Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL
Prof. Dr. Fritz Schweingruber, Emeritus, Dendroecology, Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL
Christina Della Giustina, artist in residence at Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL

research institute:   Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, Birmensdorf, CH
  Research Unite Forest Dynamics
think-tank: Dr. Andreas Rigling, Head Research Unit Forest Dynamics, Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL
  Dr. Marcus Schaub, Head Ecophysiology, Swiss Federal Research Institute, WSL
  Prof. Dr. Fritz Schweingruber, Emeritus, Dendroecology, WSL
  Christina Della Giustina, artist in residence, WSL
organization:   artists-in-labs

general project description 'you are variations'

research [books/performances]:
- Pinus sylvestris, 3 books [wood, paper, white gloves; ca. 40 x 40 x 8,5 cm]; December 2011
- Alnus glutinosa, Carpinus betulus, Acer pseudoplatanus, book [wood, paper, white gloves; 40 x 40 x 8,5 cm]; May 2011

installation views and performances in the frame of:

- you are variations [version 01]

- 'libri di_versi', Venice, IT; June - August 2011
Portogruaro and Concordia Sagittaria, Venice, Italy

- 'KadS', Amsterdam, NL; Sept. - Oct. 2011
Schinkel-/Sloterkade, Amsterdam, Netherlands

- 'off label', Victoria, CA; Oct. - Nov. 2011
digital artweeks: off label, emotional landscaping, Oct. 24 - Nov. 02 2011, Gallery Victoria, Victoria, CA

- 'you are variations', WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; December 2011

- 'conversation pieces', Academy Gallery, Utrecht, NL; January - February 2012

Academy Gallery, Utrecht, NL

- you are variations [version 02]

- AkkuH, Hengelo, NL; April 22 - June 6 2012

research [audio video / installation views]:
- you are variations [cat+ 02], can I ask you a question?, audio-video documentation, WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; August 2011
- you are variations [version 01], audio documentation, WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; December 2011
- you are variations [version 01], audio-video documentation, WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; December 2011
- you are variations [version 01], live concert [audio documentation], WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; December 2011

- you are variations [cat+ 02], can I ask you a question?, installation views, WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; May 2011
- you are variations [version 01], installation views, WSL, Birmensdorf, CH; December 2011
- you are variations [version 01], Academy Gallery, Utrecht, NL; January - February 2012

- you are variations [version 02], AkkuH, Hengelo, NL; April 22 - June 6 2012

video documentation
part I: soil
part II: plant
part III: atmosphere
part IV: part I - part III played simultaneously [continuum]
AkkuH, Hengelo, NL; April 22 - June 3 2012

audio documentation
part I: soil
part II: plant
part III: atmosphere
part IV: part I - part III played simultaneously [continuum]
AkkuH, Hengelo, NL; April 22 - June 3 2012

AkkuH, Hengelo, NL; April 22 - June 3 2012

with an essay by Dr Harriet Hawkins,
lecturer in Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK