if a tree falls…

In an age where science seems to race ahead of our ability to understand and convey it, a new project is looking at how to communicate the increasingly abstract and intangible concepts of modern cosmology. If a Tree Falls in the Forest is a collaborative art and science investigation between Information Experience Design (IED) at Royal College of Art and the Cosmoparticle Initiative at University College London. The project investigates subjects ranging from dark matter to data processing algorithms, and aims to bring these concepts to life for a non-specialist audience, through art and design practice.

The project builds on previous collaborations between artist and IED PhD candidate Michaela French, designer and IED Visiting Lecturer Dr Helga Schmid, and Prof Andrew Pontzen of the Cosmoparticle Initiative. We share an underlying vision that, at their core, art and science are part of the same search for understanding. It is this idea we hope to communicate through our collaboration. If a Tree Falls in the Forest also serves as a test site for interdisciplinary collaboration, through which we can observe, analyse and evaluate the possibilities, challenges and benefits of interdisciplinary practice-based research.

Concept development for the 360° fulldome film ‘Lenses of Perception’ by Olivia Sullivan and Constance Mahoney Image Credit: Olivia Sullivan

Beginning in London in March 2018, four IED artists and four UCL cosmologists were invited to work together to transform selected cosmological research data into exploratory 2D, 3D and time-based artworks and visualisations for public exhibition. The artist and scientist pairs were encouraged to adopt a broad approach to science communication, moving beyond traditional disciplinary boundaries, by considering ideas of interconnectivity, convergence and complexity to develop new modes of thinking and creative practice.

Initially, the forest was just the final destination for the project, with a public exhibition and workshops to be delivered at the Grizedale Forest Visitor’s Centre in the Lake District of northern England, in October 2018. However, as the has project unfolded, the forest has become an integral part of this collaboration, informing our thinking and discussion, as well as the materiality and direction of the artworks currently in development. Anchoring the collaborative process and the resulting artworks in the complex system of Grizedale Forest has enabled our dialogue to expand naturally in a domain which cannot be wholly defined by either art or science.

After an introductory seminar in the central London meeting rooms of UCL, the group travelled to Grizedale Forest to meet with curator Hazel Stone, and to understand how the gallery spaces we would use were situated within the forest. Grizedale is a working forest, but this year, it also celebrates its 50th anniversary as the UK’s oldest forest sculpture park. It is a World Heritage and Dark Skies site renowned for some of England’s finest stargazing opportunities. These artistic, scientific and cultural credentials offer an extraordinary and apposite location for our collaboration.

Grizedale Forest is quiet in way one can’t remember in London — there are no walls to contain thinking, the air is clear amongst the trees, and complexity is the norm. In the forest, traditional disciplinary approaches are out of context; a cosmologist is more than a scientist, and an artist is more than a creator; they become participants, observers, receivers and transmitters. It is a place where being and knowing are brought into balance.

The notion of balance has proved critical in developing and guiding this project. Working with groups of people is rarely straightforward, and finding and maintaining balance has required significant effort from everyone involved in the project — balancing the flow between provocation and emergence; balancing the risk between known territory and discovery; and balancing ideas with action are just a few examples.

Time has also been a crucial factor. In the early stages of the process, the collaboration followed a well-trodden path: the scientists provided facts, data sets and conceptual frameworks and the artists interpreted, visualised and illustrated this information through creative practice. However, the extended six-month duration of the project has allowed us to challenge the participants to develop common languages, shared goals and an understanding of each other’s fields of interest, practices and thinking. Undertaking a series of specifically designed project briefs, seminars and workshops has allowed space for each artist and scientist pair to find individual approaches and responses to the project themes.

In June, the whole group spent an intensive weekend in Epping Forest on the outskirts of London. Each artist and cosmologist group were invited to lead practice-based workshops to test and communicate their developing ideas. In this process, we investigated entropy through sand mandalas, algorithms provided maps with which to navigate the forest, and portable microscopes brought the innate complexity of feathers, leaves and cobwebs into view. The artists were investigators, the cosmologists were creators and we all experienced the excitement of new ways of seeing.

Observing the forest through a microscopic lens in a workshop led by Constance Mahoney and Olivia Sullivan. Image Credit: Kumi Oda

In moving toward the final artworks to be presented in the exhibition in Grizedale Forest, one group of collaborators chose to investigate gravitational lensing using the medium of sound to create distortion within a uniformly distributed field. The medium of sound sat outside the expertise of both the artist and cosmologist, and therefore, offered a levelled opportunity for shared learning. The project was subsequently developed to include a moving image component for immersive fulldome projection. Another group anchored their creative process in the algorithmic structures used by cosmologists to understand the distribution of galaxies in the Universe. A minimum spanning tree diagram forms the basis of a series of artistic outcomes that pose questions about the difference between human perception and the reality of the cosmos.

These varying approaches and methods adopted by each of the artist and cosmologist pairs revealed strengths and weaknesses, reflecting the broader challenges of interdisciplinary practice. At its worst, interdisciplinary collaboration is a cursory exercise offering little value; but at its best, it affords great potential for shared learning, deep understanding, expanded knowledge and the development of a diverse, complex, multi-faceted worldview. We will discover how well our collaborative effort to communicate science might inspire similar thinking in our audience when If a Tree Falls in the Forest opens to the public in Grizedale Forest in October 2018.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest exhibition is open at Grizedale Visitor’s Centre Project Space from 12th Oct – 4th Nov 2018. With public workshops running throughout the week 22nd -28th Oct. The project is supported by Grizedale Forest Sculpture and by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society Public Engagement Grant schemes. Further information is available at

Project Participants
Michaela French (RCA IED PhD & Lecturer)
Dr Helga Schmid (RCA IED Visiting Lecturer)
Dr Andrew Pontzen (UCL Reader in Cosmology)
(Franziska Pilling (RCA IED graduate) & Arthur Loureiro (UCL)
Daniele Giannetti (RCA IED graduate) & Nicolas Angelides (UCL)
Olivia Sullivan (RCA IED graduate) & Constance Mahony (UCL)
Ed Cornish (RCA IED student) & Krishna Naidoo (UCL)

Project documentation
Richard Millington (Independent filmmaker & BBC science producer)
Kumi Oda (RCA IED student)



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