Cosmology and the Art of Evading Falling Trees

On the day the If a Tree Falls in the Forest exhibition was scheduled to open, Grizedale Forest closed to the public. A storm off the west coast of England and Wales brought high speed winds and torrential rain. The chance of flooding was high and the risk of falling trees was real. From the safety of the Cosmoparticle Initiative offices in University College London in April 2018, no-one envisaged we would have to contend with the reality of trees falling, but this eventuality reflected the shift from theory to practice, concept to realisation, and idea to object which underpinned this art science project.

The If a Tree Falls exhibition was the end point of a six-month collaboration between RCA Information Experience Design MA students and early career cosmologists from UCL’s Cosmoparticle Initiative. The project investigated ways in which artistic practice could be used to elucidate and communicate the complex and often intangible ideas at the heart of contemporary cosmology.

The exhibition took place in Grizedale Visitor’s Centre Project Space, a former chapel situated at the centre of Grizedale Forest and set in the beautiful wild landscapes of Cumbria. Showing the final artworks in this place, immersed in the forest, offered an opportunity for public engagement with an audience whose primary focus was neither art nor science.

After the storm subsided, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents, walking groups, cyclists, adventurers, holidaymakers, retirees, forest employees and local residents made their way into the gallery via the forest trails. They appeared with mud on their boots, packs on their backs, sometimes rain drenched with walking sticks, cycle gear and dogs in tow. Whilst an encounter with contemporary cosmology was not a priority for this audience, Grizedale Forest does have a long artistic tradition, celebrating its 50th anniversary as the UK’s oldest forest sculpture park is 2018.

Working with Grizedale’s Art Development Manager, curator Hazel Stone, our exhibition was designed to ease the audience into the scientific concepts which underpinned our collaborative project. The artworks were installed across the two large rooms of the gallery and connected by a smaller exhibition space and entrance that led directly out to the forest. The artwork shown in the front room included an introduction to the If a Tree Falls project and a deliberate placement of accessible artworks that invited audience participation. A series of short documentary films by Richard Millington and Kumi Oda that revealed the collaborative process undertaken by the artists and scientists were screened in a continuous loop in the space connecting the two rooms. These films provided insights into the thinking behind the artworks presented in the gallery. The second room housed additional artworks, examples of work-in-progress, a workshop table and an immersive inflatable projection dome.

The If a Tree Falls in the Forest exhibition became a place for ideas, in which every artwork invited and initiated different interactions and conversations. As the audience entered the gallery they would typically take one of three actions; they read the introduction and made their way to the selection of Activity Cards featuring cosmological thought experiments with illustrations by artist Olivia Sullivan. Alternatively, they headed to the instructions for the Algorithmic Tree Wall, a participatory artwork by designer Ed Cornish and cosmologist Krishna Naidoo, where they contributed their forest twig to the growing tree installation. Or instead, they walked toward, around and underneath Franziska Hatton’s artwork Confirmation of Time, a large scale entropic model of the universe, suspended in the centre of the gallery and constructed with materials sourced from the forest. Whichever path was chosen, a simple welcome and invitation to ask any questions often led to longer discussions ranging from entropy and dark matter to demystifying algorithms and the meaning of life. There was also a broader interest in our overall collaborative process and the aim to communicate complex scientific concepts through art and design practice.

Confirmation of Time by Franziska Hatton, developed in association with cosmologist Arthur Loureiro, provided a central visual presence in the exhibition space. Along with the Algorithmic Tree Wall, this piece drew the most animated responses from the visitors. Conversations about the structure of the universe, about the impact of entropy at terrestrial and universal scale, about the cosmos, about science, art and humanity all unfolded beneath the slowly evolving canopy of this artwork.

Michaela French’s Algorithmic Space-time Fabric used the repetition of rules and actions to shape an evolving knitted structure. Reflected light was a presence which revealed the darkness between each stitch. (Image Credit: Franziska Hatton)

Moving through the exhibition, the reflected light from the surfaces of Michaela French’s Algorithmic Space-time Fabric drew visitors into the dark space at the side of the front gallery. To view these artworks the audience had to move around each piece, swaying side to side to animate the light or to catch a focused magnified view of the illuminated knitted structures. The body, science and the underlying structures of the universe were primary points of conversation in this space. Just outside, Daniele Giannetti and Nicolas Angelides’ artwork Instance used the metaphor of water and stone to consider the moment in which scientists might detect the existence of invisible dark matter on earth, an instance which, if it were it to happen, would alter our understanding of the Universe forever.

Entering the second room of the gallery the audience encountered the large black inflatable sphere of the fulldome projection space. Twice daily – and at other times by frequent demand – visitors tumbled through the dome’s door into a world of wonder. Spherical and immersive fulldome films including Another Tree for the Forest by Ed Cornish and Krishna Naidoo, Lenses of Perception by Olivia Sullivan and Constance Mahony and The Light of Home by Michaela French, journeyed through three-dimensional algorithmic star maps, investigated gravitational lensing at forest scale and explored the human relationship with light. Audiences remarked on the sensation of being taken to the edge of the universe and back as they emerged from the dome into the familiar space of the gallery and the forest.

An inflatable fulldome projection space was the central feature of the second gallery. The immersive fulldome films Lenses of Perception, Another Tree for the Forest and The Light of Home transported audiences beyond the gallery into universal realms. (Image Credits: Michaela French, Olivia Sullivan and Ed Cornish)

Situated on the walls around the dome were examples of work-in-progress that had emerged through the creation of the fulldome films presented in the inflatable dome. A final point of discovery in the exhibition was Kevin Walker’s Spacetime Exploration No.1, an intricate and closely studied star field drawing which drew the audience to the far corner of the gallery.

Simple but beautiful typographic design by Helga Schmid brought a visual cohesion to the exhibition and enabled the audience to take information about the artworks and the project away with them.

Kevin Walker’s intricate drawing Spacetime Exploration No.1 sat amongst examples of work-in-progress that led to the creation of the films presented in the fulldome projection space. (Image Credits: Franziska Hatton & Ed Cornish)

Illustrator Olivia Sullivan brought the forest into the gallery with her Lenses of Perception workshops. Microscopes replaced telescopes, as she invited the audience to see for themselves the distortions, insights and value of observing the natural world through lenses. Over the four week exhibition, the botanical and cosmological illustrations emerging from these workshops were hung on the gallery wall alongside completed Activity Cards and audience responses to the exhibition.

The artists and cosmologists who invigilated the exhibition responded to the questions that each artwork provoked. The audience, with their affinity for the natural world of the forest, entered enthusiastically into conversations about scientific research and humanity’s place in the cosmos. Through their collaborative process the artists had found the confidence to discuss the complex scientific ideas which underpinned their artworks. The cosmologists learned the value of the art as a means of initiating conversations about their research. The exhibition as a whole enabled a dialogue through which the scientists, the artists and the audience were able to find crucial points of overlap in their understanding of the Universe and our place within it.

Our collaborative effort to communicate science nurtured a genuine interest and curiosity within our forest audiences. But equally, the artists and cosmologists who were willing to take creative risks and stepped beyond the conventions of their disciplines into unknown territory, discovered new ways of working, developed new approaches for moving between theory and practice, and were rewarded with the insights and expanded view of their own work which only an interdisciplinary perspective can afford.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest exhibition ran from 12th Oct – 4th Nov 2018. The project was supported by Forest Art Works and by the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society Public Engagement Grant schemes. Further information about the project is available at and @ifatree_falls

Project Participants

Michaela French (RCA IED Visiting Lecturer & PhD Candidate)

Dr Helga Schmid (RCA IED Visiting Lecturer)

Prof Andrew Pontzen (UCL Reader in Cosmology)

Franziska Hatton (RCA IED graduate) with Arthur Loureiro (UCL PhD Candidate)

Daniele Giannetti (RCA IED graduate) & Nicolas Angelides (UCL PhD Candidate)

Olivia Sullivan (RCA IED graduate) & Constance Mahony (UCL PhD Candidate)

Ed Cornish (RCA IED student) & Krishna Naidoo (UCL PhD Candidate)

Video Documentation

Richard Millington (Independent filmmaker & BBC science producer)

Kumi Oda (RCA IED student)





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