Digital Forest initial sketches video and blog for a-n artists newsletter

This blog post about my new work in progress, Digital Forest, is also on the a-n website, as I have received a Professional Development bursary to help complete it.

“(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 someone’s attention. To help me, I am collaborating with Professor Polly Dalton, 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. Attention restoration is linked to landscape art, because studies show that our aesthetic preference for a scene often coincides with one that restores our attention, we rate a scene higher if it restores our attention even though we don’t realise it is having this effect. Indeed some argue that restorativeness is the reason we like certain scenes. (Van Der Wulp, 2003) I find this interesting for many reasons, not least because it prompts questions about universals for aesthetic preference, which leads us to evolutionary answers. The traits in an environment that were helpful to early humans, such as those offering both prospect and refuge are still the ones which cause our attention to be restored and produce landscapes we aesthetically prefer. Urban spaces can contain these traits but it is the natural space which restores attention. Why? There has been research about the properties that cause certain environments to have a high restorative value, and I will be drawing on it in the creation of my work. ‘Complexity’ and ‘mystery’ within the scene are both significant factors in predicting stress reduction and aesthetic preference. Complexity is simply defined as ‘how much is going on in a scene/ how much there is to look at’ (Kaplan), a scene with low to intermediate levels of complexity is preferred and offers the highest restorative value. This is understandable as such a scene is likely to have enough features in it to be useful in terms of offering refuge, but not be so overwhelmed with them that it is difficult to have a clear view. Mystery means something about a scene that draws the person in and makes them want to explore further, for example, winding paths or ‘enticement’, where the person is in the dark but can see an enlightened area.  Mystery evokes emotions and therefore adaptive reactions, and so evolutionarily it was a positive property for humans to encounter in an environment. Both of these factors will be fully exploited in my installation, which will be a dark space and will use use projected moving image and constructions that will hide certain areas of the space.

One of the most interesting and most important factors appears to be the geometry of the scene. Purcell, Peron and Berto (2001) speculate that natural scenes provoke high stress reducing and aesthetic responses due to an underlying fractal geometry, compared to urban scenes, which have underlying euclidean geometry. It seems it may be more specific even than that; within scenes composed of fractal geometry, it has been shown that a fractal dimension of between 1.3 and 1.5 offers the highest level of stress reduction. The fractal dimension gives a guide to the complexity of a scene as it is a ratio for the complexity of detail in a pattern as it changes with the scale at which it is measured. A fractal dimension of approximately 1.4 shows a low to intermediate level of complexity, which, as mentioned before, in a natural scene, would have offered the best chance of survival for early humans, and so today still produces the highest level of attention restoration. Intriguingly, some hypothesise that the neural mechanisms of humans are able to rapidly calculate the fractal dimension of a scene in order to quickly assess the habitability of an environment. I will be attempting to calculate the fractal dimension of the patterns in the moving images I am creating and will project. If possible, I will experiment with various levels of fractal dimension. The moving images will be abstracted from original footage filmed in forests. The abstraction is designed to bring out and exaggerate the patterning inherent in forest scenes. This patterning will be explored not only in the form but also in the sound, the movement, and the cadence. Both sound and image will be presented spatially, with sounds and moving images travelling around the space in a similar way to a real forest. Composer Prof. Nye Parry will be creating the sound for the exhibit. The installation will therefore be a real mixture of art and science, with a lot of experimentation in the studio to be done. I will follow up this initial blog with more pictures from the studio soon. Images shown here are from a short film I made of initial film sketches and ideas for the work, sound by Nye Parry.