When speaking about my practice of writing letters to trees the main focus has always been in the encounter with the trees, and besides artistic research, the context has been, the relationships to plants, critical plant studies or posthumanism more broadly. Now, at the Colloquium on Artistic Research in Performing Arts CARPA 7 – Elastic Writing in Artistic Research, the context was writing, and I realized I have not really considered my practice from that perspective. Originally I planned to present the development of the practice from field notes written after each session of performing with a tree or shrub in the day-long time-lapse videos like Sunday with a Pine (2017) on the one hand and the voice-over texts utilising the letter form as a literary device written afterwards, like for the video Year of the Dog in Lill-jansskogen (Sitting in a Pine) (2019) on the other hand, into this practice of writing to the trees next to the trees, which I began with the olive tree in Ulldecona. And I did compile an up-to-date list of all my letters to trees, so far. The Powerpoint presentation as pdf file is available on the RC here. I wanted to show a small video clip, too, and could not decide which one I should choose, especially since most of them were too long. I even considered creating a completely new clip with the plane tree in Humlegården, which I was sitting next to during the pre-conference workshop “Writing to Your Chosen Tree – a workshop”. And then I thought of the possibility of publishing something in the proceedings, if there will be something like that, and decided to do something with the video from Alicante. The letters I wrote to the Australian Banyan trees there, right after my attempts with the olive trees, I have not shown anywhere, although they provided he logo for my project.. The letter to the first one, written in Dear Ficus Macrophylla, was rather brief, which left plenty of space for some added notes. Thus I read the letter as a voice-over, now, one and a half year later, and added another text compiled of various notes as a semi-academic reflection after that. The original video is more than 20 minutes, but this conference-version is limited to 17 minutes. I uploaded it on vimeo, and it is publicly available here.
The exhibition Artists’ Island on Harakka Island (10.8.-26.9.2021) is for us an unusually large (31 artists) and professionally prepared (curator Veikko Halmetoja) summer exhibition that spreads out in various locations on the island, and this time also in the main building. More information about the exhibition can be found in the press release, available in English, further down on the main page in Finnish, here.
My two contributions are both placed in the main building, and both are made on the island during the summer 2020. The video Dear Spruce – Kuusi Hyvä (41 min.) consists of seven letters to the only spruce on the island, and is shown as a compilation on a small TV-monitor in the library, with the letters read as voice-over narrations, in Finnish. I planned to use headphones to make listening a more concentrated experience, but did not manage to make the connection work. Because of the pandemic the use of headphones was not wise, so I abandoned the idea. Now my voice, not too loud, though, ills the whole library. The english translations of the letters are available in a folder and the video letters are available with English subtitles online, here.
The other work on display is July with Pine (16 min), which is shown as part of a screening compilation made by Kari Yli-Annala in the auditorium. Originally I imagined this work as a nonstop loop somewhere and the letters, as part of the screening compilation. The letters together are too long, however, and even this video is almost too long for a compilation, despite being the brief version of the work. The full version is 50 min 46 sec, although I doubt that I will ever show that version publicly, the brief version with 30 second clips feels long enough. The sea view opening from the darkened auditorium, as it were, works rather well, though. Some kind of documentation of the process, including notes (in Finnish) written after each recorded session, is available online, here.
The exhibition spreads into the ammunition cellars and the old telegraph and contains many kinds of work – already the screening compilation is rather multifaceted – and the walls of the main building are covered with paintings, installations and all kinds of images. My contributions are actually rather conventional in this context.The surfaces are cleaned of useless rubbish to let the works shine and the house feels like a magic fantasy world – I almost wish it would always be like this…
An old sea-buckthorn (Hippophaë rhamnoides) bending down over the rocks bordering the sea shore in Ursinin Kallio Park in Helsinki is surrounded by a fence and decorated with a sign stating that it is a protected nature monument – “rauhoitettu luonnonmuistomerkki” in Finnish, “fridlyst naturminnesmärke” in Swedish. “Puumainen tyrni” and “trädformig havtorn” would translate as tree-like or tree-shaped sea-buckthorn. It is protected, because it is unusually big and old, I assume. There is a smaller one only a few meters further west on the shore without any fence.
Because most of the trees I have spent time with this year, the pines on Skifferholmen as well as the pines on Örö are rather unremarkable, generally speaking, I felt it was about time to engage with a remarkable tree. And a tree designated as a monument is remarkable, isn’t it? Instead of trying to make direct physical contact, which would be easy, because the tree reaches beyond the fence, I decided to simply sit next to it and try to see what I could learn by observing it closely. I had in mind some exercises in perception described by Craig Holdrege in his book Thinking Like a Plant (2013). The aim is also to place myself inconspicuously next to the the tree in a manner that will not disturb (or be disturbed by) all the people walking along the shore. Moreover, I decided to write some “field notes” after each short session, and upload them on the RC together with the usual still images from the video, to form a diary of sorts.
The first thing I noticed were the strange buds covering the shrub all over, looking like weird bugs or outgrowths. They will probably become leaves only much later in spring, and remain like this during March, which is the month I plan to spend with the sea-buckthorn.
Should I choose a tree to visit for the year of the ox, which begun at Chinese New Year on 12 February, or not? Should I be repeating myself again, with these eternal time-lapse videos? On the other hand, why not? In the end I decided to choose a tree on Harakka Island and to visit it only once a month, to create a simple calendar as the one I made with a pine in Koivumäki in 2007 and by returning to the site of the year of the horse in 2014. Visiting a tree once a month is very easy compared to visiting them once a week or daily. And although the depiction of the year will be rather rough, it will hopefully be enough to indicate the major changes. But which tree, then?
Initially I thought of the maple tree on the hill above the so-called nature house, because it has a branch that I thought I could climb up to sit on (see image above). When I went there with my camera on the sunny Monday 15th, I realized it would be hard for me to get up without some kind of stool to assist me. And as a lazy person I chose to sit on the lowest branch of the nearby birch. The branch was bent so low, and so conveniently, that it was almost welcoming, so why bother with more complicated things (see image below).
After all, a birch is a nice and supportive pal for all kinds of beginnings, and the birch on Harakka will hopefully serve as my trusted friend for the coming year. I will see it every time I go to my studio, and perhaps I could go and sit with it even without a camera as a witness? That I usually never do, but this birch is growing so near that I could give it a try. For the calendar, I need the camera, though, and I tried to find a place for it that I could somehow recognize and repeat, next to the branch a small oak tree growing between the path and the birch.
To continue holding on to the little pine on Skifferholmen or to start the practice of “becoming tree” with the taller pine behind it, that was the question. Or possibly combine both. On the cold and bright first of February I walked to the Island – there is a winter bridge, one of the reasons to choose that island as my site for now – and the decision was easy: start a new practice, a new relationship. What made me consider continuing with the previous practice beyond January was the one-week break in the middle of the month when I visited Örö. And there will be a break in February, too. So combining the two months seemed reasonable. I really missed by balancing practice, though, and the act of holding on to the little pine was not so exciting. Moreover, there are always so many people on the path between the camera and the smaller pine. That said, one person managed to walk between the camera and the other taller pine, too, since there seems to be another path there. I have to accept a lot of humans in these images, I guess.
I made a small test first, to see which point next to the tree would be the best one to balance on.
And I chose the spot closer to the tree even though my arms will stretch through its branches. In the image it makes sense to try to touch them…
So, this will be my tree partner for the coming month. I will add one still-image from each session on the RC-page, as usual, here. It felt good to return to the practice of “becoming tree”, and it was surprisingly easy to do it in the snow. Let’s see how it feels when the weather is less benign…
On a morning walk I happened to cross the winter bridge to Uunisaari and to continue along the jetty to the nearby Liuskasaari or Skifferholmen. There I noticed two small pine trees standing by the path as if waiting to be performed with. Unlike Harakka Island, which is reachable only by boat, Uunisaari is connected with a bridge this time of year, so beginning a practice with these pines would not be hindered by storms or bad weather. So, why not? On New Years Day, first of January I dressed in black, took my camera and tripod and walked over – together with hundreds of other people. On my morning walk I did not realise that this was a favourite weekend walk for a large part of the population of the city. Well, I managed to perform with the smaller pine, trying to “hold hands” with it, with only a few people passing between the camera and the tree. I was so confused and embarrassed by all the people that I did not even check the image, and realized only afterwards that I should perhaps have placed the camera a little further away in order for the human figure not to be so big. But I decided to accept the image and go on from that, only changing the position of my left hand, and wearing gloves and a knit cap the following day. The same traffic continued even then. Obviously this will be a very public practice, but it is a public space, so there is not much I can do about it. Yesterday and today there was snowfall. If the snow stays for a while, I can forget the marks on the ground I carefully chose in order to find the right position for the tripod. Once again this will be an approximation, something only so-so… Anyway, the still images will be documented here
On 31 october, Halloween or All Saints’ Day or Shamhain or whatever you prefer to call it, I participated in the second Be-coming Tree Live Art event via zoom. See press release:
My part I described briefly:
Annette Arlander will perform ”With a Pine” in Brunnsparken or Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki, together with a small pine tree, which she has visited a few times last summer and written letters to as part of her project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees.
The organisers wanted three sentences to make a collage, and there my contribution was as follows:
My tree friend is a small pine tree growing on a rocky area in Kaivopuisto Park in the centre of Helsinki. The tree is special by being so exceptionally unremarkable, by living on such a limited spot of soil and by being one of my pen pals this summer. I have learned, among other things, that choosing a tree friend because they resemble a previous friend is not necessarily the best starting point for a relationship, but not completely impossible.
This was all before the event. I was alone with the pine, with occasional passers-by of course, and with two tripods: one for my phone and the zoom connection, the other for my ordinary camera for recording the video. Because the camera can record only twenty-one minutes at a time, I made my writing session in three parts, returning behind the camera to restart it twice, and to check that everything was fine with my phone. The organisers will hopefully share a recording of the zoom compilation at some point. The letters I will transcribe from my notes and add to the RC, here. The images I have of the event itself are video stills:
My meetings with trees tend to be based on repetition, repeated visits, rather than durational performances, long sessions together with a tree. When the action is to balance on your toes and reach up with your arms, in a yoga pose of sorts, 21 breaths is plenty. This, time, however, I was supposed to continue for an hour, in order to participate in the Live Art event via zoom called Be-Coming Tree. A quote from the event description:
“The Zoom live art event will showcase a network of artists communing simultaneously with their local trees and woodlands across the globe. The initiative wants to grow kinship and mutuality with more-than-human forms of life through a heartfelt, collective and connective action of communion with nature throught a creative use of Zoom: the most used video conferencing platform these days. Audiences can use the chat room as they witness this global experience. /–/ With performances by and from:
O. Pen Be (UK), Danielle Imara (UK), Jatun Risba (SLO), Surya Tüchler (GER), Emma Cole (UK), Annette Arlander (FIN), Yolande Brener (USA), Caroline Frizell (UK), Anne Murray (HUN), Izabela Waszak (SCT), Sumedha Bhattacharyya (IND), Phil Barton (UK), Nitesh Kushwaha (IND), Satadru Sovan (IND), Chaturi Nissansala(LK), Lucy Stockton-Smith (UK), Prashant Jha (IND), Dinesh Solanki (IND), Agathe Gizard (GER), Pierce Starre (UK)” For a full description of the event, see here.
Since I was to finish my daily sessions with a small pine tree on Harakka Island only the day before, the most natural thing was to perform with the same pine. The only way I could think of to extend my 21-breath performance to last for an hour, was to repeat the action for ten breaths at a time, with ten breaths of resting in between. It was not too hard, the weather was fine – the sun was almost too hot and the occasional cloud felt like a relief, as did the small gusts of wind from the north. The setting up was quite a hassle; I have not used zoom on my phone before, and my small tripod was rather unstable. Luckily Marika Maijala agreed to act as my assistant, guarding my phone and telling me when the thing was over. She also took some nice photos and video clips.
Performing for a live audience feels almost absurd in these Corona days, especially since I usually only perform for the camera. Now, when everybody else is performing via zoom or other media, I was invited to give a lecture performance at a private festival – yes, a three-day garden party with Finno-Ugric folklorists or ethnographers, sociologists, artists and general intellectuals, in short, a great event. My planning consisted of asking the host whether there was a projector, so I could show a video, or then a tree. No projector, but several trees – fine. I translated a short text about my project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees into Finnish, checked that I could show the video with the Spruce of Independence on my iPad and send it around among the audience, and decided to choose the tree once on the spot and to ask the audience to document my standing with the tree with their phones and send to me by email. There was a beautiful apple tree in the garden, remarkably high, actually, and after a brief introductory talk I invited people to come to the tree and then did what I do for the camera, raise my arms, and try to balance on my toes for a while. Due to my nervousness, or my shoes or both, I did not stay put longer than one minute, but that was enough. This was like a prototype performance, and I would be happy to make more similar type of brief performances with other trees at other parties. The documentation is compiled on the RC, here.
Is it because Old Tjikko, an ancient spruce, was the first tree in this series of meetings with remarkable and unremarkable trees, or because spruces are some of the trees most common to the Nordic countries, or for some other reason, that I seem to be attached to spruces these days? After befriending the pine on Hundudden in Stockholm in the beginning of the year and then finding another pine in Brunnsparken or Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki to console myself with – not being able to travel to Stockholm from Helsinki in these covid-times – I chose the spruce on Harakka Island as another pen pal to visit. Speaking of “the” spruce is appropriate in this case; it is the only spruce tree on the island, and a tall one at that. With these two small pines and the spruce I have been writing to them sitting next to them, in Swedish with the pines and in Finnish with the spruce, performing writing for the camera, as it were. When I learned about the Spruce of Independence – a truly remarkable tree, at least nationally in Finland, because it was planted from a seed at the time of the Finnish declaration of independence in 19017 – I thought I would perhaps sit and write next to that tree as well, or then make a time-lapse video for a day together with it, as it grows very near to where I live. When I finished my daily Corona Diary with the maple tree in the yard on Tehtaankatu at the end of May, I suddenly realized I could continue the practice of “becoming a tree” together with the spruce of independence, that is, standing in a yoga pose, balancing on my toes with arms stretched upwards. Said and done, I began on the second June and today on the third I tried to repeat the same image – not really succeeding, unfortunately, the framing is slightly off to the left, but in future images I know now to adjust it. The funny addition today was the English speaking lady sitting and reading in the grass. I told her she would be visible in the image and she said she did not mind, but politely turned her back towards the camera. Perhaps this surprise made me fumble with the framing, or then the fact that I placed the camera tripod so close to the trunk of a huge maple tree – to remember the position – that adjusting the framing was actually difficult. Anyway, this was a beginning, and a proper continuation of my meetings with remarkable spruces.