Cut-up Poet Trees

Generative Sound Installation 2023


This art installation explores the tension between how a tree might perceive the world and our anthropomorphic notions of their experience. Framing an organism in terms of  its umwelt — the world as it is experienced by that organisms’ senses — is a fundamental paradigm shift that can help us understand other living things. How do trees feel? And is this question even an answerable one?

Using electronic sensors, which detect water flow in four different species of trees, this sound installation recites generative poetry using live data to influence the text. Each tree “speaks” a single sentence, and together they form a poem that expresses: a specific tree, in a certain place, its physical condition and a reflection on time. The viewer waits and then a new sentence emanates from a speaker, another, and then another, as poems endlessly get recited.

These poems use a cut-up technique — a word collage — creating intra-contextual meaning through the relationships between each sentence, similar to an “exquisite corpse” exercise. The results can be poignant, banal and/or absurd. Sometimes, the poems seem to resonate with  the tree’s umwelt and at other times, strays far from it.

Paper mâché constitutes the sculptural forms, which also use cut-up techniques of newspaper strips, reflecting the generative poetry. They are delicate, made from simple resources (flour, cardboard, water and paper) and non-archival, much like living things in nature. Designed to looks like a digitally-designed nest, they hang from the trees, each a with a speaker embedded and electronic system embedded in them. Paper pulp also comes from trees and the form shows a possible lifecycle of a tree.

Building on the artwork of Alison Knowles’ House of Dust and the chance-generation techniques of John Cage, Poet Trees employs data instead of randomness to drive its text in combination with the physical presence of trees. The site is crucial: what kind of experience does this digitally-embedded sculptural installation provide when we are in nature, outside of the gallery walls, and how can it help us think of the tree’s experiences more deeply?

A Withered Spruce
In a Dense Forest
Bracing for a Hurricane
Talking to Friends

A Magnificent Redwood
On a Spaceship
Eager for Sunlight
Thinking about Nothing

A Carnivorous Dogwood
In Central Park
Drenched by Rain
Spreading Rumors


UP Lift, Bloedel Reserve, 2023