Emergence Magazine
Ersin Han Ersin:

We are trying to overcome plant blindness, being able to visualize this reciprocal relationship, where the very simple act of respiration, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis can connect us thousands of miles away to an individual tree.

Courtesy of Marshmallow Laser Feast and Sandra Ciampone

Making the Invisible Visible

A Conversation with Marshmallow Laser Feast’s creative director Ersin Han Ersin


Ersin Han Ersin is an artist and creative director of the London-based experiential art collective Marshmallow Laser Feast. Ersin’s art practice combines a wide range of disciplines, including installation, sculpture, live performance, and mixed reality. His and Marshmallow Laser Feast’s works have been presented at Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW Film Festival, and exhibited at esteemed institutions and galleries worldwide, including ACMI, the Barbican, Saatchi Gallery, Phi Centre, DDB Seoul, Next Museum, and the Nobel Prize Museum.


Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is an Emmy- and Peabody Award–nominated filmmaker and a Sufi teacher. His films include: Earthrise, Sanctuaries of Silence, The Atomic Tree, Counter Mapping, Marie’s Dictionary, and Elemental. His films have been screened at New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, and Hot Docs, exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum, and featured on PBS POV, National Geographic, and New York Times Op-Docs. He is the founder and executive editor of Emergence Magazine.

Recorded live at our Shifting Landscapes exhibition in London last December, this conversation with Marshmallow Laser Feast’s creative director Ersin Han Ersin and Emergence’s executive editor Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee takes us inside the process of creating the immersive installation Breathing with the Forest. Exploring the ways MLF’s projects bring together science and imagination to illuminate the hidden connections within the living world, Ersin speaks to the power of sensory engagement, wonder, and awe to broaden our perception of more-than-human experiences.


Emmanuel Vaughan-LeeNice to see everyone here. My name is Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee. I am the executive editor of Emergence Magazine and the curator of this show. And I’m delighted this morning to be joined by creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast, Ersin Han Ersin, who is gonna be joining us in conversation this morning. So please welcome Ersin.

Ersin Han ErsinThank you. Thank you.

EVErsin is a multidisciplinary artist and the creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast, the experiential art collective that we have partnered with to create the installation that is just across the hall in this exhibition. Ersin and MLF’s work have been presented at Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, South by Southwest Film Festival, and exhibited at esteemed institutions and galleries worldwide, including ACMI, the Barbican, Saatchi Gallery, Phi Centre, DBB Seoul, Next Museum, and the Nobel Prize Museum, among others. If you’re not familiar with Marshmallow Laser Feast, they are an experiential art collective whose work reinterprets the idea of human perception and experience, employing a wealth of creative disciplines and underpinned by research, inviting participants to navigate with a sensory perception beyond the everyday. In collaboration with artists, scientists, musicians, poets, programmers, engineers, and many more makers, Marshmallow Laser Feast has been leaving a slug trail of sensory experiences as they journey through the cosmos. Fusing architectural tools, contemporary imaging techniques, and performance with tactile forms, they sculpt spaces that lay dormant until animated by playful investigation.

I want to start by talking about the relationship between science and imagination, Ersin. Because your work sits at this intersection of science, art, and technology, and it seems that a big part of what you do is you take a scientific phenomenon and build a narrative around it, and then generate an experience of this phenomenon. But it’s not purely a scientific experience, it’s also very lyrical, a poetic one, and of course an artistic one that activates the imagination and creates wonder and awe. And while your work is very much grounded in science, it seems that imagination also plays a huge part in bringing us into these spaces you create that are largely unknowable in the everyday. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you approach this intersection of science and imagination.

EHESure, thank you. It’s also “glittery slug trails of sensory experiences,” as a correction. The immediate thought, when I think about how we engage with science and combine arts or collapse these two worlds, the first thought— I’m sure you all saw the gravitational waves revealed in 2016. And they won the Nobel Prize, and, you know, astrophysics or physics. And it was an incredible accomplishment, human ingenuity. This is like a hundred years prior, Einstein imagines something, theorizes, you know, working as a collective for a hundred years, and then finally finding it. Now we can, you know, confirm that the black holes exist and they produce these gravitational waves. But the only image we had of a gravitational wave, or a black hole, was produced by an artist in the 1970s, continuously used by NASA in order to communicate what this phenomenon is. So when I look at this image— And then the beautiful thing is the final image is just a high resolution of what that artist imagined, informed by the phenomenon, the theory.

So I think our exploration into the world beyond the human senses, which is really intriguing and interesting, and these are very simple things, such as our invisible connection with the plants and trees through respiration. When we think about this phenomenon, you know, this is GCSE-level science, obviously, that we all learned when we were seven or eight. But this idea of actually visualizing, seeing that bond, is fascinating— Our human perception is extremely limited. We construct the reality as a best guess of our cognition. Combining a number of different sensory inputs, we’ve got a best guess of every second and every— But, you know, it’s very limited when we think about it. We are just seeing RGB, the red green blues. But, you know, there’s a whole other spectrum of light outside that’s defining and dictating the physics and how things function in this planet and in the galaxy.

So being able to tap into that world starts for us with understanding the scientific phenomena, because that’s a creative inquiry by itself. I think, you know, that the scientists, the visionaries, the pioneers—they are the creative individuals looking at the future, looking at the invisible, looking at the hidden, coming up with a theory and trying to prove it. That becomes a global truth. Well, closest thing to truth, let’s say, until it’s proven otherwise. And that is our inspiration, basically using the scientific phenomena and looking at different forms of, what are the invisible elements around us and how can we use technologies and experiential arts, or art in general, to make them visible, make them tangible, create a feeling space where we can relate to things?

Just, you know, two examples. One is, again, the black holes. When they first found it, it was this description, I think: twenty-three- and thirty-two-sun-sized black holes merged. I was like, what does that even mean? It’s like, how big is this? Like how can I relate to this idea of twenty-seven sun-size objects coming together, creating a mega-mass. So I think that the idea of relating to it— Or a Sequoia tree that takes twelve hundred liters of water a day, from roots all the way to the canopy, creating these amazing clouds. They are the weather makers, contributing to the world’s atmosphere in such an intimate and cyclical way. How do we visualize that? How can we relate to this very cold fact? You know, when we just talk about the amount of liters of water that go up there, it’s very much like a plumbing job; but putting emotion into this and inspiring the scientific inquiry, which gives us the starting point and then turning that into an experiential piece where we can relate to this idea—what would it feel like to be that drop of water, to travel from the roots all the way to the canopy and be sprayed into the atmosphere with all the other particles around you?

So I think that’s kind of the template that we’ve been following for a while, you know, inspired by that scientific inquiry and then finding methods and techniques to bring them into a feeling space in the form of, you know, different mediums, but often not.

EVHmm. You spoke about making the invisible visible, and that’s obviously a big theme in your work. And Breathing with the Forest makes the invisible visible. So I wonder if you could speak a little bit about the trajectory of that aspect of your work and how that is part of the inspiration behind the piece, Breathing with the Forest, that’s premiering here at the exhibition.

EHESure. I’m gonna roll back quickly to In the Eyes of the Animal, which was the very first work that we established with this template of working with researchers, scientists to inform, to inspire ourselves and then turn them into experiences or, you know, experiential art. And that project was about disembodying your own body and embodying the sensory perception of four different forest species: a mosquito, a dragonfly, a frog, and an owl, looking at how they perceive the world, what color spectrum they see, how they sense their surroundings using their entire body, how they can communicate with each other, just using the waves of water as they touch. These incredible phenomena happen all around us. An owl can read a newspaper from a hundred meters. How would you relate to this feeling? I dunno which newspaper they love most, but— So that was quite an interesting learning process for us just looking at the Grizedale Forest up in the UK, up north in the UK, and then being able to visualize and relate to those feelings. And obviously we’re never gonna know exactly what it’s like to be a dragonfly, but if we can allow ourselves to disembody our own perception for a moment, we can probably empathize better. And once you have that feeling, aided by technology, next time when you see a dragonfly, you’ve got a different relationship with the dragonfly. So that kind of laid the groundwork—this was 2015—and became the template. And obviously, looking at the animals and the forest creatures, we just realized trees are alive, very, very late realization for a person, you know, more than thirty years old. It’s like, alright, this is incredible. And then the same inquiry led us to different places, and we ended up in Sequoia National Park facing one of those giants. It’s just, you know, your self-centered world idea completely disappears, collapses, and you, you just in awe.

The astronauts describe this phenomenon of looking at the blue dot from space as the “overview effect.” You know, once you see the entirety of Earth in one place as a single object that unifies everything you know, everything you’ve ever known, everything you’ve loved, everything you’ve lost is in one place. There’s this very profound moment. Obviously, we can’t all go to space to have that feeling.

It was a very similar feeling standing in front of one of those giant sequoias where the biological overview kicked in; and you know, I’m nothing next to you. You can live for twenty-five hundred years. And then looking at the kind of scientific understanding, or taxonomic understanding, of the sequoias, how did they live this long? Even this idea of taking water from roots to a hundred meters—this is like minus nine gravity. It’s an extreme plumbing job we couldn’t do without using valves in a normal apartment block. So how did they even do this? So looking into that part, that was already invisible elements beyond human perception, even mostly or partially beyond our instruments or the best instruments to date to fully understand, because there is no way, you know, of x-raying a tree that way. So just completely mind-blown by some of those facts and then bringing them into this feeling space continued. And in 2020 we had the opportunity to go to the Amazonian rainforest for a commission to find some of the emergent trees, and Ceiba pentandra, Capinuris—those are the largest beings in the tropics. And it just started this process of looking at incredible beings of the Amazon and somehow relating to them, or finding ways to relate to them, because there is this National Geographic way of looking at the tropics. This lush, green world, distant from you, with really interesting creatures, but you are never gonna touch it. You’re never gonna know— When they say we’re gonna lose the Amazon, you can’t really fully comprehend what that means. And beyond that, obviously we’ve got the “plant blindness,” they call it in Radical Botany, saying, because plants and trees don’t exhibit the animism like animals do, we’ve got this mental block or cognitive block to feel the same emotional response towards them. So how do we create ways to apprehend or reinvent, to be able to see that invisible livelihood that flows through these beings? So Breathing with the Forest is third on the line of this inquiry, that we are trying to overcome the plant blindness, being able to visualize this reciprocal relationship, where the very simple act of respiration, cellular respiration, and photosynthesis can connect us thousands of miles away to an individual tree.

Not just the Amazon as an idea, but an individual tree that is upstairs—Capurni tree—you can see the full livelihood inside the cardiovascular of the trees in our systems, the phloem and xylem, the water and carbon that’s flowing in both directions, creating these two-way highways, producing oxygen and water vapor that is larger than the body of water in the Amazon River itself. So these phenomena are, you know, a bunch of facts, but how can I feel with it? How can I resonate with that information? The simple act of breathing obviously does many things. The two things: one is bringing you to the moment, to your body and away from the daily worries and anxieties of the modern life, allowing you to probably remind yourself—I think, remember. It’s not like teaching. I think it’s remembering this feeling of, when I exhale my every third or fourth breath will be taken by a tree like this. And here I am sitting with you. And it’s quite an intimate relationship. Imagine inhaling someone. I just inhaled someone, and then I just exhaled someone. So, bringing that feeling to the installation environment and continuing with that feeling is probably the core of this. That’s the journey basically.

EVWhen you step upstairs and you walk along these, you know, magnificent screens revealing these hidden connections and taking you into the Colombian rainforest and the Capinuri tree, you really feel transported. And although there are obviously, you know, universal scientific truths about the way that those hidden networks function, you also feel very connected to place. And you mentioned that this experience grew from a trip in the Amazon in 2020. I wonder if you could speak a little bit more about that time there in the rainforest with this tree and how your experience there in that place really grounded you in the exploration. Because so much of your work is this, you know, this parallel between such an intimate place-based experience with this much more universal meta-level exploration. But place is incredibly important. This is a specific place in the Colombian rainforest. This is a place that is under threat. This is a unique being, and your experience there on the ground must have been very impactful. So I wonder if you could talk about that, and also maybe some of the artistic processes that went underway while you were there.

EHESure. Before we went to the Amazon in 2020—this is January 2020, just before the global pandemic kicked off. So we came back from the Amazon, after staying there three weeks, three days after we went to the full lockdown, without knowing any of this, basically. So I spent the world’s anxiety—or building up—I spent those twenty days in the Amazon rainforest completely oblivious to the reality of the outside world. Before we went, obviously, we did extensive research. So that rigorous research process is part of that—both learning and understanding the space before we even go there, and a series of interviews to understand what to expect from an ecological point of view, where to find some of those trees. What are the Indigenous people of— Tikuna people, where we were in the Colombian Amazon, predominantly the residents of the area and the stewards of the land for thousands of years. And how they build that relationship is— Building this very intellectual kind of, you know, reading and reading and reading and talking and trying to understand and watching— That process comes first, and it builds up a series of expectations. And by land—I mean, mosquitoes are horrible. That is this— I was expecting this lush, beautiful spiritual journey. Ah! Get me out of here! This is horrible. It took— Well, it didn’t get better actually. For three weeks it was horrendous. But you still, you know, you start to ignore it. You know, in extreme harmony, I managed to get a conversation, an interview with—I’m gonna forget his name—a professor who coined the term “biodiversity.” He primarily researched Amazon, and I was trying to ask him: What are the readings—like when I’m in a patch of forest—what are the things that I need to look at to understand whether this part is healthy and living and doing all those things in its optimum place? And what are things not? The best answer was, there’s no straight answer.

The complication of life in the Amazon is so profound. The amount of species in a 10 X 10 m2 patch of forest is so dense and complex. Seriously, it’s impossible to understand. So I went there with this knowledge but actually experienced it, because there’s no way of fully untangling how this big organism lives all together. I mean, I dunno if you’ve seen a single human cell’s visualization: it looks like a theme park. It’s a tiny city. The complexity of it. That complexity expanded into a forest-scape. And you know, plants growing on top of each other and on top of each other, and you are completely bamboozled by that. Darwin, when he went to the Amazon in 1833, I think—for the first time—talks about this mixture of stillness and the cacophony of sound all at once at the same time. But somehow as you walk through the forest, you get these pockets of stillness as if nothing happening around you—extreme quietness. And then this big mosquito just interrupts it. And then you continue and a blue morpho butterfly interrupts it. And there is this strange rhythm that you start breathing.

The most interesting revelation was that idea of lushness. And I think this is a helpful thought, by the way. And I was listening to an interview we did with Merlin Sheldrake a few years ago for another research project. He mentioned, this extreme harmony is a fetishized idea. This life just built on cooperation is a utopia. And you actually experience this there. And his example is a jazz band, where jazz band individuals might hate each other. And there are so many examples in the history.

EVDefinitely, yeah.

EHERight? But when they’re on stage, what they produce is just, you know, soulfully moving everyone. A similar feeling, when you go to the Amazon, everything is half eaten. There is literally, every leaf, every branch—everything is half eaten. These insects just trying to take over the entire forest. And the forest is producing clever ways to push that back without even moving anywhere. And obviously that is the other part. So there is that reciprocal relationship among species, sometimes certain species are dominating and becoming invasive. And some other times it’s a perfect stillness, things are a bit more lush. But the fascinating thing is, we know maybe a tenth of all the species in the Amazon. So there’s this— The idea of losing the Amazon is not, I’m gonna lose this tree that I know really well. All the things that are not even explored or known to—

EVThe loss of the unknown.

EHEIt’s such a profound thought. So I think this, you know, realizing and experiencing—that it was even more urgent, this feeling of: we might lose the Amazon rainforest by the end of the century. That is a real projection. If the feedback effect, the self-enforcing feedback happens, we might lose the majority of it. So the reality of this complexity of life that can exist in such profound ways, both in harmony, cooperation, and competition, all presented in one place and embodied there, is extremely moving.

So that was one of the biggest, I think, surprises, and being there just allowed us—me—to experience this firsthand. In every work we are trying to bring a little bit of chaos and that kind of level of complexity that is a little bit too difficult to untangle. And that’s a deliberate act, obviously. On the other hand, I love the fact that we can actually simplify some of those things to ease that connection in the kind of visual manifestation or the sensory manifestation of the work. The process of, obviously, being there—the main purpose we went there for—to conduct a series of scanning emissions— When I say scanning, actually capturing 3D information from the land, from the trees, using both cameras, taking a series of photographs and also using this thing called Lidar scanner. It’s an architectural tool. It shoots a laser 700,000 times a minute, measuring constantly, creating this coherent submillimeter-accurate representation of the world there. And then conducting an ecological survey, understanding what species are around us and how we can learn about them, and whether there’s a pattern for us to talk about it afterwards; conducting a series of interviews with the Indigenous leaders and the elders there to understand their cosmologies and their relationship with some of those species. Not to directly influence the work but to understand how, you know, these profound links they build over, you know, thousands of years, can be read from a distance— How can we resonate with that feeling of being connected to land, to this tree, to this plant, this much. And then extensive sound recordings, field recordings using Amazonian microphones, which— You can hear, you’ve got these individual recordings of certain birds, insects; hydrophones, which is under underwater microphones to get the suction sound of the trees, but also get the sound of the river, combining mosquitoes, butterflies. So individually recording hundreds of hours of recording, and then coming back to the studio and untangling all this data, categorizing and reconstructing with some of the research we do both before and after.

You know, the invisible parts, beyond the soil line, is an imaginary part of this work and this process as well. We talk to scientists looking at—they often research the drought management and they call it “water flux systems.” So they study the root structures and how they grow per species and how they interact, which gives us a diagram of how these certain species establish their roots and what kind of entanglement happens and what species they favor to exist next to them and what species they don’t. Some of them love epiphytes, some others don’t. And just trying to understand that relationality and then build that in the studio to create the final work. And obviously one big artistic license we are using here is the rhythm of the tree. We can consider two poles a day, you know, two heartbeats a day: when the sun rises this continuous act of spraying oxygen and water vapor and sequestration carbon; and then when the evening comes, just, you know, reducing the pressure within the body, dropping its—I wanna say arms —dropping its branches down. And that’s two. Our, you know, limited human perception obviously needs to be adjusted to tree time in order to see these changes, you know; otherwise, that single particle would take eight hours to move from the bottom to the top. And that might be a little bit of a boring artwork to give this vibrancy. So we are, you know, trying to dial our perception into tree time to see that vibrancy. And that, kind of, comes into this place.

EVWow. Well, well technology plays a huge part in your creative process from the capturing and scanning and recording of these spaces that you visit and that inform the work, and then back in the studio, where you take that information and you create these incredible immersive experiences. And I’m curious to ask you about the balance between the technology shaping and informing the vision, and the vision determining how you will use a technology; and also maybe a little bit more about how you take this data—you spoke about it a little bit—and you use it to resemble the forest so accurately. Yeah, making some changes to, as you said, increase the heartbeat, so it is something that you can actually experience not just twice a day but in a constant form. But what is that balance there in that creation of the data? Because you move beyond the experience of it being scientific and data-based, but it’s so grounded in that. How do you transcend that?

EHEScientific data comes with a responsibility also. And we are artists. We are not accountable to visualize the most accurate representation of a tree. And we are not even trying to do that. But when you ground— There’s this fascinating sensory motor effect where, you know, a toddler can tell the difference whether a branch is moving because of the wind or [because] there’s a species on it, like a tiger walking on it. So it’s called “mechanical and biological motion.” And we’ve got this innate ability to observe and differentiate these things very, very early on. So our ability to understand moving things and assign emotions to them is so innate. So there is something here. It’s one of our tools, basically—our perception of motion. And how can we utilize that motion to represent some of those ideas? And that’s where the split happens, because, for a scientist, probably you can’t speed this up, probably you can’t have this oxygen moving that particular way. But assigning these properties, trying to create a visual poetry to resonate with that feeling, allows us to use that artistic license and trust the human ability to emotionally connect to a single moving dot in a very profound way. And it’s really surprising and it is a strange phenomenon.

And that’s kind of the defining line. So if you ground it in truth, innately we know where it’s coming from. You know, you may have heard of the “uncanny valley,” where, you know, when we see a 3D model of a tree or a human, we can tell something is not right. Even with the most advanced technology today, still, you know, the creases in the edge of the eye gives it away, and you know it. And you don’t need to know VFX, you don’t need to know design, graphic design, or film even. You can still tell it’s not right. So we’ve got this innate ability. So the more we ground it in truth, or in science, the closer we get to evoking that sensation, and then from there start using artistic license to a level where that realization—that connecting bond—stretches but never breaks. And that is a fluid process. So where it stops being scientific, and where it, you know, stops being artistic is a very elasticated process that varies in every project.

So that’s kind of the decision process. And it is very intuitive also, because the processes and some of the real time systems, building software systems to visualize those things, allows us to tweak these parameters on the go and see what actually creates the feeling we’re trying to communicate. It’s just, how do you create that feeling of, you know, a tree passing with life and breathing with that rhythm, and just speeding up, slowing down, finding the right moment. And that’s the “finding the pigment” moment, basically, like mixing the colors. And then technological decisions. Obviously pretty much everything we do is aided by technology, and, you know, it excites us so much. It allows us to play— How far we came with some of the technologies over the course of even the last ten years. From virtual reality to sensing technologies, and them being this accessible, and a broadly distributed wealth of information that we can tap into on demand at any given time is just incredible. But it never really starts with, “Oh, here is a virtual reality headset. Let’s do something with it.” To create a project, it’s often starting with an idea: What is it like to feel or see like a frog? That’s the idea. Or do dolphins dream in sonar? So then work backwards. What is the ultimate medium for us to communicate this exploration? Okay, sonar—probably the bodily tactile feeling of echolocating is important. Then, can we look at the haptic vests? It’s these vests that are very popular for gamers—that it vibrates—and music producers also wear them. So you can actually feel this strong growling base on your body, on demand without, you know, disturbing all your neighbors. But also you can manipulate it. So, you know, the thought drives you to a few options of technologies, which we then combine in unexpected ways, often with lots of gaffer tape between them, and just mushing together and trying to create that emotional sensation. And obviously it fails, it changes, and it’s a bit of a pain in the ass—and just like it updates all the time. But it is quite fascinating—the moment you think you mastered the specific medium of one generation of virtual reality headset with a specific resolution, it goes away. And that just keeps us on our toes to continuously understand, and follow that, and, you know, evolve with it. And the work also evolves with it, because the ability of that technology defines how far we can push certain things. But it’s never the other way around—that technology dictates what we have to do or what we should do.

EVYou mentioned Darwin and his description of the sound of the rainforest there: a mixture of stillness and the cacophony of the birds and the insects and the life that pervades it. And this experience Breathing with the Forest is a very, very potent large-scale visual experience. But to me it’s almost just as much—sometimes even more so—an auditory one, a sonic one. There’re twenty-two speakers in that room guiding you on a journey and taking you into these processes that you’re visualizing. And you mentioned you spend a lot of time recording these sounds, whether they’re birds or frogs or even underwater with the hydrophones of the water moving up the tree. Tell me a little bit more about the process of creating this sonic landscape and how it’s also connected perhaps to the breath and the pulse and the rhythms that you are inviting people to participate in.

EHEI have to mention our wonderful collaborators, extreme talented composers, James Bulley, who was with us in the Amazon recording all those things, pretty much not sleeping so he can catch the howling monkeys in the morning and then the fireflies in the evening, gathering hundreds of hours of sounds in order to create that feeling. And so the spatial sound is quite interesting, also this multisensory world-building processes, where the sound is such— Sound has such a profound effect on us. And there’s this, you know, “psychoacoustic properties” they call it: when we hear thunder or growling animals, it fills us with fear. This is innate. We all feel it in varying degrees, and it’s all coming from the same place. And you know, probably we can trace it back to cavemen and maybe even before. There’s this emotional response out of control to certain sounds, and that’s called psychoacoustic.

And we’ve got these emotional responses to sound when we roll back to Lascaux and Chauvet, the two caves in France thirty-seven thousand years ago where the first human artworks took place in the cavities of these very complex cave systems. But one fascinating fact was the way they found it was turning off their torches and walking down in dark parts and clapping. Wherever the echo of the cave just reverberated five-, six-, seven-fold, they turned on their torches and it was the most complex painting that they found. And when we, you know, come forward to the Orkney and Stonehenge, there’s a strong belief that the structures were erected to create a sensory stimuli, mainly sonically, and felt experience: drumming 60 bpm creates this resonant frequency that evokes, or kind of induces, a transcendental state. And when we come forward—I dunno if you’ve ever been to wonderful St. Paul’s Christmas mass. I mean the sound reverberates through the space. And it’s not a coincidence that we find these emotionally moving places have a commonality in terms of how they play with sound, how they create sound.

So sound is this important and so innate, and you know, we can go back and forth in human story and find a moment that the sound was the most important thing, and still is. So in that respect, we wanted to create a moment of darkness before revealing the visuals for this piece. And that was a deliberate act of trying to bring you to your breath and beautifully prompted by the invigilators at the entrance. Just paying attention. It’s a dark space also. You are walking from a brighter space into a darker space. It will take a while for your eyes to adjust. So you move slowly, naturally, and then as you move slowly, you slow down and you hear the breathing rhythm. The breathing rhythm is a combination of a baraka, just spraying in a glass of water, and some of the hydrophone recording. So there’s a foley work trying to evoke what would be the sensation to give you that five seconds in, five seconds out, breathing rhythm. And hinting at these moments— Because it was very, very similar. Mochilero birds are the most polyphonic one. If you go upstairs, you’ll recognize it’s the most incredible Nokia smartphone ringtone, produced by a species, basically. That comes and goes every now and then; that gets entrapped by some of the parakeets; that gets entrapped by howling monkeys. And every now and then a mosquito flies by. And this is the stillness of the forest entrapped by these blips of sound, drawing your attention to different species, and immersing you all around. So creating that feeling of, I’m not consuming content from a frontal plane, like we do with most of the screens, but it’s all around me to experience what it’s like to be there in this sped up tree time.

EVIn many of Marshmallow Laser Feast’s installations, and of course in Breathing with the Forest, you invite people to step into the processes—and you spoke about this briefly: photosynthesis, cellular respiration, and here in this experience, mycelial communication—that are unique to the trees that you have scanned, that form the base of your work. And these processes translate the sensory perceptions of a different species. And in the case of Breathing with the Forest, it’s the Capurni tree and the surrounding ecosystem. And this allows us to connect to these processes in a deeply experiential way where, as we’ve been speaking about, a scientific process becomes a communicative one that invites you into a relationship with this different species outside of our own humancentric ways of being. Can you talk about the approach of translating these processes and creating these invitations that allow you to connect to another species?

EHEThe best example I found over time—obviously very much inspired by What Is It Like to Be a Bat, a Thomas Nagel 1973 paper that made a huge stare and, you know, divided the entire scientific and philosophical realm into two. And he, he rightly said, we’re never gonna know. Unless you’re born with the sensory features of a bat, you are never gonna know. All you do is an interpretation of it. You can’t even begin to understand. But we can try, and obviously that was a provocative approach, and it did beautifully for us to ask these questions. Oh wait, so other species experience reality differently. What do you mean? Like a tick? You know, that small tick lives reality at six frames per second—a human lives a moment at 25–30 frames a second—meaning everything for them is extremely slow.

So when we switch these sensory perceptions— I mean, I’m sure there are moments—you have it when you’re in this wonderful connection and a dialogue with a friend: time flies, two hours pass like five minutes, and then you are in this very, very packed central line trying to get to Hackney Wick. It’s like this twenty-five-minute journey becomes five hours. And you just like— Our perceptions are kind of actually constantly doing this. If we can prompt it right, can we allow ourselves to embody other beings, other species, by playing with the plasticity of our perception, basically? And so this idea of, you know, dis-embodying your own body and embodying other species, mostly coming from there— There’s a curious way of being other than human. Can we expand ourselves or begin to expand ourselves to experience life for a moment, or imagine for a moment, being a tree, being a mosquito, being a frog? Obviously, the animate species are probably a little easier. There’s a cognitive barrier. What is it like to feel like a tree? An oak tree. Kew Gardens made this wonderful website and research: an adult oak tree connects to twenty-three hundred species at any given time. Wow. Twenty-three hundred species live on or off it. So they are in this reciprocal relationship. How can you, and when you think about it, it’s like, okay, how can I be in a relationship with twenty-three hundred things at any given time in this very intimate way? But actually the moment we start looking into our microbiome, you know, we’ve got enough microbes. We’ve got more microbes in our body than cells. The amount of cells we’ve got in the body is less than the amount of microbes and bacteria that we have in our body.

So we are this, you know, multitudes of being, constantly walking and doing things, thinking that that’s an individual thought and it’s me, but [it’s] actually in conversation with everything in you. So the more we exercise this idea of, we’re never just an individual but also are constantly enmeshed with other beings, it allows us to kind of bridge that gap or ease the idea of disembodying your own body and embodying something else; it becomes easier. So these pieces are trying to create the primers for us to have that leap for a way where, you know— You might be familiar with this idea of flow states. Gardeners go into it, mathematicians go into it. When we’re washing dishes we go into it, playing music we go into it. Solving a hard problem we go into this moment of singular focus. You are in a tunnel. You can’t tell what time it is anymore, and your mind is absolutely in that very moment. And that’s the flow state. But it’s got primers. So you can prepare yourself to go into a flow state by adjusting your breathing, adjusting the light around you, by simply turning off the notifications, clearing the noise. It’s not really that difficult to alter the human psyche momentarily. So if we can do that, you know, in a very scientific, methodical way for, you know— In many practices, you know, in many spirituality practices also. So how can we utilize some of those, you know, both modern science and spiritual practices in the primer and the embedded side of the artwork to allow the viewer, the participants, to be able to momentarily disembody their body and embody something else. And it’s all coming from that constructed space, basically.

EVYou know, I find the work that you and your collective do to be deeply emotional. And when I’m upstairs, and when I’ve experienced your work in the past, I feel like I’m going through a multi-layered experience. You know, there’s awe, there’s wonder, there’s joy, there’s discovery, there’s connection, there’s kinship; but there’s also grief, you know, for what can be lost. And there’s also a feeling of humility, of feeling small and secondary. And I know all of us respond to work differently, and emotions are activated differently for each person in an immersive space like Breathing with the Forest. But I imagine in the creative process you were thinking about all the different kinds of emotions that you want to evoke and that you want to invite people into. So I’d like to hear a little bit about this process, but I guess there’s also a larger question there, which is, you know, what is the role of immersive art and technology in creating empathy and kinship through the use of emotion?

EHEWhen we started talking about Shifting Landscapes and commissioning a new piece to exhibit together, one the themes that, you know— Trees are migrating; they’re walking away from us. So there is this aim to highlight the reciprocal relationship that we have with trees as a primary kind of approach. But the secondary underlying theme of the piece is also kind of highlighting the idea of tree migration. So obviously your research gave us the prompt to look into that reality, not just for the very well known tree migration that happens in Northern America. Very well documented. Some species moving a hundred kilometers over the course of ten years. Yeah, it’s like a decade. Literally not, you know, uprooting and moving, but standing there— That sounds like—not Game of ThronesThe Lord of the Rings. It is that image, right?


EHESo some species are moving. And the temperate rainforest species, or temperate species—they can adapt to these changes. But the idea of tree migration for the tropics is catastrophic. And through that prompt, so we went into the research process and found this magnificent research. And it is the most comprehensive and indeed the only one published in 2018, primarily by the University of Miami researchers and a biologist who was doing her PhD, called Belén Fadrique. She went on a mission working with different scientific entities in the Andes to kind of gather data over the course of a few years, looking at different pieces of land. I think they’ve got almost a hundred plots around the Andes in different elevations. You know, the Andes is from a few hundred meters all the way to three thousand meters. And looking at how species are moving. It’s inconclusive in comparison to the studies of Northern America, where— So in the interview, I was asking like, why don’t we know about this, right? How come we know all the trees and how much they move in America, in Northern America? How can we not know these things? This is such an important thing. And she was, “Right. How many species were in that study?” Eighty-six species in Northern America. And this is, you know, the biodiversity indicator. They have more than two thousand species in those small patches, separate species.

So the complexity of life really makes it difficult for them to come up with a conclusive story. But what they know is, some trees in the tropics are not used to hot weather, so they can’t really alternate. So they enjoy being in this very steady state of warmth, or dry and wet seasons, but without huge shifts of temperature changes. As the temperature changes in a drastic way for a long time, they tend to send their offshoots to a further spot that is a bit cooler; so it’s not as hot. And often they hit the mountain, the Andes, and they send it up and up and up, and they hit an ecotone block that these trees cannot exist beyond. And they call it “mountaintop extinction.” It’s a really sad fact that knowing some species are walking away from us, because of us, to go and, you know, disappear from a mountaintop. So this piece specifically moving away from us constantly, we are there sitting, you know, watching as the time passes, breathing with it as we feel emotionally connected, but then it moves away from us, coming from that. So that was one of the, I think, the sorrow and some of the musical elements of the piece, especially like in music theory, you know, when you put certain chords together. It is actually sad. And there’s a deliberate act of feeling that connection. It is, yes, both celebratory of this incredible hidden animism, the livelihood, but also the idea of losing them one day, very, very soon. Just want to leave with that feeling of urgency, but also connection at the same time.

EVI wanna go back to the breath. You’ve spoken about the breath throughout our conversation, because it’s not just the title of the piece, but it’s obviously a central theme. And a connective device and shared experience between the humans and the forest is present. And when we contemplate the relationship between our breath and the breathing forest, we encounter the question—and it’s a question, I think, you’re asking throughout your work—where does my body end and where does the world begin?

EHEThis is the part I go— I speak a lot about that seventeen to thirty thousand breaths a day we take in average, and a third to quarter of it coming from the trees. So we are sharing breath. I mean, I’m sure you had these moments, you know, being close to the loved one, feeling their breath and enjoying that moment. This is happening at least five to seven and a half thousand times a day with trees. So we’ve got this incredible invisible bond. And not that I feel it all the time, but, you know, I’m trying to prompt myself with this feeling of, whenever I feel anxious or alone, it’s like, you’re not alone. You’re connected to a number of things right now with your breath. And it happens at any given time. And whether you practice this or not, if you’re driving a car, you are already practicing expanding your sense of self to a larger body. If you are driving a plane, it’s even more crazier. And if you are driving a cruise ship—and imagine we’ve got this ability to expand our sense of self to include a cruise ship, why not a tree that you breathe with. I think that’s the main thing we wanted to highlight. This one.

EVYou’ve also described this experience as an open-eyed meditation. What is the space that you want to take audiences into with this meditation? Is there a specific transformation that you’d like them to experience?

EHEIt really doesn’t matter what happens in the gallery. How you feel, what you take home from [this]. What would be wonderful— If you walk out, and if you’re especially walking towards the Southbank Center, there are trees immediately outside. If you can see a particle flowing around them, if you can see some of the animism in them, then I think that’s all success. Just leaving with this feeling of connection, leaving with this emotional muscle memory of the livelihood that flows through trees and plants and all the living world around us. Having that feeling and a visual memory to it is probably all we want. And the meditation, you know, meditating with this idea, starting with a breathing meditation to be fully present in this place, sitting with this tree, allowing yourself to take in these visual sensory stimuli, sonic parts and maybe the scent that we’ve got in the room, and then leaving with that feeling and looking at your house plant and seeing some of it would be amazing.

EVErsin, thank you so much. It’s been lovely to be in conversation with you.

Breathing with the Forest
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Breathing with the Forest

by Marshmallow Laser Feast Open story

Enter an exchange with the Amazonian rainforest in Breathing with the Forest––a special digital adaptation of Marshmallow Laser Feast’s large-scale immersive installation that invites you to find where you end and the forest begins.

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