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What if digital art and augmented reality could bring us closer to the forests?

by Beatrice Bellavia

Can you evoke the typical scent of a forest? Close your eyes and imagine walking down a path of needles, that is all it takes. But did you know that trees are not only oxygen generators – but produce large amounts of volatile organic compounds?  It is basically as if they were breathing, and this is precisely where the unmistakable forest smell comes from. 

Recently, I have experienced how trees breath – but guess what: not in the forest, but in a museum. It happened when I approached the immersive installation „ATMOSPHERIC FOREST“. In this installation, thanks to the augmented reality technology, I was able to navigate through the „breathing“ trees of the Swiss forest of Pfynwald.  I watched the forest from the bottom up, followed the path through the tree trunk until it brought the eye far up above the trees – yes, like a bird.

As a person who is not an expert on forest sciences, this is the closest I could experience the interactions between ecosystems and the atmosphere, and reflect on them. No one really knows what effects these volatile emissions will have in future, but the rising temperatures are certainly accentuating the phenomenon.  „ATMOSPHERIC FOREST“ is a stunning example of how data visualisation can be artistically elaborated, bringing the visitor so close to a reality that often feels distant.

„ATMOSPHERIC FOREST“  is part of the art exhibition “Earthbound – in dialogue with nature“, which has recently hit the cultural agenda of Esch-sur-Alzette (LU) and is about to be disclosed at the HEK (House of Electronic arts) in Basel.

In this exhibition, the works of 19 international artists have been showcased to trigger the audience’s reflection on the complex relationship between humans and ecosystems. Arguably, no other thematic has ever been as urgent as nowadays. And many art disciplines have already come up with creative solutions to familiarise the wider public with such a delicate matter, challenging what is commonly called the „psychological climate paradox“. 

The psychological climate paradox represents the many explanations for our community’s lack of interest and support in climate action, despite the growing and hardly questionable amount of information we dispose of. Researchers found out that one of the communication challenges relates to the excessive intricacy of climate change. I believe digital art is certainly at the vanguard of this challenge and the work „ATMOSPHERIC FOREST“ by the Latvian artists duo Rasa Smite and Raitis Smits fully demonstrates the potential of AR/VR-driven immersive experiences, so I recommend you check it out. In a world where people discuss how to maximise the use of VR/AR technologies to take human interaction to an always-to-be-exceeded next level, I believe we should reconsider how these means can instead mend back our relationship with nature, making it tangible and accessible. For those who have missed the exhibition, there is an online version of this art piece, and it can be seen here.

About the author: Beatrice Bellavia is consultant with Prospex Institute, and coordinating the stakeholder engagament activities for the project RESONATE aiming at increasing the Resilience of European forests and related value chains.

Featured image with courtesy of

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