Pandemic and Communication: artist (not) in Residence Shane Finan

A cedar tree bark shot from close range, showing the gnarled structure

by Shane Finan

1. COVID-19 and Physical Distancing

Today was due to be the first day of my residency at Kielder with VARC and the Kielderhead Wildwood Project. I had been preparing for this residency since December, exploring new technologies, research, art and ideas that I would be able to apply in the short month that I was looking forward to. Today, I am looking out the window of my home in Wicklow, Ireland. Last Friday, a government announcement asked that we would no longer travel more than 2km from our homes for exercise, and only travel for essential needs, to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

My time spent social distancing has not had a massive impact on my life. My partner Amy and I are used to living in the countryside, tending a garden, walking short distances – I am lucky enough to have woodland and a lake within my 2km ration. I am also happy to work from behind a computer screen, or with a book on my lap.

But although I have been mostly unfazed by this phase, I was eagerly looking forward to this residency, and to meeting the community in Kielder in April. I have had two exhibitions postponed and other life events put on hold. I miss seeing my friends and family; I find phone and video calls only a small compensation for the physical presence of other people. Like many artists, I am very social and need a constant flow of ideas from conversation as much as I need to walk in a field or read a book or experiment with new media.

All of this has made me think of social togetherness, and physical distance, and what this all means in the context of my project.

So, to begin, I share the second video from this project, an introduction to the idea of the “Wood-Wide Web”, giving an example of how trees communicate when they are unwell, to introduce this text:

2. Forest Networks

One point of interest in the development of the pandemic was the sudden need to act together, strangely achieved by moving apart. When one person does not physically distance themselves, they put all other people at risk. Only by all acting together toward the same good (the safety of all) can the spread of the pandemic be stemmed.

This idea resonates with the discoveries of the Wood-Wide Web. One of the amazing features of forest networks is that they can warn one another of impending problems. When one tree gets infected by a parasite, for example, it can send messages down through the roots, through the soil, via the mycorrhizal fungi beneath the ground, to let its neighbours know there is a problem [1][2]. The neighbouring trees can then produce toxins to defend themselves from that parasite. This interconnectivity is an exceptional defence mechanism for the whole community, and the extent of how effective it is has only recently been truly explored [3] (see Dr. Suzanne Simard’s video below). Despite their physical distancing, trees can reach out to one another and help one another, whether for altruistic or selfish reasons.

In human communities, we are doing the same thing. We are staying connected, staying informed, and watching out for one another through communication and following the best advice from the WHO or the CDC. We are lucky enough to be able to remain connected through our communication technologies (something I will write more about in later posts). Like the Wood-Wide Web, the World Wide Web is keeping us informed and aware. New information can be processed in minutes, we can check in on friends and family, and we can share resources (music, art, literature, information, ideas) in online platforms, something that is now happening daily across the world. The breadth of free resources now made available to people is astounding and exciting, and I am thankful daily for all of the new information (and distractions) that are offered through the generosity of people looking after people.

3. Unhealthy Forests

So now I come to the negative.

In unhealthy forests, such as those planted rows of timber forestry, mycorrhizal networks often do not establish with strong communication networks. Single-crop forests forced into action by fungicides and fertilisers can disrupt the growth of fungi under the ground, and break these important connections. The forester Peter Wohlleben described these types of forests as locked in a state of permanent adolescence, distanced from one another and unable to communicate [4]. Infectious disease can spread rapidly in these forests because they are single species (all open to the same diseases) and lack communication, leaving neighbouring trees exposed.

In human terms, the weakening of community networks stretches back to before the COVID-19 outbreak. The traditional idea of the public sphere involved people coming together at central meeting places [5]. Examples included cafés, drinking wells, and “liberty trees” (usually a large tree in a town square). Although the public sphere has been criticised, correctly, as not being particularly “public” (excluding women and minorities, for example), the concept holds weight as a way where ideas can spread through public meeting [6]. Over time, these public places have gradually disappeared, as space has become privatised in recent years. With the loss of these types of places, people also lost ways to communicate, something that was particularly pronounced in urban areas [7].

A similar loss has been felt in online connected communities. In the early days of the internet there was an excitement about the possibilities of a new, connected public [8]. Earlier this year, director of the Institute of Networks Cultures, Geert Lovink, wrote his Requiem for the Network, a piece lambasting the way that social media and online networks have turned from an idealistic mode of communication to a consumer-driven, collection of ‘centralised’ platforms run by advertising and plagued by false information [9]. In these centralised networks (Facebook, Google, Twitter), information is shared in circles, in echo chambers, where people are presented with a mirror of what they believe.

In mono-crop forests, trees cannot communicate with one another; in echo-chamber technologies people cannot communicate.

The health of the communication network is crucial for the health of the society.

The communication between trees is carried out through the roots, via the "Wood-Wide Web"

4. Network Network

So we return to the pandemic.

Since before the COVID-19 outbreak, people had been turning to alternative modes of communication, away from centralised media toward open source media like Mastodon or Scuttlebutt [10] (see my own Mastodon profile here, where I am carrying out some of the research and sharing for this project). The European Commission have recently asked staff to switch away from Facebook-controlled WhatsApp and use the open source messaging service Signal [11].

One of the interesting things about social media like Mastodon is that they are peer-run. This makes it difficult for companies to plant advertisements that will get past the user-led wall of moderation, and almost impossible for “trolls” or false information to rapidly spread, because each instance can put a stop to this quickly. There is thus a global and a local aspect to Mastodon [12].

With healthy forests, this is the same. The network regulates in small areas, for the health of the entire forest. Different varieties, different species, all work toward their own and their neighbours’ well-being. The health of the network is based on self-regulation, on scale, and on collaboration.

So what of the COVID-19 network? The community-led responses have been heartening. People are offering to go shopping for neighbours and to join the volunteer effort where possible. Resources are being published online, to keep people informed and entertained.

I am here, in my home, writing this, wishing in part that I was in Kielder, glad in part that I am not. I will travel to Kielder, to meet the community, to help plant trees, to make artworks in response to the area and the project. It will not happen today, in these uncertain times, but it will happen. Messages are travelling through satellite and fibre-power cables just as they would through fungal hyphae and tree root. And life will continue. Just as trees grow slowly, passing through time in scales that we cannot fathom, life in the pandemic moves slowly, with time passing gradually.

There are always silver linings: there are less cars on the road and less planes in the sky. The birds are louder now that the air is stiller. I can still communicate with the team and partners at ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art., and am continuing my research. I am hopeful that some of the lessons of physical distancing and social cohesion might live on after the end of this crisis, and that by learning to communicate at a distance we will be better communicators overall.

Scientist Alexander von Humboldt was one of the first to document the connections between organisms in modern times. I discovered his work through a communication with Steven Lipscombe at Kielderhead Wildwood Project, a connection that led me to another connection
  1. Gilbert, L., & Johnson, D. (2017). Plant–plant communication through common mycorrhizal networks. In Advances in Botanical Research (Vol. 82, pp. 83-97): Elsevier.
  2. Verbruggen, E., Sheldrake, M., Bainard, L. D., Chen, B., Ceulemans, T., De Gruyter, J., & Van Geel, M. (2018). Mycorrhizal fungi show regular community compositions in natural ecosystems. The ISME journal, 12(2), 380-385.
  3. Simard, S. W. (2018). Mycorrhizal networks facilitate tree communication, learning, and memory. In Memory and learning in plants (pp. 191-213): Springer.
  4. Wohlleben, P. (2016). The hidden life of trees: What they feel, how they communicate—Discoveries from a secret world: Greystone Books.
  5. Habermas, J. (1989). The structural transformation of the public sphere, trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge: MIT Press, 85, 85-92.
  6. Calhoun, C. J. (1992). Habermas and the public sphere: MIT press.
  7. Sennett, R. (1977). The Fall of Public Man. In: New York: Knopf.
  8. Castells, M. (2004). The network society A cross-cultural perspective: Edward Elgar.
  9. Lovink, G. (2020). Requiem for the Network. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 102-116). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.
  10. Volpi, M. (2019, 12/01/2019). How open-source software took over the world. Tech-Crunch. Retrieved from https://techcrunch.com/2019/01/12/how-open-source-software-took-over-the-world/
  11. Cerulus, L. (2020, 20/02/2020). EU Commission to staff: Switch to Signal messaging app, Online. Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-commission-to-staff-switch-to-signal-messaging-app/
  12. Mansoux, A., & Abbing, R. R. (2020). Seven Theses on the Fediverse and the Becoming of FLOSS. In K. a. L. Gansing, Inga (Ed.), The Eternal Network: The Ends and Becomings of Network Culture (pp. 124-141). Amsterdam and Berlin: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, and transmediale e.V., Berlin, 2020.