Shane Finan – the “Wood Wide Web”

A forest scene photographed from near the ground, showing tall trees and an abundance of autumn leaves

by Shane Finan

ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art.

In April 2020, I was due to travel to Kielder to be artist in residence at the Kielderhead Wildwood Project – the residency has since been postponed due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, I began work on this project in December 2019 and have continued to research and document, so will share some research, updates and other news on this website in the coming weeks.

This is the first post, and because it is summarising a few months of research, it is a long-form one. It does not include a bibliography (which would be longer than the post!) but I will share my references as future posts appear. It does include a list of the people who I have met, either physically or through communication technologies, and who have helped bring together my research over the last few months.

Background

I was selected by Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC) and the Northumberland Wildlife Trust, who organise the wildwood project, in November 2019. The residency programme, ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art. features eight artists over two years visiting different sites in Northumberland; mine is the only residency at Kielderhead Wildwood Forest. My work will look at the idea of networks, from natural networks found in the forest, to digital networks and online communities, to networks of people in physical places.

To begin the project, I began tapping into a network, both new and existing, of experts and interested individuals who could potentially help or guide this project. This includes the network of partners at VARC, who I have been in touch with through phone-calls, emails and Skype over the past few months, and my own extended network of artists, academics, friends and family who will all contribute in some way to this project.

I will make artworks about networks while on residency at Kielder. These will include interactive digital artworks that I will build in the studio on-site. It will also include documentation as an artwork, including this writing and a series of short video posts (1.5 minutes) that will explore the themes and concepts that I am working on. These videos will be compiled under the artwork name “Never Just a Tree”, borrowed from my conversation with fungal ecologist Professor Lynne Boddy, and her statement to me that “A tree is never just a tree – it is fungi and microbes and dead stuff and all the rest”. The following video is the first of these posts and acts as an introduction to these ideas:

Artworks

I have plans to make a series of artworks while at Kielder, and have been researching topics about networks in planning for this.

The primary work that I am currently focussed on is a documentary film of this research and development. The documentary will include footage from Kielder, Wicklow, online and other sources that I need to help tell the story of this residency. I am hand-sketching the “pieces” for this documentary in a notebook, and intend to shoot 30 videos at 1.5 minutes in length. The first is the one shown above.

Forest, community and technological networks are all areas of research that I will be working on during this residency.

The next works that I want to produce are experimental, using sensors on-site in the artist’s studio in Kielder. In this space, I will build and test installations about soil communicativeness and the mycorrhizal networks, experimenting with sensors and light displays. I am working with sensor technologies that I have not tested before, and with light installation using fibre-optic cables. The flexibility of a residency gives me an opportunity to experiment with these new media.

Another dimension to this work is through online media. I am investigating open source social media. I have also opened accounts on PeerTube, Scuttlebutt and Mastodon, and intend to use other open source platforms to post textual and image-based artworks that are developed for the residency. I have completed a Socratic Dialogue as part of the research on Mastodon about the idea of social media echo chambers, which will be worked into my upcoming projects.

Finally, I want to work with webs, wires, fibres, wool and connective threads as a symbol of networks.

I will simultaneously fill sketchbooks and a roll of paper with drawing and painting while present in Kielder, and spend a lot of time walking.

Research

The research areas are all pointing to a single philosophy: A nature-based post-capitalist utopia! Through the research that I am undertaking, I am looking to develop a single, unified theory of mutualism that will act as a guide for a future generation occupying the space of this planet.

1. Networks

Networks are many things. In a basic definition networks are interconnected structures of cords and/or nodes that operate together. Buckminster Fuller’s tired idea of the ‘ecosystem’ tried to define a natural network, but was flawed in its pursuit of quantification (see below); this concept is more to bring about an understanding of the strength of networks.

I am dividing networks into two types: mutualistic and parasitic. In the former, the nodes of the network act together to help one another to grow and flourish. In the latter, a node or nodes in the network thrive off the other nodes without returning anything symbiotically.

The examples of mutualistic networks range from forests to technology to human communities. In the forest, the “wood wide web” is the network of fungi and trees that work together to help one another survive in forests. In technology, social networks, particularly those online sources and openness of communication between research communities, are a key example. In communities, the public sphere is the network: The bringing together of people to share ideas and values.

Fungi and trees can work together mutualistically, or can attack one another parasitically.

Parasitic networks also exist in all of these spheres. In forests, parasitic fungi or insects live by feeding off a host, sometimes enabled by mutualistic networks. In technology, parasites include companies that benefit from transmitting non-mutualistic messages to communities to increase advertising revenue. In communities, parasites thrive off the work of others, creating political or social movements that exploit differences between people. When I spoke to microbiologist Professor Dave Johnson, he suggested the term “reciprocal parasitism” is best to describe mutual relationships – this may in fact be more accurate from a certain philosophical standpoint, and is something that I will discuss in later posts.

As this research expands, I am trying to lessen the gap between human and natural networks, to remove the anthropocentrism of humanity from myself, my artworks, and hopefully to bring these ideas successfully to audiences. Although I have divided human, technological and natural into three categories, when taken from a broader standpoint they are all part of one unified whole, all connected to planet earth and its near surrounds. A philosophy based on mutualism has to see these networks not as disconnected, but as a network itself.

Thus, by damaging the rainforest, digital communications are weakened. There is a layer of abstract thought involved in this connection. To get from the rainforest to digital communications, one must go via social (human) networks – the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil leads to the reduction of area of the rainforest. This election was brought about by a surge in pro-capitalist expansionism. This surge was enabled by commercially-abetted online messaging. The series of connections do not have a beginning or an end, but represent a series of parasitic connections that exist in all directions simultaneously.

Similarly, mutualism exists in all directions simultaneously. The mutualistic relationships between artists working with ecology has led to cross-disciplinary research into ecology, forestry, art, philosophy and sociology, as exemplified by Katie Holten’s book and art project About Trees. This mutualism further inspires online connections, which can be aided by peer-to-peer and open source online media, like Mastodon. The series of mutualistic connections here create a philosophy of togetherness that simultaneously lead to changes in thought for individuals, who will consider the forest differently. This follows the transcendental school of philosophy, including Kant and Thoreau, but also introduces new schools that have updated much of their thinking, such as those presented by Braidotti and Butler (I will go into more detail on the research in future posts).

One of the best examples of mutualism that features a limited, and controlled, amount of parasitism is explored in Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World. In it, Tsing traces the international picking, trade and transport of the matsutake mushroom, a prize in gift culture in Japan. Through this book, and her adventures, Tsing shows how a mutualistic system can grow and operate inside a capitalist system that features some, but not all traits, of what is sometimes referred to as “cognitive capitalism”. The depth of Tsing’s analysis is difficult to transcribe, but her method is the primary influence in this series of work.

2. Quantification

One habit of late capitalist structures is to create a value on everything. Capitalism does this by necessity, as part of the political structure that it operates under. By creating a series of value, by quantifying everything, the idea is to create a sphere of control over the operation of all things: resources, people, media.

Contemporary technology encourages all levels of quantification, such as adding up ‘likes’ and ‘follows’ on social media, or counting steps on a fit-bit. This is all part of a process of amalgamation of quantity. It was a process that began around the 19th Century, with the surveying and identification of numbers related to resources and people: At what cost can X number of people saw Y number of trees in Z amount of time. This method of supply economics was the original driving force in capitalism in the 19th Century, but ran amok in the 20th Century as first the numbers became too large to understand, and second the numbers became fictional.

Our technological networks expand into the future, but unless we keep control over them we do not know where they will take us.

The first problem occurred with quantification of people and economic growth. The risks to economic stability are constantly posed by supply-and-demand economics. When a resource is plentiful, its supply is met or over-met; when it becomes scarce it becomes expensive. This basic principle underlies international trading in theory, however a new dimension was added in the 20th Century that obfuscates this principle: future predictions. When companies were given free reign to predict future value in the 1980s, they then had an opportunity to create fictionalised futures based on what they expected they would earn in years to come. With the supply-and-demand economics impossible under this idea, aggressive expansion became easier for those who already held the majority of wealth. Value does not hold a base in any real, material goods, but in the proposed future value of those goods. The most notable misuse of this type of value was in the Enron scandal in 2001, when the futures were falsified enough that Enron made millions before closing shop and dismissing all of their employees. The 2008 financial crash further exemplified this unreliability of quantification of futures: The cascading, parasitic network of international trade, bond and bank operations led to fallout across the world.

There is an ongoing desire to quantify, and this is the first thing that needs to be removed in a new philosophy on networks. To quantify is to fail to relate, to abstract, and to pander to the global capitalist interests that base their value on numbers. Quantification needs to be sacrificed for experiential and rational understanding. This is not hard to do, in theory, but needs active participation from people to move away from the habit of quantifying.

To achieve this, monetised social media needs to be abandoned. It has no value as a social space. In one month of networking on Mastodon I have discovered more fascinating insights into the world than I have in ten years on Twitter. The value of shared communities is unquantifiable; the value of an idea is unquantifiable. Experiential understanding is particularly unquantifiable. But it can be understood. And this is the important point.

Experience and rationale can be understood. They do not need to be quantified, but they do need to be shared. The community of people that exist globally, for example those that I have contacted and worked with in the run up to this project, are all part of an unquantifiable mesh of ideas and innovation, brilliance and light, that is not transferrable into any number. This project could not exist with such a number.

The one ongoing lesson from everyone I have met so far, from most of those that I have read, from myself as I learn: go for a walk.

3. Time (to Think)

One of the crucial points about the “internet age” that recurs in conversations is the idea that there is “no time”. Everything is strained. People work eight hours, then go home and work again. There is a constant drive to push more data onto servers, to update LinkedIn for that dream job, to get more ‘likes’ by promoting a post on Facebook. Every behaviour is precipitated with a drive to quantify. And with that drive comes a need to separate. We have never been so close together, or so far apart.

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on this idea of time. As people distance themselves socially, they have rediscovered some of their social methods that had been reduced in recent years. Technologies have helped enable ongoing communication when people have been unable to meet, and this has been important. COVID-19 has also reduced the movements of people, stalling the international economic machine, and giving people time to consider their position in the world.

This is all extremely relevant. The interconnectivity of digital communication technologies offered a bright future in the 1990s, where researchers could collaborate, where communities could learn activist methods from one another, where people could keep in touch with family and friends abroad. All of this exists (mutualistic networks) but with this came quantification, monetisation, advertising and ultimately separation (parasitic networks). The gradual introduction of control over networks by large, international companies, leading in part to the election results in 2016 in the US, and the referendum in the UK, were driven by this parasitic separation. By separating people into ‘filter bubbles’, alone among their own echoed thoughts, they are easier to classify, identify and manage. The same mistake is made with trees. A tree is never just a tree, but the mutualistic whole of all of its neighbours (fungi, insects, birds, other trees).

What all this comes down to is not just quantification, but time. The lack of time creates a lack of ability to consider all of these factors, and to move past them. One theory put forward about the evolution of human beings is the time allowed by being able to stay up late at night and discuss, instead of having to guardedly sleep, wary of predators. This time was allowed by harnessing and controlling fire (the gift of Prometheus). Time gave the possibility to consider, and consideration gave rationale and experiential understanding.

If given enough time, all things return to a natural state.

So to make sure this philosophy can be carried out, time is a necessity. Interestingly, this project has come about from exactly that type of time-sparing. In 2019, I finished five years of intense contracts working as a project manager on computer science projects in Trinity College Dublin. Although I thoroughly enjoyed most of this time, I also found myself exhausted, with little room to think clearly. Without that room to think, my art suffered and was diffuse.

Since July 2019, I have not had steady employment for the first time in a long time. Although this has come with some financial difficulties, I have also had the space to think, to distil and combine the years of work and research that I have been building up, and the result is that my thoughts have finally unjumbled. Although I have struggled financially, I have come to a point where I now understand my own work better. Speaking to Prof. Mike Collier he mused about the importance of understanding yourself to understand the world around you, and I see this too. Space and time are needed for creativity, and are stifled in a world centred on quantification and work.

The importance of time goes hand in hand with experiential understanding. Time is needed to walk, to think, to look (to really look, not just look and photograph through a phone screen, as artist Kathy Herbert would criticise). In looking, smelling, hearing, there is a development of a sense of wonder. It is irrelevant where this is done – in urban or rural environments – although with the latter there is arguably a richer sensory array of experience to be had.

So time is the crucial factor. How to buy time? Stopping working is not always (not usually) an option. I was lucky enough to have five years of savings from a well-paid job to supplement my social welfare payment, so I have been able to take this time to read, think and experience. Is it possible for everyone to do this?

Probably not, but time can be taken in many ways. To find time, one has to first dismiss quantification. If you are looking through the Twitter feed relentlessly, then you may find that you have spent an inordinate amount of each day reading essentially nothing. The reinforcing of your beliefs and ideas on monetised social media do not add anything to experience. Real, human connection can – my contacts with the people in Kielder, with the individuals that I have written to on Mastodon, with those I have met in person – these are all experiential additions to this project. I am growing as the project grows.

But I am selective. I cannot spend my day updating social media accounts when I have a substantial amount of walking, meeting and discussing planned. Something has to be sacrificed. I sacrifice quantification.

Expert Network

Kielder, at this point in time, is an abstraction. But a picture is becoming clearer as I delve further into the possible research. Enabled by modern technologies, I have had video calls with different people who will be involved in the project, and who are helping with my research. These include:

Each person has been a unique perspective to add to this saga, and I feel it will get significantly more interesting as the story unfolds. This is the first network. As Kielder remains in the abstract, this network is the one I am using to put shape on my understanding of the different topics that I am taking on.

Final Thoughts (for now)

This is where this project has led, to date. In writing it down I want to have a reference point that I can return to at a future date, to see how my thinking has changed or been rearranged. All ideas come together eventually. Fermentation time is important too, and documentation helps with fermentation.When I reach Kielder (whenever the pandemic passes and it is safe for me and others to travel again), I want my mind fresh for experiential and textual reference material. I want to visit the same place over and over; to find my favourite place in Kielder and to revisit it repeatedly. I want to know the people, and the place, inside out after spending a month there. It is a hard task, particularly as I have to make time to make art, but I am hopeful that all can be done when afforded the appropriate time and space that a residency allows.

For now, I will keep researching, and sharing this research here when there is time. The video essays will continue, so watch this space.