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Data Hearing, Data Smelling. Uncertain and unnecessary measurements in art and science collaborations

Activity: Talk/lecture or presentationTalk/lecture

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Scientific knowledge and ‘truth’ have highly influenced our perception of nonhuman actors, and it has done so mainly from an anthropocentric narrative. This knowledge is created not only with scientific methods of e.g. measurement or modelling but also narratives and fictional constructs. In the sociology of science, this situatedness of knowledge in human experience and expertise is analysed in how it shapes scientific writing, or in general, the presentation of scientific knowledge (Latour 1987, Collins 2001.) This is certainly true for trees, which have an essential impact on life on earth as a habitat for many species of animals and plants, in their use by human beings as well as their influence on global climate. Yet, trees as a taxonomy cannot be completely defined in botany or in common language. It is an anthropocentric conception that has created too narrow narratives and images for a “woody plant with secondary growth.” Definitions can be based on use for humans, botanical categories as well as common language use but the range of traits and characteristics that we attribute to ‘tree’ cannot been be summarized within one methodology.
Collaborations in art and science question our traditional scientific approach and have opened up towards explorative, rogue and unnecessary research methods that find new ways of knowing about and narrating with plants and trees. This is not only vital for questioning anthropocentric behaviour towards other living entities, but to understand the underlying conceptions of scientific methodologies. Artists create unforeseen avenues of inquiry or proposing alternative, but useful, fictional constructs and instruments. The epistemological process itself comes into question, its contextual meaning and philosophical level. As interdisciplinary and unnecessary research, these projects negate principles that are often considered to be essential: the principle of non-contradiction and the principle of rendering reason. Art and science collaboration often do not have a practical function in themselves, but are meant to question scientific knowledge and explore new perspectives and methodologies of how to do science. For biology, botany, and trees, this includes knowing and telling about them while acknowledging their existence as living entities in a posthuman society.
Based on this question of the (un)functionality of art and science collaborations, my presentation will investigate two case studies on trees that gathered and measured data on their sounds and smells. These case studies went beyond ideas of measurement. They collected data that does not follow the strict, traditional epistemological process. Rather, forgotten or neglected attributes of trees are measured to find new ways of thinking about trees/living with trees.
The “trees” research project at WSL in Switzerland was a collaboration of sound artist Philippe Kocher and ecophysiologist Roman Zweifel to make tree sounds palpable. Artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis works with biologists, engineers as well as fragrance chemist on invisible data from trees such as smells. Her work brings us closer to the complexity of trees in their ecological meaning and as living entities.

Research Unit / Event Journal/Book Series


TitleRogue Research
Abbreviated titlePOM 2021
LocationFreie Universitaet
Degree of recognitionInternational event