• Tree Time at New Langton Arts, San Fransisco

  • Controller module

  • Base detail

  • Main joint detail

  • Branch and joint detail

  • Branchlet detail

Tree Time is a computer-controlled robotic sculpture fabricated from parts of a downed tree.  First exhibited at New Langton Arts in San Francisco as part of an exhibition called Dromology: ecstasies of Speed, curated by Marcia Tanner.

Paul Stout assisted me in the ideation and fabrication of this project.  We scoured the regional parks for the perfect downed tree. We found it: it was a slim, twisted, beautiful Laurel which had been struck by lightning.  Like mad scientists we reanimated it, excising undesirable elements and augmenting the natural materials with the best technology has to offer.

This ‘improved’ tree has six large articulated joints fabricated from copper and brass, moved by cables pulled by gearmotors at the tree’s base.  In addition, there are sixteen small motorized branchlets.   Stainless steel cable housings and wiring bundles cover nearly every inch of the tree’s surface.  On each branch is a light sensor which gives the computer information about the proximity of viewers.  The computer sends microsecond pulses to the motors, in patterns derived from the sensor information.  Near each motor is a tiny red light, which illuminates briefly each time the corresponding motor is pulsed.    In this way the piece moves in response to viewer presence.    However, the pulses to the motors are so short that the piece’s movement occurs over minutes, hours and days.   To all but the most intrepid viewer, it appears to be a static object.

This machine is I think equal parts meditation on slowness and bastardization of nature.  The obvious reference to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the lightning-struck tree, the garish reassembly, the electrification, the technological “improvement” upon the original organism, is intentional.  Paul calls it eco-porn, which I think is nice.  And to it I’d add the word ecstasy, because it too carries multiple, sometimes contradictory and sometimes sympathetic, meanings.

I associate both words with TreeTime, because of the dissonance, the pleasure and the pain, the beauty and the obscenity of the endeavor.  In that sense, Treetime is a morality story about limits. It’s also called TreeTime because it’s a robotic sculpture whose movement is sessile, that is, plant-like. It’s meant to be frustratingly slow.   For all these reasons and more, I wanted this piece to be the anti-speed (the antidote) in an exhibition full of quick ruminations on accelerated culture.