Revisiting the Aspen Tree
Author: Annette Arlander
Format: Video Art
Duration: 40′ 02′
Published: January 2023
Descriptive transcript of the work can be accessed here.
On 4 February 2020 when I visited the Aspen tree on the western shore of Harakka Island I brought with me my video camera on tripod, but I did not bring the little blue swing that I used to attach to the tree once a week during the Chinese year of the snake 2013-2014. It was easily available in my studio, but for some reason it felt unnecessary; perhaps I had used it too much. The weather was fine, but it was cold, and I wanted to get the image done as soon as possible and get back to the mainland. This was the last revisit to the last site of the last video in the series Animal Years, which was performed in various places on Harakka Island during the years 2002-2014. The series consists of yearlong time-lapse videos of weekly visits to various sites on the island. To have names the videos were called after the animals of the Chinese Calendar, which forms a twelve-year cycle, Revisiting the sites now was part of a research project called How to do things with performance, where one of my tasks was to see what could be done with that old video series today, whether it could be reactivated and made relevant again.
In the the application for the Academy of Finland funded four-year (2016-2020) research project How to do things with performance (HTDTWP) together with Hanna Järvinen, Tero Nauha and Pilvi Porkola. the research-task of the project was summarised as follows:
‘In this project, we ask what can be done with performance – what actualises when a performance takes place, when it is documented, and when it is written about. Through these epistemological questions, we address the ontology of performance: in what ways can we understand ‘performance’ today, as a new materiality, as presence, and in the international, multilingual context where words, documents, and practices connote differently but are shared in online environments. We seek to update the theory of performativity vis à vis new materialist theories of agential realism and non-philosophy.’ (research application 296767, 2016)
Whether we succeed in updating the theory of performativity is doubtful. The research question for the part of the project discussed here is formulated more modestly, as follows:
‘Annette Arlander utilises her the twelve-year project “Performing Landscape” (2002-2014; Arlander 2014b) and the resulting series of video works Animal Years as material for critical self-reflection. She asks what is the performative potential of those works when viewed as a series, and how the working method developed in this project could be understood as an intra-action with the environment, an everyday practice for nonartists that could increase our understanding of our interdependence with other forms of life and matter on the planet. Together with the research team, she explores performative writing and performative documentation as material-discursive practices, but her particular focus lies in digital archiving and online publication.’ (research application 296767, 2016)
The HTDTWP project was related to the development of performance studies and artistic research and their connections in Finland. A more specific context for the part discussed here is the ongoing experimentation with digital online publishing of research outputs. There is much recent work done within that area, as exemplified by the journals where some of the video essays have been published (JER, BST, GPS, PARtake, RUUKKU) and other online journals (JAR, VIS). These revisits can also be placed in the context of my longstanding work with performing landscape on Harakka Island.
Revisiting the sites of Animal Years, a twelve-year series of year-long video works based on weekly performances for camera, was a continuation of my returning to the site of the first year, Year of the Horse (recorded in 2002-2003) at the end of the series to create Year of the Horse – Calendar recorded in 2014-2015, once a month rather than once a week, though. Later I made revisits to the sites of all the years, not all sites though, because some years I performed on several sites.
The video Revisiting the Aspen Tree (40 min) is the last one in the series of revisits, a compilation of the four-channel installation Year of the Snake (36 min 30 sec) and the video Day and Night of the Snake (6 min 46 sec) inserted into a revisit on 4 February 2020 to the site where those videos were performed and recorded in 2013-2014. The main text where I use that work as an example, ‘From interaction to intra-action in performing landscape’ in Artnodes no 14. (2014), discusses mainly the ideas of Karen Barad (2007), while briefly mentioning the work of Jane Bennett (2010), Rosi Braidotti (2013) and Barbara Bolt (2008). There I ask whether we could understand the interaction of the elements in the work more like an ‘intra-action’ where the entanglement of the various components is a pre-condition, rather than a result, of the action. The swing emerges from the entanglement of rope, wood and tree, but do these things not exist as individual elements before being combined into a swing? Following Barad, they are all part of the world intra-acting with itself. In the text I examine the notions agential cut and agential separability, which I have returned to elsewhere (Arlander 2018d), and the text feels relevant still. Therefore, reconsidering the theoretical ideas then and now, as I have done in relation to most of the other revisits was not needed in this case. What I did not consider at the time, however, was the crucial role of the aspen tree, which now, considering my current project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees (Arlander 2020-2021) and the recent flourishing of critical plant studies seems like a significant negligence.
In the text on intra-action, I used the Year of the Snake as example, but did not really discuss the practice, except for a brief description:
‘In a recent project, Year of the Snake Swinging (2014), performed for the camera once a week for a year on the same island, an aspen growing on the western shore of Harakka Island in Helsinki provided the setting and support for a small swing and served as a figure showing the shifting seasons and the weather. This was the last part in a series of twelve one-year projects, which I began in 2002 and finished in 2014, called Animal Years, based on the Chinese calendar and its cycle of twelve years, with each year named after a specific animal. The project explored the question of how to perform landscape today (Arlander 2012), based on the traditions of performance art, video art and environmental art, and moving in the borderland between them. The most obvious layer of the work during the year of the snake was the movement of the swing, later attached to other trees on other shores as well and explored by both visiting performers and myself’ (Arlander 2014, 1).
That year was the only year where I invited other people to participate, to swing and perform for the camera. The participatory aspect was later developed into many variations of swinging together. Various experiments with swinging where discussed, first in an article called ‘Performing Landscape – Swinging Together or Playing with Projections’ (2016), and then in a chapter called ‘Process as Performance or Variations of Swinging’ (2018). In none of these texts, do I focus on the aspen tree. In the text on intra-action, I do mention the tree briefly when discussing distributed agency and what acknowledging that might mean:
‘The tree clearly has some agency in the assemblage of wood, rope and branch that forms a swing. And in this case we could add other (f)actors — like the sea, the wind, the cliffs, a human being, a scarf, a video camera on a tripod and more — as interacting collaborators in the assemblage. The agency of technology is evident; if the battery of the camera runs out, the productive capacity of the whole assemblage is affected — hence, no video. But the agency of the aspen is even more palpable — no tree, no branch, no place to fasten the swing. The strange form to the right on the shore in the image … is the stub of another aspen that used to grow there, but died a few years ago, perhaps because of too much seawater at its roots. By growing next to each other they afforded the fastening of a hammock between them. Now the other one still provides support for a swing. Acknowledging the agency of the tree suggests further questions. How could we expand our understanding of agency in performance as research? What would that mean in terms of methodology?’ (Arlander 2014, 1-2)
These questions in 2014 were based on the work Year of the Snake Swinging. In relation to the work at hand, Revisiting the Aspen Tree, the question of methodology is in focus in another sense, as the method of revisiting and re-recording the site of a performance. In this new approach, however, the aspen tree still remains in the sidelines, as an almost invisible support, in a funny way accentuated by the lifebuoy now attached to it.
In terms of methods the work draws on the traditions of performance art with its emphasis on embodied presence, documenting practices on video as performances for camera, and also the moving image culture within fine art, beyond the cinematic, including multi-channel installations, as well as the tradition and critique of landscape depiction in its many forms.
My main strategy has been to revisit the sites and see what I could remember of my original performances for camera, and to record approximately the same view from the same spot and with the same framing – approximately, because I now had another camera with another objective, and that was part of the point. Especially the first six years of the series were recorded in DV quality and TV format, which looks really outdated today. What I realized after a first try-out, revisiting the site of the second year, the Chinese year of the goat, was that I could insert the old videos as small images into the recording of the revisit. In that way I could show the old four-channel installation within one frame and also show how and if the landscape had changed. And I could revisit not only the site and the videos but also the texts that I had previously written based on those videos and see whether my thinking had changed and add those reflections as a voice-over to the video compilation. The first video essay made with this method was later reworked and peer-reviewed to be published in JER, Journal for Embodied Research as ‘The Shore Revisited’ (2018).
The method that can be extracted or distilled from my way of working, ‘revisit, recreate, reflect’, consists of several steps: to revisit the site, repeat parts of the performance, record a contemporary image of the same view and then insert the old video (or multi-channel installation) into that image in miniature, as well as to return to texts discussing that specific work and reconsider them from today’s perspective. This method of revisiting sites in order to recreate and recombine video recordings and texts into a reflective video essay, with or without text or spoken voice-over narration, could be adapted for other purposes. To return and repeat, to recycle and recombine, and to reflect and reconsider form a method that could be adapted to various types of practices, although it is especially convenient for lens-based digital practices, which can be easily reused.
The video compilations have been shown at the final events of the HTDTWP project and published as individual video essays in peer reviewed online journals. All recorded revisits have been shown at the HTDTWP research days or as part of joint presentations at international conferences. Some of them have been reworked into peer-reviewed publications with the video as a crucial part, such as ‘Return to the Site of the Year of the Rooster’ (2019), ‘The City Skyline Revisited – From networks to trans-corporeality’ (2020), ‘Revisiting the Rusty Ring – Ecofeminism Today?’ (2020), ‘The Rock Revisited – Self-Diffraction as a strategy’ (2020) or ‘Remembering the Year of the Tiger – Image, Memory, Site’ (2020) or then transformed into texts without video, like ‘Breathing and Growth – performing with plants’ (2018), and ‘Calling the Dragon Again’ (2021). Others are published as parts of joint presentations in conference proceedings, like ‘The Pine Revisited’ (2019) or ‘Revisiting the Juniper’ (2020). And some have only been presented live in conferences, like ‘The Cliff Revisited’, ‘The Pine on the Shore Revisited’ and ‘The Spruce Revisited’.
The main contribution of these video compilations or video essays is to serve as examples, as inspiration, something for others to develop further. A brief description of the method suggesting that other artists try revisiting, too, was published in the Finnish artists’ magazine Taide (Arlander 2021) and a longer version is included in the HTDTWP publication (Arlander, forthcoming).
In terms of societal impact, huge results are not to be expected beyond the suggested inspirational function. The video installation Year of the Snake, which forms the basis of this revisit was bought into the Finnish National Gallery collection, and thus has some potential for future impact. The documentation of the changes in the landscape on Harakka Island might have some value when looking at changes brought about by climate change and other forms of environmental destruction. In terms of future developments there is a plan to create a ‘memory of the landscape’ on Harakka Island with QR codes placed on rails at suitable sites, linking to the videos of Animal Years recorded on those sites. Some experiments are already in place, not yet the Year of the Snake, though. This concerns the original works rather than the video essays and is more like an offshoot of the project.
 For a description of the whole series, see Arlander 2014b.
 See for example Marder 2013; Nealon 2015; Vieira, Gagliano, & Ryan 2015; Gagliano, Ryan & Vieira 2017; Gibson 2018; Aloi 2018.
Aloi, G. (2019). Why Look at Plants? The Botanical Emergence in Contemporary Art. Brill Rodopi
Arlander, A. (forthcoming) ’”Kertaa ja koosta” – työmenetelmä ja julkaisumuoto’ [Repeat and assemble – working method and publication form] in Järvinen, H., Arlander, A., Nauha, T. & Porkola, P. eds. Näin teimme esityksellä [This is how we did things with performance] Vastapaino.
Arlander, A. (2021a) ‘Calling for Zoe as a Utopian Gesture’. Ruukku – studies in artistic research #17 Everyday Utopias and Artistic Research https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/1112890/1112891
Arlander, A. (2021b) ’”Kertaa ja koosta” eli märehtiminen menetelmänä’ [Repeat and assemble or regurgitating as a method], Taide 3/2021, p. 26.
Arlander, A. (2020a) ‘Remembering the Year of the Tiger – Image, Memory, Site.’ In M. Silde, O. Lahtinen & T. Helve, eds. Näyttämö & Tutkimus 8: Muisti, Arkisto ja Esitys [Stage & Research 8: Memory, Archive and Performance] 2020, pp. 292-318. http://teats.fi/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/TeaTS-8-Artikkeli-10-Annette-Arlander.pdf
Arlander, A. (2020b) ‘Revisiting the Rock – Self-diffraction as a Strategy.’ Global Performance Studies 3.2. (2020) https://gps.psi-web.org/issue-3-2/
Arlander, A. (2020c) ‘Revisiting the Rusty Ring – Ecofeminism Today?’ PARtake Journal vol 3 no 1 2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.33011/partake.v3i1.473
Arlander, A. (2020d) ‘The City Skyline Revisited – From networks to trans-corporeality.’ Research in Arts & Education 1/2020, pp. 37-55. https://researtsedu.com/2020-february-issue
Arlander, A. (2019) ‘Return to the Site of the Year of the Rooster’. In A.Arlander, H. Järvinen, T. Nauha and P. Porkola, eds. How to do things with performance, Ruukku – Studies in artistic research 11. http://ruukku-journal.fi/en/issues/11
Arlander, A. (2018a) ‘Breathing and Growth – performing with plants.’ Journal of Dance and Somatic Practices. Volume 10. Number 2., pp. 175-187.
Arlander, A. (2018b) ‘The Shore Revisited.’ Journal of Embodied Research, 1(1): 4 (30:34), 2018 DOI: https://doi.org/10.16995/jer.8
Arlander, A. (2018c) ‘Process as Performance or Variations of Swinging.’ In H. Blades & E. Meehan, eds. Performing Process: Sharing Dance and Choreographic Practice. Intellect Books, pp. 99-118.
Arlander, A. (2018d) ’Agential Cuts and Performance as Research’. In A. Arlander, B. Barton, M. Dreyer-Lude & B. Spatz, eds. Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact. Routledge, 133-151.
Arlander, A. (2016a) ‘Performing Landscape – Swinging Together or Playing with Projections.’ In Body, Space, Technology Journal vol.16. https://www.bstjournal.com/articles/10.16995/bst.1/
Arlander, A. (2016b) ‘Repeat, Revisit, Recreate—Two Times Year of the Horse’. PARSE Journal Issue #3 Repetitions and Reneges, pp. 43-59. https://parsejournal.com/article/repeat-revisit-recreate-two-times-year-of-the-horse/
Arlander, A. (2014a) ‘From interaction to intra-action in performing landscape’. In: Beatriz REVELLES BENAVENTE, Ana M. GONZÁLEZ RAMOS, Krizia NARDINI (coord.). ‘New feminist materialism: engendering an ethic-onto-epistemological methodology’. Artnodes. No. 14, pp. 26-34. https://raco.cat/index.php/Artnodes/article/view/303312
Arlander, A. (2014b) ‘Performing Landscape for Years’. Performance Research 19-3 2014, pp. 27-31.
Arlander, A. (2012) Performing Landscape – Notes on Site-specific Work and Artistic Research. Texts 2001-2011. Acta Scenica 28. Theatre Academy Helsinki 2012. https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/37613
Arlander, A. Järvinen H., Nauha T. and Porkola, P. (2020) ’HTDTWP presents: The Transformative Potential of Performance’. In Rouhiainen, L. (ed.) Proceedings of CARPA 6 Artistic Research Performs and Transforms: Bridging Practices, Contexts, Traditions & Futures Nivel 13 (2020) https://nivel.teak.fi/carpa6/annette-arlander-hanna-jarvinen-tero-nauha-and-pilvi-porkola-htdtwp-presents-the-transformative-potential-of-performance/
Arlander, A. Järvinen H., Nauha T. and Porkola, P. (2018) “Regurgitated Perspectives – Performance”. In Geoff Cox, G. Drayson, H. Fatehrad, A., Gall, A., Hopes, L., Lewin, A. and Prior, A. (eds.) Proceedings of the 9th SAR International Conference on Artistic Research, University of Plymouth, April 11th-13th, 2018 pp. 299-311. https://www.researchcatalogue.net/view/512748/512749
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press. http://dx.doi. org/10.1215/9780822388128
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter, A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press.
Bolt, B. (2008). ‘A Performative Paradigm for the Creative Arts?’ Working Papers in Art and Design, Vol. 5, University of Hertfordshire [online]. http://www.herts.ac.uk/research/ssahri/research-areas/art-design/research-into-practice-group/production/working-papers-in-art-and-design-journal [Accessed: 17/10/14]
Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.
Gagliano, M., Ryan, J.C. & Vieira, P. eds. (2017). The Language of Plants: Science, Philosophy, Literature. University of Minnesota Press.
Gibson, P. (2018). The Plant Contract: Art’s Return to Vegetal Life. Brill
Marder, M. (2013). Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia University Press.
Nealon, J. T. (2015). Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life. Stanford University Press.
Vieira, P., Gagliano, M., & Ryan, J.C. eds. (2015). The Green Thread: Dialogues with the Vegetal World. Lexington Books.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
Annette Arlander’s research considers, ‘how to do things with performance,’ which for the purposes of this text covers the revisiting of her previous work Animal Years, a twelve-year long video series, in a new video, Revisiting the Aspen Tree. She states that the aim of this research project is ‘to update the theory of performativity vis à vis new materialist theories of agential realism and non-philosophy.’ And this is to be a project of ‘critical self-reflection’, that considers the ‘series’ as a means to ‘intra-action with the environment’ and ‘nonartists’, through digital production and online publication.
These intentions are clearly located. The video work is preformed, spoken, durational, it offers a record of environment, personal interest, making it distinctly authorial. The endeavour to archive, record, display, indicates ways in which this research can expand, exist beyond the page, through online innovation, allowing the work’s performativity to become more present.
To contextualise the new project the author references her body of work. But in places a knowledge of her practice is assumed, which can make the text overly dense. This is evident in the introduction, which begins with a description of production methods, other works, and the Chinese New Year. These elements are curious – for instance, why the interest in the Chinese zodiac? – but a more direct introduction, would be structurally beneficial. However, by way of contrast, the analysis of the swing’s placement clearly articulates its critical purpose and creates a sense of place. This reflection also relates to the new video, the aspen (as a ‘support’) and how it has facilitated new awareness.
The project represents focused and prolonged research, and its methodology draws on a wide range of connected interests, which is characterised as ‘revisit, recreate, reflect.’ The project’s practical manifestation is in part a memory exercise, concerning the initial island visits and the subsequent return, and finding the means to display these different temporal/spatial elements was key. The solution was a form of ‘recycling’, in which ‘old videos as small images’ were inserted into the new works to form a composite. However, in this pursuit, there is a technical hierarchy, the format of older recordings is described as ‘outdated’; but why is this the case, surely their material resolution, which in this context also indicates pastness, is just a different technical standard?
The practice-related outcome is fulsome. The artist’s concluding statement is instructive, expressing direct intention, the hope that others will take on the form and add to its content. She allows that the work’s societal impact is hard to gauge, but its presence, as a guide and record, is assured (at least within the artistic realm), which offers a chance to now see and hear the memory of this cherished landscape. The writing ends on a speculative note, which considering the project seems appropriate, and is suggestive of an on-going environmental and personal conversation.
Review 2: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement.
Revisiting the Aspen Tree concerns a single location over a long span of time: the western shore of Harakka Island in Helsinki where the titular aspen tree sits. The work at its core explores multiple temporalities and agencies as they interact and become entangled. We watch in different frames the artist who, as part of a long-term research project, revisits and performs in the same location every week for a year in 2014. In the video’s largest frame, we see a single continuous shot of the location the artist again revisited in 2020. Various figures appear and disappear across smaller superimposed frames filmed at different times (for this submission, videos previously exhibited as multi-channel work are mixed down to a single channel). The passage of time is marked in multiple ways – the aspen’s changing leaves, the lake’s freezing and thawing, the altered quality of the light, wind and birdsong, and the metronomic movement of a person on a swing attached to the tree.
As the artist identifies in her written methods section, revisiting locations and previous artworks opens up potentially unique ways of working: eschewing the essentialism of the singular artwork to reflectively consider the way ideas, bodies, ecology, land, technology and exhibition context change over time. The philosophical foundations of the work, hinted at through Barad, could provide a radical imperative to challenge, if not critically undermine, the existence of a singular, finished artwork ‘about’ a tree or a landscape as a reductive anthropocentric gesture.
With this in mind, the written statement and bibliography might benefit from more explicit reference to relevant theoretical touchstones. The artist mentions that she has discussed Barad’s concept of intra-action elsewhere, but it needs some more reappraisal here. She identifies how new materialist theory makes room for multiple agencies beyond the human – further explanation of this or footnotes pointing to further relevant reading, like Object Oriented Ontology or eco-feminist theory, would bolster the work.
Her exploration of multiple temporalities can ask explicitly political questions – what is at stake in predominantly Western-capitalist models of measuring time as opposed to different ways of marking duration? Can she say more about this in relation to her use of the Chinese calendrical tradition of twelve-year cycles? What are the potential issues of translation of this tradition to the context of this work?
These additions would require nothing more extensive than footnotes and brief acknowledgements.
Her practical framing is rightly on the capacities of performance in research, but reference to previous artists’ films which explore similar ideas would also be helpful. For example, Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames which ‘revisits’ the scenes of landscape photographs taken over the years and reflexively recreates them through the durational modes of digital cinema.
However, these are only suggestions for strengthening the written work. Indeed, the artist already gives a strong sense that the technique of ‘revisit, recreate, reflect’ is potentially fruitful for further artistic research. Many practice-based researchers would absolutely do well to take onboard such a generous and generative methodology.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.