Each morning we follow the logging trucks on their way to the weighing station. We note the pine log that is most symmetrical and wonder about the lives of the others; the truck turns off and another comes up the on-ramp; again we choose. My partner tries to count the rings: how many years has this tree grown in its steep slope or dark valley? These trees have succeeded ponga, fern, tōtara and rimu and then dairy farms and sheep runs. Now thickets of slash clutter the hillsides and roll down into streams and gullies whilst amongst them new pines replace those milled. We imagine the logs will become houses but the short lengths are suspicious: they may become toilet paper. Pinus radiata is intensely problematic. A ruthless coloniser, its clones erode biodiversity throughout Aotearoa, but enable sustainable housing and play a complex role in the carbon economy. And like all trees, they actively participate in their own ecosystems.
The art world enters the supply chain. Amanda Fauteux and Miranda Bellamy have applied for and been donated a pine tree in the form of ‘cut’, with site access to the Waitati forest block. They have witnessed and documented its last period of being a tree, its ecosystem and co-habitants, its cutting down and the process of turning it into planks, and then its components’ repositioning in an air-drying stack to allow what was one to become many, as the saps and connective tissues retract.
The log enters the ecology of the gallery, but it carries its own with it as well. As its structures of biocommunication detach themselves from the system that was a tree, while its sap is alive it will remain attentive to living systems. These include the biodiversity around the gallery. (We now know more about airborne microparticles than we did.) As once it formed part of the plant collective in the plantation, it now becomes part of a new collective. Two different but increasingly overlapping systems of knowledge acknowledge this.
In thinking through this presentation of the movement from tree to plank, the artists have drawn on the writing of Potawatomi writer Robin Wall Kimmerer, particularly her study of the Potawatomi basket makers and their narrator, John Pigeon.1 In describing their holistic practices, drawn from understandings of the ecologies of the black ash that are generations old, Kimmerer describes the sensory patterns of the community: its sounds, its smells, its attentiveness to season; and the ways that the trees themselves form and are supported by communities of their own. These ecological systems have their own intelligence: they know things and they make decisions based on that knowledge.
Early theorists of ecology soon came to see the relevance of Indigenous understandings of the ethical collectivities of living forms. Operating on the basis of millennia of knowledge situated in an experiential and spiritual worldview, the dialogues of Indigenous thought converged with the development of systems thinking, like the interference patterns formed when river meets tide. Kimmerer writes:
Just about everything we use is the result of another’s life, but that simple reality is rarely acknowledged in our society. The ash curls we make are almost paper thin. They say that the ‘waste stream’ in this country is dominated by paper. Just as much as an ash splint, a sheet of paper is a tree’s life, along with the water and energy and toxic byproducts that went into making it. And yet we use it as if it were nothing. The short path from mailbox to waste bin tells the story. But what would happen, I wonder, to the mountain of junk mail if we could see in it the trees it had once been? If John was there to remind us of the worthiness of their lives?2
Since the 1960s, the paradigm shift toward complexity and new models of cognition has played out in the art world. Conceptual art emerged at the same time and in association with cybernetics, the development of the idea of ecologies and the computational transformations of cognitive theories. Connecting the humanities with the sciences, the post-human scholar N. Kathryn Hayles more recently argues that cognition, the process of connecting information with meaning that leads to decision-making, exists below the level of consciousness, a capacity that she convincingly claims we humans share with insects, plants and electromechanical sensors. 3
Interdisciplinary understandings of art recognise that the experience of art viewing can align the cognitive, the affectual and the emotional, enabling experiential learning, while, politically, as both representations and explorations of today’s value-systems, the experiences of art are given credibility. At the same time, the modernist emphasis on cognition as an exclusively human modality is destabilised by the recognition that cognition and the capacity for community-building are shared amongst all living beings.
In the gallery, then, the tree-becoming-timber is divorced from its prior community and placed within a new one. The artists locate the biodiversity that may be noting its presence, as its cellular structures retract from organic life, as the hunter’s prey becomes the sustenance of the human community hungry for housing. As it loses the capacity to engage with the biodiversity around it, I wonder whether it recognises its kinship with the boards beneath it that were also once tree. What, the artists ask, are our responsibilities toward it? What is our relationship?