Fermynwoods Focus – Felix Loftus

Felix Loftus’ Avoid an ash, It counts the flash 0.0 is a mini low-power video game set in a 3D representation of a section of the trees in Fermyn Woods. You play the game as a forest sprite that lives in the mind of a child. Figures from forest-themed horror video games have been appearing in the woods the sprite lives in and are making the trees fade away.

James George Frazer’s renowned anthropological work The Golden Bough makes clear the link between thunder and worship of the oak tree in many religions across Europe. One can imagine lightening strikes upon the trees in the ancient sanctuary in Dodona where priests would interpret rustling leaves and Zeus, wielder of thunder bolts and worshipped as Zeus Naios (or god of the spring below the oak). In the Capitol at Rome, Jupiter was worshipped as the deity of the oak, rain and thunder. In the religion of the ancient Germans, sacred groves containing their holy oak trees were dedicated to the god of thunder, Donar or Thunar, the equivalent of the Norse God Thor.

Less well known is the connection with ash trees made by T. F. Thiselton-dyer, in The Folk-lore of Plants, 1889; where the author suggests certain trees were considered to be embodiments of thunder itself, providing an old couplet “Avoid an ash, It counts the flash”, as a warning of the electrocution hazard from ash trees. For artist Felix Loftus the association is broader, making an explicit connection with the Flash multimedia software platform.

In the early 2000s, Flash was widely used to display interactive web pages and online games, video and audio content. Despite its name, Flash could lack the necessary speed for optimal performance as beautiful animations and web experiences were a tradeoff for the computer processing time needed to render the sequences.

By 2010 Apple’s Steve Jobs had publicly decried the platform in his open letter, Thoughts on Flash, defending his decision not to allow the technology on the iPhone, iPod and iPad, citing along with concerns about security issues and incompatibility with touch screen devices, it’s inherently inefficient and power-sapping nature. “The mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short”, he predicted. Flash today is largely obsolete, replaced by the modern HTML5 standards for presenting web content.

Responding to Fermynwoods open call for tree related works that were inquisitive and mindful of the environmental impact of creating and presenting artworks using digital technology, Felix’s references to Flash raised some thought provoking considerations.

His work Avoid an ash, It counts the flash 0.0 is a mini low-power video game set in a 3D representation of a section of the trees in Fermyn Woods. Developed by photogrammetry and lidar scans of the woods, and the projecting of two-dimensional imagery from early Flash Games into small scale 3D models using a low-power modelling software, the entire work was created using as little carbon as an average petrol-powered car taking a single 50 mile journey.

As a low-power work the gameplay benefits from similar efficiencies whilst the recalling the feel and aesthetics of early Flash games by choice rather than limitation. Felix notes “The association of woods with treachery and horror was used frequently in Flash games to enhance the thrill factor of the games, perpetuating xylophobic tendencies into the virtual domain for everyone who played these games”, aiming to hybridise how the woods appear today with how woods have been presented in video games and stories.

The full title of the work, where a clear acknowledgement of Thiselton-dyer’s rhyme, also contains the 0.0 appendage – suggestive of typical versioning schemes used to convey meaning amongst software developers when communicating changes in a version release. Where 0.0 would typically mean the first major version, in this case it suggests both the noughties-era which inspired the work, and a winding back of technology as the version presented here is several iterations later than the initial release.

Interestingly, an intermediate release contained a more competitive element where the player had to collect sprites against the clock, which Felix later rolled back in favour of “the exploratory, unrushed gameplay from before which felt quite opposed to the high intensity of the games my piece is based on and suited the dreamlike feel of the piece that I’m aiming for.” In version 0.0 players are warned, “If you can’t see, you’re moving too fast for this place”.

As Thiselton-dyer notes, “Rowan-ash, and red thread, Keep the devils from their speed.”

James Steventon

This work took 5.46kg of carbon to produce, according to The Networked Condition carbon calculator tool.

Felix Loftus is a computational artist, technician, and creative educator, specialising in low-power digital photography and interactive fiction games. He explores how technology can be a tool for re-enchanting and restoring relationships to the land and to the more-than-human world. Felix has researched into environmental justice in tech with the Sustainable Darkroom – an artist run research, training and mutual learning programme, to equip cultural practitioners with new skills and knowledge to develop an environmentally friendly photographic darkroom practice; and co-organises SE(e)-ing, a photography project in South London connecting young photographers with housing activists through creative workshops.

Avoid an ash, It counts the flash 0.0 was commissioned by Fermynwoods Contemporary Art for Xylophobia: Online – an exhibition of digitally based work which takes its name from the fear of wooden objects, forests, or wooded areas. Responding to the increased needs and fears of outdoor activities in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the featured work presents explorative, experimental and conceptual spaces at this intersection, whilst inquisitive and mindful of the environmental impact of creating and presenting artworks using digital technology. Funded by Arts Council England.