Fermynwoods Focus – Greg Orrom Swan

The common expression is to see the wood for the trees. In Greg Orrom Swan’s film, A Suggestive Wax Suggests A Wane, the artist proposes that the work chooses not to see a living tree as simply a nonhuman but also to perceive the microbes, lichen, water, proteins, fibres and so on which make up its tree-ness, referencing Arne Naess and Satish Kumar’s notion of Deep Ecology.

This advocates the idea that nonhuman things have intrinsic worth as themselves – a tree as a tree, rather than for any human or anthropocentric extractive reason, such as a tree as timber and therefore useful. By seeing organisms as intrinsically important for being themselves we might more readily recognise their need for protection.

Explaining the concept of a holobiont – an assemblage of a host and the many other species living in or around it, which together form a discrete ecological unit through symbiosis – Greg casually adds, “We’re a collective. We’re mostly not human.” The outer layer of our body alone has as many, if not more, microbial cells than human cells. Evidence shows that our gut microbiomes have been found to influence our immune system, brains and behaviour – and even contribute more gene functions than our own genome. Rather than a reductive discovery we can each consider ourselves as ‘more than human’.

A suitably ego-less artist, Greg extended the idea of a collective into the making of the work, where his intention for creating the film was to enable a process of collective discovery. In practice this consisted of a workshop in Fermyn Woods where participants used their phones and simple digital tools to document the activity using photographs, video, sound and 3D scanning photogrammetry.

Primed with an brief introduction to alchemy, participants were tasked to gather 22 digital files (22 we learned is an important alchemical number). Each participant gathered 11 still images and 11 short videos each 22 seconds long, aiming to find our own language of symbols and patterns in the forest – on bark, on leaves, between roots, shapes formed by rapidly melting patches of snow and so on. The process of collective discovery therefore also included a contribution by non-human agents.

Instead of sharing files to remote cloud servers through undersea cables across continents and back, files were shared with Greg in person over cake and hot chocolate to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of the sharing process and resulting work.

In order to translate something of the overlaying forest ecologies to the resulting film, Greg borrowed from Sandor Ellix Katz’s philosophical exploration of what the physical nature of fermentation means in wider culture, combining the shared files using a process he calls ‘digital fermentation’. Much like the beer, kombucha and chilli sauce that Greg makes, the process of digital fermentation sets something generative in motion without being overly prescriptive and an outcome emerges – whilst “hoping the mould doesn’t win”.

Still from Greg Orrom Swan's film A Suggestive Wax Suggests A Wane

Understanding Jussi Parikka’s posit that any technology literally comes from the minerals of Earth, Greg was keen to ensure the digital and organic were tied together, realised through an accompanying soundtrack courtesy of Toby Boston. Ensuring there remains something of the human in the work, every participant is represented in the film, but only a brief fragment of a person is ever visible.

As a final nod to the phenological cycles of the physical forest influencing the digital forest artwork, and recognising the unsustainable vast footprint of computer servers being accessible 24 hours a day, seven days per week, for the duration of the exhibition the final work is only available to view daily between the sunrise and sunset times in Fermyn Woods, UK. The exhibition launched at the alchemically significant 22:22 on 22 April 2023 (Earth Day), meaning that regardless of its utility to human needs, the film would only premiere when our human cycle synchronised with the rest of the natural world.

James Steventon

This work took 112.14kg of carbon to produce, according to The Networked Condition carbon calculator tool.

Greg Orrom Swan is an artist, designer, and lecturer who looks at how ancient geology and current biology intersect, at both systemic and microscopic scales. He works across installation, digital media, and experiential art. He applies a molecular gaze, aiming to highlight how humans are not separate from the living world, but both distinct and similar to the nonhuman parts of our world. This poetic and conceptual space allows him to attempt to communicate the often strange and lurid connections between the different assemblages of humans and nonhumans, highlighting a shared ancestry. Currently lecturing at University of the Arts London, he has previously exhibited at the MoMA, NYC, London Design Festival, CPH:DOX international film festival. Greg has presented work at symposiums such as Ūmėdė Art+Tech Symposium, Vilnius; State Festival, Berlin; and shortlisted for the Lumen Art+Tech Prize, BioDesign Challenge, and the Bio Art & Design Award. Alongside exhibiting, Greg previously co-founded the bio-technology research start-up Olombria, which looked at future pollination systems using natural chemical signalling and pollinating hoverflies to supplement declining bee populations.

A Suggestive Wax Suggests A Wane 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.