EVOLUTION OF UNIVERSITY OF THE TREES

The short version 

The idea for a University of the Trees was first developed in Ireland in response to an invitation from Gordon Campbell/Academy of Everything is Possible in 2001, to present my Landing Strip for Souls linked to the planting of ‘7000 Oaks'. This project ran into difficulties when Irish Heritage would not allow 7000 oaks to be planted at Uisnech, in the centre of Ireland, as initially envisaged.  

At a meeting in Dublin, in 2002, organised by the NGO Sustainable Ireland, I suggested the phrase ‘university of the trees' to describe an alternative type of ‘tree' project that would involve an intensive and participatory social process as well as an emphasis on the Goethean notion (also used by Beuys) of developing ‘new organs of perception'. At this stage the idea was still that new trees would be planted to create this alternative university.  

It soon became clear that these ideas -about the need to develop new forms of participatory consciousness as part of our work toward an ecologically sustainable future (drawn from Goethe and Beuys as well as contemporary scientists like Henri Bortoft and Arthur Zajonc)- were an integral part of the evolving ‘university of the trees'. 

Meetings continued in Ireland during 2002 and 2003 to explore the idea in more detail and to find a suitable place to develop a University of the Trees in Ireland. But the project reached a stalemate with regard to a satisfactory location where so many trees could be planted.  

In 2004 I was invited to consider developing the project in Darmstadt for the Gallerie C. Klein / Atelierhause Vahle. This was to be linked to a proposal for redeveloping the Landing Strip for Souls in Darmstadt as a permanent memorial to Joseph Beuys. At a similar time Clive Adams asked me if I would like to develop an idea for a social sculpture project in Exeter, linked to his new Centre for Contemporary Art and the Natural World.  

The next big shift in the project's evolution came when I realised that the University of the Trees could and needed to begin with an existing area of trees. There were other important reasons for developing this univeristy that had to do with developing new organs of perception, new methods of engagement and new insights. Planting new trees was a potential action that might be appropriate in some places but not in others.  

Having been invited to develop the project in two different places simultaneously was an advantage. It enabled me to start thinking of it as a flexible framework with certain common processes and instruments that could potentially be used in many different places. And so the idea of an international network emerged.   

This development of the University of the Trees framework since late 2005, in dialogue with individuals and small groups in Darmstadt, Exeter and Bangalore, has been a very interesting and creative process. It is also particularly significant for a work that is largely about creating ‘a kit' or ‘set of instruments' that are part of a participatory ‘responsive framework' in which others can work. 

Questions about the parameters of the project, the methods, the forms and the processes have been and continue to be explored and discussed with potential participants all along the way. This kind of cooperative research and development process, though challenging, has also been incredibly stimulating.  

During this long research and development process, which included many changes in the original project descriptions that were drawn up for Exeter and Darmstadt, I developed the phrase ‘instruments of consciousness, instead of objects of attention' as a means of explaining to people -foresters, passers-by, workshop participants, host organisations -what the difference was between doing art in the forest and the things (objects, mobile labs, methods, processes) that we were developing and envisaging for use in this social sculpture project.

This phrase -‘instruments of consciousness' - initially developed as part of my doctorate to frame my work over the past thirty years, has become a key tool in communicating the University of the Trees project and related social sculpture ideas to a wider public. It has become a password that opens the door to alternative ways of seeing and understanding; it is an instrument in itself: a little bit of gold.  

The University of the Trees framework and kit is, at the beginning of 2008, almost complete.

After several workshops, conference presentations, meetings and public talks since June 2006, a core group is beginning to trial the kit and the framework in Exeter. In Darmstadt people began working together in February 2007. Here they have decided to extend the University of the Trees to forests and woods that ring the city.

Once these groups are a little more developed, it will be possible to focus on those wanting to start groups elsewhere. The dedicated new web-platform, with opportunities for each group to have its own blog, will also enable University of the Trees groups to grow and to become an international network, sharing experiences, thoughts and if appropriate, large scale actions. 


The longer, more detailed story will soon be available in the Archive