Forest management researcher designs museum installation

Amanda Bunce
Amanda Bunce

Amanda Bunce, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, recently translated her forestry research into an art installation. In a collaboration with faculty and students in School of Fine Arts, she created a piece about tree sway for the Weather Report, an exhibit currently on view at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum.

The Weather Report explores weather phenomena and the Earth’s atmosphere through different visual media, including sculpture, drawing, painting, installation and video. According to the press release, the exhibit aims “to reveal the sky as a site where the romantic, the political, the social, and the scientific co-exist and inform one another.”

Bunce, who completed her undergraduate degree in studio art, was approached by artist Pat Pickett about turning her research into an artistic form for the exhibition. They first met at the 8th International Conference on Wind and Trees at the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s Mesa Laboratory in Boulder, CO in 2017.

“I gave a talk about my research and she gave a talk about her art,” says Bunce. “About a year later, Pat told me that she was in this upcoming show at the Aldrich and the organizers were looking to incorporate some science. She suggested they contact me. It’s ironic because I got my bachelor’s in art and I said, ‘That’s it for that. I’m going to do anything else.’ Now, here I am in a legitimate gallery.”

Bunce is a forest management researcher in Stormwise, an initiative that seeks to create storm-resilient forests along Connecticut roadsides in an effort to reduce the impacts falling trees and damaged limbs have on power lines during inclement weather. She works at three experiment sites in the state where treatment strategies for roadside forests are developed and studied.

“It’s a long-term project,” says Bunce. “We monitor how the trees move for a year and then we implement a forest management plan. We do a thinning, removing a bunch of trees in the area, and then monitor the movement on the remaining trees. Those trees now have more access to light, nutrients and water and they have more space to move around in the wind. All those things should make those trees stronger, healthier and less prone to falling, which mitigates the risk to power infrastructure that they pose.”

Since Bunce examines how trees move in response to wind and weather by tracking how they sway, the research seemed to be a natural fit for The Weather Report exhibit.

“I spoke with the organizers and we agreed to do this tree sway project, but I didn’t have any fancy ways of displaying it,” says Bunce.

Amanda Bunce installing inclinometer
Bunce installs an inclinometer on a tree in the sculpture garden at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum as part of an art installation.

While Bunce spends much of her time in picturesque woodland settings, the data she collects is not as visually vivid. She records the motion of trees using an inclinometer, a sensor that can register how much the tree tilts. The device is sensitive, detecting subtle movements of the tree that would be nearly impossible to recognize otherwise. The inclinometer is affixed to the base of the crown, the upper part of the tree.

“We measure coordinates, so you can map where the trees are moving,” says Bunce. “I had previously worked with another department to make a graphic of tree movement for Stormwise, so I knew it could be done. I reached out to them to see if they were interested in this project.”

Bunce contacted the Digital Experience Lab (DX Lab), a unit that focuses on using technology to create unique digital experiences in the Digital Media and Design Department (DMD). She received an enthusiastic response from Assistant Professor Joel Salisbury, director of research and user experience design and Associate Department Head Michael Vertefeuille, director of operations and emerging technology.

“Since Mike and I are both tree nerds, we were particularly excited to work with the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources,” says Salisbury. “One of the most exciting parts of this endeavor for both of us was to see the great work two of our DMD students, Renoj Varghese and Allison Marsh, as they designed and developed the visualization currently on display at the Aldrich.”

Renoj Varghese is a graduate student and web specialist in the DX Lab. Allison Marsh is an undergraduate and user design specialist.

“Our Digital Experience Lab was founded to conduct research in the areas of user experience design and digital media technology, as well as to foster trans-disciplinary partnerships within the scientific community,” says Vertefeuille. “This project was a great opportunity to collaborate with Amanda and the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources to help visualize the subtleties of tree movement in an artistic venue.”

Tree Sway Display
The tree sway installation designed by Bunce and the DX Lab on display at The Aldrich.

For the museum installation, the team designed a display that creates a visual representation using real-time data received from an inclinometer attached to a tree in the Aldrich’s sculpture garden. As the tree sways in the wind, the movement is graphically rendered in one part of the screen alongside a camera feed of the tree and information from a local weather station.

“Our exhibit fits in well,” says Bunce. “You can see the tree with your eyes, but not necessarily see all the things that it’s doing, so if you point out the weather and the tree at the same time to see how they’re interacting, it’s kind of a neat thing. I think it brings you a little closer to nature and gives you a little more understanding.”

The collaboration between Bunce and the museum also included a symposium on art and weather held at Western Connecticut State University. As a featured speaker, Bunce gave a presentation entitled “The Role of Art in Science Communication – Through the Motion of Trees.”

“I got my bachelors in art and I think having that background really got me where I am,” says Bunce. “You can’t get far in science without communicating it and art helped me to communicate with people in general. Art is about getting an idea across or drawing attention to something and you need to be able to share your science or you’re not getting anywhere.”

The Weather Report exhibit runs at The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art through March 29, 2020.

By Jason M. Sheldon