The Tree Calendar or Performing with plants in the parks of Helsinki

Performing with plants is an artistic research project, which started with the question how to perform landscape today, focusing on plants and especially trees. It soon evolved into exploring what it means to be “performing with” entities unlike us. For Michael Marder “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with” (Marder 2013, 51). “Living with” is a core task for humanity (Marder 2013, 53), or, as Donna Haraway writes: “We become-with each other or not at all” (Haraway 2017, 4). Learning from plants could be a way to start. How can we live, exist, act or perform with creatures, with whom we cannot communicate directly, or even ask for their consent for posing for a camera with them?

The plant kingdom – to use a term that refers to the so called great chain of being with rocks at the bottom and humans at the top and plants just a few steps above the rocks – is so large, that it is hard to imagine any general way of performing with plants. To perform with blue algae and with a pine tree is very different, I suppose. Although we all do collaborate by exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide and other chemical substances in the atmosphere. As an artist, I take that common knowledge for granted, and leave it to colleagues working in the field bio art to figure out how to perform together on a molecular level. In my own work, I stick to the level of everyday actions, like sitting or standing in, on, with and next to trees. Since my year at the collegium is ending, it is appropriate to look at what I have been doing.

In terms of “performing with” I have tried to follow at least some basic rules of thumb in these experiments, like
• Try not to hurt the plant – choose plants that are bigger than you, stronger than you, plants that can share some of their energy with you – like trees
• Visit the plant where it grows, respect its particular relationship to place.
• Spend time with the plant, visit it repeatedly, although you cannot share the temporality of the plant, respect its relationship to time.

Most of the material generated during this project so far is archived on the Research Catalogue (RC), an online database and publication platform for artistic research, together with my plan and my presentations in various contexts. See here

Have I found something new? After all, I have worked with a specific mode of rough time-lapse videos for many years now, returning to the same spot, placing the camera on a tripod in the same place and framing the image as like as the previous ones as possible, and doing this for regular intervals, either once (or a few times) a week for a year or every two-hours or three-hours for a day and night. My basic practice has been to gather material for this type of time-lapse works in Helsinki and in Stockholm, for the duration of a year. I have visited two trees (a group of Elm trees and an alder stub) in Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki a few times every week and two trees (a sycamore in Humlegården Park and a beech in Djurgården Park) in Stockholm once a month or so. These visits are documented with video stills on the RC, but I have not yet edited the videos. Based on my earlier works I have a rough idea what to do and how it will turn out. The trees in Stockholm I will visit once more before Christmas, and the trees in Helsinki a few more times, and that is all.

I also recorded two days with specific trees, with two-hour intervals, on my travels, in August on Lofoten (Rainy Day in Rekdal) and in September in Nida on the Curonian spit (Sunday with a Pine). But that is nothing new, the technique was the same as in earlier works, only my tree partners were unfamiliar.

One thing that is new, in some sense, is a tree calendar, based on the ancient Celtic lunar calendar, where each month is named after a specific tree or shrub. The tree calendar was not part of my original plan, it just occurred to me I could try to create one in January when I thought of various possibilities. This turned out to be more of a hobby, something extra. I decided to find each tree of the month in Helsinki, preferably somewhere near the shore, and spend 5-10 minutes sitting in it, standing next to it or in some other manner performing for camera with it, depending on the tree.

Thinking of the project now, when the video recordings are completed, I realize it did not appear out of the blue; I have worked with Celtic tree lore before. The same trees that form the calendar also serve to mark the letters of the alphabet (beth-luis-nion or birch-ash-rowan). Some of that material was used in creating small site-specific audio plays or recorded monologues to be listened to from headphones hanging from specific trees in a series called Trees Talk or Talking Trees. It is also archived on the RC, here.

In the Celtic tree calendar, not all the plants are trees, in the same sense that we are used to think. For instance, the vine, the ivy or the reed are not even shrubs or bushes, strictly speaking. Another challenge is the fact that some of the trees, like the holly, do not grow as far north as Finland. But with some adjustments, like performing with a holly in Kajsaniemi Botanical Garden, with a creeper or “wild vine” (villiviini) instead of a vine, and with an ivy in a pot, I managed to complete all thirteen months. The small videos created each month are available online, here.

Looking at the sites of the tree calendar on a map of Helsinki, it seems I chose many of them close to home, and one of them, the alder, although it is a very common tree on the shores of Helsinki, for some reason in the neighbouring city, Espoo. The dates of the months in the list below are based on the following version, in Celtic Tree Months.

1. Birch – January (24.12.-20.1.) in Munkkiniemenranta
2. Rowan – February (21.1.-17.2.) in Särkiniemi, Lauttasaari
3. Ash – March (18.2.-17.3.) in Kaivopuisto Park
4. Alder – April (18.3.-14.4.) in Mellsteninranta, Espoo
5. Willow – May (15.4.-12.5.) on Harakka Island
6. Hawthorn – June (13.5.-9.6.) in Observatory Park
7. Oak – June (10.6.-7.7.) in Eugen Schauman Park, Kulosaari
8. Holly – July (8.7.-4.8.) in Kaisaniemi Botanical Garden
9. Hazel – August (5.8.-1.9.) in Herttoniemi shore
10. Vine – September (2.9.-29.9.) in Tehtaankatu yard
11. Ivy – October (30.9.-27.10) at home
12. Reed – November (28.10.-23.11.) in Arabian ranta park
13. Elder – December (24.11.-23.12.) in Kaivopuisto park

So now I have short video clips and images for all the months of the calendar. The next question is, what to do with them? Where to show them and how to write about them?

My recent publications deal with previous projects related to landscape, not plants. And the book I have been editing together with colleagues, Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact focuses on performance as research, not vegetation. Texts on performing with plants, however, will hopefully appear in due time, and will be listed here. And perhaps one of them will describe the making or discuss the implications of this strange tree calendar in Helsinki.

Marder, Michael (2013), Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life, New York: Columbia University Press.
Haraway, Donna J. (2016), Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Annette Arlander, DA, is an artist, researcher and pedagogue, one of the pioneers of Finnish performance art and trailblazers of artistic research. She was professor of performance art and theory at Theatre Academy, Helsinki (2001-2013) and professor of artistic research at University of the Arts Helsinki (2015-2016). In 2017, she has been a postdoctoral fellow in the arts at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, engaged in the artistic research project Performing with Plants. For artworks and publications, see

On population genetics, emotions, and entangled differences

My first year at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies was intense, inspiring and rewarding. While starting a new research project on cultural debates about vaccines, I had the opportunity to finish my second monograph on the cultural dimensions of human population genetics. The book, Population Genetics and Belonging: A Cultural Analysis of Genetic Ancestry, was published in October by Palgrave Macmillan. Many of the final details of the book reflect discussions I had with my wonderful colleagues in the Collegium hallways, at coffee breaks, and in our Brown Bag seminars.

As the title suggests, the book is an account of population genetics as a means of making communities, identities, and belonging. Human population genetics is a field of science that studies genetic variation within and between populations. The book explores technological practices and cultural imaginaries that population genetics has engendered in contemporary societies. For example, population genetics underlies commercial genetic ancestry tests, which promise to trace our personal roots to prehistoric communities and connect us to people who share genetic markers with us. Population genetics provides the basis for national genome initiatives. Population genetics informs the study of DNA retrieved from ancient human remains, playing a crucial role in attempts to imagine human evolution. Population genetics structures the ongoing building of biobanks, which are meant to accelerate scientific research and pharmaceutical development through faster circulation of samples and information. Population genetics is also present in the marketing of pharmaceutical products to specific ethnic communities on the basis of assumed population-level genetic differences. Moreover, population genetics has been invoked in both pro- and anti-immigration campaigns, revealing the ambivalent relationship between population genetics and politics of inclusion and exclusion.

How has population genetics become part of all these diverse projects? How can it support opposite political and social agendas? Why are the tensions and connections between these projects and practices seldom discussed? In Population Genetics and Belonging, I investigate the mutability and persistence of population genetic imaginaries by tracing shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics from the late 1980s until today. The book explores these shifts and continuities through a range of materials including scientific articles, journalism, popular science books, online genetics websites, and fiction.

Throughout the book, my analysis of shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics focuses on two issues: affect and intersectional differences. Affect refers to the cultural circulation of emotions and the emergence of emotional intensities around objects such as genetic technologies or biological samples. By intersectional differences I refer to how technologies are entangled with assumptions of gender, sexuality, race and class, and how these differences are constituted through one another. I argue that in order to understand the potential impact of population genetics in society, we need to pay attention to how population genetic technologies shape gendered, racialized, classed and sexualized differences, and how these differences become emotionally charged.

The theory of “Mitochondrial Eve” developed in the 1980s provides an illustrative example. “Mitochondrial Eve” is the most recent maternal ancestor of all currently living humans traced through mitochondrial DNA inside our cells. Eve is not a specific woman but rather a statistical point of origins in the past where mitochondrial variation among modern humans originates. Through an analysis of scientific, media, and fictional texts, I trace how the theory of Mitochondrial Eve becomes contested, celebrated, and gradually routinized in the early 1990s. I also explore the appearance of another gendered figure, “Y-Chromosome Adam”, in the mid-1990s. While Mitochondrial Eve draws on the idea of an unbroken maternal chain between us and our evolutionary past, Y-chromosome Adam is the most recent patrilineal ancestor of currently living men traced through Y-chromosome DNA. In cultural discourses surrounding population genetics, Y-Chromosome Adam became almost immediately portrayed as Eve’s counterpart, partner, and even boyfriend. This portrayal questioned the initial cultural representations of Eve as a strong and independent woman, as well as contradicted the scientific evidence that placed Eve and Adam at different prehistoric times.

Population Genetics and Belonging shows how the figures of Eve and Adam mobilize cultural assumptions of gendered, sexual and racialized differences while traveling across science and culture. The first chapter demonstrates how the pro-feminist and multicultural undertones of the figure of Mitochondrial Eve evoked strong emotional responses in science journalism, mainstream media, popular science, and fiction, and how some of the underlying cultural anxieties were alleviated through heteronormative narratives involving Adam. In subsequent chapters, I ask what happens to these emotionally charged differences when mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA is used in commercial genetic ancestry tests, ancient DNA research, or debates about the roots of national populations.

All in all, the book argues that genetics and emotions are thoroughly entangled: emotions shape as well as reflect developments around population genetics in society. In particular, emotions arise around cultural perceptions of how genetic accounts of human evolution may reshape social categories of difference such as gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity. Finally, the book suggests that formations of affect and difference around biotechnologies call for critical exploration also beyond the field of population genetics.

Venla Oikkonen is Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her research interests include evolutionary theory, genetics, vaccine controversies, pandemics, and theoretical questions related to affect and intersectionality. Her first book Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives was published by Routledge in 2013.

TUHAT research profile:

”So what brought you to Finland?”

It’s a question I have come to expect in these last two years, and one that apparently can carry any number of inflections. It comes up as people feign interest during a lull in conversation, try to overcome the awkwardness of standing next to a stranger in line to a complimentary coffee or (my favorite) as a fellow academic, half-sloshed at an end-of-conference reception and with barely hidden incredulity, wonders what could possibly have possessed me.

It’s a fair question of course, but one I haven’t been able to develop an adequate answer to. I did not have a burning desire to come to the North, and I knew very little about Finland (or indeed the Nordics in general). My historical research on vocal culture and science very occasionally would throw me little nuggets of nineteenth-century wisdom, though. According to natural philosopher William Gardiner, for example,

“in the northern and colder regions, where the mouth is more constantly closed, the voice is restricted, and escapes with difficulty”.

Being surrounded by quiet and vocally restricted creatures might, as one colleague pointed out rather unnecessarily, give me some personal insight into a practice that is otherwise foreign to me and thus be of value to my ongoing research on silence , but it was hardly an attractive prospect. (Incidentally, whilst not all languages have a simple verb for the act of holding one’s tongue, Finnish has several.) And so I generally resort to a very literal answer. ‘What’ brought me to Finland was the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, and the Core Fellowship I had been lucky enough to obtain in 2015. I have since left the Collegium (my fellowship ended earlier this year), but my experiences and the research I’ve been able to conduct there have certainly contributed to the answer to the inevitable follow-up question: But why did you stay in Finland?

Embodying Finns’ worst nightmare

As it happens, my introduction to Finland and life at the University of Helsinki was neither cold nor quiet. For a number of reasons, the Collegium is a place that incites discussion and chat. Maybe it’s the comfy sofas of the common room, maybe it’s the particular nature of its inhabitants – a confederacy of rogues who have chosen to leave the comforts of their departments and warmer climes for a while. Or maybe it’s because the mixture of disciplines and nationalities thrown together in meetings and lunch seminars (at which nobody seems to manage to eat) necessitates constant explanation, because the presence of a roomful of sceptics who don’t take the habits of your discipline for granted, encourage more passionate and more emphatic talk.

My own research, a ‘social history of the voice’, sitting uneasily on the cross-roads between history of science, sound studies, embodiment and a smattering of musicology, lost its footing completely in such a context. Why limit yourself to mere interdisciplinarity, when there are derailing conversations to be had on other subjects, other theories, other cultures and continents? Why stay within the safety of languages and texts you know, when you are surrounded by fellow nerds who can translate, re-imagine or completely replace your raw material in an instant? And so, instead of finishing the chapters I had set out to write, I branched out into political philosophy, egged on by colleagues with whom I organized a symposium on ‘Embodiment and Emancipation’. Or delved into contemporary orality and rhetorics for the 2017 Winterschool, broadening my notions of vocality with the help of Helsinki’s doctoral students. Or sat in on debates that completely eluded or exasperated me.

Bright ideas at LUX Helsinki 2017

These collaborations, invitations to re-invent, and occasional collisions, led me toward the new project that ‘made me stay’. In the coming years, I’m getting started on a plan that may look perfectly linear and coherent, but that I know to be made up of reflections on citizenship that would not have been there had I not been pushed to talk about emancipation and democracy, of methodological leaps I owe to some witty remark of a multi-lingual classicist over lunch, of careful considerations of modernity thanks to an angry medievalist,…and many more vocal utterances I may be slightly too obsessively interested in. Luckily, I’m not alone. Guess what the coming spring symposium is on?

Josephine Hoegaerts (HCAS Core Research Fellow 2015 – 2017), is currently carrying out research at the Department of World Cultures. You can find out more about her work at her TUHAT research profile, and on her blog.

Freedom to think! HCAS blog

This is the new blog of Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in which our fellows write about their fascinating research topics and about the life at the Collegium. The Collegium is a multidisciplinary and international Institute for Advanced Studies, in which we foster academic freedom and dialogue between different scholars and disciplines. Our slogan Freedom to think! reflects this ideology.