BRANCHOUT: COMMUNITY CENTERED PERFORMANCE
BranchOut is an interactive dance performance that will be performed in Utah in 2024. The project that was most recently performed in the Horticultural Gardens of Michigan State University in May 2022. This project investigates the nature of tree communication and community, embodying the science of tree communication and symbiosis with mycorrhiza through dance and music. This interdisciplinary art project explores art as a way of knowing in the engagement with the environment. Currently funded through the STEAM Power Fellowship at Michigan State University, this project is a collaboration between multiple artists and scientists at Michigan State University and Brigham Young University.
BranchOut was developed to combat the screen fatigue brought on by years of pivoting for COVID. The seed for the idea began with the concept of Forest Bathing, walking in the woods mindfully to reduce anxiety. Further concepts of human engagement with forests took root and became BranchOut.
ART AS A WAY OF KNOWING
This project is an innovative exploration of human culture from a non-human perspective and explores how the health of one organism is entirely dependent on the health of the community. The specific aim was to create active engagement with plants and trees, increasing accessibility to this material and placing art as a way of knowing as a companion to the current primacy of science in interacting with this content. The audience was guided through the horticulture gardens at MSU in an immersive performance that used the artistic disciplines of dance, music, art, theatre and the scientific disciplines of extended reality, plant physiology, and forestry. The experience pushes the audience step by step from their existing comfort zone to one in which they perceive and value the connection between human and the environment.
BranchOut explores science and art as separate ways of knowing. Different knowledge systems are particularly salient in forestry. Trees are thought to communicate via complex networks of mycorrhizae – the roots and body structures of the mushrooms we see on the forest floor. Human impacts on forests and trees then change these environments and we see trees respond and adapt to human actions (e.g., cutting down a tree or planting a tree) in fascinating and complex ways. Based on this premise, we invited the audience to explore a way of knowing that does not center on humans. Seeing through the lens of tree community structures can shift our own understanding of community. The interactive elements of this performance included Augmented Reality (AR) opportunities that invited the audience to see the invisible connections between trees in the space and how these invisible connections are critical to human communities as well.
BranchOut focused on strange interactions with familiar objects masked by day-to-day activities. Trees are rooted, and their communication is measurable in the trace of chemical interactions. Seeing communication from another perspective will assist the audience in witnessing and reflecting on their own adaptation to, and the foreignness of, the kind of wireless communication that has become commonplace in human society. Augmented Reality (AR) elements prompted the audience to read short stories from trees perspective and the dancers engaged the audience in interconnection through the use of long pieces of paper created from natural fibers found in the gardens.
BranchOut highlights the invisible community and the cycle of consumption that is hidden in consumer culture. The fashion industry is third in the world in production of pollutants and chemicals. Clothing as presented, is disconnected from the growth, harvest, fiber, and weaving and knitting productions used to make clothing. The dance costume element of this performance was a visual representation of being part of the community of creation rather than imposing your will upon it. The costumes were knit and as the week of performance continued the costumes slowly came undone – revealing the fibers that were used in creation. This implied new rituals that reconnect what has been lost in the name of speed and consumption.
Students from Apparel & Textile Design (ATD), Theatre, Citizen Scholars Program, Honors College, and Forestry were instrumental in the creation of the 2022 version. Dobbins brought in Megan Heeres, Detroit based fiber artist, who lead paper-making workshops for Honors Seminar students and ATD students who created all of the paper and natural installations used in the performance. The honors seminar students then trained with Megan Halpern on assessment methods and gathered feedback from each audience.
BranchOut is a collaboration between scientists and artists who built an interactive performance that engaged audiences with the natural environment around them. The goal was to take individuals from a singular perspective to a communal perspective with performing arts as the medium. The creative artists formed a collective to examine the parallels between communicative behaviors of plants and humans. Grounded in the principles of art as a way of knowing, an immersive performance prompted the audience to explore their assumptions of individuality, communication, and sustainability.
Creative Collaborators on BranchOut 2022:
- Project Director: Alison Dobbins, Associate Professor of Theatre at Michigan State University
- Choreographer: Kori Wakamatsu, Associate Professor of Dance at Brigham Young University
- Forester: Emily Huff, Assistant Professor of Human Dimensions of Forestry, Michigan State University
- Composer: Alexis Bacon, Assistant Professor of Composition, Michigan State University
- Designer: Rebecca Schuiling, Teaching Specialist of Apparel and Textile Design, Michigan State University
- Fiber Artist: Megan Heeres
- Assessment: Megan Halpern, Assistant Professor Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University
- Screen Dance Cinematographer: Karen Jensen
- AR Designer/Coordinator: Stephanie Vasko, Daniel Trego, iOS Lab at Michigan State University