Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and game technologies are increasingly explored as ways to encourage or enhance wider engagement with forest environments both real and imagined.

Kaua'i, Hawai'i

Colonial Legacies and Decolonial Practices in Hawaiian Virtual Environments

Jakob Kudsk Steensen Re-Animated

Screengrab from Jakob Kudsk Steensen's 'Arrival', from Re-Animated (2019). Image source: Jakob Kudsk Steensen [screengrab]. Retrieved 31 January 2023, from https://vimeo.com/291992820

In contexts where aesthetic representations of landscape have been implicated in colonial processes of appropriation and environmental governance, how far do emerging AR/VR works digitally reproduce or transform dominant representations of forest spaces?

To make the VR work Re-Animated, artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen undertook fieldwork in Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi to collect and 3D-scan native plants. He also accessed the American Museum of Natural History's collection of preserved Kauaʻi ʻōʻō birds (which is restricted to the public) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's digitised recording of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō's mating call, heard by three biologists in the forests of Kauaʻi in 1984 and not heard since, and interviewed Douglas H. Pratt an American ornithologist. However, the work doesn't engage with Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) perspectives on the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, or more deeply interrogate intertwined histories of colonial dispossession, ecological imperialism, and extraction feeding into natural history collection practices. In "Arrival", one section of Re-Animated, Kudsk Steensen does acknowledge the role of outsider perspectives and arrivals in Kauaʻi's colonial history, yet the digital forest landscape that viewers descend into feels like an emptied space, risking reproducing tropes of terra nullius that have been used to justify colonial land appropriation.

Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) technological and environmental practices suggest other possible engagements with real and virtual forest places. He Ao Hou (A New World) is a video game made largely by Kanaka Maoli youth through a workshop co-led by the Hawaiian education organisation Kanaeokana and the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. This Hawaiian-language game centres Hawaiian mo'olelo (histories/stories), knowledges, and values of aloha ‘āina (love of the land), and imagines environments in which they might flourish. Participants were involved in game design , storytelling , programming, and visual and sonic elements. Both the game and the workshop curriculum are downloadable.

Kaua'i Dev Climate Connect

A poster for the Climate Connect VR course. Image source: Kaua'i Dev and Kauai Community Science Center. Retrieved 13 June 2023, from https://kauaicsc.org/kcsc-climate-connect

Meanwhile, in Kauaʻi, the digital storytelling company Kauaʻi Dev have been working with the Kauai Community Science Center on a free Climate Connect Virtual Reality Program for Kauaʻi-based students. The programmes bring together digital, environmental, and cultural education to enable students to use virtual worldbuilding for climate storytelling and efforts to bring about change.

These workshop-based programmes suggest the potential of digital technologies to be mobilised through Indigenous methodologies to sustain and build resurgent Indigenous knowledges and relations. Virtual and gamified approaches can draw out elements of Kanaka Maoli epistemology, including storytelling and an emphasis on perspectival knowledges. However, given that many of the tools and software that these programmes use are owned and developed by large private corporations often located in settler states or former imperial powers, are there limits or risks to Indigenous appropriations of these technologies – can they be decolonised? Indigenous-led organisations such as the Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence Working Group are addressing these questions collectively, with a focus on how Indigenous epistemologies, ontologies , and protocols can shape emerging technological practices.

London, United Kingdom

Jakob Kudsk Steensen

Jakob Kudsk Steensen Deep Listener

A screenshot from the demo of Jakob Kudsk Steensen's The Deep Listener augmented reality app, describing the London Plane tree. Image source: Jakob Kudsk Steensen/Serpentine Galleries [screenshot]. Retrieved 13 June 2023, from https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/jakob-kudsk-steensen-the-deep-listener/

Jakob Kudsk Steensen is a Danish artist who creates immersive art installations as a way to narrate and reimagine particular environments. Individual and collaborative projects involving forests include: Tree VR (2016), a virtual replica of an area of Peruvian rainforest undergoing deforestation; Pando Endo (2017), a real-time simulation of a root system of an aspen tree documented with phone and drone cameras; Catharsis (2019), a simulation of an imagined old-growth forest using 'slow media' techniques; The Deep Listener (2019), an augmented reality installation in Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens, UK; and Re-Animated (2019), a video and VR work that tells a story of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō bird's extinction in Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi.

As The Deep Listener app suggests, these VR and AR works can call attention to environmental processes and sounds that are not usually perceptible to human bodies or on human timescales. As immersive but also playful and participatory artworks, they have the potential to expand ways of sensing environments through entanglements of biology, technology, and landscape. How might these aesthetic, tactile, and imaginative registers transform understandings of and responses to changing forest environments?

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