University of the Trees

University of the Trees (UOT) was the most important of CCANW’s long-term projects and had many benefits for both CCANW and UOT. Since its beginnings at CCANW in 2006 it has developed into an interdisciplinary ‘aesthetic strategies’ laboratory for exploring and developing new perceptions, new narratives, extended capacities, and new ways of thinking together: new practices for working toward a living eco-social future.

Image: Mobile Lab 1: The Tree Sling. Instrument © Shelley Sacks. Photo Chris Lewis.

What is University of Trees?

University of the Trees was developed as a framework for enquiries and practices in the field of ‘social sculpture’ and connective practice – inspired by Joseph Beuys’ Social Sculpture ideas, and the Connective Practice Approach developed by Shelley Sacks in the Social Sculpture Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University, as well as globally in practice-based research processes in many non-academic contexts from 2000 onwards.

During 2006-11 CCANW’s role in UOT’s evolution and development was significant. This was the period in which UOT’s principles and guiding images were clarified, and its first practice-based prototypes or Mobile Labs were developed.

In the following sections, Shelley describes its evolution, principles, ‘instruments’ and timeline at CCANW.

Clive Adams

Acknowledgements and Permissions

Evolution of University of Trees

University of the Trees began its life in Ireland in 2000 with a different name A Place for New Vision. I was invited by Gordon Campbell’s Academy of Everything is Possible to perform my Landing Strip for Souls (first performed and seen by Clive at the Between Nature conference at Lancaster University that same year) to celebrate the planting of 7,000 Irish Oaks for the Millennium at Uisneach, Ireland, and to honour Joseph Beuys’ work to shape a living future. This invitation led to a proposal for A Place for New Vision in Ireland, which was a precursor of the UOT in Haldon Forest with CCANW.

The multi-stakeholder exchanges in Dublin from 2002-3, hosted by the Centre for Sustainable Development, supported my view that working with Beuys’ social sculpture ideas for the new Millennium meant more than planting 7,000 trees. These exchanges highlighted that social sculpture was also about bringing human agency and ‘the artist’ in us all into focus, about creating opportunities for committed action and reflective consciousness in partnership with the trees, as well as about planting trees. The Irish initiative floundered because Irish Heritage refused permission to plant the trees on national heritage land, especially if people were an ongoing element in the process.

In 2005 Clive had approached me to develop a social sculpture project linked to CCANW in the Haldon Forest. Clive’s questioning approach about social sculpture and willingness to allow me to embark on a ‘slow research’ process in the forest context, enabled me to develop a reflective social sculpture arena and for the spirit of A Place for New Vision to reawaken as University of the Trees.

Proposal for UOT at CCANW November 2005. © Shelley Sacks

One of the challenges for me in working with an ecologically focused art and nature organisation was to develop something that would enable people to experience the social sculpture ideas and the differences between social sculpture and nature-based eco-art as it was generally understood.

Throughout 2006, whilst trying to get a sense of what kind of social sculpture-connective practice could possibly be developed in planted, standing forest, I had many rich exchanges with CCANW staff, members of the public, assistants and friends including James Reed, John Evans, Chris Seeley and Volker Harlan, and one important meeting with a forest ranger.

One day, when I was experimenting with several prototypes – a sling for encountering a tree, another for working with tree partners to experience ‘the forest as a university’ and to create a ‘main forum’ for this University of the Trees – the ranger asked what artwork I was going to make in the forest.

Instead of answering the question I invited him to try out one of the prototypes and share his experience, which had moved him greatly. I then returned to his question: “So, now that you’ve experienced seeing ‘the lenses’ through which you see, and from this how you can choose to change your habits of perception, it will make more sense when I say – I’m interested in developing ‘instruments of consciousness’, not ‘objects of attention’: instruments that enable an experience of one’s individual and collective agency”, because as UOT emphasises: “the ecological crisis is an opportunity for consciousness”.

The patient reflections with Clive, Johanna Korndorfer (Education/Community Coordinator) and others mentioned above gave rise to new language and strategies, and to several ‘instruments of consciousness’, sometimes described as ‘mobile labs’. I trialed and adjusted these instruments in ongoing, informal exchanges with staff and passers-by and in a series of advertised public workshops between 2006-11.

The kit of ‘instruments’ developed for CCANW with their Connective Practice methodology, were also used regularly by Johanna with schools, in groups of people with diverse abilities, and with young offenders. The pre- and post-delivery reflections on these social sculpture workshops evolved in close cooperation and reflection between myself and the CCANW team. So, although I produced several physically tangible ‘forms’ for CCANW’s programme, UOT remained an ongoing live research process, reflecting on and adjusting its elements, methods, and concepts as they were shared and used.

CCANW, in providing the fertile ground for ‘slow research’, experimentation and ’emergent practice’, was central to the evolution of University of the Trees. It was also encouraging to hear that it offered Clive and his co-workers an opportunity to become part of a community of learners and co-creators that included teachers, pupils, university staff and students, art and ecology people, and forest visitors!

From 2006 to the present day, UOT has been through many iterations and developments. It has become a multidimensional and multifaceted initiative that includes numerous ‘instruments of consciousness’, has hosted many ‘enquiry labs’, and has offered ‘facilitator training’ in both the specific instruments and a set of root methodologies that I describe as the ‘Connective Practice Approach‘.

© Shelley Sacks.

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