The Wood Wide Web is a hybrid interactive installation, bringing ancient
endangered trees from India and the UK to life through the use of skeletal tracking and AI. The sacred forests get personified and tell their stories, evoking empathy in humans across the globe to inspire more care for the planet.
Human emotions precede AI
Reflecting on the planetary crisis and the loss of biodiversity, we chose sorrow and interconnectedness as the emotional vehicles of our inquiry.
By weaving local stories from the two contexts (India and the UK) with the possibilities of AI, Wood Wide Web aims to highlight the importance of preserving old forests and reforesting land towards reducing carbon footprint as well as increasing and protecting the biodiversity of these habitats needed for the survival of all species on the planet. Like great carbon sinks, woods and forests absorb atmospheric carbon and lock it up for centuries. Our ancient woodlands and sacred forests are crucial to the climate change effort. These forests date back centuries and are some of our richest and oldest wildlife habitats, as well as places full of human history and stories.
Using data provided by Farmers for Forests (India) and Kew Gardens Library (London), we have created an immersive space where audiences will be able to embody ancient trees and become part of a climate conference between these elder giants. Through the use of skeletal tracking, people will be able to embody an ancient tree and tap into a secret language, taking place across a global mycelial network, or the Wood Wide Web.
The living archives of the trees’ stories
Looking into some of the tree species in the British landscape, the ancient oaks have long been revered as supreme gods in the pantheons of different cultures from the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Teutonic tribes. There are many folklores associated with these oaks. For instance, in Somerset in South West England, stand the two very ancient oaks of Gog and Magog. These were named after the last male and female giants to roam Britain. The trees are reputed to be the remnants of an oak-lined processional route up to the nearby Glastonbury Tor. Oak leaves’ connection with rainfall also survived in more recent folklore. There are a variety of similar rhymes about which tree’s leaves appeared first, such as the Irish saying:
If the oak before the ash,
Then we’ll only have a splash.
If the ash before the oak,
Then we’ll surely have a soak!
On the other hand, India’s rich biodiversity is also under threat from climate change and devastating patterns of development. Of the many vulnerable, endangered and near-threatened species of trees in the forests of Maharashtra- one such is the Krishna Fig (Ficus Krishnae) One of the many stories associated with this rare tree is one of how it got its name. It is believed that in the beginning the leaves of the Krishna Fig were straight and did not have the cup shape. People say that once while Lord Krishna was stealing butter, he was caught red-handed by his mother and to escape the punishment he rolled the butter in the leaf of the Ficus Krishnae which gives it the curved shape. Such local folklores only convey how sacred some trees are but over time and generations, communities have lost touch with nature, and spiritual beliefs are no longer sufficient to ensure their survival in the face of assault from commercial interest. With declining numbers each year, animals and birds such as wild buffaloes, Asian elephants, tigers, sloth bears, sarus cranes and white- backed vulture have also become endangered in the area.
Devaji Ram Supada, a farmer from Gadchiroli district shares “Nowadays forests are becoming sparse due to forests fires and many species like Khair (Senegalia catechu), Amla (Indian Gooseberry or Phyllanthus emblica Linn), Baheda (Terminalia bellirica) and others are not spreading enough. Forest fires are destroying seeds and saplings making the forests sparse.”
Wood Wide Web team's initial brainstorming Miro board
Crafting the virtual world
Using 3D modeling tools like Unity and Mixamo, we created and animated the elderly tree characters, whose ‘ bark skin’ constantly transforms through the use of AI-generated, dynamic textures. These dynamic textures for the trees have been generated from the actual data set of species of trees facing extinction in India and the UK.
We have used Kinect for the skeletal tracking which forms the trigger for the central character to come to life, lighting up the mycelial network and other NPC characters in the forest-like ecosystem.
While sounds of sacred forests such as those from Ahmednagar in Maharashtra form the background of this soundscape, the voices of the trees are where we have experimented with AI both in terms of what they say using GPT 2 and how they say it using play.ht.
Sample of GPT2 ML text generated using datasets from India:
“I am a banyan tree. I have been living in a forest for hundreds of years. I was born in the forest, but I have been living in a forest for hundreds of years. Why am I here? Because the people who live in my village want to eat me. Do you know how bad it is to stay in the forest? It gets very hot, there is no shade and the rain is relentless. Who could ever live in this heat? ….My dear children, from the time you were born, you have been living in the forest.”
Sample of GPT2 ML text generated using datasets from the UK:
“When you are a tree you think about time, and the way things move on earth. You are born into the world of animals, and grow accustomed to their ways. You are taught the ways of men, and grow accustomed to following their lead. You are taught the praises of the Goddess, and are honored by her. At last, when you are a tree deep in thought, you dream. You listen to the whispers of companions, and come to realize that each is a living being whose presence shapes your being in unique and end”
Listening to references such as those from Lord of the Rings and imagining elder trees' secret conversations (especially the tone and timbre of the voice they would have as old beings), we rendered a few voice samples to explore how the trees would sound. Should it be a normal talking voice? Should it be whispers? We wanted these AI generated voices to be natural and realistic to evoke empathy and not be robotic since that can leave people feeling disconnected very quickly.
The Wood Wide Web Team: Row 1 L to R- Kristina Pulejkova, Anupam Mahajan; Row 2 Kanchan Joneja, Cameron Naylor
Contemplations and hope
Through the idea of tree embodiment, we hope to inspire audiences to take action toward reforestation and forest or sacred groves protection on a local level. Further, forestry organisations, government officials, forest departments, development organisations, policymakers, green businesses who can take more responsible action towards the conservation and replanting of endangered plant species to continue the life of native flora and fauna in India and UK.
In a world where climate anxiety is real, and so is fear of AI replacing humans- we explore how interactive pieces like the World Wide Web could keep some hope alive for people and the planet.
Future Fantastic Festival- India's 1st AI Art Festival for Climate Change
Dates: 24-25-26 March 2023
Venue: Bangalore International Centre, Bengaluru, India
How did you feel interacting with the Wood Wide Web?
About Future Fantastic
AI + Art + Climate Change
FutureFantastic is a first-of-its-kind AI and new media arts festival in India, conceptualised by BeFantastic in partnership with FutureEverything (UK). The festival has been made possible by the generous contribution of its primary supporters, The British Council’s India/UK Together Season of Culture, and, Rohini & Nandan Nilekani Philanthropies
FutureFantastic showcases a heady mix of AI-enabled artworks and performances that highlight the ground-breaking collaboration and creative production that amplify a global response to our shared climate emergency.