A time for trees and “trans-sociality”

Andrea Lerda

The Tree Time exhibition represents the evolution of a project that the National Mountain Museum in Turin first presented at the end of 2019.
The MUSE - the Science Museum of Trento - is now hosting a new and updated version of this exhibition, exactly two years since storm Vaia, the extreme weather event that devastated entire forests in north-east Italy at the end of 2018.
The name of the exhibition brings the concept of time to the fore. As expressed in the subtitle, time here is interpreted as a moment of evolution, from a phase in which humans have proven to be predators to a new era in which progress, growth and well-being are the fruit of a symbiotic coexistence with nature's rhythms and processes.
The picture that the exhibition wishes to paint is therefore linked to the future which, we hope, will be characterised by a new empathetic relationship between us and the world we live in.

The exhibition focuses on the topic of trees, woodland and forests and is set, historically and culturally, in the world created by the Anthropocene era (as Eugene F. Stoermer defined it) or by the Capitalocene era (as Jason W. Moore defined it). From storm Vaia to the unprecedented fires that have devastated the Arctic. From arson attacks to the benefit of industrial dynamics to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, obliterating biodiversity and cultural habitats and increasing CO2 emissions, thereby accelerating global warming.
It is now clear and beyond any doubt that human actions have had an impact on the planet, inter/intra-acting1 with other species and processes. Recognising that this relationship exists – any climate action plan must begin by recognising the seriousness of the problem2 – goes hand-in-hand with global events and the creation of an image of the world as one interconnected life.
In this sense, Tree Time forms part of an ecological thought process involving every sphere of human existence, where global warming, and all of its harmful consequences for living species and more, represents a political and social problem as well as an environmental one.

This is why the exhibition offers a multidisciplinary approach: art and science reflect on the link between climate change, pathogen processes and phytosanitary problems; legal aspects and social dreaming practices explore the concepts of “trans-sociality” and our relationship with ‘otherness’; botany and forest practices come together to look at woodland regeneration and urban forestation. The project focuses on the concepts of taking care of plants and their health, equilibrium and dis-equilibrium, symbiosis and new forms of governance.

Tree Timetells a story that aims to shape a ‘biocentric’ mindset, which is of fundamental importance if we wish to keep up with the issue of surviving on an “infected planet”3. A look at the complexities of the natural world, providing the opportunity to change paradigm, where humans are no longer the dominant species but rather part of a relationship with a multi-species complexity - both living and non-living - which they depend on and are influenced by.

In this sense, the exhibition embraces the idea of overcoming the concept that the world should be seen as being divided between colonisers and the colonised. Trees, as living beings, have been put at the heart of this exhibition, recognising the fact that we depend on them; as Francis Hallé put it “asymmetry goes against us [...], trees do not need us in any way but, for us, they are vital”4.

The story told by the exhibition looks at the human-nature relationship from two different points of view.
The depictions of the damage caused to plant ecosystems (and therefore to all other ecosystems and the species connected to them) highlight the implications of people's behaviour and our responsibilities as humans, while also offering visitors a series of positive images. Good reforestation practices; fire prevention methods and ways to manage and regenerate natural ecosystems; examples of environmental campaigning and winning rights for nature.
Trees help raise our awareness of the importance of observing these creatures through different eyes and with a different mindset. The exhibition offers several ‘spaces’ to convey meaning, which can be used to imagine a new kind of relationship with trees and the world that surrounds us; immersive and interactive environments allow us to take an unprecedented look at how plant species and humans can really take care of each other.

As Emanuele Coccia wrote, “Our world is made up more of plants than it is of animals”5. Trees “gave life to our species; they have not only moulded our bodies and our anatomical identity, but have also influenced our way of building social links and structures [...] they have taught us the thing of which we are most proud, by making it possible: technology”6. Despite all of this, we continue to see them as mere goods that we can make use of to create our modern world and to satisfy lifestyles that are simply no longer sustainable.
Around 30% of the Earth's surface is currently covered by trees, these “potentially immortal”7 creatures that not only produce oxygen - vital for us to breathe (humans require an average of 300 litres per day in order to live healthily) - but also reduce atmospheric pollution and absorb the CO2 produced by human activities.
Trees significantly reduce our stress levels; the negative ions they produce are beneficial to our health and our mood. When we sit under the shade of a tree, we feel calm, peaceful, relaxed and tranquil. Trees’ communication and behaviour is based on an intelligent social network model, with the symbiosis between fungi and roots creating fertile soil that is rich in organic matter.

Trees moderate the climate, protecting mountain slopes and preventing hydro-geological instability there; they are also home to and nurture biodiversity and play a crucial role in the process of regulating water. They are natural, zero-emission “conditioners” for urban areas, representing “a precious tool for town planners”8 for both the present day and the future, not to mention the fact that they represent an extraordinary partner to mitigate the effects of ongoing climate change.

Tiziano Fratus invites people to go on walks through woodland in order to understand the wisdom that lies between tree leaves. Nicolas Bourriaud describes the forest as a “landscape for the mind”, comparing it to the human mind, “whose vegetation is made up of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters”9. Peter Wohlleben has demonstrated that trees emit signals and behave like social beings, while in The Secret Life of Plants, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird tell the story of the mysterious and fascinating dynamics of communication and extra-sensory perception in the plant world and how plants speak to our souls.
The environmental, social and economic benefits of trees, the list of which goes on and on, represent the key to reconfiguring our own presence on the planet.

It is therefore time for “trans-sociality”, for a new linguistic revolution able to decipher nature’s various languages in order to create a new “ecophilia”10 in our minds. It is time to return to meta-sustainability, listening to the messages that nature is giving us, as we ourselves are part of nature; we need to take note of our symbiosis with the other “social networks” that surround us and of the cross-cutting dialogue with all the other communities with whom we share this Earth.

It is time to change the way we imagine forests, the way we see trees and the way we protect mountains. It is time to change the agenda of local, national and global political priorities. We now need to reconsider deforestation methods and how woodland areas are exploited and managed, not to mention the role played by trees within increasingly overcrowded cities that are being affected more and more by global warming.

It is time to image new ways to live in cities and large urban areas. This process has already begun on an international scale and, in Italy, we can find a significant example in the Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) and in the vision of its architect, Stefano Boeri. This vision encompasses the “Forest City” concept, the term “foresting” and the idea of a “Smart Forest City”11 for the future, with town planning aiming to create open cities, inspired by the principles of self-sufficiency and fully electric mobility, as well as the values of technological innovation and environmental quality, and built with plant-covered surfaces, different varieties of plants and water channels.
Design that goes hand-in-hand with seeing cities in relation to metro-mountainous areas and the highlands, replacing a polycentric view in which urban living and mountain life compete for the stability and competitiveness of the system. We are therefore moving towards an idea of “urban bioregions” where “marginal and peripheral areas and the deep valley systems, which have historically given lowland urban systems their identity, shall once again play a central role in ensuring that the relationships between urban systems and open agricultural-forest areas are reorganised, making them no longer hierarchical but reciprocal; this will make it possible to strike new balances in terms of ecosystems, energy, food and functionality”12.

Three million new trees by 2030: this is Boeri’s proposal, which the mayor of Milan, Beppe Sala, firmly supports. An impressive replanting and urban forestation project that looks towards the future. Something similar needs to happen in Turin which, despite being named Italy's greenest city, is still among Europe's most polluted metros according to Legambiente.
These are the first steps towards building a new vision of living and designing the future, integrating trees into our daily lives, in terms of both our physical and mental spaces.
In the artistic sphere, Joseph Beuys was one of the most famous pioneers of the “planting” concept, through his thoughts and actions aimed at improving the lives of humans and the nature in which they live. In 1982, the artist was invited to take part in ‘Documenta VII’ - in that occasion a peasant shaman - where he presented his work ‘The 7,000 Oaks’. This launched an unprecedented artistic initiative that is still growing and transforming even today. No museums, no displays - seeds as a new form of art and a new way of raising awareness of an environmental, social and cultural problem. After his other actions to defend trees and forests, such as his ‘Retten den Wald' (‘Save the Forest’) piece in 1971, Beuys expressed his socially oriented work in a written manifesto in 1981, entitled “An Appeal for an Alternative”. Citing the ecological crisis as one of the four symptoms of the late-capitalist crisis, he wrote:

≪Our relationship to nature is characterised by its having become thoroughly disturbed. There is the threat of total destruction of our fundamental natural basis. We are doing exactly what it takes to destroy the basis by putting into action an economic system which consists in unscrupulous exploitation of this natural basis…Between the mine and the garbage dump extends a one-way street of the modern industrial civilisation to whose expansive growth more and more lifelines and life cycles of the ecological systems are sacrificed≫.13

Since the 1970s, more artists have shared in this need to react, undertaking artistic practices that one could describe as “proactive” in nature. Founding member of the ‘Grupo Bosque’ (‘Forest Group'), Nicolás García Uriburu took part in a reforestation campaign in Maldonado, Uruguay, in 1974 and spent three decades embarking on expeditions between Argentina and Europe in order to plant trees: from his work in 1980 to defend the banana trees of Buenos Aires, to the replanting of local plants along the streets of the Argentinian capital, or the pine trees in eastern Uruguay in 1987. These were the years when Pierre Restany, co-author of ‘Rio Negro Manifesto: On Integralism Naturalism’, was supporting reforestation work and the protests against the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Historic initiatives that were continued in the work of artists such as George Steinmann, who worked on ‘Komi - A Growing Sculpture’ between 1996 and 2006. The aim of this project was to defend the virgin forests of Komi, the largest in Europe and declared a world heritage site by UNESCO; like many other forests, Komi is also at risk of destruction due to environmental and economic reasons.
To name some more recent examples, we can take the work completed in 2009 by the 431art duo. As a protest against the decimation of a beech forest in order to make room for a new runway at Frankfurt airport, the artists dug out 33 young beech trees and replanted them inside an “artists’ colony”, as part of their botanoadopt project, which is still ongoing today.
Then there was the provocative installation by Klaus Littman, a Swiss artist who studied under Beuys; between 9 September and 27 October 2019, he “installed” a forest on the football pitch of the Klagenfurt stadium in Carinthia. This gesture, which was widely publicised by the media, may be defined as a kind of “social sculpture”, seeking to publicise the importance of tree planting, both as something to do and as an exercise in the kind of higher environmentally sustainable awareness that Greta Thunberg has taught us.

As part of the Tree Time exhibition, art is once again endeavouring to stimulate our collective imagination, presenting itself as a way of thinking and imagining the world in an ecocentric way.
The exhibition reflects on trees, woodland and forests by allowing the worlds of art and science to mix together, with the certainty that, in order to develop a new ecological awareness, it is important to learn how to live alongside and communicate with different worlds. Art, together with science and all other branches of knowledge, has the power to create new points of view. Creativity is a crucially important way of transforming cultural, social and political ideas and thoughts.

The exhibition route intentionally mixes the past, present and future, through the visions of twenty international artists, presenting a set of important photographs and historical documents that belong to the archives of Italy's National Mountain Museum and the National Library of the Italian Alpine Club.
The exhibition tells its story through five macro-chapters, the historical-scientific contributions for which have been curated by Matteo Garbelotto, director of the Forest Pathology and Mycology Lab at Berkeley and adjunct professor at the Environmental Science, Policy and Management Department at the University of California. Visitors can enjoy videos featuring interviews with researchers and experts, providing an opportunity to explore the topics covered in more detail, in addition to the exhibition's online catalogue.
It is also important to note that a number of the works on display have been created thanks to the collaboration with researches at the MUSE, the University of Turin's centre of excellence for innovation in the agricultural-environmental field, the Edmund Mach Foundation of Trento and the CMCC - ‘Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Climate Change’.
The Zegna Archive, the Cesare Leonardi Archive and the 20th century archive at the 'Mart’ - Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto have also made important contributions.


  1. K. Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press, 2007.
  2. B. Gates, Zero carbonio entro il 2050 (Zero carbon dioxide by 2050), in La grande alleanza verde (The great green alliance), “Green&Blue. L’innovazione per la sostenibilità e l’ambiente (Green&Blue. Innovation for sustainability and the environment)”. Year 1, no. 1, Gedi Gruppo Editoriale, 3 October 2020.
  3. D. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble - Making Kin in the Chthulucene, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  4. F. Hallé, Ci vuole un albero per salvare la città. Un manifesto per i politici e gli amministratori pubblici (‘We need trees to save the city. A manifesto for politicians and the public administration’), Adriano Salani Editore, Milan 2018.
  5. E. Coccia, La Vie des plantes. Une métaphysique du mélange, Éditions Paryot & Rivages, Paris, 2016.
  6. E. Coccia, What the Forest Teaches Us, in “Moreness. A monograph on the state of being more”. Monograph 02 - On Trees and Woods, Summer 2020. Published by franzLAB, 2020
  7. Ibidem.
  8. Le Corbusier, Quando le cattedrali erano bianche. Viaggio nel paese dei timidi (‘When the cathedrals were white. A journey to the country of timid people’), Marinotti, Milan, 2003.
  9. N. Bourriaud, Un’arte poli-soggettiva. Dal paesaggio alla foresta, in Foresta Urbana. Arte e natura del nuovo millennio (‘Art with many subjects. From the landscape to the forest’ in ‘Urban Forest. Art and nature of the new millennium’), Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo (MI) 2018.
  10. According to Ruyu Hung, Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Department of Education, National Chiayi University, Taiwan, the neologism "ecophilia" refers to the emotional and incarnate bond between humans and their surroundings and between humans and nature. Ecophilia is a source of educational inspiration as it enriches the meaning of human life. The concept of ecophilia may therefore be considered an idea to guide education. This education is what Hung defines as “ecopedagogy”.
    Ecophilia is also the title of the temporary exhibition that the Museo Nazionale della Montagna (National Mountain Museum) in Turin will be hosting between 27 January and 27 June 2021, curated by Andrea Lerda.
  11. Smart Forest City is the name of the project recently presented by the architect Stefano Boeri for the city of Cancun in Mexico.
    “This project involves urban planning for a new Forest City in Mexico, stretching 557 hectares and home to up to 130 thousand inhabitants. 362 hectares of plant surfaces and 120,000 plants belonging to 350 different species, designed as an open and international city inspired by the values of technological innovation and environmental quality.
    The ‘Smart Forest City’ is designed to be self-sufficient in terms of energy, thanks to a perimeter ring of photovoltaic panels and a water channel linked to an underground system at sea, supplying the city in a sustainable way. […] The new Forest City is also cutting-edge in terms of mobility, thanks to its well-structured transport system which involves residents and guests leaving any combustion vehicles on the outskirts of the city, ensuring that all internal transport is electric and semi-automatic”.
    Smentire la storiografia (‘Proving historiography wrong’), Stefano Boeri in an interview with Gea Politi and Cristiano Seganfreddo, in “Flash Art” no. 349, June-August 2020.
  12. A. Magnaghi, D. Fanfani, Patto città-campagna: un progetto di bio-regione urbana per la Toscana centrale (‘A city-countryside pact: an urban bio-region project for central Tuscany’), Alinea Editrice, Florence, 2010.
  13. J. Beuys, Theories and Documents, Berkeley University of California Press, Berkeley 1996.