I have always deeply revered nature. Growing up in Cornwall surrounded by the ocean on (almost) all sides has meant I’ve always been aware of the scale of the wild world outside.
I am keenly aware of the beauty of nature, but never forget the power it holds. I know I can't outswim a riptide or stop a falling tree, and it's this knowledge that commands respect. Each time we try to conquer nature, we are reminded that it's a force to be reckoned with. However, what we also forget is that it was never meant to be a battle, but a partnership.
We Live in an Ocean of Air is the latest experience from Marshmallow Laser Feast. Using virtual reality (VR), the audience is transported to a forest of Sequoia trees to be reminded of humanity’s deep connection them. My creative partner (Stephen Pelling) and I were recently lucky enough to experience it first-hand.
A dark and airy room welcomes us. Colourful visuals dance over the walls, the backdrop for a group of individuals tentatively treading around wearing VR headsets. Our guide tells us: “You can laugh at them, that will be you in a minute.” But the situation is fascinating rather than laughable. We watch people explore an invisible world and get completely lost in it.
This experience isn’t about being an individual, it’s about stripping us back to the rawest version of ourselves.
A briefing explains to the premise behind the experience, we forget about the invisible processes that tie us to trees around us, the very act of breathing itself. This experience is designed to point out the unseen and reconnect us.
We’re each fitted with a futuristic-looking backpack that allows us to move freely while wearing the VR headsets. On the headsets is a breath sensor, so we can see our breathing represented as small blue particles in the virtual world. I exhale and turquoise dots blossom in front of me. One by one they turn to red, a symbol that means the trees have transformed it back into oxygen.
Sensors on my hands mean I can interact with these particles, setting them off on wild paths with just a swipe of my arm. A heart rate monitor fitted to my ear tracks my body’s response to what I’m seeing, and my virtual hands pulse in sync. The other people in this world with me are simply represented by a bundle of dots; not only does this stop us from bumping into each other, it also takes away our distinct identities. This experience isn’t about being an individual, it’s about stripping us back to the rawest version of ourselves.
The opening of the experience revolves around a giant Sequoia tree. Found natively in America, these beasts grow to be hundreds of feet tall. The very first Sequoia tree discovered by Westerners (aptly named The Discovery Tree) was cut down only a year later. It took five men 22 days to fell the ancient tree, estimated to be 1,300 years old. People later used the stump as a novelty dance floor. It’s a particularly poignant choice of tree.
This is an artistic interpretation of the part we play in our world, but don't get to see.
The forest around us is free to explore, we can even peek inside the tree to watch the patterns of energy that stream up through it. Every sense is played on, drawing us deeper into the world. The smell of pine drifts on the air and the first rumbles of a storm build around us.
As time passes, the streams of energy begin to take over our vision. The physical tree fades from view and inside we see branches of brightly coloured tendrils crawling upwards. I’m still in the forest but seeing it in a completely new way.
Although I know rationally that this tree isn’t real, I can watch as I breathe out and those same particles mix with the environment around me. I can reach out and flex my fingers through the branches and watch as sparks of energy fly in different directions. It may not be real in this moment, but the processes are real. This is an artistic interpretation of the part we play in our world, but don't get to see. It’s a beautiful way to have it revealed and the experience is over too soon.
We’re living in an age of growing awareness. Realising slowly that the relationship between earth and humanity is a rather one-sided dependence. The earth doen't need us, but we very much need it.
There is a gentle irony in the fact that technology frequently acts as a barrier between people and nature.
Blue Planet, the push against plastic and the recent school strikes for climate change are the first stirrings of progress. A new generation is fighting for the earth’s future to ensure their future. Significant progress is yet to be made, but the panic is beginning to set in.
And although panic is a useful tool in encouraging change, there are other ways to reconnect us with our world. Experiences like We Live in an Ocean of Air is one such way. Standing in front of trees bigger than buildings, regardless of whether they are real, is a humbling way to be reminded of such concepts.
There is a gentle irony in the fact that technology frequently acts as a barrier between people and nature. It is only fitting that now it can be used to help bring us back together.
By Bethan Harris Brown with photography by Stephen Pelling. Brown and Pelling are a junior creative team at George P. Johnson. We Live in an Ocean of Air is running at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 5 May.