Rachel Jacobs blogging from the Mata Atlantica, Rio State, Brazil as part of the Active Ingredient project ‘A Conversation Between Trees’.


Writing from a VW van, driving through Rio state, searching for the Mata Atlantica (the Atlantic Forest), as part of the Estudio Movel Experimental artist residency…

Camper van.

Since taking a back seat from Mudlark I have started a PhD in the rather long winded sounding ‘Ubiquitous Computing in the Digital Economy’ at the incredibly exciting Digital Economy institute–Horizon, University of Nottingham.

Alongside, I am continuing my work within Active Ingredient, focusing now on this one project ‘A Conversation Between Trees’, a development from Active Ingredient’s recent focus on mobile art games and urban interventions, towards interventions in cities, forest and urban forest: in the wilds of Brazilian tropical forests and the smaller Sherwood Forest and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It connects forest locations across the UK and Brazil.

It started with The Dark Forest, a 2009-2010 research project that was an exchange between artists, technologists and schools connecting the iconic Sherwood Forest with the Mata Atlantica. Mudlark was also involved in this project, exploring the possibilities of developing an interactive documentary connecting forests in the UK and Brazil and to develop a game exploring the forests- the concept was short-listed for Pixel Pitch, November 2009 .

A Conversation Between Trees is a new iteration of the project which has taken shape as a series of residencies and interventions over the next year in the UK and Brazil, resulting in a touring artwork and experience for forest venues on both sides of the equator in 2011. This project has received funding from the Arts Council of England (pre-severe funding cuts), Nottinghamshire County Council and with support through EME and Horizon, University of Nottingham.

So, we are in the van, heading for the Macacu region, where the river flows from the mountains down to feed the remaining small area of mangrove swamps in the Gaunabara Bay (Rio was once a lagoon of Mangrove swamps and is now a heavily ongoing fabricated bay that houses the endless communities, residential spread and urban conglomerate of the Carioca’s – people of Rio). The Macacu river flows on to provide water for the people of Rio. It is also here that Petrobas, Brazil’s oil company plan to build a ginourmous plant; it’s unclear if the waste from this plant will also join the river flow.

The Mata Atlantica is a UNESCO biosphere reserve. One of the most biodiverse forests on the planet. The mountains of the Mata Atlantica along the coast of Brazil act as a unique weather system. The clouds from the sea gather at the mountain’s ridge. The Mata Altantica and the Amazon forests feed each other. They say only 7% of the original forest remains. The Mata Atlantica once spread down from Brazil to Argentina and Uruguay. These forests, close to the equator are seen by climate change scientists as vital to the future of the planet – in conjunction with the oceans they are the CO2 and temperature regulators of our planet and the home to the largest amounts of our diverse species.

Like our British forests patches of the forest are now left amongst the farming, urbanisation and industrialisation of coastal Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

A Conversation Between Trees connects these forests in the UK and Brazil using mobile environmental sensor technology. The project involves building new tools to visualise and interpret data collected from the forests – ‘revealing the invisible’ nature of the forests and creating a conversation through the contrasting live data, sent by mobile phones. To connect and bridge forests across the two hemispheres as a way of understanding the forests on our own doorsteps in order to see and reveal the forests on the other side of the world, and make connections between the two. Working with the British Brazilian artist Silvia Leal, from EME and our original partners at Mobilefest has given us a unique opportunity to extend the conversation beyond purely visualising the data, to meet, collaborate and intervene across both locations.

During the residency we set up a mobile installation in the van, setting up the sensor kits in trees along our journey in both the urban forest of Rio – Tijuca Forest National Park, Rio Botanical Gardens and the Gaunabara Bay Insitute and in the remote parts of the Mata Atlantica in the Macacu region.

We conducted activities for 120 school children from the van, working with the mobile sensor kits and looking at ways to humanise the data so that the children could understand what the temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure and decibel levels that we were capturing with the technology meant to them as visitors to the forest. This has resulted in an exhibition at the school – Escola Camilo Castelo Branco, distributing by request the activity to teachers and the educational team at the botanical gardens to include in their future education resources.

At Regua, a British conservation NGO project in the Macacu region, we spent time in the forest, exploring how the work we were doing could translate into a touring artwork that interprets the data and enables visitors to interact with the forest through the technology that we were using to sense the forest.


Our worst fears were confirmed just as the mountains began to loom through the heavy misty air – we lost phone signal and internet connection.

Regua is mammoth, restoring 1000 trees per hectare and wetlands as much as possible to their original state across a vast area of hills and lowland. What is left of primary Mata Atlantica is up high on the steep hills of the mountains. Shockingly, farming reaches the bottom of these hills, with only small squares of forest left.
The work of Dora Hees from the Guanabara Bay Institute and the Regua NGO is changing the forest slowly, in small but inspiring steps.


Models and ideas for a sustainable future are being tested, with real results : influencing local policy, training local hunters to become forest rangers and young people to become forest scouts. It was wonderful to end the residency in such a positive space, although clear that this is part of a much greater whole. A dam and a Petrobas plant are due to be built along the Macacu river , two of many threats and issues that surround this place of rejuvenation, growth, renewal… and intense beauty.

The next steps for our project is to build a touring artwork. Despite our interest in conservation and the future of the forest, this is not the focus of the final artwork. The interactive experience we are building is to be a playful exploration of the forest environments. We aim to engage audiences in investigating the forest, asking questions about the changes in the forest to reveal its invisible nature and to sense how we as humans interact with our environment and in turn how the environment reacts to our presence. It follows on from Heartlands, which was a playful interaction with predominantly urban environments using player’s heart rate data to control a game as they move through the environment. In this project we turn the process outside in – so we will collect environmental data to reveal the impact of humans exploring the forest environment.

In Regua.

We are also working with Carlo Buontempo from the Hadley Centre for Climate Change at the UK Met office, who is advising us on the science of climate change, CO2 and the impact of deforestation and is working closely with us on ideas for the interactive experience in the forest.

Rachel Jacobs

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