The planet is on fire.
The year 2023 broke all records, with fires ravaging millions of hectares of land from Canada to Hawaii, via the Mediterranean basin, and making the inhabitants of these regions regulars of ecological disasters. Forest fires, whether of natural origin or not, are multiplying exponentially, a significant symptom of the human impact on the environment. This has not escaped the attention of artist-researcher Alizée Armet, who is proposing a singular way of understanding these fires through her project, Pyrocumulus; at the crossroads of biology, augmented reality and the history of the Landes woodland, she is exploring the ways in which trees communicate during and after these climatic episodes.
For Alizée, it all begins in the summer of 2021, when she is staying with her family near Anglet in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region. First the smell, then the huge cloud of smoke herald the fire in the nearby Chiberta forest. Although the subject of mega fires had been nagging at her for some time, it is this particular one that triggers her desire to make it the subject of a project. There follows an extraordinary media coverage due to the fact that the region suffers three major fires during this period, and that in the rest of the world the same thing happens. In addition to this flurry of information, Alizée is intrigued by people’s behaviour in the face of the fires. In her research, she comes across people filming themselves in front of the flames, whether to raise awareness or simply to create a buzz. So she asks herself: how has our relationship with the forest changed? Has our use of technological tools created or contributed to our distancing ourselves from nature, and by extension natural disasters?
These behaviours are in fact culturally rooted in Western civilisations. The history of the Chiberta forest provides some clues; the area has undergone many geographical changes due to the desire to divert the mouth of the River Adour to facilitate maritime trade, and the first major works date back to the Middle Ages. The changes in the course of the river left traces of sand on which Napoleon III, in the 19th century, planted the artificial reserve of pine trees that we know as the “Chiberta forest”. Aesthetically pleasing, but also useful for purification, it has gradually become a leisure area. In fact, the Landes massif, which is artificial, was only planted to meet a specific need. However, examples of the transformation of natural territories to meet human needs date back to the earliest civilisations, but in the Western world, the logic developed into philosophy (Descartes, Rousseau, etc.), which in turn influenced politics and society. Here, the tree is a consumer good like any other, which would explain our distant relationship.
Alizée, who already has an idea of the project she is going to carry out, takes her research further by going out into the field with her graphic designer colleague Isabelle Lazcano, where they gather information for two or three months after the fires in the Landes. In this macabre setting, where the wood and soil had been burnt to a crisp, she discovers living mushrooms at the foot of the trees. She already knew that they communicated via networks of mycelium, but not that this communication continued after the death of the tree. This phenomenon is due to “mycorrhizae”, a term used to describe the union between a fungus and the root of a plant. Everything happens underground. When the union is out of balance, for example when the plant dies, the fungus can recycle the dead organic mass of the plant to generate new offspring, and continue to grow. In fact, the presence of mycorrhizae considerably accelerates plant regeneration and proliferation.
The artist pushes her thinking further by comparing the history of the Landes woodland and the workings of mycorrhizae; for her, these trees are mutants, both colonised and fragile. They have been planted by humans as monocultures, which makes them more vulnerable to disease and the spread of fire, but they also have their own means of survival. At the same time, she comes across the work of Stephen Pyne, who talks about the “pyrocene” era; for him, the mastery of fire by humans became damaging to the environment in a lasting way when fossil fuels came into use. This has helped to exacerbate the effects of global warming, causing mega-fires which in turn amplify global warming in an endless vicious circle. Their smoke and ash collect in clouds that contain various biological data. The project will be named after this type of cloud: Pyrocumulus.
In 2022, Alizée applies to the Cultures Connectées call for projects launched by the DRAC and the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, which requires a demonstrative outcome. Her choice of cultural partnership is Accès Cultures Electroniques, where the exhibition of her installation will take place, and where she meets Jean Jacques Gay, director of the association, who advises her on the artistic direction of the project. The idea is to recreate the communication system of trees after a fire, putting it in parallel with our technological tools and making it interactive for the public. To put all this into practice, she calls on Patxi Bérard and Denis Geral, two engineers from ESTIA school, to help her develop the devices she needs.
The installation is made up of four poles representing four 3D-printed carbonised trees made from recomposed cellulose filaments: an oak, a pine, a fir and a birch. Next to each sculpture is a high stand on which rests a touch-sensitive tablet that transmits an image corresponding to its tree and was generated using photogrammetry, a 3D modelling technique used to measure and reconstruct a scene. These trees contain digital information, including their GPS coordinates, and can only be revealed by the tablets. The public is then invited to activate the tablets, which interact with each other using collaborative augmented reality, a tool that enables virtual elements calculated by a computer programme to be superimposed on an image, and data to be influenced from one tablet to another. When one of the tablets is activated, in no particular order, a soap bubble appears which eventually falls and crystallises in the floor if another tablet in the room is not active. This encourages visitors to interact with the work and with the other participants, to move around it and synchronise to keep it alive. In the same way that mycorrhizae exchange nutrients, the public takes on this role to communicate information about the trees via the tablets.
The cloud analogy is also present; Pyrocumulus refers not only to smoke, but also to the internet cloud, another artificial cloud that contains data, creates real carbon dioxide and therefore has a considerable impact on the environment. To describe her installation, Alizée talks of molecular aesthetics in reference to Eugene Thacker, as opposed to biomimicry, which she considers solutionist, or the ‘wood wide web’ that is increasingly used to compare computer network systems with plants. As a result, her work is presented at Accès Cultures Électroniques in 2022 as part of the group exhibition “Design des signes, de l’œuvre à l’usage” alongside Hervé Fischer and Grégory Chatonsky. Pyrocumulus is then showcased at ISEA in 2023, but for Alizée it is above all the beginning of a reflection linked to the deconstruction of a human vision imposed on the non-human world. The project is also part of a wider research project looking at the impact of the anthropocentric vision applied to living things.
Pyrocumulus does not seek to respond to a problem, or even to reproduce reality; on the contrary, it invites us to experience plant expression.
Yet Alizée Armet strikes a sensitive chord and tackles very real issues by choosing the path of the imagination and empathy.
“I often say that I create speculative machines rather than installations, because I reflect on a possible future while at the same time echoing the present.” When it comes to projecting a possible future through a work of art, there is a common misconception, outside the cultural milieu, that the proposed project must have a very real end in the present. Yet the very essence of the artistic approach is that it is not solutionist, and if it is, it is only through the narrative in which the project is embedded. Alizée Armet belongs to the group of artists who experiment with possible future solutions to a current problem, without providing any utility for her installations other than that of the imagination. Her favourite theme is the more-than-human, in particular the relationship between natural elements and the human influence on them, a subject she tackles through the use of BioMedia.
As the daughter of a military officer, Alizée has an eventful childhood. Her father’s work requires the family to move frequently, and she spends time in various regions of France, often remote, and in Europe. These experiences play an important role in shaping her future. The period during which they lives on the island of Réunion was paradoxical for her; it is a moment during which she spends time in the “jungle” and receives her first computer at the same time, a coexistence between these activities that seems antagonistic at the time, but elements of which can be found even in her future works. Finally, another event leaves its mark on her: while her family is visiting Dubrovnik, she remembers the bullet marks on the city’s walls. Alizée already knows that she wants to pursue a career that will enable her to raise awareness of the issues that affect her. But she suffers from dyslexia and dysorthographia, which encourages her to choose art as a means of expression.
After a classic educational path, she joins the Ecole Supérieure d’art des Rocailles in Biarritz and then does her master’s at the Ecole Supérieure de l’Agglomération d’Annecy. During her studies, Alizée begins to deal with conceptual reflections on nature and culture, but doesn’t want to limit herself to representational subjects. She feels that she has difficulty in finding the right materials to convey her ideas, or even in forging her concepts, and feels that her works are too naïve. But in 2013, during an internship at the Fonderie Darling in Montreal, things change; there, she discovers inspiring young artists, and the use of the internet as both a medium and an artistic challenge, or more broadly, the digital arts. Over the next three years, she turns more confidently towards subjects linked to technological developments and the impact of the industrial revolution, but still doesn’t feel sufficiently equipped to follow through with her ideas.
She then pursues a PhD at the University of the Basque Country in Leioa, Spain, from 2017 to 2021, with her dissertation topic “Art and Technology in the 21st Century. From vision machines to artificial intelligence”. This environment enables her to deepen the technical part of her work, to create her own hybrid language between art and industry, and above all to integrate BioMedias as an artistic medium. She finds a new balance in her practice, between rigour and creativity, and a way of incorporating the notion of technological innovation into her artistic concepts. Plants are now taking centre stage, not just as aesthetic objects but as the main players in her creations.
For Alizée, it is also the beginning of her collaborations with the scientific community. As part of her thesis, she takes part in an inter-exchange residency in Frankfurt, where she co-creates with two INRIA doctoral students a neurofeedback installation (a method based on the brain’s neuronal activity that enables the subject to learn how to control it) that activates the data collected in a virtual reality environment. While the experience desensitises her to scientific issues, it also raises a certain mistrust among researchers about her status as an artist. This stems from a fear of the appropriation of information and the misuse of its meaning for aesthetic purposes. In her opinion, this is a systemic problem; scientists are steeped in their protocols and are not given enough opportunities to explore outside their comfort zone, which creates this distance from art.
For the #MAHAIA2020 project, she collaborates with four artists and ESTIA engineer Patxi Bérard on a collaborative augmented reality installation. Their mission is to digitally connect pieces of a work representing a table created by Yves Chaudouët. Alizée finds it difficult to work in this type of collective, but builds a professional friendship with the engineer who accompanies her on the technical part of other projects and later, Pyrocumulus. In fact, it is the first project she has produces after her thesis, and for Alizée it represents the culmination of the concepts she developed during her thesis. She brings together art, design, science and engineering, and refers to the Speculative Everything (A. Dunne, F. Raby) modes of thinking, which provide an opening onto the future while evoking an existing and current context. She presents her work at the “Digital Ecologies in practice” conference at the University of Bonn in 2022, where she feels like a fish in water. Surrounded by artists, engineers and researchers keen to share information and collaborate, they talk about tackling ecological and societal issues while integrating technological innovations.
Alizée continues in the same vein with Gosthly plants of damaged worlds, an installation based around albino plants that can no longer produce photosynthesis. It’s another reflection on the human impact on their natural environment and the relationship between plants, an obvious conceptual continuation of Pyrocumulus, which is part of a wider artistic research. This new project, funded by an EMAP residency, which was exhibited at Ars Electronica and Da Fest in Sofia in 2023, gives her international exposure. It is currently part of the group exhibition “I Told You It’s Alive” at the Kapelica gallery in Ljubljana until February 2024.
In parallel, she runs the “ptit-bugs” project; she designs and facilitates creative workshops for children in day nurseries and multimedia libraries, in which she teaches them to use different technologies with the aim of awakening their creative senses, but above all making them aware of these uses and the consumerism associated with them. For the time being, she continues to work simultaneously on these educational and artistic projects, but she wants to go further. Recently, she has taken an interest in the notion of autopoiesis, theorised by F. Varela and H. Maturana in 1972, which refers to the capacity of a system to self-produce by maintaining its structure despite the modification of its components and information that occurs through continual interaction with its environment. This notion goes hand in hand with the question of technological integration, in particular machine learning, in living organisms, which she would like to explore in greater depth at an artistic level. Rather than limiting her work to the generation of images and information, Alizée believes there is an urgent need to explore the use of AI in cellular biology, just as with xenobots. However, she has no plans to undertake such a project without national or international scientific cooperation, which could be an opportunity for her to reconnect with her beloved Canada.
Alizée Armet has chosen to talk about nature by questioning the way we operate as a Western society.
Through her research, she activates an engaged dialogue between biology and technology, while stimulating critical reflection and imagination.