Jerwood Update




Magz Hall – Whispering Trees

I want to re-engage with a sense of technological enchantment so intrinsic to the early radio experiments that make up part of my research interests. My Jerwood Open Forest proposal develops from Tree Radio, a project I worked on at an ‘Art for the Environment’ residency at Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year. I transformed an oak tree at the Sculpture Park into a micro radio station; a transmitter embedded into the tree relayed the tree’s reactions to light, motion and moisture via sensors and probes in the tree’s canopy.

These were heard as a series of fluctuating electronic tones that visitors can tune in and listen to via their own personal radios or mobile phones with an FM receiver while in the vicinity of the tree. Although Tree Radio was produced on a small budget, it allowed me to experiment with the notion of the transmitting tree and put it into practice – many valuable lessons were learnt in working with electronics outside.

The work I am developing for the Jerwood Open Forest commission is aptly called Whispering Trees. As part of this new body of work, I am developing an interactive trail of radio transmissions throughout the forest whereby members of the public will record their own secrets and dreams into simple radio hardware disguised within a tree. This will enable individual trees to whisper visitor’s reveries to one another.

General George Owen Squire, the U.S. Army’s Chief Signal Officer and incidentally the inventor of Muzak, back in 1919 described how “[all] trees, of all kinds and all heights, growing anywhere—are nature’s own wireless towers and antenna combined” (1919). He called this “talking through the trees.” He used trees as antennae through which to pick up radio signals for the army.

I plan to replicate this process but also use the trees to send out a radio signal. I love the idea of actually hearing people sharing dreams via the trees and am inspired by an early surrealist radio programme of Robert Desnos in 1937 La Clef des Songes [The Key of Dreams] which invited listeners to submit their dreams for interpretation and dramatisation, encouraging highly poetic responses. Desnos wrote that an invented radio dream delivers the same secrets as a real one. I would like visitors to be playful with this idea and treat the installation as a platform for ‘social dreaming’. The intention is for this to be a collective experience, a kind of living sound gallery whereby visitors hear, share and respond to each other’s dreams.

For me, this project is about highlighting radio’s resilience, which means using robust, waterproof and solar powered radios and transmitters. My initial research focused on technological aspects of the project – I have been looking into a range of alternative power sources as well as tracing bespoke radio transmitters and recorders for the installation. I spoke with Pocket Radio who produce small brick like transmitters for use across war torn Syria; this is a particularly inspiring project that highlights the diverse use and importance of radio communication in areas of conflict. I plan to produce a bespoke transmitter for the forest. Together and develop a recording unit for the trees that will connect to the modified pocket fm transmitter. This will be solar powered, waterproof, tamper-proof.

Bedgebury Pinetum appeals as a site for the installation as it has the tallest pine tree in Kent, Grand Fir (Abies grandis), a pine tree normally found in the US which I am sure the US Army will have used as antenna. The Grand Fir is native to America’s Pacific coast and the Rocky Mountains, first discovered by David Douglas in 1825, it was latterly introduced to Britain in 1830. The tallest pine tree at Bedgebury was planted in 1840 by Viscount Marshall Beresford, former owner of the Bedgebury estate and a Field Marshall in Wellington’s army. It measures 167 ft in height (51 metres), 131cm in diameter and over 30 cubic metres in volume. This was adopted by  Kent Men of the Trees, a charity for all ages and genders that was started in Canterbury, where I live. They are a society “of tree lovers working to create a universal tree sense and encourage all to plant, protect and love trees everywhere” with a focus on engaging children. I would like my project to reflect this ethos and I am passionate about starting a ‘Women of the Radio Trees’ group for all. I brought my son and his friend (both seven) to see the Pinetum and it was insightful seeing the forest from their perspective. It certainly is a magical place to explore and I have spotted some great potential sites for my installation.

This post comes from my latest contribution to