Help Curb Deforestation By Planting A Real Life Tree In Electronic Shadow's Virtual Forest [Q&A]

Projection pioneers Naziha Mestaoui and Yacine Aït Kaci aka Electronic Shadow are getting closer to bridging the physical and digital worlds. Their latest interactive installation One Man One Tree, “celebrates the dreamlike beauty of nature” by reacting to spectators’ presence, planting a digital seed that then grows right before the person’s eyes.Taking the idea of planting and growth one step further, a physical tree is planted in the Amazon for every digital tree created. Eager to know more about this interesting mix of environmental altruism and visual beauty, we sat with the duo to further decipher the secrets of this smaragdine piece.

The Creators Project: After exploring the hybridization between architecture and image, you chose to focus your work on interactive 3D mapping. What are the benefits of this medium?
Electronic Shadow:
We founded Electronic Shadow in 2000 because we felt that a merger of our two fields of expertise—architecture and multimedia production—was about to take place, hence the image of “Electronic Shadow.” 3D mapping was a result of this merger. We discovered it in 2002 and we patented it instantly. With the help of specialized developers, we have perfected this technology usually practiced in the video game industry. Rather than focusing on the technique, we use it to tell stories through installations where our characters come alive in this mixed world, with works like 3minutes² or H2o, an adaptation of Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel.

The patent allowed us to protect ourselves a few years before 3D mapping became popular. We continue to refine our homemade tool, which is really a hybrid platform between the real and the digital worlds. In our eyes, the most important thing is the meaning of this technology and the way we use it, not technology in itself.

Can you tell me more about your installation One Man One Tree?
One Man One Tree is just a logical extension of what has been driving our work for the past 12 years, in this growing porosity between reality and fiction, the material and the intangible. The installation invites the audience into a virtual forest. The viewer is invited to sit in a circle of light. His presence brings down a seed of light on the floor enabling a new virtual tree to grow, unique and numbered.

For each virtual tree planted, a real tree will be planted in a reforestation project. This is another step toward bringing the digital closer to the physical world. This action has a real effect aimed to outlive us—a physical action is generated from a virtual gesture.

What motivated this project?
What motivated us was this additional step towards reality. Usually it’s the opposite—the digital is used to visualize and simulate reality. It’s a logical continuation of our work. The “Electronic Shadow” is a reference to electrons, adding an image and a strong emotion for the spectator who can imagine the consequences of his actions.

I was wondering because once again, there’s an ecological approach to your project, which is quite similar to the exhibition “L’arbre Blanc – Plantons pour la planète” in which you took part. How does political commitment influence your creative process?
More than an ecological approach, we want our work to be part of a sustainable development process by giving more value to the immaterial. Not only is it exciting, it’s absolutely necessary. We also have an economic approach: the immaterial has an economic asset that could be a solution for us to overcome the current cataclysmic determinism we’re living. Not only is the intangible worth more than an object, it also gives more value to the matter in terms of emotion. As technology progresses, we need less objects. The consumption pattern changes and slowly leads us towards a less materialistic society. In our case, the commitment does not supplant the artistic intention, it is intimately related. Our creative process is based on a deep conviction that guides our projects.

With a project like One Man One Tree, we want to share this commitment with the audience. We want them to understand that even a simple interaction can make the difference. The digital world is not meant to disembody the notion of choice, it can actually multiply its reach, in a positive or a negative way.

Some of your works—including your digital waterfall Time Drop—are very close to biomimicry. What connection do you draw between nature and technology in your work?
That’s right, there is a pyramid between nature, architecture, and imagination in our work. It’s actually the structure of the performance we wrote with Carolyn Carlson, Double Vision. Technology is the human response to the sophistication of nature. We don’t understand every phenomenon, but by imitating it, we gradually come to complex systems. That’s how we became able to move with mechanical means of transportion, to fly, etc..

Imagination is an important pillar, because everything man has created was thought about beforehand. Fiction is sometimes pretty similar to laboratory research specifications. Try to reread Ovid’s Metamorphoses or any similar fantastical book. There you’ll find directions given to humanity as a whole. The technological tree is quite logical. This is why we know how to use a certain type of technology before it’s even created. It’s already anchored in the collective psyche.

As for nature, its incredible beauty provides an additional element. This is not objective. We are programmed to find harmony in everything that comes from a natural environment: the colors, and the phenomena are great sources of inspiration. Our next installation is actually a perpetual sunset light projected on the facade of a building [Eternal Sunset, at Lille 3000].