In this essay Dave Young writes about our project, The Performance of Trees, an investigation into “talking” and “listening” trees and their historical military and political resonances. The text takes as its starting point a field trip conducted by Young and Brazier to a mast in the outskirts of Nottingham, accompanied by video footage shot by Brazier. The Performance of Trees is part of an ongoing investigative research project enquiring into the use of natural forms to camouflage mobile telephone and communication masts and other network infrastructures.
The mast is located at 52°53'52.6"N 1°11'58.8"W, beside Fox Covert Lane, a lay-by just off the A453 motorway into Nottingham. After a public consultation in March 2015, this route was renamed Remembrance Way in memorial of the 453 British soldiers killed during the war in Afghanistan. Other names considered at the time included Helmand Way and Bastion Way (BBC, 2015). The mast is clearly visible from the vantage point of any of the four roads approaching the Mill Hill Roundabout, a meeting point between Clifton tram station, Green Street, and Remembrance Way.
The central column, or trunk, of the tower emerges out of a thicket of hawthorne trees, and stands a good six meters clear of the surrounding canopy. Looking at the structure directly, it is a clear and puzzling outlier in the immediate environment. Assuming the form of a pine tree does little for it in the way of camouflage: It is a rudimentary, barren looking thing with maybe four or five significant branches, some of which almost appear as if they have been installed upside-down. Standing on the roadside bank in front of it, the configuration of the boughs form a peculiar x-like shape that lends the structure an almost sinister quality.
Four cellular antennas encircle the upper trunk, and above two small microwave relay dishes are affixed to the crown with steel armatures. A vertical sequence of footholds rises along the western side of the trunk, a distraction from the central column's hand-painted patterns, intended to simulate the roughened texture of bark. Up close, these patterns look like a kind of military jungle camouflage – dark greens, browns, and tans – and the craft of it is visible in heavy brushstrokes slowly encroached by a light surface of moss rising from the trunk's concrete foundations. A ring of large anchor bolts around the base of the trunk root it firmly to the ground.
Altogether, these "naturalistic" qualities are an effort at mimicry only performed to a standard that expects possible observers to be travelling past at speed, such that the structure can not be afforded much beyond a cursory inspection. It is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it arrangement, a piece of ambient infrastructure. But what purpose does this attempt to blend in actually serve? Is it a gesture towards the maintenance of unspoiled naturalism for the benefit of passers-by? Or is it for the sake of the local ecology? On the day of our visit to the site we were amused to see a second mast only a few dozen metres from the artificial tree – an older and larger steel structure with its own arrays of communications apparatuses. Clearly visible from the roadway, this second tower made no attempt to conceal its function. The silver glint of the steel, cellular antennae fixed to the exterior, and the dishes catching sunlight: It is immediately recognisable as a mast, and unapologetic about it. Such structures are banal, unremarkable and entirely commonplace sights along major transit routes. With their ubiquity they gain an alternative kind of ambience, one that is recessive through repetition rather than through camouflage.
An Army Electronics Command report published in 1972 described a series of experiments carried out in the jungles of the Panama Canal Zone. At the time, the Zone was still an administrative region of the United States, extending just under ten kilometers either side of the important shipping thoroughfare connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Army report details an investigation into how trees could perform as radio antennas in dense tropical forests – a challenging environment where "ferns and palms grow as tall as trees, and which present a great obstacle to tactical radio communications" (Ikrath et al, 1972: 1). The tests follow promising results from domestic field research conducted on pine and oak trees in the forests of Lebanon, New Jersey in 1969. The relocation of the research to Panama reflects the geopolitical focus of the mid-Cold War, where many of the most aggressively contested states and strategically relevant regions lay in the tropics.
The document details the various factors which impact on the performance of trees as antennas, describing signal interference triggered by atmospheric humidity, dampness of vegetation, tropical storms, the topological characteristics of the locale, and even the power lines that ran the length of the Panama Canal. Despite these challenges, in its conclusion the report lists a number of possible use-cases for further exploration, including the use of tree antennas to remotely control "buried and submerged devices" such as "the activation and deactivation of mines in forest covered terrain" (ibid.: 5). Additionally, the authors highlight the tactical opportunities for camouflaging critical communications infrastructure:
"It is customary to install radio repeaters on mountain tops to overcome terrain obstacles. The vulnerability of such repeater installations is self evident. Forest trees, however, can perform such a job easily and most of all invisibly." (ibid.: 6)
The Army Electronics Command experiments in the forests of Lebanon New Jersey and the Panama Canal zone are not the earliest examples of the technique. The report's authors sketch out a very brief history that dates the inception of the idea as far back as 1904, credited it to Major George O. Squire. A 1919 article titled "Talking Thru The Trees", published in the science magazine Electrical Experimenter, provides the story of Squire's discovery:
During summer maneuvers [...] due to the prevalence of the dry season and the unusual character of the soil, it was found that the regular Army buzzer telephone and telegraph sets were inoperative with any ordinary ground or earth but became operative when connected to a metallic nail driven in the trunk or the roots of a live tree." (Squire, 1919: 204)
Squire politely offers a name for this system: a message sent through the system should be called a floragram. A tree-telephone is a floraphone, and a tree-telegraph is a floragraph. This consumer-friendly attempt at commercial branding aside, Squire claims his apparatus found a military purpose during the First World War, with the French successfully improvising a tree antenna to listen in on German radio communications in locations where it would have otherwise been cumbersome – if not impossible – to transport the various materials required to construct a free-standing mast (ibid.: 271).
The emphasis on the liveness of the tree is not just technically important, but bears an additional conceptual weight for Squire. The article includes a striking suggestion that calls for us to understand trees as a kind of electronic organism. He writes: "we may consider that trees have been pieces of electrical apparatus from their beginning and with their manifold chains of living cells are absorbers, conductors and radiators [of electromagnetic radio waves]" (ibid.: 272). Such thinking broadly anticipates what Norbert Wiener would propose in his 1948 book Cybernetics – in short, that organisms can be understood in machinic terms, and that biological processes can be measured and interpreted as the circulation of information. As such thinking propagated in tandem with the advancement of digital computing and networking in the early years of the Cold War, the binary-distinction between the ostensibly "natural" and the "engineered" became increasingly interfused. In the minds of some elite defence researchers, Mother Nature was a technology. Naturally occurring phenomena such as hurricanes and the Earth's magnetic field were subjected to U.S. Militaryfunded scientific enquiry, with the hope that they could be controlled and perhaps even weaponised in the fight against the Soviets.
While the authors of the Performance of Trees report conducted their tests around the Panama Canal Zone, the United States Air Force were regularly conducting sorties over the dense jungles of eastern Laos. These sorties were part of a technically elaborate and unprecedented "interdiction" effort called Igloo White. In operation from 1967 to 1972, the primary objective of the programme was to halt the shuttling of arms and supplies from North Vietnam to communist forces in the South along a complex network of roadways called The Ho Chi Minh Trail. Hundreds of seismic and acoustic sensors with built-in antennas were dropped from airplanes and helicopters, specially designed to become embedded in the ground or get caught in trees and "listen" out for the rumble of trucks. In an attempt to blend in with their environment, the devices were painted with jungle camouflage patterns – dark greens, browns, and tans – and were equipped with appendages that imitated trees. Should the sensors detect movement, they would automatically radio in to a remote base located thousands of miles away at Nakhon Phanom, eastern Thailand. From there, analysts could look at trends in sensor readings over time and look for the signature of convoy traffic, and thus decide whether or not they would call in an airstrike on the area. A 1968 report detailing the initial phase of the programme provides an image of an acoustic sensor and its attached "tree". Nevertheless, various sources provide accounts that the sensors were found by the Vietcong and interfered with.
"Many Laotian tribespeople were Vietnamese allies dating back to the war against the French. They located many ground sensors. Tape recordings of crickets and other jungle noises were placed next to sensors to conceal truck convoys. At the same time, tape recordings with truck noises were placed along different routes to promote attacks on fake convoys, sensors, and tape recorders." (Gibson, 2000: 399)
A REGULATORY GLITCH
While the motivations obviously vary from one example to the next, it's unsurprising that the practice of camouflaging civilian technical infrastructure has a military prehistory. Indeed, we would need to go much further back than the Panama Canal Zone experiments and the Vietnam War, and even Squire's Talking Thru The Trees, to find the real root of the tactical blending of the natural and the engineered. The curious arrangement of the two masts on Remembrance Way – one camouflaged, one not – is a regulatory glitch, a demonstration of the shifting administration of public infrastructure. The disguising of the mast as a tree is not motivated by conspiratorial desires or strategic considerations. Rather, it is a compromise between, on the one hand, the hardware required to serve the growing markets of telecommunications companies , and on the other, the local governments and interest groups who wish to preserve some semblance of the "natural" in the skylines of so-called "sensitive localities". As the UK government itself pushes for the broadening of access to high-speed digital communications infrastructures across underserved areas, most of which are in rural regions, this compromise between the natural and the engineered is an entirely unsurprising one.
In doing so however, there are a series of judgement that are implied: What constitutes an eyesore? What is natural? What man-made structures are aesthetically harmonious with the natural? What is a satisfactory compromise? Looking around the mast: long chains of electricity pylons disappearing over the horizon; steel cellular masts in square-kilometer grids; deforested farmland and outbuildings; motorways and roundabouts; fencing delineating property lines; a cluster of eight monumental cooling towers from the nearby coal-fired power station. Given this situational context, it seems especially odd that this mast has been ordered to blend in.
A cross-organisational working group with representatives from government and industry have produced a document titled Code of Best Practice on Mobile Network Development in England to formalise the extension of infrastructure. Under a heading titled Sympathetic Design and Camouflaging, the document describes the considerations that must be made when disguising masts as trees:
“Their effectiveness is limited by their normal need to be taller than surrounding trees that would otherwise block the signals; they can only imitate evergreen varieties because they do not lose their foliage in winter and their effectiveness can be lost if poorly sited or designed so it is important that they: Mix well with the existing local tree types; Are placed with groups of other trees; Are placed with newly planted trees.” (MobileUK, 2016: 28)
The technical parameters of this compromise result in a strange aesthetic paradox: the mast, assuming the form of an indigenous tree and planted amongst groups of trees in order to blend in, must also stand out – or rise above – in order to successfully receive and transmit information. As such, the very thing it aims to emulate is a source of signal distortion and interference, undermining its ability to perform.
Official data about the mast at Remembrance Way is scarce. An Ofcom database last updated in 2012, provides technical details stating that the mast is 12 meters tall and is adorned with GSM SECTOR antennas (OFCOM, 2017). The date of installation is unknown, although it is visible in satellite imagery on Google Earth dating from 19th April 2007. The hawthorne trees, approximately five meters tall or thereabouts at the time of writing, appear as only saplings in this imagery – scant natural coverage to help camouflage the structure.
On the day we travelled to the location, an electrical box external to the mast's fenced-off enclosure states that the site was run by Orange Personal Communication Serves Limited. Orange no longer exists as a corporate entity, having merged with T-Mobile. It now operates under the name EE, an abbreviation of Everything Everywhere.
Connor Brazier is an artist and curator based in Nottingham. His practice focuses on binaries as a source of tension and investigation, a language, code or system of understanding. One binary holds a non-physical space, and is a coded language which operates a system of interaction, the internet. The internet was once considered to be a space without borders, a utopian zone. Today the proliferation of images and their consumption online, brings into question its validity as a venue for artistic and cultural exchange. The web holds an importance, as an archive documenting the exchange through physical movement and migration of language and cultural practices. Another binary, whose presence can be felt universally, is a border between nations. He makes visual work to investigate the binary and politics of borders, the physical definition, transience or temporality of these spaces in relation to contemporary ideas of hybridity and in-betweeness.
Dave Young (IE) is an artist and researcher based in Nottingham. His practice follows critical research into digital culture, manifested through workshops, website development, and talks on subjects varying from cybernetics and the Cold War history of network technologies, to issues around copyright and open source/free culture. He is currently an M3C/AHRC funded PhD researcher based at the Centre for Critical Theory, University of Nottingham.