Contemplating Greenness

‘Greenness’ is an index used in environmental modeling. It is calculated from remotely sensed and image processed satellite/aerial data. Simply said, it indicates vegetation health of a specific land surface area during the time of data capture. But Greenness can also be considered a poetic representation of the land, one that connects health and aesthetic experience and a gateway for a new direction toward spatial understanding.

From: Judith van der Elst

Greenness and chemical properties of flow

Once upon a time, green plants inhabited the world, giant ferns and their contemporaries ruled the world. Much, much later, flowering plants emerged at the world scene and they were tethered to other species, symbiotic relationships ensured their respective ability for survival. Only recently, we discovered that these species can sense and perceive each others’ sign language (Harborne, 2001), as a spatio-temporal choreographed chemical sphere, probably not unlike the acoustic space of ‘The Great Animal Orchestra”, revealed to us sonically in a new way in the 20th century by Krause (Krause 2012), also currently on exhibit at Fondation Cartier, (Paris, July 2, 2016-January 6, 2017).  Outlined initially as the niche hypothesis, Krause shows us that each species uses a unique bandwidth to communicate its message, to minimize noise and interference. Human activity over the last century or so has changed this communicative sphere dramatically.

And just like the human impact on soundscape, our ignorance of the complexity of multimodal communication has already led to dramatic impact on chemical signaling as well, in more than one way. Decreasing biodiversity for instance leads to the loss of associated chemical compounds (Kaiser, 2005) and the rapid development of digital technologies interferes with natural signal space. Just imagine being a bird, occupying your unique niche. All is well until human generated signals trespass in your niche, your communication is scrambled; your intended recipient is confused.

Why is seeing green so important to our health and aesthetic experience, as is demonstrated by an increasing number of studies (Brown 2011), or, do we finally realize that green is a mere index or compatriot of other, more important sensory properties in our environment?

Odors of the land and semiochemical communication is a focus within the Forest Bathing project as part of the Machine Wilderness platform, which I currently develop ( In collaboration with other artists and scientists, I wish to better understand the interrelationship between ‘aromatope’ and ‘sonotope’ (Farina, 2016).  In other words, the interrelationship between acoustic and olfactory sign communities within an ecology of senses through experimentation with new technologies, and developing novel methodologies Although research on odor ecology is in its early stages, it is not unlikely that a similar ‘niche’ hypothesis underlies olfactory communication, a bouquet of the land in tune with its animal orchestra, and who knows, enhanced by waves of green and flower colors. This is what I set out to explore, it is in its initial stages, nonetheless pointing to an exciting journey.

And then there was BLACK!

The need for doing this work can be scientifically justified, but of course it is also driven by my passion for spending time outdoors. It is Kaiser who said that the loss of biodiversity also means the associated loss of chemical compounds (e.g. odors) released by plants without ever knowing their biological significance. Since these are an important part of our atmospheric composition, his statement prophetizes a future of impoverished air, but hopefully it remains to be life supporting.

Last month however, this future image became darker. I was in a big city to attend a conference and I had just read in the New York Times that city air is so full of pollutants that running in the city may actually be worse for your health than staying indoors. This is bad, I thought. If that was not enough I walked into a health food store where they sold ‘urban exercise masks’ that looked a bit weird, as a cross between Donald Duck and Hannibal Lector. I was not aware of such things, but a quick search revealed that I was in the dark, urban masks are already necessary in many polluted cities as the grey to black range of the daily used filters show (see for instance:

Ah green!

These days we monitor the Earth’s surface from Space. Sophisticated sensors are on board satellites that orbit our planet and record data at regular intervals. In this way, we can for instance see glaciers melting as it happens, as a real-time movie in which we play an important role. We take comfort in the idea that if things go too fast in the wrong direction we can somehow intervene. Unfortunately, Krause demonstrated that this ‘wake-up’ moment is probably too late.  Listening in the land, you realize that this moment may have already happened.


Enter Index

In semiotics, an index is a sign where the signifier is caused by the signified, for instance, smoke signifies fire. ‘Greenness’ is an index used in environmental modeling. It is calculated from remotely sensed and image processed satellite/aerial data. Simply said, it indicates or signifies vegetation health of a specific land surface area during the time of data capture, in other word a moment in time.

Imagine a pixel of green in a satellite image. Imagine what this green represents. In many human populated areas, green is managed; it serves as a backdrop in urban design, spaces for recreation, carefully kept, sprinkled and groomed. ‘Captured’ in the wild however, a pixel of ‘green’ represents a myriad of values, forever changing depending on light and life cycles of a community of species. Green is the manifestation of a planet supporting healthy organisms. Seeing green, as it occurs in nature, is shown to benefit human health (Li, 2012, Kahn 1999), and since the same brain areas light up while experiencing nature and art, it can be argued that ‘seeing green’ is the origin of aesthetic experience (Brown et al. 2011). I am intrigued. What exactly is this green an index of, what does it point to? In other words, what are all the qualities at the foundation of life and beauty that we tend to ignore in current times?


Figure 1 “greenness” pixels

Figure 1 – “Greenness” pixels


Moreover, the greenness index is a statistic based on vegetation reflectance values of Electro Magnetic radiation captured by a sensor mainly in the visible range. Depending on the spatial resolution of the sensor, the green is averaged over a specific pixel size and a specific ratio calculated, (such that, 1m resolution, all green variation within 1m square will result in its average green reflectance value). Comparing different times of capture (time series) this index provides information of a process; it can be used to monitor vegetation health over time (change detection) and has greatly enhanced our understanding of environmental processes. Especially since additional (spatial and non-spatial) data can be incorporated into current Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Doing so results in dynamic maps for monitoring (environmental) change near/at Earth’s surface and its possible causes and effects. The potential for understanding our surroundings has greatly enhanced through rapid development of geospatial technologies into new dimensions, notably in the visual domain (Burrough 1986; Goodchild and Janelle eds, 2004).

See for interactive climate change maps:

However, the detached view of space/environment dominated by the visual sense in western thinking, I believe, severely limits the ability to understand the surrounding space multidimensionally, as it largely neglects other sources of sensory information, e.g. sounds and odors (Krause and Farina 2016, Kaiser 2005). These other modalities are mediated in a very different space-time structure, making it difficult to map and analyze in current spatial information systems. Yet, venturing into these domains creates the potential for an expanded notion of environment and the expectation of a more nuanced understanding of human – land relationships. Seeing green does not seem to activate a sensory integrated experience in peoples mind, but this is just an assumption that requires further investigation. In other words, we don’t necessarily hear sounds or remember odors at the time we see green. Can ‘greenness’ then even be an index, or is it a mere icon. In other words, the signifier resembles the signified.



As part of my archaeological research in New Mexico, I re-located and mapped previously collected indigenous Tewa placenames  (Harrington 1916), and in doing so I understood that certain names are difficult or impossible to map, even using current mapping technologies.  These names often refer to a process of flow, where the landsurface/topography for instance can act as a mediator of currents that carry meaning. In other words, it is not necessarily the surface that is of prime importance, but for instance the sounds that are mediated by it.  The land is the instrument so to speak; it is played by the wind. This understanding radically changes the conceptualization of space, whereby the animating flow (e.g. atmosphere, hydrosphere) becomes the main organizing principle. The atmospheric dimension is however minimized in western conceptualization and representations of space, e.g. optimizing air/flow is not an explicit goal (van der Elst 2010).


Figure 2 Cognitive Landscapes

Figure 2 – Cognitive Landscapes


The greenness index does fit with these ideas, as it is a variable in the land. It is a record of changing conditions; it is represented in a GIS layer in raster format, where each pixel represents a specific value of green. Using this format and concept I mapped the placenames also in a raster data layer, in this way they became fluid in planar space, because the place name data could now also be represented as different layers for different groups, such that how people think about or categorize the land can be thought of as a form of ‘greenness, flexible in time and space’ In this way knowledge of the land can be linked to environmental processes, and considered as organic.  Yet still, it does not solve the problem that space is not fixed at the surface, as conventionally mapped in western systems, but plays out in continuous multidimensional flow.

With regard to architectural design Kisho Kurokawa expresses such discrepancies by defining the difference of Western and Japanese concept of space as: “… the difference between spatial confrontation and continuity. Western architecture emerged from a philosophy of confrontation with nature and the impulse to conquer it. In that sense the stone wall, which sharply divides inside from outside is extremely significant.  The Japanese concept of space reaches out to embrace nature and to achieve unity and harmony with it. … but more significantly, there was always a conscious  effort made to allow inner and outer space to inter-penetrate,” (in Lotta and Belfiore, 2012: 67)

I continue to explore how different spatial conceptualizations (e.g. fixed or fluid) can be integrated within conventional geo information systems and potentially change the direction in which we develop such systems. Computer based mapping and novel sensing technologies have changed our abilities to analyze and synthesize geographic information in unprecedented ways. Zooming in and out, changing scales, resolution and dimensions, link different kinds of spatial and non-spatial and so forth is now common practice. A humanistic approach whereby (multimodal) perception is integrated (embodiment/immersion) with a ‘neutral’/detached view will further extend these capabilities, but while it is not an entirely new idea within the geosciences, it is not yet common for reasons that continue to plague the sciences in general along dualistic lines.

To my knowledge, Higuchi (1983) was the first to develop an application for visual perception as the visual spatial structure of landscapes. During the early 1980’s he outlined a method that is now well known as ‘viewshed’ analysis in geographic information systems. Higuchi defined eight indices to calculate perception of space based on a specific viewpoint from within the landscape. I believe his cultural background proved paramount in developing this method, as his methodology is illustrated with examples of specific Japanese landscape types.

Light, (Higuchi’s index number 8) – the visible range of the Electro Magnetic spectrum – is a main component in the configuration of visual perception of environment, but most difficult to integrate as it refers to temporal, but crucial aspects of experience (Aschoff 1981; Gibson 1979; Higuchi 1983)

His work stimulated a new direction in spatial information theory, no longer limited to representing space geometrically, it can incorporate and model how people navigate through space using visual cues in their environment. However, as any species, we are equipped with different senses and to navigate space humans activate not only their visual field (Jacobs, 2012).


Forest Bathing

Not surprisingly, Forest Bathing is a concept and practice that originated in Japan based on the idea that moving through green natural spaces is beneficial for human health. It constitutes an immersive multimodal experience. This notion of this particular human-land relationship is similarly expressed as biophilia, the hypothesis that there exists a fundamental, genetically based human need and propensity to affiliate with life that was proposed by Wilson (1984). These ideas continue to gain empirical support (Kahn 1999, Li 2012), yet as a value system we continue to grapple with these issues.

In my current practice I use the Forest Bathing concept to initiate projects and collaborations to develop digital technologies to identify, understand, and potentially enhance multimodal experiences. I develop these projects as part of an art-science collective, called Machine Wilderness (MW hereafter), which is based in the Netherlands and initiated by Theun Karelse (artist) and Alice Smits (curator) ( Within the larger framework of Machine Wilderness, the intention is to develop an interdisciplinary knowledge platform to investigate the new ecological relationships between machines and nature.  The main objective that binds my projects and supports MW is to further explore the range of human spatial thinking to facilitate communication and potentially gain access beyond our human sensorium into the realm of other species’ experiential and perceptual worlds or Umwelten through the development of novel sensing technologies in support of citizen science networks  (Favareau 2010; Chittka and Brockman 2005)

This concept of Umwelt was defined in the early 20th century by von Uexküll to identify subjective universes (in Faverau, 2010:  93) and has become a central idea in the foundation of the current research field of biosemiotics. Each species is equipped with specific sensing organs with which they can sense and perceive a part of the senseable world, their perceptual worlds or Umwelt and these world can overlap, making it possible to interpret messages in inter-species communication.

In short, as a theory of meaning, biosemiotics is considered the transdisicplinary “field focused on the myriad forms of communication and signification observable both within and between living systems, the study of representation, meaning, and sense…” The concept of semiosphere, introduced by Lotman, then indicates the total sphere of two or more Umwelten. (Lotman and Clark 2005)


Figure 3 workshops as part of Machine Wilderness platform

Figure 3 – Workshops as part of Machine Wilderness platform


In reference to a forest environment, von Uexküll writes the following:  “Are we not taught…that the forest,…which the poets praise as the most beautiful place of sojourn for human beings, is in no way grasped in its full meaning if we relate it only to ourselves?… The meaning of the forest is multiplied a thousandfold if its relationships are extended to animals, and not only limited to human beings: There is, however, no point in becoming intoxicated with the enormous number of Umwelts that exist in the forest. It is much more instructive to pick out a typical case in order to take a look into the relationship-network of the Umwelts” (in Faverau 2010: p 93).

The first time I heard this idea expressed was in a film by Jan Fabre, “Is the Brain the Most Sexy Part of the Body?” (2007). In this film, in which Fabre is interviewed, he states:

“They don’t see what we see  and then also see ultraviolet…In other words, they are just as limited as we are. But it’s different… If we could get all of the sensory capacities of all the animals in the world and put them together, we would vastly expand our capabilities. You know, we do, that’s what science and technology is all about.”

What is special about von Uexküll’s work is the focus on meaning, rare in scientific endeavors that are mostly rooted in the machine model of life up until today. A very interesting study therefore was published recently based on a meta-analysis of neuro imaging studies, arguing that aesthetics, which is related to the appreciation of art in the modern era, “is applicable to all types of perceived objects and that this system evolved first for the appraisal of objects of survival advantage, such as food sources.” (Brown, 2011, p250). The appreciation of green environments and its benefits for health then begin to make much more sense, nature and art are not divided, at least not along the lines of conventional science and humanities inquiries from a cognitive perspective.

Von Uexküll’s work is considered as the foundation (avant la lettre) of the current field of biosemiotics, in which biology and semiotics merge, for as far as his work was forgotten, it was Sebeok who re-introduced his work to enable the scientific investigation of semiosis in life processes (in Favareau, 2010 p81), as an expanded theory of meaning. The work of von Uexküll however has not gained as much appreciation as hoped, even though the research field of biosemiotics, while still small, is growing and currently provides, I believe, a unique framework for developing novel sensing technologies, and is ideally suited to cross disciplinary and sectoral boundaries to explore new appreciation and valuation of ecosystems services.

So what if ‘seeing green’ is only the tip of the iceberg? What if other modalities are more informative regarding our changing environment, as postulated in ecoacoustic studies (Krause and Farina 2016, Farina 2016). Based on his extensive, innovative sound recordings and research Krause for instance shows that environmental sounds are a better, earlier indicator of change than visual signs.

Krause’s collection of recordings are currently on exhibit at Fondation Cartier in Paris (July 2, 2016 – January 8, 2017) and for the Paris exhibition all recordings are dynamically visualized by London-based art studio United Visual Artists.. Especially the feature, ‘Before and After’ can bring you to tears. These recordings present a pair of soundscapes at one location, separated in time. The dramatic change in soundscape after human intervention in the land, for instance after logging started, reminds us forcefully of nature’s delicacy. Change is not gradual; there is a tipping point. Even though the thinning of forests may be carefully managed, the natural sounds of the forest suddenly disappear; animals have left.



Figure 4 – “The Great Animal Orchestra”, exhibition at Fondation Cartier, Paris


During his long career as a pioneering musician, Krause, together with his partner Paul Beaver increasingly used natural soundscapes in his work. He later received a PhD in bioacoustics (1981) at which point he decided to completely dedicate his time to recordings of remaining wilderness. Through his unique approach to record the ensemble of sounds, he discovered that the acoustic space or community is incredibly well organized, together generating a musical harmony, wherein each species occupies its own niche. The niche-hypothesis he then put forth was crucial in the formation of the discipline of sound ecology. It also made him realize that observation of natural soundscapes, as is (still) practiced in many indigenous communities, is the origin of music and our aesthetic appreciation of it (Krause, 1993; Murray Schafer 1994)

The discipline of sound ecology /ecoacoustics crosses the art/science boundary. It is a steadily growing field and newly identified patterns in the soundscapes are increasingly recognized as important signs of ecological processes  (Pijanowski et,al, 2011; International Society on Ecoacoutics)

GREEN communication

Enter chemical ecology, in which the language of plants, while still frowned upon in conventional scientific practice, is gaining more serious attention. Chemical ecology is a relatively recent research field and has been defined as “the promotion of an ecological understanding of the origin, function and significance of natural chemicals that mediate interactions within and between organisms.”(Harborne 2001) In days long gone, green plants ruled the world. Flowering plants arrived on the scene much later and are now dependent on other species to prolong their existence, just as those species are dependent on them. A symbiotic relationship, enabled through a signaling mechanism through which all species interact in some form or another cooperate. Humans interact with their surrounding in an important way, namely we are dependent on the relationship with plants for our air (oxygen) and water (biotic pump). In that sense, it is important to understand how plants contribute to atmospheric chemical composition (Toll, 2006)) and how this composition is affecting organism health. In turn we need to understand how humans contribute to this sphere (Bollier 2002).

As stated by Mccullough, “once considered irrelevant or a luxury in modern industrial cultures, sensibility to surroundings has become important again. In an era of changing planetary circumstances, personal attention to immediate surroundings seems like a manageable first step toward some huge cultural shift. Amid that transformation, the role of technology shifts as well, away from a means to overcome the world toward a means to understand it (Mccullough 2013: 1 Ambient)”.

The goal of developing new technologies then is to better understand our spatial surroundings and tap into the languages of the land in new ways, not to replace but to expand our experiential abilities. In collaboration with other artist and scientists, I propose to take research out in the land, to consider the forest as an immersive space, whereby the senses and innovative, intimate sensing technologies are the primary source of knowledge, the main ‘tools’ of observation as an entrance into different worlds. Eventually, creating a novel set of sensory standards to determine healthy living.


Greenness as a model (poetry of space)/ as an index in multimodal communication

The greenness index: a way to understand healthy vegetation. But is it a clear enough signal? It seems that there are many more signals in the semiosphere that we should learn to interpret. Is it possible for us to go beyond green and learn these other languages, translate the unperceivable into human perceptible? We have developed sophisticated technologies to go beyond our (sensory) limitations, it doesn’t seem impossible to continue this efforts into new realms, but our goal should be to continue or enhance the music of the animal orchestra, to support the chemical based choreography, to maintain green to nurture our aesthetic source.

What is associated with green that we cannot visually observe? What is the implication for human experience of surrounding, for knowledge, health and aesthetics? And how are these different domains interrelated? Is the natural environment the foundation of these fundamental aspects of human experience, of our appreciation of beauty, our source of health? And if we take this as an assumption, how do we change our direction of technological development? We believe this can only be accomplished from a broad-based, transdisciplinary approach, and bring together the art/sciences within our spatial experiences. We continue our efforts.

For updates on our projects visit:




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