Wires run up the side of a ponderosa pine on the University of Montana Campus from a plastic box the size of a car battery with “thesis circuit for collecting data Anne Yoncha” and a phone number written on the side.
Not the kind of equipment one would usually associate with an art installation.
Inside the box, a circuit board with wires twining around it transmits signals from the five wind sensors attached to the tree. Those signals bounce to a cloud server, which feed another circuit inside the Gallery of Visual Arts, which powers five fans aimed at large sheets of vellum that flap in coordination with the level of wind detected by the sensors.
“I’m much more worried about squirrels than humans,” Yoncha said looking at the wires tagged up the tree. “This is not the optimal weather for tree climbing.”
Such are the problems Yoncha has when showing her Master of Fine Arts thesis, “Second Wind,” a mixture of installation art, biology, science and programming.
Yoncha’s always had an interest in the natural world and has experimented with this kind of art before. A residency at the Blackfoot Pathways Sculpture Park in Lincoln took light, temperature and wind sensors that were then translated into sound.
But the thesis exhibition focuses solely on wind, with the small, black box fans angled up toward five ceiling-height, sail-shaped sheets of pale green vellum lined up in the center of an otherwise bare gallery.
There’s room enough to walk in between the sheets and observe Yoncha’s delicately beautiful paintings of needles and branches that run up one side. Each sheet of vellum is paired with a fan representing each of the five wind sensors, placed at 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 feet.
As she climbed the ponderosa to run up the wiring and sensors, Yoncha took photos of the canopy, observing how it thinned and thickened depending on height.
Those photos informed her “needle-work,” which was done with gouache, cote, graphite and ink made with pine needles.
“I wanted to use some materials from the tree to talk about in a different way,” she said. “To give people a sense of what the tree looked like at that height. … I wanted it to be at this scale, so we feel smaller in comparison.”
When it’s fully powered up, “Second Wind” should give viewers an accurate, albeit idiosyncratic, look at the wind from 20 feet to 40 feet above them at that moment.
“The movement, when the wind’s steady, the sail just pivots outward and stays there,” Yoncha said. “It’s really when the wind changes that you see the flutter.”
Say someone came into the exhibit on a calm day. Would they have the same experience?
Yoncha thought for a moment, then compared it to a science experiment.
“The data you get is valuable regardless of whether it answers your hypothesis yes or no,” she reasoned. “We can’t feel how the wind affects a tree 40 feet up. Whether this is still or moving, it is, I hope, valuable information.”
Nonetheless, she endeavored to make the installation evocative even at rest, the smoothly arcing sails hanging in a straight pattern, with her paintings of branches and needles trimming the paper.
Yoncha went through several types of paper and paints to find the best combination for form and function.
It’s a tree in a new configuration. Her goal, she said, is to “try to find ways to make these invisible processes that make these plants function, physically, in a tangible way.”