The Magic TreeOnline - FACT
Commissioned by FACT as part of their online programme The Living Planet, and designed by visual artist NILOO, The Magic Tree is a digital artwork that aligns the nebulousness of online space with the specificity of memory grown from Liverpudlian soil. An image of a widely-known and revered tree in Sefton Park is the work’s starting point, and visitors to the website are encouraged to intervene in its outcome, uploading images that permanently shift the work in a different direction. Each image is analysed by an algorithm and its style is adapted to the artwork; from this first interaction, and as the work evolves, the tree itself is distorted beyond recognition yet its presence scaffolds the images to come. Its significance lies not in the outcome, but in the unpredictability of the process and, for the visitor, the work equally satisfies a desire for anonymity as it does for connection.
With galleries closed but parks open during lockdown, nature became a predominant space of respite and, similarly, digital art became a more significant connective tool than ever before. On The Magic Tree’s website, nil00 writes that they were compelled by the idea that the tree’s role as a meeting point, or a communicatory touchstone, goes back generations. For local people, it is enmeshed in a network of formed memories. In their description of how the tree accommodates visitors by having branches arranged like a staircase that then twist into seats at the top, nil00 considers how the tree is emblematic of the hospitality of the natural world. The work’s interactive qualities replicate this way in which nature yields to human touch, signifying the tension between the natural world’s abundance and its human-induced scarcity. As much as the tree is the foundation of the work, our engagement with it is too; it prompts us to reflect inwards on our own understanding of sustainability and conservation in the digital era. During the Covid-19 lockdown, this has acquired a certain sentimental edge, as the work feels resonant with the coexistence of our connectivity and our solitude in recent months. It also extends further back than that, working with ideas of collective as well as personal memory, to reveal nostalgia as something malleable and distortive, that functions both communally and individually.
Although, as much as the work speaks to our relationship with a dwindling natural world, The Magic Tree feels in dialogue with contemporary debates around the monuments in our city. The work’s consideration of the tree as a respected, almost statuesque, form allows us to question the ideologies we are embedding into our cityscape. It is overly simplistic to think of Liverpool as a bubble of progressive thought; standing outside the Sefton Park palm house is a statue of Christopher Columbus, with an inscription labelling him as the discoverer of America and the maker of Liverpool. The legacies of colonial Britain are still heralded and given power in the form of these monuments, and Liverpool’s significant role in slavery remains ingrained in street names and buildings. It is here that the work’s significance extends from the personal to the political, and through The Magic Tree, we are encouraged to think more intricately about our relationship to the city itself.