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Tree Clocks: an interactive rhythm and language work

An image of tree rings, with overlaid text: At the top right, “What I saw in the forest: a tree trunk, a fingerprint, a record, a history, a clock”; at the bottom left: “you are one person, but when you move, an entire community walks through you, you go nowhere alone — rupi kaur”
Credit: Chelsi Cocking and Manaswi Mishra

By Chelsi Cocking and Manaswi Mishra

Code Cypher, hosted by CAST Visiting Artist and Grammy-winning rapper Lupe Fiasco and Professor Nick Montfort, invited MIT students to develop computational artworks that play with language and rhythm. The event was hosted from 10am to 6pm on Saturday, October 9, 2021.

On the morning of the event at 10am, all the participating teams at the Code Cypher were given the following project prompt:

What I saw in the forest…

Over the next few hours, teams hacked and interpreted the themes in the prompt into a diverse set of computational art performances.

After being given the prompt, we hosted a quick “yes, and…” brainstorming ideation session with each other. Thinking of what the prompt reminded us of. Riffing off of each other’s ideas and sparks of inspiration. We both became enamored by the idea of tree trunks. We thought of what we “saw” in a tree trunk, and we saw: a fingerprint, a music record, a clock. We saw these things represented in the grooves and contours of a tree trunk.

Credit: Chelsi Cocking and Manaswi Mishra

Our interactive rhythm and poetry performance centered around multiple tree trunk rings as clocks. Clicking on the tree trunks created a meditative sound world — sounding different rhythms, sonic textures generated from processing the rings on the trunks — while also surfacing text from our favorite poems which reflect on the connections between humans and nature.

Exposing both rhythm and poetry upon clicking a tree trunk ring furthered this connection back to the idea of each tree trunk as a clock managing rhythm and time. It also furthered the connection back to the tree trunk as a representation of a music record. With each tree trunk exposing rhythm and poetry, akin to the way a music record exposes music and lyrics through a needle traversing around its contours.

Tree Clocks was selected as the winning project at the Code Cypher!

Chelsi Cocking (L) and Manaswi Mishra (R). Credit: Danny Goldfield and MIT CAST
Chelsi Cocking: Credit: Danny Goldfield and MIT CAST
(L-R): Lupe Fiasco with Manaswi Mishra, Chelsi Cocking, and Nick Montfort. Credit: Danny Goldfield and MIT CAST




The MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations, where designers, engineers, artists, and scientists strive to create technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities, and environments.

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