We Live in an Ocean of Air by Marshmallow Laser Feast envisions what it’s like to be inside the world’s largest tree

we live in an ocean of air

The immersive, multi-sensory virtual reality installation is now taking place at the ArtScience Museum till 2 October 2022

You see giant, towering limbs stretching upwards, lost amidst the canopy. You inhale the earth, the familiar smell of soil mixed with freshly fallen rain. You step forward, carefully and the world around you shifts, dissipates. Streams of flowing colours (particles? channels? lineations?) emerge: cascading, intersecting, proliferating. You’re experiencing what it’s like to be ‘inside’ a Giant sequoia, the largest tree in the world.

We’re all aware that trees are the precious lungs of the Earth. But what if we could see the connection—see the air we breathe actually enter a tree? Would making the invisible ‘visible’ allow us to realise something new about what we already know?

we live in an ocean of air
Ersin Han Ersin, creative director of Marshmallow Laser Feast. Image courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

These were the questions occupying Ersin Han Ersin—self-confessed “tree nerd”, artist and creative director of London-based collective Marshmallow Laser Feast—following a humbling first encounter with the Giant sequoia. “As an artist, I wanted to express that feeling in some way,” he explains.

The result is a deeply immersive, multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) installation titled We Live in an Ocean of Air, illuminating the symbiotic relationship between humans and the eco-systems around us.

To create this highly complex, simulated environment, the studio relied on state-of-the-art LiDAR technology and photogrammetry software to scan and map out the Giant sequoia in excruciating detail, down to submillimetre accuracy. A real time, custom open-source engine (called ‘vvvv’) was then used to accelerate the tree’s internal processes and systems so as to match a human’s level of visual acuity. Even the installation’s unique sound- and smellscape were attained through recording the biosignals of the giant sequoia and working hand in hand with perfumers.

“Dystopian, finger-wagging climate messaging doesn’t actually engage people. We tend to care more for things that we love and have an emotional connection to,” Ersin reflects. “I think VR is the most potent and immersive medium, in terms of putting someone in the shoes of someone [or something] else and evoking empathy.”

The proof is in the pudding—or rather, audiences’ reactions—to the installation, now running at the ArtScience Museum till 2 October 2022, following its twice-extended, sold-out showcase in London. “Everyone starts off a bit shy before gradually opening up,” Ersin observes. “Some people begin sending ‘breath’ to each other, playing and having fun; others take off their headsets crying, genuinely moved by the beauty of these living systems.”

While certainly not everyone who experiences the installation will be converted into a tree nerd, it does highlight the possibility of seeing one anew. So one day, perhaps, you’ll consider sitting beside one (as Ersin himself often does), being open to the ways in which a living organism—bursting with life rather than inert—might actually move you.

ArtScience Museum and Marshmallow Laser Feast