Articles

A City Where Trees Tweet

Anne Percoco with @Arlene_the_Tree on the Society Hill Walkway. All photographs provided by the artist.
Anne Percoco with @Arlene_the_Tree on the Society Hill Walkway (all photos courtesy the artist)

The 2010s have settled into their own, and now even the trees get their own hashtag campaigns and Twitter handles. In our fickle attention economy, new social media accounts and catchy hashtags are made, forgotten, and sometimes actually go viral every day. And why not the same for our plants? As we simultaneously devise ways to connect every object to the internet of things, we are well on our way to thoroughly destroying our environment; how can the World Wide Web better serve the web of life?

#TreeSpeech, a new project by artist Anne Percoco, is a social media performance piece intended to give voice to some of the trees of Jersey City. Together with Sustainable Jersey City, a collaborative network of community groups and individuals working on environmentalist projects in Jersey City, Percoco is mapping the city’s trees and recruiting residents to tweet on behalf of the trees, in the first person.

Volunteers mapping trees on OpenTreeMap.org, Jersey City Heights.
Volunteers mapping trees on OpenTreeMap.org in Jersey City Heights.

“#TreeSpeech is a kind of whimsical experiment in empathy,” Percoco told me over email. “If we can converse with trees, how will our actions towards them and thoughts about them change? Now that I have started tweeting from its perspective, I pay much more attention to the tree across the street from my apartment. I notice changes, and I’ve started caring for it in small ways.”

With a final goal of having 50 tweeting trees by mid September, Peroco’s eight operational accounts already include @ReginaldtheTree — which shares remixed sounds from its street corner — as well as @MoribundtheTree and @Arlene_the_Tree, which are spreading the world about the importance of these trees for the city and the environment as a whole. Tweets range from soothing soundscapes, facts shared to raise environmental awareness, and quotidian observations. I’m still waiting for a tree selfie.

Hanging a Tree Speech sign & plotting tree on OpenTreeMap.org, Society Hill Walkway, Jersey City.
Hanging a #TreeSpeech sign and plotting a tree on OpenTreeMap.org, Society Hill Walkway, Jersey City, New Jersey

The project is in part a response to the Jersey City Environmental Commission’s Tree Canopy Study, released in July of 2015. The study recommended that Jersey City add 30,000 trees to its urban space. Thus far, the municipal government has only committed to planting 5,000 trees over the next five years. #TreeSpeech intends to raise awareness about this particular study and the disappointing response from the local government. Percoco hopes the campaign will garner the attention of local residents who will then advocate for the planting of more trees.

Why do trees matter? Trees are important for the environment whether in a jungle or urban space. In city settings, trees help moderate temperatures, which in turn lowers utility costs and building emissions substantially. They improve air quality, and therefore public health. The trees reduce stormwater runoff and suck up carbon dioxide, which is destroying our ozone. I personally just like them; I’ve lounged beneath their leaves, climbed their branches, and even have built a treehouse, but this is the first time I’ve tweeted with a tree.

I chose to interact with @ReginaldTheTree because he — I don’t know why I’ve gendered this tree — seems like an active tree with a relatable social media presence. Like so many inanimate objects tweeting, it’s hard to explain their appeal and even harder to understand why some are so viral. I don’t see Reginald becoming a hit, but there is a pleasure in tweeting with him, especially all the way from Cambodia. It makes me consider locality more than I usually do on Twitter. This is a tree that Percoco has mapped and that is firmly rooted (zing!) in its location. So often I experience Twitter as a fleeting and amorphous litany of self-promotion, great jokes, must-read links, powerful and concise commentary, and gut-reaction trash. Trees entering this space is certainly new, but will #TreeSpeech work?

Artist Anne Percoco with @JunebugtheTree in Jersey City Heights.
Artist Anne Percoco with @JunebugtheTree in Jersey City Heights

Unlike much of social media art, #TreeSpeech has a clear intention: to raise awareness among Jersey City residents about the importance of their city’s trees, the Tree Canopy Study, and to advocate for a better response from the local government. The tweeting trees’ site-specificity and extremely narrow scope of relevance strongly contrasts with Twitter, but could be powerful for advocating locally, if Percoco and Sustainable Jersey City properly advertises and leverages the work.

A great deal of this depends of the volunteer tweeters. How will they leverage their existing audiences, use their unique voices, and sustain the accounts could make or break the project. Their level of commitment will show as the performance goes on. We will see if the empathy Percoco is experiencing for her local tree will be shared by her enlisted volunteers and — more importantly — whether it translates through Twitter and into real votes.

Correction: This article originally stated that Jersey City had only committed to planting 2,000 trees over the next five years, but it has committed to planting 5,000. We apologize for this error, which has been fixed.

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