Cambio (from the medieval Latin cambium, ‘change, exchange’) is an ongoing investigation conducted by Formafantasma into the extraction, production and distribution of wood products and the timber industry. This exhibition aims to put into question the role that design can play in translating emerging environmental awareness into informed, collaborative responses.
The evolution of this form of commerce over time, and its tentacular expansion across the globe, has made it difficult to regulate. It grew out of the bioprospecting that took place throughout colonial territories during the nineteenth century, becoming one of the largest industries in the world both in terms of the revenue it generates and the impact it has on the planet’s biosphere.
The earliest objects in the exhibition are samples of rare hardwoods first exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851, a few hundred metres from this building, which represent trees logged to the point of extinction. The newest are the exhibition display furniture and seating designed by Formafantasma, all of which were made from a single tree blown over in a storm in northern Italy in 2018. Contained in every piece of wood is an archive of climatic change and the movement of natural materials around the world.
Cambio also references the cambial layer, a membrane that runs around the trunk of trees, producing wood on the inside, a record of the tree’s past, and bark on the outside, enabling it to keep growing. Like the rings of a tree, the central spaces of the exhibition present data and research in the form of interviews, reference materials and two films made by Formafantasma in response to their research, while the perimeter spaces offer a series of case studies that provide insight into the way wood is sourced and used. Each of these investigations represents a collaboration with experts from the fields of science, conservation, engineering, policymaking and philosophy. Together, they move from a microscopic analysis of wood and its ability to store carbon dioxide, to a metaphysical understanding of trees as living organisms.
This multidisciplinary exhibition highlights the crucial role that design can play in our environment, and its responsibility to look beyond the edges of its borders. The future of design can and must attempt to translate emerging environmental awareness into a renewed understanding of the philosophy and politics of trees that will encourage informed, collaborative responses.
The exhibition opens with two pieces that introduce the physical matter of wood and its properties; a two-screen projection, and two sections of a tree trunk. Together, they offer a re-evaluation of trees – as sources of information, constantly recording global climate change, as the solution for mitigating these changes by storing carbon dioxide as they grow, and as a warning against over-management and monocultured forests that are more vulnerable to intense weather events. The smell, developed by smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, evokes the wet earth and flora of a forest, offering an immersive reminder of what is at stake when we lose this environment.
This section of the exhibition presents forensic research undertaken by Formafantasma with a number of different scientific institutions into the data that can be found in wood. Following on from the coring procedure shown in the first gallery space, wood products are investigated as holders of carbon dioxide, as records of their origins even while they undergo carving, pulping (for paper) or fire (for charcoal). The analysis of these mundane objects, many of which are still produced from protected species, can help to regulate logging practices around the world, and offer manufacturers, designers and users better information about the impact of their material choices.