What would Joseph Beuys think of your ‘focus forest’?

‘Your tree will die if you leave the app’—Forest app.  

In 2019, the self-discipline Forest app made its debut. Promoted as a ‘must-have gamified timer which helps you beat procrastination and boost productivity’, Forest displays a 2-D seedling that grows into a tree as the timer counts down. The tree will die if you cancel the timer or leave the app (depending on the settings you select), incentivising you to stay focused. Each session plants a tree in your virtual green square, growing into a ‘focus forest’ over time.

The app is not just meant for study or work, however. One sporadically repeated default message/mission statement reads ‘Stop Phubbing’, a suggestion implying that you can set the timer to help you stop scrolling, for a specified time, and be present with your friends and family. If you pick up your phone while the timer is ticking (and the tree is growing), a message appears above the tree reading ‘Don’t look at me!’ or ‘Put your phone down’, reprimanding you for your inattention and inadvertently providing a poetic, cutesy reminder of the ever-presence of surveillance capitalism. The app knows what you’re doing! Plant a virtual tree while your data is mined!

Other popular time-management apps include Clepsydra, which provides multiple timers and chore-trackers presented in papyrus font and aesthetically congruous bold 2-D graphics, or Visual Timer by INFINX which displays the countdown on a brutalist 1-D analogue clockface. Forest deviates from them through its appeal to environmental concerns, which manifest in its iconography and rhetoric. Making good on their slogan ‘plant a tree and get your work done’, while accumulating animated productivity trees you also earn points that can be used to plant a real tree in Africa. This is facilitated by a partnership with Trees For The Future, an organisation that promotes agricultural training and tree-planting initiatives to fight deforestation. It doesn’t matter that it takes an excruciatingly long time to earn enough in-game currency to achieve this (no less than 116 hours), nor that the average user will likely never get to plant a real tree. The promise is there.

Thus, Forest users achieve two things at once: improving themselves and performing an environmentally conscious act symbolised by the gamified nurturing of a natural life-form. This performative self-sacrifice is representative of the nexus of puritanical neoliberal ideals about work, creativity, and self-identification that pervade our current cultural climate.

Importantly, the tree-planting gimmick taps into the ubiquitous aesthetics of green consumption, so often signified by a cartoon image of a fragile, vulnerable seedling. A symbol of hope and new beginnings, the seedling carries the implication of care and nurturing in the context of green consumption: qualities you can buy as a righteous consumer driven by ethical considerations.

However, there is perhaps a more telling recent historical precedent.

In 1982, German artist Joseph Beuys began his influential project 7000 Oaks, a participatory work of land art that facilitated the planting of seven thousand oak trees in the city of Kassel, Germany. Part of the seventh edition of the quinquennial art event documenta, the project was inaugurated when seven thousand inky-black basalt stones were deposited on the neoclassical lawn of Museum Fridericianum, the city’s public museum. Each stone represented a future tree and was removed when the tree was planted. The project took five years to complete, ending a year after Beuys’ death.  

Beuys, who was also the co-founder of Grünen, the German Greens party, saw the project as a gesture in urban regeneration and a way to heal the city after the destruction of WWII. However, he insisted that it was primarily ‘a symbolic beginning’—a provocation to effect environmental and social change through activating the individual’s sense of agency and creative potential. ‘The tree planting enterprise’ he explained, ‘provides a very simple but radical possibility …’

This appeal to symbolic gestures and individual agency may be a precursor to Forest and the pervasive rhetoric it embodies. As a method for encouraging self-improvement by appealing to the wholesome ideals of bygone tree-huggin’ greenies, Forest is a perverted yet unsurprising inversion of Beuys’ project and the activist politics he stood for.

Beyond direct environmental concerns, for both Beuys and the Forest app, trees are important for their symbolic potence and their metaphorical associations with time. Regarding the latter, to appreciate how crucial this iconic symbol is—especially in the context of digital interfaces—we might consider the omnipresence of other digital time-keeping icons. Beginning with the Windows wait cursor (a precursor to the ‘wheel of death’), the hourglass has long been a ubiquitous symbol in computer iconography. Now used in the Clepsydra app among others, it has a utilitarian, symmetrical form that clearly differentiates between the past and the future, locating the present concretely between the two. Its ability to visualise that time is running out has made the hourglass an enduring symbol of mortality. While it isn’t intended as a memento-mori in its manifestation in time-keeping apps, the connotation of the hourglass—the concrete representation of time and the clear distinction between the past and the future, and its finitude—lend themselves to the urgency of hard deadlines and uncompromising schedules.

By contrast, the tree is an entropic form, symbolic of growth and natural cycles. In a compelling statement, Beuys summarised in 1982 the significance of the tree as a symbol, its relationship to the planet, time, and nature:

I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heartwood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids …

Unlike the hourglass—a fabricated time-keeping device—the tree is a regenerative life-form that Beuys interprets as a readymade sculpture related to natural cycles and time. While the hourglass icon signifies a fixed duration, the tree icon of the Forest app points to something organic, mutable, and cyclical. The associated concept of time is both fluid and generative. We don’t accumulate hourglasses: they just measure a pre-determined period and then disappear once the task has been completed. The focus forest, by contrast, accumulates trees as solid evidence mapping our own productivity, as if we are aiding the regeneration of our own virtual micro-environment through sheer power of concentration. The fanciful promise of planting a real tree glosses over the triviality and self-referentiality of this gamified process.

What the Forest app provides is the illusion that time spent on study, work, or everyday chores can also be creative and community-minded. Moreover, that the tasks of everyday life and work that are typically ephemeral, forgettable, and often of diminishing returns, can—when recorded in productivity trees in the forest of progress—leave a trace, recouping a sense of purpose and significance.    

This celebration of process over outcome has its precedent in the very avant-garde art Beuys championed. Beuys is one of the most significant proponents of Fluxus, a movement that aimed to erode the division between art and everyday life and promote, in the words of American artist and founder George Maciunas, ‘living art, anti-art’. With an investment in performance and experimental artmaking, Fluxus resurrected the charged anti-capitalist and anti-art agenda of early twentieth-century movements, emphasising the artistic process over the finished product. This agenda was exemplified by artworks like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), in which the audience was invited to cut the clothes off the artist’s body during a performance. While the aim was to make art that wasn’t easily subsumed by the commercial art market, this ephemeral, experience-based model paralleled the then increasing emphasis on the service economy in advanced capitalism.

Art historians have variously called this overlap ‘the experience economy’ (B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore), ‘progressive striptease’ (Sven Lütticken) or ‘the aesthetics of self-design’ (Boris Groys). When we celebrate process, commonly referred to as ‘a journey’, ‘the grind’, or ‘hustle’, what we are often endorsing is an unrestrained notion of potential inextricably linked to work-culturethat is, an idea of potential without any end goal in mind, only ongoing improvement, and heightened efficiency. We are always striving for more. We are always in a process of self-improvement, setting new goals, aiming to get more out of the workday, or bullet-journaling our way to a better mind/body/life.       

Hand in hand with this obsession with the self as a site of infinite improvement, Beuys is also famous for promoting the idea that ‘everybody is an artist’. A seemingly democratic take, this notion has been thoroughly subsumed by neoliberal rhetoric, which uses creativity as a catch-all term for championing business innovation or possessing problem-solving skills as determined by one’s workplace or industry. The ‘real-world’ impact of this new concept of creativity renders creativity’s traditional associations with art and literature trivial and elitist. As Daniel Gonzalez highlights in ‘The Work of Feelings in Public Schools’ (2020), while the erosion of purportedly stuffy traditional teaching models in American public high schools during the past decade has been dubiously celebrated as an inclusive liberal initiative, the new focus on group activities and creative emotional interpretations also serves to ready working-class and lower-middle class students for low-wage hospitality and service roles, where emotional intelligence and group-work skills are essential. 

All this discussion of the symbolic significance of trees might distract us from the core appeal of the app: its environmental promise. Packaged as it is with the benefits of self-improvement, creativity and benevolence, this promise reflects the broader implications of green consumption in contemporary culture. Australia is letting the world down in the battle against climate change. And yet, there’s no satiating our appetite for products that are branded as environmentally friendly. This is evidenced by the ever-expanding variety of keep-cups, sustainable snack foods, reusable cling-wraps and paper towels, eco-bags and expensive upcycled furniture made by and for micro-communities of like-minded designers and buyers. However, despite the ubiquity of greenwashing, mounting evidence suggests that ‘buying green’ does little to curb our ecological footprint. Likewise, while planting trees has the aura of wholesomeness, it’s not simply the case that planting more trees will help slow climate change. In fact, the opposite might be true, especially when the efforts are led by large organisations. While Trees for the Future may have a more nuanced approach to regeneration and conservation than Forest lets on with their ‘plant a tree in Africa’ bait, without careful planning and consideration, the planting of trees might disturb native ecosystems. Moreover, the resources and energy used in many large-scale tree-planting efforts might counterbalance the environmental benefits. Even in ideal conditions, corporate partnerships like this are often transparent attempts to distract us from a company’s corrupt core, as comically demonstrated by Pornhub’s tree-planting initiative in 2014.   

But does this mounting—and easily accessible—evidence even matter? Does it erode the aura of green consumption? In their research, marketing studies academics Ali Tezer and H Onur Bodur found that the average green-consumer believes their buying habits elevate their status in society—an effect amplified in consumers with low self-worth. In an era where social media, self-presentation, gamified dating and competitive image-based workplaces dictate much of our daily lives and shape our self-understanding, small virtuous gestures—even those that remain unseen, undocumented, or unshared—can provide us solace, a reassurance that we are pure, worthy, and community-minded individuals.

A potent symbol of the cosmic interconnectedness of all life, the tree recalls the wholesome activism of the past, now thoroughly idealised in cultural memory. We might entertain the fantasy that, like the good, idealistic lefties contending with urban development and the excesses of post-war consumer capitalism, we are continuing to fight the good fight while the hope we once had for improving or protecting the world and our faith in collective goals and coalitions has been eroded. These concerns are transmuted into self-focused goals that are buffered with the benevolent rhetoric of ethical consumption. With a future so uncertain—under threat of climate change, global health concerns, economic instability, job precarity and housing crises—we can only have faith in short-term goals: set the timer and watch the tree grow. The only threat you face is your own inattentiveness. There are no external threats: not if the only person to blame is yourself.

Fifteen virtual trees were planted in my focus forest during the writing of this article. No real trees were planted in Africa.

Tara Heffernan

Tara Heffernan is a blind art historian currently completing a PhD (Art History) at the University of Melbourne on the work of post war Italian artist Piero Manzoni. Her academic work focuses on global modernism and the avant-gardes with an interest in their ongoing aesthetic and political relevance to contemporary debate. Her writing regularly appears in Australian and international art journals and publications such as MeMO review, Eyeline Magazine and Third Text Online.

More by Tara Heffernan ›

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  1. Great article, thank you. This really gets at the heart of the appeal of such apps:’Moreover, that the tasks of everyday life and work that are typically ephemeral, forgettable, and often of diminishing returns, can—when recorded in productivity trees in the forest of progress—leave a trace, recouping a sense of purpose and significance.’

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