Ruminations on "FOREST (for a thousand years...)"

FOREST installation view, Lewis Watts photo
FOREST installation view, Lewis Watts photo

Presenting Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's FOREST (for a thousand years...) in the redwood research forest of the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and Botanic Garden was one of the most rewarding curatorial episodes of my time here to date, and in fact of my whole career. We'd been working for more than a year with Janet and George to make this renowned and amazing 22-channel audio installation happen at UC Santa Cruz, collaborating with the Arboretum's great staff and assisted by the San José Museum of Art. About six days before the opening of the show, I was standing in the forest together with George, Titus Maederlechner, who is Janet and George's "Tonmeister" (the wonderful German word for "sound engineer"), and their installation expert Carlo Crovato. Titus turned the piece on, and we heard the first rustling of the soundtrack, then George's recorded voice rang out in the forest, "Janet…Janet?!!" It worked! The installation was running 100% off of solar power provided by Sandbar Solar’s custom-built solar trailer, the twenty-two speakers were connected by nearly a mile of speaker wire to the digital guts of the piece, housed in a used travel trailer we’d purchased for the show, and it all worked! I breathed a huge, happy sigh of relief and went on to listen to what is, for me, simply a perfect work of art. 

Premiered at the influential dOCUMENTA exhibition in Kassel, Germany, in 2012, FOREST  lived up to every expectation and in fact exceeded them. There is no way to explain what FOREST feels like to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. But I’ll try. Its three-dimensional sound playback technology creates an uncanny experience of embodied aural realism, and the twenty-eight minute soundtrack feels like being immersed in a series of overlapping movies that you can hear, but not see. The effect is visceral and psychologically mesmerizing. A collage of sounds drawn from nature and human activity, including a storm that invisibly engulfs the forest, leads up to what George calls “a short history of war.” Visitors feel like they’re caught in the middle of a violent battlefield, followed by a downpour of rain that washes the spilled blood into the earth. Finally, the forest is filled with the soothing sounds of human voices, floating past visitors singing an elegiac choral piece by 21st century classical composer Arvo Párth. It’s as if you’ve just experienced a dream that contains and compresses all of human history and nature, the best and the worst, into an entrancing half hour of sound. 

Janet and George’s work has been shown internationally for over two decades and is noteworthy for its appeal to contemporary art experts and the general public alike. FOREST demonstrates why:  this is a sophisticated piece with layers of idea and allusion, but you don’t need to know anything about art history or art theory to be caught up in its aural/emotional pull. I termed it a “perfect work of art” because it blends its natural site, presentation mode, and the emotional arc of its content to create an overwhelmingly satisfying experience that’s rare in contemporary art. Christian Marclay’s Clock—another huge audience favorite—comes to mind as one of few comparisons. 

I spent a lot of time in the piece and spoke with many viewers. Most of them stayed for the whole piece, and many listened to it more than once. A long review in the San Francisco Chronicle and the paper’s selection of FOREST as an art “pick of the week” six weeks running brought many visitors from up north, and I even spoke to one couple that flew in for the day from Las Vegas just to experience FOREST. Amazing.