Art is Something That Happens
“I think of a tree/ to make it / last.” Lorine Niedecker
The more I work with visual artists; the more I think of poems as forms that can shape a person’s experience of space; and the more I think of art as something that can, if we let it, provoke new feelings and experiences of familiar settings and situations; the more I want to push past the margins of the page to make texts that interact in and with the world in ways that exceed our expectations for what poems do.
Reading in silence at home in a chair is wonderful—one of my favorite things—but what happens to a reader when the text is encountered while walking through a landscape, whether urban or wild, and when the movement of the body, the presence of the sounds and scents of trees, for instance, somehow informs the understanding of the words and where they’re found?
Entrance to The Bryant Homestead, Cummington, MA
While researching for a course I taught last fall in the Comparative Arts Department at Interlochen Arts Academy, I came across an interesting passage in Brian Eno’s memoir, A Year: With Swollen Apprendices. I came across it again during this morning’s reading:
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences (Roy Ascott’s phrase). That solves a lot of problems: we don’t have to argue about whether photographs are art, or whether performances are art, or whether Carl Andre’s bricks or Andres Serranos’s piss or little Richard’s ‘Long Tall Sally’ are art, because we say, ‘Art is something that happens, a process, not a quality, and all sorts of things can make it happen.’ (…Suppose you redescribe the job ‘artist’ as ‘a person who creates situations in which you can have art experiences’.”
And if the words provoke a person to react, to confront, even to destroy them in their place, is this also art? Is this happening? Is it an indictment of the words? Or of the person who’s been unsettled by their encounter with them such that they want to erase the words?
This weekend, something happened, albeit not what we had planned to have happen.
Around the Equinox I spent two days installing a series of temporary, ephemeral, poems in trees in three locations (The Bryant Homestead, Notchview, Field Farm) in western Massachusetts. The project is called Here, Stands, a collaboration with artist and writer Melanie Mowinski, supported through funding from the Cultural Council of Northern Berkshire, in partnership with The Trustees of the Reservations. The words are hand-made from abaca pulp and although they disintegrate over time, in the elements, this installation is slated to stay up for just five weeks.
I was sick with a desperate head cold both of those days, but still enjoyed every aspect of walking in the woods, selecting trees to host our words, and literally hugging the trees while attaching paper words to their trunks. I loved the way those long days in the woods helped me to perceive the subtle shifts in the quality of light, and to notice the shifting sounds of the woods as we walked the sites where our poems will hang for the next couple of months.
As we returned from hanging our last words at The Bryant Homestead, former home of the 19th century poet William Cullen Bryant, a nature lover and proponent of the land conservation movement, we passed a woman and child on the Rivulet Trail as they came upon one of the first sets of words in our series. The girl seemed to be learning how to read, and it was a thrill to hear our fragment of poetry in the voice of an eight year old who wanted to know what “linger” meant, a question that resulted in a sweet exchange between the duo as they ambled deeper into an old growth forest that Bryant had loved his whole life, and which influenced his own writing in profound ways. Melanie and I looked at each other and smiled. It felt like we’d accomplished something we’d hoped for: a moment of wonder, of conversation, of thinking about what it might mean to “linger/among trees.”
Two days later I returned with my husband and seven year old daughter to show them what I’d been working on over the past year or so. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that the words that had so captivated that other little girl were gone, as were a few others. I even found one set of words torn and wadded on ground at the base of their chosen tree, a beautiful mature maple. This wasn’t done by someone who objected to our words because they are dedicated to the”leave no trace” ethos, as had been my theory for why the other words had been removed. So what’s the problem? And who would do this? And why?
I wondered if we’d offended someone’s sense of what a nature trail should be, although this one is not part of a designated wilderness, and there are already permanent plaques with Bryant’s poems along the same route. I wondered if the tone of the poem had offended, with it’s gentle suggestion to take a little time to become even more present to the forest surroundings. I wondered if the person or people who’d damaged our work had felt they were better judges of what belonged in the landscape, although one of the express purposes of the programming at the Bryant Homestead is to encourage a deeper connection and more interaction with the natural environment, through art and literature. I wondered if the poems themselves (many of them are composed of just a couple of words) just weren’t that great, and so a hiker felt justified in returning the path to a more natural state, without our words. I might have spent more time doubting my own creation if I didn’t feel so shocked that someone else would take it upon themselves to pass judgement in this way.
As a society, we know we spend too little time outdoors and so many of us just don’t have much of a connection with the trees and plants and creatures that can be found there. And we also know that we are far less likely to defend our natural world from things like over-development, or pollution, or resource exploitation, much less the realities of climate change, if we don’t have an actual relationship with these places. The purpose of the Here, Stands project is to bring attention to the trees, and to provoke some thinking about their place in the ecosystem, which includes both the practical and the poetic ways they provide for us human beings.
On the path at Notchview, Windsor, MA
I was disappointed and saddened to be faced with such a swift rejection. No, it was a violation. We’d spent the last year developing this project and already it had been damaged—just two days after installation. A familiar sense of isolation filled me. Too often I think that I don’t belong to this time, and to this culture, and Sunday was one of those times when I felt this especially viscerally.
Why is it the norm, and essentially okay, to plaster our public spaces with corporate logos and injunctions to do this, and not do other things, and yet when we bring a piece of subtle, silent art into a public space we’re met with antagonism?
Four days later I’m philosophical. I’ve decided that the vandalism of Here, Stands is a reflection of how art really does have the power to cause strong responses in people. Maybe this means that we’ve done something, even as it’s been undone. Or maybe it’s more mundane than that and it wasn’t personal, and we just I have to accept the times we’re living through, which are hostile, and as divided as ever, will result in petty displays of individual dislikes (I’m thinking here of friends who’ve had their political yard signs damaged by strangers).
What are some other ways of thinking about this that still give credence to what we’re doing with this project. Other people have already expressed their enthusiasm for it, so we’ll continue to write these poems, and partner with parks and other natural areas to engage the public in thinking about trees.
While almost everyone else I know of watched the first Presidential debates the night after this all happened, I decided to curl into my chair and read poetry instead. This poem by Alan Dugan, “On Looking for Models,” gave me comfort:
I do not understand these presences
that drink for months
in the dirt, eat light,
and then fast dry in the cold.
They stand it out somehow,
and how, the Botanists will tell me.
It is the “something else” that bothers
me, so I often go back to the forests.
(Read the whole poem here.)
I want to say that I have loved everything about this project: collaborating with a visual artist I admire and have learned so much from; spending time in the woods, thinking and learning about trees; and partnering with the good people at The Trustees, who get it, and want to create these spaces in which art and artists and the public can interact around the topics of conservation, literature, art, love of the natural world, and the meaning of our place within these wilder landscapes.
I’d be glad to hear your thoughts on anything this post brings to mind.
Thanks for reading.
Paper words. Notchview, Windsor, MA