Our most recent showing was at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans in October of 2015. We were also in residence at Vanderbilt University’s Neely Auditorium on March 28 & 29, 2014 (photos from Vanderbilt), at Brown University’s Granoff Center, February 27 & 28, 2013, and at Duke University’s Page Auditorium in Durham, NC during October of 2012.
How To Build A Forest is a hybrid project: part visual art installation, part theater performance, unfolding over an extended eight-hour interval. Beginning in an empty space, visual artist Shawn Hall and theater artists Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour, along with a four-person crew, work obsessively to construct, dismantle and remove an elaborate fabricated forest. Over the course of the first six hours, the forest comes together in ways that range from surprisingly intimate (the team quietly sitting around one builder as she raises the smallest, most delicate tree using a string and a pulley), to large-scale spectacular (the entire team lifting the many-branched “big tree” using an elaborate rigging system). For one-half hour, the forest is “complete.” Over the course of the final 90 minutes, the forest vanishes. The work features sound design by composers and sound artists Brendan Connelly and Christopher DeLaurenti and lighting design by Miranda Hardy and Peter Ksander. For a complete list of people involved in the making of the project, see Credits above.
Shawn’s intricate installation emphasizes weightlessness, translucence and transformation; the environment feels like an old-growth forest at one moment and a deep-sea landscape the next. Her primary materials are fabric, wire, small-gauge steel, and repurposed found objects. Sheer grandeur forms a considerable part of the work’s appeal, but the small details reveal striking beauty as well, like a grove of delicate fabric trees featuring exquisite hand-embroidered detail visible only from inside the installation.
The construction process demands constant activity and unrelenting focus from the artists and crew. For the brief half-hour that the forest is complete, they make an inevitably futile effort to animate it. Then they take it down in a much different way than it was built.
While the choreography of the “build” forms the performance’s core, other events punctuate and expand it: a “field guide” tracking the past history and future fate of each element used to create the forest, self-guided tours of the surrounding area, and a short text by Lisa D’Amour woven throughout. Together, these elements along with the forest itself invite contemplation about the audience’s relationship with the natural world: how they live in it, rely on it, use it, and consume it. The piece’s fluid structure allows for heightened perceptions of that relationship.
How To Build A Forest uses art and art-making as a platform to discuss the deeply interconnected relationship between the human being and the natural world. The piece was inspired originally by losses during Hurricane Katrina and further informed by the BP oil spill’s ecological and environmental consequences. After Hurricane Katrina, previously hidden man-made processes affecting New Orleans’ disastrous vulnerability to hurricanes came to light. Likewise, during How To Build A Forest, the artists expose both the creative and destructive processes, using the eight-hour performance to suggest how long it takes for something to be created and how quickly it can be ended—whether that be a natural ecosystem, an installation, or the landscape of an entire city.
How To Build A Forest was funded by Creative Capital, MAP, the Irving Linn Fund, the Moore Family Fund for Minneapolis, hundreds of individual donors, and the support of friends, family, and fans throughout the U.S.