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  • FOREST (for a thousand years)

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    by Marcia Tanner

    It looks like an al fresco Quaker prayer meeting, this image of a tranquil gathering in a sunlit forest glade. What could be more peaceful?

    Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller chose this copse of trees in the city park in Kassel, Germany as the setting for “FOREST (for a thousand years),” one of two site-specific installations they created for dOCUMENTA 13 in 2012.

    “FOREST” compresses a millennium of the history of Kassel, Documenta’s host city –which was almost totally destroyed by bombs in World War II — into an impressionistic sound installation half an hour long. The sequence is repeated on a continuous loop, with the implication that it could go on forever, possibly representing a history of humankind as well.

    It wasn’t easy to find this piece in the park, but some sounds wafted out — mysterious loud booming, ethereal choral music — luring you to discover their source. This was a circular clearing in the woods, with tree stumps and logs for seating. Speakers and amplifiers placed high up in the trees and on the ground surrounded the space. People sat, stood, circulated; they came and went silently, as if in a place of worship. Although you could choose to sit facing outward, toward the trees, most people chose to face inward, toward each other.

    The sounds emanating from the speakers were so realistic, and often so in sync with the physical surroundings, that it became difficult to distinguish among your sensations. When the sound of rain began pattering on the leaves, then falling torrentially, you looked up to the sky and wondered why you weren’t getting wet. Was the bird song real, recorded, or both? You heard a shout, the crackle of horses’ hooves and wagon wheels on dry leaves and fallen branches, airplanes rumbling, laughter, a tree being chopped down and crashing to the forest floor, the noisy progress of a bulldozer.

    This 6-minute video by Cardiff and Miller offers a vivid sense of the experience. (Audio on!)

    Soon, though, the sounds became ominous: marching troops, a fife-and-drum band, intermittent gunfire, screams, then an all-out military attack with machine guns and bombers overhead, louder and louder, closer and closer. Bombs “exploded” nearby, culminating in one gigantic explosion silencing everything.

    The disjunction between what you were hearing and what you perceived through your other senses — sight, smell and touch — and the physical and cognitive conflicts you experienced as a result, reached its climax at that point. You felt shaken and frightened yet provisionally safe in this communal setting, under its canopy of leafy green. Amidst your disorientation, you suddenly heard the voices of an angelic choir soaring up around you into the trees.

    This video includes short excerpts of the “bombardment” and the music. Although it omits the presence of others, it gives a sense of the disparity between the piece’s setting and the aural experience.

    The piece the choir sang — an exquisite setting of “Nunc dimittis,” St. Simeon’s prayer in Latin, by the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt — was sublime and comforting following that horrific onslaught. Simeon’s story appears in the New Testament Gospel of Luke. He was a devout Jew whose dying wish to God was to let him live long enough to see the Messiah. His wish was granted, and his prayer asks God to let him die now in peace. It affirms that he is gladly letting go of this life, secure in the belief that eternal Salvation is at hand.

    Here is a link to Pärt’s “Nunc dimittis” performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Paul Hillier conducting. This is the version used in “FOREST.” (It cuts off just before the end, unfortunately.)

    How are we meant to interpret the placement of this devout Christian text and worshipful music in “FOREST”? What was the artists’ intent? Obviously the music functions as a profoundly soothing antidote to the intense experiences they’d just put us through. But is it also a call for resignation as a genuine profession of faith in the redemptive powers of the Divine? Is it a comment on the role the Church has played in Western civilization, offsetting the violence and suffering in this life with the promise of an eternal reward in Heaven?

    The composer’s art offers us a vision of peace in the afterlife, based on religious belief. But as Cardiff and Miller remind us by immersing us in such a sensuously rich, insistently physical, history-laden environment in the here and now, the world around us may be showing us something else. It may be calling on us to DO something to end the seemingly endless cycle of human warfare and incessant destruction in the midst of so much earthly beauty, while we are still among the living.

    In “FOREST,” Cardiff and Miller make use of Augmented Reality (AR), a term for contemporary technologies that combine your perceptions of everyday reality with overlays of fictional elements.

    Augmented Reality is a questionable phrase: all human activities, including and maybe especially the activities of artists, have augmented reality since the beginning of what passes for civilization. What we know of “reality” (itself an ambiguous term) is a continuously evolving human construct.

    In “FOREST (for a thousand years),” Cardiff and Miller enable you to inhabit, consciously, several different layers of reality at once: a particular time and space in the present; historic times and spaces specific to your physical location yet evocative of times and spaces elsewhere; and your own mental, physical, emotional and psychological realities as you respond to these complicated stimuli.

    Whether heightened consciousness inspires action, or activism — or not — depends on the individual. But even feeling heightened empathy for those who’ve suffered under aerial bombardment is a step in the right direction. “FOREST” certainly imbued me with that, among other things.

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