“How to Build a Forest,” an installation created by the Obie Award winning collaborative team PearlDamour, made its Providence debut in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts Wednesday and Thursday. Each day, the building team — a group of artists and volunteers — assembled and disassembled a man-made forest over the course of eight hours.
According to the installation’s field guide, this exhibit was a manifesto on the beauty and fragility of our environment, an opportunity to see an “ecosystem in process” and an impetus for the question, “Where do things go when we are done with them?”
In Studio 1, an art form blurred the line between installation and performance art as “builders” scurried around, building a forest on a stage full of beautiful and ethereal props. The spectator was immediately asked to take a seat by a greeter who announced, “(A) ranger will be with you shortly.” The ranger, like the forest itself, had a fairy-like quality. After handing the visitor a field guide, she gave a brief introduction to the piece and explained that she can be summoned back with a birdcall.
The building of the forest looked like a scene from Dr. Seuss’ imagination. Iridescent fairy lights illuminated the long ropes that pulled up sheer fabric tubes, mimicking tree growth. Velvety, animal-shaped rugs were strewn around the floor. Old neck ties were suspended by seemingly nothing, and wire nets with mica hung in the background, making a glittering waterfall. The “builders” busily constructed their forest, working for hours on end. Barefoot and in powder blue outfits, they looked like characters out of a children’s book — like elves in the woods or remarkably clean railroad conductors.
“The workers don’t talk much,” the ranger said. “Don’t take it personally.”
After taking off their shoes, audience members actively engaged in the environment — they walked around the forest and watched as the workers raised the trees higher and higher. Though the builders made a lot of noise by plopping and moving the wire supports and pounding on the floors, the forest maintained its meditative, ethereal quality.
At a brief glance, the project seemed lighthearted, especially with the sounds of wind chimes and bird songs filling the stage. But the field guide conveyed a darker, more tragic understanding of the work, listing the natural materials from which each structure in the forest was made to show how these resources are mutated. “(The forest’s) ingredients were originally of the earth,” according to the field guide.“But humans have processed them in such a way that they can’t go back to the earth without causing harm.” The guide continued to explain that the project strived to “build for things that can’t be rebuilt.”
PearlDamour is an amalgamation of the names of the two artists, Katie Pearl and Lisa D’Amour, who have been collaborating for over 15 years. They specialize in interdisciplinary, large-scale art forms, mixing theatre and installation. Pearl is currently an MFA candidate in writing for performance at Brown, and D’Amour is the University’s playwright-at-large. This particular exhibit was done in collaboration with visual artist Shawn Hall and featured the work of sound artists Brendan Connelly and Christopher DeLaurenti and light designers Miranda Hardy and Peter Ksander.
The project had its beginnings in New Orleans, and its structures were built in a warehouse there. According to the artists’ webpage, this project was “initially inspired by the loss of 100 old pine trees” due to Hurricane Katrina on a property owned by D’Amour’s family. After the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010, the project became even more crucial to the two artists.
“We always hoped to have a piece that would bring people together in an experience and allow them to consider their role in a larger space,” Pearl said. At Brown specifically, she said she hoped the piece would bring different departments and disciplines together.
The artists’ highest priority is to have the piece shown in New Orleans for the first time, Pearl said. It was showcased at New York City’s The Kitchen in 2011 and Duke University in 2012 and will be shown at Vanderbilt University later this year.
Granoff was the smallest space in which “How to Build a Forest” has been shown, so an overlook room was incorporated for audience members to view the performance from a distance.
“Every space is different,” Pearl said, and the Granoff has been a “rare, interesting challenge.”
“How to Build a Forest” received a steady flow of spectators and generally positive reactions from the audience.
“It was a little bit overwhelming,” Christina Davis ’15 said, calling it “an uncommon way to convey the message but a very powerful message.”
Shanna Chen ’15 pointed to the interactive element as her favorite part of the installation. “I definitely enjoyed sitting on the forest ground and experiencing the building of the forest.”
At 10 p.m. both days, the forest was torn down as spoken word poems were read aloud. “If we don’t build it up,” a builder read aloud, “we will all drift away.”
And then the room was empty — the workers wiped the dust off their bare feet, put on their shoes and strode out of the performance space.