‘A Forest for the Trees’ questions nature and art itself


Glenn Kaino’s “A Forest for the Trees” is based on The Atlantic’s series called “Who Owns America’s Wilderness?” Video courtesy A Forest for the Trees/YouTube.

In a former beer warehouse in Boyle Heights, just across the LA River from downtown LA, there’s … something going on. Imagine a cathedral made of reclaimed tree trunks — lots of them — and some of them talk. There’s an interactive wildfire. The centerpiece is a huge, fallen tree that’s been turned into a cyborg of light and music. 

It’s a show called “A Forest for the Trees” and it’s an art installation, immersive journalism project, and climate activism all in one. 

The show raises good questions about our relationship with nature. And, as an example of the big, complex, expensive art spectacles that are more common these days, it implicitly raises other questions, too: Is this show different from the kind designed entirely for taking selfies in a pool of sprinkles? Is there a difference between audience and participant, and should there be?

Into the woods

Artist Glenn Kaino created the show with musician David Sitek (of TV on the Radio fame), and to help them navigate tribal history and culture, Lakota creative producer Laundi Keepseagle.

Kaino has done other large-scale installations like this, and he’s produced documentaries and hard-to-define shows like Derek DelGaudio’s hit “In & Of Itself.” He was inspired to create “A Forest for the Trees” by a number of things: He and his team had been researching the climate crisis when The Atlantic magazine approached him about creating an installation piece based on its series called “Who Owns America’s Wilderness?” But he found his show’s centerpiece accidentally, when shopping for benches at Angel City Lumber.

It was there that Kaino saw the remains of a big tree in the lumber yard and asked the owner about it. It turned out to be the 144-year-old Moreton Bay fig that lived at one end of Olvera Street and fell after a 2019 storm.

“My mind popped because I knew of the tree falling down,” says Kaino. “Having grown up a bit in the neighborhood, I've personally eaten taquitos underneath that tree hundreds of times.”

Kaino and his team made the tree the centerpiece of a story about, among other things, resurrection. It’s also intended as a critique of the way the United States replaced an indigenous cultural view of nature with one that’s left a lot of forest land vulnerable to big wildfires, and asks who is the best caretaker of nature, especially in the American West. (Smokey Bear gets singled out.)

Much of it is powerful, but are we able to really see it? Or just see ourselves seeing it?

Pics or it didn’t happen

“A Forest for the Trees” is thought-provoking, so much so that you naturally feel compelled to pull out your phone. It’s an impulse you might also feel in the Museum of Ice Cream, the Infinity Mirror Rooms at The Broad, or any of dozens of other immersive art experiences designed less to raise awareness of an issue, and more to flatter your ego – you get to be part of the art by taking a selfie of yourself experiencing it. Those are fun, for fun’s sake. Is that impulse an obstacle for serious shows like “A Forest for the Trees?” How is this art different from a show about how cool marshmallows are? 

Kaino says he isn’t designing shows as a background for Instagram.

“It is more rigorous storytelling,” Kaino says. “We haven't had and are not having uneducated lines of people, mobs of people coming out here to just take selfies. We've had a very exciting, interesting audience.”

In fact, immersive shows may be, in a way, a reaction against selfies, says Noah Nelson, the editor of the LA-based online publication called No Proscenium, which covers immersive experiences.

“You can look at the sum total content of the museums of the world by flipping through Wikipedia,” he says. “But you can't even begin to truly imagine what it's like to be inside one of these installation pieces just by looking at the photos.” Nelson says shows that try to just cater to that selfie hunger might lose what makes immersive experiences great.

“Where things kind of flatten out and become mistakes is when the emphasis is on creating Instagrammable moments, right, treating the stuff like it's just a selfie palace,” he says.

Do cameras help you immerse yourself in the art or prevent it?

Audiences reflexively pull out the phone in the presence of anything even remotely neat, whether it’s cyborg trees or giant candy or the Mona Lisa, and psychologist Linda Henkel at Fairfield University in Connecticut says that reflex might interfere with us appreciating art … or anything. 

“There's some circumstances where when we're taking photos where the act of taking the photo … it might just be like, ‘Well, the cameras got this, so I don't need to remember this,’” says Henkel, who studies photography and memory. “We've kind of outsourced our memory, right? ‘Okay, the camera’s got it and now I'm gonna move on to the next thing,’ basically.”

In a 2013 research project, Henkel had students take pictures of art and then quizzed them on what they remembered afterward. For the most part, they didn’t recall the art as well if they’d photographed it.

But Henkel says it’s nuanced. The study also showed that zooming in on an object, using the camera as a tool to engage with the art, could improve your memory of it.

“The photos can also be used in a way to focus your attention on things,” she says. “‘I want to look at this, I want to capture this moment.’ And especially after the fact, photos can be wonderful retrieval cues for things.”

So, it depends on how you use the tool. And Noah Nelson of No Proscenium says that maybe artists can make selfie culture work for them.

“You have to acknowledge that the audience is going to take things away from it that you don't expect,” he says. “Lean into it and know that it's part of the dynamic and part of the storytelling and part of what's both going to be a marketing moment, but also hopefully going to carry the meaning out into the larger world.”

For his part, Kaino wants the audience to participate in the work — and to collaborate with the issues it raises outside the show. 

“I go into all my work in that capacity with a spirit of empathy and understanding of how that work, and that politics, is a collaboration between the audience member and the authors,” says Kaino. “Particularly in climate science and social justice right now, there is no lack of lectures or other types of modalities for us to find and be lectured to, and so we want to make sure that there was an exchange, as opposed to a one-way dialogue. And that's where I think a lot of the spirit of that comes from.”