We were really sorry to miss this fantastic event last month, so we asked Laura Auricchio to write up a guest post about it. (Check out the variation on 20 questions!)
Arboreal Habits at Cabinet, 300 Nevins Street, Brooklyn, May 15, 2013
Trees were in the New York air this spring – and not just in the form of pollen. City dwellers interested in things arboreal had any number of opportunities to indulge their passions. They could have walked through the five boroughs counting trees as part of the city’s “street tree census.” Through the efforts of MillionTreesNYC, they could have planted native seedlings, joined workshops on tree care, or adopted individual trees in need of particular ministrations. They could have flipped through the pages of Benjamin Swett’s new volume of New York tree photographs, attended the exhibition of Swett’s pictures at the Central Park Arsenal, read about Swett’s work in The New Yorker, or seen it in the spring issue of Cabinet, which focused on trees. On May 3, they might have noticed photographs of trees by South Korean artist Myoung Ho Lee featured in the New York Times’ style section. And tree lovers who prefer their photography more classical could have attended Mitch Epstein’s late April talk at the Architectural League on his New York Arbor series.
On the night of May 15, 2013, these and other arboreal matters were the topic of conversation at Cabinet’s exhibition and event space in Gowanus. Entitled “Arboreal Habits,” the event explored humanity’s complex and contradictory relationship to trees from the eighteenth century to the present as viewed through social, artistic, literary, and historical lenses.
I opened the conversation by presenting a “tree studies manifesto,” arguing for a need to theorize and historicize the current interest in trees. The manifesto does not deny the particular urgencies of the early twenty-first century, when the popularity of trees stems in part from grave concerns for the survival of a planet coping with the devastating effects of climate change. It does, however, suggest, first, that human and arboreal lives have long been inextricably entwined; second, that an awareness of the interdependence of trees and people has long been widespread; and, finally, that the lessons derived from that awareness have, at times, been just as contested in the past as they are today. More generally, the manifesto prompts us to think of trees as privileged objects of study because they stand at productive intersections of some of our most fundamental categories: they are elements of nature put to social use; they are at once objects and spaces, property and companions. They are passive materials and active forces; useful types and beloved individuals. Humans manage trees, but trees often outgrow us and frequently outlive us. These were the underlying premises of Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), co-edited by Auricchio with Giulia Pacini and Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook.
Pacini spoke next, summarizing the essay that she contributed to the volume: “At home with their trees: arboreal beings in the eighteenth-century French imaginary.” Pacini introduced the audience to two little-known texts by the French writers Jacques Delille (best remembered for his translations of Virgil, and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint Pierre (author of the sentimental novel Paul et Virginie). At the heart of Pacini’s presentation were Delille’s poem Les Jardins, ou l’Art d’embellir les paysages (1782) and Bernardin’s political treatise Vœux pour les nations (1789), both of which propose that judiciously deployed trees imported from foreign lands could enable immigrants from those places to acclimate to France. Bernardin even went so far as to imagine a “human menagerie” where refugees would receive comfort from plants that had been uprooted from their native soil and were now thriving in new ground.
Joel Smith spoke on the curious popularity of snapshots depicting people in trees in the early- to mid-20th century. Elaborating on his contribution to Cabinet’s tree issue, Smith presented scores of photographs from a single New York collection. Is it possible, he asked, to identify a common thread running through subjects as varied as lovers nestled in branches, generations of families spread across the limbs of a tree (embodying and animating the traditionally schematic “family trees”), drunken uncles who appear somehow to have stumbled up trees, and Nazi-era German youths raising their right arms in taught salutes while balancing on branches.
The event concluded with a lively discussion of Lee Mingwei’s The Bodhi Tree Project led by artist and educator Paula Stuttman. Drawing upon teaching strategies that she has been developing and employing at MoMA, Stuttman provided a brief introduction to Lee’s installation in Brisbane, and then asked the audience to join in a game of 20 Questions—with a twist. Stuttman posed an open-ended question about the project and invited the audience to answer. But there was a caveat: whoever responded had to ask a new, open-ended question; the person who replied to that had to end with yet another query; and so it went, through twenty questions, as participants mused about when planting a tree in a public park can be understood as an artistic practice, whether knowing the sacred origins of Lee’s Bodhi Tree is necessary to appreciating the piece, and if transplanting the tree to secular soil might be construed as sacrilegious. After twenty questions had been asked and answered, countless more were posed while we all enjoyed bottles of beer generously supplied by Brooklyn Brewery.