THE ELUSINA LAZENBY EXPERIMENTAL FOREST
In this history of Western Civilization, forests represent an outlying realm of opacity which has allowed that civilization to estrange itself, enchant itself, terrify itself, ironize itself, in short to project into the forest’s shadows its secret and innermost anxieties.– Robert Pogue Harrison: Forests: The Shadow of Civilization
Forests are the stage for narratives of loss, transformation, madness and intrigue. They are abstractions of state power and their value to society is defined by the rhetoric of their time– once for timber for ship’s masts, today as sites of biodiversity and carbon sequestration.
Forests can represent strategic reserves for material, or agents for climate change. Their light and spatial qualities are the subject of painters and photographers. Forests are places to initiate healing. They are the sites of darkness and intrigue in literature, places of transformation in fairy tales, and spaces of conflict and resources in video games.
Spatially, forests are a dense field of vertical solids and voids. It could be said that forests are landscape’s poché, in their impenetrable thickness. From outside, forests are perceived as a permeable mass while from deep inside, they lack perspectival cues. Forests trouble our notions of perspectival space. Only apertures and clearings can settle the gaze.
The Elusina Lazenby Experimental Forest is an installation that draws attention to the multiple layers and lenses through which we interpret and represent landscapes. The installation takes the form of, and plays with, the conceit of a landscape interpretive center. It was commissioned for the 100th anniversary of The Ohio State University’s landscape program, and is named in honor of Elusina Lazenby, the first woman to receive an MLA in 1926. The exhibition itself is built of unfinished steel stud walls with utilitarian lighting, suggesting both a work-in-progress of architectural construction, while metaphorically it represents a framework for the open-ended process of landscape interpretation.
About the “Sylviculture” Research Seminar
The literal meaning of Sylviculture is the study of the growth of trees for human consumption. In the “Sylviculture” design research seminar at Knowlton School, participants examined forests as a subject and product of culture, translating their research into a series of forest gardens. Participants each chose a theme of research, including Forests and Landscape Architecture, Memorial Forests, Forests and Sound, and Forests and the State. For example, the team researching Forests and Literature distilled authors’ descriptions of forest space, the species, and the conflicts or narratives that took place within the forests. Next, participants refined their research into a series of spatial diagrams, and translated the metaphoric and physical information from their research into a concept for a 1-acre forest garden based on their chosen theme. The gardens were then represented as a series of dioramas and drawings within the “interpretive center” installation.
The work provokes conventions of landscape interpretation in a range of media, from the trope of the landscape interpretive center, to the garden itself as a medium of interpretation and a medium to be interpreted. It references several places and ideas: the interpretive center of the Fisher Museum at the Harvard Forest and its dioramas depicting changes in New England forests; dioramas as an alternative mode of landscape representation, as outlined in the essays of Holly Getch Clarke; the Swedish Landscape laboratory at Alnarp, Sweden, a site of testing forest ecology and aesthetic qualities; and the curatorial work of the Center for Land Use Interpretation in the unusual and exemplary landscapes of the United States.
One of the most important things in all art: leave a respectable part up to the reader, the observer, the participant. There shall be an empty setting at the ready-laid table. It is theirs.
–Gunnar Ekelof: Guide to the Underworld.
The interpretive center installation highlights the structures by which we interpret and reinterpret forest landscapes. It is comprised of several real and imagined elements, including the real architecture of the “interpretive center” constructed within the gallery space, the real dioramas of forest gardens, with the site of these gardens within an imaginary experimental forest. The installation relies on these tropes, both dryly and with humor, to trouble linear interpretations of the meaning(s) of the installation.
The installation intersects the gallery at a 45 degree angle within the space to imply the continuation of the interpretive center beyond the gallery walls. The partitions are framed with open steel studs that create both a forest “room” as well as a support structure for the dioramas. Each diorama in the installation is accompanied by a scaled plan, section and project description. Concurrently, the viewer can study the dioramas and see through the open steel studs to the gallery’s mullions and glazing and to the forest grove beyond (designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates); as if one were viewing through a series of forest gardens of different species and qualities.
To create the dioramas of the forest gardens, participants teased out topographic, species, sonic, spatial, optic and light qualities from their research. Dioramas were chosen as the primary mode of representation of the gardens for several reasons: their tactile and spatial qualities; the immersive experience of gazing into a scaled space (as a device of wonder); and the ability to physically manipulate light through color, and quality by using a cookaloris (a perforated screen) to scatter dappled light within the scene.
The Experimental Forest: Testing Qualities
Participants imagined the forest gardens installed in a matrix of plots in an experimental forest sited at Ohio State University’s Waterman Farm, which is located northeast of the central campus within a suburban neighborhood. The experimental forest at Waterman Farm draws from the precedent of the The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Alnarp Landscape Laboratory. Waterman Farm is a historical experimental agricultural station, and today is the site of discussions about how agricultural and open spaces play a role in today’s land grant universities. Ohio State has established a “Discovery Theme” on Food and Agricultural Transformation, and Waterman Farm has emerged a contested territory in these discussions.
The installation drew audiences of several hundred people from two events held at Ohio State University’s Knowlton School; the 100th anniversary of the program and a symposium, This is a Test: Landscape as Site of Research. Both events brought nationwide attention to the past and future of the program. The installation speaks to the contemporary conceptual concerns of the program: a renewed haptic, tactile approach to conceptualization and design and the role of landscape experimentation, research and testing for the 21st century.
The work provoked many critical discussions among both the seminar participants and viewers. Discussions conjured by the installation include: the resurgence of the garden as a site of imagination, aesthetics and narrative beyond concerns of sustainability or pragmatics; the role of garden as a site of testing, research and experimentation; the depth and spaces of imagination conjured by dioramas and; the role of interpretive devices, be they architectural, visual, or human in understanding landscapes, and the role of conceptual art in instigating critical discussion.
Designed gardens are interpretations of research or source material and the structures by which we then interpret those gardens. The installation provokes a series of questions. The narrative traces the development of the installation from research to construction. It is not meant as a didactic work, rather a framework of interpretive recursion.