This Immersive Art Experience Resurrects A Historic Olvera Street Tree To Inspire You To Save The Planet
You walk into a dimly lit warehouse, before being led through a series of rooms drawing you deeper into the forest, into nature. TheA Forest For The Trees exhibition in that downtown Los Angeles warehouse was inspired bya series of articles inThe Atlantic about nature in the United States, Who Owns America’s Wilderness? — exploring its past, present, and potential futures.
Conceptual artist Glenn Kaino collaborated with the magazine and a team of artists, musicians, tribal leaders, and environmentalists to take elements of those articles and their broader message, putting them into three-dimensional space via this art exhibition.
“We said, ‘If we can use illusion to show people things that might not otherwise be able to exist, and then tell them stories that they might not otherwise understand or believe, there’s an opportunity and a moment within that mental space to have people think and feel ideas,’” Kaino said.
He brought some of that magic with him in designing A Forest For The Trees, using artistic presentation to deliver environmental messages to the public.
“What we wanted to do here is we wanted to bring a series of ideas, and ruminations, and thoughts about our engagement with the natural world,” Kaino said.
The setting is meant to allow people to suspend disbelief and feel the ideas at the exhibition’s core, which Kaino described as using illusion to create the space for imagination — and potentially, action.
A Tour Through Wonder — And Threats
Your walk through the installation begins in the lobby with the “Story Forest,” a sculpture made of microphones. They’ve been rewired to make each one a small speaker, each mic designed to share a story about the impact of a tree on someone’s life. As a whole, the sculpture is meant to communicate that this is a space for listening, not speaking.
Soft, original music with an electronic pop vibe plays throughout your journey, created by Kaino and Dave Sitek as part of their new band, High Seas. Sitek’s best known as a member of art-rock indie band TV On The Radio. While Kaino said that he’s seen people trying to Shazam the songs, you can’t do so just yet — but a future release is planned.
“This is not a Glenn Kaino show. This is a show of two dozen collaborators, voices layered on top of each other,” Kaino said. “We’re not lecturing at anyone about climate change. We’re provoking, and poking, and just creating an environment for it to be absorbed.”
When it’s time for your tour, you’re led into the next space through a dark hallway with a lit-up spinning disc. Your guide asks you to stare at it, creating an optical illusion that serves to help you immerse yourself into what follows — Kaino compared it to the wonder of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
Next up is a room that shares the story of the Karuk Tribe Jump Dance ceremony, both from the perspective of natives and from Western science. The story is told via narration from Grey’s Anatomy actor and activist Jesse Williams, accompanying 25 illuminated illustrated panels.
These first few pieces are “a palate cleanser to the outside world,” according to Kaino.
“Let’s dive into a graphic novel, dive into storytelling,” Kaino said.
You learn what a man’s jump into a river means for the tribe and their connection with nature, including the tribe’s own tradition of controlled burns. The script for this portion of the show was created alongside members of the Karuk Tribe.
“What I wanted to do was use drama, and use storytelling moments and techniques, in order to … bring light to what I found to be an incredibly powerful juxtaposition of what we would normally consider mythologies or fictions. They’re grounded in science and reality — and that’s a 4,000-year-old, beta-tested ceremony,” Kaino said.
You move from the ceremony to the exhibition’s main room, a mixture of real and faux trees surrounding your pathway in a combination of nature and something more manmade. The wood is all salvaged from different parts of the state.
“We started out with the concept of making a magical forest, within which we had opportunities to tell stories,” Kaino said.
You walk to a well of light, with a thin platform on top, allowing you to walk over what appears to be bottomless beneath you — watch out, friends with a fear of heights.
The main room also includes a bristlecone pine sculpture surrounded by animatronic robot heads mounted on trees, each sharing stories both humorous and tragic about the forest; an illusion of a miniature field on fire, created with water and light and able to be manipulated via the hand gestures of onlookers, inspired by controlled burns; and finally, “Resurrection.”
Resurrecting Los Angeles History With A Tree
The central piece of the exhibition is a virtual tree, "Resurrection,” with the trunk of an actual Moreton Bay fig tree at its core. The tree once stood at the end of Olvera Street athistoric Los Angeles birthplace El Pueblo de Los Angeles, but fell in 2019 after standing for 144 years, thanks to dry rot and a storm.
Kaino told attendees that he was inspired by mentalist Max Maven and a trick Maven would perform, taking a card that’s been ripped into pieces and once again making it whole.
Kaino didn’t understand what the illusion was about at first, but he said that Maven explained, “That piece is about resurrection. That means it’s about hope. It’s about the stubborn belief that even if you see something destroyed in front of your eyes, there’s a chance for us to restore it.”
So Kaino came back to the team of craftspeople that he works with and told them they were going to resurrect a tree.
“And they were like, ‘What are you talking about?!’” Kaino said.
He brought about his vision with what he described as ancient stories combined with future technologies and future thinking — including the blocky building aesthetic of the video game Minecraft. The tree itself was recovered by Angel City Lumber under a contract with the City of Los Angeles. They’d held onto it, waiting for the right use. That’s when Kaino came along.
“[Angel City Lumber] were great in saving it, knowing that it didn’t deserve to just be a bench or a desk,” Kaino said. “It was a mind-blowing moment for us in the development of the show when we found out that it was still around.”
With its trunk below, the exhibition has 200 smart light-up panels and more than 250 welded cubes up above, creating the tree’s forest canopy in a pixelated style.
Learning L.A. Stories
Kaino wanted to root the exhibition in the community by connecting specific stories to the larger issues of climate justice. It’s a living show, continuing to develop as they adjust and learn from the audience, according to Kaino. That so far includes additions such as QR codes you can scan to hear more stories, as well as an upcoming augmented reality project.
He’s been hearing people’s memories of that Olvera Street tree, and he’s hoping to share more of them.
When first installing the tree, one of the lighting techs asked how he managed to get his hand on the Olvera Street fig. When a collaborator’s friend flew in from New York during the installation’s build, the visitor told them that he got married under that same tree, as did some other members of the art world who saw what Kaino was doing.
Kaino has his own local roots, born in Echo Park’s Queen of Angels Hospital. His whole family grew up nearby, going back generations.
“I’ve eaten taquitos under that tree… 500 times? From Cielito Linda, walk down the street, and eat it there. And there’s been countless piñatas, and weddings [under that tree],” Kaino said.
(If you have your own story about the massive Olvera Street fig tree, please let us know via the form below.)
Saving The Future
The issues explored range from California-specific to larger systems, here and around the world. Some of the critiques include looking at the consequences of industrialization, human curiosity, and more.
Kaino hopes that audiences leave A Forest For The Trees with their hearts and minds subtly stirred by these issues.
“There’s no lack of messaging warning us that our planet is in peril, and scolding us — in ways that are maybe rightful,” Kaino said. “But there’s a difference between being scolded into thinking something or being immersed in feeling something.”
The Atlantic has included environmental messaging throughout its history, from co-founder Ralph Waldo Emerson to an argument for national parks from famed naturalist John Muir. Going back to the articles that most recently inspired the exhibition, the magazine’s series launched last year with a piece whose message is in its title:Return the National Parks to the Tribes.
“Without any changes, we are due to experience the same trajectory that we have been experiencing over the past decade, which is more catastrophic fire events, more frequently,” Kaino said.
Kaino believes that doing so could make significant change, though it may be on a longer timescale — perhaps not within our lifetimes, but those of our children.
“Our team, we’ll do whatever we can to help move that needle in the direction of trying to do something, rather than do nothing,” Kaino said.
Some of that action is happening through the exhibition itself, with Conservation International planting a tree for each ticket sold to the show (in partnership with sponsor MasterCard).
How To Go
Tickets: You canbuy timed tickets for the show to see it Thursdays through Sundays, with the experience taking about half an hour.
Cost: $13 to $40
Schedule: It’s set to run through the rest of the summer.