When forests are open for ideas

By Aina Pomar - Saturday, November 19, 2016
When forests are open for ideas

"The forests are open for ideas" was the invitation that Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission England launched for artists to participate in the second edition of Jerwood Open Forest with the support of the Arts Council England. Following a successful execution in 2014, this project is currently running for the second time with five shortlisted artists including Rebecca Beinart, Magz Hall, David Turley, Keith Harrison and David Rickard. All of them are within fifteen years of beginning their artistic careers and were asked to conceive a major project to be developed in one of England’s Public Forest Estates.

When forests are open for ideas

"The forests are open for ideas" was the invitation that Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission England launched for artists to participate in the second edition of Jerwood Open Forest with the support of the Arts Council England.

Following a successful execution in 2014, this project is currently running for the second time with five shortlisted artists including Rebecca Beinart, Magz Hall, David Turley, Keith Harrison and David Rickard.

All of them are within fifteen years of beginning their artistic careers and were asked to conceive a major project to be developed in one of England’s Public Forest Estates.

Their projects were selected from more than 500 applications and each artist received £2,000 to take their proposals and research further. The aim was to develop the projects from April to September and to get them to a point at which they were very close to being ready to display. The winner, who will be announced at the end of the year, will be selected to develop a major commission of £30,000 in 2017.

One of the aims of Jerwood Open Forest is to foster the dialogue between contemporary artists and their environment. Sarah Williams, Head of Programme at the Jerwood Space, explains how this initiative emerged from a previous project titled Terra. This exhibition, organised at Jerwood Space in 2011 using the framework of Jerwood Encounters, explored the relationship that contemporary sculpture shares with the environment and landscape. Somehow, this show was working in the opposite way to the Jerwood Open Forest, bringing the works developed in dialogue with the environment to the gallery space, rather than taking the ideas outside, to the forests.

Terra marked the first time the Jerwood worked with Hayley Skipper, one of the curators of the exhibition and National Arts Development Programme Manager for Forestry Commission. From that key point, conversations led to the creation of Jerwood Open Forest, which Williams describes as a “dream project, drawn on Hayley’s expertise in the Forestry commission and our expertise working with emerging practitioners and supporting the development of projects. It is quite a powerful meeting of organisations”.

Meeting of the shortlisted artists with Dan Harvey from Ackroyd & Harvey. Courtesy of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris. Photo © Hydar Dewachi

The organisers of the programme have always been aware of their responsibility to provide a context for artists to feel free to think big and to bring their ideas with as few restrictions as possible. Artists don’t need to respond to a unique forest context or work in a limited spectrum of interventions. “When you open that up to proposals you get such a breadth of ideas. It is absolutely incredible. So, without having any of those restrictions in place we are able to really get some meaty and exciting responses and I think you can see that in the selection of shortlisted artists and their proposals at the moment”, explains Sarah Williams.

The last edition resulted in two commissioned projects: Cosmos by Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt), permanently installed at Alice Holt Forest in Surrey and Hrafn: Conversations with Odin by Chris Watson and Iain Pate, realised at Kielder Water & Forest Park in Northumberland. Sarah Williams explains that the rest of the 2014 shortlisted artists, Juan DelGado, Adam James and Amanda Loomes also had very positive outcomes from their projects after their participation in the Jerwood Open Forest. She highlights the importance of the project in allowing ideas and the artists whole practice to be pushed further outside of their comfort zone.

Throughout these six months they have run four professional meetings with the representation of Jerwood Space, the Forestry Commission, the shortlisted artists and selected guests, who normally lead the meeting to offer their knowledge on a specific matter or topic area. The first one was a very special occasion as they all headed to Alice Holt Forest with Semiconductor to visit the site of Cosmos and discuss their experiences with the project.

The meetings have also counted with guests such as Dan Harvey, from Ackroyd & Harvey and selector for the first edition, and Michael Prior from Bristol’s public art producers’ organisation Situations, who shared their long-lasting experience with public projects.

Inviting external professionals in the context of public art works also means situating the work in a larger framework, helping them to think about the most practical aspects and logistics of their projects. In this way, “even if only one of these works are actually going to be taken forward and be commissioned, the idea is that all of the artists will gain experience in putting together a large scale proposal that could be taken up by another funding body or another organisation”, says Sarah Williams.

Visit of the shortlisted artists to Cosmos by Semiconductor in Alice Holt. Courtesy of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris. Photo © Hydar Dewachi

Rebecca Beinart contemplates Cosmos by Semiconducor in Alice Holt. Courtesy of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris. Photo © Hydar Dewachi

The Forestry Commission has been commissioning projects in the public realm since 1958, and yet this project is being developed in a context where public artworks are being redefined. One of the frameworks for this to happen is the growing presence of spaces where art and architecture meet and co-exist. The last edition of the Turner Prize is a good example, with the winners being the young architecture collective Assemble, whose practice is based in an innovative understanding of how artists and architects can engage with communities and the public space. In this sense, the open perspective that the Jerwood Open Forest offers creates a large platform to promote and divulgate innovative ideas towards how the public realm is understood from the arts.  

Sarah Williams admits that the selection process was not easy and that they were quite overwhelmed by the high quality of the proposals. From over 500 applications, they did a first selection of ten artists to interview before selecting the last five shortlisted. If one goes through the shortlisted projects it is apparent that diversity and quality were two key elements of the selection process.

For instance, the proposal developed by David Rickard, Returnings, takes as a starting point the idea that “the forest is where we are. If we look at our surroundings we will see a wooden bench, a wooden door, a wooden floor. You are right in the forest. The forest is not elsewhere”. With this in mind, Rickard proposes taking all the wood from one building and bringing it back to the forest.

Muddy boots after visiting Alice Holt. Courtesy of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris. Photo © Hydar Dewachi

The artist has been in contact with demolition contractors to find the right building that will provide the timbers to be taken to Kielder Forest, one of the largest in the UK and one of the main production forests in the country.

Before returning each piece of timber to the forest –approximately a thousand pieces – and displaying them vertically along one mile he will inscribe a word on each piece. The result is going to be a conceptual narration created in collaboration with the contemporary poet S. J. Fowler. Those words will lead the visitors into the forest and along the piece in a circular journey that has no specific beginning or end.

Offering this experience and engagement to visitors highlights Rickard’s idea of the forest: “Forest are not destinations, forests are journeys. The work is about walking, one of the most natural things to do in the forest and to allow people time to experience the work to appreciate the journey and be at the forest”.

Keith Harrison's project sketches for Joy Ride. Courtesy of the artist

Installation view of Tree Radio by Magz Hall at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Courtesy of the artist

Ollerton Pit Woods 20 years ago and what it looks like now. Courtesy of Rebecca Beinart

Keith Harrison’s proposal Joy Ride is informed by his childhood and family history and in conjunction with elements often present in his practice, such as clay, ceramics and the act of transformation.

For his project Bustleholme, for instance, he built a wooden sound system filled with clay and covered with tiles. He then invited the grindcore band Napalm Death to run a gig channelling the sound through the speakers inside the structure. During the concert the tiles would fall down while half of the structure was being disintegrated.  

His idea for the Jerwood Open Forest commission is to involve local community to build a monumental rollercoaster structure made of bamboo from which he is going to launch a clay car through the ramp that will crash on the Tackeroo site within Cannock Chase Forest.

Choosing this particular forest was a very personal decision and, partly, one of the reasons he chose to apply for the Jerwood Open Forest. As a child, Harrison would visit Cannock Chase with his family, as it was the nearest wilderness space to the industrial areas of West Midlands and West Bromwich, where they lived. 

The car is still one of the most popular mediums for getting to the forest and is a key element to drawing different connections within his entire practice, the project and the family history. "I guess I’m recognising the irony that to get to these spaces, green spaces, the role of the car as transport is important. That has become more apparent to me doing the project", he says. The model is to be built with locally sourced clay and is going to be a Rover-75, "the last car to leave the production line at the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham" where his grandparents used to work.

The 1947 diary The Men of the Trees used by David Turley to develop his project. Courtesy of the artist

A big part of the research to develop his proposal has gone through the event itself, how it will lead to a transformation and how the audience will experience this. In fact, most of the shortlisted artists have mentioned the audience as an element that has been discussed often in the professional meetings and in feedback received from the organisers.

In the case of Magz Hall, the audience is a key element in the very feeding of content into her project. With a long history of experience in sound and radio arts, Hall’s idea was partly inspired by American forests and the fact that in the 1920’s some members of the army used tall trees as antennas. The artist is actually going to use the trees to send out a radio signal that will contain visitors’ recorded dreams.

Building up from a smaller-scale work titled Tree Radio, which helped formulate the idea for this major proposal titled Whispering Trees, the project was inspired by her own moments of contemplation whilst visiting a forest. “I like this idea of hidden unconsciousness. Specially if you go on your own, you’re very concentrated when you’re in a place like that. It has a dreamlike quality linking with my own experience of going to the forests and wanting to participate through work that is fitting for the location”, says Magz Hall.

For Whispering Trees, different frequencies are going to be developed for each of the four types of dreams Hall is going to record: children’s dreams, night dreams, dreams of the future and those related to fire, as a historical link to the radio frequencies used until the eighties by the Forestry Commission for fire alerts.

The forest she has chosen, Bedgebury Pinetum, is the perfect space for her, not only because it is the site of a huge radio tower, but also because it has the tallest pine tree in Kent, the Grand Fir, originally from the US.

David Turley's project 10,162 + 1,370 found its own connection to the site before applying for the Jerwood Open Forest. Some time ago he found Men of the Trees, a diary from 1947 that documents a man’s activity planting trees at Orlestone Forest. 

Preparing the application was “a way to find an outcome or resolution for what seemed to be a lost history or idea that had a potential to speak about bigger or broader ideas beyond art or environment", says Turley.

The initial idea of presenting a sculptural or architectural intervention in the forest evolved towards a "quieter consideration of history and narrative". Turley's project integrates elements of repetition and re-interpretation of the diary seventy years after, which relates with his interest in taking the everyday and the overlooked to "speak to ideas of memory and existence".

Turley is manoeuvring the project towards "a sincere and appropriately meaningful outcome” that will involve following a similar activity to the worker and main character of the diary, who planted a total of 10,162 trees, and continuing this task planting a mixture of 1,370 trees.

The organisers of Jerwood Open Forest, the winners of last edition Semiconductor and the 2016 shortlisted artists visiting Cosmos in Alice Holt. Courtesy of Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Parker Harris. Photo © Hydar Dewachi

Stonehaugh at Kielder Forest. Courtesy of David Rickard

Finally, unlike the other shortlisted artists, Rebecca Beinart hasn't focused on only one forest from the beginning. Her proposal has had a strong element of research on "lost trees", endangered species or those with a particular history. For instance, she describes her visit to a Gingko Biloba tree, an example of a species that survived Hiroshima, but is currently endangered.

Beinart conceives her project as an exploration of loss and memory, for which she takes specific trees and traces out different interconnected lines with each of their stories. This research has lead her to look at the different landscapes from a wider spectrum and to collect stories from different forests and sites, such as Ollerton Pit Wood, Birklands Wood, Westonbirt Arboretum, Leigh Woods and Paradise Bottom. In each site she has engaged in conversations with workers and volunteers, the best company to investigate the forests. While they showed her around the woods the research unfolded and took shape in parallel with the journey of discovery and processing of information.

Her proposal has developed towards the presentation of a large-scale performance that will tour several forest sites. Beinart has selected those forests with contrasted landscapes, such as Leigh Woods, which contains some ancient and endemic trees, and Ollerton Pit Woods, a new forest in Nottinghamshire, planted on a reclaimed mining tip.

Working along with up to fifty narrators on each site, Beinart will present a performance that creates direct links between lost trees and the audience’s personal stories of memory and loss. “Forests outlive us. They bear witness to our lives. We often plant trees to remember people we have lost; this performance will temporarily plant people in the forest to lament or remember lost trees”, says Beinart. The public will experience one-to-one encounters with the narrators, who will tell the stories of the lost trees, “ranging from the tragic to the humorous, and from the mundane to the extraordinary”, while connecting with wider themes like deforestation, climate change, love, adventure, colonisation, and collective memory.

Prior to announcing the commissioned artist Jerwood Space opened an exhibition on 2 November with the participation of all five artists, where the public is able to engage in person with each project. The show presents conceptual references to the proposals and works of the shortlisted artists, as well as video documentations of the research process.

Both the exhibition and the interaction of the Forestry Commission and Jerwood Charitable Foundation with the artists throughout the months are key aspects that define Jerwood Open Forest. With an extensive process and an engaging atmosphere, the project is much more than a competition to get the final commission; it is, as the artist David Rickard says, "about developing ideas". On top of that, Jerwood Open Forest creates the context to make the most of these ideas and re-think the connections contemporary artists –and by extension humans– have with the environment today.

The Jerwood Open Forest exhibition is on display at Jerwood Space, London until 11 December 2016.

Aina Pomar graduated in Sociology and Photography before completing a Master in New Media Art Curatorship. She has collaborated with Fundació Pilar i Joan Miró in Majorca and with CCCBLab and Fundació Foto Colectania in Barcelona. She moved to London to work at the Cultural Office of the Embassy of Spain, where she coordinated visual arts and exhibition projects with the aim of promoting Spanish culture and artists across the United Kingdom. She currently collaborates with various galleries and art projects in London.

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Roman Pyatkovka, “VELVET SADNESS”, (1996), photograph glued on velvet passe-partout (paper).

Roman Pyatkovka, “VELVET SADNESS”, (1996), photograph glued on velvet passe-partout (paper).


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