Lessons from the Forest, 2018
I am not myself, 2018
Snow Word Mind Soup, 2016
Lessons from the Forest, 2015
US, 2017 (Provisional Video part of Live Cinema Performance)
Lessons from the Forest is a four part poly-lingual video series exploring forest ecology and human relationships. Responding to the growing global immigration crisis, Lessons began as an exploration of borders in nature and between people. It was a hot summer in 2015 when Sasha Petrenko was traveling through Northern Europe en route to a Bavarian artists residency. Sensing the growling tension, between local inhabitants and the people fleeing for their lives, the project originated from an impulse to reconcile the dual concerns expressed by people, family members, artists and the public alike. As moral beings, we may know we should welcome those in distress, yet as individuals and as members of a distinct culture, we may fear that we will feel a burden or be threatened by opening our borders? Where can we find answers free of the dogma of human constructs of class, politics and race?
Looking to nature to find solutions for human problems is a familiar strategy for scientists and designers but what if we could draw knowledge from ecosystems and how they are structured to solve social and political crisis? Is the relative porousness of borders in nature a more effective means than nationhood for organizing sympathetic groups? What is the role of diversity in a forest and how does it contribute to a community’s resilience? What is the role of self in a society that depends on networks and relationships to survive? How does the forest’s ecosystem handle waste?
The multiple languages used throughout Lessons from the Forest, namely German, English and Czech are meant to reflect the diversity inherent in a healthy ecosystem and were chosen for reasons of familiarity and convenience. Czech is artist’s mother tongue and as the work began in Germany, german speakers were willing and close at hand. Additionally, the German people and their culturally significant relationship to the forest provided additional source material and context for the ecologically grounded project. The layered quality of the soundtrack, where words are spoken repeatedly, with different languages comprising a single sentence, pushes the words towards becoming more sound and emotion, than symbol and idea. What is left is relationships, between voices, between species. And as the relationships become more essential, the self dissolves into the network and becomes part of the ecological community.
*Most recently biologists have discovered that yeast is a member of some Lichen plants but the role and whether the relationship is parasitic or beneficial is not yet determined.
CAUTION: What follows is potentially an overly personal statement made by the artist but WTF:
Lessons from the Forest is also a breakup album. In the summer of 2015 I found myself single for the first time in 20 plus years. And as a childless middle aged woman, this project is as much about ecology as it about existential dread, and grappling with human social constructs that no longer mesh with my reality.
Arriving in Germany, a country with an unfamiliar tongue, I felt even more lost than before. With no real plans for my artist residency, I resolved to visit the forest everyday, for in the forest I’d always found belonging. Maybe it’s the extra oxygen, or how I can suddenly feel small, or maybe I knew I could just lay down and become useful as mulch.
In a daily practice I went to forest on a borrowed girl’s bike with a front basket (perfect for AV equipment and tripod) and wide, soft, lumpy seat. A strange thing happened there in the forest. I lost myself repeatedly in one particular spot, across the clearing, past the pile of gravel consisting of tiny bits of pottery, kitchen tiles, from other peoples lives. Questioning the existence of the self, pondering ‘world’ as human construct, as merely a word, I’d arrive at a fork in the trail and inevitably go a way other than the way I wanted, eventually ending up in a Bavarian suburb with no GPS or german words at my disposal. After wandering aimlessly, pushing down rising anxiety, I discovered my phone had a compass and used that and my vague sense of direction on this foreign landscape to get myself back to the forest. From there I knew I'd get home. Riding home on now familiar farm roads I decided to forgo that section of trail entirely as it ended up… not where I wanted to be. Lesson #1.
“I need to set some boundaries…If there are no edges, how do I know where I am?”
“Everyday I go into the forest…. I try to stay on familiar trails, but when I think of you I get turned around and I don’t know where I am anymore…..I forget”. Lessons from the Forest Part 1.
Gradually I found my bearings, camaraderie among the other artists in residence and kind folks in the forest and in and town. Usually they would speak english for my benefit but somedays I would sit and listen and glean meaning from vocal tone, eye contact and body language. Some of my best conversations took place beyond language: a nod, a smile, a crinkling eyes or a slight tilt of the head, we met eachother.
One early afternoon the script for all four parts of Lessons from the Forest poured out of me. I’d almost given up. I was on my way to the beer garden when something made me turn around, return to the studio, to my computer Alex, and write. It all came out in one sitting, over two years ago and now as I write this it is almost finished. At the time I didn’t know the full meaning of the work and it’s been unfolding ever since. So I’ve been taking my time. Savoring the connections and the realization that despite my marital status, or my procreative choices, in looking to nature for lessons on survival and resilience I’ve learned that I am part of an ever expanding, poly-lingual, multi-species community, and I am not alone.