Contemplative Forest Art Walks + Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality is now picking up where the Contemplative Forest Art Walk, a real forest trail dotted with meditation stations, left off when de-installed in September of 2020. 10 foot tall color-field paintings installed within the forest canopy of the Ford Forest Research Center marked the meditation stations, which also included benches; mindfulness information; and links to audio guided meditations.
The hand painted banners were the most visible human-made elements of the walks, at first glance.
The design of trails such as the Contemplative Forest Art Walk appear to support present-moment attention and awareness among forest visitors due to specific aesthetics and design. During the design process, I drew upon evidence-based research exploring the benefits of mindfulness to our well-being, and in particular our use of our eyes and the practices of walking and listening. I considered balances among the visual elements of the walks. For example, how do the banners’ movements reflect patterns of wind and sunlight? How do factors of banner translucency and opacity effect visitors' experiences? Also important are considerations of space, such as scale, openness, or enclosed-ness.
Trail visitors I interviewed expressed feelings of calm, surprise, gratitude, and greater attention, and/or awareness, of the forest.
Currently I am working with Ben Kreimer, emerging media technologist, and sound engineer Tom Stiles, to construct a virtual reality (VR) environment using video of the actual contemplative forest art walk. VR environments planned for the future will include nature spaces such as Lake Superior.
It is my intention for the in-progress VR environment to offer a safe, highly accessible contemplative experience in a nature space. VR and art may be particularly attractive to those who employ vigilance to remain safe, or who suffer from anxiety and/or PTSD. The VR meditation environments invite viewer-participants to engage in imaginative visual play with ambiguous figure/ground relationships; shape shifting rectangles; and synchronous “breath-like” movements of the painted banners suspended in the trees.
My hypothesis is the VR environment will provide viewer-participants opportunities to integrate top-down cognitive processes (construction of images based upon memory and learning) and bottom-up processes (automatic and unconscious reactions to visual stimuli) in ways some artists, neuroscientists, and film theorists believe may be linked to attentional flexibility; openness to ambiguity; and moments of rest and wonder.
In addition, I have observed in my own experience and the experiences of my students, that mindfulness practices, including contemplative seeing and walking, can provide on-ramps to experiences of “flow”. This may be through an increase of tonic awareness, and/or restoration of attention. I’m interested in digging deeper to understand these potential links, as flow experiences offer important moments of refuge and peak experiences.
Lost and Found in the Field: Plein Art Poetry as Public Art
I was fortunate to participate as a poet in Voices in the Forest, a poetry-in-the-parks project conceived of and curated by Shoreline Public Art Coordinator Dr. David Francis for visitors to urban parks and forests throughout the City of Shoreline, Washington. Shoreline is located on the northern border of Seattle. The poetry also exists online as text and audio in multiple languages.
Writing has always been part of my creative practice. Many of my public art works have included my writing. Early in my career, when I was graduating from University of Michigan, I made books of poetry for distribution at my graduation exhibition of paintings titled with lines from the poems.
Voices was a rare opportunity for me to work exclusively with text. Longing for connection, as many of us were during the pandemic, I asked Public Art Coordinator Dr. David Francis if Studio Here Now, the public art design studio I run at the Michigan Technological University's Wadsworth Residence Hall, could host a reading and conversation among some of the poets.
Raùl Sanchez, Hop Nguyen, and I joined with Associate Professor Dr. Carlos M. Amador for an interview with David and a reading of poems seemingly about the same subject: a lone willow tree at the edge of a meadow that each writer examined from their unique perspective. Given the number of sites we could choose as points of inspiration for our poetry, it was interesting to find several of us were drawn to this particular tree. Our shared subject matter allowed us to compare and contrast our experiences, creative processes, and our resulting poems.
We began our conversation with a quote from a podcast I'd created for students in the course Art and Nature (FA2190), which combines mindfulness, contemplative photography, the study of aesthetics, and theories of well-being in relation to nature spaces.
“Each of us walks differently in the landscape, with a different history and subject position…and so our senses will call to the forefront…different elements than any other person who travels the same path…you can make images that no one else in the world can make…”
The panelists aimed to touch on questions central to the creative process, creating a bridge to the processes of students enrolled in Art and Nature.
See the full poetry as public art project here and listen to poems by multiple poets, translated into numerous languages:
Watch the webinar.
Co-sponsors of the project include:
National Endowment for the Arts, Washington State Arts Commission, City of Shoreline, Michigan Technological University Department of Visual and Performing Arts.
Here are versions of two of the five poems I contributed:
At the Edge of Evening
How quietly the night arrives in the pine forest
when the sky is still light
and the ground, without sun
is bound with half-buried roots
This last light, twilight
Could turn the darkness all the more thick and unknown
Turns the leaves into lace patterns
Turns the heart in on itself, if you let it
And so I sit on this log, long enough,
With eyes open enough
Until I can see
Poet's commentary: this poem was inspired by the activists who during summer 2020 risked their lives to see a leveling, or evening, of the ground on which humans find opportunities to dream and grow. The poem is an acknowledgement of the roots of social violence, which I hope are becoming more visible with each and every turn of the earth.
As I plant each footfall on the forest path, the presence of clouds blunts the sun, and my eyes
sense how every botanical absorbs life: the waxy leaves of madrones, the starry and prickly new
growth of blackberries, and the oh, so, slow and soft moss
And absorbed in my own thoughts, I continue on until I hear myself wonder aloud,
How the man tricked the elders,
Mobilized the angered,
And fueled us all with fear?
And shocked by this seepage, my own turning inside out
I run my palm over this log, your cracked surface, and through the carved
void where once there was wood, and now exists absentness
shaped like a human body
And noting your cleanly severed planes, I wonder, how were you felled?
With help of axe, chainsaw or wind?
Or was it simply the beetles and their collective work?
And as you tipped, did you anticipate how you would land and spend the part of your life that
begins once you have fallen?
Once you have been given over to the undeniable fact of gravity?
And from your place on the ground, once you have fallen,
will you come to see those who landed before you?
Poet's commentary: this poem is an acknowledgement of the support and wisdom trees, forests and their ecosystems offer. It is also an acknowledgement of the peoples who lived on this earth long before white settlers arrived on the shores of this land many of us know as North America and which is known by many names I am still learning.
Photos of poems in the field: David Francis. Poster design by Bethany Jones.
Goetheinstitut Panel + Visual Cognetics: Dismantling the Apparatus
Ken Winnick of Visual Cognetics partnered with Goetheinstitut, Germany's leading cultural institution, and five cultural practitioners, to discuss the works of Hannah Arendt, among others. You can visit the project archive and read the essay I wrote (below) to accompany our collaborative presentation.
My talk focused on publicly engaged contemplative video projects, wherein participating artists experimented with contemplative ways of seeing while using cameras. My presentation explored the question of using new technologies, such as our phone cameras, as important means for knowing our own thoughts and developing attentiveness.
Anne Beffel, Essay
In light of the both peaceful and violent actions we are witnessing this week, are there ways of seeing that can create empathy and foster fundamental change with regard to inequities and oppression?
As a participant in the 1970’s desegregation of public schools, I was aware of how my social world was carved up by classist and racist attitudes. In response, at age 16 I retreated to the art classroom despite prevailing opinions that art was not an intellectual subject, and that only the most “talented” should consider themselves artists. The art room was where I began to develop my burgeoning values and sense of empathy, regulate my anxiety, and cultivate my nascent connections to a world more vast than the harms humans do. Since then, I’ve absorbed many ideas and questions about contemporary Western art owed to the influence of Buddhism.
Now, as a practicing “public artist”, I utilize contemplative approaches to create spaces and opportunities for people to steady themselves in the here and now – and see the world as it unfolds from moment-to-moment. Working with cell phone cameras exemplifies this approach. Viewer-participants are encouraged to temporarily suspend words, in favor of direct sensory engagement with what they see. Colors, shapes, and patterns can coalesce, calling to attention the dependent nature of seeing. Most importantly, this seeing is a complex process, a kind of thoroughfare between the world behind our eyes and the world in front of them. It is a process of creating mental models that serve as corollaries to how we navigate the world. Although these reflections of the world are fabricated by our minds, these mental models are the basis for our social interactions.
Tools -- such as cell phones and video cameras, and methods such as breath work -- can make it easier to become aware of our choices of not only what we see, but how we see. Specifically, this raises our awareness of how we frame things, our distance or proximity to that which we observe, the direction and angle of our gaze, as well as the aperture of our field of vision. Seeing enables us to notice opportunities to center our bodies, take a new stance to the right or left and re-see what was in front of us a moment ago.
This means our pre-baked thoughts, fears, and categorizations can become malleable. Simple adjustments to how we see can help us discern when it is safe to explore different mental models, which may lead to new ways of structuring the world.
Moment-to-moment seeing gives us the room and opportunity to breathe. Breathing links directly to our capacities to regulate our autonomic nervous systems, which in turn are tied to emotions and behaviors such as fear, aggression, denial, or clarity, flexibility and empathy.
Although seeing is multi-faceted and fundamental to how humans model their world, it is often discounted because it is not considered entirely linear or under the thumb of language. However, the multi-dimensionality of seeing means that during times of crisis, we often look to images and image making for refuge, ritual, and as portals to things which cannot be easily communicated.
The intricacies of seeing and the momentary decisions they evoke, are harbingers of how we perceive and experience our world. The choices we make of how we see are malleable through contemplative approaches, and they are fundamental to putting into practice responses and behaviors that cultivate empathy and support creative liberty.