A Forest is Not a Free Market

George Selley

2019 - Ongoing

But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky high.

–Walter Benjamin.

This ongoing work began when my father was diagnosed with and passed away from a brain tumour. During his illness and after his death I began taking regular walks in the forest next to my home, and revisiting places we had journeyed together. I would make images and field recordings on these walks, and eventually I began strapping sensitive contact microphones to the trunks of trees. The worlds that were revealed to me through my ears became a way of feeling at ease with the ambiguous, walking and image-making became a healing action, a coping mechanism, a form of grieving, and gradually a way of finding meaning. The sheer amount of life that I discovered through this process, in parallel with the profound, traumatic and humbling experience of watching my father die at the young age of 57, lead me to a sort of ego-death – a separation from my perception of myself, and the eventual realisation that I was more than the sum of my parts. I felt, in so many ways, that I had not lived up until that moment.

But what started out as an essential inward-facing healing action, gradually turned into an outer exploration of new potential perspectives. My own very personal catastrophe was in turn taking place within the context of a much larger collective one; the ongoing health and environmental crisis was escalating the decay of our tales of progress through free-market ideologies as they seemed to fall apart to reveal not much other than precarity. I began to see the forest more and more as an alternative model, one which could provide vital insight into possible alternative futures, and challenge the idea that competition is an essential function of life - or at the very least a massive oversimplification. A forest, after all, is not a free market. A forest is not a competitive system in which all entities act out of self-interest within a cost-benefit framework. A forest, in its most ideal sense, can be seen as a non-hierarchical inter-species system, a polyphonic network of kinship and mutualism in which a prolonged relationship exists between organisms that is interdependent and reciprocally beneficial. Competition, (or more specifically conflict) is present, but through multiple temporal trajectories assembling, contaminating and collaborating in a constant entanglement of dissonance and harmony - fabulously more complex than the onwards driving version of history we in the west still imagine ourselves to inhabit. Seen through the lens of a forest, nothing exists individually. As Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes: It is unselfconscious privilege that allows us to fantasize – counterfactually – that we each survive alone…we change through our collaboration both within and across species. The important stuff for life happens in those transformations, not in the decision trees of self-contained individuals. Within the politics of representation, what is at stake here is not only the relations of nature, but the nature of relations.

I began exploring the concept of polyphony - the simultaneous combination of two or more tones or melodic lines - in my field recordings. In a polyphonic sequence - similar to fungal networks that connect trees under the forest floor – there is no lead voice, no central planning, just manifold rhythmic paths that collide with and contaminate each other in moments of discord and agreement. Nonetheless a form emerges. The result of this exploration was a soundscape, an entanglement of field recordings which shift and breathe underneath a layer of multiple melodic lines, created through the process of sampling the forest using a variety of field recording methods. In my images I begun to think about the concept of assemblage and symbiosis, making montages by scanning multiple layers of medium and large format film which are then printed, scanned and re-printed numerous times. Each film layer depositing a thin stratum of colour which eventually, to my delight, created celestial painterly images. I felt that these images represented effectively the original healing intent behind my walks - the places once visited with my father transformed into almost utopian visions of interconnectedness and meaning. Other images I chose to leave as they were, images that I felt re-possessed internalised feelings of confusion, anger and tranquillity reflected in the seasonal differences of my walks - leafless foggy winter mornings juxtaposed with abundant summer evenings and moments of correct and incorrect exposure, as well as more obviously through the mixture of colour and black and white film.

This work, which has now spanned over two years, began as an essential action - the action of walking and re-orientating. An attempt to allow myself to simply be with the suffering of loss and the sense of disorientation that it brings, without judgement. And to attempt to create something new from a personal narrative of trauma. But in time it has also become about the imagining of new collective futures and ways seeing and being together, a search for alternative rhythms, and means of survival and living well - topics which my dad and I discussed at length in the last weeks and days of his life. In fact, the last time we spoke at length, we sat in the garden drinking tea, and the sound of birdsong moved him to tears. I think he would like this work. Ultimately the project seeks to question how the forest, as both metaphor and subject of scientific enquiry can inform our view of ourselves and our relation to each other and our environment. How can we create spaces in which science and spirituality intertwine, where the door to the unknown is left open, and where the potential generation of new rhythms and perspectives emerge? And how can we create languages that convey these ideas? Languages that extend the category of life far beyond popular limits in western thought and acknowledge that we are all already eco-systems that span boundaries and transgress categories.

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