OPUS is an art and music exhibition located in a forest outside of Washington, DC. Founded in 2017, the project is committed to commissioning interdisciplinary projects from artists around the globe. Over the course of two editions, OPUS has cultivated an audience of more than thirty thousand people and commissioned work by sixty-five artists. Previous artists include Agnes Denes, Yoko Ono, Marilyn Minter, Maren Hassinger, Tabita Rezaire, Ryan McNamara, and Mark Leckey. After the exhibition, many of the commissioned projects toured the Barbican Centre, the Museum of Modern Art, The Shed, and Pioneer Works. In an effort to map the exhibition’s founding curatorial framework, this article explores the interrelationship between two main through lines: nature and sensory perception. The modern exploitation of nature is fundamentally tied to capitalist principles, the same principles we live under that teach us how to experience the world. Our sensory faculties are therefore corrupted, and because the sensorial is the basis of culture, our ethical faculties are compromised as well. The mission of OPUS is to devise alternative aesthetic experiences that can act as catalysts for an embodied investment in the past, present, and future of the planet.
Sited within Columbia, Maryland, a city built on utopian ideals, OPUS reopens the topic of utopia from a new perspective: that of colonization, the history of forested land in America, and deep ecology. In the Chinese poet Tao Yuanming’s fifth-century fable Peach Blossom Spring, a fisherman who loses track of space and time in his boat happens upon a grove of blossoming peach trees. The grove leads to a farming society sheltered from time and living in harmony with nature and each other. The richness of the natural surroundings is reflected in the prosperity of the society, and the fisherman feasts with the villagers for days before returning to the outside world. Writing at the tail end of the declining Jin dynasty, Tao envisioned a utopia shielded from political uncertainty. It contains the pillars of many utopian narratives: “a sea voyage, a mysterious foreign land … and noble savages, whose nature and condition are infinitely malleable so that the ideal of a good society can yet be realized on earth.”¹ This formula, which is even more prominent in Western visions of utopia that coincided with the discovery of the New World, found its reality in the colonization of the Americas. Instead of realizing an ideal society, however, Europeans disrupted the symbiotic relationship that Native Americans had had with the land and replaced it with a paradigm of ownership.
Centuries after colonization and in the midst of the post-war housing boom, the real estate developer, urban planner, and activist James Rouse proposed a planned community that was intended to be both an architectural and a political utopia. Columbia, Maryland became a cluster of ten discrete villages with centralized amenities that served an intentionally diverse population. Rouse said of his project, “We created ways for people to care more deeply about one another, to stimulate, encourage, release creativity, minimize intolerance and bigotry.”² The preservation of green space was part of this vision. More than a quarter of the city’s area today is now dedicated to recreation, including lakes, parkland, multi-use paths, and forests. Symphony Woods, the forest adjoining the iconic Merriweather Post Pavilion, is a public park and the primary site of OPUS. In a nod to Rouse’s utopian vision, the exhibition looks at the forest as a model for culture from the ground up. Having existed for hundreds of millions of years, forests contain an unquantifiable amount of wisdom, which our relatively young species can learn from to create a more compassionate social ecology.
Forest succession is a cycle of growth starting with the pioneering of new life in an area which lacks an ecological community. Hardy lichens, grasses, and shrubs fix themselves to stubborn rock and earth and later make way for tree species that are increasingly tolerant to the environment. This process culminates in a stage where the most tolerant trees form a stable habitat of old-growth forest, and biodiversity is at its peak. Disturbances in the ecosystem, such as wildfires or colonizing species, can delay or stunt forest succession but also trigger new kinds of growth. If we think of culture as an ecosystem undergoing succession, we begin to see problems on a macroscale. Globalization fosters cross-pollination between cultures, but, at the same time, it also leads to cultural homogenization, or a lack of biodiversity. Wealth and power gaps soar, leaving the needs of the many in the hands of the few: an imbalance of power among species. Where nature has a built-in holistic system of checks and balances that has effectively regulated the environment, the majority of humankind has bloated conglomerates of power that serve short-term, anthropocentric interests over the last two-hundred years.
A key principle of OPUS is that we can look towards ecosystems for answers on fostering healthy cultural growth. Diversity is necessary and reparative: a variety of life forms means a productive ecosystem where every form has a niche role to play and a stable ecosystem that can recover from hardship because it doesn’t rely on the success of only a few processes or species. The interdisciplinary nature of OPUS’s programming is a reflective device for the ways in which biodiverse ecosystems are strengthened through cross-pollination and the breaking down of siloed processes. If an artist, musician, and scientist collaborate on a work centered on a common question, they come up with a more well-rounded exploration that contains multiple entry points for understanding. The artworks exhibited at OPUS do not fit neatly into categories, which means that they open up conversation and take it in new directions instead of sticking to modes of interpretation that correspond to specific artistic fields. “Knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled,”³ just like the processes of the forest that do not occur independently but in a teeming web of interrelations and influences.
In considering the forest as a model for culture, it would be too simplistic to treat it as a pure reflection of nature from which ideals can be neatly extracted, one reason being that “the forest can be interpreted as a cultural artifact in itself.”⁴ To ignore this would be to ignore the fact that there is no ecosystem on earth left untouched by human influence. One entry point into our influence is the arrival in North America, millions of years ago, of white-tailed deer, which crossed the Alaskan land bridge and gradually spread across the continent through a network of trails determined by the path of least resistance. Deer are drawn to the lowest points of the land; they prefer mountain saddles to ridges, and the highest concentration of deer trails can be found in valleys, where the ground is fertile and produces plentiful berries and grasses on which to feed. For millennia, Native American trails developed on top of these deer trails, turning nearly invisible paths into established hunting, foraging, and trade routes. These would become the same routes used by European explorers to traverse America and the same roads and highways many live on today. This is all to say that nature and culture are not opposed, but in fact fundamentally inseparable: as the movement of deer determined the paths we would follow, so did we imprint upon and modify the landscape.
But when does this mutual influence turn from symbiotic to parasitic? Indigenous peoples the world over have significantly altered landscapes—without destabilizing them—in ways that are often difficult or impossible to visually discern. When Europeans arrived in the New World, they mistook intact forests for unspoiled land that fulfilled a Western vision of utopia, when in reality it had been under development for thousands of years. The colonists replaced the agricultural practices of the Natives—who worked in collaboration with the land—with their own farming practices that disregarded the stability of the ecosystem, which evolved into today’s industrial monocropping. In the Western, anthropocentric worldview, there is a gap between nature and civilization, between what is wild and what is tamed. Nature is seen as the other, and what is characterized as the other is exploited. The forests of the world are treated as valuable to humans insofar as they are able to be cleared for development and agriculture, and the trees to be used as resources. Those who disregard the long-term importance of intact mature forests and their role in regulating the world’s climate are rewarded with quick profits. The willful destruction of a life-giving force perfectly encapsulates the toxic and backward prioritization of short-term profit over sustainable environment.
The Western conception of nature as different is partially rooted in the symbolic history of the forest as an uncivilized place separate from the rational, intellectual lives of humans. This mindset gained ground in the Age of Enlightenment, when the natural sciences arose as a discipline that viewed the world as a thing to be analyzed and controlled. The writer Samuel Johnson called his journeys through the mountains of eighteenth century Scotland “useless labours, which neither impregnate the imagination, nor enlarge the understanding.”⁵ Johnson looked at the landscape through an anthropocentric lens, remarking on its capacity to benefit his intellect, and, in later paragraphs, dwelled on its vastness and indifferent hostility to human life. This indifference is perhaps at the core of our fear and misunderstanding. Nature does not need us in the same way that we need nature, and its profound resilience long preceded us and will long survive us. Just three decades after the worst nuclear accident in history, wildlife is flourishing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which has—for the same time period—been devoid of human life. One explanation offered by scientists is that “the pressures generated by human activities would be more negative for wildlife in the medium-term than a nuclear accident—a quite revealing vision of the human impact on the natural environment.”⁶ The struggle between humanity and nature could be described as one of mutual exclusion: the former responds to the latter’s indifference with the same, plus destruction.
No attempts are made to understand what is seen as the enemy. Forests represent the limits of human knowledge: to be in the forest is to occupy the threshold of the unknown, in other words, the untethered state of transformation between knowing and unknowing. The forest’s liminality is an established philosophical and anthropological concept that describes its existence in a continuous state of transformation: between life and death, growth and decay, darkness and light, hiding and discovery, and so on. “The preposition between belongs to forests in general. It’s what they’re about.”⁷ The rich history of rituals embedded in the forest context is due to this liminality, since rituals themselves are transformations—or rites of passage—between different states, among them social, spiritual, and seasonal.
In Ancient Greece, devotees of Dionysus longed to escape the limitations of mortality and material life, seeking “refuge in the realms of unbounded spiritual liberty.”⁸ The Dionysian mystic rites transformed the initiated in five stages, beginning with purification and ending with a condition of bliss induced by the expectation of redemption from death. In the rituals of the Greek Mysteries and many other Western societies, actions take on symbolic meanings that can be expressed in abstract terms. For the cult of Dionysus, intoxication symbolized the liberation of the soul from the body. It was not treated as a sensory pleasure but as a holy mystic rite that “affords … a foretaste of the glorious beyond, of the immortal life to come.”⁹ This approach to ritual—one that is concerned with symbolism rather than embodied sensory meaning—is not universal. For many societies, the majority of them non-Western, cultural meanings are transmitted and experienced through sensory modes of communication, and to interpret their rituals through the discursive mode of symbolism would be to fundamentally misunderstand their significance.
To fully appreciate how meaning, and even a system of ethics, can develop from the senses, it is important to understand that the Western perspective favors sight and regards touch, smell, and taste as “base” senses associated with the irrational pleasures of the body. The Kuranko of Sierra Leone have a contrasting approach: they center listening, smell, and taste in their rituals, which “are not texts to be read but rather ways of sensing the world, in which body and meaning, media and message, are intimately intertwined.”¹⁰ The regulation of sensory perception, which is taught in the initiation rites, is tied to the maintenance of moral order. For example, “newly initiated boys often quite literally ‘turn up their noses’ at the sight of uninitiated kids, remarking on their crude smell.”¹¹ Another society whose sensory order corresponds to the moral is the Wahgi of Papua New Guinea, who evaluate the morality of performers by whether or not their skin is glowing. If it is not, then the performer has not properly confessed their moral breaches prior to partaking in the ritual, and their lack of morality has become visually evident. These examples describe cultural models of perception that are impossible to understand in an embodied way from the outside. They demonstrate how the senses can be intricately tied to ethics, an idea with which OPUS is fundamentally concerned. OPUS is about embracing different methods of experiencing the world, methods built on sensual perception in addition to textual and verbal knowledge, rather than opposed to it. The exhibition takes inspiration from the narrative and transcendent qualities of Western ritualistic journeys, but, like non-Western rituals, it is directly interested in the senses as experiential modes in and of themselves and as grounding, enlightening mechanisms that can help cultivate ethical awareness through bodily awareness.
Standing in the way of bodily awareness, however, is the colonization and commodification of the senses, the intensity of which was ramped up by the technological explosion of the twentieth century. Jacques Attali writes, “fetishized as a commodity, music is illustrative of the evolution of our entire society: deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as a spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning.”¹² Though Attali was specifically referring to music, this idea can be applied to the way in which all the senses have been divided and particularized by modernist principles. Smell is bottled and sold to us as perfumes and deodorizers. Sound is either an unwanted intrusion that must be managed (industrial noise), an escape from such intrusions (nature), or bought entertainment (music). Taste is perhaps the most malleable; it works in tandem with vision as a general metaphor for consumption, but it still is materialized and sold as expensive fine cuisine. If the senses are separated under capitalism so that they may be better managed and monetized, how does this affect the way we experience the world? “Embodied experience through the senses (and their necessary and unnecessary mediations) is how we think,”¹³ and so it is crucial to explore sensorial alternatives where senses overlap, interact, and generate holistic meanings.
Spectacle has been criticized as a homogenizing principle that resists discourse in favor of the passive reception of illusion, but, with thoughtful subversion, it can be a powerful artistic tool to reimagine the sensorium. Meaning that is delivered through unrecognizable forms cannot be recognized as such. OPUS uses the visual language of spectacle as a Trojan horse for substance, with the added effect of connecting normative modes of perception with their own negation. The exhibited artworks critique spectacle by providing a contrast to the passive spectacle of the everyday that does nothing to promote autonomous thought. At OPUS, spectacle is a seductive cherry, and its pit is truth. “See how artfully the seed of a cherry is placed in order that a bird may be compelled to transport it.”¹⁴ The fruit must be eaten for the pit to be planted. And because spectacle is a nearly global language, it can convey meaning in a way that is accessible, as opposed to the niche and exclusive language of art world references and formalism, which cares only to address the initiated. A central tenet of OPUS is that if an artwork can reach any open mind, regardless of education, age, and so on, then it is an expression of something true in the world.
OPUS sees art as a universality that can be collectively shared, as opposed to those universalities disseminated through popular culture. Consumption and entertainment is the new belief system that replaced ritual and religion, around which humans fulfill their timeless desire to gather—a desire which has been perverted by the spectacle into a social relation that alienates rather than forges connections. In rituals of the past, shared sensory experiences created robust community bonds through the linking of perception and memory that results in collective experience. But beyond the mere existence of a mutual point of reference, these experiences function as symbols that reflect social values. The development of values through shared experiences is the difference between a community united by circumstance and a community united by a common outlook.
At OPUS, meaningful collective experiences are attempted through a relational approach that views the exhibition as a place of gathering, ranging from intimate listenings to large-scale collaborations. For many of these projects, the subject matter becomes a universal meeting ground, creating a sensory translation of meaning on a visceral level and, ultimately, a sense of empathy in the viewer. “Unlike TV and literature which refer each individual person to his or her space of private consumption, and also unlike theatre and cinema which bring small groups together before specific, unmistakable images,”¹⁵ the art exhibition is a context in which group experience and discourse can occupy the same spatiotemporal condition. OPUS brings the art context to the forest, where it is subject to the expansive influence of natural and symbolic histories, resulting in seepage between nature and the artworks that heightens the viewer’s perception of both.
If culture develops from the seeds of shared sensory experience, then an expanded art exhibition is a compelling venue to shift our perceptions of environmental, social, and spiritual values, which, in turn, shifts our habitus, the way in which we as individuals encounter and react to the world. There is a connection between being in touch with oneself and one’s surroundings and feeling responsibility for one’s presence in the world that translates to deeper social engagement and empathy. “The natural step after sensing collectively is acting for the collective earth.”¹⁶ To get there, we must unscramble our misplaced priorities, reorient ourselves sensorially, and reconnect with the environment and each other. Under no illusions about the scope of this task, OPUS is only one possible response among infinitely many others. But rather than providing a single answer to complex and innumerable issues, the exhibition uses the richness of cross-disciplinary spectacle to create a kaleidoscope of intersecting meanings, creating a lens through which new realities can emerge.
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14. Thoreau, Henry David. The Succession of Forest Trees. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1887. p. 37.
16. Sheri, Yasaman. “A Manifesto for Sensing in the Age of Sensors.” Mold Magazine, 14 May 2019, thisismold.com/object/connected/yasaman-sheri-manifesto-for-sensing-in-the-age-of-sensors. Accessed 11 Dec. 2019.