CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE: ON EMBRACING THE UNKNOWN
By Susannah Magers, independent curator and writer
“Keep the old brain in commission and the chances are you will come out of the woods on your two feet.” United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service leaflet, 1946.
The above excerpt is from a nearly two-page leaflet entitled “What to Do When Lost in the Woods,” the above quote reads as a somewhat stern but reassuring adage—pragmatic advice that can prove difficult to retrieve when needed most (and when a clear head might be farthest from the mind). The work in the exhibition What to Do When Lost in the Woods is inspired by and based on this found Forest Service text, and correlates specifically with the artist’s experience while recovering from an injury. Faced with temporary immobility during her recovery, the idea of being lost in the woods became for Borman a metaphor for the mind, and she began to question how one thinks their way out of problems. During this recovery, Borman happened upon this Forest Service text while researching the concept of getting lost in the woods online. Copying and pasting the document onto her computer, the text rendered a scrambled yet surprisingly poetic and meaningful pattern of letters and words. This loss in translation presented an unexpected but compelling relationship between the visual beauty of the accidental occurrence—the now obscured text dislocated from its original context as sentences crafted for a specific, instructional narrative—and its purpose as a clear, functional guide. This process served as a catalyst for Borman to transform what was given into a still useful albeit altered version of what was anticipated.
Borman’s work offers the viewer the chance to engage in a similar method of adaptive reckoning. Visitors can first encounter Borman’s work in two locations outside of, but with close proximity to, Rochester Art Center. Approaching from the front entrance, a small paper takeaway housed in a wooden box is installed atop the Rochester Parks and Recreation trail marker. Integrated into this existing navigational city signage, the takeaway provides an expected yet non-instructional leaflet for the public to take and freely interpret. Attached to the façade of Rochester Art Center facing Mayo Park are two large Tyvek banners with black and white photographs of crows (a familiar, and contentious, fixture in Rochester) branches, and sky. Both exterior works emphasize the monochromatic, silhouetted bodies of crows and of branches, functioning as subtle but mysterious visual invitations that quietly announce the exhibition inside.
In contrast to the paternalistic tone of the text, the inadvertent reordering removed the relative comfort and familiarity, and this aspect is emphasized in the text piece What to Do When Lost in the Woods, 2016. The work consists of the entire digitally altered Forest Service text, printed on 8.5 x 11 inch sheets of paper. Mixing upper and lowercase letters, punctuation, and spacing, the text reads left to right, each piece of paper a disjointed fragment. This presentation, preserving the visually confounding formatting, extends the concept of being lost directly into the viewing experience.
Accompanied by six enlarged, intentionally grainy photographs of crows amidst treetops (a murder of crows documented by Borman just outside her home) the prints echo the monochromatic color palette of the exterior works, but these images offer no greater clarity here as to site and other contextual information. The exhibition’s idea of searching for direction when confronted with uncertainty endures: the crows embody divergent symbolic associations as both omens of bad fortune and as adaptive, intelligent guides to humans. The crows also function as a visual metaphor for the mixed emotions one might experience when confronted with the unknown, and the tension between fear and trusting your instincts.
The message here is that above all, self-reliance will save you. Instead of resignation to the feeling of being lost, what are ways we can actively pursue alternate routes when the outcome is unclear, and the instructions are absent? How might we navigate uncharted courses and forge our own paths? How have our relationships with natural spaces like parks evolved or devolved, and do we trust ourselves to navigate within them? Perhaps the following quote from the original What to Do When Lost in the Woods leaflet, “Yet in going alone into the forest it is well to go prepared to get lost,” provides the best advice of all: Melissa Borman’s work reminds us that the only preparation we may need is to embrace the unknown, and that we possess the tools to do so.