What to Do When Lost in the Woods

What to Do When Lost in the Woods




By Susan­nah Magers, Deputy Direc­tor, Cura­tor of Con­tem­po­rary Art, Rochester Art Cen­ter

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.