On September 27th I took the D train up to Yankee Stadium with Michael Edgecumbe to see the Tree Museum on the Grand Concourse, in the Bronx. I had a few small expectations about how it would be displayed, how the information would be constructed so the average person could interact easily. I heard the trees were hard to find because the plaques were mounted on the ground, small circles on the pavement at the base of the tree. I hadn’t really heard anything about how the information would be communicated, or what it was about exactly. I purposefully decided not to read about it before so I could have a passerby’s first impression.
It was raining. Hard. Michael and I remained in Joyce Kilmer park, and made a brief circuit of the trees highlighted by the project. The plaques were not as hard to find as other made them out to be, and there was a big sign on the south side of the park by the fountain. It had maps, and info about the project in at least two languages. Fairly transparent for a public art installation. What wasn’t transparent was the purpose of the project. It felt all over the place, with only a brief explanation about how the project is a response to the 100th anniversary of Great Concourse, and various local residents telling stories about the trees as they know them.
The first plaque we encountered was the Norway Maple. We dialed the number and listened to some drummers drumming, and talking about how they feel about the Concourse. I felt a complete disconnect between the content on the phone and what I saw in front of me, namely a nice middle-aged tree indigenous to another region of the world.
Many questions came up for us. Was it transplanted from Norway or grown in a nursery in the States somewhere? Who was responsible for deciding that this tree should be planted there, and who actually planting it? How old was it when it was planted? What was being done to combat the tree warts afflicting the trunk? [Here's an interesting medical mystery aside: man with warts like trees].
The next tree we stopped at was the same thing. And the next. I was beginning to feel perplexed. I felt that the idea behind the tree museum was really to draw people up to the concourse and expose some of the inner workings of the neighborhood residents and history of the concourse itself. Not the trees. Why use the trees in this way? My experience of the trees themselves– the smell and taste of the bark, the warts, the nooks and crannies that hold accumulated dust from the air– was way more stimulating and engaging than the stories I listened to through my muffled phone. It brought me back to a project my friend Karl Cronin did in Fort Green park for a year. The project was a participatory tour of the park and some significant trees in the park. He had people feel the wind at the top of the hill, sense the bodies buried in the crypt below, embrace the massive branches of a tree, notice how one branch moves another, and imagine the span of roots below. Having him tell us about the history of the park in person was effective, as was having him ask us questions about our sensorial experience at the moment of sensing. If the Tree Museum were to employ some of these tactics it would probably be easier to understand the thinking behind it.
There are a lot of questions about public art and not many answers. There is the question of authorship, who made the project, who conceived and executed the content– was it driven by the local community, the city, an artist or organization brought in from outside– and if it was an outsider, what obligations do they have to the local community, where does the onus fall if the art is perceived as “bad.” There’s the question of intractability, the line between what the user is allowed to do or not do in relation to the object or architecture, the line often being drawn with less room for interaction (save the Alamo, the famous Cube at Astor Place, among others). There’s the question of meaning, how difficult is it for anyone who happens upon a public art piece to glean some understanding as to its purpose or role in the community where it’s situated, the art world, the life of the viewer, or some event/cause. There are the questions of necessity and appropriateness, where the public art is either adding or detracting from the ambiance of the locale, seen as an enrichment or seen as diverting funds from more pressing matters, or in some of the more inconsiderate cases, exploiting or mocking the people who live there and have to see it daily. There is the question of quality, how well the project or piece is executed [according to whose aesthetics???]. Since public art tends to receive municipal or government funding it can be a problem when the community doesn’t understand the work or doesn’t appreciate the effort. In the case of the tree museum, I imagine the residents could enjoy something new about the park or tree they pass everyday and take for granted. Or maybe they know the tree well, but only what they take in sensorially. I wish there had been somebody sitting on a bench so I could have asked them what they thought. Instead, the only person we met was this squirrel burying a nut:
After the promenade, Michael and I went to the diner kitty corner to the park and had brunch. It suddenly dawned on me that everyone in the diner could be from the neighborhood, rather than another city or state, or borough. It didn’t look like there were any tourists, and no one seemed “downtown” or Manhattanish. It’s rare for me to feel that way anymore when I’m downtown, especially around NYU. I chalk it up to gravitational centers of the city, Williamsburg being a fine example. If that neighborhood has no gravity for outsiders (save Yankee stadium), then maybe the tree museum is meant to pull people up to the Grand Concourse. When we left the diner, there were three Japanese tourists with maps, pointing at the park.