Fore(st)sight, a developing in-situ art installation by artist Lili(ana), envisions a future without forests as a result of human action (or inaction) and is trying to tackle this dramatic outcome at the source: correcting the lack of long-term, hands-on involvement of our community members, our school kids, and our close ones with an in-depth learning experience that starts right at home, collecting junk mail.
What is junk mail, you may ask? And how much junk mail could one possibly collect? Unsolicited or direct mail consists of all the credit card offers, catalogs, flyers, coupons, and other mailings you didn’t ask for or don’t want. The common name for this pile of unnecessary yet delivered to your mailbox papers is junk mail, and much like a disease, it spreads to and affects every household in America. According to The Sightline Institute, each American receives an average of 41 pounds of junk mail per year, and New York University claims 5.6 million tons of junk mail end up in American landfills every year1. In 2021, the United States Postal Service (USPS) securely processed and recycled 111.76 million pieces of mail2. Although they try to improve upon the situation by properly disposing of junk mail, it may not be the pathway to an efficient solution. To glimpse at the magnitude of this problem, communities ought to acknowledge that paper comes from trees and that trees are cut down to satisfy the absurd demand for printing that is junk mail.
As a collective and as individuals, we make all kinds of decisions about a myriad of topics daily. Decisions about right and wrong also permeate everyday life. We, as rational creatures, are bound to have some knowledge of certain things; for example, how the world functions and what other living things may need. As a result, we should feel the urge to do the right thing at any given time dutifully. We are constantly reminded of the drastic consequences if we, as a collective, do not do the right things when required of us. But how to tell and do right from wrong? How to contribute to a cause we need to understand fully? How to care for a living thing we haven’t given life? How to feel the pain of a tree when it’s taken down? Have we not fully internalized that without trees, we would not have the air we breathe, much less water?
Efficient and sustainable seem to be keystone aspects of the solution toward a conscientious approach to junk mail. Traditionally, since the twentieth century, artists have been at the forefront of holding accountable the responsible parties of any issue and of educating the general public about what affects our communities and what to do about it. To this effect, Californian artist Hector Dio Mendoza built an 18 feet high tree in 2006 made entirely of junk mail. This project aimed to raise awareness regarding the insurmountable amount of junk mail received in households. A Bay Area recycling company commissioned the project. However, such an endeavor resulted in a somewhat failed way to expose the problem. The junk mail used for this project was entirely recyclable in its raw form. However, processing these materials using glue, wrapping, wires, etc., made the entire tree composite trash and with a destination to the landfill when taken down from its then, current exhibit space. Regardless of how many community members got to experience this tree firsthand, the outcome exceeded in harm more than it did any good.
Hence, one question arises, what is the most efficient and sustainable route to raise awareness of this decades-old problem?
Although not one human experience is identical to that of another, we all belong to the realm of rational beings and, as such, are obligated to act according to universal laws. One of these laws, for example, could be giving equal respect to all living things and having the proper intention when performing any action consciously. The choice to do the right thing calls for identifying the best steps to produce the most significant balance of good over harm for all things affected by our decisions (e.g., government, the community, and the environment). This duty-based approach is familiar to a restless mind, to whom any possibility of adventure and the unknown is a challenge and a treat. However, to a kind soul with a restless mind, the ethical objective to act for the greater good of the environment is far more complex and has a far greater reach.
One of the restless and kind beings I am proud to know is the artist Lili(ana). For many years she has pondered on the future of forests, and as it relates to her practice, these forests are now natural and imagined. She creates replicas of tree roots and trunks out of junk mail. Her newly created trees are not confined to a tragic end; they will never be cut down. The trees in fore(st)sight reminisce of their live models and have turned into artworks in their painstaking process of becoming. For example, the Greeks conjured this poetic effort to copy reality as ekphrasis in their classic statues. Fore(st)sight is an ekphrastic attempt to raise awareness and a vivid and dramatic description of an imagined future for our forests.
Lili(ana) explains that in the last three decades, 420 million acres of forests have been lost, mainly to satisfy a marketing industry with a dead end. For example, in 2017, only 2.9% of prospective customers (i.e., those who had not yet purchased anything from the direct mailer) responded to direct mail sent via USPS3. Unlike Dio Mendoza’s trees made out of junk mail that were later designated as trash, Lili(ana) does not use wires or hazardous adhesives. Each tree adds up to the continued and ever-growing installation that is fore(st)sight, uses environmentally friendly materials and is carefully researched by Lili(ana) to avoid adding pollutants to the mix.
Lili(ana) is the 2022-2023 inaugural Artist-in-Resident of C.B. Smith Park in Broward County, Florida. She chose this park to create and propagate fore(st)sight when she was awarded two grants from Broward County Cultural Division. She has dutifully used the money to spearhead fore(st)sight under park shelter # 2, where she shows up with previously shredded pounds of junk mail, ready to share her process with the community and create the new trees. At large, the process consists of submerging the shredded pieces of junk mail in water to create a natural compost-like material consisting of paper and water. The mixture is used to shape the newly created tree on the surface of the original tree serving as a model. Then, Lili(ana) applies eco-friendly materials to help the mix harden. This colorful yet somber replica is removed from its host tree once dry to remain a stand-alone sculpture. Each sculpture is aesthetically stunning, imposing, majestic, and full of texture and color. The sculptures are then placed near each other inside the park shelter. Its sides are covered in plastic to reminisce a greenhouse, minimize outdoor greenery, and to blur any visual experience of a natural landscape. The resulting installation becomes a premise for what Lili(ana) proposes with fore(st)sight: the terrifying possibility that forests could become our future memories of a no longer existing yet much needed reality.
Visitors to fore(st)sight are encouraged to experience an enhanced version of the installation in situ. A quick response code (QR) is placed at the entrance, instructing visitors to scan it with a phone or any other digital device. It directs viewers to a website that contains a carefully chosen sound by the artist, making the walkthrough experience of fore(st)sight an eerie one, with chills running through the spine.
Fortunately, fore(st)sight lives beyond the theatrical experience of the installation and the presence of stunning sculptures to become a well-conceived art installation with a didactic purpose. Since May 2022, fore(st)sight has proposed learning through an educational experience as well; it now vibrates with the frequency of educating the community by ways of keeping an active participatory approach in its framework. Lili(ana) has invited countless stakeholders, from grant officials to local government, schools, passersby, and many others, to create the re-imagined forest, tree by tree. The piles of junk mail seem not to shrink, as is the case with her number of participants. However, more hands and voices are needed to account for and speak for every tree in our forests.
Lili(ana) plans to exhibit and travel the installation and educational experience to other natural sites throughout Florida.
Dr. Liliam Dominguez
To learn more, contribute to this project, and participate, contact the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit her website, or her Instagram @lilianastudiolab.