Q&A: Artist and Designer David Buckley Borden and the Hemlock Hospice
How the demise of the eastern hemlock at the mouth of an invasive insect inspired a site-specific installation created to educate the masses about ecology and climate change
“There’s nothing more convincing than walking through a dying forest,” David Buckley Borden tells us during a recent phone conversation. The Harvard educated multidisciplinary artist and designer is midway through explaining the purpose of Hemlock Hospice, an ongoing site-specific installation art project telling the story of the demise of the eastern hemlock tree at the mouths of a tiny invasive aphid-like insect from Asia, the hemlock wooly adelgid. The project blends Borden’s lifelong appreciation for the landscape with his more formal interest in using accessible design to educate the masses. It’s also the reason for our call, and this article.
“The thing with an invasive insect is, it’s kind of a slow burn. But it’s no less critical, Borden continues. “Not everything in terms of climate change is going to be a big kind of phenomenon. So if that means we need to make some artwork to get people interested out there, let’s do it.” And that’s exactly what he’s done, with the aid of Senior Ecologist Aaron M. Ellison and a team of interdisciplinary collaborators at the Harvard Forest.
Growing up in New England, Borden often spent summers exploring the east coast with his parents and three brothers in the family van. The trips encouraged a connection to nature from early on, which eventually led to a masters degree in landscape architecture, and a stint as a professional in that space for a number of years before redefining his practice as an artist and designer.
Working at the intersection of landscape, creativity, and cultural events, Borden has participated in dozens of installations, group exhibitions, workshops and talks in recent years, earning a series of grants and accolades along the way. One of which caught the eye of a Harvard Forest research scientist, who, impressed by Borden’s ability to explore ecology issues through a pop culture lens, invited him to visit the Harvard Forest, and eventually apply for the Charles Bullard Fellowship. Fast forward a year or two, and Harvard has extended Borden’s Hemlock Hospice project to the end of 2018, along with his official role as a designer-in-residence.
The following is a continuation of that initial conversation, in which Borden gives further detail to the Harvard Forest, Hemlock Hospice, and the power of using site-specific installation to educate.
Broadly speaking, tell us about your approach to art and design.
I always describe my practice as an accessible combination of art and design. And most of the projects I work on help build awareness of and appreciation for the environment.
Over the last couple of years I’ve been doing more installation stuff and work in the field. The idea is, if you can’t get people out of the mall and to the mountain, you bring the mountain to the mall, and vice versa, so I love the kind of feedback loop between culture and the environment it creates.
The Harvard Forest project, you could say, is an art project and design project. It’s really, in essence, a science communication project. It encapsulates the practice in a nice little package for sure.
At the core of your work with Harvard Forest is the Hemlock Hospice, an installation-based project set in an old growth forest of hemlocks, dying due to an invasive species.
The Hemlock Hospice project is an art-based interpretive trail with 18 station points—18 installations. They range in size. Some are quite large, some are on the smaller side. But together they outline an interpretive trail that describes how the hemlock wooly adelgid is slowly killing the Hemlock forest throughout New England.
But it’s interesting because it’s not just science, but it’s also not just art. It’s a blend of art and culture, backed by some scientific rigors.
"Not everything in terms of climate change is going to be a big kind of phenomenon. So if that means we need to make some artwork to get people interested, let’s do it."
What exactly is the Harvard Forest?
The Harvard Forest is its own standalone department within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences of Harvard University. It’s a 4,000 acre research forest in central Massachusetts, an hour and 15 minutes west of Cambridge—the Mother Ship, we like to say. It’s a place dedicated to long-term ecological research. So they have research plots going on 50 years, and is a combination of both super high-tech field instruments as well as booting around, on the ground forestry practice.
So it’s this wonderful hybrid between high-tech and low-tech. I love it. It’s a kind of cultural overlap—a little bit of everything—and you have all these researchers, not just from Harvard, but from all over the world, coming here to study forest ecology, essentially.
At the same time it’s remote, so you have this incredibly focused intellectual rigor, I guess you could say, but also this outdoor culture that I also appreciate. So from any perspective, it’s the best of both worlds.
Talk about the power of site-specific installation vs gallery type installation work?
Installations in the fields have a pretty profound effect. I mean, there’s nothing more convincing than walking through a dying forest. In many respects, the art itself kind of prompts people to look around and kind of recalibrate their thoughts—to think about it in some terms that they might not have if they didn’t see the artwork. You can’t compete with the experience of walking through a 200 year old dying hemlock forest. It’s pretty moving in and of itself.
And, well, the thing is, with climate change, there’s always the usual suspects in the headlines—the big storms, the giant fires, the flooding. The thing with an invasive insect is, it’s kind of a slow burn, a sleeper phenomenon, but it’s no less critical. It’s still very valid and very real. It’s wiping out whole ecosystems, a steady loss of biodiversity, but you don’t really notice unless you’re in tune with the health of the trees.
"You can’t be awake and not realize."
And local people around here, I’ve talked to many folks on the trail or at presentations, and they’re very well aware of it.
I do think it’s a great case study, because not everything in terms of climate change is going to be a big kind of phenomenon. So if that means we need to make some artwork to get people interested out there, let’s do it.
I feel like people are starting to get it. You can’t be awake and not realize. I know some people check out no matter what you do, but—maybe it’s just the scene I’m in now and the network of folks—but people are standing up and starting to take action, which is great. That’s kind of the spot we’re at right now—take action and be prepared to take the fall.
Hemlock Hospice has really been embraced by Harvard, and has been extended through 2018. How has this affected your participation as a designer-in-residence?
It really was supposed to be a one year project but it got extended to two, so the second year is really about developing a bunch of programming for the Hemlock Hospice. That includes public talks throughout New England, workshops, science communication workshops using graphic design as the medium. And it also includes some publications work.
I think that’s part of the model. Sometimes I talk with folks and they’re like oh, that’s really great! You put the work in there and that’s great. I’m like that’s actually just the first step, getting the work built and in the woods, and the second step is actually doing the community engagement and outreach.
Of the 18 installations, is there any one that you feel more connected to or are particularly excited about?
Ah, the favorite child… there’s maybe three or four that are a close tie. There’s one piece called The Exchange Street and it’s kind of an abstraction of killed hemlocks. They have a very particular form because they tend to snap in the middle and fall, ending up suspended on their branches. It looks like this really cool sculpture, so we did an abstraction of that.
There’s one called the Hemlock Memorial, which is a straight up wood shed with an articulated roof that houses one of these big giant stumps. That one actually is quite popular. I love the simplicity of it.
And then there’s this big one called Fast Forward Futures. It’s basically a series of deltas, or triangles, interlocked with a heavy nod towards a fast forward button on a media player. It kind of directs your attention to what being rapidly replaced—the hemlocks.
So those three. It’s tough to choose though.
Where there any limitations in building? What are the sculpture installations actually made of?
All the material is either recycled or salvaged from the hardwood forest, so that kind of plays into the ethos of the place in terms of their conservation mission and environmental sensitivity. And that adds a layer of information to a lot of these pieces because mainly they’re constructed of what they call “eco debris” or “eco trash,” which essentially is decommissioned field experiment equipment.
That was a real interesting challenge. It was the first time I’d done that where I used exclusively recycled and salvaged materials (and I mean 90%, there’s some hardware and paint and that’s not recycled). And it’s a challenge to make stuff essentially out of trash and not have it look trashy.
Are you interested in using a similar approach to draw attention to other ecological issues elsewhere? Perhaps on a less regional, more global scale?
Absolutely, that was part of the fellowship. It was framed as a science communication project and so in addition to creating the work, I spoke with a lot of folks—artists and designers, conservation folks, policy people—about how they communicate these issues. We developed the narrative points and then developed the work from there.
So one of the things I’ve been looking at is using this sort of art-based interpretive trail as a science communication model, and it’s been getting good traction here. Actually more so than I think we’d initially planned for. [Harvard] was kind of surprised, I think, by the response. So I’d like to continue.
I feel like I’m just getting warmed up. I’d love to do this again at a different site with a different issue—taking the project and what I’ve learned and apply it to another mission-driven campaign. And that’s the thing with this type of work, realizing it’s not just about the art.