Flash Points

Tree Museum

We invited artist Katie Holten to write about her current project, Tree Museum, a public artwork in the Bronx, New York.  — Ed.

Katie Holten, "Tree Museum," Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, 2009. Aerial view from the roof of the former Concourse Plaza Hotel.

Katie Holten, "Tree Museum," Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, 2009. Aerial view from the roof of the former Concourse Plaza Hotel.

I think it’s fair to say that Tree Museum is unlike most other recent public art projects in New York City. The scale of the project is huge and at ten miles in length, rivals that of recent blockbusters such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (Central Park, 2005), Olafur Eliasson’s The New York City Waterfalls (NYC waterfronts, produced by the Public Art Fund, 2008) and PLOT: This World and Nearer Ones (Governor’s Island, produced by CREATIVE TIME, 2009). But the comparison ends there. In all other regards, the Tree Museum is a different species.

Almost invisible, the Tree Museum, which quietly opened on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx in June, makes the hidden elements of the street visible. At the root of my practice is an understanding that nature is not somewhere else. Nature is not far away on an abandoned island or in a prairie; it is everything around us, including the unforgiving city streets and the inherently urban communities of the South Bronx. These very streets are natural and this environment – our sidewalk, our block, our apartment building, and of course our street tree — is our place in the city.

Katie Holten, "Tree Museum," Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, 2009

Katie Holten, "Tree Museum," Grand Concourse, Bronx, New York, 2009

The Tree Museum invites pedestrians to experience the Bronx, and New York City, in unexpected ways. One hundred street trees, from 138th Street at the southern tip of the Grand Concourse to Mosholu Parkway at the northern tip, are the points of entry to this “museum-without-walls.”  The audio guide at the core of the Tree Museum links the natural and social ecosystems. The recorded voices and stories are used sculpturally to create an artwork whose roots reach down into the history of the place, while the branches spread out and offer insights into the resilient communities, fragile ecologies, and vibrant daily scenes to be found along the street.

I was commissioned in December 2007 to create a public artwork to celebrate the centennial of the four-and-a-half-mile stretch of the Grand Concourse, the historic boulevard connecting Manhattan to the parks of the north Bronx. I moved to New York City in 2004 on a Fulbright Scholarship to investigate nature and landscape in the urban context. I began working with street trees, as they are the most palpable connection most city dwellers have with nature.

I walked the Grand Concourse countless times and photographed the entire length, documenting the street through drawings of its trees.  On the one hand, I was taking my time, trying to get a grip on the scale of the most important boulevard in the borough.  On the other hand, I was forming a simple portrait of the Grand Concourse through the trees, some of which date back to before the Concourse was constructed. Throughout these months, I met hundreds of people, gathered stories and histories, and eventually these simple black and white line drawings developed into the Tree Museum.

LEFT: "Tree Museum:" tree #6, outside the post office at 149th Street, 2008. RIGHT: Katie Holten, "Grand Concourse Street Tree at 149th Street," ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2008.

LEFT: "Tree Museum," tree #6, outside the post office at 149th Street, 2008. RIGHT: Katie Holten, "Grand Concourse Street Tree at 149th Street," ink on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2008.

I wanted to use the street trees as markers for mapping the area and ready-made devices for looking at how the neighborhoods and the environment are connected. I see the Tree Museum as a way to give a voice to the systems of the Concourse: ecological, social, historical, musical, personal.

I installed green sidewalk markers to identify each of the 100 trees by species and location number. By keying the location number into a cellphone, a sidewalk “museum-goer” can access audio segments that feature impressions about the past, present, and future of a walk along the Grand Concourse. Stories include the way that weather affects tree growth, the glory days of the street in the 1920s, invitations to visit nearby community gardens, and descriptions of the pre-Concourse Bronx with farmland as far as the eye could see. DJ Jazzy Jay, the architect Daniel Libeskind, urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter, local beekeeper Roger Repohl, community garden activist Joyce Hogi, Bronx borough historian Lloyd Ultan, writer Adrian LeBlanc, and neighborhood teenagers such as Genesis Concepcion are among those sharing their stories and knowledge. Other segments bring the sounds of the borough’s trees, animals, and insects to the listener.

Majora Carter tells her story for tree #6, a Honey locust (pictured above):

“Growing up in the South Bronx during the 1970’s and 80’s, there weren’t many trees around for me to appreciate. I don’t even have any memories of trees, maybe they were burnt along with buildings that landlords torched in order to collect insurance money. The absence of trees and green spaces, along with little to no civic investment in education and law enforcement, created the condition where people felt powerless and unwanted…But when I came back…I realized that we deserved better, and that trees were an important first step. In 2001, I founded Sustainable South Bronx, an environmental justice solutions organization to connect the city infrastructure to benefits of restored green spaces and employment opportunities for the people here. I hope you enjoy this tree, and I hope you help promote the value of paying people good wages to take care of all the trees in our urban forest so that they can provide the environmental and social services which we all need to live better, cost-efficient, and happier lives.”

It was also important for me that the Tree Museum play with the notion of what a museum is, or could be. A lot of time and energy went into the development of the name, identity (which was created in collaboration with designer Inger-Lise McMillan), and structures of the project. Educational outreach and public programming are a vital role in any museum, so I set up a series of public programs, including Grand Concourse Haiku Hikes, which were led by poet E.J. McAdams. Taking school children out of the classroom and into the streets and parks was one of the many highlights of the project for me.

Poor dandelions
Most call you a weed
Not me
You are a flower

(Concourse Haiku by Kevin, a student in Mr. Brunelle Griffiths Freshman Honors Class at All Hallows High School, Bronx, NY)

Katie Holten is an Irish artist, currently working in New York City.