A New Surreal Forest Installation Opens Today Near DTLA

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A Forest for the Trees immersive experience. Photo by Brian Champlin.

Glenn Kaino’s A Forest for the Trees is a stunner. Let’s get that out of the way up front. The new immersive experience opening today at Ace Mission Studios transforms a 28,000 square-foot warehouse space into a surreal environment populated by light, sculptures, animatronics, installations, and music, all working in concert to provoke a reconsideration of our relationship to the natural world.

Entering the main space of Forest, a boardwalk creeks beneath your feet with each step. A calming ambient soundtrack soothes your ears as you glean your surrounds through a column of tree trunks that edge the path. The warehouse is only half lit, but spotlights shoot through the space that let you see wisps of air float by. The mood is ethereal and contemplative. You are at ease, but also curious. What is all this stuff?


On one deck resides a 14-foot-tall representation of a 4,800-year-old bristlecone pine, and on another viewers crowd around a well of blue light. You step over the plexiglass covered well and look down. Something queasy but also magical sweeps through your body. What did Thoreau say? I am the transparent eyeball. Yeah, you might feel that a bit here.

Well of light at A Forest for the Trees. Photo by Brian Champlin

As you continue browse the space, animatronic head pieces connected to tree trunks speak at you as you walk by, providing a communication conduit to the secrets that these ancient forest dwellers have to share. In another space, a large, tilted panel emits what looks like a cascade of twinkling flames, but is really just a visual trick made by water vapor and light. The effect alludes to prescriptive burns utilized by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, which helped those cultures shape and maintain the landscape. Maybe, it suggests, we need to be looking to the past if we want to mitigate issues like wildfires exacerbated by climate change.

Panel of flames at A Forest for the Trees. Photo by Brian Champlin

There is a lot to like about Forest, and that starts with the artist at the helm. Kaino is a creative powerhouse, with credits including a producer of Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself on Broadway, and as curator of The Hammer Museum’s forthcoming Pacific Standard Time exhibition, Breath(e): Towards Climate and Social Justice. But Kaino hardly does it alone.

It takes a lot of trees to make a forest, so to speak, and such is the case here. There is the intellectual heft of The Atlantic magazine, which is acts as lead presenter and offers an archive of over 150 years of writings on nature as a jumping off point. There are the deep pockets of Mastercard, which is the main sponsor and, you know, keeps the lights on. There is also the know-how of experiential art production team at Superblue, aided by the stewardship of executive producer Vance Garret who also helped launch Sleep No More, Museum of Ice Cream, and 29Rooms. Then there is the music, which was another show highlight. The soundtrack was produced by TV on the Radio founder David Andrew Sitek, who along with Kaino formed the the art and music collective High Seas.

In sum, the vast array of talent meshes to create a one-of-a-kind environment that showcases stories of Indigenous people, captures viewers’ imaginations, and reorients them towards climate justice. And yeah, there’s also a little L.A. history woven in too.


Animatronic head piece at A Forest for the Trees. Photo by Brian Champlin

The final beat of the experience is built around the re-creation of a 144 year-old fig tree that once stood on Olvera Street near the birthplace of Los Angeles. The tree fell in 2019, but remains were kept at Angel City Lumber, which is how it came to Kaino’s attention.

This version of the fig has, in place of leaves, a cloud of steel cubes, each housing a small light that flicks on or off and changes color like a pixel on a computer screen. Music plays. Lights on the tree blink and then unify, first in bright white, then in more vibrant colors. The transformation underscores the optimistic tone of the show. That which is broken or shattered can be pieced back together, with the right mindset and a spirit of collaboration. It’s a noble thought, and one I hope doesn’t go unnoticed by those attracted merely to the pretty lights and the Instagrammable installations.

Resurrection of the Olvera Fig. Photo by Brian Champlin

With tickets for off-peak hours starting at $20 for adult (or $18 if you pay with a Mastercard), the price point isn’t out of reach for most. In fact, if you contrast it with the going rate for some other recent “immersive” experiences it feels like an outright bargain. In total the experience runs about an hour. If you have a chance, I highly recommend checking it out. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year.

A Forest for the Trees starts on Friday, May 13, and runs through summer 2022 (no firm end date yet disclosed). Tickets are $10-$50, depending on child or adult, and peak or non-peak hours. Hours of operation are Wednesday to Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Ace Mission Studios is located at 516 South Mission Road, Los Angeles. Get tickets and more info here.


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