The Rootless Forest
Edible Eastside, Ikon, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, and The Spotted Dog Pub, Birmingham and The New Art Gallery Walsall
The Rootless Forest is a mobile artwork, a forest planted on a converted canal hopper boat that through August and October 2012 is travelling through Birmingham and the Black Country. This living sculpture made up of 100 trees transports at a walking pace a soundscape consisting of verbatim stories from individuals affected by the current conflict in Afghanistan.
Broadcasting the experiences of military personnel, their family members and political refugees, their accounts speak of the impact of conflict less commonly covered in the media. The anonymous individuals are frank in their description of their displacement and relocation, which is the subtext to the major narrative of conflict, including the vulnerability to homelessness of veterans and the absolute upheaval caused by being forced to leave one’s home country.
Lead artist Beth Derbyshire first conceived the project in 2009 inspired by the moving forest, Birnam Wood, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Derbyshire’s practice navigates subjects including war, remembrance, nationality and environment, driven by collaboration and presented as innovative multi-disciplinary projects in the public realm.
Locating The Rootless Forest’s journey in Birmingham allows the project to draw on its rich history as a military city. The route of the forest along Birmingham’s historic industrial waterways passes the defunct gun factories, which once made up the centre of the world’s firearm manufacture. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham has since 2001 been the base of the main receiving unit for all military patients injured overseas. Birmingham has also long been a home to many migrant communities and is now considered to have the largest population of Afghan people outside of London, a high proportion of which have been displaced by war.
Reflecting on the upheaval experienced by families, individuals and communities in times of conflict, The Rootless Forest aims to provide audience members with new insights into who they share their city with.
Standing at a point central to the 16m length of the boat it is possible to hear from one side a young man returning to Birmingham after his first tour of service in Afghanistan listing the things that represent home to him, and a mother describing her son frozen like a sculpture as his father is reunited with them after weeks of anxious separation. This divide literalises the division of these two sides to the conflict. This oral history crafted by Beth Derbyshire and voice director Tara Mcallister-Veil was facilitated by the charities Afghan Action and Shoulder to Shoulder, through which they were able to make contact and develop relationships with these two communities.
In addition to The Rootless Forest’s main route via the canals of the region, the journey extends on to land with Beyond the Pale, a series of symposia and artist’s talks, which has been developed by Beth Derbyshire and Birmingham based artist Cathy Wade. Drawing on the root of the word pale, meaning a boundary or edge to a forest, the events seek to embrace themes of exploration, occupation, settlement and resilience beyond the central focus on the Afghan conflict.
The Rootless Forest will find a permanent home at the end of its journey as a living monument in Walsall Arboretum. The trees are ash, alder, oak, and birch, pioneer species that colonise previously uncolonised land, usually leading to strong ecological growth. Planted in a formation that reflects the barge on which they travelled the forest’s legacy will continue as a memorial to the living.