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Prospect Park to Host Experimental Opera For and About Trees

Kamala Sankaram’s first public artwork, which is centered on trees, is called The Last Stand and will be installed in the park in September
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Prospect Park. Photo: Elizabeth Keegin Colley. Courtesy of Prospect Park Alliance.

An experimental opera for and about trees is coming to Prospect Park next month, offering audiences a chance to reflect on the life of trees and their own responsibilities towards them.

The Last Stand is a public sound installation from artist Kamala Sankaram, who said the project stemmed from the urgent need to address climate change and our roles in it.

"In the wake of this year's catastrophic heat, storms and floods, the immediacy of the climate emergency has only become clearer," she said.

"We can no longer hold ourselves separate from the world around us. Rather, to stave off the most devastating effects of climate change, we must recognize the interconnectedness of humankind with our delicate world and all the living beings that inhabit it."

She said it was her hope that by allowing people to try and step inside the perspective of a tree, "to experience its different intelligence and sense of time, we can rekindle this sense of connection."

Sankaram translates scientific literature, tree communication and historic environmental sounds into subsonic vibrations for multiple registers of tree and human sensation.

The narrative is accessed by the trees themselves through the ground, as well by humans, including deaf and hard of hearing visitors, through vibrational benches.

The Last Stand is inspired by Dr. Suzanne Simard's groundbreaking discoveries that trees communicate and share resources with each other and a vast array of forest life through complex underground fungal networks.

Sankaram's project was chosen from over 400 applications to Creative Time's 2021 Emerging Artist Open Call, which offers the opportunity for an artist to create their first major public artwork.

Located in the heart of Prospect Park, The Last Stand chronicles the lifespan of a 300 year old Northern Red Oak — the "Mother Tree" — from the years 1750 to 2050. The soundscape tells the story of the Mother Tree in Black Rock Forest, a nearly 4,000-acre diverse ecosystem in upstate New York with tree species tracing back 14,000 years.

Sankaram created field recordings of the environment to develop sounds for the installation, which will be experienced through rhythms, looped sounds, and the physical vibrations they generate, Creative Time explained in a press release.

Over the course of 10 hours, the opera spans the Mother Tree's life from acorn to its "last stand," the final burst of life-giving energy a tree gives to its vast forest life network before it dies.

Trees and visitors will experience sounds native to the natural environment, including animal and tree canopy noises, as well as sounds that mimic moments of life-altering tragedy, including invasions from non-native insects to human-induced threats such as excess rain, logging, and fire.

Lastly, the audience will be taken into the future with sounds that hint at the catastrophic effects of climate change, calling attention to the symbiotic and sometimes negative relationships within ecosystems. 

Creative Time Executive Director Justine Ludwig said Sankaram's project drew from the work of groundbreaking thinkers from diverse fields and centered on the knowledge that can be gleaned from different species while dealing with the realities of the climate crisis.

The Last Stand will be on view from September 18 through October 10.


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