Standardizing Nature: Trees, Wood, Lumber
This project began during an artistic residency in Berlin during which I decided to look at nature within the urban landscape. I used photography as a means to document the places where nature seeped through the constructed landscape. Here it appeared, as in many other large and densely populated cities, that nature had been all but obliterated, relegated to small pockets here and there, corralled in parks, stuffed into planters and treated as a commodity in flower shops and hardware stores. I became interested in these truncated and commoditized versions of nature as materials worthy of attention. For example, I made plaster casts of planters, the containers where houseplants grow, disconnected, literally, from the earth and the elements. I also began to draw with graphite directly on lumber, more specifically on those perfectly squared pieces of wood that reveal their organic nature only on their surface. These small experiments and interventions made me want to further investigate natural materials – where they come from and how we change them from their original form in order to use them.
For the past two years I have narrowed my focus to trees and wood. I have come to appreciate first-hand Erik Rutkow's observation that "there is nothing else in nature quite as helpful to man as a tree." (1) Trees and their by-products are used for so many essential things—shelter, furniture, tools, transport, fuel, paper—to list the most obvious. Trees provide sustenance (ie. sugar, nuts and fruit) and forests extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Trees also provide comfort and respite, offering us shade and something to lean on when we need a break from our urban concrete lives.
Wood is vastly diverse in its characteristics. It is a material that has been used for thousands of years and its uses have been expanded by new technologies. Engineered wood, also known as composite or man-made wood, has stretched the material itself (in size and shape) and fortified it (structurally), thus increasing the range of its applications. I am intrigued by the 'improvements' made to this natural, renewable, and highly versatile resource. I am also interested in how industry has adapted over time to changing demands and created a set of standards for these materials.
In the 1830s the now ubiquitous 2 × 4 became a standard building unit with the advent of balloon framing which replaced post-and-beam building construction used for millennia. The fact that wood could be pre-cut to standard lengths increased efficiencies in construction. In addition to requiring less wood, this type of construction required less skilled labor as the dimensional lumber could be nailed in place instead of requiring the more complex mortise and tenon joints used in post-and-beam construction.
And yet wood is a material which, even when standardized, retains its inherent uniqueness and individuality. When you see a log pile, or a stack of 2 × 4s, the individual characteristics seem lost to the whole. In Dressed Lumber, I wanted to take the unit out of the whole and focus upon its particularities, its specificity. In this installation, I have put on display an accumulation of various sizes of dimensional lumber. Here the wood is rendered irrelevant, inconsequential in its utilitarian aspects, and on exhibition simply leaning against a wall. I have intervened by drawing directly on the lumber using the standard tools of the industry—pencil, a tape measure, masking tape, and household paint. While these drawings can be read as useless, pointless, repetitive marks in contrast to the 'value added' labour of using these materials to build something, the straight edged graphite lines and the white paint instead serve to emphasize, and allow us to study more closely, the material at hand: its grain, knots, scars, cracks, growth rings, warping, joints, and more. These gestures are my rebellion against the reduction of trees into a single dimension. Moreover, the repetitive gestures are there to underscore that the very act of repetition is what creates a standard.
In parallel to the installation work, I decided to use the photographic medium to further explore the various types of standards for dimensional lumber. To begin, I photographed pieces individually in studio. This process resulted in a series of portraits of standards—their titles reflect their dimensions and the name used in retail stores to identify their desirable characteristics. The nomenclature provides further insight into the conventions used in the forest industry: 1 × 1 × 4 Pressure Treated Nailing Strip, 2 × 6 × 92 5/8 SPF (Spruce Pine Fir) Select Stud, 1 × 6 × 5 Premium Western Red Cedar, 1 × 4 × 8 SPF FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) Mix Select. In addition, I considered it important to visit and document the places where the transition from tree to lumber takes place. I traveled to tree nurseries, managed lots, sawmills, lumber yards, and hardware stores to see how trees are cut, sawn, dried (air or kiln) and ultimately commoditized. Finally, I set out to photograph the standards in use—on location—playing their designated roles.
I am interested in such roles, in the tension between the individual and the group, the tree and the forest, and the idea of standards, conformity and deviations, as well as tolerance. As Lawrence Busch explains in his book, Standards: A recipe for reality,
"Standards (and technologies) are dangerous because they are so easily naturalized, because in following them we amplify certain aspects of the world while reducing others, and we are thereby overwhelmed by their (and our) power."
Standards are also necessary, constructive, and productive as long as they are fair, equitable and effective. Standards are essential to civilization and they "shape not only the physical world around us but also our social lives and even our selves."
For me, this project is really about encouraging people to question and understand the reasoning and decision-making behind the 'shape' of things. It is about a concern for the natural resources we harness from the earth and the form, function, and role they play in our everyday lives. Economies and industries are built around these decisions and they 'reverberate' outwards from the center like rings in the core of a tree. Those standards set the 'tone' for future generations and the kind of world we, and they, will live in.
1. Rutkow, Eric. American Canopy: Trees, Forests, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Scribner, 2012.