Wondering in the Woods
- Radio Healer
Radio Healer is a Xicanx and Native American-led collective founded in Phoenix, Arizona, whose membership currently includes Edgar Cardenas, Raven Kemp, Cristóbal Martínez, and Meredith Martínez. These artist-hackers invent electronic tools which they use along with traditional indigenous tools to perform reimagined indigenous ceremonies. Through their installations–immersive environments comprising moving images, tools, regalia, performance, and sound–the collective presents visual and sonic metaphors that defamiliarize the ordinary. Radio Healer's goal is to disrupt perception and provoke audiences to critically consider the complex cultural systems that shape our notions of reality.
The following essay by Radio Healer reflects on their video artwork, Wondering in the Woods. This artwork was originally presented at Convening II of Intersections 2021 and was commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences and Pacific Standard Time 2024, an initiative of the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles. It was subsequently presented online at Southern Exposure, a nonprofit art gallery in San Francisco, at the start of 2022. A three-minute excerpt of the thirty-minute video appears below.
Cruising and descending, a drone cannot think of love, uncertainty, and broken heartedness, but we see the signs of change through its lens. We see the earth shifting through this prosthetic. It is clear that we are part of this force of change, and confused. Perhaps we will reflect with greater frequency and across a larger swath of bandwidth.
Wondering in the Woods combines drone footage of Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, Michigan; footage of noise instruments built and performed by our members; a sound score; and a sequence of narrated micro-stories, simple in shape and structure, which reference a larger, more complicated story of environmental ideation and land use. In the sound score, we use our instruments to fill in frequency gaps that exist in field recordings of the forested urban park, evoking the complexities of the built environment in relation to its ecological context.
The urban park or preserve is a psychological technology analogous to a shoe. It is made of nature, partly, just as a shoe is made of materials derived from nature, partly, and the city wears it as a cushion against its own hardness. An excellent shoe–sturdy, bouncy, and well-maintained–protects the foot from concrete for a time, but it’s never long before the sole degrades, grime tarnishes the finish, and an interior microbial community begins to produce a deeply-embedded reek. One may clean, patch, and resole a shoe, but most only do this when the stink becomes too bad or the concrete too hard to ignore. In this analogy, the value of a park or preserve lies in its functional relationship to the urban spaces around it. The park is an assembly of natural signifiers invoking Western constructs. As long as the park is well-maintained, it serves its function of easing the mind and offering a set of conditions in which the non-human world appears simultaneously domesticated and wild.
This is only a metaphor, a proposition with an incomplete shape that foregrounds certain aspects while causing others to recede in prominence. According to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980, 10-13) in Metaphors We Live By, all metaphors do this. So do stories. For example, one can engage with a story of cleaning trash from the ecosystem of an urban park and easily ignore the larger system of garbage trucks, landfills, industrial runoff, offshore dumping, and other components of global waste mitigation. For another example, one can satirize the romantic appeal of a park while neglecting to disclose that one also loves parks. The shoe metaphor centers the experience of an urban population whose orientation to the park revolves around leisure, while pulling focus away from those who choose or are forced by the economic conditions of the city to use the park as a home. For them, the woods may not be an emotional refuge, but a site of danger and watchfulness. The shoe metaphor also excludes non-human populations who call the park home and fails to address ways in which their health might be measured. A different metaphor would fill these gaps while creating new ones.
Wondering in the Woods offers the proposition that no single metaphor can fully encapsulate the dynamic of humanity acting as a geologic force or resolve the condition of believing in multiple contradictory, competing ways of existing in relation to complex and evolving ecosystems. But the process of analogical thinking–of using metaphors as vehicles for communication and understanding–is important. Metaphor can help us navigate the anxieties inherent to environmental change because it offers a way to imagine the unknown through comparative analysis with the known. It allows us to reach toward something from where we’re standing now. Stories offer this same potential. They provide opportunities for curiosity, reflection, and empathy by suggesting alternative, adjacent ways of understanding, anchored to historical and present realities. Stories help us process our relationship to place, the changes we observe in the spaces we occupy, and the behaviors we take on in response to those changes. The micro-stories we present in Wondering in the Woods are little blisters of ideas and experience. Strung together, they reveal tensions and contradictions. We may not find easy answers when it comes to our relationship to our environment, but we work through the good and the bad regardless of the improbability of clarity and coherence.
Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.