Grant Stevens: The Forest

By Nina Miall

Since the early 2000s, Grant Stevens has developed an extensive body of work using moving image, text, and photography. While his early videos often focused on the role of language and communication in shaping our experiences, his more recent projects have turned towards our perceptions of time in an age of instant gratification. Harnessing the real-time potentials of 3D gaming software, these works provide opportunities for quietude and reflection, against a backdrop that demands speed and immediacy. In a new work Below the Mountains…, cameras pan across a vast computer-generated landscape, evolving over a limitless duration. Natural cycles of the sun, tides, and seasons come and go, as geological features erode and uplift, and trees grow and decay. 

In another new work The Forest, presented this June at Sullivan+Strumpf, a generous panorama immerses the viewer in a forest landscape that has all the hallmarks - towering conifers, flower-strewn meadow, snowy mountain backdrop - of a restorative screensaver. A single camera roams the computer-generated terrain, taking the subtle environmental dynamics of the scene into its purview. Artificially intelligent, the camera’s tracking movements over the hyperreal topography are randomized by an algorithm to create an endless, and endlessly soothing, iteration. The salutary promise of the scene is heightened by the soundscape which, with its vacillating orchestral harmonies, heralds a perpetual new dawn. 

Closer scrutiny unsettles the experience of The Forest, though, revealing the paradoxes of its simulated setting. The curative potential of the work’s alpine imagery, originally associated with the Romantic sublime and more recently promoted by mindfulness apps, is undermined by an increasingly disquieting sense of absence: of people, fauna, action or climax. Steady and purposeful, the camera’s navigation of the scene implies an almost sentient logic, its intention increasingly unclear. As the video unfolds in real time, time within the forest doesn’t pass, the shadows arrested in the mid-afternoon, the scene’s weather conditions unchanging. With extended viewing, occasional glitches in the otherwise beautifully rendered imagery snag your eye, while your ear wakes up to subtle dissonances within the soundscape. Discord takes root, and our ready affinity for the representation of nature’s hackneyed tropes slowly unravels.    

Drawing on the visual languages of video gaming and the wellness industry with their high production values, The Forest continues Stevens’ interrogation of the conventions of representation, how they shape our inner lives and outer projections. Having worked with computer graphics throughout his practice, this new form of digital simulation allows Stevens to manipulate both the seductive and suspicious qualities of its aesthetic strategies with considered ambivalence. As the artist explains, “digital simulation provides an uneasy proxy for sensory immersion in a natural setting that is both idealised and homogenised through algorithms”. Part homage to the natural environment, part reflection on quests for personal growth, and part satire of wellbeing initiatives and their claims to rejuvenation, The Forest’s therapeutic promise may remain unfulfilled, but the work gives us pause to consider our perennial desire for meaning and insight, and the ways in which we seek them.