Lost in the Pine Barrens: An Essay on Middle of Nowhere

By Bridget A. Purcell

Whitesbog Preservation Trust, photo by David Scott Kessler

On a bright Saturday afternoon in September, Middle of Nowhere was held in Whitesbog Historic Village, a remote location within the dense forests of Brendan Byrne State Park in southern New Jersey. Curated by David Scott Kessler and Jen Brown, the event combined film screenings, outdoor installations, a gallery exhibition, and performances within the mysterious landscape of the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Produced by Atlas Obscura, in partnership with the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, over 400 locals and visitors from elsewhere attended the experience. Kessler, a 2015 Pew Arts and Heritage Fellow, developed the project through work on his documentary The Pine Barrens and a series of collaborations with the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra that began in 2012. Middle of Nowhere was first held in Whitesbog in 2016 and the project returned in September of this year with a newly curated group of artworks.

Alex Schechter, Cetacea, 2016, photo by David Scott Kessler

Whitesbog is about an hour from Philadelphia, following a meandering highway path lined with chain retail stores, eventually intersecting with a quiet road that abruptly leads to a disorienting expanse of forest. For out-of-state visitors, the landscape is not at all what one might expect in the middle of New Jersey, a state known for its suburban sprawl and strip mall plazas. The Pine Barrens contains a unique ecosystem of plants and animals, with a finicky sandy soil that, in moments, almost looks like a desert, making it all but impossible to grow certain things, though cranberries and blueberries are native to the area and form the area’s primary industry. Middle of Nowhere offered visitors a chance to experience and contemplate art while connecting with this surprising and otherworldly atmosphere.

Theo Mullen III, Self 1, 2019, photo by David Scott Kessler

There were works by 20 artists onsite for Middle of Nowhere, including performance works, films, sculptures, and installations set up alongside the winding paths weaving around the cranberry bogs. One of the historic site’s old cottages featured a well-curated selection of works that meditated on the natural and cultural properties of the land, with emphasis on the breaking down of matter and cyclical lifespans. Dense oil paintings by Rebecca Saylor Sack depicted organic matter from plants cutting into the surface of the paintings, layering over one another in colorful strokes. Some of the artists utilized natural material directly from the area to create their works, pulling samples of organic matter and plant life to create unique works of art. Artist John Vigg collected soil samples and local artifacts for his work Topology Navigation, while Steph Mantis exhibited photomicrographs of moss samples from Whitesbog, enlarged to make the ecosystem visible for the viewer. These pieces encouraged close looking within the context of the Pine Barrens, providing studies of the space in particles as well as on a more molecular and cellular level. 

Tory Fair, Portable Window, 2019, photo by Billy Dufala

Live performances utilized the Pine Barrens as a living backdrop, including a musical performance by Laraaji and Arji OceAnada. Laraaji is a pioneer in ambient music, best known for the collaboration he worked on in 1980 with Brian Eno; OceAnada is a musician, sound healer, and reiki master. For their collaborative piece, they developed tonal music through ambient repetition, combining chimes and laughter with spoken word performance. The piece moved at a calm and relaxed pace and had lovely passages of sound, in moments feeling much like a guided meditation. Another performance, occurring after sunset and performed by Erik Ruin and the Ominous Cloud Ensemble, featured layered overhead projector transparencies and shredded paper displayed on a screen. The layered, linear visuals of the imagery worked in tandem with the shadows of the trees and the starry sky, with the sounds of the ensemble echoing out into the space and breaking down into distortion. Both performances utilized sound to create an auditory experience in the context of the woods, working with the echoing quality of the space to create art that allowed visitors to interact with the Pine Barrens in yet another distinct way.

Laraaji and Arji “OceAnanda” Cakouros performing at Middle of Nowhere, photo by David Scott Kessler

A screening of the 1975 film Pine Barrens by artist Nancy Holt was offered throughout the day on loop, projected inside of a darkened former barrel factory in Whitesbog. Holt’s film had never previously been screened in the Pine Barrens, and the piece was provided by the Holt-Smithson Foundation, which is based in New Mexico. Holt utilized a handheld camera to document a version of the Pine Barrens that, in some ways, no longer exists. Holt’s interviews with Pine Barrens residents speak of a level of geographic and cultural isolation that they willingly chose over city life. The residents who engage in dialogue during Holt’s film stress the importance of intimately knowing how to navigate the forest and of how easy it is to lose your way in disorienting stretches of land that don’t always have easily identifiable landmarks. There is self-sufficiency in the lifestyle they describe, a desire for contemplation and quiet, days and hours with none of the unending distractions of contemporary life. Holt’s film documents the ebb and flow of this community without judgment, pointing to a specific way of life and a level of isolation that was perhaps easier to achieve in decades past. 

Nancy Holt, Pine Barrens, 1975, installation view

Holt’s film offers a contemplative and introspective view of the landscape, with a style of shooting that suggests a human presence, and a limited palette of colors determined by the greens and browns of the forest. The residents’ words weave in and out of meditative images of trees, plants, and blue skies, with sounds from the forest and music from the area intermixed. Her film came about via a body of experimental Land Art works that were made in the 70s in New Jersey by Holt, Robert Smithson, and other artists, which sought to challenge and upend the viewer’s relationship to land and landscape. Holt was an outsider to the Pine Barrens and her film was screened in museums and galleries for decades before returning to the Pine Barrens for the first time during this iteration of Middle of Nowhere. Holt’s film formed lovely symbiotic relationships with the outdoor installations included on the site, including a piece by artist Sarah Brook entitled PBJN (All The Beats To Yes)that was installed near the cranberry bogs. Brook created a series of sculptural pieces using colored panes of acrylic, each suspended between two long metal supports and installed in a row which caught the light from the sun and transformed in color and transparency depending on the time of day. 

Middle of Nowhere concluded with a screening of co-curator, artist, and filmmaker David Scott Kessler’s documentary The Pine Barrens. Kessler’s film was created more than forty years after Nancy Holt’s film and thus offers an interesting contrast to the isolated community Holt depicts. Like Holt, Kessler is an outsider to the Pine Barrens, though he did not view her film prior to creating his own documentary and thus does not refer to it as something that directly inspired him. The screening of Kessler’s film was set to a live score performed by the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, immersing the viewer in a rich experience of image and music while surrounded by the trees and sounds of the woods. Similar to Holt’s film, Kessler’s work features intimate interviews with Pine Barrens residents; he documents thoughtful conversations that took place in homes, during fireside chats, or inside the forest itself, utilizing a cinematic touch and visually stunning shots of the landscape. Kessler’s film informs the viewer of how the Pine Barrens came to be a protected nature reserve and of the more recent struggles to keep this protection in place. His film includes scenes from board meetings and political protests of a proposed pipeline project that, if built, would have had a devastating impact on the land and the delicate surrounding ecosystems. While Holt frames the land as space that had more limited uses, Kessler points to a visible political power structure and increased attempts to commodify the land to make it more profitable. The interviews in Kessler’s film reveal ongoing structural changes to the space, with large farms pushing out smaller ones and infrastructure damaging natural resources, which point to broader political and economic narratives within a shifting American landscape.

Screening of David Scott Kessler’s The Pine Barrens with a live performance by the Ruins of Friendship Orchestra, photo by David Scott Kessler

Kessler’s documentary offers nuanced contemplations on the intersection of place and identity within the Pine Barrens—many of the residents he interviewed speak of long family histories within the space, where a strong connection to the land equates to respect, with generations of people passing down farms, stories, and homes. There is a regional mythology that comes with the forest, with varying stories about the Jersey Devil shared next to a campfire. The term often used to describe residents of the Pine Barrens is ‘piney,’ and Kessler allows the conversation around what makes someone a piney to be complex, as residents featured in the film speak of the unfair stereotypes that are often assigned to them by outsiders. Allen Crawford, a passionate and knowledgeable naturalist featured in the film, serves as a recurring guide and his ongoing narrations help the viewer to better connect with the ecology of the space.

Middle of Nowhere, installation view with works by Rebecca Saylor Sack, Steph Mantis, Emily Carris and Corey Duncan, and Steven Earl Weber

Apparent connections could be made between Kessler’s film and a collaborative work entitled Transmutation by artists Emily Carris and Corey Duncan, featured in the gallery exhibition. Carris and Duncan hand-dyed fabric with natural materials and iron derived from slave shackles, which was then carefully cut and sewed to create a representation of the Confederate flag. The flag also makes an appearance on the hat of a speaker in Kessler’s film, as well as a discussion in which it is explained that the Mason-Dixon Line does not technically include southern New Jersey as it cuts off at an angle to form part of the Delaware border. The appearance of the flag as a symbol is a stark reminder that even though the Pine Barrens as a region is in many ways isolated from the areas surrounding it, it is still part of a larger political framework. Its residents are enmeshed in the broader political dialogues enveloping the whole of the country, existing in a fractured and partisan America that has mounting tensions between rural areas and cities, as well as major disconnects between citizens and their government.

Middle of Nowhere allowed residents from various zip codes and states, who might not normally interact with one another, to come together for one day in September. As Allen Crawford points out in Kessler’s film, people generally only choose to fight for something after they decide they care about it, positioning the act of contemplating someone else’s story and sitting with a complicated dialogue as a form of activism. On a late September day that was unseasonably hot, even while far away from any major city and surrounded by trees, one couldn’t help but think of the rapidly changing climate as an example of an entity that links all of us. The Middle of Nowhere experience was actually cut off slightly early due to the sudden appearance of a lightning-filled rainstorm, proof that in the end, we are all visitors, and the land itself always has the final word. 

Middle of Nowhere, September 28th, 2019 Historic Whitesbog Village, Browns Mill, NJ 

The Pine Barrens, feature-length film by David Scott Kessler with live score by The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra

Performances by: Laraaji & Arji OceAnada, Jackson Pines, Grassland, Erik Ruin’s Ominous Ensemble

Artworks by: Nancy Holt, Kristen Neville Taylor, Emily Carris, Nick Lenker, Raúl Romero, Rebecca Saylor Sack, J. Alex Schechter, Jacob Lunderby, Steven Earl Weber, Theo Mullen, Megan Biddle, Tory Fair, Austen Camille Weymueller, John Vigg, Sarah E. Brook, Steph Mantis, J. Makary, Christina P. Day, Kaitlin Pomerantz, and Rita Leduc

Bridget A. Purcell is a visual artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. She obtained degrees in creative studies from Tyler School of Art and Washington University in St. Louis, and her artwork has been shown in Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Rome, Italy. She first contributed to Title Magazine in 2017, and she has previously published works of art writing with the Artblog, the St. Claire, and NAPOLEON.