A Life of its Own: The Pine Barrens Project

Q&A With David Scott Kessler, Curator and Filmmaker 

The 1.1-million-acre New Jersey Pine Barrens represents the largest open space on the Eastern seaboard between Boston and Richmond and roughly 22% of the nation’s most densely populated state. Under the sandy soil lie 17 trillion gallons of pristine water in the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer, supplying 2 million people with drinking water. 

Despite countless threats and continued abuses, this unlikely land of fire, folklore and endangered species has persisted. The endurance of the Pine Barrens is attributed to the relationship between people and the natural world, which remains strong in this region through agriculture, storytelling, recreation and advocacy.   

Influenced by this distinct ecology and history, The Pine Barrens Project explores our cultural and creative relationship with the natural world, one that we will need to continue fostering to maintain a healthy and habitable planet.   

Excited about this unique, experiential event, we turned to David Scott Kessler — curator, Philadelphia artist, filmmaker and Pew Arts & Heritage Fellow — to learn more. 

What was your inspiration for this project? 

DSK: I started working with film in the early 2000s to experiment beyond the visual art I created before that, primarily painting and drawing. I became fascinated with the sense and character of place, what place means to people, how the experience of place is influenced by stories and preconceived ideas.  

Around 2011, with these ideas in mind, I began to think about ways to depict the Pine Barrens, a place that I had previously never been to, but whose stories kept coming my way. The initial idea was to explore my perception of the Pine Barrens and how it might change with time and familiarity. That began a journey, now in its 11th year, that includes many other artists, musicians and dozens of people I’ve met along the way who chose to reveal their Pine Barrens story to me. 

With a live orchestra and a collection of film works, Academy specimens and art installations, The Pine Barrens Project experience offers a lot. What do you hope program participants gain from it?
DSK: The Pine Barrens is understood through its history, folklore, personal stories and scientific discoveries. The many kinds of relationships people have with the Pine Barrens culminate to generate a particular identity of the land and its denizens. These identities are constantly in flux as both the land and perceptions change over time. In The Pine Barrens Project, artistic interpretation, documentary and scientific specimens all share equal space and draw lines between them, how they influence each other, and propel each other forward — including the often undervalued role of imagination in scientific study.  

The hope is that this viewpoint can be applied to any particular place. An exhibit is successful if the viewer leaves with stimulated senses to project on to their surroundings. Understanding and experiencing a place from so many viewpoints also feels like one of the best ways I’ve seen as a first step in preserving that place.  

The Pine Barrens is understood through its history, folklore, personal stories and scientific discoveries.
Mike Servedio/ANS

Presented in a variety of places such museums, galleries, fields and forests, your film continues to evolve and speak to our relationship with nature. Can you tell us more?
DSK: One of the most exciting things about The Pine Barrens Project is how much influence the location where the film is screened has. It has been illuminating to see how the shifting state of the live score, the art and nature around it and the particular audience can alter the experience in many unpredictable ways. It is interesting for a project with a documentary at its core to have these wildly differing experiences and singular moments happening in real-time.  

Layering recorded and real-time experiences can encourage us to ask questions about our relationship to nature by seeing it from different perspectives, contrasting the spaces we inhabit or enhancing the sense of personal experience. 
The Pine Barrens project has always seemed to have a life of its own, so it’s difficult to say what will happen after this iteration. For the most part, I see taking what I have learned and gained from The Pine Barrens Project and applying it to new works, new places and new collaborations.  

This might be the last chance to see The Pine Barrens Project, at least for a little while. 

“The Pine Barrens” film depicts the character of a place that seems fluid and unknowable.

The Pine Barrens Project takes place at the Academy on Saturday, February 12. Kessler’s feature-length film “The Pine Barrens” will be shown at 5 p.m. accompanied by a live score by The Ruins of Friendship Orchestra. Register to join us and experience this one-of-a-kind event. Tickets are limited.  

If you can’t make it, a virtual screening is available the weekend of February 12 – February 14. The virtual screening includes access to an exclusive virtual Q&A with director David Scott Kessler on Tuesday, February 15, from 7–8 p.m. 

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