Floor Plan / Essay / Catalog

We see this 3D floor plan as a working document of our plans for installing the physical exhibition, and as a way to envision the spatial relationship between the works included in the project. While active, visitors could navigate this digital space with their mouse or keyboard.


A New Tilling of Old Soil

by co-curators Fiona Ball, Naz Cuguoğlu, Chloe Kwiatkowski, and Orly Vermes

The Word for World is Forest proposes a future that values conscious symbiosis. It invites the audience to envision an existence of mutual respect, care, and survival. Artists Sofía Córdova, Beatriz Cortez, Candice Lin, Allison Smith, and Patrick Staff provide lenses for viewing time as malleable and circular—constructing a world where the future is, in fact, possible and within reach.

This exhibition takes its name from Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest. In the 1972 work, Le Guin imagines a future scenario where humans have created a colony on another planet to exploit the native population and strip the land of its resources, as they have done in reality many times over on this planet. The native community, called the Athsheans, live in peace and harmony with their surroundings. Athsheans see all beings as interconnected: In their language, the word for “world” and “forest” is the same.

As an experiment to align a curatorial vision with Le Guin, we strived to become human, become humus, or as ecofeminist and theorist Donna J. Haraway suggests, become-with her, rather than speak about her. Both Le Guin and the artists featured in The Word for World is Forest look to speculative fiction and its strategies to imagine new ways of being after trauma. A broader term encompassing genres such as science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, and utopian and dystopian fiction, speculative fiction carries the potential for imagination. The genre provides a platform to rewrite power structures—a space to envision anti-colonial or decolonial futures. Speculative fiction provides us with alternative futures and ways to move forward.

The Vine May Take Over the Gallery

Many of the exhibition’s artworks utilize organic materials to create a new consciousness. Various plant lives are cherished for their intrinsic existence, and mutual care and respect are restored. The power relations between plant allies and human bodies are equalized.

Sofía Córdova’s new video, finished for this exhibition as part of her dawn chorus series (ongoing), takes place five hundred years in the future. Filmed in Finland, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, the work is a meditation on post-ecological collapse. Córdova imagines a future where the site of capitalistic worship has been destroyed and a deluge has left humanity in a state of ambivalence. The work opens with a poem by Puerto Rican poet and activist Julia de Burgos titled “Yo fui la mas callada” (“I Was the Quietest”). The poem tells a narrative marked by references to both the sea and desert. In the video, underlying imagery of barren sand dunes and lush green foliage are references to the Finnish Civil War and Hurricane Maria’s destruction in Puerto Rico. At times acting as protagonists, the forest and the desert become ever-present backdrops to Córdova’s historical retellings and futuristic speculations.

Candice Lin and Patrick Staff’s Hormonal Fog (2016–ongoing) sets the scene for a future where the body is truly malleable and vulnerable. Hormonal Fog is a smoke machine that makes use of homemade herbal tinctures to produce a smoke of hormones that lowers testosterone levels in the body. In a text written about this work, Lin and Staff ask, “What is ancient about herbalism and what is modern about gender transition? What is modern about herbalism, and what is ancient about transitioning?” (1) This symbiotic relationship between body and plants brings us back to the words of Haraway. Her book Staying with the Trouble echoes the importance of an equitable relationship between humankind and nature as a way of recognizing the inalienable rights of all beings. She writes,

Instructed by companion species of the myriad terran kingdoms in all their placetimes, we need to reseed our souls and our home worlds in order to flourish—again, or maybe just for the first time—on a vulnerable planet that is not yet murdered…Recuperation is still possible, but only in multispecies alliance, across the killing divisions of nature, culture, and technology and of organism, language, and machine. (2)

The importance of a multispecies coalition in order to save the planet (and ourselves) cannot be denied. According to Haraway, a decolonized feminist future cannot exist with human beings at the top of a speciated hierarchy. We all must recognize that humanity has much to learn from our kindred species, and we are not the masters of the earth. The nonhuman kin that surrounds us has as much to contribute to the quality of life on this planet as we do, and have as much of a breathing, living consciousness—and right to exist—as we do.

Haraway also cites Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest as a narrative of the all-too-familiar struggle between colonization and a thriving multispecies planet. She states that one must look back to terraforming, to the cultivation of the earth and its sacred rights, to bring forth a future worth living. (3) We must look to the seeds for knowledge and leadership. We must let the plants show us their voice.

Created by the curatorial cohort through the instruction and guidance of Beatriz Cortez and her collaborator Elizabeth Pérez Márquez, a garden, initially intended for the gallery, has been grown in our homes. As Cortez notes—these plants are gifts from Indigenous ancestors across the Americas who preserved them for us. To create a generous exchange between the plants and humanity, we have included instructions for planting your own garden in the catalog. On the last day of the exhibition, the public would be invited to take an individual plant home with them, to care for and cultivate it for nourishment and for the generations who are yet to come.

To Dream Is to Act

In Le Guin’s novella, the Athsheans do not distinguish between dream-time and world-time. We echo this belief in our exhibition. All human beings share the ability to dream. Dreams mean. They are poems; reflections of disorganized thoughts; vivid, terrifying nocturnal episodes; experiences arising during sleep.

The Athsheans dismantle any hierarchy between the real and the dreamt. Their radical idea pushes dreaming beyond mere speculation and solidifies it as equally valuable to our experiences in waking life. This practice is reflected in some of the artworks in the exhibition where the artist uses dreams as their guide to render tangible objects. It is the dreamers’ job to determine how to make use of their dreams and not dismiss the irrational simply because it may require decoding. While dreaming is often defined as an involuntary act, The Word for World is Forest asks to rethink it as a practice that should be cultivated and utilized.

What is a hallucination if not another strand of dreaming? This is dreaming that is self-induced through substances or resulting from extreme exhaustion. It can be no coincidence that the body produces visions after extreme amounts of pressure. For this Wattis presentation, Candice Lin’s Witness (Blue Version) and (Yellow Version) (both 2019) come to us from this sacred space. Lin conjured her own hallucinations by dosing herself with herbal tinctures.The tapestry worn as a yellow coat by one of the Witness figures is made from a drawing done under the influence of Datura metel (datura, devil’s trumpet), and the pattern for the blue coat was created under the influence of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy). Lin’s practice reaches beyond just possibilities. The ability of plants to have psychoactive effects on our consciousness is an example of intricacies of relationships across species. Her work takes into account the very real histories of migration and control, and the ways that race, gender, and economics shape our world. The masks worn by the Witness figures, which elicit medieval masks of shame, evoke dehumanization through humiliation.

Allison Smith enters a similar dream-like space through focused meditation. Instead of using plants, Smith uses carefully crafted devices that amplify her introspective state. Her sculptures titled Ritual Instruments for Addressing 400 Years of Trouble (Harms Done, Harm None) (2019–2020) are handmade objects that facilitate an attempt to heal the pain and grief caused by the artist’s ancestors. With unique personal stories, these objects provide a meditative space for the audience, often ready to be activated through private rituals. Her glass hearing trumpets take form as facilitators for deep listening. With these objects, Smith intends to make herself open to messages and visions that come from a deeper, practiced consciousness. Visitors to the exhibition are welcome to bring their ear to this instrument and engage in deliberate listening.

Similarly, the form of Smith’s urn-shaped instrument came to her in a vision. Rendered in ceramic, the urn is a physical manifestation of a form she was holding while receiving an ancestral transmission in a trance-like state of lucid dreaming: simultaneously a funerary urn, a baby, and the symbol we use in contemporary digital society as the podcast icon. By bringing visions like this into three-dimensional forms that can be used in ritual, the artist deepens a reciprocal relationship with the otherworldly to aid her confrontation with a complicated ancestral history. (4)

These works suggest that we can only begin to enact change in the world when we allow ourselves to dream.

Gathering There, Assembling Here

Beatriz Cortez’s Shields (2019) take the shape of three geodesic domes that occupy the gallery. Viewers are invited to crawl inside each of these tent-like structures. Made out of recycled materials, these sculptures both suggest nomadism as a choice for a future that echoes certain Indigenous ways of living, while raising awareness around the precarity of forced displacement and detention, alongside an unsustainable contemporary housing system. While Cortez’s domes offer a type of shelter, their material form ultimately negates their intended purpose. The steel and car hood metal that comprises these Shields makes them impossible for one person to lift alone. Their small size barely allows for a person to lie down. While Shields ultimately is not a sustainable housing structure, it does demonstrate a thinking toward alternatives for the future. Shields acknowledges the urgency required in the midst of a nationwide housing crisis, perhaps most prominently in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Another two works in Smith’s Instrument series, which she refers to as Goddexx statues, are mounted sculptures made from found materials: a rock, sculpted by nature and found on a beach on an island off the coast of Maine, and lumpen metal, sculpted by a Northern California wildfire. By gathering and assembling these materials to create upright objects of worship of nonbinary orientation, Smith alters the notion of a divine feminine. These ready-made genderqueer statues draw on associations with historical “goddess” figures. To Smith, the statues represent a yearning for a pre-patriarchal symbiosis with nature, as well as a return to an ancient religious devotion to the natural world—a devotion that existed prior to the trouble caused by European migration and colonization of the new world.(5) Smith’s European lineage migrated to North America and became settler colonizers—a fact that Smith also openly acknowledges in her work. Her objects carry the tension of migrative encounters and complicated histories, while also providing a hope for curative objects with the potential to heal past, present, and future generations.

As for the Indigenous community in The Word for World is Forest, histories of oppression and colonization cannot be forgotten even as we attempt to return to a decolonized understanding of our relationship to the planet.(6) Despite the atrocities of our past, we can all recognize their existence and create something better. We can investigate ways to build on top, to replant displaced knowledge, and to cultivate new ideas within the soil that has already been tilled. The world as we know it may not need to be thrown away just to see something new.


(1) Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, “Reading And Smoking: Candice Lin and Patrick Staff on the Malleable Body,” Walker Reader, October 1, 2019.
(2) Donna J. Haraway, “Sowing Worlds,” in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 118.
(3) Ibid., 121.
(4) Allison Smith, conversation with authors, January 23, 2020.
(5) Ibid.
(6) It is important to note that Le Guin herself has a complexity rooted in her family history. Her father was Alfred L. Kroeber—an anthropologist who extensively researched Indigenous people of Northern California, and who infamously claimed that the Esselen people were extinct. When Ishi, “the last known member of the Native American Yahi people,” emerged near Oroville, California, Kroeber was the one who brought him in for further study to the University of California, Berkeley. Ishi, at one point, was put on view at the Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco until his death from tuberculosis a few years later. See: Deborah A. Miranda, Bad Indians (Berkeley: Heyday, 2013), 69; and Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961).