Brendan George Ko The Forest is Wired for Wisdom

Cross-Canada Billboards ⁠ accessible_forward
10 Cities Nationwide
Billboards at King and Strachan ⁠ accessible_forward
King St W and Strachan Ave
Apr 29–May 30
    Brendan George Ko, Big Lonely Doug I, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

Toronto-based artist Brendan George Ko is a visual storyteller, using photography, video, and poetry to depict the natural world. Presented on billboards in eight cities across Canada, The Forest is Wired for Wisdom comprises a series of luminous, almost incandescent images of flora nestled deep under the forest canopy, paired with poignant excerpts of Ko’s own poems. Together they offer passersby moments of contemplation and awe at nature’s beauty, while pointing to the forest ecosystem’s fragile interconnectivity.

Ko’s billboard project is inspired by the work he produced for The New York Times in Nelson, BC, where he explored the forest understory with Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard. Coming from a long line of loggers, Simard is now famous for her research on plant communication, specifically, the study of how tree species share information through mycelium—vast underground fungal networks. Simard stresses the important role mature trees play within a forest, supporting younger generations that include the fragile seedlings pushing their way through the rich forest-floor detritus of fallen leaves and brush. Her theories were initially considered controversial by many in the scientific community because they contradicted the core concepts of Darwinian evolution, pointing to cooperation as an essential element for strength and survival, and not only competition. Today Simard collaborates with biologists, timber companies, and Indigenous groups across the country on the experiment she calls “The Mother Tree Project,” working to create and champion sustainable logging practices that keep the healthiest, most established trees standing, to support new growth.

The title of Ko’s project is borrowed from a line in Simard’s book Finding the Mother Tree (2021), where she states, “The scientific evidence is hard to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing.” The images presented range from an imposing view of a towering, old-growth Douglas fir, to scenes showing golden oak and lady ferns layered in the dense understory, to lichen growing south of the Arctic circle. Pyxie Cup Lichen I (2019), in vibrant, electric pink and blue against dark soil, appears almost otherworldly and microscopic. Paired with it is a line from one of the artist’s poems that reads, “Given time it all returns to the same, one form to another, all energy.” As a way of illuminating the “essence” or “spirit” of the plants, Ko applies a psychedelic colour palette to his images, heightening their dazzling impact. Pyxie Cup appears to reference Simard’s own wonderstruck description of the textures and tones of the forest floor upon seeing the vivid yellow, white, and dusty pink netting of mycelium tangled with the root system of a small seedling.

The forest is more than just a collection of trees—it’s a multigenerational, multi-layered ecosystem of great diversity, powering the essential carbon and nitrogen cycles vital to our planet. Far-reaching underground mycorrhizal networks span the whole continent, their symbiotic relationship between plant roots and fungi playing a key role in soil biology and plant nutrition. Shown on 25 large-scale billboards in a cross-country through line connecting Vancouver to Halifax, The Forest is Wired for Wisdom is a poetically playful allegory of the hidden networks below our feet. Ko’s photographs look beyond the surface, endeavouring to depict the nuanced essence of a place, a plant, or a moment. His work is a reminder of the larger connections at play in the natural world, or, in his words, a reminder to “let the words grow distant as we get lost to that place without form.”

Curated by Tara Smith

Presented by CONTACT. Supported by PATTISON Outdoor Advertising. Part of ArtworxTO: Toronto's Year of Public Art 2021–2022

Brendan George Ko is a visual storyteller working in photography, video, installation, text, and sound. His work conveys a sense of experience through storytelling, and he describes the image as supplementary to the story it represents. In 2010, Ko received his BFA from the Ontario College of Art & Design University, where he majored in photography, and he went on to the Master of Visual Studies programme at the University of Toronto, where his practice focused on video and sound.


Brendan George Ko
The Forest is Wired for Wisdom

Aloha kākou, my name is Brendan George Ko, reporting from somewhere in the Arctic, currently on assignment.

There is a spirit in the landscape that possesses us, and though we may leave the land behind, that spirit will always follow us. That is something I learned from my formative years, living in a rural town in New Mexico. The stories we shared, from ancient times and Navajo and Hopi people of the region, to modern times—of crimes, miracles, unexplainable phenomena and shape-shifting beasts that roam the high desert—there’s an inescapable memory that’s attached to the land. And as time passes, these stories turn to myths. And though new memories occur and often replace the past, they add to the growing history indexical to the land. It was during those years, I experienced the power and oral tradition that gave the landscape its meaning and presence. Though I have long since left the desert in New Mexico, I carry the spirit of its storytelling and land-specific memory in my practice today.

Before there was an image, and now there are layers upon layers of memories that each come with their own spirits. The land feels haunted, and when I make the decision to capture it, it is the spirit I seek to invoke in its presentation. Like the stories I’ve heard countless times in Gallup, New Mexico, it isn’t about truth, nor is it about accuracy—It is about carrying spirits of that memory. My photographs aren’t about realism and precision. It is about manipulating the medium in order to summon the spirits captured within.

This project is a combination of various assignments I’ve received as an artist-photographer throughout Canada, with a particular focus on the assignment from The New York Times called “The Social Life of the Forest,” where I spent a week in and around Nelson, B.C., with Dr. Suzanne Simard, visualizing her research, in particular, how plants and fungi interact with each other via the mycorrhizal network that extends from either within or on the surface of plant roots to a vast mycelium web but that extends to the forest floor. Your very footsteps in the forest are felt, sending off signals. The mesh behind your feet, your presence is known amongst the earthly inhabitants.

For me, I arrived on this journey already feeling the spiritual connection that the forest has—the spirits of the tree, the stone, the fungi, all share this space together, speak in their own way. This experience, working with all that shares the space, speaks in their own way. This experience, working with Dr. Simard, was seeing this connection through her lens—that of science and research—and reinforcing the wisdom I have gained from working within the kānaka ʻōiwi, the native Hawaiian community in Hawaii, with a new perspective.

Whenever I hear people talk about wanting to escape into nature, go camping, go on a hike and reconnect, it tells the story of how many of us feel disconnected, detached from the notion that we have this connection to nature and that this is an inseparable connection itself. That we are always in nature. Like a child with amnesia, we have forgotten who our mother is, Papa (Earth Mother). It has led us to see the Earth and its fruit as resources for our endless consumption. And that is the relationship we need to repair, or else we no longer have a place on this only place we have called home—Earth.