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new Witness Trees

CAB and Hood Design Studio invites you to leave messages that reflect on what you have witnessed over the past two years, between 2020 and today.

Trees that remain in place decades or even centuries after noteworthy events are referred to as witness trees. Many were young when the events took place and have grown to be large, silent sentinels of history. In the early 1800s, surveyors in Illinois planted “bearing trees” as landmarks to grid the ground. After centuries of development, many are still around today and are documented in the Witness Tree Project. This project is a collaboration between The Morton Arboretum, The Field Museum, University of Notre Dame and the PalEON Project, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The 2021 Chicago Architecture Biennial has established new Witness Trees that record this year’s events—events that have shaped this epoch: a time of pandemic, racial reckoning, police brutality and reform, and climate crisis.

The new Witness Trees installation is inspired by the state's orthogonal grid. Tree grids are scaled to the site; at the corner of East 53rd and South Prairie Avenue, a grid is painted on the lawn at ten-foot intervals. A grid of sixteen Bald Cypress trees sit at the site's center. Fences project the grid into the third dimension and record the cast shadows of trees. Through the planting of southern trees in northern land, new Witness Trees invokes the history of the Great Migration and establishes a spirit grove to keep the neighborhood safe. Reminiscent of the southern tradition of bottle trees, visitors are asked to record a sentiment or message of witness onto a reflective foil that is then tied to the tree branches. As fall gives way to winter, the grove glistens with light and reflection. Once spring returns, the witness trees will find a new home with residents of the South Side, where they will witness a new history.

Installation view, new Witness Trees, Hood Design Studio, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2021. Photo by Nathan Keay.