Soil Connoisseurs

Posted Friday December 05, 2014 At 22:42PM . Blog, Eco Issues

Happy World Soil Day!

Today the United Nations launched the International Year of Soils 2015. The formal launch event will occur during the 69th session of the UN General Assembly to coincide with the first official World Soil Day. Concurrent events will take place around the world.

It seems timely that soil is finally receiving worldwide recognition. Cosmic travel and undersea adventures have inspired theme parks, computer games, and Hollywood films, but the dramatic invasions, combats, and reconciliations that transpire under our feet have mostly been ignored. Few current humans pay heed to soil, and they are even less likely to relish soil.

Despite our dependence upon soil for survival, most contemporary humans are oblivious of its elaborate structure, diverse populations, and multi-millennial history. This underground universe exists ‘out of sight’ and ‘out of mind’. No 4-H Club provides ribbons to youngsters who raise excellent breeds of dirt. There is no holiday honoring the founder of soil science. If Muhammad, the Buddha, Jesus, and Moses are revered for saving peoples’ souls, it seems Vasily Vasilievich Dokuchaev (1846 – 1903), the pioneer soil scientist, merits veneration for his role in saving life on Earth.

Environmental Art Has 'Landed'

Posted Tuesday November 25, 2014 At 21:18PM . Blog, Eco Issues

The following text was drafted for my upcoming book, co-authored by Natalie Jeremijenko, entitled Studio Art Environmental Health Clinic. Comments are welcome:

‘Land’ connotes soil to a farmer, property rights to a lawyer, a commodity to a developer, a voting district to a politician, habitat to an ecologist, a yard to a suburbanite, natural resources to an economist. Yet members of each profession have claimed space under the umbrella term, ‘environmentalism’ even as they adhere to their specialized agendas. What they share is an abiding commitment to the well-being of planet Earth

But what is ‘land’ to an artist?

The long history of Western is imprinted with three land-related narratives. One account tracks those artists who frame a vista and record its visual contents. These artists define ‘land’ as scenery, a source of visual stimulation, a repository of bounteous optical evocations. The second version is occupied by artists who, instead of representing the optical manifestations of land, conscript these visual elements into the service of symbol and metaphor. These artists strip the elements of ‘land’ of their authentic identities and recast them as symbolic representations of phenomena that are not elements of land. Trees, for example, may convey knowledge of good and evil, or communion with the spirit world, or the human brain and spinal cord. The third artistic approach to land is emotionally-charged. Artists who pursue this approach forego compliant observations and the active construction of symbols. They manipulate the components of ‘land’ so that, through such distortions and exaggerations, they register personal passions and sensitivities. In this instance, ‘land’ becomes a vehicle for expressing terror, awe, tranquility, etc.

In the 1960s and 1970s and new movement was launched added a fourth accounting to the art/land legacy. Indeed, it was called ‘Land Art’, a designation that was well-earned even though its practitioners rejected their predecessors’ strategies of interaction, depictions and interpretations; Land artists located their artworks outdoors. Furthermore, they dispensed with neutral mediums, like paint and crayon, to manifest their creative endeavors; instead, they worked with the actual materials of the land. Michael Heizer, for example, used a bulldozer to displace 240,000 tons of earth from the edge of a Nevada mesa, and Robert Smithson laid six thousand tons of black basalt rocks and earth along the shore of the Great Salt Lake to create a peninsula shaped like a counterclockwise spiral.    

Pride and Prejudice Against the Bison

Posted Saturday November 08, 2014 At 18:28PM . Artists, Blog

During the past half-billion years, there have been just five global mass-extinction events. For example, the impact of a comet crash likely extinguished dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Maya Lin is documenting the sixth extinction event which is occurring today. According to the renowned Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, 30,000 species are vanishing from Earth each year. They are all eligible for representation in Maya Lin's ambitious project, "What is Missing". This 'map of memory' presents species, places, and natural phenomenon that have vanished, or are disappearing.While Lin often features micro and macro views of the earth that are registered through sonar resonance scans and aerial and satellite mapping devices,  straightforward photographs are still powerful conveyors of the extent and magnitude of this disturbance. No computer graphics or photo manipulations are required to transmit the devastation of the bisons on this continent in the 1800s.


Accelerating Entropy

Posted Sunday November 02, 2014 At 02:49AM . Blog, Eco Issues

Asphalt Rundown has acquired unsettling implications that its creator, the artist Robert Smithson, never intended. In 1969, the year this iconic earth work/art action was created, observers, colleagues, and critics generally concurred with the artist's own explanation  - the work made entropy visible. Entropy envisions a final state in which all matter has become inert, all structure has succumbed to disorder, and all processes have ceased.  Smithson manifested the ubiquitous, but under acknowledged principle of entropy in terms of the second law of thermodynamics. The law asserts that energy is easier lost than obtained. For this reason, the universe is slowly devolving and will eventually burn out, succumbing to an inert, all encompassing sameness. In this manner, Asphalt Rundown fulfilled one of art's age-old roles as the visualizer of invisible forces.

Asphalt Rundown was Smithson's first "flow" work of art. The action took place in a gravel and dirt quarry in Rome that had been abandoned after it was depleted. A large dumptruck loaded with hot asphalt backed up precariously to the edge of the steep incline of the denuded hillside where the former quarry was located. Its bed was raised and hundreds of tons of hot asphalt were dumped down the embankment, forming a massive black swath as it ‘ran down’, yielding to gravity. The sea of the dark ooze slowly made its way down hill, filling in crevices in the eroded, gutted and gullied cliff.

Within the art community, this gesture seemed a heroic enlargement of the spontaneous drips that distinguished Jackson Pollock's renowned abstract expressionist paintings. The work monumentalized"action paintings". Asphalt Rundown was honored as the ultimate expressionist mark. Glue Pour and Concrete Pour followed in 1969. In each of Smithson's pours, the earth served as the artist's canvas. The glue, asphalt, and concrete were corollaries to paint. The massive pour replaced the paint stroke.

HeHe and Claude Monet

Posted Thursday October 16, 2014 At 17:38PM . Artists, Blog

"Without the fog, London wouldn’t be a beautiful city.” These words were written by the French painter, Claude Monet. Between 1899 and 1901, the beauty of his renowned Impressionist paintings was a product of skies that were unnaturally colorful  because the city was choked by the smog of the Industrial Revolution. Two environmental scientists, Jacob Baker and John E. Thornes of the University of Birmingham, are rewriting art history by claiming that Monet’s atmospheric images of London were not artistic imaginings; they were the products of accurate observation. In fact, Monet's impressions seem so accurate that the scientists are examining them as a source of information regarding London air quality during this period. “We believe,” Thornes says, “that we can basically deconstruct the images to work out how much smoke would have to be in the air to create that visibility and those colors in, say, February 1900.”

Hehe Champs-dozone

"Champs D'Ozone"

ALERT: Beware of Reverend Billy

Posted Sunday October 12, 2014 At 15:38PM . Artists, Blog


On Saturday, October 11, the Reverend Billy Talen and his crew landed in St. Louis. They texted their Ferguson friends as they walked from the gate. Ferguson was recently the site of major protests against police who had shot a young African American male who was unarmed. Billy and his friends went to the baggage claim and kept waiting for the old duffel to roll down the conveyor belt. But it didn't appear. Then they noticed that police and a sniffer-dog were approaching. The police claimed his bag!


What does Billy say about this situation?

"Of course it hadn't occurred to me, coming from the World Bank protest in Washington, DC, that my little duffel bag on wheels has what looks like a START-UP ACTIVIST KIT: a bullhorn, double AA batteries, elvis hair goop and make-up, "Tree Spiker" the memory by Earth First founder Mike Roselle, and spare clothes and Theo's seven foot collapsible camera tripod."

BioDigester As Art / Biodigester as NonArt

Posted Friday October 10, 2014 At 15:07PM . Artists, Blog

"My 3 Cow Biogas Digester Creates Enough Gas for 6 People" is the headline announcing a new instructional video being produced by Geoff Lawton Lawton, the brawny, charismatic star of the film series he produces to disseminate Permacutlure eco-system enhancement strategies. Good ideas get around. SUPERFLEX has been developing, promoting, manufacturing, and marketing such units since 1997. In that year,  Bill Mollison, the Permaculture guru, asked Geoff to establish and direct a new permaculture research institute on the 147-acre Tagari Farm in Australia. Since then, The Permaculture Research Institute has grown into a global networking centre for permaculture projects.

In the video, Lawton visits Permaculture Designer, Tom Kendall’s farm where his three cows supply enough cooking gas to suit a family of six people. Tom’s dairy is designed to capture all the manure (including human manure) and direct it to an underground chamber where methane gas is fermented. Excess manure is then directed to his vegetable garden or through his a reed bed filtration system.

Comparing the two projects provides a challenge for justifying the 'art' in SUPERFLEX's version that is easily met by considering the aesthetic and psychological components that are missing from Kendall's version where there is no metaphor (biodigester = luxury good), no aesthetic consideration (large scale to signify importance and orange color to maximize the unit's visual appeal), and psychological persuasion (comic books created that include caricatures of the villagers themselves discussing the merits of the units).

GREAT DIALOGUE: Ecocentric Beauty / Anthropocentric Beauty

Posted Friday September 26, 2014 At 02:14AM . Blog, Eco Issues

The dialogue that follows was generated by colleagues who accepted my invitation to comment on a statement I had drafted. This text attempted to differentiate ecocentric beauty from anthropocentric beauty. Their questions, comments, and challenges were so insightful, I am sharing them in the hope that they will spark new discussions regarding a fascinating topic that has not earned consensus.

My Statement:

Aesthetics, in my opinion, evolves in tandem with cultural developments. That means the definition of ‘beauty’ can take many forms and refer to many formulations. What is consistent from era to era is that ‘beauty’ embodies a culture's most esteemed values.

Currently, environmentalism is spurring a radical reconsideration of the relationship between humans and ecosystems. It is revising the anthropocentric definition of beauty that has prevailed for hundreds of years, replacing it with an ecocentric characterization of beauty.

May I propose the following comparisons:

Anthropocentric  beauty
     -  serves the needs and desires of humans      
     -  refers to strategies that assert control over non-human entities, materials, and conditions
     -   privileges appearance
     -   approaches nature as an obstacle to overcome, a territory to acquire, a resource to consume, or a condition to control

A formal expression of these values:  rigid geometries based on mental constructs

 Ecocentric beauty
     - promotes responsibility for the welfare of all forms of life, not just humans 
    - protects and enhances ecosystem functions
    - privileges function over appearance
    - involves responsive interactions that protect and enhance ecosystems

A formal expression of these values: evolving forms based on interactions between materials, conditions, and forces. 

Cozy: Sleeping Under the Stars and On the Ground

Posted Wednesday September 17, 2014 At 15:05PM . Blog, Eco Issues

Although ‘sleeping under the stars’ offers a romantic allure that is missing from ‘sleeping on the ground’, the practice of sleeping outdoors has recently earned its own name; it is called ‘earthing’. Proponents assert that the Earth’s subtle electrical fields are essential for proper functioning of our immune systems, circulation, synchronization of biorhythms and other physiological processes, and may actually be the most effective, essential, least expensive, and easiest to attain antioxidants.  Even the diseases associated with aging can be reduced or prevented by grounding your body to the Earth.

The preceding paragraph comes from an essay I just completed entitled "Connoiseur of Soil" that will appear in the anthology, Dirt Dialogues. Like art connoisseurs who pinpoint the masterpiece qualities of a painting, or wine connoisseurs who detect the region where grapes were grown from a sip and a whiff of wine, soil connoisseurs could dignify dirt by savoring the unique qualities of all eleven soil orders and 14,000 distinct soil varieties.   They could differentiate soil samples from deserts, swamps, coasts, basins, woods, and jungles, and even deduce the precise point of origin by detecting subtle gradations of a soil’s texture (sand, silt, loam, clay); color (tones of red, orange, gray, white, green, yellow, black); and aroma (sweet, pungent, acrid, metallic, musty, yeasty).


Posted Sunday September 07, 2014 At 02:32AM . Artists, Blog

Introduction: Didacticism has been embraced by eco artists with the passion of past artists who adopted Romanticism or Impressionism. Unlike these historic approaches, the new Didacticism is ideally suited to documenting the severity of environmental conditions, exposing the perpetrators of environmental offenses, or transmitting strategies to resolve them.  While utopia may not appear on didactic agendas, striving for improvement does. Toward this end such artists offer statistical evidence, or strategic designs, or tactical interventions to benefit ecosystems and their diverse populations. Such tasks are not suited to soulful explorations (Romanticism) or spontaneous observations (Impressionism). They require rigorous research.


superflex iota

In early 2012 Superflux developed the concept for a project that epitomizes these characteristics of didactic eco art. "The Internet of Things Academy" (IoTA) is part of Sony’s Futurescapes project. SUPERFLEX is collaborating with the Forum for the Future to facilitate the generation and exchange of new information. The artists explain the unique feature of this initiative, "Much as different plug sockets or memory cards can make life difficult, a wide range of proprietary 'makes' of hardware and software are often an obstacle to creativity. We envisaged IoTA as an updating of the 20th-century telephone switchboard, enabling end-users to link different products and components, creating systems that better suit their needs."

The project will accommodate different types of users – from those with no experience to advanced 'hackers'.

The artists explain, "As part of our design process, we are conducting a series of iterative tests and small-scale experiments, to understand how various users will use the site. ...As the user starts a new project, and adds information about what they want to make / build, we are exploring ways in which it might be possible/useful to nudge them to think about not just what they want to build, but why they want to do it, and what change will result from that project."

Libraries Come Alive

Posted Sunday August 31, 2014 At 14:51PM . Artists, Blog

I am pleased to share this update on the ever-expanding projects being conducted by Bonnie Sherk. It was prepared by the artist:

I have been engaged for many years in San Francisco working to create a consciousness of whole watersheds, and in particular the Islais Creek Watershed, the largest of seven in SF.  I have been developing ecological artworks in this Watershed for decades: (Sitting Still 1-1970, The Farm - 1974-80; OMI/Excelsior Living Library & Think Park with three schools - 1995 to Present; Bernal Heights Living Library & Think Park at two schools -2002 to Present).


Since 2002, I have also been developing the Bernal Heights Living Library & Think Park Nature Walk that is linking multiple public resources:  schools, parks, public housing, streets, other open spaces all leading to the currently hidden Islais Creek at the south side of one of the parks - St. Mary's Park - through planting a new, narrative, expressive landscape with CA native trees and understory, interpretive signage, and integrated community programs.  This Nature Walk is a prototype for what could be occurring throughout the Whole Watershed to interconnect all eleven neighborhoods and daylight the Creek where it is feasible. 

I am also proposing the creation of Northern & Southern Gateways to this Watershed incorporating two major freeway interchanges with alot of "dead", open space land and much Creek water below grade.  Needless to say, this is a long term initiative.  This work has been funded over the years by Mayor's Office of Community Development (master plan), SF Foundation (design development master plan), California Department of Forestry (2 grants for planting trees & establishment), and currently, CA Strategic Growth Council (further design, planting trees & understory, plant establishment).  To date, over 1000 trees and hundreds of understory plants are in place and some of the signage.

Telling Time the Biocentric Way

Posted Friday August 29, 2014 At 17:50PM . Artists, Blog

Allan Kaprow, an esteemed originator of Happenings, is associated with the motto, “art as experience.” John Dewey’s (1859-1952) book by this title was read and re-read by Kaprow when he was a student at NYU , as evidenced by the surviving copy from Kaprow’s library which is filled with his scribbled notes and questions.  Its contents articulated the arch principle of eco art. Dewey explains, “To see the organism IN nature, the nervous system in the organism, the brain in the nervous system, the cortex in the brain is the answer to the problems which haunt philosophy.”   

Thus, he articulated the ‘metaphysics’ of nature as a web of relations that pertained to growth processes, mechanical processes, and mental processes. This biocentric unification  replaced the anthropocentric dualism that prevailed in mainstream culture has become the refrain of environmentalists ever since, believing that when humans relinquish their separation from their physical environment, they are less likely to degrade it. 

Although Dewey never addressed actual environmental conditions, his writings helped formalize the actions of environmentalists, the research of ecologists, and the Happenings of Alan Kaprow. They all challenged the dichotomies that are entrenched in Western philosophies by manifesting events and processes in constant flux. Within Happenings, as in all dynamic systems, effects are also causes, ends are also means. This reality is not suited to paintings in frames and sculptures on pedestals.

 “Time Piece (1973),” for example

Poles Apart: Eliasson and the Harrisons

Posted Sunday August 24, 2014 At 22:54PM . Artists, Blog

Poles apart, two works of art that relocate materials from the landscape exemplify the extraordinary range of approaches taken by artists whose themes revolve around human relationships to the non-human environment. A precedent was established by the Land Art artists in the 1970s. The grandiose scale of their manipulations of the landscape are typically associated with arrogant assertions of power. Contrasting interpretations are required by subsequent transpositions and relocations of materials found within the landscape. 



One pole includes actions that seem equally arrogant. In this instance, the materials collected from the landscape are deposited within a gallery. This pole is represented by Olafur Eliasson whose current exhibition at the Lousiana Museum consists of relocated rocks, pebbles, and soil that were used  to recreate an Icelandic landscape within an architectural space.

Trickling water runs through a riverbed that actually meanders through the galleries. It is surrounded by mounds of rocky earth. Indignant commentary already surrounds this work, many colleagues protesting that "Riverbed" required a massive expenditure of machine time, fuel, and labor to haul the many tons of rocks and earth needed to recreate the landscape, not merely represent it. Although I have not experienced this work personally, the impression conveyed by the images is that the work commemorates the human vision, energy, guile, and zeak required to accomplish this feat. The barren installation, devoid of any signs of life, appears like the background for this human achievement.  With a reputation of being a titan in the art world, Elisasson has previusly created the sun in The Weather Project that filled the vast void of Turbine Hall at the Tate with a representation of the sun and sky.

The other pole is occupied by Helen and Newton Harrison. In 1996 they dug up and replanted an entire 400 year-old meadow in Bonn, Germany and transplanted it onto the 1 1/2 acre roof of the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle museum. "Future Garden, Part 1, The Endangered Meadows of Europe",diverted the focus away from artistic expression. The Harrison's had a much more urgent and pragmatic motive. They were carrying out a rescue mission, since the featured meadow was about to be destroyed due to urban development.

harrison future garden jpeg


Monsanto - A Laughing Matter?

Posted Thursday August 14, 2014 At 13:03PM . Artists, Blog

The Critical Art Ensemble would probably agree: Monsanto's influence is seeping into distinguished settings it never intended, including a graduation ceremony! It inspired  Jim Carrey who recently served as the guest speaker for the graduating class at Maharishi University of Management (a consciousness university) in Iowa. His sly comments were greeted with enthusiastic laughter and applause. The source of this merriment was the potential environmental disasters of genetically engineered seeds. Iowa is the epi-center of this global problem.  

Carrey, "I am here today to plalnt a seed, a seed that will insppire you to move forward in life with enthusic hearts and a clear sense of wholeness. The question is.... will that seed be able to take root? Or is it forced to use other seeds which may not be ayervedic?"

Here are other occasions where Monsanto was the brunt of the joke:


Posted Monday August 04, 2014 At 02:39AM . Blog, Eco Issues

Today I learned two botany lessons. The first lesson came from a veteran farmer.  He told me that the first root developed by every plant points north! He said that if, when that plant is transplanted, it is placed in the ground in a manner that deviates from the original orientation, the plant behaves as if it is disoriented throughout its life. Such a minor modification of the plant’s inherent mode of operation causes stress. We humans may be clever.  We certainly are willful. Nonetheless, he insisted, plants are most likely to thrive if their care-givers yield to the plant’s own ways of conducting the affairs of its life: growing, resisting blight, managing insects, utilizing nutrients, blooming, etc. 

Aken - grafted tree

The other botany news was a featured report on NPR that Van Aken, a New York artist, planned to graft 40 different fruits on a single tree as a work of art. Further evidence that this story was considered ‘newsworthy’ is that six different friends forwarded it to me.