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Environmental Art Has ‘Landed’

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

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.

bison-extinction-pdf

Accelerating Entropy

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

“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

Billy-Talen-in-airport-1

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

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.

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GREAT DIALOGUE: Ecocentric Beauty / Anthropocentric Beauty

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

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.

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Academy-Superflux

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

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).

sherkSherk---Living-Library

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.