Humans evolved late in the lengthy, intricate, and wondrous progression of organisms that inhabit the Earth. To this day, evidence of our connection to our less complex ancestors is imbedded in our bodies and brains. But humans are not merely archives of evolutionary history. We have also evolved life-styles that resemble a grand experiment in expanding capacities to remember the past, to analyze the present, to anticipate the future, and to manage the materials that realize these conceptualizations in the physical environment.
The history of strategies humans have devised to provide for their sustenance range from prying out roots with a stick, to excavating millions of cubic feet of earth with giant bucket-wheel excavators. The vast majority of the entries in this diverse accounting of material interactions have either been motivated by self-interest or undertaken to benefit other humans. Such anthropocentrism has been the cultural norm since pre-history. Self-interest, as a driving force, is not unique to the human species. Nor is it necessarily objectionable. Self-interest is a biological imperative shared by humans, lions, dandelions, and every other form of life. Lions are not venal and greedy when they devour their prey. Likewise, dandelions are not intrusive and imperious when their seeds float on breezes and flutter down on a well-tended lawn. However, humanity’s self-interest seems to earn the adjectives ‘venal’, ‘greedy’, ‘intrusive’, and ‘imperious’ by exceeding its survival needs. The checks and balances of entire eco systems have been thrown out of whack by the unique abilities of people to surpass their biological imperatives.
An all-consuming self-interest is not unique to the human species; it is a biological imperative shared by humans, lions, dandelions, and all other forms of life. However, humanity’s self-interest violates biology’s checks and balances whenever we exploit our unique and ever-increasing ability to exceed our biological imperatives. This story begins approximately 12,000 years ago when humans first developed agriculture, cities, architecture, labor specialization, bread baking, beer brewing, personal property, slavery, governance, trade, barter, war, and more. Since then, interactions with the physical environment have been heading, at an ever-accelerating rate, toward ever bigger, faster, stronger, further, and bolder interfaces.
If success of a species is measured in terms of control over conditions of the environment to secure our needs, we are an extremely successful species. But if disruptions to the lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere are taken into consideration, humanity’s controlling activities resemble hubris more than success. The current environmental movement is founded on the belief that responsibility for the well-being of the non-living environment, dissimilar species, and less fortunate humans is a corollary to the expansion of our powers.
Noise is ‘too much’ when it exceeds annoying and becomes debilitating. Noise is ‘too little’ when it appears on lists of environmental concerns. Both terms apply to artists who address noise pollution. Art abounds that offers analysis, reports, and solutions regarding air pollution and water pollution. But noise is missing from their accountings. Air pollution is typically associated with emissions of harmful chemical gases like carbon monoxide and particulates like soot. Water pollution is typically associated with harmful changes in its physical, chemical and biological properties caused by the release of waste, oil spills, and atmospheric deposition. The racket bombarding the air and the water that is being generated by current technologies is missing from these equations.
Humans have been creating bothersome clamor for a very long time, at least since 1700 BCE when a Babylonian text was written on a clay tablet. The poem relays that the gods were angered because humans were making such a racket, it prevented them from sleeping. The poem, entitled ‘Atrahasis’, intones, “The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull. The God grew restless at their racket” These celestial beings were so outraged the rude noisemakers that they created an epic flood that they followed by famine and plague.
When a polar standing on a chunk of ice floats past an island of heaped e-waste, the scene is set for the conflict between the cost to animals of humanity’s fetishistic allure for techno-updates. Marina Zurkow dramatizes the dire environmental consequences of humanity indulging in the newest versions of convenience and fun.
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Bernie Krause and Nicole Fournier both derive their aesthetic formulations from actual ecosystem diversity.
Fournier’s diversity encompasses a broad range of botanical species – edible, medicinal, exotic, ordinary, plain, cultivated, wild, woody, succulent, etc. She presents these species of plants as a glorious smorgasbord of temptations to sustain and delight multiple species of wildlife and humans.
Krause also revels in the abundance of natural systems, which he documents and measures through audio recordings of wild places that he has been collecting for several decades, in locations
around the globe. Krause is a soundscape ecologist who combines music and scientific research, attempting to ascertain the health of ecosystems through acoustics. He discovered, that the healthiest and most undisturbed environments have the most acoustic diversity. This is measured in terms of the range of biophany (sounds created by living creatures) and sounds of geophany (sounds created by the physical environment, such as water or wind). The Krause Natural Soundscape Collection consists of more than 4,500 hours of recordings of over 15,000 marine and terrestrial species. Krause’s recordings of pristine sound environments are commissioned as works of art and as science. He has produced fifty field recording albums from the world’s rare habitats. Sadly, over half of these habitats are now either diminished or silent.
Nervous giggles or stunned silence – these are the two typical responses to my descriptions of Jae Rhim Lee’s Decompiculture Burial Suit. She designed it to accelerate the decomposition of her corpse after she dies, and to decontaminate her remains if her body has accumulated toxins from pharmaceuticals, processed foods, cosmetics, or exposure to environmental contaminants while she was alive. But a recent article in the NY Times reports on a burial system that may be even more extreme in its commitment to replenishing the environment.
Katrina Spade, a 37-year-old Seattle architect is designing a human composting facility. There is no scientific reason why human beings cannot be composted. Farmers regularly compost the bodies of dead livestock, while some state transportation departments compost roadkill. Spade comments, “Composting makes people think of banana peels and coffee grounds,” Ms. Spade said. But “our bodies have nutrients. What if we could grow new life after we’ve died?”
Urban Death Project
The current perspective more than justifies the somber journey of grief and yearning that Steiner and Lenzlinger beckoned museum-goers to undertake in 2009. The message of alarm conveyed by “Pipe Dreams: The Water Hole” becomes more urgent with each passing year. The 2015 World Water Development Report issued by the UN warned that by 2030, the world would face a 40 percent water deficit if the “business as usual” climate prevails.
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Today I would like to reverse my usual tactic. Normally, I plead on behalf of eco artists, asserting their leadership position among environmental advocates, providing evidence of their imaginative solutions to environmental problems, and demonstrating their capacity to inspire environmental reforms.
Today, I am offering a plea for leniency regarding their critics.
I am taking the side of scientists, politicians, educators, and others who refuse to entertain the possibility that artists can make significant contributions to resolving current environmental disruptions and avert pending environmental disasters. They have every right to ask us (proponents and practitioners of eco art:
Why do you feel insulted and rejected when we co not include art in interdisciplinary environmental ventures?
Why should we include artists when we make lists of those who are eligible for funding, or those who merit comment in media reports?
There might be two artist-initiated forests in Manhattan, but they could not be more different in terms of their concepts and methods.
Alan Sonfist’s Time Landscape provides an opportunity for native plant and tree specimens to evolve without human interference in perpetuity. In contrast, if Marielle Anzelone fulfills her vision, the “PopUP Forest: Times Square” she has proposed will disappear three weeks after its sudden appearance, leaving behind the memory of a bizarre anomoly, effluents from the fuels combusted to realize it, the depleted forest that provided the temporary botanical specimens, and exorbitant bills (the cost is estimated at $1.7 million).
Anzelone promises that her project “will give visitors an immersive natural area experience in the most un-natural place on the planet. In the middle of the night, we’ll transform a public plaza in Times Square into a large-scale temporary nature installation. Towering trees, native wildflowers, and ferns underfoot will bring a piece of wilderness to the heart of Manhattan.
The hustle and bustle of Times Square will momentarily slip away with flowering shrubs, mosses, and understory vegetation providing beauty and important sustenance for migrating birds and pollinating insects. The cacophony of street noise will be quieted and replaced by a live stream of wildlife sounds from nearby woods. Visitors’ sensory experiences will be enhanced through guided woodland walks, interpretive signs, and hands-on educational activities for children. Then – after three weeks – it will all disappear. Reaching our goal of $25,000 will fund the critical first steps of this project. The Kickstarter funding will empower us with very basic design, marketing and outreach materials and a small-scale prototype to help us move toward securing the estimated $1.7 million cost of PopUP Forest.”
One gets the impression that Anzelone has cast the botanicals in the roles of aspiring starlets awaiting their debut on Broadway.
A few comments from me, a bewildered reader:
The Smithosonian’s Museum of Natural History is mounting a massive exhibition exploring the “Anthropocene” era. It will remain on view until 2019. During the intervening years, the debate that is currently being conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the international regarding its official inception may be settled.
Unlike the era, the origin of the debate can be traced back to the 1970s when Paul Crutzen, the atmospheric chemist, discovered a verifiable evidence that humanity had become so dominant on the globe, it was actually influencing planetary conditions. Crutzen linked the increase in human activities to the shrinking of the ozone layer.
As Richard Monastersky reports, as evidence has mounted, there is growing pressure to proclaim the Anthropocene as the official name for the current era, to follow the Holocene and the Pleistocene. But dates for its inception have not gained consensus. Indeed, they span 5,000 years!
In their ritualized performances, the artists Red Earth evoke the conditions that prevailed during the Neolithic period, the earliest of the proposed dates. However, it seems the geologists chose this date because it initiated many of the technologies and procedures that are currently associated with dangerous environmental disruptions. The artists, in contrast, chose this date because it was a time of attunement between humans and the geological, astronomical, and biological forces of the Earth.
Here are the dates that are currently being considered: