Monday, May 4, 2009

Human, Nature, Image. The order of words for the title of this course are arranged in a hierarchy. It seems like a simple sequence but if I have learned anything from this class, it is that these words, and their relationships to one another, are anything but simple.

We started the semester with a reading from Gary Snyder's book The Practice of the Wild. The chapter we read traversed many ways of defining wilderness and how different conceptions of this word construct different human identities. Though I did take issue with some of Snyder's romantic notions about 'native' cultures, I think this reading was an earlier indicator of just how specific I need to be when talking about things like nature, wilderness, the wild, culture, humanity, ect. It remains one of the highlights from the class for me.

I was also surprised by the idea of gene/culture co-evolution. I firmly believe that biological evolution is the root of many of our desires, beliefs and behaviors but this concept allowed me to let a little bit of culture into my gene-centric view of human behavior.

The chapter on biophilia was also good. I liked to read about the diverse ways we are emotionally inclined to react to other life forms.

Rebecca Solnit's chapter on Elliot Porter and environmentalism will be one that I will probably return to many times. Nature as it is defined by Porters pictures is so fascinating to me because it has romance and this idea of the pristine that has been examined over and over throughout art history and is still being examined today even while our impact on nature is shifting dramatically. One could argue that today there is no part of nature that remains unaffected by human impact and yet we still use imagery to imagine our ancestral home as intact and unblemished. (nod to William Fox)

After Nature or Post Nature is an idea I wish I understood better. I was frustrated by this section because I had wanted to be able to link a very current conception of nature, that is not yet fully accepted by the masses, with imagery about that concept. I think that the New Museum's exhibition was about narrative and imagined realities. While that is a useful tool for understanding the current mood of environmentalism, I wish there was more concrete theory or fact behind the section as a whole.

This is how I felt about most of the exhibitions that we looked at. They were fine to think about but I was hoping to more strongly connect them to theory. Even so, the class has had a tremendous impact on my ability to articulate my ideas about humans, nature and imagery. I came into the class wondering if the readings would break new ground for me or seem familiar and repetitive. I definately feel that I have come to many new conclusions about human's interconnection with nature and I have a reading list about a mile long that I can use to continue to use to refine my ideas after I graduate.

Now when I encounter works of art like this one (which is super cool), I will have a deep understanding of the types of thought and history the work might be rooted in.

Roxy Paine's Maelstrom - a new sculpture that is on view on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sunday, April 26, 2009

After Nature? I don't know about that.

When the New Museum's exhibition After Nature came out last summer, the title made me an instant skeptic. I imaged a cryptic exhibition filled with exaggerated and only vaguely ominous works that aimed to define a trend within art that represented what we were all trying to prevent by using cloth bags at the grocery store.

As I thought about it more, After Nature seemed like a title that was taking a stab at creating a new term to define our culture's shifting conceptions of nature. The only problem is that it was so close to being called post-nature that I began to imagine a debate around environmental issues that was what post-black is to race studies. What I mean is that they may as well have called it post-nature and I can't wait until we are post-putting post in front of everything. I also mean that the idea that there is an after nature is an extremely paradoxical and contentious idea. Would this "after nature" mean that nature had somehow become socially and politically irrelevant? Perhaps the works in the show were about a technological future where humans were no longer biological or had found a way to free themselves from relying on the resources of the natural world. Whatever. It sounded like bad sci-fi.

At the time, I remember going to the "view the online exhibition" tab on the New Museum's website. This exhibition (if you can call it that) is a completely esoteric example of the anti-layout aesthetic that is very trendy but works in very few cases. I didn't even know what I was looking at and I am still confused about the way the text relates to the images it sits on top of and the images it links to. So far, After Nature seems like the nonsense I thought it would be.

When I finally read the exhibition text, looked at installation shots of the works of art and listened to the online audio commentary, the ideas behind the show started to make more sense to me. From the New Museum website:
"After Nature" surveys a landscape of wilderness and ruins, darkened by uncertain catastrophe. It is a story of abandonment, regression, and rapture—an epic of humanity and nature coming apart under the pressure of obscure forces and not-so-distant environmental disasters...folding fact into fiction, the exhibition brings together artworks that can be interpreted as relics, idols, and documents. Temporally detached from any point of orientation, the exhibition emerges as a study of the present from a place in the future.

Though I am not sure how the exhibition would seem in person since I never went to it, the works that curator Massimiliano Gioni choose to include do seem like artifacts that create a narrative of our time from a future perspective. I am particularly drawn to this piece by Paweł Althamer.

Paweł Althamer - Self-portrait, 1993.

This is a life sized sculpture of the artist made from grass, hemp fiber, animal intestine, wax, and hair. First of all, it seems like a conservator's nightmare which is awesome. It is vulnerable and uses archaic materials and techniques of binding to hold it together. This makes the piece seem like a relic of the past the predates modern materials and technology. The piece reminds me of a Greek or Roman statue. But from the neck up, Althamer is a modern man, perhaps even an academic. He wears smart and sleek spectacles - half nerd and half sculpted Greek god.

Why would an artist make such a piece. He could have just cast his entire body and made a more realistic self-portrait. In the narrative of the exhibition, Althamer's representation of himself is perhaps an artifact representing a civilization that arose after an environmental crisis and had to reform its identity and society from the basic materials of the earth that compose this sculpture. Maybe the glasses are an artifact that predates this crisis. In any case, there are layers of past, present and possibly disastrous (and fictive) future that are a recurring theme throughout the exhibition.

I think that the exhibition as a whole is a bit fragmented. Sometimes you feel like you are looking at an artifact, sometimes a document and sometimes a sci-fi movie. This is intentional because, according to Gioni, the exhibition was inspired by Herzog's unique ability to combine document, fiction and narrative. I just don't think that the exhibition is able to juggle these three somewhat contradictory ideas nearly as well as Herzog does in his films.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Visualizing Space

It was quite interesting to read about Werner Herzog's films the week after our section on truth in photography because I have always been struck by the triangulation of documentary, narrative and emotion that Herzog uses. The clip below, from the film Lessons In Darkness, demonstrates what I am talking about.

What is interesting to me about this particular clip is that it uses narrative to write a metaphor of broader perspective on top of documentary footage. The workers are referred to as "figures," casting them as orchestrators of a cultural and possibly archetypal narrative. When Herzog says "Has life without fire become unbearable for them?" he does not speak only of the men igniting the oil geyser, but of a madness within humanity that craves the spectacular chaos that is unfolding in front of the camera. As the men watch the fire, they smoke cigarettes, pointing to the power, control and fearlessness that humanity has been able to manifest over a potentially deadly natural phenomena. The smoke from the fires is black, thick and destructive, like a cigarette is to the body, implying an impending demise. There is a sense of truth and also of fiction that ebbs and flows throughout Herzong's work.

The spectacle of metaphysical arrest that this scene instills in me seems to correspond with the concept of the sublime. In his essay Comprehending Appearances: Werner Herzog's Ironic Sublime, Alan Singer argues that to read Herzog's work as sublime is an oversimplification of his formal process. Singer unravels (in extremely tangled language) the production of a second-order reality in Herzog's films through his use of time, narration, apparatus (the camera) and style. These formal devices create cultural meaning and a point of view that ultimately result in a critical perspective of human temporality rather than a spiritual or subjective expression of sublimity. In other words, the films produce within a viewer a self-conscious awareness of history, irony and narration that give a sense of perspective and consequence that the would be denied if the film simply took the sublime as its motivation.

The scene below is also from Lessons In Darkness.

The aerial movement and disorienting smoke are what Singer refers to as the touchstones of Herzogs work: images that must be seen though detours of perception. As William L. Fox states in his book Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent "sight is our only long distance sensing mechanism, and in a space of such vastness (speaking of the Antarctic) we rely primarily on it for orientation and a sense of self relationship to what is around us." The cinematic effects in the above clip do give the film a sense of disorientation but the arid, smoke filled desserts of Kuwait must have a similar disorientation even before Herzog filters them though his lens. The charred and burning land that is the setting of Lessons In Darkness is then already biologically disorienting and perhaps our perception of this place is actually organized as much as it is disoriented though the act of filming.

A study by the artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, and cited in Fox's book, surveyed people around the globe and found that, of all the styles and subjects of painting, we most prefer traditional landscapes of wooded areas with visible water. He presumes that this cross cultural desire indicates a biological longing for a deep ancestral home where our evolution occurred. In the antarctic, Fox speaks of disorientation and a collapse of visual perception that is the result of our eyes inability to respond to a lack of contrast, color and scale because we developed in more lush environments that have these characteristics. This same collapse of perception must exist on the ground for the men in Lessons In Darkness and is, I believe, palpable when viewing the film. This is the tension within the film; a feeling of disorientation, of what Corrigan calls the departicularization or reparticularization of the sublime, and a progressive narrative that is woven into history and documentary.

These articles reminded me of some of the issues in An-My Le and Richard Mizarch's work.

An-My Le - Night Operations #7, 2003-04

An-My Le - Mechanized Assault, 2003-04

When creating the series 29 Palms, An-My Le documented a military training camp in California's Mojave Desert that was used as a preparation site for soldiers before they were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Using formal process and narrative in a way similar to Herzog, her images depict a real event but comment on broader cultural concerns. I am immediately compelled to compare Le's images to the photo journalistic representations of war that I have seen in the newspaper. This is in part because she uses a chalky black and white pallet that abstracts the locations in her photographs from a specific place to a general description of war landscape. The pallet also refers to the texture and contrast typically seen in newsprint media. Unlike newspaper photographers who often follow Robert Capa's age old advice "If your pictures aren't good enough, you weren't close enough," An-My Le's photographs are distanced and removed. This vantage point reminds me that my ideas about war are not from a first hand encounter but are instead distanced and mediated and that a sequence of events about the way war ought to play out is also mediated for soldiers through preconceptions and training long before they are lay foot in a war territory.

Particularly in the Night Operations image I posted, I get a sense of the sublime as it relates to what we often call shock and awe. Awe, or the feeling of the sublime is tempered by the knowledge that destruction and death are being caused by this event.

Richard Misrach - Swimmers, Pyramid Lake Indiana Reservation, Nevada, 1987-93

Richard Misrach - Desert Fire, #135, 1984-1993

The significance of social documentary in Richard Misrach's Desert Cantos photographs as well as the formal beauty and often fiery pallet remind me of Herzog and Lessons In Darkness.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is it possible for art to be more than lies?

The title for this post, taken from the chapter Truth and Landscape in Robert Adams' book Beauty and Photography, seems like the single most important question asked by the New Topographics photographers. Working in contrast with the grand and romantic old topographic views of photographers like Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins, New Topographics photographers used the frame of their cameras to emphasize rather than exclude the widespread invasion of human structures and consumer culture over the American landscape. The stripped down greyness of the photographs was meant to emphasize their "straightforward" and "truthful" aspects, implying that the images were not cropped or lit in a way that gave a false "pictorialized" impression of an America filled with unspoiled nature. But is one Adams any more truthful than the other? If Ansel was cropping out the roads and power lines might Robert have also cropped out the sublime view behind him? Is it somehow more truthful to wait for a grey day than it is for a sunset?

Robert Adams - East from Flagstaff Mountain, Boulder County, Colorado, 1975

As I was reading I kept moving from R. Adams questioning of art's ability to not lie to a question of my own: "What kind of truth can a photograph offer?" R. Adams claims that the power of the Weston photograph below is its truth - the truth of a form that has survived beyond this bird’s death.

Edward Weston - Tide Pool, 1945

But the photograph is not merely about a body without life, it has an implied narrative that extends before the shutter was snapped and after as well. The fragments of logging suggest the cause of the bird's death and also suggest that not just one but many interconnected species of plants and animals have fallen from the practice of logging. Is this the true cause of the bird’s death? Are there really other effected animals? Did Weston simply stumble upon this bird while walking by as the camera angle suggests or was it moved or placed to make a better composition? There is a certain negotiation between truth and fiction and between evidence and narrative that we must navigate.

Here is a two-sided map of this negotiation:


To communicate the objective truthfulness of their photographs, the New Topographics photographers used so many layers of structured formalism that it is amazing to me that anyone ever saw these photographs as absent of style. One method that I haven't given much thought to in the past is the serial approach to making work that was discussed in "Systems Everywhere: New Topographics and Art of the 1970s" by Greg Foster-Rice. This is not to say that I haven't considered the work as a series. New Topographics photographers worked to keep their photographs even, flat and similar so that no hierarchy of composition or imagery would emerge. This is interesting because when I think of Robert Adams there is one photograph that immediately comes to mind. Its the one in the text books.

Robert Adams - Colorado Springs, Colorado 1968

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Photography, Text and the work of Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee's photographic project Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land grows out of a long tradition in documentary photography where by a photographer travels to a place or community to bear witness to the particular characteristics of its existence and returns with images that aim to allow an audience to similarly bear witness. As we have discussed previously in this class, working with the concept of nature in this way can be problematic because in many instances, photographs come to define nature as a place apart from humanity that is meant to be contemplated and appreciated for its beauty rather than a concept that is interconnected with the needs and desires of humans. Banerjee's work is particularly interesting because it relies so heavily on text to prevent it from slipping into the realm of abstraction or contemplation. When the text that accompanies the images was censored during an exhibition at the Smithsonian for political reasons, the meaning of the images also changed significantly.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Tracks On Tundra, 2006
*This image is only a visual reference. Please visit the website of Subhankar Banerjee for a more detailed look at his project and the text that accompanies his imagery. I do not wish to reduce the project on this blog in the same way that the Smithsonian did but the space constraints of a blog will not allow me to publish the entire exhibition. (obviously)

Here are some questions I have for Banerjee when he comes to visit our class:

1. Why do you think the debates held on the senate floor about ANWR centered so heavily on the aesthetic value of the region? What role did the beauty in your images play in shifting the minds of senators who overturned the proposed drilling in the region? In other words, do you think senators responded more positively to the beauty and aesthetic value of the region that is highlighted in your photographs or the text which illustrates ways the ecology of this region is connected to a broader global ecology that impacts all of humanity?

2. Do you believe that photography can allow a viewer to bear witness to the ecological or spiritual value of a place without text? Do you find it problematic that a large part of the meaning of your photographs was so easily ripped away when the Smithsonian scrapped the text?

3. Though I haven't seen the exhibition of this work, on your website some images have accompanying text and other do not? Why have you made this choice? Do you think some images more clearly convey your ideas without text while other require explanation?

4. Do you think you will ever make a body of work about the land that does not use text? Are there photographers working now or in the past that you feel have been able to create a compelling argument for the ecological as well as aesthetic and spiritual preservation of a particular place without text?

5. Can you talk more about the history of imaging the land and the ways your work has descended from this tradition? Beauty, color and composition are clearly strategies for picture making that you have adopted from past photographers. Why is it important to use these ways of working when making pictures but break them when using text?

6. How do you feel about the fact that the act of creating your photographs actually contributes to the consumption of resources that have made ANWR such a contested region? As a participant in modern society, do you feel at all conflicted about the ways your personal consumption reflects a reliance on oil, natural gas, food and transportation systems that contribute to the destruction of animal and human communities in places like ANWR?

Stephanie Lempert, Flushing Meadows Corona Park from the GeoBiographies series, 2008

Today I was catching up on my NYT reading and I came across a review of an exhibition that Banerjee is currently in called “And for All This, Nature Is Never Spent,” at the Pelham Art Center. Interestingly, there is another artist named Stephanie Lempert who is working with text and landscape in the show. Her images look like nostalgic and pristine nature photography but they are actually photos of city parks that are built on top of reclaimed landfills. On top of the images, Lempert has put text transcribed from interviews she conducted with people who helped to lay the plans for the site's conversion. Though I find that the text distracting because it becomes a barrier that prevents me from entering the space, Lempert's technique is an interesting way to force a text to be integrated into the meaning of a work of art.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lost Geodesic Dome

One of my favorite things about the television show Lost is that the entire plot is based on a fictive parallel universe that has descended from the remains of a failed 1970s scientific research collective. How cool is that? As I watched this week's episode, I was especially aware of the ways the show represents the Dharma Initiative as an collapsed and outdated Utopian experiment because I had just read "The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth A.T. Smith.

Still image from the television series Lost - Jack inside "The Sawn," an abandoned research facility

Maybe you don't watch the show (I certainly can't catch you up on this blog) but looking at the still above, you can get a sense of what Buckminster Fuller's once visionary geodesic dome has come to symbolize today. It is a failed experiment; a once gleaming but now clouded and deteriorating vision of the future.

If we are to consider Fuller's legacy through its material rather than conceptual remnants, the portrayal of the geodesic dome on Lost is an apt metaphor. Fuller's designs for housing and transportation have never been adopted on a wide scale and the geodesic dome along with most of his designs now seem like a relic of the past rather than a vision for the future. There are artists and scholars however, who are revisiting the spirit of Fuller's ingenuity and approach to design and adopting new ways of representing or implementing parts of his visionary concepts. In her essay, Smith looks at several contemporary artists who use conceptual, cross-disciplinary and highly experimental approaches that descend from Fuller.

In the map below, I have charted out some ways that the artists in Smith's article draw from Fuller's ideas. I have chosen to model my chart after the circulatory system because in our bodies arteries and veins work in concert to keep the "spaceship human" functioning. Fuller is, of course, the heart. Red arteries lead to ideas common among the artists and Fuller. Blue veins flow either circularly back to the heart - indicating that the work of art is in conceptual harmony with Fuller's systemic world view - or away from the heart - indicating that the work draws on an idea similar to Fuller's but does not fully embrace it. I left out Irit Batsry's work because I can't quite understand its form or content from the reading or my research so it is difficult for me to categorize.

(click to enlarge)

What is striking to me is that of all the artists, Pedro Reyes' Velotaxi is the only work that has been engineered for practical use. In the video below, Fuller discusses his motivations to engineer practical objects that improve humans ability to survive on our planet. His example is building a bridge across a canyon that can connect people with resources on the other side. This emphasis on pragmatic and optimistic design that could be adopted by the masses is not present in any of the works Smith discusses. Even Reyes' bike taxis are redesigned from existing technology that is already in use (haven't we all seen bike taxis downtown?) making him less a futurist and more a reformer.

I am not trying to place a higher value judgement on practical art objects but it is interesting to me that most works of contemporary art remain contemplative and cynical so that they reflect the sentiments of post-modernity but do not offer the utopian hopefulness that Fuller embraced. A resurgence of hope for the future and an embrace of progressive change came along with our most recent presidential campaign but it seems to have quickly fizzled out. I wonder if we will ever have the same hopeful sentiments for the future that Buckminster Fuller had. When I listen to him speak in the video above there is a sense of romanticism when he talks about a nature that provides sustenance for humans in the same way she (insert feminist rant here) provides for the hummingbird. Will this romantic and determined optimism ever return to art? If not, how might we become practical without being romantic or cynical?

Monday, March 16, 2009

What's in a destiny?

Manifest Destiny was our nation's first great marketing campaign. In order to secure territory and resources in the name of our country and our ideals, our ancestors wrote a sense of entitlement and an ethic of ownership into the "American" identity that justified westward expansion as a predestined trajectory rather than an act of decision and will . Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape is an exhibition and accompanying catalog that looks at landscape paintings throughout American history to reveal the ways an environmental ethic arose alongside Manifest Destiny and was envisioned through art. The exhibition was on view at the Loyola University Museum of Art from May 17 - August 10, 2008.

Of the exhibition, John Peter Brownlee states, "In tracing [a] stylistic evolution from the eighteenth to twentieth century, the exhibition charts the dawning of an environmental awareness, a gradual though still incomplete shift from an anthropocentric view of the earth to a biocentric one that recognizes all organisms, including humans, as parts of a single natural system or community." Brownlee’s idealistic, American-centric notion that environmental awareness dawned with the birth of our country and that people have since been progressively moving towards a biocentric rather than an anthropocentric view of the natural world seems mislead to me. The Native Americans that we pushed from this land understood that life is interconnected and must be respected with an awareness that few Americans have today. Though all of the authors do not treat environmentalism as a concept of the enlightened class, there is a sense of romantic progression throughout this catalog that made me apprehensive as I read it.

Even so, I enjoyed considering the ways American’s have formed their identity by looking at landscape imagery. In the catalog’s preface Elizabeth Glassman wrote, ‘As early as the mid-nineteenth century, American culture manifested tension between differing attitudes toward the natural world, between the drive to conquer the continent and lament for deforested lands.’ This statement holds true today as we long for the wild lands that form a part of our identity and heritage but drive economic progress by over consuming resources that destroy the places of nature that we long for.

We look at representations of nature to form many parts of our identity as Americans and as humans. We see our heritage in images of wilderness. The human race has grown out of the wild and become civilized so images of nature serve as benchmarks to distinguish our intelligence and accomplishments that separate us from nature. This also holds true when we look at our country’s heritage. We have conquered and civilized what was once wild and we image and preserve portions of nature as national treasures to remind us of what our continent once was. These preserves are the remains of the raw resources that our country was built on and they establish a dynamic of power that shapes our identity over nature. We are primarily cultivators and controllers of nature, not interconnected community members.

W. J. T. Mitchell asserts in the introduction to his book Landscape and Power that landscape “does not merely signify or symbolize power relations, it is an instrument of cultural power, perhaps even an agent of power.” Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape does not only trace the development of American’s environmental identity, it also has a subtext of domination and ecological imperialism that affirms the human and particularly American power to harness and control nature.

The end of this decade seems like a particularly important time to examine the origins of Manifest Destiny because the American cultural identity that was established by our ancestors' expansion and manipulation of this continent has been reinterpreted to forcefully extend US agendas globally. This decade is one plagued with interventionist nation-building and growing signs of ecological devastation brought on by human enterprise. These are the very same issues that arose in the early years of our nation on a continental scale.

Peter Granser - Man with a Flag, 2006

This photograph by Peter Granser is from his body of work titled Signs. Signs is a look at conservative American values through photographs that were made in small towns in Texas during the 2008 election campaign. This image speaks to many of the ways Americans identify with nature. Two guys stand at the foot of a mountain in a location that is presumably accessible by car. One waves an American flag, symbolically saluting the land of his heritage from a distance while affirming America as its territorial owner. His shirt echoes the flag, his pants the pallet of the mountain he is looking at. The boy’s attire reflects a tension in the American view of nature. We are sort of like nature from the waste down, but we aren’t nature. We view mountains from afar and solute their beauty but we value comfort and disconnection. It is as if there is a line that these two guys cannot cross. They are keeping their feet firmly planted on the civilization side of the photograph.

It is important to note that Granser is German. To me, this photographs and the entire Signs body of work feels like an outsider's perspective. The way Granser half mocks the sentiments of his subjects seems cynical and detached from the American identity it is criticizing.

I have been thinking about ways my work relates to this reading and in lieu of a map I created a photograph as my visual response this week. I happen to have a poster of Granser’s photograph in my apartment and I made the photograph below using part of that poster as the background.

my visual response (made with a point and shoot digital camera because the negs aren't back in time)

In my photograph, I used an artificial material (from a torn up sheet of cushy stuff that you put in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet) to cover up one of the guys in Granser's picture and I cropped out the other guy. By removing the figures in the photograph, I shift Granser's critique from a cynical and detached look at the distant and absurd sense of self identity of two iconic Americans' to a questioning of the untouched and pristine nature that I have come to understand through imagery and have adopted as a part of my personal identity.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Radically Environmentally Radical, Dude.

It is a bit of a luxury to be one of the class members whose work already somewhat aligns itself with this weeks assignment. Even so, I found myself rethinking my work in new and valuable ways. Greg made a specific point last week that the presentations should be environmentally radical where as Judy seemed to prefer a radically environmental approach. I didn't think much of this at the time but as I sat down to work on my presentation I realized that distinctions between the two phrases represented two poles through which I could approach my work and the idea of environmentalism. I found myself asking how extreme of an approach should I take not just in this presentation but in my work? Do I need to spell out the environmental hazards people are familiar with and might be turned off by? How aggressive should art be about the issues it addresses? I think a big part of my working process (and probably everyone in the program) is trying to strike a cord that balances inviting a viewer to look and then asking them to think. Considering my work from Greg and Judy's different definitions made me realize that this balance is a crucial tension in my work that I always need to tip to both sides and then realign.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Environmentalism and Aesthetics

Though I knew that the dye-transfer process Eliot Porter used to create his photographs was progressive in his time, I had never realized how much his photographs impacted environmentalism and the genre of nature photography as we know it today until reading Every Corner is Alive: Eliot Porter as an Environmentalist and an Artist by Rebecca Solnit. Solnit first frames Porter's work as it was in its day; a compelling, fresh and modern look at the places environmental groups sought to protect. The aesthetics of wilderness were reinvented by Porter and used as a political tool to promote environmental awareness and raise money for the Sierra Club's initiatives. That vision was so compelling that it eventually became what we look for and imagine in nature. In other words, we came to believe that nature should be sensationalized, timeless and uninhabited because we were so taken in by those qualities in nature photography. Sensationalizing nature wasn't invented by Porter; Bierstadt's paintings of the American West can attest to that. Photography made Porter's vision of nature seem indexical and therefore authoritatively able to attest to the beauty in nature that was worth saving. Though Porter's work once inspired political activism, it now seems passive and apolitical, a vision of nature that is dated but ubiquitous.

Three photographs for In Wilderness portfolio:

Maple Sapling and Rock,
Passaconaway, New Hampshire, 1953

Red Osier, near Great Barrington,
Massachusetts, April 18, 1957

Sunflower and Sandune,
Colorado, 1959

I love that this reading was paired with Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus' The Death of Environmentalism. The pervasive use of Porter's aesthetic is an example of the outdated, narrow vision of environmentalism that Shellenberger and Nordhaus are calling for an end to. Though much of their discussion focused on political tactics and legislation, I think imagery and specifically photography carries a tremendous power that shapes the public's view of nature. If we are to think of Environmentalism as a culture war over our core values as Americans, as Shellenberger and Nordhaus do, imagery and photography must play a vital role in reshaping Environmentalism's vision and goals.

What might a new vision of Environmentalism look like? Here are some snapshots of the front web-pages of environmental organizations addressed in the readings:

(click to enlarge)

National Resources Defense Council

Sierra Club

The Energy Foundation

Union of Concerned Scientists

The Rainforest Action Network

This is just a sampling of the images on the front pages of these websites because all of them except The Energy Foundation have a slide show that rotates five or six main pictures. Even so, judging from these websites, I don't think that Environmentalists have shifted their vision much in the last five years. There are lots of landscapes, animal graphics and solar panels, pictures I could have predicated before I got there. When people see the pictures they expect to on these webpages, they assume the information will also be what they expect. This reinforces ingrained ideas about what Environmentalism is instead of offering new and progressive ideas.

After four wbsites of sap, I didn't expect much from the Rainforest Action Network's page but it seems more confrontational and radical that the others. I'm not sure that is the kind of vision Environmentalism needs but it does break with the technological (The Energy Foundation) and the nature lover (NRDC, Sierra Club and Union of Concerned Scientists) visualizations that front the other organizations' web pages. Oh wait, did you see that Whole Foods add? This environmental grass roots uprising (communicated by the Shepherd Ferry/Che Guevara aesthetic) is backed by Whole Foods?

Can artists offer a better vision than the environmental organizations? These two readings seem like a challenge from Judy and Greg to find artists that do just that. Some obvious answers are Burtysky, Gursky and maybe Richard Misarch. We talked a lot about Terry Evans but I'm not convinced that her images have as much political punch as we gave them credit for last week. Chirs Jordan's work on consumerism also comes to mind.

Chris Jordan - Circuit boards #2, New Orleans 2005

Also Rodney Graham (am I stretching here?) By flipping pictures of trees upside down, Rodney Graham emphasizes one of the ways the camera abstracts the thing it is photographing. Nature through a camera lens isn't subject to the same laws of gravity and vision as nature in the tangible world.

Rodney Graham - Napoleon Tree, 1996

Friday, February 20, 2009

Caw! Caw!

The fact that artists use animals to metaphorically image their ideas isn't much of a revelation. That is why I found myself nodding off in boredom or frustrated at various points during this weeks reading, A Bird Tapestry by David S. Rubin. Rubin spends nearly all of the 54 pages in the piece uncritically detailing works from Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists' Aviary, a 2004 exhibition at the Norton Museum of Art. The catalog does exactly what a catalog should do, it informs an exhibition. Since I have never seen the exhibition, I was frustrated because I couldn't find several of the works discussed on the internet and bored because most of what Rubin says isn't particularly engaging without a visual reference.

The most interesting part of the article was at the end. Rubin says we see birds "as microcosms of ourselves who seemingly have greater access than we do to some of the nooks and crannies of our universe." This statement can be broadened to cover not just birds, but much of the flora and fauna that surrounds us. We see nature as a way to access and explain our desires (like the desire to fly) and to define our role as earthly creatures.

Here are some of the works I could find that prompted me to think deeper about the metaphoric potential of animals:
*note that these artists were all a part of the exhibition Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists' Aviary but the specific works below aren't the ones that were shown.

Thomas Woodruff

Root Hare, Thomas Woodruff

In the paintings from Thomas Woodruff's series Freak Parade terrestrial animal and plant forms are mutated into mythic still lives. Giraffe necked bunnies - half macabre, half romantic - use their new found extension to reach food that no longer grows out of the earth but instead swings from a tree's highest branches. These highly evolved rabbits have replaced their less fit root species by reaching higher and further for their carrots, undoubtedly a metaphor for capitalism.

Thomas Woodruff, A Vulgar Display

Woodruff's paintings mimic a bell jar shape, reinforcing their metaphoric charm as scientific curiosities and microcosms of life contained and miniaturized. Similar to Root Hare, A Vulgar Display seems like a miniature universe unto itself. Bug like creatures zip around a strange sprouting growth on their carrot cars (maybe they have hood ornaments? The jpeg is too small to tell.) This portable island of capitalist accumulation is propped up on ice skates and celebrating its mobility with fireworks and carrots on top.

Carlee Fernandez

Carlee Fernandez, Lola Isern

Carlee Fernandez creates her sculptural works by integrating common household items (like a laundry basket) into taxidermied animals (like the goat above). Goats are among the oldest domesticated animals and many people still rely on them for food and labor. Fernandez's piece plays on the forgotten value of animals in our modern lifestyles. While the need for a goat may not be apparent to the average American, imagine if that goat carried your laundry up the stairs. (please, please, please God send me one!) As tasks once preformed by domesticated work animals cease to exist and wilderness is scaled back further and further, will animals need to develop evolutionary traits that serve humans in order to aviod becoming extinct? I think Fernadez's goat is a humorously absurd look at that possibility.

Carlee Fernadez, Rat with Grapes

In later works, Fernadez begins to integrate fake natural objects into the sculptures, like plastic grapes. In this piece, a scavenger becomes a fruit bearer. Could this cross breed change the way Chicagoans see their alley neighbors? Will all animals some day have to appeal to humans or face extinction? Perhaps we will learn to graft fruit onto the back end of a rat just like we graft branches on fruit trees. What would a world filled with the animals of human desire and genetic imagination look like?

Julia Montilla

Julia Montilla, What Ails Us- The 100 Most-Prescribed Pharmaceuticals in the Nation

I am not exactly sure which diseases or pharmaceuticals Julia Montilla is representing with these guinea pigs, but I am grossed out. Remember that friend you had with the mom who kept fifty guinea pigs in one foot square cages in her basement and never cleaned them? This is the aftermath of that and it is spreading to humans. Horrifying and yet I knew it was bound to happen.

Actually, Montilla is probably referencing our tendency to use a "guinea pig" in place of a human for pharmaceutical testing. When we test the effects of medications, medical instruments and diseases on animals, we simultaneously confirm how close our biological makeup is to other animals while firmly establishing humans at the top of a hierarchical value system that determines which types of life are the most important. While guinea pigs are expendable, many American's feel that embryonic stem cells are morally sacred and can not be used in scientific testing.

A Bird Tapestry reminded me of a great article in the New York Times by Jonathan Rosen about Richard Barnes' photographs of starling bird flocks over Rome. (link)
Starlings are admired for their beauty and often kept as song birds and muses. They were released into the wild in the US because of these charms but have come to dominate huge parts of the sky and roost in unwanted places. In the piece Rosen says:
When humans contemplate animals, the question is always who is imitating whom. The starlings that so plague us in America (where we kill more than a million of the birds a year) grew out of our desire for nature to be poetic, rather than truly wild; they reflect the consequences of such self-serving fantasies. It isn’t their fault that they treated an open continent much as we ourselves did.

Who is imitating whom? Perhaps manifest destiny isn't only in our nature. As much as we would like it to, the wild does not yet arrange itself around our needs and fantasies.

Richard Barnes from the series Murmur

Below is a visual map of ways starlings may seem charming as individuals but foreboding as a flock.

As genetics and wild systems become more and more manipulated through science and technology, could we see new animals that seem desirable, much like the starling did, but end up having not just inconvenient but devastating effects on our survival? What consequences might emerge as animals move from continent to continent on shipping boats and in suitcases? Are humans equipped to decide which animals, plants and ecosystems should be preserved and which should be eradicated? I'm guessing the answer is no but I doubt much can stop us from finding out.

On a side note, Italian Greyhounds have been molded into tiny bundles of adorable. :)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Confessions of a Biophiliac

When I googled the word Biophiliac (a term that I made up and may be misusing in this post) I came across a blog that suggested people look at a video of puppies in a pet store to relieve stress. Here is a link to that video but I can't get it to embed in blogger so I am posting this one instead.

Between the puppy and the REM song, my heart is aching. Am I experiencing emotions connected to what Edward O. Wilson describes as biophilia in the first two chapters of his book The Biophilia Hypothesis? (link to text) According to Wilson, biophilia is the tendency for humans to relate to other living organisms emotionally. Through the history of evolution, humans have been "totally and intimately involved with other organisms" and we have developed genetic and hereditary psychological affinities and emotions towards particular species and ecosystems. These feelings come from what Wilson and colleague Charles Lumsden have termed biocultural evolution - a particular type of gene/culture coevolution where a certain genotype makes a particular behavior more likely because that behavior has produced enhanced survival and reproductive fitness in the past. These behaviors are overwritten with learned cultural narratives, behaviors and responses.

In the case of my response to this video, my emotional desire to see this lonely (my presumption) puppy cared for and freed could be biologically rooted in the interdependence of humans and dogs for survival in the past. Many humans still rely on dogs for all kinds of needs like protection, transportation and companionship. My survival does does not depend on a dog but perhaps I am biologically predisposed to soft feelings for dogs because my ancestors used dogs for survival. The feelings I have about dogs are very real and present in many people who also do not depend on dogs for survival. As evidenced in the video, we overwrite our biologically rooted emotions with cultural behaviors like the REM song, the puppy store and youtube. Modern existence has relieved humans of many of the interconnected relationships we once needed for survival yet we still derive self-esteem and spiritual fulfillment from certain interactions with natural life forms.

Given the nature of my work, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the most interesting part of this reading for me was the aesthetic and symbolic sections of the second chapter. These sections raised many questions that I often think about when making pictures. If Wilson is right in thinking that our emotional responses to nature are at least partially, possibly wholly biologically and genetically rooted, can't representations (artistic or otherwise) elicit at least some response linked to the natural world? How much of the aesthetic power of nature can be translated through imagery and fabrication? What positive and negative effects can symbolism have on environmental initiatives?

The symbolic expression of nature is one way humans communicate emotional as well as scientific and biological information about the natural world. Wilson looks at symbolism through language, visual communication and technology and suggests the metaphoric potential of these platforms allows us to develop and transfer ideas about other living organisms that are crucial to our identity and capacity for abstract thought. Wilson gives priority to traditional "natural" forms of symbolism (as in language or gesture?) by questioning the effectiveness of technologically fabricated forms of communication. According to Wilson, symbolic attempts to imitate nature such as plastic trees or stuffed animals (and their fabricated kin?) cannot substitute for traditional natural symbols.

A cellphone tower in Raleigh, NC that looks like a tree (kind of). Have you seen these things JRay? They are all over the place down there.

First of all, plastic trees and stuffed animals are some of the least sophisticated technological imitations of nature. What about virtual reality, photography or youtube? The motive power of the video at the top of this post is, in my opinion, undeniable. The symbolic power of technology builds on language, aesthetics and emotion and often rivals a direct experience with natural organisms.

Some fake plastic trees that I made and photographed. Is the motive power of this photograph consistent with nature's motive powers?

Though aesthetics aren't always symbolic, anything that is symbolized carries an aesthetic. Wilson states on page 49 that "the human need for an aesthetic experience has been suggested by the apparent inequity of artificial or human-made substitutes when people are exposed to them." In other words, we tend to prefer natural design and pattern over built or urban views because natural views have an aesthetic motive power that can not be duplicated through human design. It is unclear what exactly Wilson considers to be natural and what he considers to be built or urban but that distinction seems to be crucial. Is a park, lawn or garden natural? Is the view from a car along the side of a highway or the birds eye view from a helicopter or plane natural? Can a photographic view be natural? If it is not directly natural, can it capture the motive character of a view?

Another photograph by me.

I believe that the motive power of imagery is so compelling that it often stunts our ability to relate to the natural world (to reframe Wilson's words on page 52). We symbolize nature as an aesthetic ideal, as paradise, as a locus amoenus, that is only half linked to reality. The ideal, utopic vision of nature is unreachable outside of representation, particularly in the post-industrial, post-biological age we find ourselves in. Our desires for a richly visual and distant interaction with nature are expressed daily through the symbols we embrace, the ways we eat food, travel, visit nature preserves, create and dispose of waste and consume energy. To a great degree, we are living in the age of the biophiliac. We embrace the emotions of nature but distance ourselves from long term interaction with it or wide-spread preservation of it.

The Great Munich Bug Hunt, Mark Dion (1993)

One artist who uses a direct approach to communicating the richness of life in tropic ecosystems rather than an idealized view is Mark Dion. In the piece The Great Munich Bug Hunt, Dion worked in public view and in collaboration with entomologists to reveal the diversity of invertebrates found in a tree removed from the Black Forest. This is the very sort of practice J. Malcolm Shick calls for in his article Toward and Aesthetic Marine Biology in the Winer 2008 volume of Art Journal. One question this reading seems to be asking is can an integrated understanding of multiple disciplines, in this case biology and art, lead to more informative, compelling, influential or meaningful artwork? In the case of Dion, I would argue yes. But as Shick points out, Philip Henry Gosse's illustrations lead to the poaching and destruction of the very environments he was illustrating.

Philip Henry Gosse

other artists to think about:

Pieter Hugo

Gregory Crewdson

Anselm Keifer

Adam Fuss

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Get your biological gaze off my Tetons!

In the opening paragraphs of the article The Biological Gaze (link to source), Evelyn Fox Keller has characterizes Rosalind Franklin (a biophysicist who significantly contributed to the discovery of DNA) as a scientist who looked at her microscopic x-rays innocently, wanting to gain knowledge about biological structures without any intention of intervening in biological functions. Keller associates Franklin's studies with feminist theories of the gaze. In the same way that one peers at something or someone other than herself to affirm her own social power relations within a society, Franklin is peering at the biological world on a molecular level to indulge her curiosities about the workings of the natural world and to affirm biology's link to humanity and her own bodily existence. And just as we look at others with a prescribed and socially constructed view of their identity, Franklin and the rest of humanity looks at the biological world with deep rooted cultural beliefs about its constitution and function.

1952 x-ray photograph by Rosalind Franklin that eventually led to the conclusion that DNA has a double helix shape.

But the biological gaze does not end with looking. To discover or reveal the origins of life we must reach into the pristine unknown and untouched as Franklin, Watson and Crick did. Few untouched realms remain and those that do are locked beyond our scientific capacity (distant space, string theory). To reach new discoveries and further our scientific understandings of the universe we must move, collide and destroy. The gaze, from a biological standpoint, has "become increasingly and seemingly inevitably enmeshed in actual touching."

The Tevatron Particle Accelerator at Fermi Lab near Chicago can collide sub-atomic particles to create substances that were abundant in the early universe. (and it is totally outdated)

Though Franklin was hardly naive to the transgressions of her work, there are compelling questions raised in this reading about the ways technology and photography separate vision from interaction and facilitate constructed understandings of the origins of life. Many technological devices aid us in investigating places where our senses cannot go unaided, like a microscope. Are those places our experiments shouldn't go? How well can we understand molecules, places, cultures and our own nature through the creation and transmission of information via electronic media? Are there technological networks with functions that mirror biology - as in the world wide web and the web of life? To begin to answer these questions, I will turn to our second reading, Art Is Nature: An Artist's Perspective on a new Paradigm by George Gessert from the March/April issue of Art Papers. (link to source)

Gessert begins by outlining two approaches to nature: a Darwinian view and an ecological view. Here is a chart of the overlaps and distinctions between these two viewpoints.

click to enlarge

I don't think of these two viewpoints as poles, I think of them as perspectives. From a Darwinian perspective, technology, photography and both "webs" are a part of our nature. They help us understand ourselves better because they are a part of the output of our existence. There are no ethical or ecological boundaries to our exploration, but this perspective is non-dualistic so it allows for the continuation of nature without us. In other words, the Darwinian perspective is not interested in retaining a certain amount of biodiversity or in the continued existence of a particular species. Nature is simply an ever shifting set of physical systems that favor the lifeforms they can support.

The ecological perspective, the human centric of the two, is more interesting in the context of the questions outlined above. Biodiversity and the protection of ecological relationships are cornerstones of this viewpoint. It also leaves open the possibility of humans discontinuing some or all of their interactions with natural systems in favor of technology. As human behaviors and desires are translated into technology, could they eclipse ecology? I do not mean that ecology could cease to exist. As we translate more and more of our being into imagery, machinery and virtual space, we could come to understand the world technologically first. Technology could some day mask biology In some ways it already does. When I was fed intravenously at the hospital, technology was altering my biological behavior and masking any need I had to eat.

There are two ways to think of technology, an apparatus (as in a computer) and a system (as in a computer network). For the last few days I have been trying to figure out a way that either of these things could create ecological relationships on their own. I have concluded that they can't. Of course they effect ecological relationships under our direction, but they have no will or biological existence. They are no more biological than the mail, a system comprised of apparatuses (pen, paper, envelopes) and a network that transmits ideas/goods (USPS). But the mail system is firmly planted in our physical, dimensional realm. Maybe technology is of another realm, the virtual realm.

This other realm is not the physical hardware and devices of technology, but rather the network which is in every appliance and computer and is also expanded to connect our mobile phones and the internet. EVERYTHING that travels through this network is mediated. Objects, ideas, images and texts pass out of the biological realm when they enter the virtual realm. As the world is mediated, it is also refracted and made oblique.

This is also true of the photograph. Franklin's process of imaging DNA was, at the time, the only way she could reach any conclusions about the genetic instructions that shape our physicality. The biological gaze may only inform us obliquely, but it does offer some understanding. Of course humans do, and I argue must, try to make sense of something so fundamentally curious. The drive to understand the world around us is in our nature. Communication, questioning, analysis and skepticism are biological characteristics that have helped humanity survive and flourish.

Art is one of the most important venues for this discussion. It often asks a question that I posed a few paragraphs back. If we have the tools to investigate, should we?

Many of the artists Gessert brought up in his article pose this question. Gary Schneider asks what exactly a body looks like. With Genesis, Eduardo Kac seems to question the possibility of ever demythologizing our true origin. Most interesting to me was the piece trophoblast by David Kremers.

trophoblast by David Kremers (1992) is made from genetically altered E. Coli bacteria trapped in synthetic resin. The E. Coli is alive inside of the piece, but its growth has been halted through the resin sealing process.

Gessert sees this work as a representation of an ambiguous embryonic life form. Because it could be animal or human, we are connected to other species through its appearance. It is also alive, demanding custodianship and redefining the boundaries of what an art object can be made of. Those are compelling observations, but Gessert's assessment misses ignores the piece's central point - biological fear. Embracing all ecological relationships threatens our existence. We must touch, halt and look at some parts of nature from a safe distance for our own preservation.

This is not the only piece Gessert assesses with an awkwardly slanted interpretation. Over and over, he argues that certain works move beyond "narrow human concerns" by ignoring any potential content that does not serve his point. Maybe Gessert's definition of narrow is narrower than mine, but I see each piece questioning the ethical and scientific boundaries of human intervention and control with a hearty dose of multiple human concerns. And why not? Isn't ecology a human concern after all?

Other Artists:

Frtiz Haeg

Paul Thek

Phoebe Washburn