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this week's episode, I was especially aware of the ways the show represents the Dharma Initiative as an collapsed and outdated Utopian experiment because I had just read "The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth A.T. Smith.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