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FOR THE LAST THIRTY YEARS artists have been working on rivers and streams as the focus of environmental and ecological art all over the world. Some important examples include Dominique Mazeaud’s The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande in Santa Fe New Mexico (1987–1994), Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’s Breathing Space for The Sava River in Yugoslavia (1988–1990), PLATFORM’s The Delta Project in London (1993–1998), Betsy Damon’s The Living Water Garden in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China (1995–1998), Robert Bingham, John Stephen, Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s Nine Mile Run Greenway Project in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania U.S.A. (1996–2000), Shai Zakai’s Concrete Creek near Beit Shemesh in Israel (1999–2002), Ichi Ikeda’s Shibakawa in Kawaguchi City, Japan (2007–2008), and Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Suzanne Lacy and Yutaka Kobayasi’s Blue Line Trail in Elkhorn City in Kentucky U.S.A. (2000–2004). Through these projects artists demonstrate that it is not about the difference between human and nature but how artists contribute to the integration of these ideas in specific communities.
I was invited to visit the Plum Tree Creek project site a few times over the past three years. The last visit was just after the project received the Taishin Arts Award, one of Taiwan’s most prestigious honors in the field of arts and culture. As a result of this project the Zhuwei district and Plum Tree Creek have become models for how awareness and education within a community, can change thinking and perspective and restore a natural treasure, Plum Tree Creek. To help restore the ecology of the creek, large rocks were placed in the concrete channels to reduce the effect of stormwater flow, and small detention ponds were constructed upstream from the main channel to manage water quality runoff from farmland. The re-establishment of natural biodiversity was one result, with insects and other living things becoming more apparent with the increase in surface water. I also visited the National Science Education Centre in Taipei to see an exhibition of the project. This project supported collaborations with different groups including universities, community colleges, water conservation units, the Green party, environmental groups, urban farming associations and the women’s association for sustainable ecology.
In this article Wu Mali, the chief artist/curator of the Plum Tree Creek project, and Margaret Shiu, the director of the Bamboo Curtain Studio, talk about why this small creek has become the focal point of the project, and what each artist has done to encourage the cultural actions that convince people to attend to the creek. I am interested in the ideas that drive each activity. I have come to understand the Plum Tree Creek project as a restorative bioregional effort. It works to rediscover and find new application for “ideas that have developed overtime about how to live in a given place,”1 intending to re-establish a self-sufficient and productive community.
There are three philosophical ecologies, ecofeminism, social ecology and deep ecology. Ecofeminism is a movement and theory of women’s oppression and a critique of the idea of human domination of nature. Carolyn Merchant emphasizes ecofeminism as both a political and social movement. She categorizes feminism as liberal, cultural, social, and socialist. “Weaving together the many strands of the ecofeminist movement is the concept of reproduction construed in its broadest sense to include the continued biological and social reproduction of human life and the continuance of life on earth.”2 Val Plumwood takes a position of self and its relationship to the other. In her book Feminism and the Mastery of Nature (1993) she focuses on the dualism between human/reason and nature. Her ideal liberation is not aimed towards “equal participation or absorption in such a male dominant culture,”3 , but rather integration of the dualism between human and nature. This takes two steps (1) critiquing deep ecology as an idea that merges the self and the world and (2) extending the self with virtue based concepts such as “empathy, nurturance, and co-cooperativeness.” Plumwood seeks a balance between culture and ecology by addressing the community, re-establishing their relationship to the Creek.
Social ecology is described as “first nature rendered self-reflective, a thinking nature that knows itself and can guide its own evolution.” First nature is the outer physical world, which in this context is given voice and intention through the gifts of second-nature humanity understood as “sociability, communication and intelligence as if we were nature rendered conscious.”Social ecology is about the integration of human interest with nature in the production of everyday life.
Deep ecology rejects the idea of dominion over nature. It is about human potential in relationship to the world and all living things. Merchant describes it as a “cosmic/ecological metaphysics” that stresses the “relationship between humans and nonhuman nature and the integrity of person/planet.”5 In the continuum between humanity and nature, deep ecology leans toward an autonomous natural environment. I think about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopard, who provide foundational ideas in environmental ethics.
Deep ecology is related to the eastern philosophies Taoism and Buddhism. I recognize that there are temples, shrines, the smell of incense, and sound of chanting embedded in this landscape. Margaret Shiu and I have talked about praying for self, others, and the environment. This broad scope of Asian spiritual interest includes families, friends, or other than humans and the immediate environment such as the Plum Tree Creek, as well as the places where ancestors have been buried. Humans, non-humans, and place begin to connect through this simple but important act and belief through out the valley of Plum Tree Creek.
The Project Site
PLUM TREE CREEK IS ONE OF THE tributaries of the Danshui River. It is approximately 12 kilometers long and flows from its source on Datun Mountain, then through a golf course in the upper watershed, emerging amongst remnant agriculture and residential areas that increase in density until they dissipate at the bottom of the watershed amongst the mangrove wetlands on the banks of the river. The project site is about 2.4 kilometers upstream from the mouth of the creek.Plum Tree Creek acquired its name from the abundant plantation of plum trees (it is similar to strawberry tree Arbutus unedo) around this area. “The area used to be filled with green rice fields, and the local people relied on the rich local produce from both the mountain and the sea.”6 During Japanese occupation (1895–1945), the area was developed for agriculture.
After the war industries and workers moved to the area, and commercial activities and development began. After the completion of the MRT metro line (1997), the population significantly increased, and the old industrial buildings were rapidly replaced by tall condominiums and commercial buildings. In the 1960s, the population was under 1,000; by 2005, it had increased to over 30,000. Zhuwei became all of a sudden a bedroom town for people who commute to Taipei. These significant changes affect Plum Tree Creek. The water quality has been seriously contaminated by various sources of wastewater: industrial pollution, businesses and residential sewage, golf course and agricultural waste. Floods are caused by concrete channels, culverts, a major freeway, and metro lines.
The Origin of the Project
IN 2006, WU MALI STARTED By the River, On the River, Of the River, inviting people to trace the Danshui River as the origin of northern Taiwan—all people entered via this gateway at some point in time, whether from China or the west. The river is formed by four smaller rivers and flows into the South China Sea. The project was about inviting people to come closer to the river and changing their relationship to it. Wu Mali took this environmental change as a cultural issue. It was a good start, but it would require long-term commitment in order to bring actual changes.
Wu Mali lived by Plum Tree Creek. One day in 2009 Mr. Wu Chung-Ho, a local historian, told her the creek was the mother river of the Zhuwei District. People used to live on the creek (cooking, washing, and swimming). She was amazed, because the creek was filthy. She realized that if she wanted the Danshui River clean, she should work from this small creek, and she started developing the Plum Tree Creek Project with Margaret Shiu and Professor Jui-Mao Hwang. The project was funded by the National Culture and Arts Foundation (2011–2013) and consisted of three components: (1) eco education, (2) urban planning, and (3) local harvest and breakfast meetings. Each component was organized by artists and the action team.
The Organization’s Statement
BAMBOO CURTAIN STUDIO AIMS to promote cross-cultural exchange by providing a meeting point for national and international artists to engage with communities of interest in Taipei and beyond. After nineteen years it is the oldest artist residency program in Taiwan. It is situated at the mouth of Plum Tree Creek, along the Danshui River in New Taipei City. The organization has witnessed major changes to local ecology and riverside development.
Being an economist myself [and] the founder, I have been keenly aware of the creative contribution of the arts in asking the inconvenient truth, seeking the impossible goal and providing creative solutions to our daily lives.
II. FUTURE CLASSROOM
FUTURE CLASSROOM IS AN ECO EDUCATION program organized by Margaret Shiu and managed by the Bamboo Curtain Studio. It consists of three activities: “Community Theatre,” “Local Eco Life: Colorful Affairs with Plants,” and “Future Classroom.” Shiu and two other educators worked together with three schools.
In 2002 the Bamboo Curtain Studio organized an environmental project called “The Zhuwei Eco Art Festival: Landscape of the Danshui River.” After the art project, understood the community was very reactive and passive, accepting the creeping infringement from developments in the district. I realized I must work with children and rely on their sensitivity to appeal to their parents and grandparents to open up new possibilities for change.
The Community Theatre
Rong Shu-Hwa, Department of Art and Humanity Education at the Taipei National University of the Arts and Tzi-Chang Branch at Zhuwei Elementary School and Fu-Te Community
Professor Rong sought stories of the community upper creek. She and her students organized workshops for a group of ladies, semi-retired and willing to learn and share their life stories together. When the team approached a local elementary school they found the children and grandchildren were attending the school. The ladies finalized their community story with a creek story for the students to perform. They also produced songs and dancing. Recycled materials were used to make props for the children/grandchildren on stage. At the graduation the ladies and the students shared the platform together.
Local Eco Life: Colorful Affairs with Plants
Felix Chang, Pei-Chin Hsin, and Zhuwei High School
This project was organized by Felix Chang Hwei-Li, an environmental activist and educator working at local community universities and colleges. She worked with the Hsin Pei-Chin, teacher of Zhuwei high school. This activity intended to open up the awareness of health through hands-on experience cooking and other daily-use of various wild herbs from the area and along the creek. They taught people how to cook traditional foods that contained these plants as ingredients, and how to use them to invent new western snacks such as cookies and muffins.
There Is a Creek in Front of My School Gate
Margaret Shiu and Zhuwei Elementary School
I realized the massive ditch near the school was actually the Plum Tree Creek
—A student from the Zhuwei Elementary School8
The program began with one of the sixth grade classes, then, expanded to all 250 students. The effort was as collaboration between artists and teachers. It was a carefully planned full academic year program. As a method the “children’s five senses” were emphasized through art activities. In the first semester the students were invited to a walk—to have a physical experience of the creek and the environment: the water flow, the farming along the slopes—through an old pathway through the heavily polluted and densely populated places near their home. After the fieldtrip they were asked to discuss what had an effect on them, and to record their observations in different formats such as drawing and writing. They then chose partners joining groups to make theirown storyboards. The second semester was designated for a final graduation project with the teacher and artists’ support.
The process was inspiring as an alternative way of eco education through direct experience and joint discussion. I sincerely believe this is the better way to open up the awareness and understanding of their environment. The graduation-show had a palpable authenticity. It genuinely touched the VIP representatives who were there at the ceremonies, and promised the changes would come. It was a beginning of dialogue with the local authorities.
III. SHAPING OF A VILLAGE: THE NOMADIC MUSEUM PROJECT
Jui-Mao Huang and students from the Department of Architecture, Tamkang University
AN ONGOING URBAN PLANNING PROJECT described as the “Shaping of a Village: The Nomadic Museum Project” evolved research-oriented architectural practice by Professor Hwang and his students. The team focused on the lifestyle of the communities. They chose a communal space in the local neighborhood as a site for intervention. Since the housing costs in the heart of the city had increased, a lot of people moved to this area, and a thriving community gradually appeared. The residents still persist in working in “handicrafts,” a word understood locally as support for home life. Based on these observations the idea of an “urban village” emerged. The team developed a temporary installation to promote the “Handcraft Market” to enable dialogue with the residents. They invited cobblers, appliance repairmen, and plant specialists. The intention was to bring hands-on practices back into everyday life through practical actions of “recycle and reuse,” reconsidering how open spaces in a crowded city can be utilized, reconstructing the connection between people, city, and landscape reigniting imaginations for a different lifestyle. Through the activities, dialogue, and sharing ideas, they provided opportunities for community building and neighborhood development.
The interaction changed the form and function of the community. The residents were given opportunities to be involved and imagine what the new community would look like. “Handcraft Market” was also about the new/old practice of sustainable living (green living/eco living) that could connect the Plum Tree Creek and the community.
The community-oriented work required a long period of observation time. Whether the work turns out “good” or “bad” does not matter. What matters most is the question of “has the community changed?” There are a few moments of achievement during the execution of this project that are worth sharing: The Handcraft Market in the community space created an interactive site for place making and gathered together the residents living in the more peripheral areas. Moreover, therepairssection of the Handcraft Market responded to the residents’ habits and lifestyles. Besides promoting and sharing our ideas, we were able to understand more about the residents’ lives and thoughts through this event.
IV. BREAKFAST AT THE PLUM TREE CREEK
Wu Mali and the Plum Tree Creek Project Team
WU MALI AND HER TEAM HOSTED a local harvest and breakfast meeting on the last weekend of each month in different places—among senior communities, in vegetable fields, small farms, at the Land Piety shrine, in the public spaces of residential buildings, and along the wild creek upstream. The project intended to bridge everyday personal experiences and local produce. Through informal conversations over breakfast she tried to investigate the human and environment relationship. In addition to harvesting food each month, every breakfast meeting focused on a different theme for discussion: such as recycling rainwater, food safety, water sampling, enzyme production, natural farming, organic fertilizer, eco pig farming, and flood detention. Experts were invited to exchange their experiences and knowledge with local residents. The purpose of the Breakfast meeting was to find out who lived here, what was their experience like and how they could respond to the living environment.
The Breakfast meeting was quite successful, because we all shared the common interests in food. The food we prepared was from the site. This helped us again to understand where we lived, and how the land and the water related to our daily life and our health. Through these events we got to know the communities from downstream to upper stream. Since the creek was steep, the way people lived there was very different from the town of Zhuwei. This helped us to understand the different aspects of the place. We knew we shared the same river, and we needed to work together furthermore.
THE DUALISM BETWEEN HUMANITY AND NATURE is an important perspective in ecofeminism. In this project a duality is also recognized in the past and present. The difference between the farming villages of yesterday and bedroom city of today are defined by lifestyle, local interaction, and quality of the natural environment. People used to sustain themselves mostly from food grown and gathered locally. It is an old economy model where the relationship between human activities and natural environment are harmonized. People who live in the area now consume essential goods brought in from other areas. The artists in this project intended to explore alternatives with communities.
The handcraft market brings “not only home grown and hand made products to sell or trade, but offering skilled services such as electrical appliance and shoe repair and gardening advice, and balcony garden workshop.”8 These kinds of businesses involve service, exchange, productivity in the community, and suggest self-sufficiency among the communities.
The breakfast activities share similar understanding to Professor Huang’s team with a focus on the farming communities. In the valley of Plum Tree Creek “the farmers grow the vegetables for their own household consumption, or as gift for neighbors. A very small percentage of the vegetables are treated in the local market.”9 The farming community is small but still maintains self-sufficiency and by all indications have a happy contented life style. The breakfast activities intended to empower the relationship between the farming community and the larger community. Three ideas are recognized: (1) a dialogical approach, (2) the connection to the farming community, and (3) social reproduction of human life. “Breakfast” consists of local harvest participatory activities, and emphasizes dialogue, inter-subjectivity and empathy. The participants are inspired by the breakfast activities and meeting with the farmers.
The images of the seasonal fruits and vegetables are important graphic components. They are drawn in an old style and evoke nostalgic feelings and imaginations about the past. Enforcing the connection between food and land also enhances women’s skills, knowledge and practical wisdom, the care and support of daily life for families. This social ecofeminist approach expands the individual horizons and gives everyone self-confidence to join in social and political activities.
Eco education activities deal with young students who do not have the past experience of changes and memories of the place. The education relies on aesthetic experience of the environment. This learning is not based on right or wrong.Each student’s experience and “sensing” are prioritized. Shiu hopes the students understand what art is and how it can be connected to life and environment. The students and their teachers learn by sharing and listening to each other. It is different from textbook-based learning. This kind of learning deeply connects to each student’s life and the environment. Teaching is transforming the students, and the students will carry their lesson into the future.
1 Merchant, C. Radical Ecology: The Search for a Livable World. London and New York: Routledge (1992) p. 218.
2Ibid. p. 209.
3Plumwood, V. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. USA and Canada: Routledge (1993) p. 30.
4 Brennan, A., and Lo, Y. “Environmental Ethics,” in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. California, Stanford (2011) p. 24. [PDF online] Accessed 16 April 2014:
5 Merchant (1992) Ibid. p. 86.
6 Bamboo Curtain Studio. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek, Geographical Facts, Introduction.(2011a) [online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan.
7 Bamboo Curtain Studio. Mending the Broken Land with Water: Art as Environment—A Cultural Action at the Plum Tree Creek. Video. (2013) [online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan.
8 Greaves, J. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek. Curating Cities Database. National Institute for Experimental Arts, University of New South Wales, Australia (2013). [online] Accessed 18 April 2014: http://eco-publicart.org/art-as-environment-a-cultural-action-at-the-plum-tree-creek
9 Bamboo Curtain Studio. Art as Environment—A Cultural Action in Plum Tree Creek, Projects, Shaping of a Village. (2011b)[online] Accessed 18 April 2014: Bamboo Curtain Studio, New Taipei City: Taiwan. http://plumtreecreek.bambooculture.com/#/Art_a0/
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IN 2012, WE FOUNDED 3rd Space Lab as an artist collective of seven women from Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, with the common goal of establishing a new global commons. As Sister Cities, Bangalore and the SF Bay Area share the title of technology capitals, are geographic places that have long agricultural histories and large robust migratory communities who have shaped the culture of each place. As a collective, our aim is to create new social pathways between our two cities and larger communities through developing a mutual sustainable art practice to explore new understanding that arise through creating collective thought from opposite sides of the globe.
Since 2012, we have begun to dig into life, land, and the cultural practices of our two communities, sharing and building our collective thinking to develop a communal process for art making towards designing a new cultural space. Through this we have found striking similarities and vast differences that have both challenged and informed our own individual and collective understandings of the world.
Sanskrit has given us an ancient and well-tested definition for a community—Satsang (gathering together for the truth). Where, then, does the notion of a collective fit into this? The idea behind Satsang is that a natural formation of connective tissue gathers and holds a group together. Through the creation of this gathering, synergistic opportunities begin to arise, creating a spiritual soul around the center of the group. Perhaps a collective is then a larger wave of consciousness, forming its own kind of community through developing collective thought. As artists, this is a testing ground for us—we traditionally operate as individuals, where ideas and thoughts evolve through personally centered memories, experience, and interactions in the world. But there is often no or little interdependency in individual practice. French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes about the development of human perception, “[W]e take up a position in space . . . [and] from that moment we see it in perspective.”1 This is the work of our collective—to take up a new position in space, and we are inching towards transitioning from individual to collective thinking in order to form the first core of our community, building a foundation towards understanding each others’ cultures.
As artists, we begin redefining our collective perspective while at the same time holding onto our individuality, along with the social theories and esthetic practices of two very different places on the earth. (As a collective we have to remain mindful to attend to the individual and the differences we have through experience, traditions, spiritual beliefs and our individual egos and ideas. There is a constant back and forth between individual and the group indemnity.) This is the complex landscape in which we are operating and developing, revealing to us those in between spaces to mine, explore, and surface in new frames of understanding. Through a series of investigations, we are beginning to map those interstitial spaces of our mutual cultural understandings and challenges, exploring the land as a metaphorical entry point to build a new landscape in order to create a space to play with the idea of merged cultural thinking and identity. Here we lay out our process and interest in building community and collective thinking that crosses borders and enters into the well-charted and not-so-well-charted territories of international relationships, diplomacy, and cultural production.
Collective Inquiry: What Does the Land Offer as a Place of Knowing?
There are so many vast differences in how our cultures think about the land and the beliefs systems we hold around it. Yet, we are so much alike in our curiosity creative drives, relationships to our fast developing worlds, and our passion for both social and natural ecologies. Our collective approach to artmaking is a participatory research practice. Through our shared research and thinking, we are interested in the ideas of placemaking,2 an urban planning theory, as a springboard to explore the spaces of our cultures and develop a mutual sustainable art practice. Our current project, The Distance from Me to You, explores this domain through cultural exchanges that reveal both similarities and differences between our cities. As we approach each homeland, we are both awed with the mysteries of a new cultural space and challenged by our own spaces, negotiating sustainable pathways for our futures. Our goal is to present a new frame of possibilities that celebrate both cultures.
As a collective come from the disciplines of photography, video, architecture, sculpture, painting, installation, performance, and design. We began our work together through a virtual entry point—regular virtual discussions to support and build our mutual respect, learn to love each other and develop agreed upon investigations and processes. We continue to find this platform to be one of our most fluid forms of working together due to the distance between us. This virtual space has become part of our metaphorical landscape, creating symbiotic relationships and carving new pathways that have begun to collapse the distance of our physical and philosophical space. As we develop our research and creative process, our output lives on as archived conversations. Our virtual life has led us to instituting a “zero-balance production” philosophy.3 To this end, as a way to document our process, we have created an online visual research archive, The River, to update the evolution of our process and production through a fluid online public image database. We then use or repurpose some of the images as artworks or ideas. We are interested in creating work that either remains in a virtual state for public access or that goes back into our respective communities where we work as a collective.
Currently, a large part of our process has been to continually address new understandings that arise through conflating collective thought between cultures. While this is a challenging task, we have been fortunate to extend our thinking through partnerships with other regional disciplinary experts, cultural thinkers, and artists. In January 2014 our collective gathered together for our first live residency in Bangalore, India, to develop cross-cultural intimacies and opportunities that only emerge with working together in one another’s presence. Prior to our gathering in January, we spent the fall investigating the landscapes of our homelands, looking for metaphors that could help us enter into a mutual conversation. We called this field trip aspect of our research Explorations on the Land. As part of this research, we began to meet with different experts from the places we visited. We invited a group of local community artists, environmentalists, and cultural thinkers to enter into dialogue with us about the land as both a metaphor and practice for understanding contemporary culture, history, and ecology.
As a group we are interested in employing the methods and tools of other disciplines such as social, environmental, and geographical sciences and educational pedagogies (cognitive learning theories around understanding) to advance our practice and cross esthetic and cultural borders. We are influenced by the movement of global networks used and developed by other artists and collectives to create immersive opportunities to explore, share, and unite one another’s customs and cultures. Through this lens we see our inner core of diversity (our collective disciplinary expertise) as a doorway to meet and engage with each other and a wide variety of other creative thinkers and practitioners in our communities, expanding the new metaphorical landscape we are developing.
While in Bangalore in January, we gathered an engaging group of experts to share their knowledge and experience in the areas of the physical, cultural, and technological landscapes of Bangalore. As trees, water, and technology were our entry points, we met with Dr. Yellappa Reddy, a noted and passionate environmentalist and former Indian Forest Service Officer,who has contributed immensely in the maintenance and balance of the ecosystem through the recent growth of urban Bangalore; Dr. K.Y. Narayanswamy, poet and playwright, who made the connection between nature and women through Kannada folklore; Sunanda Bhat, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose film “Have You Seen the Arana?” addresses the dilemma of the imbalance created in ecosystems when small creatures such as the garden lizard slowly disappear.
Bangalore is a city with many water bodies. S. Vishwanath, a pioneer in rainwater harvesting, provided insight into the importance of such water bodies that have disappeared over time. Dr. Lata Mani, an artist, writer, feminist theorist, and cultural critic, talked about the cultural impact when a city such as Bangalore grows quickly into a booming world metropolis. Design and design thinking have become an important part of our work and research. We are using this as a framework to explore how to design a new metaphorical space. To deepen our understanding of the intersections of design and nature, we invited bio-inspired designer Thomas McKeag, a Fulbright Fellow in Bangalore, citizen of the SF Bay Area and co-founder and editor ofZygote Quarterly, a digital magazine devoted to the nexus of science and design. Tom opened doors around the intersections of nature, design, and technology currently being explored by designers in both India and the U.S. In exploring an interdisciplinary model, we see all these intersections as possibilities to build and grow our larger collective thinking and gather new partners to support the development of our work, while expanding a larger collaborative community around us.
Collective Inquiry: What Is the Folding and Unfolding of Our Work Together?
Our studio practice is made up of investigations on the land and a laboratory of ideas to build knowledge. Part of our social/participatory goal is to share ownership of our work through ongoing conversations, collaborative design and art making opportunities, together and with others to build more sustainable bridges of diplomacy between our two cultures. Our interactions with regional experts helped us to see where we could begin to push out into our communities to engage with local craftspeople, thinkers, and designers that can help us develop our first series of investigations on the land and explore the landscape as a cultural and natural metaphor to find common ground.
One of the visual metaphors we have been working with is the idea of constructing a symbolic forest using iconic tree images from both cultures that hold the history and stories around the development of both places. Trees are a mutual entry point where we have found our cultural differences start to blur and collapse. The juxtaposition of the forests of both Bangalore and the Bay Area seemed a natural way to begin to build our collective imaginations. In our studio/laboratory, we simulated drawings of iconic redwood forests and banyan trees found in our two landscapes creating a pathway for us to begin exploring the social and cultural influences and commonalities between our cultures, and as a way to conflate the two. Through the process, we began to envision how far we have to go to develop this new world. Even though we shared iconic understanding of trees and landscape, we found that our initial ideas about methods and cultural concepts required us to stop and listen to each other stories, in order to understand how to build diplomacy among us a group, and how to relinquish preconceived, individualized thinking. During our post-residency reflections, a question began to surface for us: Is discomfort the place where art sits or art starts? Collective Canvas In Bangalore, two projects began to emerge as steps toward constructing a new identity –creating a collective visualization of us as individuals. We also saw these as opportunities to begin our investigation into collaborating with regional artists in Bangalore.
Canvas 1: Simulated 3rd Space Forest
Henna is a paste made from the leaves of the Mignonette tree that creates a temporary stain on skin. Henna artists use it for celebratory rituals to create designs with traditional motifs on the arms and legs of women. In constructing our first simulated forest, we met our first rub—the California artists became interested in henna as a national art form. To them it was part of their larger cultural fantasy of India. Our Indian collective members considered this a cliché but, in the spirit of exploring a new third space of combining our cultures, made a commitment to experiment. We invited two traditional local henna artists, Lokesh and Sunil from the Raj Mehandhi Arts, to join us in our studio space. Here, they worked with our images of forest drawings, combining them with traditional motifs, to begin constructing a simulation of a new landscape. Reflecting on an earlier image of trunks of banyan trees documented during our explorations on the land, we used our arms as canvases to develop the imagery in combination with the color and texture of our skin. The resulting images have become a metaphor of our examination of the commonalities and differences between our two cultures, and the beginning of our process to conflate the two. The images on our collective skin, and ultimately the photograph, support the idea of a hybrid forest and the relationships we share among our bodies and the land. Canvas 2: Building an Identity—Playing with a New World Landscape (River of Faces)
The goddess had been calling for a while, and as a collective we had to attend to this immanent practice of spiritual connections and relationships to the land. During an initial investigative trip to the Sacred Forest of Nallur outside of Bangalore, our Indian artists happened to meet Narayanaswamy, a memorable old man sitting under a grand old tree near a temple. He was the human guardian of the place, attending to the ecology of the forest. Looking at our collective member Shamala, he remembered “Gangamma,” the presiding deity with whom he once took a spiritual stroll in the jungle. “She’s just like you,” he said, with ease and lightness, as though human resemblance was a natural way to ignite the myths and stories that helped to keep the forests and its ecology alive. It also seemed natural then for the goddess’s red face to begin to surface in our thinking and experiences in India. The tradition of painted faces in Indian performance art and theater became another iconic image with which we revisited spiritual beliefs shared in Indian culture. This image of the painted face began to grow on us, seven women from the West and the East, becoming a way for us as a collective group to physically connect to the land and build a collective portrait. During the process we grappled again with the image and its implications in both cultures. We found that our differences and identities could merge under the hands of our collaborative partner, Bangalore theatre designer and artist Ramakrishna Beltur.
Why Do We Travel toward Water?
In this portrait of us, we wanted to explore water as an idea and metaphor—water is an important landscape element in our cultures—an element that both separates us and joins us as a global subject. We are interested in playing with the idea of flow, which we represent in our visual research archive The River. In the Collective Canvas (New World Landscape), the image of water crosses our faces as a collective and represents, for us, the color of life (the red of blood) and the silvery blue of water, all merging in a single landscape across our skin.
Community Canvas: The Truth about Ownership. . . .
How do we share ownership of this work? In thinking back on the ideas of Satsang, the coming together, we find ourselves as artists back in the first layer of our ring. Through both of these new works, we explored creating a new identity through a shared artistic vision of others. In the henna process we were able to bring together our thinking and agree to enter a new territory through participatory process. But how does the work of Lokesh and Sunil, who in concert with us created the images on our arms, and that of Ramakrishna Beltur, who painted the river on our faces, truly become part of this transformation? We stepped into this agreement with uncertainty between each other and with our creative partners, and that brought a fair amount of disequilibrium. We had to learn how to trust one another’s visions and be open to learn from one another—both as a collective and in collaboration with artists outside of our group. Through this process we are learning how to embrace ambiguity, feel okay outside of our own skins, listen to others, see the possible visions and versions of ideas, give up our individual ownership, and let go with confidence that a new path will be carved that lives in the Satsang. In the end, our henna artist partners worked through their skepticism of merging our literal interpretations with their own designs, and left with a new frame to consider, documenting our arms with their smart phones. And Ramakrishna Beltur, who has years of experience working with others in the world of theater, skillfully navigated our questions and made a space for us to trust him. We all stepped into a mutual agreement once the process began. We are learning to trust those who we invite in, who know more than we do. We are learning to trust each other, to be open, and to listen. And we are learning how to share ownership, gathering together to create a larger spiritual soul around the center of this work.
Collective Inquiry: What Is the Course and Language of Mapping a Place?
Our friend and great thinker Lata Mani asked the question: What is the course and language of mapping places? Perhaps mapping can be seen as a diverse system of merging both ecological, social forms and pathways to better understand a space. Mapping can be both concrete and conceptual. It is a tool of power. It is a tool that can build and breakdown in the same moment. How do we use the tools of mapping to create pathways of reference as the changing landscape rearranges our knowledge of ourselves in relationship to the land? Change can be disorienting—it scrambles what we know so we are faced with creating new landscapes, new markers for our memories and our knowledge of the land. As a collective we are exploring systems of mapping to help us see our path and create new opportunities to intersect with others.
In early January 2014 as part of our Explorations on the Land, we visited Dodda Alada Mara, situated in the village of Kettohalli on the outskirts of Bangalore. This giant, 400-year-old Banyan tree has a crown circumference of more than 250 meters and more than 1,000 aerial roots that span across four acres. It is a site that is visually arresting, inhabited by monkeys, spiritual leaders, and global visitors. After our first visit during our initial field trip, we agreed to return for a creative investigation. Imagine a tree that spreads itself across multiple village blocks—one tree that looks like an entire forest. Participatory Survey and Mapping Experiment at Dodda Alada Mara
In mid-January we revisited the Dodda Alada Mara. The sheer scale of this site called us to explore, survey, and map. While preparing for this participatory mapping survey, we compared the daylight and nocturnal lives of our collective group. When we are awake in Indian daylight, San Francisco is asleep, and visa versa. What role do our nocturnal lives play in thinking about our connections? Our awareness of night and day is made apparent every time we schedule a virtual meeting for our group. This interstitial place is where we work together most of the time—it is the space of our virtual lives together, where we are constructing the dreams of our future. The night sky became a research model to explore our first mapping project. Working with the star system Pleiades as a metaphorical tool we mapped ourselves onto the root systems of the great Banyan tree at Dodda Alada Mara.
As a site to experience, Dodda Alada Mara is a stunning color feast. While the mother trunk is now missing, it supports thousands of light gray branches reaching towards the heavens juxtaposed with a ground of rich red earth. This site is a sacred place. A temple on the spot of the now deceased mother trunk reminds us of this. Offerings are made, bells ring, flames purify. We entered this sacred space arms filled with black ropes made from human hair and yellow and red cotton string. We used them as measuring instruments to survey the physical space, inviting grove visitors to join in mapping the distance and the meaning of this place through actions, sharing stories and documenting our mutual findings, using a hand-to-shoulder system, an everyday form of measurement in India. This also allowed us to engage local individuals creating a participatory event experience, building scale and data through many different bodies, as our records of measurement.
During our surveying, we crossed one another’s paths through the Banyan forest and recorded our exchanges in a book. We noted GPS data of various points and marked our measurement with a cloth tag, documenting the date, the measuring surveyor and other incidental data. This process helped deepen our understanding of the physical and psychological distances between us and the community members with whom we worked at the site, enabling us to reflect on our points of origin, creating a new understanding of our lived experiences. We made portraits of each visitor surveyor and ourselves as we mapped and collected stories in a book. Then packed up all our ropes, tags and documentation, and traveled with them back to California at the end of ourJanuary residency, to be used for measurement tools while our group is in residence in the San Francisco Bay Area during August, 2014.
Collective Inquiry: How does one keep a loose and mutually loving embrace of the places we know well, while embracing the ups and downs of a new territory?
What is in our future? As we continue to shape and form the 3rd Space Lab, our interests and commitment to this work come out of our mutual longing toward the same cause—to understand one another’s lived experiences and create a new landscape designed from possibilities.
Much of what we saw and made during our residency in Bangalore, fed our ideas and goals for the future. Influenced by discussions with bio-designer Tom McKeag, forester and environmentalist Yellappa Reddy, and environmental filmmaker Sunanda Bhat, we continue to use the forest as a metaphor to develop our thinking and growth as a group. To this end, we are beginning a new series of experiments based on our new lines of inquiry and research. We are interested in continuing to explore new systems through the metaphor of the forest and playing around with both live and conceptual ideas to surface our goals. Can we cultivate a live symbiotic 3rd Space forest made of collective native seedlings that we care for and nurture as a gesture over time—building a live garden? We are looking toward our continued work with experts that can help us explore a variety of possibilities for creating a symbiotic life test, including hydroponic technologies and greenhouse environments, among others to be developed in both Bangalore and the Bay Area.
What is the communication of water? Though our discussions with S. Vishwanath we have been thinking about the universal and central role water plays in our lives. The continued building of our Flickr visual research archive, The River, depicts a flow of our visualized experiences and projects, using the properties of water as a metaphorical base. Through this we are sharing the evolution of our growing practice, interfacing with global audiences and creating opportunities to meet new collaborators.
Lata Mani propelled us to make a commitment to our zero balance philosophy and to keep a “loose and mutually loving embrace of the places we know well.” To this end, we move forward into the future looking, listening, measuring, and making new meaning through mapping as an active experience and as a way of diminishing our gaps, challenges, and the larger dimensions of our work. No place or path along this journey is still. As a collective and a community, we continue to play with and explore multiple temporalities to help us envision the future, animating our thinking and deepen our understanding of what is possible. We are inching our way towards the Satsang, creating a soul around our work and to create a bridge of creative, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual proximity—a networked path to art, culture making, and new friendships.
In August 2014, we will be together in San Francisco Bay Area where engaging with cultural thinkers and environmentalists who shape the Bay Area and work collaboratively with them to develop a new series of creative productions. During this time we will initiate a new round of investigations through actions, experiences, experiments, and artworks that we can exhibit, perform, and produce for the communities where we live.
To follow the work and outcomes of our developing practice, please visit http://www.3rdspacelabcollective.com/
Authors Trena Noval and Lalitha Shankar are founding members of 3rd Space Lab Collective. As of May 2014, collective members included: from Bangalore: Lalitha Shankar, Shamala Billava, Arzu Mistry, and Anuradha Nalapat; from the San Francisco Bay Area: Trena Noval, Robin Lasser, and Shalini Agrawal.
1Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, London/New York) p. 236.
2Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being. Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placemaking.
3Zero balance is a philosophical approach we have developed toward our art production that allows for us to thoughtfully gauge what we put into the world, where it will live or be housed, and for what purpose. Our goal is not to create things that need to be stored with no purposeful reuse.
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Environmental War Resistors
AS REPORTS OF ONE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER after another pile up in the world, it can feel as though the earth is under military siege—a paradoxical state in which we live amongst occupying forces, and yet we are also the occupiers.
As an ecological artist, I am often dismayed and despairing over what we are doing to our beautiful planet, all the species, the air, water, and memories of pristine places while knowing that my very existence as a first world citizen causes these troubling problems.
However, I am part of a community of artists and scientists resisting environmental catastrophe, collaboratively seeking resilience for vanishing species and polluted waters. When I became willing to cross over between silos of artist or scientist, identities began dissolving into a more open transdisciplinary frame. In this essay, I will detail how my thinking developed in collaboration with scientists, where curiosity has common currency with art, and some nuances of that process in my practice. Collaboration is defined here as working with another researcher to understand dynamic processes, discover new knowledge, and find applications for that knowledge.
A complex adaptive model (CAM) is a tool to observe how disconnected, changing systems operate in relationship to each other, like aspects of the ecosystem humans inhabit. In this frame, I built a CAM for environmental restoration.
Trigger Points as Environmental Triage
I call my CAM Trigger Point “Theory as Aesthetic Activism.” It is designed to triage water conservation and survive global warming in the coming decades. In 2009, it became my transdisciplinary Ph.D. dissertation topic at the Zurich Node of the Planetary Collegium, University of Plymouth, U.K. A question I addressed in my dissertation was whether collaborative transdisciplinarity could provide an answer to the extensive damage caused in the Anthropocene Era, the period in which humans have impacted and, in most cases, severely degraded every living ecosystem on earth. My thesis argued that small points of intervention might “trigger” large landscape restoration, and a transdisciplinary approach would best identify those points.
Fish, like other amphibians, are the “canaries in the global coalmine”—they provide first evidence of coastal ecosystem resilience or collapse, where trigger points might be identified. I referenced them in my work as indicators of ecosystem vulnerability to collapse. Much of my collaborative research with scientists since 1990 has addressed that vulnerability in coastal zones, those edges (ecotones) between water and land where fish are born.
Dr. Angelika Hilbeck was the first supervisor for my dissertation. As Chair of the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER), Hilbeck has challenged Monsanto and Syngenta, companies that are imposing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on small farmers. In discussing my research, we explored the limits of transdisciplinarity for my CAM, raising new questions about contemporary environmental problems and solutions, for example, how specific metaphors might function as idea models in restoration science.
Some Geographic Information Systems (GIS) practitioners believe GIS is the apotheosis of transdisciplinarity because it combines visualized data and scientific analysis. Dr. Juliana Maantay, professor of Geology at Lehman College, taught two of my advanced classes when I studied for a GIS certificate there as part of my dissertation research. My goal was to learn to analyze how layering statistical data with GPS coordinates could accurately predict ecotone ecosystem problems and trigger point solutions.
Maantay believes GIS is a separate scientific discipline that can create new knowledge. Although we didn’t collaborate in the sense of generating new knowledge together, her analytic research methodologies informed my proof of concept for mapping correlations where confluences of built infrastructure, seagrass, endemic and invasive species indicated potential coastal trigger point sites.
Locating Trigger Points
In those relationships where our research interests overlapped, as an artist I was comfortable with looking broadly at the big picture with scientists, but it was an intellectual stretch to verify each passionate declaration and confront the devil in the details of choosing data attributes for analysis and presentation. In contrast, scientists stay focused on small pictures while remembering the larger one. In my dissertation, I struggled to develop my thinking between both worlds, and present a coherent and original point of view
In the littoral zone, tidal action is an elemental source of soil, as waves break down rock over time. An interest in soil is shared by most ecological artists and restoration scientists. In my research, physics plays an important role because it determines the nature of change. Ecological artist Alex Toland is a transdisciplinary Ph.D. candidate studying soils science. She recently curated my work in Dirt Dialogs, a poster show exhibition for the Soils Science International Conference in Jeju, Korea. Her exhibition presented how artists research soil in new ways to effect change. I designed a poster linking the fate of soil and fish to the nature of time, which I had studied in my own research.
Friendship is another common currency shared by artists and scientists. Many of my relationships with scientists began or unfolded as friendships. It is easy to discount the significance of productivity inspired by personal, informal relationships or overlook how the fact that relationships outside the scientific community can lead to insights about the potential efficacy of transdisciplinarity.
A chance exchange with Dr. Mary Jo Aagerstoun in the spring of 2014 is an example of how an informal exchange with a non-scientist can contribute towards new interdisciplinary knowledge. As a member of another common community, the ecoart collective, an online group of ecological art practitioners, Aagerstoun asked the group to identify some scientists with whom we had worked. Considering her question became the nucleus of this essay, prompting me to examine how my ideas have evolved in these relationships.
II. COLLABORATION WITH DR. MICHELE DIONNE
I PURCHASED THE SITE for the Ghost Nets project(www.ghostnets.com, 1990-2000) in 1990 with the intention of living there and restoring it, phrasing my intentions then as “going to a place where degradation was manageable, to create a model that could be applied where degradation was substantial.” The site was a former coastal town dump on a fishing island in the Gulf of Maine. My intention was to accomplish the means to quantify a relationship between restored wetlands and finfish abundance. Had I known then what I’ve since learned from scientists, my first task would have been to take core samples at the site to establish prior history. The completed Ghost Nets project restored the site—2.5 acres of habitat in the middle of an Atlantic seabird Class A Fly Zone—to a flourishing wetlands system that includes my personal residence (www.ghostnets.com). However, without initial core samples my intentions from the inception were undermined. Today, because of what I’ve learned about science since I began this work, I would have systematically integrated scientific tools into my strategic plans.
In 1995, midway through Ghost Nets, Annette Naegel, then at the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine, who knew of my restoration work, suggested I meet community wetlands biologist Dr. Michele Dionne, Research Director of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR).1 Dionne and I became friends when I told her I wanted to quantify wetlands restoration and fish abundance. We continued to collaborate informally and later formally to understand what supports resilience in fish communities, until her death in 2012.
Our initial formal work began in 1997to study how many species were using the restored salt marsh at the Ghost Nets site. Later, Dionne invited me to join an international working group, for the Secretariat of the Commissions for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) and the Global Progamme of Action Coalition for the Gulf of Maine (GPAC), to establish protocol for tidal restoration in the Gulf of Maine. This work led us to apply for a Charles Lindbergh Foundation grant in 1998 to compare the biological community implications of geomorphological salt marsh aspects, where we were finalists. Later, in 1999 and 2000, we did receive grants from the Nancy H. Gray Foundation for Art in the Environment. Those grants provided funding for Dionne to complete monitoring the restoration work. We found eighteen indicator species at the site, sufficient to declare it a restoration success.
Dionne submitted her final monitoring report for the Ghost Nets site on July 14, 2007: Restoring Wetland Functions to a Human-Altered Shoreline in Midcoast Maine: Initial Nekton Response to a Salt Marsh creation Pilot Project, whichshe and research staff at Wells NERR had conducted in April 2000. In addition to the observations of indicator species, they had surveyed the presence of nekton (i.e., fish, shrimp, and crabs) with the objective of providing baseline data on community functionality for the restored marsh. When Dionne’s team collected specimens for monitoring, they discovered a specimen of invasive European green crabs in a haddock’s stomach and a greater abundance of those crabs at the restored site than at undisturbed control site. Although it was well known that over-fishing was causing finfish declines, there were indications that there were other causes, including pollution and the impacts of invasive species on habitat and communities. Green crabs are among many species introduced into the littoral zone by the practice of dumping ships ballast inshore.
The green crab discovery introduced greater complexity to my original goal of demonstrating a simple relationship between restoration success and finfish abundance. It raised questions about community adaptation, whether finfish predation on green crabs at a certain stage of development under certain conditions might control their impacts. Those questions later became a cornerstone of my dissertation research. They were the reasons I became interested in creating a CAM and how I began to experience myself as part of a community of resistance to anthropogenic degradation.
My interest in landscape as an artist and Dionne’s interest in biological communities as a scientist overlapped in our curiosity about how geomorphological conditions, including built human infrastructure, impacts species relationships. In 2000, we co-presented on a panel at the “ArtSci” conference at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, but it wasn’t until 2010, after I began my dissertation, that we started discussing research models to take what we had guessed about crabs and geomorphologies at the Ghost Nets site to extrapolate new knowledge to salt-marsh systems throughout the Gulf of Maine. Before she passed away, Dionne shared with me the specimen data she collected in 2002 and 2004 from Casco Bay, in the Southern Gulf of Maine. I then began designing an experiment to measure the local impact of the Ghost Nets model and extrapolate what might be learned in modeling solutions for whole bioregions. That was when and why I enrolled in the GIS certificate program at Lehman College and began making GIS maps.Work on Dionne’s data from 2002 then became the basis for the fourth chapter of my dissertation (see Figures 2 and 3), although she did not live long enough to see my results. The GIS maps analyzed relationships between native fish, European green crabs, eelgrass and other biogeographic features in the Gulf of Maine. Eventually, that contributed to identifying modeling rules for my CAM.
III. COLLABORATION WITH WENDI GOLDSMITH
I MET WENDI GOLDSMITH2 IN 1994 at a conference in Boston. As with my other collaborators, we also became friends, sharing our ideas about restoration. Our work together on Ghost Nets culminated in 1997 with a state-of-the-art bioengineered restoration of the onsite salt marsh. In a 1999 conversation, we came to the same conclusion, which Goldsmith articulated, “the environment was lost by increments. It can be restored by increments.” That was an early, succinct expression of what I came to term trigger point theory.
IV. COLLABORATION WITH DR. IRWIN NOVAK
I MET DR. IRWIN NOVAK3 IN 2000 during a residency at the University of Southern Maine. In 2002 we collaborated to identify open space appropriate for restoration in Back Cove Park, Portland, Maine, to establish potential shore land habitat contiguity as public art. I had considered that Back Cove might be a trigger point whose restoration could have implications extending all the way to the Mississippi Water Basin. My interest in our work together was in determining whether we might be able to activate that local trigger point. An additional goal was to demonstrate how fragmented habitat for wildlife corridors and marsh restoration might be relatively easily re-established with urban planning, “IF” we were willing to pay attention to new connections and consider how human survival depends upon the survival of other species.
V. COLLABORATION WITH DR. JIM WHITE
I MET DR. JIM WHITE4 IN 2007 when we were paired as a collaborative team to produce work for the “Weather Report” show curated by Lucy Lippard and launched by Marda Kirn for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder, CO. Over several months we produced a series of recorded desktop-sharing sessions from weekly online meetings on global warming . That project became “Trigger Points/Tipping Points,” a series of screen shot prints and a film from our sessions illustrating the impacts of climate change and global warming on three deltaic systems—the Ganges, the Nile, and the Mississippi—and how they corresponded to conflict zones: Bangladesh, the Sudan and the Gulf of Mexico, respectively. In 2009, under White’s auspices, I attended the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) for the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, as an official observer for the University of Colorado at Boulder, to present our work to participants. At the COP, I also participated in the Ethics Committee’s work with legal advocate Don Brown and colleagues of White, who were conflating good science with ethics and policy recommendations, while arranging for the press conference on the work that White and I had prepared. However, I was forced to cancel our event when the Danish Police closed the Bella Center, where the conference was being held, ostensibly due to fear of activist protests. Until that point I had assumed that enlightened climate change policies would emerge from considered information. At that point, I realized that addressing climate change would not come from informing policy makers. It would become the burden of activist grass roots movements. Policy makers lacked the political incentive to adequately address climate change. Those people most affected are poor and often live in third world communities, where their voices are muted. That insight reinforced my thinking and that of many colleagues. It also encouraged me to further pursue the potential of applying trigger point theory to urban design, such as I had explored for Back Cove, Portland. Meanwhile, White and I began focusing our attention more narrowly on how and where our insights might be most effective.
VI. COLLABORATION WITH DR. R. EUGENE TURNER
I FIRST MET DR. R. EUGENE TURNER5 IN 2008 at a conference on Deltaic Systems in Baton Rouge LA. Because his areas of specialization are wetland ecology and conservation, biological oceanography, coastal restoration, coastal management, hypoxia (the “Dead Zone”), and coastal ecosystems, I knew Turner would be a valuable resource to help understand where and how trigger point theory might intervene in large scale marine degradation. In 2009, at Dionne’s suggestion, I invited Turner to participate in the Gulf to Gulf project (www.gulftogulf.org), which was conceived of as an online mini–think tank, and had evolved from the “Trigger Pints/Tipping Points” project—as a way to talk about, visualize, and design minimal-carbon-impact solutions for climate change impacting gulf regions internationally. Dr. Turner is a lead researcher on the impacts of the 2010 Macondo British Petroleum (BP) oil spill, and his knowledge became invaluable to the Gulf to Gulf sessions. The most dramatic example came in 2010, when I asked him to identify the trigger point for the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zones, and he replied, “Iowa.” The Midwest’s factory farms are the source of nitrogen discharge—much of which comes from the fertilizers that are a byproduct of oil production—into the Mississippi River, causing eutrophication (oxygen depletion) in the Gulf—where oil production occurs—in turn causing dead zones that kill marine life, a spreading global phenomena.
I continued to work with White, Turner, and Dionne (until she passed away) on the Gulf to Gulf (2009–present) project,6 meeting with them and inviting other guests on a regular schedule for one-hour recorded desktop-sharing webcast conversations. Over twenty of these raw webcasts have been uploaded to Vimeo, where they have been accessed by viewers in over 75 countries. It is our hope that they might be sources for education, for viewers to reflect upon what we are facing and how we must change our attitudes because of climate change. In my practice and in the evolution of my thinking, these webcasts are perfect examples of trigger point theory in action. The World Wide Web becomes the trigger point site to intervene with very small amounts of energy to impact global bioregions with insight and hope.
White and Turner contributed to the evolution of what became the Oil & Water series and then the Fish Story project, which built on my initial insights at Back Cove. In 2012, Turner invited me to present trigger point theory at the Annual Restore Americas Estuaries Conference (RAE) in Tampa, FL, where I could also observe, participate in and reflect upon some of the work on the most ambitious restoration project ever embarked upon: for the Florida Everglades. The Everglades has been marked by politicized stakeholder infighting, sabotaging some of the hard work of grass roots volunteers and provoking questions about how to best strategize the politics of restoring large systems.
In 2012, I began applying insights gained from the Gulf to Gulf sessions and what I had considered in Florida. Turner, White, and I began working as a team to conceptualize the science and community aspects of creating the Fish Story project for “Memphis Social,” Memphis, TN, curated by Tom McGlynn, with the goal of identifying a localized trigger point for the Mississippi Water Basin (MWB), the third largest watershed in the world, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Dr. Turner and I met in May 2013 in Memphis, TN, to present Fish Story, with four events planned to complete our work there: (1) a canoe trip down a newly mapped section of the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi that I thought might indicate a local trigger point; (2) a workshop with local environmentalists held at Crosstown Arts where I hoped to engage local environmentalists in identifying details of a trigger point; (3) an installation at the Hyde Gallery, Memphis College of Art (MCA) to invite observers to consider where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi River; and (4) a webcast, also held at the MCA to correlate trigger points between systems. My goal for the Fish Story project was to identify a trigger point in the Memphis region whose restoration might affect the entire MWB and the 18,000,000 people who rely on it.
Two critical points emerged from Fish Story. Our first important point was emphasized in the workshop, that the real trigger point in the MWB is racism. Memphis was once the center of the cotton industry and the slave trade that supported it. The MWB, has a long history of coupling environmental and human dispossession, reflecting the same global dynamics of environmental injustice observed at COP15.
Although Dr. White couldn’t join Turner and me in Memphis, he stayed in touch by email while we were there. Before the installation was completed I asked him to calculate how much environmental restoration would be necessary to offset the rise of carbon dioxide emissions in the air. Our second important point emerged when White calculated that if people could re-green the earth by an additional 36% by 2030 that might mitigate climate change. The calculations were made available in the installation with the intention of provoking the viewers’ consideration. My conclusion from the period of producing work in Memphis was that the area where the Wolf River meets the Mississippi (passing through poverty stricken lowlands that are routinely flooded and where the Army Corps had diverted the tributary to create a marina) might be a trigger point to change the regional habitat7 and initiate that additional 36% of re-greening.
SYSTEMS CHANGE IS DAUNTING. However, the “war” we are in requires us to take on that challenge. Ecological art depends on working across disciplines to effect change. In communities of resistance like those I’ve described here, the rules of transdisciplinary engagement are often vague, leaving some stakes ill-defined that might better serve our common cause with measures of transparency, acknowledging others’ contributions and strengthening support for this kind of work.
An obstacle to this change is apparent in how each discipline is forced to compete for scarce resources. The scientific community functions somewhat differently from the art world. While scientists are usually overtly attributive of the contributions of others, they are covertly competitive over who might publish first and with which colleagues. In contrast, the art world is often fiercely individualistic but is often covertly beholden to a rigid network of marketplace power. Hence, these collaborations challenged respective presumptions about conventional professional boundaries for each of my colleagues and myself. As we grew in generosity, open-mindedness and perception our work generated new knowledge and artifacts to triage the environmental wars. However, that did not make it easier to get the financial support needed to continue. If we are to expand this community of resistance, one challenge to a productive collaboration will continue to be the willingness to challenge—and be challenged by—the unfamiliar.
Another challenge is to attract adequate support. As with any resistance campaign, this triage requires inventing new venues, platforms, and frames for the modeling projects it can effect. It also requires foundations and, ultimately, policy makers to become smarter and more open-minded about their investments.
Six rules emerged for my CAM. One of those rules is to accept and reflect on the paradox of urgency in the time required to change systems. The remarkable community of scientists with which I have had the privilege to engage has been essential to the evolution of my thinking, from linking and daylighting buried waters to understanding relationships between biogeographies and geopolitics. Events, such as the closing of COP15, the devastation of the BP spill, or European green crab decimations of marine ecosystems have been disturbing. However, over time, they have also inspired transdisciplinary work that could lead to empowering ordinary citizens to triage what is being lost, one increment, one trigger point at a time.
The idea of informed citizen science seems the most promising direction we can take in extended resistance to environmental assault—this will require many scientists and artists to guide and inspire change. If this is truly a war, then resistance must continue. However, I see the tools of war that artists and scientist can assemble as vanquishers of ignorance and fear, rather than lives.
1 Dr. Michelle Dionne, (deceased), Research Director, Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, (NERR) Wells, ME. Affiliate Faculty in Zoology, University of New Hampshire and Adjunct Associate Graduate Faculty, University of Southern Maine.
2 Ms. Wendi Goldsmith, CPG, CPSSc, is founder of the Bioengineering Group, Inc., Salem, MA, and serves as its Chief Executive Officer and President. Her diverse background spans geology, plant and soil science, ecological planning, water quality management, and river restoration design. See http://www.bioengineering.com/people/wendi/wendi.php. Goldsmith presented a case study at the international conference on the design application of new technologies “Manufactured Sites” at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (April 3-4, 1998). A publication from the conference followed: see Niall Kirkwood, editor, Manufactured Sites: Integrating Planning and Design in the Remediation, Reclamation and Reuse of the Post-Industrial Landscape (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1998).
3 Dr. Irwin Novak, geologist, University of Southern Maine, specializes in analyzing geomorphology from satellite imagery. See
https://usm.maine.edu/rscholar/irwin-novak. Our mapping contributed to a major solo installation at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art. The exhibition was also part of the annual Camden Conference, which was about water in 2002.
4 Dr. R. Eugene Turner, Distinguished Research Master and new Boyd Professor, Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. See http://www.oceanography.lsu.edu/index.php/people/faculty/eugene-turner/.
5 Dr. Jim White, Professor of Geological Sciences, Fellow and Director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, CO and founding Director of the Environmental Studies Program at CU (http://instaar.colorado.edu/people/james-w-c-white/). Our collaboration resulted in a number of publications and exhibitions.
Publications of works with scientists cited:
Ernest, Dagney. “Rahmani opens, premiers in New York,” The Herald Gazette (October 23, 2010).
Billard, Mary. “Saving the World. Smelling Good Too.” The New York Times (October 21, 2010) E6.
Black, Helene, and Pinkel, Sheila. In Transition Russia 2008. Presented by NeMe, 2008.
Boettger, Suzaan. “Global Warnings.” Art in America (June/July 2008). Illustrated p. 161, discussed p. 206.
Dederer, Claire. “Looking for Inspiration in the Melting Ice.” Sunday Arts & Leisure, New York Times (September 23, 2007).
Exhibitions of works with scientists cited:
Still Waters, curated by Lisa Alembik, Dalton Gallery, Agnes Scott College, Decatur, GA, 2009.
Feeling the Heat, curated Liz Christensen, Deutsche Bank Art Gallery, New York City, NY, June, 2008.
In Transition Russia 2008, curated by Sheila Pinkel, the Independent Museum of Contemporary Art (IMCA), Cyprus, and NeMe in collaboration with the National Centres of Contemporary Art (NCCA), Ekaterinburg and Moscow, Russian Federation, 2009.
The Cultura21 Group at the Joseph Beuys 100 days of Conference Pavilion, Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy, September 6, 2007.
Weather Report, curated by Lucy Lippard, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, Boulder, CO, September 14–December12, 2007.
6 My work with Dr. R. Eugene Turner and Dr. Jim White as a result of the Gulf to Gulf series, led to a number of Oil & Water Exhibitions:
Unbound—An Exhibition in 3 Chapters, curated by Heide Hatry, Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax, Nova Scotia, March 16–May 6, 2012.
Horizon Lines, curated by Amy Lipton, ecoartspace New York, NY, October 9–November 30, 2011.
Beyond the Horizon, curated by Amy Lipton, Deutsche Bank, New York, NY, June 6 – September 21, 2011.
Oil Spill: Information Gulf, curated by Katie Avery, Santa Fe Art Institute, Santa Fe, NM, 2011.
One of A Kind, an exhibition of unique artist’s books, curated by Heidi Hatry, Pierre Menard Gallery, Cambridge, MA, 2011.
SHFT, curated by Edie Kahula Pereira, 133 Greene Street, New York, NY, 2010.
Fish Story, Memphis, Memphis Social, curated by Tom McGlynn, Memphis College of Art and Crosstown Arts, Memphis, TN.
7 More information can be found at the website www.gulftogulf.org, created as a result of the Fish Story project.
8 See Paul C. Schroeder, Paul R. Boudreau, Chris E.W. Brehme, Andrew M. Boyce, Alison J. Evans, and Aviva Rahmani, Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, Vol. 28 (2001) pp. 865–887; www.commoncoordinates.com/papers/2001epbgominfoex.pdf.My co-authors were Paul C. Schroeder, Department of Spatial Information Science and Engineering, University of Maine; Paul R. Boudreau,Marine Environmental Sciences Division, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Bedford Institute of Oceanography,Nova Scotia, Canada; Chris E.W. Brehme and Andrew M. Boyce from the Island Institute, Rockland, Maine; and Alison J. Evans Integrated Coastal Planning Project, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.
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