Monday, May 4, 2009

Week 14 Sum Up

I enjoyed engaging with topics that I probably would not have explored more deeply were it not for this Human/Nature/Image class, such as manifest destiny and Eliot Porter. And as dry as the bird exhibit catalog was, I enjoyed the class’s perspectives and responses. I thought starting the class out with the culture/nature discussion was helpful, as I know that I subscribed to the conventional thinking that we (humans) were separate from nature by virtue of our “intelligence.” I knew that humans and nature overlapped to some degree, but I think that week after week, I learned that it was much more complex than the human v. nature dichotomy. Whether it was the Eliot Porter inventing the genre of nature photography for the purpose of conservation and stewardship, or Werner Herzog’s investigation of the boundaries of humans and nature, or Mark Dion’s fallen Hemlock Tree in Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park – it was much easier for me to think that humans are an integral part of the intricate ecosystem. (I'll never watch Cesar the Dog Whisperer the same way again!) Also, while I love the aesthetic of the New Topographics photographers, I knew very little about the concepts and history behind it. I thought those week’s readings, in conjunction with the Gohlke visit, were particularly enlightening.

However, the topics that most influenced me by far were the discussions on biophilia and Buckminster Fuller. And as hard as preparing for the political presentation was, it shifted my thinking about my public housing photographs, inspiring me to think more historically and more conceptually about the role of nature, architecture, and urban planning. The field trip to the MCA and Arturo Vittori’s studio reminded me that people are always engaging with and building things that start out as pie-in-the-sky ideas. These concepts have made me more attuned to certain aspects of public housing, and have made me not only revisit my project with a different filter, but also have made me responsive to certain biophilic and utopian themes when I photograph now.

Monday, April 27, 2009

After Nature

I was interested in After Nature's use of literary influences, both in the presentation on the website and at the exhibit at the New Museum. The most prominent text on the website comes from excerpts of sermons by Reverend Howard Finster, a man whose frenetic handwritten aphorisms and observations provide a running commentary for the online images. Several words or phrases from each sermon excerpt appear as hyperlinks that connect the viewer to another word/image pairing. The found material doesn't have any obvious correlation to the images upon which they are superimposed. In addition, the hyperlinks do not provide any deliberate or linear correspondence between images. The juxtapositions seem both random and consistently ominous.

These juxtapositions may feel random, but they are deliberate moves inspired in part by the work of W.G. Sebald, the author whose prose poem After Nature provides the title for this exhibition. The influence of literary texts pervades this exhibition. In their audio commentaries, artists refer to apocalyptic lines from Shakespeare's Henry V, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, August Strindberg's Inferno, Lovecraft's The Beast and the Cave, and even The Unabomber Manifesto (not literature, exactly, but certainly a dystopic text that has inspired some of the art objects in this exhibit).

Several of the works in this exhibition reveal a fascination with decapitation, engorgement, and the abjection of the human body. This focus on the decapitated head has biblical resonances, too. Consider the detail from Thomas Schütte's The Magnificent Seven:

At first, the disembodied head looks like a kind of death mask, but the blood-red color of the ceramic, and the severe crack along the front of the face suggest a violent death. The bubbled material on the side of the bloodied head is presented as an earthlike material that is in the process of decomposition. There's something forensic to me about this head, but something organic, too—the idea that Adam was made of the earth.
Huma Bhabha's legs, and arms, and heads is another disembodied sculpture available for online viewing:

The title for Bhabha's piece comes from a particularly post-apocalytpic excerpt from Shakespeare's Henry V, in which a soldier in the king's army speculates on what will happen when the amputated limbs of mutilated soldiers join forces in the afterlife and demand a reckoning. Bhabha's head, which is made of both synthetic and natural materials. Like the memento mori of earlier centuries, this disembodied, decomposing head points more to what's missing than to what's there.

This pointing to what's absent recurs in Dana Schutz's Man Eating His Chest:

When I showed this image to my wife, she observed that the painting's bleak but bold color palette, process of self-engorgement, abject horror of the painting echoed the posture of some of William Blake's visions in The Book of Urizen (1794):

Like many of the artists in this exhibit, Blake was a reclusive visionary interested in creating his own systems of signification. Chaos and disorder are also depicted in Atomic Age, the painting by Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, another artist who, according to the curator, "developed personal cosmologies" in order to create his art:

With what appears to be snakes coming from an atomic cloud, Von Bruenchenhein's image is paired with the words "///THE earth will pass away with a great noise and there will be no place for it" on the site. The painting is disturbing enough, even without the doomsday prophesizing words laid on top of it. It seems like the destruction of an atomic bomb would beget even more destruction, in the form of snakes.

Snakes, too, have a prominent place in William Christenberry's audio commentary about the kudzu of the South, and how the fear of being tangled up in hoopsnakes informs his vision of overgrowth and superabundance of nature.

Perhaps, then, I'm most interested in how these apocalyptic visions speak back to one another and use familiar, recognizable tropes from apocalyptic traditions across time periods, even as they create innovative art objects. But I'm not sure if After Nature represents "new ecological systems struggl[ing] to find a precarious balance" that the introductory text on the website refers to. Rather I see an exhibit that's clearly depicting hell on earth and there's nothing very precarious about it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Place: The Final Frontier

William Fox's essay The Eye & The Mirror about visual perception and Antarctica pulls together science, art, and geography into a very interesting article. It seems that locations such as Antarctica and other vast empty desert landscapes (I had never considered Antarctica as a desert until this article) are completely discombobulating no matter where you are located in the landscape. Reading about the Fata Morgana mirage phenomena and skiing with your eyes closed to avoid vertigo was incredibly interesting and I can understand that happening if you are surrounded by barren land 360 degrees. However, I think it's also interesting to think about Terry Evan's Greenland work where, even from the air, it's hard to perceive scale because there's barely any reference point that humans can relate to – from the air or ground.

Terry Evans, Ice fjord leading to Jakobshavn Glacier2

So it makes sense to me that Fox talks about the use of cartography in order to interpret the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. I enjoy looking at maps, atlases, and globes, old and new, and know that boundaries between nation-states are a culturally constructed phenomena. However, I never considered maps as a way "overcome our neurobiological limitations in new and extreme spaces" or as "the springboard" for 16th and 17th century landscape art (p. 24). I often thought of maps as a way to guide what was already encountered, not as a way to think about what will be encountered. I think that it makes logical, mathematical, practical, and political sense to have the impulse to grid the globe. It is all encompassing, and latitudes and longitudinal coordinates make sense with the Cartesian plane we're familiar with. But I also think about how Buckminster Fuller's crazy Dymaxion Map, the "flat map of the entire surface of the Earth which reveals [the] planet as one island in one ocean, without any visually obvious distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land areas, and without splitting any continent." (from the By visualizing the world with greater relative accuracy it would help us better understand relationships of continents to one another in regards to population, migration, food sources, etc. I'm not sure if I would use the Dymaxion Map as a way to get from point A to point B, but it certainly interprets unfamiliar terms, such as Antarctica being split into a long strip along the bottom of a Mercator map, into an understandable term, one land mass that is depicted with size accuracy in relation to other land masses.

animation of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map by Chris Wyalt

Can Antarctica be experienced a "place" if you always end up disoriented? Or will it always be relegated to simply "space," a point on a grid (albeit a weird wedge shaped grid that messes up your compass)? Fox's discussion of what people want in landscape art is an interesting point of discussion as it relates to the Antarctic landscape. It seems like biophilia may be a factor as far as how people relate to the world and what they want an "ideal" landscape to be -- "a deep ancestral home" (p. 26). He states a disclaimer that eventually people prefer to leave their comfort zones to experience and experiment with the unfamiliar, but the challenge remains as far as how to interpret and how to relate to an unfamiliar landscape if it is perceived to be as a "vast nothingness" like the companies that wanted to drill in the ANWR landscape. Perhaps that is the charge of artists such as Subhankar Banerjee who appeal to our biophilia. By populating his landscape photos with nature such as caribou herds, he not only provides a sense of scale, but also a sense of a relatable natural practice such as migration across a landscape which transforms a "space" into a "place."

I assume that the pairing of Alan Singer's article with Fox's article on Antarctica was because of Werner Herzog's film Encounters at the End of the World. Unfortunately I live under a rock and have only seen Grizzly Man, but can tell from just a few YouTube clips and Singer's incredibly verbose article that Herzog is one nutty dude who's interested in the boundaries between humans and nature. This nuttiness may stem from the fact that he made his first phone call when he was 17. Despite the subtle differences between Kantian and Burkean definitions of sublime, I think I'll paraphrase Alan Singer: "I'm in such awe of reparticularizing and overparticularizing Nature that I s**t myself." But in the Kantian sublime, "the sublime is the mind's limit." Does "imaging its own failure" mean that our mind makes things up because we can't handle it? I'm wondering if this relates to the Fata Morgana phenomena/mirage alluded by Fox, as well as Herzog's film by the same name. It seems like Singer argues that even though Herzog appears to be a cool, detached observer, his documentaries are "a conspicuous labor of cultural production rather than an escapist illusion." I'm not sure why Singer posits that the films are an 'escapist illusion' but it feels like the "ironic sublime" is a criticism leveled at Herzog, when Singer says "my point is tht however exotic the look of the films, they always return us to the knowledge that such other-worldly exoticism is no less a product of culture than the cultural norms it belies" (p. 197). While Herzog is saying, "Look at how crazy and beautiful this natural world is and how insignificant we are in comparison," Singer is saying, "Look at how Herzog has made this natural scene crazy and beautiful through the use of mise en scene, his dramatic camera shots, and operatic music."

Monday, April 13, 2009

New Topographics

It was interesting to read these New Topographics articles not only in the context of this Human/Nature class, but also in light of the theme of this year's SPE conference, Sprawl. I had only been familiar with Frank Gohlke's Mt. St. Helen's photographs, but only viewed it from a technical/printing perspective. However, in the context of the New Topographics and his tornado Aftermath series, I have a much different appreciation for Gohlke's engagement with landscape photography. Ben Lifson's essay explains that Gohlke's work is a "critique of landscape art, its visual rhetoric and its historical and ethical content." I'm not sure if I see the critique that Lifson refers to, but I think that Gohlke firmly fits into the New Topographics label that he supposedly resists. Of course no one likes to be pigeon-holed, but much of Gohlke's work is certainly under the umbrella of a 'man-altered landscape' -- from the Mt. St. Helen's series to the tornado Aftermath series and even the grain elevators. The grain elevators is, in my opinion, not his most compelling work, but I do see how it fits into how the overarching theme of a human presence in a vast landscape. Lifson states that Gohlke's Witchita ruins are a critique of the art of ruins, but I'm not sure if I find support to this argument in the essay. I view these photos, as well as the Mt. St. Helen's photos as being about how nature (I'm considering humans as part of nature) regenerate after a disaster.

Aftermath: The Witchita Falls, Texas, Tornado No. 11A and 11B, 4503 McNeil, looking north, 1979/1980

I thought Robert Adams's essay was much more enjoyable as I found his 'three verities' of 'geography, autobiography, and metaphor' very useful in thinking about how I should think about landscape photography. This sums up very succinctly what often eludes me in my photographs as far as "going beyond description" goes. I know that his reflection is supposed to be about landscapes, but I think it can apply to what I would want in every one of my photos, no matter what the subject. I suppose if it was a portrait, then I'd replace 'geography' with 'person', but the 'autobiography' part feels like it refers to 'point of view' that is often brought up in critiques.

Greg's application of Systems Theory to New Topographics was compelling in light of the 'everything is connected' theme that we repeatedly return to in this class. I had little knowledge of Systems Theory and the fact that the essay weaves together Minimalism, Modernism, and the New Topographics, it's an interesting intersection of art history. While I was somewhat aware that Robert Adams was invested in societal change because of his clear cut photos, I enjoyed learning of the "holistic" vision that New Topographics artists had in regards to their belief that their art could function as a stand in for a lived experience (p. 15). Adams' New West photos are certainly a critique of development encroaching upon nature and it's easy to see and depict the nature/culture boundary there. However, it is interesting to read about the conceptual anti-Ansel Adams boundaries that New Topographics pushed, especially during the time of the 1970's environmental movements. One would think that there would be more Eliot Porter nature photography to comment on what's happening in the natural world. But rather it feels like the New Topographics actually is closely related to the Land Art of the 1970's -- both work with the tenet that humans shape the land. Instead of Smithson shaping the beautiful Spiral Jetty, we have cookie cutter developments being carved into the desert.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee

The treatment of Subhanker Banerjee's photographs seems to be an object lesson on the complicated relationship between art and advocacy. I admire his tenacity to challenge the drilling proponents' view of the Arctic landscape as being a barren wasteland, as I have analogous concerns about how developers view public housing. Both are places ripe with resources for financial gain, and both have existing ecosystems and communities that will be destabilized if commercial interests are fully realized.

Finis Dunaway's article "Reframing the Last Frontier" was not only an interesting recap of the ANWR/Smithsonian controversy, but also a thoughtful review of Banerjee's work. The article reminds me of all the things that consciousness raising documentary photography attempts to do, but often has to rely on heavy text. The pictures might be beautiful objects, but is it accomplishing what I want to do? Has the best thing that happened to Banerjee (and ANWR) the fact that the Smithsonian tried to censor his captions? Had Barbara Boxer not held up his photo in front of Congress to make a case, one might wonder if the Smithsonian would have been as alarmed. In any case, it's important to me that people took the pictures and words seriously. So seriously that it needed to be swept under the rug. I think all the heat that the Smithsonian caught is well deserved, and it has reminded me that the institutions are, for better or for worse, just as political as the artwork that hangs in them. I'm sure whoever instructed the Smithsonian to move Banerjee's photos didn't calculate the controversy that arose into the equation. It's troublesome how easy it is to recontextualize someone's work. Beauty (and resources) are in the eye of the beholder.

Also, I appreciate Banerjee's artistic strategies, as far as, like Terry Evans, using aerial photography to depict the scale of an ecosystem. While close-ups of animals do make them nice and cute, it is a convention that we know and that's how we learn what animals look like. To have the aerial view of an entire herd of migrating caribou seems like an attempt to understand the interdependence of animals and land. However, the god's eye could have the potential to abstract the image into large fields of color and make someone feel disconnected from the actual nature being depicted. One could look at it like a map, and ready to carve up the land like the Western powers did to the Middle East after World War I.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Migration II, 2002

I am familiar with the anxiety the Banerjee felt when he recalled in Finis Dunaway's article polar bears being surrounded by people with cameras (p.3). When I've gone camping in national parks my objective is to appreciate nature – alone. But so is everyone else's. Often a community of mutual appreciation is formed with people acknowledging each other's presence on hiking trails, but unfortunately in the cases of super popular parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, I can't tell the difference between the crowds of Times Square and the line to see Old Faithful. However, Banerjee's desire to live with polar bears seems a bit fantastical to me, and I'm glad that he did not indulge in this desire, lest he end up as a bear's lunch, a la Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast documented in Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man.

If Banerjee's objective is to document the wilderness for preservation, he risks the possibility of making his photographs "too" beautiful, and an unintended consequence of protecting ANWR from drilling would be to increase tourism of the Alaskan wilderness. In my opinion, this is surely the better of two evils, though one that must be carefully regulated.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Buckminster Fuller and modernism

"The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth Smith discusses in detail the profound influence that Fuller has had on artists today. While I enjoyed learning about Fuller and the selected artists, I found myself stuck in first gear trying to recall the traits of modernism. (After revisiting my meticulous and insightful History of Photo notes, I had a better grasp.) The way I understood the article, it feels as if modernism and utopianism are set up to be opposed to each other, or at least that is how I read Fracesco Manacorda's thoughts on Fuller. Smith writes, "For Mancorda, Fuller stands among the "heretical" figures of modernism, whose fantastic visions such as the Cloud Nine project reveal a hallucinatory blurring of reality and fiction, as distinct from the ideal harnessing or marshaling Earth's systems toward a common good." (p. 69).

Is Fuller's utopianism a "failure of modernism"? (p. 69). Not all artists think so, as evidenced by Pedro Reyes who says that he uses modernism as a toolbox, but uses Fuller's comprehensivist approach in that Reyes weaves "the social, scientific, mathematical, philosophical, and aesthetic." However, I'm not sure why Fuller would not be considered modernist. His geodesic domes seem to be about design that emphasizes strength, durability, and built with minimal materials. Is this so different than Mies van der Rohe? Or would van der Rohe be considered a utopianist?


modernist and/or utopian?

On the left is Fuller's geodesic dome in Montreal and on the right is Mies van der Rohe's IBM building in Chicago. I think both have a preoccupation with design, materials, and efficiency. However, according to a brief bio of Fuller on the MoMA website Fuller was "highly critical of modern European architects [such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe], who he felt were preoccupied with cosmetic concerns that merely symbolized or aestheticized functional elements without a clear and honest display of function and efficiency." I'm not quite sure what Fuller is critiquing, but I suppose he thought his designs were superior.

I enjoyed reading about Josiah McElheny, whose work I've enjoyed before, but didn't realize his direct engagement with Fuller's ideas of "Total Reflective Abstratction" – "a world of form without shadow, completely reflective form in a totally reflective environment." (p. 67)

Josiah McElheny, Model for Total Reflective Abstraction
after Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, 2003

But again, I am behind the curve as far as the reasons behind "An End to Modernity." According to a statement on the White Cube web site, "An End to Modernity" (2005), which was worked out with the cosmologist David Weinberg, is at once a play on the designs of the chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera house and an expressive diagram of the big bang. “The whole project”, writes McElheny, “exists at the intersection of specific concepts and abstract ones”. Is modernity/Fuller supposed to be represented by the perfect reflective sphere in the middle?

While I'm (still) hampered by my neophyte understanding of modernity, I still managed to enjoy the article and am fascinated with the working processes of Fuller and the legion of artists that he continues to inspire.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility

The Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility provided a great road map outlining the “complexity of American environmental attitudes” throughout art history in the U.S. It was comprehensive in its scope and I appreciated most of the choices of the work in the catalog, and I would move Cranberrying, Monehegan, from the “responsibility” part to the “destiny” part.
Overall, I think the authors’ explanations of the evolution of American landscape art and how it paralleled the changing national mindset was fascinating. Upon further reflection, it makes complete sense to me that artistic responses served as vehicles for manifest destiny as well as questioned the doctrine.

It’s interesting to me that the “humans apart from nature” and “humans as part of nature” mindsets have always been pertinent. I’ve only thought about it now-and-then, but it is now permanently integrated into everything I do – not just readily apparent activities like trying to recycle but the ways we eat, entertain, communicate, etc. I clearly am late to the game, and probably would have been painting the landscape ‘as natural resource’ back in the day. It’s also troubling how, while environmental concerns are on everyone’s mind, it feels like we are still depending on the contradictory conquering/land of promise model:

Once we tame the natives and nature, the land, which we will legally (because *we* make the laws) and spiritually have a right to (because everyone else is a heathen) we’ll be just fine. I think an image of a Conestoga Wagon traveling across the West would have been a good addition to the LUMA exhibit. Or perhaps this would have been too literal for the exhibit.

John Gast, American Progress

It's a bizarre image. Columbia, which represents America, lights our way as we march into the dark wilderness, and brings an enlightened path, figuratively and literally. Injuns and bison are being chased away. Telegraph lines, and thus, progress, follow her. If I had visions of an enormous floating woman with draping robes, I'd probably follow her, too.

I also enjoyed reading about the contrast between the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian approaches to the environment, and it feels like, aside from Jefferson’s slave ownership, we're moving towards a more enlightened perspective of connecting responsible stewardship of the environment to a democratic society. The thriving of the organic food industry and the desire to buy locally grown vegetables has the sentiment of ‘people power’ movement. Still Life with Fruit by Robert Spear Dunning is an interesting inclusion into the exhibit as certain fruit has certain cache. I'm not sure if the banana's overripeness represents indulgence, but I agree with the author that the banana and grapes themselves may represent items that have traveled great distances, from faraway colonized lands. Ceramic pineapples, which often crown the tops of buildings or metal gates, reference a time when colonizers used to pike a pineapple in front of their estate to notify the community that they've returned from a journey abroad. They were a symbol of power, wealth, and hospitality. There's no better souvenir from a Caribbean sojourn than a pineapple. (And slaves.) Perhaps if Dunning were an environmentalist and he painted his still life today, it would be adorned with how large the carbon footprint of each fruit, e.g. how much oil was required to transport the grapes from the vineyard to our kitchen table.

It's easy for me to understand why artists responded to manifest destiny by painting incredible landscapes. If they believed that it was their god given right to this land, I can't imagine any other way an artist would depict the national character than painting a big beautiful nationalistic advertisement of the natural landscape. It's like America went through a puberty growth spurt and started to feel like a grown-up. The anthropocentric view, while beautiful and sublime, is like an entitled teenager thinking the prom is *the* most important thing in the world and anyone who gets in the way of having a good time will be colonized.

I found some of the landscapes chosen for the catalog that represented the 20th century a little less compelling as far as depicting that national character at the time. The more impressionistic and delicate handling of materials could be related to the 'fragile subject matter' but I'm unsure if I would draw a comparison between Burchfield's Dreaming of a Fantasy Flower to Carson's Silent Spring. Burchfield's work seems quite tame compared to the alarm bells that Silent Spring sets off. Then again I thought a bowl of fruit was a bowl of fruit before.

It's hard not to think of Robert Adams's photos of clear cuts when discussing Sanford Robinson Gifford's photorealistic painting Hunter Mountain, Twilight. Gifford and his Hudson River School colleagues reflected a romantic relationship with the American landscape, but it feels like the only thing romantic about this painting is the light. Rather, it feels like a brutal commentary that we should be better stewards of the land. But I'm not sure if Giffored was a tree hugger or not.

Sanford Gifford,
Hunter Mountain, Twilight

Robert Adams, Clearcut, Humbug Mountain, Clatsop County, Oregon

Perhaps we should protect our land with the likes of Paul Shambroom's cast of homeland security characters. While the subjects reference a classic Renaissance pose, the figures obstruct the landscape they are protecting. Shambroom's treatment leaves me with the uneasy confusion as to whether I'm supposed to feel protected or if I'm the person that the SWAT team is protecting the land from. It's not exactly Manifest Destiny or Manifest Responsibility, but I feel like this series, Security, is a result of an overextension of Manifest Destiny.

Paul Shambroom, Police SWAT, Camouflage

Monday, March 9, 2009

Notes on the political presentation

I attended a panel last week on "environmental racism" which I thought was very interesting because of my interests in social justice and public space. There were many definitions that were attached to environmental racism, but I think the one that seemed to make most sense to me was put forth by Mick Dumke of the Chicago Reader, and former colleague at the Chicago Reporter. He pointed out that racism is often described as "prejudice + power" and that environmental racism often has to do with policies that enable poor communities and/or communities of color to be more likely to live in an area of environmental hazard (like a chemical plant) or areas that lack economic resources (like the South and West sides of Chicago where there is a lack of choices for healthy food).

Yes, there might be racism in the power structure, but corporations are often working with the bottom line and will place industry in poor areas because poor areas are often the path of least resistance. Polluters will identify neighborhoods without a strong social organization, neighborhoods who aren't active politically or are politically disenfranchised.

This eventually led me to thinking about my work through the ecological lens of trying to rehab Lathrop Homes instead of demolishing it and starting over. (Reduce, reuse, recycle!) Listening to the panel made me think about the community organizers I am working with and how they are working with Lathrop residents to do rallies and putting pressure on their alderman to preserve affordable housing at Lathrop.

My topic was also informed by a couple of urban planning books I've been trying to read for our final paper including:
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities – talks about the use of sidewalks, the need for aged buildings.
Robert Fishman, Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century – talks about the Garden City, decentralization to relieve the populations from urban slums at the beginning of the 20th c., "green belt" surrounding the city, cooperative socialism

Monday, March 2, 2009

Picturing Conservation

Rebecca Solnit’s writing about Eliot Porter was both informative and entertaining. I only knew a peripheral amount of information about Porter, so every piece of information was enlightening to me. I’m a little embarrassed at my ignorance of Porter’s significance to nature photography, and actually had never separated the genre of nature photography from the genre of landscape photography. One of the most interesting things I found about the article were Porter’s medical background and his active and consistent engagement with social causes. That he married his photographic approach with his background with science and conservation makes his working process very powerful to me. But I wonder if Porter presented his images and argument in an MFA program if he would encounter critiques that would say, “You’re being too literal.” Solnit describes In Wildness as “a survey of what could no longer be encountered, a portrait of the condemned before the execution.” (p. 231) Does Porter not leave enough to our imagination?

While I appreciate Porter’s photographs, I also like the fact that Solnit says that while Porter’s photos were made in defense of wilderness, they could also be used to promote development because the flora and fauna Porter depicted could survive on the fringes of suburbs. To me, while Porter’s photos were made in the name of conservation, it seems like no one can dethrone Ansel Adams as the preeminent nature photographer that everyone knows about – even though the article points out that Porter’s books brought conservation to the public consciousness.
I was also unaware of his involvement with the Sierra Club and the politics surrounding its publication arm. I enjoyed learning how politically active Porter was and how influential his photography was as far as raising people’s consciousness about the environment. Granted, I suppose that it’s arguable as to how effective photography can be as far as influencing policy and people’s opinions, but it seems like the In Wildness, in conjunction with Silent Spring and cold war nuclear anxiety, galvanized conservation into a political movement to reckon with.

Edward Burtynsky, on the other hand, doesn’t document to conserve, but is seemingly (to me) just as political, even though he believes “it would be hypocritical of him to use his photographs as a diatribe against industry.” Burtynsky seems well aware of the ecology of his photos and what it takes to make them -- Solnit points out that Kodak is New York State’s biggest polluter, and Burtynksy uses a lot of fossil fuels when he does his aerial photography and flies around the world to make his photographs. I think that we’re all pretty familiar with the argument about aestheticizing evil, and I think I come down on the side of "you might as well aestheticize it; it's better than ignoring it." If it's out of sight, then it's out of mind. (I acknowledge that I'm not addressing the issue of exploitation here...) I actually do think that photography has the ability to raise awareness, just like any other medium of communication. I read about the shipbreakers before I knew about Burtynsky, and I think that Burtynsky’s photos made a greater impact on me – maybe because it’s easier for me to remember pictures, or maybe because it’s hard to remember a 10 page article. I think it's to an artist's advantage if they play coy about having an agenda because it seems like art buyers don't want to buy explicit propaganda; but they don't mind buying propaganda that's beautifully packaged as art.

Shellenberger's and Nordhaus's article The Death of Environmentalism is the type of "red meat" article that I get a kick out of reading. I agree with the authors in that environmentalists do feel like a special interest group, equipped with lobbyists and experts. However, it feels like there's no other way to fight against business groups that are harming the environment. Also, I think I understand why they don't want "environmentalism" to be a "thing," but I don't see the harm in saving a "thing" as well as adopting environmentalism as a worldview like they say John Muir did. These feel very compatible to me, but I appreciate the way they organize their definitions and causalities (e.g. "why is global warming labeled "environmental" when it was created by humans and kills humans?" p. 12).

I feel like I'm reading this article later than I should have but it makes me feel refreshed as to how much the mindset about the environment and global warming has shifted in so little time. This article was written in 2004 and was dogging Al Gore for being scared about being labeled "Ozone Man" for the 2000 election. Two years after the article was written, "An Inconvenient Truth" comes out, wins an Oscar, and then Gore gets a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. It's amazing what's possible when you don't have an election to lose. The article points out that the U.S. did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and defeated it 95-0 in 1997; this Sunday's NYT states that the Obama administration will be involved in the negotiation of a new treaty in Copenhagen, hopefully to lead to a new climate pact. Again, the times are a-changing. The economy is crumbling and it seems like a plausible way to save it is by investing in green jobs and green technology. It's almost as if Shellenberger and Nordhaus had a crystal ball when they quoted Van Jones's belief of a "third wave" of environmentalism -- first is conservation, second is regulation, and third is investment.

Photographer Christopher LaMarca come to mind when thinking about artists who concern themselves with the conservation mode of environmentalism. His Forest Defenders series documents activists who go through great lengths to protect forests areas from logging, mining, and development. They employ a variety of tactics including road blockades and human barricades.

Christopher LaMarca, Forest Defenders

I'm going to use the second wave of environmentalism of "regulation" loosely when I apply it to artist Sabrina Raaf's piece "grower." The Grower robot "hugs the room’s walls and responds to the carbon dioxide level. The line height pertains directly to the level of CO2 (and therefore also the people traffic) in the space... The more CO2, the higher the line is drawn – the maximum height being 1ft.s in the air by actually drawing varying heights of ‘grass’ on the walls in green ink." The drawn grass benefits from more CO2, which is actually the opposite of our goal of reducing carbon emissions, but I thought that the artwork being sensitive to levels of CO2 would fit the bill.

Sabrina Raaf, Grower

Chicago artist Dan Peterman of The Experimental Station has dealt with environmental issues in his art for years. His Chicago Compost Shelter (1988), used a Volkswagen van was buried with compost to provide a warm place for the homeless. Sorry, no photo... but here's the type of info which made me environmental aware early on.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Bird's the Word

David Rubin loves birds. Apparently he also loves introducing sections of his catalog with trite expressions (Know thyself; Put on a happy face; All things will pass…). Rubin states that birds have been an inspirational subject since the beginning of time and Birdspace extends the subject into contemporary art practice. It seems that in every artistic period there seems to have been someone doing something that involved birds. There seems to be as many works of art about birds as there are "silly love songs…but what's wrong with that?" (Hey, if Rubin can quote George Harrison in his bird essay, then I can quote Paul McCartney in a blog.)

Rubin talks about a lot of art in his essay, some of which I thought was interesting after searching for it on the Web. Because birds are the subject of countless metaphors and art, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Rubin managed to find bird art that spanned an entire spectrum of themes – identity, mortality, humanity, etc. -- but I guess that's what curators are paid to do. I have to admit that it was nearly impossible to enjoy the essay because of the lack of images that were on the web. But even through the catalog, I can say with confidence that not all bird art is created equally. On page 14, Rubin writes about an artist named Martha Alf and her images of pigeons outside her window sill and how she imbued the birds with human qualities. Seeing the few images that are on the web, this seemed to be the most unambitious art project that I can imagine.

However, I enjoyed Roni Horn's photos of Icelandic birds, as they abstract the back of birds heads and I can't tell if they are photos of the hind of a dog or the back of a nun or some strange feathery sculpture.

Roni Horn, bird

One thing that must be a struggle for curators is where to draw the line about what to include and what not to include. To put Martha Alf's pigeon photos in the same lineage as Joseph Cornell's "bird boxes" is, well, let's just say that I'd be psyched if I was Martha Alf.

Another contemporary photographer that is inspired by birds is Paula McCartney (no relation to Paul) whose Bird Watching uses store bought craft birds placed in natural landscapes. For me, her photographs challenge the idea of the birder with enormous binoculars, but I also understand that the types of birds that she chooses don't necessarily belong in the landscape she puts them in. Her intervention might symbolize her desire to control or subvert nature as well as putting forth her ideal constructed landscape.

Paula McCartney, Bird Watching (cardinal), 2007

The desire to control nature, or rather, the need to intervene with nature, is evident in the efforts of Operation Migration (NYT Magazine, 2/22/09). However, unlike McCartney who stage manages her photographs with store-bought birds, a different type of mimicking occurs when the biologists and conservationists of Operation Migration guide endangered whooping cranes from Wisconsin to warmer climates by dressing up in white suits and leading them in an ultralight plane. The article points out that the costumes are necessary so that the birds don't become too comfortable with people. I commend the project for bringing together a community of people to conserve the whooping cranes, but as the article suggests, its troubling that this endangered species needs to be protected not only from extinction, but also domestication. That humans are in charge of preserving the "wild" nature of animals is bizarre. It seems like we spend all this time teaching parrots to talk, dogs to roll over, and monkeys to run businesses, a la, and now the civilized have to teach something to be uncivilized. It's like teaching Eliza Doolittle her Cockney accent after she's been refined.

photo: Mark Peterson/Redux for the New York Times

Monday, February 16, 2009


I found Edward O. Wilson's Biophilia Hypothesis very intriguing and dense. I've never thought about why I think bugs are gross, or why snakes are reviled by society, and according to Wilson, it's because of evolution. He defines "biophilia" as the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. While I think that his data of how many species mankind has destroyed in the little time humans have been on earth are shameful and horrifying, I am not sure if I am ready to fully accept that every interaction with nature has to do with evolution, such as why rich people live near the water. However, his explanation of why people are scared of snakes was fascinating, and how mammals fear of snakes is connected to us affects myth and folklore. I mean, how else can you explain the box office success of "Snakes on a Plane"?

I appreciate Kellert's classification of values, but again, probably need to read a bit more about evolution and psychology in order to accept "man's love for natural colors, patterns, and harmonies…must be the result…of…natural selection through eons of mammalian and anthropoid evolution." (p. 46). Or that fear of the nature is limited to snakes and arthropods due to a negativistic experience of nature (p. 57). I think it could be related to evolution, but I would also not discount culture, as in living conditions in human domiciles. For example, I would say it's safe to say that I don't like rats. Not necessarily because I don't like nature, but because rats carry diseases and are swimming around in filth. So rats mean filth. I would draw the same analogy to bugs in a house. If I see a bunch of moths or fruit flies, that means that something is probably rotting. Bugs means rotting. Do I hate bugs because of evolution? Not sure. I can't decide if I don't like spiders because there are poisonous spiders in the world and that's my evolutionary drive kicking in, or because of the episode of the Brady Bunch where there is a tarantula crawling up Peter sleeping during their trip to Hawaii (which I would categorize as culture affecting me).

Regarding, the philia part of biophilia, I do agree that humans are inhererently connected to nature or want to be connected to nature somehow. And I'm sure that rich people love living near water because that's one less side of the house that you have neighbors on, and not just because evolution dictates it. Is evolution the opposite of culture? Perhaps each interaction with nature could be placed on the spectrum so it can reflect varying degrees of how much we can attribute between nature and culture.

However, I am quite interested in landscape and architecture (and landscape architecture) and how they work off of each other, and I've been investigating the location of the public housing development Lathrop Homes, which is located on the Chicago River. It is unlike many public housing complexes with respect to the architecture, the amount of greenspace that it possesses, as well as its location on the river. Maybe the builders during the New Deal had a touch of biophilia?

Lathrop Homes, Lawn

Lathrop Homes on the Chicago River

I suppose everyone has their own relationship with nature, and I wish I could experience outdoor nature more via hiking, etc. But I also enjoy photographer Gideon Barnett who investigates the indoor/outdoor relationship that people have with nature.

It was nice to read J. Malcolm Shick's commitment to aesthetics while teaching science. I wish more science teachers took a more well-rounded approach as opposed to hammering scientific facts into students' brains. It seems like Shick values that scientists must think creatively to solve problems. For some reason I can't seem to get Photoshop to draw a hollow circle, or else I'd display a ven diagram with art and science overlapping. It also works the other way -- I'm inspired by the clinical and thorough approach that scientists take with their experiments and adopting it for my MFA!

Monday, February 9, 2009

We know seeing isn't believing, but is touching proof?

While I found parts of George Gessert's Art is Nature article informative and provocative, it felt like he felt like he thought nature art was marginalized and thought it was a venue to air out his grievances for the shortcomings of the art world not having proper gallery spaces for plants.

His goal to highlight ecological artists that "reorient art from narrowly human concerns to the larger community of life" (p. 17) is admirable and I enjoyed learning about the artists in the article. I understand Gessert's assertion that contemporary art is ecologically "out-of-date," but I think it is a very narrow scope to measure by. I thought it was interesting that he uses Darwin's Origin of the Species as the time benchmark and how Darwin's writings questioned that human-centric order. The interweaving of art and science is novel to me, and the fact that Steichen considered plant breeding a fine art is interesting. I would consider it more of a boutique hobby, and likely place it in the category of biology rather than art. Also, I question considering artists engaged in genetic engineering as ecological artists. Actually, I can't think of anything more anthropocentric than a human trying to shape another species according to their own design. It sounds more like mad scientists a la Jurassic Park (or rather Jurassic Art?). Gessert writes, "genetic engineering lends itself to the megalomanias that thrive on collective hubris" (pg. 18), though can we call humans genetically altering nature "ecological?" Doesn't ecology have to do with organisms and their natural environment? I prefer Thomas Grunfeld's strange hybrid taxidermy sculptures to living artwork that has actually been genetically modified, but I guess the line between science and art is fluid and blurry. Grundfeld questions the successes of genetically modified foods and animals in his 'frankenstein-like' creations.

Thomas Grunfield – Misfit (cow), 1997

I'm not sure what Gessert expects from biotechnology when he states that "no one should be surprised if biotechnology… favors forms of expression that do not intrinsically challenge old, man-centered views of the world." To my knowledge, biotechnology has one goal – to discover things to advance science (in order to make money). Scientists succeed because they have to think in unorthodox ways, but it seems like scientists are always challenging man-centered views of the world, starting with Darwin and up through today's scientists who condemn human-caused global warming. They seem to acknowledge that humans are an essential part of the world's ecology.

Also, I'm not surprised that art in the last 140 years is ecologically out-of-date, considering that modern genetics and the modern conservation movement has only been around for 40-50 years. Maybe there was very little ecological art because the concept of ecology was still evolving? I am surprised that the article fails to mention land art which challenges the concept of museum space and the permanence of art objects, e.g. Andy Goldsworthy.

Evelyn Fox Keller's article The biological gaze was an interesting combination of the history of biology and visual theory. I'm sensitive to the concept of Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty being applied to photography, particularly documentary photography, but Evelyn Fox Keller's article drives the point home when she explains that passive observation is nearly impossible. Her connecting different methods of microscopic techniques to the handling and disruption life was enlightening. I have a little bit of background in the sciences and have passively accepted that in order to observe specimen under slides that we kill them when we stain it. After reading Keller's article and her explanation, I'm surprised I haven't thought about how intrusive it is. I also recall attending a poetry reading and a retired doctor explaining that as a young medical student she spent more time with her medical cadaver than her husband. I think it's easier to be shocked when we see a human form manipulated for the sake of science such as in Vesalius's anatomy drawings or in bizarre science exhibits like Body Worlds, or the artist in Gessert's article who was genetically engineering animals for the sake of art. However, on the microscopic scale, is it more palatable to "disturb the object at which we gaze"? It's interesting to think about how this applies to photography, because both scientific and photographic observation are trying to get to some sort of 'truth' about life. I appreciate the visibility and activity complementary relationship that Keller invokes (p. 119).

Maybe aspirations of documentary photography can apply here. Maybe level of manipulation along the y-axis and "accuracy" of observation along the x-axis.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Born Free or Born to be Wild?

As we embark on the journey into the wild blue yonder of our class, the first readings from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas (DHI) and Gary Snyder's "Etiquette of Freedom" help lay the groundwork of terms for the class. After these readings, my perception of the "wild" blue yonder may not be so wild after all.

While I was appreciated the many dichotomies that the DHI set up to define "nature" throughout the history, I was particularly intrigued with how Snyder defined "wild" when he explains that the OED definition of "wild" is based on what it isn't.

"Of animals – not tame, undomesticated, unruly"
Of plants – not cultivated
Of land – uninhabited, uncultivated…" etc.

Snyder reverses the OED approach and lists what he thinks what wild is.
"Of animals – free agents, each with its own endowments, living within natural systems
Of plants – self-propagating, self-maintaining, flourishing in accord with innate qualities
Of land – a place where the original and potential vegetation and fauna are intact and in full interaction and the landforms are entirely the result of nonhuman forces. Pristine." etc. (pp. 9-10)

I found both these explanations enlightening, as my first impression what "wild" is coincides with the OED approach, which I now realize is very "human-centric" and very un-Howard Zinn of me, especially given the fact that wild world existed before non-wild.

In Snyder's explanation of "wildness" he specifies that "wilderness" is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed (p. 12) and goes on to say that during the 16th century, cities and civilizations in Asia and Europe began to be more urban-oriented, and less knowledgeable of nature and the wild. Instead of people going out into nature, nature was brought back to the people. This task was accomplished by newly emerged "nature-travelers" and "resource scouts" to search for natural resources and human labor during the age of exploration in the New World, Asia, and Africa. The Conquistadores and priests encountered "people who lived in and with the wilderness" (p. 13) and "people who lived without Church or State." As Native Americans were often referred to as "savages," I would assume that Snyder would say that a European explorer's definition of "wild" would include "Of people—people without Church or State."

(This scene of Columbus encountering Native Americans reminds me of modern-day urban dwellers who refer to themselves as "pioneers" when they speak of moving into an area that is on the edge of gentrification. The same connotations of "wild" and "culture" are often used in modern real estate contexts.)

It seems that Snyder wants to equate human civilization with the natural world when he writes that some feel that humans are superior to animals because of our capacity for language, but he points out that animals do in fact communicate through call systems (p. 17). It feels like that Snyder advises us that we should be more appreciative of nature, and the society on the whole has become so removed from the "wilderness" that we have to go out of our way to experience nature by way of hiking or some leisurely outdoor activity that we need to seek out. But he seems comfortable with the state of where we are so long as we have a deep knowledge, appreciation, and respect of the "wild." "The wild requires that we learn the terrain, nod to all the plants and animals ad birs, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home." (p. 24). I imagine that Snyder is kindred spirits with Wordsworth, as Wordsworth writes "The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in Nature that is ours;…"

I do appreciate Snyder's call to appreciate the "wild" world as a person who is a product of suburban and urban environments. I am certainly someone who has to plan an expedition in order to encounter the natural world ("natural" in the "wild" sense.)

Regarding the various definitions of "nature" in DHI, it was eye-opening to learn abou the various meanings and contexts which nature has been used. Plato categorized real, natural things as things that were constantly changing (pg. 2), and the opposite, the ideal, as immutuable and timeless (is this what the real, natural, imperfect world should model itself after?). Setting up a real vs. ideal binary conjures up a realist vs. idealist opposition.

The idea of custom vs. nature was also new to me. According to fourth century B.C. Greeks, "nature" meant the pure, untouched world, which corresponds with Christianity's idea of the world before the Fall. "Custom thus became that whch was added to nature and hence if one was to liv a life in accordance with nature, one would have to abandon everything that human intelligence had invented or discovered." (pg. 3). To me, "custom" meant common local practices. But now I think of what "customized" means -- like a tinkering or tailoring of raw material, the raw material being "natural."

DHI further mentions childhood as a "paradigm of the natural human being" stemming from teachings of Cicero and the Bible. I can see how people thought the purity and innocence of a child can represent the uncorrupted natural world, but feel that some ideas conflict when it comes to how explorers and pioneers thought natives (aren't natives natural?) were savages. To me savages imply a population that was to be civilized and/or saved by religion and governing. "Natives" are seen as a group that Snyder speaks of that "lives in and with the wilderness," but can't these "savages" be seen as simply uncorrupted? It seems like native societies could be defined as "wild," as the OED states "uncivilized, ... resisting constituted government" but the other side of the coin, as Snyder points out is that a wild society is one "whose order has grown from within and is maintained by the force of consensus and custom rather than explicit legislation." (p. 10).