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).