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.