Sunday, May 3, 2009

Last one!

As I was perusing through my blogs from throughout the semester, I realized I learned A LOT about the various topics covered in class. I mean, I really loved reading about Buckminster Fuller, especially his Dymaxion maps, and biophilia, and transgenic art. I think overall, I have a heightened awareness of any and all aspects of nature found in art. For example, when I was at the opening for MoCP's new show The Edge of Intent last Friday, I noticed I was completely surrounded by photographs depicting some aspect of human interaction with nature. It makes me wonder, is there any type of photography that doesn't involve nature in some regard?

My 'ah-ha' moment came while reading The Death of Environmentalism where the authors break down the three environmental movements and explain why political legislation is outmoded and doesn't work anymore. If environmentalism is treated as nothing more than legislative proposals, then it's seen as just another special interest or a "thing" separate from humans. The most logical answer to current environmental problems is to have an inspiring vision that a majority of Americans can get excited about. That investment and alliance building with industry and labor is the key to a global environmental movement.

I also really enjoyed the practice of blogging over that of journaling. The loose structure made for a really dynamic range of blog entries and I got a lot out of reading everyone else's blogs and what they took from the readings. I must admit this was my first blogging experience and it's an amazing forum to reach out to the community and promote ideas. I now see our blogs come up during google searches, which is a little nerve-wracking and fun at the same time.

I must say, however, that I wish the class could have read something more extensively about human nature, and not just human/nature. Human nature was touched upon in Gary Snyder's article, in the biophilia article, and indirectly in many of the class discussions, but never given very much attention as a topic all on its own. It always applied to something just out of reach of my own work, like the idea of a "natural human" as someone who lives more in sync with nature than other humans. I could apply the idea of a "natural human" to my transgender photos, but not nearly in the same context it was used in the article. I'm not saying I'm upset about this; I signed up for the class because landscape and nature is an area I wanted to learn more about, and I did. But because many of the assignments called for us to use the readings to reflect upon our own work, I often found myself at a loss to do so, at least without stretching the ideas to great lengths or calling upon my own research.

I now leave you with a rather embarrassing YouTube video my sister made of our cat Vincent playing fetch. Sure it's cute, but in terms of a cat's nature, and for the purpose of this blog, is it natural?!? Well, it is for him!

Monday, April 27, 2009

After Nature- just another "post"

In the exhibition After Nature at the New Museum in NY, the artworks represent a landscape of the future inspired by dystopian literature and sci fi culture. It gives a bleak vision of the future, depicting the fears and desires of the the 26 artists whose work contributed to the show. When viewing much of the work I was reminded of Alan Weisman's book The World Without Us, which is a scientific examination on how the world would look if humans were to disappear instantaneously. I first learned about this book from Weisman's appearance on the Daily Show back in 2007, and it seems the commercial success of this book triggered a post-nature, futuristic trend in art, literature and culture. For example, I now see all sorts of hour-long programs on the History Channel, which I just found out is a series called "Life After People," addressing the idea of what would happen to the world if people were to suddenly disappear.
I love the tagline on this DVD

The 2012 doomsday event, which was predicted by the ancient Mayans, is fast approaching and probably fresh on every one's mind, not to mention also being capitalized on by Hollywood in the upcoming film 2012. Whether it be the Mayans' 2012 theory, Nostradamus, or the Book of Revelation, humans have been fascinated with our own demise for millenna, and still are today. But even though I actually really enjoy the prospect of an imminent doom for all humanity, it seems like bad karma that people are putting so much thought to our own demise, as though we are not only anticipating human extinction to come soon, but that the more we talk about it, write books about it, make movies about it, the more of a likelihood it will become. It is as though we feel we deserve it, for whatever reason, and will thus welcome it with open arms.

When looking at the artworks in After Nature I noticed one of the audio clips mentioned Robert Kusmirowski's full scale replication of the Unabomber's cabin, but I didn't see a visual of it on the website. So I looked it up, and sure enough, there was a full scale model of the Unabomber's cabin in the show. It seemed severely out of place with the rest of the art, although I can't say this with total certainty because I wasn't actually there to see it, but in the audio clip the show's director describes it as representing trauma; that Ted Kaczynski represents a "crucial traumatic persona in the recent history of America."
Robert Kusmirowski, Unacabine, 2008

Still, this doesn't seem to comply with the initial statement of the show as depicting "a universe in which humankind is being eclipsed and new ecological systems struggle to find a precarious balance." I wonder if it was meant to fit with the other works not in a literal way, but to add to the feeling of dread or hopelessness. No one likes a misunderstood-genius-serial killer and perhaps that was the sole basis for having this piece in the show. I listened to the audio selection of the Unabomber Manifesto, and I don't know how this was incorporated into the show or if this was strictly meant for the website.

I imagine the show was relatively ominous and bizarre compared to most other art shows, and this leads me to question if we are actually interested in the concept of "post-nature" or scared of it. Do people find the idea of a future dystopian world interesting or terrifying? I suppose both, and that is why it has been given so much hype lately, because it is both a fear and a fascination.

What is post-nature, anyway? Is it the idea of nature devouring humans or humans devouring nature? Who gets booted off the planet? This entire concept of a "post-nature" perpetuates the commonly held notion that people are separate from nature, insinuating that a war between humans and nature will determine the fate of our future. But no matter which side wins the battle, according to the After Nature show, the outcome will be bleak and dreadful. I think this whole concept is bogus. I think the term post-nature or post-black or any of the current "posts" that are being coined and circulated are nothing more than trendy and meaningless labels. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of examining the future relationship between humans and nature, but to label it post-nature or after-nature seems dangerously anthropocentric to me.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Time and Space

Upon reading Alan Singer's "Comprehending appearances: Werner Herzog's ironic sublime" I found myself really wanting to watch all of the films listed in the essay. I went online and found a really low resolution version of Fata Morgana and attempted to watch it, although I think I'll have to rent it to get the full effect. It seems pertinent to the essay that you have some sort of understanding of the films, since Singer doesn't give much of a plot synopsis of the films and leaves you in the dark much of the time, assuming you already have pretty clear mental visuals of what he's referring to. I wanted to explore the idea of a Fata Morgana, or mirage, because it reminds me of a mirage I saw in Etosha Pan, Namibia (during a j-term course in 2005). I don't have a personal photo of what the mirage looked like, but here's a pretty good example of what I saw.
Mirage from the distorting heat of the salt pan

In the beginning of Fata Morgana, Werner Herzog shows several airplanes landing over and over again on a single runway. When each plane lands, the camera cuts to the next plane landing in the exact same manner. The more airplanes that land, the more smoggy and polluted the air becomes. Eventually there is so much exhaust in the air, the airplanes look wavy and distorted and appear to change direction, almost as though they going to run into the camera. In the essay, Singer states that this scene "graphically belie the eschatology of the creation myth that would return us full circle to a timeless beginning. Ironically, the tedium of abortive montage is our most scrupulous awareness of the ineluctable passage of historical time."

I don't quite know exactly what this statement means, but I think Singer is trying to comment on the repetitiveness of this scene and how it creates a unique idea of time instead of showing the airplanes in "real time." Time appears to be a theme in Singer's essay and he uses in many contexts without fully explaining what they mean; for example, he throws around phrases such as human time, narrative time, and historical time. How can time be different in these regards? Is narrative time simply the sequence of events in the film? Does human time refer to the experiences of the actors or the audience, or neither?

While Singer experiments with notions of time, William L. Fox's Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent experiments with notion of space. Fox is interested in "how we use cultural means to augment our neurobiology in order to overcome the perceptual difficulties we experience when exploring large spaces." I especially liked the parts of the chapter where he discusses the connection between cartography and art and how they share a common and ancient visual framework.

This reminded me of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion maps, where Antarctica is given full respect for being a continent instead of being chopped up at the bottom like it is in any traditional map. The grid that makes up the lines of latitude and longitude become messy when flattened into a two dimensional rectangle, causing a common map to misrepresent the big circular continent. When I was a child I never even knew Antarctica was circular, it always looked like a long white blob at the bottom of the map.

World map

Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion map

Photographer Anne Noble has studied the varying maps of Antarctica that exist in our world and in her maps series, she depicts some of these common representations of antarctic maps. Of these maps she states, "This collection of maps points to the way visual colonization of place occurs as a part of the way that we map, photograph, organize, define and interpret place." Noble shows her viewers the ways in which culture has come to know and interact with Antarctica through mapping.Anne Noble, Bung in Antarctica on a blow-up globe, 2005

Anne Noble, Scott Polar Research Institute, 2003

Anne Noble, Board game produced by Shell Oil to commemorate the Hilary/Fuchs Antarctic expedition of 1957-58, 2006

Anne Noble, Biscuit, 2006/2007

Besides the connections between art and cartography, Fox also mentions the visionary dissonance that occurs during whiteout conditions in the antarctic. Visible light is dispersed in a perfectly even manner and your balance and coordination is lost. Fox even mentions that many people experiencing temporary visual impairment involving hallucinations and loss of vision. Noble reflects on this disorienting feeling in her White Out series, which depicts potentially terrifying moments of a blizzard when visibility is limited to tones, textures, and layers of whiteness. Distinction between ground and sky is mostly, if not completely, eliminated.Anne Noble, White Out, 2002-2007

Anne Noble, White Out, 2002-2007

Noble's all-white landscapes remind me of photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's Seascapes, where sea and sky become monochromatic shades of grey.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Aegean Sea, Pilion, 1990

Monday, April 13, 2009

The civilized landscape: experience it or bust

I will wholeheartedly admit, it has taken me a really long time to understand and appreciate the complexities of landscape photography.  As an artist, I have always been attracted to images of people; to me landscapes have always seemed less intricate than the face of a human being.  Most of this has to do with the fact that I literally cannot photograph anything with a horizon line, it just doesn't come naturally to me.  But upon arriving at Columbia and being surrounded by many contemporary landscape photographers as well as reading numerous essays and articles about the topic, I feel like I finally have a clue.  

The topic for this week's readings is "New Topographics" which was the name of an exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in 1975.  This show included works from landscape photographers such as Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, and many others.  The "New Topographics" exhibit indefinitely changed the way landscape photography would be viewed and practiced throughout the U.S., because it forced people to acknowledge the fact that the geography of the land is no longer considered "unspoiled."  That humans have become an intricate and integral component to the landscape.

For the New Topographics artists, the experience of being in the landscape is crucial not only to the picture making process, but also to the quality of image that comes out of their subjective experience.  A chapter written by Robert Adams entitled "Truth and Landscape" attempts to analyze some of Adams' thoughts he has encountered in regards to photographing landscapes.  At one point Adams points out the importance of the photographer's presence, that is, the photographer's point of view, to landscape art.  He states, "Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive.  Only the artist's presence in the work can convince us that its affirmation resulted from and has been tested by human experience.  Without the photographer in the photograph the view is no more compelling than the product of some anonymous record camera..."  For Adams, beauty and aesthetics are not the only factors involved in making a convincing image.  The quality of image directly correlates with the subjective element to landscape art.   That for a photographer to divorce oneself from the experience of the landscape is undesirable and devalues the ultimate meaning of the art.

This same issue of subjectivity affected Frank Gohlke's opinions of artmaking.  He wrote, "As different as the places depicted in these photographs are from one another, they have at least one thing in common: being there made my pulse speed up, and the making of a picture seemed the only appropriate response."  For Gohlke, the infusion of place and photography is a seemingly personal and impulsive reaction to the landscape, and this relationship is thus
 documented in his work.  As Ben Lifson writes about Gohlke's love affair with the landscape, it seems to me, as I was reading Lifson's essay on Gohlke and his photographs, that Lifson not only loved Gohlke's work, but also seemed to have a crush of Gohlke, intellectually or otherwise.  Lifson gushes about Gohlke and the various photographic elements he has depicted throughout the years, narrowing his work down to six working titles/categories: The Singular Object, Tapestry, The Horizon, The Spectacle, Ruins, and Darkness into Light.  

One of Gohlke's main subjects, grain elevators, falls under a few of these categories, and he has found that by photographing these large objects in the landscape, he is experiencing a very personal reaction to them.  He states, "I tried to come to terms with my understanding of landscape, and the way in which photographs could suggest the experience of particular landscapes and also provide an analysis of the elements that make up that experience."  By experiencing the landscape of the grain elevators, I think Gohlke was able to manifest a deeper meaning to these giant oddities.  Who would think to photograph grain elevators without ever experiencing them firsthand?  These photographs take into account the physical relationship of these objects to their surroundings; their posture, stillness, solitude, and awe.  
Frank Gohlke, Abandoned grain elevator, Homewood, Kansas, 1973

Frank Gohlke, Grain elevators - Minneapolis - Series I, #26, 1973

Monday, April 6, 2009

Art censorship: the best publicity possible

During the 2008 US presidential election, republican candidate John McCain was opposed to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), claiming, "This is one of the most pristine and beautiful parts of the world."  Granted this was the right decision to make, but the language McCain used to describe this arctic area as "pristine" is false.  In fact, global warming has affected every area of the globe, including ANWR, and photographer Subhankar Banerjee seeks to correct this ongoing myth that the arctic is an untouched, pristine, or remote location, far removed from human interaction.  

As a photographer this would seem nearly impossible to achieve, given there hasn't been any obviously overt environmental catastrophes in ANWR (which I now realize makes Burtynsky's task seem easy, given the mountains of tires and rivers running fluorescent red at his disposal) so I can imagine Banerjee was acutely aware that the only possible way to achieve a high level of environmental awareness in his work is to add a compelling textual component.  

Without reiterating too much of Finis Dunaway's essay "Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Banerjee has been controversial in the current culture wars, speaking out against the possibility for drilling in ANWR by showing the interconnectedness of the arctic to the rest of the world.  It is well known that without the text, his work would not adequately stand up to the issues he's trying to address (as proven with the Smithsonian exhibit controversy).  
Subhankar Banerjee, Migrating Caribou II, 2002

Subhankar Banerjee, Snow Geese I, 2002
Without the textual component, these images would be rendered not much more than serene and picturesque.  To read the text visit Banerjee's website.

I think even though Banerjee's work clearly relies on the text to become politically charged, it's nonetheless refreshing to me that art is still viewed as a powerful tool in our society.  The fact that the Smithsonian was afraid to show his work in it's entirety was possibly the best thing that could have happened because it gave both Banerjee and ANWR even more publicity and recognition.  It had an immediate affect, and that rarely happens with artists unless some sort of controversy occurs.  I know this is kind of a stretch, but this scenario reminds me of California's passage of Proposition 8, where same-sex couples no longer had the right to marry in that state which sparked a national political movement, giving rise to gay rights issues and adding more publicity than if there hadn't been a conservative backlash to gay marriage. Sometimes it takes having freedoms restricted, or in Subhankar Banerjee's case, art censorship, in order to draw attention to the political issue at hand.
Prop 8 rally in Chicago, one of numerous mass protests held nationwide, Nov. 15, 2008

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spaceship Earth: we're all in this together

"The Comprehensivist: Buckminster Fuller and Contemporary Artists" by Elizabeth A.T. Smith, is a short essay about the profound influence Fuller has had on contemporary artists, particularly artists concerned with a cross-disciplinary investigation.  Smith names many artists who have been motivated by Fuller's ideas and creations, such as Olafur Eliasson, whose Model Room installation of 2003 presents an enclosed space filled with geometric objects upon specially designed shelves and tables.  This installation references and builds on Fuller's experiments with geometric form and uses mathematical patterns and symmetries.
Olafur Eliasson, Model Room, 2003

This project led to his large-scale architectural installation called Blind Pavilion based upon ideas of geometry, non-Euclidean space, and perception.  

Olafur Eliasson, The Blind Pavilion, 2003

The list goes on and Smith describes several other artists who have, to a greater or lesser extent, been influenced by Buckminster Fuller, whether by his conceptualism or his literal designs.  I was thinking about other ways I have encountered a "Buckminster Fuller design" in my life without knowing it, and sure enough there are some memorable ones.  For example, when I was 6 years old my family and I went on a vacation to Florida and visited Epcot Center with their giant iconic "golf ball," also known as Spaceship Earth.  Although the credit for the design is given to sci fi author Ray Bradbury, both the structure and the name was inspired by Buckminster Fuller.
Spaceship Earth at Epcot

Another example (that I can't resist mentioning) is in the 1990 sci fi movie "Total Recall" where Arnold Schwarzenegger's character travels to an airtight city on Mars only to discover that the poor workers in the city's slums have been turned into mutants from living within cheaply-produced domes with bad air quality.  This idea of a domed city can easily be traced back to Fuller's 1960 concept Dome over Manhattan, a geodesic dome spanning part of Manhattan that would regulate weather and, as opposed to Total Recall's domes, would reduce air pollution.
Buckminster Fuller, Dome over Manhattan, 1960

I can see how Fuller's ideas and creations were motivated to improve the world by getting the most out of a design while using the least amount of resources possible, and I am interested in how Fuller has influenced not only artists and sci fi culture but environmentalists as well.  There is certainly something to be said for his visionary and groundbreaking mindset that "less is more," and I am excited to see not only some this in the MCA show tomorrow, but I also hope to someday see his environmental designs implemented into real solutions, ideally in the very near future.  Perhaps these museum shows will influence some a group of visionary architects or engineers to build upon some of Fuller's abandoned concepts.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Manifest American Dream

Upon reading the exhibition catalogue "Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility: Environmentalism and the Art of the American Landscape" I was instantly reminded of a place in Minnesota on the Mississippi River called St. Anthony Falls.  It used to be a natural waterfall, but has since been replaced with a concrete "apron" after it partially collapsed back in 1869 due to human-made shafts and tunnels that weakened the limestone and eventually led it to break away.  Now the falls consists of two dams and several locks, which hardly appears to be the same thing that had once been in the making for 10,000 years.
St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis, MN

One of the reasons I immediately came to think of St. Anthony Falls (besides the fact that I am from Minnesota) is because it's history is deeply rooted in native american culture and westward expansion.  Before colonization and European expansion, native tribes such as the Dakota and Ojibwa considered the falls sacred, associating the falls with legends and spirits and using stories associated with the falls as part of their oral tradition.  They also used the falls as a trading point between other tribes and were able to maneuver around the falls using a well-established portage trail.  However, in 1680 European explorers became aware of the falls and it was all downhill from there.  Albert Bierstadt below gives his rendition of what the falls probably looked like immediately before European invasion.
Albert Bierstadt, The Falls of Saint Anthony, 1870-1877

So, in terms of the three types of historical American landscape painting laid out in the catalogue (manifest bounty/destiny/responsibility), Bierstadt's painting seems to be mostly manifest destiny, but with hints of manifest responsibility.  The painting depicts a dark figure in the foreground looking out at the falls, probably a European explorer.  The landscape appears to be pristine and untouched, without even depicting the native peoples who so commonly used the falls for various purposes.  The painting gives off the idea that the falls are an untamed wilderness, newly discovered by the figure in the foreground and a place to be admired.  However, Bierstadt painted this in 1870, immediately following the partial collapse of the falls and at a time when the area was becoming increasingly more heavily populated and more polluted with industrial waste.  Although I'm not sure if Bierstadt was even remotely interested in environmental policies, he must have been concerned with the current state of the falls by attempting to portray the original splendor of the waterfalls as they perhaps once looked.

The Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility catalogue shows historical landscape paintings that made a slow and still incomplete shift from an anthropocentric viewpoint to a more biocentric one.  I feel, however, that the Manifest Responsibility section left much to be desired.  I still don't quite understand how John Twachtman's "Winter Landscape" made it into this section.  How can a painting of a very small babbling brook in the midst of a thawing transition from winter to spring show a biocentric responsibility to the landscape?  Sure it is a delicate and sensitive rendition of nature, using the tenets of impression to stress form and color over scientific detail, but it doesn't imply anything regarding human interaction with nature or even much about the American landscape.
John Twachtman, Winter Landscape, 1890-1900

In terms of human interaction with nature and the landscape, I was thinking of what the next step would be; a fourth category to add to the Manifest Bounty/Destiny/Responsibility.  After some thought I kept going back to the American dream and the rise of suburbia.  The landscape of the lawn seems to be today's Manifest Destiny, given Americans' near obsession with keeping tidy, well trimmed/manicured lawns (which, when you think about it, is a wasteful use of space).  Greg Stimac shows this relatively new American tradition in his series "Mowing the Lawn," which depicts Americans doing just that.  I read somewhere that one theory for the reason why humans keep lawns is an evolutionary reason.  Given that millions of years ago humans all have evolutionary roots stemming from eastern Africa, we are reminded deep in our genetic biology of the savanna landscape native to that area.  We feel comforted by this landscape of grassland and sporadic trees and wish to replicate it.  That's just one theory.  I suppose you could apply biophilia here as well; keeping lawns is possibly a humanistic biophiliac need to be close to nature but in a tamed and controlled way. 
Greg Stimac, Oak Lawn, Illinois

Greg Stimac, Concord, Vermont

Justin James Reed shows his version of the American dream landscape in his series "Paradise." Riddled with power lines and cookie-cutter houses, he shows images of rural communities and the domineering infrastructure that has taken over the landscape.  He uses an aesthetic look inspired by the nineteenth century painters from the Hudson River School movement to show the contrast between a rural landscape and the introduction of suburban development. 
Justin James Reed, Norristown, Pennsylvania, 2007

Justin James Reed, Medford, New Jersey, 2008

Sunday, March 1, 2009

What? Environmentalism isn't dead!

As I sit here reading "The Death of Environmentalism: Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World," I can't help but ponder the irony of this article's meaning in my own life.  The professors of this class have posted each week's readings online so as not to waste paper, especially in the spirit of the human/nature element of the class.  However, I think I can safely say all the students inevitably end up printing the readings anyway because it is easier to read them on the train, make notes in the margins, underline sentences, etc. (not to mention one of the readings was scanned sideways at a 90 degree angle, thus making it quite difficult to read without printing it).  The sad part is that when the students are each printing the articles and essays, they only get printed one-sided on the xerox/phaser printer, whereas if the articles were scanned using a copy machine, they could be printed double-sided, saving the school money and the environment several trees.  To me, this scenario is much like environmentalism today: it comes with the best intentions, but in reality it just doesn't pan out.

THE-DEATH-OF-ENVIRONMENTALISM. The fact that environmentalism looks really good on paper, but can't seem to make any headway standing up to conservative politics was the biggest challenge environmentalists were facing when this article was released back in 2004 (reading this article felt like I was reading yesterday's news).  Since the article's release, we have trudged through the rest of George W. Bush's 8-year term and are now entering a new wave of liberal politics spearheaded by President Barack Obama.  Obama has already tapped into the article's suggestion to creatively propose 'environmental' solutions by appealing to multiple interests, such as the CAFE amendment did for both the auto industry and the environment.  Today's hot topic is "green jobs" which combine the goals of environmentalism with career opportunities.  Obama has recently announced $20 billion will be invested in a cleaner, greener economy and $50 million will go toward green job training, spawning industries and creating jobs that we don't have now.  This is really exciting, and exactly what the article predicted was necessary for a "third-wave" environmentalism (framed around investment).

But what are some of the other stumbling blocks for this third-wave environmentalism?  In my opinion it's the American people.  Despite the recent Democratic shift, for the last 25 years the U.S. has been in a conservative direction, thus rational logic will not work to convince everyone.  The article clearly states that environmentalists need to appeal to the collective self-interest of the American core values; someone quick find a passage in the Bible that says the rainforest is holy!
Many people are skeptical of science, mostly because science is usually hard to understand and religion causes them to become leery of scientific thought.  They question scientific discoveries.  Case in point the Creation Museum in Kentucky.  Give people statistical-based facts and watch their eyes glaze over.  The article states, "Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion... to figure out who we are and who we need to be."  Does anyone have any insight as to how this can be accomplished?  I suppose the only good way is to combine the issues: health care, taxes, auto industry, jobs, and other big issues.

Eliot Porter, Luna Moth 1953

So... back to the image part of human/nature/image, how do we as artists impart environmental change?  It seems obvious after reading "Every Corner is Alive" about Eliot Porter's nature photography that Porter's tactics aren't nearly valid in today's society.  As the article states toward the end, the influence of Porter's pictures from the 1960s has changed over time.  Nature photography today is photoshopped, pristine, and flawless, showing cliches where Porter once pioneered a photographic genre that was environmentally concerned for the land all its inhabitants.  So now that we know perfect untouched nature doesn't scare people into environmentalism, what about scary images?  Sure, Martin Luther King Jr said, "I have a dream" not "I have a nightmare," but perhaps a little Burtynsky might instill some complexity into the issue.  
Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile No. 1, 1999

Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings No. 32, 1996 

But what do we do now that we live in a society so completely entrenched in photographs?  Is it possible for nature photography to impart change?  Can it still have aesthetic means for a political end?  I think perhaps on a small scale it's possible, but not just in regards to photography.  Take for example Brian Collier's "Pika Alarm" displayed in Lucy Lippard's "Weather Report" exhibition.  Collier mounted a motion-activated speaker atop a pole that emitted the pika's singular high pitched cry when someone would approach or pass by.  A help-yourself postcard describes the small rabbit-like creature's struggle as possibly becoming the first known animal to become extinct from global warming.  It's small, cute, and has a message.
a pika

On a side note, two weeks ago I went to the film screening of Empty Oceans, Empty Nets.  Now, let me first preface with the fact that I love eating seafood and was not expecting to walk away from the film feeling horribly guilty about this.  Anyway, after seeing the film I learned all the graphic details of overfishing and aqua-culture and how fish stocks are depleted to the point where the fish can't recover.  An especially destructive method of fishing called bottom trawling uses nets that scrape across the bottom of the ocean floor, destroying important plantlife and reefs where fish feed and breed, not to mention that it catches all sorts of other sealife like sharks and turtles that aren't meant to be caught.  It's important that people eat fish caught from sustainable fisheries.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program is designed to keep consumers in the loop as to the "greenest" seafood to buy and which to avoid.
Orange roughy- endangered but still being fished

My point of bringing this up in my blog is how was I to know any of this information if I didn't seek it out myself?  I never thought overfishing was such a colossal problem.  I mean, when people go to the grocery store to buy swordfish, bluefin tuna, or orange roughy there's no label on the package that states "overfished and nearly endangered."  How can we blame consumers for being so naive when this information seems practically hidden??  I think these hidden pitfalls of blind consumerism for many Americans are soon coming to an end.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why all the seagull hate?

"Dreyfus once wrote from Devil's Island that he would see the most glorious birds.  Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been seagulls... For me they will always be glorious birds."  

This quote comes from the 1971 film "Harold and Maude," where the two main characters are watching the sun set and seagulls flying overhead.   When Harold looks down and notices the concentration camp tattoo on Maude's arm, she proceeds to say the above quote, speaking of Dreyfus' imprisonment and using the seagulls as a symbol for freedom (further enhanced by the Cat Stevens song playing in the background about being free).  

I was reminded of this scene after reading "A Bird Tapestry" by David S. Rubin, an article that details the use of birds as metaphors and expressions of conceptual impulses in art.  Rubin describes several artists who use birds in their art pieces as a means of understanding people's relationship to their flying counterparts.  After reading the article, I noticed there was no mention of art that specifically dealt with birds from the gull family.  A few artists worked exclusively with pigeons, but what of the seagull?  I decided to take my inquiries to the next step.

To me, it only makes sense that artists gather inspiration from seagulls since they have many characteristics similar to that of humans.  For example, seagulls are an omnipresent bird, found on the shores of most every continent around the world, easily able to adapt to any given environment, especially environments containing humans.  I would also label humans as omnipresent, widespread and able to thrive and adapt anywhere on earth, but generally found near bodies of water.  Secondly, seagulls are omnivores, able to eat most anything they are presented with, from Tangy Cheese Doritos to insects and small rodents.  Humans are also omnivores, able to consume most any variety of food and food products.  Thirdly, Gulls mimic the behavior of their fellow gulls, sleeping with one eye open in order to assess if the surrounding group is agitated and ready to take flight, like an alert system.  Humans also pay attention to their peers, perhaps not because of potential predators, but to assess their social and physical interactions.  Even more so than the literal similarities, I love seagulls for the nostalgic feeling I get when I hear their high pitched squawking calls, immediately reminding me of being at the ocean, a naturalistic emotion found in many humans.

So why all the seagull hate?  Probably because gulls are scavengers and will go "klepto" on your beach food.  They slowly creep in, then suddenly they are swarming and there's a horrid flapping above your head and before you know it your fish n' chips are gone.  There's even an Internet game When Seagulls Attack, where the objective is to dodge the dive-bombing gulls.  Gulls are so often despised and thought of as a nuisance pest, akin to a rat or a pigeon.  In the animated film "Finding Nemo," the seagulls are portrayed as greedy little annoyances, further emphasized by their wailing call that, when applied to the English language, is interpreted as "mine mine mine mine."  At one point a pelican even refers to them as "rats with wings."
Seagulls from "Finding Nemo"

American Artist Mark Dion recognizes this widespread seagull hate and strives to correct these adverse feelings with his Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit.  This giant seagull-shaped booth on wheels was a part of the 2008 Folkestone Triennial in England.  This unwieldy vehicle is a nature-awareness station as much as it is an artwork, dispensing information about the local Folkestone gull, seeking to foster a greater love for the misunderstood bird.  Dion's Gull moved throughout town during the course of the exhibition.
Mark Dion's Mobile Gull Appreciation Unit 2008

In a 2009 exhibition at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called "Gulls, Terns, and Skinners," painter Ben Shattuch portrays the birds he observed while working at Cornell's Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine.  He uses thick expressive strokes of oil paint that portray the birds in mid motion behaviors.
Ben Shattuch Herring Gull 2008

In another 2009 exhibition at the University of Rhode Island Library Gallery called "Gulls Gone Wild," Jon Campbell uses paintings from famous artists in history and replaces the humans in the image with gulls.  He is humanizing the seagulls, not only making their status equal to that of humans but also calling into question the validity of these famous art paintings.
Gull with a Pearl Earring

Van Gull

Block Island Gothic

Another example of humanizing gulls can be seen in Derek Doublin's video piece entitled "The Seagull."  
This piece first shows two young men joking about how dumb seagulls are and imitating seagull bird behavior.  In the end, for one of the men, the human and seagull behaviors merge and the man unexpectedly flies into the sky the way a real seagull would.

I am relieved I was able to find art pieces that concentrate on the positive aspects of seagulls instead of the popular bird-brain mentality so affluent in our culture and perpetuated in "Finding Nemo."  In fact, according to Wikipedia, gulls are "resourceful, inquisitive, and highly intelligent birds, demonstrating complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure."  I was even surprised to find a few artists that humanized them (or better yet birdified us), emphasizing that there are deep connections between us and our flying gull counterparts.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Biophilia-our bipolar emotions toward nature

In the The Biophilia Hypothesis, Edward O. Wilson states that biophilia is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.  It is a "complex of learning rules" that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans first originated. Since humans have always been intimately involved with other organisms, the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated world.  Stephen R. Kellert further argues it is because of this biocentric evolution that humans have developed nine universal expressions of affiliating with the natural world: utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, dominionistic, and negativistic. 
The naturalistic tendency amongst humans, particularly myself, can be evidenced by visiting the landscape of the beach.  The satisfaction derived from the direct contact with nature, in this case the ocean or lake and it's conjoined land culture, can be breathtaking, relaxing, and healing.   French photographer Christian Chaize became entranced with a small stretch of coastline in southern Portugal while vacationing there in 2004.  He photographed it extensively in an attempt to understand "the ineffable draw of its inviting and mysterious landscape."  A key component in his photographers are the beach-goers who also share in the awe and excitement of this landscape.

A humanistic approach to nature is an aspect that Colleen Plumb happens to be keenly aware of.  Her photos are a constant reminder that humans are deeply connected to nature and often try to express this sentiment in our love for animals.  People often "humanize" nature by domesticating animals, transforming them into little companions.  Although resulting in therapeutic mental and physical benefits for the human, for animals such as birds, often results in a cage as a permanent dwelling.

These individuals who are crying over dead trees are expressing their moralistic affiliation to nature.  They are experiencing a deep attachment to the wilderness and feel the need to openly mourn the loss of a tree.  Their affinity and reverence toward nature results in an shared ethical commitment to preserving and helping the land, although one might question whether screaming in the forest is really a pro-active response.

Speaking of pro-active responses, although I learned much from Wilson and Kellert's statements about biophilia and the relationships humans have with nature, the end of chapter 2 ended on a rather vague note.  The last section in ch. 2 entitled "A New Basis for Conservation?" should have laid out a better plan for how we can use biophilia for conservation efforts (which itself is a nondescript word).  Instead, Kellert reiterates the importance of the recognition of the basic human dependence on nature, and ends the chapter criticizing humans' inability to see this dependency, thus forecasting "the contemporary drift toward massive biological impoverishment and environmental destruction."  

In J. Malcolm Shick's article "Toward an Aesthetic Marine Biology," Shick emphasizes the importance of analyzing marine biology within its wider aesthetic and historical context, "using this material to reinforce various marine-biological facts and concepts by associating them with memorable visual images or literary or musical passages."  I was amazed with shick's ability to connect a broad range of artists from Shakespeare to Matisse to the aesthetic value of marine biology.  I discovered a contemporary artist Tiffany Bozic who, in 2007, visually interpreted the California Academy of Science's vast marine invertebrate as part of their exhibit "From the Depths."  The year-long collaboration depicts deep sea creatures that are more imaginary than faithfully mimetic, going beyond a simple description of her biological subjects.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Transgenic art: hallucinations come alive

In Evelyn Fox Keller's article entitled  "The Biological Gaze," she discusses the ways in which the gaze or the act of looking at something can transform into actual touching.  A form of literal material transgression.  She claims that looking with the naked eye is not as innocent as it may seem, for it is also an intrusive act.  Keller gives examples of early science breakthroughs such as the microscope and x-ray to examine how these technologies have changed the meaning of "seeing." 
In the early days of the microscope, people often did not have much interaction with the object being examined under the lens.  It was a relatively passive event and people were unable to touch the microscopic reality, questioning if they were even seeing anything at all.  It wasn't until the study of embryology that scientists were able to intervene with the microscopic image, injecting organisms with micropipettes armed with cells from another orgamism, which led to the production of transgenic organisms.  The term "armed with a microscope" seemed to take on whole new meaning.

Amy Ross's paintings pose the question: what would happen if the DNA sequence of a plant or mushroom were spliced with that of an animal?  She uses this idea of transgenic organisms to morph animals with branches, mushrooms, berries, and blossoms, thus creating implausible hybrid creatures.  She approaches the study of the natural world through the lens of genetic engineering and mutation gone awry.

The eye is not a purely passive instrument for the study of pristine nature.  There is an interdependence between the eye and the hand, and for Keller, technology is where the two merge, causing the acts of looking and touching to become undifferentiated and unified.  This concept of a biological gaze seems an interesting twist from the original feminist concept of "the male gaze," and the use of technology is what mainly separates the two ideas.  For Keller, science is an area of study that is often all about observing and gazing, similar to art, but in science the gaze can go much farther, inducing change and growth where there might not otherwise be.
Surrealist painter Remedios Varo blurs the lines between the human and the inhuman and the natural and the technological.  In this painting entitled "Creation of Birds," an owl/human hybrid is sitting at a desk creating birds using the moonlight and a magnifying glass.  Varo is showing her audience that artificial creation is something that can be mysterious and natural as well as scientific.

In George Gessert's article entitled "Art is Nature," he argues that most art today, from an ecological point of view, is approximately 140 years out-of-date.  Most contemporary artwork focuses on the human figure, artifacts, or technology, showing nature as distinct from humankind and art; a pre-Darwinian faith that humans are at the center of the universe.  He lists many artists who have overcome this roadblock, in particular Eduardo Kac, whose genetically engineered rabbit has become a transgenic art piece surpassing that of any two-dimensional picture.  Kac has used genetic engineering to transfer synthetic genes to a living creature, thus creating a green florescent bunny.  
This "art piece" bridges science and creativity to produce a whole new idea of transgenic art. Although this unnaturally glowing bunny automatically spurs a dialogue involving the ethical implications of genetic engineering, it also examines the ideas of normalcy, purity and hybridity.  Is this rabbit natural?  Probably no more natural than a hybrid fruit- e.g. plumcots, grapples, etc.