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.