The video posted by A Blade of Grass as well as the information on their website highlighting Jan Mun’s work with Greenpoint Bioremediation Project on Newtown Creek, a polluted industrial maritime waterway and Superfund site, is great. An artist doing useful ecologically-focused work, engaging the symbolism of mushrooms and fairy rings to address the significant pollution of Newtown Creek in New York. And this piece is not intended to diminish the importance of the project, the support of a major funder of social practice, or the involvement of artists in addressing polluted land.
But the way this work is presented misses out the history of the practice in this particular field. We end up with a sense of ‘innovation’ and novelty, “WOW, an artist working with mushrooms to clean up an industrial accident! How cool is that! Awesome.”
It’s important to understand that bioremediation is a major area of scientific, technological and also engineering work which uses organisms to remove or neutralise pollution in a particular location. Phytoremediation specifically uses plants both transgenic (genetically modified to accumulate pollution more effectively) and natural to absorb pollutants. Mycoremediation specifically uses fungi. These are described as technologies.
There is also a history in ecological art for these practices. A number of artists interested in working with scientists and engineers have been involved in the development of this ‘field’, although now bioremediation (and its specialisms) are largely undertaken by engineers and governed by Environmental Protection regulation.
A few key artists whose work might form a lineage for this are Mel Chin, who working with Rufus Chaney, a senior research scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, developed the first field trial of phytoremediation at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in Minnesota in an artwork entitled Revival Field (1990 ongoing). For background on this project and Chin’s articulation of the art, see the Ecovention exhibition catalogue which is fully reproduced on Greenmuseum.org
Other artists who have developed work in this field include Georg Dietzler and Frances Whitehead. Georg Dietzler’s work (1999 involved using Oyster Mushrooms to remediate PCBs and was framed as research, with research questions, and conducted as an experiment (Concept).
Frances Whitehead’s Slow Clean-up (2008-2012) focused on multiple sites of abandoned gas stations across Chicago. This work is firmly based on her concern with the embedded artist, relies as all these projects do on collaboration with scientists, engineers and environmental managers. Her documentation of the project, available on the website, highlights her assessment of her own innovation focused on thinking about the meaning of time in relation to site and what short and long timescales for this sort of work enable and exclude.
Clearly early examples of this are innovative by any account, but its worth offering some criteria for innovation against which to examine other projects. Tim Collins suggests that innovation is usually in at least one of the following categories: formal, social or technical. Obviously Mel Chin and Rufus Cheney’s field experiment starting in 1991 was technically innovative – no-one had tested the potential for specific plants (or any plants infact) to remediate pollution. Their experiment both tested specific plants, but also tested the principle which up until that point had been a hypothesis. Revival Field is in itself socially innovative in presenting a scientific experiment as an artwork. Curiously in terms of formal innovation, Chin has described the work in terms of the most basic sculptural process of reduction. He argued that the work is like carving but in this case using biochemistry as the chisel, though eventually this process of reduction, carving away the pollution from the soil, will become obvious in the form of new growth on the site (see here for Mel Chin’s own description).
To be able to ascertain the innovation in Jan Mun’s work on the Greenpoint Bioremediation Project we need a better and more detailed description of the work, whether through a deep description of the concept allowing us to understand the artist’s intention to do something innovative, or retrospectively by a description of the project’s emergent innovative elements (pacem Elizabeth Hallam and Tim Ingold who argue that we can only see innovation retrospectively and in the moment only improvise).
This is a brief and partial indication of the history of artists involvement in bioremediation. It’s also worth reading Tim Collins’ comments here – he references other people not mentioned above.