We met Helen Mayer Harrison (along with Newton Harrison) in 2006 at a conference in Shrewsbury thanks to David Haley. We had the privilege to spend the next three years working with them to realise Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom, a project which prefigured their more recent work through the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure. It was through Greenhouse Britain that they first talked about the ‘form determinant’ which later became the ‘force majeure’.
“We suggest that the existing plans for greenhouse emissions control will be insufficient to keep temperature rise at 2° or less. In this context, the rising ocean becomes a form determinant. By “form determinant” we mean the ocean will determine much of the new form, that culture, industry and many other elements of civilization may need to take.” (Greenhouse Britain, 2007)
Throughout this time we heard Helen read from the end of their magnum opus, Lagoon Cycle, many times, in meetings and at events and performances. She read,
And the waters will rise slowly
at the boundary
at the edge
redrawing that boundary
moment by moment
all at once
It is a graceful drawing and redrawing
this response to the millennia of the making of fire
And in this new beginning
this continuously rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce
and will I house you when your lands are covered with water
so that together
we can withdraw
as the waters rise
(Lagoon Cycle, 1984)
Sometime she started slightly earlier in the text, with the list of rivers around the world, but she always read this last section and it always drew a deep, thoughtful silence.
Helen was the English Major with a Masters in Psychology who had worked in education extensively and to a senior level before becoming a full time artist and professor at the University of California San Diego. From this point she collaborated full time with Newton.
Living in New York in the early 1960s Helen had also been the first New York Co-ordinator of the Women’s Strike for Peace. As far as we remember she was also the one who had been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a critical influence in Helen and Newton’s decision in the early 1970s ‘to do no work that did not in some way benefit the ecosystem.’
It is not useful to attempt to separate out who did what (or for that matter which one of them was the genius*). Rather it is useful to highlight that when we asked about their influences from literature, Helen mentioned Chaucer. You can see in particular works humorous comment on human frailty and weakness.
Helen had a lifelong interest in language, narration, storytelling, and the oral tradition. In San Diego the Harrisons were close friends with David and Eleanor Antin and with Jerome and Diane Rothenbeg. They were part of the ethno-poetic movement. Ethno-poetics as an aesthetic movement is concerned with the power and beauty of the spoken word. It is concerned to break out of the dominance in the Western tradition of the written word. Rothenberg pointed out,
“The suspicion came to be that certain forms of poetry, like certain forms of artmaking, permeated traditional societies ∓ that these largely religious forms not only resembled but had long since achieved what the new experimental poets & artists were then first setting out to do.” (Rothenberg, 1994)
Helen, in bringing a certain quality of literature into their practice, opened up the possibility that the “social ∓ spiritual as well aesthetic” (as Rothenberg puts it) can become intertwined. Whilst they recognised that boundary conditions were critical (just read their essay Public Culture and Sustainable Practices) they equally recognised that boundaries, “…seemed to exist only for a moment and thereafter fade back into a pattern of moments grouped within moments.” (Harrisons, 2001)
Helen introduced photography into their practice in addition to literature, but what is perhaps most remarkable about this partnership is that both photography and literature became part of a shared way of working and understanding the world.
In one of the articles which addresses their working together, they describe their process (speaking in the third person) as,
The work of the Harrisons has a great deal of writing in it. Their method is straightforward. Newton writes the initial text; Helen edits it, comments, and develops it, Newton comments, and Helen finishes it. Thus, they have evolved a very comfortable way of working where Newton has the first word and Helen has the last word. (Ingram Allen, 2008)
The two voices of the Lagoon Cycle, the Lagoon Maker and the Witness, are a very powerful evocation of the potential for two people to combine action and reflection in ways that lead to insight.
To touch and be touched by a life gives energy to the world. Helen gifted us with the energy to create, improvise and adapt to whatever life offers us, with humour, courage and with love. She achieved this through empathy, reaching out into the world and listening carefully without judging. Our first meeting created a quality of friendship and humanity that will be with us for the rest of our lives.
David Haley provides the final word,
I hear the warmth of her words
the passionate chill of her poetry
such fearless insight
such good fun
such a pleasure
(Helen, David Haley, 2018)
Anne Douglas and Chris Fremantle
* Apparently the MacArthur Foundation never gave them a Genius Award because the Foundation couldn’t decide which one was the genius.
Harrison, Helen Mayer and Harrison, Newton, 2001. From There to Here (San Diego: The Harrison Studio), unpaginated.
– 2007. Greenhouse Britain: Losing Ground, Gaining Wisdom (Santa Cruz: The Harrison Studio & Associates (Britain)) pdf
– 1985. Lagoon Cycle. Ithica, NY: Cornell University
– 2007 ‘Public Culture and Sustainable Practices: Peninsula Europe from an ecodiversity perspective, posing questions to Complexity Scientists’, Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences: Vol. 2: No. 3, Article 3. http://repositories.cdlib.org/imbs/socdyn/sdeas/vol2/iss3/art3
Ingram Allen, Jane. ‘A Marriage Made On Earth: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison’, Public Art Review, issue 38, spring/summer 2008, volume 19, number 2
Rothenberg, Jerome, 1994 Ethnopoetics at the Millennium A Talk for the Modern Language Association, December 29. http://www.ubu.com/ethno/discourses/rothenberg_millennium.html accessed 26 March 2018.