Archive for the ‘Guest Blog’ Category

Minty Donald reviews A Caledonian Decoy

March 29, 2017

Tim Collins and Reiko Goto’s dense and thought-provoking exhibition brings together a number of recent works developed as part of what they describe in the accompanying catalogue as ‘A Critical Forest Art Practice’.* This body of works, made ‘with rather than in’ forests in Scotland is intended to ‘explore […] new relationships between humanity and nature’.

Key to Collins and Goto’s approach, and at the core of the exhibition, is the concept of the ‘cultural decoy’, a term which they use to describe several of the works. As I understand this provocative and generative concept, a cultural decoy is an artefact that is intended to lure the audience/spectator into a relationship with the entanglement of nature and culture that comprises what is commonly referred to as ‘the environment’, and in the particular case of this exhibition, with the natural-cultural environments of Scotland’s forests. The word ‘decoy’, particularly employed in this context, is loaded and complex. It has clear associations with hunting, leading me to reflect on the implications of identifying art objects as decoys in this gallery-based, ecologically inflected exhibition. A decoy may be set by the hunter to trap prey, but also deployed by those pursued to distract or mislead the hunter.

A further frame which seems pertinent to Goto and Collins’ exhibition, though not one overtly referenced by the artists, is Robert Smithson’s notion of site/non-site. Smithson’s grappling with the productive paradoxes of exhibiting work with site-responsive origins in a gallery distant from the originary location has, for me, useful resonances. Goto and Collins appear to share Smithson’s approach, complexifying the relationship between the ‘cultural’ space of the gallery and the ‘natural’ forest environments from which their work emanates.

The exhibition includes six photographic and sculptural works that Collins and Goto consider to be cultural decoys and a video work titled Decoy, installed in the tight confines of the Intermedia Gallery at the Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow.

In Fiadh

The central and most imposing of the cultural decoys, Fiadh, is a group of cage-like structures constructed from metal fencing and wooden posts, which stand at approximately human head height. The cages, if viewed from above, spell out the word fiadh which, exhibition notes tell me, is ‘Scottish Gaelic for deer, but also references wildness’. One of the cages contains cowberry, bilberry, heather and bracken growths. The work is intended as a maquette for a much larger scale sculpture, which the artists intend to function as a deer fence, protecting recently harvested forest plantation from deer herds. The full-scale work would evolve over time, as the metal fencing is engulfed by maturing trees. It’s a work that invites me to contemplate the inextricable intertwining of nature and culture in Scotland’s forests (and wider ecology) and to consider multiple, opposing and overlapping, perspectives on land stewardship and re-wilding. For me, it functions effectively as a cultural decoy — a gallery-based proposition, luring the spectator into a conceptual engagement with the natural-cultural entanglements of Scotland’s forests. It doesn’t reference or evoke a specific forest location, but functions as a speculative work that points towards conditions common to Scotland’s woodlands and brought about through competing demands of deer preservation and timber cultivation.

Decoy, a split-screen projection showing video footage of movement advancing into and retreating from a dense, ancient forest environment (the forward movement in colour and the retreat in black and white) fills another gallery wall. The footage has the shaky appearance and point-of-view of hand-held camera work. I watch the video while standing among the fence structures of Fiadh. Other visitors stand in front of the wire mesh, in close proximity to the projection/gallery wall. I note my sense of enclosure and my fragmented view of the video, which to me mimics the physical and visual experience of being in a dense woodland. I contemplate the gallery as natural-cultural space, a forest-within-gallery, or gallery-within-forest. The camera movement and my position within the fencing structures evokes for me the somatic experience of moving through a forest environment. Decoy’s sound-track (a commentary reflecting on the Caledonian forests of Scotland and key terms used by the artists, followed by field recordings of rutting deer) and the more formal aspects of the editing (spilt screen projection in colour and monochrome), however, pull me back from this more affective, sensory interaction with the work. You can see Decoy here.

Bridle and Darkness

I experience a similar withdrawal from the somatic and immersive dimensions of the five wall-based pieces, also described as cultural decoys. Lanolin, Can You See the Forest of Scotland? is a sheep’s fleece, manipulated to pick out a saltire in washed white wool against a greyer background of untreated fleece. The Ladder in the Wood is a photograph of a deerstalker’s ladder, once used to access a treetop platform from which the stalker could observe and shoot deer. The ladder is rotting and becoming indistinguishable from the fabric of the tree against which it stands, no longer fulfilling its human-determined function. Fearna/Co2 is a piece of Alder tree bark into which a carbon dioxide monitor, linked to a noise generator, has been inserted. As human spectators approach, the noise level increases in response to their Co2 exhalations. One of two linked pieces, Taod Gaoisdei, is a bit-less horse bridle, woven from twisted birch twigs and horse hair. Exhibition notes inform me that in Scottish folklore a birch bridle could be used to harness a kelpie, the mythical Scottish horse-sprite. A photograph of Goto’s other-than-human collaborator, native-breed horse An Dorchadas, wearing the bridle, accompanies the sculptural piece. These five works operate, for me, as cultural decoys at a conceptual level, pointing to complex entanglements of the natural and the cultivated, human and other-than-human. However, compacted into Intermedia’s small exhibition space, and with prominent explanatory text, my interaction with the wall works feels slightly skewed towards the ocular and intellectual. I feel constrained, for instance, from taking up the invitation to interact with the carbon monoxide monitor in Fearna/Co2, or from touching the fleece in Lanolin, Can You See the Forest of Scotland?

While I may have welcomed a little more space (both physical and interpretive) for open-ended, sensory and affective interactions with the works, A Caledonian Decoy is a rich and thoughtful exhibition that makes a sophisticated and valuable contribution to debates about the natural and the cultural, art and the environment. Goto and Collins’ decoys remain ambivalent — are they set by hunter or prey, poacher or gamekeeper? — suggesting the impossibility of untangling the competing and shared impulses and intentions that play out in the natural-cultural environments of Scotland’s forests.


* All quotations are from the exhibition catalogue or signage. You can download a pdf of the catalogue CollinsandGoto_CALEDONIANDECOY

All photographs and videos courtesy of the artists.


The Collins & Goto Studio’s The Centre for Nature in Cities presents: A Caledonian Decoy
Intermedia Gallery, Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 2-23 February 2017


Minty Donald is an artist and senior lecturer in contemporary performance practices at the University of Glasgow. She is interested in the idea of more-than-human performance, where performing is understood as not just a human activity. Minty works regularly with (human) collaborator Nick Millar. Recent work includes THEN/NOW, a public art project with/for the Forth and Clyde Canal and Guddling About, an ongoing project with rivers and other watercourses, which has been performed in Canada, Spain, Germany, Australia and the UK.

Holly Keasey and Anna Macleod: An Atomic Journey

March 26, 2017

“We tour the disparate surfaces of everyday life as a way of involving ourselves in them, as a way of reintegrating a fragmented world” – Alexander Wilson (1991)

As international residents at SFAI, Holly and fellow resident Anna Macleod, have conducted their ‘Atomic Journey’ together through New Mexico including trips to The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History, the Red Water Pond Road Community Association (RWPRCA), the roundhouse for Uranium Workers Day and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A journey which has drawn out questions around activation within the act of witnessing, and whether visiting artists are complicit in a contemporary act of exploitation – extracting what they need and then leaving.

Anna’s initial proposal to SFAI was to research community resilience in the face of climate change uncertainty as the next addition to her series of projects known as Water Conversations. These projects explore the complex interstices between landscape, technology, science, culture and geopolitics through the emotive global context of water. In recent years, these projects have included an investigation into the legacy of mining and wastewater in a variety of global contexts. The scarred and poisoned landscapes that Anna has journeyed through are often admired as places of pristine wilderness. Yet hidden deep within these landscapes are many unresolved negative emotions stirred by the socio-economic traumas these landscapes have endured. Typically, ‘Water Conversations’ accumulate into the production of portable sculptures that then act as focal points for community gatherings, where thoughts and emotions can be expressed in the safety of a shared collective action.

During the SFAI Water Right’s Round Table, Susan Gordon of the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment presented an oil and gas map which initiated an urgency to dig deeper into the history of uranium mining and nuclear exploration within New Mexico.

IMAGE ONE

The majority of uranium mined in New Mexico is found in the Grants mineral belt, the second largest uranium deposit in the United States. Looking at a map of New Mexico, layered with information on the extractive industries dotted throughout the territory, one can draw a triangle from the North Western uranium mining area of the Grants mineral belt at Gallup, to Los Alamos, and then south-west to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) at Carlsbad.*

As was mentioned in the previous post, Policy, Possession and Place, the reality of lives lived on land that was contaminated continuously for twenty year by uranium mine discharge before the 1979 Church Rock Uranium tailings pond spill, were shared with us through conversations with members of RWPRCA. Situated in amongst geological stacks, recognisable to a European as backdrop landscapes for the Hollywood Westerns, this landscape is entirely barren apart from the over-looked brown-ish hills constructed from contaminated scrape-off pointed out to us by the community, the dry-board constructed homes of this ‘forgotten’ community and the intentional plantings of non-regional salt bushes by the EPA.

IMAGE TWO

In stark contrast, 230 miles North of Red Water Pond Road is Los Alamos, a self proclaimed ‘Atomic City’ complete with promotional tee shirts, shot glasses and coffee cups. It is a prosperous well-mannered place. Originally constructed in secret to house the scientist of the National Laboratories, this small city continues to be primarily for current and retired laboratory workers and their families. The centre of the city, where the first nuclear bombs were designed and produced, is now one section of the three-part Manhattan Project National Park, where visitors can join the Park Ranger for a free tour of the central pond area and collect a stamp for their National Park Passport. Los Alamos boasts of an intelligent and healthy population, with the highest per capita of residents with PhDs and the 7th most affluent per capita city in the USA. The location of the city within the forty-three mile site is surrounded by mountains, ski slopes and a well serviced recreational culture. The hyper-reality of middle-class affluence at Los Alamos, a realised model of the American Dream ideals, is magnified by the automated countdown at pedestrian traffic crossing points. Ten seconds to safely cross a road. Ten seconds to experience the anxious anticipation of an explosion.

The unholy uranium trinity is completed at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. WIPP is located in the Delaware Basin of New Mexico. This 600m-deep salt basin was formed during the Permian Period approximately 250 million years ago. In 1957, the National Academy of Sciences recommended salt for radioactive waste disposal because at over 600m below the earth’s surface, salt would plastically deform, a motion called “salt creep” in the salt-mining industry, to close and seal any openings created by the mining, and in and around the waste. It is here that the mined uranium, and all radioactive waste produced in the US, returns to the ground having been through a series of processes, a journey, in which its original state has changed.**

IMAGE FOUR

Similarly, our journey to these sites of nuclear relevance has, most likely, changed something within us. There is an activation through the act of witnessing that shifts something within the witness. Their witnessing also enacts a reintegration of occurrences that have otherwise become fragmented from each other – in this case the intentional disjointedness between the mining of uranium, weapons development, nuclear energy and radioactive disposal. However, as international artists-in-residence, this comparison to the nuclear fuel cycle and our journey draws out critical questions about the responsibility of the visiting artist to ensure we do not ‘mine’ communities to the point of exhaustion, especially whilst attending a thematic residency in which sixty artists with over-lapping areas of interest pass through a single institution and therefore small grouping of communities. How do we also ensure, as socially-engaged artists, that our methods of practice whilst working within short-time frames is beneficial to a community rather than detrimental?

Upon hearing about Anna’s artistic practice and through engagement with the RWPRCA community, a suggestion was made to produce a new banner with a water focus that could be used during the community’s Uranium Legacy, Remembrance and Action Day, a day of protest, awareness raising and memorial that takes place annually on the 16th July, the anniversary of The Church Rock Uranium Spill. Focusing on how to create a water banner that incorporated these three purposes, we hosted a co-design workshop at a community member’s home. Using mono-printing, we worked with the community to discuss their differing ideas about what such a banner should include. It was also a time to share methods for using visual attributes such as colour, language and symbolism to produce strong statements that reflect the Navajo relation to place.

IMAGE FIVE

The final banner will be realised by Anna over the course of April before being gifted back to the community. It is hoped that this hand sewn banner will hold within it care, solidarity and gratitude that will continue beyond our stay in New Mexico. Whilst we will take away the experienced knowledge from our ’Atomic Journey’, having temporarily been active in the everyday fabric of this place through loosely stitching fragments together.


Notes

* The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, is the world’s third deep geological repository licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste for 10,000 years that is left from the research and production of nuclear weapons and energy.

** It is assumed that at this depth the radioactive material is encased away from interference but with the drastic increase in fracking within New Mexico especially in the Carlsbad area, questions can be asked if these two processes really co-exist in the same landscape?


References

Wilson, Alexander. 1991. The Culture of Nature: North American Landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez. Ontario: Between The Lines Press.


Anna Macleod

Edinburgh Scotland, lives and works in Ireland

Anna Macleod is a visual artist based in Ireland. Her art work utilizes a variety of methods and processes to mediate complex ideas associated with contemporary, historical and cultural readings of place. She employs quasi-scientific methods, interdisciplinary collaboration, performance and socially engaged activism to critique contemporary landscapes and to build metaphoric spaces for re-imagining the future. Recent projects have focused on the socio-political and cultural issues surrounding water, looking at questions of access, management and ritual.

Anna Macleod has exhibited Nationally and Internationally. Recent residencies include: Food Water Life, themed residency with Jorge and Lucy Orta, Banff Art Centre, Alberta, Canada. 2015. Joya, Arte & Ecologia, Spain 2016. Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland 2015 & Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia, 2015. Recent solo exhibitions include: Water Conversations – A Survey of Works 2007 – 2015 at The Dock, Carrick on Shannon, Ireland. Staid na Talún – A State of Land, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Co Leitrim, Ireland, Water Conversations – Broken Flow, Broken Hill Art Exchange, New South Wales, Australia.

Macleod is the recipient of the Firestation Artists’ Studios, Dublin, International Residency Award for ‘A Thousand Points of Light’ residency in Joshua Tree, California in March 2016. She was awarded an Individual Artists Bursary from Leitrim County Council Arts Office in 2015 / 2016 and Arts Council of Ireland Travel and Training Award towards the costs of residencies in Australia (2015) and USA (2016 & 2017) and the Jim Dinning and Evelyn Main Endowed Scholarship for Visual Arts for Banff Art Centre residency in 2015.

www.annamacleod.com

 

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017

FP03_Cover

Ewan Davidson reviews Gut Gardening, Food Phreaking:issue 03 from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, published Oct 2016.  You can order copies here.

Ewan Davidson is a blogger and self-identified psychogeographer (riverofthings.wordpress.com). His recent wanderings have taken back into familiar territories, those of ecology, natural metaphors and causality, he first visited as a student thirty years ago. He is also really fond of lichens and birdwatching.


It is only about a decade since the microbiome became a thing. Fuzzy boundaried notions collect all kinds of aspirational, utopian fluff, and the microbiome – a paradigmatic concept of the cyber-age – has the capacity to multiply these as quickly as (aerobic) bacteria grow on a Petri dish.

The role of microbiologists is to culture the useful part of these into something that might grow and become valued. The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen has been involved in this research effort and the artists/designers known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been Leverhulme Artists in Residence involved in the dissemination of the stuff.

The most recent publication in their Food Phreaking series of pamphlets, Gut Gardening, reaches for a compromise between populist publicity, sober accounting and dis-illusion. Most writing about the microbiome oscillates between potential and entropy in this way. For example the story which most of us will have heard in some form concerns the microbial base for obesity. This is drawn from a research programme described at length in I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016) where generations of lab mice have been grown in a sterile environment, gnotobiosis, and are used as receptacles of cultures of microbes from obese or normal humans. Fat gut microbes produced fat mice, which in turn produced the headlines about gut microflora creating obesity, which in turn received the ‘Overselling the Microbiome Award’, which has at least 38 former winners for extrapolations from interesting test results (others including cures for IBD, diabetes and mental illness, as well as jeremiads about the harm of antibiotics).

This particular replication keeps happening because the scientists had to move beyond the simple correlation of one thing with another, and see if there were links which might be predictable or causal. This has proved much more complicated – in the case of our mouse, food, genetics and the developmental stage all matter. The gut microbiome, when studied closely, stopped being one thing and became many.

FP03_1

To improve the chance of establishing causality in the lab, anaerobic chamber cultures of the various bacterial species are grown in separate wells. They are mixed by a robot into different recipes, which are then transplanted into the gnotobiotic mice. The conclusions drawn from extensive trials are that 11 bacterial species are involved in some way in promoting obesity (in mice, and perhaps humans) and two other species seem to inhibit. But only if certain other factors apply, and only, so far, under controlled conditions.

Meanwhile in the outside, more chaotic world (what the scientists I trained with used to call ‘the field’, with heavily inverted commas) the Human Microbiome Project, collecting submitted poo samples, has established that there is no such thing as a typical US volunteer gut community. Nicola Twilley, blogger and gastrophile, writes in Gut Gardening,

‘It now seems our gut microbiome is not a single organ,that can function well or badly. Instead it is a series of negotiations and trade offs, in which distinctions between good and bad have been increasingly difficult to extract from the white noise generated by up to a thousand different microbial spp, all interacting with each other in ways that we mostly don’t yet understand.’

The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thomson’s 80 year old view that ‘we have come to the edge of a world of which we have no experience and where all our preconceptions must be recast’ (1992) still seems apt.

FP03_2

Dr Wendy Russell, lead editor of Gut Gardening and a Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett, acknowledges that research into the microbiome creates a new set of challenges to scientific method (isolation, refinement, replication). In short the basic tools of instrumentalism are not effective in explaining or predicting the functions of microbial ecology. New forms of research which can deal with complexity might involve technologies like the anaerobic machine, but also strands of maths which can assess the relative contributions of parts of systems that can’t effectively be separated. And beyond those, new ways of thinking about causation.

It is not that utility can’t be found. One of the contributions to Gut Gardening is the story of Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Following observations that l. rhamnosus proliferate in a healthy vagina, Gregor Reid’s team cultured the GR-1 strain of this, and found it was linked to defence against Urinary Tract Infections and other types of immunity. Preparation and trials in yoghurt and capsule forms and have been developed commercially (sidestepping the restrictions involved in creating conventional medical products) and as part of a development project producing probiotic yoghurt in Tanzania. The efficacy comes from accepting the rough pragmatic tools of correlation and amelioration, without the poesis of understanding the nature of the thing and the process.

However there is another form of usefulness in new knowledge. The art work in Gut Gardening acknowledges this in background chaotic patterns of tangled and unfamiliar overlapping shapes with occasional highlighted (and even dayglo) squiggles. The publication gently lays down the challenge to its contributors to imagine and speculate.
One of the interesting speculations of the Center for PostNatural History is that the human gut flora, like our pets, will ‘reflect human desires and anxieties which influence them’. It’s a good trope, although so far most of us have been interested in the influences pulling the other way – that our bodies, lifestyles and consciousness are subtly directed by the growth and byproducts of our microbial partners/symbionts, through biofeedback loops between the flora, hormones, organ development and appetites.

Post natural and post human are spirallingly anthropocene ways of thinking about the world. For those of us whose interest in cultures is not mainly probiotic this is the great re-envisaging potential of the microbiome.

FP03_3

Jamie Lorimer’s jovial piece (2016), Gut Buddies about the related interest in re-infestation of humans with hookworms demonstrates the continual crossover between enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs (sometimes the same figure in different guises) opening up an area of interaction with biota (or domestication if you will). What was once vermin is now a product or a pet. We should know that this happens – this replicates our human history. Are there new possibilities for envisaging being raised by the way we have to understand the microbiome..? Moulders and shapers need to understand things as material – as something with predictable usefulness. But time and again with the microbiome, there are ways in which our methodologies fails us. We retreat to scratch our head. The ways we come to understand the microbiome will have to challenge scientific paradigms too.

In a way which is less dystopian than the control metaphors of the yellow science press we are indeed being subtly influenced by our microbes.


References

Lorimer, Jamie (2016) Gut Buddies – Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome, Environmental Humanities, 8.1

Yong, Ed ( 2016) I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within us and a Grander view of Life.  New York: Ecco Press.

Wentworth-Thompson, D’Arcy (1992) – On Growth and Form ( abridged ed). CUP.

FoodPhreaking_Series4

Holly Keasey: Policy, Possession and Place

March 15, 2017

One needs to reflect upon US history and its troubling legacy of “placemaking” manifested in acts of displacement, removal, and containment. This history is long and horrible…how is Creative Placemaking different or complicit with these actions?

‘Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging’, (Bedoya 2013)

As of writing this blog, I have a further two weeks until I complete my residency and return to Dundee. Over the past two years I have spent more time away from, than in Dundee, to the point that I arrived at SFAI increasingly aware that Dundee doesn’t feel like home, and for that matter there isn’t anywhere that feels like home. This unsettled feeling has somewhat preoccupied my residency, trying to overcome it by getting to know Santa Fe on foot and New Mexico through a broad scope of historic and current socio-economic and environmental research – creating a temporary, or maybe an internalised and necessary illusion, of being in-place for myself.

Trying to understand this somewhat unintentional bodily-working-through of my own psychological processes often acts as a stimuli to my practice which in turn gives body to my hypothesis for performative practice as a form of public art that can hold active criticality. In the instance of trying to locate a sense of being in-place in Santa Fe, due to my lack belonging elsewhere, I have come to realise that there is a swinging movement between the original intention for my residency – researching the misuse of law, with a particular focus on the laws that regulate water rights in New Mexico, and the potential space that can be create through the misunderstanding of a non-specialist – and the implications and hence role of public arts policy.

Image One

Screenshot of EventBrite ‘How Students and the Arts Fuel a Vibrant Downtown’

A key underpinning to my research so far is the understanding that Water Rights[1] are inherently linked to Property Rights[2]. Both of which imply the legal possession of use of a resource. And it is this mind-set of possession-of-use that is central to the current situation in New Mexico.

An inescapable example of this possession-of-use mind-set can be traced through the on-going treatment of Native American communities. Many settlers considered the Native way of life and collective use of land to be communistic and barbaric, with settler ideals stemming from the view that individual ownership of private property was an essential part of civilization. In an attempt to force these ideals upon Native populations, Congress passed the General Allotment Act in 1887, which authorized the president to survey Indian tribal land and divide the area into allotments for individual Indians and families. Members of the selected tribe or reservation were either given permission to select pieces of land—usually around forty to one hundred and sixty acres in size – for themselves and their children, or the tracts were assigned by the agency superintendent. If the amount of reservation land exceeded the amount needed for allotment, or if the allotment was not used in the westernised sense, the federal government could negotiate to purchase the land from the tribes and sell it to non-Indian settlers. As a result, sixty million acres were either ceded outright or sold to the government for non-Indian homesteaders and corporations as ‘surplus lands’. (See the History of Allotment on the Indian Land Tenure Foundation page for further detail.)

What can be drawn from this act is a significant relationship between the ideals of individualism, private property and a prioritising of use values.

Land Status Map for McKinley County, New Mexico

For the Navajo Nation, the General Allotment Act resulted in their eastern border in Western New Mexico resembling a checkerboard. However, in spite of these attempts to colonise many Native tribes, including those of Navajo Nation, did not adopt the enforced ideals towards the environment as resources to be put to use. I was fortunate to meet with community members of Red Water Pond Road of Coyote Canyon Chapter, Navajo Nation this week, whose relationship to the land and waters is still predominantly held within their ancestral sense of belonging and being part of the land. So much so that they have continued to live at Red Water Pond Road despite its contamination in 1979, when United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock uranium mill tailings disposal pond breached its dam, releasing over a thousand tons of solid radioactive mill waste and ninety-three million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution, which then flowed through Red Water Pond Road’s surrounding landscape. After minor clean-up with shovels, United Nuclear Corporation’s uranium mill continued to operate until 1982, after which the site was abandoned by the corporation leaving behind the infrastructure, by-products and contaminated landscape that were no longer of use to them. Whilst, the Red Water Pond Road residents, many of whom worked the uranium mines, continue to reside here despite the lack of employment and income they had become accustomed to or the ability to return to previous vocations such as shepherding due to the extent of radioactive contamination. It is now a place where net wire fencing, typically used for dividing farm land, acts as a visual divide between residents and their neighbouring pilings.

Uranium tailing at Red Water Pond Road Community

There is a comparison that can be drawn here between the legal possession-to-use and its accompanying mind-set, that fosters a lack of long-term responsibility to that which is made use of whether it be a landscape or grouping of people, and the Navajo ancestral sense of belonging and being part of this landscape which manifests as a commitment towards a continuing to live here. For me, these comparative relations to the same area of land stir up a question – can a westernised (and patriarchal) ideal, and consequently entitlement, towards possession-to-use ever result in a mode of living that is ecologically sensitive?

It is in this question that I currently tread water, continuing to seek understanding through this arid landscape. I know there is a link to be formed between a critique of and beyond property and water rights as legal possessions-to-use (and the mind-set that supersedes this); a reflection on my own performative researching practice towards establishing a temporary sense of place in Santa Fe; and a role for public arts policy.

An initial reaction to this may be to look towards Creative Placemaking, a term co-opted by planning development that makes use of artistic methods and/or forms to drive an agenda for change, growth and transformation (or put succinctly, gentrification). Such developments frame their intentions as revitalisation in the interest of identified communities. By revitalisation they mean attaining the forms in which 21st Century ideals of successful civilisation are attributed. Similarities can be drawn between this and the intentions behind the General Allotment Act to ‘organise’ (for which one can read colonise) Native Communities. In addition, acts of Creative Placemaking are typically achieved via the use and extraction of an area’s resources in such a way that the original community’s ability to continue to reside is often reduced. For Red Water Pond Road community it is due to radioactive contamination. For communities subjected to Creative Placemaking it is due to real estate speculation. In many ways, this form of Creative Placemaking is an expansion of the entitlement towards possession to use – who makes the most successful use these identified areas? The current residents, or the affluent residents who replace them?

It is for the above reasons that as an artist I believe there is a need to be insistent that the aesthetics of criticality is at the core of Public Arts Policy.


[1] The right to make use of the water from a stream, lake, or irrigation canal.
[2] Property rights are socially-enforced constructs for determining how a resource or economic good is used.


Bedoya, Roberto. 2013. ‘Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging’ Grantmakers In The Arts Reader, Vol 24, No 1 (Winter 2013) http://www.giarts.org/article/placemaking-and-politics-belonging-and-dis-belonging

Holly Keasey: Is a river without water, still a river?

March 7, 2017

Holly Keasey’s fourth post to ecoartscotland, as part of her participation in the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Water Rights residency, focuses on different ways of experiencing and thinking about the Santa Fe River (such as it is).


image-one

A friend this week set me a challenge to write a detailed, more phenomenological, observation of a small patch of land or waterway. I had planned to go to Otowi Bridge twenty-five miles North, an important crossing point of the Rio Grande. It is a site where the measurement is taken that decides the allocation of waters from the Rio Grande to the settlements downstream in New Mexico, to the Elephant Butte Reservoirs and across the borders into Mexico and Texas. However, the hours and/or energy required to make that trip by bike during daylight hours hasn’t yet materialised.

Instead, a group of us walked a nearby section of the Santa Fe River – not walking along the banks as is normal, but instead walking the path of the river where water should, but does not flow. My gut response to this walk was that the Santa Fe River, at this point of its course, does not completely exist, at least in physical form. The beach-like riverbed missing the saturation of water; the crumpling banks reinforced by dumped rusting Mustangs; and the deposits of rocks still too large to slip into my pockets, tell tales of the river and its occasional re-appearance during times of heavy rain and snow melt, but them by themselves cannot be the river.

image-two

I could describe to you further the phenomenon of this dehydrated river channel – a soily skin that flakes similar to ours when lacking moisture. Its overwhelming stillness, a tiredness teetering on the edge of death. The glimmers of hopes that come from underfoot as the surface of the bed hardens with saturation and walking becomes easier. Or I could delve into the questions such experiences makes me ponder about when is a river still a river – are the bed and banks enough to constitute being a river on their own? Or is the water, and the ecosystem it brings life to, essential to our understanding of a river? Is the river actually still complete given the potential of a continuation of even the smallest movement of water underfoot? Or is there a spirit to the river, an existential presence of its own?

But if so, all I can hear is it’s frustrated scream of desperation to stop sharing an enchantment with its starved physical form.

image-three

During our walk, I came across a yellow-cake like rock. Having spent my previous day reading about the uranium industry and the history of the Manhattan Project, curiosity got the better of me as I examined the rock to see if it was uranium before remembering, ‘What if it is uranium!’ and quickly releasing its yellow mass back to the riverbed. This small act of entitlement followed by fear, reflects what currently resides and flows along this riverbed, in the place of physical water: a river that can be perceived through its giving location and specificity to the many direct and indirect actions, fuelled by fear and/or entitlement, that have led to its own dehydration and questionable status as a river.

Another way of thinking through this is via a brief consideration of site.

Many consider ‘site’ as a noun, as an identified area where something resides or is constructed. ‘Site’ as a noun can be both physical, such as the ‘site’ of the first atomic bomb explosion occurred at the Trinity Site in Southern New Mexico, and conceptual, as the Trinity Site marks the site of change in the global psyche, shadowed by a new fear. Yet, what is potentially more relevant to how the Santa Fe River can be perceived is the consideration of site as a verb, the action of giving location to something. In the context of complexity, of ‘everything connected to everything else’, it is useful to ‘give location’ to complexity, to understand the Santa Fe River as the location of small and large acts of entitlement and fear.

Such acts of entitlement and fear, which have resulted in the current state of the Santa Fe River, can be traced back to the introduction of US legislation regarding property rights and the liberty of the individual, shifting the uses of the land and perceived entitlements to water, damming upstream and leaving no water for the river to physically continue along its way. And then drawn forward through the development of the atomic bomb in the fear of communism, to previous and continued contamination of waters from mining and the consequent and on-going environmental genocide of many native communities.

These relational socio-economic situations constitute the collective phenomena that, for me at least, is the current river. The westernised entitlement to resources is so great that we have absorbed the river physically and perceptually, ignoring all rights held by the river to be a river.

The use of emotive notions, fear and entitlement in the case of Santa Fe, to conduct a scalar approach through personal, social and environmental issues is more typical to how I perceive and work with water. Through focusing on fear and entitlement I am able to perceive the Santa Fe River, not only through its lack of water, but as an act of giving location to complexity.

 

Holly Keasey and Fiona P McDonald: “Ambulatory Knowing”: Architecture, Access, and the Anthropocene

February 25, 2017

This post is jointly authored by Holly Keasey and Fiona P McDonald (Bio below), another resident on the Santa Fe Art Institute’s Water Rights Programme.


By ‘becoming knowledgeable’ I mean that knowledge is grown along the myriad of paths we take as we make our ways through the world in the course of everyday activities, rather than assembled from information obtained from numerous fixed locations. Thus it is by ‘walking along’ from place to place, and not by building up from local particulars that we come to know what we do.
‘Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing’ – Tim Ingold (2010)

Walking is generally assumed as a basic mode of transportation. However, walking (or any movement based on ability) through a place when undertaken as a collaborative tactic finds its way into becoming something else – a way of knowing and doing. Walking for Holly is a way to get lost and yet find what she did not know was already embodied knowledge through making connections between her feet, this place and that which she carries with her from other places. The practice of walking is something she shares with Fiona, who uses walking as a methodology central in her anthropological and collaborative work. By embracing anthropologist Tim Ingold’s logic of “ambulatory knowing”, Holly and Fiona set off on foot and offer a narrative of their shared visual observations from almost 20miles of walking, particularly considering how architecture may be tied to accessibility in New Mexico during the Anthropocene, our human-made geological epoch.

72 hours after arriving in Santa Fe, a group of Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) Residents headed to learn more about local fabrication facilities. While we left our residency on the campus compound by car to arrive in the industrial area where these facilities are located, we then left this industrial zone on foot. We set our destination to be the downtown plaza, a major tourist site. According to Google Maps, it was going to be a mere 4.2mile walk. The intent of our journey on foot was to get a better handle on what we perceived to be the urban sprawl of Santa Fe. In this instance in Santa Fe, we are both tourists and temporary residents/researchers in-place to carry out work that contributes to global conversations around water. To know the terrain, its waterways, and its urban nuances is critical to our work, knowledge we felt was best acquired through walking through place where we will be for several weeks and months.

image-1

As we moved beyond the industrial area, a space that appears to be in the process of revitalization with a range of art centers tucked around each corner, we arrived at Agua Fria Street, a main traffic artery that draws commuters to and from the downtown plaza. Unaware at this point that we were undertaking an ethnography on foot, what has since resulted is the realization that we were not only becoming geographically oriented, but we were witnessing the socio-economic divides that the main transportation arteries create in Santa Fe, observations that now inform core research questions during our tenure in Santa Fe.

We crossed Agua Fria to consider a brief toilet break at Frenchy’s field. However, we pressed on without stopping. Unbeknown to us, had we abandoned the path set out by Google Maps and embraced Holly’s approach of wandering, our first impressions of the socio-economic divide of Santa Fe would have been very different. We might have followed the Santa Fe River trail (see our observations below on that walk, taken more recently) that moves pedestrians and cyclists through more affluent communities. Yet we continued on the path of Aguia Fria Street where we observed what appeared to be makeshift wooden and wire fences guarded by a variety of dogs from frantically barking Pit Bulls to a jack-in-a-box Pekingese who warned residents of our presence on the pavement. Our perception of the American ideal of independence and property ownership played out along this single 3 mile stretch, with individual properties reflecting a range of values from ornamentation to fortification, to clustered communities off the beaten path.

Holly pausing in her footsteps to look at cluster dwelling in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Holly pausing in her footsteps to look at cluster dwelling in Santa Fe, New Mexico

As we pressed closer to downtown in the space between the intersectional roads of St. Francis Drive and South Guadalupe Street an economic divide became apparent. The adobe vernacular we had seen in the previous three miles, often in disrepair, was now well-maintained and occupied by art galleries, restaurants, schools and homes with low-fences so that passersby could see the manicured yards with local vegetation accompanied by rock installations. It felt to us that the community along Agua Fria Street is undergoing a constant compression of gentrification from both ends. We wondered, when squeezed so far, where will this community go and what policies are driving property shifts in Santa Fe?
The following Saturday, to escape the campus compound once more and locate Santa Fe in the greater expanse that is New Mexico, we abandoned our feet and took the highway seventy miles North following the Rio Grande to Taos. The main area of Taos holds many similarities to Santa Fe, with adobe-style housing and dramatic shifts in socio-economic situations radiating outwards from the central tourist orientated plaza to the leisure mecca of Ski Valley. Yet beyond the town, and truly off the beaten path, is the ‘Greater World Earthship Community’ – a 633 acre subdivision containing nothing but earthship style homes. Here we ventured on foot to explore what we could of this biotecture community.

Holly taking steps in learning about biotecture in New Mexico.

Holly taking steps in learning about biotecture in New Mexico

Sample structures of the Greater World Community of Earthships, New Mexico

Sample structures of the Greater World Community of Earthships, New Mexico

Investing $7 each to enter the Earthship Visitor Center to learn about structures, materials, etc., (too complex to go into here) our conversation drifted to the concept of “sustainability” in the anthropocene. We found ourselves mesmerized by the exclusivity of the community and what the front-end costs are for participating in this lifestyle. As one of three Earthship communities in New Mexico, and part of a larger network across the US that began in the 1970s, one can join this community and purchase a newly built structure for just over $1.5 million US Dollars (as we were told in the visitor center). Playing in here to what Van Jones terms the “eco-elite” (2007).

On our third excursion off the campus compound in the three weeks since arriving, we decided to explore the Santa Fe Rail Trail multi-use pedestrian system, the elusive path we did not know to take during our pause at Frenchy’s field on our first walking odyssey. In walking this trail for 8 miles, we, again, observed disparate socio-economic communities, this time divided by the parched bed of the Santa Fe River. Again, closer to the main roads where the Santa Fe Trail crosses over, communities similar to that along Aguia Fria Street are visible. Edge deeper along the trail network and communities framed by high fences appear as they conceal well-maintained adobe homes with renewable energy sources on their roofs and water catchment practices in their backyards.

Sample of Sustainable Energy on a private residence

Sample of Sustainable Energy on a private residence

What we discovered in the act of ambulatory knowing in Santa Fe is that development and accessibility to secure, sustainable lifestyles appears to be exclusive. The individuals and families to whom it appears inaccessible are those being compressed by brownfield and urban gentrification, or hugging major roadways. By prioritising economic growth, and then the environment (as a capitalised resource) over social equality, there is something in our current understandings of sustainability that grows mainly out-of-sight in the interstitial spaces of policy, urban planning, and environmental consciousness. Something that can become knowledge through curbside learning and walking. It is in this action of walking and visual observation where we find the questions we need to ask in our own work about policy, law, regulation, and planning as our work here develops with each passing day and the paths we find ourself walking down.

Photos by Fiona P. McDonald


Bibliography

Ingold, Tim. 2010. “Footprints through the weather-world: walking, breathing, knowing.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: S121-S139.

Jones, Van. 2009. Beyond Eco-Apartheid. Available at: http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/70209:van-jones–beyond-ecoapartheid

Welch, Bryan. 2009. “Earthships: The Power of Unconventional Ideas.” Available at:

http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-homes/earthships-michael-reynolds-zb0z12fmzsto

Taos and the Greater World Earthship Community. Homepage: http://earthship.com/blogs/2015/03/taos-the-greater-world-community/


Bio for Fiona P. McDonald, PhD. (Anthropologist, Curator)

Fiona P. McDonald is the 2016-2019 Postdoctoral Researcher at Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Arts and Humanities Institute. She is also a 2017 Water Rights Resident at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Fiona completed her PhD (2014) in the Department of Anthropology at University College London (UCL) in visual anthropology & material culture. Her dissertation is entitled Charting Material Memories: a visual and material ethnography of the transformations of woollen blankets in contemporary art, craft, and Indigenous regalia in Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand, and the United States. This project was undertaken as both an historic and contemporary visual and material ethnography of the material nature and transformations of woollen (trade) blankets that were produced in the United Kingdom since the seventeenth century. Her work addresses both historical and contemporary uses of woollen blankets through a direct examination of the pluralistic histories that things and objects have when re-worked and recycled by contemporary artists and customary makers in North American and Aotearoa New Zealand. Fiona is currently translating this research into a book project.

Fiona is also the co-founder of Ethnographic Terminalia Collective (ETC) (est.2009), an international curatorial collective that curates exhibitions at the intersections of arts and anthropology. ETC have curated and organized exhibitions and workshops across North America (Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Montreal, New York, Austin, Chicago, Denver, and Vancouver) where they aim to move academic research beyond the academy through public engagement.

Research interests are: Water, Energy studies, Indigenous material and visual culture, repatriation, oral histories, contemporary Indigenous art, curatorial theory, performance theory, and museum studies.

www.fiona-p-mcdonald.com

Holly Keasey: gravel pits, acequias and shared interests

February 18, 2017

Gravel pits offer a casual archaeology of the meeting places of nature and culture, past and present, construction and destruction, indigenous peoples and colonizers, art and life, creeping globalisation and local survival…
Undermining: A wild ride through land use, politics, and art in the changing west
L. Lippard (The New Press, 2014)

image-1-gravel-pit

The writings of Lucy Lippard are essential reading for anyone interested in the relations between contemporary art, dematerialisation, feminism, social change etc. Her theory of domestic tourism, in particular, has heavily influenced the framework I have developed for my own practice which uses the act of touring as a methodology within research. Yet reading her latest book, Undermining which conducts an archaeological dig through the impacts of the gravel industry on her hometown, Galisteo, thirty miles from SFAI, pushes the notions of ‘being in place’ and the use of ‘site’ as a focal node to the forefront of my thinking.

Spanish colonists arrived in New Mexico in the mid-sixteenth century. Faced with an arid topography similar to their native Spain, they discovered notable similarities between the irrigation practices of the Indigenous people and the systems of centralized, community based irrigation practices, known as acequias, which were common in Spain (originally brought to the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs). It was this similarity of practice around the allocation of water rights that eventually saw Indigenous water usage become a permanent feature of Spanish and later Mexican water customs, despite the introduction of written water laws as an intentional form of dominating power (see the New Mexico Museum of Art’s page on the history and politics of water)

image-2-acequia-santa-fe

Acequias can therefore been seen as sites where different cultures congregated due to a shared understanding of what was necessary for survival. This is also reflective of the term’s root in the Arab word as-Saquiya, which means ‘the Water Bearer’, referring to both the actual irrigation channel and to the association of members organized around it. However, it was in 1848 that this system of irrigation was dramatically challenged by the arrival of the American government into New Mexico, along with its laws that prioritised the belief in individual liberty (see the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s page on Liberty, Diversity and Slavery). This challenge continues even today, with water rights claimants being subjected to the burden of proving water usage prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and US Government Bureau of Land Management leasing land and therefore water rights for the purposes of fracking (see the Santa Fe New Mexican for more on the local story).

However, suggestions like those of S. Helmreich in his essay, Nature/Culture/Seawater, that water is anthropologically understood as both a substance and symbol in the world, draws attention back to the importance and role of acequias, and water in general, as sites where communities, ideas and socio-economic constructs will always meet. Water is not an independent entity. The potential within the act of gathering around water is central to the SFAI residency – which over the past week has become more apparent as myself and my cohorts have learnt more about each-others areas of research. Current residents at SFAI who also arrived this month and will be present throughout my stay at SFAI include:

  • River Healers, an activist group working towards re-establish water as a recognised commons. Whilst on residency, River Healers will be mapping corporate executives and government officials that are either directly or indirectly terrorizing New Mexican regional community rights to clean water resources. This will include the composition of a New Mexico water terrorist list that will serve strategic resistance for regionalist water protectors and redirect the U.S. federal administrations attempt to dehumanize and prosecute non-violent people by registering them as domestic terrorists.
  • Anna Macleod, an independent researcher and visual artist based in the northwest of Ireland. She will be expanding an on-going series of water projects which sit with the umbrella term, ‘Water Conversations’. Articulated in varying mediums the projects explore water as a global commons through cultural, political, social and environmental lenses. During her residency, Anna is researching cultural mechanisms of resilience and resistance in communities facing water threats by industry and climate change.
  • Dr. Fiona P. McDonald, a visual anthropologist who specializes in water as material culture. Fiona is the 2016-2019 Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) Arts & Humanities Institute and co-founder of Ethnographic Terminalia Collective, an international curatorial collective that curates exhibitions at the intersections of arts and anthropology. While at SFAI, she is advancing a new research arts-based sensory ethnography related to Anthropology in the Anthropocene that looks at the role of water in our everyday lives.

The opportunity to focus on water within our individual projects and collectively, through formal and casual discussions that occur when you live and work together, can only be beneficial to expanding our approaches and supportive networks during and beyond the thematic residency format. Yet personally, I like to look at this thematic-residency as a micro-model of how water is a site that will always encourage a collating of difference around a shared focal interest.

Holly Keasey: Santa Fe Art Instutite Water Rights Residency – Introduction

February 11, 2017

Holly Keasey is currently undertaking a residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute as part of the Water Rights programme. During the next 8 weeks Holly will be sending regular updates.


“156. Why is the sky blue? -A fair enough question, and one I have learned the answer to several times. Yet every time I try to explain it to someone or remember it to myself, it eludes me. Now I like to remember the question alone, as it reminds me that my mind is essentially a sieve, that I am mortal.

157. The part I do remember: that the blue of the sky depends on the darkness of empty space behind it. As one optics journal puts it, “The color of any planetary atmosphere viewed against the black of space and illuminated by a sunlike star will also be blue.” In which case blue is something of an ecstatic accident produced by void and fire.”
― Maggie Nelson, Bluets (Wave Books, 2009)

A primary observation when arriving in Santa Fe, New Mexico is blueness. Blueness not of water like I am accustomed – that blue filled with surrounding green and a durational dampness – but rather blueness that reflects a niggling lack. A blue where no cloud resides.

image-1-santa-fe-railyart-art-district

A second observation enforces that niggle further as you become physically aware that breathing in this geographical climate, and therefore basic survival here, is a laboured task.*

And a third observation then pushes that niggle down into the gutturals, as the dominant ‘Santa Fe Style’ architecture** conjures up an uncanny reminder of Disney World and yet inside a fe-adobe building you can still find an independent coffee shop, generic in style and intended cliental to any recently gentrified area.

image-2-modern-general-santa-fe

Yet, it is observations like these that make Santa Fe a prime site for reflections on ecological situations developing across the globe and fortunately, many individuals, community groups and organisations here are already undertaking such reflections and acting upon them. This includes Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) that run an annual residency programme with set thematic, which for 2016/17 is ‘Water Rights’.

SFAI was established in 1985 by William Lumpkins and Pony Ault to provide unique opportunities for artists to conduct brief, intense periods of study. The current programme format continues and expands upon this original intention, hosting over fifty local, national or international creative thinkers, artists, designers, educators, policy makers, poets, architects, journalists, and activists to reflect on the issue of ‘Water Rights’ for one to three month periods. During these times, residents are able to establish a network of peers working within a common context; are provided support to develop collaborations such as with the Land Arts of the American West programme and the Academy for the Love of Learning; encouraged to develop their professional profile through press coverage with media consortiums such as Circle of Blue; given access to the community workspace MAKE Santa Fe; and invited to attend interdisciplinary discussions with other research institutes such as Santa Fe Institute that conduct research on complex system-theory application.

That said, the primary purpose is to provide residents the time and space to conduct research and/or develop new work in relation to ‘Water Rights’ which may, one-day, indirectly impact the water rights of the surrounding area.

New Mexico is a state where all its waters sources are transboundary (i.e. are shared with other States), a situation that continues to add to a complex history of water rights influenced by the cultures of the Pueblos, the Spanish Colonists and US Federal Government. This history includes occurrences, such as the use of written law as a weapon of dominating power, that reflect Karl Wittfogel’s theory of the Hydraulic Empire, when control of a society is established through the manipulation of its water supply.11 My particular area of research during this 8-week residency will be on this misuse of law and whether non-specialists can develop tactics that makes use of their potential misunderstandings of intended meaning to create space to dream of alternatives. This research will be part of an on-going body of performative work that aims to establish a need for critical formations of public art to aid ecologically sensitive modes of living, with a particular focus on Water Sensitive Urban Design.

So far though, myself and several of my fellow residents have spent our time soaking in much needed doses of vitamin D as we say hello to the sun after dark winters whilst accepting that altitude sickness has a similar and undesirable effect of a heavy night of drinking and a life-time smoking habit, and it can last twenty-five days.

* The human body works most efficiently at sea level whilst at high altitudes the saturation of oxyhemoglobin in the blood plummets. Santa Fe is situated at 7198 feet above sea level.

** Also known as Pueblo Revival style, it is a regional architectural style that is mandate on all new-buildings in the central Santa Fe area. This includes the use of rounded corners, irregular parapets and thick battered walls to simulate original adobe construction.


Holly Keasey is an artist currently based between Dundee and Stockholm. She graduated with a BA in Art, Philosophy and Contemporary Practice from the University of Dundee in 2011 and completed a post-masters course in Critical Habitats from the Department of Architecture at the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm in 2016. Holly’s focus is on the performative role of public art and her approach to practice has led her to take on a variety of roles including Chair-person for the Generator Projects Committee, lead-artist for the Clyde River Foundation and writer-in-residence for Doggerland. More recently, Holly has produced collaborative designs with artist-design Jessie Giovane-Staniland including finalists in the tender competition for the restaurant design of the Dundee branch of the Victoria and Albert Museum; been the DD artist-in-residence at THIStudios; and recently exhibited a solo show at the Scottish Jute Museum. She is currently working with Studio Mossutställningar to program work challenging the urban development at Norra Djurgardsstaden, Stockholm and producing a one-off publication with Kathryn Briggs of Ess Publications on over-coming trauma through aesthetics.

Reviewer needed: Gut Gardening

December 16, 2016

fp03_cover

Issue 3 of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s Food Phreaking Journal, entitled Gut Gardening, is all about the bacteria in our guts – our own personal microbiomes.

This issue explores some of the bacteria that populate the human gut and body. We asked a handful of the world’s leading experts to write a few words about their favorite microorganism, and we asked other contributors to reflect on their current relationship to the largely invisible and undiscovered world of the human microbiome. Food Phreaking Issue 03 assembles these short texts, which collectively provide a snapshot of a field in transition. How will this research into the mysteries of our internal ecosystems change the relationship between our brains, guts, and diets?

If you’re interested in reviewing Gut Gardening email chris at fremantle dot org telling us why and provide us with some examples of previous writing and reviewing.

Meghan Moe Beitiks reviews Soil Culture

August 18, 2016

SC_Exhibition_Booklet_v1

SoilCulture: bringing the arts down to earth, from the Centre for Contemporary Art in the Natural World (CCANW) and Falmouth Art Gallery published in collaboration with Gaia Projects is the culmination of years of work—comprehensive documentation of a significant exhibition, nine curated artist residencies, and a Soil Culture Forum. It includes photographs and essays detailing the contributions of the artists involved, as well as personal reflections on the Forum, and descriptions of events held at Plymouth University, and at Create, Bristol City Council’s environmental centre, all coordinated to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Soils in 2015.

DSC05159

Floodplain soil developed in sand, North Wales.  Photo: Bruce Lascelles

After a brief introduction by the directors of the CCANW, we are, fittingly, introduced to soil – both in an “Homage” by Patrick Holden, and more in-depth, in “What is Soil?” by Dr. Bruce Lascelles. It’s really refreshing to pick up an art book about a given subject and begin reading about that subject from the point of view of a scientific researcher. We do not begin with say, soils’ depiction in art through the ages, or with some overly poetic meandering about the modern cultural meanings of soil (though Daro Montag gives a good overview of soil in culture in “Speaking of Soil,” detailing soils’ relationships to language). Instead, we begin with a very practical overview of what soil is, on a scientific level, after an extended essay from Holden about the importance of microbial communities, comparing the function of the soil to that of the human gut.

In beginning with these scientific facts and research on soil, the book reminds us that soil is a global entity, and something upon which we are interdependent. It acknowledges that within the UK there are several hundred varieties of soil, and opens up space for potentially complex dialogue. While there are a diverse number of approaches to making art with/and/about soil included in the book, they remain rooted in conceptual methodologies and approaches. A workshop described later in the book as replicating a Japanese technique for making soil-balls is one of the rare non-Western perspectives that the book holds. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that a UK-based exploration of soil would be culturally- and site-specific in nature, and the examination of work within the contemporary conceptual is in-depth. But the potential for an even more global, expansive dialogue is sometimes lost.

AJG-AMe-00028e

Stills from ‘Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueto de Cenizas)’ 1975.  Super-8 colour silent film transferred to DVD. Photo: The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection

From its material, scientific beginning, the book goes on to detail a major traveling exhibition, Deep Roots, featuring the works of known artists like Mel Chin, Richard Long and Ana Mendieta, as well as potentially less internationally known names, such as Paolo Barrile. Within these works, we see soil positioned as a pigment, a currency, and as a site for research.

soil erg alle

Claire Pentecost, Soil Erg, installation in dOCUMENTA(13) in Germany 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s great to see Claire Pentecost’s work Soil Erg featured, a re-imagining of soil as a currency, complete with soil ingots and soil-paper currency notes (full disclosure: I was a student of Pentecost’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Each artist is given a two-page spread in the book, with large images and text. The work is primarily contemporary conceptual: there’s no attempt to incorporate, say, more traditional clay sculpture, or other folks forms of making art with soil. But overall, the exhibition documentation gives a good overview of soil as engaged with by a series of contemporary, established artists.

3.b.RF_aerialview.jpg

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing

One point of disappointment, especially given the books’ promising relationship to science, is the treatment given to the research connected to Mel Chin’s Revival Field. This work is so singularly important to environmental art it has become a kind of sacred cow. While it’s true that Revival Field has a significant impact on research in phytoremediation, Sue Spaid has noted previously that it was concerns about perceptions of the validity of the science that prompted subsequent re-plantings.* In SoilCulture, these re-mountings are referred to simply as other versions of the project. There’s a limited amount of space given to each artist in the book, but it’s a shame that more time wasn’t taken in this volume to unpack the relationship between the scientific research and this project over time, as this is a less-often discussed but important aspect of the legacy of the work. Moments like this represent opportunities lost for a more expansive, critical discourse, especially since this art/soil/science relationship proves to be consistently important to the documented programming. If this was something that was expanded on in the live events, it isn’t made clear in the publication.

karenguthrie_soilculture_hauserwirthssomerwset-3p6TDI

Karen Guthrie, Residency 2014, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

The book moves on to focus on nine emerging artists who were given the opportunity to embed themselves in various context to explore soil with scientists, at farms, and in a botanical garden, in a section called Young Shoots. These explorations include a distilled soil work by Karen Guthrie, a “Brest Plough o’ metric” by Paul Chaney, and an attempt to manufacture soil by Something & Son. The works bridge the scientific and the artistic in engaging and effective ways, and speak to emerging interdisciplinary practices. In these projects, soil and its culture are regarded as inspirational material in-and-of-itself, a further remove from historical art cannons, informed by science, engineering, and ecological imperatives.

DSC_0116

Detail of ‘Breast Plough’o’metric’. Photo: Martyn Windsor.

This bridges very well into Soil Culture: Dig it, a chapter based on an exhibition of the same name, in which the studio and the scientific laboratory are brought into the same space. Residency artist Lisa Hirmer (DodoLab) worked alongside Dr. Rob Parkinson, an Associate Professor in Soil Sciences and some colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences in Plymouth University, exploring peat and atmospheric carbon, among other collaborations, and the exhibition space displayed research tools and samples from scientific as well as creative explorations. A fitting exploration for the arc of the project.

microscopes

It’s followed by Soil Culture at Create, an overview of live and educational programming at Bristol City Council’s environmental centre. A series of “Soil Saturdays” framed workshops, talks, culinary demonstrations, performances, and artistic interventions around the theme of soil, in temporary explorations. It serves well as documentation (each Saturday has a photo and a summary), but is probably best read by itself in a separate sitting, since at that point the reader has been steadily subsumed in the art/soil/science exploration, and it is a condensed format.

Thankfully, the next section is a series of short essays in response to the Soil Culture Forum, a three-day symposium converged by Research in Art, Nature & Environment (RANE) at Falmouth University. This section of the book is both satisfying and frustrating. Its personal tone and short form makes the reader feel a bit like they were in a room with a bunch of well-informed folks reminiscing, reflecting both on soil and on the event of the Forum. Valid questions are raised about culture’s relationship to soil: one of the most satisfying passages comes from Mat Osmond’s report on Richard Kerridge,

The heroic notion of the artwork as a driver of cultural change is both a distraction, and an unsupportable inflation, one that places a weight of expectation on creative practice that it can never live up to. We need to set aside the artwork as monumental icon of the paradigm shift we seek, and look instead to creative practice as a quiet turning of the soil: to the artwork, poem and story as micro-organism, as connective mycelium—the manure that feeds and renews the myriad invisible life of that soil.”

Of course, this comes after Holden’s assertion that the micro-organism is drastically important to the soil, so rather than reframe the arts as small, humble, or insignificant, this statement has the effect of positioning the arts as deeply embedded, important, in dialogue with its surroundings. I personally deeply appreciated this reframing.

Unfortunately, it is followed in other shorter essays by familiar tropes in sustainability culture, like the demand for a universal spiritual connection to the Earth, or a singular definition of love that includes the non-human (Stephen Harding’s assertion, for instance, that ‘the only way we can address these problems is through love’). These demands do much to flatten the attempts at diversity in the dialogue. It’s a common problem in the creation and discussion of environmental work that the overwhelming impetus to celebrate has the effect of universalizing, normalizing, and undermining safe spaces for questioning or critical discourse. It’s easy to make such beautiful statements—who can argue with love? But they unintentionally undermine a greater diversity of respectful relationships to soil.

SoilCulture is, ultimately, the documentation of a strong collection of artists exploring soil at a time when its importance and preciousness is politically and ecologically pressing. This puts some artworks in the position of celebrating or propagandizing. While these efforts may be needed, the conversation that SoilCulture frames also points to the importance of diversity and critical discourse in ecological/cultural work, largely because such elements are sometimes lacking in its own curation. Regardless, the projects put forth solid juxtapositions of scientific and artistic research with soil, including artist/scientist collaborations, and research processes reframed. It is a fascinating snapshot in time of artists engaging with a crucial issue.


* 2002. Ecovention: current art to transform ecologies, Cincinatti, Ohio: The Contemporary Art Center, p.7

Full disclosure: the author is colleagues with one of the residency artists, formerly worked for one of the Soil Culture Forum presenters, and was, as noted above, a student of Claire Pentecost, one of the professionally exhibited artists featured in the book.

All images provided by the publishers.

BIOGRAPHY
Meghan Moe Beitiks is an artist and writer working with associations and disassociations of culture/nature/structure.  She analyzes perceptions of ecology though the lenses of site, history, emotions, and her own body in order to produce work that analyzes relationships with the non-human. She was a Fulbright Student Fellow, a recipient of the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, and a MacDowell Colony fellow. She has taught performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited her work at the I-Park Environmental Art Biennale, Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery in Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the House of Artists in Moscow, and other locations in California, Chicago, Australia and the UK. She received her BA in Theater Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her MFA in Performance Art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. www.meghanmoebeitiks.com


%d bloggers like this: