This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.
Of the many ideas that emerged from the Art + Environment Conference (see the daily notes below), we've chosen three to take with us and test out during the Testing Ground field trip (details here). Here they are, stated as questions we will explore:
- What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks and media in ways that relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global?
New media make it possible to connect across and explore intersections of the regional and global. Throughout the conference, artists and scientists offered work about local, particular response to the environment. But they did so in ways that relayed audience imaginations and sensibilities out to the global.
Rather than using their work to invite audiences to arrive at and "end" with a particular experience, artists used their work t0 relay their audiences to the next horizon, geographic region, interconnected issue, or interrelated force that was actively shaping built or natural environments at their local level.“. . . space and matter are active mediums shaped by both embedded and remote events and the patterns they form. Ours is a transactional world, not a deterministic one . . .” --Sanford Kwinterregional: two hours from Las Vegas30 minutes from Vegas, desert becomes infrastructurefirst glimpse of the city from the desert-as-infrastructure
- What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we use media and art to create contexts that allow audiences to "be with what you're not supposed to know?"
After WWII, American foreign policy was charged with checking the spread of Communism. Alan Nadel argues (Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age) that attempts to contain the spread of communism generated (even required) that American culture as a whole become culture of containment. Stories about the need for "containment" cut across and dominated a wide spectrum of cultural life in the United States. They lead to widely believed-in national narratives about the urgent necessity to contain atomic secrets, sexual license, gender roles, nuclear energy, and artistic expression.
A culture of containment depends upon media in complicated and sometimes contradictory ways. Media have been used strategically to reveal just enough information to intimidate enemies but not enough to give away secrets (during the cold war, the military invited Walter Cronkite to cover a nuclear test live). Meanwhile, citizens use various forms of media to do counter-surveillance on top secret military installations such as Nevada's "area 51" (notorious for spawning conspiracy theories involving UFOs). Media technologies first developed by the military continue to be used to contain secrets (such as GPS--the global positioning system) even as citizens re-purpose them for business, pleasure, and activism. An environmental artists gains access to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and collaborates with an environmental scientist working there to give aesthetic expression to studies of the effects of nuclear radiation.
As Nadel shows in his book, what is contained inevitably leaks or becomes exposed.
Nevada and the American Southwest (including many sites we will visit on this field trip) is an epicenter of American containment culture--then and now, leaking and secure, barred and exposed (for an amazing reading of this, see Joseph Masco's "Desert Modernism"). America's atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons above Nevada deposited high levels of radiation across a large portion of the contiguous United States, especially in the years 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1957—doses large enough to produce 10,000 to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer on the people the tests were intended to protect.
Today Nevada is home to top secret military bases, the Yucca Mountain repository for containing nuclear waste, the Las Vegas strip (which attempts to contain visitors within casinos and entertainment venues while exposing Americans to entertainment considered too risque for Main Street). In adjacent California, artists interact with the severe environment surrounding Joshua Tree by experimenting with habitats designed for containing and moderating desert extremes. Efforts to contain and release water in the desert southwest has lead to areas of increased salinity and unliveable conditions (Salton Sea). Sun City, AZ contains retirees within a planned community simultaneously sheltered from and exposed to the desert environment--and the larger surrounding American culture.
Historically, the desert has been a place where humans experience and artfully respond to transformations of consciousness and perception. In Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty, William Fox discusses how it is that our senses and perceptions are altered by the extreme distances, shapes, and environmental forces in the desert. Cognitive dissonance--perceiving that you're standing only 5 miles from a feature in the distance when you're actually 30 miles from it--leads people to see their place in the world differently. And to experiences the world as a force in ways not familiar in their daily lives.
With this second question, then, we're interested in exploring how media can be and have been used to reveal our assumptions about "what is real," "what is true," how things "really are." How might media be enlisted to make the hidden visible and show us "more of what we should know" by generating views and perspectives that give experience-able form to invisible forces, histories, and assumptions....pictures that shatter the veneer of propaganda by showing us more than we can see, not less than we should know. From Jeff Kelley’s comments about Ai Weiwei’s blog after the recent earthquake in China (“Look Back,” ARTFORUM, Sept. 2008)
- What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks or informational media in ways that fuse aesthetic experience and new knowledge?
During the Art + Environment conference, Bill Fox said: There's a reason scientific expeditions take artists along: you don't "own" knowledge until you picture it. Artists are specialists in visualization and artists provide that for scientists.
Artists at the conference shared an interest in addressing environmental questions not through persuasion, political appeals, or apocalyptic rhetoric, but rather by trying to "activate" audiences (their imaginations, understandings, actions as citizens) by fusing aesthetic experience and knowledge (often in the form of scientific data).
Artists, scientists, designers, and writers converged last night in Reno, NV to launch Nevada Museum of Art’s Art + Environment Conference. The guests included: Vito Acconci, Matt Coolidge (the CLUI), Chris Drury, Fritz Haeg, Michael Light, W.J.T. Mitchell, Geoff Manaugh (Bldgblog).
For three days (Oct. 2-4), scientists and artists come together to cross-pollinate aesthetic experience with scientific methods and tools. They will explore, as William L. Fox, conference moderator said, “how and why art has become as important as science in understanding the nature of environments.” This interdisciplinary exchange was planned to discover insights into the environment and human actions.
Kicking off the conference, artist Chris Drury gave a gallery tour that included documentation of his Winnemucca Whirlwind installation, a major desert drawing near Nixon, NV.
Our blog is part of a larger project: an ongoing experiment that involves college students and teachers in collaborations that reach across education, journalism, art, media, and design. With www.ExtremeMediaStudies.org, we are generating a “hybrid voice” for education capable of addressing the challenges and complexities of global change.
The blog “sends signals” to students enrolled in a New School University Lecture course, relaying to them new ideas presented at the conference. On October 5th, we take those ideas on the road for a project we call Testing Ground.
At that time we’ll explore sites across the Southwest where people have tested out their relationships with the landscape in different-and sometimes extreme-ways. Using many different types of media (Polaroid cameras, camera obscuras, video, blogging, and text messaging) we’ll explore some urgently needed cross-pollinations between art and science. We’ll also experiment with the different mediums to fuse knowledge construction with aesthetic experience.
The organizers of Art + Environment believe that by creating a context for artists and scientists to think with and through one another’s disciplines, they seed innovative approaches to urgent issues that shape the contemporary moment. As artist-educator-journalists, we sense that this conference creates a context that will become common in students’ future work and daily lives-one that requires collaboration and creative response across multiple disciplines
This creates an irresistible context for our own work. It brings together core interests of our media-art practice (www.smudgestudio.org): what can happen when humans, the landscape, and the built environment converge to create exquisitely concentrated zones of contact.
Last night marked the end of a productive day of blogging from the Art + Environment Conference, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV. The various panels we attended covered topics including Burning Man, artists working with astrophysicists to map where starlight falls on the North Pole, and “Gen X ” artists that relate their work to the environment.
Participants and attendees are extremely engaged with the theme of “Art + Environment” and invigorated by a shared sense that this conference could be remembered as a first and major catalyst of a new “movement”-a focused exploration by artists, museums, and scientists on how art and science can cross-pollinate. The fact that this event is taking place outside university walls signals a constructive trend: alternative institutions (such as museums) are creating experimental contexts where people gather to grapple with contemporary topics of global change.
Scientists Lynn F. Fenstermaker, of the Desert Research Institute described how during her collaboration with artist Chris Drury, she identified a graphic similarity between an aerial view of Frenchman Flat (site of numerous atomic bomb tests, left image) and a microscopic image of an organism that now lives in Frenchman Flat (right image).
In the last panel of the day, Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, led a discussion that followed presentations by several young artists. Entitled What neXt?, this session presented work that included: “polluting, wasteful” suburban front lawns into edible gardens (Fritz Haeg); crocheted “carbon footprints” that map the artist’s travels (Katie Holton); iPods filled with spoken word and music timed to walks through urban cityscapes (Kianga Ford); and magazine design that uses photographs not as mere illustrations but as a means to join information with aesthetic experience (Jason Houston). This session confirms that young artists are responding to natural and built environments in wildly diverse ways. Yet their work is also deeply grounded in place. The flexibility and mobility of their crafts make it possible for them to generate junctures of art and science without being categorized as part of any single movement (such as Land Art) or being rigidly institutionalized (as gallery artists, activists, or editors).
The Art + Environment Conference (at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV) culminated in a nearly six-hour desert excursion to Pyramid Lake, led by Ralph Burns and Ben Aleck of the Paiute Reservation. Pyramid Lake is remote yet connected and exposed to regional struggles over water rights, a history of military use that continues to shape environmental issues, visitors who do not understand or respect sacred sites within it, the catastrophic drop in its level brought by diversion of its water for agriculture. Situated at such a complex intersection of forces—natural and human—it epitomizes the contemporary context in which artists engage with the environment. It is a context quite different from the one that saw the emergence of Land Art in the 1970s. The achievement of this Conference has been to provide what organizers called a 360 degree view of that difference as a way to begin to imaging new work and directions from here.
(Digital Camera Obscura photos by Elizabeth Ellsworth)
Over our last two days of live-blogging from the Conference, ideas and positions emerged that could shape the direction of a nascent Art + Environment “movement”:
-It is not rooted in politicized environmental activism. It “activates” audiences instead by fusing aesthetic experience and knowledge (often in the form of scientific data).
--It keeps sites of complex interactions between humans and landscape open to broad interpretation, means of exploration, and a wide variety of aesthetic response. Its 360-degree view takes in Land Art, landscape, land use, built environments, scientific and artistic interpretations, and media-augmented visualization of invisible forces that shape each of these and their interactions.
-This generates a deep interest in exploring interactions between humans and landscapes in trans-disciplinary ways, and has created a desire for museum-based contexts in which individuals, academics, artists, scientists, explorers, researchers, and historians work together.
-This is not a continuation of the Land Art movement of the 1970s.
-Individuals and institutions interested in carrying forward what started at this Conference are diverse and dispersed. They are connected through media, a desire to address the environment through aesthetic response, and an approach based in the belief that “going out” into the landscape and exploring natural and built interactions within it is crucial to understanding and making.
--There is no push to assimilate, “collective-ize,” or declare a manifesto for a new movement that could be defined and known from here. Rather, there is agreement that old names simply don’t fit this moment. For that reason, the intentionally open and somewhat ambiguously stated theme of “Art + Environment” served the conference well.
--New media make it possible to connect across and explore intersections of the regional and global. Throughout the conference, gestures of highly local, particular response to the environment by artists and scientists were made in ways that also relayed audience imaginations and sensibilities out to the global.
Related links on the EMS main site:
Art + Environment SCAN
Creative Contagion FLASHPOINT