Monday, May 4, 2009


During the course of Human/Nature/Image I learned many new things about the topic concerning human nature, but the few that affected me the most were certainly the topics about nature photography and politics, biophilia, and the inventions and ideology from Buckminster Fuller. I think in general though, the class has made me a little more wiser in the background of topics concerning man's relationship with nature - whether he/she's a part of it or not.

Of the topics that affected me the most, I think the one that has still left me thinking about it more often than not is the question of how my work needs to be political or... should it be political. This semester Subhankar Banjeree and his work made an impression on me in ways few others have. It wasn't that I was blown away by the formalism of his compositions and conceptual framework. It was that I felt compelled to analyze what was really going on, the political nature of work like that, and his intentions as an artist. I'm still in awe of how someone quits a career to take up a hobby full time, ends up in the smithsonian and then, gets famous for work that the smithsonian didn't really want. There's something to be said for that.

On another note, I was listening to NPR this weekend and there was this story about a bird named Snowball that learned how to dance to the Backstreet Boys. They tested him and he could adjust his dancing to the tempo of the music if it changed. So, this has further implications... like doing more experiments with birds (cockatoos) to determine how exactly it is that human brains evolved in the ways they did. We can't ethically deprive babies of human interaction for the first years of their life but we can do those type of experiments with birds. And we can make conclusions from those experiments about how it is that a brain learns to mimic sound and make movement that's coordinated with that sound. So far, according to the NPR story, only elephants, birds and humans are capable of doing that. But anyway here's the video. I don't like backstreet boys so much so I'm gonna put up the Queen version :)

Saturday, April 25, 2009

after nature landscapes

When I hear the phrase "after nature" or post-nature, I instantly think of the phrase post-apocalyptic. I don't really intend this but I did do a project in my first year of grad school that was all about that. I never really connected what "after nature" might have to do with a post-apocalyptic world but this week's blog might be the place to do that.

I think I'm a little obsessed by landscapes with a certain "after nature" quality to them. It might come from my fascination with post-apocalyptic movies or sci-fi movies in general. One of the greatest films of this category is one that still haunts me, Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes
illustrates the pyramid scheme of nature that humans have always been at the top of. What if it was inverted? What if apes passed us by? What if plants passed us by? I think that's the question that an image like William Christenberry's stirs...

William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981.

Although I don't think Christenberry was thinking about this topic when he started taking the photos of kudzu in the 1970s, the image and the interview for the show After Nature seem to allude to a certain overwhelming power this plant possesses. "A vine that devours the American south," says Christenberry in an interview for the show. Which is interesting and partly the reason it is in the show. It takes over everything. It's as if humans possess no power to control it and unlike other plants, if you cut it back, it's not gone- it just comes back.

But this control over nature that we think we might possess is really just a false sense of security anyway. Example A - the events of the past week in Mexico and the spread of an A (H1N1) virus to the rest of the world (this virus is almost identical to the one that started the Spanish pandemic of 1918 that killed between 20 and 100 million people worldwide). This virus probably won't be as deadly as the Spanish plague but what it does is scarry. The virus originates in animals; first birds, then pigs, and it crosses back and forth for a while until it hits humans. When it hits humans, it strikes their immune system inciting what is called a cytokine storm where the body's immune system fights back so hard that it actually collapses. And it doesn't just strike kids and old people who are usually susceptible to illness; it strikes healthy, young and mature adults who's immune systems are actually tougher. Their systems try to fight the virus with all they can and that can turn into a fatal reaction. Pretty freaky.

So, I think this control over nature we think we possess isn't really control. I don't think after nature particularly exists in the ways it'd be neat to think that it exists (the Jetsons).

The Jetsons in Orbit City

It'd be neat to think about it this way. A fantastic sky city where the horrible part of nature (the earth) is completely obstructed by clouds. A similar utopic-post-nature vision is setup in WALL-E where the humans have abandoned earth and are living in a space-cruise boat. Both plots assume that humans get to a point where nature can simply be removed from the equation. A point where humans ascend to the highest point they can and don't have any reason to come back down.

I'm not gonna suppose that happens. I'm not gonna suppose that humans will ever get to a point or are already at the point where we are living post-naturally. We are in a full-contact sport with nature. It's ongoing and neither side could be considered winning. For every step of progress we make to combat the force of nature (levies, vaccinations, fire proofing, concrete, etc.) nature seems to always be one step ahead. I'd like to see art that assumes that we aren't winning this war with nature (maybe Eirik Johnson?). Like Christenberry's (even though he didn't really intend it to be in a post-apocalyptic show), work that has nature winning as the default.

What's really weird (I think the show kind of remarks on it) is to think about how Christenberry's images could actually be the backdrop for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. A story about a man and his son who have to walk across a deserted United States in search of civilization and on the run from cannibals.

Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

High Kudzu, near Akron, Alabama, 1978

Fortunately for me, the post-apocalyptic enthusiast that I am, The Road is coming out as a feature film this October and is starring Viggo Mortenson. Oh, and here's a shameless link to my old project. I never really pondered that it was post-nature, just post-human, really post-man or men. Nature was still controlled (note the cut grass) but later on I did my best to try and minimize the look of our control. I'd photograph out in abandoned lots and overgrown parks on the west side of Chicago. I'd like to resume the project eventually, probably minus the cloned men.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Vision of Herzog

Reading this week about Werner Herzog in Alan Singer's article "The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History" really motivated me to look up and watch what I could of Herzog's films. I had only seen two of his films; Grizzly Man and Encounters at The End of World - two of his most recent films and arguably two of his most popular. Reading the article first by itself made little sense to me and watching clips from YouTube really provided me a better context to connect with the criticism and language of the article.

A scene from Heart of Glass, 1976

The plot for Heart of Glass is set in an 18th century German town that contains a factory which produces a brilliantly colored "ruby glass." When the master glass blower dies, the secret for producing the ruby glass is lost, and the townspeople go crazy. The main character is Hias, a "seer" from the hills, who speaks prophecy to the townspeople. The clip I posted is the "vision sequence" that Hiar has while watching a waterfall. I think this clip incorporates a lot about what Singer is writing about and what Herzog is trying to achieve.

Singer states of Herzog's vision: "Herzog seems to presume a need for making desire itself the definitive limit of the human. This crisis of representation is faced by Herzog in his often cited statement that "we live in a society that has no adequate images" (p. 189).

The quote seems to back up what I believe is a Kantian and Romantic notion of the Sublime by Herzog. The article defines Kantian as "an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the consciousness to think the unattainability of nature as a sensory representation of ideas." Meaning: "the sublime is the mind's limit, a threshold of transcendent knowledge"(p. 185). Singer goes on to explain further that in the Kantian sublime, Nature will inspire the imagination to image its own failure and by that, the imagination can't really come up with anything else to explain what it is seeing.

I'm still a little lost by this but it is starting to make sense. This idea of the sublime is very related to the ideas that I understand about Romanticism which are at their core, part of the German national identity. An identity that is eternally searching for that inner-longing that can be satisfied by a sublime landscape. A landscape such that when one encounters it, one will have an experience that can't really be described using language. I think, photography is the language though that can describe it. And I think Herzog mastered it at an early age.

The most recent film by Herzog, Encounters at The End of The World, looks curiously at the continent of Antarctica through a lens that engages science through an understanding of Art. In the article by William Fox, Terra Antarctica, the occurrence of Fata Morgana is explained and I only wish Herzog could have captured this in his film. I can only imagine what it must look like, but by Fox's description alone, I think it could be an essential part of what Herzog wants to examine. What is in the film though is quite spectacular. The volcano stuff is the best!

After looking up some artists that work in Antarctica, Xavier Cortada was the one that caught me as the most interesting. Using painting and sculpture, Cortada examines how we come in contact with and describe the desert continent. Here's an article about Cortada working within the intersection of Art and Science in Antarctica.

Markers, Xavier Cortada (is that a bucky dome I see in the background?!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

new(er) topographics

The most intriguing thing that I read about this week that kept on popping up in several of the articles was the idea of memory and how photographers - specifically landscape photographers are obsessed with remembering - a certain time and a certain place. The article that made me jump on this idea first is the one that always does something to me every time I read it; "Truth and Landscape" from Beauty In Photography by Robert Adams.

On page 15 of the article in the second paragraph, Adams writes about the act of photographing landscapes...

"Most photographers are people of intense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices - to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and, at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter. Behind these decisions stands the photographer's individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before."

Every time I read this paragraph I am immediately transported to a place where I photographed, to a moment where I made a decision. Adams is writing a lot about power and control and beauty but what concerns me most when I'm wherever I am photographing is the loss of control of all of these things. It's a strange feeling.

Timber salvage on ridge at eastern limit of blast zone. Clearwater Creek Valley, ten miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983, Frank Gohlke

In the article "A Figure and a Landscape" by Ben Lifson about Frank Gohlke, Lifson writes about how Gohlke, unlike almost all photographers of his time, can still see the sublime in landscape. I think this is kind of true. Gohlke's images definitely carry an element of the sublime (see above image). But I don't think Lifson is giving the other New Topographers as much credit as they deserve for still tweaking out a little sublime.

Outdoor Theater, Colorado Springs, 1968, Robert Adams

What is always brought up with Adams is his critique of the advancing suburbs of Denver and his disappointment for the behavior of people toward nature. I won't deny that critique. But what I think is important today about taking landscape photos is vastly different from why it was important to take landscape photos in Denver in the late 60s and early 70s.

Since we already have this critique, when I make a picture like this, it is not to simply mimic Robert Adams.

The Front Range and Boulder, 2008, Me

To deny the part of this picture about the houses creeping through the plains might be naive of me but I think landscape photographers of late have had something else on their mind; It's history, memory, form, and something more enigmatic.

Buffalo County, SD, Justin Newhall

I'm really attracted to form. Man-made landscapes that use form to their advantage and that are built suitable to their surroundings are ok by me. I don't feel like they are intrusive or rape the land somehow of it's pristine nature. I believe there is a point where development can only go so far and that over development is totally problematic and systemic to America, especially the West. However, I think new photographers (me and Newhall at least) want to tweak something else out from the landscapes.

Interstate 84, Hood County, OR, Justin Newhall

I think what's important to me when I'm photographing - is remembering the sublime. Remembering those moments in those places where I didn't exactly know if I wanted to photograph but then I decided to make a picture about being in that place. If it's a good picture, the formal elements will be right, but there will also be some other element, an element of chance or risk that I took that ultimately pays off.

I keep thinking about that; how memories deeply effect photographers. How experiences like driving, back and forth between St. Louis and Janesville, WI four times a year for the first 20 years of my life or having a digging hole in my backyard that mimicked the topography of Missouri in miniature scale - these things are still in my photographs even though most of the time the reason I'm inclined to take a photo at a certain place has to do with the subject of the project I'm working on, I still seem to take some element from my past and put it in the picture. This is what I think Robert Adams meant when he said "Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive. "

Monday, April 6, 2009


The articles from this week were really enlightening. I really didn't know the whole story about Subhankar Banerjee and ANWR and it's great that we will have him in class and will be able to discuss issues of the environment with an artist who has actually positioned his work within the firing lines of politics and controversy.

While reading both articles, I thought about how my own subject is closely related to Banerjee's and how although his project wasn't politically didactic from the images alone, it became that way because of how subversive the text and images were together . It amazes me how controversial these photos became because of the political nature of the text that accompanied them in the Smithsonian exhibition and the accompanying catalog. What happened wreaks of censorship and is unsurprising given the records and clout of the Bush administration and Senator Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.

But still, I have a few updated questions for Subhankar given that Alaska is still such a hot topic in today's political world and environmental movement. Such as what was your reaction when Sarah Palin used "drill baby drill!" as a political whip? Did it spur something in you to push harder or push back? I would have severe doubts about the effectiveness of a project I was taking on given that the GOP was on the other side ready to pounce on me the moment it threatened them. Fortunately for Subhankar, he has firmly established a base to exhibit work and has already been in the midst of political debate for the past six years. Making and exhibiting work probably isn't a question of motivation for Subhankar. He did up and out quit a job at Boeing that he had worked his life for. But the problem that still seems to persist is how to position the work to be most effective given that the issues of ANWR are still being debated.

While reading the article, I started to think about a cyclical relationship between the land and Banerjee and Washington D.C. and the government. It basically goes like this...

The article by Finis Dunaway gave me this idea. Dunaway writes about how even though the land and animals of Alaska are far removed from the land of the "lower 48" that they are directly affected by the decisions made by corporations and government and that the results can actually be measured through the close observation of the land. That is exactly what Subhankar is doing. He is the relay, the conduit by which the affects of the decisions that have been made can be measured. It blows my mind a little. It's just like the icebergs melting, just like the polar bears that have to swim further and further to find land. The responsibility then becomes ours, the viewers and the citizens of the U.S. to act on and make sure that our government is being held accountable.

I searched ANWR on Google images and the top results were maps conveying the physical size of ANWR in Alaska to the size of the lower 48.

I don't think this is a coincidence. The right wing has taken two positions that favor using the least amount of intellect to determine the right course of action. One, that the physical size of ANWR means that it's ok to destroy it because generally speaking, it's only the size of Wisconsin. And two, the landscape is so bleak and white that it's aesthetic value is equivalent to that of copy paper.

Fortunately, in the Google results alongside these maps are Subhankar's photographs.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I have to post this...

a good humdinger from Caseyville, IL

This was too good to pass up and I left it out of my earlier post. Kunstler has a monthly blog of architectural humdingers that I'm sure if Bucky saw, he'd role over in his grave.

fascinations with modernism

While at the Society for Photographic Education conference this past weekend, I took some time exploring and absorbing the architecture and spirit of Dallas, Texas. After a full weekend of being in the city without a car, I can say for certain that the spirit and architecture are dead if not on life-support. I'll admit my opinion is biased; the weather for the first three days of my trip was horrendous and Chicago-like. But walking around yesterday in clear, sunny and 70 degree weather didn't really change any of my opinions but just affirmed them.

James Howard Kunstler gave the keynote address at the conference aptly titled Sprawl and his observations about the city mirrored my own. They centered around the point that even though Dallas was supposed to be a bustling and interconnected city of commerce and industry, its infrastructure and architecture is so flawed that you have to walk 5 blocks from the Hotel to get a stick of gum. Sidewalks will dead-end at an alarming rate and more often will lead you into the middle of an intersection that lacks a crosswalk.

The architecture, like the street design, is just as uncoordinated and lacks any kind of interconnected style. On Sunday morning I walked by a 70-story-skyscraper that was totally locked up and forsaken of any human activity. How a building of this size remains totally dormant, sucking energy on the weekend free of any productive activity really bothers me.

I did appreciate the little thought that went into designing the west end center where the few restaurants and night life exist simultaneously but the rest of the city is in serious need of a neighborhood-kind-of-love that is all too easy to find in a city like Chicago.

The modern city of Dallas, Texas

While the design of the city and its architecture lacks any kind of integration or sympathy towards humans, the architecture does fascinate the hell out of me. I saw quite a few modernist and post modernist buildings that looked like they could quite easily be used for prisons or maybe Dick Cheney's office.

After reading the article "Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe" and looking up a little information on the man himself, I think Dallas could benefit tremendously from even one implementation of Fuller's amazing ingenuities or philosophies.

I had the opportunity while growing up to actually see and participate in Bucky Fuller-inspired architecture, that is the Climatron in the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Climatron

The Climatron sits in the middle of the huge Botanical Garden founded by Henry Shaw in the Tower Grove neighborhood of the inner-city. Inside is a maze through a tropical wilderness where plants and trees grow 50 feet high and the air is as humid and dense as a rainforest's. During many summers while growing up, I would be enrolled in summer classes at the botanical garden and we would learn about plants and have scavenger hunts in the Climatron. I loved it and always felt like the things that were in the dome were part of a world that was fantastically and futuristic ally transferred directly from the rainforest. Imagine my delight then when I found out this morning from its wikipedia page that the Climatron inspired part of the 1972 sci-fi film Silent Running.

plan for the Climatron

Needless to say, I'm anticipating the trip to the MCA tomorrow to see the Bucky Fuller exhibit and see the relevance of his ideas to the problems that face not only our urban centers but the sprawling suburbs of America. In the beginning of the article, Elizabeth Smith writes "still some have seen Fuller relevant as fodder for ideas about shifting interpretations of and unchartered terrains within modernism" (Smtih, 61). While I see how some might think this way, I think that it's important to keep Fuller's ideas in context and use them to explore new application; not as all-powerful solutions that were supposed to solve the problems of modern architecture instantly and forever. They are certainly futurist and require a discernment of design and application that when thoughtfully used could really help integrate and sustain life around them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

If I had a wilderness...

I have to say, I was pretty excited to get this week's readings in the form of the catalog from Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility. My thesis covers two painters from the Hudson River School Era, Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt but I also researched Sanford Gifford and kind of secretly love him. He is the first, that I know of and who I've researched that so obviously depicts man and his effect on nature in a way that questions the values and reasons of Manifest Destiny.

Sanford Gifford, Hunter Mountain, Twilight, 1866

The painting uses the tropes of the Hudson River School in a way that seduces the viewer. Gifford almost convinces us that the Valley is supposed to look this way, its bowl shape contours with the mountain and a spectacular, unobstructed view is left. The tree stumps are left though, pretty obvious to us in a time when Eco-consciousness is firmly implanted into our brains. But not so obvious to people of the mid-19th century. None of the early Hudson River School painters ever left this sort of commentary. Until this point, it was more like this...

Thomas Cole, Home in the Woods, 1847

Cole's painting has less of an edge on it. A family has settled on the bank of a river, in a beautiful and pristine mountain valley. The people, their freedom and the opportunity to live in a land so overwhelmingly sublime was the promise of America and how the country came to define it's identity. Wilderness was the point by which they would define and name the new development. Wilderness symbolized freedom from religious persecution or more importantly, wilderness symbolized the taking over of religion by nature.

I watched Jeremiah Johnson last night. It just happened to be in my Netflix que. It's a movie by Sydney Pollack (whom I don't normally think of when I think of Westerns) and stars Robert Redford as the ultimate frontier-wilderness man. The story is a little predictable as Westerns go however, the moral of the film is a little different as Johnson struggles between killing and living peacefully with the Native Americans. He wants to live peacefully with them but they are savages and uncompromising. Nothing can stop them from brutally killing you and then taking your scalp.

The struggle with the Indians could be seen as a metaphor for how America conquered the Wilderness and "settled" the land-- systematically wiping them out and forcing them into reservations that are a fraction of the size of our National Parks. It is interesting to think about the names of the places where we live and how the towns, parks, roads and even picnic areas can have some link to a history or at least idea, that the place was once wilderness.

When I'm out shooting in the Midwest and I don't really have an agenda for the day, sometimes I'll pick a place with a name that sounds really good and wild-like thinking that the area will be scenic and ideal for my project. A lot of times the place will have the word "Falls" in it like Little Falls or Laughing Falls or whatever. More often than not, the place sucks. Whatever Falls referred to or meant when it was named, the place doesn't have that feature anymore. It somehow evaporated or was developed over. I can't say that this formula is true when I go out west. More often out there I'll find what I'm looking for when I search by a name (i.e. Red Rocks). But it really disappoints me when it happens. What were the settlers thinking when they named the place? Did they really think that the place looked like what they were calling it? Were they really conscious of how much Romanticism was intertwined with the language they were using?

Another part of this reading that got me thinking was the part about Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant and their legacies on the land. I didn't really know the part about Grant establishing the first National Park in the Yellowstone territory- for some reason I always thought it was Roosevelt. The meaning of wilderness and settlement was to each of them, very different. Jackson and even Jefferson to an extent, really didn't use much discretion in the way of setting aside land that would be left "untouched" or undevelopled. They saw the vastness of the frontier as waiting to be developed and civilized, there's for the taking. Grant actually was the first one to say "hold on, wait a minute, we might go too far. We should probably save something before we ruin it." This is similar to how we marginalize and legislate land use today. A very small portion is rendered to park status and then everything else can be packaged and sold to developers and then those developers try to mimic the environment in their new development (I'm beginning to sound like Robert Adams).

I can easily get upset over this when I read about it. But I think the more proactive thing to do and the thing I've been attempting to do with my photographs is to ask questions. When is it too much? Aren't we co-existing with the land in good ways already? is it all bad? I'm sure it's not. I think many of my photos show ways in which we celebrate the land by establishing development. Ignoring the land really isn't an option. Development will ultimately happen in some capacity, so, why don't we try to reconcile and make the most out of it?

Red Rocks, 2008

I'll end with this video I found on YouTube. It asks the question what would happen if we just give up and live out in the land? what happens then? can we actually become one with the wilderness? For the record, I think the man in the video is not my audience.

Oh, and I just read this in the nytimes about this noteworthy Gifford painting. I wonder who bought it...

Sanford Gifford, Mount Mansfield, 1859

Monday, March 9, 2009

the new politics of old land

So on my way to Hannibal, Missouri this past Friday I drove through what must of been the most post-apocalyptic looking landscape I had ever seen. Too bad I'm not doing that project anymore... But anyway, the land in-between Peoria and Springfield, Illinois and Hannibal, Missouri looked to be a barren wasteland that stretched endlessly. Everything was dead. Not a single patch of green sprouting from the ground, every crop slashed and dried up, left since last fall. And it was warm, way too warm for early March and the sun got about 3/4 of the way up into the sky with no clouds making it feel even warmer. I thought I might be looking at what might happen if global warming really were to get to a point of no return. It made me think I was driving through The Road by Cormac McCarthy. And that's when I got scared. That book scared the shit out of me.

But after I got scared, I got my idea for this week's blog and presentation. It occurred to me that the land that was so dried up and dead belonged to somebody, some farmer somewhere who was going to grow something on it in a few months and in another few months it would actually yield a crop that somebody or something might eat. This process has been going on for not hundreds of years but for thousands. We weren't the first ones to use this land. But we're the first to see it the way I did on Friday afternoon.

The plight of the Native Americans and the industrialization of the landscape that until Europeans arrived was "pristine" are two subjects that my work until recently hasn't touched upon. My images don't necessarily describe either subject in a literal sense. However, most images do have vast landscapes that at one time or another had Native American settlement or have been named for the Native Americans of that area.

Eldorado Canyon, 2008

My argument or position will be that people of European ancestry have disturbed and will inevitably destroy the landscape that Native Americans have coexisted with for the previous 12,000 years. My images will show the stages of "progress" by which the land has been consumed by development. Often the names of the places which are being developed are from the indigenous people of the area and serve as some kind of memorial to which the new people of the area can remember the old. There is usually minimal thought involved in relating the new development to the land and often what was left there by the Native Americans is dug up and then shoved into "archives" where they are organized by Western European art history standards.

The earliest European development is usually memorialized quite well with informative interpretive centers and plaques that describe the ordeal of the settlers who came upon the "savages" and had to kill them or at least move them in order to develop the land.

Heather, Starved Rock, 2008

Although development in the photos doesn't entirely take over the landscape, it does irrevocably alter the landscape and I would take the position that it destroys some aspect of that place's history forever. The native land and habitat that the Native Americans existed with was altered by Europeans who didn't take into account the history or ideas that had been occuring for several millenia.

That about sums my argument as it stands right now. I've been reading the catalog for Manifest Destiny/Manifest Responsibility, I think that's where most of this got started. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson's ideas were particularly influential in developing a response and although I don't actually position myself against them (maybe Jackson) I think it's helpful for the purposes of this presentation to counter their ideas politically. Jefferson had a vision for the United States that is usually described as civilized, mechanized and industrialized. The idea of wilderness was used to give their civilizations meaning and an identity from which to build upon. It wasn't necessarily that they were ignorant of the land's original identity, they really just thought they could make it better.

Monday, March 2, 2009

if Porter and Adams had a son...

I came to the article The Death of Environmentalism not entirely liking the title and sort of already making up my mind as to whether or not I agreed with it... this is before I read it. The title was that off-putting it made me think it was environmentalists slamming the rest of us for not being "green" enough. I guess I was a little right and a little wrong. It turns out I actually do agree with most of the article and find most of the background on the political side of environmentalism fascinating.

The thesis of the article is on page 7: "The environmental community's narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power." Literalism meaning in a way where environmentalists are fixed on achieving goals and milestones that are actually quite unachievable and actually set back the environmental movement because instead of small gains, the end result is no progress and the other side has rallied against your cause only to gain more solidarity. If I had read this article when it was written in 2004, I might have been more upset or more reactionary to it. However, Environmentalism and specific people (Al Gore, one of their main examples) have really rallied in the past few years and the movement has been spurred by a strengthening and a defining of the movement and its goals, victories by Democrats in elections and a weakening of the Republican base in every level of government. Now, that has yet to create a tide of change but I get the feeling that an awareness is present in the U.S. that wasn't there when this article was written 5 years ago.

The article by Shellenberger and Nordhaus acknowledges the misguided perceptions of Americans about environmentalists and gets to the root of the issue, how America is actually a lot more conservative than anyone on the left likes to admit. Also, how environmentalists suffer from a really bad case of group think - mainly "what we mean by 'the environment' - a category that reinforces the notions that a) the environment is a separate 'thing' and b) human beings are separate from and superior to the 'natural world'" (page 12). Instead of harnessing public perception and creating a base of issues from which the movement can start and then branch out, the movement has been focused on goals that directly take on industries where political clout and money are so dense, that no one and nothing has made a dent in them for the last 50 years.

The mistakes of groups and individuals are made clear by The Death of Environmentalism. Maybe it was the kick in the butt that Al Gore needed to take his slide show to the big screen. Shellenberger portrays Gore as one of the most guilty parties of the left, backing down in the 2000 election when they needed him most. But he did come back with An Inconvenient Truth and now I worry that he's beginning to loose it again. Maybe it's a case of crying wolf and we all turn a deaf ear and then it actually is a bear - or maybe just a wild dog... But anyway, my point is that this article focuses on something that I have become aware of since the rise of the environmental movement and that's how with the rise of extremists attitudes on both sides of the issue have lead to a stalemate for any real reform in the way America makes and uses its energy.

Bringing these issues to art is difficult for me. I'd like to think that my work isn't predictably environmental but talks about the environment and our footprint in a non-threatening sort of way. I would like to think that I'm an environmentally aware photographer. I realize the amount of chemicals and wasted paper I churn out and I always get the highest mileage vehicle I can get (which is usually the cheapest). But this stuff isn't directly in my art and it definitely isn't in my artist statement. If I do these things and make work that talks about land use and beauty and then don't take any step to show the work in a venue where the environment is talked about, am I really aware? what is the point?

I guess this brings me to the next article by Rebecca Solnit on Eliot Porter, Every Corner Is Alive. The article was really enlightening on the life and work of Porter and I feel like his work gets slighted by both the art and environmental communities because it doesn't clearly come out on either side. It isn't definitely conceptual, a rising movement when he did his major work, and it wasn't exactly the spark that was needed to spur the environmental movement. It did however, take a new view of landscape that the prevailing and preeminent landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, was lacking.

Eliot Porter. Red Tree. Near Cade's Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park,Tennessee, 1957.

In looking at my own work, I think I'm positioned right in-between Porter and Adams. As Porter rarely incorporated evidence of human culture in his American work and Adams definitely did not, Solnit posits that the people in Porter's images from around the world were more integrated within their landscape as the "rootless" people of the U.S. were not. My argument with my own work has been that a) we are integrated with the land in the U.S. (in some poignant places) and b) this integration has come to defines us, so, we are not rootless anymore.

some images by me...
Duluth Central, 2008.

Look Rock, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 2009

I think it is admirable for an artist to take dead aim at environmental issues in their work however, I think it might be a little naive to think that one's work, at this point, will singularly start a chain reaction that enables a shift in thinking and political movement. Burtynsky takes the middle road. Solnit states "facts themselves are political, since just to circulate the suppressed and obscured ones is a radical act" (Solnit 33). Burtynsky's work gives facts in clear, high-fi, large format detail. It's impossible to ignore or debate what is going on in his photos. If his work is political, and by Solnit's calculation it is, then Burtynsky has a responsibility to make sure his photos are seen in a context where the preservation and conservation of the environment is focused.

I just found this today... This is just one example of how the Environmentalism and Green Movement lately, have been a little out of whack in their rhetoric. Obama throws around "clean coal" in just about every stump speech. But what is "clean coal"? Does anyone really realize how dependent the U.S. is on coal and what the repercussions are of investing in coal technology instead of investing in solar, wind and other "sustainable" technology? The "clean coal" solution reminds me of the "low tar" and "light" cigarettes that came out in the 60s when they found out that cigarettes caused cancer. It's not really a solution. It's a way around a huge, systemic problem that will take more than a generation to fix.

Monday, February 23, 2009

oh yeah...

I forgot that I wanted to put this on the blog for this week. This is a model of what scientists believe is a four-winged micro raptor dinosaur. It was just on NOVA last week, or at least they re-ran it last week and I saw it. It perfectly melds together our discussions of birds and evolution from previous weeks. I, personally, believe the evidence that this dinosaur is the missing link between the big dinos and modern day birds. It seems as though the dinosaurs went up into the trees and then when they jumped, they would glide back to earth. The other theory is that they started from the ground and then went up to the sky. But I think there's less evidence for that and none of the scientists really seemed enthused about supporting that idea.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

big bird

So there were like 50 artists in "A Bird Tapestry" by Davis S. Rubin and I actually found maybe a half a dozen of them interesting or topical. This is more than I thought I would find. Although I like birds and their manner of transportation, I think that for the most part the subject of these artists doesn't really matter so much so as the importance that they use birds as a metaphor to talk about issues of animals and the environment that might be intangible in a normal, rational way of thinking. The plight of endangered birds is something that should be brought to our attention. Using art might bring a better understanding of an animal that might live thousands of miles away from our backyards. But I think at it's best, the art rearranges how I might naturally observe or interpret a situation or living thing.

John Salvest's piece FLY, rearranges how we might interpret birds on a wire and does it in a rather obvious way, as if birds understood the English language or as if they knew the codes and translation for how to relate this message to humans via telephone wire.  I think the piece is great for its play between coincidence and act of nature.  Does it matter whether the birds possess the knowledge to achieve this act?  The point is that they're communicating with us and we should be listening.

I found Peter Edlund's work that uses Ansel Adam's photographs of sites around Japanese internment camps in WWII interesting in how it reconsiders and re contextualizes landscape in that particular site for that particular artist.  The photographs, like the article said, were made by "artists who idolized the American wilderness with little political regard to what was actually happening around them," (Rubin 30).

Lynching in the free state of California, 1999-2000, Peter Edlund

I'm finding it hard to immediately relate these paintings to race.  Edlund took the liberty to paint in where slaves were being lynched or other narratives about the history of slavery in the land where the Hudson River school paintings were often situated. Other than that fact (which he more than obviously points out in captions beneath his paintings) these paintings to me, really talk more about authorship.   The fact that he is now taking authorship, metaphorically, of land that was interpreted by white men in the 19th century, is important. It really didn't matter if he painted in the lynching or slaves.   Later, after these first series of paintings, he created another series where he introduced birds in the landscape in the tradition of Audubon, idealized and in a way hyper-real.

State Birds of the Slave States, 2001, Peter Edlund

Edlund incorporates birds in a way that idealized them like Audubon and Audubon was of mixed race. Beyond this interesting relationship, I'm having trouble finding the paintings themselves or the way they were crafted interesting. So I won't dwell on them any longer.

Roni Horn's work is really fascinating in how it explores identity (or mistaken identity). It reminds me of that song on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the other..." It sort of becomes a game to examine and figure out if the birds are different or if they're of the same species. The work plays with how humans assume or mistakenly assume a lot about what they're looking at. Horn's work doesn't really give us an answer and that's fine, it's better that way and it probably shouldn't. Birds don't give us answers either, the point is that we discover how we come to these assumptions and that we understand the differences between what looks to be two identical animals.

Untitled#2, 1999, Roni Horn

The diptychs are probably my favorite pieces in the article that I've found. My favorite piece that I haven't found online yet but swear I've seen in person is Michal Rovner's installation Of Mutual Interest where projections of flocks of birds fly from screen to screen on three walls in a square room. The piece is similar in Horn's in how the viewer examines and goes back and forth from point to point, examining relationships and what they know to what they're actually seeing.

Videos of nature and how we humans examine it and come to know it are probably my favoritest videos ever (Thank you Andy Goldsworthy!). So much so that I made a video piece of my own some four years ago in undergrad about my own relationship with landscape. In particular- the landscape surrounding the Missouri River and how by exploring it, I simultaneously coexist with it and interrupt it. This doesn't need to be critiqued but if it is whatever...

I've posted still shots from Untitled #6 (Missouri River) because the compressed movie is still way to big for blogger to handle. I might show the movie in class sometime if we have time...

Sunday, February 15, 2009

biophilia; the plants, the animals and me.

The first article by J. Malcolm Shick "Toward an Aesthetic Marine Biology", delves into the intertwined history of Artists and Naturalists that looked to the sea to explore the new theories of evolution and species that proved it and how rendering these species created new problems and ways of seeing. Of particular interest to me was the part about aquariums and how they spurred interest by artists and in turn art and literature. In particular, Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The movie of Verne's novel along with the large aquarium that was in the living room during my childhood, allowed me to fantasize about a world that was so far away from the landlocked state of Missouri. On occasion, my family and I would visit The Fin Inn along the Mississippi in Alton, IL where they had huge aquariums of massive fish including tortoises that lived in the river.

The aquarium is fascinating in how it lets you view (in a somewhat unnatural way) the fish. It magnifies but flattens space. It's clear but condensed. It is living (algae and fish) but has fake elements of life (the plants). And the thing that keeps the algae and micro-organisms from taking over the whole tank is a machine that continually cleans the water through filtration. Occasionally, the fish die and a brief bathroom ceremony is held, but besides that and the short human intervention of feeding fish flakes, aquariums take on a life of their own.

map #1

map #2

my map of the artists and scientists and their work in Shick's article

Until thoroughly reading Shick's article, I think I have equated aquariums to an extension of science and never really thought of them as functioning in a way that creates art. But in discussing its history, Shick was able to convince me that "under-seascapes" are as much a part of the art world as they are the science world. In particular, the example of Matisse in Tahiti and how "the undersea light in the clear water was like 'a second sky' and by diving repeatedly.... taught himself to distinguish the quality of light in the two media."

In the last paragraph of the article Shick quotes Elaine Strosberg; "The teaching of science is not expected to emphasize aesthetic aspects... The arts and the sciences may increasingly have different homes and cultures, but they do not occur and must not be considered in isolation." I think this is the closest summary of my own thinking. There have been many times in making my own art that I come across a question that doesn't involve art at all but more often science and the question why? Art allows me to create and explore the question, but it doesn't necessarily give me an answer. Science ultimately, should be able to give an answer. It's almost as if for both to work as effectively as they should, they have to lean on each other to motivate and inspire. Which leads me to the next article...

Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic by Edward O. Wilson is a didactic article that at times left me feeling inspired and at other times, well, I really disagreed with it. One point in particular that I really disagreed with was about space exploration. Wilson states "'Biodiversity is the frontier of the future.' Humanity needs a vision of an expanding and unending future. This spiritual craving cannot be satisfied by the colonization of space. The other planets are inhospitable and immensely expensive to reach... The true frontier for humanity is life on earth,"

A little later in the article Wilson states how the loss of biodiversity is the most harmful part of the ongoing environmental despoliation and that "to the extent it is diminished, humanity will be poorer for all generations to come." Then he gives estimates about how much poorer we will all be because of the rapidly increasing rate at which the earth looses its species.

While I agree with the basic premise of Wilson's definition and application of biophilia, I can't help but totally disagree with the pessimistic and negative attitude that he has towards humans and how we're totally destroying the planet in a way that can never be reattained. I think this type of thinking is actually a little dated. Since the discovery of global warming and the activation of thinking about how to reverse it, I think humans for the most part are on the right track to overcoming a large part of the problems started by industrialization and a lack of forethought about the environment.

Though the problem about loosing species and biodiversity is troubling to me, I'm more inclined to think that this loss is in some ways natural and we should only do so much to slow it down or stop it. Did Wilson ever stop to think that maybe the extinction of some species might be more beneficial to preserving parts of nature that are sustainable and that maybe this is actually a part of evolution that has to take place? I mean lets be reasonable, the loss of species by man is detrimental and troubling, but the loss of species that never stood a chance of being saved because we had no knowledge of them ever existing- how are we supposed to overcome that or even gain some sort of control over that?

I'm not going to vent all my frustration out on this blog about what Wilson argued about space exploration- but I will vent a little.

He says biodiversity is the frontier of the future and humanity needs a vision of an expanding and unending future. Well, that is exactly what exploring space will answer. The beginning of time is literally somewhere in space waiting to be found. Somewhere in the middle of the universe, maybe a supermassive black hole and on the outer edges, the very outer limits of where matter exists, this is is where these "spiritual" cravings will be answered. NOT merely on Earth alone will these answers be found.

Humanity is a blip on the map of time. To be so focused as to solely and only look at our relationship with the world would ignore millions of years of history that have told the story of evolution, survival and extinction. I'd like to think that we would be so creative as to find ways to explore Earth and space at the same time. There's no reason, technology, money, ingenuity, etc. that we should have to choose one over the other. I think, (just as Shick, uses Parrish at the end his article) that we can and should examine both areas simultaneously as to elevate the understanding of both fields.

that said...

This photo is quite remarkable in its complexities of scale. It was taken by the Hubble space telescope and is a glimpse into a vastness of space that dwarfs anything we can relate to except maybe our own solar system.

"This eerie, dark structure, resembling an imaginary sea serpent's head, is a column of cool molecular hydrogen gas (two atoms of hydrogen in each molecule) and dust that is an incubator for new stars. The stars are embedded inside finger-like protrusions extending from the top of the nebula. Each 'fingertip' is somewhat larger than our own solar system."  -from
photo by Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University), and NASA/ESA

Monday, February 9, 2009

gazing = good

To exhibit nature as art came across my mind before reading this week's articles but never before so vividly or tangibly as when I thought of the predicament that George Gessert raises. The fact that there isn't one exhibition space for art anywhere in the world that has been designed with nonhuman organisms in mind really underscores 1) a lack of understanding and misconception about how this type of art exists or functions and 2) that it brings up social/moral/ethical questions that most institutions would rather just not confront. To understand where this problem arises Gessert explains how the "most direct way to explore art as a part of nature is to work respectfully with other living things and how museums and galleries are architecturally designed to exclude all non-human life from interior spaces."

the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis by Tadao Ando

I doubt many living things could survive within the bleak confines of a Tadao Ando structure (the Pulitzer, I would argue, is even pan-optic; a tried and true way to kill whatever's inside).

The Darwinian view of nature, which Gessert is fond of, "implies radically new uses of art, to provide mirrors and models of evolution." And to achieve this he states that we need non-hierarchical models which affirm kinship. This brings to mind, not exactly a zoo, but something more like the Biosphere project where man is brought into the mix with the living organisms he impacts at a distance where what is affected can be measured and where man must think about and respond to relationships that are mutual.

The prospect of evolutionary art is a little sci-fi and intimidating to me. But I think a part of that is because of how I've been trained to think about my relationship with animals and other living things: I'm on top, they're on the bottom. But if this relationship is thought of as more mutual, maybe I would have less apprehension. And maybe if institutions would give a thought to exhibiting art outside of the visual media made of toxic materials realm (painting, sculpture, photography, the list goes on...) there would be greater steps made towards achieving a more cohabit-able and sustainable art world.

Gasp, our discussion is topical to current NPR...

The biological gaze by Evelyn Fox Keller fascinated me in a way that I haven't thought about science since I looked through a microscope sometime back in grade school. It brought back all those encounters I've had looking and at times prodding and dissecting nature; to explore and consequently learn about what I was seeing. I think I can say that what is written in the article has been wandering through my head (along with my cousin, (Dr. Ruzicka) who is a bio-geneticist and works on tomato plant roots) since I was a kid. There were numerous backyard experiments and gardens and holes made to grow and trap and look at what existed in my backyard. All were successful for what I learned, but I can't help but think about how many bees and lightning bugs (fireflies if you're not where I'm from) were killed for the knowledge that I have now...

Keller says that according to some philosophers of science "we do not actually see anything at all through a microscope." But this is because "they do not understand the nature of the activity of scientific observation." Keller goes on to explain that in this modern age scientists can and do "reach in and touch" what is under the microscope thereby 'making it real'. However by some measure, the organism whether it be a cytoplasm or chromosome is irrevocably affected by us gazing upon it because of the massive power needed to look so closely at an organism so not of our own scale.

Pre-19th Century, logic is wonderful in it's simplicity of thought. There aren't any variables or x factors, it is or it isn't. The pre-19th century way of seeing might be argued to have come back in vogue as reality TV, virtual reality and other new technology exploits what is called "real" but is actually a simulation of the real and not real at all.

I don't pretend to know what the solution to this problem is but I think the issue is that we should really come to understand the power we wield within the gaze. The problem is huge but I think I come to understand it through my own experience. In high school sophomore biology I dissected at least a half a dozen animals (I'll never forget the smell) and although I sympathize with the decision to take life for the understanding of science, I think it was worthwhile that curious young men (I went to a private catholic boys school) got a close up look at what to that point, had been cartoon renderings and diagrams. The look and feel of the insides of an animal is something that is hard to describe even with an awesome device like a camera. I think the lesson is if we look and touch, we do it when we need to, and we do it in a way with as little damage as possible. The information gained lets the imagination thrive in a way it could never have if it hadn't had the opportunity.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

my own wilderness

When I was around the age of 12 or 13 my family decided to at least once a month, visit a nature preserve instead of attending Church. We were practicing Roman Catholics at the time and I thought it was great to get outside and run around instead of getting dressed up and sitting and kneeling in a stuffy church for exactly an hour. I think I was old enough at the time to understand that even though the rule was that we were supposed to go to Church, it was ok to miss it in this way because we were still on some level, doing what was intended and communicating in a more natural way with what might be the supernatural.

The first article from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas touches on the numerous definitions of the natural and how it's gone through several evolutions according with movements of science and religion. I found myself agreeing with most of them and understanding how now, in contemporary society, it is becoming more and more the social norm to understand that nature (not Nature) is something understandable and changeable.

My work lately has inadvertently incorporated several things that the first article touched on. For one, understanding what is natural and coexisting with it in a way where humans don't come to dominate or control but live with and within. Westerners, especially Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries have a particular preoccupation with dominating and conquering land that had millions of years of history before their arrival. It's only lately that I think western society has made advances in the way that we approach living with nature or coexisting with what is really wild. The designated areas of wild or less tamed land, can come close to what actually might be a wild and untouched earth. But I do feel that even by taking a simple measure of the Co2 in the air on top of a mountain that the earth can no longer be called completely wild.

The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder led me to think about all the occasions when I thought I was amongst the wild or was myself being wild. The article didn't change what I thought I was doing at the time. But now I think I understand a little more about where the idea for wild comes from.

As a human, I might not be completely wild, but the systems that make up my body, that allow me to live, are still inherently wild. They function instinctively and without my knowledge or consent. And though my mind doesn't function this way all the time I think I am aware of instances where I've let the wild in and tried to cherish it. For example, I let a wound heal on it's own while on a photo shoot two weeks ago. Though it was a small wound, there was something that made me feel like I was a part of something else, letting it do it's own thing and bleed and clot without my intervention.

In the last part of the article, Snyder refers to the etiquette of the wild world and how it requires "not only generosity but a good-humored toughness that cheerfully tolerates discomfort, an appreciation of everyone's fragility, and a certain modesty." He goes on to give examples of how emptying oneself to the point of having absolutely nothing leads to great insight and quotes a Tibetan saying that "the experience of emptiness engenders compassion."

It seems to me that we could all use this wisdom a little more living in a city like Chicago in a country like America. The city is very well insulated. But what comes close to actual wilderness isn't as far as one might think. I drove 10 hours to get to the Smoky Mountains and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is about a 7 hour drive from Chicago. In the UP, I realized after driving on a one lane road for about 15 miles that I was in complete and total wilderness and that I hadn't seen a house or even a telephone pole for the past half an hour. I had zero cell phone reception and when I got out of the car all I could hear was the wind combing through the fir trees and the dead silence behind that. It freaked me out.

Albert Bierstadt
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, 1865

Bierstadt's painting shows what looks to be a pristine and majestic natural land that is yet to be conquered and fortified. He over indulged though in awe-inspiring, painterly techniques such as the use of the dramatic, raking light of dawn and mist or fog. Though his paintings are the quintessential example of a genre of painting that valued the land and took great strides to understand and explore, the paintings lack a certain depth that might examine why such views are so important to look at in the first place.