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.