Collaboration As a Means, Not an End

By Amy Lipton, Curator and SCEE advisory panel member, 2012-2013

In my work with ecoartspace over the past 12 years focusing on ecological artists and their projects, the term collaboration has been frequently evoked. The intention behind much of this work is to restore, remediate or transform damaged landscapes and also to educate the public about specific environmental problems or challenges. Artists taking on this imperative seek to inspire modification of human behaviors that have negatively impacted the earth’s ecological systems. Their work embodies what German artist Joseph Beuys coined as “social sculpture” over 50 years ago to illustrate art’s potential to shape society and the environment.

Joseph Beuys planting 7,000 Oaks for Documenta 7 (1982)

Ecological art demands forms of collaboration that are still rare in studio art practice in 2013. Collaboration in visual art (as opposed to design and architecture as well as performance-based art) is antithetical and contradictory to the position of the lone, iconoclastic artist of modernist/20th century ideals. Art schools continue to train artists to work independently as solo agents, emphasizing preparation for the entrenched market system of gallery and museum exhibitions and the art fair circuit to produce name brands. Ecological artists work from a different mindset, one which mirrors natural systems. Collaboration is not only a worthy goal or desire, but also a necessity in order to further community-based/public/infrastructure projects and to learn from needed specialists in other disciplines including science and engineering. Often the goal of these projects is to function (this word confronts all notions of art as useless) as components in ecological systems, operating outside of art spheres altogether. In order to succeed with their projects ecological artists must take into account the needs of specific communities with all constituents of these communities – human and non-human. Collaboration (and by implication participation) is a current art world buzzword. Used in terms of relational aesthetics, social practice art, and community based art projects, the word risks losing all meaning as just another trend for the art world to absorb. However collaboration is difficult and not for all artists – nor should it be.

The collaborative process itself is intrinsic to the art making and the results of art interventions in ecological systems usually improve over time. Time itself is a key component. Meaningful dialogue and discussion towards a shared goal takes a long time. Ecological art projects can take several years of planning before implementation. Aside from the vision of the initial collaborative team and the work that went into achieving consensus, projects often require a lengthy permission process from bureaucratic government officials and agencies, business and private interests as well as community support, involvement and at best citizen participation. In recent years emerging artists have been addressing environmental issues and sustainability on a smaller, more immediate scale. This comes from a desire to create work in less time by doing more temporal public art works and bypassing the need for permits. These artists have developed ways of working that are performative and include direct engagement by the artist with the public.

A recently completed curatorial project of mine titled TRANSported has been exemplary in demonstrating this collaborative participatory process. Habitat for Artists, an evolving collective of eighteen artists (they were included in my 2009 Schuylkill Arts Center project Down to Earth: Artists Create Edible Landscapes) created a self-sustaining artists studio and shared space for discussion and engagement held for one month by the Hudson River in Battery Park City, NY. Changing on a daily basis, artists and partnering organizations worked both inside and outside of a shipping container – converted into art studio space. The container was powered by the use of solar roof panels and included a square foot roof garden. Exterior sides included a vertical green wall, rain barrel collection for water, attached hoop greenhouse for growing seedlings and a blackboard for drawing and changing communications. Over the course of 30 days the container became a hub for workshops, an ecological information and education center, after-school art space, artist in residence program – one huge interactive social sculpture.

Artists working inside the habitat
photo credit: Mario Mohan

Artists working inside the habitat (Pictured: Marion Wilson, Michael Asbill and Michele Hersh)
photo credit: Mario Mohan

The elements that went into making this collaborative project successful included:

1. The artists having a shared purpose over and beyond their individual expression.
2. A non-hierarchical decision making process with no specific leader.
3. Process over product- viewer engagement was the goal.
4. An interest in crossing disciplines and working with partners to learn.
5. A willingness to accept unpredictability and flexibility including limitations of weather and last minute changes in personnel.
6. Understanding that evolving daily changes to the space over time were a key component of the overall project.

The Habitat for Artists participants each contributed a different component, working within their unique methods and styles for the benefit of a larger shared art/ecosystem and demonstrating that collaboration is a means and not an end.

The collaborative approach to art-making that is inherent in ecological art calls into question some of the most basic premises of the contemporary art world and artists.  However, both the pressing ecological issues and the need for broad social co-operation in global society necessitate the shift to a collaborative sensibility.  Following on Beuys’ idea of social sculpture, art can point society in meaningful directions.

Amy Lipton, Curator and SCEE advisory panel member, 2012-2013

StacyLevy_SCEE_9

Making Room for Rain – Stacy Levy

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education is working to investigate the intersection of nature and the city. The role of rain in the landscape is being actively explored in programs and planning around its buildings. As a nature center, SCEE is at the forefront of solving site issues through art based intervention. On May 31, 2013 a conference on New Environmental Art will be held at SCEE to look at ways that art and science can collaborate to solve ecological problems in urban nature, and enlighten citizens to find new solutions in their own lives.

Rain is usually given a long narrow space to inhabit: gutters, downspouts, underground pipes. People can walk practically anywhere in a building and on the surrounding landscape. What if this paradigm got turned on its head? Give people a more narrow path of movement around a site while rain gets plenty of space to spread out and linger? How would our built environments change? And how would it change our relationship to rain?As an eco-artist, I want art to be an advocate of rain. Art is good at giving meaning to the leftover or abandoned aspects of the world—and rain is one of those abandoned elements. Though a yardstick worth of rain falls every yearin this region, we hardly register rain’s presence. In urban settings, architecture and engineering have generally kept rain invisible to us. The relationship between rain and the built environment needs to be changed, and art is well positioned to alter that relationship.At SCEE, I am working with ecologists, engineers and educators to create an artwork that gives the rain room to spread out while keeping people in a defined space. But people do not lose out in this design— both rain and visitors get a dynamic space to co-exist.Rain Gardens create spaces that can get wet and stay wet while the water infiltrates into the soil.

Instead of becoming a muddy soup, the rain garden holds the rain within the permeable soil and the roots of a diverse community of native plants . These plants also make good habitat for other species like insects and food for birds and other small mammals.

This new artwork deals with two types of visitors to the site: rain and humans. A grated metal catwalk prevents the plants from being trampled while also keeping people’s feet dry. ‘Staying dry’ and ‘soaking in’ are two incongruent activities—one of the reasons that rain has no place to go in the built world is the hierarchy of the dry human foot!

We want to demonstrate ways to change rain’s journey in the built environment. We also want to give visitors a chance to test out the very materials of the city: the surfaces we spend our lives walking on like asphalt, concrete and grass. How do these materials work with or work against rain?

How this art works: Some of the rainwater will be diverted and stored in an above ground cistern. Then during dry days, our visitors can pump this contained water into 5 different troughs. Each trough contains a different familiar surface materials from the landscape: concrete, asphalt, gravel lawn and meadow. People can direct the rainwater onto these different surfaces to see how the water responds— by soaking in or running off.

At SCEE rainwater will be given both the time and the place to act the way rain should act. And people will be given a place to interact with the falling rain while staying out of its way as it soaks into the soil. The idea of rain needing a refuge is a new idea to most of us. We hope people learn about rain, and the surfaces it meets in our world. This piece gives people a new angle on rain and its relationship to our built environment.

The piece will be under construction over the early spring. Please come by and see it!

Want to know more about Rain Gardens?

The Philadelphia Water Department

The Rain Garden Network

The Groundwater Foundation

The Department of Environmental Conservation

Rain Garden Alliance

Want to see more of Stacy Levy’s work?

http://www.stacylevy.com/

‘Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World’ Art Exhibit Explores Our Experiences with Nature

Opening Reception: June 25th 4pm-7pm

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught. ” – Baba Dioum   

Stories normalize the strange and explain the confounding. Our relationship with the environment is in a state of constant flux, and as an environmental education center, we are always updating how and what we teach about the natural world.  As our ways of seeing the world develop, the stories we believe in evolve and expand. Our relationship to our stories is tenuous, however, since they can sometimes oversimplify the reality of nature’s complexities. Historically, we relied on scientific facts until they become obsolete, transforming themselves into fables. What was once believed without question now sounds laughable (the Earth as flat, the medicinal use of leeches, to name a few ). Regardless, we will always need stories because they help make sense of the world we inhabit.

This exhibition, “Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World,” asks important questions about the human experience of the environment: How do stories affect our understanding of nature? What is true nature and what is fabricated, and how can we tell the difference? Is our experience of nature limited by our ability to sense the world around us? 

“Mother Nature” by Chad Curtis

The seven artists in “Facts and Fables” use diverse methods to address such questions: memorials, guidebooks, faux landscapes, fairy tale crime scenes, live video feeds, visual perception tracking, distortion of scale, predictions and invitations. Some artists tell stories, while others examine the ways stories are created, or retell old stories to unearth new ideas. These artists combine out-dated methods with innovative technology, offering the viewer a range of experience and ways to interact with the natural world.

For example,  Chad Curtis incorporates green technology into his installation, “Mother Nature” (pictured), through the use of a solar-powered video camera that generates a 24/7 live stream, available online here: http://chaddcurtis.com/schuylkill/.

-Jenny Laden, Director of The Environmental Art Department at The Schuylkill Center

“Facts and Fables: Stories of the Natural World” (June 25- Oct. 29) is an environmentally-focused, large-scale outdoor installation exhibit featuring seven artists: Jeremy Beaudry, Brian Collier, Chad Curtis, Blane de St. Croix, David Dempewolf, Susan Hagen, and Jeanne Jaffe.
 
Please join us for the opening reception and an exclusive tour of the installations with the curator and artists on Saturday, June 25th 4pm-7pm.
215-482-7300 | scee@schuylkillcenter.org  | 8480 Hagy’s Mill Rd. Phila, PA 19128