Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Response to Week 2 Provocation

Susan asks a question that is, from my point of view, important to think about if we claim an allegiance or at least identification with the intersections between art + environment. She writes: "Of course, ecology and environmental work transcends borders or cultural boundaries. Or does it?" It's a fabulous question--one which I think is about as generative and provocative as we'll encounter. The scientific notion of an ecological system defies cultural boundaries (the Columbia River watershed has very little interest in national boundaries, for example), and yet ecological systems are also conditioned by culture--consider, for example, the effects of historical-cultural (mis)information regarding the restoration of grey wolf populations in Wyoming, Montana, and Minnesota. What I find compelling, ultimately, about art + environment is the power of art and other creative production to reveal, reflect, challenge, and perhaps even reinforce ecological and environmental thought and practice; to elicit complex dialogue; to effect change. I think it is also tied to Bill Gilbert's response to Bill Fox's Week 1 provocation, so bear with me as I try to connect the thoughts.
Hybridity, hybrid identity, hybrid artwork, hybrid practice all seem to permit a kind of freedom from categorization that is very attractive in contemporary culture. Perhaps it's the promise of more possibility, less limitation--a kind of artistic resistance to the homogenizing influence of the economically-driven mainstream art world. And yet hybridity bears such currency in today's art world that this concept too has been altered and commodified. Yet I think that in the field of art + environment hybridity as an artistic goal might be linked to an ecological/environmental framework (agenda?) productively. Bill Gilbert mentioned the ecological concept of ecotones being used as a framing device for the art + ecology program at UNM. As a transition area between two or more ecolgical communities, an ecotone is a profoundly rich area of ecological diversity, full of organisms practicing hybridity for survival. Do artists find more possibility, more "strategies for survival," in hybridity? Will a museum such as the one in which I work find some similar prospect in the "+" of art + environment?
The artist Ray Kass inhabits a hybrid identity as an artist, and also hybridizes the creative process. In his work Broad Channel: Vorticella Polyptych, Kass worked with a number of participants of the Mountain Lake Workshop to create an enormous, multi-paneled (polyptych) mixed media piece (it's approximately 30 feet wide in total). The work is actually paper stretched like canvas over stretcher bars. Working collaboratively, and thus more like an ecological system, Mountain Lake Workshop participants held the paper over smoking fires, capturing the smoke in the papers' fibers; they applied watercolor pigments randomly, and then buffed the surface of the paper using beeswax. Interestingly, the vaguely ziggurat-shaped areas of each dominant color in the piece resemble the structure of an organism called Vorticella, a single-celled protozoa, one species of which is endemic to the New River Gorge in West Virginia, part of the piece's inspiration. The process of the work's creation "imitates the chance processes of nature," according to a statement on Kass's website. If so, might this be a new typology of landscape painting in the 21st century? What might it teach us about how to live well in place?

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