Down to Earth: Extraordinary STEAM Learning

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Mary Mattingly, A Technological Abyss, 2020, living sculpture. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

The Universe and nature are such vast and complicated concepts, but that has not stopped creative people from scrutinizing them through works of art. Visualizing the cosmos and our own Earthly phenomena has been a hotbed for artistic thinking and learning since the earliest forms of human expression. From making representational associations of celestial bodies (constellations) to designing sustainable interactive environments (Eco-art, land art, etc); art has been a key element to the exploration and understanding of our natural and metaphysical world. Through a combination of imagination, resourcefulness, experimentation and technology, massive and mystifying issues like cosmology and the Anthropocene are contextualized into a tangible visions that have potential to impact viewers on a social and emotional level.

Stars Down to Earth is a two-person exhibition at the Brooklyn Library (in partnership with the Prospect Park Alliance and More Art), featuring work by Mary Mattingly and Dario Robleto. Both artists visually scrutinize scientific issues, and pose essential questions around events simultaneously happening light-years away and in our own backyards. In their respective art practices, Mattingly and Robleto adapt theories, knowledge and traditions from a spectrum of disciplines and apply them to their work in a manner that transforms abstract thoughts and occurrences into empirical methodologies. Stars Down to Earth and future iterations of this Eco-based exhibition, include experiential STEAM learning through interactive works of art, artist talks and workshops focused on the integration of art and science.

Robleto’s sculptures are carefully researched cabinets of curiosity, which artfully re-frame objects and events from the past into a futuristic vision of mortality and human nature. He achieves this by creating hybrid forms out of unlikely combinations of artifacts and experiences. One of his early works of art is titled You Make My World a Better Place to Find (1996-1998). From a glance, it resembles a spool of thread, but overall, the work is indicative of a performative sculpture that literally threads a spectrum of human beings together. The artwork was created by discreetly acquiring pieces of lint and other small strand-like materials from friends and strangers. Upon collecting these materials, Robleto fashioned them together into one long string, which he spooled. With the newfound material, he tailored and sewed things like loose buttons and ripped clothing back together. From a symbolic standpoint, it suggests that fixing our broken world lies within the collective engagement of finding restorative ways to be united. As a species, we have the ability to mend overarching issues if we combine individual forces and discover the power in supporting each other’s diverse qualities and experiences.

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Installation of Dario Robleto’s work in Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Robleto is currently collaborating with scientists as an artistic consultant to a project called “Breakthrough Message,” a multi-national endeavor that seeks to determine how and what humans should communicate to extraterrestrial beings. Perhaps two of his archival prints Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I) and Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun II) would be apt. The prints are inspired by the ethereal elements of 1960s and 70s arena performances. Robleto culminated photographs taken by fans at Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke, The Doors, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Janis Joplin, Charlie Parker and Elvis Presley concerts; and arranged them so that they represent gradient beams of light, akin to atmospheric and celestial glows. The imagery would be at once recognizable to all beings who shared the same night sky. However, our musical subcultures might be less familiar to an intelligent being from beyond Earth. It could be a nice and poetic way to explain to an alien life form how the creation and immersion of art illuminates our cultural realms.

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Dario Robleto, Untitled (Shadows Evade the Sun I), 2012. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Mattingly’s artistic focus is rooted in ecological development and issues of sustainability on our planet. She creates works of art that illuminate the growing climate crisis, as well as the unsustainable use of organic materials and natural resources for economic and political purposes. Her magnum opus is Swale, an ongoing floating ‘food forest,’ which provides sustainable and healthy nutrition, and raises consciousness about building self-sufficient food communities within urban environments. Additionally, she has created and/or co-created sustainable public habitats, such as the Foodway in Concrete Plant Park, and the Waterpod Project.

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Mary Mattingly’s Cobalt and Nature Morte photographs. Installation photograph of Stars Down to Earth at the Brooklyn Library. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Another project by Mattingly, is an inquiry into the reaping of cobalt, a natural Earth material that is used to make highly profitable products. There is both a creative and destructive impetus for mining cobalt, as evident from its extensive uses, including powering energy turbines and making paint and weaponry. Cobalt-based blue pigments are well known and valuable to artists, while cobalt ore is beneficial to expanding the military industrial complex. The harvesting of massive amounts of cobalt involves  extraction practices that are contributing to climate change and displacement. Mattingly’s material-based explorations, discoveries and insights into Cobalt (2016), reveal stark contrasts involving our reliance on natural resources. Artifacts from Cobalt and her aerial landscape photographs depicting extractive industries, are on display at the Brooklyn Library. Also on view is Mattingly’s A Technological Abyss (2020), a spherical living sculpture that displays and nurtures plants that were growing over 50 million years ago (during the Eocene Epoch) in the region that is now New York. The Eocene was a period of warm oceans and balmy, humid temperatures throughout the globe (the world was practically ice-less from pole-to-pole). The sculpture also holds plants that would survive in New York, if the current rate of expedited global warming continues. Both sets of plants are of the tropical tolerant variety. The parallel between the volatile climate of the Eocene (which led to an extinction event) and the Anthropocene, reinforces the idea that we are heading into a very dire moment in our Earth’s history.

After its display at the library, Mattingly’s living sculpture is going to be installed in nearby Prospect Park (April – June, 2020). While on view in the park, the sculpture will be a setting for additional experiential art programing focusing on issues of clean water. Produced by More Art and in collaboration with local community groups, Public Water is a multisite public art and educational project addressing the ways citizens of New York are connected through complex watersheds that provide drinkable/functional water to upstate and downstate residents. These projects are intended to prompt us to enact ecological ways of learning, making and being, in order to improve our contemporary commons so that facets of biological life that are currently threatened stand a chance of survival.

Mattingly is intrigued by the idea of the commons, which are resources that are accessible to the collective society and are not owned by one single entity (i.e. water, air and soil). Commons are generally maintained by a community of benefactors who develop institutions and systems that have value and offer benefits for multiple users. Swale, Foodway and the Waterpod Project are good examples of commons, because they make healthy soil, clean water and organic food available to the public; and also provide equitable access to an ecological-centered education, so that groups and individuals (of all ages and backgrounds) can utilize common natural resources in a sustainable and ethical manner. A Technological Abyss and Public Water is also based on the idea of the commons. The sculpture is currently located in front of the Info Commons at the Brooklyn Library, which hosts free space and opportunities for the public to access an array of multimedia and professional services. When Public Water arrives at Prospect Park, it will reinforce and build upon (the parks architect) Frederick Law Olmsted’s socially engaged vision of making natural resources and communal recreational space abundant to urban populations. Throughout the course of the project, visitors will participate in dialogues that reflect their personal narratives related to ecological commons and raising concerns about the quality of water and preservation of common waterways. In tandem with artists, educators and environmental advocates, the public will discover innovative ways to collectively build awareness around environmental justice.

As we have begun to see from the aforementioned examples, Mattingly and Robleto’s art reveals how art, science and engineering can successfully interrelate with one another. Each artist’s work poses essential questions such as: how can the artistic practice transform and evolve through working outside of the art field? How can art be harnessed to change the way science is performed?

Developing lifelong inquiries and ethical innovations is a major objective of combining the arts, science and technology into an insightful and participatory-based educational framework (STEAM). The arts give us the permission and tools to think boldly and manipulate materials in a manner that adds an emotional and unique human element to the scientific method. Echoing a quote by astronomer Carl Sagan (from his publication Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, 1980), “imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere,” Mattingly and Robleto have employed their artistic skills to contribute to disciplines such as ecology and astronomy, with actual scientific results to show for it.

Artful Equations

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Joshua Caleb Weibley, Excerpts from Engineering Forms, 2011, ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

In High School, I loathed math. I was obviously very interested and invested in art and music, and didn’t realize how artistic discovery relates to principles of mathematics (and vice versa). If I had been introduced to mathematical concepts via visual art, performance and music, perhaps it would have made a significant difference in my enthusiasm and effort in my math classes. I might have ended up challenging myself with numerical equations and problems, if artists like Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Piero della Francesca (whose day job was as a mathematician) and Sandro Botticelli were discussed in relation to the content we were learning in math class.

The confluence of art and math should have been a forgone conclusion, because the mathematics we know today has its foundations in art. The practice of synthetic geometry, which was discovered by the Greek mathematician Euclid, in the 4th Century (BCE), is still taught in schools and utilized by graphic artists and architects. Euclidean geometry uses tools like compasses, rulers and protractors to visualize optical dimensions in a physical and tangible manner. In the 15th Century, Filippo Brunelleschi’s concept of linear perspective (inspired by Euclid’s optics) changed both the disciplines of math and art in a monumental fashion. Linear perspective directed the way artists, such as dell Francesca, realized and depicted three-dimensional space within a flat picture plane. The resulting aesthetic explorations with linear perspective led to enormous breakthroughs in the fields of architecture, science and engineering. STEAM learning was a huge component of the Renaissance and its lasting influence, which is why it is so shocking that the arts have largely been left out of the equation in educational curricula until recently (Gunn, 2017).

The cultural impact of linear perspective and other aesthetic mathematical revelations is the subject of Lynn Gamwell’s book, Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History. Gamwell lays out the formulas and shows her work, in order to make the case that art and math are intrinsically linked and have progressed nicely together through time. Gamwell doesn’t solely focus on Western culture; she traces the topic of mathematics within human development back to prehistoric times and our early explorations with counting systems and pattern design. During the modern and contemporary eras, both mathematicians and artists have been concerned with more abstract ways of defining what space is and can be. Non-euclidean geometry gave way to theories regarding the relationship between space and time, which artists of the 19th and 20th centuries sought to visualize in their artwork.
When you look at Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, it is not a stretch to think about fractal geometry. There is mathematical theory testing to prove the correlation between Pollock’s chaotic splashes of paint and complex fractal patterns which are self-similar over different dimensions. As Jennifer Ouellette (2001) recounts, “the physicist Richard Taylor was on sabbatical in England six years ago when he realized that the same analysis could be applied to Pollock’s work. In the course of pursuing a master’s degree in art history, Taylor visited galleries and pored over books of paintings. At one point in his research, he began to notice that the drips and splotches on Pollock’s canvases seemed to create repeating patterns at different size scales—just like fractals.” In fact, Taylor did the math and revealed that Pollock’s painting Number 14 (1948) has a fractal dimension of 1.45, which is very similar to the fractal dimension of many natural coastlines (Taylor, Micolich and Jonas, 1999). In November 1945, Pollock and Lee Krasner moved to the town of East Hampton on Long Island, so he was definitely attuned to the natural seascapes nearby his home and studio.

The integration of math and aesthetics can also be deciphered within the work of artists such Dorothea Rockburne, Jennifer Bartlett, Agnes Denes, Joshua Caleb Weibley and Nick Naber.

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Dorothea Rockburne, Egyptian Painting: Basalt, 1981, oil, glue, pencil on gessoed linen. Photograph by Nick Naber.

Dorothea Rockburne fulfills her academic interest and passion for math via her creative practice as a studio artist. While studying at the renowned Black Mountain College in the 1950s, she was influenced by a professor named Max Dehn, who was a leading practitioner and scholar in the mathematics of geometry, topology and geometric group theory. She is also intrigued by the scientific and astronomical explorations of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca, who she references in her painting Piero’s Sky (1991-92). The painting alludes to the ‘natural’ starry night skies that della Francesca depicts in paintings like The Dream of Constantine (1464), which reinforces his expertise as both an artist and astronomer (see: Valerio, 2011). The sublime and serene character of Renaissance humanism and the elongated forms Mannerism, are evident in many of Rockburne’s contemporary abstract paintings. She connects 15th and 16th century painting to topology, by creating geometric forms that retain their essence under material deformations that include bending, stretching and twisting. This mathematical treatment of her imagery also makes them feel as if they are in motion, akin to the avant-garde choreography of her friends from the Judson Dance Theater. Rockburne personally describes her painterly process, which results in very fluid and accurate geometric compositions, as “visually solving equations” (Hoban, 2015). In a 2013 article Rockburne wrote for the Brooklyn Rail, she elaborates on her studio process and its connection to math:

“During the ’60s and ’70s I struggled to find a new geometry, something beyond the grid and Euclid. Excited by topology and set theory I began to look at transitive geometry, always envisioning concepts in different, possible materials that could be made into art, but which were outside of art materials. Carbon paper seemed a perfect choice. My intuition demanded that previously unseen, invisible structures and proportions be made visible through a transitive process.” – Dorothea Rockburne (Sept. 2013)

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Jennifer Bartlett, House: Dots, Hatches, 1998, enamel on 81 baked enamel plates. Photograph by Adam Zucker.

Jennifer Bartlett makes paintings that are inspired by systems based processes, sets, proportions and ratios. She presents these self-imposed mathematical elements via a highly expressive painterly style that comments on painting’s narrative history and its roots in geometry (see: Artful Arithmetic for further analysis of Bartlett’s math infused art practice).

Agnes Denes is also drawn to mathematical systems, ratios and proportions. She utilizes complex equations and improvises on the work of mathematicians like Pascal and Whitehead and Russell, in order to address social, political and ecological concerns. Her oft-environmentally themed artworks employ geometric structures such as pyramids and sets of flora planted to form patterns inspired by natural rhythmic and evolutionary phenomena (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences for more about Denes’ work).

Joshua Caleb Weibley utilizes synthetic geometry to create very intricately hand rendered drawings that discerningly provide insights into the evolution of technology, game theory and programming language. Many of his drawings parallel the ideological process of Minimalist art, the language of play and the optical mechanics of Op art. Weibley’s critical analysis of technology, presents it within the framework of time and space. His major focus is the coordinated obsolescence of technology, a process which is consistently stimulated by new technological advances and machine based learning. By replicating digital ephemera using an analog technique, Weibley’s art melds the fields of fine art, industrial engineering and computer science.

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Nick Naber, Facility 23, 2019, marker and graphite on watercolor paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Nick Naber’s technically stunning paintings and drawings adopt a personalized mathematical process that highlights line, geometry, and repetitive gesture to make commentary on architecture’s affect on the human psyche. Naber’s geometric structures, which largely resemble archetypal modern and post-modern buildings, impose upon one another to form implied three-dimensional compositions. These structures are drawn to scale and often based on odd numbers, often sets of three. They are like a contemporary version of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Carceri d’invenzione or ‘Imaginary Prisons,’ because they similarly form fantastical architectural labyrinths, which are Kafkaesque in nature. Through Euclidean geometry, Naber’s works envelop the viewer with the illusion of feeling trapped, alienated and/or imprisoned within the confines of overarching forms.

The aforementioned artists represent a few examples of how mathematical processes and aesthetic concepts inform one another. With mathematical knowledge and tactile skills, artists continue to probe, explain and expound upon the phenomena of our lived experiences. For the people like myself who struggle with didactic math (i.e. studying baseline formulas), analyzing works of art that combine math, science and technology, can open inquiring minds into developing a better understanding and application of these fields.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Hoban, Pheobe. “Works in Progress,” T Magazine, 15 May, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/05/15/t-magazine/17older-female-artists-agnes-dene-herrera-rockbourne-farmanfarmaian.html

Gamwell, Lynn. Mathematics + Art: A Cultural History, New Jersey: Princeton, 2016.

Garner, Mary L. ‘The Merging of Art and Mathematics in Surface Substitution on 36 Plates’, in Kirsten Swenson (ed.), In Focus: Surface Substitution on 36 Plates 1972 by Jennifer Bartlett, Tate Research Publication, 2017, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/surface-substitution/art-and-maths, accessed 17 March 2019.

Gunn, Jennifer. “What is STEAM Education?” Room 241, A Blog by Concordia University, 8 Nov. 2017. https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/leaders-link/importance-of-arts-in-steam-education/

Ouellette, Jennifer. “Pollock’s Fractals,” Discover Magazine, 31 Oct. 2001. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/pollocks-fractals

Rockburne, Dorothea. “Points of Change; A Painter’s Journey,” Brooklyn Rail, 4 Sept. 2013. https://brooklynrail.org/2013/09/criticspage/points-of-change-a-painters-journey

Taylor, Richard, Micolich, Adam and Jonas, David. “Fractal analysis of Pollock’s drip paintings,” Nature 399, 422,

Valerio, Vladimiro. “Piero della Francesca’s Sky in The Dream of Constantine,” The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI. ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441. San Francisco: Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 2011, p.161, http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2011ASPC..441..161V, accessed 11 Dec. 2019.

The Artful Environmentalist

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Susan Hoenig, Connected, 2019, black walnut ink on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

How many types of trees and plants can you identify in your local ecosystem? Do you know what specimens are native to the region? How can we become more ethical and sustainable environmentalists, while maintaining a thriving practice as creatives? The multidisciplinary art of Susan Hoenig helps us to answer the aforementioned questions, and become attuned to forming a balance with our natural resources.

Hoenig’s artistic practice is environmentally sustainable, which is an essential solution to the ecological problems that confront a materials-based artist. Making art has many social, emotional and cognitive benefits for individuals, but the media used to create art can have negative outcomes on the environment if not treated properly or sourced sustainably. Hoenig uses organic materials, and profoundly transforms the physical environment while treading lightly within nature. Her work has an overarching pedagogical framework that compels us to learn more about the world around us and develop empathetic responses to the ways we interact with natural settings and lifeforms.

Two ongoing bodies of Hoenig’s work, which have activist, aesthetic and pedagogical implications, are her Ecological Leaf Sculptures at Graeber Woods Preserve Frankin Township, New Jersey and her ecologically themed black walnut ink paintings.

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Susan Hoenig, Red Oak Leaf Sculpture, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

The Ecological Leaf Sculptures (2016-) are large stone outlines of leaves displayed beneath the tree within Graeber Woods that they represent. There are eleven sculptures in total among 96 acres of trails winding through a diverse ecosystem of forest, meadow, marsh and stream. Hoenig leads walking tours to educate the public about the understory (flora growing beneath the canopy) of the forest. Ten of the leaves are from a common tree, native to the Eastern United States (Red Oak, Bigtooth Aspen, American Beech, Black Birch, Tulip Poplar, Shagbark Hickory, Red Maple, Sassafras, Flowering Dogwood and Black Walnut). The one cultivar (a plant produced by selective breeding) is the Liberty Elm, which has been selectively bred to resist Dutch elm disease. The scale and graphic simplicity of the sculptures makes future identification of these tree species much easier.

Hoenig’s series of Black Walnut ink paintings is another body of work that aesthetically raises our consciousness about the natural world we collectively occupy. During mast years, she collects walnuts from the leaf sculpture site at Graeber Woods Preserve, and transforms them into ink. She also collects and uses other nuts like acorns, winged-seed pods, husks and other small seeds to create prints that make associations to many diverse species of leaves. In the painting Connected (2019), Hoenig overlaid an image of a tree trunk and roots on top of a silhouette of the artist’s arm and hand. While the trunk is a darker shade than the hand, everything seemingly blends together as the roots and fingers conjoin. This painting symbolizes an interconnection between ourselves and the natural world, which is a relationship we need to foster by realizing that our actions have tangible consequences on the climate and environment. If we disrupt nature’s due course, then the whole cycle of life is in danger of being ruptured.

In the Anthropocene, we are at risk of losing many natural resources that we rely on each day. Whether it is because we are ignorant or willfully ignorant, we are taking our ecosystems for granted. Susan Hoenig’s art makes it possible to reflect on environmental transformation and climate change in both a symbolic and very real manner. It also encourages us to find creative ways to depict and express both subtle and profound properties of our natural surroundings. It is an understandable impulse to want to document the beauty that envelops us. Art has a longstanding tradition of visually expressing the relationship between humans and their habitats. Doing so using sustainable materials, helps to ensure that current and future generations might be able to enjoy and maintain an interconnected and artful collaboration with nature.

The environment is changing before our eyes, both due to natural cycles and our interference with natural rhythms. Art helps us to become careful and discerning observers of physical environments. When utilized to make connections between the Earth and our connections to it, art can evoke empathetic responses to the impact of ecological issues and the affect that it has on us all.

Mondo Museum: A Sim that encourages decolonization and experiential learning

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Imagination is one of our greatest and most humanizing characteristics, and playing games is beneficial for shaping our imaginative instincts. When I was growing up, I witnessed the evolution of video games from 8-bit side-scrolling forms of gameplay to expansive environments where players could explore the gaming environment at their own pace. This transformation also changed the narrative structure of games from typically binary themes (i.e. go through levels and beat the bad guys) to more player-centered experiences. Coming from a background where free-play and imagination were valued and rewarded, I enthusiastically gravitated towards the latter type of video games. Computer games like Sim City, Dino Park Tycoon, Sim Hospital and The Sims, are some of my all-time favorites, because they gave me agency to make creative, logical or absurd choices. There was flexibility in the gameplay that made me feel like I was truly responsible for the frame to frame progression of the game. Every action had a reaction and there were so many different ways a scenario could play out. I had my share of triumphs and disasters in each game.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

I haven’t played a video game in several years, but when I heard about the upcoming release of Mondo Museum (sometime in 2020), a museum themed management sim, I became very excited. This game combines both my adolescent and current interests and passions. A museum simulator is a curator and video game aficionado’s dream come true. There are several benefits to playing management sim video games, and they relate to many of the studio habits of mind that we learn via the arts. In order to be successful in the game, players need to brace themselves for ambiguity, be flexible in their actions and reactions to change, establish cross-disciplinary connections and make assessments as to what went well and how their process of play can be improved.  The game enables us to realize how consciously arranging cultural objects, which span time and place, provides historical and contemporary context. By researching objects from the collection (or on loan from another simulated institution) and curating them into gallery spaces, the player creates compelling narratives and gives their viewers ample opportunities to make cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary discoveries.

Mondo Museum’s gameplay is also intended to build empathy (another artistic habit of mind) because you see what others are going through as they move throughout your museum. The viewer experience inspires and influences the player to make equitable decisions that enhance their engagement with the museum. Furthermore, you advance in the game by curating exhibitions that make relevant connections between the museum objects and their aesthetic, cultural and historical context. For example, a player can gain ‘combo’ points by creating a thematic exhibition that displays works of art that address the topic from multiple cultural perspectives. Organizing shows thematically and showing the heterogeneity of sociocultural concepts, is one way that real-life museums are shifting the gaze from the Western Canon to a global and intersectional representation of culture.

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Screenshot from Mondo Museum. Courtesy of Viewport Games and Kitfox Games.

Mondo Museum supports the proper contextualization of culture through ethical cross-cultural partnerships with other museums. The provenance of works of art and artifacts are represented by the region and culture they were created in. You build your exhibitions by participating in a discourse with curators and directors from museums around the world, in order to gain knowledge about the intent and function the object had/has for the people who made it.

While the game is still in development, the idea of having the gameplay reflect contemporary issues around equitable access to museums and decolonization, is something that drives the game’s designer, Michel McBride-Charpentier. He intends for the game to address and raise awareness around a major issue affecting museums and cultural institutions throughout the world: the colonialist practices of collections acquisitions. In other words, major museums have established collections of cultural objects through unethical means like looting and nefariously brokered deals. McBride-Charpentier states, “the way that [museums] have built their collections in the West is mostly based on colonial looting…Instead of representing that, this game is showing a more utopian version of what museums should be like” (Jackson, 2019).

While Mondo Museum will present a stylized version of a museum, the ethical principles behind decolonization are very realistic goals that would behoove museums around the world to make right. Elisa Shoenberger writes, “the decolonizing project will have starts and stops as each museum, cultural worker and audiences have difficult conversations and reflections about the meaning of museums and who the institutions are intended to serve” (Shoenberger, 2019). One obvious way of decolonizing a museum, is to return the objects of historical importance to the contemporary cultures where they hold significance. There are so many examples of objects in museums that were acquired during colonial and imperial eras and have since been requested by the people in the region they originated from. Returning the objects to their cultures of origin (known as repatriation) would ensure that current and future generations have access to primary resources regarding their cultural heritage.

Another objective is to create a dialogue through partnerships with cultural organizations and individuals from nations that have their objects in foreign museums. In a recent post (see: Exhibiting Empathy), I describe how the Seattle Museum of Art is collaborating with African artists whose experience and background provide relevant insight about the works in the museum’s African art collection.  By having advisors who are a part of the society where the art is from, the museum ensures that the narrative is both properly presented and connected to the contemporary life of its originating place. Too often, works from African nations are presented in Western museums as ethnographic mementos, which ignores the fact that there is a continuity of the specific culture (the same can be said about art by North American, South American and Australian indigenous peoples).

Penn Museum in Philadelphia, has a renowned collection of art and artifacts from the Middle East dating back to 4,500 years ago. Although the museum states that 95 percent of their Middle Eastern collection “was excavated by Penn archaeologists” in partnership with local governments, it still raises issues about ethical acquisitions. Art critic Olivia Jia questions the idea of an ethical excavation, “given the fact that many of these excavations occurred against a backdrop of strife-ridden fallout from British colonial rule, and were co-sponsored by the British Museum” (Jia, 2019). Furthermore, the museum has presented their Middle Eastern objects through the lens of the archeologists, which gives Western narratives precedence over the stories that are intrinsic to the region where the artifacts and art objects were collected. To shift the narrative towards a more local and decolonized perspective, the museum established an innovative program called Global Guides, where they hire refugees from the Middle East as docents who lead visitors through thematic tours of the permanent collection. The docents provide unique insights and personal connections to the work. Analyzing exit surveys for the Global Guides program, Jia was amazed to discover that many participants never had an actual interpersonal connection with an individual from the Middle East until then. The presence of docents like Moumena Saradar, a Syrian refugee and only one of two Muslim staff members at the museum, has an empathetic impact on both visitors and museum staff (Jia, 2019).

Mondo Museum is only a simulated game, however its mission to reject colonial narratives reflects a very real issue that is at the forefront of artistic and institutional practices. Furthermore, Mondo Museum’s experience and equity driven platform is similar to the operational missions at brick and mortar institutions, where the viewer’s experience and participation are given elevated attention. Many museums no longer serve as ‘banking models’ (see: Freire, 2008) where visitors are presented with didactic displays of objects and text. Instead, they are being transformed into environments that enable viewers to curate their own experiences in dialogue with the museum’s collection and architectural space (Zucker, 2019).

Museum scholar and critic Seph Rodney explains that today’s museums are incorporating distinct factors that are in-line with visitor’s needs, such as “social interaction, spiritual sustenance, emotional connection, intellectual challenge, or consumerist indulgence” (Rodney, 2016). From the preview and demo of Mondo Museum, it appears that all of these elements will be integral to the management sim’s gameplay. These undertakings provide experiences that support experiential learning, collaboration, socialization and the democratization of cultural spaces. Museums that acknowledge their visitors’ unique personalities and treat them as participants, are likely to retain them. In Mondo Museum, that retainership leads to winning the game. It is McBride-Charpentier’s hope that players of the game will become more engaged and active participants at their local museums. He says “I would love it if people play this and then were inspired to go out to the real museums that might be nearby” (Jackson, 2019).


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Freire, Paulo. “The “Banking” Concept of Education.” Ways of Reading. 8th ed. Bartholomae, David and Anthony Petrosky. Boston: Bedford- St. Martin’s, 2008. 242-254. Print.

Jackson, Gita. “Upcoming Museum Sim Lets Players Combine Artifacts to Tell Cool Stories.” Kotaku, 11 Oct. 2019. https://kotaku.com/upcoming-museum-sim-lets-players-combine-artifacts-to-t-1838977490

Jia, Olivia. “Refugees Connect Their Personal Stories with a Museum’s Ancient Artifacts.” Hyperallergic, 19 Feb. 2019. https://hyperallergic.com/484835/global-guides-program-penn-museum/

Rodney, Seph. 2019. The Personalization of the Museum Visit, Abingdon: Routledge.

Rodney, Seph. “The Evolution of the Museum Visit, from Privilege to Personalized Experience.” Hyperallergic, 22 Jan. 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/267096/the-evolution-of-the-museum-visit-from-privilege-to-personalized-experience/

Shoenberger, Elisa. “What does it mean to decolonize a museum?” MuseumNext, 7 Feb. 2019. https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/

Zucker, Adam. “Summer Reading.” Artfully Learning, 10 June 2019. https://theartsandeducation.wordpress.com/2019/06/10/summer-reading-list-2/

 

Back to Nature: Learning about ecosystems of the past and building future ecological awareness

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Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, 1836, oil on canvas. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Some people call New York City a ‘concrete jungle.’ This metaphor refers in part to the city’s lack of greenery and the plethora of large concrete and glass structures in its stead. However, New York City was once a lush natural environment and our urbanization of the land has displaced generations of natural growth. The large swaths of commuters, tourists and residents that hustle and bustle across the metropolis probably don’t often think of a pre-colonial Manhattan and the diverse island ecosystem that existed.

We can learn a lot from artworks that re-present the lost ecosystem of the city. Michael Wang and Alan Sonfist both incorporate scientific processes into their artistic practice. Their work aims to raise our awareness about how post-industrial human beings have transformed, molded and largely stripped the land of its natural essence. Through bringing the results of their scientific research into cultural spaces, their work invites us to view an ecosystem that once did not have to be nurtured by an artist. Our consumer-driven interactions with the world around us have made these artworks necessary in order to experience the landscapes of the past.

Artists throughout history have become awestruck by nature and portray it in all its glory and lushness. The paintings of the Hudson River School artists depict nearly pristine views of America’s landscape right as the industrial revolution transformed forests and valleys into sprawling towns and large cities. These artists were rebelling against what they saw as a grave danger to humanity: our sociocultural and economic influence on the environment. Wang’s Extinct in New York (2019-ongoing) and Sonfist’s Time Landscape (1965-present) attempt to revive the actual ecological features of New York City that have been erased by urbanization and consumerism.

Wang and Sonfist use natural resources as their art materials. Their work begins with analysis of quantitative data, historical accounts and archival imagery.  Thanks to the careful documentation by both artists and scientists, Sonfist and Wang were able to fulfill their objectives to re-present New York City’s lost and disappearing fauna.

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Michael Wang, Extinct in New York. Installation photograph at LMCC’s Arts Center at Governors Island. Courtesy of LMCC and Sacks & Co.

Extinct in New York, which was just recently on display at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s (LMCC) Arts Center on Governors Island, creates a space where viewers can observe live specimens of specific native plants, algae and lichen that have vanished from New York City’s ecosystem. Wang’s extensive research accompanies the live specimens in a publication detailing the name of each plant, algae or lichen, and the last time it was found in its natural setting. The installation of these specimens resembles a greenhouse laboratory and, sure enough, it requires nurturing care from gallery staff, local students and volunteers. When the project is de-installed, the goal is to re-introduce the plants, algae and lichen to the land where they once grew unrestrained. The irony is that now they will require the care of human beings in managed spaces like urban community gardens and public parks. Alongside the live materials, Wang displays photographs and botanical drawings that document and express the traces of nature and its ephemerality.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present, site-specific land art. Courtesy of the artist.

Time Landscape recreates a pre-colonial natural forest, which would have provided sustenance, shelter and community to the indigenous peoples of what is now the five boroughs. Sonfist designed a plot of land, which is located at the northeast corner of La Guardia Place and West Houston Street in downtown Manhattan, to resemble the likeness of a natural forest that would have been observed prior to European interference. The initial planting process depicted the three phases of natural forest growth: seeds to saplings to grown trees and mature plants. Now, the land artwork is ripe with old growth and is even susceptible to post-colonial species of fauna (which are periodically weeded out by Parks Department workers). Time Landscape is a living sculpture, which could also be considered as a memorial to a past ecological epoch. It raises our social, emotional and cognitive awareness to the prowess and fragility of our natural world.

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Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape, 1965-present. Courtesy of the artist.

In the Anthropocene era, it is important that our educational settings provide real-world and hands-on learning scenarios for students to explore, discover and make insightful responses to the environment. In order to do this, teachers will likely require support from their administration and professional development to learn ways that they can incorporate environmental issues into their curriculum.

Brooklyn College’s Graduate Art Education program has implemented a Summer course called Human Tracks in the Urban Landscape, which focuses on inquiry-based pedagogical frameworks that current and future art and science educators can use in their classrooms. Using Prospect Park as both a case study and experiential site, the course combines classroom discussions where educators learn the natural history of New York’s ecology, with on-site and studio based explorations, such as projects, installations and performances. At the end of the course, educators produce multi-disciplinary projects that combine artistic and scientific processes and address a specific ecological topic of interest.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

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Shauna Woods Gonzalez, Bill Vaughn, Adam Zucker, detail of Pick-up Picnic, 2017, London Plane bark, litter, edible native and invasive plants gathered and foraged from Prospect Park.

When I took this course in its inaugural year (2017), my team (consisting of three art educators including myself) researched the history of foraging in New York City parks and came up with a list of edible plants that thrived in Prospect Park. We focused on native and invasive species that could be foraged and utilized by local communities as nutritional sources of food, as well as ways to sustainably interact with the park’s natural resources. We created a temporary site-specific installation and performance, where we juxtaposed the park’s useful natural elements with the abundance of consumer-based refuse (fast food wrappers, plastic bottles and junk food scraps) that were littered throughout the landscape. The result was a ‘picnic’ of foraged plants and trash. The idea for this installation started with an adverse reaction to being in the park. I could not enjoy myself because I was preoccupied with the amount of litter strewn across the natural space. The trash was distracting me from the abundant paths that surrounded us. I tried to move forward, but I kept thinking ‘how could we let our natural oasis get this way?’ As an artist, my concerns are visualizing and documenting experiences that focus on our accountability to our surroundings.

 

My strong reaction to the amount of garbage in Prospect Park led me to wonder why there isn’t a campaign to promote the clean and sustainable use of the park as a natural resource within the urban ecology. There are lots of plants for anyone in the city to enjoy for medicinal, culinary or other purposes (like creating fabrics and dyes). Ultimately, we need to take in knowledge about the natural scenery and take out the litter that threatens our local resources. We can promote a healthy relationship by thinking about what we consume and how it affects the environment. Learning to forage is one of the best things that I have learned, especially because mushrooms in particular are quite pricey in city markets! I hope more people will trust what is available around them in nature versus what is pre-packaged and mass-consumed. Perhaps through the incorporation of art and ecology curricula within our city’s schools, generations of students will gain expertise regarding the use of natural resources and become stewards to the ecosystems that exist within the urban landscape.

Artful Nurturing

Nature has an organic way of creatively carving out its path and presenting images of unique aesthetic proportions. Examples can be seen via the intricate lines, shape and harmony of the spider’s web, or the heavy impasto texture and abstract sculptural form of mound building termite’s hills.

Although humans have learned by observing natural phenomena for centuries, our ability to design beyond the limits of our genetic construction has led to the creation of cultural movements such as visual art, music, film and literature. While our collective culture has developed artistically and created a whole new world through new media like the internet and virtual reality, some artists have reflected back upon natural phenomena and explored patterns between our materialized environment and the innate behaviors of the animal and plant kingdoms.

The artist Martin Roth created work in collaboration with wildlife. Through a process that combined laboratory science and studio art, Roth nurtured living organisms in sterile or manufactured settings. Roth studied painting for his MFA, but came to realize that the pigments on the canvas weren’t enough of a vessel for the potent energy he desired to create. So he chose organic matter as his medium. He asserted that “by working with something that was living, changing, growing, I felt like there was actual energy in the work” (Rachel & Roth, 2017).

For example, one of Roth’s works is a ‘drawing’ that is simultaneously a habitat for worms. The worms have taken residency inside of a glass frame and as they move through the soil lines, shapes and values manifest. While Roth turned the traditional technique of drawing on its head, his work still adheres to the enduring aesthetic notions of artistic composition. Roth painted, sculpted and drew by employing a push and pull between artificial and natural materials and subject matter. Roth’s work grows over time, its properties change and it either evolves or comes to an end. It imitates life itself.

 

Roth played with the grid, a time-honored compositional framework in Western art, with his installation titled In May 2017 I cultivated a piece of land in Midtown Manhattan nurtured by tweets. The basis behind this work was that a basement (inside the Austrian Cultural Forum New York) full of lavender plants arranged in a compact grid, would grow as a result of Twitter rants from Donald Trump and other inflammatory agitators. As Trump and other blowhards angrily tweeted (and were re-tweeted), the intensity of the fluorescent lights got brighter and the plants grew bigger. The artwork provided a cathartic release from the tenseness of current events and sociocultural turmoil. The lavender plant symbolizes a direct contrast to the vitriol of the ferocious rants. Lavender is used in horticultural therapy to offer relief from anxiety and depression. The burgeoning rows of lavender, with their colorful hues and sweet fragrance, offered a counterbalance to the stressful and bleak moments society manufactures. 

The concept of nurturing human cognition and emotion through creative play with materials is also a major concept of Kindergarten pedagogy. The foundation of Kindergarten, which was developed by Friedrich Wilhelm August Fröbel, combines children’s innate and learned abilities, in order to scaffold their growth into the adult world. Fröbel’s Kindergartens combined both organic activities such as gardening and dancing with human manufacturing and technology, which culminated through his series of ‘gifts’ (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits). This methodology is largely incorporated today, especially in Reggio Emilia and Montessori schools.

The duality between inborn knowledge and experiential learning was significantly addressed by two of the foremost figures in developmental psychology: Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. These are the two contributed fundamental insights into how our minds develop. Piaget asserted that cognition comes about through set stages, while Vygotsky proclaimed that development is continual.  If you have ever heard the phrase ‘nature versus nurture,’ it is basically an abstract that describes the differences in both phychologist’s theories. We now have come to largely accept that these theories are both valid and should be fused together to develop educational curricula and make judgements regarding social, emotional and cognitive learning.

Art educator Judith Burton (2000), argues that young minds develop through both individual and cultural experience. She suggests that art is an effective method of communicating the complex nature of the living environment. We all have an inclination to make our mark on the world. Without any prior references, the earliest humans developed an archetypal visual vocabulary, where similar marks and symbols have been found in locations thousands of miles apart. This shows how expression and symbolic communication is a natural response to the human condition.

Through combining a personalized artistic style and using their culturally formed and learned experiences, a child can create their own profound mark within humanity. Burton claims that this reason is why both the child-centered notion of mind informing art education and the belief in laissez-faire teaching are inadequate. It is not ‘nature versus nurture,’ but rather both working in tandem that lets the child be liberated to think and create compelling visual narratives. The research of Piaget and Vygotsky and its updated scrutiny by Burton, signify that it is a combination of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ that account for a person’s development. In other words, while we all have the natural ability to learn and develop, how we perceive the world largely depends on our experience, environment and education (Zucker, 2018).

Through reflecting on the elements of nature and nurture in Roth’s art, we can discover a lot about ourselves and the ways we are both in-tune and out of touch with our natural environment and each other.


This post is dedicated to Martin Roth who passed away at the age of 41 on June 14, 2019.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Burton, Judith. (2000). “The Configuration of Meaning: Learner-Centered Art Education Revisited.” Studies in Art Education, 17-32.

Rachel, T. Cole and Roth, Martin. “Martin Roth on collaborating with nature.” The Creative Independent, 30 Nov. 2017. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/martin-roth-on-collaborating-with-nature/

Artful Qualitization: Ecotones

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Meghann Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes prints combine the physicality and symbolic nature of art making in conjunction with Mother Nature’s expressive forces. This collaboration is an awe-inspiring presentation of the clash between environmental cycles and humanity. The cyanotypes are reactions to changing environments due to human interaction and other forces. The prints are part artistic exploration and part scientific experimentation. They are qualitative interpretations of the quantitative data and scientific analysis that measure weather patterns, natural cycles and humanity’s environmental impact.

Riepenhoff’s choice of medium and materials are in dialogue with the past and present fields of aesthetics and science. Cyanotypes are well suited for studying the living environment, as well as producing works of art. Invented in the early-mid 19th century, the alternative photographic process was popularized by Anna Atkins, a botanist and photographer from England. Atkins utilized cyanotypes as a way to document the intricacies of plants and other natural objects by combining her astute eye as a photographer with her knowledge of plant taxonomy. She printed limited edition books of her prints, including Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (October, 1843), which is considered to be the first book illustrated with photographs.

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Installation view of Meghann Riepenhoff: Ecotone
© Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff’s cyanotypes offer a potent representation of the stress we put on our environment in an alluring and artful manner. For example, Littoral Drift #1170 (Polyptych, Great Salt Lake, UT 08.25.18, Lapping Waves at Shoreline of Antelope Island) was created by placing a sheet of paper prepared with cyanotype chemistry on the shoreline of the south side of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is experiencing record low water levels. The Great Salt Lake is divided by a causeway built in the 1950s by the Morrison-Knudsen construction company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. The causeway has restricted the flow of the water between the north and south sides, making levels of salinity uneven and affecting wildlife such as the brine shrimp population. The two sides of the lake are notably different colors and altogether the lake is characterized as an ecotone, which is defined as a region of transition where two or more distinct biological habitats abut. Riepenhoff juxtaposed the south shoreline print with works made on the opposite side of the lake, to symbolize the aesthetic difference in each region’s water composition. This process is akin to the scientific method where systematic observation and measurement are used to test a theory, in this case: what is the difference in water quality on opposite sides of the Great Salt Lake due to its status as an ecotone?

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Meghann Riepenhoff
Erasure #4 (Bainbridge Island, WA 03.24.18, .23” Precipitation), 2018
Dynamic Cyanotype
Approximately 89” x 42” (226 x 106.5 cm)
© Meghann Riepenhoff, Courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Riepenhoff also explores the aesthetic and vigorous qualities of storm water in another series of cyanotypes called Erasures. These prints are made when the storm runoff hits the prepared cyanotype paper. The length of the storm and the volume of water washing away large quantities of the cyanotype chemistry, results in a light tone with marks that recall painterly brushstrokes.

Data for weather and climate in the form of graphs and Doppler imagery is something that we rely on heavily each day. These data sets tell us about what to expect, but it is often hard to envision the environmental impact of the meteorological event until it is experienced. Art has a compelling way of making implied information relevant to our sense of visual perception, while leaving room for the viewer to interpret and include experiential elements.

Riepenhoff’s artwork visualizes the intricate force and physicality of storms and the variance of ecosystems in real time. The resulting engagement with nature is a subjective approach to capturing the essence of the biosphere and our individual interactions with nature. She can’t control the strength of a wave, the duration of the rainfall or the strength of the storm, but she makes a conscious effort to decide where to place her paper and how long to leave it out in the elements. The overarching result is a body of work that traces both the environment’s volatility and the artist’s deliberate choices.

This duality between consciousness and exploration is a crux of artful learning. The arts help us to develop critical thinking and flexible purposing skills that probe and conceptualize natural and cultural phenomena. The benefit of art-centered learning in scientific research and educational curricula, is that it adds an element of lived experience and personalization to a field largely engrossed in quantitative data and academic research. Art illuminates the ways that we interact with our environment and each other, and its captivating properties can raise awareness for issues affecting our shared natural resources. This is the case for Riepenhoff’s work, which subtly and discerningly depicts our interaction with the rest of the natural world.


Selected works from the Ecotone and Erasure series are on view at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, New York, NY 10001) through June 22, 2019.