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.

 

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Artful Quantification: Environmental Graphiti

In an age where data seems to dictate many aspects of our culture, it is nice to see the artful interpretations of Alisa Singer, who transforms quantitative scientific analysis on climate change into colorful and expressive works of art.

Previously, I discussed the work of Nancy Graves, who blurred the line between abstract and representational paintings with her series of works that commented on satellite imagery and mapping technology. Graves’ imagery showed the ways that maps can be a form of both objective and subjective information.

Like Graves, Alisa Singer utilizes the evocative nature of art in order to bring awareness to the way civilizations rely heavily on data and infographics, while not always forming a personal and meaningful relationship to the information. Big data is daunting, and unless you have a background studying it, charts and graphs feel largely removed from the lived experience. In her series of digital paintings called Environmental Graphiti, Singer analyzes charts and graphs from world climate reports, in order to re-present them in a way that stirs emotional responses and aims to get viewers to make deeper connections to climate change. The title of the series incorporates a playful rewording of the art style graffiti to describe the fusion of quantitative data and emotive art. It is an apt name for Singer’s contemporary and hip artworks that resemble the aesthetic and conceptual nature of painterly public art, while spreading scientific awareness.

The elements of art such as color, line and shape have symbolic properties that communicate and make associations to mood, memory and archetypal signifiers. In Singer’s work, these elements are incorporated along with principals of design such as balance, unity and contrast, in order to create compositions that effectively symbolize causes, effects and actions related to addressing climate change.

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Alisa Singer, Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 40″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

 

The Environmental Graphiti paintings are categorized into three identifying topics:

  • WHY is our climate changing? → Gallery A
  • HOW is climate change affecting our world? → Gallery B
  • WHO is at risk? → Gallery C
  • WHAT can we do to address climate change? → Gallery

One example of the ‘WHY’ is Emissions Levels Determine Temperature Rise, a semi-abstract digital painting inspired by a graph from the Third National Climate Assessment, Climate Change Impacts in the United States, USGCRP (2014). Singer uses warm and cool colors in a manner that symbolizes the temperature changes due to greenhouse gas emissions. In ‘HOW,’ paintings like Wildfires expressively portray how climate change is affecting natural disasters by changing the conditions of soil and moisture. The result is an increase in drier conditions that provide ample kindling for devastating wildfires.

 

‘WHO’ is at risk? Every living being on the planet is affected due to a myriad of factors such as disease, caused by rising temperatures, displacement of water sources caused by agriculture and industry. The painting Vector-Borne Diseases resembles the form of a mosquito filled in with a palette of vibrant colors, gesturally blended together. The mosquito is actually composed of text (see sketch above) related to vector-borne diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria and Zika. The enduring question of ‘WHAT’ we can do to address climate change, is presented through works such as Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals. In this digital artwork, Singer illuminates the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted in 2015. The original chart that the painting was based on, shows the correlation between sustainable development that protects the environment, and social development such as poverty eradication and reducing inequalities. The painting translates the U.N.’s graph into  glittering bands of color, as if to symbolize the hope and perseverance for reversing negative cultural and environmental trends.

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Alisa Singer, Climate Change Mitigation and U.N. Sustainability Goals, Digital Art on Metal 30″ W X 35.4″ H. Courtesy of the artist.

Singer’s combination of art and science helps make data more appealing and compelling because it transforms big data into a visual narrative that can be described, analyzed and valued using both concrete and abstract thought. We are able to assign feelings to the quantitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. This adds a component of compassion and enables us to make connections between statistics and our daily life experiences.

While data is a great way for scientists and policy makers to organize and keep track of their research and facts, it isn’t always the best determiner for learning. Not everyone in the populace thinks along analytical mindsets (see: Differentiation and Multiple Intelligences). Learning is experiential; based on a combination of observation, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. These elements cannot often be neatly charted or mapped out. The work of artists like Singer and Graves, eloquently express how a painting can be worth ‘a thousand words,’ or in the case of the Environmental Graphiti series, sets of raw climate data.

 

 

 

 

Collaborating with Kids for a Green New World

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Ido’s hand. “My mom is an artist…we made objects we want to protect…I made a waterfall because in my generation I don’t think there will be anymore.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel.

The enduring understanding among scientists is that climate change is happening all around us at an accelerated pace. Recently published climate reports from around the globe have provided the details of the effects humans have had on the Earth, and the dire consequences that are likely to occur if we don’t take action collectively.

Human-centered impact on the environment isn’t a novel theory or occurrence. Examples of ethical awareness for maintaining the world around us come from a diverse array of ancient, modern and contemporary sources, which include both historical and mythological accounts. One of these more illustrious examples is the biblical narrative of Noah’s Ark, which is a cautionary tale of how humans corrupted the once pristine landscape by disrespecting its natural resources, as well as one another. While the tale of Noah’s Ark is one of fiction, the idea that our actions have consequences on the world around us is blatantly evident. Throughout the human timeline, species and civilizations have come and gone due to human behaviors such as over hunting, warfare, industrialization and pollution.

Today’s generations face a serious quandary in light of the global crisis of environmental decline. We have witnessed the decline of 60% of the worlds wildlife population between 1970 and 2014 (see: WWF, 2018). The causes for such catastrophic events largely include the abuse of wildlife and natural resources for human profit or personal gain (i.e. trophy hunting, factory farming, deforestation of unique ecosystems).

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‘Help the elephants.’ Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

In the educational sphere, some liberal arts and science curricula have evolved to include a strong ecological focus and there is overwhelming support among Americans for teaching students about climate change, although it is still a contentious issue (see: Cheskis, Marlon, Wang and Leiserowitz, 2018). The arts and natural sciences are essential disciplines where students and educators can engage in experiential learning and develop a sense of understanding about themselves and the world around them. In the process, they can explore the effects that scientific and artistic reflection and production have within our culture. Through making insightful connections to their cultural and ecological environment, they may realize the moral role they can take on as makers and become more self sufficient and cooperative in the production and sharing of resources (instead of being largely reliant on consumer goods). Hopefully they will make connections regarding their role as consumers and producers and become more aware about making ethical decisions that support the maintenance and preservation of the environment. The essential question that gets addressed through learning processes and activities is: “how can we coexist with the natural world and become effective in informing others about the need to maintain a clean and ethical relationship with the environment?” Some follow up and alternative fundamental queries include:

  • What can we learn through responding to works of art, making works of art and presenting works of art that discuss ideas about our natural environment?
  • How does learning about art, ecology, ethical maintenance and environmentalism influence how we interpret the world around us?
  • How can we use art and environmental science to engage in the larger social ecological framework?

A recent collaboration between multidisciplinary visual artist Melanie Daniel and a group of 4th graders at an environmental science school, presents compelling responses to these prompts. Daniel’s own artistic practice focuses on climate related issues and she currently holds a three year long position as the Padnos Distinguished Visiting Artist at the Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The residency is an endowed chair and gives Daniel a framework to do art-centered socially engaged projects with the greater community.

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Artists at work making molds. Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The process for Daniel’s collaborative project with 4th graders began with each student constructing plaster hands using an alginate mold (a type of slime that hardens and can be filled with plaster or other material). The molds captured the precise details of each student’s hand, which resulted in a highly personalized sculpture. Later in the year, the students sculpted clay objects that represented a living entity in the world they wanted to protect (i.e. flora, fauna, geological formations, insects, etc.). The object that the students created sit in the palm of the hand, as if the molds of the students hands are nurturing and safeguarding the object. The hands are currently installed in the gallery at the Alexander Calder Art Center‘s Pandos Gallery at GVSU, where they are aligned in a row, providing a symbolic wall of hope. The exhibition is titled Offering.

Daniel and the students also compiled an accompanying catalogue consisting of drawings of their chosen objects and a short paragraph of why they chose that object and the significance it has to them. The students’ drawings and written responses are highly effective and while many have a humorous tone, the overarching theme is one of loss, when recognizing that perhaps some or all of these entities will no longer exist in the future. According to Daniel, the students asked poignant questions while they were working such as: “how will (future) kids know what a snake really looks like when it moves if it is extinct?”

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Student’s sculptures (installation shot). Photo courtesy of Melanie Daniel

The project has been beneficial for both the students, as well as Daniel herself. Through thinking about current issues, communicating unique ideas and making art, they developed a sense of stewardship for their surroundings. The installation reflects how the students exhibited empathy and made serious connections between their generation’s actions and the natural world. Additionally, they posited some suggestions for maintaining and repairing the world around them. Regarding the experience of working with young creative individuals, Daniel remarks: “Although I teach undergrads, it’s the little kids that blow my mind. They’re less self conscious, more engaged and deeply curious. They also have much better attention spans than their older cohorts and can apply themselves to a new task and utterly lose themselves to it.”

A reason that science and art work well as co-relational subjects in the curriculum, is that both disciplines start with imagination and employ exploration, discoveries and insights through an empirical lens and process. Essential habits of mind that are learned through science and art are: theory testing (hypothesis, inquiry, exploration of materials), flexible purposing (exploring new avenues as research/exploration leads to discoveries) and judgements in the absence of rule (both disciplines seek to break new ground in terms of how we analyze and contextualize natural phenomena).

When visual artists team up with young creative and inquiring minds, the possibilities for innovative results are enormous (as seen in the aforementioned project). One of the ways we can help our natural environment is to focus on individual and communal production methods that cut down on waste and mass consumption. Art can teach us to be sustainable (see: Kallis, 2014) and to create something unique from raw and found materials. Art also challenges us to dream big and produce ethically for the world we would like to see and experience.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cheskis, A., Marlon, A., Wang, X., Leiserowitz, A. (2018). Americans Support Teaching Children about Global Warming. Yale University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. http://climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/americans-support-teaching-children-global-warming/

Kallis, Sharon. 2014. Common Threads: weaving community through collaborative eco-art. British Columbia: New Society Publishers.

WWF. 2018. Living Planet Report – 2018: Aiming Higher. Grooten, M. and Almond, R.E.A.(Eds). WWF, Gland, Switzerland. https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2018-10/wwfintl_livingplanet_full.pdf