Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

In the traditional Capitalist method of producing, the finished product is the only element of importance. Making takes place, according to the Aristotelian view, between a starting point and finishing point. We have an idea already in mind, it gets green-lighted, and it is produced. The final product becomes the impetus for the way we conceptualize our human identity by developing a sense of desire (“I shop therefore I am”) for the latest, most luxurious thing. Once upon a time, humans lived in self-sustaining communities where various community members contributed a range of skills such as farming, metalwork, woodworking, paper making, weaving, and more. The influence that artisan culture in particular had across society was evident during the 19th Century in Europe and North America during the Second Industrial Revolution. Progressive educators such as Jane Adams (1860-1935) and Ellen Gates Starr (1859-1940) promoted an educational system, bolstered by the arts, which would lead to a more skilled and autonomous workforce. The idea was that learning through the arts would not only produce a more skilled workforce, but more importantly, a group of individuals who shared empathy and pride in their work. Beginning around the 1860s, companies like the one founded by William Morris in England, produced handcrafted decorative art and design. Morris’ company was a major counterpoint to the burgeoning aesthetics of mass production and remained in business until the early stages of World War II in 1940. Today, our society has become largely divorced from producing our own goods and services. Most of the old artisan trades have been superseded by giant corporations like Walmart and Monsanto.

While it is arguably easier to drive to the grocery store than to grow and cultivate your own produce, the act of consuming versus producing has put us in a state of dependency for consumer goods. We are less creative as a whole because we’ve given up specific skills and techniques in favor of a convenient readymade object. Ingold (2013) states that we ‘think through making’ rather than projecting an idea onto a readymade material. In other words, through improvisation we web together a series of experiences that lead to the progression of our mindfulness, which is facilitated by our awareness to the present moment. Then, during that moment of making, we gain insight to phenomena through an exploration of materials and techniques. 

Thinking through making is the crux of the Reggio Emilia approach to student-centered learning, where relationship driven environments afford the child a path towards self-directed and empirical learning. In this early childhood methodology, documentation (in Wein, Guyevsky & Berdoussis, 2011) is essential in that it provides a continuum of discourse around a student’s experience and provides a visual process for building upon observations in a collaborative environment. In other words, students should have an unrestricted means and opportunity to express themselves repletely, and this should be practiced in a setting where everyone is an active participant in constructing this learning. Students are given a liberal offering of materials and allowed the freedom to explore, discover, and make insightful connections that are relevant to their daily lives.  

The Reggio Emilia philosophy doesn’t have to exist solely within elementary school environments. Mitchel Resnick argues that the model of imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and reflecting, are necessary elements of living a creative, well rounded life. This echoes Ingold’s “thinking through making approach,” as well as Freire’s “Banking Model,” and Dewey’s theory of experiential learning. It is increasingly more and more essential that we as a society become producers rather than being reliant upon consuming mass produced goods and services. Being a producer, whether programing an app for the iPhone, planting a community garden, building a house, or making art; enables us to think via making. We are creating for the world we want to live in. Therefore, an enduring question we can all think about is how can we produce/make as a form of ethical maintenance?

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Several contemporary artists have made work that comments on the effects of maintenance work. Vik Muniz and Mierle Laderman Ukeles have paid tribute to the sanitation workers, while bringing to light a poignant visualization of the surplus of refuse human beings create. Allan Kaprow, Maren Hassinger, and Bryant Holsenbeck have also envisioned trash as a “readymade” and the process of maintenance as the path towards creative discovery and insights on the effects humans have on the environment. 

Ukeles, the founder of “Maintenance Art,” focuses her artistic practice on the connections between the art world, the natural world, and human labor. She alludes to how just as important works of art art are painstakingly preserved, so too must we take similar concern in preserving our natural environment. The care of fine art is given great precedence, whether it is in a museum collection, a private custodian (i.e art collectors), or in an art storage facility. Additionally, restoring a work of art (which is inevitable for any work of art that has been created) takes countless hours and is a great financial undertaking. Ukeles suggests that maintenance of our ecosystem must also be given the same priority. Her big question is whether an expression or the application of ecological maintenance (i.e. sanitation) processes can create a sense of responsibility and affirmation amongst community residents. Thinking of maintenance as an artistic process and the result (refuse) as an art object, isn’t it therefore our cultural responsibility to care for, repair, and archive our ecological system with the care, attention that priceless works of art receive? Ukeles’ work echoes Ingold’s ‘think through making’ approach to being mindful producers. In this case, the readymade already exists in the form of refuse so the creative process, which is maintenance work realizes the human potential to maintain our shared environment. Furthermore, Ukeles is celebrating the work of contemporary laborers by equating their work preserving our urban ecosystem to the work of a visual artist, curator, or art restorer.

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Maren Hassinger, “Performance of Pink Trash” (1982) (performance documentation courtesy Horace Brockington)

We typically think negatively about the garbage we see all around us. Litter in our streets and parks doesn’t leave us feeling good. Many of us might also consider the job description of sanitation workers to be undesirable.  The unsightly vision of refuse tarnishing our shared environment was elevated through the maintenance based performance by Maren Hassinger. Hassinger’s Pink Trash (1982) performance used garbage –which the artist made to stand out by painting pink– as a material and arranged it aesthetically throughout three New York City park’s (Central Park, Prospect Park, and Van Cortland Park) in order to critically question the civic and ethical role we have with regards to our shared public spaces. As Muniz and Ukeles have shown us, our sanitation workers are incredibly hard at work cleaning up our city, however, the burden of maintenance falls on every single one of us too. We can take major steps by volunteering to clean our parks and public spaces. By working alongside the city’s laborers, we can better understand what is at task and how we can offer our services to prevent our city from being over polluted. If we see something that strikes us as being in contrast with our urban ecology (cigarette butts, empty food wrappers, plastic bags, etc), we should act accordingly and dispose of it properly. 

During the 1960’s, Allan Kaprow’s installations and social sculptures (Kaprow called them “Happenings“) such as Yard (1961) and Fluids (1967) addressed the effects of consumerism and labor within a capitalist society through the use of unconventional materials (tires in Yard and ice in Fluids). The crux of Kaprow’s “Happenings” was the interrelational connection between performers and materials. For Kaprow, these events had no preconceived outcome. The process was largely improvisational and viewers often became participants in the playful arena, which established inter-disciplinary relationships between art and the natural environment. Kaprow stated: 

“happenings invite us to cast aside for a moment these proper manners and partake wholly in the real nature of the art and life. It is a rough and sudden act, where one often feels “dirty”, and dirt, we might begin to realize, is also organic and fertile, and everything including the visitors can grow a little into such circumstances.”

These happenings are a good transition to thinking about how Reggio Emilia style learning is implemented outside of the classroom and how contemporary art has profound implications for the playful, creative, collaborative, and reflective habits of mind that are necessary for achieving success and good well-being throughout life.

Another artist who makes strong connections between art and the natural world is Bryant Holsenbeck. Bryant Holsenbeck’s installations frequently use everyday objects collected from public spaces like parks, beaches, and city streets. Her sculptures allude to mass production and its effect on the environment. Her artistic practice is multifaceted, she is partaking in the act of maintenance by removing litter from the environment, engaging in play through her creative use of these upcycled materials, and reflecting on the ways that humans can increase their environmental awareness.  

In addition to environmental concerns, there are other forms of labor that contemporary artists like Cinthia Marcelle,Chloë Bass, and Santiago Sierra engage with in their artworks. Marcelle, a Brazilian artist, investigates the effects of labor on an economic system, as well as its role in the process of making a work of art. Through symbolic use of materials such as the chalk she used in her site specific installation Education by Stone (2016), Marcelle symbolically depicts the material through the lens of history. Chalk is a stone, which has become a traditional tool with a pedagogical function. Chalk and chalkboards are archetypes for education (although interactive whiteboards (SMART boards, etc have started to replace them). Chalk’s frequent use in classrooms is an expression of language, literacy, communication, and learning. Education by Stone‘s symbolic message came largely through its placement within MoMA’s Ps1, a contemporary art museum inside a former New York City public school. The museum is also a major pedagogical institution, which promotes visual literacy and expression through displaying works of art for the public. The chalk was affixed inside cracks within the museum’s brick wall by a team of laborers who worked to install the artwork to fulfill Marcelle’s specifics. The chalk crumbled, cracked, and fell to the floor, poetically expressing the fragility of the education and labor systems, which are significantly undervalued in relationship to capital gains and finance.

Overall, Marcelle’s body of work portrays the absurdity and the disconnect between labor and capital. She has experienced the widening economic gap between the financial class and the working class in her homeland of Brazil, and depicts the absurdity and the impossibility of these systems ever being equal in the current economic system.

Santiago Sierra’s frequently controversial works, examine the exploitation of laborers by the wealthy class. Through having performers, who are actual laborers, perform menial and physically exerting tasks, Sierra addresses issues of immigration, the relationship between poverty and Capitalism, and the widening economic gap in Capitalist society.

Chloë Bass’ conceptual artworks examine the intimacies of social and professional relationships and the effect they have on daily life and the environments we live in. Her  process includes interviewing others, engaging in daily activities with a diverse range people, and investigating the intricacies of specific localities. For example, The Department of Local Affairs was an investigative project maintained by Bass that developed an interactive, locally crowd sourced guidebook for a geographical location, based upon the expertise of local residents and laborers. The contributions took the shape of designing a pamphlet, making a map, writing a review, or leaving advice. The project began in Omaha, Nebraska, and then took place in the neighborhood of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, New York. The result was an alternative travel guide that focused on people, places, and activities that were important and relevant to the local community, rather than a commercial pamphlet for tourists. The process of residents expressing, reflecting, and presenting their personal and collective experiences within their neighborhood is efficacious in maintaining a sense of pride and belonging to a place.

Having students explore their communities and the many facets that make up the environment they live in can open the door to engaging projects. They could take the role of an urban planner and work with local communities to convert empty spaces into public places, or design a campaign that raises awareness regarding the litter in city parks. Students should have the autonomy to develop these projects, while the teacher can facilitate by showing them examples from the aforementioned artists (and others). The teacher might also initiate contact with advocacy groups in the community in order to form an ongoing collaboration with the students. Throughout the project, students should document their process through photographs, sketches, mapping, journals/blogs, and field notes (such as interviews of community advocates or the population they’ve chosen to work with). Students will become absorbed in a creative and collaborative process, while gaining understanding about a social, cultural, or environmental issue, and have an opportunity to creatively solve a problem. By becoming producers of valuable shared experiences, students will hopefully be motivated to continue to shape and maintain the world they want to live in. They are the future planners, leaders, and activists in a world that needs creative solutions to a myriad of issues.


References: 

Ingold, Tim. 2015.Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Resnick, Mitchel. 2017. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Wien, Carol Anne, et al. 2011. Learning to Document in Reggio Inspired Education. ECRP, 13 (2).

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Making Our Space / Documenting Our Place – Building and Maintaining a Better World

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

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Stephanie Lerner, SineSaloum, 2018, fishrope, plastic litter & epitonium shells. Courtesy of the artist.

The confluence of science, technology, and art offers an array of pragmatic and creative opportunities for future generations to make general improvements within the world we all share. One of the major issues that will affect generations in the not too distant future is the transformation of our waterways from being sources of life to being bodies of conflict. Our oceans, seas, rivers, etc. have been experiencing vast amounts of human-induced trauma for decades on end. Eventually, time will run out for these vibrant eco-systems, which sustain all life on this planet. For example, many waterways are overfilled with pollution from consumer goods such as plastic. If the current rate of plastic pollution, which ends up in the water is not ceased, there will actually be MORE plastic than fish in our oceans by the year 2050. This is obviously a devastating premonition for life as we know it on Earth. The reason we know the extent of this ominous information is due to advances in technology, which allows scientists to safely and effectively study the oceans and waterways.

Art is like science and engineering in that it is informed by inquiry based research, theory testing, and transformation of ideas or materials into something new. Artists, like scientists and engineers seek to develop profound responses to big questions. Artists have aligned their creative output with many major scientific issues since before the dawn of civilization. Our knowledge of human history and the natural environment were initially discovered through visual records evident from cave paintings depicting the inquisitiveness and experiential learning within pre-historic communities. Over time artists have helped us increasingly relate to our surroundings and develop innovative new ideas and products. For example, we see artistic innovation that informed scientific research inside the notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci, through John James Audubon‘s colorful and accurate depictions of American birds, and in the development of urban agricultural environments like Mary Mattingly’s SwaleAlternatively, the father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, was just as innovative as a draughtsman visualizing the brain on paper as he was in studying the physical elements of the brain in his laboratory. In the case of all the above examples, visual art played an essential role in the synthesis of scientific discovery and innovation.

Today’s students will inherit a world that is in need of innovations that will ensure its salvation. Art centered education can impress upon students the need for environmental empathy by showing examples of how artists such as Sto Len, Steven HirschWilliam Miller, the Newtown Creek Armada, and Stephanie Lerner symbolize the effects of pollution as material or subject matter in their work. All at once, these works are aesthetically pleasing, romantic, tragic, and dire. They remind us that in life, death is always present and our struggle to create a beautiful world is interconnected to our mortality. However, there is also a great sense of hope to be gained by understanding that visual art has the power to incite change and impress upon people’s positive relationships with the world around them. These artists implore us to become better custodians of our natural resources so that we can sustain nature’s marvelous qualities for many generations to come.

Steven Hirsch and William Miller’s abstract photography, transcends the often negative description of the murky, dark, and slow moving water of the Gowanus Canal. Hirsch’s camera captures a brilliant spectrum of colors that reflect off the water’s surface, which immediately brings to mind the Impressionist works of Monet as well as Post-WWII color field painters. Hirsch’s photographs create an epic visual narrative, which is indicative of Greek mythology. Here, we see that beauty transcends the devastation that has overtaken the canal, and it is calling loudly to us for help. Similarly, the canal’s aesthetic properties becomes the inspiration for William Miller’s series of photographs. Miller photographs the Gowanus Canal in a manner where abstract forms are juxtaposed with recognizable imagery. Reflections of the clouds and sky are visible in some of the photographs, which transforms the viewer to an otherworldly state. It is hard to imagine the toxins below the surface, however, Miller subtly captures glimpses of refuse and sludgy textures to pull us back to reality.

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Works on paper by Sto Len on view at Volta NY, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Sto Len’s unique printmaking process, transports his practice from the studio environment into the heavily polluted waters of the Newtown Creek. He improvises on the traditional style of Suminagashi (floating ink) printmaking to develop an experiential collaboration and discourse with nature by dipping prepared paper into the creek’s heavily polluted waters, and using its detritus as material.

Through watching video installations and looking at documentation by the Brooklyn based art collective Newtown Creek Armada, students can analyze how artists realized a problem (extreme pollution in the Newtown Creek), developed their research, and sought to address this problem to the public.

Stephanie Lerner is an excellent artist that students can look to for inspiration on working with recycled materials in order to repurpose problematic pollution into an awe-inspiring solution that is both poignant in its message and visually stunning. Lerner combs the beaches and waterways for discarded plastic products and makes intricate works of art such as tapestries and mandalas, which she creates by weaving together plastic refuse and fishing line, a harmful pollutant that takes 600 years to decompose underwater. By cleaning the shorelines, Lerner is ensuring that the plastic washed onto the beach doesn’t return to the ocean, while also acquiring materials for her poignant yet beautiful works of art.

Valuable materials in the art room can be sourced by having the school community (teachers, parents, students) contribute plastic, paper/cardboard, and other refuse, which can be used for weaving, sculpture, collage, and printmaking projects. Traditional materials should ideally be substituted for earth friendly, recycled, and repurposed materials whenever possible.

Artistic learning has many benefits for inter-disciplinary innovation. When artists use their artistic knowledge and skills –put those elements of art and principles of design to practical use and transcend relying on traditional art materials (which can add to surplus waste and pollution as well– to seek to address big issues that affect our civilization, the results are transformative throughout our collective culture. Art influences society by raising our awareness, affecting our emotions, translating experiences across time and place, and giving us a sense of self within the world. When artists explore ideas and problems within other disciplines like science and technology, they can truly make essential contributions to the present and future stewardship of our environment.

Learning to Visualize A Bright Future For Our Environment

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art Pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment

Art and science are more similar than they are different. Artists and scientists use similar methods or habits of mind such as theory testing (concept/hypothesis, trial and error), flexible purposing (ability to shift aims while working), and weighing alternatives (the ability to see things from multiple perspectives). Furthermore, artists and scientists explore various organic and synthetic materials and change their properties or qualities to create something new. In today’s volatile climate, where science and the humanities are eschewed in favor of ‘alternative facts,’ artists can fight back by presenting awe-inspiring work that unites disciplines such as science, technology, and history. There is a lot of potential for the artist and scientist to collaborate inside and outside of the studio or laboratory. Additionally, when scientific research is presented in the form of an art project (such as Love Motel for Insects), it humanizes the data and communicates an empathetic message that is accessible to everyone in the public sphere.

The common thread between the artists discussed in this post, is their use of organic and inorganic mediums as a vehicle for promoting a conversation about our relationship with the world and our fragile existence within nature. Referencing their knowledge and research of biology, ecology, medical science, climate science, and social history, their artwork is a visual metaphor for the paradoxical conflation of the human made and natural world. Juxtaposing organic materials and phenomena with synthetic art materials and processes, contemporary artists: Vanessa Albury, Nene Humphrey, Kristen Holcomb, and Jordan Eagles, explore the association between the body, mind, and the environment. At large, these works of art present aesthetic reflections of mortality, spirituality, and scientific inquiry.

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Vanessa Albury, Arctic, Future Relics (Distant Mountains), 2016, Selenium-toned Gelatin Silver Print mounted to museum board and wood, 42″ x 32″ x 8″.

Vanessa Albury’s photographs take glacial ice-caps in the Arctic Circle as subject matter. Her series Arctic, Future Relicswhich was realized during a residency in Svalbard, Norway, documents the melting of glaciers due to climate change. The ephemeral essence of these glaciers are memorialized in time through the photographic process. Ghostly in their aesthetic form, these epic photographs capture the essence of these majestic ecological forms throughout the process of decay.

Microscope_Hand Drawing Amygdala from Nene Humphrey on Vimeo.

In her series of layered drawings created by using high-powered microscopes, Nene Humphrey explores the connection between aesthetics and the deep cellular workings of the amygdala where our emotions reside. The resulting images are intimate artistic expressions of our psyche that deals with themes of loss and mourning.

Jordan Eagles ‘paints’ using animal blood mixed with multiple layers of clear resin. His unique style of work came about through rigorous theory testing and trial and error. He incorporates gradations of “aged blood” that create various deep black fields in stages of decomposition and illuminates the consistency and texture of the blood. These abstract works of art can resemble other natural and synthetic imagery such as Rorschach inkblot test patterns, magnified biological cells, and lava. The work explores how we think about our bodies and address issues of mortality.

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Kristin Holcomb, Transformations #81, pigment print, 11.5 x 17.5 inches.

Similarly to Vanessa Albury, Kristin Holcomb observes nature taking its course and captures the transformative process through the lens of her camera. Her abstract photographs are of surfaces of walls after years of being changed by weather, paint, rust, and algae. The walls themselves become complex, organic or synthetic ‘paintings’ with the passing of time. The Transformations series of photographs are about rebirth and the possibility of beauty in destruction.

The aforementioned artists are just a few inspirational examples of how art, science, and technology can have a symbiotic relationship and result in strong inter-disciplinary learning capabilities. Having students reflect and respond to their natural surroundings through art is a good way for them to develop a lifelong thirst for knowledge and become more environmentally and socially conscious.

STEAM based learning through Contemporary Art Pt. 2: Body, Mind, and the Environment