Tim Collins, PhD
Art, Environment and Ecology:
within a changing social and environmental context
Almost thirty years later what does Herbert Bayer’s ‘Earthworks’ (1982) mean to those of us that continue a commitment to the moral, theoretical and aesthetic development of the area of art, design and the environment? What does it mean when elements of the eco/social vision that he was trying to foster in his lifework becomes explicit in land use policy? Or more importantly when new policies reap rewards like the return of salmon to Mill Creek? The ultimate question is what would Bayer think about reshaping his original landscape design to reflect the ecological conditions and standards of today? Would he choose to maintain the integrity of the work as a cultural artifact or would he embrace the new ideas, environmental impacts and the outcomes of a culture that has begun to sense the opportunity and value in restoring nature? Would he consider reshaping the work in response?
According to the environmental historian Peder Anker, Bayer’s work “…rested on a Bauhaus vision of a new kind of industrial humanism that entailed a life in harmony with the social and natural world” (Anker, 2007). He clarifies Bayer’ modernist position as one where both humanity and nature could prosper through careful attention to, and understanding of, the boundaries that separate and define them. It is important to understand that these ideas were developed within a cultural context that viewed the world, nature, society and aesthetics in much simpler terms than we do today. The ethical goal remains a consistent element of environmental art practice world wide.
This is reflected in recent exhibitions such as ‘Natural Realities’ curated by Heike Strelow at the Ludwig Forum in Aachen, Germany (1999). This exhibit was an international overview that expanded ideas about art, environment and ecology and its range of effort to include the human body as a site of ‘natural’ inquiry. An exhibition that began to address instrumental intent within environmental art occurred at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sue Spaid and Amy Lipton (2002) co-curated ‘Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies.’ There are two other relevant exhibitions, ‘Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art’ (2005) curated by Stephanie Smith; and ‘Groundworks: Environmental Collaboration in Art’ (2005) curated by Grant Kester. They provide divergent, critical views of this kind of work with different choices informing the decision about the artists involved. In Smith’s curatorial project she exhibits artists that produce material products that posit socially-critical positions. Inherent in these projects is the intent to transcend cultural norms, but the response is always embodied in artifact. This differs from Kester’s curatorial project, which is based in dialogic interaction and its impact. “…engagement is no longer defined primarily through distanced visual contemplation, actualized by reading or de-coding an image or object, but through haptic experience actualized by immersion and participation in the process” (Kester, 2005, p.20). Kester’s project focuses on records and documentation of creative/critical social/environmental practices; documentation that intends from the outset to create change, not artefact.
Returning to Bayer, If we consider his goal of respecting and understanding boundaries, then we must assume that the work was designed and constructed as artifact, it is a formal geometric land design. It is also design that seeks to interact with the flow of onsite stormwater systems in wet weather and meet the social demands of a public landscape in dry weather. So the work is not only artifact it is also infrastructure, as it retains stormwater onsite; it serves and protects the city of Kent.
Challenging this historic design and its relevant sight lines - is a proposal to raise the height of the dam; reflecting changes to stormwater regulation. And a move to protect and restore waters edge plants and trees. This is based upon increasing awareness to the role that riparian plants play in the support of the complex ecological functions of living streams. The tension between stormwater, salmon streams, landscape and artwork is a fascinating contemporaneous aesthetic problem.
The question in Kent, Washington is do these potential changes destroy or complete the work? As an artefact it is a national icon: a clear concise earthwork by one of the early masters of art and environmental practice. As physical structure it plays a multi-sensual (visual, somatic, social) role in the cultural life of the community. As an idea, a design concept and as a series of images the work continues to play a role in the international cultural discourse of both art and landscape architecture. Changes to the dam height need to be considered in terms of the scope and scale of impact on the original design – as well as a clear understanding of the conditions (and opportunities for mitigation) in the upper and lower watershed. In light of this, an aesthetic, cultural decision must be made within the community – regarding the upgrade of the stormwater infrastructure aspect of the work, and its potential impact upon this iconic cultural artefact. A radical change to the hydrological design parameters could destroy the form and scale which is the fundamental basis for the aesthetic integrity of the work. The question of emergent stream side vegetation strikes me as a slightly different issue, as the return of salmon to the stream is an indication of successful land use planning and stormwater management. What better indication of Bayer’s goals of ‘life in harmony’ could we ask for? Would the changes to vegetation impact upon the social use of the site? if the impact is only visual - site lines can be managed and its seems to me that this is a natural evolution of the site; an evolution that respects the artist’s environmental ethic and fundamental intent.
Our environmental consciousness and aesthetic sensibilities have changed since the Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture project was completed. Some of these changes were telegraphed in an exhibition of the next generation of work that was presented by Curator Barbara Matilsky in the 1992 exhibition and catalogue titled ‘Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists' Interpretations and Solutions’. The exhibition was intended to illustrate the range of approaches artists had developed to “…actually restore or re-create natural ecosystems.” (Matilskly, 1992, p 4) Both the curatorial effort and the artists’ work were at the cusp of new ideas in environmental responsibility and ecological restoration. Although the full scope and scale of the environmental issues these artists were facing was not entirely clear at that time. An unfortunate reality of that particular exhibition is that many of the works unravelled, languished or failed over time due to changes to policy, regulation, funding and politics. Holt’s project was undermined by the complications of an unstable and poorly capped landfill (New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, 2004). Eukeles project was undermined by changes to environmental regulation and a loss of NEA funding during the culture wars (Ukeles, 1995, 2002). The Harrison’s project on the Sava River in Yugoslavia was undermined by the changing politics of Eastern Europe during the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing conflict in the area. The success of Betty Beaumont’s ‘Ocean Landmark’ project was complicated by shifts in its material condition, it seems to have lost its material integrity. It is a matter fact that changes to environmental regulation during the early 1990’s changed both the intent and method of land reclamation affecting the artist’s role in these projects The ‘Fragile Ecologies’ catalogue is an excellent overview of history, theory and practice at that time. All of the work discussed was exemplary experimental public work. This is another good reason to address any changes to Bayer’s (and Morris’) work in Kent, Washington with all due diligence, care and appropriate creative intent. The people of Kent are the keepers of an internationally important cultural artefact, which is also a living landscape.
In closing, I’ve just returned from three weeks in England, Wales and Ireland with my partner/collaborator Reiko Goto and my father. We pondered standing stones and cairns, we peered into the wrecks of Neolithic stone enclosures an huts and spent time at holy wells and churches, burial grounds and sacred spaces from times long past. Notably we ended at the Hill of Tara, standing amongst that ancient earthwork with its circular ditches and mounds that are an obvious point of reference for anyone interested in Bayer’s work. It gave me pause, and an opportunity to think about these landscapes of care; of social engagement and ongoing cultural significance. I came away from that trip with a sense that government intervention in ‘culturally significant’ sites often meant the complete erasure of any indication of contemporary use, any sense that this was a ‘living’ cultural landscape. It is my opinion that it is important that we don’t treat the best of our public art/landscape work as static museum artefacts. Despite best efforts, they will undergo changes in meaning and purpose over time. We must manage that change, but at the end of the day I believe this is essential to embrace the natural changes that keep them relevant to the communities and ecologies that surround them.
Anker, Peder, Graphic Language: ‘Herbert Bayer's Environmental Design.’ Environmental History Vol 12.No 2 (2007): 44 pars. 1 Sep. 2007 <http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/eh/12.2/anker.html>.
Kester, G. (2004) Conversation Pieces, Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press.
Kester, G. (ed.) (2005) Groundworks: Environmental Collaboration in Contemporary Art. Pittsburgh, PA: the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University.
Matilsky, B. (1992) Fragile Ecologies: Contemporary Artists Interpretations and Solutions. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.
New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, Parks Group, Landfill Reclamation. http://www.meadowlands.state.nj.us/eco_tourism/parks/Landfill_Reclamation.cfm [accessed 3 Sept, 2007].
Smith, S. (2005) Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art. Chicago, IL: Smart Museum.
Spaid, S. and Lipton, A. (2002) Ecovention: Current Art to Transform Ecologies. The Cincinnati Art Center, Ecoartspace, and the Greenmuseum.org.
Strelow, H. (1999) Natural Reality: Artistic Positions Between Nature and Culture. Daco Verlag (Stuttgart): Ludwig Forum for Internationale Kunst.
Ukeles, M.L. (1995) The Art of Maintaining Public Life: An Interview with Mierle Laderman Ukeles. On The Ground, 1, no 4, 1-4
Ukeles, M. L. (2002) Leftovers/It’s About Time for Fresh Kills. Cabinet Magazine, Issue 6, Spring 2002. Brooklyn, NY.
i. Matilsky made an assumption that was right at that time, but it was only true for a limited time period. It is important to remember that the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) was first founded in 1987. Right through the 1990’s restoration was being mandated in state and federal projects although there were neither standards defining what the term meant nor were there rigorous methods to define ecological success. Artists, philosophers, ecologists, planners and landscape architects were all primaries on early projects. More recent projects are highly interdisciplinary in response to changes to both knowledge and regulation.
While there are some similarities in the intent to restore nature, it is important not to confuse the work of scientists with the work of artists. I would argue that the difference is that artists primarily work on restoration at the level of perception, conceptualization, experience and value; our colleagues in engineering and the natural sciences are working on restoration with knowledge developed through replicable experimentation. None the less, some of my artist colleagues in this area of practice claim practical expertise in both the art and the science of ecological restoration.
ii. Later work on the Fresh Kills Landfill sites seems to also have fallen to the need for greater interdisciplinary expertise, mandated by the engineering based regulation of landfill closures. The Landscape Architect James Corner’s firm “Field Operations” won the contract for the design of the site. Despite changes in her own contract, Ukeles name has not been connected to Connor’s design remit (Cabinet, 2002).
iii. In a conversation with Helen and Newton Harrison on 24 April, 2007 in Manchester, UK, they described the impact of the work once the politics settled down in the region. A young planner that had worked with them continued with the ideas they had initiated. At this point in time, the Sava River is the focus of a number of national and international programmes to restore its ecological function and water quality, which was the intention of the Harrison’s work.
iv. Various diving websites identify this as: the “Fire Island Artificial Reef” located approximately 2.0 nautical miles South of Fire Island Lighthouse. Size: 744 acres; 3,000 yards by 1,200 yards. Depth: 62-73 feet. Listing the material as: 1,500 tires, 10 barges, 2 boat hulls, 2 dry-docks, 16 armoured vehicles, coal waste blocks (experimental), rock, concrete rubble, and cesspool rings.” (Long Island Diving, 2007)
Professor Timothy Collins is an artist and interdisciplinary academic. He is currently the Associate Dean for Research and Development, Director of the Centre for Art, Design, Research and Experimentation and Director of the Creativity, Media and Technology STUDIO at the School of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, UK. He is a Distinguished Research Fellow, STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, Carnegie Mellon University. He holds a PhD from the University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK, an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA, and a BFA University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI.
1. The 3 Rivers Sand Mandala, 2006. Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, with Reiko Goto and Noel Hefele.
From 2000-2005 Collins and Goto directed 3Rivers - 2nd Nature; a five year art/public realm project with a team of artists, scientists, designers and students working together on issues of public space and ecology along the post-industrial waterfronts of Allegheny County, PA. In fall 2005 Collins and Goto organized and initiated a series of public programs, a conference and an exhibition titled: Groundworks, curated by Grant Kester of UC San Diego. The exhibition examined international approaches to art, ecology and planning.