Green Museum

Situation: a review.

I read “Situtation” as I read most books these days: sitting on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, traveling between jobs. It’s the 6-10 jobs that keep my volunteer blogging to a minimum (no regular wifi on BART just yet). Still, I wanted to read– and write about– this book. Because how I read it is also how it’s structured: in small digestible chapters. Because Situation is a compilation of excerpts from primary sources, the words of artists and scholars, here and gone, about context and place in artmaking.

The cited authors range from Lucy Lippard to Hannah Arendt to Robert Smithson (yes, THAT Robert Smithson) to Krzysztof Wodiczko. The excerpts are organized into four parts: “The Limits of Site,” “Fieldwork,” “Action and Public Space,” “Place and Locality,” and “The Curatorial Imperative.” Editor Claire Doherty does an excellent job of chaining seemingly unrelated sources together. And though there’s a lot of complaint about how media and television are affecting literature, that it read like a documentary was pleasant.

On one page I’d be reviewing Smithson’s work with sites and non-sites: on the next I’d be reading Giorgio Agamben’s thoughts on witnessing. The experience was an ever-evolving collage of thought on place. Like a kaleidescope with some of the best thinkers of the last 75 years or so in it. Good for introducing yourself to new thoughts on space. Good for mental niblets between trains. Good for discovering new incredible people.

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Elements: An Eco-Art Conference.

Have I made it clear? I’m a conference junkie.

Ain’t nothing better than being in a room full of smart people and listening to them talk about the smart things they’ve done. With smart words and smart brains. And especially now, when the green conferences are sprouting up every-which-where, like volunteer plants or something, you can listen to the experienced and the earthy-heroic, all at once. Smart and savory, your basic brain food.

But, unlike most green, super green, shiny-slick-looka-me-green conferences (and boy, do I love those), the producers of the Elements Eco Art Conference were exclusively women, and women with a very clear stated agenda: they were The Northern California Women’s Caucus for Art.

That official part explains the special certificate bestowed upon the conference by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner. But it also explains the style of the conference itself. Held in the shiny-green David Brower Center, bereft of plastic bottles but packed with compostables and a small altar, Elements was a gathering of some of the women who have been doing this eco-art thing for a long time. In some cases, 10 years. In some cases, 40. In most cases, before you figured out that it was a pretty cool thing.

And so we heard from Susan Leibovitz Steinman and the Recology Artists in Residence. And so we heard from Tierney Thys and Andree Singer Thompson. In the meantime, the presenters talked through a stream of technical glitches, and you could make art postcards and trade them, and we all looked under our seats when somebody lost a notebook. Because despite the fact that much of the work discussed was ground-breaking, iconic or simply Hella Good, the focus never strayed from its purpose. That we were here for the art, not the artist, that we were gathered for a purpose, not a form.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Nobody was barefoot. There were no drum circles. There was a bit of a libation, but no sage. The refreshing thing lacking was the ego. The puffed-out-chest of “I’m smart and here to talk about my smartness.” Which I usually love. It was refreshingly absent. It was, simply, all about the work, and the places the work was from.

Maybe it’s just humbling when your power-point doesn’t work, or when you know everyone in the room by name, or when you just get to make art in service to the planet. And it doesn’t have anything to do with being a lady. But regardless, Leibovitz-Steinman said a smart thing: “Many young women today think they don’t need to be feminist . . . but the fact is we’re standing on the shoulders of these women.” She’s got a chart that lays it all out for you, all the way back to Silent Spring, the work of another grounded woman. Was she even a feminist?

I’ll be taking tomorrow to go over more of the smart details, but for now, my brain is fed.

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A Silver Sheen to . . . well, you know.

Yes. So.

Garbage didn’t work. Natural fibers were rejected. Booming school has apparently been a failure. In the meantime, an ever-increasing parade of oil-soaked birds and the collapse of local industries.
What else can we do but laugh?

If there is a silver lining or sheen or gloss or whatever to the gulf spill, it’s that the insanely large catastrophe has spawned some of the best ecological humor in recent years.

Don’t EVEN try to take that the wrong way.

Pro comedy players like UCB Theater, The Daily Show and the Colbert Report have been defending ecosystems and decrying BP with their sharp and witty tools of trade. Most memorably, The Onion suggests a Massive Flow of Bullshit from BP Headquarters will drown us all.

It’s times like these that laughter literally heals. Which is not to say: it scrubs oily birds. Rather: it keeps ecological massacres such as these from driving you insane.

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Creativity, Action and Rhetoric.

Any fellowship program that respects artists will not set out like missionaries to train them to be good citizens, which will do as much to reinforce the popular assumption that artists are irresponsible children as supporting facile aesthetic tantrums . . . The visual arts field should be seen as en ecosystem in which many different kinds of art must be able to flourish.

– Michael Brenson, “Visionaries and Outcasts”

Last year at the UN talks in Copenhagen there was an awful lot of art. I mean a big glorious bucketful. I mean exhibitions and performances and people-hosting-people-as-art, and there was a great amount of debate as to how that was going to affect policy. If at all. In an interview with me for Inhabitat.com, Ian Garrett of the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts reported that in Copenhagen, “These creative ventures, in talking about climate change, are reinforcing what people are feeling around town here and they have an increasing voice with the policy makers of the world,” while admitting that the influence art had on policy was indirect at best.

So now what? Tonight, in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there was a gathering of minds looking to answer exactly that question. Part of the PEN World Voices of International Literature, the even was called Weather Report: What Can We Do? and featured, among others, Bill McKibben, author of the 350.org campaign, Skeptical Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, Climatologist James Hansen and Dot Earthist Andrew Revkin.

Would love to read somebody’s lecture notes. In the meantime, I’ll be “doing” some blogging and art-ing.

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Propaganda stops thinking: an interview with Steve Kurtz.

It reads like a movie. It is a movie. It’s the subject of a documentary called Strange Culture as well as an exhibition, and its main character, Steve Kurtz, tells his story in university halls and in newspapers.

The story goes: in 2004, Kurtz’s wife had a heart attack. The emergency officials that responded to his 911 call noticed blacked-out windows and various sorts of medical equipment. Folks who knew Kurtz knew that that the equipment was for his ongoing work with the Critical Art Ensemble. The Ensemble had, among other things, created an artwork by reverse-engineering GMO soy. The blacked-out windows? Well, Kurtz likes to sleep late.

But the aftermath of that call resulted not only in the death of his wife but an series of subpoenas and indictments that accused Kurtz of domestic terrorism and, when that wouldn’t stick, mail fraud. All charges were finally dropped in 2008 after years of legal fundraising and outcry. Kurtz was kind enough to give an interview to greenmuseum.blog to catch us up on how he’s recovering, and what sort of terrorist acts CAE is up to next. Read on. It’s better than a movie.

GM.B: How is life?

SK: Life is returning to normal. It’s certainly much more relaxed. My body is pretty much healed now after 4 years of neglect and stress.

GM.B: How has your perspective on the world changed since 2004? Has the trial upended or just confirmed your worldview of American government and power?

SK: My perspective is pretty much the same. Most adjustments stemmed from the removal of neoconservatives from positions of political power. It’s back to the global struggle against neoliberalism, as opposed to the more national struggle against neofascism (the neocons) in the US. It’s back to the future to take up where we left off in 1999.

GM.B: Michale Brenson argues in his book “Visionaries and Outcasts” that the critical outsider role traditionally filled by the American artist has been scrambled and undermined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. What do you think the role of the American artist is?

SK: Who knows? There are so many art worlds and models of being an artist that no generalization really holds up. Critical Art Ensemble’s (CAE) role has been to produce anti-authoritarian narratives and images, invent tactics and tools for resistance, and explore new sites of contestation.

GM.B: Is it the responsibility of the artist to address critical issues like civil rights and the environment?

SK:I would say that’s a bit too prescriptive. There are so many issues that need addressing, and great disagreement about which are most important. Just don’t be naïve. All cultural production has a politics. One should be aware of the political economy that envelops us, and how one is navigating and negotiating it.

GM.B: What’s the difference between art and propaganda?

SK: Propaganda stops thinking. Overtly political cultural production advances it. Propaganda must exhaust itself on impact. It must leave nothing more to be said. The receiver of propaganda’s message must consume it as something self-evident and respond in an emotive manner. Cultural production creates situations for dialogue, exploration and experimentation, and even space for the interrogation of our most beloved narratives (human rights, social justice, free speech, world peace, sustainability, etc.).

GM.B: The trial has brought the work of Critical Art Ensemble national attention and had made you a kind of poster man for artists’ civil rights. Its artifacts were the subject of their own exhibition. You’ve been invited to speak on the subject extensively. How do you feel it will continue to shape your work and the work of the Ensemble?

SK: It’s an event that we are stuck with. We certainly minimize talking about it. The only reason we did an exhibition on the case was that we thought it would help with transparency while I was at trial. I never went to trial but the exhibitions had already been scheduled, so we went ahead with them. CAE has no plans to make any more work about the case. At the same time, while I like to think of case as in the past, I realize it is historic in its significance, so I have to be the poster boy to some extent, like it or not.

GM.B: What would your wife have thought of all of this?

SK: About the case? She would have been off the charts angry. Hope was a very emotional woman who had a real problem with authority–especially when it is arbitrary in its use/abuse of power. I can remember in the days before she died, as rights were rapidly eroding–she would yell at the reports, “We’ll never give up; we’ll never surrender!” I think that is how she would have felt about the case too. As for the dismissal, she would have been delighted. She loved it when those brief glimpses of the impossible manifest themselves. It’s not often that we get to humiliate a US Attorney for four years.

GM.B: What are you working on now? What’s coming up in the future?

SK: CAE is making a temporary monument to economic inequality in the US. We are modeling the proportional spatial relationship between quintiles of wealth. While the first four quintiles, represented by a banner, will rise about 43 feet into the air, if we stacked on the proportional wealth of the top quintile, the entire monument would have to reach up another 257 feet. Since we can’t make a monument that high, we are going to use hot air balloons to take people up to this height.

The other project is about the use of the so-called “dirty bomb” as an instrument for state propaganda. I suppose this goes back to your earlier question. We intend to recreate the hype. With the help of a great curator in Germany, we have hired a professional demolition team to safely set off a bomb with a non-radioactive, metallic tracer simulant in an urban area in Germany. We’ll have people in Hazmat suits with metal detectors. However, we will also set up a PA system in the crater where a panel consisting of a nuclear scientist and a radiological weapons expert will speak to the public about the actuality of making, deploying, and detonating a dirty bomb. The reality is that weapon is basically a myth. For a truly harmful one to be built it would require state sponsorship. It not something any terrorist could ever do, nor is it a “poor man’s nuke.” If we don’t take the “dirty bomb” as a self evident threat (its propaganda form), and instead look at it from a reflective reasoned position, it’s easy to understand that there is nothing to fear, and that the state is using this image for other more nefarious purposes. For example, to produce fear in the population, unquestioned acceptance of authoritarian agendas, and ever greater budgets for the military.

GM.B: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

SK: “Never surrender.”

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On Bike Revolutions.

“Provo realises that it will lose in the end, but it cannot pass up the chance to make at least one more heartfelt attempt to provoke society.”

–from the Provo Manifesto

Free bike programs are notorious. Both practical transportation ideas and naive grabs for anticapitalistic utopia, they have roamed the streets of Portland, OR, Madison, WI, Copenhagen, and La Rochelle, France.

The latest act of karmic cyclery is part of the Glasgow International Art Festival. But these festival bikes are no ordinary bikes– they are white bikes. They are tribute bikes. Tributes, that is, to the original 50 bikes released onto the streets of Amsterdam by the Dutch Provo movement in 1966.

One of a series of “White Plans,” (including white housing, white kids, white wives/contraception and white chimneys), the White Bikes program sought to alleviate transportation issues in Amsterdam by flooding the streets with free public bikes. Basically, it was the grandaddy of all free bike programs. It was the idea of a gentleman named Luud Schimmelpennink, but enacted by gangs of “Provos.”

Provos left the original 50 white bikes unlocked on the streets of Amsterdam. After they were impounded for lack of lockage, the activists outfitted the bikes with combination locks. Each bike wore its combination like a tattoo.

The Glasgow white bikes are similarly outfitted with locks, but their combination, 2010, is publicly known. The locks are just to deter lazy bike-stealing jackasses. Everyone else can ride and share, high off of 1966 revolutionary utopian sustainability glory. A similar, city-wide bike program exists in Portland, ME.

The original Amsterdam White Bike program may not have lasted, but Provo actions and tensions between protestors and police did eventually force the mayor and police cheif to resign. Schimmelpennink was later elected to Amsterdam city council multiple times and now works as an industrial designer. His projects include modern bike and car-sharing programs. In the works: a free bike program in Amsterdam regulated by computers. Maybe the revolution has just been waiting to get digitized.

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The Planet Gets Funnier.

Hooray for making planet-saving funnier. The American University just closed an Eco-Comedy Contest together with the Environmental Film Festival. Bless them for hunting down the funny in this sea of green seriousness. They received over 70 entries, and while the finalists included hardcore bikers, suggestive trash and some lewd vegetarian lyrics, the judges finally went with Green My House by Neeru Productions in Ireland (nobody likes sarcastic redheads).

Green My House is a look at some of the incredibly baller ways you can pimp your house green. Have you ever, for instance, tried the ever-sexy “swapping out your light bulbs”? Okay, so maybe we’re not ready to start a green SNL (or Whitest Kids, or The State, or Big Gay Sketch Show, or some other sketch comedy show you think is funny), but at least we’re moving past Artic Circle. Into creative endeavors that are actually amusing.

grist.org, for instance, has finally decided to let professional comedians, like Eugene Mirman and Aziz Ansari, donate some funny to their cause. Thank you, grist– you were killing us. Other semi-hopeful glimpses of a Sustainably Funny Future include the chuckle-inducing Green Shaman, or the “funny ’cause it’s true” work from Annie Leonard. She just finished a new video, the Story of Bottled Water, that will have you tearing up. With laughter. Okay, so maybe it will be the laughter of a deep and tortured pain. But funny is funny . . . right?

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Tactical Biopolitics: a review.

“How can we know for sure these days that the truck driver repairing his exhaust at the crossroads in your neighborhood is not a silent conceptual artist engaging you in a thought-through performative experience? ” asks Jens Houser in “Observations on an Art of Growing Interest,” part of the collection of essays in Tactical Biopolitics. An engaging overview of scientists as artists, artists as ethnographers, activists as sociologists, and women who do agility trials with their dogs as philosophers, Tactical Biopolitics presents the words and works of people who profoundly engage their ethics with their craft.

Largely centered around issues of biology and bioethics, the book often wades deep into the waters of scientific jargon and academic word-whirlpools. When it emerges into common reality, however, it does so resonantly. While artist Kathy High gives a factual breakdown of her reasons for working with a group of former lab rats (they were predisposed to have her same health issues), we get caught up in the story of the rodents, their namings and personalities. Donna J. Haraway manages to make us forget agility trials as a means to make dogs literally jump through hoops and see them instead as an exercise in human-animal communication.

The book emerged from a conference on BioArt and the Public Sphere at UC Irvine in 2005. It is, write editors Beatriz de Costa and Kavita Philip, “a hybrid, made possible by two recent histories: the enormously creative practices at the intersection of technoscience, activism, and art; and the explosion of cross-disciplinary conversations following Michel Foucault’s articulation of biopolitics.”

We see artists confronted with the ethics of working with living tissue, witness the affect racism has on modern scientific research, and learn of the evolution of activist’s tactics for getting AIDS medicine to patients who need it. We hear artists talking about life in labs, and scientist talking about the craft of ethical living. It’s a smorgasboard of modern ethical thought, of challenges to the definitions of professional fields. It’s fantastic reading for anyone interested in cross-disciplinary work. But largely, it is the story of people using the tools they have at their disposal to positively engage with an increasingly complicated and manipulated world. So while the authors featured in Tactical Biopolitics might not be the truck driver in your neighborhood, they are, like him, attempting to fix what’s broken.

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Genetically Modified Music: Mixed Feelings.

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We’re at that point now. We can talk about growing music. Artist David Benqué’s piece Acoustic Botany is a series of models and diagrams for a genetically engineered music and sound garden. It envisions insects created to chew in rhythm, flower pods designed to explode at certain intervals, and Lily Pads that amplify the death throes of bugs in a vascular speaker structure.

I gotta say this makes me just the slightest bit nauseous, and not for the obvious old-lady-with-a-clipboard reasons (nature is nature! etc). It’s because of the roles and responsibilities of the artist inherent in the work. Here I was all excited about environmental art because it’s such a great example of the logistical application of the aesthetic, of an artist’s capacity to engage and care, a unity of practical and aesthetic reason. Now, again, sing the the memes of art trumping reason, or at least twisting it severely to achieve its goals.

A genetically modified art installation, with no comment to make on genetic modification itself, no analysis really of the human/nature relationship, really just an artistic exploration of the fun and pretty things we could do with plants if given the opportunity to play with their DNA. And I bet it would be stunning.Bugs designed to chew in rhythm! What kind of glorious aesthetic high would visitors to this installation get? Awe and wonder of science, with a little bit of nature, maybe.

Benqué’s vision is far from being realized, but it’s ready to start some serious conversations now.

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