A few days ago I went to the Bay Area Arts & Ecology Summit, held at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. There was a panel of people working in the eco-art field, and an audience composed largely of people also involved in eco-art. And just what is eco-art?
This is a variant of the question I’ve been exploring for a while, but for the first time I had a sense of people coming to grips with it in a way that offers real possibilities for effectiveness.
There was a strong common thread among the representatives of the several organizations on the panel: Not only does eco-art promote understanding and appreciation of the environment and inspire social action, but it can actually affect the environment through collaboration and interaction with other disciplines.
For me, the most encouraging speaker was Shai Zakai, of the Israel Forum for Ecological Art, who talked about artists working with engineers in ways that would integrate both perspectives. “Artists have been stuck in the aesthetic level,” Zakai said, “and lose all the other levels. I want to be able to use the vocabulary of engineers and other disciplines, but also encourage them to use mine. Artists need to become part of public agencies so they can show the agencies how best to use them.”
How can artists have more effect on public policy? All the participants agreed that artists should work with cities, agencies, engineers, and other non-artists, intervening early in the development of built environments and not restricting themselves to the creation of “public art.” Tricia Watts of ecoartspace, for instance, commented that by visualizing the effects of a project, artists can help people understand its implications and consequences. Susan Schwartzenberg of the Exploratorium emphasized that the way artists ask questions can completely “shift the realm,” and have an influence on the environment that is created.
Susan Leibovitz Steinman of WEAD (Women Environmental Artists Directory) and Sam Brower of greenmuseum.org both commented that the intersection of art and ecology is evolving. Traditional types of infrastructure that kept things separate–a traditional museum that kept art in a “box,” for example–are dissolving, Brower said. And again, there was general agreement that artists must be engaged at every level. But engagement, said Amy Balkin, an artist working on a new project with the Exploratorium, can take various forms–some are ameliorative, others are what she called homeopathic, engaging by being combative. In any case, “the more we can make it experiential, the more headway we can make,” said Steinman.
Unfortunately, there was no time for the panel participants to show visuals of their projects, but you can see many of them by following the links in this post. I’ll just mention a couple that I found particularly heartening.
“Conceptual-humanist artist” Betsy Damon is director of Keepers of the Water, whose mission is “to inspire and promote projects that combine art, science and community involvement to restore, preserve and remediate water sources.” Betsy was the visionary behind one of the organization’s most impressive projects, the Living Water Garden in Chengdu, China. The park is “a fully functioning water treatment plant, a giant sculpture in the shape of a fish (symbol of regeneration in Chinese culture), a living environmental education center, a refuge for wildlife and plants, and a wonderful place for people.”
Betsy was also part of the design team for the Olympic Forest Park. Part of the renovations done in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, the park “will clean the water to a level suitable for significant human contact and will become the ecological economic model for parks of the future as well as places of recreational activity.”
In her 2002 Concrete Creek project, Shai Zakai worked with hydrologists, botanists, ecologists, artists, quarry owners, engineers, and cement truck drivers to reclaim a polluted stream by making it into an artwork.
Of the process, Zakai wrote: “The. . . reclamation incorporated a local reference to a global problem – unawareness of environmental issues and ongoing pollution of streams in Israel and the world. The reclamation plan did not strive a-priori to reconvert nature to its original state; rather, it was aimed at observing the eyesore, resolving the ecological problem by means of art, and leaving traces of the eyesore for the wide public to see, so they would continue to explore the field and take responsibility.”
“If people see things through the eyes of the ecological artist,” Zakai says, “it could bring about a real engagement for all.”