Blogging from the Edge

signals, reports, and creative responses


Extreme Media Studies at the New School University

In Fall 2008, students in a University Lecture Course at the New School University used as a generative resource for studying and responding to extreme media phenomena. Documentary filmmaker Veronica Medina asked a few of them what it was like.

video by Veronica Medina


EMS news


In Spring 2009 (March through May) smudge studio ( will orchestrate collaboration among 16 artists, art educators, museum educators, and media designers. The three-week long web event is entitled “Artists + Environments: Generative Practices and Conversations.” William L. Fox, Director of the newly formed Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art, will convene the first week of digital collaborative exchange on March 5, 2009.

Download a PDF of the PRESS RELEASE HERE.

The EMS-VCU-Qatar collaboration project "Mapping Change" was completed in December, 2008. Learn more and see a curated web-exhibition here.
map made by Team 3


Art + Environment web-exhibition launched December 17, 2008

The exhibition includes the archive of the conference live blog, the "Testing Ground Field Trip" results, an interview with William L. Fox (Moderator of the Art + Environment conference and Director of the new Center for Art + Environment at the NMA), ideas for student projects, several experience capsules, and short essays by Ann M. Wolfe (Curator of Exhibitions and Collections at the NMA), Colin Robertson (Curator of Education at the NMA), and Bill Gilbert (founder of the Land Arts of the American West program).

Please share with friends, take it up in ways useful to you, and let us know what you think.

In the Fall of 2008 collaborated with the Nevada Museum of Art.
We live blogged from their Art + Environment Conference (Oct. 2-4)
and created a responsive web-exhibition on our main site (Dec. 2008)

The Art + Environment Conference featured over 14 panels and events
from 7 p.m. (PDT) Oct. 2 until 7:30 p.m. (PDT) Oct. 4.

Details and archive of live blogging here.

Watch the media that watched us! invited us to submit daily summaries of the conference and live blogging to their P/O/V column. (Read our posts from Oct. 3, 4, 6th)
The New School University's Media Studies Program featured our live blog on the Program's website.
On Oct. 2, MIT's New Media Literacies Blog posted a link to our live blog.

We embarked on the first EMS Field Trip, Testing Ground, on Oct. 5th.
Learn more about Testing Ground here. live blogged from the
Buckminster Fuller Symposium September 13, 2008.

The Buckminster Fuller Institute has linked to our live blog archive here.

Boris Artzybasheff (1899 - 1965), R. Buckminster Fuller, 1963
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, Institution; gift of Time magazine

Details and live blog archive.



This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

For the past 2 weeks we have visited a myriad of sites and have been challenged to find ways to transpose these experiences into "field notes" for others. This process has been incredibly more difficult than we anticipated in advance.

At the end of this journey we sense that one of the most necessary and creative acts needed right now is for artists to act as creative points of contact with the world- to relay signals from the contemporary moments in which we sense forces that shape the world. A direct, lived experience of a force that shapes the world may take the form of reading an article and sensing the change that it might release, visiting an exhibition that signals deep changes in perception and connection, or visiting places such as Las Vegas or the Nevada Test site.

In the moment that one experiences such world-shaping forces, the act most urgently needed and most challenging to create is the act of mustering and relaying a contemporaneous response.

By that we mean a response that does not simply repeat, out of habit or ignore-ance or fear ... past stories or understandings. Nor does it presume to know how the forces of change encountered will (or "should") play out in the future. Nor does it shut down or turn away from. Neither a moment of despair, nor a moment of utopian vision, a contemporaneous response moves in accord with the forces in the midst of unfolding in order to learn more about them and to make something directly responsive to them. In attempting to make a contemporaneous response, you become response-able to what you come into contact with.

Speakers at the Art + Environment Conference insisted that "going into the field" to gain direct experience and "full-body knowledge" of the land, land use, and environments is an indispensable part of any methodology for researching and conceptualizing artistic responses to environments. This is what we attempted to do with Testing Ground and these Field Notes--and it's what the artists of SITE Santa Fe's biennial Lucky Number 7, were invited to do in 2008.

On Thursday we toured the exhibition at SITE Santa Fe, curated by Lance Fung.
Upon entering the space, we encountered a wall text that read:
process + experimentation + collaboration ---> experience = community

The show includes 25 artists from 16 countries. The curatorial vision was to invite the artists to Santa Fe, for the first time, for a span of one week. They would then return home to formulate ideas for site responsive projects. In June they came back to Santa Fe and created their works, which now make the exhibition and several sites around the city. Walking through the galleries, we were somewhat confused at first: there was no wall text that directly described what the works were about or how to make sense of them. Towards the end our time in the building we discovered an installation of videos made by student documentarians who had been hired to follow the artists throughout their processes. It turned out that what we had been witnessing in the galleries were the end products of a process- and these objects were not the most important part (or the most interesting) to us. The videos documented the artist's contact with local Santa Feans; artists' struggles of grappling to find a point of connection in a foreign landscape, area and history; and the exchanges between the artists and their collaborators. Without this video documentation the artworks would have been nearly impossible to make sense of, but with it, an amazing new approach to making site-responsive work and curatorial missions was allowed to emerge. If responding to experiences of place, over a brief but concentrated span of time, becomes a larger part of contemporary art making, we sense much potential. What gets freed up in this process is that there is no illusion that the work or artists could "know" a place or fully "represent" it. What gets made and materialized instead, is a creative relay, the process of engagement itself. Artists get to make something creative of the very small and particular knowledge that they glean from interacting with new local environments, cultures and peoples- in conjunction with their own local and global knowledges and understandings. This relay becomes the work. The "thing" or object of the artwork itself is subordinated to the process of engagement, "learning," and making-in-relation.

The work that we experienced in the Lucky Number 7 show also reorients the viewer and the locals. It was full of global relays out from Sante Fe to distant cultures and countries. It seemed nearly impossible for the artists in the show to leave their particularly local knowledges and interests out of their works. The show wasn't simply "about" Santa Fe. It was about Santa Fe in relation to a much larger global context. Santa Fe became the facilitator of this process.

For example, one artist, Marti Anson, from Spain hand-built a large, scale model of a flour mill that was being torn down (with much controversy) in Barcelona. He described his work as an "act of faith to save the heritage of his home town". We found it meaningful that the site at which he chose to rebuild his scale model, brick by brick, was within sight of the Spanish Museum for Colonial Art in Santa Fe. His work created his own contemporaneous response to his own process of learning about Santa Fe (which had been violently colonized by Spain).

(See video here.)

As a relay, the piece and the process that Anson activated draws two histories (the Mill in Spain and Santa Fe's colonialization) into relation in a third space of the present. His gesture is neither a repetition nor re-vision of history, nor is it a presumption of what should happen in the future. It is a gesture of bringing all that one can to a new, "foreign," and complex situation--and then responding with work that opens up the present moment to more interpretation and more creative response.



LANDSAT Thematic Mapper false-color image of the Salton trough region of California

polaroid: Jamie Kruse

This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

Question #1: What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks and media in ways that relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global?

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by John Waters
25 International Awards for Best Documentary

Field Note #4: Regional/Global Creative Responses + Environment

On the Testing Ground field trip, we experienced two very different responses to local environments.
  1. The Nevada Museum of Art’s Conference was a visionary inauguration of what it hopes will become a regional Center for research and art projects related to landscape, land use, and artists responding to environments. By focusing on environments, the Museum actively invites connections between its local region and much broader environmental forces and interpretations. Because the NMA is the only accredited Museum in the state of Nevada, it has an obligation to prioritize its own region in its programming, and to fulfill a role that the region would otherwise lack.

    What makes the NMA visionary and exemplary for us, in the context of all we've seen on this trip, is that it has decided to address its proximate environments in a way that exposes its local audiences to the ways that broader, even global forces shape and are shaped by their own region. In the words of the first question we framed for our field tests: this museum's current and planned activities don't "end" with the regional--rather, the artworks they feature relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global.

  2. Salton City is living out the consequences of a very different response to its local environment. Background:

    From Plagues and Pleasures website:
"Accidentally" created by an engineering error in 1905, reworked in the 50's as a world class vacation destination for the rich and famous, suddenly abandoned after a series of hurricanes, floods, and fish die-offs, and finally almost saved by Congressman Sonny Bono, the Salton Sea has a bittersweet past.

Now amongst the ruins of this man-made mistake, these few remaining people struggle to keep a remodeled version of the dream alive. However, this most unique community is now threatened by the nearby megalopolises of Los Angeles and San Diego, as they attempt to take the agricultural run-off that barely sustains the Sea. The fate of this so-called ecological time bomb and the community that surrounds it remain uncertain, as the Salton Sea might just dry up.

From "Where the Ghost Bird Sings by the Poison Springs":
Honeymoon paradise and toxic sump. Teeming fishery stinking of dead fish, bird sanctuary where birds die by the thousands. (What choice do the birds have? Ninety-one percent of California's wetlands are gone!) Lovely ugliness—this is the Salton Sea.

If you are confused, so is everybody else. Formed by accident in 1905Ð1907, when an attempt to divert the Colorado River (and, incidentally, to steal a lot more of Mexico's water) sent a series of floods into the salt-caked basin of California's Imperial Valley, the new sea kept rising, for like all seas it has no outlet. Farms, saltworks, and pieces of towns went under, and by the time the leak was plugged in 1907, the sea covered 500 square miles. Experts predicted evaporation within 20 years. And the water level did go down, at first. But a century later, it still takes up 380 square miles.

In the beginning it was a freshwater realm; trout survived here as late as 1929; a National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1930. Tourists came right away, but the golden age of fishing and waterfowl hunting that old-timers remember started to fade in the 1960s, when the sea began to stink a trifle and the resorts began to board up their windows. Ecologists were already warning that if the salinity—fed by irrigation runoff from the Colorado Desert's salt-rich soils, souvenir of a prehistoric ocean—continued to increase, the sea would become a wasteland. It did rise, of course, and the sea itself crept higher, too; Salton City and Bombay Beach lost houses beneath these strange reddish-brown waters.

We wandered the city for a couple of hours. It’s one of the most bizarre places either of us has ever been. Imagine vacant lots, weeds growing, road signs on corners of dirt roads waiting for houses never built. Eerily quiet contemporary ghost town in the foreground, sparkling and intensely blue sea in the distance. Close up, the sea isn’t blue at all, but a salty, milky thick, smelling stew of floating fragments of bird and fish bodies. At our feet—what could be mistaken from a distance as crisp white sea shells or sand. But force yourself to keep breathing the smell long enough to take a closer look, and realize that the white beach is composed of salt-bleached fish carcasses, bird feathers, bones.

Salton City is a local community. People do live here. They’ve chosen to stay or have no choice. Across the highway, a safer distance from the littered beach, developments of new homes appear to be arriving. Agricultural fields surrounding Salton City sport mature palm trees for transplanting and landscaping and vineyards. Oddly, this part of California is a desert. The soil is powdery gray. To see huge irrigated plantations here is to see an intervention into the region made possible only by massive infusions of chemicals, fertilizers, and irrigation via diverted waters from the Colorado river system.

The cycle here is unsustainable: water diverted for irrigation of chemically supported agriculture runs off to poison and increase the salinity of a land-locked sea.

Why hasn’t this region been able to turn this decades-long disaster around? It still doesn’t have a thriving, “local,” healthy, community. It's been accepted as what it is by most people, and by others, the broader environmental implications have been underplayed in the name of promoting recreational uses. Beyond those in the immediate vicinity, most people don’t actually “know” about the Salton Sea or live it. And that means that there are few people able or willing to assert their own experiences of the local in the face of competing meta-narratives about its recreational opportunities and how clean up is economically unfeasible.
From "The People of the Sea":
The sea's deterioration has failed to attract much attention outside Imperial and riverside counties. "The Salton Sea isn't a water supplier, and there's a small percentage of people directly affected by the sea so it's out of the ball game when it comes to water politics," said John Letey, associate director of California's Centers for Water and Wildland Resources. Local officials, however, believe the sea's health is a state, if not national, problem and deserves the attention and resources of Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

..."Creation of the Salton Sea Authority is the smartest thing you could have done," said Richard Engberg, who oversees the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Irrigation Water Quality Program. "Congress is definitely responsive to grass-roots efforts." The Salton Sea, 1994

After spending a few short hours in Salton City, we are even more convinced about the power of media to relay local stories of a region's own environments beyond themselves and out to broader communities. The Nevada Museum of Art has begun to do this with its new uses of media. Environmental scientists, artists, and documentarists have begun to use media to trouble metanarratives about the Salton Sea with the small, local narratives of humans and other life forms there. The gesture of media design that we sense is most important to make in response to what we experienced at the Salton Sea is to compose stories and images in a way invites the audience not to "stop" with the local story--but to relay their imaginations, sensibilities, and participation out from there to their own environments.

The local story of lived, embodied human experience always trumps the metanarrative. The local is nothing more or less than the highly particular playing out and human, embodied living out of broader forces.

Perhaps what the Salton Sea needs more than anything else right now, is a visit from Story Corps, This American Life, or the Environmental Media Fund . . .

. . . it's already benefited from a visit by artist-educator Kim Stringfellow. Her book, Greetings from the Salton Sea, offers images and stories of the local and the lived.

click image to enlarge

Kim's trans-media works take up ecological, historical, and activist issues related to land use and the built environment. Her hybrid documentary forms incorporate writing, digital media, photography, audio, video, installation, and locative media. She's an Associate Professor in the School of Art, Design, and Art History at San Diego State University. You can experience the local--and its global implications, through her interactive web experience. Through it, Kim gives creative, documentary, and educational expression to the current realities of the Salton Sea.



This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

Question #3: What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks or informational media in ways that fuse aesthetic experience and new knowledge?

Over and over during the short time of the past week, we have experienced the contemporary time of our field trip put into the context of deep, geologic time. (The term “deep time” was coined by geologist John McPhee to refer to events that function on a geologic timeframe--as in, millennia--rather than on a human timeframe). We've been pushed to sense this very moment in relation to the millennia that predate human presence by discussions of the half-life of radioactivity in the Nevada Test Site, and today's encounters with Joshua Trees that have been on the Planet for over 13,000 years and rock formations that date to 1.7 billion years ago.

There is a growing awareness of how humans are shaping and creating within decades what previously changed naturally over millennia (melting glaciers and changing weather patterns) or didn't exist all, but will now outlast the planet (growing stockpiles of nuclear waste and plastic accumulation in the oceans). Finding ways to visualize this awareness is crucial for media and graphic designers who want to create effective forms visual rhetoric for environmentalism.

In her 2005 Masters Thesis, "Designing for Deep Time: How Art History is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste," Kelli Anderson (School of Art and Design, Pratt Institute) did "a case-study of the very unique, interdisciplinary design process that occurred in November of 1991, when a panel of experts met to discuss strategies for visually marking nuclear waste (p. 8)."

The experts were asked to design a warning for humans 10,000 years into the future--the length of time that the buried waste is dangerous. Future humans who might intentionally or accidentally try to dig up buried nuclear waste need some kind of warning sign that will be readable and effective 10,000 years from now. As Anderson put it: the "Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required by law that the DOE (Department of Energy) must implement markers for the site, clearly warning against the danger resting underfoot. These markers must remain for the entire period the waste is hazardous, meaning that the markers will need to be understood by people 10,000 years from now — until the unlikely-sounding year 11,996 AD. Based on the hope that our age of information can leave more than a threat to future generations, the DOE has culled together panels of experts to determine how to create a long-lasting nonverbal warning system . . . In 1983, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) . . . requir[ed] “permanent warning markers” above all nuclear waste repositories. The DOE responded by establishing the Human Interference Task Force (HITF) to produce individual reports on communication, which could be used to inform the design of a message
system" (p. 3).

". . . From the outset . . . one thing was clear: language was not going to be very
helpful here. Language, which is highly sensitive to political and cultural shifts, tends to deteriorate quickly. In fact, linguists have found that languages “decay” as quickly as 12% every century — meaning that after 10,000 years, or 100 centuries, we can expect that our current world languages may have decayed by as much as 1200%" (p. 3).

View example of designs that have been created to warn about nuclear waste storage for future generations (from Designing for Deep Time: How Art History is Used to Mark Nuclear Waste," by Kelli Anderson):

click any image to enlarge

How might you use media and graphic design to put the human timeframe in relation to the geologic timeframe?

For inspiration, listen to "Warning Signs," Studio 360's story about the accumulation of radioactive waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain storage site. It describes how engineers approach the design of warning signs. Produced by Sarah Lilley.


This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

More fiction than reality can contain.
Showing us less than what we should know.
Being with what we're not supposed to know.

The second question we posed at the start of the field trip asks:
How might media be enlisted to make the hidden visible and show us "more of what we should know" by generating views and perspectives that give experience-able form to invisible forces, histories, and assumptions?

Yesterday we spent eight hours on a bus tour of the Nevada Test Site. We were given permission to join a tour that had been scheduled for the community advisory board--they review environmental restoration (groundwater contamination, historic nuclear test area clean-up, etc.) and waste management (radioactive waste transportation and disposal) activities at the Nevada Test Site.

We were not allowed to bring cameras, cell phones, recording devices of any sort. We did bring pen and paper. The tour was completely “unmediated,” except for the narration of our guide. He said his job was “strategic communication.”

Struggling to respond, as humans, to the enormous complexities that unfolded throughout the day ...
... to grasp what it means that some of the contaminants created by weapons and nuclear energy will outlast the Earth itself (their half-lives are longer than our Sun's life expectancy).
... to muster some sort of response, even if only imagined, to the guide when he says without irony that nuclear-powered rockets developed at the NTS for space travel "worked great" and are a "viable form of space travel" except for the fact that they spew an "extensive radioactive plume" into the atmosphere on their way into space. process the shock of learning that there's such a thing as "biotrubation:" that's what it's called when ants living in the soil of the Nevada Test Site excavate potentially harmful radioactive particles of earth the surface if nuclear waste isn't buried at least 12 feet deep. witness ground zero of one of the atmospheric tests, and its still-radioactive debris, being used as a training ground for hazmat and anti-terrorist workers. see the tower that was erected within a mock Japanese village for the purpose of radiating the village homes and shops from various elevations in order to study the doses that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki received. hear the guide "slip" twice during our tour and call the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki a "test" of the bomb, and then correct himself and call it an application of the bomb.

click image to enlarge
Frenchman Valley, site of the first atmospheric atom bomb test at the Nevada Test Site.
He said: "Eye witnesses tell of physical phenomena that go on ...The intensity of the photons (light) from the blast is 4,000 times brighter than the sun. The sheer magnitude, intensity of light has strange effects on clothes and skin. It vaporizes the moisture on your skin. It looks like your skin is steaming."

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge

click image to enlarge
cyanotype created at the Nevada Test Site, site tour, October 8, 2008
(Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse)

When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb. --J. Robert Oppenheimer

"One of the most remarkable attributes of the Nevada Test Site is its location. Founded on the need for concealment, it lies adjacent to a city famous for its extravagant display—Vegas is the town where anything goes and the nation-state is somehow conceptually absent. But the serious politics of concealment at the NTS and the (seemingly) frivolous politics of display in Las Vegas are mutually reinforcing, like those at the NTS, Yucca Mountain, and Rachel. . . . A favorite pastime of the era was to take a cocktail up to the top of a casino in the morning, to search the northern horizon for a flash of light or a mushroom cloud and toast America's superpower ascendancy." --Joseph Masco, "Desert Modernism"

click image to enlarge
The mirage of Las Vegas is one block thick, founded on the need for concealment--Cesar's Palace: front, back.

click image to enlarge
Paris: front, back.

click image to enlarge
Bally's: front, back.

click image to enlarge
MGM Grand: outside, inside.



This field note was filed for the Testing Ground project.

Of the many ideas that emerged from the Art + Environment Conference (see the daily notes below), we've chosen three to take with us and test out during the Testing Ground field trip (details here). Here they are, stated as questions we will explore:

  1. What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks and media in ways that relay audience attention, imagination, and sensibilities out from the regional to the global?

    New media make it possible to connect across and explore intersections of the regional and global. Throughout the conference, artists and scientists offered work about local, particular response to the environment. But they did so in ways that relayed audience imaginations and sensibilities out to the global.

    Rather than using their work to invite audiences to arrive at and "end" with a particular experience, artists used their work t0 relay their audiences to the next horizon, geographic region, interconnected issue, or interrelated force that was actively shaping built or natural environments at their local level.

    “. . . space and matter are active mediums shaped by both embedded and remote events and the patterns they form. Ours is a transactional world, not a deterministic one . . .” --Sanford Kwinter

    regional: two hours from Las Vegas

    30 minutes from Vegas, desert becomes infrastructure

    first glimpse of the city from the desert-as-infrastructure

  2. What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we use media and art to create contexts that allow audiences to "be with what you're not supposed to know?"

    After WWII, American foreign policy was charged with checking the spread of Communism. Alan Nadel argues (Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism and the Atomic Age) that attempts to contain the spread of communism generated (even required) that American culture as a whole become culture of containment. Stories about the need for "containment" cut across and dominated a wide spectrum of cultural life in the United States. They lead to widely believed-in national narratives about the urgent necessity to contain atomic secrets, sexual license, gender roles, nuclear energy, and artistic expression.

    A culture of containment depends upon media in complicated and sometimes contradictory ways. Media have been used strategically to reveal just enough information to intimidate enemies but not enough to give away secrets (during the cold war, the military invited Walter Cronkite to cover a nuclear test live). Meanwhile, citizens use various forms of media to do counter-surveillance on top secret military installations such as Nevada's "area 51" (notorious for spawning conspiracy theories involving UFOs). Media technologies first developed by the military continue to be used to contain secrets (such as GPS--the global positioning system) even as citizens re-purpose them for business, pleasure, and activism. An environmental artists gains access to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site and collaborates with an environmental scientist working there to give aesthetic expression to studies of the effects of nuclear radiation.

    As Nadel shows in his book, what is contained inevitably leaks or becomes exposed.

    Nevada and the American Southwest (including many sites we will visit on this field trip) is an epicenter of American containment culture--then and now, leaking and secure, barred and exposed (for an amazing reading of this, see Joseph Masco's "Desert Modernism"). America's atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons above Nevada deposited high levels of radiation across a large portion of the contiguous United States, especially in the years 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1957—doses large enough to produce 10,000 to 75,000 cases of thyroid cancer on the people the tests were intended to protect.

    Today Nevada is home to top secret military bases, the Yucca Mountain repository for containing nuclear waste, the Las Vegas strip (which attempts to contain visitors within casinos and entertainment venues while exposing Americans to entertainment considered too risque for Main Street). In adjacent California, artists interact with the severe environment surrounding Joshua Tree by experimenting with habitats designed for containing and moderating desert extremes. Efforts to contain and release water in the desert southwest has lead to areas of increased salinity and unliveable conditions (Salton Sea). Sun City, AZ contains retirees within a planned community simultaneously sheltered from and exposed to the desert environment--and the larger surrounding American culture.
    postcard by Custom Souvenir and Novelty,
    1910 E. Maule Ave., Las Vegas, NV 89119

    Historically, the desert has been a place where humans experience and artfully respond to transformations of consciousness and perception. In Playa Works: The Myth of the Empty, William Fox discusses how it is that our senses and perceptions are altered by the extreme distances, shapes, and environmental forces in the desert. Cognitive dissonance--perceiving that you're standing only 5 miles from a feature in the distance when you're actually 30 miles from it--leads people to see their place in the world differently. And to experiences the world as a force in ways not familiar in their daily lives.

    With this second question, then, we're interested in exploring how media can be and have been used to reveal our assumptions about "what is real," "what is true," how things "really are." How might media be enlisted to make the hidden visible and show us "more of what we should know" by generating views and perspectives that give experience-able form to invisible forces, histories, and assumptions. that shatter the veneer of propaganda by showing us more than we can see, not less than we should know. From Jeff Kelley’s comments about Ai Weiwei’s blog after the recent 
earthquake in China (“Look Back,” ARTFORUM, Sept. 2008)

  3. What becomes possible, thinkable, and doable when we design artworks or informational media in ways that fuse aesthetic experience and new knowledge?

    During the Art + Environment conference, Bill Fox said: There's a reason scientific expeditions take artists along: you don't "own" knowledge until you picture it. Artists are specialists in visualization and artists provide that for scientists.

    Artists at the conference shared an interest in addressing environmental questions not through persuasion, political appeals, or apocalyptic rhetoric, but rather by trying to "activate" audiences (their imaginations, understandings, actions as citizens) by fusing aesthetic experience and knowledge (often in the form of scientific data).

To see the contexts in which these ideas emerged, visit the archive of the conference live blog. The notes below are summaries of each day of the conference. They were published by Metropolis Magazine's P/O/V on Oct. 3, 4, and 6.

Oct. 3:

Artists, scientists, designers, and writers converged last night in Reno, NV to launch Nevada Museum of Art’s Art + Environment Conference. The guests included: Vito Acconci, Matt Coolidge (the CLUI), Chris Drury, Fritz Haeg, Michael Light, W.J.T. Mitchell, Geoff Manaugh (Bldgblog).

For three days (Oct. 2-4), scientists and artists come together to cross-pollinate aesthetic experience with scientific methods and tools. They will explore, as William L. Fox, conference moderator said, “how and why art has become as important as science in understanding the nature of environments.” This interdisciplinary exchange was planned to discover insights into the environment and human actions.

Kicking off the conference, artist Chris Drury gave a gallery tour that included documentation of his Winnemucca Whirlwind installation, a major desert drawing near Nixon, NV.

Our blog is part of a larger project: an ongoing experiment that involves college students and teachers in collaborations that reach across education, journalism, art, media, and design. With, we are generating a “hybrid voice” for education capable of addressing the challenges and complexities of global change.

The blog “sends signals” to students enrolled in a New School University Lecture course, relaying to them new ideas presented at the conference. On October 5th, we take those ideas on the road for a project we call Testing Ground.

At that time we’ll explore sites across the Southwest where people have tested out their relationships with the landscape in different-and sometimes extreme-ways. Using many different types of media (Polaroid cameras, camera obscuras, video, blogging, and text messaging) we’ll explore some urgently needed cross-pollinations between art and science. We’ll also experiment with the different mediums to fuse knowledge construction with aesthetic experience.

The organizers of Art + Environment believe that by creating a context for artists and scientists to think with and through one another’s disciplines, they seed innovative approaches to urgent issues that shape the contemporary moment. As artist-educator-journalists, we sense that this conference creates a context that will become common in students’ future work and daily lives-one that requires collaboration and creative response across multiple disciplines

This creates an irresistible context for our own work. It brings together core interests of our media-art practice ( what can happen when humans, the landscape, and the built environment converge to create exquisitely concentrated zones of contact.

Oct 4:

Last night marked the end of a productive day of blogging from the Art + Environment Conference, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV. The various panels we attended covered topics including Burning Man, artists working with astrophysicists to map where starlight falls on the North Pole, and “Gen X ” artists that relate their work to the environment.

Participants and attendees are extremely engaged with the theme of “Art + Environment” and invigorated by a shared sense that this conference could be remembered as a first and major catalyst of a new “movement”-a focused exploration by artists, museums, and scientists on how art and science can cross-pollinate. The fact that this event is taking place outside university walls signals a constructive trend: alternative institutions (such as museums) are creating experimental contexts where people gather to grapple with contemporary topics of global change.

Scientists Lynn F. Fenstermaker, of the Desert Research Institute described how during her collaboration with artist Chris Drury, she identified a graphic similarity between an aerial view of Frenchman Flat (site of numerous atomic bomb tests, left image) and a microscopic image of an organism that now lives in Frenchman Flat (right image).

In the last panel of the day, Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World: How Generation X Got the Shaft but Can Still Keep Everything from Sucking, led a discussion that followed presentations by several young artists. Entitled What neXt?, this session presented work that included: “polluting, wasteful” suburban front lawns into edible gardens (Fritz Haeg); crocheted “carbon footprints” that map the artist’s travels (Katie Holton); iPods filled with spoken word and music timed to walks through urban cityscapes (Kianga Ford); and magazine design that uses photographs not as mere illustrations but as a means to join information with aesthetic experience (Jason Houston). This session confirms that young artists are responding to natural and built environments in wildly diverse ways. Yet their work is also deeply grounded in place. The flexibility and mobility of their crafts make it possible for them to generate junctures of art and science without being categorized as part of any single movement (such as Land Art) or being rigidly institutionalized (as gallery artists, activists, or editors).

Oct 5:
The Art + Environment Conference (at the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, NV) culminated in a nearly six-hour desert excursion to Pyramid Lake, led by Ralph Burns and Ben Aleck of the Paiute Reservation. Pyramid Lake is remote yet connected and exposed to regional struggles over water rights, a history of military use that continues to shape environmental issues, visitors who do not understand or respect sacred sites within it, the catastrophic drop in its level brought by diversion of its water for agriculture. Situated at such a complex intersection of forces—natural and human—it epitomizes the contemporary context in which artists engage with the environment. It is a context quite different from the one that saw the emergence of Land Art in the 1970s. The achievement of this Conference has been to provide what organizers called a 360 degree view of that difference as a way to begin to imaging new work and directions from here.

Pyramid Lake on the Art + Environment Desert Tour, and Chris Drury’s Cloud Pool Chamber on the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art
(Digital Camera Obscura photos by Elizabeth Ellsworth)

Riding on the momentum and interest obviously present at today’s close, participants and organizers have already begun to map those directions. There is talk of a Center for the study of Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, and they hope to host a follow up conference in 2010.

Over our last two days of live-blogging from the Conference, ideas and positions emerged that could shape the direction of a nascent Art + Environment “movement”:

-It is not rooted in politicized environmental activism. It “activates” audiences instead by fusing aesthetic experience and knowledge (often in the form of scientific data).

--It keeps sites of complex interactions between humans and landscape open to broad interpretation, means of exploration, and a wide variety of aesthetic response. Its 360-degree view takes in Land Art, landscape, land use, built environments, scientific and artistic interpretations, and media-augmented visualization of invisible forces that shape each of these and their interactions.

-This generates a deep interest in exploring interactions between humans and landscapes in trans-disciplinary ways, and has created a desire for museum-based contexts in which individuals, academics, artists, scientists, explorers, researchers, and historians work together.

-This is not a continuation of the Land Art movement of the 1970s.

-Individuals and institutions interested in carrying forward what started at this Conference are diverse and dispersed. They are connected through media, a desire to address the environment through aesthetic response, and an approach based in the belief that “going out” into the landscape and exploring natural and built interactions within it is crucial to understanding and making.

--There is no push to assimilate, “collective-ize,” or declare a manifesto for a new movement that could be defined and known from here. Rather, there is agreement that old names simply don’t fit this moment. For that reason, the intentionally open and somewhat ambiguously stated theme of “Art + Environment” served the conference well.

--New media make it possible to connect across and explore intersections of the regional and global. Throughout the conference, gestures of highly local, particular response to the environment by artists and scientists were made in ways that also relayed audience imaginations and sensibilities out to the global.

Related links on the EMS main site:
Art + Environment SCAN
Creative Contagion FLASHPOINT


VCU-Qatar Collaboration

The student collaboration, "Mapping Change" was completed in December 2008.

A curated web-exhibition of student work follows:


Click to enlarge map
Team members included:


Click to enlarge images

Team members included:

click to enlarge image
Team members included:

click to enlarge image
Team members included:

click to enlarge image
Team members included:

click to enlarge image
Team members included:

click on document images to enlarge