Blogging from the Edge

signals, reports, and creative responses



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


Parneet Kaur said...

Artists/Designers are to think of the non-existing, far-fetched ideas that a scientist may then bring to life/existence.

I remember seeing paintings of what the future will look like. Where artists would show cars hovering off the ground without wheels, in comparison to today's conventional four wheeled cars on the road. The possibility of replacing these conventional cars is not far, as the hovering car already exists although making it available to the public market is still going to take some time.. said...

We just received an email from Chris Taylor (Professor of Design and co-founder--with Bill Gilbert--of the Land Arts Program).

He writes:
"My notes have Matt ending his presentation [at the Art + Environment Conference] with an image of a combination lock on a door of a CLUI (Center for Land Use Interpretation) exhibition space in Wendover and closing with the question: "wondering what's on the other side of that door?" to summarize the ambition of CLUI to encourage people to explore the other side.

And from Smithson's 'Hotel Palenque' lecture (see a description of that work here:
(courtesy of Ann Reynolds from a quote she included in her essay in the forthcoming book Land Arts of the American West):
"Now this is the last shot. This is ah, this is sort of the door. [laughter] At first, you noticed right off the bat that it's green, huh? There's not really much you can say about it. I mean, it's just, it's a green door. We've all seen green doors at some time or another. It gives that sense of universality that way, a sense of global cohesion, let's say. So the door probably opens to nowhere and closes on nowhere. So we leave the Hotel Palenque with this closed door and return to the University of Utah, Okay."

While Smithson was using the door to bring the audience back to Utah from the Yucatan, and while Coolidge was using it to take the participants of the conference in Reno out into the world, the parallels are multiple. Talking to Matt later that afternoon I pointed this out to him he said any coincidence was purely subconscious and not a part of the script.... I believe him. --Chris Taylor

Anonymous said...

It's neat to see these forms of artwork pushing us forward into the next century of cleanup and understanding. I personally understand how terrible suburban lawns are on the environment (talk about instances of thyroid cancer). The concept of the edible garden is a message that all land-owning individuals need to think about. Our food production creates the some of the biggest carbon footprints, with the transportation of our food falling into second place. Gardening is an amazingly rewarding way of reducing the carbon footprint we have already stamped onto the earth by growing lovely green plants (that remove CO2 and replace it with oxygen) and food for ourselves. Things that we may not be able to purchase we can grow in the space that before was only for a seeming aesthetic beauty of the lush green lawn or places left undisturbed by time can be utilized instead of left to waste. Across the street from my house back home in Chicago was a large abandoned warehouse. One day it burned down in a huge toxic blaze that required many a firetruck to save my house. A few years later another warehouse (one that housed oil paint rags and their cleaning supplies) also burned down in a similar manner. This land was left fallow, useless to society, and policed to keep out squatters.
But what we all forgot was that these things can be made into edible landscapes to assist the homeless in the area through a sort of "bio-guerilla" movement. I threw some seeds of a variety of eat off the plant veggies with some fertilizer and water to give 'em a chance. That is the way to take back those fallow landscapes, rather than leave them to the rats. A couple years after I'd done this, I wandered through one that (upon my original seeding) seemed to have been home to a pedophile (there was one rumored to be in the area, but I didn't buy it at the skeptical age of 11).
Not only did I find more plants had sprouted from the seeds dropped, but I also discovered an edible mushroom patch.
As nature takes back our wasted land, we too may still take from it the beauty and nourishment it can provide.

Wyatt Hough said...

Hi Liz,
I was wondering if during your trip and your experience in Las Vegas you could observe the relationship between technology, both flashy and siginificant, and luxury. As a fashion student, I'm always asking myself what is luxury, because it certainly isn't shopping, and in Vegas, a city based on money, I am curious if this idea of luxury is somehow diminished. It's a designer haven, yet it's in this garish hyper electronic context. Even these so called luxury hotels are covered in digital artifice.

Just wondering. Thanks! said...

Hi Industrialkitty,
(make sure you let your TA know your real name so you get credit for your posting!)

Thanks for your story about transforming landscapes in your neighborhood. Did you get a chance to read more about Haeg's work in Metropolis Magazine? ( At the conference, Haeg talked about how his designs for the front lawn gardens that he's built are always done in collaboration with the people living in the house ... and that he designs the gardens so that their paths and shapes draw people into conversation and interaction with one another--passersby with the gardener, gardener with neighbor, etc. Also, that article says that Haeg's projects usually incorporate a Buckminster Fuller dome somehow. And Haeg is quoted as saying: “The thing I love about the dome is that it was invented and not designed.” I'm wondering if you read that part of the article and what you think about his comment -- that he senses a difference between something that's been designed and something that's been invented?
Thanks again for the post!
Liz said...

Hi Wyatt,
Thanks for such a thoughtful question--it's got me thinking, and planning on how to post some images that offer a response. Along with some words of insight (if possible) into the relationship, in Las Vegas, between luxury and technology (as in: digital artifice skins on buildings, streets, interiors, performance spaces.

I'll use this question as a lens for looking at Vegas tomorrow and I'll send something in response soon. In the meantime, I'm not sure if we're in a particularly non-luxurious or even anti-luxurious part of the strip--but there's been very little luxury in my experience of being here so far. Your question solidifies my plans to check out the MGM Grand tomorrow (after the tour we're taking of the Nevada Test Site--that should be some juxtaposition!) in search of what luxury might mean here--and how technology might come into play in designing it.
So stay tuned and thanks for the assignment.

anniesays.... said...

the real:

This post points out and asks:
“Rather than using their work to invite audiences to arrive at and "end" with a particular experience, artists used their work to 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.”

“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.”

Questioning the real: i(nter)mmediacy
I wanted to address this question of the real and our relation to it. It is curious how our relation changes as media becomes more hybrid and as we struggle to attain immediacy with more complicated (converged) media forms. How is media enlisted to to make the hidden visible? More importantly, I think, what has changed in how we perceive the real, hidden and obvious?

To examine this question I wanted to start with some ideas from Jay David Bolter. In his book Remediation, Bolter writes, of new media that,“The immediacy of such new media... is supposed to come through interactivity.... We do not gaze, rather, we glance here and there at the various manifestation of the media”81 Furthermore, he demonstrates that these days, “Immediacy is created through our knowledge of the camera. web-surv involves the monitoring, not only of each toher but also of the functionings of media in contemporary culture.”

The real that we examine these days is the real of a culture which, at this point, cannot be separated from the influence of it’s media, a deeply penetrating force. These artists we are seeing are inviting questions about the real of a mediated culture. This is apparent in the forms through which they pose their revealing queries, highly mediated forms. The real we are examining and asking questions about is a real in which the environment is inextricably linked to the prosthetic of (wo)mankind. Media must be used in the examinations of a our assumptions of what is real because media is part of the real. An examination which did not incorporate media would never find the “real” or the “real” found would resemble a puzzle where there pieces are showed to fit each other and the image is just not quite right. We give from to the invisible by incorporating media into our examination of the landscape, for many times it is our ignorance of the prosthetic's effects that keep us blind.

nayaurena said...

Hi Liz,
At first i did not really understand what this trip was going to be all about. I was not sure what the discussions would be like and how it all would actually fit or be interesting to me but i must say i am really surprised and content with what is being discussed. I was especially interested in the discussion of burning man. I heard of it in the past but did not give it much thought. I found myself looking up other sites and blogs about people's experience and was amazed ( i was browsing for like four hours without realizing it). The art work being produced in the desert are at times so much more interesting than those that we see in art galleries. Perhaps its the environment that it is being seen in or the inspiration of the surroundings that cause such unusual and unique forms of expression but it makes one even consider the trip there. In a world ruled by deadlines and time slots, blackberries and cyberspace, the desert is the perfect escape.There are no distractions!
It must be such a great place to really get in touch with yourself as not only an artist but a spiritual human being.I think technological advances are great and essential to our modern world, but we all need an escape sometimes and what better place to do something extraordinary than in the middle of nowhere.

Yearning for a life less ordinary said...

"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?"

During the Art+Environment live blog, I came across the Winnemucca Whirlwind installation by Chris Drury who made a drawing in the Winnemuca river dry bed. His artwork involved using a rake and string to make a geometric pattern in the soil. The pattern, he says, is in the same design as that of a basket weaved by the Native American people that used to live in the region.The river bed dried due to the construction of irrigation infrastructure in the area that diverted the water to farms for agriculture and destroyed the habitat of the Paiute people.( NYTimes)
Drury's artwork acts like a visual argument that attempts to reclaim what was once the right and property of the Paiute culture. It also captures audience attention and diverts it to the consequences of human interference with nature. For people that have never visited or even heard of the Winnemuca Lake, Drury's artwork transforms their experience in the context of the the socio-political debate surrounding the Lake.

-Pritika Nilaratna

Haya said...

Haya Kramer
I really like this idea of exploring how media can be and have been used to reveal our assumptions about what is real, what is true, how things really are.
I often wonder if the media shows a reality or is it a smokescreen? I think the media is a medium between things we might be oblivious to everyday, and it connects these often descrete elements of being with the obvious. Media holds an amazing power in that it shows us things we could not otherwise see, and therefore we gain knowledge and power though this amazing transformative idea.

Haya said...

Haya Kramer
I wanted to elaborate on this idea brought up in the field note 2: How might media be enlisted to make the hidden visible and show us “more of what we should now” by generating views and perspectives that give experience-able form to the invisible forces of histories and assumptions?
When I think of media - not “the media” - I think of something in between two entities that helps these entities connect. What is broadcast to the many, gives reason for people to talk with each other, to socially interact with each other, and to act with each other. By doing these things, the invisible becomes visible, and we feed of each others knowledge. Without experience a gain of knowledge is near to impossible. With experience, with history, with information, the media unlocks the abstract, brining to the forefront that which we might not see.

Nina said...

"Media have been used strategically to reveal just enough information to intimidate enemies but not enough to give away secrets"... This seems to be such an interesting concept to think about. It makes me curious to know in the future due to the advancement of technology if we will be able to gain knowlede to many if not all secrets we are still so puzzled about, and what the effect of this knowlede will have on the way we view media. Maybe it will not seem to be a bridge to the unknown. what would happen if media eventually allowed for general knowledge about things so secretive now?

Andrew Tatreau said...

This just made me think of a cement plant called Ash Grove a mile from my house in Louisville, NE - population of about 1,000 people. It's located right on the edge of the Platte River, and sort of relates to this idea of the desert in relation to livability, but pertains to the great plains instead. Aside from producing vast amounts of concrete, the plant also used to store nuclear waste, and has been trying to get the right to burn high quantities of old tires. They are also constantly dynamiting the landscape, and digging deeper into the Platte River for sand and river rock.

Here is a link to a ground level image:

Also, just type in Louisville NE on google maps, and go to the satellite view and zoom in and go to the North East side of the map to view the concrete plant. You will notice a semi-spherical structure on the property which has a large neon American flag on the top. Nobody I've talked to knows the purpose of this structure either. In addition the concrete plant lights up at night and presents a mirage of a distant city skyline with a cloud of smoke emitting into the night sky.