Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oil and water

"The opinion that art should not be political is itself a political opinion."
~George Orwell

Some people find the combination of art and politics somehow distasteful or inappropriate. Like oil and water, the sentiment seems to be, they don't mix.

Along with Orwell -- one of my favourite writers -- I am not among those who hold this view.

Last Tuesday, I had the (mostly first-year undergraduate) students in my Introduction to Politics class break into six small groups, with about three people in each, to develop and perform their own future scenarios. The task was:
a) to select within each group a domain of interest; they came up with carbon, recycling, education, oil, Mars colonisation, and medicine.
b) to generate and describe in just a few sentences four divergent scenarios for their chosen domain, out to the year 02038, based on Dator's four generic images of the future (continuation, collapse, discipline, transformation).
c) to select the most interesting or surprising of the four, and design a way for the group to communicate it to the whole class in the most impactful way possible, during a presentation window of five minutes or so. (It was a low stakes, low constraints, short exercise -- they had about fifteen minutes at the end of one class, and twenty at the start of the next, plus whatever outside time they chose to allow, for preparation.)

These "experiments in futures theatre" yielded results ranging from fairly standard classroom presentations through to immersive improv. For example, one group presented in character as the partners of Starlight Corporation, a waste management enterprise celebrating its 100th successful launch of trash into space, and they provided an Associated Press news clipping from 02055 to illustrate the company's talk.

For Thursday, to build on this first sketchy foray into experiential scenarios, I assigned the students randomly into four groups, giving each a half-page text scenario describing a different version of Hawaii in the 02030s, again based on the four generic images. By providing pre-developed, cohesive scenarios (albeit very brief ones) I hoped and expected that the groups would be able to dedicate more attention to their communicative strategies.

And so it turned out. You can see what they said about the two exercises in the daily "minute papers" at our class blog.

A major goal of this course is to sensitise students to the political dimensions of perception, and to invite them to participate in recreating their own perceptions, as well as those of others, by manifesting alternative futures in various media.

With that in mind, the Orwell quote above, which I don't recall seeing before today, is right to suggest that art and politics are intertwined. (I firmly believe there's no such thing as "apolitical" -- though there are plenty of examples of apathy or acquiescence, delusively pretending to lofty detachment.) The quote comes from the website of Watermark, one of the examples of what we've been calling "blue line" projects in several U.S. coastal cities, as outlined in my most recent post here at t.s.f. The blue line cuts right through this intersection of art and politics, inviting consideration of sea level rise by manifesting various forecasts in today's environment. Watermark is a particularly interesting example, from my point of view, and warrants a closer look than I was able to give it last time.

It's a collaborative art effort initiated by three artists based in in Seattle, Washington: Nicole Kistler, Sarah Kavage, and Vaughn Bell. Each member of the trio brings an interesting perspective and training to their collaboration. The following paragraphs are excerpted from the artists' bios:

NICOLE KISTLER is a public artist who focuses on engaging people in a deeper understanding of the living world. She prefers to work in places and in media that are accessible to everyone. Nicole feels she has created something successful when her work takes on a life of its own. Whether that’s providing a springboard for the ideas, experiments and energy of others or allowing a natural process to run its course. Through her narratives, Nicole exposes the folly of issues for what they are and introduces alternative viewpoints and possibilities through humor. As a project manager in traditional public involvement projects, she is interested in exploring the creative process of art making and temporary art projects as a means of public participation, as a process instead of a product. While often drawing from her background in Landscape Architecture, she has found that art allows people to engage in discussion while suspending tightly held beliefs – to be amazed, surprised, and inspired.

SARAH KAVAGE is a multidisciplinary artist and urban planner. Her varied experience in project management, education and community outreach in collaborative and multidisciplinary settings has lead her to develop a number of public and installation based art projects in parallel to a body of two-dimensional work. She uses a variety of media to explore the themes with which she is most interested – communication and the transmission of information, the intersection between the manmade and the natural, and all permutations of urban environments. Her work is infused with social commentary, with a goal of participation and genuine engagement with viewers.

VAUGHN BELL is an artist and educator. Her work encompasses installations and performances involving living plants, multi-media video installation works, and public interventions.

A landscape architect, an urban planner, and an educator, all working in public art. Interesting mix!

Now, the focus in my last post was their version of the "blue line" project, which entailed walking along and demarcating Seattle's "new waterfront" (based on a 20-foot ocean rise) with soil, seeds, and water. One element highlighted by Watermark's work, which I neglected to address before, was the medium of performance -- the act of tracing the line with one's body, while leaving seeds, and water. This may at first glance seem to be the most fragile or ephemeral approach of those noted so far, in terms of the visual markings left behind, but it might also represent one of the most experientially effective interventions, for those who take part. I don't think we can assume that the degree of external permanence of the line (e.g., the painted lightblueline of Santa Barbara) corresponds proportionally to social or political impact. Invisible memory also leaves palpable traces; flowing into our perceptions and behaviours. Watermark's take on that strand of the project:

As we walked a kind of meditation took place, we could hear the seeds hitting against the sidewalk, reflect on the state of affairs, and on each small action affecting the whole world. Designated participants talked with passersby and distributed cards explaining the project. On Earth Day 2007, we walked the line again giving a tour of the Watermark, and each person was astonished at what 20 feet looks like.

Another thing that impresses me about the Watermark project is its multifaceted, multimedia conception. They go on to explain:

In August [02007], we were included in the Groundtruthing show where we showed a video of the first walk at SOIL Gallery in Seattle, distributed postcards, and led tours of the imaginary "new" waterfront. We used humor here, as we donned snorkel gear and swimsuits for an "underwater" tour, and carted along a giant block of ice to "water the urban desert."

Sarah (L) and Nicole (R) giving the Seattle Underwater Tour Watermark website

As some of my students intuited after their own futures theatre interventions in class last week, the use of humour can be very significant in making this kind of thing work. Humour provides a package within which uncomfortable or unusual possibilities may be raised, as well as often being more enjoyable than an entirely earnest call to political awareness.

One of my favourite standup comics, the late Bill Hicks, master of subject matter simultaneously sacred and profane, used to describe himself as follows:

I, like all artists in Western cultures, am a shaman. (That's somewhere between prophet and crackpot, by the way . . . though much closer to prophet.) [...] I am a Shaman come in the guise of a comic, in order to heal perception by using stories and "jokes," and always, always, always the Voice of Reason, that people may have Hope and Peace, by healing their misperceptions.

~Bill Hicks, Love All the People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines, 02004, p. 221-222 [emphasis in original].

I believe the role of the futurist, properly understood, is quite similar. She fearlessly mixes art and politics because she realises that fundamentally the two are inseparable. So too, with comedy and matters of ultimate concern. My mentor Jim Dator, unofficially Hawaii's chief futurist-in-residence, tells me he has described his own role as as that of the "state Weird", and, in reference to his extensive work with judiciaries, the "court Jester" (I'll add references when I find them). Dator's second law of the future, "any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous", rears its head again in a slightly different form. (Truth be told, Jim is one of the funniest people I know.) Humour is key. And laughter lets many truths, both harmless and profound, slip through the staid defences of conventional discourse.

Illustrating that spirit -- where art and politics, tragedy and comedy, playful and earnest meet -- here's the postcard that Watermark distributed as part of its campaign, based on what the artists call a photo simulation of downtown Seattle underwater...

Image: Watermark

It can be compared to other postcards from the future -- artifacts dancing on imagination's cutting edge, where plausibility and absurdity become indistinguishable...

"Shown in the exhibition 'Visualisations of the 21st century' at the RIBA, [architect Paul] Ruff envisages the decidedly inland and not especially touristy Essex town of Basildon as a rather jolly seaside resort with its own pier. Bring on global warming, I say."
~Building.co.uk, Issue 06, 02006

Stanford-le-Hope is a small town in Essex, in the Thames estuary some 25 miles from London, with a working-class commuter population and an enormous nearby oil refinery. The self-sufficient, eco-friendly scenario pictured in the postcard is ironic by design.
Images: Paul Ruff From a report by RIBA/Building Futures [UK]
Living With Water: Visions of a Flooded Future, June 02007, p. 20
(Report blogged by Bruce Sterling at Beyond the Beyond, 15 August 02007)

Image: FoundFutures Postcard artwork: Aaron Rosa & Yumi Vong
Also see other cards from the FoundFutures campaign, May 02007 picture, blog post

(See also the Sierra Nevada deforestation card [picture, blog post] and Hawaii's introduced species postcard [picture, blog post].)

Now, one final thing I wanted to mention about Watermark is that the other artwork of its originators includes some really cool stuff. In particular, I have in mind Nicole Kistler's "Tour from the Future" (part of Seattle's GrassRoutes Environmental Arts Festival in 02006), which she describes thus:

Come Visit the Historic Ruins of Highway 520

The Tour from the Future was part of a larger group arts festival aimed at bringing public attention to development threats facing the Washington Park Arboretum. For the project I created 14 installations and acted as a as tour guide from the future guiding tours of the "historic ruins of Highway 520" and the 520 bridge. Inspired by visits to many archaeological ruins including Tikal, Rome and Ankor Wat whose societies collapsed, I decided to parody that experience for this project hoping to illustrate the dangerous behaviors that our society has engaged and how those eerily parallel other great societies. I posted interpretive signage throughout the three-mile trail loop connecting events at MOHAI, Foster Island and the Arboretum. In addition, I created photo-simulation binoculars and telescopes for viewing the ruins and allowing visitors to see the currently proposed bridge. Photographer John Bacon acted as tour group photographer. The tour visited all the other performances and art installations along the way providing some "glue" for the entire event.

Tour Advertisement

Visit the historic ruins of Highway 520 and what archaeologists believe to have been part of an enormous transportation network throughout the former United States. See one of the best-preserved collections of petroleum-operated vehicles. View the bridge ruins with one of the world’s most insightful tour guides, and take advantage of special viewpoints and telescopes only available through this tour. This tour also includes special opportunities to experience new installations that allow participants to "drive" their own single occupancy vehicle, and see traditional performances by people from the same era who warned their society about the dangers of oil dependency. Our tour photographer will capture each special moment for you. This is the most complete tour of the entire "520 site" and one that will create lasting memories for you and your family. Write a postcard home! Not to be missed!!

Map of the Tour from the Future Nicole Kistler

I'm very happy to learn that the Chinatown futures audio tour, which Jake and I have had on the backburner for a while, can count this among its predecessors.

Car parts totem pole Nicole Kistler

Simulated image of State 520 noise wall design Nicole Kistler

There is a distinct sense, I think, that futures is a domain in which apparent polar opposites come together.

So there's poetry and irony in the fact that two of the most common political themes during my last couple of months of posts about future artifacts and interventions at this blog turn out to be oil ... and water.

Related posts:
> It's even hotter under the collar
> Bad reviews of future news
> A thin blue line (3 parts)
> World without oil photo essay (3 parts)
> Gaming the end of oil
> Good news for people who love bad news
> Climate change for fun and profit


Stuart Candy said...

By the way...

Kistler's twist on the archaeological genre (in her "Tour from the Future") finds a sort of Hawaiian counterpart in some of the work of local artist Carl Pao.

Carl has a strand of artwork consisting, in his words, of "artifacts" that were "discovered" at various locations around the island. What I’m trying to do is create a museum, The Post-Historic Museum of the Possible Aboriginal Hawaiian -- PHMPAH (pronounced poom-pah). One of the issues it addresses is the ridiculous nature of federal recognition -- the idea that we need to be recognized by some entity in order to be ourselves, when in actuality, we are still a kingdom. (Carl Pao interview by Melehina Groves, Ka'iwakiloumoku/Hawaiian Cultural Center, 10 January 02007.)

During an artists' talk last year at the Arts at Marks Garage, Honolulu, Carl presented this work in character, as an archaeologist puzzling over the provenance and significance of the "discovered" artifacts.

Anonymous said...

I agree that art and politics are intertwined, but I think the reason that the combination makes some people queasy is that they're concerned about conflating the value of the political message with the aesthetic value of a given work of art. There really is a problem, especially perhaps in this country, with people who deny that work they find politically offensive can have aesthetic merit. You get into this problem on both sides of the political spectrum -- on the conservative side, you have Giuliani trying to shut down the Sensation exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and Focus on the Family harassing the NEA about supporting David Wojnarowicz, but then on the liberal side there are lots of people who automatically denigrate artwork for being racist, sexist, Orientalist, etc., regardless of its other characteristics. Hunter Thompson, for example, is often the subject of hysterical condemnation by feminists who are upset by his admittedly rather unreconstructed views on rape, but these same women are rarely willing to concede that his writing has tremendous aesthetic merit, regardless of how sexist it is. Anyway, I think that's why people get into insisting that art shouldn't be political -- because they're tired of seeing bad art promoted for political reasons and good art fall into disfavor as social mores change.

Anonymous said...

Stuart, I just stumbled upon your thoughtful and perceptive review. Thanks! Interestingly enough, Watermark has re-convened recently for a show in Seattle around the American Meterological Association conference in January 2011. We're right in the middle of creating a set of travel posters / postcards that build off the original ones you show - so it's inspiring to see all the postcards that others have made on what the future might look like in different places. There has been talk amongst ourselves about trying to create some larger collaborative climate change postcard project that collects all of them in one place. We'd love to get in touch and see what other examples you might have found. Thanks again for the good words!
Sarah Kavage

Stuart Candy said...

Sarah, great to hear from you, and very encouraging to hear that Watermark is still going! By all means let's chat about the collaborative postcard idea: that project clearly deserves to happen. My email: stuart [at] futuryst [dot] com.