Entries in environment (24)
Nancy Holt, who died last week, was one of the original land artists working in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, along with Dennis Oppenheimer, Michael Heizer, James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Robert Smithson, all of whom had little time for the constricting space and rules of urban galleries and art museums. They said they were making art for the land, the ultimate expression of 1960s freedom – at the beginnings of the environmental movement and working at the scale of infrastructure, the military and the mining industry.
Land Art had its roots in Minimalism and Conceptual Art, where 'art products' are often ephemeral, unrecognisable or self-destructing. Looking back on it now it appears as a real struggle to return agency to the artist: Nancy Holt bought the 40 acres of Utah desert for Sun Tunnels, and hired, as she listed: '2 engineers, 1 astrophysicist, 1 astronomer, 1 surveyor and his assistant, 1 road grader, 2 dump truck operators, 1 carpenter, 3 ditch diggers, 1 concrete mixing truck operator, 1 concrete foreman, 10 concrete pipe company workers, 2 core-drillers, 4 truck drivers, 1 crane operator, 1 rigger, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen, 1 helicopter pilot and 4 photography lab workers' to install it. Plus the culverts.
The places that Land Artists worked were marginal – in those vast deserts of the American southwest, there were hardly any roads. When in 1982 Reyner Banham wrote Scenes in America Deserta, a reprise of Charles Doughty's 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta, Banham was well aware of the elision of desert and deserted. And in the mid 1990s when I tried to plot a winter route from central Texas to Calgary through all the flat bits, I found one cannot cross Nevada from north to south. This is a deserta militaria, for most of those deserts are used as test sites, training exercises, speed tests and places to go mad in.
Nancy Holt did not go mad; she married Robert Smithson and continued to work in land art, film and photography from France to Finland and across the United States. There was an exhibit of her photographs last year at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery, whence this lovely image comes.
This comes by way of Chloë Roubert. It is 29 minutes, a series of still camera placements of the industrial landscape of Rotterdam – many look like stills until something moves and one realises one has been watching a film. The voice-over and subtitles are dry readings from what sounds like a business report on wildlife in the port area. It is a perfect example of how to pull out all the emotional manipulation connected to environmental issues to present something so flat, so plain, that it is completely rivetting.
Fritz Haeg's Animal Estates, nine so far, acknowledge the animals that live in urban and industrial environments with the ultimate goal of making these environments more accommodating for them.
Yesterday I mentioned that we have a patio made from pale cream brick, scavenged from one of the old Union Bay brick kilns that used to sit crumbling beside the Island Highway. It was a devil to lay as each brick is shaped to be part of a beehive kiln, i.e. no face is parallel to any other. It turns out that the kilns were coke ovens, part of the coal industry of Vancouver Island. And the bricks came from Scotland complete with Scottish bricklayers, all imported, in 1880 or so, by Robert Dunsmuir, the coal magnate who effectively owned the island.
Coke. From wikipedia 'it is the solid carbonaceous material derived from the destructive distillation of low-ash, low-sulfur bituminous coal'. Coal is fired at high temperature driving off coal gas (hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane, CO2 and H2O), coal tar (phenols and aromatic hydrocarbons) and water. Coal gas and tar are recovered and used in a number of industrial processes, otherwise, coal gas especially, is fairly toxic. Coke burns at a higher temperature than coal, thus its value. It didn't stay on the island, it was exported by the shipload
Union Bay was a company town, with a coal mine, a railway line, a wharf, the coke ovens and a coke washer. Labour was imported: Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Scots. Anyone who thinks that the present day anti-development, 'let's keep Vancouver Island natural and beautiful' lobby is stemming the tide of industrial exploitation of the land hasn't taken the coal industry seriously. It was a significant, extensive, disruptive extraction enterprise, connected by water to the rest of the British Empire in all its outlines.
Melancthon Township, Ontario, potato farms. 2011 a US-backed company applied to the provincial government for a limestone quarry. 2400 acres, a billion tons of Amabel dolostone 58 metres deep. Big protests: farmers, First Nations, ranchers, environmentalists. Big problems with water, as 58 metres is well below the water table, water, 600 million litres a day would rush into the excavation and have to be taken away. To where and how?
Yesterday, project abandoned. The Globe reports that 6 years ago a purported potato farmer started to acquire land, and last year the mega-quarry was announced. The spokesperson for Highland Companies which owns the land and will continue to farm it, said the problem is that they didn't engage the local community or explain well enough the benefits of the mega-quarry.
This is how CAPP always puts it and why they run a massive campaign on how wonderful oil sands development is on Canadian television channels: if the public objects to any kind of resource-extraction development such as the oil sands, or in this case, a mega-quarry, it is because the public doesn't have the right information. Then throw in how many jobs have now been lost with both the quarry and related industries and well, the public is a fool.
The Suzuki Foundation didn't think it such a good idea; they aren't exactly ignorant, and the local website the map above comes from lays out some very convincing information. And it might be that the public does have the 'right information' but doesn't like it, or believe it. Must the equation be money/jobs vs environment, even if that environment isn't wilderness but is already engaged in some other industrial capacity, such as agriculture?
It shows what a player limestone is: roads, building, development – a mega-industry with mega-installations.
29th Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival
11.13.12 - 11.18.12 | Kassel
Une vidéo expérimentale filmée dans les eaux incertaines du plus grand cimetière de bateaux de la côté Est de l'Amérique. Situés près de la Chemical Coast du New Jersey et de l'ancien dépotoir Fresh Kills, ces rivages désormais toxiques ont été le théâtre de nombreux désastres écologiques
An experimental video filmed in the murky waters of Witte's Marine Salvage at Staten Island (New York). Located near New Jersey's Chemical Coast and the former Fresh Kills landfill, these now toxic shores have seen their share of ecological disasters.
On The Code last night Marcus du Sautoy told us that each bird keeps track of the closest seven birds and they all must travel at the same speed. There is an equation for it of course which, as usual, I couldn't understand.
Quite a few years ago one of the houses on my street was rented by an organisation that re-rented houses to aboriginal families, many of whom oscillate between urban homelessness, remote reserves and multi-family houses. They were great, setting off in the morning to walk the city, laughing, their clothes carefully tuned to a code unreadable by the rest of us: romantic, moccasined, with dogs and all the time in the day.
The weeping elm in the front yard of this house was occupied that summer by an owl, two ravens and a family of indignant magpies. I'd never seen an owl in my neighbourhood, and ravens too were new although I'd once seen one in Bragg Creek. The summer ended badly, with one of the beautiful girls attacking another girl who was carrying on with the first girl's husband. Bloodied people were carried off in ambulances and police vans.
The owl went immediately, then the family moved on, the ravens went with them, the house was empty for a couple of years, the magpies stayed.
Several years later a Blackfoot woman from Siksika First Nation told me that owls announce that a death will occur. The ravens, continually plagued by the magpies, just sat all summer long, dignified and waiting, and when it was all over, they disappeared.
Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785, died in New York in 1851: a long life for the time. He is best known for his 1840 The Birds of America from which the plate of the grackle, above, comes.
In case one thought the plant these two grackles are sitting on is something exotic and tropical, it is a stalk of corn. The backward arching of the top grackle's neck seemed equally exoticised to me – the odalisque pose of a nineteenth century orientalist's gaze – until I went to central Texas where grackles are something of an urban scourge, and found that they tilt their heads back in just this way.
They are beautiful, gleamy, silken birds that collected in huge flocks on the University of Texas at Austin campus: plenty of trees, lots of crumbs all around the student union building. The grackle patrol at about four in the afternoon would travel around the campus with a great booming gun to scare the grackles away so they wouldn't settle in for the evening.
Grackles, like magpies and starlings, are very chatty. No doubt, living on a campus, they were trading witty post-structuralist quips.
Thinking of the birds who live in prairie shelter belts including the beautiful and cheeky magpie, we have (unusually) a pair of hummingbirds living over the winter in the summerhouse. They are Anna's Hummingbirds, originally from California, but moving up the coast as it all gets warmer.
Then, thinking of other proprietal names such as Bewick's Wren, thought I'd have a look at Bewick's A History of British Birds which he put together between 1797 and 1804, illustrating it with beautiful wood engravings. Evidently he used tools for metal engraving on hardwood, and when he signed his name, added his fingerprint, both (the metal on wood and the fingerprint) unusual lateral forms of expression.
In the drawing of the rook, there is a scarecrow just above its tailfeathers – a tiny message about the rook's character. There are some obscure details of something behind the magpie – if ours are anything to go by it should be the 18th century equivalent of roadkill: magpies are omnivorous. The most endearing thing about these birds is that they all talk, chuckling away at each other and us, making jokes, issuing warnings, natter natter in the apple tree.
Went to buy some matches yesterday, looked all over the supermarket, none to be found. Asked, told that all 'smoking paraphernalia' was over in the gas bar. Trudged through the slush to the gas bar, asked for a box of matches: what a strange request. The girl had to find a ladder to get them from a locked top shelf. I could buy two huge boxes or ten little boxes, no the packages can't be divided.
I said, this is winter, we light candles and kindling; matches aren't smoking paraphernalia, they light fires. Here is the answer: people use disposable lighters or, for candles, those long butane filled wands.
Which is better for this world, a match made of wood or cardboard, or a lighter made of plastic, metal and lighter fluid?
Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five floating continents of plastic litter and chemical and organic waste. Midway is an albatross colony: pieces of plastic, about the size of disposable lighters evidently look similar to squid, the main component of an albatross diet. This plastic is eaten and then regurgitated to feed albatross young. Who die. The corpse decays and as it was stuffed with plastic, a tidy collection of matter incapable of decay is left on the beach.
Plastic never goes away, it just gets smaller and smaller and thus is ingested by smaller and smaller animals. Who die. And while we seem to be able to sample the debris in each of the oceanic gyres, there is so far no solution for its collection.
The photo above is by Chris Jordan, who has made a film about Midway. I heard about it on Radio Netherlands' Earth Beat a few weeks ago.
Helbig writes of the image above: Booms confining bitumen floating near the edge of Syncrude's Aurora North tar pond. This is where industry suffered its most serious massive public relations setback in the spring of 2008 when someone alerted the public and the authorities to flocks of ducks landing on its surface. In this particular incident about 1,600 ducks were killed. Syncrude was convicted in 2010 of breaching both federal and provincial environmental reglations.
He has a series of aerial photographs of the oil sands region, and although his view is activist, as one can see from the captions, the images are beautiful. How is it that our visual acuity has been trained to find abstraction so sublime. Context is removed and we gaze at such images with the appreciation other eras gave to flowers or girls with pearl earrings. This is precisely what is so dangerous about the removal of context, scale, consequences and facts. They are removed.
We need people such as Louis Helbig to keep explaining not just his photographs, but the abstract nature of the oil sands enterprise itself. Whatever it does there is a diagram on the map with pipelines dotted in to Texas, maybe to Prince Rupert and on to China. It is a series of mirrored glass office towers in Calgary and Houston. It is every plastic bag we throw hopefully into the recycling bin, it is the cloud of exhaust everytime we start our cars.
The Souris River is flooding Minot, North Dakota. On the CBC news a Minot resident blames Saskatchewan for this, 'they should have done something'. The Souris eventually joins the Assiniboine, after it crosses the border again, back into Manitoba. The Assiniboine flooded earlier this spring and will perhaps flood again. Winnipeg also keeps its eye on Fargo, North Dakota, on the Red River. The Assiniboine joins the Red in downtown Winnipeg. In the 1996 Red River flood Winnipegers blamed Fargo for not better controlling the river flow.
The 49th parallel is an abstract political division that serenely ignores topography: global mathematics trumps geophysical realities. Before the US Survey, before the Dominion Grid, before enlightened Europeans started to delineate territory in this seemingly empty-ish land, there were aboriginal territories: precise, negotiated at their borders by treaty, surveyed orally in a metes and bounds system.
Sliammon First Nation territory clearly is topographically based: it controls the watershed on the western slopes of the Coast range, the waterway and fishing beds of the inland passage and the opposite beach, securing the whole width of the strait. Fresh water systems, food, sea borne transportation capacity, security: these are the things that boundaries delineate.
This 1891 map of watersheds in what was called the arid regions of the western United States shows a division of land that could have been a series of small states, with control over their own water resources and all the potential agricultural and animal resources a watershed contains.
Or, looking at a map of pre-contact cultural zones in North America, one can see how there is a huge territory that controls the Great Lakes. Another has the whole western watershed of the Mississipi, another group the eastern side. The Great Divide separates the peoples of the watersheds that go to the Pacific from those of the plains: the north to Hudson's Bay, south to the Gulf of Mexico. The boreal forest is one huge cultural group, as is the high Arctic.
Topological environmental divisions as political territories: what a novel idea. One could only blame oneself for mismanaging one's resources.
This is a new submission to On Site's digital exhibition of war memorials. Byrne opens with this statement: 'the alarming rate of species extinction would not normally be classified as a war, but perhaps this ongoing extreme loss of life should be reconsidered in the context of an organized conflict.'
Yes, it should.
Andreas Gursky is showing his series Ocean I-VI at Sprüth Magers Berlin right now. The images are large – all around 2.5-3.5 m x 3m+, and originated in the kinds of views on flight monitors that show whatever the plane is flying over. These are all images of the oceans, the land shows as busy little fragments around the edge: peripheral and of no great mystery compared to the seas which show as deep and silent.
Gursky apprenticed with Bernd and Hilla Becher, and something of their stillness underlies all his work. While Ocean I-VI might look like straight satellite images, and indeed the bits of land are from satellite photos, the oceans themselves have been constructed. There are no clouds or storms, their proportions aren't geographically correct – they take cartographic licence as all maps do.
These pieces of water all have names, but Gursky has called them simply Ocean I, Ocean II; just as land doesn't have all the political and economic markings we understand as constituting land inscribed on its surface, neither do the oceans have pink dotted lines floating on them marking 250-miles limits, or large letters floating across them saying Pacific Ocean. Really, maps as we know them, are very crude.
Gursky has, for many years, done large photographs of large things: immaculate and perfectly regimented crowds in North Korea, flattened screens of social housing projects, any repetitive elements that are so vast in number that they become a kind of colour field, which of course is the thing that pulls him away from the often near-identical photographs of Ed Burtynsky. Repetition and the small shifts in detail in like objects were at the core of the Becher's work: I doubt they were wildly interested in water towers although they photographed hundreds of them. Their project was photographic, setting the camera in a precise and repetitive relationship with the subject, removing all the seductive elements the camera so easily exploits: colour, sun and shade, fast-frame capture of birds, wind, people.
Much is written about Gursky's work as a critique of capitalism: here are capitalism's excesses, with Burtynsky, Gursky and Polidori as a club going about documenting all its evils. I'm not sure this is quite how it is, or all that it is. There is a photographic project here, rather than a documentary project. Oceans I-VI is not documentary, it is a construction of a mystery, of inaccessibility, of understanding something one can only see in the abstract; the near-impossibility of clicking out of the abstract into some sort of existential, phenomenological present, which can only be found at the scale of standing with one's feet in the water at Departure Bay and thinking 'this water goes to Japan'.
There is a disaster playing out in the Gulf of Mexico which will destroy fish and seafood stocks for generations. There is an ongoing disaster playing out on our coasts, also destroying fish and seafood stocks for generations.
I have to package up On Site 23: small things over the next few days so shall post this video for everone to watch: it is manifesto, ode to the coast, ode to our silver brothers in crisis, it is beautiful and necessary.
The site that this comes from is salmonaresacred.org
Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan trains illiterate or under-educated women and men in practical engineering. Women do 70% of the domestic and agricultural work in India, however Barefoot College has, since the early 1970s, been training women in what are considered technically challenging men's professions such as solar engineers, handpump mechanics, computer instructors, masons, night school teachers.
The College does not prioritise literacy, but rather problem-solving skills such as basic law, making women aware of the Right to Information, minimum wages, violation of human rights. This, along with their training and employment, give them a way out of the sheer, numbing drudgery of rural life for women in most of the world.
Having solar lamps allows night school and less use of kerosene, toxic in closed spaces. Having rainwater harvesting systems allows women more time to do other things than walk miles each day collecting pots of water, or firewood, or candles.
The mandate of Barefoot College is very much about the empowerment of rural, barely literate women caught in a caste system and rigid social roles. At the same time it has trained 15,000 women and installed thousands of solar lighting units and rainwater harvesting systems.
Barefoot College does not give out degrees or even certificates that could perhaps become a kind of currency leading to migration. They do not want their trainees to move to the cities, but to stay in place, in their communities. Plans are to extend Barefoot College to Africa and South America. Bunker Roy, the founder, says language isn't a problem. Sign language will do.
I suppose that one solders a circuit plate the same way no matter what language is spoken. This in itself is a revolutionary idea. We are altogether too logocentric here.
Owen Rose of Montreal wrote about extensively gardened roofs in On Site 17: Water. These Montreal rooftops are more than container gardens, and not as heavy as green roofs with their .5-2m of earth (generally known as green roofs or intensive gardens) which required quite massive structural support. New, highly efficient substrate of 3-15cm allows garden plots on almost all kinds of construction. Rose calls them blue roofs, perhaps because of their water retention: they collect rainwater up to a point and release the rest into city storm drains, lessening the load on infrastructure during intense storms.
We had an article by Helmuth Sonntag in On Site 2: Houses on a rolling rooftop garden in Weisbaden, planted with rows of lavender and rosemary. It is a bylaw requirement there and in much of Germany that the roof collect water and that the water be stored.
The sense that the rooftop is the displaced ground plane is part of Le Corbusier's 1923 Vers une Architecture: that development should not take away access to land. He saw land as a source of leisure, but land is land, and if you want to grow kale on it, so should you be able to.
When I got my small Inglewood house in Calgary the neighbourhood was mostly old Saskatchewan farmers who had come off the land in the 1930s and 40s and gone to work for the CPR. Inglewood is next to CPR's Alyth Yards in southeast Calgary. Flat land, Bow River, sandy soil substrate with good drainage, a warm micro-climate, and, in the 1980s hardly a tree to block the sun on all the huge gardens in the back yards. Leafy neighbourhoods were a sign of wealth, poorer neighbourhoods were quite bleak. Well, with gentrification, trees now flourish and my yard is completely shaded and I can't grow a thing. The roof gets more sun than the ground. I would like a flat platform over it that I could put a garden on. I think I'd rather this than photovoltaic cells even - lower technology, a parasol for the roof, lots of food.
Back to Cuba. Before 1989 57% of Cuba's daily caloric intake was imported and using gardens to grow food was seen to be a sign of poverty and underdevelopment. The response of the government was to launch the urban agriculture movement as a contribution to food security. Out of necessity, gardening was no longer just for the poor, but has been integrated into daily urban life.
Other kinds of informal food production include the dacha on the outskirts of Russian cities. Originally summer houses for the wealthy, they were nationalised after the revolution and after WWII gardens were started on unused land by squatters. Squatters' rights led to the formalisation of gardeners' partnerships – permanent use of the land for agriculture, access to power and water and the right to build a small house on the now-leased land. There were also plots allocated to mixed gardening at the edges of the fields of collective farms.
Since 1989 most dachas have been privatised, the house, cabin, cottage more important than the garden function. However, Russian agri-business, like all industrial farming, uses pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilisers, etc., and the chance to grow one's own fruit and vegetables is both part of the dacha tradition and an opportunity to grow clean food. However, much of the land around European cities has toxic and historic levels of metals in the topsoil, so the cleanliness of the dacha crops, depending where they are located, is only relative.
For the wealthy the dacha is their country estate, for the modest it is their allotment garden, for the poor it is affordable food, if they have access to a bit of land.
I wonder if one could calibrate the eagerness to engage in permaculture, transitional food production or urban agriculture depends first of all on the level of threat to food security, and secondly on the particular social attitudes to farming in each society. New wealth is notorious for trying to put a great distance between it and anything to do with labour. Stable wealth realises that it is dependent on labour, somewhere, and perhaps does not feel that holding a shovel or a rake indicates a loss of status. The transition town movement in Britain is huge, for example.
No matter where one lives there is always a segment of the population which carves out an alternative life of growing food, keeping chickens, knitting and sewing and making their own houses, and heaven knows, Vancouver Island, the Kootenays and the Gulf Islands are epicentral alternative societies. Where it starts to matter is when local food production is shot through all levels of society from top to bottom, from the homeless to the CEOs; from itinerant peasant to oligarch; from old to young; from urbanite to rural farmer; from hippie to hummer driver.
Then, and only then, will Kyoto and Copenhagen strategies start to work.