Problematized Shorelines: Is Everything Still OK Here?
I am a presenter at the ASLE* Emergence/Y Conference July 26 to August 6, 2021. Partly because of COVID but mostly because ASLE is concerned about the carbon footprint and accessibility limitations associated with in-person conferences, the conference is virtual so participants made videos of their presentations, which will be online for the duration of the conference.
My presentation is entitled Problematized Shorelines: Is Everything Still OK Here? Using my recent art projects to illustrate, I explore the constructs of “landscape” and “nature,” reflecting on how art can both hide and reveal environmental truths. My talk is an ecocritical commentary on the landscape and nature genres of art, which have been used to mask the damaging environmental impacts of extractive colonialism in the past, which continues today in urban expansion, industrialization, resource extraction, overconsumption and waste, and our continued dependence on fossil fuels.
If you decide to register you will find hundreds of presentations available online for the duration of the conference. If you would rather forgo the conference but would like to watch my presentation, here is the link to my Youtube video.
Please feel free to send me your thoughts by email.
*ASLE — the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment is an inclusive international community of scholars, practicing writers and artists, environmental educators, activists, and environmentally concerned citizens committed to environmental research, education, literature, art, environmental justice, and ecological sustainability. Through its networks and programs, it seeks to inspire and promote intellectual work in the environmental humanities and arts.
On National Cleanup Day last September, I became aware of the amount of plastic in the environment, including discarded masks and gloves, as I picked up litter in my neighbourhood and along the shoreline. Also exacerbated by the pandemic, I observed that more food and other household products were being packaged in excessive amounts of plastic. Plastic wrapping and packaging is ubiquitous and is largely not recyclable. Instead, it goes to landfills or escapes into the environment.
I concluded that as we used less oil as fuel, petroleum was still flowing and being manufactured into cheap plastic. Plastic waste is indeed a climate change issue!
Untitled (Plastic film balls) (2021-ongoing) is a mass of plastic balls inspired by a 2012 installation by American artist, Tara Donovan, called Untitled (Mylar). I appropriate Donovan’s aesthetic of plastic balls heaped in piles, but instead of new mylar, I transform plastic film from household bags and packaging into art. The balls are presented in an amorphous circular floor installation signifying the growing mounds of plastic waste accumulating in landfills and the environment.
To make the balls in three different sizes, I cut plastic film from household waste into 4, 6 or 8 inch circles, then fold the circles to make irregular cone shapes which I ten sew together using old nylon fishing line. The work is very labour intensive and done entirely by me. The growing number of balls can be reconfigured in site-specific installations. The variable mixture of translucent, metallicized and coloured film plastic renders a shimmering surreal effect.
Without critiquing the conservation and disposability of material used in the art world, my work questions the use of petroleum-based plastics with indefinite life spans for throw-away applications.
While doing my master’s program in Art History, I wanted to take a different slant on art revealing the harms of industrial animal agriculture – my long-term art and writing focus (see artthatmakesadifference.ca). Formulating my thesis statement for my major research project (sort of like a thesis but without the defence), I discovered ecocriticism and eco-art.
Ecocriticism is a relatively new discipline within the humanities and is an umbrella term for a range of critical approaches that explore the representation of the relationship between the human and the non-human or the human and ‘nature.’ Although ecocriticism took form at the beginning of the 1990s in the arts and literature, it is still not widely acknowledged in contemporary visual art and art history.
The term “Eco Art” was first used in 1989 by Felix Guattari to describe the new practice of revealing environmental concerns of the planet to society, drawing on the root of eco from Oikos, Greek meaning “house, domestic property, habitat, natural milieu.” Some artists were actually making eco-art since the 1960s. According to Mark Cheetham in Landscape to Eco Art, eco-art has become a way of structuring a wide variety of contemporary art practices that engage the conundrum of what individuals can do in responding to ecological and environmental issues in the Anthropocene.
In light of the growing environmental concerns and the climate crises, many academics and artists, myself included, may indeed be working ecocritically without knowing much, if anything, about it. When I finished writing my MRP — “Mishka Henner’s Feedlots: New Perspectives on the Contemporary Ecocritical Landscape” — I felt like I had found my niche. While I remain an animal advocate, I have shifted my art practice towards ecology.
While the apprehension of COVID-19 was growing, it was not until mid-March that the lock-down took effect. As art galleries, art classes and even my printmaking studio closed down, I decided to begin an eco-art project at home. I launched the “Quadrat Journal: An eco-art project that will (somehow) integrate ecology, geospatial representation, pandemics and social/ physical distancing” on March 27, 2020.
Wanting to refresh and update my knowledge of ecology for my new eco-art practice, I came across the “quadrat,” an ecological tool for measuring population densities of species in a given area. My original idea was to carry my newly constructed quadrat around and take pictures through it to add a spatial lens. I did this for a couple of days but it was awkward so I decided just to photograph my backyard. I started taking five square iPhone pics everyday—two of my garden, one of the lawn and two of the Ottawa River at the end of my backyard. At the same time, as I come across interesting ecological news item or other things I want to research, I would make a new slide in my journal. In it I cover a range of topics from pandemic movies, alien species, biological and viral classification systems, to herd immunity and personality factors in social distancing. I also talk a lot about critters in the backyard.
Inspired by artist Maria Gomez Umana’s foray into soap-making that resembled poop, I decided to extend my current project on urban ecology to take a closer look at Ottawa’s water purification and wastewater treatment systems.
We partnered with the Unstuck Collective, who were curating a Culture Days event outdoors at NECTAR — the New Edinburgh Community and Arts Centre, 255 MacKay Street, on Saturday, September 26, 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM. See An Unexpected Intersection: Soap Meets Poop for more details.
Unlike Maria, who made her soap-poop from scratch, I reworked some old soap, candle wax and the ends of tubes of acrylic paint from which I modelled my soap-poop.
Then soap-poop in hand, I headed off to the Britannia Water Filtration Plant to take some pictures. A few days later I went to the Robert O. Pickard Environmental Centre where all Ottawa’s wastewater is treated. Finally I biked to the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant and took some more pictures with my soap-poop. The map shows the three facilities located on the Ottawa River.
In keeping with a theme a conversations in a relaxed outdoor living room setting, I decided to present my work in the form of a “coffee table book” to inspire conversation. My coffee table book contains the photographs I took, an Ottawa Urban Hydrologic System map and a related article I wrote on the relationships between water, soap, poop, COVID-19 and climate change. Visitors could sit and flip through the COVID-friendly pages (all in plastic and wipeable) while we had very interesting conversations.
The event went very well and the weather was great.
A number of people took the opportunity to browse though my coffee table book. Ian Allen read the whole thing and even caught some typos, which hopefully I have corrected in the posted version (below).
Maria began making her own soap to try to reduce consumer plastic. I found it ironic that in making my eco-art exhibition suitable for the out-of-doors and COVID-friendly, everything was covered in plastic! After visitors flipped through one copy of the coffee table book, I disinfected it by wiping the cover and each page with an alcohol cleaner.
All the images I took for this project are imbedded in the revised document.
May 4, 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the Kent State University shooting of thirteen students by the U.S. National Guard. This is a good time to remember both the event and Richard Hamilton’s haunting Kent State print (1970).
On that bright May day in 1970 students and activists were protesting the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. The National Guard were on campus to keep the protestors in line. While some students and faculty were actually protesting, others were curiously looking on; others still were just cutting across the campus on their way to class. Shots ring out. Nearly 70 shots in 13 seconds. The soldiers shot into the crowd and thirteen people were hit. In the aftermath, four students lie dead and nine wounded. Twenty-year-old Dean Kahler, was shot in the back and his paralysis from the waist down would be a constant reminder of that day. (1)
This was not the era of cell phones but there are cameras. Photos were snapped and even some video was captured by journalism students. News of the event spreads like wildfire. Within hours images of the event find their way to Richard Hamilton’s living room in London, England, showing up on his new colour TV in the form of a BBC news broadcast. Hamilton just happened to have a camera set up in front of the television hoping for some interesting images to use in an upcoming printmaking project. As a picture of the wounded Dean Kahler appeared on screen, Hamilton captured the image on his camera.
When asked how he came to make his print series, Hamilton responded, “I felt that maybe it was necessary to look at the issues of our time and use the images that aroused questions. The things I began to do were usually the result of experiencing some image with a very strong impact. (2) He contemplated not using it because “It was too terrible an incident in American history to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance!! It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds.” (3)
He decided to use this image in a collaborative project with publisher Dorothea Leonhart of Munich and printer Dietz Offizin, Lengmoos, Bavaria, which would result in a series of 5000 silkscreen prints. This was a very big undertaking in those days. The complex printing process involved making thirteen screens, two of which were used twice, for the application of a total of fifteen layers of transparent inks in various shades and combinations of blue, red, yellow, violet and black. (4) Hamilton visited the print shop many times and verified and signed each work. Later he indicated that this work of art was the most difficult he ever undertook.
His idea was to make a large series so the image would remain in public view and would remain accessible to the average person – in fact, today you can buy one of these prints for between $1000-$2000. Kent State is in the collections of many prestigious art institutions across the world, including the National Gallery of Canada—which by the way, was the first place the image, most probably an artist proof, was shown in 1971. (5) The actual edition of 5000 premiered in Milan later that same year.
This print shares a blend of the indexicality of a photography (i.e., the sense of representing something real), mediated by many aesthetic decisions made in the printmaking process—the layers, the offsets, the colours, etc. The image is of Dean Kahler lying on the ground, legs truncated. He is tended by one person with another near by. We see the sun on his skin, the blue of his jeans… and the red blood. The black boarder – rectangular on its outer edge and rounded on the inner, we know is an old television screen. If we look closely we can see the pixilation and the horizontal scan lines typical of cathode ray technology of the time.
It is strange that the image is not centred on the paper. Hamilton wrote that it is printed off-centre to the sheet to express that “this was not just an image captured on TV, but a work about the mediation of this image by television.” In highlighting the televisual nature, the image embodies his concern that media transmits information indifferent to its content or meaning into the living rooms of the world, and the constant display of violence is desensitizing viewers. (6)
About Richard Hamilton (1922-2011)
In the 1950s Hamilton was a founding member of the Independent Group. Their exhibition, This is tomorrow (1956), for which Hamilton made the now iconic, Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? signalled the beginning of British Pop Art.
I always thought of Richard Hamilton as a British Bad Boy artist of the pop art era. He was very much part of the swinging London scene, associating with the Stones, Beatles and other celebrities. But he was so much more — an artist, designer, multi-media experimenter, teacher, writer, exhibition organizer and political activist. In his practice he drew upon and critiqued a wide range of popular culture media and current events, including imagery found in newspapers, magazines, television, film and advertising. He used collage, painting, sculpture, graphic design, photography and printmaking to create a vast array of work. In the mid-sixties Hamilton began working with Marcel Duchamp on a number of projects. Collaborations with Duchamp seemed to free him from the trends and constraints of the art world, facilitating him to take his own path. (7)
Always a technology buff, Hamilton’s innovations included the use of the computer in art. Even though a fan of technology, he raised importance questions about the authenticity of the image in society and especially how technology leaves us suspended between illusion and the real. (8)
In 1992 the Tate put on a major retrospective and Hamilton was Britain’s selection for the Venice Biennale in 1993. Still working right up to the end, Hamilton helped design a major retrospective at the Museo Nacional Reina Sofia in 2011, which was subsequently presented at the Tate Modern in 2014. The exhibition included over 200 pieces spanning the 1950s to work he completed in 2011 in a wide range of mediums and genres including paintings, prints, sculpture, photographs, designs, and Duchampian reconstructions. (9)
Notes (1) Kathi Valeii, Kent State, “Jackson State Survivors Talk Student Activism,” 2018, Rolling Stone website. (2) Hal Foster and Alex Bacon, eds., Richard Hamilton, October Files 10, Cambridge, Mass/London Eng: The MIT Press, 2010, 11. (3) Tate Galley Label, 2004, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043. (4) Tate Gallery Catalogue Entry, 1988, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hamilton-kent-state-p77043X. (5) Mark Godfrey, Paul Schimmel and Vincente Todoli, Richard Hamilton. London: Tate Publishing, 2014,Godfrey – Tate catalog, 239. (6) Godfrey Schimmel and Todoli, Richard Hamilton, 240.(7) Ibid., 17. (8) Richard Hamilton: Modern Moral Matters exhibition was held at the Serpentine Gallery in 2010. (9) Godfrey, Schimmel and Todoli, Richard Hamilton, 17.
For almost two years I have been working on my master’s degree in Art History at Carleton University. My major research project (MRP) –“Mishka Henner’s Feedlots: New Perspectives on the Contemporary Ecocritical Landscape”– is handed in, so I am just awaiting the virtual walk across the stage.
In my paper I question why industrial animal agriculture is not a more prominant subject in contemporary art and art historical discourse, and particularly, in art exhibitions on the Anthropocene, eco art and ecocriticism.
Henner’s series, Feedlots (2012-13), comprises seven high-resolution digital images of Texas feedlots made by stitching together hundreds of high-resolution screenshots from Google Earth. (See Henner’s website.) This series has received significant attention in exhibitions and in various publications, likely more on account of Henner’s innovative “post-photography” practices than its subject matter.
The term “post-photography” has been used since the late twentieth century in conjunction with the transformation from analogue to digital media; more recently it has come to mean the integration of the image, technology and the Internet. Camila Moreiras explains that the “age of post-photography can be understood as the age of the inorganic image: a composite of littered information – collected, ordered, layered, buried, stored and discarded.” (1) In contemporary photographic practice, images may be built, fabricated, altered, and/or systematically edited with or without the camera. Henner has rejected the camera, using his computer and the Internet for image-making, which he feels is better suited for the age in which we live. (2)
Since writing the original post, a shorter version of my MRP has been published in Render, the Carleton University Art History Graduate Journal. Here is the link.
(1) Camila Moreiras, “Joan Fontcuberta: Post-Photography and the Spectral Image of Saturation,” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 18:1 (2017): 57 and FN3, 72.
Every once in a while, when I say I am an “ethical vegan”(1), someone will pipe up “What about plants? Don’t they have feelings too?” This question is clearly a ploy to discredit animal sentience as a guide to our ethical eating choices…But it gets me thinking what about plants?
Since the seventies, interest in the intelligence and responsiveness of plants has been growing. In this blog I want to briefly discuss plant intelligence and sentience, introduce the work of an artist I metwho explores the luminous world of plants. and finally, to present a few plant mono prints I made specifically for this post.
Plant Intelligence – the Research
Since the pseudo-scientific book, The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, was published in 1973, interest in the intelligence and sentience of plants has been growing. It is evident that plants move and communicate albeit in ways that are largely imperceptible to humans. According to many researchers, intelligence from a plant point of view entails intentionality regarding how plants grow to take advantage of resources or to defend against threats. More generally, plant intelligence is defined as the capacities plants have that enable them to do well according to their unique perspective as expressed at the cellular, organismic and environmental levels (2).
In a 2017 journal article “Are plants sentient?”, researchers contend that plants have distributed nervous systems based on bioelectric fields that are distributed throughout the plant. This nervous system provides the potential for assessment in all parts of the plant and resolving the signals would be similar to the function of an animal’s brain in arriving at physiological responses to the environment (3).
I watched a great TED talk by Stefano Mancuso (4) in which he describes distributed plant intelligence capabilities that enable plants to respond to gravity, light and to seek out resources, and also to communicate with other plants and animals through electrical and chemical signals. The intelligent is rooted in the plants’ apexes – the growing areas, which exhibit the same electrical potentials that neurons in our brain use to exchange information. Rather than centralizing intelligence in the brain, plants have evolved to use distributed processing which enables them to survive predation.
The luminous world of plants – the work of Marie-Jeanne Musiol
I felt the work of Marie-Jeanne Musiol was a wonderful way to illustrate the possibilities of plant intelligence.
On June 13, 2018 I attended an artist talk by Marie-Jeanne Musiol about her participation in the exhibition “Le Rêve des forms/ The Dream of Forms,” presented at the Palais de Tokyo from 14 June to 10 September 2017. Works of participating artists and scientists explored new possibilities of representation, to shake up our way of seeing and showing. Musiol submitted a small series of images entitled “Journeys into the Fields of Light” to the exhibition.
Bridging art and science, Musiol’s work represents new ways of looking at plants. Using electromagnetic photography she records the bio-energetic fields that surround plants to reveal intelligent vibrations and frequencies. Musiol became interested in moving beyond the visible while working at Auschwitz in the 1990s. In search of a deeper understanding of connections between matter and light, her black and white images and films reflect the dynamism of living plants. Her work has appeared in many Canadian and international exhibitions and she has a new book called The Radiant Forest, An Energy Herbarium. Marie-Jeanne Musiol was born in Switzerland and lives and works in Gatineau, Quebec. Check out her website.
My Plant Monoprints
Early June is a beautiful time in my garden. I harvested a few ferns and asparagus fronds and some flower stems for mono-printing using my gel plate and Akua printing ink. These images do not purport to capture the intelligence or inner radiance of the plants but these two prints are visually interesting and were fun to make.
Chagall: Colour and Music, an exhibition presented at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts last spring (28 Jan — 21 Jun 2017), was absolutely amazing and raised the profile of Marc Chagall (1887-1985) in the hearts and minds of many Canadian art lovers. The biggest Canadian exhibition ever devoted to the artist, it featured 340 works of art, including paintings, works on paper, costumes, sculptures, ceramics, stained glass and tapestries. Brought to life though music, photographs and film, the show provided a multi-media look at the artist’s long and productive career.
Just a year after this wonderful show in Montreal, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that the National Gallery of Canada was about to dispose of one of its two Chagall paintings in order to raise money for the purchase an undisclosed “cultural treasure.” The piece being sold was La Tour Eiffel, painted in 1929 and acquired by the NGC in 1956. It had been displayed a number of years ago but currently only Chagall’s Memories of Childhood (1927) is on display in the European Gallery.
It turned out the cultural treasure to be saved was Saint Jerome Hears the Trumpet of the Last Judgment, painted in 1779 by Jacques-Louis David. In my mind, yet another dreary religious picture was hardly a cultural treasure of national significance. Although acquisition of works by David would be beneficial for the national collection, I do not feel that the St Jerome would be a good representation of the French artist’s Neo-Classical style. Some of David’s well-know works include: The Oath of Horatio (1784), The Death of Marat (1793), and The Sabine Women (1796-99).
Many patrons of the National Gallery of Canada felt that Marc Chagall’s La Tour Eiffel, was in fact, a cultural treasure worth fighting for. My friend and fellow artist Bryna Cohen was particularly moved by the potential loss of the Chagall. A former docent at the gallery, she felt that de-accessing such a culturally valuable artwork would be in violation of the spirit, if not the actual letter of, the National Gallery’s mandate. She started an online petition. Fortunately there were many people who agreed with her and the sale was called off. Hopefully the National Gallery will have the two Chagall paintings on display in the European Gallery in the shortest possible time – we will see!
Last year following the Montreal exhibition, I was inspired to use Chagall’s style and motifs in creating a painting I call Horse and Pony Show (2017) with the intent of reflecting on the use of pregnant horse urine in producing hormone therapies for menopause. In making this work, I combined elements of Chagall’s I and my Village (1911) and his Circus and Paradise poster series.
Sea Change: Images of Summer in the High Arctic is a body of work reflecting my experiences in the High Arctic in August 2008. It was also my first solo show held at the Nepean Creative Arts Centre, Ottawa, October 2-29, 2010
In August 2008 I had a remarkable experience to travel onboard the Akademik Ioffe, a retired Russian research vessel, along the coast of the Canadian High Arctic and Northern Greenland. Most days I kayaked with other hardy adventurers, exploring the gentle shores and remote bays, skirting massive cliffs, glaciers and icebergs of unbelievable sizes and shapes. We experienced all kinds of weather – sunshine, fog, rain, snow, wind, tumultuous seas and seas as smooth as glass. Although the vegetation was absent or scarce, we were amazed by the sheer number of breeding birds and the richness of the fauna — muskoxen, narwhals, seals, walruses and magnificent polar bears coping with their hungry season. Even more amazing are the people who make their home in this rugged environment–the Inuit and some hardy folks from the south, living in some of the world’s most northerly communities, including Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, Grise Fiord and Resolute Bay in Canada, and Qaanaaq in Greenland.
As an artist, I sought to bear witness to the splendour of the polar regions before they are lost forever due to climate change. Sea Change not only provided me a unique subject matter that I was passionate to paint but it offered a way of expressing and communicating issues about climate change. In over a decade since my trip, much has changed.