e c o v e n t i o n
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section 1: introduction
  getting it built
  land art, earthworks...

section 2: activism...
  direct engagements
  breaking out of the box...
  research centers
  community action

section 3: valuing anew...
  sites and non-sites
  itenerant nature
  agents of perpetual change

section 4: biodiversity...
  habitat architecture
  ocean habitats
  trans-species art
  spying for nature
  species reclamation

section 5: urban infrastructure...
  urban forests
  waste treatment
  sustainable 'hoods

section 6: reclamation...
  watershed management...
  uniting human intellect
  unspoiling soil

section 7: notes

section 8: a short history...

section 9: philosophical statements

section 10: glossary

section 11: critical diversity



The Contemporary Arts Center


section 1: introduction
getting it built

I'm very subversive, and that is why it's so important to eventually build the projects.— Patricia Johanson1

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Coined in 1999, the term ecovention (ecology + invention) describes an artist-initiated project that employs an inventive strategy to physically transform a local ecology. Ecovention, the exhibition, focuses on realized ecoventions, because artists' proposals, or "visionary fantasies," rarely change public attitudes the way novel experiences do. While Ecovention and its catalog cannot simulate such experiences, participants hope that a greater awareness of these projects will encourage viewers to visit these sites and invite artists to propose ecoventions for their communities. Of course, artists don't produce their projects on their own. They collaborate with community members and local specialists such as architects, botanists, zoologists, ecologists, engineers, landscape architects, and urban planners to realize and evaluate their scientifically complex projects.

Local citizens' role as stakeholders is of paramount importance to an ecovention's survivability, since citizens are the stewards who will protect and maintain the ecovention once it's built. Of course, there are numerous fascinating stories about citizens or specialists who initially doubted the feasibility of a particular ecovention and underwent a 180-degree turn to become its biggest advocates. These are the stories this catalog discloses. So if you too have your doubts, you may be in for some surprises!

Patricia Johanson, Fair Park Lagoon (“Saggitaria Platyphylla”)

There is the pesky question of why an ecovention is art and not just some aesthetically pleasing reclamation project. Co-curator Amy Lipton and I spent a lot of time discussing the "artfulness" of each project presented here. Before deciding whether to include a project in the book, we applied the same standards that we would use to judge the success of an ordinary work of art. This is why the standard of inventiveness matters. In Plato's Symposium, the subversive Diotima argues with Socrates about the significance of divine beauty, which entails imagination and brings forth not beautiful images, but new realities, which are presumably original or inventive. Diotima actually describes creators, such as poets and artists, who seek wisdom and virtue as deserving of the name inventor.
But, what if man had eyes to see... divine beauty... not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life... Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities... and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?4
In this book and exhibition, the standard of inventiveness isn't only applied in relationship to art history, but in terms of current ecological practices in the public sphere. In the case of ecoventions, artists either employ or invent novel techniques that have yet to be tested in such instances. This requires them to convince communities and specialists to support their local experiments.

Helen and Newton Harrison (bolded names indicate the first time an artist's work or idea is referenced in this section), two of the best known eco-artists, have stressed the significance of invention. Not only do they publicly articulate the inventive aspects of each of their projects, but they believe that every artist's role is:
to search, to discover value, to value discovery, to discover qualities of value...to bespeak those values, to be self-critical...to re-speak the values more clearly, to be self-critical again. From this process, new metaphors emerge and old ones are tested for value.5
As scientific experiments carried out in the context of the art world, ecoventions are able to withstand a higher level of risk than typical scientific experiments. Such experiments usually cost less as works of art and garner broad support as community-building public projects, a feature that gives ecoventions a distinct advantage over pure science. Furthermore, their success isn't judged by the artist's ultimate ability to publish the results or pay back sponsors like the National Science Foundation, as would be the case for scientists. Mel Chin's Revival Field (1990-1993), perhaps the best known ecovention, began as an incredibly inexpensive experiment that a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientist couldn't get funded. When it comes to art, sponsors don't weigh practical priorities or expect to make a profit, the way funders of scientific research do. Art is viewed as a positive contribution that makes a long-term restoration project immediately attractive to a wider audience. In the symposium that accompanied The Natural Order at Texas Tech's Landmark Gallery, artist Lynne Hull remarked:
I would also like to suggest that ecological art will often differ from ecological restoration science in its process rather than its intent. As I said, the scientist has to go through this scientific method, which can narrow perspective, and therefore he or she can lose track of the larger picture. The artist, on the other hand, is encouraged to be wide-ranging and open to all possibilities. The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles suggests that once an artist gets involved in science or some other kind of technological process, the artist can question and re-define anything at any step, and the scientist won't do that.6
While art/science collaborations offer certain advantages over pure science, not all artists consider artists' attempts to tackle ecological problems a positive trend. On a panel discussion in conjunction with the Seattle Art Museum's 1979 exhibition "Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture," Robert Morris remarked that he found it bizarre that:
art was going to cost less than restoring the site to its 'natural condition.' What are the implications of that kind of thinking...that art should be cheaper than nature? Or that siteworks can be supported and seen as relevant by a community only if they fulfill a kind of sanitation service.7
Only the year before, Alan Sonfist created Natural and Bronze Time Enclosures (1978) which paired a bronze branch, valued at $4, with a real tree branch, valued at $4,000, and required them to be purchased together, to demonstrate nature's intrinsic value over art. To be fair, this exploration of ecoventions doesn't aim to support the view that industry is free to pollute, since artists are relatively cheap and eager to clean up after polluters. Rather, this book introduces case-studies to elucidate the variety of approaches and range of innovations that artists are currently implementing in conjunction with their scientific and community collaborators. The following case studies illustrate an intentional and an accidental ecovention. Both began as unpredictable experiments.

Mel Chin (with Dr. Rufus Chaney), Revival Field

Immersed in a period of free-ranging research during the late 1980s, artist Mel Chin came upon an article about the use of plants as remediation tools and immediately considered such a process as a sculptural tool capable of bringing into reality the return of life to devastated landscape. Determining which hyperaccumulators — plants that have evolved the capacity to selectively absorb and contain large amounts of metal or minerals in their vascular structure — worked best was quite another issue. Not content to stop, he fortunately found Dr. Rufus Chaney, a USDA senior research scientist, who had proposed phytoremediation (using plants as remediation agents) as early as 1983, but never implemented a field test. The rest is both ecological and art history. While Chaney was inspired by the possibility to test this biotechnology, Chin found himself in a battle with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which originally agreed to award the project a grant, but reneged when the chairman deemed it more of a science project than a work of art, even though it was being created in conjunction with the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mel Chin (with Dr. Rufus Chaney), Revival Field "collecting soil samples,"

Fortunately, Chin met with NEA Chairman John Frohnmayer to articulate the project's artistic merits and its historic possibility in the history of conceptual art, and the grant was restored. Chin has compared the plants' absorption of toxic metals to the art of carving. Furthermore, once the toxin-laden weeds are harvested, incinerated and resold as ore (to pay for the process), the "aesthetic" is revealed in the return of growth to the revitalized soil.8 It's amazing to consider how much a $10,000 NEA grant inspired. Although Chin expresses his doubts about the sophistication and effectiveness of most current phytoremediation techniques, one business analyst predicts that the new phytoremediation industry will become a $400 million business by 2005.9

In June 1991, after six months of negotiations for sites all over the country, Chin and Chaney chose Pig's Eye Landfill in Saint Paul, Minnesota. They then planted Revival Field, the first such on-site experiment in the United States and one of only two in the world. Dr. Chaney selected one cadmium and one zinc hyperaccumulator (Thlapsi caerulescens) and two other known indicators of metals (Silene cucubalus and hybrid Zea mays). "Merlin red fescue and romaine lettuce were also included to test for metal tolerance and food chain influence."11 From the 96 plots designed to assess different soil and pH treatments, they discovered that Thlapsi samples absorbed the most zinc and cadmium. The results provided data essential to confirm laboratory tests and create a new technology.

Concerned that environmental factions such as the Green Party in Germany had begun to doubt the validity of the science due to the confidential (private industry and government) research initiatives in the U.S. that limited information, Chin returned in 2001 to initiate the tenth anniversary planting of Revival Field. Working with Dr. Chaney and other parties involved in the research, Chin successfully negotiated a transfer of new varieties of "super"accumulating plants to another collaborator, Dr. Volker Römheld. Chin and Römheld projected long term tests to further the science in Germany and to work on public lands, as well as in the Hohenheim University plots. With the first year's progressive tests over in 2001, the field will be replanted in 2002.

A founding father of the native plant revolution, Alan Sonfist first publicly articulated the need for urban forests in 1969, but it took another nine years for Time Landscape, a 45 feet x 200 feet patch of pre-Colonial wilderness (oaks, hickories, junipers, maples, and sassafras) planted in Manhattan, to get off the ground. Time Landscape has evolved into an ecovention, but it began as a monument to celebrate a less familiar, non-human history. According to Eleanor Heartney:
Sonfist's success in persuading city planners and bureaucrats to approve the construction of time landscapes is based on arguments that derive, not from conventional justifications for public art, but from the discussion that surrounds issues of architectural preservation. Sonfist's stance has been that it is as important to preserve historical landscapes as to preserve historical buildings.12

Sonfist believes that it is not enough to repair the landscape: one must also "repair the hole in the psyche which is left when all traces of our biological and ecological roots are obliterated."13 Since Sonfist's Time Landscape remains a visible but locked park, Time Landscape fails to offer a "social site filled with human content," though it does satisfy Jeff Kelley's condition that "places are where time takes root."14 Paradoxically, nay-sayers thought the plants Sonfist selected would never grow, let alone survive a contemporary metropolis, yet now his pre-Colonial list has joined the city's approved plant list. Time Landscape has transformed the local environment in ways that Sonfist could never have anticipated.

Alan Sonfist’s 1965 plan for mini-landscapes juxtaposed against City of New York Parks & Recreation's Greenstreets Map  Alan Sonfist’s 1965 plan for mini-landscapes juxtaposed against City of New York Parks  & Recreation's Greenstreets Map, 2002

Unfortunately, the New York City Parks Department, which has owned Time Landscape since 1989, has neglected to monitor its ecological benefits, which include absorbing rainwater, releasing oxygen, and absorbing pollutants such as airborne metals and carbon dioxide, due to emissions from cars zipping along the busy Houston Street artery, which links the Hudson River Parkway to the West Side Highway. In conjunction with the New York City Department of Transportation, the Parks Department has transformed hundreds of unused landmasses in streets into mini-landscapes, known as Greenstreets, which coincidentally affirms Sonfist's original proposal to place mini-landscapes in lower Manhattan.

Case Study  Alan Sonfist, Time Landscape: Greenwich Village

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land art, earthworks, environmental art, ecological art, ecoventions...

It should be stressed that there are several different categories for art that involves nature— land art, Earthworks, environmental art, and ecological art. Where does an ecovention fit within these different categories? An ecovention is the most particular case, since it is designed with some intended ecological function. Though like all art, many ecoventions take on a life of their own to become something unanticipated. In fact, ecoventions fit into each of these categories. Land art, the most general category, encompasses any work that activates the land, however temporarily. Earthworks, ecological art and environmental art are all examples of land art, as are Dennis Oppenheim's and Ana Mendieta's interventions, most works by Chris Drury and Andy Goldsworthy, and the nature walks of Richard Long and Hamish Fulton.

Herbert Bayer, grass mound

Earthworks, an art historical category, was devised to describe works like Robert Wilson's Poles (1967-1968), Michael Heizer's Double Negative (1969-1970), Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970), Walter de Maria's Lightning Field (1974-1977), and many of the works installed at Artpark in Lewiston, New York. Earthworks are primarily permanent, large-scale, non-natural forms sited in "wide open spaces," as opposed to particular natural environments, such as along a river, amidst a field, or in an urban setting. As the Center for Land Use Interpretation's Formations of Erasure: Earthworks and Entropy (2001) exploration of the current status of Earthworks demonstrates, several Earthworks have become victims of neglect, vandalism and degradation, not unlike the abandoned industrial sites that dot the landscape. As Roberta Smith noted "most are returning inexorably to the earth whence they came, despite the unchanging nature of the widely reproduced photographs by which nearly everyone knows them."17

Agnes Denes, Rice/Tree/Burial “ricefield,”   Agnes Denes Rice/Tree/Burial “red rice” detail

Environmental art, like Meg Webster's works or Agnes Denes' ritualistic endeavor Rice/Tree/Burial (1977-1979) (a second version of Denes' 1968 performance), is generally less monumental and tends to employ nature as a medium, so as to enhance the viewer's awareness of nature's forces, processes and phenomena, or to demonstrate an indigenous culture's awareness of nature's sway. Denes' rice field, meant to explore the life cycle's process of regeneration, evolved into an ecological work, when her planting of ordinary Louisiana white rice seeds eventually produced rice resembling a variety of Chinese red rice that's technically impossible to grow in New York. This led her to detect nearby Love Canal's long-term impact on the toxicity of Artpark's soil. Smithson's Spiral Jetty, a breakwater that forms a lagoon, might now be considered an ecovention, given its function and placement near a disused oil-drilling operation. The artist expressed an interest in "the origin of life as well as the devastating forces of entropy and the irreversibility of the loss of energy."18 However, the environmental hazards associated with the sculpture make it an unlikely precursor for ecological art.

One of Smithson's last proposals, which entailed reclaiming a strip mine, enabled him to mediate "between ecology and industry by reclaiming the land in terms of art,"19 and might have been one of the first ecological works – if not an ecovention – had it been built. Certainly, his Spiral Hill/Broken Circle (1971), a reclaimed open sand pit in Emmen, Holland, stands as an early example of eco-art. As the section "Valuing Anew" will demonstrate, Smithson, like Morris, thought artists shouldn't clean up or decorate industry's messes, so his notion of reclamation meant re-evaluating a site's ugliness or appreciating its problematic condition for what it is. Ecological artists consider issues of sustainability, adaptability, interdependence, renewable resources, and biodiversity, but they don't necessarily attempt to transform the local ecology. Not all ecological artists employ inventive strategies, nor do they necessarily aim to restore natural resources, stabilize local environments, value anew, or alert people to potentially confrontational conditions, which is why not all eco-artists create ecoventions. Even artists who actually make ecoventions create other kinds of art, too.

Given the variety of artists who have worked in this fashion since the late 1950s, it is truly amazing that so many built projects remain so invisible. Unlike a typical work of art that can move from one community to another, or is part of a body of work that can be discussed as a whole, most of these projects have impacted local communities in rather particular ways and therefore have remained local. Of course, all of the artists cited have participated in gallery and museum exhibitions, and some have catalogs and articles to support their work, but the majority of their projects are still little known among the art world cognoscenti.

The fact that so many ecoventions have either been folded into public works (sewage and waste-water treatment plants, public gardens, public landfills) or have been initiated by artists locally (brownfields, surface mines) further contributes to their invisibility. Finally, the difficulty of exhibiting, let alone explicating, ecoventions indoors, coupled with their resistance to collecting, has minimized a need to discuss them in mainstream art magazines and books. Even the recent monograph Transplant presented primarily indoor examples, despite the reality that plants typically reside outdoors. Baile Oakes' indispensible Sculpting with the Environment, featuring thirty-three artists' descriptions of their practice, is the single book devoted to working with nature outdoors.

The Nation's architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay similarly laments the absence of any discussion of buildings' environmental aspects in key journals such as Architecture and Architectural Record, despite International Design magazine's recent recognition of eighteen architects for their ecological designs and the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) granting of 2001 Honor Award to the 48-story Condé Nast Building (4 Times Square), designed by Fox and Fowle, for its "elements of new thinking and constructing."20 She comments further that an article dedicated to the use of materials in Boston Architecture failed to discuss the materials' sustainability. And Architectural Record's "Material Affairs" interview with Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the American Craft Museum on 53rd Street, acclaimed by some critics as New York City's most important building since Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, failed to discuss the building materials' ecological content or impact.

According to Holtz Kay, only Landscape Architecture has addressed ecological concerns, leaving the "would-be earth guardians isolated, only a whit more powerful than [they were] in less ecological times."21 On the other hand, Patricia Johanson argues that, unlike ordinary art that depends on a body of art history or critical interpretation, an ecovention can be grasped directly — whatever one thinks about it is valid.22 Well it's really not that simple, because the question "Why is it art and not science?" or "not a public garden?" or "not a sewage treatment plant?" still remains. By contrast, one wouldn't enter a green building and doubt whether it's architecture, though one might wonder whether it's finished, as many do with the "earthships" of Taos-based architect Michael Reynold.

Image of an Earthship’s interior

Certainly, art historical figures like Joseph Beuys, Mel Chin, Agnes Denes, Helen and Newton Harrison, Ocean Earth, Robert Smithson, Alan Sonfist, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles are known and collected, yet too few in the art world realize the role ecoventions have played in convincing local city planners, landscape architects, civil engineers, and watershed managers to rethink their practices. When one considers the number of projects that some of these artists have realized, it's truly alarming that none has had an exhibition that specifically focuses on their realized projects. There have been several important group exhibitions, such as "Earth Art" (1969) at Cornell University, "Elements of Art: Earth, Air and Fire" (1971) at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, "Earthworks: Land Reclamation as Sculpture" (1979) at the Seattle Art Museum, and "Fragile Ecologies" (1992), curated by Barbara Matilsky. the first exhibition to focus exclusively on ecological art, at the Queens Museum of Art. However, the Seattle Art Museum exhibition, initiated by the King County Arts Commission and the Department of Public Works of Washington, which presented proposals for sites slated for reclamation (gravel pits, flood-control sites, surface mines, and landfills) by Iain Baxter, Herbert Bayer, Richard Fleischner, Lawrence Hanson, Mary Miss, Robert Morris, Dennis Oppenheim, and Beverly Pepper, did lead to the realization of proposals by Morris and Bayer.

Rather than provide a definitive summary of every artist-initiated ecological project to date, Ecovention seeks to open a door onto this field and to introduce many of the active participants. Rather than focus on historical works, Ecovention seeks to expose the large number of ecoventions that have just been completed or will come to fruition within the year. It is hoped that other institutions will build on the research that went into Ecovention, just as Ecovention has benefited from what came before. For explanatory ease, ecoventions have been sub-divided into five categories: 1) activism to publicize ecological issues/monitoring ecological problems, 2) valuing anew/living with brownfields, 3) biodiversity/accommodating species/studying species depletion, 4) urban infrastructure /environmental justice, and 5) reclamation and restoration aesthetics. Of course, these categories are hardly fixed, in that artists who create ecoventions are ready activists who incidentally champion environmental justice. For example, Patricia Johanson's projects function as infrastructure for modern cities and employ inventive reclamation schemes, but her nourishing, life-sustaining habitats are featured in the "Biodiversity" section because her work serves as the benchmark for this particular specialty. Similarly, the Harrisons could be classified in either the "Valuing Anew" or "Biodiversity" sections, but they are included in the "Activism" section since they view their process as a "conversational drift" surrounding discourses of nature.

Such categories should enable newcomers to draw distinctions between artists' intentions and practices. This catalog seeks to flesh out each artist's philosophical perspectives and methodologies. Such divergent practices yield works with quite different focuses. The competing beliefs and attitudes among artists make for a lively field. The following on-line chat among several members of the on-line eco-art dialogue (hosted by Ohio State University) took place January 18-26, 2001, and demonstrates the wide-ranging beliefs and attitudes that influence how one might initiate an ecovention in a city like Cincinnati.

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