e c o v e n t i o n

Buy this book


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 3:valuing anew/living with brownfields
sites and nonsites

The Nine Mile River team would argue that art is about shifting values. The artists are interested in the place itself as the object and subject of inquiry and manipulation. We have the chance to reconsider the forces that created post-industrial brownfield properties and how we can better integrate production goals with environmental health and quality. ...We have the opportunity to reconsider the split between nature and culture, and public and private. ... New images, symbols and ideas must be embraced and creative thinking (by both children and adults) must be welcomed in post-industrial dialogue and community planning.1 -Tim Collins
The world needs coal and highways, but we do not need the results of strip-mining or highway trusts. Economics, when abstracted from the world, is blind to natural processes. Art can become a resource, that mediates between the ecologist and the industrialist. Ecology and art are not one-way streets, rather they should be crossroads.2 -Robert Smithson
As discussed in the "Introduction," Robert Smithson (1938-1973) was highly critical of art that sought to reclaim degraded land. He preferred to demonstrate industry's role in molding new land forms. Due to his untimely death, he realized only one ecological work of art in an open sand pit in Emmen, Holland. Even so, his controversial anti-reclamation philosophy continues to shift people's perceptions and values. Smithson consciously chose already degraded sites, yet he routinely encountered criticism that his earth works were environmentally "insensitive." Spiral Jetty (1970) had lagoon potential but it's in a salt lake adjacent to abandoned oil rigs that had already polluted the surrounding waters. His Island of the Broken Glass (1969), for which he wanted to shatter 100 tons of green-tinted glass, was slated for a "remote, undisturbed, barren rock off Vancouver Island."3 Wanting to protect migratory birds who perch on this rock, environmentalists put a halt to Smithson's plan to visualize the process of erosion that naturally shaves glass into sand over centuries.

Smithson even approached several mining companies with the hope that they might find his services of interest. He didn't offer to create works that would rejuvenate the land, since he believed that such works "cosmetically camouflage the abuse."4 "In accepting the reality of the site, Smithson ensured that the damage from industry would remain visible."5 Under government and public pressure to "clean up" degraded lands, mining company executives probably ignored his provocative proposals for Earthworks because they didn't seem effective enough. As Barbara Matilsky has observed, Smithson's plan for Bingham Copper Mining Pit-Utah Reclamation Project (1973) made no attempt to ameliorate the blight caused by strip mining. Rather, he proposed to add four small curving lines at the very bottom of the world's largest open-pit mine, in order to transform a three-mile trench into a gorgeous gorge.6
Could one say that art degenerates as it approaches gardening?7 -Robert Smithson
Floating Island: To Travel Around Manhattan (1970), an isle of flora on a barge that Smithson proposed be tugged around New York City, once seemed like just a frivolous fantasy. It's unknown whether he considered its ecological benefit to the river, or whether he just wanted to provide additional green space. Nonetheless, this was the era when floating islands floated into artists' imaginations. One of Patricia Johanson's 1969 drawings detailed floating "islands" and "walkways" that extended the land area of a narrow beach and provide protected swimming.8 Gordon Matta-Clark produced a series of related drawings titled Islands Parked on the Hudson (1970-1971). To date, large-scale floating islands have yet to be realized in the United States. Since 1989, Lynne Hull (b. 1944) has placed small-scale floating islands in ponds, marshes, and swimming pools to sustain ducks, geese, turtles, heron, and aquatic insects. She wants to install a large-scale Bird Barge/Biodiversity Life Raft at the confluence of the Ohio River and Cincinnati's Mill Creek.

Robert Smithson, A Nonsite (Franklin, New Jersey)

Smithson introduced the notion of the "nonsite," natural elements presented in an unnatural setting like a gallery or museum, as differentiated from the "site" —the actual work. This side bar clarifies how Smithson distinguished sites from nonsites.

>>back to top<<

itenerant nature
[A]n important criterion of most of my projects is to invite the site's community to collaborate. If they work on it, ownership resides within the community, where it belongs. When I begin work in a new community, it's critical to publicly acknowledge my itinerant nature, seek permission and invite real participation. This way of working led to my being hired by the City of Oakland Community and Economic Development Agency...neighbors told me what they liked and didn't like about the park. We prioritized desired solutions.10 -Susan Leibovitz Steinman
In 1989, Susan Leibovitz Steinman, then a graduate student at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts, enrolled in noted performance artist Suzanne Lacy's course City Sites. Based on Lacy's lecture series, for which ten internationally known artists presented their socially engaging work, City Sites students teamed up with other artists to create site-specific projects in places like a drug rehabilitation center, an AIDS shelter, and a recycling plant. Leibovitz Steinman and Roberta Fudim worked in a retirement home. The rest is history. Leibovitz Steinman, who does have a studio practice and often exhibits on her own, is best known for facilitating massive public projects, which have involved her collaborating with a range of folks from volunteer Caltrans workers to winners of a "What California Means in Three Words or Less" contest, amateur landscape designers, San Francisco League of Urban Garderners (SLUG), East Bay Urban Gardeners, professional landscape architect Laurel Kelly, master gardener Kathi Kinney, West Oakland Neighbors, artist Janice Clement, Merritt College's Horticultural Landscape Department, high school students, the Museum of Children's Arts' after-school program, homeless people already inhabiting sites, seasoned activists, and unwitting bystanders.
We were afraid it would look like a pile of junk.- Hugh Lau, Marketing Director for a neighboring business
(his initial response to Mandela Artscape)
Leibovitz Steinman's public works are ecoventions not just because they inspire ownership, assemble diverse teams, or offer unforeseen economic opportunities, but because she discovers unexpected resources, tackles unlikely sites, and regularly changes the function of even an ordinary site, like a pedestrian walkway in Palo Alto, California. How does she do it? Imagination, persistence and team building are key ingredients. Who else would describe Caltrans' Oakland salvage yard as a candy store? Or see the potential in a Caltrans transit corridor hidden under a freeway overpass? Or seek to alter narrow nothings like median strips into engaging artscapes? In the spirit of Smithson's revealing rather than concealing a degraded site, she and artist Andrée Singer Thompson opted to spend the $5000 it would have cost to break apart and haul away an ugly blockish cement bench near some Oakland tennis courts on enlisting area elementary school children to paint tiles on its front and back.

Under the auspices of Appalshop Community Gallery, in Whitesburg, Kentucky, Leibovitz Steinman, Suzanne Lacy, and Yutaka Kobayashi (an artist from Okinawa currently visiting University of California, Berkeley, and California College of Arts and Crafts) have been invited to transform Elkhorn City, Kentucky, a scarred ex-mining town, into an eco-tourist destination for naturalists, whitewater rafters, and kayakers. Nearby Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Kentucky's West Virginia border, contains the 250-million-year-old Breaks Canyon, considered to be the "Grand Canyon of the South." The Kentucky side of Breaks Interstate Park is currently under threat of natural gas drilling, and Elkhorn City's enlightened officials realize that eco-tourist dollars will benefit their community more than natural gas drilling, whose income stream is short lived. Their proposal entails restoring a waterfront; designing an interpretive park with mini-wetlands, where storm water runoff from a gas station hits the river; creating riverfront performances in conjunction with a theater artist from Antioch; and collecting "river and land stories" that will air on Appalshop radio station and be used in some visual, archival way to preserve the oral history of the river and land.11

Susan Leibovitz Steinman, Mandela Artscape

Those unwilling to mix it up need not explore her public works. Despite the fact that Mandela Artscape (1998-1999) was originally slated as a temporary visual gateway to West Oakland, the "Green City," it remains Leibovitz Steinman's most ambitious and imaginative endeavor to date. Within a few weeks, a two-acre median strip along the Mandela Parkway, where 42 people died when the Cypress Freeway collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, not only memorialized the dead, but reconnected West Oakland, which was cut off when the freeway sprung up 30 years ago. Caltrans not only let her select objects from its salvage yard, but it lent cranes, forklifts, dump trucks, and experienced workers, who moved giant mounds of soil and heavy pieces of equipment around the site. Metal frames that typically hold freeway signs became trellises and gorgeous salvaged blue water pipes lined a native grass patch like a river. Crushed recycled freeway concrete formed a path that intersected the "river" midstream, creating a bridge symbolic of the reunification of the neighborhood since the freeway's demise.

The Mandela Artscape also infused the community with paid jobs, new skills, and free training. Leibovitz Steinman patched together four separate environmental art grants to raise the necessary $32,000. The garden's 3000 plants (California poppies, redwood and cypress trees, grasses, passion vines, and morning glories) were maintained by a crew of volunteer gardeners, who graduated from a free ten-week landscape gardening course offered by Meritt College's horticulture department. Some graduates went on to work on other community landscape projects. Once the project ended, the plants were replanted in other West Oakland parks.
I think people compartmentalize their lives. They think apple trees belong in the country and apples in the store. -Susan Leibovitz Steinman12
Several other of her temporary projects have offered economic, psychological, and social benefits for community gardeners, proving once again that apples can appear almost anywhere! In the spirit of the Harrison's Survival Series (1970-1973), Leibovitz Steinman facilitated Gardens to Go (2001), an organic "demonstration" garden featuring pumpkins thriving in antique cast iron bathtubs, spinach sprouting in raised beds, and a dwarf citrus tree growing in a planter made from old wooden doors and shutters. The West Oakland Neighbors encouraged her to create this portable garden, which was temporarily located at the intersection of Peralta, Union, and 32nd Streets, adjacent to the Poplar Community Recreation Center. By reinvigorating the lead-ridden urban site with fresh soil protected by inventive, raised planters, this demonstration garden "shows that anyone can get some containers together and have a site at home," notes area resident and volunteer gardener, Susanna DeAngelo.13 The group of neighborhood volunteers, including about 20 local youths who earned a stipend, planted corn, watermelon, basil, strawberries, Meyer lemons, and beds of flowers in painted retired tires and outdated toilet tank tops, for which they exchange their labor. "Leftover food (no one can eat all of those zucchini alone!) was donated to the center for their free lunch program."14

Susan Liebovitz Steinman, Gardens to Go

In 1994, Leibovitz Steinman helped to organize Food for Thought: Urban Apple Orchard, a six-month experiment on a blighted Caltrans lot, at the corner of Octavia and Market streets, under San Francisco's elevated U.S. 101 freeway. This mini-orchard featured a dozen trees, representing eight varieties of "antique" apples, planted in salvaged tires painted in shades of green. Truly forbidden fruits, "antique" apples are neither on the City's official tree list nor are they readily available, since they're not considered commercially viable. Without such projects, there is a reduction in both the apple gene pool, and the types that can be tasted by the average urban dweller.15

As San Francisco's Norcal recycling and waste transfer facility's artist-in-residence, Leibovitz Steinman worked with 75 San Francisco high school students to create River of Hopes and Dreams (1992), a 3-acre sculpture garden, whose mountain of earthquake rubble has since been reclaimed by nature.
I love to do art that people might not even recognize as art, but they find it when they're going to the grocery store or to work.16 -Susan Leibovitz Steinman

For California Avenue/California Native (1997), Leibovitz Steinman engraved winning phrases from the "What California Means" contest, in sets of three, onto about half of the terra cotta bricks used to form two herringbone-patterned paths. Native wildflowers and the grasses that local Indians once wove into baskets were interspersed between the paths. Salvaged Sierra granite "sitting stones" provide resting spots for musing upon these philosophical/poetic bits of whimsy. Seven banners containing the names of species, whose Latin name contains the word "California" like Lepus Californicus (California Jack Rabbit), rim this Palo Alto median strip.

>>back to top<<

agents of perpetual change
The process of restoration, begins with a walk—an intimate sensual experience—seeing the site with the eyes of an artist, a biologist, or an engineer begins the cultural process of restoration. Restoration will not occur in any landscape without care.17 -Tim Collins
One of the now defunct Nine Mile Run Greenway Project (NMR-GP)(1997-2000) team's stated cultural goals was to reclaim for public use urban rivers, streams, and estuaries colonized by private industry during the industrial revolution.18 Like the itinerant teams that Leibovitz Steinman, Ocean Earth, and the Harrison Studio assemble, three artists (Bob Bingham, Tim Collins (b. 1956), and Reiko Goto (b.1955)) plus attorney John Stephen directed university and industry professionals in interdisciplinary research. Building upon the Harrison Studio's model of conversational drift, the NMR-GP team engaged the public in meaningful conversations about public opportunities available at the 100-acre Nine Mile Run Greenway, a remnant stream adjacent to an abandoned ten-story slag heap in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Though the NMR-GP team partnered with local government, its members retained autonomy by providing their own funding.

Like Leibovitz Steinman's model for community ownership, NMR-GP provided interested volunteers the training necessary to participate as stakeholders, both in terms of decision-making and labor skills. Like CLUI, NMR-GP tours elucidated the site's central features. Unlike CLUI or Ocean Earth, they didn't aim for amorality (good=consensus), though NMR-GP sought objective decision-making tools. Like Smithson, they value post-industrial public spaces that reveal both the legacy of industrialism and the ecological processes at work.19 As Mel Chin did, NMR-GP relinquished their authorship, and passed the baton to committed citizen stakeholders.
Our audience was a diverse group of municipal officials, artists, architects, hikers, bikers, dog walkers, botanists, birders, planners, environmentalists, community representatives and other stakeholders.20

Nine Mile Run Greenway Project, “field laboratory

After three years of NMR-GP-initiated workshops, site tours, panel discussions, lectures, and exhibitions, community participants generated alternative design guidelines that introduced a socially acceptable solution, that was also economical, aesthetically rich, and ecologically sound. Opting not to restore the brownfield to its original condition (where would the slag go?), they created an integrated ecosystem restoration indicative of nature's complex goals.21 After careful scrutiny, the artists and biologists realized that slag heaps offer more biodiversity than typical lawns or city parks! So in 1999, the NMR-GP team started the recuperation process by spraying a mulch containing a mixture of nutrients and grass seeds to grow grass on the hard, gray, and otherwise porous slag heap. NMR-GP-related activities eventually altered everybody's cultural, aesthetic, economic, and ecological values. "Recognizing that the Greenway serves both the human and biological communities of the watershed, the Guidelines reflect the range of functions that the Greenway currently serves or may serve in the future."22

Nine Mile Run Greenway ProjectSlag Mountain  Nine Mile Run Greenway ProjectSlag Mountain

Case Study

The outcome of three years of intense discussion, the adjacent guidelines provide parameters that safeguard the Nine Mile Run as a natural site, rich in ecological and cultural benefits. They also demonstrate the community's heightened awareness of the significance of watersheds and biodiversity. How did the NMR-GP team achieve this level of social engagement and commitment to progress? Just as the Harrisons' A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland touring exhibition contributed to its wider acceptance, NMR-GP's efforts culminated with Conversations in the Rust Belt: Brownfields into Greenways (1999), an exhibition in a Pittsburgh gallery. This site served to facilitate further interest and discussion, as viewers were surrounded by NMR-GP's community generated solutions. The gallery setting enabled them to continue the discussion with breakfast briefings, tours, and community workshops.

Nine Mile Run Greenway Project, Conversations in the Rust Belt: Brownfields into Greenways

>>back to top<<


Home section 1 section2 section 3 section 4 section 5 section 6 section 7 section 8 section 9 section 10 section 11