While artists like Michael Heizer and Smithson were "bulldozing tons of earth and rocks in remote parts of the western United States to create monumental Earthworks, Alan Sonfist (b. 1946) chose to situate his most significant work within the city itself."2 In contrast to Earthwork builders, Sonfist pledged not to destroy a natural environment in order to create a work of art. In fact, he remained deeply committed to urban environments, particularly because he grew up near the Bronx River Park. After a river drowning led authorities to brand his beloved forest dangerous, the park's trees were cut down and their roots were encased in concrete. For almost 40 years, Sonfist has dedicated his work to linking city-dwellers and suburbanites to a nature that civilization has destroyed, with the hope that a greater appreciation of nature would encourage them to protect its future.3 Eleanor Heartney notes that once eco-art emerged, artists began to focus on the reclamation and restoration of ecological systems severely stressed by industry and urbanization. Sonfist's work was separated from this group, though "he is certainly one of the originators of this way of thinking."4
In 1969, Sonfist monitored the air quality of four popular New York City intersections (57th Street and Fifth Avenue, 42nd Street and Broadway, West Broadway and Houston Street, and Rector Street and Broadway) and posted the results to alert passersby.5 In 1973, Sonfist drew Seed Catcher, whose concept parallels Ono's 1961 Painting for the Wind and Haacke's 1970 Bowery Seeds (both are detailed in the "Activism" section). Seed Catcher described its own conditions: "pool of virgin earth to collect the seeds of nearby forests through wind and animal migration."5 Later realized as Pool of Earth (1975) at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, it occupied a 25-foot-diameter, six-foot-deep hole in land that was tainted by chemicals leached from nearby Love Canal. Sonfist laid a clay-based, sealed environment (the pool of untainted earth) over the wasteland to collect the seeds.6
In addition to the New York Parks Department's folding Sonfist's Time Landscape into its Greenstreets program, several new ecoventions by Sonfist are on the horizon. For Secret Garden (2001), sited in the Walker Botanical Garden in St. Catherines, Ontario, Sonfist elected to replace a section near the garden's entrance with 100,000 tons of rocks and boulders, and to plant the seeds of 800-year-old cedars. The boulders are piled into a ten-foot-high tower of stone, 34-feet in diameter, and the slabs are arranged according to their geological history from the ice age back into time. "Conceived as a circular configuration of monumental stones within which endangered tree and plant species will grow in perpetuity," Sonfist's Secret Garden has openings or windows in the stone walls, enabling visitors a partial view of the life growing within.7 The openings between the rocks correspond with shadows cast to highlight the forest during the summer and winter solstice. By offering a natural alternative to the typical garden, Sonfist wants Secret Garden to challenge public parks and botanical gardens that continue to spray harmful pesticides and fertilizers.
Another project on the horizon was initiated 20 years ago. In 1982, Harry Parker, then director of the Dallas Museum of Art, asked Sonfist to propose an alternative to the city's official plan for a park along the river. "While the official plan recommended the creation of an artificial lake over a polluted flood plain, Sonfist suggested that a series of time landscapes [islands] could recreate the diverse ecologies which characterize the state of Texas, while simultaneously introducing a natural filtration system to purify the sewage and industrial waste that were damaging the flood plain."9 The City of Dallas eventually altered his plan and decided to create only one island along the lines suggested by Sonfist in an effort to restore the natural edges of the river. Unfortunately, the city waited 20 years to finally build it.
In 1977, Laderman Ukeles became the unsalaried, official Artist-in-Residence for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS), for whom she has produced over 25 large-scale works of art.13 After the blizzard of 1978, she performed Touch Sanitation (1979-81), for which she shook hands and personally thanked all 8,500 NYC sanitation workers from all 59 community districts. For The Social Mirror (1983), a 20-foot long mirror was hung on the side of a garbage truck, enabling people to experience their reflected image, stressing each person's role in producing garbage.
In 1983, she designed the multi-media presentation Flow City for the DOS Marine Transfer Station (at 59th Street on the Hudson River), whose waste flow equals that of San Francisco. While collaborating with DOS architects and engineers on the renovation of this decrepit site, she envisioned a "museum of the environment," which would enable people to climb a 248-foot long Passage Ramp made from ten to twelve recyclable materials, including crushed glass and shredded rubber, to view the 24,000 tons of garbage that are processed daily. Unfortunately, this never materialized.
Around the same time, she was hard at work developing a future plan for the 2200-acre Fresh Kills Landfill, Staten Island, which was set to close in 2010. In 1985, an eco-gas reclamation program was added to provide energy for 22,000 homes, making this the most sophisticated renovation of an existing landfill in the United States. Fresh Kills was expected to reach a height of 500 feet to become not only the world's largest landfill, but the world's largest man-made structure and the eastern seaboard's highest point. Tired of being considered New York City's dumping ground, this Staten Island community fought to close its local landfill.14 Laderman Ukeles finds it amusing that a large vegetated wall obscures the view of shoppers at the Staten Island Mall, which borders Fresh Kills. She sees this as "the basis of our whole culturebuy, buy, buy, and waste, waste, waste."15 She sees the landfill as a social sculpture, since everyone has contributed to its growth.
In 1996, it was announced that Fresh Kills would close at a height of 100 feet, about one-fifth its original capacity. It received its last official garbage barge on March 22, 2001. By September 13, 2001, the super-efficient sanitation department had mobilized 25 barges and re-opened Fresh Kills to house the World Trade Center (WTC) debris. The addition of the WTC material will only add another five feet, but it is also turns Fresh Kills into a burial mound. Not only have ashes from bodies been added, but since it is the site where WTC debris is sorted, it is also home to some human remains, lending new meaning to the name Fresh Kills ("Kills" means "river" in Dutch).
When it was first closed, a design competition was held to explore possible future uses for the Fresh Kills Landfill. In December 2001, three top finalists were named and their innovative designs were exhibited both at the Staten Island Institute for Science and the Municipal Art Society in Manhattan. Given Laderman Ukeles' original role in designing Fresh Kills, she will inevitably collaborate with the winning team, which comprises artists, architects, landscape designers, and many others. Not surprisingly, all of the finalists included plans for a memorial site at Fresh Kills.
Awaiting the fate of the prematurely closed landfill, Laderman Ukeles had already entered Phase II of her design plan. She was experimenting with a variety of recyclable materials and pre-consumer waste. "These prospective landfill construction/art materials will be used on a huge scale, in ways not yet seen. The challenge is to determine whether they are permanent, durable, and safe, and whether they make sense at this scale, artistically."16 Only time will tell whether her experiments are incorporated into the winning designs. After 30 years of public maintenance art, she is still fond of her field.
For this project, 22 tons of recycled crushed glass and mirror, partly collected from local citizens, were mixed into asphalt to create a half-mile-long glassphalt path that traverses this 55-acre former refuse dump turned recreational park on its way to a centrally located mound. Since glassphalt had never before been used in Massachusetts, Laderman Ukeles conducted three large-scale tests in 1992 with the New York City Departments of Sanitation and Transportation in order to gain Cambridge's confidence.19 She collaborated with landscape architect John Kissida on a planting plan for the mound and its surrounding areas. In addition to a protective Pin Oak Allée, pine and cedar trees have been planted, along with four types of native tall grasses that the artist refers to as "wavers," because they accentuate the wind. Perennials, such as roses and herbs, like Orange Mint and Lemon-Scented Thyme, emphasize the park's prior role as a smelly dump.
Once on top of the mound, spectators become "king or queen of the hill," as they sit in a throne to experience the mound's extraordinary views. There is also an image of a galaxy grafted onto a 20 foot-diameter disc made from colored, pre-consumer rubber waste. Working with two corporations, California Products Incorporated and Cape & Island Tennis & Track, which manufacture the rubber used in monochrome running tracks, Laderman Ukeles experimented with pre-consumer waste rubber-track surfacing during the summer of 2001. She finally figured out how to get this typically monochrome material to hold multiple pigments. A two-month-long "Handing-Over to Community" rituala performance created by the artist is planned for the park's completion. Representatives of Cambridge's 56 different cultures will provide the artist memorable objects for insertion into the hilltop, thus converting the site into a public monument.
Laderman Ukeles is also working with a closed landfill in Hiriya, Israel, that sits between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Colored lights dance at night, mimicking the landfill's toxicity. Laderman Ukeles was also invited by an environmental foundation to collaborate with several landscape architects on a remediation of the Ayalon River that borders Hiriya.
Buster Simpson (b. 1942) is best known for Hudson Headwaters Purge (1990), a bit of environmental agit-prop for which he placed numerous hand-carved, soft-chalk limestone tablets (24-inch diameter by 3-inch thick) in the headwaters of the Hudson River in New York's Adirondack Park. Technically, this process was meant to "sweeten" (or increase) the pH of the overly acidic Hudson River, a solution that is now standard practice with environmental agencies. He had already placed similar tablets in the Tolt Watershed (1983) and the Esopus River (1984), the drinking water sources for Seattle and New York City, respectively. Such acts tie people to the planet, through the metaphors of acid rain and acid indigestion, a connection the media picked up on, since they termed it "River Rolaids" and "Tums for Mother Nature." 20 Few realize that Simpson's first performance with limestone discs, "David" taking on "Global Goliath," a staged attempt to topple the World Trade Centers with a sling containing a limestone projectile, actually occurred in 1983 and set the stage for his interest in tackling urban problems.
In 1978, Simpson wanted to draw attention to the polluted waters surrounding Artpark in Lewiston, New York, so he placed concrete casts of picnic plates at sewage outfalls into the Niagara River. He then retrieved them and exhibited the stains created by the river's contaminants. This led to a series titled When the Tide is Out the Table is Set, based on a Salish Indian saying linking feasts of shellfish to low tide. While working with Kohler's Art and Industry Program in 1984, he cast plates in vitreous china. He later placed those plates in sewage outfalls in Cleveland, New York, Houston, and Seattle. Over time, they became quite stained. After firing them in a kiln, he realized that toxins caused the plates' most colorful patterns. 21
Simpson's most inventive and enduring work is DownspoutPlant Life Monitoring System (1978), a cost-effective way to trap and clean stormwater runoff from public buildings before it enters the public sewer. He grew ferns in plumbing pipes attached to the side of a building housing a public clinic in Seattle's Post Alley to create "vertical landscapes."22
Limestone placed in the pipes' elbows neutralizes the roof runoff's acidity. This work was monitored for a number of years. Simpson returned to this technique in 1999, when he created Growing Vine Street-Vertical Landscape Downspout, commissioned by two separate building owners on Vine Street in Seattle, Washington. In 1991, he collaborated with city, county, and state health departments to implement an inexpensive, ecological composting public toilet that generates fertilizer for planted trees.23
Host Analog (1991), a $65,000 commission for Portland, Oregon's Convention Center, has the potential to generate a forest from one fallen 80-foot Douglas Fir called a nurse log, since it hosts sprouting seedlings as it decomposes. By creating a stainless steel misting irrigation system and planting Western Cedar, Hemlock, and Douglas Fir seeds on the log, Simpson made it possible for a fallen tree, unsuitable for the timber industry, to nurture a new forest. A 1993 Timber Summit at the adjacent Convention Center begged the question, "Are we in balance as the host and parasites or are we eating ourselves out of house and home?."25
Simpson has created numerous other public works that inform the public about particular issues. For example, Exchanger Fountain (1993), part of a streetscape package for the Anaheim Redevelopment Agency, uses the fountain's gray water to water a native willow tree, naturally cooling the water supply line at the same time. Part of the fountain's spiraling inscription reads, "The water kissing your lips is an offering." Each drinker transfers this gift, since each user waters the willow and cools the next person's drink.26
In collaboration with landscape architects Sindell, Spitzer, and Hanson, Simpson developed King Street Garden (1993-1997), a 35,000-square-foot park in Alexandria, Virginia, which serves three related purposes. A Topiary Garden, in the form of a 35-foot-high tricorn hat references Colonial Virginia settlers. The Hanging Garden offers a public gathering spot amidst aromatic vines. The Sunken Garden, a reclaimed marsh, acknowledges this site's history as a landfill, while mitigating stormwater runoff.
Water Glass and Water Table (2001), Simpson's sculpture in the plaza of Seattle's Ellington Condominiums, highlights the collection and cleansing of roof runoff. An eight-foot-tall cistern collects the water, which circulates through a wetland and then passes to a water table that demonstrates rain's measurable impact.27
Part bio-engineer, architect, and artist, Viet Ngo (b. 1952) first began designing and building wastewater treatment plants that use his patented LemnaTM System (lemna is popularly known as duckweed) in 1983. This engineer and artist is now President and CEO of Lemna International, one of the United States' best known global environmental service companies. During the Clinton Administration, he represented the U.S. environmental business sector on a trip to China with Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown. Lemna International has since expanded into other infrastructure sectors, including solid waste management, renewable energy, water supply and irrigation, and transportation.
Rather than use mechanical or chemical processes, Ngo's system uses small floating aquatic plants (lemna), that are grown in specially designed ponds to treat waste to a very fine degree. Lemna plants act as filters to absorb and neutralize pollutants in the water. They also help stabilize the biological reactions in the pond, "optimizing natural treatment processes by bacteria, micro- and macro-organisms, and by other physical processes."29 Lemna plants use sulfides, methanes, and other natural gases as food sources, and they shield the pond, preventing odors from escaping into the air. Thus, this system is virtually odorless, an advantage over almost every other wastewater treatment technique. For this reason, treatment plants that employ the LemnaTM System can play a more prominent role in a community's infrastructure. Ngo tries to let the site govern the design of these plants.30
In 1995, Ngo's design for the Wastewater Treatment Expansion in White House, Tennessee, was awarded the prestigious "Excellence in Engineering Award" from the American Consulting Engineers Council. The award cited an initial cost savings of $500,000 and a life-cycle savings of $750,000. In 1997, Lemna International was the first U.S. company to establish a joint venture with China to build a privately funded municipal wastewater treatment plant.31
Since 1990, Lemna International has built 300 facilities in fourteen countries, half of which are in the United States. In desert countries, it is especially important to reuse every drop of wastewater. Given Ngo's art and mechanical engineering education, his designs have integrated both aesthetic and practical considerations. Design decisions like channeling water to control the hydraulic flow of the incoming water or placing floating barriers to control the lemna's growth, result in specific landscape forms that vitalize urban design.
The United States Government recently increased its standard for the allowable amount of ammonia present in the effluent, making it necessary either to add a nitrification reactor to the lemna treatment pond or to use it as tertiary treatment. But, the LemnaTM System still offers most countries, especially warm ones, an affordable natural solution for waste water treatment, especially since lemna are found throughout the world.
A final benefit of lemna plants is their high concentrations of proteins, making them a potential food source for many populations. Lemna provide reusable biomass. Harvested lemna can either be composted to form a rich fertilizer for organic farming, or, after proper testing, used as a high-protein animal feed. 33 The clear water that results from this process can be used to irrigate city parks and crops or to water golf courses.
Like Johanson, Laderman Ukeles, and Simpson, Laurie Lundquist (b. 1954) has participated in the design development of urban infrastructure. Early sculptures like A System for Satisfying Needs (1989) (water hyacinths mechanically dipping in a nutrient solution), Skysweeper (1989) (twelve brooms mechanized to sweep the air), and Grass Room (1990) (recirculating water to grow grass) stand as important examples of eco-art. One of her most beautiful installations was Hanging Gardens (1990). This work introduced an innovative system to support the growth of nearly 100 spruce trees suspended in burlap troughs. The water trickled down the strings suspending the burlap trough, drained through the soil and burlap into galvanized steel channels, flowed into reservoirs, and was pumped up and through the cycle again. 34 In 1990, she also created Lying in the Desert, a thin line of grass growing in the runoff of a bulldozed landscape.
Like Haacke's Rhinewater Purification Plant, Lundquist developed a system to circulate algae-dominated water from the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon through a wetland set up in the San Francisco Exploratorium (1992-1995), where she was an artist-in-residence. Plagued by an algal bloom caused by fertilizer runoff, the lagoon has been sustained by routinely flushing it with city water. Since San Francisco faces a chronic water shortage, solving the lagoon's problem would both conserve valuable water and optimize the diversity of aquatic life. 35
In 1992, Lundquist and Dan Collins, her artist husband, founded Deep Creek, which they co-directed until 2000. Deep Creek was a learning community committed to fostering a sustained dialogue among artists of diverse backgrounds, in the Rocky Mountains near Telluride, Colorado. This summer residency offered practical and philosophical weekly workshops and provided residents a computer lab, a ceramic shed, a darkroom, a printmaking lab, studio space, and many other amenities. In 1999, Lundquist co-led workshops on the topics of Watershed Perspective and Environmental Art: Site Dynamics. 36
In the past decade, Lundquist has participated in the development of several ecoventions. For Papago Arroyo Wildlife Corridor, she designed a $120,000 water remediation scheme for the Orthologic and Sonora Quest Laboratories, funded by Sunstate Builders in compliance with the City of Tempe's Art in Private Development ordinance. In 1998, this ordinance enabled 38 projects totaling $2.5 million to be built. Lundquist's design entailed pumping water standing in an arroyo across a bridge in steel trough handrails to be returned to the pond below. To contrast the massive Central Arizona Project Water Treatment Plant (CAP), which supplies water from the Colorado river, Lundquist created an irrigation system that delivers a bare trickle of water to acacia trees planted in CAP's entry plaza. In conjunction with this project, she and Patricia Clark created Running Water for Arizona (1999), a 24-minute art-in-education video featuring CAP's role in providing reliable drinking water.
As part of Arizona State University Art Museum's "Sites Around the City" exhibition, orchestrated by Heather Lineberry, Lundquist created Algae Garden (2000). Using water circulated from the museum's interior fountains, she grew algae on a series of concrete scuppers, placed in the center of the staircase leading to the museum, enabling the water to flow down the staircase to the nymphaeum pond below.
Since 1996, Superflex, whose members include Bjørnstjerne Christiansen, Jakob Fenger, and Rasmus Nielsen, have been developing applications for their two-chamber biogas unit, which converts human waste, dung, and agricultural waste into energy (biogas) and fertilizer (slurry). They worked with African and Danish engineers, including Freddy Bruzelius and Jan Mallan, to construct their simple, portable biogas unit. Hardly "eco-artists," only a fraction of Superflex's work addresses ecological concerns, though all of their work engages communities in social issues. Superflex Music, their own record company, produces and distributes small-issue CDs.37 Superflex focus on the relationship between objects, tools, and products. Superflex see everything as tools that can be used on different levels ‚ aesthetically, theoretically, and economically. This is the focus of their 2002 exhibition at the Rooseum in Malmö, Sweden.
When organic materials rot in airless tanks at 20-40°C, anaerobic digestion occurs, and bacteria convert organic matter into combustible biogas (methane, carbon dioxide) and fertilizer (ammonia). In co-operation with the African organization, Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), Superflex first tested their biogas system in August 1997 on a small farm in central Tanzania. The daily dung from two to three cattle produce about three cubic meters of gas per day, enough energy to run a lamp at night and to meet the cooking needs for a family of eight to ten. One cubic meter of biogas corresponds to .6 liters of diesel fuel.
The biogas chamber's use is expected to reduce deforestation and the burning of charcoal for fuel purposes. In Central Africa, women who spend many hours collecting firewood are targeted as the ideal consumers of their biogas systems, which are expected to cost $250 each. Burning firewood produces a lot of smoke, which pollutes the air, and causes problems with lungs, eyes, etc. Energy generated by the biogas system can be used to run stoves, lamps, and motors, to produce electric power, or pump water. 38 Superflex has collaborated with the Thai company, CMS engineering, to use the biogas system for small pig farms in Thailand. In 2001, they tested a biogas system in collaboration with the University of Tropical Agriculture in Cambodia. Superflex has applied to the Danish Patent Board to patent their innovative two chamber biogas system.
Like Ocean Earth, Superflex Ltd., is organized as a for-profit company brand with shareholders. Their sponsors are more like investors in joint ventures than collectors. Rather than depend upon Danish government controlled development aid, they initiated their own foundation, Super Rural Development (SUPERRUDE), a sister organization to SURUDE, to handle the biogas system's further development.
Mel Chin, who originated Revival Field (1990-1993), recently proposed S.W.I.N.G. (Sustainable Works Involving Neighborhood Groups) in Detroit, Michigan, a project which combines conceptual art with educational experimentation, and addresses ecological and economic concerns in response to specific conditions.
In 1999, Chin was invited by the International Center for Urban Ecology (ICUE) to explore the conditions facing the East Side of inner city Detroit, a neighborhood affected by the Devil's Night Burnings. In response, Chin proposed several projects that would radically transform burned and abandoned properties into surreal works of art and architecture while insisting that a sustainable productive industry augment the interventions. S.W.I.N.G. is still in its nascency, but if Chin can implement its directive to combine the resources of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the City of Detroit, it will provide an innovative model for the arts and an educational practice to serve specific neighborhoods.
Rather than rehabilitate or patch the neighborhood, Chin seeks to initiate another evolution to multiple sites around Detroit. "Instead of only targeting blighted areas to add culture, the challenge to artists and architects, both professionals and students, is to invent, with the peoples and communities, projects to transform the disturbing destroyed-house icon into a new-use icon."39
Like the artists in the "Valuing Anew" section, Chin sees the potential in a home left standing after a fire or abandonment not as an agency for fear but for creative evolution. For example, rather than restore the home to its original condition, he wants to swing the entire house on a pivot, to take advantage of its darkness for growing worms, and then access the sunlight to sort them for sales to the sport fishing industry. The resulting compost from garden clippings and recycled newspapers can be sold to rose gardeners in the affluent Grosse Pointe area or locally serve the growing urban agrarian environment of inner city Detroit. Like Beuys' slogan, "Creativity = Capital," Chin is interested in the relationship between inventive ideas and their payback. "The ideas provide the gentle push, that sends us coolly cutting through the still air of division and fears, arcs toward economic benefits and sweeps back to each new form of creative engagement."40