In 1985, Betsy Damon was making a cast with handmade paper to recreate a dry river bed's form when she was told that the desert water was undrinkable, despite the fact that this Castle Valley, Utah, site was far from any obvious source of pollution. At this point, she decided to devote herself to communicating the importance of safe water. In 1989, she visited China with her son, Jon Otto, a physicist who was then studying Chinese. A year later, while living in St. Paul, Minnesota, she founded Keepers of the Water, a non-profit organization geared toward water-oriented collaborations between artists, scientists, and communities. In 1995, she directed a Keepers of the Water project, which assembled twenty artists from China, Tibet, and the U.S. to create 25 public installations along the polluted Fu-Nan Rivers (two rivers that merge in Chengdu). These activities were televised nightly, further piquing the viewers' curiosity.1 It was particularly helpful that a broadcaster for TV Shanghai reported that there needed to be something permanent. During this trip, she was introduced to Chengdu's five-year plan to clean up its rivers.
Thirty years prior, the Fu and Nan Rivers contained 56 different species of fish and people swam in the rivers, but as Chengdu grew from two to nine million people, the rivers deteriorated, as 60,000 cubic meters of sewage were dumped into it daily. In response to middle school students writing letters about polluted waters, Chengdu's City Government initiated China's first major clean-up effort.3 The city's plan entailed moving 100,000 citizens living in shacks along the river, building an infrastructure for waste treatment, cleaning the river, rebuilding the flood walls, and building thirty-one miles of parks along the riverfront. Damon suggested that they construct a park to help clean the river and teach citizens about the environment. When asked whether she could do this, she answered yes, even though she had never done such a thing.
What Damon learned doing this project has reverberated throughout the world. Her concept of The Living Water Garden, a six-acre, multipurpose park, employs her innovative design for flow forms, whose enhanced aeration surfaces mimic water's flow down a mountain. Within nine months of completing her project for Chengdu, Damon received requests for proposals from citizens in Duluth, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon; Bellingham, Washington; and several Chinese cities. In 1998, The Living Water Garden received the Top Honor Award in an international competition sponsored by Washington, D.C.'s Waterfront Center. In 1999, it received an Environmental Design and Research Association award. Juror Halsband remarked, "We actually learn something from this, by following through the spaces. " Juror Francis added, "it's a wonderful example of merging ecological design with social design."4
The Living Water Garden cleans only 250 cubic meters of water a day, not enough to affect the huge river's overall water quality. However, Damon notes that it serves as a laboratory, "a beacon of what is possible and [an] inspiration to clean up more of the water ways."5 If one takes the view that incremental changes contribute to the whole, the long-term affects could be enormous. In fact, within three months of the building and planting of The Living Water Garden, restored biodiversity was evident in the form of butterflies, dragonflies, and Kingfishers.
As Damon observes, the park is particularly Chinese. The 1500-foot-long park contains mostly forested areas, comprising over 100 different trees and plants, some rare, representing the biodiversity of the nearby sacred Buddhist Mt. Emei, located 256 miles from Chengdu. Given the land's natural resemblance to a fish, the designers took the elements of a fish, a symbol of good fortune and health, and developed the park's attributes around this form.
The river's flood wall was changed into steps to form a mouth. The river water is pumped via water wheels up a hill to the settling pond (the fish's eye). The iris, at the center of the pond, is a thirteen-foot-diameter green granite sculpture that shows what a water drop looks like under a microscope. The water then passes through constructed wetlands, which are planted with seven different water purifying plants, over which people stroll on boardwalks.10
The water then burbles through the gills, an aeration system using a series of flow forms that form a rooster, one of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs.11 Given the prohibitive cost of purchasing patented flow forms, Damon worked with Chengdu sculptors Deng Le and Zheng Wenjen to carve 33 of her innovative designs for flow forms, both fountains and several other works. One of the flow forms is similar to the shape of a bird, evocative of water's life-giving attributes, while another resembles the shape of a gingko leaf, the city's symbol.12 After passing through the flow forms, water travels through fish ponds shaped like scales, where the water is aerated by sand and gravel filters, until it is clean. The chambered nautilus rose-marble fountain forms the tail of the fish.13
Most important, visitors walking through the park can follow the purification route, which is accompanied by explanatory signs, before the water returns to the river. Not only is there a splash pond for children, but there is also an Environmental Education Center and a circular stone amphitheater in the park.
"While Jackie Brookner's (b. 1945) art has explored environmental issues for over a decade, the Gift of Water (2001), massive concrete hands covered in moss, is her first outdoor work. This sculpture functions as part of the wetland that filters the water for a large public swimming pool, cleaning the water naturally without any chemicals. Just before the water re-enters the pool, it passes over moss-covered hands, which Brookner built in Germany. Brookner first used moss to cleanse water in 1996, when she built Prima Lingua (First Tongue). The more hardy species of mosses act as biochemical and physical filters for many kinds of pollutants. In this capacity, they adsorb and absorb heavy metals (lead, copper, gold, and mercury), as well as other pollutants found in air and water. Other moss are so sensitive that they are used to measure pollution levels. Seated inside a pool of silt and agricultural runoff, Prima Lingua cleanses both the water and the room's air. Such a sculpture can be modified to meet many needs. On a small scale, it cleans all household wastewater, but on a larger scale it could be used to filter agricultural runoff, stormwater runoff, wastewater, and other kinds of urban pollution."
While the Harrison Studio tends to tackle large land masses, such as a coastal forest running along a 2000-mile seaboard, the European Peninsula, or the "Green Heart" of Holland, Aviva Rahmani operates on the principle that the environment has been lost by increments, so it can be saved by increments. This perspective, first proposed by her technical collaborator, Salem-based bioengineer Wendi Goldsmith, is hugely empowering, especially since vast, polluted sites can seem quite daunting. This novel view has initiated intriguing experiments along the lines that a little change goes a long way, opening up the possibility that reparation's effects are exponential. One of Rahmani's primary interests is the Eastern Seaboard's coastal wetlands, which have nearly been destroyed by development. She wonders whether reconstructed coastal wetlands, dotted along the Eastern Seaboard, wouldn't eventually grow to restore the entire system. Given the rapid decline in the fish supply, she may get the opportunity to test this promising thesis as the most cost-effective way to revitalize the fishing industry.
In 1991, Rahmani embarked upon her first restoration project, Ghost Nets (1991-2000), which transformed a 2.5 acre town dump in Vinalhaven, Maine, into an ecologically thriving salt marsh, surrounded by a successional forest, meadows, and uplands. Having moved to this fishing village only a year before she started Ghost Nets, Rahmani gained acceptance by immersing herself in community activities. She cultivated relationships with her neighbors by going out on fishing boats, conducting extensive interviews, and singing with the local church choir, despite her Jewish faith. Soon after she began this project, a neighbor brought Rahmani before the Vinalhaven Board of Appeals on charges that she was misusing the site under marine zoning regulations, but Rahman won the case.
In 1993, four hundred saplings were planted to restore and enhance the forest area, but 70% of the trees died due to formidable wind, climate, and soil conditions. The actual restoration, which used Goldsmith's state-of-the-art stabilization and re-vegetation techniques, required seven years of preparation, but took ten people three days to implement it. Soon after its completion, Rahmani worked with Michele Dionne of the National Estuarine Research Reserve (NERR) in Wells, Maine, to design research models extrapolating what can be learned from this site to salt-marsh systems throughout the Gulf of Maine.
Ghost Nets takes its name from her discovery that invisible indestructible nets, lost by fisherman, float indefinitely in the sea "trapping fish indiscriminately and strip-mining the sea."19 Thus, Ghost Nets offers a metaphor for the way destructive patterns trap and kill us all. Proving her point that a little reclamation goes a long way, this 2.5 acre salt marsh serves as a keystone, linking Narrows lsland and the town park around Boothe's Quarry, thus opening up 70 acres of a class-A migratory-bird fly zone in the middle of the Gulf of Maine. Rahmani considers eco-art most successful when the artist's hand is invisible!20
Designating this project Cities and Oceans of If, she hypothesizes that water flowing from the Gulf of Maine, arguably the world's richest fishery, enters the St. Lawrence Seaway and travels to the Great Lakes, where it feeds the rivers and watersheds of Canada, and then flows west to the Columbia River, south to St. Louis, or east to Maine via the Ohio River's tributaries. Continuing her focus on incremental change, she argues that "small, connecting corridors can have dramatic implications, that our urban-rural life has been disrupted, threatening our very survival. At the crux of this relationship is water." 23
Since the St. Louis watershed is the third largest in the world, she has designated it one of the trigger points for healing the global body. She has also identified and proposed redesigns for Liverpool, San Francisco, Philadelphia, St. John (Canada), Mt. Desert Island, and Portland (Maine). Her analysis of biological patterns such as pre-settlement animal migrations indicates a relationship between the lost fisheries of Otterspool in Liverpool, United Kingdom (on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean) and the confluence of the three rivers meeting in the St. Louis watershed (the Missouri, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers). By monitoring restored trigger points, she hopes to see how adjacent corridor systems can be revived for wildlife. Rahmani is currently employing this strategy as part of St. Louis' Arts in Transit program. She considers the St. Louis watershed to be a "puzzle of interrupted ecotone zones, which together contain and protect the waters and their adjacent habitat systems."24
Rahmani is not the only artist to base her ideas on macro-models for water systems. Desert Flood, Ocean Earth's 1991 proposal to restore the Arab world to savannah was based on similarly linked waterways, stretching from Iraq's Tigris-Euphrates rivers to an underwater delta in Kuwait to aquifers in Saudi Arabia. Just as Rahmani parallels watershed activities in Liverpool and St. Louis, Ocean Earth connects the Colorado River to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, linking Gulf of California natural disasters to the Persian Gulf's.25
Director and Founder of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art, Shai Zakai (b. 1957) embarked on a wide-ranging project in 1999, which involved transforming the static Etziona Stream near her home in Central Israel. At first, she couldn't understand how the seasonal stream's flow had become frozen in concrete. She soon discovered that concrete-mixer drivers eager to return completely empty to the nearby Shafir Quarry, had illegally dumped excess concrete into the stream, clogging the watershed. Rather than simply defer to the law to end this practice, she opted for a more holistic approach that could offer a national model for watershed awareness. In fact, she won this quarry's support by stressing collaboration over fines and jail sentences.
Knesset Member Mossi Raz, chairman of the Israeli Forum for Ecological Art, remarked that the Zionist building mantra, "We shall clothe you with a cloak of concrete and cement," wasn't a call to destroy every stream and creek in the country, or to turn them in to sewage streams, as is the case with the Kishon and Yarkon rivers.26 Rather than restore the site to its original condition, Zakai opted to preserve the disturbing memory of Concrete Creek by lining the revitalized stream with a three-mile avenue of 100 ten-feet-tall waving concrete flags, cut from pre-consumer (never used) concrete. There's now an official appeal to legally rename the portion of the reclaimed stream Concrete Creek. The Shafir Quarry, Israel's second largest, has since installed eco-friendly systems on site to prevent the watershed's further contamination.27
In May 2001, Zakai confronted people attending Concrete Creek, her exhibition at an environment fair in Tel Aviv's Exhibition Grounds, with the bewildering query, "Have you cleaned a creek today?". She documented their responses on video. Surprisingly, many people interviewed remarked that there weren't any rivers or streams in Israel. In December 2001, she organized a festival entitled Concert for Cement Mixers along Concrete Creek to inaugurate Israel's first eco-tourist site. This festival attracted a diverse group of government ministers, scientists, journalists, school children, quarry workers, artists, museum professionals, and local residents. It will be interesting to see what natural attraction Zakai takes on next.
During the summer of 1982, Denes' efforts captured the imagination of many New Yorkers and tourists, as they watched her plant and harvest Wheatfield-A Confrontation. This two-acre wheatfield was planted on top of the Battery Park Landfill, the off-shore landfill adjacent to the World Trade Center created with construction debris from the building of the Twin Towers. Only two months before she began, two hundred truckloads of dirty landfill had been dumped on this site. In May, under Denes' direction, tractors flattened this site, littered with rubble, dirt, rusty pipes, old clothing, automobile tires, and other garbage.
Eighty truck loads of fresh dirt were then dumped and spread to create the one inch of topsoil needed for planting. Denes and several volunteers cleared away rocks and garbage, and then dug 285 furrows by hand. Each furrow took two to three hours to dig. They placed the seeds by hand and covered each furrow with more soil. They maintained the field for several months. They set up an irrigation system, weeded, eliminated wheat smut (a disease that had infected wheatfields across the country), fertilized, sprayed against mildew fungus, and cleared away rocks, boulders, and wires by hand. 29
On August 16, a hot, muggy Sunday, Denes and her volunteers harvested 1000 pounds of healthy, golden wheat from this field, surrounded by the symbols and key institutions of American commerce. Harvesting $158 worth of wheat on land valued at $4.5 billion proved a dramatic gesture, showing how the value of land in Manhattan is less a function of what it produces and more a function of the "symbolic value and global prestige it imparts to multi-national corporations."30
Denes had hoped that her three-month-long performance would inspire people to rethink personal values, to consider misplaced priorities, and to realize that life itself is in danger. Denes explains her strategy:
Loosely associated with the conceptual art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Denes has also published several books that articulate the relevance of seemingly esoteric mathematical forms, philosophical concepts, map projections, and elementary particles like dust. For example, her monoprint Dialectic Triangulations: A Visual Philosophy (including The Human Argument) (1967-69) visualizes hundreds of simple segments and complex triangulating forms, and posits a list of ten "types of triangulations," mostly based on the dialectic process (adversarial discussion resulting in mutual agreement). During this period, she produced a separate text listing fifteen triangulations. Another monoprint, Thought Complex (1972), features dozens of chemical structures from crystallography that one might imagine also model the structure of the mind's thought processes. For Denes, such chemical and mathematical forms are the vehicles through which analytical propositions can be visualized.
Few realize that Tree Mountain-Proposal for a Forest (1982-1983), perhaps Denes' most popular conceptual drawing of 10,000 hand-rendered, individual trees, actually functioned as the design for a massive land reclamation project. On June 5, 1992, Earth Environment Day, the Finnish government surprised the world when it announced during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that it would build Denes' Tree Mountain as Finland's contribution to help alleviate the world's ecological stress.
Fewer still realize that the mountain on which the trees were planted actually had to be constructed. A massive man-made mountain, elliptical in shape, measuring 460 yards long, 295 yards wide and 30 yards high, was constructed atop the Pinziö gravel pits near Ylöjärvi, Finland. While the original plan called for 10,000 Finnish Pines, this particular application of Denes' proposal required 1,000 extra trees, each planted by 11,000 people who received certificates naming them as the custodians of the trees for 400 years. Each certificate is an inheritable document, valid for twenty or more future generations.33
The Finnish Pine, or Silver Fir, is dying out. The mountain, formed by piling up left over soil, was so soft that the mountain kept collapsing. The little trees' roots began to strengthen the mountain, creating three times as many roots as limbs to hold it up.
This is not Denes' only forest design that has been realized. Forest for Australia, Australia's first forest (1300 feet by 263 feet) was created for the Altoona Treatment plant near Melbourne. Her design entailed planting five sections of 1200 trees (River Red Gum, Paper Bark, and Eucalyptus all dying out) of varying heights to form spiraling step pyramids. Since 2000, Denes has been working on a 25-year master plan for the 170-mile long Waterlinie, a 19th Century defense line in the Netherlands, consisting of 70 forts, batteries, and other fortifications.34
By reforesting with conserved acorns, Dietzler takes Alan Sonfist's Gene Banks (1975), sealed jars containing pieces of bark, seeds, and leaves (possible future relics of a lost forest), one step further. By ensuring unlimited germination, Dietzler's system guards against the acorn's extinction, that is until the last oak tree dies. Should the work be sold, the owner would be responsible to continue conservation. In 1993, Dietzler initiated experiments to decompose soil contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) using gourmet oyster mushrooms. Similar to the hyperaccumulators used in Mel Chin's earlier Revival Field, the oyster mushroom's mycelium is able to break down the chemical structure of highly toxic PCBs into non-toxic substances without enclosing the toxins in their fruits. Oyster mushrooms generate several useful by-products. In the course of decomposing dry straw, nearly 50% of the mass is liberated as carbon dioxide, 20% is lost as water, 20% remains as "spent" compost, and 10% is converted into dry mushrooms. The remaining "spent" substrate can be used as feed for cattle, chickens, and pigs, to build composts and new soil, and to cover garbage land fills.37
Oyster mushrooms may be useful in waste management, especially agricultural waste, since such mushrooms thrive on most hardwoods, wood by-products (sawdust, paper, pulp sludge), straw, corn, corn cobs, sugar cane bagasse, coffee residues (coffee grounds, hulls, stalks, and leaves), banana fronds, cottonseed hulls, agave waste, soy pulp, and many other materials. 39
On October 26, 2001, after five years of work by hundreds of volunteers, including local citizens, Americorps and VISTA volunteers, AMD&ART celebrated its first completed project, a reclaimed mineland that once hosted a coking plant and several mines in Vintondale, Pennsylvania. After the mine closed in the early 1990s, it became the town dump. Fourteen funding partners, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Office of Surface Mining, U.S. Forest Service, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance contributed funds toward Vintondale's rejuvenation.
One of Vintondale's primary features is the Litmus Garden, a series of seven mostly trapezoidal basins that demonstrate the restoration process, as the acid precipitate drops out and the alkalinity rises until the discharge is neutral like water. Most similar wetland treatment systems resemble switch backs shaped like intestines, but AMD&ART's innovative model enables continuous flow. The Litmus Garden is bordered by mountains of bony, a by-product of the coking process.
Most novel is the way AMD&ART is financing Vintondale's future. The Southern Allegheny Conservancy, responsible for maintaining Vintondale, will be created from half of the revenues earned by selling part of its basins to Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation for use as replacement wetlands.
Like Ocean Earth and CLUI, AMD&ART's design team members vary depending on the project. Artist Stacy Levy, landscape designer Julie Bargmann, and hydrologist Bob Deason worked with T. Allan Comp on Vintondale's design. Unlike other groups, AMD&ART's philosophical approach tends to vary, depending on the project. For example, Vintondale's multiple settling ponds neutralize the acid-mine drainage, while the Hughes Bore Hole, a project still in its nascency, will facilitate this phenomenon's monitoring without attempting to "fix" it, an approach paralleling those presented in the "Valuing Anew" section. Because of the Hughes Bore Hole, an excess of 8000 pounds of dissolved metals flow daily into the Little Conemaugh River from this hole in the ground. Drilled in the 1920s to remove water from hundreds of interconnected coal mines, this hole was capped in the 1950s, but the cap blew off in the 1970s, worsening its impact.44
Another AMD&ART project geared toward changing people's attitudes is Dark Shade Sub-Basin, where 21 sources spew up to 2000 gallons of acid-mine drainage (pH of 3.3) each minute , loading local rivers and creeks with 30,000 pounds of sulfate, 2000 pounds of iron, and 7,000 pounds of acidity daily. Dark Shade is the first coal-impacted watershed to be awarded a US EPA Brownfields Assessment pilot project. AMD&ART plans to create a system of treatment areas, which double as an integrated network of recreational parks. This could serve as a model program to revitalize other river valleys in Appalachia.45