UNDERCURRENTS: EXPERIMENTAL ECOSYSTEMS IN RECENT ART

Our planet faces unprecedented change. If we continue on our current path, by the end of this century, or earlier, our environment will be in a state that modern humans have never experienced. In parts of the world, supplies of food and water will be at risk and flood defences stretched.

‘Living with Environmental Change’ (i.e. how we cope and adapt to it) is therefore one of the most pressing issues facing us today and is why the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has made it one of their top priority research programmes.

Yet it’s not only scientists who are responding to this challenge. Many artists and designers are also committing their practice to exploring innovative strategies for living with environmental change.

For example a recent outcome of the Whitney ISP Curatorial Programme is Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Current Art, a site-specific art project which seeks to explore and expand upon ‘modes of ethical cohabitation’:

"Rates of Accumulation" Courtesy the artist: Gina Badger

“Ethical cohabitation—how to live together and how to be in the shared environment—is the problem that brings together the sociopolitical, cultural, and ecological within this exhibition. While ostensibly aiming to achieve harmonious balance, such relations are nevertheless inherently antagonistic and always unstable. In this context, how does one choose to act?

To address this question, we have traced out a network of physical sites along the west side of Manhattan to activate an expanded territory, both literally and figuratively. Specific project sites for the exhibition include The Kitchen, the High Line, the Little Red Lighthouse and the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant. This decentralized exhibition structure suggests multiple positions (geographical, historical, and physical) in which visitors may situate themselves. We provide the opportunity for artists and visitors to perceive and participate in these interrelationships within the urban environment.

Undercurrents is an experimental ecosystem in itself, opening up a collective platform for thought, the imagination, dialogue and action; the exhibition is a site to critically engage with the changes taking place in the entangled registers of the world around us. The range of artistic practices and issues presented produce surprising encounters, demonstrating how cohabitation is the source of struggle and creativity, problems and solutions, malice and beauty, and consists of the stage on which we all ultimately play a role.”

The exhibition is curated by  Anik Fournier, Michelle Lim, Amanda Parmer and Robert Wuilfe, who all took part in the Whitney Independent Study Program Curatorial Fellows, 2009–2010.

One of the featured works is Rates of Accumulation Gina Badger. The work is basically constitutes a biogeographical study of the Eastern Oyster:

Rates of Accumulation is a sound-based research project that turns around the expanded ecological history of the Eastern oyster. For Undercurrents, it is presented as a four-channel sound installation, accompanied by a large-scale drawing and a video, and as an FM broadcast radiating from a temporary radio station inside the Little Red Lighthouse on the Hudson River.  With the charismatic figure of the oyster as a touchstone, Rates of Accumulation abstracts, translates and ultimately aims to recast moments in the ecological history of North America’s East Coast.

Oysters themselves are very quiet – you could almost say silent. Like the indescribable idea at the centre of a poststructuralist text, in Rates of Accumulation, the silence of oysters is surrounded by a swirling of related sounds. Composed of four discrete layers, the sound component in Rates of Accumulation fleshes out the political ecology of oysters in four times: deep geological time, indigenous time, colonial time, and “now” time. This oyster-soundscape is the combined effect of the ambient sounds of an oyster reef and its inhabitants, people slurping and shucking oysters, the sounding of a lighthouse bell and horn, the underwater sounds from sites related to the contemporary restoration, study, and harvesting of oysters in Massachusetts and New York.

For the installation, each of the four tracks is installed at a different level in a fire escape stairwell, the movement up through the layers of sound echoing the ascent to the apex of the Little Red Lighthouse. The sound installation is accompanied by video footage shot from inside the lighthouse itself and a drawing whose layering of materials references both the action by which oysters build their shells and the accumulations of individual oysters that constitute the architecture of oyster reefs. The broadcast emanating from the lighthouse simultaneously grounds and disperses the accumulated sounds, relations, and places of the project. As such, Rates of Accumulation loops back to the historically and geographically contested environment so crucial to its development: the brackish, densely inhabited estuaries of the East Coast.”

This sounds like a fascinating work – if anyone is in the area and fancies writing a review of it let me know!

Another work being exhibited (and of particular interest to a cultural geographer) is Amy Balkin’s audio tour: Invisible-5.

Invisible5 Banner: Amy Balkin

Invisible-5 is an audio commentary on land use along the highway corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The project investigates the stories of people and communities fighting for environmental justice along the I-5, through oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music, and archival audio documents. The project also traces natural, social, and economic histories along the route. This project was developed in collaboration with artists Kim Stringfellow and Tim Halbur, and the organizations Pond: Art, Activism, and Ideas, and Greenaction for Health & Environmental Justice. The project uses the format of a museum audio tour to guide the listener along the highway landscape and is available to listen online or download from invisible5.org,.

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