Some of today’s most important eco-artists — people like Patricia Johanson, Betsy Damon, and others — work on a landscape scale with interdisciplinary groups of participants to render socio-ecological change into aesthetically tangible and artistically significant forms. Experimental dancer and choreographer Jennifer Monson’s work falls into this category as well, though, as dance, it tends to be more ephemeral and less product-oriented than even the most process-based of eco-art.
Monson, who is based at the University of Illinois but currently a visiting professor at the University of Vermont, is also artistic director of the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance (iLAND). Like other performance laboratories (such as Jerzy Grotowski’s theater endeavors and their many spin-offs), iLAND works on the personal and collective process of making change through the arts, but it distinguishes itself by collaborating with the sciences more directly than do most such efforts. It does this, among other ways, by sponsoring collaborative and interdisciplinary residencies called “iLABs”, and through organizing an annual symposium at which iLAB participants present their work to the public and open it up to critical discussion of project goals, methods, and broader implications.
This year’s symposium took place last weekend. The three iLAB/iLAND projects that presented their work engaged interdisciplinary mixes of artists (including dancers, musicians, architects, and others), scientists (mostly biologists and ecologists), environmental activists and regular citizens in projects that included public performances and workshops of one kind or another. I was invited to comment on the projects on Friday and to facilitate and participate in Saturday’s workshops and discussions. A few brief observations follow.
One of the recurrent themes of the symposium discussions was the iLAND “method,” especially its particular form of interdisciplinary and performative process. An important piece of that method is iLAND’s work to bridge across disciplinary divides, notably that between artists and scientists. (This is something I’ve had numerous opportunities to think about and work with: it featured, for instance, in my work at the Santa Fe School for Advanced Research, the results of which are coming out in book form soon from SAR Press; in my contributions to the Changing Urban Waterfronts project; and in this piece from the inaugural ISSRNC conference.)
A question I tried to focus some discussion onto was the relationship between iLAND’s artistic and its scientific objectives. The scientists present — some of whom were both artists and scientists (making for part of their projects’ originality) — all concurred that science works with a recognizable operative norm, which is the discursive and practical ideal known as “objectivity.” (Non-scientists had some trouble with this term, which tells us that it’s a discursive norm that’s internal to science, with recognized social authority outside of it, but some contention over whether it deserves that authority or not.)
I asked participants whether the artistic objectives had an analogous operative norm, and, if so, what it was. A number of terms came up in our discussion, but none that seemed a matter of clear consensus: for instance, beauty (but how is it defined? is it too outdated a concept? too culture-bound?), subjectivity (but is this too individualistic, too modern?), and communication or expression (but art is always more than mere communication). Had we had the time for it, I would have suggested sensual and perceptual affect, as in Deleuze and Guattari‘s notion that an art work is a “bloc of sensations,” a “compound of percepts and affects,” in contrast to science being the creation of “propositional functions,” and philosophy the creation of “concepts.”
What’s unique about the iLAND process, however, is not so much its collaborations across the traditional “two cultures” divide, but the interaction between both of these sets of collaborators and a third, variously identifiable as “nature,” place, land, the landscape, or ecology. In the three projects featured at the symposium, this took the more specific form, respectively, of the urban ecology of north Brooklyn, the urban forest of northern Manhattan (a contradiction in terms, you say? ha! not so fast… about one-eighth of the land surface of New York City is forest, marsh, or meadow), and the entire New York City/Hudson River regional watershed.
If scientific practice pursues what it calls objectivity, and art pursues something related to aesthetics (beauty), perception and affect, or subjectivity, what then is the operative norm of ecology and ecological practice? Some time ago, it would have been normal to say that ecology — today we might call it “ecology 1.0” — pursued something like balance, harmony, wholeness, or equilibrium (or the predictability that was the general goal of applied science, which dovetailsed with the notion that nature itself was stable and predictable). In the words of Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, ecology ought to pursue “the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” Nowadays environmental activists might still use some of those terms, but scientists are less inclined to. Ecology 2.0, if anything, pursues something more like resilience, adaptive management, or dynamic responsiveness, but without an overarching “harmony” to be achieved.
In any case, the land is an actor — a multiplicitous actant consisting of many agents — that is actively engaged with by iLAND/iLAB participants, and that is recognized to be unpredictable. I recently summarized my own philosophical concerns as being about “how things enter into relation with other things” and “what happens (in the world) when they do.” iLAND’s work is about how a multi-person performative human entity enters into relationship with a watershed, an urban forest, or something broadly recognizable as “the land.”
Definitions of this third actor must remain open-ended. A watershed, for instance, is the land surface drained by a particular creek or river; but this only tells us about surface water, not about any of the other features that characterize and define that surface (oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, vegetation, people, roads, national boundaries, climate, technologies, etc.). Even in terms of the watershed itself, the overlay of spatio-temporal scales is astounding: as Jennifer put it in some notes from her Friday evening talk, there is “the geological time it took to create this space,” “the time it takes water to travel from the highest point to the lowest point,” “for a rock to travel down stream,” “for water to evaporate, move into the weather system and return through precipitation,” and of course for human settlements to be built, develop their infrastructures, and so on.
The process by which the performative entity develops a relationship with the land entity is, then, always a hermeneutic one: it is one in which performative practice (and the effort that goes into it) and place/environment interact to unearth participants’ assumptions (as Jennifer put it) — about nature, aesthetics, the body, and meaning — and to undo normalized habits and routines by which our own understandings of the natural and ecological are maintained.
There is, as I pointed out, a necessary tension between, on the one hand, the more hermetic “laboratory” work of iLAND — which is the intensive, one might even say alchemical, work of rearranging (through movement, dance, etc.) one’s bodily motilities, affective and perceptual capacities, and spatio-temporal comfort zones in order to explore spatio-temporalities that are radically different — and, on the other, the more public work of iLAND, which involves taking others along on this journey, but in ways that are recognizable — as art, as public performance, as play or pageant or interpretive hike or journey or something else.
The symposium itself was part of that public work. But if there is an iLAND method emergent in this work, I think it may lie in the balance between the hermetic — the perceptual alchemy — and the public, as much as it lies between the scientific, artistic, and ecological.