Monday, April 20, 2015

The Private Joy of Process

Friday, April 17, 2015
The preparation for an interactive project can be just as rewarding for me as the event itself. Last Friday evening, I was alone in a parking lot, happily tying bundles of tall grasses from the parking medians with twine, and then cutting the bundles, just above the new green tips of growth.

This was for a project coming up called "Braiding In" where I will lead an inter-generational art activity for members of a church to meditate on human/earth community. They will work together to braid last years' grasses together with bright, spring-colored raffia to make a decoration for the church garden.

The event will be one of many activities going on to honor Earth Day. The native grasses, are part of a sustainable landscaping strategy on the site and represent both the members' commitment to the earth, and also - in this project - the cycle of the seasons and the way new life draws from - and is folded into - life that came before.
Last year's native grasses
Tied with one string, the bundles collapse after cutting.
Tied with two strings,
the bundles stay together after cutting
Harvested grass bundles
Trimmed grasses, waiting for new growth.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Flying Over

Flying Over, 12-10-14, Full Spring Studio
What is this? That's what I thought as I skimmed thumbnails of some photos from late last year. At first I thought it was from the plane when I took a trip out west, but it was the wrong date. Then from the pictures around it, I realized it was from the River Journey project, and the students' trip to the University of Minnesota to visit the John R. Borchert Map Library and learn about GIS story maps from U-Spatial.

Ryan Mattke, Head of the map library, had generously prepared some interactive map activities, and pulled out a suite of current and historical maps for the students to explore different views of the Mississippi River and the Twin Cities Area. In trying to photograph a sampling of what the students were viewing, I caught the map's protective film reflecting the ceiling lights. Now, this accidental image prompts a map-meditation for me to think about how hard it is to see the land directly: from the bottom up, the map maker has only traced and labeled what they want to see. And as we fly over, what of our own reflection further filters the view?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Recommended: Water Bar

Another highlight from the 'Once and Future' river symposium I attended and posted about last week, was to hear Shanai Matteson, of Works Progress Studio, talk about a project she and her partner Colin Kloecker (with other collaborators) created called Water Bar. Now - don't judge it by my own crude sketch here - they have beautiful images that capture the project at their website:

Since I wasn't sure about rights to reference their images, I made this sketch impression of the project, which actually helped me think about what the project means to me as a connection to the source of my own tap water: the Mississippi River.

I'd visited the mobile Water Bar at Work's Progress's River City Revue one summer, where the tap waters of local municipalities were served  up by water resource experts who poured a "flight" of samples for comparison. The expert bar tenders shed light on the flavors and the reasons behind the surprisingly noticeable differences from the different taps, but it was the participant's own experience of taste that was the focus. Can you tell the difference? Which one do you like best? What does it remind you of?

At the symposium, Shanai talked about some aspects of the project, which you can also see discussed on the website, especially themes of bringing awareness to the interconnected systems and people that bring us tap water. It seemed to me, that she and the website, tended to focus on the social-interactive aspects of the creation and final experience of the project - the "conversations and connections." I can see why, since this aspect is so innovative and well executed.

But another aspect of the project I think is also strong is the direct interaction with the water itself.
While drinking the water could be seen as a vehicle or prop to enable the social, technical, and ecological conversation - the conversation also enables the experience of the water. The whole premise of the tasting flight, the storied waters, and the evaluation card for writing notes, would probably elicit "deep tasting," whether all the same waters were poured or not, as participants stretch their sensory perception to try to ingest the interconnection.

Or at least, that is how I remember my own experience. While I want my water treated and clean,  I jump at the chance to have it weave me back into the world too. I want to see the river's waves in the cup, and maybe even a fish.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Power Basket

My fingers are sore this afternoon from doing some heavy duty basket weaving on a new project, called Power Basket. It is made with reclaimed household electric wire, and equipment from our remodel. I notice that I repeatedly return to coil-formed basketry - which I first applied in a large scale on Children's Nest Egg. Power Basket is surprisingly heavy, and it's just begun.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Size and Story: The Mississippi--Mighty, Malleable, Mother

Children's Nest Egg, 2007. Full Spring Studio
The Mississippi River symposium I've been attending this week and wrote about yesterday, concluded this morning. This afternoon, I find myself reflecting on the symposium in terms of the story of scale - the scale of water issues, the scale of human influence, and the scale of the Earth itself.   

Images from Children's Nest Egg (2007) run alongside this post, as prior art explorations on the theme of our size and place in the world.

One of the final symposium panelists was Kate Brauman, Global Water Initiative, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota. She said some things that illustrate the way we use facts to support narratives - or perhaps just trigger narratives by the way we express facts, whether intentional or not. She noted, for example, how when we say the Mississippi River is the third-largest watershed in the world - just how big that seems. And when we say that usable fresh water is a small percent of all the world's water, how small that seems.

Depending on the context of conversation, fresh water and the river are cast very differently in our story in terms of their scale, which I would argue, also implies different power relationships between humans and water. "Small" water, is conceptually fragile, precious, and needing of our care. While "large" water might represent abundance, a paternal/maternal sense, or in times of flood, a not-so-benevolent overtaking character. The scale of our relationships can also imply different kinds of response, and responsibility. In terms of problems like climate change, do relatively "small" humans adapt, whereas relatively "large" humans mitigate?

Several times throughout the symposium, speakers said that whatever we do, the river will survive and that the question is what we want to see the river be - what scenario do we want to play out. This stance, of humans as responsible designers of the future, seems to also have a shadow side to me -- a perception of ourselves as, what speaker and artist Mona Smith called, "puppet masters." We understand the humbling corrective to human presumption in that phrase, but isn't this also underlying the narrative of the "Anthropocene" which casts humans as the largest, most powerful character in the current story of the world?

Children's Nest Egg, 2007. Full Spring Studio
Near the end of the discussion, there was an exchange that contrasted the rhetorical question: "Do we want heavy metals in the river?" [of course not] with a deeply concerned response about how we could  even ask that question, about the river, "our mother." To me this was not only a cultural question of what is sacred, but also a question of how large we think we are as humans, and what that implies in terms of what questions are even appropriate to ask.  All members of the concerned community caring about the river in that room have mostly common aims, I believe, even as they have different methods, and stories. Not just the artists, but all in the room, work in the context of stories, explicit or not. I hope the exchange of this week makes our stories more complex, so that they help us see ourselves both large enough to take responsible action, and small enough to do so with great humility.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Art and Science of Relationship and Meaning

A vessel for water, tobacco, gratitude, and commitment
I am so inspired by the symposium I'm attending this week called,
The Once and Future River: Imagining the Mississippi in an Era of Climate Change put on by the University of Minnesota, Institute for Advanced Study. It will take months to reflect on all the perspectives offered. You'll see why if you look at the speaker and topics list - from artists to water scientists to historians, with speakers from around the country and strong representation by Native American artists, advocates, and scientists.

On Wednesday night, the keynote speakers were Jim Rock, incoming Program Director, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium, University of Minnesota-Duluth and Sharon Day, Executive Director, Indigenous People’s Task Force. Jim said something that struck me as extraordinarily useful for the interdisciplinary gathering focused on the river, and as an understanding to bring to other complex conversations. I may have jotted this inaccurately, but the gist was this: that Dakota science is first about relationship and meaning, and second about measurement and prediction, though all four can work together. I find it interesting that he included relationship and meaning as part of his idea of science, not just a precursor. This might bend up some people's ideas of what the word "science" means, but I found it very helpful to integrate the idea of meaning and relationship into science to begin the symposium's big questions to establish the idea that value, relationship and meaning is foundational to any conversation, even about scientific topics or about the academic study of perspectives on the river. The idea of relationship is not just another topic alongside others, but can be a permeating paradigm, and an experiential reality.

Embodying this, after their talks, Jim and Sharon, and others conducted a ceremony to initiate the symposium that included songs of water gratitude in several languages, a pouring together of waters from near and distant water bodies, and an offering of tobacco. So often in problem-solving discussions, what is sacred, or deeply valued is left at home, so as not to cloud the 'objective' discussion or perhaps to guard against the vulnerable open-heartedness that deep connection can produce. This entirely different approach of beginning with a shared experience of relationship and meaning, does not cloud, but instead guides the intellectual discussion. It is as if the ceremony invites our hearts, as well as our heads into the room, to give the conversation ethical and value-based grounding and to draw us personally inside the circle of our shared concern. We can no longer stand at the edge of the river, it has now washed over us and we are immersed. The ceremony is a sacred, functional, and participatory artwork, doing an essential job in the ecosystem of constructive conversation.

Update: The video of the symposium keynote is now available here.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Enjoying: xkcd Map

I'm focused on story maps lately, so this xkcd map fits right in. ...From maps that tell stories, to stories [ala movies] that create a map (physical and mental) of iconic landscapes of the U.S.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Map as Stage Set: The Role of Maps in Downstream/Upstream, Part 1

"Mapstories" Full Spring Studio, 2011
Part of Downstream/Upstream
Learning from Physical Maps
I'm at an interesting point in the development of the Earth Systems Journey model for art-led environmental education. The first pilot, "Downstream/Upstream," was completed in 2011 with four to six year-olds, "April Showers, Storms and Flowers" was completed in 2013 with second graders, and I'm currently working on River Journey with a high school. One of the things that has emerged from the development of River Journey, is the great opportunity for using digital maps (or more specifically ArcGIS Online and Story Maps tools) as a vehicle for creative engagement and learning.

 But the use of maps in Earth Systems Journey (ESJ) is not new. Physical maps were an important part of many "props" in the first ESJ, Downstream/Upstream. And, in fact, the physical use of maps, as they support the participatory experience of ESJ, have the potential to inform the use of digital maps, so that they do more than provide a computer lab-based learning and communication function, but can also better serve the creative and experiential aspects of the journey.  This prior experience with physical maps can inform and inspire future uses of GIS story maps in several ways: recognizing its role as an important dramatic “prop,” interactive object, and record of the journey -- themes which I'll explore over several posts.

Detail from "Mapstories" Full Spring Studio, 2011
Map as Stage Set
and Call to Adventure

The 8x8 foot Mapstories (see images) shows the Twin Cities metro area in a collection of lift-the-flap map sections. It was constructed in the hall of the early learning center the week before the journey to create a sense of drama and anticipation. The map became a meeting ground for interaction. At the start of the journey, I gathered students around the map to launch the journey by showing where they (and their classroom sink) were on the map and asking, "Where does the water come from?" and "Where does the water go?" I also asked the children to help tell the story of water with all their senses and their camera and that their pictures would become part of the map, revealing the hidden path of water they discovered.

In one way, Mapstories was a stage set for participants as human actors in that it was a place for leaders and participants to launch and talk about the journey. The giant map, defined an area where significant parts of the journey itself took place, as well as a visual symbol of the journey that participants walked by every day so they could hold the idea of it in their mind. It was large enough, to create a setting or scene for interaction.

But Mapstories was also a stage set-in-progress, waiting for for a story of water that the children would help develop, and in that way it became part of the call to adventure itself. The map was the container for the "treasure" that the children would bring back. For in a "Hero's Journey," on which Earth Systems Journey is partly based, it is not enough for the hero to go out and find something they are looking for, (such as the source and destination  of their water in this case). Usually, in a Hero's Journey, the hero returns to community with something to offer, and a story to tell. 

In later posts, I'll explore how the role of physical maps as a stage set and call to adventure can inform the use of digital story maps in Earth Systems Journey projects.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Recommended: Saint Paul Historical

I've been looking at map-based communications, and Saint Paul Historical

is a great example, filled with rich content. With 35 neighborhood/theme tours, you could spend a year of nice weather weekends, being a tourist in in St.Paul guided by well-written context, and historical photos.

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Agency of Maps - Revealing the Invisible

Map as Story
I'm interested in how maps affect our perception of the landscape and our place in the world.
Like a realistic photograph, they are often perceived as representing a truthful, objective description of the places they include. But of course, they are selective in what they include and how they represent it, and they are the result of value-based decisions just like other man-made objects. 

The book, "How to Lie with Maps," by Mark Monmonier, gives a thorough tour through the many ways maps can mislead, whether by intention or not, by what they show and do not show, and how they show it. Despite his provocative title, he does not argue that maps are wrong to lie, but says, "Not only is it easy to lie with maps, it's essential." The actual, interconnected world is far too complex to be captured in any complete way in a map. By design, a map must select only some parts of the whole, and simplify or symbolize those parts in order to fulfill the map's purpose. The fact that a map is a designed visual story of the world, gives it risk of miscommunication, but also great utility and agency. What shall we do with this power?

River Journey Map, Full Spring Studio
Revealing the Invisible, Revealing the Personal
'Revealing the invisible' is one of the primary purposes for the map used at the beginning of River Journey, the current art-led environmental education project I'm leading in collaboration with River's Edge Academy charter high school. The invisible element that it reveals is the interconnected path of water to a place of specific meaning to the students, indicated on the picture by a dashed white line that shows where on the Mississippi they get their drinking water from, the path that water takes through pipes, lakes, and the water treatment plant, all the way to their own building, and then from the drain, through sanitary sewer, waste water treatment plant, back to the Mississippi River.

The map is used as a prop--a classic way to begin a journey by looking at a map of where you will travel. But the map is also used to tell a story of personal interconnection. Chances are low that the students have seen a map of water utilities before, even lower that they've seen one combining potable water lines and sewer lines (partly because they are managed by different organizations), and smaller yet, that they've seen a map that has filtered out the "noise" of the many interconnected pipes to highlight and make legible this unique path within the network that connects their own school to the river.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Drawing Lines - Experiment in Altered Photo

River's Edge: Downward, Outward, and Upward, 2015
Full Spring Studio

 When we were babies, before we learned to name and to draw mental lines around the shapes of the world, what did we see? Did we see a wholeness before the world was divided? Or was it an illegible and frightening blur? I'm interested in work that helps put the world's pieces back together, though I don't want to erase the history--the cracks between the fragments that show the process.  Here's a work that explores the dividing lines that inform our seeing.

This winter, I returned to a technique I'd tried before of overlaying colored pencil on a photograph. In the past, I'd altered a photo substantially before combining it with colored pencil, but this time I was interested in the contrast between a "realistic" photograph and a drawing that places an interpretive layer over the image. I followed edges of color and subject matter in the photo, dividing the view into "human" and "natural" and further dividing the shapes within the natural into sub-parts, much like the outlines in a color-by-number.

The tryptic, called "River's Edge: Downward, Outward, and Upward," is created from photographs taken as part of an art-led environmental education/ participatory public art project called River Journey that is taking place this school year with River's Edge Academy charter high school. The pictures are taken from the balcony of the St. Paul Water Intake, where the journey of the school's drinking water supply begins. This place is picturesque with its old building perched on the river, but it is also a significant turning point, where water as "river" turns into water as commodity. It is the same water, but it has crossed the lines in our picture of the world.

Upstream of the faucets of St. Paul,
a white temple stands at river’s edge.
Inside, noisy blue pumps slurp the Mississippi.
Outside, it is quiet.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Looking At: Pondering the Crisis Narrative of the Doomsday Clock

What time is it? According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "It is 3 minutes to midnight. (r)" They've even registered the trademark for this phrase along with a graphic of a clock as the minute hand approaches dangerously near the top of the hour. I ran across a link this week to their Doomsday Clock Timeline. It is a powerful use of narrative to try to inspire action (or maybe at least more attention) on large crisis issues like nuclear threat or climate change. Their website shows assessments at various years as to how close we are to "doomsday" represented by midnight on the clock, and taking into account governmental changes in policies and actions. It is fascinating to me that they've kept up this narrative since 1947. It seems counter to the "final hours" mood their metaphor evokes.

Eclipse Growing, Full Spring Studio
There are other things I find interesting in their approach from a narrative-design perspective. Over the years, the clock moves forward or backward in its countdown, with 1991 enjoying a full 17 minutes of time left due to the end of the Cold War, whereas, 1990 only had 10 minutes left. This ability of human effort to conceptually turn back the clock is encouraging, except that the idea of a clock (at least our normal experience outside of sci-fi films) is that they move forward --inevitably and mercilessly -- so that a doomsday clock seems doomed to reach its tragic destination. The only positive path offered in this approach, appears to be slowing down time by reducing crisis conditions, so we can enjoy these years (minutes) before the coming catastrophe.

What could be a hopeful twist in this narrative, is that although midnight, or the "witching hour," is associated with anxiety over untold horrors, it is also the beginning, technically, of a new day. What would happen if we said the crisis is now? How much suffering do we need in order to declare the time to be midnight? If it were midnight, or 12:01 am right now, how might we see our task differently, perhaps in terms of emerging from the darkness toward a restored morning?