Friday, May 13, 2016

A Ceremony of Parting

I made "Switch" as a ritual artwork, to explore relationships with electric power sources.
While this can be a private ritual, I thought for the closing of the Fierce Lament Exhibit, it would be nice to offer an opportunity for people to share their thoughts. Plus I'm really curious as to what they'd say. Here's a cross post from the Power Contemplations website about the activity:

Thanks and Goodbye, Coal.
From 4-6 pm, Saturday, May 14th,  in the final hours of the Fierce Lament Exhibit at Form+Content Gallery, you are invited to participate (on video or off) in a farewell to energy sources of the last century using "Switch," a ritual artwork by artist, Jonee Kulman Brigham. Join with others in flipping the switches on electricity generated by coal, nuclear, natural gas, oil, and trash incineration.

What appreciation do you want to express - for childhood toast in the morning? Or to the coal workers who made that possible? What would you like to say to bring closure to your relationship with these power sources of the past, even if this will be a long - maybe decades long - goodbye?

Monday, May 9, 2016

Naming and Un-Naming

Does the land exist
before we name it
Jack Pine and Blueberry?
in Ojibwe: akikaandag and miin?  (1)

Last Friday, I went on a road trip to Cloquet, Minnesota to see the final student presentation for a project called "We make a bridge." This class service-learning project, led by Landscape Architecture professor, John Koepke, was funded by an Institute on the Environment Mini-grant. John proposed:

WIIN AJOGANIKE “We make a bridge”

The aim of this project is to build a trail and bridge — both literally and figuratively — between the Cloquet Forestry Center and the Fond du Lac Reservation to enhance communication and cooperation. A spring 2016 landscape architecture class will work with band and forestry center members to develop the vision.
I was there because I'd connected John to the bridge planning group and was a member of the mini-grant supporting team. I was also there because I care about the project, the people, and the land. The bridge idea had hatched during a prior project I co-led in my job at U of MN, called Conversation-E that brought together scientists and artists and community members from Cloquet Forestry Center and the Fond du Lac Reservation and the wider community - all in common interest and concern for how climate change would affect the future of this landscape. Later, a bridge planning team formed and when they contacted me for ideas on how to fund an engineering analysis, I felt a pull to suggest more. I felt that putting a bridge and trail across a place so sacred and valuable to so many, deserved a guided design process to explore the meaning of this act on the land. I immediately thought of John Koepke for his ecological design work and his experience working with native communities. After a series of meetings, John applied for an Institute on the Environment mini-grant and planned out a landscape architecture studio project centered around the bridge proposal.

Design Process
John and his team had prepared students with maps and background readings about the history of the land and the communities of Cloquet Forestry Center and the Fond du Lac band. The students met with Fond du Lac band members and elders as well as Cloquet Forestry Center staff throughout the project, and developed design scenarios for the bridge, trails, trail heads, and special places along the paths that reflected the many understandings of place they had learned about. They included features that expressed native symbols, natural elements, multi-faceted histories and stories of the place, as well as use-based features for gathering around a fire, viewing the landscape, or for band members to collect plants. It was inspiring to hear how John, co-leaders, and the students applied their insights and skills and listened to the communities they were serving. Here are some of my impressions from their final presentation.

A number of the students had proposed plant identification art integrated with the design that were labeled with both taxonomic science names as well as Ojibwe names for the plants. One student even called her proposal "The Naming Trail," inspired by the story of how humans first named the land and its elements.  Language and naming is such a fundamental part of culture and our understanding of our place in the world so examining the significance of naming and the different ways of naming helps build a bridge of understanding between these different communities united by the land they inhabit.

Before and Between Names
While naming and differences in naming were a theme, I was also interested in the possibilities of un-naming as an act of bridging. To cross a bridge is to leave one area and travel to another. But what happens as you cross the bridge and dwell in the place between places? What are the possibilities of this place between? I would argue that this is a place where identity and language can float in a state of ambiguity. Art and nature experiences both engage aesthetics - the sensory experience of the world, before we apply our filter of names and stories to it. The act of applying those names and stories happens so quickly in our brains that it may seem as if we cannot ever see the world freshly. But when we are presented with something new, or or in a new arrangement, or so arresting that we don't know what to make of it we can access this original direct experience of the world, uninterpreted by our analytic minds. This is a place of the color we later call blue or the smell we later call pine - the place where the land speaks in its own language of its inherent biology and geology and provides raw sensory stimuli. Before we translate that into a taxonomic system of naming or a historically rooted cultural understanding of place we have an experience, however brief of standing on a bridge between sensation and knowing. This is a place before names, without agenda, -- it is a place of listening, and in that place we might find that we - our named selves - dissolve into our sensations of smell, sound, light, and texture.

One of the things I was impressed by and appreciated about the student work, was the minimal presence of interpretive signage in many of the designs. The designs were not explicitly narrative, even though many were inspired by stories and symbols. Also, most drawings de-emphasized property lines - which can be a kind of graphic naming of "mine" and "yours." I asked a student about a significant gathering place in his design- which property was it on or was it at the border? He wasn't sure off-hand and I think this is a beautiful indicator of the spirit of this project. So many typical planning drawings place great emphasis on the edges of property ownership. There's a practical reason to do this, but it also belies a cultural orientation to ownership and boundaries. In contrast, students in this project held back on the naming and claiming instinct and the designs offered places to be in the land directly, mostly free from our labels for it, if we choose to leave them at the trail heads.

A Third Voice
Community bridging was a theme for the design and it was easy to focus on the two groups on either end of the bridge and trail as the dominant conceptual forces, linked by their landscape. However, while students did talk about the constituents for the design as Cloquet Forestry Center and the Fond du Lac Reservation, their designs made places between to meet a third constituent - the land itself -  and to listen to its non-verbal stories.Their lines and circles made paths and rooms within the land so that more than a place between communities the land was a destination to experience together. They made a bridge across a boundary, but more importantly they made a bridge to the center, to honor this common ground.


(1) Image is a personal reflective "land-marking" on a rock from the area. Jack Pine and Blueberry are plants found in the area of the project. Ojibwe names were looked up in The Ojibwe People's Dictionary which includes native speakers pronouncing words.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Stories of Fierce Lament

I'm so glad that artist/curator, Camille Gage, invited me to put work into her exhibit, "Fierce Lament" in the company of so many wonderful artists, including Camille herself who has a lovely new work called, "Twin Ritual: Burying/Planting," in the exhibit too with her shredded journal pages composting into soil supporting new seedlings. This made an impact on me particularly because I am an avid journal keeper, and know the kind of power journals can hold, with their ever increasing mass representing the past. Sometimes past stories seem more real than the present though distorted through interpretation and memory. I find it provocative that on the opposite side of the gallery, across from her piece, Sean Connaughty's work from "Anthropogenic Midden Survey - Preliminary Report"is also playing with stories over time, in this case a future (grim) imagined archeological story looking back to our present day and making its distorted interpretations about what our garbage and lifestyles say about our culture. Or is it distorted? Is it rather our current story of ourselves as sane, relatively good people that doesn't make sense? There is a lot to "mull over" as Mary Abbe of the Star Tribune wrote in a nice review of Fierce Lament and two other exhibits. I hope I can make it to these other exhibits too and explore even more questions and stories artists are initiating.