Can Artists Heal Nature?

Can Artists Heal Nature?

Can artists heal nature? At its core, such a question evokes the ambiguous relationship between humanity and the natural landscape. As curator, writer and artist Janet Owen Driggs expressed in her ZERO1 BRINT IT! event, such a question is important “because of the assumptions the question rests upon.” Driggs spoke of the artistic perspective’s assumed power to depict the world relative to the eye of a single viewer in hopes of acheiving a representation that best corresponds with what is or is desired to be seen and experienced.

In trying to organize and comprehend reality, the viewer is experientially separated from what they see. Art creates an illusion of reality and a moment in which the whole world converges on the spectator who becomes omniscient. “With these scopic conventions,” we assume “we’re the fairest of them all,” says Driggs. Just about any product on the market could be viewed as a manifestation of this perspective. For example Jawbone’s UP, a new gadget that provides you with streams of information regarding your sleep patterns, eating habits, and movement. It promises to “help you use that information to feel your best.” Such a gadget, among others, captures the power of today’s belief that more accessible information is correlated with progress, knowledge, and agency to meaningfully engage with others and the environment. While these innovations have undoubtedly positive effects, their problematic influence on how we conceptualize our environment and our place within it is rarely considered.

It is important to consider how such priveleged and knowledge hungry perspective shapes our relationship to place. CCA professor and BRING IT! Panelist, Susanne Cockrell, suggests we re-frame the question to ask “How can artists restore or remake connections to place?” Furthermore, as our conventional conception of place is complicated by our engagement with an ever-growing digital landscape, perhaps we should ask, how can artists engage with today’s data-rich digital landscape to create a new conceptual framework with the capacity to physically reacquaint us with nature and a transforming conception of place? Much like the figures drawn by Italian artist, mathematician and geometer, Piero della Francesca, who sought to construct rational and coherent spaces in his works such as Flagellation of the Christ, today’s digital information perspective renders knowledge and experience as static objects, allowing the viewer to see them as independent from one another.  Through this perspective, rather than an interconnected system in conversation with human cultural meaning and the vast topology of the contemporary urban landscape, nature becomes an autonomous object, devoid of human engagement, and in need of rescuing and conservation.

While the rise of CAD and popular online spaces such as YouTube and Google Maps allow us to digitally engage with the world, the spirit of our physical engagement is diminished. In striving to actualize mankind’s democratic ideal by organizing and making accessible the world’s intrinsically natural and felt phenomena, is it possible that seemingly heroic and enlightened companies like Jawbone or Google are in fact, similar to a perspective painter, compressing human immanence in the shallow, logical spaces of its servers? Does the intense flow of information and its efficient reduction actually disrupt the sense of human authenticity, agency, and nature, it so desperately seeks to inspire?

In the final remarks of her presentation, environmental performance sculptor and educator, Bonnie Ora Sherk stated, “it’s a matter of balance.” In order to create new understandings of nature and spaces for meaningful human action, it is crucial to contemplate the artist’s role in establishing coherence between the human desire for information driven progress and a conscious and spiritual engagement with the environment. If, as panelist Johhny Chen says, “nature points us to the divine,” or if we are a “regeneration of ancestral light,” as said by panelist Olivia Chumacero, the technology based artist must interrogate our disembodied assumptions and relationships to the world to remind us that we are more than a demographic or market share percentage. Through technology, the artist can remind us of how we bring place, identity, and history into being, and that we’re deeply embedded in an intimately felt and experienced natural system.

This blog was written by William Tyner, ZERO1's 2013 Art Administration Intern.