Art + Ecology + Science

01/03/2011
The In Context:public.art.ecology residency in its second phase will explore sites of convergence of the worlds of art and science
ecology II
Venue: 
KHOJ Studios, New Delhi
Date: 
Tuesday, 1 March 2011 - Friday, 8 April 2011
Critic: 
Jyoti Dhar

The In Context: Public.Art.Ecology residency will investigate and explore sites of science pursued through its diverse projects, all within  the broader framework of ecology and science rooted in cultural and philosophical contexts of today. These range from creating living eco-systems for insects, an organic grass photosynthesis photograph,  an interactive bird habitat, an insect-attracting eco-habitat.

The convergence of the worlds of art and science is creating a new niche of cultural experimentation. In both popular and scientific culture, the ascendency of biology and its success in spreading knowledge and visual information about other species has stimulated attention. More recently, global warming and international ecological crises have urgently focused our attention on our relationship with other species.

The work of artists today have begun to reflect these larger social interests. By transcending disciplinary boundaries, it hopes to bridge the gap and break down the language barrier between art and science, addressed through a combination of artistic intervention, critical theorizing and reflective practices, opening up a world of possibilities and creative ideas emerging from current developments in technology and scientific research.

Khoj Court by Ackroyd and Harvey

Ackroyd's and Harvey’s residency at KHOJ is framed by an on-going enquiry into processes of organic growth and the photographic properties of living plant material. By capturing complex images in emerging blades of barley, they aim to create compositions of a subtly elusive kind through the controlled production of the pigment chlorophyll. 

A second work responds to the architecture of the inner courtyard at KHOJ; they planted the vertical enclosed walls with barley seeds transforming the space into a green haven - a breathing space within the increasingly hot and polluted city.

 


Love Motel for Insects: Khirki Experiment and Meet the Neighbors

By Brandon Ballengée, Pratik Sagar and Navin Thomas

A KHOJ residency studio has been turned into a 'Love Motel for Insects' and impromptu laboratory. Attracted by special ultra-violet lights and food, each night the insects of Khirkee village fly in to occupy and consume this space. People are invited to bug watch and take photos of encountered species.

“ Meet the Neighbors” will be a series of eco-educational programs where students and audience can view and discuss species that have been attracted to or are part of the KHOJ Artist-in-Residence programs, including birds, fish and insects!

 


E-Connect and Love Motel for Insects

By Ecohaven Project and Brandon Ballengee 

The E-Connect lotus flower structure by Ecohaven Project, in collaboration with Brandon Ballengée's 'Love Motel for Insects', creates a twenty-four hour habitat for urban insects. By day, native Delhi plants provide a habitat + food source for butterflies.  By night, the exterior of the E-Connect structure supports the 'Love Motel for Insects' by incorporating the use of ultra-violet light to provide a nocturnal habitat for moths and other arthropods.  The collaboration supports the main project concepts of Connection, Education and Sustainability. To be installed in the plaza of the Select CITYWALK , this project will offer an oasis of food and shelter for struggling urban insects and provide a opportunity for visiotrs to observe and appreciate these special creatures. Visitors are invited to photograph insects and submit them for inclusion in a forthcoming Delhi Bug-Blog! 

Why insects?

Insects are one of the least understood and appreciated groups of animals. Yet, the majority of our food crops rely on insect pollination to reproduce. Countless eco-systems would collapse in their absence and they have been a source of artistic inspiration for thousands of years! Insects are survivors; they first appear in the fossil record almost 400 million years ago, long before the dinosaurs! Today, however many species face decline or may disappear. Loss or alteration of habitat, pollution and climate change all may be affecting populations. Creating beneficial habitats, especially in urban areas where food and shelter maybe scarce, is a way to help struggling species and also a way for us to enjoy their company. Observing and studying "bio-indicators" species of insects can tell us the story of local ecological health.

 


My Love Is An Icy Cold Fever

Navin Thomas 

Navin's work comprises of a large metal ultra-violet flower placed in a section of the Khirkee mosque, hoping to attract hornets which in turn attract the large community of bats living inside the mosque. 

This continues to be a part of Thomas's interest in urban architecture and its co-existence with subterranean ecology.


Unpacking Social Networks

Pratik Sagar

The idea of Pratik's work is to attract birds to interact with a structure meant to feed them. The structure contains many bowls of cereal arranged such to form a word. The word is FORGIVENESS.

The work requires regular disciplined management and care where the word needs to be regularly filled with water and structure with cereal. Pratik has created one such observatory at KHOJ. He also intends to travel with another structure to different sites in Delhi; sites which have already established themselves as accepted sites for bird-feeding.

He hopes to initiate a dialogue amongst various people who regularly feed birds and to generate awareness about ecology by building a habit of checking our position and relation with different forms of nature all around us. With “forgiveness” at back of our minds, we need to understand the urgency, and that policy-making and its execution require to counter the damage already caused.


Critic-in-Residence: Jyoti Dhar's essay

Exploring the intersections between Art, Science and Ecology

[ecology (oikos: house) =  ‘planetary housekeeping’] [1]

A note on language and frameworks in flux:

While artists have been documented to be working under the broad umbrellas of “bio-art” or “eco-art” since the 1950s, today these hybrid definitions no longer suffice; artists today often work across a range of disciplines, collaborating with experts from their various fields of interest.  However, it is precisely because art that uses living media and/or science-based materials falls into an inter-disciplinary realm that often pervades definition and validation by both the fields of art and science.  This leaves the contemporary critic in the precarious position of finding new sets of “values” upon which to begin analysing and critiquing this type of work.  These values should build upon existing frameworks and ideas traditionally generated by both art and science, but more importantly lead us towards a new space altogether, in need of new language and new parameters.  This essay attempts to outline the practice of three artists and one artists’ collective during a KHOJ residency in March 2011, contextualising their work beyond existing eco-critical frameworks.

Art/Culture and Science/Nature

Traditionally as Stacey Levy tells us, “We tend to think of nature as something separate and other. So often we place nature at the opposite end of the spectrum from culture, culture is us, nature is other.” [2] In 2011, we demarcate this “other” by habitually attributing the prefix “eco” to various products, technology and lifestyle choices.  It is my belief that within the next decade or so, this prefix will become obsolete as every facet of our quotidian lives will encompass ecological aspects and will no longer be distinguishable as separate or “other.”  This too will percolate into epistemological fields including critical art theory as artworks dealing with contemporary societal concerns will naturally reflect an ecological element of some kind or other.  As it stands today, cultural practices are increasingly participating in socially orientated subjects, such that “matters of fact” are increasingly becoming “matters of concern” for new publics and new constituencies. [3] This includes concerns that were traditionally confined to the realm of science (such as ecological issues) which can now be deemed as of equal interest and relevance to the artistic and scientific community alike.  This is especially the case with environmental problems, which are now so commonly widespread that they filter into every aspect of our existence and psyche, such that they are now being considered simply as “human” [4] issues.  By re-positioning nature and culture within the domain of “human,” we create a baseline from which to begin examining practices that explore them both.  In this way, we are transcending ossified institutional frameworks, allowing for a more personal, and yet equally valid, engagement with fields that intersect art and science, culture and nature.

While “eco” or “bio-art” can no be longer considered to be marginal i.e. functioning on the fringes of culture, this still leaves us with questions of how to begin contextualising and critiquing it.  In questioning the validity of an ecologically-based artwork, some post-modern art theorists would argue against art necessarily having a social function and its potential to contribute directly to the world around us. [5]  However, Joseph Beuys spoke extensively about the connection between art, nature and life during his lifetime (1921-1986) and was one of the first artists to advocate art’s role in socio-political change.  Lucy Lippard has also been a pioneer in eco-criticism campaigning for the validity of artworks that address environmental concerns. While they have devoted life-times to carving out niches for a new and valid type of art which defines itself by inclusion, some still insist on defining by articulating differences.

Ecovention artist Lynne Hull would validate an ecological intervention (ecovention) as art rather than science thus “eco-art differs from eco-restoration science in its process rather than in its intent.” [6]  This is in keeping with historical “proceduralist” approaches to defining art where process is seen as more significant than resultant function or incidental intent. On the other hand physicist and biologist Mukund Thattai, who often integrates theatre and art in his educational workshops, believes that the roles of artists and scientists can be differentiated on the basis of solving micro-problems versus macro-problems.  Thattai says, “The role of the scientist is to work on a problem they find interesting, whereas the role of the artist is to decipher larger problems of our age and think critically about them.” [7]  He believes that processes within art and science can often be similarly creative and the outcomes equally open-ended.  Despite concurring with the idea that there can be creativity in the scientific process, artist and biologist Brandon Ballengee states that there is a more focused drive toward definitive outcomes in science, whereas art has a willingness to explore beyond dominant paradigms.  So while Thattai and Ballengee agree that processes in art and science are often similar and intentions may differ, Hull would say that intentions may be similar but processes differ.

Whether the distinction lies in the intent, process or outcome, when working with living materials as in ecological artworks – process and outcome certainly become intertwined. This is especially the case in large-scale public installations using existing habitats or creating new semi-permanent ones.  Art critic John K. Grande tells us that for ecological artworks “There is no gallery, no museum, no urban map to locate the work – instead the work exists in continuum.” [8]  This signifies that artworks consisting of living media, progress from the concept of art as object, traversing into a separate space altogether – one that encompasses the notion of ethics and the “after-life” of an artwork.  Patricia Johnson makes yet another distinction for ecological artworks, saying that, “an ecovention can be grasped directly” and therefore does not require an art historical context for its critical interpretation.

Ecologically-activated artworks

There are many art historical definitions for artworks that evoke the earth or its ecological systems, ranging from land art and earthwork movements in the 1960s and 1970s, to bio-art and eco-art of the 1990s to ecoventions in 2002.  For me, the works in this residency fall into a distinctive space of their own which as a basis, allows them to be fluid in their connection to other disciplines.  They can be described as “ecologically-activated artworks” because while they mimic or document existing eco-systems or natural processes, they also connect us to socio-political, historical, cultural, philosophical, spiritual and cultural narratives that simultaneously co-exist.  In this scenario, the artwork transcends our existing perception of nature and connects us to all aspects of life and thus reaches its fullest potential and opens itself to the greatest number of interpretations through its ecological essence.   This is in keeping with Systems theory – where installations reveal to us the complex web of dynamic interrelationships between natural and human systems [9] - and can be likened to Ackroyd and Harvey’s description of unlocking the potential of the simplest biological substance – the seed.  They say, “When you add water to the seed and release its energy, you activate it.  It’s almost a type of alchemy.”

Rather than aforementioned previous definitions which focus on using nature as a medium (land art) or restoration and sustainability-focused projects (ecoventions), in these works, the natural aesthetic or the investigation of ecological processes is not the be all and end all of the work.  Rather, they are springboards to a higher understanding of various aspects of contemporary society and have the ability to drive us to an instinctual point of enquiry.  In this lies the potential to humanize us as inhabitants of our own ecosystem and momentarily re-connect and gain a different perspective.  Elizabeth Thompson cites this as “participatory aesthetics” which describes an art that is no longer a space for the personal subjective realm, but an art that seeks to re-integrate the human being into the larger ecological system within which he or she is embedded.  “It requires the surrender of an exclusively human-centric worldview in order to fully engage in its meaning…It is an art that responds to new understandings in science, philosophy and psychology that form the basis for an emerging “new paradigm.”” [10]

The work in this residency neither focuses on the transmission of particular ecological or social messages, nor does it make glaring political statements as part of a didactic connotation – i.e. an underlying agenda is not necessarily required when practicing as an eco or bio artist.  As artist Chrissie Orr says, “Being in the community, not in a studio is activism in and of itself” [11]  It is also important to highlight the danger that as environmental concerns are currently en vogue, this subject can be used as part of an art trend, which works to “flatten the work and leach out its criticality.”  However it is clear that the artists in this residency have been accumulating knowledge in their respective areas of interest for years whether it be the complex relationships between built infrastructure and natural resources, effects on dysfunctional and shifting eco-systems.  Their art offers moments or excerpts from a poetic interpretation – a translation if you will – something that simultaneously contributes to current ecocritical thinking and that the wider public can engage in and reflect upon.  As Lippard says “Artists cannot change the world…alone.  But when they make a concerted effort, they collaborate with life itself.  Working with and between other disciplines and audiences, and given the chance to be seriously considered outside the narrow world of art, they can offer visual jolts and subtle nudges to conventional knowledge.” [12]

 

Artist and Project Descriptions

Ackroyd and Harvey – “KHOJ court”

Ackroyd and Harvey began working with grass as a material early on in their practice; but it was some years later that they realised its full potential as a medium that could “speak on many levels.” [13]  In grass, or more specifically in the act of growing grass, the pair realised that they were able to harness a life-force, potentially unlocking its bio-chemical, kinetic and spiritual energy. Their practice involves actively generating growth, nurturing the work over time and observing its continuous progression; product and process become intertwined, from germination and growth to decay and demise, all stages inform and form the artwork.  Using grass as a living medium, Ackroyd and Harvey explore the very intimate scale of portraiture-on-canvas in gallery or studio spaces, to large-scale public installations in the urban setting.  In their architectural installations the duo investigate the interplay between dichotomies such as man-made and natural, material and form.

During the residency, Ackroyd and Harvey went about transforming the inner courtyard of the KHOJ studios into a verdant sanctuary.  Using clay, seeds and water, the pair meticulously nurtured and grew their vertical harvest over the course of a week or so.  However, in this particular instance, they were not able to work with their customary grass-seed and instead turned to barley as a viable alternative.  As a grain that has many associations in India, including the material used in Navratre festivals [14] the finalised installation lent itself to wide-ranging interpretation.  One of the readings of Dan and Heather’s work pointed to the city of Delhi’s recent expansion and developmental shift which has seen much of the peripheral farmlands being engulfed to make way for property-developers.  Stories of lower-income farmers cashing in their livelihoods and their heritage have been rife, while the elite increasingly use their second-home farmhouses as retreats or for social entertaining. [15]  Connotations of ritual, harvest and even socio-political change coalesce in this one architectural installation.  KHOJ court drew upon its surroundings, taking in the noise, dust and heat of Khirkee village and in return offered a temporary enclosure which was still, cool and restful.  In order to engage with this work, you had to immerse yourself in it and there was almost something sacred in this act.  In contrast to Agnes Denes’s seminal work “wheatfield –a confrontation” which also took on the form of planting grain across an urban landscape, KHOJ court looked more at the complex relationship between nature and culture, as well as the locality’s specific history and narrative.  Ackroyd and Harvey’s living medium responds to the architectural presence of each particular building they engage with, which in turn draws out its stories “almost osmotically.”

For their studio-based portraiture works on canvas, Ackroyd and Harvey chose two women from the surrounding village as their subjects and photographed their faces.  They then projected these images onto a canvas embedded with millet seed [16] over a number of days allowing it to be captured in the chlorophyll pigment of the growing grain.  Over the course of a week, these temporal “portraits” began to emerge.  At first the image was vaguely visible but as the blades grew and the tonal variations became more differentiated, the features of the women became more distinct.  A few days later, as the chlorophyll began to senesce and the sheaves began to wilt, the image took on a more ghostly manifestation.  This brought with it a poetic appearance and disappearance of the image which was timed with nature’s own cycle of growth and decay.  Ackroyd and Harvey subvert the nature of “traditional portraiture” by using it in a way that engages with contemporary eco-critical thinking.  Much like Noble and Websters’s infamous “self-portraits” made from casting shadows of figurative sculptures (consisting of waste materials) Ackroyd and Harvey’s portraits are “more indexical rather than symbolic”. [17]  Using temporary material to create an artefact usually used to record a moment in time, i.e. a photograph, comes with its own irony and questions the very nature of archive and memory.  It also directly highlights one’s own mortality as well as makes one think of the more abstract larger notion of our transient world.

Although questions of permanence and photographic portraiture have been around since the very first photographs captured by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877), Ackroyd and Harvey go one step further by using living material, including grass blades and sunlight to “develop” their photographs and form the resultant portraits on canvas.  For a given period of time, a person is actually able to see themselves reflected in nature; there is something very primal about this that resonates with the viewer on an instinctual level.  It can also be seen as having a confrontational edge to it, as it literally faces us with the prospect of the destructive effects on the planet at the hands of man, looking at how our relationship with nature has gone from healthy and symbiotic towards dysfunctional and almost parasitic.  While eco-politics is certainly not at the centre of Ackroyd and Harvey’s art, there are certainly nuances if one chooses to see them; a glimpse of the rural in the urbane, a connection to a past history in the form of a present reality, a shifting relationship between man and nature. In many ways, they are continuing to explore some of the questions Joseph Beuys began asking such as:  “Can art have an impact on socio-political thinking?”

 

Navin Thomas - “Symphony for a Swine,” “Ode to Dengue” and “Meet the Neighbours” [18]   

Navin Thomas uses what he calls “low-tech” electro-acoustic engineering to map the behavioural patterns and functions of small animals and insects and also investigates the “private-life” of everyday objects or the “after-life” of discarded objects.  His approach to sound is not simply a scientific, experimental one – but also a philosophical one which takes Dadaist principles as a point of departure.  Thomas’s investigation of sounds and objects start out much in the same vein as John Cage and Marcel Du Champ’s highly influential works in the field of music and art, i.e. they do not necessarily imply or represent anything more than their pure essence. [19]  However in Thomas’s work created during the residency, he asks the question, “After the system of objects, what next?” [20] and with this comes a distinct progression from Dadaist dogma.  He purposely makes defunct or disused objects speak again and thus gives them new use, reviving them, conceptually and sometimes quite literally by housing mini eco-systems within them or making them expressive of life.  In taking the system of objects one step further and attributing a voice or function to them, Thomas opens the work to interpretation and multiple readings.

The three works that Thomas produced during this residency are seminal to his oeuvre, in that they illuminate and bring together the concepts at the very core of his developing practice.  The two studio works, “Symphony for a Swine” and “Meet the Neighbours” (a collaborative project with Brandon Ballengee and Pratik Sagar) together with the public installation “Ode to Dengue” formed a kind of feed-back loop; where one idea fed into another and the result served to amplify observations, theories and attitudes Thomas has been documenting and relaying over the years.  Whereas “Ode to Dengue” was a climactic project resulting from several previous experiments conducted in Sri Lanka (where Thomas was infected with Dengue fever), “Symphony for a Swine” and “Meet the Neighbours” drew upon and from the city of Delhi itself and were conceptualised during the residency.  As part of his research into sub-sonic frequencies, Thomas took a field-trip to the Yamuna River to try to record any viable signs of life.  To his astonishment, he found none, apart from what appeared to be a version of the African cat-fish what seemed like a mutation with its red, bulging eyes.  Thus his installation involved simply placing these disturbing creatures in two compact fish-tanks for viewers to come and observe, inviting them to come and “Meet the Neighbours”.  Rather than the customary, picture-perfect image of a goldfish in a bowl, or reminders of the wondrous act of observing exotic fish in aquariums, Thomas gives us stark reality in its barest form; grotesque, feline, possibly genetically-mutated creatures in a murky, confined fish-tank.

Juxtaposed with this was “Symphony for a Swine,” which consisted of three consecutive steel urinals, emitting high-pitched sound of several pigs squealing in their farm-yard enclosure.  Originally in search of viable cat-fish specimen, Thomas’s quest led him to a hog farm where he found the fish were breeding side-by-side with the pigs, feeding upon their excrement.  The use of urinals was a nod to Du Champ’s “Fountain” (1914) but was not overloaded with symbolism in its appropriation, as it would be if they were ceramic.  The shrieking sounds coming from an otherwise silent unit for human waste-disposal could also be seen as a warning, alerting us to the alarming effects of improper sewage treatment in the city.  Aware of Thomas’s wider research and preoccupations, one could see the work as indicative of the consequences of mass-farming and over-consumption – polluted rivers, mutated life-forms and diseased food-chains.  In the same vein as Betty Beaumont’s exploration of mutated fish and underwater sound recordings, Thomas takes an interest in conservation and issues of biodiversity although his aesthetic takes on forms similar to Henrik Hakaanson’s laboratory-type installations of live animals and recordings [21].  However, in contrast to Hakaanson’s high-tech installations, Thomas’s use of basic materials (glass, steel, sound recordings and lights) rather than high-tech digital wizardry keeps focus on the installations and specimens themselves rather than reducing the works to mere spectacle.

Thomas’s public installation in Khirkee village, “Ode to Dengue” brought together two of the artist’s preoccupations - observing natural phenomenon in synthesized habitats and bringing to life an architectural structure made of discarded material, and making it useful again – this time by housing local wildlife. By using Thomas’s specifically-crafted technology with an architectural structure designed to look like a flower, the artist was able to observe and record the effects of lunar and U.V. light on an existing bat colony and resident insects.  The focus in this instance was to observe behavioural patterns of nocturnal creatures but also to highlight “data-deficient” insects, and as such give them recognition and prominence to in a sense, give them a voice.  Thomas’s outlook contrasts the life of objects with the natural life-span of living systems, which are conventionally placed at opposite spectrums.  As an artist, Thomas is able to control this poetic space – bring defunct objects to life, dismantle them again, introduce forms of life and existing eco-systems for short period of time.  In doing so he gives us a chance to interact and observe what we may not always see or listen to, despite their very significant presence and existence right under our noses.

 

Pratik Sagar – “Unpacking Social Networks”

Pratik Sagar’s practice is not only incorporative of ecology but of another science altogether – semiotics and the study of language.  He deconstructs the relationship between signs and signifiers, both in a metaphorical sense and in a physical, literal way.  Sagar first started working with biological material and language in pivotal performance-based pieces such as “Mother’s Milk,” “Absent” and “Lust.” In keeping with Jaques Derrida’s (1930-2004) theories of post-Structuralism, these works explored the meaning attributed to particular words and the deconstruction of those words.  Although investigative of processes and interactions in nature, his video works mainly document the performative aspect of these relationships.  Like Agnes Denes, who was the first artist to enact eco-related performances, Sagar artificially creates scenarios that mimic nature in order to observe patterns and change. [22]  Crucially however, his set is more theatrical in nature and his final outcome, i.e. intervention or recording of the intervention, is reflective of this.  Often adding popular Bollywood songs as background music, his video works take on a staged and constructed feel of their own.  Sagar uses these elements to amplify his message, which is neither didactic, nor narrated – but rather universal in its significance.

Pratik’s inspirational video and structural installation (Unpacking Social Networks) created during the KHOJ residency was about synergizing man’s moments with nature, as well ritualism and renewal.  Sagar created a tiered, wooden structure upon which he placed multiple small clay bowls containing millet seed.  When viewed from above, the bowls spelled out the word “FORGIVE” and over time the seed within them began to attract a variety of species.  Sagar continued to “intervene” in his intervention over the course of the residency, reacting and responding to changes within it.  This reactionary element differentiates his practice from those of many other eco-artists in the same space.  At first, he watched over his bird and squirrel-attracting sanctuary, documenting visiting wildlife from his first-floor studio.  Later, he added material in the trees and alcoves to encourage more species of birds to nest. Some of the bird seeds had even taken root and sprouted grass.  Squirrels, mice, insects and birds ran amuck enjoying their paradise.  Pratik often calls his works observatories, or “gathering spaces,” [23] however this term does not account for the continuous level of involvement required in these interventions.  The aspect of active and involved nurturing by the artist connects him to the artwork, much like farmer to the field.  This additional aspect makes it all the more engaging and relates it to the theory of ecological artworks establishing a participatory aesthetic.  

As part of the research undertaken into local ecologies and habitats, Sagar also undertook several trips to the Yamuna River.  Here, he fed migratory birds at sunrise in an area known as the shamshaan ghat; an environment usually associated with cremation rituals.  Sagar’s performative act brought together elements of death, ritual, ecology and life.  As such his art practice seems to synthesize new rituals, ones that include the notion of hope.  His video, showcasing the Yamuna and other public locations to which he took the “FORGIVE” structure to, gave insight into heartening community interactions with this works.  The urban population engaged with the installation in different ways – pundits blessed the surroundings in one location, policeman actually aided the placement of the work in another location and school children fed the birds in yet another; in a way they all became part of the performance.  While Pratik’s work seems to transcend boundaries of class and religion, they also traverse disciplines diverse as philosophy, politics, biology, religious studies and semiotics – not to mention art history.  Different works take on ritualistic meanings, comment on socio-political changes, bring together communities and simultaneously document wildlife and in doing so reflect upon on the worst and the best aspects of humanity.

 

Brandon Ballengee - “Love Motel for Insects”

As a multi-disciplinary artist and biologist specializing in amphibian limb development in complex eco-systems, Brandon Ballengee traverses both the world of science and art with ease.   His main practice involves research into “bio-indicator” species and their potential alteration or mutation by human activity.  Collating data through physical field trips Ballengee presents these findings through multilateral gallery and public art installations.   This hybridized approach (artistic scientist/scientific artist) helps him to fully engage in what he calls a type of “ecosystem activism” [24] which essentially raises community awareness of the environment through interventions.  Lucy Lippard emphasizes the immediate nature of his practice by describing it as, “framing local ecologies in order to bring attention to them, but doing so in real time.” [25]  However, what differentiates Ballengee from other artists engaging with such material, is the fact that he is not “an aesthetic tourist”, but rather a valid expert in his field.  And what differentiates him from other scientists is that he involves the wider public in a focussed and sustained manner, promoting “tactile and experiential learning” rather than traditional methods of knowledge acquisition.

During his time at KHOJ, Brandon created two site-specific installations – one public and one studio-based work.  Both essentially functioned on the basis of attracting a plethora of insects with a variety of fruit, UV light and native plants.  However his public intervention “Love Motel for Insects” at Select City Walk shopping mall was a progression from his previous public installations as it integrated ecological fundamentals with urban architecture.  As part of a collaborative project with a team of designers from Chicago, an enormous lotus-shaped structural installation was conceptualised.  Each of the three ‘petals’ took on an almost cave-like appearance with U.V. lights hanging in the alcoves of these ‘caves.’  These areas were complemented by a central circular space filled with flowers.  Like much of Patricia Johanson’s architectural designs which looked at providing food and habitats for wildlife, this installation worked on the principle that the insects had a meeting point to interact with each other and the given flora.  In keeping with cultural producers Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison’s multi-disciplinary proposals, this intervention’s design highlighted the issue of sustainability through urban design.  However, in Ballengee’s approach there is a definitive scientific research value to his work, including the documentation of previously “data-deficient” insects, just like fellow residency artist Navin Thomas. [26]

Fascinatingly enough, along with Thomas, Ballengee was able to document and observe a highly rare species attracted by his KHOJ studio interventions - the Death’s head Hawk moth. As part of the collaborative intervention “Meet the neighbours” Ballangee placed UV lights above two white canvases hung in his studio and laid out fruit and flowers along a white dinner table, documenting the various food-chain interactions occurring taking place.  This was also along the same lines of creating an artificial environment to invite natural scenarios but together with the other artists’ micro-habitats, his work formed “a bio-feedback loop” which enabled a greater possibility of biodiversity.  The dinner-table setting was termed as a “buffet for insects,” which saw a long table with perfectly-presented petunias and carnations, placed upon a frilly white table-cloth. This looked at his larger concept of cross-pollination where different facets of the public could be brought together through a work like this.  Working in two different locations also meant that Ballengee was not only able to cross-pollinate disciplines and ideas as he usually does, but “cross-pollinate people” from Khirkee village with those at the shopping mall.  For him this was the best way to reach as many different kinds of people as possible with his interventions in India.  Ballengee’s new work not only interwove the disciplines of art and science as in his previous works, but it seemed to bring together various factions of society and species and was about implementing design and sustainability through architecture.  Involving two unpredictable variables - ecosystems and the public – Ballengee embraces the potential chaos factor (much like the Fluxus artists did) in both his methodologies and his outcomes.  He proves his own maxim that art and science is less about “drawing lines and more about connecting the dots”.

 

Conclusion

If it is to be believed that “environmentalism often fails to include humans” then it is artworks such as these that offer an opportunity to re-situate ourselves within our own ecosystem.  Gaining this insightful perspective may in turn enable us to comprehend that both the artist and the viewer participate in the role of creating a sustainable future. Critical theorist Elizabeth Thompson elaborates on this new paradigm by calling into action “the art of whole systems.” When looking for a baseline from which to begin examining works that involve living media, it is clear that what demarcates them from other types of art and science, is the fact that process, product and after-life all become intertwined. These artworks go beyond previous approaches of using art to “tell the story of nature” or even to “promote science’s advances.” These ecologically-activated artworks offer in them the opportunity to humanize us and shed light on the interconnectivity of ecological issues with social, political, psychological and historical concepts; they give us the opportunity to connect to aspects of our contemporary lives that we may ordinarily be immune to.  The significance of this (re)connection can be summed up by Ackroyd and Harvey’s insight of a visionary in this field, Joseph Beuys.  They tell us, “Beuys believed that aesthetics, art, economics and education are all fundamental – but at the heart of it all, you have to have a thriving eco-system.” 

 


[1] As stated in Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ecology in "Art History, Ecocriticism, and the Ends of Man" by Yates McKee, Oxford Art Journal, 0.0, 2011

[2] "Artful Ecologies", as presented in "Art, Nature and Environment Conference", RANE Research Cluster, University of Falmouth, 2006, p.69 

[3] As outlined by Bruno Latour in "Art History, Ecocriticism, and the Ends of Man" by Yates McKee, Oxford Art Journal, 0.0, 2011

[4]Judith Butler articulates this as positioning arts and humanities within “the limits of the human.” Ibid.

[5] Suzi Gablik states that the dominant paradigm is that art doesn’t engage with real-life problems,  but with ecoventions, the “archness and bravura of post-modern aesthetics no longer applies.” As mentioned in "Ecovention, Current Art to transform ecologies", in The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 2002, p.149

[6] Ibid, p.4

[7] In interview with the author, May 2011.  Mukund Thattai was a “discussant” for the KHOJ-FICA art talk as part of public.art.ecology II.

[8] "Art History, Ecocriticism, and the Ends of Man", by Yates McKee, Oxford Art Journal, 0.0, 2011, P.45

[9] "Ecovention, Current Art to transform ecologies", in The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 2002,p. 151

[10] Ibid

[11] "Weather Report: Art and Climate Change", Boulder Museum of Contemporary Arts in collaboration with EcoArts, 2007 p. 8

[12] "Weather Report: Art and Climate Change", Boulder Museum of Contemporary Arts in collaboration with EcoArts, 2007, p.6

[13] In interview with the author, March 2011

[14] The Hindu festival of Navratre occurs bi-annually according to the lunar calendar, with its first occurrence coinciding with Spring and its second with Autumn.

[15] At the time of writing this essay the “Land Acquisition Act” has been a prominent and controversial issue in Indian current affairs.  

[16] Millet seed had finer blades when compared to the barley seed works and so allowed for a more refined image.

[17] Tracey Warr distinguishes the use of shadow in their portraiture as indexical rather than symbolic in her essay “Passing Presence”, Ackroyd, Heather & Harvey, Dan (eds.), Afterlife, Beaconsfield, London, 2002

[18] A collaborative project by Navin Thomas, Brandon Ballengee and Pratik Sagar.

[19] Cage and Du Champ’s explored the implicit nature of erratic and spontaneous sound production, particularly from re-contextualised house-hold or everyday objects, such as the musically-wired chess-board in their in the 1968 collaborative work “Reunion.” 

[20] In interview with the author, March 2011

[21] "Ecovention, Current Art to transform ecologies", The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, 2002, p.82

[22] Ibid, p.121

[23] In interview with the author, March 2011

[24] In interview with the author, March 2011

[25] Malamp, The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians, Brandon Ballengee, The Arts Catalyst and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2010

[26] In a previous public installation of Ballengee’s (2001/2002), local entemolygists were able to document and observe insects previously unknown to them.

 

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