Recalibrating the Compass: A Conversation on Art + Environment with Simmons B. Buntin + Megan Kimble
For the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment’s Proximities blog, Eric Magrane asked Terrain.org editor-in-chief Simmons B. Buntin and assistant editor Megan Kimble to engage in a conversation on art and environment. This will be the first of two upcoming Proximities conversations that will be cross-posted between Terrain.org and the Institute of the Environment. The next will be a conversation between Eric Magrane and Rafe Sagarin on the intersections between biomimicry, adaptation, and art.
Megan Kimble: I’d like to start by honing in on just what it is that we’ve decided to talk about here—the proximities between art and environment.
For me, I think, the clearest moments of insight—a shift in awareness, a nut’s uncracking—happen when the substance of environmental knowledge and discovery is carried in the riggings of art. I write about food and the environment—how our food systems affect the climate—and although I’ve been interested in the issue of how we romanticize early food systems—making bread at home, churning butter, etc.—I was struggling to express this until I stumbled upon the work of Judith Klausner, a young visual artist who works within the mundane (or mythologized) minutia of everyday life. A piece from her series From Scratch, an egg embroidered onto a piece of toast, particularly speaks to me. She writes this: “The nostalgia for the culinary past—before packaged foods and high-fructose corn syrup—fails to take into consideration just how much time it takes to make three full meals a day from scratch. Indeed, what it takes is a person in every household whose full-time job it is to cook for the family. We called these people ‘women.’ … As a woman in the twenty-first century, I can choose to spend my day baking a loaf of bread, or to grab a package off a grocery store shelf after a long day at work. I can choose to spend my evenings embroidering. I can choose to combine these things and call it art.”
Simmons B. Buntin: Interesting you should mention the amount of work required to live those romanticized, idyllic lifestyles of years past. I just finished reading Sara Loewen’s new book, Gaining Daylight: Life on Two Islands. She lives in remote Alaska, part year on Kodiak Island and part year on a smaller island in Uyak Bay, setnet fishing with her husband and raising two boys. In her book she details how long the work of preparing meals can be—this in a cabin with no interconnected electricity or water, exposed to the elements in a way most of us will never know. But she somehow finds time to write, to make art in and from a beautiful and dangerous landscape. To wit, read her lovely essay “Setnet Fishing in Uyak Bay” in Terrain.org.
That’s one proximity between art and environment: living in and creating art about a specific place, better yet a place known intimately. I can’t say the risk of the environment makes the art more compelling or important—though several of Sara’s sharp essays might convince me otherwise. Rather, I’d wager it takes some real relationship with place to create art. And by “real” I don’t necessarily mean time in place, nor exposure in its basest terms.
Then, too, there is the dissonance of place, resulting in the art of placelessness, which we see particularly as of late with novels, movies, and photography spanning indistinguishable suburbia and post-apocalyptic anywhere. Not knowing a place generates an art of no place at all, and yet it’s still art. Maybe the art of loss, the art of disappointment, the art of change. Perhaps the question, then, is: What kind of art is made when place changes as rapidly as it is in today’s world? What is the art of global climate change? What is the art, more locally, of the river in flood, the tornado, the hurricane, coral reef bleaching, strip mining, fracking? Indeed, can art be made from upheaval and disaster?
There are enough examples around to answer that question—I think of Chris Jordan’s beautifully horrific photographs of albatross chicks decomposing around ingested plastic bits and pieces in the Midway Atoll, for example. Yes, art is created from and responds to catastrophic change. And I think, returning again to Chris’s photos, that art makes a difference, too. I don’t know off-hand how much more attention has been paid to the gigantic gyres of cast-off plastics floating in the dead regions of all our oceans because of Chris’s photos, but just looking down the list of media that covered the photos reveals massive public exposure. Good. We need more art like that, don’t we? But who am I to say what art should be, let alone what it should “do”?