"URBAN ECOLOGIES" 2021 exhibition opens at Santa Fe Railyard Park Earth Day 4/22
Art in ecology in the continental United States, tends to focus on contemporary works that often recasts nature as a character in our own silo of history that is mutually exclusive from technology or manmade spaces. We simply designed it that way. Contemporary eco-centric artists question definitions of what is nature/natural and how we are continually retracing the boundaries of nature/culture as a bipolar binary to adapt to our ever-growing and inseparable relationship to commercial and extractive technologies. The current eco-centric outdoor exhibition, curated by Art Park 21 and hosted by the Santa Fe Railyard Park, “Urban Ecology” is a collection of works that explore this very idea. This show hosts a variety of perspectives that investigate how we are retraining our perceptions of nature within the urban setting using technology as a vehicle to redefine our relationship with these ever-changing concepts of “nature.” I find this concept interesting, being that technology, specifically the digitalization of space, time, and information, has made our worlds smaller and faster. And typically, being the insular medium that it is, tends to make us foreign to our own physical environments. We can look at this in two ways: digital information that we carry around in our pockets on our handheld computers (we can travel infinite distances for information using the internet), and the technological engineering of civic space that allows humans to flow from one area to another without having to encounter the natural world (we jump from air-conditioned houses to air-conditioned vehicles, and speed over evenly paved highways at literal breakneck speeds). One is rarely required to ascertain information from their surroundings (or even more rare to divine information from heritage) when it can be nearly spoon-fed from any iOS device. Indeed, without the insulation and safety of technology today, most folks would quite literally be lost. Additionally, in the age of a global pandemic, this technology provided social distance from other people. With online food ordering applications, we didn’t even need to enter a grocery store or restaurant to find food. It could be delivered right to our homes. We no longer even need to know what aisle our food comes from. Much in the way restrictive clothing makes us foreign to our own bodies, we find that we are strangers to our natural kin. This exhibition then, explores the seemingly anarchic attempt to use technology to reevaluate our definitions of the natural, to shed light on an estranged familiar- with or without a flashlight app.
These artists work collaboratively with science and visual aesthetics to reframe nature, not as exclusive from developed cultural settings as we have programmed it to be, but as an equitable presence in everyday urban landscapes. For some perceptive, let’s consider early representations of urban ecology: the classic colonial landscape. Early White American landscape design was one form of technology used as a vehicle to come to terms with the colonization of what would become the United States of America. According to scholar Kirsten Pai Buick, this type of image making conceptualized not only man’s relationship with nature, but also served as a lexicon by which we would come to define nature itself and White dominion over it. Colonizers recognized early on the power in defining these relationships and indeed the very ideology of what it meant to be “American.” The very nation itself was founded on its relationship (ownership) of the “new” world and its boundless natural resources. How far removed we are now (particularly as consumers), from our self-proclaimed definitions of what constitutes nature, can thus be traced directly to 19th century American landscape painting. It is important then, when considering the works featured in this show, that we keep a long view of history in mind, if only to see how much - or how little- has changed.
For example, referring again to the scholarship of Dr. Buick, in a classroom discussion of Albert Bierstadt’s, Rocky Mountain, Lander’s Peak (1863, Fig.1), students had differing opinions about the violence implied by the open butchering of animals in the foreground while children watched. The painting is a large-scale reproduction of a portion of the Rocky Mountain range in Wyoming, based on Bierstadt’s sketches during a survey expedition in 1859. The scene itself is typical of 19th century standardized European landscape representation. Typical elements of landscapes are present: a foreground, middle ground, middle distance, and background. Vast mountains of ridges and steep snow-covered slopes culminate in a tree-framed waterfall dominating the composition. An encampment of indigenous families (understood to be Shoshone) populates the foreground more as foliage, rather than subject matter. They exist as staffage to persuade the audience of a highly curated realism, but ideologically, as far as Bierstadt may have been concerned, the indigenous body, like the bodies of the animals they field dress in the foreground, are no more present than they are absent from the main composition of the painting. Yet they remain at a distance from the eye of the beholder (the artist keeps himself at a distance as the all-seeing eye). They are always, already, lost to history, as even then in the late 19th century, colonizers framed them as a disappearing society. The indigenous bodies and animal carcasses fade in and out of the landscape as merely another element of nature conquered by the artist. Rocky Mountain is a highly romanticized and heavily conceptualized representation of landscape that is specific to Bierstadt and 19thcentury colonial America’s commercialized relationship to nature and wilderness.
Some students in my class found the processing of raw animal sustenance unnerving, while others simply acknowledged that we are likely more sensitive and not as easily romanticized by the idea of hunting and butchering our own food and clothing. Simply stated, we are a generation that does not know where our food comes from. In turn, this begs the question: are we a generation that does not know where our nature comes from? How have our perspectives on nature/culture boundaries changed so much that a new language aesthetic (a new technology of language) is necessary to reinvent nature all over again?
The works featured in Art Park 21’s “Urban Ecology” flex the fluidity of our perceptions on what is urban and what is natural and how we represent our relationship with both. Some works are subtle and involved, some frame it with humor and spectacle, and others take an economic approach that define nature through a series of exchanges. This group of installations, while diverse in their medium, do share in their focus on the marriage of technology with an urban setting to emphasize a recent departure from historic concepts of nature as a society, but also to celebrate its new commercial appeal. The setting for this show, the Santa Fe Railyard Park, serves to emphasize this common thread. The connection of early White settlers to the state was centered around the hub of the market that grew out of the railways’ access to the region. When the railyards fell into decline the city was redeveloped and expanded over and around the landscape, building new commerce paired with scenic park spaces to balance the eb and flow of foot traffic and modern-day commuters. Commercialism and technology reintroduced the area’s contemporary economic appeal while still emphasizing its original historical context; new connections to inherent relationships through technology, rather than to spite it.
While this is a truncated art historical reference, it is a reasonable example of how deeply implicated this kind of grandiose commercialization and packaging of nature shaped our country’s developing relationship with colonized properties and landscapes as “Nature’s Nation.” The following is a brief review of the works featured in the show, “Urban Ecology,” and offer one of many possible takes on the ever evasive and slippery definitions of nature, ecology, and culture, based on how visitors may have encountered them. The works discussed here were positioned throughout a public park which constitutes part of the railyard’s property in central Santa Fe, New Mexico. The campus-turned-gallery combines restaurants, retail, and education/museums with historical architecture and pedestrian walkways with clear intentions to weave social spaces with urban/commercial environments while allowing a controlled and curated reintroduction of natural elements in the form of landscape-design-cum-habitat-restoration. These works suggest our relationships with “nature” and “culture” can be rediscovered and redefined through differing methods of interaction and exchange. Some works use investigative actions that reward our sense of curiosity and play, or they highlight the power of exchange and green economies that promote gift giving and knowledge sharing within a community. Other relationships with our naturalized urban environments may be built through techniques of remapping colonial concepts of time and place. All these interactions, however, require that we allow ourselves to be recast, not as the main characters of an ecology that is separate from the environments we build, but as one of many lifeforms subject to the elemental shifts (climate chaos) forced upon places and species by urban development and industrial growth. We are responsible to and for all and separate from none.
When considering the task of curating a public art show in an urban area, the main concern is perhaps how one encourages the audience (in our case pedestrians) to take a small amount of time to engage with the work as they are likely just passing by. It is in creating this opportunity for engagement that we may glean some sense of the relationship- that connection between the viewer and their own personal sense of nature, which we are hoping to incubate. In the works created by the TLC Collective, Lance McGoldrick, and John Davis, I found this exchange to be seated in a sense of play, humor, and curiosity.
One of the featured collaboratives, Leticia R. Bajuyo, Tiffany Black, and Christine Wilson (the TLC Collective) features a life-sized sculpture of an upcycled old lawnmower fully encapsulated in repurposed artificial turf, situated on, and flanked by an ostensibly rolling carpet of the same turf (the spiraling rolls of turf imply movement). This sculpture, titled Infinite Green (Fig. 2), sits directly on the ground, and is situated to be viewed fully in the round. The irony of a lawnmower, metaphorically mowing artificial grass is immediately humorous. This artwork is uncommonly approachable and accessible. The mower sits on a low platform with room between the handle of the mower and the rear roll of grass. The set up encourages a photo opportunity with visitors and with that comes an atypical proximity between viewer and art. It is typical in the field of ecology, and when dealing with environmental issues of our time, that people quickly become fatigued and while we want to be proactive in our ecosystems, we also must find ways to put distance between our emotions and these issues for self-preservation. While encouraging a playful and humorous interaction, it is less severe then to use the work to approach the more serious issues of resource management, wastewater, and geographically inappropriate landscaping. While the collective is addressing our rather unnaturallandscaping aesthetics, like having lush green monocultural lawns in arid climates, the actual artificial medium itself it also considerably thematic. Whether it is real or fake, the rolling green lawn is indicative of how popular culture signifies the so-called American dream. It is ironic then that grass is often used to refurbish plots of land that indicate private land ownership. This land was likely cleared out for urban development before being paved with grass. Without ever knowing the original state of the land we colonize; we choose to change its aesthetic to a more homogenized –and far more costly in many ways to maintain— view of urban America. While this is parody, it is representative of the amount of effort and money we will dump into land we don’t truly own, to conform to modern ideas of urban wealth and success in America. I do not know if I can think of anything more hilarious.
Considerably one of the more subtle works featured in this show, by Lance McGoldrick, is Industry (Fig.3). I characterize the work as subtle, not because it lacks in size (as a full-sized 1,400lb decommissioned gas tank) but it its ability to hide in plain sight. But for the fact that had it not been labeled as part of the show, and considering its industrial surroundings, one may just as easily chock its presence up to simply being long-forgotten urban detritus if one had bothered to give it a second thought at all. This work’s familiarity impresses upon us as viewers our own desensitized relationship to industrial waste. McGoldrick plays on this estrangement by taking a decommissioned piece of equipment and recommissioning it as a ready-made art installation. There is, however, another layer to this that goes beyond simply delegating something as art/ready-made. With a certain sense of play, the visitor is rewarded for their curiosity if they take the time to investigate. Inside the tank, through a small eye-level hole in the front, is a kaleidoscopic video projection of roses and gasoline swirling together and bursting into flames. This item, whose original purpose was likely as unimportant to us in our everyday lives as its existence as decommissioned garbage, is now a giant toy. We are reminded here that a sense of enjoyment and fun is not exclusive from our investigative senses, and that we may learn and relearn our roles in our environments through play.
John Davis’s interactive sculpture, A Drop of Water (Fig.4), is both aesthetically and materially complex. The tower-like design is constructed from both salvaged industrial materials and natural features, such as the small boulder base and the water elements that come into play. The work skillfully waxes and wanes between seen and unseen industrial systems that are key to our own interactions with naturally sourced materials and manmade infrastructure. A Drop of Water is a simple catch and dispensation system with an upturned vessel perched at the top of a column of small timbered logs. Attached at the base is a boulder with a divot in the top that holds a small and varied amount of water. Just above the rock base is a cylindrical yellow tank that holds tap water. The piece is designed to dispense rainwater from the catchment on the top or, should the pocket on the rock be found dry, the visitor can manually request water but pushing a button found on a control panel opposite the yellow tank. It is not a stretch, in this instance, to reconsider something mentioned earlier in this essay. As we are a society that does not know where its food comes from, we are also, thanks to modern infrastructure, a society that does not know where its water comes from. This work, while it rewards the visitor’s industrious investigative skills, also begs the question, do we ever really consider the distance our urban lifestyle has put between ourselves and our natural resources? The instant gratification of calling and receiving water asks us to consider this same interaction but from irrigation systems buried underground that produce water on demand from seemingly invisible and infinite sources right to our homes.
Other connections, it could be argued, are encouraged through interactions that warp and even deconstruct our programmed perceptions of economics and resource management. In other words, in a society literally built on a commercial capitalist structure that reinforces natural resource extraction with conjured concepts of supply and demand, artists like Hollis Moore and Richard Lowenberg opt instead to renegotiate our economy of nature through knowledge sharing and the exchanging of gifts. It is in this way that community (between species and environment) can be built for each other, rather than at the expense of one or the other.
On the far side of the park is a community garden, enclosed by a short, gated fence. Inside the gate, flanking a narrow walkway are small linen flags colored with natural dyes—each flag a distinct design indicating a different species of flora planted and highlighted by the artist additionally placed throughout the park next to various denoted species. This living installation, momentarily titled Flagged Memories, later renamed Rootwalk (Fig.5), by Hollis Moore, comes with instructions!One of the most undervalued modes of creating access to art, ideas, or space (beyond less hostile architecture) is inherited knowledge and guidance with such knowledge. This is provided by the artist in the form of a free, self-published zine. The zine provides information about the plants found at the viewers feet, demarcated by individualized flags that signify how one would reference or index the plant in the zine. The information includes not only a history of the plant’s provenance in the southwest but also its potential personal uses. The plants provide a free alternative to commercial products sold in stores and inventive solutions to creating a self-sustaining and healthy agricultural relationship within our region. The zine also provides the opportunity for the visitor to share their own story online as part of a collective, offering an expanded platform for expression beyond the artists own perspective. This information, presented as an exchange within a gift economy is not typical of our capitalist society. As a rewarding interaction then, the visitors may be more inclined to reconsider the value of a close and inherently knowledgeable relationship to local ecology and the community being built from this type of sharing.
In terms of how we relate to our environments, I find that the flags, used to signify information about what is in the ground, were a clever reference to how we initially read our environments before relating to them in any personal way. In other words, the flags were instructional signals to us as to how we should interact and behave within the space. In most developed areas, urban or otherwise, we would expect to see small plastic flags posted around properties before or during construction or renovation, to signal the presence of underground utilities (phone, cable, gas or electric). The fact that we would choose to flag those underground objects to not damage them, over flagging important flora to protect it, is a clear indication of our priorities as a species. Moore has cleverly taken a system to deliver information so readily engrained in our minds and used it to index an entirely different set of values found within naturalized settings.
O-Mikuji is another work in the show that reconsiders our limited views of value and how we assign and signify value in urban settings. This project, later titled Mushroom Economics (Fig.6), is perhaps the most expansive work, as it utilized the entire park, yet with its tiny components of life-sized ceramic mushrooms- it could also be considered the smallest work in the show. Artist and self-proclaimed “information ecologist,” Richard Lowenberg’s economic use of the space (a little bit goes a long way you might say) serves to reinforce one of the main themes of his work: how we assign value and how value is designed to be inherent. This theme is certainly appropriate in this show, as value, much like nature, is subject to its owner and cannot be assumed to be equally treated across the board. In this way, Lowenberg takes us back to the basics. So much of what modern day society uses is naturally sourced, yet we are so far removed from its origins that we are never expected to consider the implications of its harvest. By using a monetary middleman of sorts, we can literally pay for the privilege of lackadaisically participating in a system of supply-and-demand. Lowenberg removes this barrier (we could even call it a veil) and offers instead a gift. The gift is both a free ceramic mushroom, but also the note stored within its stem that connects the recipients to additional ecological knowledge and an online community of other recipients of these mushrooms. The artist does not require payment but is instead more concerned with the works ability to integrate itself into the participant’s thought process and to hopefully become part of a conversation beyond the exhibition.
Of all the creative and atypical interactions these artists created, so that we may recapture and redefine our relationships and concepts of false binaries (like nature/culture, or wild/urban) the more difficult yet profound shifts in perspective could arguably be found in the works (“not pictured”) and Letters to Dead Trees. Specifically, I would like to focus on preconceived notions of time and how our urban worlds seem to effortlessly conceal time and history that forms the foundations of these landscapes. Typically, our euro-centric styled educations rely on a linear view of time; time and history are situated neatly along a path of past, present, and future designations that are rarely interrelated and more likely to be considered ahistorical. In our current capitalist society, it is not productive or lucrative in industry to situate our environments within history lest we consider the histories and ecologies (indigenous societies, species, and environments) that had to be violently and spiritually removed to make space for colonial urban development. These two works do well to interrupt and abrasively work against clean linear representations of time and place, that is commonly ignored when we consider how we relate to our environments. We tend to focus on the immediacy of the view and the experience; the people, animals, plants, and manmade catered access to spaces through manicured landscaping tend to dictate how we perceive these relationships. When faced with the implications of the passage of time we must also then consider how we relate to what was once there. Removed by force, decay, and negligence, do we understand our proximity and response-ability to these visible and invisible environmental histories?
In the installation series titled Plinths, renamed (“not pictured”) (Fig. 7), by collaborative artists nicholas b. jacobsen, bug carlson, and Catherine Page Harris, we are offered aesthetically formalized cross sections of time (additionally unwritten histories of these occupied spaces), and an undervalued view of the parts of our environments so deftly hidden under pavement, revisionist histories, and commercial architecture. (“not pictured”) takes portions of unobserved and therefore unseen surfaces and raises them up into three-dimensional space to be viewed in the round. By raising the plain a few feet into three-dimensional space, these squared blocks-turned-pedestals asks, in no uncertain terms, that visitors reconcile with its existence in our presence. On top of each plinth, the artists attached acrylic informational plaques with bilingual poetic stanzas. Much like the flags featured in Moore’s Rootwalk, and the other works featured here, the artists used atypical methods to deliver knowledge and information about perspectives and elements we have so deftly marginalized through commercial development. Additionally, the visual striations formed within the plinth through the placement and compaction of different colored soils, refer to our scientific understanding of how we read and recognize the passage of time via sedimentary deposits mapped out in the geology of cliff faces and arroyos. Again, we have here a beautifully revised approach to typical timeline mapping that serves to unlearn traditional colonial methods of history telling and place making. The columns of dirt become bodies that share our space and time, asking to speak with us through the words etched on the plaques. What conversations can be had?
Paula Castillo’s, All Felled (Fig.8), an iteration of an existing and ongoing project, Letters to Dead Trees, is complicated in that it was likely the least seen or experienced work in the show, yet in theory is worth mentioning here as a bookend to (“not pictured”). The main component of this piece that was made available to the public as part of the show were written stanzas of chalk along the main walkways in the park. The medium itself refers to a common theme among the artists in which the use of naturally sourced materials, particularly local materials –soils, water, stones, and flora –are of central importance to driving home the theme of urban ecologies. Castillo uses homemade phosphorescent chalk to temporarily imbue various surfaces of the park with sentiments, in memorial, of the forests and other ecologies lost to the development of this commercial space. The chalk and its brief stay on the sidewalk surfaces of the railyards is as fragile and as brief as the ecologies it speaks for. For those that found themselves timely enough to interact with these messages become characters of a much larger story—a narrative of the deep time and space from which industrial materials have been harvested and transported from afar to build the railyards and surfaces on which the very messages are received. As the words are temporary, the reader is asked to take with them, the memory of the story being told. As a memorial the visitor must consider what the space means to them (is the history of these raw materials of any consequence to us or have we actively avoided this responsibility?) and how they may carry those implications with them when they leave. Will this impact remain?
Much like Rootwalk, and Mushroom Economics, this interaction is likely intended to travel beyond the exhibition to become a part of the ethos of the visitors’ everyday life. This is what eco-artists and iconic predecessors Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison refer to as conversational drift. It is ostensibly one of the more powerful intentions built into eco-art installations such as these. While the aesthetics of the works may be temporary, the message becomes mobile and alive in the viewer, reinforcing its own efficacy for larger environmental change in these times of climate chaos driven by commercial resource extraction for the urban world. This is one of the larger themes I hope visitors and researchers take away and pass along from this show, even if they were unable to experience these works in person.
 Authors’ note: this essay is a brief review of the art featured in the 2021 show “Urban Ecology” and is based on the author’s background in American Art History and Ecology that may provide the reader with a practical theoretical opinion to serve as a point of departure for larger environmental conversations. It is best read to supplement information found at https://artpark21.org/2021-exhibition-preview and interviews summarized in a video found on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gK6pTTSZXug&t=1456s with additional videos found on our Art Park 21 YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtNDSfkD4kH1DYq5I8fYUng