Situating in Spaces

As I have been delving into finding places in which to situate my research, I considered how various artists I am interested in situate their work. The post where I dive into this is linked here

Considering artists conceptualization of place has been helpful to me in how I plan to situate my research.

Three places I am most excited about are 

Wilderness spaces, Urban spaces, and Logging areas

Wilderness Spaces/Public Lands

I am interested in situating my research in wilderness because of the conversations surrounding it. Wilderness spaces are under interrogation from philosophers, artists, and other scholars, yet there is also a lot of motion to protect them from science, recreationalist, and activist communities. The construction of wilderness is a colonial force and the oppression of indigenous people is implicit in its creation. Many artists are engaging in this discourse, critiquing the conception and existence of wilderness and deconstructing it’s foundations.  

As a magnet for both critique and activism, wilderness spaces are a rich place to consider how activism and art intersect. However after researching artists working with wilderness spaces, I have found that more artists I am drawn to are engaging in public lands activism. I suspect this may be because public lands are more accessible and often have more visible human footprint. In response to this, I want to consider situating my research on public lands as well.

Urban Spaces

I am considering to situating my research in urban spaces because of the wide variety of themes that urban environmental artists are incorporating into their work. In addition, the availability and variety of materials in urban spaces lends itself well to applying my research on new materialism. Urban space would be a rich place to explore artists who are pulling social justice, waste, technology, food systems, and other interesting topics into an environmental discourse. The ability of good artists to draw these connections is one of the main reasons I am interested in studying art.

Due to the material forces in urban spaces that allow for such dense populations (running water, electricity, cell towers, etc.), there are many contemporary artists exploring New Materialism in urban spaces. Artists situated in urban spaces tend to engaging with a wider breath of material than artists who are focused on natural spaces, and many artists are trying to draw attention to this material use in interesting ways. However, artist are engaging with so many environmental themes within urban spaces that if I choose to focus on them I will probably have to narrow my situated context even further.

Logging areas

I found quite a few artists creating work about logging areas. Like wilderness spaces, this would be a fruitful space to situate my research because there are many activist movements related to logging practices and forest preservation. One issue with choosing these areas is the narrow scope of materials and themes artists are working with. Very few of the artists I found engaging with logging areas included themes related to social justice, which is something that it is important for me to touch on.

On the other hand, this narrow view could be a good thing because it would provide much-needed focus. However I am hesitant to choose it because of the limitations I expect I might find in drawing connections to important humanitarian aspects of environmentalism.

Considering how Artists Situate

In attempting to pick places to situate my thesis, I have decided that it seems most practical to begin with the Pacific Northwest. I am hoping to be able to visit places and artists in person, and focusing on places I could visit over winter break will be ideal. 

I was having trouble narrowing my topic down further, so I spoke with Jim about how I might focus my space further. He suggested that I consider situating in social spaces, for example: urban, rural, or forest spaces. This was a great jumping off point, but I am hoping to pick a place that allows for more physical variety yet is situated in a certain way of thinking or artist space. For this particular assignment, I will focus on three artists working in three different spaces, and discuss how.

Mary Mattingly

Mary Mattingly is one of my favorite contemporary artists and I know I have mentioned her work in previous posts. She lives and works in New York, making self-sustaining, livable post apocalyptic structures out of the detritus left after an imagined disaster event. She has lived on many of these structures herself for up to 5 years. These structures are built to be movable and are often floating entities, using passive power and human powered processes, alluding to a post-seal level rise utopia. 

Her most recent work, Swale(2015), features a food forest planted on a barge that docks in various harbors around New York City. This piece is a response to laws prohibiting people from growing food on public lands. The crops from the barge are harvested and given away for free to members of surrounding communities. Her work is situated in consideration of waste and utopian imaginations of the future.

Will Willson

Will Wilson is another of my favorite artists who is currently working in a project called AIR (Auto Immune Response) which he describes as “a dialogue with ‘a post-apocalyptic Navajo man’s journey through an uninhabited landscape.” His work includes both photography and installation. One of his pieces includes a 10ft diameter Hogan, traditional Navajo dwelling, built in the style of a greenhouse. Like Mary, he offers a vision of a post apocalyptic future, and build Hogans in various styles in various locations, each containing a strong element of modern technology such as metal structure and electrical wires. 

Wilson is currently King Fellow artist in residence at the School of Advanced Research in Santa Fe, NM. His work addresses questions about survival including: “Where has everyone gone? What has occurred to transform the familiar and strange landscape that he wanders? Why has the land become toxic to him? How will he respond, survive, reconnect to the earth?” He uses self-portraiture and performance to address these questions, situating his work with imagery from empty-looking landscapes. The landscapes he chooses are reminiscent of post-apocalyptic imaginations in pop culture.

Nina Elder 

Like Will, Nina also works in Santa Fe New Mexico. Her work attempts to both draw attention to, and confuse perception of, various anthropogenic forces that make our daily lives possible. She creates meticulous charcoal drawings of logged areas using charcoal found on site. Her work addresses the arbiters that facilitate our modern lives built of electricity and running water. She paints power lines and electrical towers into the New Mexico landscape. Her work is deeply situated in place, both in the material she uses and her process of creation.

Considering Adjectives

This was the second time I wrote answers to the capstone MadLibs because it didn’t go through online the first time I submitted it. It was interesting to do it twice, and I felt much more sure of myself the first time. Working through it a second time, I realized that I acquired more language regarding specific sections of my topic that I am interested in. My research also broadened the scope of what I thought it was possible for me to focus on. I found that my focus was broader than the first time I completed it. Reading the sources I found, I was excited to find nuances of my topic that I am interested in expanding on and now have more under the umbrella of what I want my thesis to be. 

It was interesting to stumble through the madlibs in the confused state that I am in regarding my capstone. I feel like I have the solid parts (topics I want to focus on and build off of), but I don’t know how to position them. I kept rewriting my potential title over again using different adjectives. I am not sure what I want to moveable parts of my thesis topic to be doing. As an exercise, I will make a list below of potential parts of my thesis topic and what they could do!

Parts of my thesis topic:

Matter with agency, culturally powerful materials

Environmental artists


Contemporary art

Environmental activism

Symbolic acts/activism

Healing acts

What they may do:

Activate, illuminate

Create change, influence (culturally and in smaller, more concrete ways)

Connect (people, places, cultures, communities, beings)

Muddle, confuse

Fuse, intertwine

Incarnate, alchemize

I am excited about all these aspects of what I ultimately want my topic to be, but I am not sure how exactly I want them to fit together and which I want to use in the title. I am looking forward to doing more research and getting closer to fitting these concepts together in an interesting way.

Slow Rest Week

*Featured image is this sweet old cow named Barbara getting the kind of massage I want right now*

This week flew by! I have been sick and trying to take it easy as much as possible. As a result, I don’t feel like I have made a ton of progress on my thesis. My headspace for most of the week was focused on tentatively discussing the concept of materials with agency, culturally powerful/significant materials, or vibrant matter, with various people in my life and trying to get some feedback and collect a language for this. I am not sure how, but I know I want to connect this to my thesis. There is a good amount of very interesting scholarly work that references it under many different creative names and I think it ties in nicely with environmental symbolic acts. It has been interesting to write and share these posts about thoughts I haven’t thoroughly developed. I am used to sharing a finished project and don’t tend to give my process adequate consideration. It is nice to be able to reflect back on my week and deconstruct what I have been thinking about!

Updates on how my other classes are connecting to Envs 350 and my capstone:
I had a critique on Monday for a peice I struggled with and ended up being sort of unsatisfied with. In my art practice I have been thinking about the binary between inorganic urban spaces and organic beings and how they exist together. Obviously this ties into my interests in Envs, so my non-art classes have been helping me work through some of those half-formed thoughts.

Re-reading Latours Love Your Monsters (after all these years) in preparation for visiting the Envs 160 class ended up bringing some unexpected clarity to some of my questions for this week. In response to Latour’s suggestion that we create more symbiosis between urban, technological spaces and organic, natural spaces, I think it could be interesting to consider ways the line between urban inorganic and organic spaces can be confused and blurred in my art practice.

In Geology 170 we have been learning about aerosols, something I know very little about. I didn’t realize that aerosols were necessary for cloud formation (though this feels like something I should have learned at some point in my 15 years of school). From my understanding of the process, water droplets condense around the tiny aerosol particles in the atmosphere. I knew that aerosols offset the warming from CO2 emission, but I didn’t know how much. What is most interesting to me about this on a conceptual level is that aerosols come from both anthropogenic pollution and from oxidized terpenes from pines and isoprene from oak. I was talking to my geology professor Jessica Kleiss about considering this through an artistic lens and she suggested that looking at how aerosols from both organic and inorganic sources offset the warming from climate change could be an interesting way to confuse the perceived goodness of urban vs. natural spaces and forces.

Questions of the week:
How can I acquire the right words to describe my thesis topics and develop a preliminary title?

How do inorganic structures and organic beings exist together and how/why/when do we place value judgements on them respectively?

Desertification or Degradation?

In this chapter on desertification. Diana K. Davis argues that people overuse and misuse the term desertification. She explains that many places where people think desertification are just experiencing natural fluxes in precipitation. In addition, she critiques outdated colonial ideas about desertification caused by overgrazing and land mismanagement, usually blamed on indigenous cultures. This idea was used to justify taking over land and the management of it. In response to this idea, people who had taken over land often reduced grazing and tried to reforest the land, often improperly. These tactics often made things much worse. Davis sites the failure of afforestation in southern Europe to reduce warming. She says that much of arid and dry lands have non-equilibrial systems, but people impose the idea that there needs to be an equilibrium upon them and try to manage them. She goes on to clarify that land degradation does occur, but that scientists do not yet have a good way to measure whether or not lower occurrence of rainfall is due to anthropogenic land degradation or other causes. 

I have little frame of reference to critique her critique, but I think that Davis is missing a discussion about how climate change causes more drought and less rainfall. She effectively considers the difference between land degradation and desertification and the negative effects of thinking that the existence of a desert is something to be corrected. However, she doesn’t discuss anthropogenic climate change as a cause of drought and land degradation. As she talks about changing weather patterns and how they affect rainfall levels, she doesn’t address how climate change might affect those levels. I think this is an important aspect of changing landscapes that cause people to blame anthropogenic desertification of drought. 

Desertification does not directly relate to the topic of my thesis. However there is a small group of artists making work that considers land regeneration and natural resources. Being acquainted with the complexities of land degradation and desertification will help me think critically about these artists cause and how they approach it. 

Brick House

Lately I have been considering the exploration and deconstruction of how organic organisms and urban structures exist together. Additionally, I am considering the value judgements we tend to place on them respectively and why we do so.

This particular work began with an interview between myself and my friend (and model I referenced for this piece) about her experience taking up space in and out of an urban environment. In a city she felt held and safe in some ways. In others she felt placed into a box, unique yet indistinguishable from many, much like a brick or cinderblock in a wall. There was an undertone of anxiety in her experience although there was no reference to immediate danger. Her experience in spaces outside urban environments provided freedom in different ways, yet still an retain undertone of fear.

This piece is an exploration of the way cities nurture, protect, sequester, threaten, constrict and square-off, among other complex forces.

discarded moss-covered red bricks and cinderblock, black wire, oil paint on copper sheet.

Critique of a Critique of Wilderness

This critique if wilderness was difficult to critique because I agree with the authors positions. In relation to my knowledge of what is flawed about the concept of wilderness, the author covered all of the main points. However there were a few things I thought could have been improved upon.

I am not sure how I feel about the last examples given about whether or not the word wilderness should continue to be used. I wish they have given other alternatives to this dilemma as these seemed very one-sided. I don’t think that either are good arguments for what to do about the word wilderness, I wish the author had offered more alternatives or grey areas. While I don’t necessarily disagree with either argument entirely, but I definitely think that the first one, that the word should continue to be used so it’s origin is not forgotten, yet reclaimed, is the weaker argument. However, I think that replacing the word wilderness with biodiversity is not specific enough to the specific characteristics of wilderness. 

I also took issue with some of the language and tone she used when mentioning the benefits of having wild spaces because they mediate some of human CO2 emissions. While they do act as a beneficial C02 sink, she didn’t mention that their power to mediate the effects of climate change as a carbon sink are mostly potential and there is a necessity to increase these sinks. I am worried that she over emphasized that benefit without mentioning the work that needs to be done in order to make it a reasonable climate change mediation tool. 

Many artists are engaging in the critique of wilderness. Delving into this concept more allows me to have more insight into the work of these artists.

Sifting Through Sources

Reflection on thesis topic progress:
This year is ramping up as I begin to discuss the progress I want to make on my thesis in ENVS 499 and start creating preliminary pieces for my art capstone. I am in similar places with both, actively working to think through half-formed ideas. I hadn’t planned to focus my envs thesis on art, yet at this point in my studies, I am passionate about exploring the rich space between art and envs. However I have some trepidations about commiting to this as my capstone topic. I admire the explicit connection to important causes in my peers framing questions in envs 350, and hope to give my topic a more practical focus.

Compiling and sifting through sources has been really interesting. When I first started searching, the sources I found were not as strong as I would have liked, most focused on classic environmental art. I ended up finding the leads I was looking for in the sources of some lightly cited but beautifully named papers focused on the significance of materials in contemporary art. Two I am most excited to read closely are; Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things by Jane Bennet and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts by Brian Massumi. Both continue conversations I have been having with friends recently about using materials in art that have their own recognizable “past lives” or easily recognizable/relatable purpose outside of their presence in an art piece.

Experiences driving my interests:
This summer I participated in an artist residency through Signal Fire Arts, which focused on merging art and public lands activism. The focus of the trip’s learning was centered around Indigenous first foods and included readings and classes about the cultural and historical background of the land we visited, as well as exploration and deconstruction of the cultural construction of wilderness. Backpacking for a month in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana, I had the privilege of learning about the landscapes I visited from members of indigenous communities. In addition, I was able to connect with many other artists who engage with activist communities in some way. My head is still swimming a bit from this experience, I am trying to distill what I want to incorporate from this trip into various projects this year.

There is a residency in portland called Glean, in which 5 artists are given a stipend and access to the portland dump to create whatever they want. I saw the show in August and was impressed most by an artist who chose to incorporate discarded objects whose former purpose was immediately recognizable and relatable to most viewers. These included plastic sports trophies, used erasers, and reclaimed wood.

A question in mind:

Is functional art inherently more valuable than non-functional art? (and do I want to focus more heavily on one or the other?)

Proposing Future “Isms” to Critique


Desertification- Considering human created desert-like conditions that exacerbate drought, heat waves, and climate change

Environmental catastrophe- How does catastrophizing affect the public? Who is to blame for the possibility of human-caused planetary collapse?

Wilderness- How do we define “wildness”? Who defines wilderness?

Food Systems- How are global food systems controlled and who controls them? How is food consumed globally?

The Social Construct of Nature- How is nature produced?

Scholarly movements:

Ecofeminism- How are women uniquely affected by environmental issues and how do they respond?

Design, Emotion, Sustainability-When does design become sustainable? How is design intertwined with our emotions?

Ecopoetry-Considering the connections that ecopoetry makes and its history.

Queer Ecology-The study of how environmental ism intersects with gender. How do we gender our environments?

Urban Ecology-Considering different concepts related to Urban ecology.


Representation and Reality-The oppositions and intersections of representation and reality. Who controls representations? How do we assess reality?

Environmental Restoration and Conservation- Who benefits from conservation and restoration? Where is it effective?

Agro-Food Systems- Benefits of global vs. local systems.

Expert and Lay Environmental Knowledge-Considering different ways of knowing regarding environmental issues.

Fire-How to manage fire? What/ who does fire benefit or harm?