Thursday, August 20, 2015

Recommendation from an Eco-art legend

For those of you who don't know me my name is Newton Harrison.

I consider myself an artist first but also an academic and an educator. I come out of a number of traditions and the Bauhausian attitude toward problem solving is a background sound in much of our work. The artist educators I identify with and know or knew, are people like Alan Kaprow, Joseph Beuys, and Hans Haacke who are or were my contemporaries in my early thirties. I found myself comfortable in many of the sciences. Moreover, I have helped form art departments, chaired them, was the first policy panel chairman for the NEA and have done a body of administrative work. I took early retirement from UC San Diego after reaching the top of the professorial ranks in order to do art full time. The career of Helen Harrison, my lifetime collaborator, has the same general outline as my own. I bring up this history to make clear that I have direct and extensive experience in the three principle domains that comprise this discussion. If I am correct, they are about the melding of art, science, administration and support structures of various kinds.

I would like to suggest that missing from this discourse is what one one might call content. I would also like to suggest that there is a common meeting point between formations in art and formations in science. One might better say, a common beginning point. It is about seeing, in the sense of envisioning that evokes a question of originality about something not previously spoken. Let me begin with Cezanne the father of modern art, the question he asked was: why was the art making in the academies of his time dominated by straight lines that created various perspectives visually when in nature the same kind of seeing happened but in the absence of straight lines? A key question that he spent a good part of his life answering. The answers turned out to be how non-linear perspectives, 6 or 7 in number, actually worked. This was demonstrated most powerfully in his Mount St. Victoire works. From these discoveries emerged a body of art movements, such as expressionism, impressionism, even fauvism among others, changing the nature of the field and significantly expanding the conceptual domain and visual domains that people though of as art. His discoveries, and their proof exhibited in his paintings were endlessly useful field.

Let me now offer a parallel example, perhaps of even greater importance in the sciences. In 1969 I was doing an artificial borealis for Expo 70 and then the Art& Technology exhibition in LACMA. The work was based in plasma physics which I had to learn something about. Richard Feynman the physicist was my guide. The work was done, successfully, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. One time walking in the woods with Feynman, he explained the problem he had that forced him to make so many equations, always with something missing, finally discovering that what was missing was something. Also a lovely question that he asked which was something like this: is it true that the faster something moves, the more impossible it is to find its location in a trajectory of movement? I think he discovered you could come close by "averaging a sum of its histories" (a good physicist might express this more clearly). These discoveries seem to offer new insight into indeterminacy and wave particle physics.

The point I am making here is that powerful content emerges from asking, then setting out to answer, a question that turns out to be of great consequence. This is true of both the arts and the sciences. The outcomes in physical terms between the arts and sciences are sometimes parallel and sometimes very different but the original question, the original search and high excitement in original discovery, are common. It is my opinion that a concerted effort needs to be made to locate artists who are comfortable in the sciences and who are asking questions and seeking answers that are of great importance. For instance a dominate question in our own work, looks something like this: if flood and drought, the outcome from global warming, reduces dramatically the ability of the peninsula of Europe to feed its own people, is a mediating force on the horizon, can it be enacted, and can civil breakdown be countered? We think yes.

The artists that I have mentioned previously in the response to Janet Brown's blog, do in fact ask and seek answers to questions of importance and are useful models. Therefore I suggest that our rather complex group take on itself the extremely exciting task of locating and supporting, that relatively small group of artists globally, that go about doing what I have been talking about.

More later.


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