River Rail Colby Issue
River Rail

Occupy Colby: Symposium

A conversation between Phong Bui, Occupy Colby exhibiting artists Alexis Rockman and Allyson Vieira, and Colby scholars Denise Bruesewitz and Keith Peterson.

Courtesy the Lunder Institute for American Art. Photo: Ben Wheeler.

On September 18, 2019, the Lunder Institute for American Art hosted a conversation between Lunder Institute Fellow Phong Bui, Occupy Colby exhibiting artists Alexis Rockman and Allyson Vieira, and Colby scholars Denise Bruesewitz (Associate Professor, Environmental Studies) and Keith Peterson (Associate Professor, Philosophy). Their conversation explored the idea that artists need to create on the same scale that society has the capacity to destroy—the idea that is the guiding principle and the subtitle of the Occupy Colby exhibition.

This symposium is part of a recently launched institute initiative focused on the environment and climate change, and it comes out of Colby’s long-standing commitment to multidisciplinary environmental studies and stewardship as well as a growing interest in ecological consciousness among artists and historians of American art. The transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.

Phong Bui: Driving here this morning, I was thinking that, from the very beginning of time, starting with the Stone Age, 125,000 years ago to the present, human beings have always had this great desire to comprehend, to mediate, the visible world and the invisible world.

If you think about cave painting, for example—some people have argued it was conceived as sculpture first, because the cave wall, the natural, irregular surface, has certain protruding sectors that lend themselves to a perfect bison’s body, seen in profile, running. And we can think of the handprints in the cave as a signal or a desire for authorship. We didn’t understand and learn to appreciate cave paintings until modernity. But something that we know for a fact is a need to document things, a need to understand how we live. And that is embodied, in a way, through a work of art, an object.

I was also thinking about how everything got separated. When did that happen? As we were putting on our collateral project in Venice last May as part of the Venice Biennale, with the same theme, the world was celebrating Leonardo’s five hundredth anniversary. Leonardo was both artist and scientist—at the time, in the Renaissance, you couldn’t separate the two. When did this happen, the separation between art and science? As an immigrant coming to America in 1980, when I set foot in Bensalem Township, Bucks County, Pennsylvania—gradually coming to New York and learning about the culture—I realized America is a pendulum swing in political extremity. It’s like two cowboys shooting at the O.K. Corral. You do or die, you win or lose. Everything is so black-and-white.

Every decade, it seems to me, repudiates the previous one. The ’50s was repressive—so much censorship going on right after the Americans had won, helping to defeat Nazi Germany and succeeding the British Empire, more or less. The ’60s exploded with all the things that we remember through images that appeared in newspapers and television. I grew up in Vietnam. I remember images of the naked young Vietnamese girl running away from the napalm bomb. I remember seeing the shooting at Kent State and all the horrific images. I learned about the civil rights movement. I learned a great deal about the women’s rights movement. At some point, I realized it was the decade of the ’70s that really put a lid on those events. But in those days, you had everyone hand in hand, from all walks of life, protesting. The image is no longer accessible. If we think about the bombing of Baghdad, for example, we don’t see the horror close-up because it’s been censored. All we see is one vantage point where it’s depicted as if we are seeing an image that is a combination of both [J.M.W.] Turner’s painting The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) and the Fourth of July celebration.

But what does this have to do with this exhibit? It’s the election of Donald Trump. It horrifies me and all of us. What can we do to bring people together and do something? The show at Mana that I curated was the first time we adopted a neon work by an LA-based artist named Lauren Bon. It says, “Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy.” That became the official banner of Rail Curatorial Projects. In this exhibit, it focuses on, of course, climate change, the environmental crisis, and global warming. I wanted to bring this up just briefly to frame the context, because with the extremity of U.S politics, it made me think what we can do to counter the vulgarity, the abusive use of language when it leans to the extreme right on the pendulum. We have to be equally aggressive, but with subtlety. Poets and writers can do it brilliantly, artists can depict forms and images that have a similar power of subtlety, directly or indirectly, and the same is applied with music, dance, performance, and so on.

The whole idea of bringing the seven arts together has early roots. We know this about the Renaissance, the writings of Marsillio Ficino, and Pico della Mirandola, which elevated the importance of liberal arts, and had a significant influence on Giordano Bruno and Leonardo, for example. The former president of Colby College, William Adams—who became the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities—before he resigned, right after Trump took office, did this brilliant interview with Martha Nussbaum, the law professor and philosopher who teaches at the University of Chicago. They were talking about the disappearance of public intellectuals—how, when you have this academic freedom, it can go inward.

In any case, to get to the heart of the matter of why this exhibit came about, let me begin by asking Alexis: Why did you begin to paint the way you do? When did you feel the attraction for the collision between the man-made and nature?

Alexis Rockman: I started out thinking about these issues intuitively as a child. I was very aware of extinction and the biodiversity crisis. And in the early to mid-1990s, I sought out relationships with scientists that I felt were the great storytellers of the history and the future of the earth. I asked a paleontologist what he was most frightened of, and he mentioned climate change—call it global warming, whatever you want. He explained what it was, and I was chilled to the bone, to say the least. This was in 1995. We were on a panel together, not unlike the one we’re on today, in Duluth, Minnesota, where it was, paradoxically, 29 below.

Several years later, I started to incorporate this idea into images that I was working on and book projects. I felt it was the greatest story, the only thing worth painting, on a certain level. I feel—there gets to be a sense of fatigue after decades of thinking about these issues, and there’s an endgame professionally, so I’ve [also] worked on other things. But in 1997 I started to make paintings about imagining Central Park under these conditions, and the two paintings in this exhibit is a continuation of that. One is about New York City, a street I grew up on, 82nd Street between York and East End. The other is Epcot Center. From there onward this subject matter became my life’s work.

Bui: When did you become more aware of how to assimilate scientific facts into the work?

Courtesy the Lunder Institute for American Art. Photo: Ben Wheeler.

Rockman: Well, I’ve always been attracted to certain types of iconography. I grew up thinking I’d be in the film industry somehow because, as you mentioned about the ’70s, there was very little room for the iconography I was interested in. I grew up with movies like Planet of the Apes, with the Statue of Liberty and ideas about species and their life cycles, as much as that’s an allegory of many things. And I’m attracted to your interest in the history of activism in terms of race relations, women’s rights, gay rights. I always felt that what I was doing, as I got older, was trying to tap into that history as continual sources I could explore in my paintings. I have a lot of ambivalence about the bubble we’re in at the moment. And as much as I appreciate that everyone came out to this panel, I feel that we’re preaching to the converted, mostly.

A movie I saw in 1979, The China Syndrome, really affected me. However we feel about nuclear energy now, there was a sense of danger about it—there was far more urgency about nuclear energy then than there is about climate change in this country, which I find ridiculously appalling. I mean, we can talk about how late it is in the physics experiment we’re in, in terms of the planet. But in terms of messages, I felt that the real way to get some of these so-called activist ideas across might be in platforms like movies and streaming services.

So I’ve tried to pursue those in the last, say, six years—to try other avenues to get information out there.

Bui: Allyson, in your work, there’s the attraction for recycling the material that you use—trash bags, all types of plastic, and really, debris—and then you were able to transform them as art materials for your work?

Allyson Vieira: Actually, I never use the word recycling to talk about it. I think of it like transmuting, or an alchemical process of some kind, mostly because I don’t really know what I’m doing. I throw stuff together and see what sort of stable end product I can come up with. Working with plastics is actually a new turn in my work, as you know. I sort of came to it through my earlier work, in which I was always looking toward the deep past and thinking about material on a geological scale. After spending a long time looking backward, I started looking forward on a geological scale. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Carboniferous period and that great extinction. I think about these plastic works sort of as hypothetical or prototype future artworks. Thinking, on a geological scale, 100 million years from now, 300 million years from now, if there are beings on this planet who want to make things like we like to make things, what are they making things of? What that may be is the remains of all of this, crushed under time and heat and spinning planets and Lord knows what else.

So I thought a lot about the history of stone carving and archaeology, and so on. But then I thought, Where does the marble come from? Where does the limestone come from? Well, those are seabeds and back, back, back. And then I extrapolated forward, forward, forward. That’s sort of how I became interested in this relationship between time and materials. I know what they’re talking about, environmentalism as this major moral question, and I, of course, live that in my life. But in my work, I try to take a kind of amoral approach because when you’re talking about hundreds of millions of years, morality blows out the window because humans also blow out the window, I mean, hopefully [laughter].

Bui: So, profound pessimism [laughter].

Vieira: No. It’s not pessimism. It’s just reality. And then the sun will gobble up the earth, and it will all be fine.

Bui: Yeah [laughter]. So unlike Alexis’s exploration of images that most viewers will be able to identify, you explore much more in an abstract realm—although we recognize in the four works here that there are signs, symbols of the arrow. Can you share with us how your use of abstraction came about?

Vieira: The materials always come first for me. As I said, it’s like I enter this—I think of it as my Mr. Wizard phase in the studio. Those works are actually made of dissolved Styrofoam and plastic bags. Some of the plastic bags are really prominent. Some have actually had acetone transfer of print, and some are sort of collaged within the dissolved Styrofoam. Experimenting with the Styrofoam came first. There’s a certain number of forms and a certain type of form that can be made. There are a whole lot of forms that I can’t make because I’m operating with high ventilation and heavy-duty respirators, full hazmat gear. And in a completely low-tech environment, what can I do with these unconventional materials? I can make them into potato chips, for example [laughter]. It eventually will harden after it dissolves. It turns to this beautiful silken goo, and then it hardens into more of a Pringle or a—what were those ones that were like Funyuns, you know that texture—

Rockman: Sun Chips?

Vieira: No, a little foamier. Like shrimp chips [laughter]. It’s mostly dissolved Styrofoam, 97 percent. I love working with material realities. It puts constraints on something in a world where we’re allowed to do whatever the heck we want to as artists. Material reality gives me something to root into. That’s why the works are sort of flat. I was originally making them in quasi-lumping rectangles, as one does, because of the painting reference. And then I moved into the arrow form. It has a lot to do with the superstructure that it’s within, the installation of the scaffolding and debris netting. That can be read from another perspective, in that I live in New York, in Manhattan, and walking around the urban landscape—whether I’m going to my studio in Queens or walking around my neighborhood downtown—the experience of being a pedestrian is navigating sidewalk bridges, scaffolding, and debris netting. We like to think about the urban landscape as being this sort of grand skyscraper glass tower or Beaux Arts building or whatever. But actually, the lived experience is this sort of rabid, worn rats’ maze sidewalk bridge. And, of course, within all of this sidewalk structure, what’s happening is destruction and rebuilding. New York City is constantly wiping itself clean. It’s just a perpetual churning city that we constantly have to walk through everyday.

Bui: I find it interesting because what you’ve been doing with the material images, however abstract, is really about the urgency of the now, a present, whereas, in Alexis’s work, he’s imagining the future.

You’ve mentioned the word alchemy. We know that in the early times—in particular the beginning of the Renaissance, leading up to humanism—Hermeticism and alchemy were ecologically integrated. It meant caring for earth, for human beings, and for the cosmos. Basically, it was about the attempt to bring them into one unity.

Keith, can you share with us how Continental philosophy and environmental philosophy intersect?

Keith Peterson: Sure. I was trained in a graduate program in Continental philosophy and started working on environmental issues seriously only after I graduated. The two fields don’t really have a direct or intimate connection, although you can certainly build one. The way I got into it was by first writing a dissertation on Kant and German idealism and subsequently studying Schelling’s philosophy of nature. I started looking for some sort of contemporary expression of the desire that Schelling had to approach nature otherwise than in a mechanistic, materialistic, reductionist way. I found a writer named Murray Bookchin, who was the founder of Social Ecology, who was writing about German Idealist nature philosophy as an ontological framework for environmental philosophy, and that was the first way that I began to build a bridge between the two.

Later on, practicing environmental philosophy led me to change my mind about a lot of things I thought about philosophy as a Continentalist. Epistemologically, I think there is a certain irreconcilability between the two traditions, in fact, because to be an environmentalist you sort of have to believe that there’s a real shared world with environmental problems and that people can do something to try to ameliorate those problems or solve them. In the Continental domain, ideas about the “world” vary, but in one dominant tradition they sort of center around this idea that we all have our own “world” that we build through our meaning giving and symbolizing, our human experience in it, and to a certain extent that tradition frowns on the kind of knowledge that the sciences produce (which presumes a shared real world). It looks for other ways in which human beings can experience things. And so I sort of went from being a typical Continentalist, quasi-Kantian and Heideggerian, believing that the only thing that’s important is that sort of human-centric meaning giving, to being a more committed environmental philosopher, which to me means recognizing that human beings depend asymmetrically on a preexisting nonhuman reality. We certainly create meaning in it after the fact, but we don’t create the “world.” If we did, why would we be forced to think about environmental problems like climate disruption at all?

Bui: What do you think, Denise, in terms of what you do?

Denise Bruesewitz: So many sparks have been going off as I’ve been listening to everyone talk. Some of the big-picture things that I’m thinking about right now are the practice of art and the practice of science and that question you raised—when did those two things become separate?—and thinking about that early world of alchemy. For me, a big part of that story is the discovery of the elements that make life go, nitrogen and phosphorus. There was a time when we didn’t understand that or know where those things resided in the air and in the rocks and so on. And there is something really kind of special about that intertwining moment where those things were being discovered. It was in a world where that could happen, in a space where the art was happening in perhaps the same physical space that those kinds of discoveries were being made.

It may seem a little simplistic, but with the pace of life and the way we spend our time, as academics who are trained in a discipline, I think we really have to create that space to have conversations across the disciplines of artists and philosophers and scientists to make these kinds of connections that you all are making in your work.

The type of ecology I study is ecosystem ecology. In that framework, which began, really, in the 1970s—which is kind of an interesting thought when you lay the political piece on top of that—we use a lot of boxes and arrows [laughter]. Now this is changing, but back then, we didn’t look too closely inside those boxes—but we measured things. It might have been a wetland, a lake, a forest. We measured the arrows: what’s coming in and what’s coming out. And so when I think of your plastic arrows Allyson—a big piece of this realm of study is measuring where the plastic goes, right? You see it in your world, and it’s sort of crumbling down and building up, but it’s also moving out. It’s moving into the oceans, into the rivers. And it’s being picked up by oysters and filter feeders, it’s being buried in the sediment, and so on. Thinking about those arrows and recognizing the movement of the materials we’re creating and what that means for the mark we’re making is, I think, really interesting.

Vieira: You mentioned something about us as academics working within our specialty disciplines, and it reminded me of why I’m an artist. Claire Pentecost, a great artist and writer, who wrote about the idea of the artist as a public amateur—that as artists, we get to sort of learn and fail in public as part of our practice. I mean, not even fail, but have the nakedness of learning in public. In thinking about being that public amateur, I’m like, “Yeah, Carboniferous. I’m not a geologist. My knowledge is limited.” But it inspired me to look at things in geological terms. Similar to Alexis talking to his scientist friends.

Bui: Alexis, we talked earlier today about the justification to support the vision of the work because that’s how you gain momentum and the confidence to do what you do. Can you share with us how it all began?

Rockman: I always felt that it was more interesting to try to learn about something that you might approach intuitively and then ask a lot of questions. For instance, when I started to work on a project almost 20 years ago called Manifest Destiny, a big painting about climate change coming to the waterfront of Brooklyn, I had an image I wanted to see: basically a flooded New York with part of the Brooklyn Bridge submerged. And then I had to find people who could tell me whether that made sense in terms of the math and the physics. I went to James Hansen and Cynthia E. Rosenzweig and a number of other experts to ask them questions. It took me in many different directions. I was lucky—I wouldn’t call it a scientific method when you have a fantasy of what you want to see, but then you have to go find the justification to do it or it doesn’t mean anything. Some of the disconnect that we have with comprehending climate change is that it mimics so many things that have been Trojan horses—from Paul Ehrlich, through the Bible, through The Day after Tomorrow. We’re so easily fooled and misdirected by the history of our culture to think that it’s not possible. That’s one of the profoundly sad disconnects that we still have, especially in this country.

Vieira: Whatever it is, it’s always fine—but it’s not fiction this time.

Rockman: But remember that the so-called equilibrium of that moment is really a misunderstanding of the Pleistocene megafauna extinction that had already happened. When humans arrived in North America, they brought with them the destruction that we always bring.

Peterson: Well, it’s interesting that both of you, as you mentioned before, seem to have a pretty pessimistic attitude toward human nature.

Rockman: Humans are capable of amazing things, and I have a lot of hope for humans. There are also a lot of things that I’m less hopeful about, based on my observations. On Easter Island, I was wondering when the person was cutting down the last tree, how they were thinking about it. There’s a long tradition of things to be less hopeful about.

Bui: What do you think, Denise? Is there any evidence of a natural site that once had been abused, abandoned, being able to clean itself out ecologically and generate new growth?

Bruesewitz: Yeah. There are a lot of different paths that we can take. A long-standing area of study in ecology, generally, is when you walk away from a place that has been disturbed, what happens? There are so many answers to that question. A short answer would be that certainly, it does recover. But it’s never going to be what it once was. It’s a new ecosystem that carries the mark of that history. But it functions, right? It’s taking in carbon. It’s collecting water. It’s doing all those things—

Courtesy the Lunder Institute for American Art. Photo: Ben Wheeler.
Courtesy the Lunder Institute for American Art. Photo: Ben Wheeler.

Rockman: Stuff lives in there.

Bruesewitz: Right. It’s a functional ecosystem, but it’s different because of its history.

Rockman: It sounds quaint to have a moral perspective on this, but if you care about biodiversity, you’re in for some disappointment.

Bruesewitz: This question is one that I have ask you Alexis: How do you hold that tension between communicating a sense of hope and optimism in your work versus the sense of urgency about what is happening?

Rockman: I don’t know how much hope and optimism have helped. I don’t see them being that effective in America at this point. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think it’s been a complete failure.

Bui: One of my favorite art historians, a German art historian, Max Friedländer, once said that it’s easier to change your world view than to change the way you hold your spoon. I know that’s true.

Rockman: I want to make a slight addendum to what I just said. Our generation—I’m 57, and I’ve not been the purveyor of positive news, to say the least, but I take a lot of hope from the youngest generation of activists, Greta Thunberg, etc. Extinction Rebellion is a group that you should all be interested in. To give up would be a complete disaster. But I’m disappointed by the effectiveness that we’ve had as educators, artists, and whatever else has been brought to the table. It’s not about good intentions. This is about results. It’s not about individual failure. It’s about structural failure.

Bruesewitz: Multidisciplinarity really plays into that. If we’re not talking about these different areas, it’s really hard to do.

Bui: I remember Isaiah Berlin’s very famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Even though it was written in the early ’50s, it didn’t become famous until it was included in his classic Russian Thinkers, published in the late ’70s. The main idea of the essay is fairly simple. It comes from a line in Archilochus’s poem that says, “The fox might know many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” And he then divides the two, the artistic and the intellectual temperaments. The hedgehog could see the world and interpret with one single vision. The fox requires a multitude of interpretations; the world cannot boil down to one vision.

The essay divides thinkers into different kinds. The hedgehog, I remember, began with Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, all the way to Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Braudel, Ibsen. Proust. And Fernand. As for the foxes, he exemplified Herodotus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, to Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, and Philip Warren Anderson. Berlin admitted he didn’t intend for it to be taken seriously. He intended it as an intellectual game. But everyone read it and took it rather seriously. And that separation between may have taken place at the period. You have to choose whether you’re a fox or a hedgehog. In the art world, I guess the hedgehog would be Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin. The fox would be Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys. The world changes so much now. I think there’s a different way of seeing without having to pigeonhole yourself as a hedgehog or a fox. And with that, I’m going see whether we can invite questions from our friends, colleagues, and students in the audience, because that’s very important.


Audience: Could you tell a little bit more about the River Rail?

Bui: The River Rail came with the urgency after Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement in June 2017. Like the Brooklyn Rail which provides the platform for our social and political commentaries to co-exist with the seven arts, I felt it was an important time to bring in friends from the scientific sector along with philosophers, poets, writers, and artists together to share ideas, talking together especially about the issues of the environmental crisis. And that’s exactly what we are doing at this moment.

Audience: Hearing you talk about hope versus despair, about asymmetry, about thinking about these distant time scales both going forward and looking back, it makes me wonder whether one of the questions we’re really grappling with is, What are the forms that help us think our contemporary moments? How can we actually grapple, either intellectually or in terms of habit, with the scale of the destruction and the scale of what’s happening? Not necessarily which forms you’re working with, but which ones inspire you to keep grappling with the issue of climate change or the Anthropocene or however you phrase it. What is the artistic form that seems consummate to the current moment?

Vieira: Science fiction.

Rockman: Well, that’s the uncanny valley, right? Because it’s not—

Vieira: It depends on what you’re reading [laughter].

Rockman: Yeah. But anticipatory science, journalism, et cetera? That’s the disconnect, for me at least.

Peterson: I think that’s true of speculative fiction. It’s certainly important. Alexis, I’m wondering what you think the “disconnect” is.

Rockman: Well, I think there’s still a cultural disconnect between reading or looking at this information and framing it within the cultural history that we’re familiar with—this type of iconography. I find myself secretly consoling myself that it’s not possible. I’m talking about a small, reptile-brain part of myself. And I know that if I’m doing it, and I’m despairingly immersed in it often enough—I try to turn it off to have a life, so to speak—I think there’s a serious problem, especially in America: avoidance of information that makes us uncomfortable, Americans especially.

Vieira: I would say, as somebody who lives in New York City, that Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 is sort of the opposite. It’s almost an instruction manual for what’s coming.

Rockman: I’m familiar with the work, but I have to point out that as much as the author is important in science fiction, it hasn’t permeated culture enough to be part of the conversation.

Bui: The interesting thing is that the world is no longer divided, at least in the technological, social media sense.

Rockman: But it is economically, and there are the vestiges of the Civil War that still define this country.

Bui: Yeah. But earlier, we talked about globalization. About how Ai Weiwei was able to mobilize his visual production, the art production with which he was able to carry on his political activism. In a way, he’s more of a political activist than he is making himself out to be at the moment. That’s not to say that’s good or bad; people do different things.

John Elderfield, the former chief curator of MoMA, is curating a forthcoming show of Cézanne and ecology. We know something about Cézanne and his relationship with philosophy. So many philosophers and art historians have written about him: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Fritz Novotny, Meyer Schapiro, for example, how we learn that Cézanne hated technology like Heidegger hated technology. We learn that he became angry when on the landscape of his painting site, there arose a new soap factory—

Rockman: In Mont Sainte-Victoire?

Bui: Yes, his relationship to ecology, the landscape, trees, and whatnot is actually consistent with his opposite view of Impressionism which celebrated modernity, the steamboat, train, the new boulevard being built in Paris. There was the subversive meaning to how the relationship between technology or science and nature can coexist.

Rockman: We began with the Industrial Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment.

Bui: Exactly. There’s always this perpetual struggle with technology and the returning to nature. As Keith Peterson had mentioned before about German Idealism, which is closely linked to Romanticism, and a fundamental part of Romanticism is to protest industrialization and to embrace the mystical relationship with nature.

Audience: I wanted to go back to the title of the exhibition. There’s a kind of manifesto- like quality—I don’t know if that reflects hope or a kind of angry defiance that artists need to create in the same scale we destroy. And then we have “We are the asteroid,” which is kind of an artistic affirmation of the fact that we’re the problem. We are destroying. And I look at Allyson’s work, which, with its arrows, makes you think, Are we getting a direction or a roadmap toward survival? Not so much [laughter]. And then Alexis’s work, where I see not so much a roadmap to survival but almost a celebration of the non-survival of the human, maybe particularly in the Epcot work where you see the boar and nutria. Maybe there’s almost a celebration of that: the only way the world survives is without humans. I come from a classical tradition where hope is not seen as a good but possibly as one of the greatest evils. There’s a reason it’s in Pandora’s box [laughter]. So I want to know whether all of you see hope as a good or an evil, and do we need more hope or more defiance at this point?

Bui: Well, let’s put it this way. I come from a culture ravaged by war from the very beginning: 1,000 years of Chinese domination, and then 200 years of French colonization, 25 years with the Americans, and, in between, the country was split in half and would fight against each other, brother against brother, kin against kin. It’s human nature. Our job is to amplify the good in humanity against the evil side in us. This is why we value the artist’s work. When I say artist, I mean in the Renaissance sense. People like us: writers, poets, and musicians. We sense things, we allow that inner freedom to create form through art, music through sound, dance through movement, writing through words among other forms of artistic expression that reflect our surroundings. And that’s what I mentioned early from the very beginning, starting with cave art, there was a desire to document one’s activities while caring for the natural environment. One can say the same in the early ’70s, when Earth or Land artists who were able to mobilize their work in different ways, away from the constraint of so-called studio practice. Pollock may have been the first one who opened up the whole spatial perspective of this new potential. To me, Earth art was uniquely American. That couldn’t be done anywhere else.

I’m not so sure, hopeful or less hopeful, it has to start with being aggressive with subtlety against Trump’s vulgarity. Maybe we get together once the River Rail issue is published, we can all hand them out to the people of Waterville. We have to talk to people about what their concerns are. If you can move a tiny bit of the needle of discourse, of awareness, it’s huge. That’s why we wanted to bring this exhibit and the one in Venice back to New York City and add more artists and organize robust political programming with our friends, the poets, the filmmakers, the dancers, the musicians. Let’s bring all the seven arts together along with the exhibit then have it travel to Chicago, to Miami. That’s what I meant about being aggressive with subtlety.

Audience: What do you feel about this responsibility that you carry to communicate with society? Where do your strong motivations come from, and also the sense of hope, and the sense of optimism and pessimism? As a student, I really want to understand how my future works—for example, what I can do for society. So how do the artist and the scientist and all the philosophers think about their own responsibility to motivate society, and how do you treat the sense of responsibility in your life and in your work?

Bui: Well, this is the beginning part of it. The fact that you asked a question, and we’re up here having a dialogue together among ourselves and with you! We are here talking. We’re sharing. There’s a sense of urgency.

Vieira: I also think that—you’re an art student here?

Audience: Yeah.

Vieira: I think that as a student, it’s so difficult at the beginning—I teach, so I’m thinking of you as if you were one of my students. It’s so difficult at the beginning to start making art. It’s like, “Oh, I’m going to make things that are about me,” very navel-gazing. And it’s normal, right, when you’re 18, 19 years old, to feel that way. Because what do I know? I know myself, and I know my feelings. And ultimately, no matter how old you get, the work still comes from what you’re thinking, but the idea is to then phase it outward, right? How do I make it not just personal? How do I communicate something that other people can actually have an experience with? How can you make it more expansive?

Bui: It’s the same way for both Denise and Keith—their thinking about ecology, about science, about philosophy. They have to find a way, particularly now with the River Rail, to contribute so that everyone can read it and understand what they do. And I think that’s important. Because oftentimes, if we talk among ourselves, our language can get insular and obscure. A this very moment, it’s very important to write with clarity and simplicity which is not easy.

We get so incredibly specialized that we forget how to talk with common, working class people. Learning to speak English, which like most immigrants, we all share this similar anxiety. To find the right words to express your feelings and what you’re thinking is not easy. And that’s exactly why art, any kind of artistic endeavor, is so amazing because we allow the creative process to have its own freedom. What Denise does has a different kind of freedom—mostly fieldwork, which is not exactly what an artist does, in a studio, a more private space. Yet, we need to share what we do with each other. It’s not enough just to be in the classroom teaching students. Actually, I want to ask both Denise and Keith! When you teach, what do you want the student to come away with? Ideally, what would they learn?

Bruesewitz: It’s hard to distill, but I teach a class on these ideas of the Anthropocene and the way that humans have shaped the planet. And one of the things I do in that class of primarily science students is ask them to find a nonscientific way to explore and communicate that idea to other people. It signals to a science student that that’s a valuable exercise, that there’s real importance and weight to it. It takes work, and it takes time, and it’s a part of your work as a scientist—

Rockman: It’s been one of the failures of the generation of scientists—

Bruesewitz: Yeah. In some ways, it’s a scary thing for a scientist to do because it makes you vulnerable. You may not be used to exploring these concepts in those ways. And just sort of signaling to students that that is meaningful—

Rockman: Part of the responsibility—

Bruesewitz: And the responsibility is, to me, one of the things I really hope they take from that class in particular.

Vieira: I’d like to recommend that scientists and other people who use data visualizations actually work with graphic designers because man, they’re pretty bad [laughter].

Bruesewitz: It’s happening, more and more. Many of us have looked up from our horrible charts and tables—

Vieira: I’m sorry [laughter]—

Bruesewitz: No, it’s true—and said, “Wait a minute. Nobody wants to look at this stuff.” How do we change that? How do we keep the science strong and not be too opinionated about it? How do we communicate the meaning and the urgency behind the work? I think that’s a conversation that’s happening more and more in scientific—

Vieira: Yeah. You can inflect the design. I mean, text messages have no vocal inflection, and so we don’t understand sarcasm in them. How can a series of—how can a flowchart be inflected?

Bruesewitz: I think there’s a fear of that.

Vieira: Well, it’s a fear of inflection in general.

Bui: Keith, what would be ideal for a student coming away from having studied with you?

Peterson: One of the things I try to communicate to my classes is that ideas have a history and a culture and a context. The conceptual framework they employ is not something they invented by themselves. They absorb it in the native language that they speak. They’re socialized into particular ideas about what’s valuable and what’s not, they have certain ideas about what should be prioritized when they’re making decisions, and they didn’t come up with these on their own. The conditions under which they think and act are not just historical and cultural but geographical, institutional, political, and very material as well. And so, in terms of environmental questions, one of the things I think environmental philosophy and environmental humanities more generally can provide is some knowledge about the conditions under which we make claims to knowledge, like scientific ones about the environment, and on the basis of which we also (“we” usually meaning some elite class up there) make environmental policy, which leads to some sort of action. So, as usually understood, under the environmental studies umbrella, there is environmental science (which is made up of facts and knowledge and so on) on one side and environmental policy on the other side, and one of the things we can use the humanities to do is reveal, assess, interpret, and understand the various kinds of conditions under which knowledge claims and policies are made. Knowledge of these conditions is just as important as any ecological knowledge about the environment itself. I would like students to be able to do that by the time I’m done with them. The point of understanding these conditions is, of course, to be able to imagine alternatives to the current cultural and economic regime that has led to the precarious state of many human and nonhuman communities today.

Audience: You were talking about how art might be a way to break down language barriers to get ideas across, maybe on a more emotional level or some other level. And this exhibition specifically is focused on the environment and creating more than we’re destroying environmentally. I’m curious, especially with the two artists here, how explicitly you care about the message that is being distributed. When I was in the museum today looking at Alexis’s work, I feel like I got a very specific message about what you were trying to portray about the future. Looking at Allyson’s work, I was not getting that same explicit message. And so my question for the artists is, do you care what message is being received from your art? If you care, how do you try to curate that message? If your intention is just to make people think, why is that your intention?

Rockman: I make images that have a resonance for me at the time, that have a multitude of meanings and reasons for existing. And I wouldn’t make the same work today that I did 15 or 30 years ago. But I can’t speak to what message you walk away with. That’s impossible for me to know.

Bui: How did you feel when you looked at the work?

Audience: I thought I got a clear message about a potential future, a dystopian future. And when I was looking at Allyson’s work, I didn’t really know what to think—and it got me thinking that I didn’t know what to think. Hearing you talk about it, it makes a lot of sense to me.

Rockman: There’s a paradox between activism and messages. So I’m somewhere in between. As Cecil B. DeMille said, “If you need a message to be delivered, call Western Union” [laughter].

Vieira: I think you picked up on a sort of ambivalence in my work. I guess that’s what I would call it. But as I said earlier, for me, morality becomes irrelevant when I’m thinking on that scale—at least, human morality. I don’t know if morality exists outside of humans. That’s a question for Keith. [laughter] When I work, I’m usually trying to set up physical situations and material situations—you were talking about responding in an emotional way; I like to think that we respond bodily and in a material, in a very sensate sort of material way—and that’s the sort of thing I try to activate within my work, always.

Bui: John Keats’s term negative capability, seems to describe what artists do so perfectly, to paraphrase him, artists have the ability to live in uncertainties, in mysteries, doubts, without having a need to reach out for reason and justification. I think that’s exactly what artists do when they do it best, when they are at ease in this condition.


Phong Bui

Phong H. Bui is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.

Alexis Rockman

Alexis Rockman is an artist based in New York.

Denise Bruesewitz

Denise Bruesewitz is an aquatic ecologist and biogeochemist. Her current research is centered in Maine lakes and salt marsh ecosystems around New York City. She is an Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Colby College, Maine, with a B.S. in Biology from Winona State University and a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame.

Allyson Vieira

Allyson Vieira is an artist based in New York. She has exhibited extensively both internationally and in the United States, including major solo exhibitions at Kunsthalle Basel, CH, and the Swiss Institute, NY. Her catalogue, Allyson Vieira: The Plural Present, was published by Karma Books in 2016, and her recent book of interviews with Greek master marble carvers, On the Rock: The Acropolis Interviews, was published by Soberscove Press in 2019. She is currently Assistant Professor of Foundations at the Corcoran School of Art at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

Keith Peterson

Keith Peterson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Colby College. Peterson works primarily in the areas of environmental philosophy and European philosophy from Kant to the present. He has a monograph forthcoming from SUNY Press in 2020 entitled A World Not Made for Us: Topics in Critical Environmental Philosophy.


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