Monday, February 23, 2009

Symbolism has consequences: Peace, Harmony, and the Holy Ghost can't bring back the Passenger Pigeon

I really liked swans when I was five. They were so pretty and graceful. In the fairy tales that I read princesses rode on their backs through the night sky and swans floated decoratively in placid ponds in front of castles. Elegant human-swan hybrids leaped through my dreams after I saw Swan Lake.

One day, I went with my family to the Asheboro Zoo, where there was a pond with swans, which visitors were encouraged to feed. You can guess where I'm going with this. This video shows roughly what happened (minus the wedding dress).

The video is actually kind of interesting. The bride, dressed elegantly in white, has been prompted to feed the swan, her symbolic counterpart, probably for the benefit of a photographer. The swan, a symbol of purity, romance, and grace, seems in actuality to be anything but that. I learned a valuable lesson that day at the zoo. I learned that what's real and what's ideal are very different things. Angry, greedy swans are not pretty, graceful, or elegant; they are scary and painful. Symbolism has consequences.

Our reading this week, David Rubin's essay "A Bird Tapestry," written to accompany images in the catalogue for the 2004 exhibition
Birdspace: A Post-Audubon Artists' Aviary, describes the work of 50 artists who use birds in their work. I think it's quite important to note that while the artists USE birds in their work, the pieces often aren't really about about birds. The birds depicted or referenced in these works are almost always used as symbols for human ideals, emotions, and ideologies.

Above is Michael Crespo's 2006 oil painting
The Eye of a Dream. Although the artist was included in the aforementioned exhibition, the painting was completed later, though it serves to illustrate a sort of vague symbolism that seems to be prevalent throughout the selected work. The title of the piece is a dead giveaway. The heron and the flowers represent peace, serenity, grace, though the storm clouds brewing in the background suggest turmoil. I don't know what the bit of architecture in the back is supposed to be. Loosely exotic. Dreamlike, you might say. The painting uses the heron as a symbol. The heron-as-object/idea is more important than what a heron does, where it lives, what it eats.

Other artists referenced seem to use birds merely as an object. They don't really go so far as to even associate the animal with an idea. Rubin mentions Hunt Slonem, who is apparently a very successful artist, saying of his 2000 piece
Toucans (below), "the birds reveal both human and divine attributes - they could be a chatty crowd or a choir of angels."

Seriously? Rubin so overestimates the depth of this piece that I don't even know what to say. It's cheesy abstraction, decoration, fluff. It doesn't tell me much of anything about toucans, humans, and certainly not the divine.

My biggest problem with Rubin's essay is that he doesn't address potential problems with these artists' use of birds as symbols and decoration. I'll admit, birds are pleasing to the eye and offer rich opportunities for metaphor (flight, nesting, eggs, etc.), but they are also creatures. Real live creatures. With real live creature problems, like the dumb brides who insist on getting too close.

I have no problem with symbolism; it's a great way to talk about abstract ideas. But I do have a problem with an exhibition catalogue that fails to note that its supposed subject is loosing the battle against human development. According to the Audobon society, 20 of the most common birds in America have lost more than half of their populations in the last 40 years. (More here.) The real consequence of art that idealizes birds and uses them as symbols is that it fails to talk about the real pressing issues. The art that Rubin describes and the way in which he discusses it are largely out of date, more suited to medieval religious imagery than contemporary work.

Paula McCartney places fake birds in trees and photographs them as if they are alive. On first glance, it seems as if the birds are real, although it quickly becomes apparent that they are fake because of the way in which they are photographed. It's clear that McCartney hasn't used a telephoto lens (space hasn't been condensed), and she is too close to the birds to have caught so many perched just so.

Bird Watching, (Dark Eyed Junco), 2003)

By placing the fake birds, McCartney makes us aware of the absence of the real thing. Her pictures don't objectify and idealize the birds, as nature photography often does. Instead, they are presented matter-of-factly, in drab forests with drab skies. As they really are. (Or would be if she wasn't using fake birds.)

I started with a when-I-was-a-kid anecdote, so I'll end with one for good measure.

I grew up in the woods. Not a big forest, just can't-see-the-neighbors woods. On summer nights, usually just after I went to bed, we would often hear owls hooting - Barred, Barn, Screech, and occasionally a Great-Horned. My brother and I would get out of bed, and my parents would put the "North American Owl Vocalizations" record (no joke) on the turntable and crank up the volume. We would open up all the doors and windows, and go outside and listen as the record attracted the owls closer and closer to the house. We don't hear the owls anymore.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Save the Krill! Stop Speciesism Now!

My uncle realized early on that the Greenpeace "Save the Whales" campaign was a little misguided.  Sometime in the early 90s he made our family T-shirts printed with "Save the Krill!  Stop Speciesism Now!".  That way, we could all proudly declare our nerdy ecological farsightedness.  Not only is it important to protect the smart, large mammals that don't usually try to kill people, that display significant intelligence and almost-human family structure, and that leap gracefully into the air and land with a big, entertaining splash, it's also important to protect the tiny, maybe microscopic invertebrates that humans mostly don't realize exist (and if we do, we're disgusted by them).  It's pretty easy to convince people to save the whales, mustangs, and Giant Sequoias (even though the realization of this necessity is rarely followed by action), but it's a little more difficult to turn the tide of public opinion for the Cannibal Slug, Rock Gnome Lichen, or Dracula Ant.  While the superstar species of the plant and animal kingdom get all the attention, the vast majority of the planet's biodiversity quietly goes extinct, suffering at the hands of speciesism.  (See Endangered Ugly Things for more info.)

We assign value to species based on any number of factors.  In "The Biophilia Hypothesis" Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson describe biophilia as "the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms."  They outline what they consider to be nine expressions of this tendency which determine human response to and valuation of other organisms: utilitarian, naturalistic, ecologistic-scientific, aesthetic, symbolic, humanistic, moralistic, dominionistic, and negativistic.  Though I don't believe that these responses are universal from culture to culture or through human history, I think they do provide a framework through which to understand the our species' relationships with other species.  
The chart below is a terribly simplified version of these ideas.  I'm particularly interested in two spectra on which we often place animals: beauty and intelligence.  Let me quickly specify what I mean by those terms.  By beauty, I include organisms that humans enjoy looking at, listening to, and smelling.  We may find them cute, graceful, impressive, athletic, or pleasing in their resemblance of humans.  On the opposite end of this spectrum are species that we find hideous, ugly, frightening, monstrous, disgusting, and insidious.  The intelligence spectrum assigns value based on how closely a species' intelligence resembles human intelligence.


Although I think the system by which we value species is far more complicated, these factors seem to be the most important in determining value for Western, post-industrial cultures.  

In "Toward an Aesthetic Marine Biology" J. Malcolm Shick describes the historical trajectory of marine biology-related art and his use of it in teaching his students.  From this, it's clear that when something is aestheticized, it tends to become very appealing to the rest of us.  Seaweed that may actually be slimy, stinky, and bland might be rendered by an artist as graceful, colorful, and patterned.  Once this new, more pleasant version of seaweed is in our head, it slides along the beautiful spectrum (which is only concerned with general human perception, not actuality).  But indeed, someone must have found it appealing initially.  So there is a cycle: an organism rendered beautifully increases its popular value, and beautiful organisms are more likely to to be rendered beautifully.  It's a bit of a chicken and egg thing.  Are there qualities that are perceived by humans as universally beautiful?  Shick quotes T.A. Stephenson (a scientist and artist) as saying: "If we ask ourselves why we find many marine organisms beautiful, we are at once on far more difficult ground...[A]mong the several attributes of natural objects...resulting, in our minds, in the sensation of beauty, the mathematical an important part...[T]he aesthetic emotion can be vividly awakened even by the shapes of a few lines anx the angles at which they meet each other..." 

Above is a lovely picture of sea stuff by Anna Kirk-Smith, which can be seen online here.  She has given it the heading "for T A Stephenson".

I'm not so sure that math explains all of it, but it does ring true that some of our sense of beauty has been programed into our genes through evolution.  The undiseased fruit is more symmetrical and colorful than the diseased fruit, therefore is safer to eat, and therefore is more beautiful.  Something along those lines.  

But now, it's become increasingly obvious that even ugly things are vitally important to the health of the planet, so we have to shift how we popularly value organisms.   

Monday, February 9, 2009

Week 2: I don't want anybody else, when I think about nanotechnology I touch myself.

My apologies for the title.

In his article Art Is Nature, George Gessert, a bio-artist, describes the work of a number of other artists who use natural processes to create their artwork.  Unlike most art, he suggests that some of these artists are able to make work that is not centered around the human being.  Gessert himself is known for his breeding of hybrid plants; he contends that plant and animal breeding are fine arts.  While I think that just about anything can be art, including plant and animal breeding, he presents work that I find extremely problematic without question.

For instance, he describes Brandon Ballengee's breeding of amphibians, "in an attempt to recreate a species of frog thought to be extinct."  He may then "consider releasing reconstituted curtipes [the frog] back into the wild."  Gessert ends this description saying, "With luck, his art may someday be evolving all on its own in Eastern Zaire, niched into water ecosystems and rippling through them."

The possibility is really quite frightening (did he not see Jurassic Park??).  Biologists have had enough trouble dealing with invasive species, much less species created by humans and introduced into ecosystems that may well react negatively.  Rather than being art that is not centered around humans, this idea of breeding plants and animals is perhaps the most self-centered way of making art possible.  It suggests that we can sufficiently predict the impact of an introduced species on an ecosystem.  How arrogant.  He completely fails to recognize human limitation and the complexity of the natural world.  

This said, I have to recognize that there is a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable human intervention.  For instance, I generally find regulated genetic modification for scientific purposes of animals acceptable, as, I think, do most Americans.  I believe that the knowledge gained by such experimentation outweighs potential moral hazards.  Gessert describes the work of Eduardo Kac, who manipulated a rabbit's genes so that it fluoresced and then put it on display in an art gallery.  While it seems that care was taken to make sure the animal was healthy and happy, this act of art is somewhat disturbing.  Where is the line?  We manipulate organisms to gain scientific and medical knowledge, to create hypo-allergenic pets, and to grow drought-resistant crops.  Is genetic manipulation for aesthetic, artistic, or entertainment value ethical?

Instead of trying to create non-human-centered art by exploiting the natural world, perhaps we can look to the natural world to make its own art.  Generally, we believe that art is specific to humans.  Perhaps though, the drive to make art is simply an extension of an urge that existed long before we learned to control paint, film, and clay.  This video and the one below are about bower birds, which are known for their collecting and nest decoration.  They use these decorations to attract mates; are humans really any different?   

Also, check out Herbert Duprat's caddis worm sculptures.  He removes caddis fly larvae from their natural habitat and, by providing them with precious materials, prompts them to manufacture new cases. 

Evelyn Fox Keller's article The biological gaze asserts that oftentimes the act of observing something at a very small scale requires it that it be manipulated.  She describes processes in which biologists have isolated and manipulated DNA in order to observe it, fundamentally altering the thing observed.  We dye, slice, and freeze in order to observe.  Some things we simply can't observe as they exist in the world.  

Ultimately, we rely on our relatively meager senses to help us determine what reality is.  Where our natural senses fail (i.e. looking at tiny or very far away things), we seek assistance from microscopes, telescopes, x-rays, and MRIs.  These allow us to see what would be invisible to the naked eye, but they transform the world in the process.  Our ability to determine what is real is quite limited.  It wasn't so long ago that people thought the world was flat.  How many horizons can we still not see past?  How many horizons do we not even realize are there? 

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Week 1

Both of this week's readings (the "Nature entry from the Dictionary of the History of Ideas and "The Etiquette of Freedom" from Gary Snyder's The Practice of the Wild) are significantly concerned with parsing out what exactly we mean with the words nature, wild, wilderness, culture, human, unnatural, and supernatural.  In doing this, the articles present these ideas in relation to each other and in relation to a wide range of belief systems, from that of the ancient Greeks to Native Americans to contemporary capitalists.  

Snyder places great value in living harmoniously with nature, calling us to "live without causing unnecessary harm," as is traditionally associated with native or primitive cultures.  He elevates this way of living and those who live it, telling stories of lost explorers who turn to a primitive way of life and gain "a compassionate heart, a taste for self-sufficiency and simplicity, and a knack for healing."  It seems that we turn to these so-called primitive ways of living in an effort to see what we are really like, to understand "human nature."  There's this idea that, by studying people who hunt with spears and cut down trees to build canoes and wear penis-gourds, we (civilized-folk) can learn about the essence of our natures.  

More than once, I've been involved in conversations in which someone has asked whether any anthropologist has studied homosexuality in primitive cultures.  While I have no information whatsoever about the answer to this, I think the impulse to ask this question is an interesting one.  The implication is that the true nature of these people is less sullied by religion, politics, and science, as though we can determine whether homosexuality is a product of nature or nurture by understanding them.  

I have a couple of problems with all of this.  1) I'm not really convinced that there is any reason to think that a person who lives more closely with the natural world (i.e. in a "primitive" culture) is more likely to express "human nature".  2) I don't think you can separate nature and nurture entirely.  Living in some sort of contact with other people (therefore, being exposed to nurture) is part of being human; it's in our nature.  

Below is a picture by Susan Meiselas titled Robert Gardner greeted by his old friend, Aloro, 1988, 2003 from her project Encounters with the Dani.  I won't go into detail about the project or the photographer because I think this photo alone is pretty interesting with just the context of the title.

I apologize for the quality of this reproduction, I think some of the details get a little lost.  Nevertheless, we see the primitive/native/indigenous/tribal man, clothed in nothing but a gourd flanked by another man with what appears to be a spear.  He's apparently greeting the relatively enormous white man holding the video camera with a firm nut-shake.  This seems to set up a pretty stereotypical relationship between the western, civilized man with his clothed body and expensive technology and the naked primitive man with his wacky customs.  But there are a couple of interesting things. 1) The picket fence in the background.  (Those are supposed to be the epitome of civilized living!)  and 2) The native man totally gets the joke.  He knows that it makes the white man a little bit uncomfortable to have his balls greeted.  The white man knows that the native man gets it; he also thinks it is funny.  The caption tells us that they are friends, and we believe it.  

My point here is that this picture indicates a savvy and sophistication that we don't usually associate with primitive people.  There is no reason to think this close-to-nature culture can reveal human nature any more than our own.   

I also want to quickly address another related element of this broader discussion.  I think we often idealize the way nature functions.  In discussing the idea of wilderness, Snyder mentions "the web," which I take to mean an ecosystem that achieves a sort of homeostasis through the interaction and functioning of all variety of plants and animals.  He also notes, though, the "implied chaos, eros, the unknown, realms of taboo, the habitat of both the ecstatic and the demonic" as another view of wilderness.  

The former idea - let's call it the web theory - is certainly popular right now.  It's very useful to the environmental movement because it implies that the natural world can right itself, despite the damage we've done to it, as if there's some gyroscopic force in the universe.  Snyder writes (pg. 15), "Wilderness will inevitably return, but it will not be as fine a world as the one that was glistening in the early morning of the Holocene.  Much life will be lost in the wake of human agency on earth..."  While, I'm happy for the environmental movement to do whatever it needs to do, I don't know that this is accurate.  We often forget the messy, unexplained, and frightening part of nature: the elephants that rape rhinos, the chimps that cannibalize their young, the suicidal penguins.  Is the world really comprehensible?  Check out this penguin clip from Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World and another clip from Aguirre: Wrath of God.  Herzog has a longstanding fascination with man's manic urge to battle and conquer the natural world and nature's refusal to make sense.