August 2010

Knowledge of the Flesh

fieldwork dan does design surreal art sculpture land art trees bewilderness

 "These things, because they are false, are closer to the truth"  Baudelaire, in "Salon of 1859" (Paris)

So many things die without a sound. What if every living creature could scream at a volume commensurate with its importance to the continued existence of humans? Or shriek at a volume positively correlated with its mass? Would we stifle all the smallest screams? Or adapt as a species so that minor sounds fall below our threshold of hearing? Would the screams of trees and blue whales be heard around the globe while the cries of the bee become a background hum that scores our daily existence? As Jung believed: hurt instructs. Are we hurting enough yet? Can we be instructed?

The body of my academic work has tended to focus on non-human animals as "other" and their interaction with human animals. Overarching all of this work is a series of "simple" questions: What are our intertwined fates? What kind of world do we want to occupy? What can be learned from nature? How do we put it into practice?

According to Landscape Architect, James Corner, the profession of Landscape Architecture has tended to align with two arenas of ecological practice: one which is conservationist/resource management (more knowledge leads to better management and control) and the other, which is restorative (heal or reconstruct based upon ecological knowledge). As both a professional and academic involved in landscape architecture my work has tended to reside within these arenas. According to Corner, major criticisms of this type of work are:

1. the environment is still being manipulated to maximize rates and value of resource extraction (result: dominion, rationalized exploitation, analytical detachment, instrumentality).

2. the view of nature is romantic (wild, perfect, harmonious, stable) at the expense of predation, disease, parasitism, violence. 

My ecocentric artwork is an attempt to broaden my own horizons, to acknowledge the "deficiencies" in my academic work and to move beyond my "knowledgeable" self while entertaining the same questions about the intertwined fates of human and non-human animals. My artwork attempts to explore phenomena that seem more inaccessible in academic work: wonder, fear, lyricism, emotion, bewilderment, activation of the imagination and senses - humanity as human animal ("humanimal"), cultural animal, embodied and directed nature, ecologically driven but aware and manifesting the capacity to reflect upon the notions of "self" and "other". 

Participating in fieldwork has been an opportunity to take the profession of landscape architecture and explore the relationship between these two arenas of ecological practice. On the one hand, the plantation speaks directly to the issue of resource maximization.  Row after row of trees, waiting for death, while a real forest is excluded. Within this resource driven array, the tree (via the culture of art) is presented not as romantic, but as carnal, exhibiting a knowledge of the flesh. The bridge between these arenas allows for a new sense and sensing, activating new reactions. Is it only in our dreams or unconscious that we can imagine a more fleshy and sentient world? is there a way to re-annoint people with a visceral sense of nature and in some way "borrow" from the empathy that we feel for other fleshy vertebrates and transfer this to trees?

I am not suggesting that trees are animals, but rather using art to question what might lie beneath within and beneath our perceptions of "benign" nature. At the core of the dream? Not nature idealized (romantic) or inert (unitized resources) and perfected but nature revealed as raw and sensing, fleshy, peeled and limbed, a freshly skinned and utilized version of an "other", of our self.