A Conversation: Art with Living Things

Camperdown Wildlife Centre, June 2012 Organized by Jonathan Baxter, Dundee, Scotland

A Conversation: Art and Life with Living Things
Reiko Goto Collins and Timothy Martin Collins, June 2012

Art is the practice of creative inquiry. It is about knowing the world by wrapping body and mind around it, by putting your hands, heart and soul into it. It is about giving shape to our own thoughts and values, with potential impact upon others. Over a period of forty years the project of environmental art has moved from a material/physical engagement with landscape, through relationships with natural systems and then to a sense of our own inter-subjectivity; how we relate to the natural environment. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the significance of human impact and the limitations of our conception of nature one question to consider is – what can artists do today that makes a difference?

Reiko Goto and Tim Collins are environmental artists, working together since 1985. They embrace an ecosystems methodology, collaborating with a range of disciplines, communities and other living things. They are interested in the ways that art and imagination contribute to practical wisdom and democratic discourse. The work primarily focuses upon natural public places and everyday experience of environmental commons. An ethical-aesthetic impulse permeates the artwork. Goto orients herself through an experimental practice of empathic exchange with people, places and things. Collins seeks transformative experience and ideas that can leverage small creative freedoms for people, places and things. They are known for a phenomenological approach to site conditioned public art and a radical democratic approach to post-industrial landscape and ecological restoration. Since 2007, they have been immersed in an experimental approach to the perception and understanding of the relationship between individual trees, greenhouse gases and climate change. They have also begun some new work that examines forests in the 21st Century. They have worked in North America, Europe and Asia.

Abstract: Over the next thirty minutes or so we will talk about how we extended our artwork by learning from wildlife and the environment in California and how this prepared us for immersion in interdisciplinary research as artists working with scientists in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Embodied in this process is an evolution of understanding about the relationship between theory and practice. The work was informed by the history of environmental art practice, but also the radical ecologies in relationship to ideas about the public realm, the commons and Frankfurt School discourse theory. Moving to the UK we became immersed in ideas about subjectivity and our relationship to living things. Through Reiko’s work on empathy we began to see new ways to address the tensions between subjects and objects, natures and cultures. This brought a wider philosophic framework into play including historic phenomenology and the critical response to Descartes and Kant that challenged the enlightenment precepts that put body, mind and environment into separate camps.

San Francisco, California – Learning from wildlife and the environment
Between 1987 and 1993 while Tim was thinking about water, Reiko was deeply involved in work with living things; multi-year creative inquiries that explored the life cycle of common urban creatures including butterflies and pigeons. We were exhibiting on the west coast and securing residencies at prestigious venues such as Capp Street Project and the Headlands Center for the Arts. We developed significant public artworks for the Yerba Buena Gardens and the San Francisco Water Department. During this time Reiko would become involved in wildlife rehabilitation as an ethical response to experience adding depth and opening up the practice.

Reiko: Between 1987-1993, I volunteered at the California Wildlife Center once a week to take care of injured wild birds and animals. I swept cages, fed mammals and learned to handle injured creatures. I soon met Jane Oka, who asked me to participate in a home-rehabilitation program caring for and feeding baby animals until they were weaned. Once these creatures left us, they went to a larger forested property with a stream in Marin County for final care and adjustment to the need to gather food and learn skills necessary to prosper in outdoor conditions. As long as they were with us, they had to be fed every four hours. As this was very demanding Tim helped a lot, we both worked with jack-rabbits, opossums and raccoons. Tim spent a lot of time with the raccoons; he was good at teaching them how to catch crayfish in running water and how to climb up a tree. There are always limitations when caring for wild animals. We could not teach them what was dangerous and indeed our presence encouraged a familiarity with people that at first consideration seems inappropriate. Everyone in the programme, was concerned about how these creatures would survive after release. However, over time we realized that as they got older and became weaned, their untamed nature seemed to take hold; they didn’t need or want human attention, they were increasingly wild, willful and difficult to manage. When problems arose we learned that it meant they had been with us too long. We learned a lot at that time, Tim and I were fascinated by this special opportunity to be with them and share our lives together. They seemed to differentiate Tim and I from other humans. When I returned these animals to Jane she was always pleased if they growled and snarled at her; she said it was an indication that we did a good job, they had not become tame or adjusted to having people around.

Tim: There are other stories worth telling here. Reiko has always been empathic with wild things from plants to insects and other creatures. At one point after working on a series of projects about butterflies and caterpillars for the Headlands Art Centre she came into contact with urban butterfly advocate Barbara Deutsche who would introduce her to a curator at Golden Gate Park. They would all work together on a range of projects from a stage set for a dance troupe that would travel across the US to a public art, habitat-garden for the City of San Francisco.

But it wasn’t all straight artwork. One day I came home to find that every horizontal surface in our art studio/workshop had become a resting place for cages holding baby pigeons. I sat there drinking a coffee in the waning light wondering what was going on. When Reiko returned she explained that she and her mentor Jane had intervened in a plan to euthanize almost 100 baby pigeons. The priority wild bird population was at its peak at that time and resources for care and feeding at the Wildlife Center were stretched beyond limits. Reiko explained that she and I would be feeding them every four hours until they started to eat solid food (Reiko would learn that the ideal food for wild pigeons was raw grain). Once they demonstrated some ability to fly they would be released. Over the ensuing weeks it was interesting to watch the squabs grow and gain strength, we began to recognize a process of testing and exercising the wings while they held tight to the cage with their feet until they felt the lift which would take them aloft. It was curious to watch some of them beat their wings then release one foot and lift sideways, or release both feet and as often as not frighten themselves to they point that they would close their wings and fall back with a crash. It never occurred to me how clumsy a young bird might be… as it learnt to fly. It was during this time that we realized we had a blind pigeon in our midst that could not be released, we kept him for many years, Reiko named him Oedipus. He was untamed and hard to keep until we met a woman who bred parrots and had a way of sitting with a bird and massaging its neck. This became a regular practice, the basis for a relationship that would last fifteen years. He inspired a major artwork on pigeons and a performance with “Oedie’ which Reiko presented at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.

We began to think deeply about why these wildlife come into our life, and where they will go after the rehabilitation is done. Does it relate to art practice? We began to think about the public realm. We began to understand it as a wider context that consists of human beings in relationship to silent beings such as plants, insects, wildlife, soil and air in a dynamic natural/cultural environment.

People consider some living things to be intolerable, we kept asking what is a proper ethical-aesthetic relationship to a living thing? A key question as we migrated east was how do we perceive and understand these silent beings? Is our role as artists to represent, to critique or should we work toward ideas of interface with people, places and things that may be known yet misunderstood? What is the meaning of strategic knowledge, or strategic experience, what can artists do in the world that has potential to change human experience and its related values?

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania – art & science to emancipate people, places and things.
Between 1997 and 2005 both Tim and Reiko were working at Carnegie Mellon University as Research Fellows in the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. We were involved in research that dealt with the aesthetics of restoration ecology and its relationship to post-industrial waterfront lands. They had begun to think about the relationship between culture and nature within a landscape of industrial collapse. An aesthetic sense of industrial failure dominated the foreground, while a green forest mantle began to take hold in the background. Economic slowdown and failure meant changes to industrial impacts, the curtailment of historic pollutants, which created a respite that had allowed nature to return. An aesthetic renaissance was taking hold through the agency of living things that while ignored – had begun to prosper; an environmental-ethical responsibility was recognized. During this time we developed projects in San Francisco, Germany and New York we were also invited for residencies and workshops in Israel and South Korea. We had moved to Pittsburgh with two lovebirds, Oedipus our pigeon and a rabbit named Hazel.

Reiko: While I was in San Francisco I had worked with some scientists and professionals, but moving to Pittsburgh I was working with Tim and others on large scale research projects and committed to long-term deep dialogues with botanists and entomologists from the Carnegie Museum. They had a big effect on me. Much of this was about learning how knowing shapes my aesthetic understanding of things. It also has something to do with a careful observation that is not all that different from the observations I would make as an artist. Scientists begin with observation but quickly develop what they call a protocol. This is the process and method used to assess a site and make a recommendation that might shape how you plant, manage or treat a landscape.

At one point working at Nine Mile Run we were interested in two sides of the stream valley, one facing south was primarily a dumped steel slag soil, the other facing north was a mix of natural soils and industrial waste. I worked with a botanist moving from the top of the valley to the edge of the stream, marking out a five meter transect with the botanist. We were measuring the circumference of tree trunks and identifying the species of every tree, trying to understand the relationship between significant native and desirable introduced species. We wanted to know what sections were in the best shape and why. As we came to plateau areas with a better soil mix and then got closer to the stream we realized that the tree cover improved. This lead to further work with a soil scientist running a 100 day germination test of seed/soil amendments and protocols. The result of that work was that consistent watering was more important to germination and leaf production than amendments. This proved that the industrial soil while alkaline, its porosity and exposure created dry conditions that made it hard for plants to grow.

On the next project 3Rivers 2nd Nature, I was working with scientists from the University of Pittsburgh. I began to learn about plant communities and their relationship between wetland soils and upland soils. This was a move from individual species to ecological communities. We worked on the Allegheny and the Monongahela Valleys and began to understand the rivers drained different regions. The Monongahela had a fragile small particle shale soil it was a muddy river virtually without islands as a result. The Allegheny ran clearer as it drained an old glacial valley of large stones, this resulted in many islands forming where the river ran slowly. Working with the botanists we began to map and evaluate woody species, identifying plant communities as we went – and marking transition points. It became increasing clear each river had similar problems, as well as some species and high level communities in common. However they were also significantly differentiated with some species present on one river and not on the other. This was a lot to take in, I understood it over months and years of work. However once this was understood intellectually it was easier to see it in the landscape, an aesthetic sensibility began to emerge.

We would run a ‘river dialogue’ two or three times each year, bringing people to the rivers for a day on boats, then an afternoon talking about issues and opportunities trying to get a sense of the future of thee rivers. Everyone working with us began to develop some clarity, a vision of what the rivers were, and what they were becoming over time. There was a sense of responsibility for the hard won recovery that had emerged while no one was paying attention after the economic downturn. There was also a sense of excitement, an aesthetic appreciation for something that had been taken for granted. This emergent aesthetic clarity opened up imagination and an opportunity for many of us working and talking about the rivers in Pittsburgh. It would inform a lot of work after we left by people that found value in the maps and plans. This is of course grounded in ideas of dialogic and relational aesthetics argued by Bourrriaud, Bishop and Kester. Kester would curate the final ‘Groundworks’ Exhibition. Kester’s critical method includes a focus on empathy in discourse between people, which became a core question for future work.

Tim: Pittsburgh reshaped our thinking about landscape and its evolution. We gained clarity about the meaning of preservation, conservation and restoration and added significant depth to our understanding of environmental aesthetics. Pittsburgh focused our attention on the transformation of land through the agency of plants and trees. Where we formerly understood some of this in terms of weeds and abandoned plots in San Francisco; we were looking at miles of waterfront in Pittsburgh. A stream biologist spent hours with us teaching us to ‘see’ benthic organisms such as the gammerus, one of the insects and larvae that live amongst the mud and gravel in streams. These ‘bugs’ are bio-indicators, each of them have different tolerances for changes to water quality. So some initial understanding about the health of a stream can be found by standing mid-stream and flipping rocks, looking for worms, insects, shrimp like creatures and lovely stone encrusted larval tubes. We began to understand that along with aesthetics of form, we were beginning to see an aesthetics of systems that included physical chemistry and flow conditions, the relationship between water and things. In the inter-relationships between living things at the bottom of a stream we experience something about water that is hard to see, but in the end is an essential aesthetic factor. A core knowledge that once embodied in a process of sensual interaction and experience of the stream it adds truth and a depth of meaning to aesthetic perception.

Post-industrial culture had been built upon ideas of resource extraction and the production of toxic wastes that were dumped into the air and soil. We had been focused upon a project of emancipation and advocacy bringing art and science to bare on questions of nature in the context of the post-industrial public realm.

As we left the science and mapping of Pittsburgh behind us we were struggling with ideas about our fundamental relationship to nature. The key question ahead of us was how to create meaningful relationships with plants and trees? We recognized a need to experiment with the limitations of perception and our own subjectivity to find new ways that art might let us approach the tree as a tree. Not as an object, an illustration or a narrative, but as a discursive subject with its own unique response.

Trees in the UK – empathy is a better step towards freedom.
Between 2006 and the present we have been living and working in the UK. We first moved to the Midlands then to Scotland. After working at a planning scale with scientists on streams, trees and ecosystems in the US we decided to focus on individual trees while in the UK. We remained very interested in the ways that trees interact with the atmosphere. This was initiated through work with scientific sensors that would tell us how trees react to changes to light, temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide. We spent almost three years monitoring trees and experimenting with sounds system that would let us perceive physiological changes, without viewing a graph on a computer. While science was still a strong current in the work, it had begun to shift from a process of observation and creation, to learning, counting and taking the time to embody knowledge about trees. In the UK we had an interest in long-term sustained inter-relationships with trees. Reiko was the first to fully understand that what we were doing was developing sculptural systems and day-to-day practices that might support or enable an empathic relationship with trees. Extending Kester’s ideas of empathy beyond human to human subjectivity. During this time Tim completed his PhD and Reiko completed her in Feb 2012. We were also writing chapters and publishing in journals. We took up residencies in California, Taiwan and Okinawa to either apply current ideas or develop new work. We were resident in an agricultural lab in the West Midlands for six months. We have lived and traveled with eight trees for a period of four years now. We planted five of them last year three remain with us in Glasgow.

Reiko: In 2006 we chose trees as the subject of our enquiry. They are important living things for humans and other creatures they are the most significant living things in any environment. Trees have different systems they respond to their environment, to local atmospheric conditions and changes to light, temperature and moisture. Much of these action and reactions are invisible, silent and hard to perceive. I went back and forth between ideas, across my cultural background and back to the foreground of western culture and dug into my practices and training to find a way forward.

From the Asian perspective, understanding ecology takes the brain (knowledge) and the heart. I interpret “heart” as empathy. Empathy is related to feeling and memories. Humans have an ability to understand the other through empathy. It is different sympathy and again different from knowledge-based understanding. I have studied Edith Stein who was a phenomenologist in the early 20th century. She explains that empathy is related to our perceptions such as vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. We sense brightness, dimness, loudness, softness, sweetness, heaviness and lightness. Empathy is related to emotions and feelings: joy, sorrow, anger, comfort and discomfort. People understand each other through shared experience. For example a child’s laugh can cause another to laugh without any specific reason. This kind of experience seems to be simple and but it is embedded in our nature. Another example we are watching a child who plays joyfully but does not know that the child has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Understanding the other person’s condition our mental activities involve at a deeper level in different time and space. These observations make me think we understand the other (people, plants, animals or trees) in two ways: one is through reflection and projection of knowledge-based understanding, and two is through empathy that is an act of perceiving the other to grasp his/her state or condition. It consists of one’s emotional and physical experiences. Empathy (like aesthetics) is not based on self-interest. Empathic experience is detected towards something foreign rather than something familiar. Then, a question arises in terms of how we interpret and understand the other, how to go beyond verbal inter-relationship.

A previous experience is relevant
In 2000, Tim and I went to see a Duke University forest research facility in North Carolina. The scientists were wiring the forest to test the reaction of the trees to future levels of carbon dioxide. A scientist invited us to climb a forty-foot high structure that was built among pine trees. He showed us portable equipment that would measure the amount of photosynthesis from the tree leaves. He carefully pulled a branch of the pine tree towards the platform. He carefully placed the tree needles into a leaf chamber that was connected to a measuring device. When the sun emerged from a cloud, the photosynthesis rate went up. Later a large delivery truck showed up and was left idling the tree again showed a physiological response. This time the tree reacted to the carbon dioxide that was suddenly in the air. In a moment our understanding of trees as slow moving living things that only respond to changes of seasons, all of a sudden included a sense of the tree breathing.

Tim and I wanted to recreate this astonishing experience, to develop an artwork that revealed what was invisible and silent through a mix of technology applied through skillful gesture, embodied in a sculpture that projects metaphorical meaning and intent. Tim wrote a small grant, to purchase plant physiological sensors to observe various tree species reacting to changing atmospheric conditions. The data from photosynthesis and transpiration were translated into sound. The sensing equipment system and the computer sound system were embedded in a painting easel structure. We chose some native broad leaf trees to test: maple, oak, aspen, birch and hazel. We entitled this sculptural form “Plein Air”. We consider this project to be still ‘in-process’ it is a sculpture that is in a working prototype stage but the solution is not yet as simple, portable, nor is it as elegant as we would like it to be.

We recognize that it is possible to recreate an empathic experience with non-verbal things. We know this first by spending time with non-verbal living things, secondly with the support of the technological interface. We have to stretch a bit to imagine the trees’ (invisible) response to atmospheric changes. The experience of Plein Air is not only about individual trees but also the relationship to the sunlight, clouds, moisture, temperature, the exhale of the breath of mammals and the by-products of carbon based energy. Each tree is related to all of these elements.

Tim: It may come as no surprise that we have become interested in forests again. Working in terms of ecology, culture and aesthetics, we are interested in the nature of individual relationships and the values people embrace when they think about or experience trees. We have spent the past year visiting the remnants of the Caledonian forest. We are thinking about seminars, workshops and experiences that might enable the development of new imaginative forms of the Caledonian forest in the 21st Century. Our key research questions are: (1) what is the Caledonian forest and how might new understandings of aesthetics and creativity contribute to communities of interest in Scottish land? (2) How might the arts and humanities contribute to the meaning, form and value of the Caledonian Forest in the future? We are of course interested extent to which aesthetic and productive values of native forest in Scotland may be mediated by empathy from people towards the living trees.

In the near future the hills of Scotland will be very different from what they are now. In the simple act of reducing sheep subsidies numerous small birch trees with thick roots emerge in open areas. With deer fencing the landscape reveals its potential becoming. We do not notice the slow growth of trees in everyday life. But a process is happening between the trees, the new environment and people who value that relationship. Scotland is a place on the verge of momentous change.

Reiko: Our creative practice towards ecology and environment began with simple curiosity and inquiry. It has developed in relation to scientific knowledge, and theories of imagination and empathy. Through these mental activities we shape and develop our practice to understand the uniqueness of each living thing and the environment. Our creative practices today increasingly focuses upon a new activity as we seek conjoined experiences with other living things. We have begun to develop a framework for ethical-aesthetic exploration in forests, although there are still un-answered questions as we work through the method and practice.

Methodological components

I. Aesthetics           III. Ethics v. Ecological community                  VII. Theology

II. Empathy           IV. Freedom vi. Physiological interaction        VIII. New Vitalism

Hypothetical statement.
1. Extraordinary living things stop us in our tracks and capture our aesthetic attention.
1.1 But what makes us stop?
1.2 What are the components of our aesthetic attention?
1.3 What differentiates this living thing from others?
2. Can a tree engage us with unexpected imaginative and aesthetic force?
3. How do we know when the idea of a thing (such as a tree) has been re-energized?
3.1 When a core concept has been reshaped by what we see in front of us?
4. Do we know ourselves differently for having engaged with this unique living thing?