Sunday, February 22, 2009


"A Bird Tapestry" by David S. Rubin serves as an indexical overview of how artists have depicted birds over the years, beginning with rough drawings created by shamans in caves for ritualistic hunting purposes which progressed into highly-detailed scientific 'specimen' drawings and paintings by naturalists like Audubon to the present day where artists deal with more ecological concerns in relation to birds. While Rubin is more descriptive of each artist's work rather than critical, the article did lay a framework for helping me understand the human relationship to birds and how this comes across in the images we produce of them.

These categories intersect with last week's article regarding biophilia and the general ways humans interact with nature. Throughout history we have appreciated birds for aesthetic, naturalistic and spiritual reasons. The earliest humans may have depended on birds for sustenance but they also looked to them as their gods, like the Egyptian god Horus who had the head of a hawk and the body of a man. Greek myths also tell of the coupling of humans with gods disguised as birds, like Leda and the swan (who was Zeus in disguise.) Birds have also figured heavily in Christian mythology, particularly a pristine white dove that symbolizes the holy spirit. This connection between birds and religion and the human spirit seems obvious, since birds have the ability to fly, they are creatures of the air and sky and are thus closer to the heavens, where god(s) are thought to reside. Like marine creatures who tend to have fins and gills and the ability to survive underwater, we are fascinated with birds because they possess what we don't have-- namely wings, and with that the ability to explore a frontier that until modern times we could only dream of.

When I was 10 years old I experienced this intersection of birds as an art form and as a source of spiritual inspiration-- at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu there is an extensive collection of ceremonial headdresses and capes made completely out of the feathers of native birds. Hundreds of feathers went into the making of these intricate items; the amount of feathers and the type of birds from which they came indicated rank and status. This was a highly specialized and intricate craft and only royalty and religious leaders wore the prized pieces.

Above is a feathered helmet typical of the kind worn by Hawaiian royalty into battle. The item pictured below is called a "ahuula cape" and is made from the feathers of the yellow oo, mamo and red iiwi birds. Royal Prince Kiwalao owned and wore the cape in the 1760s. The same type of feathers make up the second cape, the longer length suggests it was for ceremonial parade use rather than for battle.
The way the Hawaiians understood birds was similar to the way both the ancient shamans and we today appreciate them-- while it is now more culturally taboo to use the feathers of rare birds for ornamentation, we still hold the plumage of particular birds in high esteem, especially that of the peacock.

A more contemporary example of our relationship to birds is the ongoing saga of a pair of red-tailed hawks named Pale Male and Lola, who gained worldwide recognition when they built their 8-foot-wide nest on the ornate ledge of a posh apartment building on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park in NYC. The birds peacefully co-existed with the building's illustrious residents like Mary Tyler Moore and Paula Zahn for seven years until the administration evicted the hawks in 2004, citing the hawks as a nuisance and a potential hazard.

Protestors lined the streets outside the apartment as a battle ensued over the hawk pair-- was the building obligated to recreate the nest and to house the hawks and their brood? Legally they were not but the public outrage led to the rebuilding of the nest and a media fixation on the 'love life' of Pale Male and Lola-- would they be able to successfully hatch and raise chicks in a manmade nest?

The story of Pale Male and Lola was immortalized by a PBS documentary and at least three illustrated children's books. A Web site dedicated to their cause has been posting photographs of the hawks since 2002 and continues to update with photos on a frequent (sometimes daily) basis.

Why is there a continued fascination with Pale Male and Lola? While they do symbolize freedom and independence (like most wild birds in general), it is their location that is particularly important. Normally red-tailed hawks reside in the wide open spaces of Western states like Montana, not the densely packed urban streets of a metropolitan city of NYC. In a city like New York, where Central Park, the most accessible and biggest natural element, is manmade, there is a biophilic longing for the wild. New Yorkers only see pigeons, ducks and sparrows on a daily basis-- while technically wild they have become integrated into our daily lives to the point of depending upon our refuse for survival. Pale Male and Lola allowed city dwellers access to a little piece of the wild but in the relative comfort and safety of the world they know.

I'm intrigued by the hawks because they defy the notion of a formal wilderness and also demonstrate how nature has been able to adapt to a concrete landscape. Additionally, the media sensation around the pair is telling-- New Yorkers overlook the nature they have everyday contact with (ie the aforementioned pigeons) but romantize the hawks because they larger, more wild and thus in the minds of many, more free.

In the tradition of the naturalist 'birders' of the 18th and 19th centuries, who sought out rare varieties of birds in the wild, contemporary bird watchers search out species in their own backyards, even if that backyard is an alley rather than a green space. Cornell University, through their Lab of Ornithology, sponsors a Celebrate Urban Birds project and the Urban Hawks blog actively documents and photographs wild birds that call New York their home. This includes owls, eagles, hawks and herons that live in Central Park, the Bronx and Brooklyn.

(Central Park's wild turkey)

I've examined the story of Pale Male and Lola as an example of the wild living in a constructed/manmade environment; I'm also interested in the reverse, particularly the work of photographer Paula McCartney who places faux craft store birds (the constructed/manmade) in lush natural (wild) environments.

Bird Watching, (Yellow Warbler), 2003

McCartney says of her work:

"I decided to take control, buy my own birds, and create and photograph these idealized scenes that I fantasized about, where songbirds perched patiently on trees as I moved through the woods. By controlling the brightly colored bird’s position in the environment, I am creating a more idyllic scene than that which naturally exists, and creating a new environmental experience for the viewer and myself.

"Rather than only recording what nature has to offer, I have taken control and adorned the trees with their longed for, but absent, tenants."

Bird Watching, (Dark Eyed Junco), 2003

It's significant that she focuses on songbirds, that as a group are smaller and more colorful than predatory birds like hawks and also possess calls (or songs) pleasing to the human ear. Generally songbirds are appreciated for aesthetic reasons, McCartney brings this to a new level by using our idealized version of these birds and then placing them into idyllic natural settings. In the above quote she emphasizes control, she makes it clear that she does not want to observe nature or even interfere with it, instead she constructs her own vision of birds and how they function in our world.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Biophilia and Re-integrating Nature into our Sub/urban Lives

(Photo I took of an urban window in LA-- that's a potted Bird of Paradise)

The majority of Americans do not live in rural areas, working everyday with the land; instead we live in the mainly manmade constructed environments of the suburbs and cities. Even though modern civilization has been removed from a hunting/gathering society more integrated with nature, we still crave a connection to the natural world. In the suburbs, many pride themselves on a lush, perfectly manicured lawn, while those in the city maintain herb gardens and potted plants and hope for ‘views’ from their windows, especially that of a lake or an ocean. In the public realm we build elaborate natural history museums, aquariums, botanical gardens and parks. Right in the middle of the bustling streets of NYC you can find a pond, acres of trees and geese, all engineered and placed by people, rather than nature, at the turn of the century.

Polaroid photographs I took of 'farm life' in Chicago-- this is an exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

So if we’ve adapted to a suburban or city lifestyle, why do we still yearn for this contact with nature? In their book, “The Biophilia Hypothesis,” Stephen Kellert and Edward Wilson examine the biological basis for biophilia or “the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. “ Kellert and Wilson postulate that there is actually an “innate” reason for why we seek out flora and fauna, that we’re genetically predisposed to look to nature not only for sustenance but for its aesthetic beauty and even for our own emotional fulfillment.

(Two scenes of a small strip of beach near the Museum Campus in the South Loop. I was drawn to what has become the integration of manmade materials and nature-- the weathered posts of a now-flooded dock and the bits of broken bottles now weathered and smooth by the tumbling of the lake)

While I’ve generally been aware of the concept behind biophilia, this is the first time I knew its proper name. It has played a role in my own life, especially evident when looking back on how my relationship to nature has changed due to my geographical location. During my childhood spent in Hawa’ii, a culture more integrated with the wilderness, I did not have to go far to directly experience the Pacific Ocean, tropical rain forest or a (dormant) volcano—they were either literally a few steps from my home or a 15-minute drive away. As a teenager in Arkansas, however, I lived in “the natural state” but experienced only my backyard and city parks on a regular basis. This is the time I began to make regular trips to Lake Fayetteville, a small manmade lake a short drive for my home, to walk the trails, read and generally experience a more “transcendental” view of nature, ie finding inspiration by being out there by the water. Now that I’ve lived in a city for almost six years (first LA now Chicago), I find myself raising potted plants in my kitchen windowsill and stopping by the farmer’s market for fresh flowers in the summer. While we’re landlocked here in Illinois, I still find myself drawn to water, the shores of Lake Michigan, for relaxation and escape from the sticky summer streets.

(My view of Lake Michigan from the 95th floor of the John Hancock building. It's surprising how abstract the people become at this distance)

Even though I’ve chosen to live in an urban environment, I’m still compelled to include nature in my life—is this due to a learned behavior (growing up on an island surrounded by water) or has it been hard-wired into me, and the rest of humans, to continue this relationship with nature? Kellert and Wilson would say that these tendencies are a result of a genetic advantage, that the brain evolved in a biocentric world and we have not evolved quickly enough in this now machine-regulated world to erase those preferences and behaviors. Wilson argues that biophila evolved by the means of biocultural evolution, that natural selection occurred in a cultural context. His theory of gene-culture coevolution seems to address the issues of both nature and nurture though I still question the ability of science to measure something as abstract as emotional fulfillment or “the human spirit” via the use of biological data.

(The trails at Lake Fayetteville are all paved which is fitting as it's a manmade lake)

What is the importance of the study of biophilia to us and the scientific community? Wilson cautions that since the natural environment is fast disappearing, we should ask what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased?” He believes that “humanity will be poorer for all generations to come” with the loss of biodiversity. Thus we find out that Wilson is pushing a conservation agenda using an evolutionary theory as his basis. He ends his article with affirmations such as “other species are our kin” and “biodiversity is the frontier of the future,” and argues that humanity will not find fulfillment for our “spiritual craving” in space, but right here at home.

While I admire Wilson and Kellert for trying to understand our propensity for nature in biological terms, I question to what ends they are putting their findings. While biodiversity is obviously important for the world’s ecosystems, we need to develop a more practical conservation ethic, one that operates not only in theory but in practice. Most of us recognize that the tropical rain forests are shrinking rapidly (remember children’s movie Fern Gulley?), that we need to save the whales and that global warming is a reality. So what is the solution? Wilson and Kellert promote an awareness of our genetic connection to nature, hoping this will affect the way we view conservation. Kellert also argues that while Americans have a strong appreciation of nature, we only value more visible elements like mountain ranges or large mammals rather than taking a more ecological view. What’s frustrating about the conservation aspect of biophilia is that it remained largely conceptual within the articles, thus making if feel dated, if conservation was really the agenda of Wilson and Kellert, I urge a discussion of practical application (which I believe we are beginning to do in this more eco-conscious age that has even the largest corporations thinking ‘green’).

Recently I came across the interior landscape firm, Planterra, whose motto is "The tranquility of nature can provide us peace in our caverns of concrete and steel." They seem to represent one aspect of the biophilia tendency, bringing nature back into our lives. Being a commercial firm, however, I feel they overly romanticize the aesthetic experience and divorce nature from any sort of context. This is especially evident in their offering of replica foilage, an eco-friendly improvement on yesteryears' tacky plastic plants: "A preserved palm is made from organic tree material that is treated and expertly attached to a structural core of fiberglass. Everything seen and touched is from living trees. The material is harvested with annual pruning and grooming -- all without cutting down the tree or harming the environment. While I admire their efforts, some of their examples appear outright absurd (reference the photo of the 'living wall' with the flatscreen TV).

Another approach of re-introducing nature into our urban lives comes via a group of environmental artists who specialize in "green grafitti." Instead of using toxic spray paint to deface buildings, they instead cultivate growing plants to spell out their messages and create their illustrations on brick walls, concrete pillars and warehouse ceilings.

London-based artist Anna Garforth used moss to spell out the first verse of a poem on a brick wall, she is currently working on growing verses of the rest of the poem in various locations throughout the city.

Hungarian moss artist Edina Tokodi creates her moss art in the streets of NYC, best known for her rabbits and other animals, she has branched out to represent man-made objects.

Spanish artist Patrick Blanc went big and covered the side of Caixa Madrid in moss and grass, creating a vertical garden.

I leave you with this, a living bath mat that feeds off you and your bath water. The mat was created by Switzerland-based industrial designer La Chanh Nguyen and features three three types of live green mosses - ball moss, island moss and forest moss - that grow in individual “cells” of plastazote, a decay-free foam. It also requires little maintenance because mosses thrive in humid areas like bathrooms.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


[Click on Diagram for the original/larger view]

Scientific discovery relies on the careful observation of organisms and natural forces; but to go beyond just surface description of these phenomena, scientists must intervene
through experimentation. Since the invention of the microscope in the 1600s, there has been a desire to extend the biological gaze. Evelyn Fox Keller describes the evolution of what was once a didactic relationship between “looking” and “touching” in her article, “The Biological Gaze.”

In the pure realm of science, there is a value placed on looking over touching. Keller argues, however, that looking always has some effect or impact on the subject of the gaze. Before the advent of photography, natural scientists had to kill their specimens in order to accurately describe them through highly detailed drawings. Most geneticists rely mainly on observing the results of their crossings, but to achieve these results they must alter the course of nature through careful selection and pairings, which can be a form of touch (manipulation and control).

As evidenced by the above diagram, as technology advanced in the field of biology, the act of looking developed from what could be seen with just the naked eye to what could be made visible with the aid of the microscope. The invention of the microscope was the crucial step in the eventual convergence of looking and touching, as it required the alteration (using killing) of an organism to prepare it for viewing on a slide.

So what motivated the early scientists? From the beginning they were trying to find the “secret of life”, what we now know to be cells, genes and DNA. Their only desire wasn’t to just observe these natural processes, but to intervene in the fundamental processes of generation.

What I found surprising is that the relationship between looking and touching in this case was not causal (ie one allows/leads to the other) but more circular—we cannot see a cell in action through a still image like an x-ray because it kills what it records. Instead scientists insert viral vectors and genetic fragments into organisms to be able to visually observe the activity of a particular gene. This action of genetic alteration could not have occurred without the “eye” of the microscope, thus looking and touching become inextricably linked when peering into life at this level.

In her conclusion, Keller said: “The ‘secret of life’ to which we have so ingeniously gained access is no pristine point of origin, but already a construct at least partially of our own making.” This leads me to the question—if must intervene in an organism’s natural state in order to observe it, are we actually observing its actual state and functions? Thus while it seems that we have control over nature as scientists now have the ability to genetically alter organisms; nature still has the upper hand as it’s impossible to observe it in a ‘pure’ state without human intervention. Also, organisms like viruses change and mutate so frequently that we cannot always keep up—one of the reasons that we can ‘cure’ diseases like polio but not the common cold.

["Primordial Dance" 1991. Artist Karl Sims uses computer animation to describe natural phenomena. The video is the product of "artificial evolution", a technological process that mirrors biological evolution-- it's an interactive process between Sims and the computer in which the program randomly creates images based on imputed mathematical formulas; Sims then selects the most aesthetically pleasing images which then "survive" and "bred" to create another string of images. Sims describes the process as such: " The equations, or artificial genes, of the survivors are copied, mutated, and mated by the computer to generate new offspring pictures. This process of variation and selection is repeated, and with each cycle more complex and interesting results can occur."]

So where does this all connect to art? Recently, artists like George Gessert who wrote the article “Art is Nature: An Artist’s Perspective on a New Paradigm,” have paid attention to and commented on the evolution of scientific observation through what is termed “genomic art.”

According to Gessert, “From an ecological point of view, much of today’s art is at least 140 years out-of-date.” This proclamation startled me, as I previously hadn’t reflected on how Darwin’s theory of evolution affected image making. While many contemporary Americans acknowledge evolution as a scientific fact, there is a tendency to still see humans as the most highly evolved, the top of the food chain and the center of the known universe.

After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, however, there was a realization that, at least genetically speaking, not much separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. In our early embryonic stage, humans vary little from other mammals. Artists like Suzanne Anker and Gary Schneider not only consider our role in the world in a new way but also employ methods that were previously regulated to the realms of science—that is they appropriate technology to present images of chromosomes and re-define genres like portraiture by using x-rays of their bodies and images of their own DNA.

["Panspermia, 1990 by Karl Sims. From Sims: "Panspermia is the name for the theory that life exists and is distributed throughout the universe in the form of germs or spores. This short computer animation places the viewer in the middle of a virtual world of an aggressively reproducing inter-galactic life form, and depicts a single life cycle of this unusual self propagating system." Through this short video Sims uses "artificial evolution" techniques to select random mutations of plants that reflect biological methods of selection that create biodiversity in the world. In this work he examines chaos and how it contributes to the nature of life itself.]

Even in this new way of looking at ecology, can we get away from human-centered art? While these artists draw parallels between the origins of humans and other animals, they still exert control over the bacteria they grow and dye, and in the extreme case of Eduardo Kac’s GFP bunny, the life of an animal. Gessert tends to gloss over the ethical implications of tampering with nature for the sake of art—only alluding to the idea that the ownership of these living artworks also constitutes custodianship.

Just by using the word “custodianship,” Gessert shifts the power of control in our favor—which makes me wonder if these artists who supposedly have a new awareness of humans and the environment we live in realize that by manipulating these organisms (especially in the case of the fluorescent rabbit or using DNA to spell out a passage from Genesis) we are still bending nature to our will.

In science we cannot observe nature without our own intervention, in genomic/ecological art there may be a more up-to-date idea of our role in nature but we generally still have to present these artworks in human institutions like the museum or gallery and also alter organisms to reflect a particular artist’s point of view. Gessert’s answer to this dilemma is to spend more time in nature, to get to know our ‘kin’ better. I agree, by acknowledging that we are wild and part of a larger ecological system, we are already one step closer to reconciling the Darwinian view of nature with our own art production.