Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fish tales, teams and dominance patterns

Fish in the Mississippi River are indicator species for the health of a far larger
biogepgraphic region that surrounds the river.

1: PM

In less than an hour, we will have a Gulf to Gulf webcast session for the team working on Fish Story.

That team for Fish Story, includes:

James Bradley, media provider, Executive Director at WebServes, New York, NY
Emily Caigan, Project manager for “Fish Story” West Hurley, NY
Daisy Morton, studio manager to Aviva Rahmani, Vinalhaven ME
Aviva Rahmani, ecological artist, University of Plymouth and INSTAAR affiliate Vinalhaven ME and New York, NY:,
Susan Steinman, Director of WEAD, ecological artist, Berkeley, CA:
Eugene Turner, dead zone biologist, and Distinguished Research Master and Professor, Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA:
James White, paleoecologist, Professor of Geological Sciences, Fellow and Director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, CO:
We will also be joined by Memphis Social curator Tom McGlynn who invited our participation.

There are going to be a number of important topics I hope we will address but I am still considering the lessons learned and considered about framing from last week's CT event. The two Sunday workshops that stuck in my mind, were the one on creating narratives in social practice, with Suzanne Lacy and Jodie Evans and the one Steve Lambert did about advertising and public art. The latter was intended to define points of entry with a community, how to listen and how to shape a work out of the input. It was mostly a discussion of how to listen, which I'm all for. The most important take away that I related to, was to look for the gap, the paradox, the intersection where values can be aligned. 

In working with scientists, finding that mystical point of entry is the most delicate and important part of my work and aligns with "trigger point theory," that small place I always look for, where hope can start to grow for environmental restoration. The trick in Fish Story will be to align that point of entry with the aspirations and concerns of people I may meet there.

Steve's workshop had us doing a deceptively simple exercize of making columns for old behavior (in this case, gutting the environment) and new behavior (finding ways to live resiliently with the rest of the natural world) and then breaking those two columns down in terms of the benefits and barriers each option convey. So, for example, an old behavior might be that it's easy to overfish and the ease is the benefit. The barrier to fully enjoying that old behavior to change is the fat that if we continue, there will be nothing left to exploit and deplete. The barrier to new behavior is just changing behavior and the difficulty of that change. People don't usually like something easy suddenly made more difficult. Steve reminded us that it's not just about the community we work with, it's also about not allowing ourselves to get burnt out.

In both workshops, the presumption was that an artist is invited in by a community to avoid the critique of "parachuting in" and then leaving. Suzanne and Jodi emphasized that building a good rapport for a project with integrity can take a year or more. But the third workshop workshop I participated in last Sunday, about the landslide caused by fracking in Taring Padi, assembled a memorializing action in one week, which has taken on a life of its own there. So these are 3 diff approaches to developing and sustaining social practice projects. What they all have in common is finding how & where to align an artists agenda with the community where the work will be presented. In the case of "Fish Story," it's not going to be just about those 2 agendas (art & the community), it's also about land management and what science can tell us about what is happening there. And then there's my agenda: to find a trigger point in environmental degradation to effect healing change ... without imposing myself  .... by finding ways to give voice to the voiceless on the ground. Not just fish. The people who want a world with fish.

So the critique of the first two social practice approaches above, is that they both, in effect, manipulate people to effect what a predetermined good may be but that "good" remains anthropocentric, human dominated. So how do I negotiate for the fish? How to I find the voices that speak for the fish among the people in Memphis? That search appears on the surface to argue for an inversion of familiar dominance patterns and by doing so, finding the path to speaking for the fish. It seems like a layered paradox to even consider that challenge. So that is the "little" gap/paradox I hope we will explore today.


We had the meeting. I'm in absorption mode. The scientists are open and supportive. Gene showed us a picture of a 300 lb alligator gar which must have been 20' long, caught using a net & held up by a sports fisherman. 

Susan commented at the end of our meeting, "it's (Fish Story) so unlike you. It's so anthropocentric!!" I replied, "well, you can't do much restoration without a few people." I guess that's my paradoxical point of entry. Maybe the question now, is what behavioral change might make a difference, where in Memphis? Jim & Gene commented about how Memphis has seen itself as the center of the world because of it's historical position on the river. So what I might be looking for, is whom can tell me where might be the trigger in that center?

1910 Photo of 10' Alligator gar, author unknown

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