Saturday, March 2, 2013

The demographic infrastructures of Fish Story

This is what the mechanism of hope looks like to me. It is a diagram of how air is controlled in bel canto, the technique required for opera singing, by a combination of redundant anatomical engineering and the physics of sound waves.
Since I came back from Memphis about ten weeks ago, my attention has been on the finances and logistics of launching Fish Story. There is now a little less than ten weeks left before Fish Story will be completed, by which time I will have spent a year of my time conceptualizing and designing the work since Tom McGlynn first extended the invitation to me for Memphis Social. I've made progress with the help of my studio assistant, Daisy Morton. Along with Tom and Daisy, a number of wonderful folks in Memphis have guided my thinking, including Scott Banbury of the local Sierra Club, Matt Farr of Shelby Farms, Virginia McLean of Friends of Our Riverfront and Cathy Justis of the Wolf River Conservancy. They have each taught me an entire encyclopaedia about the political and biogeographic ecosystem they work in. This week, I had to accept that my goals for Memphis aren't going to be a trick I perform by May. May will have to be a salvo in a much longer process.

Memphis is not only the center of the world in a continental and paradigmatic sense, it is also the center of a world of complexity. Two elements seem at the heart of this complexity. One is the fish, whose life cycles reflect all the complexities I've been studying and considering this year about Memphis. The other element is "inner city youth," whom each of the people I've spoken to, whose mandate is the environment, have worked to engage with and bring into a relationship with the natural beauty of the region. Inner city youth are important because they represent a huge demographic of our collective future. Globally, they are now disenfranchised and vulnerable to manipulation. They are the raw material of unrest, gangs, terrorism, the target of fascistic enterprises and the fodder for dictatorships. They COULD be, the force that turns us all away from the disaster of the anthropocene. Right now, instead, funding for education, transportation, science research and other facilities that might bring them into a conversation with the rest of the world, are being cut even more than they already were. Memphis embodies the economic over-simplification the whole world is facing as the gap between rich and poor yawns ever wider, recapitulating the same gaps we see between humans as top predators and the other species we are predating.

It is not easy to engage impoverished young people and the percentage of them that my new friends have been able to reach, let alone their parents or grandparents is relatively small. The poor in Memphis, remain largely physically isolated from the more prosperous central city or the affluent suburbs of Germantown. The result is that a large sector of the population is not part of the solution to their own problems. That is the fascination of Memphis for me, how to draw all of "us" into a conversation about the anthropocene and empower everyone towards hope.

As I've worked on Fish Story, I've also been completing my dissertation, on Ghost Nets as a case study model for my theory of environmental restoration (trigger point theory). In the research for that writing, I've focused on studying issues in the littoral zone, the fragile area between marine life and land we call: "the beach." The littoral zone is important, not only for the life it supports, but because it is complex in the ways we need to make sense of for every other system on earth. Like Memphis, the very complexity of the challenge is the very paradigm we need to resolve for the survival of our species, along with every other species, as, fish.  In the littoral zone I've used fish as the fulcrum and harbinger of what that trigger point model needs to consider because they are among the most indicative taxa for ecosystem collapse. Since I began my PhD work in 2009, news of trophic cascades, species loss and other environmental disasters has only escalated. The challenge of finding solutions has proportionately dramatically increased, even as conservative forces have resisted necessary steps to alleviate problems and supported behavior that could only make things worse, as, fracking. This, in the face of calamities such as the BP spill and Sandy.

On Thursday, I spent the day traveling back and forth to Ramapo College, where I participated on a panel organized by Amy Lipton for the show she organized, "It's the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)." The exhibition includes my work, "Oil and Water." I commented in my opening remarks that any engineer can tell you a good system requires redundancies to be resilient to stress and that is what biodiversity permits in food webs. The danger of the anthropocene is that our predation and contamination of the environment has not only impacted but over-simplified every system on earth. The result is that we are eliminating those protective food web redundancies. In my writing and research trying to reconcile the problem of supporting resilient complexity in the face of the anthropocene, I have been inspired by two systemic models. One comes from the logistics of physics. The other is bel canto singing. Both are represented in my little diagram at the beginning of this post. I've studied bel canto since 1999, mostly with the coloratura Debra Vanderlinde, formerly with the New York City Opera.

What is relevant about bel canto, is how in the midst of the over-simplication of ecosystems we have precipitated, we contain a solution in our own bodies that conflates the complexity of physics and biological redundancy. The vocal system that produces music from the manipulation of air in a very small space in the human body: the space between the diaphragm and the mouth from which sound emerges, may be a viable model for future solutions to littoral zone problems, whether demographic or hydraulic. In effect, our body contains the very model for redundant complex engineering we need to study as a template for how a healthy infrastructure functions. The peripheral apparatus that produces an operatic aria is as complex as a healthy littoral zone that permits tidal flow for the health of water and biota (fish).

The trick I need to pull off, is to translate my diagram above into chipping away at solving the problems I see in Memphis, in a way that enhances the life of fish and by implication the lives of folks who eat them now. If I find a way to leverage those logistics, including a means to engage the many poor people to whom my diagram might seem irrelevant, the incrementally improved well-being of fish will be a measure of my success.

1 comment:

  1. Deborah RodriguezJune 17, 2013 at 11:18 PM

    So, how’s the Fish Story doing? You really have a lot of thing to do, and I hope that you get to finished the Fish Story soon so that you can start on your master dissertation Ghost Nets. You would certainly need the all the time that you can have while writing your dissertation. Anyway, I’m looking forward in seeing your progress. Keep us posted!