Saturday, October 11, 2014

Starting, finishing and beginning

This Fall, I will welcome Heidi Hutner to join a couple Gulf to Gulf webcasts on the relationship between education, activism, and climate change. Heidi is the director of the Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program. She will join us Nov. 5th at 3:00 PM EST and Dec. 3rd at 11:00 AM EST.

In August 2014, I began teaching a class in Foundation Drawing at Stony Brook University (SBU). I have always enjoyed teaching and my new students have been delightful: serious, hard-working and willing to tackle the difficult assignments I have challenged them to complete. They are also, mostly science students, many of whom are exploring art for the first time.

Nonetheless, they are producing good work.

In this case, my students were given the task of portraying a landscape with coat hanger wire. It required them to learn to handle materials with care and describe their observation with a single, continuous line.
At some point this Fall, I gave my students several difficult theoretical texts to read, consider and comment on that discussed the nature of any culture, as a means of sustaining or resisting political control. That day, I went on to explain that if we are critical of culture, as artists, we must understand that change begins by questioning the nature of our (human) perception. Therefore, I have pushed them to relinquish what I've called their automatic translation of observation into simplistic photography and instead, learn to observe on the basis of the more complex physiological potential of what I've called the "technology of (human) perception." We do that with a number of assignments both in class and out. These young people are at the beginning of a long process, in which art may or may not remain important in their lives. My task is simply to encourage them to try to see in depth.

The exercises I am giving these students recapitulate much of the aesthetic thinking that went into my PhD dissertation, "Trigger point theory as aesthetic activism," which was sent out to my Viva Examiners at the University of Plymouth, UK this past week, in preparation for my oral defense, which will take place early 2015.  The thinking in that writing attempted to layer a variety of points of view and approaches to data about localized sites, in order to develop strategic restoration plans for large bioregions. In that writing, in addition to statistical analysis and geographic information systems (GIS) mapping, I also considered philosophical presumptions challenged, for example by ecofeminists. That strategic approach is a methodology that solves problems dualistically: from simultaneously observing  large global patterns and from observing what scientists call the more "fine-grained" details of specific and local situations. As I now enter the final phases of my dissertation process, I can begin to step back and reconsider the larger patterns I researched for five years.

The largest pattern I think we're all facing, that was implicit to me in all my dissertation writing, is in how geopolitics are being catalyzed by the causes and effects of climate change. As an artist, I want to see that larger pattern and apply my formal tools, the "technology of (my) perception," to change the patterns I see. Art. of course, doesn't work exactly so directly. We experience life, in the sense John Dewey wrote about, and then we work through a complex process from which 'something' emerges … which then affects others … and eventually, sooner or later, affects change to the culture. Artists may be helpless about the timetable for that change but we CAN shed light on what change looks like, whether the evidence is reflected in Hong Kong or Gaza.

As a person whose family were among the early founders of the state of Israel, going back to the late nineteenth century, and whose father was especially open to the plight of local Arabs there, I have had a special interest in events in the Middle East and engaged in several FB threads during the most recent war, struggling as many were, to understand the horrific consequences of patterns unfolding beyond our control. Yesterday, I heard an illuminating conversation and wrote about it on FB:

"By far the best discussion I've heard on Israel-Palestine was recently on WNYC radio:

What I found excellent about this discussion were two points: 

1. A critique of the lack of context in most of the summer discussions during & after the war; specifically, the role of the Protocols of Zion in the radical anti-semitism that is fueling both Hamas and ISIS. The discussant argues that this legitimates an unrealistic focus on the "moral failings of Jews." He argues that in the context of media narratives, particularly in Europe, that context fuels anti-Zionism. 

2.An analysis of the absence of a larger geopolitical framing of conversations, in public and private that would include the larger Arab world demographic narrative over the past 100 years. 

I would also argue that that very lack of adequate framing excludes the greater global biogeographical narrative of climate change and over (human)- populations. I tried to point that out last summer in several FB threads and in this blog."

This is, I believe, is part of the depth of perception of the unfolding tragedy of what happens when climate change meets over-population meets simplistic narrative conclusions. The world is running out of the resources that have sustained our present culture, It is so much easier to ascribe blame and resort to violence and exclude critical narratives than to deconstruct these complex points of confluence and then reconstruct hard answers.

As I enjoy the luxury of increasing distance upon finishing my dissertation and consider the experiences of my students who are just starting a life that includes art, I can also step back further to meditate on all these questions and implications. I am just at the beginning of seeing how educating young artists might be part of this process.

The next two Gulf to Gulf sessions this Fall that will discuss these critical confluences between art, education, activism, climate change and restoration, with Heidi Hutner, Director of the Environmental Humanities, Sustainability Studies Program at SBU, will include Dr. Eugene Turner of LSU, Dr. James White of INSTAAR and myself.

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