Just sent the ARCADE Issue 32.2 files to the printer! "Empathy, Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation" releases Wed., Sept.10th!
This Saturday 30 Aug –
Sunday 15 Feb
Exhibition highlighting the complexity of urban life in India through the lens of ten artists' sculpture and photography.
Friday 5 Sep –
Friday 19 Sep
by Design in Public
at Various Seattle locations
Mark your calendars for the Seattle Design Festival, the region’s largest public design event celebrating the power of design.
Monday 8 Sep
by Seattle Parks Foundation
6–9pm Lecture: 7pm. Showing of “The Best Planned City in the World” and no-host reception prior.
President of Buffalo Olmsted Park Conservatory discusses the restoration of Buffalo’s park system and ideas about restoring Seattle heritage parks.
Monday 8 Sep
by Cornish College of the Arts, Design in Public
Natalia Ilyin, Thaisa Way talk with Susan Szenasy (Metropolis) about her work engaging designers and the public in ways that move us to act.
Wednesday 10 Sep
5:30 – 7:30pm
SAVE THE DATE! Join us as we celebrate the release of ARCADE issue 32.2 Empathy, Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation.
Thursday 11 Sep
by Town Hall Seattle, Elliott Bay Book Company
7:30 – 8:45pm
Talk by author Chandra, whose new book explores the intersection of art and technology, analyzing the relationship between literature and coding.
Thursday 11 Sep
by Town Hall Seattle, University Book Store, Sustainable Path
7:30 – 8:30pm
Talk on psychological responses to climate change and how to open the dialogue to skeptics by creating a personal, emotional framework for the debate.
Friday 12 Sep –
Friday 3 Oct
at Location TBD
This year's theme, In Process, explores the concepts of conception, revision, evolution and divergence that happen before a project is completed.
Friday 12 Sep
by CreativeMornings, Seattle
8:30 – 10am
at EMP Museum
Presenter Ophthalmologist Jay Neitz will talk about seeing color (even hues most can't perceive) and developing a cure for color blindness.
Sunday 14 Sep
by Integrus Architecture
Screening of Drawing on Life, a film on drawing and architecture. Followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.
Sunday 14 Sep
by Pecha Kucha Seattle, Design In Public, Seattle Public Library
Pecha Kucha event exploring the inextricable link between design and leadership.
Monday 22 Sep –
Friday 19 Dec
by Suyama Space
at Suyama Space
THE SEVEN MOUNTAINS is a dynamic composition of light bulbs that examines the relationship of the viewer to the work and explores perceptions of time.
Monday 29 Sep
by Town Hall Seattle , Elliott Bay Book Company
Enjoy a conversation between Jeffrey Ochsner and Feliks Banel about the buildings instrumental to defining Seattle's built environment.
Monday 27 Oct
Awards Ceremony: 27 October. See detailed description/more info for submission deadlines.
NW Interior designers, architects and industrial designers are invited to submit interior spaces/products for the INawards. Award ceremony in October.
Through Thursday 5 Nov
by Henry Art Gallery
Interactive art installation uses surveillance systems to create narratives with social media content matching demographic profiles of passers-by.
Through Monday 20 Apr
Art installation on Japanese design, reimagining traditional subjects in modern forms.
Through Sunday 8 Mar
Weekends only: 10am–4pm
Sol LeWitt explores the cube and grid structures which were of interest to him throughout his career in this special wall drawing for SAM.
Through Sunday 19 Oct
by SAM (Asian Art Museum)
Exhibition on Japanese Art Deco, including sculpture, painting, prints, ceramics, lacquerware, jewelry, textiles, furniture and graphic ephemera.
Through Sunday 31 Aug
by Nordic Heritage Museum, Museum of Danish America
M–F, 10am–4pm; Sun. 12–4pm
Exhibition highlighting furnishings designed and made in Denmark during the '50s and '60s, featuring designer Hans Wegner and many more.
Through Sunday 14 Sep
by Frye Art Museum
Artists Alley-Barnes, Galanin, and Sidhu explore identity, ritual, and adornment and signal the exploitation of natural, cultural and human resources.
Through Sunday 21 Sep
by Frye Art Museum
Exhibition presenting a selection from the body of work of Seattle artist Curtis R. Barnes, including homage to the legacy of the Omowale mural.
Through Sunday 12 Oct
by Bellevue Arts Museum
This exhibition traces the rise in popularity of printmaking in postwar American art, featuring Chuck Close, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and more.
Through Sunday 12 Oct
by Bellevue Arts Museum
An art exhibit exploring a dark, yet important, chapter of American history by showcasing more than 120 items made by interned Japanese Americans.
Through Sunday 7 Sep
by Henry Art Gallery
An exhibition displaying the prints and sculptures of Ken Price, an artist heavily influenced by Charles Bukowski.
“Nothing is higher than Architect.”
—George Costanza (alias: Art Vandelay), Seinfeld
“How should I put this delicately, Mike? Your designs are from another time.”
“That’s kind of you to say, Mr. Phillips. I’ve always thought of my style as classic as well.”
—Mike Brady having a conversation with his client, The Brady Bunch
I have always been interested in the cultural and psychological forces that influence one’s decisions to enter the architecture profession. To look at any recent list showing the worst college degrees to get in the country, one understands it’s got to be an almost completely irrational decision.
I would imagine that, like me, the television set has had an inordinate amount of influence over almost everyone’s vital life decisions. Early on, I used TV to help me explore a broad range of future career options. They included everything from being first mate of a shipwrecked boat on a deserted island living with two gorgeous single women (Mary Ann or Ginger?), to being an astronaut living with a stunning genie in lingerie. I was going through puberty in suburban America and the possibilities were endless!
At work recently, I found myself daydreaming about TV’s subliminal influence on our desire to be architects. After pondering this for a bit while my permit deadline waited, I decided to survey architects in town with a simple question:
Who is the greatest architect in the history of TV?
I actually received more than 200 fervent responses (there must have been a lot of delayed permit submissions!). The following is my top ten list:
12. The architect from “Architects Sketch,” Monty Python
This was only one skit in a Monty Python show decades ago, but it is still hugely influential. The sketch is introduced by a group of five “gumbies” who keep shouting, “The Architects Sketch!” An architect who designs slaughter houses proposes a tower of “flats” that slaughters people. It’s funny, in that Monty Python, ‘60s, English sort of way. Most modern Americans now don’t get it. I don’t...(Episode 17 of Monty Python Flying Circus)
11. Frank Gehry playing Frank Gehry, The Simpsons
Marge asks Gehry to design a concert hall for Springfield. Gehry refuses at first, but is soon inspired after he crumples Marge's letter and hurls it to the ground.
Here is what Gehry himself said of his cartoon appearance: “That was just a fun thing. But it has haunted me. People who’ve seen The Simpsons believe it!” Poor Frank…(Episode 14, The Seven-Beer Snitch, Season 16)
The Top Ten:
10. Fred Sanford, Sanford and Son
Mr. Sanford was a junk collector. This show is on the list because of Fred’s passion for architectural accoutrements. He had a unique eye for aesthetics and was very articulate about his craft. He once mentioned to his aunt Ester, “Beauty may only be skin deep, but ugly goes down to the bone!”
9. The Professor, Gilligan’s Island
Again, though technically not a true architect, the professor deserves special credit for his architectural, engineering and urban planning skills utilized during his years shipwrecked on the island. The professor oversaw the design and construction of a thriving community with a complex infrastructure and social order virtually all made with coconuts. He also had Ginger!
8. (Tie) Leoncio Ariza, Por Tu Amor
You might be surprised to find a few foreign TV shows with architect protagonists on this list. I guess it reflects the current international nature of the profession in Seattle.
This Telenovela in Mexico is about as hot as my Valentina Salsa Picante! It has love triangles. Heck it’s got love trapezoids! And it has an arquitecto muy suave in the middle of it all named Leoncio Ariza. This is the kind of architecture I practice in my dreams!
8. (Tie) Pete, Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place
The show all architectural students should jump on Netflix and watch. Pete, who is an architectural grad student, is strapped for money so he takes a job at Beacon Street Pizzeria with his roommate, Berg. Pete is a bit uptight, while Berg is a free spirit. Little does Pete know, he will need this extra job most of his career.
7. Bob Ross, the frizzy headed PBS painter who was a “soft talker.”
Stretching it a bit, but he had to know something about architecture because all of his paintings had little cabins in them.
6. Elyse Keaton, Family Ties
This 1980s show smashed open the doors of opportunity of our once sexist, male dominated elitist profession for its portrayal of the first women architect on TV. Elise was an ex-hippy turned architect married to a PBS producer. It was a perfect liberal dream-come-true, except for a rebellious neo-conservative son who happened to be played by Michael J Fox. I was always a bit suspicious of her design ability based on the ornate, decorative house they lived in.
5. Wilbur Post, Mister Ed
This 1950s show is still a vital cultural influencer! Wilbur practiced architecture in a barn with a horse as an assistant. Mister Ed consistently outsmarted Wilbur. His wife never had a clue about the intimacy of their relationship. Kinda creepy.
4. Ted Mosby, How I Met Your Mother
He has no money, he has no girl, he has no success and he has no life: one of the most accurate portrayals of an architectural intern in the history of television.
3. Alex Fong, The Building Blocks of Life
Surprised at number 3? Well, this is a popular show among Chinese architects, and China has a lot of architects! In the first season, Alex is a rising architect about to be engaged with his lover Winnie, but he falls in love with fellow architect Freeda. He starts two-timing them and I don’t get a big enough word count from ARCADE to explain the rest.
2. George Costanza (alias: Art Vandelay), Seinfeld
George had absolutely no formal architectural training or aptitude, but whenever he wanted to impress women he referred to himself as architect Art Vandelay. Once in a pinch he was asked what kind of architecture he designed. His response was an unconvincing: huh… railroads.
1. Mike Brady, The Brady Bunch
The Iconic and timeless presence of Mike Brady is amazing. He was mentioned in the survey three times more than all the other architects combined. And this, 40 years after the show ENDED!!!!! Mike was consummately cool, good-looking, had a gorgeous wife, three hot daughters (Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!), and a really groovy house. He did most of his work on a 2’x3’ drafting board in his den at home—even some skyscrapers! He must have had a huge capacity for intellectual concentration since his wife, six kids and maid were constantly interrupting him.
But man, Marcia, Marcia, Marcia…
This article has been updated from a version published in ARCADE issue 22.2 in winter 2003.
Mithun is a leading sustainable design practice that creates lasting places for people. The firm’s innovative and collaborative spirit encompasses architecture, landscape architecture, planning, urban design and interior design services—a multidisciplinary approach that unites human and natural systems within the built environment. mithun.com
This last spring BUILD sat down with author, professor and principal at Buro Happold Engineering, Kate Ascher. Knee-deep in her West Coast book tour for The Way to Go: Moving by Sea, Land and Air, they caught her here in Seattle to discuss her mesmerizing trilogy on urban infrastructure, the power of good graphics and understanding complex systems. For part 2 of the interview, visit BUILD’s blog.
BUILD: You’ve published four books while holding positions at the New York Economic Development Corporation, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and Happold Consulting, in addition to teaching. What life strategies do you practice in order to balance these demanding positions and still create time for your publications?
Kate Ascher: The honest answer is that I'm always on the edge of dropping the ball on something. On top of the books, my career and teaching, I also have a couple of kids, and all the normal stuff that comes with life. It’s probably too much, but I like working and it’s all a matter of fine-tuning. The books are really a hobby for me—they’re relaxing and fun. Some people knit or garden or meditate. I write books. When I’m on tour things are crazy for about a month, but the book tours are few and far between.
B: Tell us about your current role at the UK engineering consultancy Buro Happold.
KA: I run the urban planning practice in the US. With only a half dozen people, we’re tiny compared to the UK team. They hired me to develop the practice in the US since I was already in the field.
B: Dealing with complex systems like rail, transportation and water at the municipal level involves a great deal of intricacy and complexity. How do you ensure that the quality of your planning work gets carried through to the details?
KA: You have to surround yourself with the right people or it doesn't work. It's really a matter of trusting those around you and building a bigger team that shares in the spirit of the project. If you work with good people, life is actually easy. If you're working with people who are either not up for the job or not as good of a fit for the community, it's much harder.
B: Your latest book, The Way to Go: Moving by Sea, Land, and Air, tackles the history of global transportation. How much of this research was a result of study and how much was in-the-field experience?
KA: The book is a collaboration with a graphic designer and a researcher who knows transportation very well. Since the first book, The Works: Anatomy of a City, published in 2005, the world has changed. Back then, my researcher and I had to go and talk to each individual involved. Now, it's amazing what you can access on the Internet; there are pictures and videos available of everything. There's no need to go to the freight yard to see how they lay rail track. You can do nearly all of the primary research sitting at a desk with a good Internet connection.
B: Is there a trust issue related to what you find online versus being there and seeing things with your own eyes?
KA: I don't think so, since you get more than one person's take on an issue. For instance, if you want to find out what's wrong with Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine (TBM) currently stuck under Seattle, find a users’ group of rail spotters, and you'll get twenty opinions instantly. Or check out the last conference of TBM manufacturers where they're discussing why things got clogged up.
There's no need to do in-person legwork as primary research anymore. Once I create the draft of what I want to include, I run it by experts. Then I ask, "What am I missing?" I do this for accuracy, not comprehensiveness. It's never going to be comprehensive. I like to cover what is fun and interesting in a way that’s broadly accurate. Nobody's building structures or vehicles based on this book, so I'm not worried about details, but I don't want to be misleading people either.
B: We were hoping you'd have suggestions on how to get Bertha unstuck.
KA: It's fascinating. New York City has several tunnel-boring machines at work, some for a water tunnel and others for a new rail connection. There are no problems with any of them at the moment. I wonder who's responsible for paying for Bertha's cost overruns—the contractor or the government? Since it's a finite construction contract, it could get very expensive if the contractor is paying for it.
B: Tell us a bit about the graphic designer you work with on the books.
KA: My graphic designer, George Kokkinidis, is a genius. He was employed at Alex Isley, the firm that did graphics for the first book. He has six to eight designers all around the country, and I believe one is in Seattle. George and I design the books together, then we commission the graphic work and continue to refine the format. A lot of work goes into the books, and he's extremely good at what he does. He now has his own company, Design Language.
B: Do you attribute the success of the books to their capability to interest people visually as well as with the text?
KA: I'd say the text is secondary to the imagery. People like being able to open the books up to any page and immediately see pictures and figure things out. The text provides context, but the graphics are what actually do the teaching—the experience is childlike in that sense. My first book was inspired by David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work. When it first came out, it was completely different from anything else I'd seen. Even though I’m not an engineer, the information was accessible. I thought, "That's cool, why hasn't anyone explained a city like this? Or a skyscraper?"
B: How do the books translate into your teaching?
KA: I teach a course on the skyscraper and another on infrastructure. But instead of teaching to architects and engineers, my students are in the real estate, urban design and urban planning programs. Like the books, my teaching aims to broaden the perspective of a wider audience.
B: Your books on buildings, cities and transportation networks might appear to create the perfect trilogy on the built environment. What will you do next?
KA: I'd like to say, "Nothing." My publisher convinced me there should be three since it makes for the possibility of a special edition release later when I'm no longer writing. The books take a lot of work, and I don't make any money off of them. After the third book was published, I said I was done, but my son has an idea for a fourth. First, I'm taking a couple years off to work on an academic project for Columbia University which will be more of an art book, and any encore to this series would come out after that, in three to four years. This next time, I'm going even bigger. I can't say more than that. I already know how it would come together, so it's likely going to happen. Each one of the books is a piece of art, and they cost a fortune to produce, but the publisher’s been game so far, as she loves niche books.
B: There is a section in The Works: Anatomy of a City that describes how the garbage truck network in NYC can quickly convert into a snow plow system for the city. It demonstrates a clever and industrious city-planning maneuver. Are there other methods to double up the effectiveness of a city’s resources that we’re not tapping into yet?
KA: There are a couple of examples that come to mind. The obvious one involves the existing network of underground pipes and conduits below most cities. The question to ask is: If you're going to add or modify something like a transportation tunnel, are you also thinking about adding and/or updating infrastructure that benefits from the same work?
There is another good example in Malaysia where a highway tunnel converts into a flood mitigating measure. During typhoon season, the tunnel can be shut down and switched to a stormwater channel. It’s a cool example of how to look at systems holistically.
B: You’ve taken some complicated subject matter, like the garbage and recycling systems of NYC, and made them clear and compelling. How do you process complex information for communication to the masses?
KA: Any of these books would be very hard to write if I were an engineer. Because I'm not, the material initially needs to be intelligible to me. I am the first filter in a sense. The highly technical engineering parts of the books are not understandable to me unless they're explained in very basic layperson terms. Each book has covered a system that I didn’t really understand at first, and I had to work at making it comprehensible to someone else. That's the filter the books have to go through. Some of the concepts are difficult, like how airplanes fly, which is a little complicated when you get into it. Trying to depict it graphically is also challenging. We spend a long time figuring all of that out.
B: You must have a bag of discarded diagrams as a result of the weeding-out process.
KA: There are many ideas that get tossed, but those ideas don’t get too far along before we weed them out. Each graphic has a whole process tied into it. At my talk earlier this week in New York, I had the graphic designer there for the last ten minutes. He took three examples of how a graphic evolves: design, context and delight. We’ve worked together for years, but it was the first time I heard him articulate what differentiates a good graphic from a bad one, and how you start with something and make it better and better. It was very interesting, and I wish I could've brought him out here.
From The Works. Image: Design Language
B: The design of information is obviously very important to you based on the beautiful diagrams in your books. How does design play a successful role in urban planning policy?
KA: It doesn’t always. It requires having people in government that care about good design. There are, of course, people who care less about the design and focus more on the function. It can become a tug of war.
B: Are you always analyzing? Are you able to turn on a faucet without thinking about the logistical chain of events that brings clean, hot water to your sink?
KA: When I was writing The Works, I was thinking about that much more. Now it’s transportation. I was just asked about risks on airplanes. There's no point in trying to calculate all the risks. You're either on that plane or you're not. It's better to just forget about it, think about something else or get some work done. You'll make yourself crazy otherwise. Not to sound fatalistic, but it is what it is.
B: What would you say is the best mistake you ever made?
KA: Probably the books. They could be seen as a mistake since I lost my shirt financially on the first one. If I had known how tough it would be, I wouldn't have done it. But it turned out to be something I get a lot of pleasure from. The nice thing about these books now is that there are three of us working on them, and the process is hassle-free and phenomenally interesting. Imagine picking out things that interest you, asking the questions and getting the answers. Plus, if you like graphic design, it's fun to create the pictures and see them published. And somebody is allowing me to do all that.
B: What’s on your nightstand? What are you currently reading?
KA: I’m reading Stoner by John Edward Williams. It’s a lost novel, recently rediscovered, and it's being talked about as an American classic.
Read part 2 of the interview on BUILD's blog.
Sometimes predetermined paths aren’t direct enough, or they fail to connect to a desirable destination. Over time “desire lines” appear as pedestrians wear away groundcover to make improvisational footpaths, making maps of longing and fulfillment as they go. Landscape architects occasionally honor the democracy of desire lines, waiting to place paths until they have observed how people have chosen, again and again, to make their own way across a site—how they have voted with their feet.
But beyond landscape design, desire lines offer rich territory for artists and writers interested in how people, or even animals or water, travel. Each trajectory tells us something about how we relate to an environment and, often, to each other.
Going His Own Way
In 1967, artist Richard Long walked a straight path in suburban England, going back and forth across a field until his steps flattened the grass. Since A Line Made by Walking, Long has traveled all over the world, leaving his mark in formally precise lines and circles. Walking between fixed distances, points in time, landmarks, or weather or cosmological events, Long chooses origins and destinations that distinguish his ambles from typical desire lines.
And whereas most desire lines map group behavior, making visible a shared will to diverge, Richard Long’s walks are largely solo journeys. In his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the influential American mythology scholar Joseph Campbell delineates the archetypal hero’s journey: the would-be hero leaves the common world to venture into the unknown, returning, finally, transformed from his experiences and with gifts to bestow on those he left behind. Long’s practice is similar to Campbell’s model. We see the artist’s special, individual encounter with the world outside the everyday as he eschews the well-trodden paths of ordinary routine.
Campbell’s universalizing model has been criticized for stripping myths of their connections to local people and places. Similarly, in his emphasis on unique experiences in what appears again and again as an unpeopled nature, Long mostly ignores how local people traverse their environments. His walks are private aesthetic experiences absent cultural engagement. His 1977 A Straight Hundred Mile Walk in Australia, for example, had him striding the same length back and forth in a desirous pursuit of a rigorous linear geometry. Meanwhile, Long ignored the songlines that indigenous Australians have used for thousands of years to name and navigate their continent.
Collective Desire and Songlines
Bruce Chatwin, like his contemporary Richard Long, was an English adventurer. In his 1987 book The Songlines, Chatwin searches the Australian Outback for the labyrinthine pathways made by the indigenous people there. These songlines crisscross the continent but are invisible to most Western eyes. Reading Chatwin, we learn about the creation myths of the Dreamtime, when totemic ancestors made themselves from clay and then walked, singing the world into being by naming animals, plants, waterholes and rocks along the way. We learn how each clan inherits a different song and territory, navigating its natural features by walking and singing; how songlines function as trade networks and how contemporary Aboriginal paintings—though they often appear abstract—record these songlines.
Richard Long’s desire lines—formally beautiful as they are—are those of a solitary, intrepid sightseer. The songlines Chatwin presents map a deep-rooted, though threatened, collective existence. Each offers a different model of making your way in the world.
Landscapes of Desire
Long and Chatwin present desire lines forged by people, but animals and even water can make them too. Sarah Bergmann’s Pollinator Pathway, begun in late 2007, will eventually stretch between Nora’s Woods, the campus of Seattle University and Volunteer Park in central Seattle. Sited in median planting strips, its gardens attract pollinators—birds, bees, beetles and others—whose populations are declining. Working with scientists, designers, residents and volunteers, Bergmann is connecting fragmented green spaces with a ribbon of landscape 12 feet wide. She’s using her Seattle design as a model for a national network of gardens, invitational infrastructure for pollinators navigating from one repast to another. The trajectories visiting pollinators take through the air will constitute the project’s desire lines.
North of the Pollinator Pathway, at Seattle’s Henry Art Gallery, German artist Katinka Bock recently mentioned desire lines during a public talk. In her 2008 piece Je te tiens (I Hold You), two parallel panes of glass leaned against the back of a chair. A funnel brought in rainwater, which dripped between the glass, its streams coalescing and dispersing before collecting in a puddle on the floor. Bock had choreographed rain, connecting weather with the space of the gallery. As the individual drops gathered into trailing streams, they created wandering desire lines that bridged outside to inside and travelled through the air like Bergmann’s busy pollinators.
And four years ago, for an exhibition at the Henry, University of Washington graduate Maggie Carson Romano presented an installation called (what made the wound, wound the thread). Responding to noises in the gallery, a latex balloon took in and let out both helium and saltwater. The balloon was a breathing, swaying, secreting body, and the salty drips that fell from it did not course like Bock’s watery desire lines but pooled, straight away, on a large concrete slab, building a terrain of frosty white crystals. Romano foregrounded the variables of noise, density and gravity to create desire lines of chance and circumstance that resulted in the trajectories of water dripping from the shifting balloon onto a low, flat expanse. Like Bock’s rainwater, Romano’s drips traveled from high to low.
Each of these three authors has surrendered tight control by creating in response to her environment, be it the precarious situation of pollinators, precipitation or sound. Bergmann, Bock and Romano’s desire lines are not made directly by people but are, instead, the yields of sensitive systems where animals or water travel and coalesce as conditions allow. Each facilitates that process but never wields absolute control. In that way, their works help us recognize our own capacities to act with inquisitiveness and care. They encourage us to see correspondences between ourselves and other things in the world—pollinators need to eat, and water responds to gravity, as do we.
Smell and Memory
Rock Creek begins in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, crisscrossing the Montana-Wyoming border before it flows into my Dad’s hometown of Red Lodge, Montana, and then into the Yellowstone River. The “crick,” as my father calls it, has a distinct scent, a cool sweetness, which I notice sometimes in the boggy lowlands near Seattle’s Laurelhurst neighborhood.
Rock Creek is like a larger, ancient version of Katinka Bock’s rainy, coursing desire lines, winding its way down from high mountain passes to lower elevations. But its smell, when I encounter it elsewhere, also forms an involuntary, distinctly individual desire line, conveying me from my present moment and location. That deep, redolent scent triggers a shortcut across time and place to one of the happiest landscapes of my childhood.
I remember, there, my father’s long strides as we walked along the creek’s grassy bank and his two feet in front of mine, charting a path for us.
Tactile is a high-touch product and interaction design studio in Downtown, Seattle. We partner with influential and emerging brands to craft industrial, medical and consumer products with lasting relevance. Join us September 17 for a Seattle Design Festival event exploring the convergence of physical and interactive design. Tactileinc.com
These photographs from The Palouse Project by Lara Swimmer and Robert Zimmer map the evocative, seductive landscape of wind-deposited, rolling landforms in the Palouse region of the Northwest. Behind these beautiful images is a terrifying story. Despite the application of lessons learned from the Dust Bowl, 100 years of farming has resulted in a loss of 40% of this region’s topsoil to erosion; by the late 1970s, erosion had removed 100% of the topsoil from 10% of the cropland, along with another 25% to 75% of the topsoil from another 60% of that land. The Soil Conservation Service considers the erosion in the Palouse to be the worst in the nation.
This is one of the richest and most productive wheat farming lands in the world. A visit to the Palouse to experience this landscape includes a big sky, pale yellow with dust. Those beautiful tilled lines that accentuate the landform and give us this iconic landscape are a primary source of erosion. As farmers develop strategies using no-till farming, these lines may begin to occur every few years. We may see these lines disappear altogether as alternatives develop, and like Dorothea Lange's these photos will illustrate a past.
I’ve been in Paris for some days, on an artist residency that will have me here for a couple of months. Newly arrived, still jet lagged, I’m not yet fully here nor am I obviously there. In such a place/non-place, I’ve found myself reflecting on my current state: No matter the obvious discomforts of traveling “economy” (sic), and most often not speaking the language of those in the places I land, I’ve been quite content to spend increasing time living and working abroad.
It’s not that traveling is new to me, and I’m not going because of any lack at home. My partner and I usually travel together and have been doing so for a long time. We share a fabulous place in the beautifully wooded country and a full life in Seattle.
But increasingly I find myself accepting offers to wander off.
For years as an artist I’ve taken work that purposely puts me where I don’t belong, nor have been socially, physically, conceptually. Recently I spent several months as an artist in residence at a water treatment facility, where I worked with the plant engineers to produce a kinetic fountain, having never previously met them nor worked with water as a medium. This autumn I photographed ancient mosques. For a long time my work involved tracking centuries-old voyages of discoveries. The odysseys that attract me now are more internal, though they often still unfold on foreign soil. In either case, they are about crossing borders. I’m convinced that an artist’s life and work is about moving ever closer to edges. These edges by necessity involve an element of danger, though fortunately usually not of a physical kind.
I can’t point to a specific time when I discovered that I was fully content to be wherever I found myself. There I am on the Paris Metro happily watching several lives unfold in the carriage around me, or climbing a mountain footpath in Java with a team seeking a tall, skinny tree. The contradiction is that the more I’m in places obviously not my own, the more at peace I’ve learned to become.
In a foreign place, I’m basically stripped down to my capacity to look. And while much of what I see I don’t, or can’t, understand in objective terms, I can try to interpret or translate it. “Translate” comes from the Latin meaning “to carry across.” Traveling, I bring what I see and learn across borders and doorways—physical, metaphysical, geographic and personal.
Far away, I can give myself over to curiosity, what and where it brings me. And in the woods back home, I can happily weave what has returned with me into my life and my art making. So perhaps being “there” is a manner of trying to perfect seeing here.
On a walk around my newly adopted Paris neighborhood, I pass in quick succession through enclaves of Eastern European Jews and Southeast Asians, South Asians, Turks, Africans, Algerians and Kurds. It’s a holiday, and people are together. Cafes are full, and many, dressed more or less in the garb of where they once lived, are nursing some sort of liquid, looking out in a way that to me seems filled with longing.
Maybe they too are neither home nor here. Or maybe they are quite content to be in their new place, and the longing on their faces is just holiday sentimentality. Like them I am a sojourner, but maybe unlike them I have the enormous luxury of slipping in and out. This is not a privilege I take lightly. An artist’s life is never easy, but however difficult, it offers the wondrous possibility of being on a long-term voyage of discovery. I think I travel to force myself to remember that I am never more nor less than what I see and what I can make of it. I, like all artists, am a translator, and home for me has become wherever I am comfortable doing the translating.
Chris Jordan’s subject matter, in the artist’s words, is “the immense scale of our consumption” (Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption). It is the life cycle of commercial products, the habits of the individual consumer and the social implications of systems of consumption: power, excess and waste. Jordan, who until 2002 was a practicing lawyer, has experienced hurried success as an art photographer, gaining attention in his native Seattle and in national and international forums. His accomplishments derive not only from his images but from his role as a pop statistician and a vocal proponent of an environmental policy that favors far flung and immediate action.
Jordan’s photo portraits of the Pacific Northwest’s industrial sites and waste management facilities treat accumulated waste as landscapes: towering mountains and crumbling cliffs, vast plains planted with discarded products and industrial debris. These dense, sensual images express a Romantic appreciation for the aesthetics of ruin and share scope, physical size and subject matter with Edward Burtynsky’s sweeping photographs of polluted mine sites and Andreas Gursky’s portraits of architectural spaces that are chockablock with people or products.
The deep impression of our collective environmental footprint enjoys limited visual representation by the popular press, whose eco-lite reportage often comes across as a slow, simultaneously mouthed “oops.” But Jordan has had the experience of seeing the evidence first hand, of being privy to hint after hint after screaming hint. While he began taking photographs of regional trade and waste locations because of their formal qualities, the massive stacks and piles of cast-off tertiary materials comprise dozens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of individual components that are snowflake unique, worthy of attention as finite objects in an infinite, unknowable panorama. Jordan’s project has developed into a piecemeal survey of the innumerable components and vistas of this panorama, a deconstruction and reconstruction of artificial landscapes.
The landscape has long been a vessel for thinkers and makers who need a big, complicated metaphor for big, complicated propositions, and nowhere has this been more so than in the United States. In the mid-19th century, Manifest Destiny, the desire to expand presence and influence to the Pacific and beyond, heavily influenced social programs and personal philosophies. Expressive of this were the compulsory taming of nature, the dominance and displacement of native peoples and the consumption and manipulation of resources acquired as populations and powerbases shifted. While some artists working during this period of expansion embraced the dominant ideology, an influential set including the Hudson River School endorsed a proto-environmentalism, a Romantic appreciation for the sublime, pre-industrial/Enlightenment landscape. Popular during this period were enormous, day-glo, heaven-on-earth landscape paintings that depicted nature as both endless and unknowable.
In the Pacific Northwest, one still catches a whiff of Manifest Destiny. The mountains and trees (logging facilities aside) remain tall, the glimpses of the sea (beyond our busy ports) heroic. We have arrived, but we are searching. Chris Jordan binds this duality in his photographs of the region. Romantic and enterprising sentiments mingle; nature and industry are at once tamed and untamed. Photographs such as Recycling Yard #6 offer a lewd materiality, an unexpected sensuality. The shiny but tarnished debris, in fact large but made miniature by the photographic process, has been gathered, bound and stacked like so many delicate, geometric bird nests. And in the center of the image some of the debris has come loose and cascaded down the stacked structure, forming a bronzed and alluring mess.
In the early 20th century, Progressivism emerged as a broad-based reform movement with core philosophies of social justice and regulation. President Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most influential proponents of the movement, responded to the environmental impact of expansion by creating conservation-related federal projects, acts and advisory bodies. Concurrent to the birth of broad environmental stewardship in America, however, was the makeover of Manifest Destiny as the American Dream, a messy, ecologically destructive system of elbow grease, industry and capital. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps was an attainable promise and in its long, smelly wake: factories, Ford, the interstate system, suburbia, disposable cutlery, Kmart, imported consumer electronics, Styrofoam, and waste, lots of it.
By mid-century, increasingly mobile and convenience obsessed consumers had observably impacted the roadside and greater environments. Littering was a new vice and characters such as Woodsy Owl, Smokey the Bear and the tear-spilling Native American of Keep America Beautiful fame made direct pleas to the individual consumer. This approach was problematic in a medical sense: it addressed the symptoms of rash consumption rather than its core illness. Similarly, Chris Jordan, after settling on his industrial subject matter for its awkward beauty, was compelled by frequent exposure to scrutinize production/consumption cycles, their damning statistics and the efforts to counter environmental impact. As it is with the wider, ever more educated public, this information gives Jordan the opportunity to fine tune his criticism and his art practice.
For the past two decades, more and more artists have created practical applications for work on ecological themes. (Contemporary with this work are the science fair type projects of artists who adapt trials, taxonomies and prettied Petri dishes for a museum or gallery environment and these environments only, a good example of which is the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2000-01 exhibition Unnatural Science.) These applications are most often achieved by introducing scientific and engineering practices into the art-making process and are most effective when an artist draws on the expertise of professionals working in relevant fields. In many cases, the art status of the final project is evident only in the participation of the artist and the financial or institutional support of an art foundation or museum. A successful and influential example of this is Revival Field, an ongoing multi-site project by Mel Chin. Working with Rufus Chaney, a research agronomist for the USDA, Chin sows gardens of hyperaccumulators, plants thought capable of removing heavy metals from contaminated soils. The gardens function as artworks and as field laboratories for Chaney’s research, which if successful, will be used to clean soil on a larger scale.
For his ongoing series Running the Numbers, Jordan assembles images to build composite landscapes. (Additional to his earlier, more documentary photography practice, he introduces other art historical standards, such as nudes and abstractions.) The artist multiplies a single object or a group of like objects — cigarette packs, plastic cups, prison uniforms — to create busy, didactic compositions that present, literally and unflinchingly, data on national and international consumer habits, as well as statistics associated with controversial social programs and behaviors. Jordan has consistently favored large format prints, but to fully represent the complexity and detail of the Numbers images, to impact the viewer who can, for instance, read the label of one plastic bottle in an image purported to feature two million, he produces installation images that are, on average, five-feet tall and upwards of eight-feet long.
Art making often moves through stages analogous to scientific and empirical processes, from concept to deliverable, and Jordan’s recent practice is in line with the activities of the environmental advocates and science/design innovators giving shape and urgency to the consequences of unfettered production and consumption. Whereas Mel Chin’s Revival Field represents an intersection of art with botany and chemistry, Jordan’s visual presentation of information gathered by consumer and research groups could be expressed as easily with graphs and pie charts. (One wishes that Jordan would more consistently site the sources of his statistics, however.) From an empirical standpoint, the photographs differ little from the video segments produced “outside a major tobacco company” by the American Legacy Foundation, in which smoking death statistics are represented on a giant, block-long banner or by a crowd of people playing dead on the adjacent streets and sidewalks. Because of and despite this day-to-day didacticism, the Running the Numbers series is both practical and poetic. The one-two punch of statistical evidence that is both complicatedly, densely visual and bluntly numerical conveys the full compass of the artist’s subject matter. And the photographs, they are calm, but urgent, information landscapes.