Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Public Art: Solving Public Problems

Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1990. Image via Roselandish
This week, as promised, I am returning to our summer public art mini-series. After writing about the synthesis of art and science in my last two posts, I immediately thought of Mel Chin--a scientific artist, if there ever was one. Chin's revolutionary work Revival Field is a beautiful and functional combination of art and science. The work, which used hyperaccumulator plants to remove toxic chemicals from soil, is very much in line with all the talk of "going green" and sustainability that is part of the zeitgeist today. But back in 1990 Revival Field was quite controversial. Famously, Chin went to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding, and it was initially rejected for its "lack of aesthetic value." (Chin petitioned, and ended up winning the grant). Revival Field was not accessible to the public either, since it was located at Pig's Eye Landfill--a contaminated superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota. So if it isn't accessible to the public, and is not about it really public art? Read on to find out why the answer is yes.

A Toxic Problem with a Beautiful Solution
     Chin's intention for Revival Field was to find a solution to the problem of toxic soil--especially in areas where people live. His solution: hyperaccumulator plants, which can suck heavy metals out of soil. He saw hyperaccumulators as a potential long-term solution to this problem of toxicity that was not only practical, but conceptually beautiful. "We live in a world of pollution with heavy metals saturating the soil, where there is no solution to that," Chin told Art21. "If that (pollution) could be carved away, and life could return to that soil, then a diverse and ecologically balanced life, then that is a wonderful sculpture."
    To complete Revival Field, Chin worked with the country's foremost expert in hyperaccumulators, Dr. Rufus Chaney at the United States Department of Agriculture. While Chin had already studied the history of alchemical plants in African lore and other sources, Chaney helped him study up on the hard science behind these metal-sucking plants. (Sounds like something out of science-fiction, doesn't it?) Chaney was also excited to find a new outlet for hyperaccumulators, since he could not find government funding to conduct his own experiments in the field.
"Arts can be important for public service"
    The next step: completing a test to prove the hyperaccumulators could really do their job...and finding the funds and the place to do it. This proved to be an enormous challenge. Chin felt strongly that Revival Field should be publicly funded. "'s a public problem, and it should be public funds. We should show that arts can be important for public service. An idea like Revival Field is for the public domain," Chin told Tom Finkelpearl in an excellent interview from the book Dialogues in Public Art. But funding a hyperaccumulator project was tantamount to accepting responsibility for a toxic site, so the Environmental Protection Agency (and other public entities) stayed far away from the project.
     Chin spent hundreds of hours on the phone talking to government officials trying to find funding and a test site--an arduous process which Chin considers part of the art itself. "When people are used to see you making sculpture or creating drawings and they come in and you’re on the phone constantly, and they say, "Well aren’t you going to make any art today?" And I would say, "I am making art—this is it," Chin told Art21. Eventually Chin obtained public funding from the NEA as well as a site: Pig's Eye Landfill in St. Paul, Minnesota. Because of it's Superfund status, the Landfill was off limits to the public; instead, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis held an exhibition on Revival Field. Chin planted the hyperaccumulators plants in a bullseye pattern in a cordoned off section of the landfill. Chaney would then test soil and earthworms from the site back at the USDA for lowering contamination rates.

Chin on site at Revival Field. Image via pruned
But Is it Art? 
    As I mentioned before, it's hard to believe sometimes that Revival Field might qualify as public art--since it's inaccessible to the public and highly conceptual in nature. But Chin created Revival Field for the people, to help solve a problem on a micro level that affects thousands, probably millions, on the macro level. And Chin and Chaney were hugely successful in achieving that goal. Not only did they find reduced cadmium levels in the soil after only a year at Revival Field, but the success of the project at Pig's Eye also led to three subsequent Revival Fields in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Germany. Most significantly, the hyperaccumulator process is actually used by the government today. It's now called green remediation, and the EPA--who originally wanted nothing to do with Chin and Chaney's project--has their own website devoted to the practice.
     Rufus Chaney told Tom Finkelpearl (in another Dialogues in Public Art interview),
"Mel and I agree that Revival Field is not done until it has become a technology. Mel would say it's finished when the first full site has been decontaminated...It will be done when it's part of the normal way society solves problems. Wouldn't that be a remarkable, effective art project?"
Revival Field may not be 100% complete, but it's on its way there, and is certainly a success as an artwork, a science project--and a work of public art.

You can read more about Mel Chin at Art21 (including the more recent, very cool Fundred Dollar Bill project), and in the aforementioned book Dialogues in Public Art (which I can't recommend enough if you are interested in public art).

What do you think about Revival Field? Could you envision a similar project in your community?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Scalpel...and Paintbrush? The Power of the Arts in Medicine

banksy - peaceful hearts doctor - 3
Banksy "Peaceful Hearts" Doctor, San Francisco, 2010. CC Image courtesy of Eva Blue on Flickr.
Did you ever watch the tv show Felicity? It was a favorite of mine back in the day (you know, ten-ish years ago). The show followed the trajectory of a group of college students in Manhattan--their identity crises, love lives, and existential worries that many experience as undergraduates. For some time the title character struggled with choosing between going pre-med or studying art. (I believe she chose medicine in the end, to my disappointment). Well, according to this article by Dr. Gary Christenson, president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, Felicity could have done both--and been a better doctor for it. Read on to find out how a drawing class can help doctors become better at their jobs.

Visual Arts Improve Observational Skills
In the article, Dr. Christenson outlines many ways in which the arts can improve healthcare, from improved patient experience through design to the art therapy for patients Alzheimer's disease. But the point I found most surprising was that medical students with visual arts training demonstrated improved observational skills. In a 2001 study, med students who participated in forms of visual arts training, such as life drawing and art observation exercises, showed stronger visual diagnostic skills than those with no arts training.

This actually makes perfect sense. I'm not an artist by any stretch of the imagination but I did take Drawing I as an undergraduate as part of my art history requirements. To draw something accurately (or even inaccurately, if you're going the abstract route) observation skills are paramount--otherwise your drawing will not look how you want it too (abstract or not). Over the course of my Drawing class I noticed that even my casual observation skills improved. I would notice small details--the way light filtered through a glass of water or the unique contours of an outdoor sculpture--far more acutely than I ever did before. So it only makes sense that life drawing would have practical applications for doctors as well. And the best doctors must have keen observation skills in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

Doctors as Arts Advocates?
This is a real, hard skills example of how visual arts education has an impact on a field that is impossible to trivialize--and whose reform has been at the forefront of our collective consciousness for at least a couple of years now. (Indeed, Dr. Christenson also shows ways that art can help hospitals cut costs--a big part of the healthcare debate.) The article also provides many examples of real world arts integration, which I blogged about last week. The piece is certainly worth a read if you're interested in finding a unique new arts advocacy angle, health care reform, or both!

Dr. Christenson concludes by saying that "physicians should be advocates for the arts in general and, more specifically, in medical education and practice." Hear hear!

What do you think? Have you seen the power of the arts in healthcare at work, from art therapy to improved design? Or do you know any artist-doctors who wind down at the easel in their off time?

P.S. The public art mini-series returns next week!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Real World Arts Integration- or, Why Science Needs Art

Crumple Paintings
Tauba Auberbach Crumble Paintings at Deitch Projects, Fall 2009, New York. CC Image courtesy of Chad Carpenter on Flickr.
Arts integration--combining the study of art with other subjects--seems to be all the rage these days. The strategy is growing traction as a way to include arts education in schools often working on tight budgets; the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities study released in May strongly recommended arts integration for this very reason. But what does arts integration look like outside the classroom? One answer to this question is visible (quite literally) in the work of Tauba Auerbach, Nathalie Miebach, and Matthew McCrory. Read on to find out what they do and why their work is good news for art ed advocates.

Bringing Science in to the Art World
Artist Tauba Auerbach was trained in math and science as well as art; today, she combines her knowledge of the two to create mesmerizing and mind-bending works of art like the Crumple Paintings (pictured above). The crumple effect visible in the above image is achieved through some complicated math that I will never understand--up close, the painting is just a dizzying arrangement of dots on an entirely 2-D surface. Auerbach's other series explore the connection between art and science, or order and chaos, in other ways. Her series of static photographs are one example; there is a digital logic behind these images of seemingly random digital chaos. Despite her work’s strong roots in science and math, Auerbach works primarily in the art world. Her work has been shown at the New Museum, SF MoMA, and the Whitney Museum, among many others.

Artistic Visualizations of Science
Nathalie Miebach also works within the art world but was trained in science. A sculptor based in Massachusetts, Miebach creates ornate basket sculptures that directly represent scientific data such as tidal patterns and cloud formations. She came to her unique work method while concurrently studying basket weaving and astronomy; she decided to create 3-D representations of the 2-D images of space on view in her classes to aid in her own learning process. “I’d be looking at these incredible images of the deepness of space and time projected against a flat wall. And it was very frustrating,” she said. “I decided the only way I could really understand it was if I could find a way to make it three-dimensional.” Though Miebach considers herself a sculptor she has presented her work to several groups working in science, including a conference of science teachers.

Matthew McCrory’s work skews the most toward science, as he is employed by the Center for Advanced Molecular Imaging at Northwestern University (indeed, can you sound much more scientific than that?). McCrory used his scientific background to work on the technical aspects of DreamWorks films such as A Shark’s Tale and Kung Fu Panda. Like Miebach, McCrory was frustrated by 2-D representations of scientific data--especially in comparison to the computer generated images he worked with in Hollywood. So when an opportunity to create an 3-D imaging system presented itself at Northwestern, he jumped at the chance. Now Northwestern is home to a three dimensional “You make discoveries much quicker when you have a different way of viewing your data,” says Mr. McCrory

Using Art To Solve Problems, Scientifically
I think that the work of these three scientific artists (or artistic scientists) shows the dizzying array of possibilities (as dizzying as one of Auerbach’s crumple paintings!) that can come out of art education--and the importance of art to science. From using science to create art for art's sake, to employing art to solve more practical problems in the scientific realm, Auerbach, Miebach, and McCrory are three great examples of how art and science can be integrated and synthesized outside the classroom with incredible results.

More broadly, the work of these three individuals speaks to the ways in which arts integration can enhance how other subjects are taught by adding depth and new perspectives to other subjects.

Indeed, combining the artistic with the scientific has potential to yield incredible possibilities. McCrory’s description of how the 3-D imaging system he designed works is a great example: “If we put glasses on you and display a rabbit brain on the screens, you’re no longer looking at it, you’re walking around in it.” Imagine the potential for scientific discovery! If anything, the work of these three scientific artists (or artistic scientists?) is another reason to go from STEM to STEAM (adding Art to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education).

Do you know of any artists--or scientists--with a foot in both of these fields? What do you think about arts and science integration? Tell me about it in the comments!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Public Art: The Advocate’s Secret Weapon?

Lunchtime around the Echo
Jaume Plensa, Echo, Madison Square Park, NYC. CC Image courtesy of ekonon on Flickr. 

Happy summertime! Here in my fair city (and perhaps in yours), the start of summer means an explosion of outdoor art events—some of which take the form of public art. Aside from providing an oasis for the eyes in the midst of this (sometimes not-so-fair) city, public art has other benefits that contribute to the well-being of NYC. In celebration of our newfound ability to enjoy the outdoors after a brutal winter (hooray!), I will be writing a series of posts on public art over the course of the summer. For my first post I’ll give a bit of background on what public art is and why it’s important for arts advocates to pay attention and be well-versed in this topic. Read on to find out why public art is our secret weapon! 

Not Just Statues of Guys from the History Books 
     In the past, public art was considered the sole jurisdiction of historical monuments, like this sculpture of Abraham Lincoln in Union Square here in NYC, or the Civil War generals and other Richmond heroes that populate Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA. Of course, historical monuments are still a big part of public art today. The Statue of Liberty is one of NYC’s most enduringly popular tourist attractions and she is certainly a work of art in the public sphere. On the flip side, I have seen dozens of people, tourists and residents alike, scoping out the Andy Monument outside the former location of Mr. Warhol’s Factory, just north of Union Square. (Fun fact: Andy’s Factory is now a Petco.) And Saint Louis is slated to erect a statue commemorating early rock’n’roller and native son Chuck Berry in their city.
     However, today public art is much, much more than figurative sculpture memorializing historically significant ladies and gentlemen. In NYC, organizations such as Creative Time and the Public Art Fund have been curating and producing innovative and exciting public art projects for years. Public Art Fund is responsible for the aforementioned Andy Monument, as well as the Sol Lewitt exhibition taking place in City Hall Park this summer. Creative Time works to redefine public art with inventive and awesome projects that are frequently performance based. Last year’s Key to the City by Paul Ramirez Jonas is a great example; for the project, Jonas created and distributed keys to dozens of secret or often hidden spaces in New York City. The holder of they key could discover the space on their own and then pass the key on to another, creating an informal social network an encouraging civic pride in residents and tourists of the city. Creative Time also produces the hugely popular and very moving Tribute in Light each year on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

tribute in light (brooklyn heights)
Tribute in Light, 2009. CC image courtesy of digitized chaos on Flickr.

The Benefits of Public Art 
     Above I outlined some different varieties of public art. That’s all fine and nifty, but what does public art DO, other than provide a free, aesthetically pleasing and thought provoking activity? In the past I have talked about the intrinsic versus instrumental values of art, and how sometimes it’s not easy for advocates to reconcile the two. Well, good news—public art does both! That’s why public art can be an arts advocate’s secret weapon—a great item to keep in your back pocket if you are speaking to legislators—or even members of the community who are skeptical about arts funding—about the positive impact of the arts.
     Here’s one example: a few weeks back, I discussed the enormous aesthetic and financial success of Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates in Central Park back in the winter of 2005.  In that post, I gave Mayor Bloomberg some flack for caring more about the dollars than the aesthetics. But in reality, Bloomberg does get it, as demonstrated by his statements in this LA Times article about NYC’s public art scene, and his continued support for public art in the five boroughs. In the LA Times, Bloomberg states that he supports public art because it
“encourages us to look at our neighborhoods in a new light and with new appreciation. New York City has many of the finest museums in the world, but there's something special about encountering artistic works in an open and public place and as a part of one's everyday life.” 
Well said, Mr. Mayor—that could even be an arts advocacy pitch! Bloomberg clearly understands both the aesthetic and instrumental effects public art can exert on the city—and how powerful the two are when combined. Indeed, Bloomberg also showed his support by participating in the aforementioned Key to the City project last summer. And in the same LA Times article public art administrators praise Bloomberg as a great friend to their cause through the duration of his mayorship.
     Going beyond NYC, this article from The Dirt recaps a speech on public art by Gary Steuer, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer. In his speech Steuer and his colleagues outlined how public art has exerted positive aesthetic value AND instrumental effects on communities across the country, from North Adams, MA to New Orleans. All three of these stories are great advocacy anecdotes, as these examples of public art have accomplished a TON for their respective cities.
     Are there examples of public art in your area—whether old fashioned or cutting edge? Have you seen positive effects on your community as a result, whether aesthetic or otherwise? I’m afraid my perspective is a little NYC centric, so I would love to hear about public art around the country and abroad!