On April 23rd, Earth Day, 2023, at the Catskill Art Space in Livingston Manor, NY, I moderated a panel on artists’ responses to the climate crisis titled “Envisioning Adaptation.” The panel was one of the many events the director of the CAS, Sally Wright, has hosted at the arts and performance space newly refurbished in 2022. The concept for the symposium was to create a forum of artists whose practices addressed the idea of adaptation to, as opposed to mitigation of, the climate crisis. The panel participants included David Brooks, Simone Couto, Alexandra Hammond, Brian Kelley, and J. Morgan Puett.
My opening remarks made the case for artists having a role in pointing to the unforeseen benefits of adapting to the climate crisis, since crises can present potential upsides in a changing order. David Brooks discussed his Budding Bird Blind project, an architectural installation in the woods which, instead of taking away bird habitat, creates habitat as the trees planted within the installation gradually supplant the architecture as it gets slowly dismantled, mirroring the process known as forest succession. Brooks likened this process of expansion and reduction to the changes in the human body as it grows, matures, and dies.
Simone Couto talked first about growing up on a farm in Holy Spirit, a state in Brazil, by way of introduction to her interest in earth/soil as metaphor and material. She went on to discuss her performance practice, which has taken her to locations across the globe, including the Amazon and Iceland, where she has documented her pilgrimages through the various landscapes, taking soil samples in the case of Iceland. In her talk she touched upon the theme of human migration, a growing feature of the climate crisis, in the light of her own experience as an immigrant to the United States. She also mentioned a project she made during the pandemic, nowhere to go but everywhere, 2021, a site-specific installation that features photographs of tree canopies in the forest attached to tree trunks so that hikers on the trail can get a sense of what is above their heads.
Alex Hammond shared an image of one of her rattlesnake flags, Belly Sleeper, 2021, whose concept came out of her childhood growing up in Davis, CA, where she had direct encounters with these shy, magnificent creatures so different from mammals. Western Diamondbacks have sense organs that allow them to “see” in the infrared spectrum. Rattlesnakes have populated Hammond’s dreams, and our nation’s, as the Gadsden Flag suggests. Her flags play with the grievance politics associated with the Gadsden Flag by imagining a world as seen from the perspective of the aggrieved rattlesnake, whose habitat humans are constantly invading. The flag was a meditation on the mind-body suffering specific to the American experience, and the karmic debts its citizens have incurred in their exploitation of the land.
Brian Kelley formed the Gathering Growth Foundation in 2019 with the goal of creating a visual and sound archive of old growth trees and their habitats to create awareness around the need for preserving this vanishing legacy. He talked about the oak savannah in the Genesee Valley in New York State. It is a unique ecosystem where oaks, some hundreds of years old, dot the landscape, instead of being crowded together into a forest. He spoke of his many travels across the United States to shoot and document trees for the foundation. He also talked about forest succession, echoing David Brooks’ remarks on the subject.
In J. Morgan Puett’s presentation, she explained Mildred’s Lane, a project that she started with Mark Dion and fellow artists in 1998. Over decades Puett has repurposed buildings and land on the site for multiple projects collaborating with dozens of artists always finding new ways to recycle and upgrade, or in Puett’s words, hoosh, existing resources and infrastructure. Mildred’s Lane is about finding new social structures in which cooperation can happen to further collaboration between artists, not only in terms of artistic production, but also “lifestyle” products: cooking, decorating, designing products and clothing, and so on. Mildred’s lane follows the utopian ideal of creating a space where anyone who visits finds a way to participate in the greater project, a process Puett called “entanglement.”
After the presentations, the panelists engaged in a discussion about art’s ability to encourage the acceptance of dynamic change, a necessary precursor to any adaptations that the climate crisis will force on future generations. The subject of forest succession came up again as a suitable metaphor on the inevitably of change. Openness to change would make possible more opportunities to take advantage of emerging trends. This in turn would pave the way to making adaptation not only less painful, but possibly improving social cohesion through instigating new forms of cooperation, a utopianism seen in Mildred’s Lane, and the social practices of Hammond and Couto. Finding general agreement among the participants on that idea, the panel concluded.
About the writer: Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017. HOT AIR is made in collaboration with Hovey Brock, who has frequently written articles on climate/art for Art Spiel.