Monday, April 9, 2012

Region 4: Transformation through Imagination, A Reflective Review

At Thomas Center Gallery, from now until April 28th, anyone can view, for free, an exhibit that artistically explores the complex local issue of the Cabot/Koppers Superfund Site. The EPA defines a Superfund as the “the name given to the environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites” and is also “the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980.” I’d like also to think about Superfund’s connotations. “Superfund” sounds to me like an economic surplus combined with an image of Superman. I imagine an economic superman. In Gainesville, there is surplus, but it’s not economic; rather it’s a surplus of toxic material that has soaked into the soil, the material traces of the Cabot/Koppers wood treatment plant. Thus, the Cabot/Koppesr plant has created waste, producing harmful effects that outlives its own historical time. As the works in the exhibit show though, we cannot easily locate the origin and the cause at the Cabot/Koppers wood treatment plant; indeed, there are many origins, including our own values and desires, as Murphy’s Well Being, the centerpiece of the exhibit highlights, and as the video taken from the exhibit explains. As Ulmer Ulmer, head theorist of the Florida Research Ensemble, so pointedly puts it in his book, Electronic Monuments: Problems B Us.

I have had the honor to work with Greg Ulmer in a graduate seminar last spring during which he and the FRE were researching and developing Murphy’s Well Being. I firmly remember the day when he had made a significant breakthrough and shouted “PEPPPER!” (See the above video for an explanation of why this is important). The course was titled Gift Game Strategy Economy, four words juxtaposed together that somehow structured a course. But Ulmer has a unique method and theoretical apparatus that helps him structure his courses. The course was complicated, theoretically dense, and infinitely rewarding, but for brevity’s sake, the basic idea is that we were to gather information about a disaster and archive it in a blog (click link for my blog) and then create a final project using Prezi that makes visible through manipulating images, text, and video interdisciplinary connections that do not attempt to solve the problem, but rather, to explore it; Ulmer teaches students to dwell in the complexity of situations by analyzing and exploring a problem through many different avenues. (My final prezi can be found below and embedded in my blog site)

I mention my personal connection to the exhibit because anyone who has studied with Ulmer, read his books, or taken a course with him, will notice the significance given to personal narrative in his method. The personal participates in the collective and is important aspect of our connection to the world around us. Ulmer’s theory takes into account the affective dimension of human experience as well as the cognitive. This general attitude corresponds to the Superfund Art Project’s goal to organize an art exhibition that would “ ‘express the science and the emotions’ of living in proximity to a toxic Superfund site in a way that will make the story come alive” (“Transformations” 5). The affective dimension of the work does not preclude cognitive insights nor does the exhibit favor one particular emotion (anger, pity, happiness); instead, the work rewards extended engagement with a wide array of feelings, knowledge, and intuitions so that one comes away with a new outlook on not only the Superfund site, but also the greater Gainesville community.

Before I describe and interpret Murphy’s Well Being, though, I want to take a moment and recognize two the other artworks that gave me pause, John A. O’Connor’s Left Behind (2012) and Anthony Costranovo’s Citizen Bio-detector (2012). O’Connor’s piece consists of three panels of mixed media on Sintra, but the resemblance of the paintings to the surface of blackboard is uncanny. The blackboard images, O’Connor notes in his artist statement, arise from his classroom experience as both a student and a professor, but the blackboard also signifies the possibility of erasing and redrawing history. He writes in his artist statement,

Erasing and moving borders become a history lesson: a history of the work itself. Wiping out and/or covering up images and messages goes far beyond the processes themselves. The procedure raises several questions: What is covered up? Why? What is missing? (“Transformations” 38)

I actually approached the “final” panel of the piece first, thinking the other panels were actually other artworks, so I was confronted with the full complexity of the palimpsest built upon the previous images. I saw two ‘sticky notes’, one red that reads “Their science,” one white that says “your reality.” At first I only saw the vaguely human outline of a figure that appeared in an abstract lotus meditation pose, so I thought it was saying something about left and right, yin and yang, or some such, but then I saw the blue “sticky note” at the top, which says “Get it? You will.” So, as if I were struggling to find Waldo or the hidden picture in the noise of colors, I started to see other shapes, figures, and text. slightly erased, blurred, and almost transparent equations and chemical structures in the background, a vague shape of a skull started to poke through the ‘chest’ of the humanoid figure and underneath a skull and cross bones—I was starting to get it.

At this point I noticed the other panels and began to compare and contrast them. One of the final images I saw in the last panel was a human target, complete with rings and a bullseye at the center of the skull. These figures slowly revealing themselves to me in layers created an uneasiness rather than a direct “meaning.” Indeed, although the first panel clearly potrays a skull and crossbones layered over chemical equations, this is not merely about death. Because the blackboard situates the piece in a pedagogical scene, the piece to me regards the abstraction of science into a self-sufficient figure and code, a code that ‘erases’ the visible differences between toxic and innocuous chemicals. But do not think that I have explicated and ruined the work for you, there are still many traces bleeding through the canvas, despite the effort of the eraser.

Anthony Castranov identifies in his artist statement that a major problem in preventing the public’s engagement with the Koppers/Superfund site issue is “the expense of testing and the lack of access to appropriate tools.” In order to remedy this, Anthony has created Citizen Bio-Detector, a tool-vest that will allow citizens to gather data concerning the water quality of creeks in the neighborhood surrounding the Koppers site. As a vest that positions the LED display for data on the back of the vest, people wearing the vest are more apt to ask what these numbers mean. I find this piece interesting for many reasons, but mostly because of its invention of a device that, at least theoretically, would actually work. Castronovo claims that “multiple units can be created that can be loaned to people in the area,” so that we may see people actually wearing these units. This particular piece, in contrast to many of the pieces on display, could theoretically be reproduced and used as a combination of a research tool and a performative spectacle that will, in Castronovo’s words, “draw attention to issues and stimulate dialogue and action” (“Transformations” 18).

There are many other pieces that invite the audience to pause, reflect, and feel. but I hardly consider it adequate to describe these works in a few paragraphs, nor do I think my analyses of the works above definitive or even ‘correct’. All of these works deserve to be viewed in person, as access is free and the exhibit small enough to where one can spend time reading artist statements and drinking the healing nutrients of the artworks.

But plan on multiple visits especially for what I called above the “centerpiece” of the exhibit, Florida Research Ensemble’s Murphy’s Well Being. I spent at least two hours exploring this piece and I still desire to return, take more notes, and make more connections. Yes, I took notes because I could not help but note the connections and meanings ‘drawn’ from the well. Before I get too ahead of myself though, I should describe the exhibit. As one walks into the Thomas Gallery, we hear and see the main video posted above that explains the macro-structure of the project. Toward the end of the video, it invites the viewer to “interact” with the well. The “well” being the video refers to is a cylindrical object located in front of the wall on which the images are projected that came up to about my belly and was about three feet in diameter (it is a large well). Peering into the cylinder, we see a screen projecting an image of water in the well, but when we touch it, the well pulls us in to reveal – not a bottomless pit – but a map of the superfund site, divided into regions and labeled appropriately. Within the map, the viewer notices names such as “Tattoo,” “Alachua,” and “Pearce.” There are at least twenty names on there or so (I didn’t count) and next to each name, a sound icon appears. If the viewer pushes the icon on the screen, the perspective zooms in and colors start to appear, colors that resemble the ones in the overview video which are vaguely psychedelic, reminding me somehow of the roto-scoping techniques Richard Linklater used in his film Waking Life.

At first see the person as a kind of cardboard cutout in a pose. If we touch the screen again, we generate a menu including links to History, Myth, Philosophy, the three subsections mentioned in the overview video. Regardless of which link we click on, the sequence of images is the same. On the left side of the wall, we sit in on a mini-interview with a resident or place in Gainesville and hear about their lives and their knowledge of the Superfund site. The first sequence then gives way to the right side of the wall where we are treated to another genre of discourse, including self-help guides, documentaries, deep ecologists, eastern wise men, music videos, musicals in films, commercials. The videos on the left, so far as I could tell, were all unique but sometimes the videos on the right would repeat for different people on the map. Thus, it was never guaranteed that we would discern an explicit connection between the left and right side, although sometimes the connection is powerful. Flashes of insight and reason take place not only within the individual sites on the map, but also between the sites. Each of us will focus on different details that somehow puncture us, which Barthes calls the punctum, which Greg Ulmer has used extensively as part of his methodology. Some of the resident’s narratives did not resonate as strongly as others and surely many of this would depend on the viewer of the work. I happened to notice, if I remember correctly, that one man outside the Salvation army were calling people “jerks” and that I had seen in the corner of the video documenting the Occupy Corporations rally had a shirt that said “Jerk” and I”m sure some other things. This could be written off as a coincidence, but such coincidences can also serve as a method of invention for our own thinking.

As someone who rarely if ever participates in direct activism such as protests, walkouts, or rallies, I tended to focus on the philosophical side of the work. Murphy’s Well Being is a well of well-being – its main purpose is to look at “happiness.” But happiness in this formulation, I think, meant to signify a fleeting emotional state, nor the utilitarian notion of happiness as “the greatest good for the greatest number of people,” but rather Aristotle’s sense of eudemoniaeu “good” and daimon “being.” But for good or for ill, most of the videos call this “happiness” rather than well-being or eudemonia. So we are treated to many views on happiness that creates a cognitive dissonance (but not necessarily disagreement) in order to show how difficult it is to achieve collective (and not just individual—this is why we are also not in the realm of Aristotelian “virtue” ethics, where virtues are properties of individuals) well-being. How can we reconcile John Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun” with Buddhist enlightenment?

But we live these contradictions, these aporias every day and rather than ignore them, this artwork asks us to engage and, to draw on psychoanalytic language, to “work through” them. I want to offer an example of what I think is one of the most powerful sequences. A couple months ago, Cornell West came to speak at Bo Diddly Plaza and at University of Florida in support of Occupy the Corporations. I unfortunately did not attend these events, but luckily, someone in the Florida research ensemble did. The “Bo Diddly” link takes use to the scene as Cornell West preaches as though he were preaching philosophy. It is truly a beautiful performance in and of itself. But even more potent is after or before the speech, when West is introduced on the ground to the “history” of Gainesville’s Superfund site. From the videos, he seems to be unaware of it, but he listens attentively, asking questions and responding with a look of concern. Just as the “history” portion fades out, we hear someone tell him “please check into it. . .”

This event is set against a video where the Coca-Cola Company sets up a “special” coke machine on a college campus, the “happiness machine,” to unsuspecting college students. As soon as I saw what was going on, I immediately thought about Coke’s recent slogan that has always disturbed me: open happiness – what a vague, but powerful slogan – open happiness. Well, the video is an experience in “open” happiness – happiness that “everyone,” at least in the video, has access. The video can be found below.

On the one hand, the video shows that, indeed, a plenitude of cokes, including a person in the machine whose hands[1] give out flowers, pizza, a giant club sandwich as a girl says “thank you coke,” can definitely make people smile, bring people together who weren’t together before, and change the entire dynamic of a setting. Neither the commercial nor its iteration in Murphy’s Well Being wants to hide this fact, but then we must ask a few questions. What happens when we think about Coke’s slogan in relation to John Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”? And what happens when we remember that this is a rare, staged occurrence and that corporations only hand out free stuff so they can record it, present it as the “face” of the company, and let you drown in a well of caffeine and sugar in relative anonymity. I still feel as though there are so many connections to make and parts of the well to explore, but I have to leave some surprises and room for your own punctive experience.

I hope I have shown the breadth and, pun intended, the depth of these works that are working for our collective well-being. I exhort you to draw from this well as if it were a fountain of youth and then draw some lines on a paper, and then erase or redraw the lines, so that we recognize that even if we are only on the margins, we are all connected to the local, Gainesville community and, as Marshall Mcluhan calls it, the global village.

For more information on the exhibit and other events at the Thomas Gallery click here.

[1] So many connections are shooting through my brain right now: Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” (this may be a visible hand, but it’s still anonymous) and the hand that gives with one hand what it takes away with the other (or in this case, the hands that give you one thing but the other hands of the corporation are hidden and draining the well drop by drop. 

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