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Environmental Art

Stanford Artists Swept Up in Rising Tide of Environmental Awareness

Stanford art professors Gail Wight and Terry Berlier are both directors of Rising Tide: The Arts and Ecological Ethics, an upcoming conference that will explore the intersection of art, ethics and the environment. Public policy is shaped by cultural habit and the aim of the conference is to demonstrate how creative professionals and artists can influence global environmental policy.

A piece from Gail Wight's 2004 CREEP exihbit. In this project, Wight explored the simple beauty of the color and growth patterns of slime mold. This innovative three-day conference is designed to foster interdisciplinary dialogue about the relationship between aesthetics and the green movement.

The conference, taking place April 17 – 19, 2009, is jointly hosted by Stanford University’s Department of Art & Art History and California College of the Arts (CCA). Participants will include artists, designers, business and nonprofit professionals, activists, community organizers, scholars, and students. They are coming from the Bay Area and around the world to present new projects, books, and theories about creative work and climate change. Conference topics include sustainable, experimental materials that are available to artists and architects, urban aesthetics in the green era, and transportation.

Both Prof. Wight and Prof. Berlier’s art and scholarship interests have environmental leanings, which led them to become involved with the conference. Gail Wight, an associate professor of art, specializes in experimental media arts. Wight takes a Dadaist approach to issues of biology and the history of science. Her recent projects have involved living organisms, which have been incorporated into finished works of art.

Terry Berlier is an assistant professor of sculpture and an interdisciplinary artist who sometimes uses sound and video in her pieces. Her most recent work is currently being exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Art in Sacramento. The exhibit titled “Divergent Timing” illustrates her interest in exposing the history that is preserved in the environment around us with an installation of tree ring samples.

Professors Wight and Berlier answered a few questions about art and the environment.
How did this conference come to be? What inspired you to become involved?

GW: The conference is the brainchild of Prof. Kim Anno, Chair of Painting at Cal. College of Art, and a good friend. She called me nearly two years ago, to ask if I'd like to work with her on putting this conference together. It's a topic close to both of our hearts.

TB: Gail invited me to participate and it was easy to get behind this project as my new work at the time was addressing issues of the environment. It is also something I believe in; after all I do use biodiesel.

Whom do you hope to reach with the conference messages?

GW: Anyone and everyone, but we'd like people in art and design, in particular, to come together to discuss both the pros and cons of how art is used in light of environmental ethics. We don't have a specific message, but hope to encourage our participants to share insights and suggestions about how we might be more effective, and share information about projects that we feel are already successful.
TB: Students, faculty, and the communities surrounding Stanford and CCA.


One of the tree-ring installations in Terry Berlier's Divergent Timing exhibit at The Center for Contemporary Art Sacramento.

Could you tell me a bit about how your research intersects with environmental issues?

GW: I've been making works of art about biological science for more than twenty years. I'm fascinated by the history of evolutionary science in particular, and how essential historical moments still resonate within the most contemporary practices in biology. An elemental aspect of biology is the interconnectedness of all life. Environmental concerns have such profound and far-reaching impact - its impossible not to make connections in my artwork.

TB: My work seeks to dissect and map time to expose and manipulate our understanding of cultural and environmental histories. These are spatially configured through interactions with sculpture, sound, video, installation and drawings. Found materials, vernacular and modern technologies, and detritus from everyday life are subverted. I also question how innovations are changing the way we perceive and interact with the world and whether we are coming closer to or farther from understanding each other and the world around us.

Do artists, art scholars and creative professionals have an inherent responsibility to address environmental issues in their work?

GW: No, absolutely not. But I do believe that all of us - no matter our profession - have a clear responsibility to address environmental issues in our day to day living. If one is able to also address these issues in one’s work, so much the better. But there are all kinds of creative endeavors that don't address environmental issues, which are still valid and important in their own right - not least of all to remind us of our own humanity. 

TB: I would suggest that we all have a responsibility to address this issue in some way in our lives, but not necessarily in our work. There are plenty of other issues that need addressing and so I think it takes a balance from us all to make consciousness work in some form or other. I think we can all be more aware of the materials we use to create and how me might walk a little lighter on the ground.

What would people be surprised to know about the relationship between the arts and the environment?

GW: It may be surprising to learn that there's been a long engagement between arts and the environment, and that artists and designers have been effective leaders, in some cases, in major clean-up efforts of rivers, neighborhoods, and toxic waste sites. They've started wonderful public awareness efforts and developed new tools for living in more environmentally ethical ways.

Why is it important to include creative professionals and scholars in the arts in environmental debate?

GW: Everyone has something to add. Merle Ukeles was able to bring the crisis in waste disposal to the NYC public back in the 1970s. The Selby-Langs, who will have an exhibit in the Cummings Art Lobby as part of our conference, have been creating astounding exhibits constructed entirely of plastics washed up on the beach. Plastics in our oceans have reached dire proportions, and this exhibit is just one of the many ways that the Selby-Langs have been able to reach a wide public, making them aware of how small day to day actions can have drastic consequences. They do this with a sense of humor that allows people to engage and learn. David Buckland, our keynote speaker, takes artists, writers, composers, and other creative professionals on a trip to the Arctic to witness the melting North Pole in person. He started this project a few years back, calling it Cape Farewell, in the hopes that when these people returned home, they would bring a fresh awareness of our current environmental crisis to their work. This has been an incredibly effective method for bringing global warming to the world stage, both metaphorically and literally.

TB: I think creativity can offer up the unthinkable to the table. The imagination can bring things into being that practical thinking might not. Somewhere between the two, maybe we can create some new roads, new innovations, or new awareness.

What is eco-criticism? And, what are eco-aesthetics? And, why are they each important research pursuits?

GW: These are hotly contested terms.  To be honest, I'm more interested in the actions that artists and designers might take, rather than the labels they might chose to use.

TB: Eco-aesthetics addresses' the environment through art, both conceptually as well through the use of materials used to create. To me it is looking for possible solutions in our art practice that seek a more ecologically balanced relationship with our environment. It requires thinking long term, instead of the here and now.

In your opinion, what would be the most effective way for artists to convey the value of their expertise to policy makers?

GW: Policy makers need to respond to the public, and artists and designers are members of that public and can help to give it a voice.

TB: I think there are a number of ways that this can be done, through the traditional white wall gallery space, public art as well as interventionist art. Also, this sort of conference well hopefully spark many future conversations across various disciplines.

What would you like to see happen as a result of this conference?

GW: Every bit of awareness helps, so that's our bottom line. We also hope is that this will build strong connections for people, offering awareness of and assistance for projects already in the works, and build new alliances and opportunities for people wanting to work together. Most importantly, we hope this will inspire our students to take action and to get involved!

TB: I'd like the conversation and action to continue across disciplines and I'd like to think the younger art students can really integrate these ideas and concerns in their art making processes from an early stage.

Rising Tide: The Arts and Ecological Ethics will take place at Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium and CCA’s Timken Lecture Hall. Various satellite events, including screenings, exhibitions, performances, and lectures, will be held on April 6–30 at both campuses. All events are free and open to the public, and no tickets are required.

Download the press release here.