Consumer Trixter (Ceramics by Cannupa Hanska Luger, from http://www.cannupahanska.com)

What is environmental art? Is it art that is connected to site or place? Does it come in a particular size, shape, or color? Medium? Craftsmanship? Is it a commentary on our relationship with the nonhuman world? Is it trying to say something about how we treat the Earth? Or each other? Does environmental art even need to reflect contemporary environmentalism?  What does environmentalism even mean?

These questions are important, some unanswerable at this moment, but still worth grappling with if environmental art is to be part of the work changing the fate of our home and the people who live here.

Art assists us as a society to explore tough questions, the in-between spaces where philosophy and science fall short. Art allows us to learn, to facilitate learning, and to better understand the incomprehensibly complex issues facing us as humans who share a finite planet with one another. There is art that reflects not only environmental thinking but also engages a public to have an opinion about it. Art inspires wonder but also action.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, well known for the mirror shields he created, promoted, and delivered to the North Dakota Standing Rock Water Protectors, is just one of many artists tackling environmental and social justice issues. Luger said in a February 2017 presentation at OSU, referring to the terrible realities of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that “the injustice isn’t happening to them, it isn’t going on over there, it is happening right here.” It is happening right now. To us.

We are a collective of humans on Earth, and when one of our communities suffer, we all suffer. Our shared source of clean drinking water is being ravaged. The morals and ethics we so proudly tout as being uniquely human are being dismantled. Our constant need for more, for better, for comfort at the expense of others’ discomfort, and disregard for the limits of our natural resources, haunts our society as the monsters described in our bedtime fables.

“As living beings, we all have myths and tales that describe our lives being abused by monsters. These monsters are out of natural order and heroes rise from their torment to defeat them. Today, we are once again plagued by monsters. It is time to be the hero, each of us must be aware of what we can do in the place that we stand. So that a far future that remembers this era of monsters can sing the songs and dance the stories of our mystic ability to come together and become Monster Slayers.” – Cannupa Hanska

The monsters that exist today aren’t associated with Standing Rock, or the Missouri River alone. As Luger said, “the river I’m most worried about is the one that flows through us all.” It is a river haunted by innumerable monsters: gluttonous extraction, environmental degradation, social injustice, corrupt politics, and a culture of capitalism.

Fortunately the people of Earth are making art and experiencing it too—those who call themselves artists as well as those who don’t—from the fine artists of academia, to the part-time crafters at home. In far off natural spaces, and in late night sketchbook doodles, we are creating objects, words, ideas, and practices that help us face these demons of despair.

Together we question the monsters. Together we reveal the monsters. Together we fight the monsters. Together we win.

www.latimes.com
“Artists, we live on the periphery. But we are the mirrors.” — Cannupa Hanska Luger Protesters hold mirror shields devised by artist Cannupa Hanska Luger. (The UnKnown Collective / From Cannupa Hanska Luger)
Artist and activist Cannupa Hanska Luger, a native of North Dakota who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation, gave a public talk titled “They Need Us More Than We Need Them” on February 16th, 2017 at OSU’s LaSells Stewart Center. “Luger creates socially conscious work interweaving his identity as an American Indian with global issues. Luger, who is of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian and Norwegian descent, creates unique, ceramic-centric, multidisciplinary artwork that tells provocative stories of complex indigenous identities coming up against 21st century imperatives, including mediation and destruction. Luger’s studio is currently based in New Mexico.”

What comes to mind when you think of the Oregon coast?

Is it cold? Cozy? Dangerous? Majestic?

Michael Bendixen of Oregon Field Guide (OFG) believes that our special sea is “something to be explored and shared.”  The scientists, artists, industry professionals, business owners and other Oregon ocean enthusiasts that gathered at the recently held State of the Coast conference would probably agree with Bendixen.

These different stakeholders from our community came together with a common goal to understand how we can better communicate the coast using art and science. Several speakers, graduate student presentations, and artist displays revealed the beauty and importance of our murky waters.  The rough waters off our coast are teeming with life, drama, mystery, and stories that demand our attention.

As the keynote speaker, videographer and journalist Michael Bendixen addressed how to connect the public with the science that is shaping our understanding of Pacific Northwest beaches as well as the challenges surrounding how to communicate broader topics like ocean acidification and climate change.  His approach bridging art and science in facing these issues can be applied across disciplines and is just one more example of how the arts and humanities are bringing science to the people. Bendixen spoke of how OFG crafts powerful stories that engage audiences and manage to skillfully balance entertainment and excitement with knowledge and scientific understanding—a noble pursuit that can unite us in our efforts to take better care of this planet we inhabit.

The State of the Coast conference’s effort to together scientists and artists was perfectly exemplified by Kyle Asfahl and Amanda
Salov.  Attendees were inspired by Kyle and Amanda’s love story inspired, and even more intrigued by the romantic story they
weave of their shared passion to marry the abstract concepts found in the pursuits of art and science.  Kyle, a PhD candidate in
OSU’s microbiology department, is also an artist who explores the fundamental multicellularity and cooperation found in all levels of life. His art seems to represent his curiosity with what it is like to be a bacterium.  Amanda, an independent artist, spoke to us about how the ocean changed her practice dramatically.  Since being in Oregon she has transitioned from creating objects ‘outside’ of herself to composing structural art that reflects the understanding that she is of nature; nature and science inspired pieces come from ‘within’ her.  Amanda and Kyle’s relationship and shared journey beautifully reflect how compelling the partnership between disciplines, personalities, and perspectives can be in communicating scientific and environmental concepts.

This year’s State of the Coast conference was a tremendous experience and an impressive addition to the continued efforts to link the arts, humanities, and sciences.