A. Finding Art In Science
Felice Frankel is an artist in residence at MIT and a research scientist in electrical engineering and computer science. "Frankel's emphasis on the beauty inherent in science is calculated," according to an introduction to her photographs and digital images. "She believes that bringing an aesthetic component to scientific documentation is an essential and underutilized method of making science more accessible to the masses."
Work such as Frankel's, and the exhibits in the San Francisco Exploratorium represent one kind of linkage between science and art: science AS art; a revelation of the awe-inspiring, beautiful complexities in the natural world and human manipulations of it.
A book by Frankel is titled, "On the Surface of Things." In a way, this kind of science-art linkage stays on the surface. It is a form of art for art's sake, art as display, not art as "doing." It is, thus, far removed from propaganda. It does not dictate any particular response except the swift intake of breath, the "ah-h-h" response to beauty and wonder.
These presentations and others (included televised sci-tech programs) that "make science more accessible to the masses" elevate science and, perhaps, scientists. The response--undictated, of course--is perhaps meant to be awe at science itself as much as at what it reveals.
When they stay on the surface of form and process, these exhibits often leave out information on context and consequences. Nevertheless, as Alan Lightman says of Frankel's images, "These spellbinding colors and textures and filigrees . . . remind us that much of our sense of beauty derives from the endless variety of phenomena we find in the natural world."
B. Science, Art, And Restoration
Two projects demonstrate the best of what can happen when science and art are linked in the public interest. Both engage science, art, and culture in healing the environment. Leaders of the two projects presented a workshop at the October 2001 Bioneers conference titled "The Ecology of Art and the Aesthetics of Restoration."
Keepers of the Waters, an organization directed by artist Betsy Damon, designs educational and functional water parks for urban areas. The series of pumps, fountains, pools, plants, and flow-forms purify river water to the point of being drinkable. The amount flowing through the park may not be enough to make a difference in the quality of all the river's water, but it demonstrates what is possible. And in doing so, according to Damon, it mandates change upstream and downstream.
The most touching thing about these parks is their incorporation of cultural symbols that redeem people's relation to environment. They express reverence for water. Damon's garden in Chengdu, China, contains at its center, like a holy of holies, a water-drop fountain--a 13-meter granite shape of a drop of water as it appears under a microscope. Sculptural bowls or flow-forms make the water move and pulse like a mountain stream.
The water enters constructed wetlands planted with seven different water-purifying plants. These wetland ponds were also designed to refer to Hang Long, a series of beautiful limestone pools cascading three kilometers down the nearby sacred Mt. Emei.
The entire park is shaped like a fish, symbol of regeneration.
Take a tour. www.keepersofthewaters.org
"Acid Mine Drainage and Art" (AMD&ART) is the brainchild of T Allan Comp, a historian of technology and former Senior Historian with the National Park Service. It took Comp's artistic imagination to see a fountain in the aeration spout of a passive remediation site. It took his historical knowledge to connect the visual blight of acid mine drainage to the particular mix of suffering, provincial loyalty, and work ethic of these Appalachian communities.
Vintondale, PA, is a town of under 600 bordered by a polluted river, an abandoned coal mine site, and the heavily-used Ghost Town Rail Trail--now and formerly a connection to the outside world. The 35-acre reclaimed area, still under construction, is along the trail and features a vivid demonstration of passive remediation: People traveling west along the trail will round a bend to see a sequence of large pools set within the topography. The water will flow through the series of settling and aerating ponds until it reaches the wetlands, cleansed of its metallic pollutants and higher in pH.
Native plants, selected for their color to reflect the increasing health of the water, transition from deep orange to silver-green alongside the system. "Where black boney now barely supports scrubby grasses and stunted trees, a new marsh environment will soon attract birds and wildlife," the organizers believe. The Vintondale project also features a park and a museum honoring the town's coal-mining history.
Take a tour: www.amdandart.org
C. Grim Science And The Language Of Art
from Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey To Motherhood, by Sandra Steingraber
Perseus Publishing, 2001
(Steingraber, a biologist pregnant with her first child, records this conversation with her husband, a sculptor, pp. 106-8:)
"I'm trying to figure something out."
"What's that?" He turns down the radio.
"Not a single one of these pregnancy magazines encourages mothers to find out what the Toxics Release Inventory shows for their own communities."
"You did it, though, right?"
"Yeah, I looked it up on the Internet."
"And McLean County is one of the top counties in Illinois for airborne releases of reproductive poisons."
I detail for him the results of my research. The biggest emissions of fetal toxicants are hexane from the soybean processing plant and toluene from the auto plant. My list also includes glycol ethers and xylene. All are solvents.
"Jesus," says Jeff.
"I also found out that the university uses six different pesticides on their grounds and fields. So I looked up their toxicology profiles. Two of them are known to cause birth defects in animals."
"Were these used on the athletic field by my studio? There were always little flags out there."
"I don't know. I'm wondering why our obstetrician never talked with us about these kinds of issues. Or about the problems Bloomington has had with its drinking water. The only thing I can remember him saying was not to eat sushi."
We both laugh. Raw fish is not a common menu item in Illinois diners.
"So what are you trying to figure out?"
"Two things. One, why is there no public conversation about environmental threats to pregnancy?"
"What's the other thing?"
I quote Voltaire: "In ignorance, abstain." "Why does abstinence in the face of uncertainty apply only to individual behavior? Why doesn't it apply equally to industry or agriculture?"
"Okay, let me think for a minute." Jeff turns the radio back on. And then turns it off again. "I think the questions overlap. Pregnancy and motherhood are private. We still act like pregnant women are not part of the public world. Their bodies look strange. They seem vulnerable. You are not supposed to upset them. If something is scary or stressful, you shouldn't talk about it."
"But pregnant women are constantly being told what to do. No coffee. No alcohol. No sushi. Stay away from cat feces."
"That's still private. Industry and agriculture are political, public. They exist outside one's own body, outside one's own house. You can't do something immediately about them within the time period of a pregnancy. So it seems unmanageable."
"It's pregnant women who have to live with the consequences of public decisions. We're the ones who will be raising the damaged children. If we don't talk about these things because it's too upsetting, how will it ever change?"
Jeff throws me a look.
"You're the writer. Can you find a language to manage it? Break the taboo?"
Now I have to think for a while.
"Jeff, how would you do it? In sculpture, I mean. For example, thirty-four million pounds of reproductive toxicants were released from Illinois industries last year. How would you make that number meaningful to people? How would you show it?"
The car slows as we climb a long hill. The grass blowing along the roadside is as long as horses' tails and is already tasseled with seeds. Somehow summer arrived while I wasn't looking.
"I would cast a lot of human figures--each representing a certain number of pounds of toxic chemicals--and I'd place them standing in a field."
Below us, hayfields stretch out, and rain-wet roses bloom in farmhouse yards. I imagine them out there, an army of silent persons, the weight of their bodies pressing downward, their inanimate presence speaking what we are afraid to say.
In HAVING FAITH, Sandra does find the language to express both the beauty of biology and the dangers that threaten it. Read it!
For a visual take on pregnancy, poisons, and politics, see www.wedo.org/news/Nov98/toxicsfree.htm