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Thoughts on an Art/Science collaboration:
For Pine, the beetle is not a pest; he is sweetness of death to the aged trees, and doula to the new seedlings.

What does it mean, to collaborate across disciplines as apparently divergent as Sculpture and Biogeochemistry? We are returning to a holistic model of thinking, which was once the dominant paradigm.​


For an artist or a scientist, trained in contemporary institutions, such a collaboration is uncharted territory. Not until late in the Adaptive Capacity project did I even question our roles as “scientist” and “artist”. Who is a “maker” of the final product? What form should our final product take: artwork, manifesto, design for a new world? How will science and art form counterpoint and harmony in a new approach to climate change?

As a woman, and as an artist, I found it all too easy to assume the submissive role. Not conciously, of course! But from the outset, I assumed that I would build a sculpture that would communicate the important knowledge. Certainly, that was why I accepted the invitation to begin with:  to communicate this information.


I set these questions for myself:​
“How can the artwork allow the viewer to experience the conflicts and questions of a concept, rather than simply telling the viewer about the issues?  How can we communicate this data in an emotionally compelling way, yet focus toward positive actions or solutions?”

As many people do, I personally found the data about climate change to be very saddening and frightening. Ankur and I share a love of forests, so we discussed the rapid devastation of the pine forests by the tiny pine beetles, which are usually kept in check by colder winter temperatures. What will our children experience?​

Collaborations between artists and scientists have become an emerging discipline with critical importance in our ecologically-damaged planet. Environmental problems are cultural problems, not scientific ones:  we have enough data to begin, we know what we need to do, technology is prepared to offer solutions. What is needed is cultural change, and this is precisely why artists must be leaders in collaboration with scientists and policy-makers, because artists provoke the necessary cultural shifts that lead to truly adaptive behavior.

Interdisciplinary inquiry, expression, and action will be the essential mode for the future, as the resilience and adaptive capacity of all the earth’s ecosystems are stressed.


Adaptive Capacity
What might Pine be willing teach us?  When we look out over the acres, hundreds of thousands of acres, of rusty-brown dying pine forests across Canada and Colorado, what might we learn from the Mountain Pine Beetle?

Adaptive Capacity emerged from a collaboration between climate scientist Ankur R Desai and myself.  We were invited to work together by the American Meteorological Society, a consulting agency called Eco-Art Connections, and curator Lele Barnett.  Seven other artist-scientist pairings were also matched and invited to exhibit at the AMS annual convention.  For an artist or a scientist, trained in contemporary institutions, such a collaboration is uncharted territory. We strove to find common ground, to cultivate understanding, to adapt our languages across interdisciplinary boundaries.

Ankur and I share a love of forests, so we interrogated the rapid devastation of the pine forests by the tiny pine-bark beetles, which are usually kept in check by colder winter temperatures.

These two species, and multitudes of other beetle-tree pairings, have evolved symbiotically.  The beetle finds habitat in diseased or weakened trees, bringing them to death in short order.  Dry, dead needles and branches feed an annual festival of  scorching wildfires, which quickly pass through the forests without killing healthy trees.  Wildlife can often survive these rapid blazes by hiding in dense shrub or digging into the duff.  Pine trees depend on the searing temperatures to force open the ripened cones, allowing seeds to fall out and germinate.  Co-evolution kept a balance between the trees and the beetles, as cold winter freezes would kill off the adult insects, leaving larvae intact for another cycle.  Due to global warming, temperatures no longer reach sufficiently deep-freezing lows, and so the balance has shifted.

For Pine, the beetle is not a pest; he is sweetness of death to the aged trees, and doula to the new seedlings.

Adaptive Capacity. 2010.
Pine cones, mountain pine beetles, repurposed computer, poetry.
24” (h) x 30” (w) x 30” (d)
This sculptural form, of self-consciously enormous base with brass plaques, refers ironically to Western cultural attitudes toward knowledge.  Who has knowledge, whose knowledge may be validated and transmitted, how is knowledge stored or amended?

When I received my samples of this infamous insect from an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin, I was shocked to realize how tiny he is.  Across the media, voices bellow or whisper in terrified tones about Dendroctonus, the family of bark beetles.  No larger than a grain of rice, these creatures are portrayed as fearsome pests who are maliciously ravaging the forests, destroying the timber values and recreational resources.  Why such alarm?
Adaptive Capacity.  Detail of one of the six plaques, five of which were embossed with poems and one with a diagram of Dendroctonus.
These fears must be based in the indisputable evidence of human’s inability to control Nature, the vast and ultimate Other.  Our species’ understanding of ourselves as Homo-Sapiens, our paradigm of belonging on the Earth, is deeply embedded in the anthropocentric worldview.  We can recover from fire; we will grieve the loss of our beloved pine forests, and adapt.  But, how could we ever rehabilitate from the shocking and humiliating realizations of our overwhelmingly defective reasoning ... recognizing that Reason is our basis for defining Humans as the Exceptional species?15

I myself found the prospect of climate change sad and frightening until Ankur explained the principle of Adaptive Capacity.  Resilience and responsiveness are the keynotes of adaptive survival.  Donna Harraway writes at length, in When Species Meet, about response, respect, reply; she returns our attention to dialogue as she untangles anthropocentrism from contemporary philosophy.  She posts several bitter rebukes for Deleuze and Guatarri’s A Thousand Plateaus:

  This gibe is the first of a crowd of oppositions of dog and wolf in
  A Thousand Plateaus, which taken together are a symptomatic   morass for how not to take earthly animals -wild or domestic-   seriously. 16

Harraway appreciates Jacques Derrida’s consideration of the meaning of respond, and the difference between response and reaction, inThe Animal that Therefore I Am.  Still, she calls him out for his shortcomings:

  But with his cat, Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion   species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually   be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in   looking back at him that morning. 17

We can no longer contain the foolishness of our human-centric status, no longer confer legal rights and “non-human person” standing based on how well a creature mimics our own behaviors or learns to communicate with us.  We humans will need to be in responsive dialogue with the flora and fauna of our planet, if we are to adapt to the changes to come.  If artists are to be effective in restorative Eco-art, we must work in relationship with our multi-lingual partners, and this will mean responding to the vast array of agencies, intelligences, and modes of communication within our enormous community.

Equation of the Carbon Cycle.  The plaque on the front of the computer body is embossed with this equation.

. dC=NEE=NPP−R=w'c' +∫h ∂cdz dt h z=h0∂t
Dr. Desai uses this equation frequently to describe many various carbon-cycle events in the forest atmosphere.  Reframing the five equivalencies leads to fresh mathematical descriptions of the relationships being studied.  Although I cannot read this language, I recognize it as a rigorous form of poetry, much like haiku.  Tightly edited in both grammar and vocabulary, with semiotic richness behind each mathematical symbol, this phrase expresses multi-layered insights.

Succinct and elegant haiku, metaphorically wise allegory, abundantly joyous sonnets, epic millennial ballads:  Forest expresses her own truths, through her own forest-languages and her own forest-forms of poetics.

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