A Beach (for Carl Sagan) (2016). Photo: Andrew Yang.
Institute of the Environment 2017

Nonstop Discovery in the City

Thursday, June 29, 2017

By Abby Dockter, Institute of the Environment

Award-winning playwright Virginia Grise described her latest visit to Arizona as “nonstop discovery.”

Grise was one of several speakers in the 2016-17 academic year who came to the University of Arizona with the support of the Arts, Environment & Humanities Network to highlight the importance of the urban environment through creative work. Grise visited Arizona for a two-week residency in April to explore ways to make urban planning and environmental issues come to life in theater.

“The idea behind the network is that the grand environmental challenges we’re facing and will continue to face in this century can’t be solved by the sciences alone,” said Eric Magrane, an active founding member of the network who worked for the Institute of the Environment as a graduate research associate before receiving his PhD in May. “Art and humanities have so much to bring as modes of inquiry, in terms of imagination and empathy,” he said.

During her stay, Grise facilitated writing workshops at Perryville women’s prison as part of her work to adapt Helena María Viramontes’ novel Their Dogs Came With Them to the stage. Participants read and discussed a section of the novel, which addresses social and environmental justice issues of a growing city, with a focus on how the women related to the characters. Grise has led writing experiences for prisoners in the past, and said this group “opened up the text” as she worked on drafting the script.

Grise discussed the unique adaptation process with actor Manny Rivera and writer Manuel Muñoz, a UA faculty member, at a public panel hosted by the Arts, Environment, & Humanities Network. The network, the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, Borderlands Theater, and the UA Confluence Center co-sponsored Grise’s residency.

Bringing urban environmental issues to theater makes perfect sense to Magrane. “Arts practices can shed light on social issues and justice issues,” he said. “It’s about expanding the ways we think about environment and coming at environment through multiple perspectives.”

Expanding perspectives is also a major theme in the work of Andrew Yang, an associate professor at the School of Art Institute in Chicago and a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History, who came to the UA in October. Yang’s public lecture, “Ecoaesthetics in the Anthropocene,” explored the ways humans might connect with the natural world through art and imagery. “The city is a site where you find the means to create new kinds of ecologies, new relationships between you and your environment,” Yang said.

Yang’s 2016 project “A Beach (for Carl Sagan)” is inspired by Carl Sagan’s claim that, “the total of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of planet earth.” Yang created a scale model of the Milky Way based on this principle, using seven and a half tons of sand to represent stars that are invisible in Chicago due to light pollution.

“We often think of the urban area as the domain of humans, built by and for humans, but there’s a whole ecology and biology that persists,” he said. He described taking art students on insect-collecting trips in Chicago so that they can experience the non-human ecology of the city first-hand.

Although Yang’s art is inspired by the environment of Chicago and Grise’s script is set in L.A., their work touches on issues that are relevant to a far wider audience, wherever urban growth occurs. “Urban spaces are where a lot of creativity happens—solutions of adaptation to climate change and environmental challenges, but also using arts to catalyze ways we think about environmental challenges,” Magrane said.

During the 2016-17 academic year, the Arts, Environment, & Humanities Network also contributed to the exhibit Bycatch at the UA Art Museum, kicked off a lecture series focused on interdisciplinary collaborations, and sponsored a field trip to the Biodiversity Group offices at Picture Rocks near Tucson.