The Art of All Possibilities at Biosphere 2

December 3, 2012
by Eric Magrane

How might one engage with and understand climate change and other environmental issues at a visceral level? One way to do so is to visit The Art of All Possibilities, an exhibit at Biosphere 2 through February 28.

Including work by internationally known artists Ellen Benjoya Skotheim, Bently Spang, Mary Ellen Strom, Fritz Buehner, Melo Dominguez, and Morgan Schwartz, the exhibit is installed in the human habitat of Biosphere 2.

Morgan Schwartz: Living on Earth on Mars On Earth

Skotheim, who is also creative director of the Rillito River Project, is the moving force behind the exhibit. With a background in art, urban planning, and science—as well as coming from a family of scientists—she is comfortable in the worlds of both art and science. Through Art Lab, she uses that comfort to bring artists and scientists together to respond to climate change in the Southwest.

Her contribution to the exhibit is a video that documents the Rillito River Project’s Bat Night series.  A yearly event at Tucson’s Campbell Avenue bridge, Bat Night has drawn thousands of people to watch 45,000 Mexican free-tail bats fly out from underneath the bridge. Describing her original idea for Bat Night to me, Skotheim remembered sitting overlooking the dry riverbed and realizing that “this is the place we can talk about a lot of things because it’s a perfect location, and these bats are telling us to come here.” Through the bats and the dry river, the project has led to multiple and varied performances. One of these, a series of balloons raised in the sky for Bat Night 2009 to demonstrate the dramatic drop in groundwater depth since 1945, is also shown in poster form at the Art of All Possibilities exhibit.

Bently Spang’s video installation “The Last Word” is a work of storytelling and witness. This past summer, his family’s ranch in his homelands of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation was devastated by wildfire. The video here, documenting and engaging with the landscape after the fire, is stark and devastating. Juxtaposed with language from 1700s Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine, Spang’s piece speaks through an intimate, embodied, and ancestral relationship with a specific homeland—an intimacy made strange and sublime by the changed landscape through fire. In the context of climate change, it is this visceral way that the piece engages the viewer that may have the most affect in the world. It is a completely different thing to see firsthand—mediated through Spang’s work—the effects of wildfire than to abstractly understand the effects of fire through figures of acres burned.

Across from Spang’s piece, which is installed in the original Control Center of Biosphere 2, is Mary Ellen Strom’s video “Four Parallel Lines.” Echoing Walter De Maria’s early earthworks in the Mojave Desert, four men drag pieces of lumber on the beach as they back away from the viewer. To the right of the scene, mostly off screen, is the ocean, and the sound of waves fills the room. In her description of the piece, Strom describes the men as collaborators who work as day laborers. Calling attention to this context helps to make the video work on multiple registers. As social commentary, it engages with the capitalist forces that shape human lives and social structures of work, immigration, and production. Aesthetically, the piece also has an ephemeral quality to it, as it is clearly only a matter of time before the lines will be washed away by the tide.

In the space of Biosphere 2 and within the The Art of All Possibilities exhibit, Strom’s piece can also be experienced in relation to rising seawater. In this reading, the location of the beach, the men, and the lines they make are all in a vulnerable space. This reverberates with Spang’s piece as the rhythm of the waves in “Four Parallel Lines” washes over Spang’s piece as well. Coupled together, one is left with an intertextual experience of landscape and human relation to and within landscape that is sparse and direct, as well as raw and vulnerable.

Another juxtaposition is at work in Fritz Buehner’s piece “Mirage,” which is situated within a bend of the staircase that winds through the human habitat of Biosphere 2. The piece combines the odd intertextuality of space blankets and warm lighting with a song about a cowboy on a mule dreaming about water, a mirage in the desert. The light on the space blankets works to raise the temperature in this mirage—which I also interpret as a threshold. Standing upon the crinkly silver otherworldliness of the blanket, one hears the song “Cool Water” by the Sons of the Pioneers. At first the music, which is purposely played at low volume, feels out of place. It hearkens back to the 1940s and 1950s and Buehner describes it as a song he remembers from his childhood.  This nostalgic edge to the song, coupled with the space that Buehner has created with the space blankets and light, is at once inviting and sinister. The effect is that one walking through the piece is set off balance; in this way, the piece indeed is a mirage.

Melo Dominguez: Planting the Seed of HopeDominguez’ piece, “Planting the Seed of Hope,” is a tree made out of branches hung with recycled metal cans as leaves, which were made by local students the artist works with.  Among its other resonances, it is a comment upon tree canopy in Tucson. From Dominguez’ notes, tree canopy is supposed to be at 26 percent, but it is only at 6 percent. Visiting the artists as the exhibit was being installed, I was struck by the enthusiasm with which Dominguez approached the work. Two Biosphere 2 tourists happened by while Dominguez was at work on the piece, and the artist spoke with them passionately about social equity, tree canopy, water harvesting, and the role of art in the community. The tree sits on a base painted on four sides. The most prominent side includes a painting of Tlaloc, the Aztec God of Rain. The base allows the piece to work as storytelling, in which the sculpted tree is growing out of roots made of stories. This piece is an excellent model of how the site of a work of art is more than its object: the social equity and community engagement that Dominguez brings to the work is as much the art as the object on display and is a reminder of the real work that art can do in the world.

The video “Living on Earth on Mars on Earth” by Morgan Schwartz documents two weeks the artist spent on Mars. Mixing tropes of science fiction and documentary, it begins by presenting “a day in the life of a Martian.” We come to find out that these Martians are actually in Utah, at the Mars Desert Research Station, where they simulate living on Mars. In one striking scene, one of the Martians takes off running across the Mars/Utah landscape. Part of his Martian gear is a numbered backpack (#3) that disappears into the landscape as he runs away. Other scenes move between that landscape and the inside of the research station, as well as to green and lush settings—a backyard and a porch—where some of the Martians speak not from a simulated Mars but from back on Earth.

In juxtaposing these different visual landscapes with the narrative that arises through the stories told in the video, Schwartz’s work deftly moves between a futuristic sci-fi tone to one that re-examines the human relationship with the planet Earth. “If we don’t solve our problems,” one Martian says, “Mars will become irrelevant to the human project.” In other words, the video pushes toward the idea that the imaginative space that underpins the sci-fi simulation on Mars is also what is needed here on this planet. Engaging with ideas of utopia and dystopia, the sublime aesthetic of Schwartz’s piece echoes the fascinating history of Biosphere 2. (To read a great account of that history, I recommend Rebecca Reider’s book, The Theater of All Possibilities).

“One of the goals in this project is to somehow affect people’s consciousness,” Skotheim says. In the context of Art Lab and the Rillito River Project, this is not just the consciousness of the public viewing the exhibit, but also the consciousness of both the artists and the scientists. Biosphere 2, as a UA Science site that couples “big science,” such as the exciting Landscape Evolution Observatory (LEO) project, with a mission to bring scientists and the public together, can look to this exhibit as a great model to further engage artists and scientists, as well as artists and the site of Biosphere 2. For example, how would an art installation interact with other locations at Biosphere 2, such as the biomes, the lung, or the technosphere?

We’re entering into a time when science and art proximities are taken seriously, and the work arising from these conversations may help lead to new ways of imagining more sustainable and ethical futures.

“If you’re open to communicating with people on a very direct level, then you’re more likely to succeed,” Skotheim says.