Activating Art and Education for Activism

“Art isn’t functional.”

Too often, I hear that statement (or a variation of it) when I engage in a conversation with someone who is outside of the art field. Of course, this statement doesn’t paint a representative image of art’s contribution to our culture. In an era of misinformation and attacks on culture and education, it is even more important that we set the record straight about how, why, and where the arts have profound benefits on our development as lifelong creative learners, leaders, and members of democratic communities.

In prior posts, I have explained how in past and present civilizations, art has had a utilitarian role that influences our history, cultural identity, labor, and the ways we communicate and collaborate together. Throughout these posts (see the five links in previous sentence), I have given examples of how artists such as Pablo Helguera, Tanya Aguiñiga, Chloë Bass, Vik Muniz, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and Krzysztof Wodiczko (to name a few…refer to previous posts for more!) create works of art that address and engage with communities and diverse populations.

The artist as activist or better yet, the artist as ally, uses a variety of artistic processes to facilitate progressive and pragmatic solutions to complex issues. Mel Chin is one of the most prominent artistic ally’s for environmental and social justice causes. Chin’s multi-disciplinary work has always had political intent, however, he truly began to combine art and activism with Revival Field (1990-1993 and ongoing throughout the United States and Europe), an ecological land artwork realized through a collaboration with agronomist Dr. Rufus Chaney. Revival Field is notable for the interdisciplinary collaboration between an artist and scientist on a major environmental project, which yielded significant scientific results.

The first Revival Field was built within Pig’s Eye Landfill, a State Superfund site in St. Paul, Minnesota that has been severely contaminated by hazardous waste. The soil in the affected area became replete with heavy metals that are detrimental to the natural ecology. The environmental artwork installed at Pig’s Eye Landfill consisted of a partitioned off ‘control area’ encapsulated by a circular chain linked fence where Chin and Dr. Chaney planted hyperaccumulators, a type of plant that absorbs heavy metals and revitalizes the soil. In addition to allowing for the natural ecosystem to rehabilitate itself, Chin and Dr. Chaney discovered that the toxic heavy metals absorbed by the plants were being soaked up through the leaves and stems in their purest forms. Through a process known as “phytoremediation” or “green remediation,” the metal soaked plants were harvested and incinerated in order to recycle the metals.

Revival Field is a great example of how art cannot be neatly defined or declared to be without function. Artists and scientists have many like-minded interests, and the scientific process and artistic process have many similarities. For example, both disciplines seek to explore and represent the human experience in relation to natural phenomena. They each start with a big question or a problem that needs solutions and are not afraid to make bold choices when confronted with the unknown. Scientists and artists both engage in empirical processes and experimentation, whether it is in a studio or a laboratory. Art is a potent way to transform the systematic empirical investigation of observable phenomena (which is quantitative science) into a compelling human experience that makes us feel strongly about issues and reflect upon our values. Chin’s collaboration with Dr. Chaney reflects Joseph Beuys‘ philosophy that everyone can be an artist. So many of today’s problems require thoughtful social and empathetic responses, which are not easily realized by teaching pre-set standards and using quantitative analysis. Artful learning is the key to unleashing the creativity and ingenuity that is needed to make judgements in the absence of rules and be flexible to take on the unexpected circumstances in life. In the educational environment, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) needs to become STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics), because of these aforementioned reasons (and more!).

Another project that Chin initiated called Flint Fit, transforms an ecological crisis into a thriving business and community building initiative. The project was started to address pollution, an overarching issue that strongly affects the daily lives of residents of Flint, Michigan. Flint’s watersheds are extremely devastated due to inadequate water treatment, which resulted in incredibly high levels of lead in the drinking water. As a result, Flint residents have been instructed to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing. This reliance on bottled water has created another environmental crisis: plastic pollution. Flint Fit addresses this issue by organizing groups within the community to collect empty plastic water bottles (residents collected 90,000 bottles over the course of six weeks in the Fall of 2017!), which are then transported to a factory in Greensboro, North Carolina and turned into fabric. The fabric from the recycled plastic bottles was then returned to Flint and used by individuals from the commercial sewing program at St Luke N.E.W. Life Center.

Flint Fit installation view at Queens Museum, 2018. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Additionally, as a means to raise awareness about the project and issues, fashion designer Tracy Reese created a collection of garments that were inspired by water (its life-giving properties and power), Flint’s industrious history, and the strength and vitality of the Flint community.

The Flint Fit model can provide a sustainable enterprise for the communities as Chin explains:

“A new enterprise can be developed through recycling, design, manufacturing, and retail. As an artist, I see Flint Fit as an art project with diverse engagement as its medium; but it can grow into a design and marketing enterprise on a national level providing a new source of identity, income stream, a shared pride and notoriety of a positive kind for all the players involved.

In the current exhibition Mel Chin: All Over The Place, The Queens Museum poignantly chose to display documentation and the fashion line realized from Flint Fit within a gallery that houses the long-term exhibition From Watersheds to Faucets: The Marvel of New York City’s Water Supply System. The exhibition features an impressive relief map of New York’s water supply system, which was designed for the 1939-40 World’s Fair in order to educate New Yorkers about where the water they use in their homes comes from. This was clearly an astute curatorial decision aimed to increase our environmental awareness and consider the necessary role water plays within our community and in our own personal lives.

Flint Fit is a great example of how art (and fashion) makes bold statements about the human condition and develop mindfulness, positivity, and empathy amongst members of a community. In the educational sphere, students and educators can collaborate on a multidisciplinary art project (bringing together a collective of different departments such as science, math, foreign language, phys ed, etc.) that addresses a school-wide issue in order to develop a collective identity, raise awareness, celebrate a communal pride for the school, and perhaps even fundraise for a charitable cause (such as better/more nutritious lunches, cultural and team-building field trips, or new resources for learning).

So for those of you who were in doubt, do you see now how art and art-centered education is not only functional but a necessity?

Mel Chin: All Over The Place is on view at the Queens Museum through August 12, 2018.

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