The art of survival

31 mins read

In 1969, when the design guru, futurist and consummate bullshit artist Buckminster Fuller’s new ebook concerning the future prospects for humanity got here out, he’d referred to as it Utopia or Oblivion. It appeared on bookshelves and in school college students’ backpacks simply as three a long time of unparalleled progress, prosperity and modernisation within the United States got here to a grinding, confidence-eroding halt. Jump forward only a few years, and it appeared fairly clear to most individuals which path society had positioned itself on. Despite as we speak’s sheen of Day-Glo nostalgia, the Nineteen Seventies have been saturated with darkish, doomy and unsettling currents. Survival supplanted revolution as the brand new decade’s important watchword.

Americans discovered themselves grappling with existential threats on two fronts. The first was financial. Starting in the summertime of 1971, the Richard Nixon administration enacted a sequence of financial reforms designed to stabilise the greenback. At that point, inflation and unemployment rose to about 6 per cent. The subsequent ‘stagflation’ that resulted was fuelled additional by the 1973 oil disaster. When Gerald Ford changed Nixon as US president in 1974, inflation had risen to round 10 per cent, unemployment to round 5.6 per cent, and a strong recessionary wave hit the US and rippled outward by means of different nations’ economies. Not captured in cold statistics, nevertheless, is the surge in divorce charges, mortgage foreclosures, repossessed automobiles and different private hardships and humiliations. I grew up outdoors of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and have distinct reminiscences of meals banks, shuttered mills and handouts of ‘government cheese’ that started through the Jimmy Carter years and continued into the Eighties.

The second push towards pessimism flowed from Americans’ anxiousness concerning the deteriorating high quality of the atmosphere within the US and all through the world. Throughout the Sixties, politicians, scientists and activists noticed the planet as analogous to a spacecraft, a becoming comparability through the Apollo period. The concept that the Earth was, because the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in 1968, a ‘tiny raft in the enormous empty night’ contributed on to a profound sense of the planet’s fragility, which had taken maintain by the early Nineteen Seventies. While images of the Earth from house confirmed a small blue marble floating within the inky blackness of house, environmental doom-saying that approached apocalyptic millenarianism surged beneath this sense of surprise and awe.

The biologist Paul Ehrlich, by way of his bestselling ebook The Population Bomb (1968) and in tv appearances with Johnny Carson, forecasted that thousands and thousands of individuals in disadvantaged nations can be ravenous worldwide by the Nineteen Seventies. Intimately related with Sixties-era fears of uncontrollable inhabitants progress have been alarmist predictions of a future marked by dwindling pure sources. Petroleum costs shot up and bureaucrats enacted new guidelines to manipulate a shortage society. In the US, this meant gasoline rationing, year-round daylight saving time and nationwide pace limits. The nation appeared, as the duvet of Newsweek put it in November 1973, to be ‘Running Out Of Everything’. Predictions of thousands and thousands of individuals clamouring to enter the US, and a future marked by dwindling pure sources, have been understood by many Americans as a possible menace to their method of life and their nationwide safety.

In response to the dual threats of financial and environmental hazard, a definite survivalist subculture emerged. A flurry of exclamatory books and pamphlets professed apocalypse quickly. In his e-newsletter The Survivor, the writer Kurt Saxon noticed that ‘society is collapsing due to overpopulation, mental cripples, pollution, changing climate, and scarcity of resources’. In 1975, the previous Green Beret Robert Okay Brown started publishing Soldier of Fortune journal out of an workplace in Boulder, Colorado. It quickly included articles about weapons, expertise and merchandise aimed on the militant survivalist neighborhood. By this level, Theodore Kaczynski had already moved to rural Montana, turning into a self-taught survivalist earlier than discovering infamy because the Unabomber.

The survivalists had a form of cousin in the neighborhood of fanatics for sustainable dwelling. This paisley-patterned social motion was catalysed and knowledgeable by publications such because the Foxfire books and, most famously, Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog (1968-98). Hundreds of 1000’s of communards, device freaks and ‘hippie modernists’ coalesced below their geodesic domes right into a spectrum of back-to-the-land experiments by early Nineteen Seventies. While the political ideologies of commune-dwellers differed from the survivalists, they too shared a definite preoccupation with self-reliance and readiness.

Well earlier than survival emerged as a dominant theme for the Nineteen Seventies, just a few skilled artists have been already attuned to existential threats lurking over the horizon. In San Diego, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison reacted to the array of technological, financial and environmental challenges that marked the Nineteen Seventies, and proposed options in response. Over careers that spanned greater than 5 a long time, the Harrisons made a sequence of artworks that functioned each as an early warning system for environmental disaster whereas additionally providing ideas for surviving calamitous instances.

Born in New York City in 1927 and 1932 respectively, Helen and Newton married in 1953 and arrived on the University of California, San Diego in 1967. Helen had studied schooling and psychology and labored within the college’s administration. Newton earned levels in fantastic art from Yale, earlier than being appointed a professor within the college’s visible arts division. Early in his profession, he labored in sculptures and work. But the primary Earth Day, held in April 1970, prompted the Harrisons to start shifting into survival mode. ‘I want to know how I will survive,’ Newton mentioned, ‘how we’ll all survive.’ Their rising fascination with native and international ecosystems drove their transition to a brand new type of art-making and a brand new skilled id of working collaboratively as ‘the Harrisons’.

The existential fears that beset the Harrisons have been shared by the small communities of survivalists who had taken to hoarding gold and weapons in anticipation of societal collapse. But the Harrisons rejected a purely unfavorable view of the long run. ‘We took up the issue of survival,’ Helen later mentioned, ‘and introduced utilitarianism.’ Here, they have been, in their very own self-directed method, following Brand’s suggestion that ‘when a species is in a bind’ the answer was to ‘multiply alternatives’. As Newton Harrison described: ‘I abandoned the concept of myself as an artist. I began to think of myself as a problem solver instead.’

Starting in 1970, the Harrisons executed and exhibited a sequence of tasks they referred to as Survival Pieces. The first of these installations – subtitled Hog Pasture – was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It began with soil that Newton had handmade as a type of ecological ritual. This was used to fill a big planting mattress over which they scattered a seed combination labelled as ‘Annual Hog Pasture Mix’ bought from a backyard catalogue (thus giving the piece its title). Under overhead gentle packing containers, their challenge grew shortly right into a lush indoor pasture. However, when the Harrisons requested permission to incorporate an precise pig with the work – Newton envisioned the set up as a ‘protein production site’ nourished by hog droppings – the museum workers refused. But guests to the midwinter present nonetheless may benefit from the sensory enter that Hog Pasture supplied. ‘The pasture smelled delicious and was beautiful,’ Newton recalled. ‘People gathered around it in a circle.’

Hog Pasture marked a flip within the Harrisons’ pondering towards sustainable meals manufacturing. ‘What if everything went away?’ Newton mused. ‘How would I survive? It was then I decided to become a farmer.’ They noticed it as a substitute, and potential successor, to the trendy grocery store, which ‘disrupts man’s intuitive contact along with his organic sources’. Their new route linked the Harrisons’ evolving inventive observe with each the pragmatic ‘back-to-the-land’ communards and the darker strategies of the survivalists.

The end result was a dwelling ‘colour field’ portray akin to one thing Mark Rothko might need produced with paint

In 1971, in entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Harrisons exhibited their second Survival Piece. Subtitled Notations on the Ecosystem of the Western Saltworks with the Inclusion of Brine Shrimp, it was impressed partly by their conversations with marine biologists on the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. Newton discovered that sure species of algae would change color because the salinity of the ambient water diversified. At the identical time, brine shrimp may exist with the algae in very salty water. With this data – Helen, at this level, did a lot of the analysis whereas Newton tended to construct their installations – the Harrisons created a shallow pond, divided into 4 10 ft x 20 ft sections, every full of water of various salinity.

Survival Piece II: Notations on the Ecosystem of the Western Saltworks with the Inclusion of Brine Shrimp (1971), on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California. The proper pond is prepared for salt harvest; the left pond, for brine shrimp harvest. Photo by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

There was some irony in that the Harrisons positioned their set up between two comparable ponds that LACMA workers rigorously handled with algae-killing chemical substances. The Harrisons stocked their pond with home-grown algae and, because the carotene within the single-celled creatures diversified, completely different colors emerged, starting from blue-green to yellow-green to a brick-coloured crimson. The addition of brine shrimp, which ate the algae, altered the colors as nicely. The end result was a dwelling ‘colour field’ portray akin to one thing Mark Rothko might need produced with paint. To this they included a twist drawn from conceptual art – when the exhibition was about to shut, they allowed the water to evaporate, collected the salt, after which bought it at below-supermarket value. And the brine shrimp? The Harrisons made a fish stew – by Newton’s candid account it tasted horrible – and, with the beneficiant addition of capers and anchovies, an expansion they placed on crackers and shared with compliant visitors.

Dinner on the Hayward Gallery, London 1971. Photo by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison

About six months later, the Harrisons exhibited their third Survival Piece, titled Portable Fish Farm. Created for the present ‘11 Los Angeles Artists’on the Hayward Gallery in London, the set up used catfish as the idea for a sustainable food-producing system. Newton Harrison started with a sequence of detailed schematic drawings of the type one would possibly discover within the pages of Popular Mechanics (or survivalist newsletters). These laid out the designs for six massive rubber-lined tanks, three of which might maintain catfish in numerous levels of improvement, from fry to fingerlings to mating measurement, bringing the entire cycle full-circle. Another tank would maintain brine shrimp and algae, whereas oysters and lobster can be raised within the remaining two tanks. In conserving with the Harrisons’ give attention to ritual – and following the custom of conceptual art – their proposal additionally contained detailed directions for getting ready a sequence of meals, together with bouillabaisse and zuppa di mare, for as much as 250 gallery guests. As Newton recalled, the piece was ‘actually about backyard farming … to bring into everyday life, fish farming as a protein source’. But it additionally added social commentary as an ingredient, serving bottom-feeding fish ‘to the elite and (sometimes) noble British art public!’

Survival Piece III: Portable Fish Farm (1971), Hayward Gallery, London. Photo nameless

However, what caught the eye of the British art world – and introduced the Harrisons their first main burst of worldwide notoriety – was their inclusion of a seventh tank the place catfish can be killed by way of electrocution earlier than being eaten (and their entrails subsequently fed to the lobsters to stress the sustainability of the work). As the artists discovered, small catfish have been typically bought as pets to British aquarium aficionados, whereas electrocution was seen as a barbaric and all-too-American punishment. British newspapers ran a flurry of articles concerning the controversy cooked up by the Harrisons’ art set up, and the comic Spike Milligan, who championed environmental causes, broke a window of the Hayward. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals additionally protested vocally, regardless of explanations that electrocution was a fast and customary methodology to dispatch catfish. (Newton had adopted the tactic after catfish farmers in southeastern California had taught him methods to develop, breed, kill and intestine the fish effectively.)

Meanwhile the Harrisons repeatedly appeared on British radio and tv to clarify their work. They famous that killing catfish was only one half of an paintings dedicated to exhibiting a specific system for survival. ‘Each of [our] works is becoming a prototype,’ Newton Harrison mentioned, ‘an analogue for a natural system.’ As Newton recalled, it appeared odd to be upset over the ethics of killing some catfish in an art gallery when thousands and thousands of animals have been often slaughtered and eaten in Britain. Instead, he redirected conversations towards the ‘unethical implications of [his] country’s behaviour in Vietnam’.

The controversy over Portable Fish Farm continued proper as much as the present’s opening date (scheduled for September 1971), and overshadowed the opposite artists whose works have been additionally on show. Two reporters standing outdoors the gallery have been overheard debating whether or not electrocution or hanging was the popular means for killing a fish. ‘But you can’t actually cling a fish, are you able to?’ one of them requested, ending the dialogue. Then, only a few hours earlier than the gallery was to open, the Arts Council chairman Arnold Goodman inspected the present and warned that they may shut down funding. In response, Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston, the LACMA curators who put the present collectively, primarily mentioned: ‘No fish. No show,’ whereas the Harrisons protested the try at censorship. The museum’s administrators briefly delayed the opening, and the entire scenario wasn’t resolved till the subsequent night. By then, the Harrisons had generated help from the geneticist and Nobel laureate Maurice Wilkins who, in flip, enlisted the Arts Council member C P Snow. The writer of The Two Cultures (1959) decreed that the Harrisons’ work illustrated the type of hyperlinks between science and the humanities that he had lengthy championed. In the top, the present proceeded as deliberate solely after the Harrisons agreed to not kill any catfish in view of the general public.

The worldwide consideration generated by Survival Piece III: Portable Fish Farm provoked enduring introspection and evaluation from art critics. To begin with, the Harrisons have been onerous to put, each geographically and categorically. Like as we speak, the overall notion was that Manhattan remained the centre of the art world. But the Harrisons have been based mostly in self-contained San Diego, about as far-off from Gotham as one may get, and comparatively remoted by mountains, desert and the Mexican border. Geography in addition to the town’s innate political conservatism – defence industries and navy bases have been an vital half of the regional economic system – set the Harrisons’ working atmosphere aside from the ‘hippie modernism’ that characterised West Coast art within the US. Moreover, their work was neither indifferent nor cool within the method of many southern California artists who have been half of the ‘light and space’ and ‘finish fetish’ actions. Rather, it engaged with and confronted societal wants and ecological peril. Their work was additionally extra dialogic and didactic in nature, operating counter to the object-oriented preferences of many art critics. Finally, the Harrisons have been based mostly at a big and rising top-tier college that prioritised science analysis. Similarly, their art observe – what one critic branded ‘The Image Maker as Eco Freak’ – was analysis intensive. Their safe college positions meant that they may afford to work outdoors the gallery and museum advanced.

One of the primary questions critics requested – one encountered by many conceptual artists whose work was as a lot about concepts because it was about object-making – was what kind of art the Harrisons made. Their give attention to ecology prompted some critics to classify them, at the very least early of their careers, as half of the Land Art motion. But the Harrisons’ work was strikingly completely different in scale and methodology from monumental works within the style, reminiscent of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative (1969) or Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). ‘Think of the vast energy that goes into big cuts and shapes in the desert,’ Newton mentioned in 1980. ‘They are transactional with museum space, not with the Earth.’ Moving tons of of 1000’s of tons of earth and rock by way of bulldozers would possibly entail modifying the atmosphere, in different phrases, but it surely in no way revealed deep ecological relationships.

Their projections of the current into the long run are morality tales about who will survive (and the way)

Another try to know the Harrisons’ work located them alongside conceptual artists excited about ‘dematerialising’ the art object, an evaluation that they accepted to a level. For conceptual artists reminiscent of Sol LeWitt, the completed ‘product’ would possibly simply be the artist’s concepts for the piece, maybe preserved in accompanying documentation, somewhat than a discrete objet d’art that could possibly be displayed and bought in a gallery. Here, critics may attraction to the custom of the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp whose displayed and labelled urinals and bicycle wheels prodded viewers to consider what art was. According to 1 art author, the Harrisons functioned likewise, frightening viewers into excited about what they would wish to outlive impending ecological collapse. In response to the oft-asked query ‘Is it art or science?’ Newton Harrison countered: ‘When you read Dostoyevsky, why aren’t you calling it social science?’ The Russian novelist took ‘transactions with the world and transposed them into images and stories. We do the same. The best description we can make of ourselves is as storytellers of a sort.’

However, the Harrisons’ emphasis on dialogue and storytelling intently paralleled one of the attribute traits of the perimeter survivalist motion. This neighborhood’s literature abounds with tales about how society collapsed, and supplied a needed prelude to detailed narratives about how ready people saved themselves and their family members alive. As the sociologist Richard G Mitchell famous after his participant-observation research of survivalists and preppers, the center of their endeavours is ‘constructing “what if” scenarios in which survival preparations will at once become necessary and sufficient’. Creative and suave in their very own grim method, these ‘survival scenarios’ are, Mitchell wrote in Dancing at Armageddon (2001), ‘akin to contemporary legends told in future tense’. In a way, their projections of the current into the long run are morality tales about who will survive (and the way) a coming disaster attributable to nuclear battle, financial collapse, communism or pure catastrophe.

Sketch for Survival Piece V: Portable Orchard (1972), at California State University, Fullerton. Courtesy the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

The Harrisons intentionally aligned their art-making with an analogous give attention to preparedness. By 1974, that they had made seven installations within the Survival Pieces sequence. Works reminiscent of Portable Fish Farm and Portable Orchard (1972) have been created, the Harrisons mentioned, to supply individuals ‘a self-sufficient survival resource’. Their mix of analysis, art-making and storytelling was predicated on fears concerning the future, aimed ‘to teach lessons about survival in an ecologically blighted world’. But additionally they contained seeds of hope for averting undesirable futures.

After the Survival Pieces sequence, the Harrisons grounded their artworks much more deeply in narrative and storytelling. The finest instance of that is their monumental set up The Lagoon Cycle. Conceived and created over a decade (1974-84), this seven-part epic – it’s 360 ft lengthy and eight ft tall – is organised as a dialogue between two characters, ‘the Lagoon Maker’ and ‘the Witness’. The former, a devotee of technological options infused with hubris, proposes more and more elaborate methods to hold out sustainable meals manufacturing – what if the Salton Sea in southern California could possibly be reclaimed, its air pollution despatched to the Pacific Ocean, and used as a large-scale fish farm? The Witness, in flip, reacts to those schemes, encouraging their associate to cease pondering like a technocrat and contemplate the real-world ecological results of their schemes. The cycle’s ultimate half, titled The Seventh Lagoon – The Ring of Fire the Ring of Water (1984), ends with a map of the world, its coastlines now underwater. The Witness asks of their associate:

and on this new starting
this constantly rebeginning
will you feed me when my lands can
not produce?
and can I home you
when your lands are lined with
and collectively
we are going to withdraw
because the waters rise

If we stereotype science because the pursuit of reality, and art because the pursuit of magnificence, how ought to we situate the Harrisons and different eco-artists? One function of art helps us detect and maybe reconcile ourselves to awkward truths – that our existence as a species on the planet will not be sure, nor are its sources infinite. By now, it’s clear that the deniers of local weather change or pandemics might be swayed by neither info nor scenes of worldly devastation and struggling. It is right here that artists can assume a extra outstanding and important function.

Like science, art helps us make sense of the world. But somewhat than telling us, as science does, what is – at this level, the essential info relating to the truth of local weather change are past dispute – art may help reveal what could possibly be. The Harrisons’ art definitely depicted the grim prospects of a future modified world. But additionally they contained a way that constructive change remained an choice even when this was simply, because the German historian Christof Mauch phrased it here, a ‘slow hope’. The Harrisons used their artworks to inform tales concerning the future but additionally to recommend paths of motion. They believed that their art may operate as a realistic device for survival. Seen this manner, art gives one other avenue, outdoors the realm of scientific fashions and meteorological knowledge, to indicate individuals the world as they haven’t seen it earlier than, and to disclose eventualities of a modified planet and an altered future. In this future, we are going to all need to change into survival artists.