Revisiting Storm King’s Indicators with Una Chaudhari
By Shanti Escalante-De Mattei
Some months ago I had the pleasure of attending Storm King Art Center’s Indicators: Artists on Climate Change, in the Town of Cornwall, New York. Amongst the many incredible artists present was New York University’s Una Chaudhari, director of the XE: Experimental Humanities program and one-third of the collective Dear Climate. Dr. Chaudhari agreed to talk with me about General Assembly, the piece the collective exhibited at Storm King. Revisiting Indicators alongside my discussion with Dr. Chaudhari has introduced me to new complications and considerations in climate change art that I had not been engaged with before. The primary question that has opened up to me is this one: in the anthropocene, when so many see the modern condition as having distanced us from nature, how do academic artists who do not believe in the duality between nature and humanity engage the public in their climate change art? How does this relate to questions related to site specific art? Does this act as another barrier for entry for those learning about the anthropocene and climate change?
As a student living in New York City, accessing the far away world of the Storm King Art Center was not possible until I suggested the trip to a friend who has a car. I crossed the city East to West, took the A train to the George Washington Bridge, and then crossed the bridge, a beautiful walk imperiled by pro-amateur bikers, that brings you closer and closer to the stone cliffs that border the New Jersey side of the river. My friend picked me up under an elevated highway crossing. After picking up bacon, egg, and cheeses we wound through a torturous, elevated route, surrounded by trees and traffic towards the art center. Used to the flatness of the city, I was already excited by the hint of mountain terrain that the steeply curving road suggested. Before long we arrived at Storm King, parked the car, and rushed into the wide open green space. We quickly decided to climb up a small hill, above which sat one of Storm King’s many monumental, metal sculptures. We took in the lay of the land as a little boy played in the shade of the sculpture’s legs. The sun hung over the park, surrounded by a thick wood. This view prompted a familiar sense of relief that one has upon leaving the city, when the eye is no longer pressed up against itself, but can relax to the long line of a horizon. Satisfied with our survey, we log rolled down the hill, a pleasure that cannot be passed up once the right hill presents itself. Not to mention the cut grass and cold weather, which promised little chance of a tick finding its way into my sock.
I knew little of the exhibition before I arrived but I’d like to think that in some ways I represented, in that moment, someone who wasn’t particularly interested or educated in the intersection of climate change and art, but rather someone who was just trying to enjoy a free Sunday in this beautiful place. My friend and I were able to walk through quite of bit of the property and engage with Indicators works such as Mark Dion’s The Field Station of the Melancholy Marine Biologist, 2018, Justin Brice Guariglia’s We Are the Asteroid, 2018, made with the famed eco-critic Timothy Morton, and Allison Janae Hamilton’s The peo-ple cried mer-cy in the storm, 2018. Unfortunately, I missed some key works, such as Jenny Kendler’s Birds Watching, Mary Mattingly’s Along the Lines of Displacement: A Tropical Food Forest, 2018, David Brooks’ Permanent Field Observations, 2018, and even Dear Climate’s own General Assembly, 2018.
Dear Climate was originally composed of Una Chaudhari, a self defined eco-critic and theater historian, Oliver Kellhammer, a land artist and teacher of permaculture, Marina Zurkow, a visual artist interested in the “more than human world” (who now also works at NYU) and Fritz Ertl, a theater director. He is no longer involved in the collective. The group, Dr. Chaudhari tells me, has morphed over time. As both she and Ertl were and continue to be involved in theatre, they were hoping to bridge the space separating visual and theatrical art, especially when considering issues of the anthropocene.
Una Chaudhari: [The visual art and theatre scene] seem to have such different vocabularies and such different aesthetics and styles and that was kind of intriguing to us. So basically we just asked ourselves, “What can we, what could we do to bring attention and address this topic that we were all so compelled by.”
However, as they got deeper into their research, they began to be more focused on other issues.
UC: We began to have conversations, and we did some research into how other groups were reacting to climate change. We were very conscious of, at that time, the movements or the phenomena that had a lot of attention – which was the survivalist groups, people who were kind of in an apocalyptic mode who were talking about ways that they would hack different systems in order to deal with the catastrophes that they saw coming. We became very aware that the dominant mood and tone and style [surrounding climate change] was very fearful and apocalyptic, and kind of depressing and guilt provoking. And we wondered: was there any space for playfulness, for creativity, other kinds of affects, other kinds of approaches? That really came out of the fact that we didn’t have any answers, all we had was questions, so we said, let’s just be honest about that. We really don’t know what to do, so how does one manifest that? That feeling of being completely at sea around the subject.
At some point we stumbled upon something like a structure, which is what we call “three movements of mind.” We thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we somehow could generate material that would help other people and help us do this: meet climate change, befriend climate change, and become climate change; those were the three movements. And as time went on we dropped the word “change,” it was just meet climate, befriend climate, become climate. We got very interested in the befriend part. What other attitudes can one have, what are the languages, what are the imageries, what can we draw from our own social experience with our own friends and families – or social groups – to enrich our relationship to the more than human world? And with climate, what we’re really talking about is other species, natural forces, so, it became a kind of program of befriending the more than human world. And the main modality we came up with was the so called “instructional posters.”
Shanti Escalante-De Mattei: Are the posters made collaboratively? Are they made together at the same time?
UC: Oh yes! We work together to generate the texts, and then Marina mostly provides the imagery and design, but sometimes she’ll give us ideas and options, or we’ll give her ideas, so it’s very collaborative.
SED: Given that you felt the need to address the gap between theatrical and visual art, these pieces are overwhelmingly text and audio based. Do you see there being an inherent performance there?
UC: No, not as much as I would have liked. But where we’ve kept that up is that for every commision we get, or invitation to present, or to participate, we create something special for that space and for that community. And so we’ve included a kind of site specific component by doing that. And the installations are often conceived as something people will enter as in to a fictional space. For example we did one at Rice university at Houston, and we set that up as if it was a FEMA office, it was like faux FEMA, come get help with your inner climate, so the whole installation was a performance, it was a fiction.
SED: Barring these site specific engagements, what kind of interaction do you hope the posters would prompt in the viewer, seeing as signs are usually a one way communication?
UC: We hope the “instructions” on the posters are odd, enigmatic, playful, intriguing enough to set off a series of thoughts and feelings and questions in the minds of the spectators – inviting them to imagine a world in which new kinds of interactions between humans and the more-than-human world are more fluid, more joyful, and more caring.
General Assembly was a continuation of this poster project. This time, only Zurkow and Dr. Chaudhari were working together, as their other partner, Kellhammer, had been unavailable. Dr. Chaudhari told me that this was the highest profile event they had ever been a part of, and she found the experience to be incredible.
UC: Oh, that was something, that was the best experience we’ve ever had with the project. The curators there were just incredible, these two young women were just so smart and so supportive and so open to whatever we wanted to so. We went up there [to Storm King] a few times and they said you can do anything anywhere in the space, and have that as a playground. So, of course, we started becoming very ambitious, we wanted to have three different installations and activities, sound pieces and all that. Luckily, fairly soon we boiled it down to the one, which we really worked hard on to get the right look for it.
UC: One of the things we were keen on was offering a kind of a contrast to the pieces at Storm King. They’re made of steel and they’re very large and very permanent and we wanted something a lot more human scope, species scale. They [the General Assembly installations] were made of wood and cloth and were also kind of fragile looking compared to the big metal pieces there. And when we saw that roundabout we immediately thought of the United Nations, and when we were told that this is where the trolley come through, we said that’s it, we want to do it here and do our version of the United Nations. That’s why we called it General Assembly. The idea was that there would be a seat for every species, instead of a seat for every nation.
SED: That’s great! How did it feel, visiting the space once the exhibition was up? Did the location measure up to your hopes?
UC: You know, it felt really good. I of course went a few times and I felt that that space was so welcoming and moving and generative. It was such a rewarding experience, I tell you.
When I went to Storm King my reaction was to be somewhat disappointed with the exhibition but euphoric with the space itself. To sum up my impression of the show: the art sat on the land. This was both good and bad. For example, We Are the Asteroid failed to incite within me in that moment anything more than the feeling that I was in the presence of pride. This piece of roadside machinery sits there with somewhat flaccid truisms coming up on the screen and that is supposed to be enough. Though to be fair, looking back, the piece does work with the surrounding landscape to create a kind of post-crisis image. Like a cow picked up by a tornado and laid to rest in some distant land, We Are the Asteroid almost captures the feeling of displacement.
I would have liked to see more artists engage seriously with the nature they were working with, which is why I’m so sad that I didn’t get to see David Brooks work. He took cast bronzes of different parts of the Storm King flora, a piece of bark, some twisting vines, and then put everything back with the casts beside them. These casts were to be both tomb and marker for a future gaze. Regarding this gaze both necessitates an understanding of “natural” decay and change, but also something far more temporally strong – who knows what species will live in Storm King in the next 100, 200 years? Talk about New Art for Archaeologists.
In the end, my favorite piece at Storm King was not part of the exhibition but a permanent collection work, Andy Goldsworthy’s Storm King Wall II. If Storm King gives a nature-illiterate person an excuse to meander fields and valleys, Storm King Wall II lets you get even more intimate. Andy Goldsworthy’s work brought up from within me the rabid magicalism of childhood. Just as the rhinestones glued onto the cover of my cardboard Barney book were transmuted into real gems, the Wall’s winding body, which slips under the pond, filled me with the electric possibility that this pile of stones could awaken from its slumber as a snake or dragon. My friend and I crouched in the damp coolness of the Wall’s bends, getting close to the trees it hugs as a result. We found a jutting rock that could act as a seat. We clambered over it, and followed it until it brought us to the river, and at this point we could say good-bye to the piece. Enjoying this moment, I wondered why the pieces from Indicators hadn’t done something similar for me.
Reflecting on these experiences past our interview, I emailed Dr. Chaudhari to ask her a final question.
SED: Should climate change art bring the viewer into an interaction with the environment directly, or is the aim to prompt thought and action that could lead to more positive world building?
UC: We humans are always within the environment, always a part of “nature”; there is no way for us not to interact with it a every moment. Dear Climate – like a lot of contemporary ecoart – rejects the idea of a clear divide between humans and nature, of culture and nature, with the latter repositioned at a distance from human life as “that green stuff over there.” Instead, we want to remind our audiences that we are earthlings, immersed in the forces of this planet, no matter where we live.
While I have heard great arguments for the dissolution of the nature/human boundary line – and I agree that this duality is somewhat of a myth – artists, and especially academics and activists, should recognize that a place like Storm King engenders different opportunities, ways of living, and interaction with the “more-than-human” than the heart of New York City can offer. With no walls to display the posters, Dear Climate made do with wooden posts. Is this a multi-species engagement? Is this site specific? Depending where you draw the line of engagement, it is or it isn’t. But by not recognizing these “common sense” divides in the way that most people interpret certain landscapes, you create the space to excuse your work as being universally site specific and universally applicable. Seeing Dear Climate’s posters plastered guerilla style in the city would be thrilling in the context of the mostly sanitized ads that monopolize public spaces. But in Storm King, I’m running towards the fields and the things that can bring me closer to them, not closer to a world in which signage dominates my view from my phone, to class, to the LinkNYCs, subway ads, billboards, and store windows. If this divide in space cannot be recognized, who are you speaking to?
There is a second issue.
Climate change is such an enormous, global problem, that we end up trying to operate at a scale that is beyond our capacity. Trying to embody that issue at the human scale has been a challenge for artists, one that Dear Climate tried to take on as well. Though the issue of scale in this case is not the monumental quality of the Storm King sculptures, but rather the untouchable scales of globalized phenomena. Take, for example, Hara Woltz’ Vital Signs, 2018. Vital Signs takes on the ethos of measurement and graphing that defines the climate science aesthetic. I arrived at these circles of steel in the ground, late in November, when the grass had grown up all around it. A mud print of a child’s boot was stamped atop one of the cylinders. “At least someone is having fun”, I thought upon seeing that. Not to be harsh, but the piece was somewhat dead to me. It told me nothing, encouraged nothing, it was the graphs I have always seen, made 3D, the vague and unfeeling knowledge of sea level rise. How to compare this to Mary Mattingly’s work, whose palm trees allow us to enter an imagination far in the climate future where Storm King will be able to support a radically different range of species?
This reflection on Storm King alongside my conversation with Una Chaudhari has brought me to some foundational considerations. I think that place-based art may be the most effective way of linking the global scale of climate change to the consequences and effects of climate change at a local scale. This helps the viewer visualize what was once a vague image of the future as something more concrete, experimental, and playful. Something artists and activists should also understand is that there are people who feel uncertain about how they can interact with “nature.” As a child of immigrants, I found that the locals I grew up around had this intimate knowledge of the land I had been planted in passed on to them from their parents that I did not. I found myself alienated from natural spaces I wanted to interact with it in specific ways – clamming, surfing, foraging, learning how to deal with ticks instead of being of afraid of them, and so on. Like any social interaction, we find it a bit awkward to engage with others without an introduction. Storm King Wall II gave me that initial excuse to go up to this place and “talk.” If the aim is to educate and create spaces for multi-species interaction, then not recognizing these perceptions of boundary and scale will become obstacles*.
* Of course, climate change creates a unique pressure for art to be “useful” which can be negative and stifling, my intention is not to be negative and stifling to artists.