Hach Gallery, Center for Contemporary History and Policy
Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
July 1, 2013 - May 2, 2014
Exhibit website: http://sensingchange.chemheritage.org/.
Reviewed by Hannah Star Rogers
Bard Graduate Center
New York, New York, USA
The Sensing Change exhibit held at the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) gallery explores the experience of changing environments by artists who employed and complicated scientific techniques and understandings in their artworks. Nine artists (Vaughn Bell, Diane Burko, Roderick Coover, Katie Holton, Stacey Levy, Eve Mosher, Andrea Polli, Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg) represent a variety of approaches to the changing environment conveyed through photography, performance, film, sculpture, and digital mediums. By invoking a variety of sense and focusing attention on the observable world, rather than already interpreted large-scale climate models, the exhibit invites visitors to think about the changes they may have experienced in the environment. Even in the case of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg’s Wind Map, a digital imagery depicting the winds over the continental United States (the boundaries draw attention the global effects of national choices), associations made between the possibility changes in wind might be the results of climate change and the idea that wind energy might be a solution. However, Wind Map, which can be accessed online at http://hint.fm/wind/, avoids direct interpretation.
The exhibit is gallery-based with two exceptions: Andrea Polli’s Particle Falls, a two-color visualization of air quality data, is projected on the exterior of the Wilma Theater, and Eve Mosher’s performance of HighWaterLine, the drawing of a line to predict the locations of flooding in Philadelphia, is a site-specific work that will take place in the spring of 2014. While many of the works are not novel, the nature of the subject of environmental change means that for both artists and audiences, there is something interesting about noting the changes in distinct locations. Mosher’s HighWaterLine performance in New York was surely a different conversation, albeit with many of the same themes, as the Philadelphia instantiation. Similarly Stacey Levy’s Calendar of Rain, which creates a direct record of rain by capturing the day’s precipitation in a jar, was first exhibited in 1993 at Larry Becker Contemporary Art, but recontextualized as an environmental change-related work, the gaps and downpours take on potential new meanings.
Because the Calendar of Rain is being created during the course of the exhibit, the curators, Christy Schneider and Elizabeth McDonnell, have had a special relationship with Levy’s piece. Schneider has described the sometimes confusing process of deciding what to do when the water collector overflows or insects find their way into the bottles. These complications with instrumentation draw attention to factors science must deal with in order to create what are often perceived as data collected under conditions that never entirely exist. Calendar of Rain was not the only artwork that brought the complications of ecosystems to the fore for the curators. Village Green, Vaughan Bell’s plexiglas greenhouses (Image 1) with space for adults and children to put their heads inside to experience the humidity and smells of soil, moss and ferns, and briefly housed an unexpected snail. The care required to upkeep these artworks resonates with recent concerns about the Anthropocene and older understandings of caretaking and earth stewardship.
Uprooted, a pair of paper mache roots hung from the ceiling, continues Kate Holten’s investigations of trees. Here the roots that cast intricate shadows on the gallery wall, drawing viewers to questions about the cause of this unexpected organic exposure. Roderick Coover’s futurist documentary binds historical floods to imagined profiles of people retrospectively recounting the beginning of the social consequences of climate change. Coover’s twin projects (a detailed map which is part of a book, Estuary, and the film ToxiCity) involved site visits by kayak up and down the Delaware River paired with an analysis of the locations of industrial facilities, including chemical factories, along the river. Including Coover’s work was a particularly bold move on the part of the Chemical Heritage Foundation (CHF) since it deals directly with the effects of the chemical industry. It is worth noting that in recent years the CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy has offered robust scholarship on chemistry and its social impacts.
Climate Change art exhibits are mounting up from the influential NorthSouthEastWest: 360 Degrees of Climate Change (2006) and RETHINK: Contemporary Art and Climate Change in Copenhagen (2009) to Cape Farewell’s Carbon 12 (2008-present) and Imagine2020’s ongoing European art festivals. Sensing Change is an especially interesting example because it brings climate change art to audiences in an explicitly scientific institution. Many climate change artworks, like the Canary Project’s public messaging campaign, began as science communication pieces; others, like the performance works that accompanied the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, arose from traditions in protest art and are often sponsored by organized environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Word Wildlife Fund. Sensing Change explores the tension between the local experience of climate change and the instrumentation and models through which scientists know of this phenomenon.
Image 1. Vaughan Bell’s Village Green. Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia, PA. 2013.