Review of The 107th Conference of the College Art Association
The expansive scope of the College Art Association’s 107th annual conference convened in New York February 13-16, 2019 represents its most ambitious effort to globally encompass areas of artistic, historical, curatorial and educational research propelled by unprecedented innovation in science and technology. STEAM’s fusion of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics was squarely evident in over 300 sessions ranging from “Abnatural Climates and the Kelmscott Chaucer” to “Industrial Art and Design in Jet Age Ethiopia.” Cultural assimilation and inclusion figured large in the design of the conference, with established categories of art and art history supplemented by issue-based panels focused on migration, globalism, political activism and diversity. “Africa, Technology and Visual Culture,” for example, explored traditional African artisanry in combination with contemporary digital technologies as in work by Nigerian artist Fatimah Tuggar and studies of digital fractals in indigenous African design by Ron Eglash, a professor of science and technology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. In the same session Kate Cowcher’s paper on Tadesse Gizaw’s metallic sculptures emphasized the use of industrial design to preserve Ethiopia’s historic independence while supporting modernization critical for its democratic future and economic self-sufficiency; Stephen Adéyemi Folárànmi examined dissemination of Yoruba oral tradition through animations of traditional African folklore; and Fiona Siegenthaler explored Fred Mutebi’s use of bark cloth, a traditional shroud and symbol of investiture, as a regenerative sign of social transformation in Southern Uganda. Such rich associations with natural matter featured also in other contexts such as textile conservation, where fiber’s vulnerability to environmental changes, its stains, folds and damaged markings convey a sense of loss and temporality as well as passage from materiality to immateriality central to conceptual art.
Trans-national perspectives also informed the session “Art and Xerox” in which Maria Teresa Rodriguez Binnie examined the boom in xerographic exhibitions in São Paulo during Brazil’s military dictatorship of the 1970’s when use of the photocopier evoked the redundancy and repetition of the military regime. Paradoxically, during this same period, this medium created ephemeral expressions of selfhood through dimensional traces of space and time. Shuxia Chen analyzed xerographic experimentation during the 1980’s in China’s Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) in Beijing immediately following the Cultural Revolution. Through New Year Painting (nianhua) and Picture Stories (lianhuanhua) produced in the Printmaking Department, she showed how work utilizing photographic and photo-copying media by Zhang Jun and Wang Youshen were the precursors of China’s new conceptual photography of the 1990’s. Rattanamol Singh Johal looked at work by the contemporary Indian artist Nalini Malani for whom a working-class district in Mumbai provided context for “Hieroglyphs of Lohar Chawl,” a vaporous series of near-identical hand-bound books worked over in watercolor; while Michelle Donnely showcased poetic images by American artists of the “Copy Art” category to illustrate “how artists hijacked the Haloid Xerox Model A, a device once hailed for its speed,” to laboriously craft works that embody multiple layers of allusion and visual metaphor. “Borrow their toys,” admonished artist Ellen Wetmore, to gain access to advanced high-power microscopes, high resolution cameras and parametric modelling equipment available today in science and engineering departments for use in fine art production.
Science-art interdisciplinarity, frequently through collaborative ventures between scientists and artists, led to one initiative at the University of Delaware to create science-based story books illustrated by artists to be taken into elementary classrooms. Filled with images of aquatic life, equatorial flora and exotic birds, these books integrated studies in elementary education, marine science, art and graphic design. This science-art conjunction also impels the burgeoning field of Bio-Art, an area of increased visibility and ascendancy in fine art departments. Resonant of nature/art paradigms in which art reflects nature’s generative capacity and organicism, its infinite variety and cosmic order, Bio Art research explores humankind’s complex relationship to nature in ways that extend from physical and conceptual creativity to erosion, decomposition, hybridization and interspecies creation. In “Life, Agency and Ecology: Aesthetics of Human-Nonhuman Encounters in Environmental and Biological Art,” Elizabeth A. Demaray of Rutgers probed the reciprocity of organisms through process-driven practices that combine living matter with emerging technologies, transdisciplinary collaboration and public engagement. Among her art installations is the “Lichen for Skyscrapers Project,” a site-specific, environmentally conscious installation in which lichen, a combination of algae and fungi, is cultivated on the sides of New York City skyscrapers to counteract the lack of native vegetation in the city. Since lichen lowers the cumulative temperatures of urban centers by absorbing sunlight and reflecting heat, it forms a protective barrier against harmful elements. In other interactions with the natural world, she creates Plant Sweaters, an installation in which Bonzai trees are fitted with hand-knit sweaters, their verdant foliage budding from the tender protection of woolen garments as an adolescent springing from its mother’s arms. Then there is PandoraBird, an interactive installation that plays music choices made by wild song-birds, a novel algorithm for species identification that identifies avian-favored human music by local feeding birds. In a similar vein, Carlos Castellanos’ “Microbial Sonorities” explores the use of sound to investigate the bioelectric and behavioral patterns of microbial fuel cells that generate electricity from the metabolic reactions of bacteria found in lakes, wetlands and kitchen waste. In “WormConnect,” he establishes an intimate bioelectrical connection between human and worm via the human heart beat by tracking the movement of worms in a petri dish through algorithmic coding. Also concerned with microbial cultivation, Paul Vanouse’s installation “Labor” recreates the microbial bi-product (scent) of human labor by propagating the bacteria of a sweatshop in glass bioreactors that emit distinct smells associated with human exertion.
In “Climate Change and British Art” art historians analyzed artworks in media ranging from Victorian-era painting to contemporary video performance against meteorological evidence of environmental crisis, in some cases indicative of art-based environmental activism. Nicholas Robbins examined the chemist and meteorologist Luke Howard’s decades long project, The Climate of London, a study that documented pathological levels of heat in the climate of London during the early nineteenth century, factors that may account for the heightened romanticism of John Constable’s picturesque country sides. The ‘abnatural’ atmosphere of London’s coal-burning manufacturers may also have contributed to fortress-like enclosures in Edward Burne-Jones’ illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer; while the ‘slow violence’ of pollution, its damage to trees and roofs and walls, informed Kate Flint’s analysis of recent projects by contemporary film, fabric and installation artists Elin Thomas, Patrick Keiler, Steve Gurysh, Tom Hall and Barry Byford. In like manner, a film by John Akomfrah of Ghana and a video sculpture by the New-York based German artist Nadja Verena Marcin explored deep historical trajectories into destructive environmental contamination.
In many respects, art is existentially positioned in relation to technology for it was Plato who first defined technê as craftsmanship or art itself; while for the Stoics, technê provided a basis for philosophical understanding of the universe. Among the many sessions that addressed and/or incorporated technology, “Art and the Ecologies of Data” tackled the protection of critical scientific, ecological, historical and artistic data. Zachary Norman’s “Endangered Data” described the growing concern that data which confirms the reality of global warming might be subject to manipulation, repression or erasure by political opponents. His program, “Endangered Data,” represents an algorithm that can be used to preserve and transmit vulnerable data using an encryption method known as steganography. Signaling new directions in the art market economy, Walter Meyer’s “Bitcoins, Artcoins, Blockchains, Art and Art History” looked at emergent technologies such as blockchains and cryptocurrencies that may be used in the future for purposes of provenance, authentication, certificates of ownership and investment. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality and other forms of data visualization and modelling were also high in evidence in practical workshops dedicated to the use of Rhino and Grasshopper software, roundtable forums on art instruction aimed at integrating traditional with more advanced technologies, and performative artworks. One project realized as a collaboration between Augustus Wendell of the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Estefanía López Salas of the Universidade da Coruna replicated the Way of St. James, an arduous 500-mile pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James the Great in Galicia that since the Middle Ages represented a spiritual journey of salvation, its hardships a test of faith. Utilizing a computational framework comprised of Unity 3D game scripts, the movement of an autonomous individual approaching the monastic site walking next to a cloister wall and passing through a village was recreated experientially, not as it exists today under layers of subsequent construction, but as it may have been visually apprehended in the past, its obscured partiality gradually giving way to a dramatic revelation. For some in attendance it offered an apt reminder of disciplinary confines that no longer demarcate the boundaries of artistic and art historical research.