Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Longing for a revolution

I had to go really far away to a watery, watery land to find a really helpful book. Photo by me.
Some days, I feel certain that we are on the verge of some major cultural shifts. Other days...not so much. During the latter, I am grateful for anything the reawakens a deep sense of possibility. Recently, that thing was a serendipitous encounter with Land and Environmental Arta book that contains some unexpected parallels for where I feel we are in the sciences right now and provides a really interesting look at working from the margins.

The authors, Wallis and Kastner, focus on the emergence of the Land Art movement in the mid-60's and its evolution into the 70's, which was of course coincident with the emergence of a renewed environmental movement in the U.S. But it is really their description of the role of yet another coinciding movement -- feminism -- that grabbed my attention:
"It is often said that Land Art is...the most macho of post-war art programs. In its first manifestations, the genre was one of diesel and dust, populated by hard-hat-minded men, finding their identities away from the comforts of the cultural center... Yet for a number of groups -- especially women -- such a distancing from power was hardly something that required effort. Indeed, the marginalization of women that was intrinsic to the art world may have, in fact, better equipped them to face the challenges and take advantage of the potential opportunities presented by the definitive shift away from the influence of institutional forces. A foray outside the boundaries of the art world proper was not a great liberating adventure for most women artists of the day -- the margin was already their home."
History simplifies, and the concept of the margin is complex -- they are relative and we don't usually get to choose where we fall, and I don't want to romanticize. Still, this spoke to me because it helps to put words to a feeling that I seem to having a lot -- that one person's liberating adventure is another's home. I often find myself in situations where the implicit power dynamics at play -- those of gender, race, culture, age, sexuality, expertise, authority etc., and how they all intersect -- are rarely acknowledged, much less discussed, but are impossible for me to ignore. The topics that are instead deemed worthy of attention, which are often at their core struggles over how to get closer to traditional kinds of power (more attention, more funding, more publicity, more decision-makers ears, more buy-in), don't feel like the most interesting or valuable ones. I know I'm not alone in finding myself longing for a move away from the same old kinds of discussions about old kinds of power, and somehow this book gave me me a new way of thinking about why:
"Because women's work had always been regarded as existing apart from the kind of momentous activities...that conventional readings of history placed at the forefront of social evaluation, it provided a powerful basis for a subversive new practice that would be at home outside structures of power. When women artists began to query, contextualize, and purposefully incorporate and limitations of traditional female roles into their practice...they began to change the very essence of art practice."
Although it's hard to see while it's happening, I touch into it enough to be able to see the same thing trying to happen in my own little part of the world. I know some pretty incredible people doing tremendously valuable work at what feels like the margins, yet it is, I am certain, changing everything. It runs totally counter-narrative to the hero myths that surround us, but is so vital.

Ultimately, Wallis and Kastner say this work from the margins changed "expectations of what a work of art could be." Now imagine they are talking about science and well, that, that sounds interesting.

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