From a conversation with Helen and Newton Harrison and Janeil Engelstad, June 2011
Newton: We have set out to make work that participates in generating well-being for the larger systems that we are a part of. This gets clear in the Lagoon Cycle, in the second lagoon, where we set out to grow crabs to re-inhabit a Sri Lankan Lagoon. 1
Helen: The lagoon was being fished out by the Russian, French and Japanese fishing fleets and what you needed to do was to mate the crabs. If you can find a way to make them mate in the lab, then you can put the females back out into the ocean and then they can multiply and spread.
Janeil Engelstad (JE): The Lagoon Cycle was the first time that you co-joined art and science?
Newton: No, the first time was when I did a piece called, Artificial Aurora. That piece had scientific implications by accident. It came out of a study that I did of plasma physics. My advisor was Richard Feynman, a Nobel winning physicist. I was at Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a part of the Art and Technology program at LACMA. 2
The first real science, we would argue that we ever did, as opposed to say the first text on global warming, which was about scientific discoveries, was in the Lagoon Cycle where we actually discovered and decoded the mating behavior of the Southeast Asian Crab.
Helen: Including their cannibalism behavior.
Newton: Therefore we had on the table stuff that people never saw before. We behaved as scientists, as experimentalists. There is a big difference between experimentalism and art making. So if you look at the sea grant at end of the Second Lagoon, but you read the first text in the Second Lagoon, you will see how we take the experience and flip it into art, and we flip it into a rather political form of art that literally debates experimental science. So that’s no longer science at all.
JE: You have been working in this way for a long time, you are really pioneers in this marriage and collaboration between art and science.
Newton: Not art and science. Art and science has been a big issue since György Kepes brought it up in the late 50s early 60s. What we are, are the first people who took up eco-systems and whole systems thinking. Art and science was incidental, instead of systematic. That’s where we break away.
Helen: Art and science, in one sense, can be piece meal. You do a project for this. You do a project for that. Where what we’re doing, is looking at something and looking at its place in the whole environment. It is a part of a system.
JE: So, it is not even categorized as art and science. Forget the categories, which in and of themselves are divisions, because you are dealing with the whole system.
Newton: That’s what we did in our minds. We never stopped thinking about ourselves as artists, but we started to think of ourselves as human beings who co-create with the eco-systems and each of those systems.
JE: And with the other kingdoms.
Helen: Exactly, we are part of the system and the other parts of the system are important as well, therefore we must work with them.
JE: So you realize that you are working in this way where you a part of the organism that we, and all of creation, are a part of. Then, whether you intend to or not, there is a path that you are on that is different than the traditional art path. You are creating this path as you go and at the time you are questioning these different notions and presumptions of what art is and how it is operating.
Newton: Yes, that is all true but we also owe a bit to John Cage and his response for Chance Encounter. 3. We do the same thing. We perceive ourselves as wind blown as a random moving, part of the environment. Always taking wherever we land as an opportunity.
Newton: Much like a seed or anything else. Take the Sierra Nevada. Bill Fox gives us a call and we talk back and forth and finally we get invited up there and they say, “Want do you want to do?”
And we say, “Well, how big is here?”
And the looks pass around the room.
Then we say, “Well, we took a look at here and it happens to be that the Mt. Range is 28,000 square miles. Why don’t we do the Sierra Nevada?”
The idea is that you have to put aside the whole notion of site-specific work.
Newton: What you need to do is system specific work and sites emerge. If you do site specific work . . .
JE: Systems don’t emerge. They are exclusionary.
Newton: Yes. So they agreed and we are moving forward.
JE: So what is the next step?
Newton: Suppose we don’t use the next step as a metaphor. Suppose we use, where is the wind blowing?
Helen: The next stage.
Newton: The wind is blowing us into a whole kind of experimentation that we didn’t think was available to us. And that is: if we work at Sagehen (Sagehen Creek Basin is located on the east slope of the northern Sierra Nevada section of the Sierra-Cascade Mountains in central California) and we will, and we make a watershed wide proposal, which we’ve agreed to do, provided it is doable. Then that watershed wide proposal would take their grid system and propose a transformation from a grid like perspective. If we do that, that’s a model for Tibet. 4
For us it was like, wow! How wonderful! Because that gives you a way to work and let’s you do pattern behavior. Each section of the grid requires a slightly different treatment than each other section. If there are two million grids on the Tibetan Plateau - two million square kilometers - then two million people will each be given a square kilometer with the instructions of how to do it. This is not really true, but you see what I am saying there is a way to approach it.
Helen: And it will depend upon the people.
Helen: Each time it is different because the people who will be working with us will be different.
JE: Right, there are different collaborators, whether it is permaculturists, scientists, engineers, artists, students, or all of them . . .
Newton: Yes that’s right . . .
JE: Looking at your work there are all of these threads and patterns, but you work in a way where there doesn’t seem to be a strict methodology. You are invited somewhere, or you go somewhere, and you’re interested. Something lands. You start working and the place, the environment, and the people start to shape and form the process.
Newton: Yes, exactly, but we do come with some things. We come with some intentions and we come with maps. We map places. We make mental maps and we are going to scan for the outrageous. For example, if you take a look at the tree stump metaphor that they used in the Sierra-Nevada, it’s outrageous that they traded off such a big percentage of their topsoil for no good reason at all. So we also think that feeling as well as mind, human feeling, and deeply felt responses guide the formation of the work as well as other things.
Helen: What we put into the work is our own feelings and caring about the place. We come to a place and we have the eye of the observer and of the stranger. We can see things that people who live there have gotten so used to that they are not seeing them anymore. We also have the disadvantage of the stranger in that we don’t know the place. Therefore we have to take lessons from the people of the place. It is like learning a whole new language. The language of the place.
Newton: In the Santa Fe piece, we have Lessons from the Genius of Place. We lay out the core of it right there. 5
Helen: The important thing is that there is caring. That is something that goes into our work. If caring isn’t there, the work suffers.
Newton: Helen tends to be more nurturing psychically and I tend to me more aggressive and passionate and those two co-mingle. Like when I say, in the meeting at Sagehen, “What, are you mad? You traded off the topsoil of the whole mountain range for what? For cutting down the trees a couple of times and overgrazing? And you didn’t even know if you did it? And if I look at all of your studies, I don’t see hardly any topsoil studies? And you call yourself scientists? You want me to be impressed? What? Your annoyed with me because I am not impressed?”
Helen: And I would be thinking, what have you meant? Why isn’t your information carrying force, carrying strength? What are you leaving out? How do you feel about this place? What does it mean to you? Maybe you should put your engagement with the place, it’s meaning to you, into the work. So, that my approach would be quite different than his. But both of them work, each of them works in their own way.
Newton: She thinks I’m too harsh and I think she is too mushy. But at a certain moment, once the work takes over, none of those opinions have any weight at all, because it’s the genius of place that tells us how to behave.
JE: This morning, I was again looking at the Serpentine Lattice video and it’s really a wonderful example of that. 6
Newton: We just showed that video at Sagehen. They loved it. We said look, take a look at this thing, you’re not going to be able to plant the same trees. The soil has changed. Particularly the Sitka Spruce, it won’t germinate and it’s a critical part of the arboreal triad. All these things are going to come. On top of that, suppose we took command, real command! Let’s buy the ridgeline from Northern California to Southern Alaska. We priced it, 3.2 billion dollars in 1992. Much of it is state land or public land. Much of it has already been chopped so it’s worth $300 to $400 an acre. If you buy the ridgeline, you can command it. You have the high ground.
Helen: And then we can start with the small watersheds that go down the mountains
Newton: You almost don’t have to do anything because if you own the ridgeline, the other people will take heart. There is not much that we could do. But if you command at that level, you give power and strength and heart to others.
Helen: And people will start trying to restore in small places, but starting from the top down with the idea of restoration is most effective.
Newton: Serpentine Lattice is the first icon that we made and it didn’t work. Then we tried to do an icon for Peninsula Europe and it didn’t work. So we’re not sure what to do about that. But we do know what makes an icon work and that is a text in the culture. And so far we were not able to establish a dynamic enough text in the culture to make our icons work. So we’ll see what happens with Sagehen.
1 In The Lagoon Cycle (1972-1982) the Harrisons created a transportable 350-foot-long mural in fifty sections that examines the processes and linkages between food production and watersheds. Investigating land use along the perimeter of the Pacific Rim, the piece includes collages, photographs, poetry, and performance.
2 The Art and Technology Program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) began in 1967, when senior curator of modern art Maurice Tuchman posed these questions: What if artists had access to the materials, expertise, and manufacturing processes of the day’s most advanced technologies? What if they were free to experiment with these materials and processes, and what if they could collaborate with the engineers and corporations who had developed them? Over the next four years, Tuchman and other LACMA staff members followed up on these questions by identifying corporations and artists they wished to pair. Newton Harrison was paired with Jet Propulsion Laboratory. An exhibition of the work from this program was produced in 1971. For detailed information about the program and Harrison’s participation visit: https://unframed.lacma.org/2014/07/07/art-and-technology-in-the-archives-at-the-balch-art-research-library
3 One evening in 1950, Morton Feldman and John Cage ran into each other on the way out of Carnegie Hall after a performance of a piece by Anton Webern. This chance encounter was the beginning of a long and artistically fruitful friendship, which helped to bring Feldman to the center of New York's legendary experimental scene of the 1950's.
5 In Santa Fe Drain Basin: Lessons from the Genius of Place (2003-2008) the Harrisons worked with Hispanics, Native Americans, Anglos, teenagers, engineers, permaculturists, and others to create five proposals and six considerations of the ability of the soil, in and around the Santa Fe riverbed, to retain moisture and thus regenerate a seven mile section of the Santa Fe River.
6 Serpentine Lattice (1993) is a conceptual design created by The Harrison Studio that would create scaffolding for the sustainable reclamation of the Pacific North West Temperate Coastal Rain Forest. In a video about the work, Newton and Helen’s voiceover narration is at once a dialogue, an exchange, and a singular voice and vision.