January 3, 2012

New Year, New Challenge

The methodological distinctions between science and art are perhaps obvious when one considers their respective goals. Science for the most part seeks a solution to a problem and maintains a rigorous discipline to achieve that end. Art, on the contrary, has no immediate challenge other than self-expression; with no apparent goal other than expressing one’s concepts or aesthetics, art remains adrift from the moorings of teleological necessity.

This tendency of artists to express the “Self” was born out of Modernist yearnings for freedom of expression late in the 19th Century but has perhaps wrung itself dry in the 21st Century. Beginning with the Fluxus credo of “art is life” and culminating in the Appropriationists’ dismissal of “authenticity,” we can now almost certainly predict that no “New Movement” in visual art will arise. Instead, we are surely well immersed in replications of and homage to previous Art Historical tropes and postmodern theory.

There is nothing to challenge us; no manifestoes to dismount us from our pluralist complacency. Unlike science, we have no “cure” to be found or frontier to explore. The trouble with artists is that our putative “community” is a fa├žade of multiple “unique” individuals that dabble in personal obsession and ego-driven interiority. Our “practices” and artworks “deal with” esoteric and completely selfish motives that may or may not be remotely tied to some Art Historic Precedence. But these are not really “problems” needing hardcore solutions, are they?

Permit me to offer Russian geo-physicist Sergey Zimov’s “Pleistocene Park” as comparative analogy of what art and artists might become if we had grander objectives outside of our personal “selves.”

For 20 years, Zimov has been engaged in a kind of “Return to the Ice Age” in response to the very real challenge of global warming. The concept behind Zimov’s experiment was that wild animals maintained the ancient ecosystem. He bought some land in northern Siberia and began to recreate the ancient taiga/tundra grasslands that were once there by bringing in semi-wild horses, Canadian bison and reindeer, knocking down trees that absorb heat so that the grasslands returned. Thus, rather amazingly, Zimov’s idea was a startling solution “to prevent the permafrost from further thawing and releasing stored greenhouse gases.”(1) The herbivore herds ate the grass, trampled the cold snow into the ground, temperatures fell and the permafrost became stable.

“Preventing [global warming] from happening could be facilitated by restoring Pleistocene-like conditions in which grasses and their root systems stabilize the soil. The albedo—or ability to reflect incoming sunlight skyward—of such ecosystems is high, so warming from solar radiation also is reduced. And with lots of herbivores present, much of the wintertime snow would be trampled, exposing the ground to colder temperatures that prevent ice from melting. All of this suggests that reconstructed grassland ecosystems, such as the ones we are working on in Pleistocene Park, could prevent permafrost from thawing and thereby mitigate some negative consequences of climate warming. The ecosystem that used to be here many years ago cooled the climate substantially. And the present-day situation – I mean climate warming and the melting of permafrost – is a separate problem which we are seriously engaged in. We came to realize that the revival of a rich ecosystem on a vast territory will considerably affect the climate and help us control the process of global warming.”(2)

I want to suggest that Zimov’s scientific experiment might be likened to artistic practice. Here is a scientist who challenged his considerable intelligence to envision a solution outside the realm of quotidian science.

As artists, we are not engaged in “saving the world.” However, we ought to at least seek actual visual or formal art challenges that have the potential to move art forward into new realms of aesthetic theory. With visual “problems” or theories to both pursue and “solve,” we could bring our creative efforts to bear on such challenges to produce the hitherto neglected valuable and substantive worth to art.

This is a New Year – why not start off with a new challenge?

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1. Pham, Diane. “Geo-Physicist Tries To Recreate an Ice Age in Siberia,” www.inhabitat.com, Jan. 2, 2012.

2. Zimov, S. A. “Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth's Ecosystem,” Science 308.5723, 2005, 796-798.