Ar(t)chives Arts

Art for a changing world

How the Harrisons’ multidisciplinary practice tackled environmental issues

Known as “the Harrisons,” Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison were trailblazers in the eco-art movement. Their collection ranged from manifestos to maps, and sculptural installations. If a viewer didn’t know, they might interpret their work as data rather than art.

The couple’s multidisciplinary practice, which ranged a variety of disciplines, explored forestry issues and urban renewal, among others. This led them to collaborate with biologists, urban planners, architects, and more.

What makes their work particularly fascinating is not solely the aesthetic aspect of it, but rather the fact that each piece could be viewed as a solution to ecological issues.

“Our work begins when we perceive an anomaly in the environment that is the result of opposing beliefs or contradictory metaphors,” they said, according to a statement on their studio’s website. “Moments when reality no longer appears seamless and the cost of belief has become outrageous offer the opportunity to create new spaces – first in the mind and thereafter in everyday life.”

In fact, in the 1960s, the couple pledged they would exclusively create art that involved environmental awareness and ecosystems.

The Harrisons offered a unique take on art and its purpose, demonstrating the ways in which society’s inclination towards beautiful things makes them more likely to care about important issues if they are exhibited in a tasteful way.

“All of the sudden people are looking at the environment in one way or another, and they’re looking differently,” said Helen in a video of their sculpture Wilma the Pig. “In other words, it’s bringing their attention in a way that is meaningful.’”

The work was displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles for their 2012 exhibition Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974, a remake of one of their earlier installations titled Hog Pasture, wherein the creative duo recreated a small live pasture within the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. They had intended on bringing a hog into the space, however, the museum refused.

Among their other large-scale projects is The Force Majeure (2007 to present). The ongoing series is a manifesto for the present and the future and offers proposals to adapt to a changing world.

In fact, the Harrisons started the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a research centre that enables the collaboration between artists and scientists in an effort to design projects that respond to climate change.

Despite art being often deemed unimportant, the Harrisons’ works and legacy demonstrate the ways in which art can serve as an alternative way of discussing important issues.

“Why not artists?” reads a statement on the Centre’s website. “Art is the court of last resort – and our best hope.”


Visuals courtesy of Taylor Reddam.


Happening in and around the White Cube this week: Paper art and sustainable making solutions

Paper has always been something fascinating to me. Delicate and natural, this material is often overlooked as mundane and common.

A problem I have with art-making lies in its material. I love to make, I love painting, drawing… I hate making waste. When I began to teach, I stopped painting. I hate having to throw away dried up paint tubes almost as much as I hate watching people squeeze too much paint on their disposable palettes.

Last year, while I was interning at Concordia University’s Centre for Creative Reuse (CUCCR), I was taught to make paper, and led several workshops throughout the year. I was hooked. I am hooked. I ripped up old anthropology readings to make a test sheet. The acting of ripping, blending, and pulling the wet pulp was so liberating that I didn’t stop until I had collaged a rather large pulp sheet on multiple smaller sheets of felt. The uneven patched felt foundation allowed for ridges and bumps in the paper. Once it dried, it was as stiff as a board.

Since then, I’ve made several sheets of paper with all kinds of old drawings. I plan to make a series with old issues of The Concordian at some point.

So it goes without saying, when I got word of Mylene Boisvert’s “Spinning Paper Thread” workshop at the Visual Arts Centre, I was ecstatic. The workshop was part of her exhibition at the McClure Gallery, a collection of delicately woven and crocheted paperworks. Lace-like, they clung to the gallery’s walls, blowing ever so slightly anytime a door opened.

Some looked like netting and shedded reptilian skin. Others swirled so tightly and intricately, it was hard to believe Boisvert used paper to make them.

In the workshop, we learned the artist’s spinning tricks and affinity for Japanese paper, which is thin and tough, made with plant fibers, both by hand and industrially. I was brought into a world of new possibilities. A place where I could continue to make without worrying about the material I would be leaving behind.

I believe that at the time we are living in, facing the climate crisis, art-making practices cannot be excused. No one is above it; no politician, no economist, no student, no teacher, and especially no artist.

If you are interested in papermaking and spinning paper threads, I recommend attending a workshop at Atelier Retailles. Mylene Boisvert will be leading a spinning workshop on Oct. 10, following the beginner papermaking skillshare on Oct 5.  



A space for cohabitation

  La Friche explores the duality between human and nature

Large pieces of bubble wrap, scattered still life illustrations of flowers, and a desk clad with a variety of guide books about foraging line the walls at articule, an artist-run centre situated in the Mile End. The space resembles a cross between a research lab and an artist’s workshop.

La Friche, the research-based multimedia project by Montreal-based artist Angela Marsh, aims to establish a relationship between human and nature. Through the collection of found objects and foraged plant fragments, the artist has created tapestries in an effort to reconcile the omnipresent duality between the organic and the manmade.

“[The tapestries] consists of all the little pieces of plants I’ve found in friches, in parking lots, in alleyways, in an effort to create a sort of cohabitation between humans and nature,” said Marsh.

“Friche”, the french word from which stems the title of the project, can be translated roughly to “wasteland.” In this context, Marsh uses it to describe a piece of land which was once inhabited by humans, and has since been abandoned and “colonized” by wild plants.

The tapestries consist of wild plants and seeds which have been sewn into the individual pockets in the bubble wrap. This is meant to serve as a form of protection; a method of preserving the plants from “a tension between the wild plants that are trying to survive, and this human controlled system that is always trying to control them,” according to Marsh.

The work tackles socio-political themes surrounding human desire and control, alongside our relationship with nature and the environment. These notions are explored through themes of preservation, which can be seen through the artist’s archival approach to the project.

“Where is our need to always control our environment and our spaces, and where can that cohabitation happen?” asked Marsh. This is considered through her work, wherein she unites the diversity of plants with her sewing and drawings. What she wanted was to have the two aspects living together. 

Marsh identified over 60 varieties of plants throughout the province, foraging them and drew them from observation. “It’s like having a quest for relationship with each plant, a quest for understanding and intimacy,” said Marsh of her still life sketches. “Each fragment of nature that we draw… it’s like we are creating a dialogue.”

The work demonstrates a cohabitation between the organic and the artificial. The plant fragments and weeds, representing the organic; the bubble wrap and the sewing, representing the artificial. Having the two cohabitate creates a conversation, leaving the viewer to question their roles, both individually and together.

“Botanists call [weeds] resilient plants that are able to survive in disturbed land,” explained Marsh. There was once a time when nature was the main disruptor, but the roles have since reversed. “These plants have adapted, the seeds have stayed dormant for years and when there is a disruption that is when they germinate.”

The act of sewing the seeds into the plastic served as a form of reparative gesture, according to Marsh. To sew is to mend what has been broken. In other words, this action served as a means of repairing, seeking responsibility for damage, and allowing for the possibility of a new life.

“Today it will not be the same piece as it will be tomorrow,” said Marsh. “This doesn’t trouble me at all.” She spoke of the constant state of evolution of her work, explaining that the piece has to obey natural laws. “I can’t impose my natural desire to have it preserved, it’s more nature than culture.”

The project is a work-in-progress, one that the artist aims to expand over the course of the next few years, as she collects field notes, sketches, and knowledge of the various flora that she finds throughout the province, and specifically within urban spaces.

“I see it as a source of hope in this age that we live in that I find is increasingly difficult to make sense of, one where we have all sorts of ecological crisis happening around us,” said Marsh, further explaining her interest in wild plants that are managing to survive within the city space. “They are a symbol of this regenerative capacity to be able to adapt and survive in conditions that are unsurvivable.”

Angela Marsh will continue to develop La Friche over the course of the next five to eight years, in an effort to further understand the evolution of wild plants within the city space in parallel with her work.


Photos by Laurence B. D.

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