Between Ecological Art and Design: Infrastructural Intervention | Catherine Page Harris

Sculptural Infrastructure, 2010

This spring, for the second time, I am teaching a course called Sculptural Infrastructure at the University of New Mexico.  The class tends to be small and this year has attracted exactly the mix of students I hoped for.  There are three graduate students in design fields (landscape architecture and planning), three undergraduate seniors majoring in art, and one older student who works in the theater department.  The course exists in a conceptual juncture—an interstice—defined by an observation I have made in teaching for several years in both art and design. In a general way, I can count on art students to imagine what they can make and design students to imagine what they can’t. Art students are obliged by a specific medium, despite its limitations.  Design students have rarely had the experiences to imagine whether a piece of tube steel or a solid rod is a better choice for this particular application.  The result is artists limited to a physical practice and not exercising their conceptual muscles while designers rely on off-the-shelf products or other people’s expertise to imagine material possibility.

I designed this course with infrastructure as its central spine—the theme around which we would all work.  Infrastructure encompasses function, social practice, sculptural form, and is oddly ever present and yet, often invisible.  In class, when we talk about water and energy, using concepts of energy literacy[1] and water consumption world wide, inevitably, it seems there is a sense of newness to the world we take for granted.  Quantifying the privilege of our birth in the United States shifts our understanding of resources.  How resources are engaged with, whether we use them wisely, how we develop change—these all become topics of discussion.

This course, like many I teach, hovers on the edge of conversation, rather than discussion.  If discussion is the structured analysis of a text and conversation is the sharing of ideas, perhaps oft aired but not inspected in light of these readings before, then we err closer to conversation.  I seek to intervene with my readings, my design ideas, my experiences, and then sometimes I listen and take notes on the spinning of a conversational juggernaut launched by an assertion.  “Invisible infrastructure” floated two weeks ago—which the class determined to be mind control, based on media’s domination of popular culture and then shifted to minds sharing resources like the Jung’s collective unconscious or Sheldrake’s rats[2] who learn to run mazes even if they are not experiencing the maze themselves.

The course is structured so that instead of a competition, we have collaboration.  The students propose projects and one of the often most onerous requirements I levy is to involve the class in building the piece.  Students are largely accustomed to working on their own and the amplification of effort is hard for them to imagine.  With eight of us, we can make much more in three hours than any single pair of hands can, but it involves a letting go of control.  It is also a challenge to the individual process of “making” as we talk about the project proposals and students talk about each project’s conceptual framework and offer alternative ways we might build them.

This week we are at the tricky juncture, when we move from discussing readings and looking at proposals, to actually building the projects students have outlined.  I am concerned, as usual, about losing the students into the chaos of building. I can no longer rely on some fun visual aids and interesting readings to generate conversation that I structure.  We have readings scheduled throughout the semester, but they will lag as we bury ourselves into each project’s parameters.  The engagement of hands and minds on the practical aspects of building will silence our cerebration.  Our learning will be on a Wendell Berry model of letting the work teach us.[3]  And, my role shifts.  I’m still in charge of keeping the course on track, but I am not in control of the content and from now on I am a pair of hands and a mind to be directed by the students.  At first I have helped to organize their projects into buildable pieces and we are now awash in the sea of making them.

As pedagogy, this course involves a hybrid of conventional educational methods —presentation, reading, discussion—and uses some more recent arrivals: collaborative community, collaborative “making”, check-ins before class.  I think the most valuable piece of the pedagogy, however, is the offering of agency.  Much of my definition of education is the effort to define parameters of a field and then to encourage a student to become steeped enough in the field to add to it and stretch those parameters.  This course stumbles, as all human approximations of what we imagine do, but it succeeds most, I think, in offering a direct experience, agency, in change.  In a basic sense, the course structure is to define an infrastructural function and then think of ways to change it.  For some students, the challenge is imagining how to change what they know.  For some students, the challenge is reining in their design for change, not based in knowledge.  For other students, the challenge is maintaining the mental position that change is possible in a world rendered so drear by the ever present darkness of climate change, terrorism, war, disease, water shortage, peak oil. And the value of the course comes in providing a place where we investigate, without prejudice, but also without ignorance, what does it mean to end the domination of the car, or the flush toilet, or the electrical grid, or or or?  How would that be built?  What changes would it take?

Image: From Sculptural Infrastructure, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Fall 2010:

[1] Saul Griffith,
[2] Rupert Sheldrake, “morphic resonance,” from interview in The Sun, January 2013
[3] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, 2003

Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Pedagogies, Spring 2013

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