Since 2008, the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, has convened its Art + Environment Conference, a forum for wide-ranging conversation about how art can help us better understand humans’ place in the natural world. This year’s conference begins today and extends through the weekend. Writer and artist Aaron Rothman is in attendance; he’ll share a series of reports and reflections from the conference, the first of which is below. Top photo: Sunset from the roof of the Nevada Museum of Art, 2011, by Aaron Rothman.
Shortly after writing this, I will fly to Reno, Nevada, to attend the third triennial Art + Environment Conference (A+E). This remarkable event is held at the Nevada Museum of Art, home to the Center for Art + Environment and a surprisingly ambitious institution for a small city like Reno. I attended the conference in 2011 at the recommendation of an acquaintance, not quite knowing what to expect—“art” and “environment” are both big, nebulous categories that mean different things to different people.
But I was happy to find that A+E is open-ended in its approach, bringing speakers and exhibits from an array of disciplines, each with a unique perspective on the question of humanity’s place on the planet. Art proceeds from human experience, and A+E tends not to present the environment as something separate from us; instead, environment is the space that demarcates experience, be it natural, built, virtual, or, as most things are, somewhere on the continuum between all of these.
From Stellar Axis, 2006. © Lita Albuquerque. Courtesy of the artist and Kohn Gallery. Photo by Jean de Pomereu.
I looked back at the 2011 program, which declaims in large text on the back cover, “Art has a point of view and it deserves a seat at the table.” While art is not a monolith with a consensus opinion on any issue—least of all on our relationship with the planet—its multitude of forms and practitioners share a special vantage point from which they can examine the world. Because art can disregard certain responsibilities—to practicality, rationality, or factual truth—it has a freedom not available to other fields; it can experiment with new ways of seeing and draw connections between things that may seem unrelated. A+E brings together people who are using this capacity to reshape how we see and understand our world—a critical task if we are to come to terms with life on a changing planet. (It’s worth noting here that the audience members are often just as active in this pursuit as the presenters, and conversation with the person next to you can be just as rewarding as the official lectures.)
The 2011 conference opened with a presentation by Alexander Rose from the Long Now Foundation on their work building a ten-thousand-year clock—a project that’s meant to shift our mental framework, allowing us to see ourselves as part of a very extended, yet still human, moment in time. The conference closed with a wrap-up by techno-futurist Bruce Sterling, who, cheerfully reminding us that the planet has changed, asserted that our entrenched ideas about humans and nature need to go if we are to deal with our new reality. Between these bookends—The Persistent Present and The Future Is Now—flowed a range of ideas and approaches, from environmentally minded photography to landscape-inspired orchestral music to software-driven light installations. Some I found enlightening, some maddening, some perplexing.
Inert Wolf, 2013, from the “Late Harvest” exhibit. Courtesy of the artist, Nicolas Galanin (Tlingit/Aleut).
I am thrilled to return to A+E this year, and am anticipating the return of artists Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, who’ll talk about their efforts to understand the effects of climate change on the intermountain West; David Brooks (the artist, not the columnist) speaking about working with environmental issues as an artist in New York and as a volunteer helping biologists in the field; and Maya Lin’s keynote presentation on What Is Missing?, her digital memorial to lost habitats and failing ecologies.
What I’m most looking forward to, however, are the surprises that are surely in store in Reno, those unexpected ideas and encounters that come, seeming out of the blue, to reorient my sense of place in the world. I’ll be back soon to share my experiences.
Aaron Rothman is a Phoenix-based artist and writer whose work explores contemporary issues in landscape. He’s photo editor at Places Journal, where he writes essays and curates art and photography features on landscape, architecture, and urbanism. He’s attending the 2014 Art + Environment Conference with support from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Follow the online conversation about the conference via Facebook and Twitter.