Lately I have become interested in the variety of conceptions of nature. When I think of nature, two different kinds of images come to mind. On the one hand, there are the images in the news that show us plastic filled oceans, burning forests, and severe storms. On the other hand, there are all the social media pictures of sunsets, sandy beaches, and flowers. One type of image shows something that we destroy and something we should be afraid of. The other type of image presents something soothing, pretty, decorative.
In June 2019, I was invited to speak the annual conference of ASLE, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, at UC Davis, California. I heard an interesting talk by Ursula K. Heise on Planet of Cities: Multispecies Environments and Narrative Futures. Nature seems to adapt with the development of urban planning.
In the 17th Century, cities were seen as the opposite of nature. Nature had to feed the inhabitants the city; it was seen as the antipode of the city. Nature was contained outside the city gates.
In the 18/19th Century, Romantic conceptions of nature came on the scene. Romantics promoted nature as truthful and soothing while city inhabitants began to miss nature. Urban planners reacted and integrated parks and gardens into the urban layout. Nature became a controlled part of the city, designed for human entertainment and recreation.
But as we know, nature is difficult to control. Even in those "good old days", nature was always a part of all parts of the city, no matter how hard planners and architects tried to hinder the mingling of natural and city elements. Think of all the unwanted plans or weed growing wherever they can. Think of all the rats, doves, insects and other unwanted creatures on the streets and in the houses.
In recent years one can observe yet another shift in the ideas of nature and city relationships. The awareness of the importance and connectedness of all plants and animals is growing. We begin to understand how we depend on all sorts of animals and plants, not only on the pretty ones. At the same time, the numbers of inhabitants in the countryside are shrinking, the numbers of inhabitants in urban areas is growing. The concept of the city and nature as two separate entities seems to be replaced by a new idea: Cities are our new nature.
We are welcoming the foxes which come to the cities at night. We are beging to understand that we need to protect the bees and other insects in the city. Urban farming, flower bombs, new concepts for city parks, and plants as architectonical elements mark a shift in our understanding of city as a space we have to share with nature.
But what does nature think of all of that? I am always happy to get news about expanding wolf-packs in Europe and growing numbers of bears in the Alps. Even more fascinating for me are stories about animals looking for new places to live and choosing cities. We all know well-fed college squirrels ( I also like those), but there are also other flocks of newly arrived animal city dwellers. In 2019, apparently 11 different parrot species, like the red-lord amazon, populate Los Angeles (https://pethelpful.com/wildlife/Wild-Parrots-Multiplying-in-Southern-California). With a population of 5000 in L.A. their number has become larger than in their original habitat in Central America. The birds came to the United States as pets. Now they have chosen to stay. They re-connected with their friends from further South and started their own big city colony. No need for lush trees or a Romantic conception of nature here.
The L.A. parrots stand for a picturesque, new kind of Romantic version of the new urban habitat. But nature in the city consists mostly of cockroaches, bed bugs, and other creatures we do not want to see. In 2019 we may have to change our preferred perception of nature. Maybe there is no nature like the one depicted by William Tuner or Caspar David Friedrich anymore. Aestheticization, in terms of beautifying nature, might not work in the smoggy mega cities we share with a lot of other humans, and other animals.
Already in 1836 in his essay "Nature" Waldo Emerson critiques a retrospective and Romanticizing perception we have of nature. He argues for a different and radical new definition: "Strictly speaking (…) all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE."
The question is, will we be able to enjoy the urban landscape as nature as the Romantics did? A nature that includes parrots and foxes, but also termites and silverfish?
How to get art students to write is a question near and dear to me. For the last 12 years I have been teaching art and design students how to write about their projects. I remember my start in 2007 at the Art University in Linz. I mostly focused on language skills. Over time I came to understand that the main challenge is not vocabulary, but how to trigger the desire to write.
Somehow for art students - mostly working with non-verbal artistic materials – sitting down to write is either seen as an unnecessary burden, or is turned into an artistic endeavor itself (an opportunity to twist every little piece of information into artistic prose). Academic writing seems to be foreign and challenging. As a teacher I felt I had to convince my students in one way or other to start writing.
It took me a while myself to understand that writing can be a very helpful tool to clarify, specify, back-up and publish one’s ideas: to contextualize your thoughts by researching other projects, to compare and to reason, and to get in touch with art and academic communities.
It is important to stress that, in writing about art, we are not taming the art. Writing about art does the contrary. We awake our senses to complex perceptive processes and invite others to share our experiences (Cp. Sontag, Susan (1961): Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Picador: New York). With writings about art we offer a platform to start discussions and research processes. I see writing as a way to make artistic processes visible, to learn and understand more about your own work and the work of others, and to push art students’ self-confidence through becoming part of bigger networks and discussions.
I invite my students to imagine: What if we would write and discuss art as much as we verbalize, discuss and describe soccer or the weather? How far would that propel the arts?
In Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective,Kellogg shows us the different stages of knowledge processing that may be achieved through writing. We may start with “knowledge telling”, proceed to “knowledge transformation”, and finally master the skill of “knowledge crafting”. (Cp. Kellog, Ronald T. (2008): Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. In: Journal of writing research 1/1. p.4, figure 1).
The first step for me as an art teacher is to convince students that writing about art can be more than a description of what we see. In class we start with best ofwriting examples. We discuss how new knowledge is crafted through writing about art. A second element are in-class writing challenges. There we focus on observation and group discussion to collaboratively make the step from “knowledge telling”, to “knowledge transformation”. Learning about the insights from the other students can be the next step to “knowledge crafting”.
The next challenge is to contextualize one’s own work with other sources to come to a new understanding. The second step is to make the transition from material-based writing (e.g. writing on one’s art project) to discursive synthesis writing (to contextualize and compare your source with other sources.) (Boscolo, Pietro; Arfé, Barbara; Quarisa, Maria (2007): Improving the quality of students’ academic writing an intervention study. In: Studies of Higher Education 3274. P.419-438, 422.). I learned that I have to set up a “bildungsnahe” family situation at school. Students, no matter what background, who are not used to research on their own, have to practice in a welcoming and supportive community. It is my task as a teacher to provide sources, take the students to art shows, or send them engaging links. Further I have to make sure that we all stay on track: I set up writing teams, plan coaching sessions, and add do-able short writing homeworks that build up to longer texts.
The third task I identified is to personalize the writing process. Academic writing is commonly taught as something impersonal and abstract. Research is seen as something general and remote. For art students it is important to lose their distance towards academic writing by making personal connections.
During the MA or PhD studying and writing phase, research should benefit more than one person. Yet I have had the experience that for BA art students, establishing an artistic identity is a very personal and individual growth process. This process cannot be skipped. Understanding that writing is also part of one own’s personal development makes the students more engaged (Williams Mlynarczyk, Rebecca (2006): Personal and Academic Writing: Revisiting the Debate, p.1. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ773395.pdf, last visited on July 29, 2019). Asking art students to write about things they are not interested in may turn writing into a life-long hate relationship.
David Elbow, one of the pioneers of freewriting, states that: “If academics were more like writers - wrote more, turned to writing more, enjoyed writing more - I think the academic world would be better.”(Elbow, Peter (1995): Being a Writer vs. Being an Academic: A Conflict in Goals. In: College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 72-83. 82. ) For art school students, I want to expand his statement: If artists were more like writers – their art would be better and the academic art world would be better.
The big question is: How to get art students to write, and stick to it? In the world self-help literature, one tool to learn a new habit is to piggyback the new habit onto an already existing habit (Sincero, Jen (2013): You are a badass. Philadelphia.). E.g. If you are brushing your teeth every morning, why not getting into the habit of reading a French poem right after you brush your teeth to practice French every day?
One of the pedagogical tools that is often used in art and design school education is the sketch book. Sketch books are a helpful tool to remember insights and useful information, connect to other sources, and pin down ideas. Usually the students love their sketch book.
Let’s connect sketch books to the tooth-brush-French-poem example: In my art writing classes, I realized how helpful it can be to ask the students to write down ideas, sources, references in their sketch books daily, or whenever they read or see something useful and inspiring. Piggybacking the writing habit onto the sketching habit has proven to be a serviceable tool to get into the habit of writing, to accumulate material, to contextualize the artistic project and start the process of academic synthesis. Linguist David Bartholomae argues that “there is no writing done in the academy that is not academic writing” (Bartholomae, David (1995): Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow. In College Composition and Communication 46.1, p. 62-71, 63).Extending that phrase to writing in sketch books would turn artistic writing into academic writing.
Writing can be a scary task when first introduced to art school students. There is probably not one single solution to engage art students. The following steps I identified might be useful to set up a writing-friendly atmosphere:
One of my favourite art works is Olafur Eliasson's Green River Project (1998-2001). Olafur Eliasson and his assistants dyed waterways in Bremen, Stockholm, Los Angeles and Tokyo and rivers in other cities green with uranine, a non-toxic water-soluble dye.
Olafur Eliasson's projects are known for drawing attention to individuals' perceptions of environments. With the unannounced "Green Rivers" his artistic strategy was to draw attention to surroundings that have become so familiar that we do not notice them anymore. (cp. Stella Paul: Chromaphilia, Phaidon, 2017)
My reading of the "Green Rivers" is a bit different: Rivers are flowing entities. Rivers, no matter how strictly we try to urbanise or restrict their riverbeds, want to flow. A river has a mission. A river has a goal. She wants to get to the ocean.The rivers in the River Project greet the surrounding buildings or the bridge they pass beneath. With concentration and focus, the river is flowing towards her goal.
Turning the river green makes us aware of the flow of its water. The green water directs our attention to the need and beauty of flowing. We see the beauty of not turning around to check what else there might be around the corner. (Oh well I think I'll go back, Oh well I think I'll want to go another way...) The green water makes perceptible the unquestioned and unstoppable flow. The moving water shows us how beautiful it is to follow the decisions we make and not letting ourselves get distracted.
Being an artist or a writer, or a creator of whatever else, these moments of uninterrupted flow of reading, writing, or whatever production you favour, are very important. The performance itself is not so important (e.g. the color of the water). The outcome is also not that important (getting to the ocean on time). What matters is to be in the moment of flow, to do your thing, to concentrate on what is happening in the now, looking ahead towards your goals.
Art and Education