3 Rivers 2nd Nature
and GROUNDWORKS Exhibition
Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny Rivers and the Monongahela River that unite to form the Ohio River. The city consists of hills and valleys drained by streams and rivers. At Carnegie Mellon University my partner, Tim Collins, and I taught together for three years, before becoming research fellows at the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. We focused upon two site specific research projects: the first was Nine Mile Run Greenway, an urban stream and slag dump in a watershed area of 6.5 square miles. The second focused upon the three rivers of Allegheny County which consisted of 53 watersheds over 730 square miles. We entitled this river project 3 Rivers 2nd Nature. Tim was the director and I was the creative director. We also collaborated with many experts and college students.
At the simplest level, there are two dominant ideas of nature; first nature the idea of wilderness or land that is assumed to be unaffected by human development, and the other is the idea of second nature, a cultural landscape, where humanity affects everything. Pittsburgh is a poster child for second nature. Andrew Carnegie started building large steel mills in the late 1800s, and the steel production reached their productivity climax in 1926. During that era, the air, the water and the earth were polluted by mills and city waste, trees with broad leaves could not survive in the filthy air, and torn up soils on the hills. The sky was dark even during the daytime; fish and waterfowl were missing from the rivers. This environmental and ecological destruction involved a tremendous amount of violence to all living beings.
How can we help or support the spirit of rivers?
Many people avoid talking about things that they cannot clarify intellectually. I am anxious to say that I believe everything has life and spirit, how could we help or support the spirit of rivers? The word spirit comes from the Latin word spiritus, breathing or spirare, to breath. The definition of spirit in the English dictionary is “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms.”
We spent five years collaborating with scientists to reveal the value of nature as it recovers from industry. The Aquatic and terrestrial conditions of the rivers and streams became the primary areas of our study. Our research methods were cross-disciplinary, dialogical, relational approaches. Experts helped us understanding what questions to ask of nature. Citizens helped us to understand why we should ask these questions.
As we began developing this project, we realized that Pittsburgh suffered from panoramic myopia. By this I mean we have spectacular view of our rivers from high hills and bridges, yet we are not able to see what is really there. We see what we remember, and we assume that nothing is good along these rivers. We focused on issues specific to the post-industrial public realm. We researched the idea of nature and what it means in a former steel-town. This was complimented by regular public discussions about the rivers and how they might change. We called these community events, “River Dialogues.” Community participation was (and is) essential to our process. Transformation started at the moment when people gathered to discuss their place. Each community (human and nature) has different interests and struggles, different relationships to their place. Each community includes people who have observed and stood as witnesses for the nature that defines their regions.
The River Dialogues consisted of site tours and discussion of the place. We sought presentations by experts and environmental organizations. Our goals were to find new ways for people to speak and to see, and to find new ideas and methods for creative engagement with our place. We were interested in experience, dialogue, mutual values and diverse visions and real examples about culture, nature, and place.
Outcomes of the project
- Study Reports: The Project Created 23 numbers of reports, and they were published and distributed.
- The County Wide Design Plan: we initiated an important planning and policy dialogue at the end of the project . Our reports and studies are being applied by others to produce change in the region
- The Hillside Project: has resulted in changes to the City of Pittsburgh Zoning code, and was the basis for the development of a new City Park.
- The River Dialogue: Watertrail documentation is utilized by two environmental organizations: Friends of the Riverfront and Pennsylvania Environmental Council who develop projects from the concept plan.
We also organized art events. The GROUNDWORKS EXHBITION was built upon two events: the Monongahela Conferences I and the Monongahela Conference II. The goal in those conferences was to begin a dialogue about art and its role in social and environmental change. The first Monongahela Conference occurred in October 2003. We assembled 24 important artists like Helen and Newton Harrison, Jackie Brookner and Platform to talk with theorists such as Suzi Gablik, Grant Kester and Malcolm Miles. We organized two public lectures and two community meetings that included a site tour in the Monongahela Valley over the three day period. This documentation is presented at the Greenmuseum website.
The second Monongahela Conference occurred in June 2004. This was a month long art/design residency program with 12 artists in three communities in the Monongahela Valley. Seven artists who lived outside Pennsylvania were brought into the region to work alongside five artists living in the greater Pittsburgh region. This program would insert regional and national artists into challenging post-industrial communities. The project was described in the following terms. “The Monongahela Conference is based in the belief that art and creative vision have the power to affect traditional political procedures by welcoming the ideas and participation of every citizen.” The artists and 3R2N team member provided staffing in a library, a storefront and a municipal office five days a week. Each Friday we hosted a project dinner – followed by a public lecture-discussion about the issues the artists had become involved in. Municipal officials and citizens were always invited (and did attend) these events. The questions from many in these communities were how much time the artists would spend, and how serious their commitments would be? The artists from out of town created excitement, and the artists within the region gave the local citizens and leaders confidence in the commitment that was brought to the artwork. The 3R2N research assistants ably facilitated the artists; their passion for the artwork and critical dialogue, and their impeccable computer design skills amazed everyone.
All the elements came together as an exhibition called GROUNDWORKS. It was curated by Grant Kester with Patrick Deegan and presented by Jenny Strayer, the director of the Miller Gallery. The participants were: Ala Plastica, Navjot Altaf, Huit Facettes ,Ichi Ikeda, S.Lacy, S.L.Steinman and Y.Kobayashi, Park Fiction, Platform, Wochenklausur, Jackie Brookner, Stephanie Flom and Ann Rosenthal, Ground Zero, H. and N. Harrison, W.Hood and A.DuSolier, T. and C. Merriman, A.Laurie Palmer, 3 Rivers 2nd Nature. Catalog texts were contributed by: Maria Kaika, Oxford University, UK, Andrew Light, NYU, Malcolm Miles, University Plymouth, UK, EDITED by Grant Kester. It was an international overview of artwork that engages issues of society and environment through art, planning and design. It had local, social, environmental relevance, and in our eyes international consequence. Grant also collaborated closely with an interdisciplinary team of authors to produce a series of essays that provided an intellectual framework for the projects on display.
The exhibition presented the artwork of an amazing array of artists, it was intended to illicit a dialogue about artists working with the intent to create change, it was intended to raise questions of scale, impact and efficacy. It was intended to initiate a dialogue about the artist role in the public realm.
As a result of the Monongahela Conference I and II:
- Connie and Tom Merriman became research fellows at the STUDIO to continue their efforts on the Hay's Wood project.
- GroundZero Action Network, Christine Brill and Jonathan Kline are still working with the Braddock communities
- Ann Rosenthal is still working with the McKeesport community.
- Noel Hefele, 3R2N Research Associate was invited to the 3 Rivers Arts Festival in the summer of 2006, presenting landscape paintings that address post industrial issues along the three rivers in Pittsburgh.
As a result of the GROUNDWORKS exhibition.
- A group of Japanese environmental artists and a theorist started collaborating on research and a new project that focuses on Asian environmental issues and art practices.
- The GROUNDWORKS Exhibition catalogue has been published and distributed.
The main image was a Sand Mandala of the three rivers and recovering ecosystems in the Allegheny County. Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning “cycle.” It consists of many symbols and layers of meaning. Mandala supports meditation about the universe, its energy, life and death. In our case it supported a final meditation about the place, history, community, and relationship between nature and culture. It represented rivers, streams, floodplains, watersheds, and forests along the rivers. Noel Hefele, 3R2N Research Associate, started as an art student and worked with us for 6 years, created 6 Thankas on the wall that consisted of two media; one was 3 computer flat screens that showed 1,850 images: the rivers, streams, vegetation, wildlife, and communities. Each image ran at about 3-4 seconds. The other media was landscape paintings. Noel chose three special places that were occupied by beautiful native riparian plants along each river. The exhibition ended in December. The sand mandala was dismantled during the closing ceremony at the gallery. Each creative effort has a beginning and an end. This must lead us to the next cycle of creative engagement and practice.