Songs of Urban Ecology: Cathedral of M-14 Fugue

What spaces around you do you ignore?

Stop, Observe, Listen.

The Second Song to Urban Ecology, this one was actually begun first. It was originally a photo series that I took in one of my favorite parks, located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

M-14 is an expressway that runs between Ann Arbor and Plymouth, which is an ex-Urb or Suburb of Detroit.

The “Cathedral” is the open space beneath the overpass, as it runs over the Huron River. The light on the tracery of the steel-framed bridge combined with the rhythmic organ of the traffic overhead make it a very contemplative place. Nature and City collide here, not just because of the highway, but because it the western bank of the river is skirted by an old industrial corridor where welding and manufacturing shops once dominated, though few now remain.

Although the overpass could be thought of as marring the landscape, and the noise pollution and runoff can be harmful to the ecosystem, there is something beautiful to be found in the coexistence of this massive basilica of concrete and steel, designed not for occupancy, but instead for passing over.

Re-claiming the beauty of labor normally masked by its utility, I seek to showcase the labor of the Ironworkers and other skilled trades as they contribute to our culture by re-claiming the space for something besides a pass through.

The light shines off the tracery of the steel frame. The fog hides and reveals the ugly concrete pylons. Graffiti quite literally marks people’s interest in the site. Ripples highlighted by the thin line of light between the lanes create calligraphic flourishes on the surface of the water.

In this project, I also re-claim the space beneath the bridge for the ways that nature and land shine through human imposition. I stopped there and meditated, watched, listened about once a week for a couple of years. I began to notice many small details. All the photos are of plants which grow* along the banks of the river in the natural area opposite the old industrial corridor.

Here I want to acknowledge that one person or set of people cannot truly claim the land we inhabit, whether they hold deed and title or not. In re-claiming the land, I do not claim ownership. I re-claim the right to create a stronger relationship between people and the earth. This “Cathedral” is part of a complex system for which we are each responsible, and which is affected by our actions.

Beyond that interconnectedness, I also acknowledge that Washtenaw County has its own storied history of disputes between Native Americans, French, English, and ultimately the Territorial European Americans who became “Michiganders,” like me.

The Huron River, after all takes its name from one of the several local groups of Native Americans: groups that have traversed and lived here include speakers of Anishnaabe and Wyandot, known to many Americans by their tribal names (Chippewa, Ojibwa, and Huron, Iroquois respectively) as well as other tribes from Canada and Ohio with whom they traded well into the 19th Century.**

One step, beyond acknowledging who was here first, is to think about how we can better honor the land itself. I don’t own any land that I could give back, but I can be a better steward of the earth, and advocate for more harmonious relationships and care between humans and nature.

Place Based Education: Stay at Home Workshop

Saturday May 16, 10:30 AM

Eastern DaylghtTime

Join with Google Meet: https://meet.google.com/cwg-akvj-hed

For the participatory art part of this project I am creating a workshop which will be geared to sharing some ideas about how to combine art and science to take advantage of the time we are all spending stuck at home.  

Everyone is somewhere.  But what is somewhere?  How do we know our own “where?”

Place-Based Education focuses on those questions in order to engage people.  Looking closely at the world right in front of us.  It is something that people often take for granted, but to study it, to really look at it to see things as they connect to you and to other things, takes practice.

In Making Learning Visible, the children created their own maps of the city of Reggio, for example.

Another example is a project that Lisa Voelker from Southeast Michigan Stewardship Coalition collaborated with me and FLY in which we created a digital installation and a mini map of the park behind the Riverside Arts Center based on a series of small projects that students did in just one week.

Place Based Learning can begin with a small moment right where you are.

Everywhere you go, there you are. Place is an easy text for anyone and everyone to begin a learning journey.   

Before the Workshop Saturday at 10:30 AM:

In this workshop we will play with taking time out of every day to look and listen by drawing and photographing something you can see near your house. Since we are all on various versions of Stay Home Stay Safe, I ask that anyone wishing to participate adhere to local public health recommendations and local law enforcement. If you are allowed to go to a park, do it! If not, don’t.

  • Take a picture of something you are interested in that you see nearly every day (for example outside your window).
  • Take a picture of the same thing every time you notice a change.
  • Write down or draw out things that you notice:
    • What is the same?
    • What has changed?
    • Is it only visible things? What about sounds and smells?

If you don’t have time between now and then, don’t worry, I will have some samples and give time to go out and take a picture during the workshop. You might also want some things from your recycling bin, some crayons, some water, something to stick (tape or glue) and some markers.

*With the exception of the trillium, all of the plants were photographed within a half-mile of the bridge. The trillium grow there, but mostly in very small patches. I found such a beautiful large pink patch elsewhere that I couldn’t resist cheating This particular trillium plant was photographed in Montibeller Park in Pittsfield Township.

**In some ways, Michigan’s history, with French dominance into the 1820’s means that relationships between present inhabitants and past inhabitants have been preserved. The French wanted to convert, and “save” rather than dominate like the perpetrators of Manifest Destiny. There are still Native Americans from local tribes living in Michigan, particularly farther north. This does not mean there was no harm. Forced family separations, discrimination, and damaging economic practices remain to this day. But I did learn Native American History during my second grade class, and it did include the harms and the wars in my eighth grade class, and went into staggering detail about the cruelty by my junior year of High School.

First Song to Urban Ecology: Jamaicaway Matins

While natural systems and cities are symbiotic everywhere, there are huge equity gaps across the globe. Higher income areas have more access to open space, and foliage and are therefore more likely to have active and noisy animal populations. There have been many articles about this through the years. One of the most memorable for me was in 2012, on a blog called PerSquareMile titled, “Income inequality as seen from Space. It was during the time when Google Maps was becoming more detailed and people outside the research community were just starting to think about this and the author, Tim de Chant, collected anecdotal information about many cities and their open space which he shared in the second link above.

When I started this project last fall, and even when I sent the germ of it to FossilFOOLs I was not thinking that it would come to life during a global pandemic, but it turns out, the decrease in human activity in cities has drawn attention to how animals are influenced by human action in urban ecology. I heard a piece on New England Public Radio via the NPR app this morning about hearing different and more birdsongs now that there is less traffic on the roads due to quarantine measures so that even in dense urban centers, people can hear more natural noises.

Wildlife biologist Paige Warren of the UMass Amherst Department of Environmental Conservation has reviewed research on how human-generated sounds impact animal communications. She talked about the challenge different kinds of birds normally face when they sing near the rumble of cars. “If you have a high-pitched, ‘tweety tweet tweet’ sound, then it might get through better than if you have a low-pitched kind of sound,” Warren said, imitating the call of a dove. “So if you’re a dove, it might be harder to get your message through the traffic. And then when there’s less traffic, it might be easier to be a dove.”

Nancy Eve Cohen, NEPR, March 31, 2020

To create the sound in my video, I raised the treble to accent the birdsongs that I was hearing, and raised the bass to accent the traffic rumbles and whooshes. It is true that the middle range of sounds is not as audible, and with the sheer volume of those other sounds, even on the unedited audio recording, it would have been hard to distinguish sounds closer to the pitch of the traffic noise.

The audio track was created before the shutdown began in Boston, as I was getting into my car for the morning commute, with many other motorists flying by on the Jamaicaway less than a football field away from me. Now, even at the height of rush hour, there are gaps in the roar and sputter, and fewer planes rumbling above.

Yesterday on my short walk, I jaywalked across the Jamaicaway into Olmsted Park at a place where that would normally be unadvisable. As I meandered into the trees, I heard at least five different types of birds in the middle of the afternoon, fighting, calling, chasing each other. There was even a red-headed woodpecker high in a tree on the border with Brookline. Right now, I hear wind in the trees, two mourning doves calling to each other, groups of starlings, a robin, a jay, a house wren, and a distant redwing blackbird from the park.

Looking from Olmsted Park across Jamaicaway towards the Jamaicaway Tower.

In this fraught time of self-isolation, I feel privileged to be in a place where I have a backyard to look into and a park nearby. Even growing up in an economically disadvantaged area I was embedded in the City of Ann Arbor, it was surrounded by natural areas, and so I was privileged to have orientation to wide open spaces, and still be able to navigate many advantages of life in a thriving college town.

However, many economically disadvantaged urban communities have a lack of space devoted to sustaining accessible natural systems. Torn down houses in formerly “blighted” areas of Detroit, for example, may contain natural systems, but they have largely been left to hazard, filling up with invasive weeds, foragers, and pests instead of being re-planted with native plants and trees that might attract a more sustainable ecology.

Some attempts to reclaim land, like the off-the-books Water Street Common, have been pushed out by city governments in crisis, as Ypsilanti has, citing liability for the toxicity of that zone, about which much ink has been spilled ranging from hope to corruption. Others, like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, and the Boston Food Forest Coalition here in Boston, have had more long term success at creating sustainable economic development combined with sustainable and/or permaculture practices. There are many other models of community and of place-based initiatives that have had some success in the arts or farming or sustainability, but I want to get back to this project.

Urban and natural spaces are permeable to one another all around the world, and human participation in natural systems is intrinsic.

We are part of nature, and hearing less traffic and more birds right now sounds out loud and clear both how interconnected we are, and how deeply our noise and pollution affects our ecology. These new commentaries about birds and silence and breezes make me hopeful that more communities will prioritize investment in creating cities that are sustainable by both human and ecological measures.

It has been inspiring to do online workshops: I can hear and see what others have been creating.

It has given me a peek out windows here and around the world. Even though I’m in Boston, since everyone is working online, it was easier to connect with two former students in Michigan. After teaching online, I then did a teaching-artist oriented workshop with two colleagues in Illinois and Sri Lanka. Observations from all the participants from their windows or wishes included sheep, school buses, monkeys, cobras, cars, trees, and more birds.

This project was originally created inside a portable tent cinema full of transparencies with the idea that I would bring this project around the world, packed into a market tent. I do hope to bring the project around the world in a tent.

However, you are invited to participate in this new permutation, and create your own shadow-puppet cinema! Join in with your own sound effects and puppet-stories through the FOOLmoon Reimagined Facebook Group

Or if you want to participate in with a slightly less complicated story just send me a photo of the view out your window and tell me what you hear or make a recording of the sounds.

The collected works that you share will be used to create another clip in this series, possibly “Lullaby for Empty Cities.” The next work already in progress will most likely be titled “Fugue for The Cathedral of M-14

You can email your submissions to me, comment on this post with your photos, or tag anything you make with these tags on instagram or twitter so I can find them: #FOOLmoonreimagined #foolishsongs20

Bedouin Cocoon: Spring 2001

The unexpected places in which surprises happen are the places where invention happens.  Whatever plans I made, the process of creating and performing forced me to push my limits.  Those limits left space for the air to pass, and for others to enter and share in the learning. 

This performance did not have a title when I started, it began with the feeling of transience and tension that exists in cities between constructed and natural space. I loved Chicago in many ways, but things moved so quickly, especially for me: I worked full time and went to art school part time, trying to afford space and time for myself to breathe was extremely challenging.

In response to that feeling of continual fatigue, my stream of making turned meditative. I did drawings, beading, knitting, manual work that I could carry and which made me stop to breathe.

These small works, however, did not solve the feeling of being stuck in close quarters: a too small apartment, the space between people on a bus, the low-ceilinged platforms of the Red and Blue lines, and no benches or welcoming areas to stop and contemplate the beautiful tall buildings and open spaces.

Out of this feeling of claustrophobia, arose a desire to create a sacred space, created through and set aside for the things that I value. So this performance had four goals: 

  • Creation of an artifact that illustrates or leaves traces in time or space
  • Consideration of sacred or meditative space as internal or external
  • Connection to pattern, repetition, but valuing biomimetic or organic 
  • Consciousness of processes for growth

To leave traces of the process of meditation, I designed a structure that could be sewn sequentially, one tube after another like beads. The finished product would be a 5/8 icosahedron.  To pull in natural and biomimetic forms, I then wove fabric in and out in a meditative way to create a cocoon-like structure. This was all done with a rhythm and in silence, considering, meditating and creating at once.  

Putting all of this together, the dome created a space for contemplation shared with others.  The process, artifact, pattern and form being inspired were combination of human and natural forms, and they created an interior space in open air.  I chose the spot, on top of the airshafts surrounded by wildflowers because they epitomized for me the tension between natural and urban that I felt in Chicago, and felt like a generative location.  

The surprising moments in the process, where the poles fell through the grating, and when the whole structure blew over, illustrate for me something that I have since taken on as key to my practice:  There is no such thing as a mistake in art, only a new opportunity to create something new.  As you click through the gallery you can read my thoughts on the artwork at the time.

On the Journey: But What About the Leaves

A red photo album on my colorful concentric circle rag rug in my apartment in Boston.

When I was visiting my father over winter break, I unearthed documentation of artwork that I did twenty years ago.  It is funny to think of myself as an artist-practitioner for twenty years.  Yet, when I look back at that work it is plain how it connects to my work today, and the red threads in the work stitch clearly through a variety of projects between then and now.  

Some of these red-threads are obvious to me, but I have shown the work to a couple of friends, both of whom asked some razor sharp questions, that make me feel like the work was more of a success than I thought it was at the time. 

The documentation in question was work for a class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago called “Materiality, the Body, and Motion,” which was taught by Mark Jeffery. The documentation is bound up in a red photo album with photos by my classmates, and a colleague, Alberto Antonio Aguilar, who worked at Pearl with me. The book is interspersed with handwritten notes on deep teal colored vellum, onion skin, and copper painted magnolia leaves.  I will be sharing these projects over the next few days and weeks.

The photo album is open on my rag rug and you can see my toes.
What’s inside the Red Album

The work was about safety and connection in urban life: seeking a way to create sacred space and grounding to the earth in a place coated in concrete and hyper-human constructed space.  

My two friends who asked questions about the work zeroed in on that right away.  They read my notes and asked questions about the patterns and the method of creation.  They wanted to know how the projects related to one another and to my current practice.  They helped me bring out some meaning that I created at the time, but hadn’t then developed the spiritual wisdom to put into words.  

The three projects were investigations into my relationship with the city of Chicago, and to urban space in general.  

Sunset Reflected II

My feelings about urban spaces are mixed.  On the one hand, it is clear that the way towards sustainability involves dense living areas.  In denser areas, it is easier to create infrastructure that supports sustainable choices like public transportation, and larger buildings which hold temperatures and can be regulated with convection using green architectural techniques.  On the other hand, it is clear that urban spaces as they exist with layer upon layer of human choices that clutter those possibilities.  While nature creeps into sidewalk cracks and organized plantings, urban areas are also removed from the grounding feeling of nature. 

Downtown Chicago in the year 2000, before the re-development of Millenium Park, had very little space that held native plants or quasi-wild spaces. Now there is a beautiful garden with native plants, tailored on a very geometric matrix, but still more wild than what was there then: a big field of grass.  

Where I grew up, on the southeast side of Ann Arbor, was only a 20 minute bicycle ride from the denser downtown.  However my house was across the street from a city-owned field, pond, and swamp that had been bought back from a developer sometime in the 1970’s as evidenced by abandoned foundations from their attempts to remediate the floodway.  In addition the Ann Arbor Public Schools’ biggest nature area, the Mitchell Scarlett Woods, was right next to my school, and all these connected up with a big park nearby that has its own nature areas.  

Outside

Essentially, we could walk for about two miles inside those woods, with few traces of humanity except the sound of 1-94 racing by a football field away from us.  We went on orienteering and nature walks in those woods.  We overturned rocks and stumps finding bugs, hunting garter snakes, and corralling toads.  Turtles and egrets sunned themselves in the pond, and we shoveled it to skate and play hockey in the winter.  

Yet we were only about twenty minutes by bus or bike from Ann Arbor’s downtown packed with cafes, galleries, vintage shops, and book sellers.

I was privileged to have easy access to both urban and natural life.  

Chicago, with the backwards flowing river, reclaimed swampland, giant skyscrapers, and twenty-four hour public transportation was both exhilarating and traumatic for me.  Being able to go anywhere I wanted easily, and accessing the resources of a huge urban area– fabric stores, art galleries, cultural activities– gave me power and cultural capital that I couldn’t quite reach in my hometown.  The geometric hard spaces are organized and functional, created by the values of urban life: easy to navigate, but rigid and mechanical.  They are so shiny they seemed untouchable and fragile. 

Humans built the city and it was inspirational and intimidating.   

Nightscape Portrait

However the beauty of human-built spaces was also a barrier.  It was difficult for me to be so far removed from organically flowing streams and wild areas full of overgrown woods.  In my dorm at DePaul, I was removed from the sounds of birds.  They were replaced by the rumble of the EL going by at all hours across an empty field with no trees.  

When I moved out of the dorm, the neighborhoods I lived in were a bit better.  I prioritized living near parks or near the lake, but there was still a restlessness that I felt that fed into my artistic practice, and motivated me to see solace in creating art, connection, and what I used to think of as “sacred space.”  

Thoughts about home

When I moved to the Boston area for graduate school, it was surreal.

On the way here from Ypsilanti, Michigan, not quite my home town, but very close, I drove through Canada. Not that exotic, I’ve done this road trip a few times in my life, though customs and border enforcement always makes me nervous.

Then, I visited my best friend, whom I have now known 3/4 of my life. She is working on re-habbing a castle in Upstate New York to create a Social Circus and Arts center. It’s an old armory that looks like a castle. She and her significant have spent a few years working on this project and building support for it.

I hadn’t seen her in a number of years, but that felt like home.

Then, she drove with me to Boston, and helped me settle in. She drove back to her fairy castle, and stowed my car until Christmas.

Meanwhile, my cousin was getting married in Marin County, so as soon as my stuff was in the apartment, I flew out to OAK and hung out with family, recouped my grandfather’s camera and a bunch of art I had forgotten he had from my ex-boyfriend, via my ex-boss in Palo Alto.

That felt like a very fraught version of Home.

Cambridge, where I flew back to live, did not feel like home. My apartment was empty, I knew nobody. As a nontraditional older student I felt out of place at Harvard, even though I “pass” as belonging, there were many places and times that I was unable to push back on things.

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And then there was none…

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Fast-forward to this past summer: the job I got after grad-school pays enough that I can save money and for the first time in ten years, I can afford a trip to Madrid.

The mom from “my” family came to meet me at the airport, and drove me back to where I was staying. Their house has had some renovations, but it’s pretty much as I remembered it, except the littles (from my Segovia Alphabet Video) are now just entering college and about to take a year abroad on an Erasmus scholarship in Italy.

I saw so many of my old friends in Madrid and Paris, and remembered exactly how to get around and where to find what I needed.

Many people are now absent, but it still felt like home.

I’ve now been in Boston for just over two years. I lived in Madrid for four. I live here. Some parts of it feel like home, but it is a place I still don’t feel connected.

Home comes with a lot of cultural and geographical values attached to it. I remember at one point, real estate agents switched from selling houses to selling homes. I found it jarring, even though I was about eight years old.

Is it possible to buy a home?

To me, home is something more human than architecture. It is not just the building you live in, but the shared value created by the inhabitants of the place. Not everywhere I have lived is a home. I am no rolling stone, and mostly, I don’t wear a hat,

Seriously though: some places I have stayed are just that: a place I spend time to sleep.

Video and poetry collaboration with Iva Markicevic

Others had some ineffable qualities that made them home. Some of that was the work that I myself put into them, particularly when I lived alone.

However there is more to it than that: connecting to the place in one way or another and creating a sense of community. Roommates, neighbors, family, work affiliations, and community evolvement all play a part in that.

I do not have a magic formula, but I know that creating a sense of home takes work, but it also takes a willingness to accept others.

These works of digital art reflect some of my thoughts, and some of Iva Markicevic’s thoughts about home. The joys and pains of attachment to a place are ripe for creating because all of us struggle with what it means to be home and how to build it.