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.

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.

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.

View this post on Instagram

And then there was none…

A post shared by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

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.

Cathedrals and Time

Buttresses of the Cathedral of M-14. Nice long walk in Bandemer towards Argo

A photo posted by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

Over the years I have always loved bridges. They have great acoustics. They are beautiful in their way, even the ones that are very boring infrastructure have their moments of numinous beauty. Over the last few years, I’ve been taking pictures of the bridges that cross over the parks in Ann Arbor. Watching for that difference of the light, much as Monet painted quotidian haystacks over and over. In a way, it is even more impressionist than the Impressionists, this photographic documentation. But it misses something of the feeling that I get from the bridges. From the human-made space as it interacts with the natural world. The most beautiful of the bridges have not only the organ music of the freeway traffic, but the rose windows of the sunlight reflected up onto their latticework from the reflected light on the water.

Cathedral of M-14 A video posted by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

But even that sound misses the numinous nature of my meditation under bridges. There is a moment when the bridge turns from being dark to being light that makes it mysterious and beautiful. The transformation from shaded cavern to glowing life and light is a numinous experience, and so I’ve started to take time-lapse videos to document this metamorphosis.

 

Time lapse with less frames. Watch the bridge light up

 

A video posted by Allida (@hemoracallis) on

We Build grand structures these days, but they are not always built for their beauty as the cathedrals and basilicas of old. They are build for practical purposes, their architects and builders are nearly invisible to us, but this does not mean that they cannot be beautiful.