Emerging Wonder: A Shadow Ballet

There are some stories that you learn something new any time you read it, and re-reading Alice in Wonderland just before creating this piece, I found how deeply it related to the things I’ve been considering in my environmental and participatory work. While the idea of giving greater importance to nonsense has always stood out, in this reading, I paid attention to the ways that size and position alter one’s perception. 

Lewis Carroll played with time and scale throughout Alice in Wonderland in order to reframe the quirks of British culture. It’s publication in 1865 coincided with the end of the American Civil War, and despite optimistic framing at the time, vestiges of both British and American culture still contribute to inequitable systems of power. 

Carroll’s nonsense world challenged deeply rooted Victorian orthodoxy by using size to create changes in perceived importance. 

Carroll depicts not just changes in size for Alice, but the affect that it has on her psyche. As she is problem solving, trying to reach the key on the table, she eats too much cake and becomes giant, causing her fear and worry that is literally outsized, flooding the area with a sea of tears. Calming down, she continues to problem-solve, but makes herself so small that she gets washed away building a kind of empathy for the animals affected by her oversized human impact. 

When later stuck inside the Duchess’s house, she recognizes and uses the uses the destructive power of her human-ness to terrorize the residents of the Duchesses house until she finds a way to get her emotions under control.  

In Emerging Wonder, the transformation of each bug and flower into the next plays with scale. Sometimes a bee takes up the whole screen, while there is a tiny butterfly in the next image. In turn, projected at a ten foot screen, all of the bugs are larger than life, interacting with the swirl of puppets on the rotor created by participants, and audience members who stopped along the way to the nearby dance floor.  

It is always a pleasure to walk through Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and even more of a pleasure to be able to collaborate with the community with an art project geared towards participation. By taking the frame of the caterpillar and other pollinator animals, this work creates space for participants to imagine a world where we prioritize our relationship with nature. Visitors to FOOL Moon, hosted throughout downtown Ann Arbor, contributed their own shadow puppets to the installation in the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market.

I love making participatory art because my “audience” always teaches me something, and in this case, I loved watching the bugs, pets, objects, and designs emerge from the many families who stopped to create at the table. Some had luminaries, and many were dressed up with layered coats, as Michigan spring often demands. I myself was dressed as a flower garden with my Marimekko coat, purple flowered dress, and pink floral socks.  

Although it died down by evening, the wind on Friday around lunchtime was so strong that we only installed the projection screen and simplified the installation. The projector loaned to me by the Ann Arbor District Library was so much brighter than my own that it lit up the large silver rotor made of aluminum window screen. Even without curtains, it created layers of color and functioned both as the engine for the shadow ballet and a second, brilliant screen. 

In gaps between noises from the disco floor in the middle of the market, and my neighbors, the flute invited people who hadn’t yet made puppets to watch and created a performance space for each round of new puppets that added to the menagerie. The diameter of the rotor created the illusion of swirling around like on a dance floor, allowing the creatures and joys that people created to add to the story of butterflies, flowers, grasshoppers, bees, and caterpillars. 

Seeing things this size made me want to create an EVEN BIGGER projection.  Instead of ten feet wide, I want to make it fifty! Imagine 2” shadow puppets and 2cm bugs showing up on a screen bigger than people. That would really draw you into the dream of the world we live in. 

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