Landscape Futures

An exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art presents visionary scenarios conditioned by ecological rules under heavy revision.

 

Architecture / Alan Rapp

As global climate gets weird, architects, designers, and artists respond in kind. Devastating floods, massive and prolonged droughts, rambunctious wildfires, hurricanes, and other events that used to be freak occurrences now represent an unsettling new normalcy. These peeks behind the stage curtain of what may be a vast, chaotic production with fleeting intermissions permit, even encourage, seemingly outlandish speculations that can contend with uncertainty.

On the occasion of the recent 2011 Art + Environment Conference, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno presents examples from six participants in the exhibition Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions. Its guest curator, Domus contributor Geoff Manaugh, is already familiar with these liminal territories, having consistently featured this kind of propositional work for years on his site, BLDGBLOG (the title of the show itself is one of the site's three tag lines/domains of inquiry). It's increasingly less to see such hypothetical works physically gathered in one place; given the varying scale and intricacy of some of them, their place in an exhibition context at an innovative, cross-disciplinary institution like the Nevada Museum lends them more gravity, even an air of verisimilitude, than they may have separately or in digital isolation.

Top image: From The Gray Rush by The Living (David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang), photograph by Livia Corona.
Above: View to the exhibition Landscape Futures at the Nevada Museum of Art; David Gissen's Museums of the City in right foreground. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Planet-scaled environmental factors are not the only drivers for these conceptual projects, and therefore there is no face-value utopianism within Landscape Futures. In scope, program, and form, these speculative projects allow for formal and poetic indulgences, "which," as Manaugh says in his curatorial statement, "is where art comes in." Technology, design, and nature collude to create this field of potentials that is almost a "synonym for what it's like to be on earth right now."

View to the exhibition Landscape Futures. "Envirographic" water sniffing and tasting instruments from Surface Tension by Smout Allen in the foreground. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

The show begins visually: a suite of four large images printed on vinyl by urban theorist David Gissen entitled Museums of the City. Tweaking a common premise in neo-preservationist circles that historical cities should not become museums of themselves, Gissen transplants the technologies of display and visitor circulation—vitrines, track illumination, glass barriers, and projecting catwalks—into urban contexts. Areas of tourist-trafficked New York, London, and Florence are gauzy and idealized, enhancing the playfulness of the conceit that these could be docent-guided sites. As with other art objects in the age of relational aesthetics, the idea of the city itself is reliant on framing.

 
Much as Metabolist megastructures and Archigram's walking cities were critical extrapolations of and responses to postwar urbanism, the projects in Landscape Futures are uncanny, with forms and functions conditioned by ecological rules under heavy revision.
 

View to the exhibition Landscape Futures. Animal Superpowers by Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada, foreground. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

The antechamber of the Contemporary Gallery features three projects that range from the toylike to the megascaled. Chris Woebken and Kenichi Okada's Animal Superpowers (also on view at Paola Antonelli's Talk to Me at MoMA) are colorful prostheses to help emulate the sensory fields of animals with distinguished features such as giraffes and ants. A large floor-level diorama of undulating tightly packed vertical wooden dowels, some tipped with blue tubing, create a matrix for Lateral Office and Infranet Lab (Mason White and Lola Sheppard) to speculate on new infrastructures that the Arctic freeze and melt cycles could promote. The Active Layer & Next North includes maquettes of ice-bound airports, migratory fauna stations, and ice-road truck stops, but on the aesthetic level these amusing notions few and too minutely scaled to really emerge from the relatively vast spread of the dowels.

Lateral Office and Infranet Lab (Mason White and Lola Sheppard), The Active Layer & Next North. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang of The Living present a group of photographs by Livia Corona and large chromatographs (papers with colorful traces of chemical compounds) that constitute the most elegiac effort in the show, The Gray Rush. In a future where the lithium for electronic-device batteries is one of the last precious metals worth panning for, images of shrouded prospectors roaming salt flats and their chromatic abstract prints evoke the loneliness and verge-existence of this scenario.

A specimen from Liam Young's Specimens of Unnatural History, foreground, with Smout Allen's Surface Tension, back. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Occupying a corner of the main gallery space are several mounds of mossy overgrowth which upon closer inspection harbor some small taxidermied fauna sporting functional-looking electronics as well as less recognizable hybrid objects. This is Liam Young's Specimens of Unnatural History, a science-fictional ecological narrative based on the mythically (in all senses) pristine ecology of the Galapagos Islands, past and present. While noting that the archipelago was the historical proving grounds for Darwin's theory of natural selection, Young notes the highly mediated state of the Galapagos today, not least as a popular holiday destination. If nature observed is nature transformed, subject to uncertainty principles akin to complex physics, then the Galapagos are the ideal venue for the technological evolution that Young predicts. The bionic critters and zoomorphic gadgets in Young's diorama seem to assume an almost sinister sentience as they deploy their technologies to assume dominance in this new evolutionary scheme.

Liam Young's Specimens of Unnatural History. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

The big boss of the show is Smout Allen's voluminous and complex Surface Tension, which fills a lot of wall, floor, and interior space of the double-height Contemporary Gallery. An interrelated series of projects about water management and distribution, Surface Tension consists of user-interactive kinetic models, freestanding prototype devices, photographic prints and an archival book. The particulars that animate each node in this ecology of proposals are too many to recount in detail, but they scale from individual instruments (Envirographic Instruments for the River Severn, which in their technocratic plausibility seemed to attract the attention of children and adults who like watching construction sites) to entire infrastructures. The latter is conceived as an overwhelming interactive mobile sculpture consisting of 2000 parts, most obviously gold-mylar panels representing tidal cycles which surround three models of technological islands. These panels change angles of incidence, snap, and descend in the gallery space in response to interchangeable magnets on a slowly turning, wall-mounted chromed disk—the wave sequencer—that works like a studded cylinder in a musicbox.

The kinetic counterweights of Smout Allen's Surface Tension. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Surface Tension plays with the vocabulary of records and measures that condition the legibility of environmental/architectural projects, and at this degree of programmatic coherence and data granularity it either seems quite credible or formidably absurd. Propositional efforts tread a fine line between the soundness of premise and hyperbole of conclusion. Much as Metabolist megastructures and Archigram's walking cities were critical extrapolations of and responses to postwar urbanism, the projects in Landscape Futures are uncanny, with forms and functions conditioned by ecological rules under heavy revision. Due to the range of flux that serves as the exhibition's platform, serendipitous convergences emerge. Can Young's techno-nature fauna coexist with Woebken and Okada's human-scaled devices that would allow us to sense the world in the specific ways animals do? Does the scenario that Surface Tension inhabits overlap with that of The Active Layer & Next North?

Smout Allen's Surface Tension in Landscape Futures. Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Which brings the viewer back around to the meta-theme of the exhibition, which as David Benjamin pointed out a panel about the exhibition at the conference itself, is the "design of narratives." What all of the scenarios in the show share is that the ground immediately underfoot was never as solid as once assumed, that, as Manaugh points out, on the literal level architects don't need to build "landscape futures"—landscape is already engaged in a future of its own.

Installation view of The Gray Rushby The Living (David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang). Photo courtesy Nevada Museum of Art.

Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions
Guest curated by Geoff Manaugh
On view through February 12, 2012
Nevada Museum of Art
160 West Liberty Street, Reno, Nevada

From The Gray Rush by The Living (David Benjamin and Soo-in Yang), photograph by Livia Corona.

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