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Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts: Helen Meyer Harrison & Newton Harrison

Eco-art pioneers Helen Meyer and Newton Harrison stress the importance of setting one’s own agenda.

By Amy Nelson

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Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison are widely regarded as pioneers of “eco art,” a form of environmental art in which the art-making and artwork has a function: often to engender in people an intrinsic connection to nature. Through metaphor, poetry, symbols, images and narrative, eco-artists inspire collaborative dialogue, educate people, and advocate for nature. They can even influence policy.

Since the 1970s, the Harrisons have collaborated, often with biologists, ecologists, architects, and planners, to create multi-media installation art that aims to uncover solutions to environmental degradation. Their work, which involves public discussion and extensive mapping, has focused on issues such as watershed restoration, urban renewal, agriculture and forestry. The Harrisons will only take on a work if there is a general agreement that their actual client is the environment itself.

Their most recent project, entitled “The Force Majeure Synthesis,” is a collection of works that explore ecologically available responses to climate change in the European Peninsula, Tibetan Plateau, and the Sierra Nevada.

While they define “Force Majeure”  in their Manifesto for the 21st Century, Newton Harrison has described it frankly as “global warming in transaction with all the shit we’re doing in the world.”

After retiring from 30 years of teaching at University of California (UC) San Diego, the Harrisons moved to Santa Cruz and began teaching in the Digital Arts and New Media MFA Program at UC Santa Cruz. There, they also founded the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, where they have already begun generating long-term research projects that address Earth’s stresses by combining art-making and the sciences.

You have been described as activists, environmental artists, researchers, educators, and even “Gods in the field.” When someone asks, “What do you do?” how do you respond?

Newton: That depends on the someone. If it’s a scientist who is intellectually curious, we’d make the argument that we are pan-disciplinary generalists who engage a problem. Our engagement is based on telling a story that leads to a transformation of place.

Since 1970, much of your work has been telling a story about global warming. How has the story changed since the 70s, and how has your artwork changed with it?

Newton: In 1974, Helen came back from the library with two books that made powerful arguments that we were in the middle of an interglacial period. One book spent about 150 pages telling us it was going to get colder. The other book spent about 200 pages telling us it was going to get warmer. We thought, in either event, we’re looking at problems for the next one to two hundred years, so let’s plan for both things to happen. Planning is cheap! That led to our first global warming piece, “San Diego is the Center of the World.” It was an equidistant projection map with San Diego as the center. There was an accompanying text that said, essentially, “Although we don’t know the answers, we have the capabilities of simultaneously planning for opposite conditions, so let’s do that.”

Helen: The piece was in an exhibition at the Ronald Feldman Gallery and it sold immediately. We could have sold it ten times over; everyone was fascinated with it.

Newton: Our work got written up, bought, and ended up on magazine covers! It was very odd. It was our first New York show, and there we were in the gallery [famous for having one of the largest Andy Warhol collections]. Although New York Times art critic, Hilton Cramer, thought we ought to get out of art, get out of science, and above all, get out of New York.


Newton: Because we were practical. We believe that the work of art has work to do in the world–work that is transformative in nature.

Helen: Since 1973, we have done all kinds of work related to global warming. A more recent work is Greenhouse Britain.

Newton: The [UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] was awarding large grants to educate the British public about climate change and we received one. We made a scale model of the island of Britain and above it, projected storm surge and sea level rise in two-meter increments. Everyone who saw the piece could see where they lived, understand what was happening, and become their own kind of planner. The piece also included a 10-minute, poetic text which began with “The news is not good, and it’s getting worse.”

Newton, you have said that what is needed is “empathy with the terrain…an informed, tough-minded empathy.” Can you talk about the power of art to inspire or evoke this kind of empathy?

Newton: If we’re looking at seven billion people, Helen and I are an abject failure. But if you’re looking at putting early warning signals on the ground and having other people all over the world look at them, then we’re probably moderately successful.

Helen: Empathy is the way we reach people. When we show our images and talk about the images, we make people understand what is happening by telling the stories of it in languages that people understand.

Newton: Embedded in the narrative is always a transformative concept. Here’s an example. In 1989, while in Berlin [on a DAAD fellowship], we were invited [by Dr. Hartmut Ern, of the Berlin Botanical Gardens] to help establish a nature reserve on the Sava River in the former Yugoslavia. This nature reserve was the last floodplain ecosystem in that part of Europe, and it included lots of endangered species. We went there, and it didn’t seem endangered at all. It was beautiful. However, it was surrounded by irrigated farming, and that was endangering it, although nobody saw that. After realizing this, we said, “We can’t help establish your nature reserve, but we’ll do a work that analyzes the Sava River. If you purify the river, your nature reserve will be protected.” The head of Croatia’s water department accepted the concept and our assistant, Martin Schneider-Jacoby, who was a graduate student and a very good ecologist, did the same analysis for the Drava River above the Sava. The Sava and the Drava collectively give the lower Danube over 50% of its water. So that had a salutary effect down into the Black Sea. We design for salutary, unintended consequences. We don’t keep control of everything.

Helen: The work “works” when the community with whom we’re working understands the work and takes it up, as happened in that case. It becomes the work of the community.

Newton: When the community takes up the work, and the work is big enough, then our name is lost.

Helen: That’s the way it should be.

Is that how you measure success with your work…the degree to which the community owns the work and your names fade to the back?

Newton: I’m going to take issue with the whole idea of measuring success. I think it’s stupid. Our most “successful” work, A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland, may have been a small project that addressed 12 people in the water department in a section of Holland.

Our most powerful work, Peninsula Europe, may be our least “successful” work. We tried to see if one could see the whole peninsula in dissipative structure. In my opinion, the failure was a worthy failure. We learned a lot. I refuse to measure success.

For more than 40 years, you have collaborated with biologists, ecologists, architects, and urban planners.  What have been some of the more challenging aspects of these types of collaborations?

Newton: From our perspective, the only reason to work with such folk is that you have chosen to work with what we call an “ennobling problem.” An ennobling problem is one of such dimension that any work you do on it that helps on any measure ennobles two things: the environment and you. It feeds back into you and changes you. Working on complex problems means working in complex systems, and that requires working with many disciplines. Each discipline you work with tells you what you need to do. I may, for example, have to learn something about soil stability to hold water, but I don’t have to spend 20 years becoming an expert.

How has this type of collaboration influenced your art, and how has your art influenced the way scientists, designers, and engineers approach problems?

Newton: We set our own agenda to take on these advanced problems, and we fail all the time. But we fail usefully. This is such a different position than most scientists take. Our desire is, generally, to influence policy.

Helen: This goes back to empathy. The value of empathy is that you feel the other. You become in your mind, some way connected to the other, and that changes the way in which you deal with it and think about it. That happens because you change the way you feel. People don’t realize that this is caring. That is what people need in order to deal with the environment. We’re all part of one system.

Newton: This actually will affect change in their behavior. Then they act on the behalf of the environment.

Your work illustrates an alarming story in a way that is accessible and compelling, but it also presents an alternative vision for the future – one that is not post-apocalyptic. To what degree is your vision coming to life?

Newton: We don’t think despair is useful. Warnings are a bore, and boring people out of screwing up the environment is tedious. Where’s the excitement? The excitement is in transformative thinking. What would be transformative thinking? Adaptation at great scale.

An examination of this kind of adaptation is coming to life at the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure, which you founded at the University of California Santa Cruz. Tell us about it.

We have a $220,000 grant from the Metabolic Studio to do basic experimentation on the upward movement species. In the high grounds of Tibet and places like the Sagehen Creek watershed [California], temperature will rise and ice pack and snow melt go away. If we’re able to invent a rapidly expanding, succession ecosystem as glaciers withdraw, then water will be better held in the earth. We have just hired our first scientist, who is the head of the arboretum at the University of California Santa Cruz, and we are hiring our first manager.



That brings me to the subject of education, and the education of the artists and scientists of tomorrow. Newton, you have said of the work that needs to be done to heal the planet, “Art won’t hold it. Science won’t hold it. Regional planning won’t hold it.” Tell me more of your thoughts on the need to remove the silos that separate disciplines?

Newton: Helen and I both think that the future is not in the hands of the experts. The future has got to be in the hands of the inspired generalists who can become experts in damn near anything. I found this out in 1969 when I was doing an artificial aurora for Expo 70 [the World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan]. I had to learn plasma physics. I found out that it wasn’t hard to learn enough to do the work. It dawned on me that what we really need to be able to do is go to any discipline, engage in enough to learn what is going on, and synthesize them as we need. Each problem demands a different synthesis.

Newton: In Holland, [A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland] we actually moved a $220 billion engine [a planned development of 600,000 houses] out of the green heart of Holland. Why were we chosen? Because 10 books were written by 10 experts in 10 different fields, and they all failed. We were the last resort. We met with government officials and they asked, “What makes you think you can do this?” We said, “You failed in all cases. Einstein was right; you need an outsider. And anyway, we’re a cheap date, and we’ll sign a contract saying that we’ll save the green heart of Holland.” And we got the work. And we did it.

Are there other places like the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure?

Newton: From the very beginning, we were determined to always be working in new territory. When you work in new territory, you are making prototypes. Your success is going to be limited, but you are going to be coming up with new and original information. The Center for the Study of the Force Majeure basically says, “Green roofs, and all the green stuff we’re doing is insufficient for what’s coming down. We need to adjust at the trillion dollar scale.” So we plan at that level.

Netwon: Now, many artists are working with art and technology, art and science, art and ecology. Lots of them are starting with problem solving. There’s an artist named Betsy Damon, who did a project in China where she created a wetland to filter water in section of a river. Artists are starting to do that kind of thing. The difference between the artists and others is that artists, like Betsy Damon, see a problem, call up a bunch of people, and build enough interest so their ideas are supported. Most people are given the problem, whereas Helen and I define the problem.

Helen: They don’t tell us what to do. We will find out what to do when we are in the environment and learn the environment.

Newton: That’s not always true. Sometimes people tell us what to do—vigorously—and they’re always wrong. Sometimes they tell us a fantasy, and embedded in the fantasy is the work. Helen and I have to be open. Just plain open. You never can tell when the janitor is going to tell you why the forest died.

How much of the knowledge that you gather as you get to know a place, at any scale, comes from the land itself, and how much comes from people?

Newton: What happens is this: the land talks; people talk; literature talks; the net talks; and at a certain moment, we have a strategy. We actually believe what the cognitive scientists have finally figured out: that the psyche is way bigger than the conscious mind. What we’ll do is toss ourselves into information overload, and out of pure information stress, new ideas will pop.

Many of our readers are involved in stream and river restoration. For their benefit, can you tell us a bit about your Santa Fe Drain Basin project?

Newton: That was so interesting. We were invited to give a seminar after a lecture we presented [at the Santa Fe Art Institute]. Nobody showed up at the seminar except five permaculturists. We got into a discussion and they said, “What would you do for the Santa Fe River?” We said, “Why don’t we choose the largest form available and work backwards?” That happened to be the watershed.

Helen: We had been to Santa Fe [years] earlier, and we had seen the river as alive. Families were picnicking on the banks and children were playing in the shallow waters. It was lovely. Now, it is barren.

Newton: There was enormous pressure for water. They were developing endlessly there, and in every development, every four houses required something like 325,000 gallons of water. During discovery, we learned that they also had violated their topsoil to such an enormous degree that it wouldn’t hold water anymore.  And the pinyon, which generally put a couple feet of good soil under itself, were dying. So we began to locate ways to return the earth.

Helen: Working together with different communities – Latinos, Native Americans and Anglos like ourselves–we took on the returning to life of the Santa Fe River. An Indian woman who was a professor at the local university shared with us the story of the river, as the Indians told it. In presenting our ideas, we showed that story in sculpture.

Newton: We presented [five proposals and six considerations to restore the ability of the soil to retain moisture.]  We argued that it’d cost $1-2 million for every half mile. They had to do seven miles, but if they did it over a 10-15 year period, they could restore the river for less than a million a year. If you look at our piece, you’ll see an occasional cascade of the river. The restoration would involve building check dams to catch sand before it went down into the Rio Grande. The check dams would raise the river bed and the aquifers would refill. We were originally asked to work on water, but again and again, we were forced to think in terms of earth.

Helen: We also had to think in terms of the Indians’ approach to this. They had the stories to tell that their elders told them how things were long ago; about their relationship to the land, which is one of respect; one of working in collaboration with nature.

Maps are integral to much of your work. Can you describe the power of the map in your work?

Newton: Mapping is so much a part of what we do it’s almost impossible to talk about! Every map that you see is about controlling the environment. It’s about how you get from here to there. It’s basically a military instrument, or a development instrument. What we do is take that map, yank out development, yank the roads out, enhance the mountains, and put our own information there. We’re interested in remapping: pulling out information we think is environmentally destructive, and putting in information we think is environmentally regenerative.

What do you hope happens when someone and sees that redesigned map?  What does it do that, say, a design plan cannot?

Newton: Well, if you look at the Sava River map, it’s a tiny, little Michelin road map on which we redrew the watershed and the nature reserve. Suddenly, people saw their watershed. Seeing their watershed, they suddenly could also see that the nearby industrial farming was endangering the nature reserve. The map became part of the story.

Newton: Another issue we should talk about is “scanning.” When we are invited to go someplace, one of the first things we’ll do is simply look. Another thing we’ll do is get up in an airplane and fly around, so we can see patterns, and see who is doing what to whom. It’s easy. You go tot the local airport where people learn how to fly, you get in a Cessna 172, and up you go for an hour! It’ll cost you $300-$400, and look what you get!

Your work often includes accompanying text. Why do you use the poetic form?

Helen: What happens with the poetic form is that you can say a great deal with few words. When you do this, you communicate not just the denotation of the words, but the connotation of other images that aren’t directly in the meaning. Therefore, you get a great deal more imaging.

In the Force Majeure work, there is some very memorable text from “The Seventh Lagoon,” which was part of an earlier work: The Lagoon Cycle. The text was in the form of a conversation, and it ended with a question…

Newton: Yes, this: “And in this new beginning…this continuous rebeginning…will you feed me when my lands can no longer produce…and will I house you when your land is covered in water…so that together we will recover as the waters rise?”  That’s the core issue that we face–cooperation. It’s not about problem solving in the normal sense. At the moment, the answer to that question looks unlikely: “No, I’m not going to help you that much; I’m going to help myself.” I think we need to do some changing as a culture.

Any final words for Leaf Litter readers?

The one thing I want your readers to come away with is this: It’s really important for people to feel free to set their own agendas and act on them. A lot gets done that way.

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