By The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (Interview for Guggenheim Newsletter December 2013)
Erika, you are perhaps best known for The Polar Project, which you were inspired to begin during an artist residency at the McDonald Observatory and continued with support from your Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. Given the extreme conditions in the Arctic and Antarctic, what challenges did you face in terms of methodology and photographic equipment in producing these stunning images of a part of the planet few people have seen?
My expedition to Antarctica during my Fellowship year (2008), and all the photo and video-based works that I produced there, occurred during the initial phase of The Polar Project. The final phase of the project has yet to be realized. Now, nearly eight years after the germination of the project’s original idea, I am still working to surmount the many challenges of making such a large-scale artwork in these remote and extreme regions.
Once you make a decision to work in an extreme environment, you are essentially opening yourself to a wide range of logistical considerations that are not normally encountered in the traditional studio—the 40 pounds of clothing necessary to keep warm, the extra insulation so my camera and light recording equipment wouldn’t freeze up, the requirement to touch copper before touching my computer so as not to produce an electric spark that can result from the extreme aridness, the otherworldly environment that incessantly challenges your visual perception of the horizon and of space in general, and the reality that certain risks are always present.
This is the stuff of personal challenge and creative spontaneity, but also of deep awe and humility. Any challenge I have faced has always carried with it the joy of adventure and of collaboration. A project such as this could not have progressed as far as it has without the many committed experts in various fields supporting the project’s vision with their knowledge and insight. I could not have faced any of these challenges without their support and creative innovation.
Even the logistics of getting to and living in the polar regions must have been complicated. How difficult were those arrangements?
Indeed, my primary challenge at that time of my Fellowship was gaining access to the Earth’s southernmost continent. Antarctica is the most extreme environment on the planet, and if it were not for the intensive international support focused on the logistics of bringing supplies, fuel, and food down to the various scientific research stations, it would be nearly impossible to survive in the Antarctic environment.
An expedition to Antarctica that plans to spend the majority of its time on the continent itself, as opposed to along the coast, generally requires a partnership with one of the science organizations that have research stations there. This is no small effort. I attempted collaboration with the National Science Foundation, which runs the U.S. research program at McMurdo Station, for three consecutive years, but unfortunately the essential form of my project exceeded the capabilities of their Artist and Writers Program. However, in a rare and wonderful opportunity, I was invited by the South African National Antarctic Program to join the expedition of the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation (ITASC) research team in January 2009.
ITASC consisted of an extraordinary team of artists and scientists, and I was both their artist-in-residence and official team member. Our primary purpose as a team was to experiment with living and working on the ice, one kilometer away from the main SANAE IV Base Station, in a mobile geodesic tentlike dwelling, called ICEPAC (for ITASC Catabatic Experimental Platform for Antarctic Culture), which was run entirely on wind and solar energy.
The expedition was designed to be a field phase in the development of this portable sustainable research station for artists and scientists to do fieldwork in the Antarctic environment. Since The Polar Project would need such a structure to implement its final phase, it was of immense importance to be a part of this research project. The ICEPAC structure masterfully dealt with the challenges of the incredibly powerful winds, but the biggest challenge was dealing with the cold—one stormy night brought temperatures down to nearly -20° Celsius.
It seems interesting to mention that, as far as we know, humans first sighted Antarctica in 1820—I always marvel that we were peering deep into the night sky with telescopes, discovering distant galaxies and stars before we had ever set foot on Earth’s fifth-largest continent. On the ice, we are still visitors in an alien land. In fact, the only life-form native to the continent that I encountered in my four weeks on the ice was a small string of red lichen several inches long, clinging to a rock face amidst a seemingly infinite field of ice.
Working with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, you’ve also captured the beauty of sea life, specifically bioluminescent dinoflagellates in your Living Light series, and other photographic projects have taken you to the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of El Salvador. Returning to terra firma with Wildfire Series, you documented the scorched landscapes after such fires. Do you have a favorite among your series, and is there a common thread running through them?
While the directions of my projects may at first appear to be disparate in one sense, there indeed emerges a common thread among them, although I must admit that sometimes this commonality can be illusive even to me while I am first exploring a new direction.
In all my pursuits I am compelled to follow what inspirations arise, and find that this is not a linear path, but one that meanders, circumnavigates, veers, and generally cycles back around. In this way, I learn what my questions are. Seeing the many different angles from which the questions inevitably appear I can then approach them within my work from as many angles in order to find common threads that may lead to conclusions. However, as it seems that I rarely find distinct answers but rather more and more questions, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that what I’m looking for is a certain synthesis and cohesion within the questions themselves.
What has become resoundingly clear throughout all of my work over the last 20 years is that I am ever motivated by what I experience as the deep meaning that exists in connecting with the wondrous phenomena of our natural environment. This sense of valuing nature is a founding ethic that spans our ancestral cultures, and from my perspective as an artist is evidenced even in the earliest recorded human art. It seems clear that cultures throughout time have found deep meaning in their relationship with nature.
Yet when I look out at our current culture, I see us struggling to understand what nature really means to us today. Too often in today’s culture, it seems that if we believe that we have lost touch with our natural environment then we are deemed nostalgic and anti-progress. However, I maintain that only through developing a cultural experience of meaning with our natural environment can we surmount the many environmental crises that we face.
You have described yourself as an “environmental archivist” and “eco-photojournalist.” Encountering your work, a viewer might feel you are competing with time itself—trying to save for generations to come environments that are quickly fading, much as “anthropological archivist” photographers Edward S. Curtis and George Catlin preserved images of fading Native American populations. What kind of response has your work generated, and do you hope to have an impact on environmentalism in general and the climate-change debate in particular?
Descriptors are funny things, and my immediate instinct is to wriggle out of any label that is imposed, and yet in an attempt to describe what I do in more distinct terms, I have nonetheless resorted to them. I have tended to seek descriptors that point in the direction of my focus, rather than something simply self-referential, although maybe there is no difference. The words ecological archivist (considering here the many evolving definitions of the word ecological, i.e., that it is not possible to separate the human system from the natural system) to me points to my interest in documenting for posterity the complex interconnection between our natural environment and our relationship to it, “eco” being a way to connote the particular focus on this interest in my documentary practice.
I must admit to being motived by a desire to preserve the aspects of our natural environment that are most in peril, in the various ways my artistic practice leads me to document them. I envision the natural environment as not only our natural heritage, but as our cultural heritage as well—in my mind the two are inextricably linked, and I’m currently gathering a list of examples that illustrate how.
However, I do not set out to make my work in order to impact environmentalism or the climate crisis, per se. These things are the social contexts within which I make my work, but I am far more interested in bringing an experience of some aspect of the natural environment to a viewer directly, whether that be the incredible beauty of a landscape, a bioluminescent organism, an astronomical phenomena, or the harsh realities of an industrially caused ecological disaster.
It seems that we have somehow lost touch with the reality that our natural environment is in fact the source of our sustenance and survival. I certainly don’t hold any answers about how to solve the issues we face because of environmental negligence or impending anthropogenic climate disruption, but in a small way I feel I fulfill my intent as an artist if I can engage in one-on-one dialogues with the viewer through the work in order to ask what I consider to be one of the most poignant questions of our time: is the natural environment truly meaningful to you?
The response to my work, from that vantage point, has been remarkable and is always humbling. I remember one person saying that since seeing an exhibition of my Light Recordings work he has made an effort to get away from the city lights of his home in San Francisco and into a dark-sky area in order to experience the vast expanse of stars one can see away from light pollution. In my recent exhibition of the Wildfire Series, which documents the increase of drought and wildfires due to climate disruption, I learned that the gallery staff had witnessed many people with tears in their eyes throughout the exhibition period. To me, these and other responses like it describe the intuitive meaningful relationship that we have with the natural environment that lies underneath this complex civilization that we have built up around us. In the end, what we hold as truly meaningful is what we will unite with.
What projects are you currently working on?
I always have a lot of irons in the fire, and many of my previous bodies of work continue to evolve or reappear. The studio work I’m mainly focused on at the moment is the Wildfire Series. This body of work more than the others seems to synthesize for me the more formalist, reductive work that I was doing before the photojournalistic work, with the direct socio-environmental context that emerged as a result of doing the photojournalistic work. This will likely lead me to begin a project I’ve been sketching on paper for about ten years that relates to trees and the color green in our perceptual experience. I’m also about to begin a collaborative project with NASA in the spring, and in addition am working on a research and writing initiative that looks at nature in the context of our cultural heritage ethical frameworks.
Erika Blumenfeld installing the piece Fire Mandala: Spiral No.1 from her Wildfire Series, which consists of charred debris (rocks, trees, pine needles, pine cones, bark, cacti, dirt) gathered from the Silver Wildfire (Gila National Forest, New Mexico 2013) for her solo exhibition at Women & Their Work, Austin, Texas, 2013. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld)
Erika Blumenfeld setting up her equipment to document bioluminescence dinoflagellates through an agitation chamber at Latz Laboratory at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography for her Living Light series in collaboration with Dr. Michael Latz, La Jolla, California, 2011. (Photo: Dr. Michael Latz)
Erika Blumenfeld documenting light phenomena with her self-built recording devices for her Light Recording series on the roof of SANAE Base Station in Antarctica, 2009. (Photo: Thomas Mulcaire)
Erika Blumenfeld documenting ice formations for her Land Ice series near SANAE IV Base Station, Antarctica, 2009. (Photo: Thomas Mulcaire)
View of ITASC’s mobile base station, called ICEPAC (right), with wind and solar station (center) and weather station (left) installed on the ice field 1km from the SANAE IV Base Station, Antarctica, 2009. ICEPAC was designed by Pol Taylor (Architect, ARQZE, Chile), Thomas Mulcaire (Artist and ITASC co-founder, South Africa), and Ntsikelelo Ntshingila (Musician and ICEPAC base commander, Swaziland), and built by Sets and Devises in Cape Town. (Photo: Erika Blumenfeld)
This interview appeared on the occasion of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s December 2013 Newsletter, and the original post can be seen here. Authorship of text Copyright Erika Blumenfeld and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2013.
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin (Austin American-Statesman, July 22, 2013)
Shortly before Erika Blumenfeld arrived in Austin early this month to install her elegant yet prescient solo exhibit now at Women & Their Work, the artist visited the charred landscape left behind by a wildfire that still burns in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.
Blumenfeld gathered tree branches turned to charcoal, rocks licked black by the flames and cactus paddles burned to a crisp.
Like reliquaries — or perhaps pieces of evidence — Blumenfeld placed those carbonized branches, rocks, pine cones and cactus paddles on clean white pedestals in the gallery at Women & Their Work, titling each display as “An Offering to Stolen Nature.”
With a ceremonial gesture, she has arranged more of the charred items in a spiraling mandala, the Hindu and Buddhist symbol of the universe.
Blumenfeld — whose photography-based creative practice has always straddled the fields of environmental science and art — began gathering material from burned landscapes in 2011. At the time, Blumenfeld was living in the West Texas town of Marfa.
Years earlier, Blumenfeld spent a stint as an artist-in-residence at the McDonald Observatory in nearby Fort Davis during which she had been documenting the waxing and waning of lunar light through an altered telescope. Her work at McDonald eventually led to her ongoing “Polar Project,” an evolving series of large-scale artworks that document the changing environment of the Arctic and Antarctic. (Blumenfeld joined a 2009 expedition to Antarctica, as the artist-in-residence at the Interpolar Transnational Art Science Constellation.)
But in early April 2011, after seven rainless months, the Rock House Fire ignited just outside Marfa. The fast-moving fire quickly affected Fort Davis. It destroyed homes, killed wildlife and cattle, and before it was extinguished burned more than 314,000 acres.
The Rock House Fire became the first of four major wildfires in the Southwest that Blumenfeld documented in the past two years by gathering burned material and by using her camera to capture elegant black-and-white images of the devastatingly charred landscape, the smoke-filled sky and the blackened earth.
“These works are eulogies to nature,” said Blumenfeld recently, her hands smudged with charcoal as she put together “Fire Mandala: Spiral No. 1 (Silver Wildfire: Gila National Forest, New Mexico, 2013)” on a platform in the center of the gallery.
“And they’re forensic evidence of the crime of climate disruption,” she says. “But they have beauty. There’s a melancholic, peaceful quality to this material, too.”
In all its conditions, the natural world holds endless, indescribable beauty for Blumenfeld — the fountainhead out of which her art emerges. Nature has held her in awe since she was a small child. And after art school in New York, she lit out for New Mexico, which she has used as her home base for more than a decade, though her environmental artwork takes her around the globe.
Blumenfeld approaches the wildfire-scarred landscape as an archivist, a forensic investigator and an artistic explorer.
Her artist statement for the current exhibit features a litany of scientific data: Our planet is more than 70 percent water-covered but only 2.5 percent of that is fresh water. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climatic Data Center announced on July 2 that “exceptional drought” covered more than 44 percent of the United States this year.
“Anthropogenic climate disruption is creating new climate cycles,” she says. “Climate cycles are now not in geological time on a scale of millions of years. There’s extreme disruption accelerating the cycles.”
And yet Blumenfeld does not want her artwork to read as a simply an environmental cautionary tale.
She’s mining the strange beauty that arises from climate disruption.
From each of the four fires she investigated in the past few years, she ground up charred material into a fine pigment, which she used to create a quartet of paintings. And she found that each of the burned landscapes resulted in a slightly different looking kind of deep black pigment. The 2012 Waldo Canyon Wildfire in Colorado produced a particularly glittering charcoal. The Rock House Fire, given the large amount of grass it consumed, resulted in a softer looking carbon pigment.
And with a conceptual, art historical twist, Blumenfeld subtly framed each painting with a 23-carat gold leaf edge.
Carbon is, after all, the building block of life and worthy of celebrating, she says.
As Blumenfeld explains, the over-abundance of human-generated carbon gases released into the atmosphere causes aridification, which in turn leads to more, and more severe, wildfires. And those wildfires leave a path of charred, carbonized nature — the very stuff from which Blumenfeld is creating art.
“This (body of art work) represents the end of one cycle but the beginning of another,” said Blumenfeld. “There’s a new cycle to consider as we look for solutions.”
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is currently the arts critic and reporter for the Austin American-Statesman. She has also written for the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Art Papers, the Review of Contemporary Fiction and American Craft magazine, among other publications. Her work has received awards from the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award and a fellowship from the Ragdale Foundation.
This article was written on the occasion of Blumenfeld’s solo exhibition, Water, water every where…, at Women & Their Work in Austin, Texas, July 11-August 29, 2013. Authorship of text Copyright Jeanne Claire van Ryzin and Austin American-Statesman, 2013.
New Orleans, LA – Nearly two years after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen and scientists say things are getting worse. Interviews with fishermen and scientists across Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana have shed light on the distressing truth that nearly two years after the BP oil disaster began in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, fisheries for oysters, shrimp, crab and fish are producing dramatically reduced catches.
One scientist told Al Jazeera that many of the Gulf fisheries “have already collapsed” and the only question is “if or when they’ll come back”.
Given that after the Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska in 1989, herring have still not come back enough to be a viable fishing resource, this does not bode well for the Gulf seafood industry, whose fisheries are – according to scientists – still in the initial phase of collapse.
Nearly two years after BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen and scientists say things are getting worse.
New Orleans, LA – Hundreds of thousands of people living along the US Gulf Coast have hung their economic lives on lawsuits against BP.
Fishermen, in particular, are seeing their way of life threatened with extinction – both from lack of an adequate legal settlement and collapsing fisheries.
One of these people, Greg Perez, an oyster fisherman in the village of Yscloskey, Louisiana, has seen a 75 per cent decrease in the amount of oysters he has been able to catch.
“Since the spill, business has been bad,” he said. “Sales and productivity are down, our state oyster grounds are gone, and we are investing personal money to rebuild oyster reefs, but so far it’s not working.”
Perez, like so many Gulf Coast commercial fisherman, has been fishing all his life. He said those who fish for crab and shrimp are “in trouble too”, and he is suing BP for property damage for destroying his oyster reefs, as well as for his business’ loss of income.
People like Perez make it possible for Louisiana to provide 40 per cent of all the seafood caught in the continental US.
But Louisiana’s seafood industry, valued at about $2.3bn, is now fighting for its life.
New Orleans, LA – While oil giant BP has successfully settled in the first of a three-phase trial for at least $7.8bn, residents of the Gulf Coast remain concerned about a large oil seep along an area near BP’s capped Macondo well. The disaster at BP’s well gushed at least 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico during the spring and summer of 2010, causing the largest marine oil disaster in US history. By comparison, the Macondo reservoir, from which this new oil is likely seeping, contains an estimated 50 million barrels of producible oil. Al Jazeera conducted a flight over the area on February 29, 2012, and found silvery oil sheen, oil globules and long reddish rope-formed oil across an area 35 km long with a width ranging from 20 to 100 metres. Al Jazeera noticed oil seeping from this same site during a fly-over on September 11, 2011. While natural oil seeps are common in the Gulf of Mexico, the size and location of this seep could indicate that it has been caused by human activity.
As BP pays billions in settlements, scientists are concerned about a persistent oil seep near the Macondo 252 well.
New Orleans, LA – As BP settles out of court for the first phase of thousands of lawsuits that could cost the company tens of billions of dollars, Al Jazeera has spotted a large oil sheen near the infamous Macondo 252 well.
In September 2011, Al Jazeera spotted a large swath of silvery oil sheen located roughly 19km northeast of the now-capped well.
But now, on February 29, Al Jazeera conducted another over-flight of the area and found a larger area of sea covered in oil sheen in the same location.
Oil trackers with the organisation On Wings of Care, who have been monitoring the new oil since mid-August 2011, have for months found rainbow-tinted slicks and thick silvery globs of oil consistently visible in the area.
“This is the same crescent shaped area of oil and sheen I’ve been seeing here since the middle of last August,” Bonny Schumaker, president and pilot of On Wings of Care, told Al Jazeera while flying over the oil.
Schumaker has logged approximately 500 hours of flight time monitoring the area around the Macondo well, and has flown scientists from NASA, the US Geological Survey (USGS), and oil chemistry scientists to observe conditions resulting from BP’s oil disaster that began in April 2010.
When Al Jazeera flew to the area on September 11, 2011, the oil sheen was approximately 25km long and 10 to 50 metres wide, at a location roughly 19km northeast of the Macondo 252 well.
On the recent over flight, the area covered in oil sheen was approximately 35km long, and ranged from 20 to 100 metres wide in approximately the same location. At times, fumes from the oil filled the aircraft, even at an altitude of 350 metres.
The largest environmental trial in US history begins March 5, as BP is sued for its 2010 oil spill disaster.
New Orleans, LA – It was the largest marine oil disaster in the United States, and now BP’s trial is the largest and most complex environmental lawsuit in US history.
In what is being called by many “The Trial of the Century”, a thousand plaintiffs, a multitude of witnesses, and at least 20,000 exhibits will converge at a US district court in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 5 for litigation surrounding BP’s oil disaster that began on April 20, 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.
US President Barack Obama, two months after the blowout, referred to [the BP spill] as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced”.
The disaster caused at least 4.9 million barrels of oil to gush into the Gulf, a situation that was compounded by at least 1.9 million gallons of toxic Corexit dispersants used to sink the oil.
Louisiana’s fishing and shrimping industries continue to suffer, large numbers of Gulf residents suffer health problems they blame on BP’s chemicals, and tar balls and destroyed marsh lands persist across much of the affected areas of the Gulf Coast.
US President Barack Obama, two months after the blowout, referred to it as “the worst environmental disaster America has ever faced”.
The first of this three-phase trial will focus on litigation around the Clean Water Act and Oil Spill Pollution Act, in order to determine BP’s liability, and whether the oil giant’s behaviour around the accident was grossly or criminally negligent.
In the wake of previous oil disasters, like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, it took several years to see the impact on marine life and the fishing industry. However, fishermen and scientists along the Gulf of Mexico coast, which was heavily affected by BP’s oil disaster in the summer of 2010, are already seeing greatly diminished catches, widespread signs of disease, scarring, and death in shrimp, fish, dolphin, and oyster populations.
The fishing industry is seeing the effects already, with some of Louisiana’s largest seafood distributors now closing their doors, or coming close to doing so. For a region whose culture and livelihood has been based upon the Gulf of Mexico and the seafood business for generations, the consequences could well be catastrophic.
In a key investigative report released on September 14, the US government heaped most of the blame for last year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on BP. The British company now faces a raft of criminal and civil litigation and billions of dollars in potential damages.
The report concluded that BP violated federal regulations, ignored safety concerns and crucial warnings, and made careless decisions during the cementing of the well nearly two kilometres underwater.
“That report summarised what we already knew, and it will help establish the punitive damage case against the defendant [BP],” New Orleans-based attorney Stuart Smith, representing more than 1,000 cases against BP, told Al Jazeera.
Smith, along with many other lawyers representing clients with lawsuits against BP, believes it may well take BP $30bn to cover all the cases against it.
Over a year after the BP oil disaster, many Gulf Coast residents have been reporting serious health problems.
In the wake of BP’s oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, countless Gulf Coast residents have been made sick by what they believe to be chemicals from BP’s oil and toxic dispersants.
Their situation is made worse by BP not paying out health-related claims, despite the oil giant’s promises to “make things right” and “make people whole”.
To read more about their situation, click here.