As part of the College of the Environment’s (COE) annual symposium titled, “Where On Earth Are We Going?” Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment Joseph Smolinski gave a lecture on Saturday, Sept. 27 called, “Making Art in the Anthropocene: Envisioning the Interventions of the Human Age.” Smolinski’s talk was the second lecture of the event, which aimed to reach students, parents, and faculty.
Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies Barry Chernoff introduced the speaker. Chernoff praised the quality of Smolinski’s work and stressed the importance of artists’ presence in the field of environmental studies.
“[Smolinski’s] work causes us to look at the relationships of humans in different parts of our society and landscapes,” Chernoff said. “[His works] don’t so much as give us solutions, but tell us how to ask questions about our actions. It’s not the sociologists or the geeks, [but] the scientists who have been putting out data. But it’s really going to be the artists who we need out in force dealing with environmental issues, because it’s the artists who cause us to learn to ask questions, and also to feel. That’s what’s missing in a lot of what academics has to offer.”
Named after a prominent work of environmentalist literature by Maurice Strong, the “Where On Earth Are We Going?” symposium highlights topics being discussed in the COE’s annual think tank. Composed of three Wesleyan professors, a distinguished visiting fellow, and several undergraduate students, the think tank meets each year to discuss, debate, and dissect a prominent environmental issue. Over the past four years, the think tank has collectively published 92 scholarly works, seven honors theses, and 15 articles.
According to Chernoff, the primary goal of the think tank is to produce work that causes the world to re-envision its perceptions of the topic being discussed. The theme of the 2014-2015 think tank is “Struggling Through the Anthropocene: Science, History, Art and Politics.” Anthropocene is an informal term for the era in which human activity began to have a significant impact on Earth’s ecosystems.
In his lecture, Smolinski traced his work as an artist since 2007, focusing on the influence of environmental issues on his creative process. He cited his grandfather and his great uncle as his earliest artistic influences. Smolinski described the works of his great uncle, Morris Scott Dollens, who was a celebrated science fiction painter; he stated that Dollens’ fantastical landscapes inspired him to look closely at the environment.
Inspired by the sighting of an artificial tree telephone pole while driving on the Merritt Parkway, Smolinski began to create work that centered on environmental design, looking at how we send information across invisible signals.
“This tree was towering unnaturally high above any of the other trees in the landscape,” Smolinski said. “This was a key moment for me as an artist because it altered my perceptions of a landscape, and highlighted the notion that we are trying to be duped in a certain way. This looks really more like a toilet brush than a tree. Why doesn’t it look better? Why does this technology need to be hidden?”
Smolinski then imposed this image of an artificial tree telephone on natural monuments and idealized trees, such as the General Sherman giant sequoia tree in Sequoia National Park, California, and the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical Garden of Eden. He contemplated how and if these artificial trees would grow from seedpods, whether or not they would be able to reproduce, and effects of overpopulation on these sorts of artificial trees.
“I was thinking about how these different characters would populate our landscape,” Smolinski said. “How would we live within this imaginary world of biotech communication tower trees?… I was also thinking about our cultural relationships with sites that once were, and are now being taken over by nature.”
As his interests in these trees developed, Smolinski also became interested in wind technology. He created a digital animation in 2008 of an artificial tree wind turbine, and he crafted an eighteen-foot artificial tree wind turbine at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in Boston, Mass., in 2008.
Smolinski said that although the wind turbine could have been constructed more effectively, it was meant to spark dialogue about aesthetics and technology.
“Many of the opponents of windpower at the time were those that lived in communities that just didn’t like what the wind turbines looked like,” Smolinski said. “I thought that these are the same communities that are disguising these wind turbines as trees, so why not combine both of these technologies together?”
Smolinski also described his fascination with landscape preservation, and the way that industries can both reform and deform the Earth’s natural environment. With a particular focus on the effects of oil rigs on natural water systems, Smolinski combined crystallized rocks from the area around his Connecticut home with salt water and resin to create a floor sculpture piece called “RIP Jetty” (2009-2012).
Additionally, Smolinski has created work surrounding the future of the Earth’s landscapes, highlighting the effects of fracking, solar radiation, and the radiotracking of animals in their natural environments.
During the lecture, Smolinski described an exhibit of his work that closed on Sept. 25 at the Green Street Arts Center in Middletown. Titled “Colony Collapse,” the show displayed three-dimensional printed honeybees as symbols of the growing global trend of disappearing bee populations, in addition to integrating a 3D animated video clip. This work reflected Smolinski’s current artistic interest: the notion of collapse in relation to human impacts on the environment.
“Millions of bees have disappeared from the hives,” Smolinski said. “Bees are very important to pollinate many of the types of foods that we eat every day. Now, there is an industry of shipping bees around the world to pollinate food sources… To me, that’s a very interesting image of transporting insects around, because they do things that we [humans] can’t do on our own. We have to think about what our relationship is with these creatures. How will we make up for these losses?”
Aditi Kini ’13, Assistant Director of Online Communications for Wesleyan University Relations, reflected on the importance of hosting events in which artists discuss their work with students.
“I think it’s great to see how all of his work is threaded through by this one overarching topic,” Kini said. “It’s really important to talk about these things because if you just showed me one of his paintings, I may not understand where it fits in the larger context of his work and environmental message.”