Peninsula Europe. The Force Majeure Works

Workshop, Presentation and Panel Discussion with Werner Härdtle, Helen Mayer Harrison und Newton Harrison, Sacha Kagan, Cornelia Kastelan und Valérie Knoll
June 1st, 2012

Continuing a tradition of symposia (»Art, Ecology and Sustainable Development«, 2000) and artistic projects at the Kunstraum that have addressed issues of ecology and sustainability (Dan Peterman »Greenhouse«, 1998 and Fabrice Hybert »pof83 [pylône]«, 2000 amongst others), Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison – two pioneers in the field of ecological art – will be guests in Lueneburg. On the 1st of June 2012, the artists will be presenting their series »Peninsula Europe: The Force Majeure Works«. Afterwards, they will participate in a panel discussion, to which representatives of various academic disciplines from Leuphana University of Lueneburg have been invited to enter into a debate. Earlier that day, an exchange regarding the artists’ approach will take place in the frame of a workshop with the Harrisons.

Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison (* 1929 / 1932) live and work in Santa Cruz, CA, USA. They can look back on an artistic collaboration that has been lasting for over forty years. Their works of art can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou, Paris, or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, amongst others. The Harrisons have been exhibited at the Documenta 8 in Kassel (1987), as well as at the Venice Biennials in 1976 and 1980 and the São Paulo Biennial in 1985.

The Harrisons represent a position in contemporary art, which is exclusively concerned with environmental issues; they typically embrace communication in a broadly based manner, including dialogues and collaborations with natural, social and cultural scientists. What is remarkable is their decision to pursue an artistic strategy that, in face of the ecological crisis, does not impede reception through apocalyptic scenarios, but instead makes it productive for visions of the future that offer solutions to existing problems. Their ambitious proposals, such as the reforestation of large areas of the »Peninsula Europe«, should be understood as interjections to political debates functioning as »conversational drifts«, rather than be measured by the degree of the project realization.

The Harrisons’ decision in favour of an art focusing on ecological matters came about in the early 70’s, in a climate characterized by a »dematerialization of art« and benefitted from the concept of the »expanded field« which allowed sculpture to spread its scope to the areas of landscape and architecture.

Among the most famous artistic projects by the Harrisons is the »Lagoon Cycle” (1973-1985). It was presented as a dialogue between a »lagoon maker« and a »witness«, who functioned as an interpreter. Ultimately, this complex work in terms of form and content explored the conditions that are necessary for mankind to survive. Major parts of the »Lagoon Cycle« were exhibited in the Johnson Museum of Cornell University Ithaca and in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The catalogue published by the latter includes, amongst others, a contribution by Michel de Certeau on the work of the Harrisons.

In the multi-phase project titled »Peninsula Europe«, the Harrisons, against the backdrop of scenarios of climate warming, advocate the cultivation of a large-scale Trans-European forest that would grow in the altitudes of Europe (980-1150 feet high). According to their thesis, this reforestation would technically operate as a sponge, counteracting the drought that has been predicted by climate researchers. Formulated in more general terms, at issue is the intention of bringing the entire geophysical system to a state of greater ecological stability.

Helen and Newton Harrison mainly resort to cartographic illustrations not least to draw attention to the arbitrary notion of national borders, which can be seen exemplified in the drafted project. Also typical in their artistic approach is dismissing the notion of individual authorship early on. Instead, they focus on collaborations with scientists from the most various disciplines; some of their artistic presentations cannot be distinguished from strictly scientific depictions of the ecosystem. What has proven to be particularly helpful for Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison is the reference to complexity theories such as those developed in cybernetics and system theory. Their delving into ecological systems simultaneously entails an examination of social systems. As claimed in their project »Future Garden«, »Peninsula Europe” would actually turn into a stability domain if persistent self-interests didn’t exist, but the global market currently is acting as if it were the Golem-like shadow version of the biosphere. Political planning processes that confront the climate change were deemed to encounter resistances at any time, from those who benefit from the current situation. In Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s view, one of the tasks of artists dealing with the ecological crisis is to install an »eco-security system« similar to a social security system. In this sense, the work of the two artists begins the moment they detect an anomaly in the environment.

The event is based on a cooperation between Kunstraum of Leuphana University of Lueneburg and the project KIM, Innovation Incubator at the Leuphana University of Lueneburg, which is supported by the ERDF programme of the European Union and the federal state of Lower Saxony, as well as ICCC at Leuphana University of Lueneburg (Sacha Kagan).