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The Being of Human: Art, Ethics, and Engagement

Peter Hocking, MFA's picture
MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Blog
The Being of Human: Art, Ethics, and Engagement

Artistic Practice as/and Knowledge Production in an Age of Uncertainty: Some forty years ago, British visual anthropologist and social scientist Gregory Bateson suggested that the loss of aesthetic wisdom has brought humanity to the brink of unhoming ourselves on earth. “Mere purposive rationality unaided by such phenomena as art, religion, dream, and the like, is necessarily pathogenic and destructive of life.” Bateson affirms that there are ways of knowing, perceiving and problem-solving embodied in our physical being that are accessible and made manifest only through aesthetic experience. Accepting Bateson’s proposition about the vitality of art for the very survival of our planet assumes that artistic practice does indeed challenge our relationship to knowledge and begs the questions: In which ways can artistic practice contribute to knowledge production? What kind(s) of knowledge and ways of knowing are produced specifically through and with the arts?  -- Fall 2013 MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) Vermont Residency Theme

Residency themes establish a collaborative space for inquiry and dialogue, in relation to the MFAIA’s degree criteria—for example, this theme asks us to consider artists’ ethical engagement and thoughtful action—and in response to the work that students and faculty are pursuing in their individual practices. Residency themes also provide a context for the work of visiting artists, for student and faculty workshops, and always inspire provocative and unexpected conversations during the residency and across the semester.

During the upcoming residency, we’re fortunate to welcome visiting ecological artist Jackie Brookner. Her workshop will expand our understanding of artists’ roles in creating aesthetic experience that can open, reveal, and make evident critical human and planetary questions that confront us today. Her talk, titled The Being of Human—A Collaboration, will present her ecological art practice within the context of the larger concerns that underlie it.

Brookner’s work brings plant-based water remediation for parks, rivers, and wetlands together with habitat restoration, landscape sculpture, and active community collaboration.  To move from devastation of the planet to its regeneration it is obvious we urgently need to change our ways of fueling, feeding, entertaining and sheltering our species.  Less obvious, but at least equally urgent, is the need to mainstream a different understanding of the dominant ways humans think about what and who we are, as individuals and as a species.  Brookner suggests we are more interrelated processes than separate individuals, and that we need to shift from thinking of ourselves as nouns, human beings, to the verbing of our existence, what she calls “the being of human.”

Writing in Leonardo (June 2012) about Brookner’s artwork, Prima Lingua, a sculpture in the shape of a large tongue colonized by ferns, mosses and liverworts that filter the contaminated water (June 2012) Ruth Wallen, MFAIA-VT program director, elaborates on Brookner’s ability to embody holistic human experience:

Prima Lingua illustrates the insight of cognitive scientists that reason itself is literally embodied, formed from the bodies we inhabit. According to Lakoff and Johnson, “Our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and the environments we live in” [Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books, 1999) p. 6.]. These commonalities, expressed not literally but metaphorically, form the basis for abstract thought. Prima Lingua provides an ecological function while proposing a powerful metaphor that reestablishes the relationship between corporality and rationality.

Emphasizing the MFAIA program’s commitment to layered collaborative learning, Brookner’s visit and this semester’s theme build upon last semester’s residency focus, which suggested: “research allied to artistic process is a way to see and find, to take risks, to stretch practice while grappling with new information. It charges us to go beyond the confines of our comfort zones or perceived limitations.” This semester we aim to advance the conversation further by asking how might risk-taking and artmaking’s inherent embrace of uncertainty shift power in the knowledge economy? And furthermore, we’ll consider arts’ potential in proposing fresh perspectives that respond to the socio-cultural, economic, and ecological challenges of our times?

This semester we will also be piloting our very own on-line seminar, a Goddard alternative to MOOCs. Facilitators will each offer a module, consisting of resources for reading/viewing, a live webinar, suggestions for participant response, and an on-line follow-up discussion.

The theme of our first webinar, building on our residency theme and guest artist presentation, will be Ecological Thinking and Doing-Towards an Ethics of Flourishing.

The description of the workshop begins as follows: What kind of contribution might artists make within our current ecological and economic crises? How, why, and where might art bring us into conversation with new, old or other set of stories that might be restorative as well as sustaining? This group study will engage us in these questions creatively and critically—individually and collaboratively. Together we will share theory and practice as we learn from and contribute to conflicting stories about our more-than-human world.

The webinars will be recorded so that those unable to attend virtually may view at their leisure, and information about it will be made available through this blog in the future.

[Photo Credits: Queer Ecology: 6 April 2012, Peter Hocking; Lingua Franca, Jackie Brookner.]

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