ReGeneration at NYSCI: Urban Sustainability, Art, and Science

My colleagues and I have been working hard on the design and production phase of a major new contemporary art and science exhibition at NYSCI called ReGeneration.  When we invited artists to submit proposals for the 11 new commissions we planned for the exhibition, we talked with some fervor and fuzziness about the theme of Urban Sustainability.  You can see the call for artists here.  I can say with all honesty that in defining this theme, I was groping for something that wasn’t yet entirely clear.  As the exhibition comes closer to fruition, and as the work of the individual artists comes into focus, what we mean byUrban Sustainability is also becoming clearer.

The artists are mostly in their 30’s and 40’s, the generation that came of age assuming that our environment was under threat.  But it is also a very urban group, most of whom live in one of US coastal cities like NY and SF, and some of whom have roots in other countries from Asia to South America.  While they think of sustainability as a matter of protecting the planet, they also think of it as a way of building healthier communities. 

As a result, their work explicitly invites participation by the community, focuses on the human aspects of sustainability, including health, education, immigrant culture, as well as the more traditional foci of the sustainability movement,  flora, conservation of resources, technology, waste, air quality, climate change, etc.

Future Farmers is planning an ethnobotany project that explores local flora and the ethnobotanical knowledge of local residents.  They will conduct weekend programming into the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, a huge park that NYSCI is part of, used prinicipally by local immigrant communities.  These explorations will form the basis of an ethnobotanical cart and exhibit in the museum.

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(this is an installation in San Francisco done by FutureFarmers)

Shih Cheh Huang is an artist from Taiwan who is lives and works in Brooklyn.  He builds gorgeous living breathing sculptures from things that he finds in local dollar stores.  He has explored dollar stores all over New York, and tells us that they are different from community to community.  Through his eyes, these sculptures are not only compelling and fascinating, but find beauty in the story of local consumption, cheap goods frequently made elsewhere in the world, and commerce.

Check out this video

I will share more examples of the artists’ work in ReGeneration in future posts.  For the moment, though, I want to focus on the core idea of the exhibition, the idea of urban sustainability.  It turns out that this is a very rich vein to mine in thinking about how science centers, particularly urban science centers, communicate about sustainability.  For a few years we have been groping our way toward finding a meaningful and compelling way to discuss this pressing issue.  In several projects, we have been reaching for connections to our urban audience that would be meaningful, beyond the frankly unsuccessful strategies that attempt to influence people’s beliefs based upon the very real global threat of climate change and species extinction. 

As pressing as these issues are, presenting them through the media, through museum exhibitions, books, articles, school curricula have not changed the trajectory of our patterns of life and consumption. Research is very clear that people respond to local conditions that they themselves experience, and feel empowered only to make changes on a very local level.

So, what if sustainability was repositioned as a deeply urban issue?  If education, health, transportation, child care, immigration, jobs, and green spaces were the topics of conversation when we talked about sustainability?  All of these factors can plausibly be influenced by local action.  And all of them will make a meaningful contribution to the quality of life of the community. 

Alaka Wali, a brilliant anthropologist who works at the Field Museum and conducts research both in the Amazon and in Chicago, wrote:

"[Urban ecology] enables us to treat human populations as integral to the rest of the environment. This is in contrast to previous approaches. From the late 19th century, when industrialization and urbanization began to dominate social processes and become subjects of sociological concern, to the present, we have tended to characterize urban life as Ymnatural," "alienating," and"chaotic".  We have separated the cityfrom nature and drawn them as polar opposites."