environmental humanities

PPEH BLOG: "Brown is the New Green" and the Environmental Ethics of Color

Here I have written a newer, more distilled version of my last blog post on my observations of color and environmental ethics for the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities blog


The first morning that I woke up in my parents' house in southern California, I looked outside our front window and was confronted by a landscape of browning lawns. I hadn't been back to my home state in a while and was stunned by how my neighborhood had changed. My enthusiastic mother caught a glimpse of my expression and exclaimed, "Brown is the new Green! People look down on lawns that have green grass, you know." 

Source: Wikipedia commons. 

Source: Wikipedia commons. 

California is in its fourth year of drought, which has forced the government to impose statewide water restrictions starting in April 2015. These restrictions include a monthly water allocation for private homeowners; those that exceed the allotted amount are required to pay heavy fines. The state aim is to reduce potable urban water usage25% by February 2016--a significant amount indeed. The stakes are high: California is among the largest producers of food in the world, making agricultural production an important source of income for big corporations as well as for lower-income families. These new laws and regulations have already started to change the suburban aesthetic of sunny southern California.

Gone are the days of green American lawns as symbols for a "national landscape" embedded in the ideals of democracy and collectivity. Several public thinkers and activists have now decried the lawn as a thing of the past, and instead promote alternatives including the use of artificial turf or water-efficient drips. Yet in order to disassociate images of American democracy from green grass, I think at least two things must change. First, landscape architects and city-planners must position water conservation at the fore of their designs and ideas, physically shrinking or completely erasing the lawn from their plans and re-thinking the possibilities for 'green-spaces.' Second, the American public must learn to dis-embed the cultural and historical legacy of the green lawn as an ecological symbol of suburban utopia from our collective psyche. Both of these suggestions will require time, money, and environmental movements on the ground for any real shifts of public perception and policy to occur.

Meanwhile, large driveways with their even larger plots of grass are physically embedded within the fabric of many suburban neighborhoods throughout southern California. And since an overhaul of public and private spaces is perhaps impossible, the lawn (or the median, the sidewalk, the public park) is here to stay. Yet, this recent shared effort towards water conservation has shaped a new aesthetic and social discourse of moral obligation to our present neighbors and future selves: Brown is the new Green. 

Source: Wikipedia.

Source: Wikipedia.

What is Green? And how has it come to define ecological thinking of the 21st century? Across various societies and historical periods, the color green's bundled qualities include aesthetic beauty, spring, nature, abundance, growth, organic, environment, and sustainability. In Korean, the root for the word grassland means green. Green movements in politics seek to frame economic, social, and political issues with environmental discourse and climate change. Green companies are businesses whose practices are (or at least pretend to be) sustainable and eco-friendly. 

Meanwhile, the suburban lawn of California has shaped a different materiality of green: hubristic excess, a lack of moral obligation, and a disavowal of climate change. Despite green's dominance in mainstream environmental thought, "Brown is the new Green" signals a shift in broader aesthetic, ethical, and ecological understandings of color. Similarly, Jeffrey Cohen's Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green compiles different authors who explore the materiality and ethics of color in environmental discourse. In the "Brown" chapter, Steve Mentz argues that brown is the hybrid, interstitial space in which living and nonliving matter meet and produce nuanced ideas. 

In California, the values of brown have now come to include conservation, community, and eco-awareness. We might remember here that soil, or the mineralogical foundation for green grass, is also brown. Herein lies a striking contradistinction in the way we translate colors within our cultural symbolic system. Context is crucial, and the micro-systems that we describe shift our ethical understandings of color. 

Source: www.ibabuzz.com

Source: www.ibabuzz.com

As a statewide, public movement, "Brown is the new Green" has offered an exciting and novel cultural understanding of the environmental ethics of color--expanding the ways that we can approach ecological discourse and activism. I'm not sure what will happen to the suburban American lawn as a real space in which we have formed a sense of collective self. But for now, brown grounds are replacing green grasses as spaces that symbolize progress, community, and American morality. Not unlike green, brown does not mean death, but signals a new vitality in environmental activism and ecotheory. 

 

 

"Brown is the new Green"... or the Environmental Ethics of Color

For Thanksgiving, I flew back to southern California to celebrate at my parents' home. My plane landed fairly late at night, so I didn't give much thought to my surroundings as we drove from LAX to our garage door. The next morning when I woke up and looked outside our front window, I was confronted by an ugly landscape of brown lawns. My mother walks up to me and says: "Brown is the new Green! People look down on lawns that have green grass, you know." 

Source: Wikipedia Commons. 

Source: Wikipedia Commons. 

My home state is in its fourth year of drought, which has forced the government to impose state-wide water restrictions in April. These restrictions include a monthly water allocation that has been imposed on private homeowners; those that exceed the allotted amount will be required to pay heavy fines. The state's goal was to reduce potable urban water usage by 25% by February 2016--a significant amount indeed. The stakes are high--California is among the largest producers of food in the world, making agricultural production an important source of income for big corporations as well as for low-income families. These new laws and regulations have already changed the urban and domestic landscapes of California--public parks, driving medians, and front lawns have browned since I last visited my parents in the spring.

Source: Wikipedia. 

Source: Wikipedia. 

Gone are the days of green American lawns as symbols for a "national landscape" that is embedded in the ideals of democracy and collectivity. So much so, that several public thinkers and activists have now decried the lawn as a thing of the past, and started to promote alternatives including the use of artificial turf or water-efficient drips. Yet in order to disassociate cultural affinities between American democracy and green grass, I think at least two things must change. First, landscape architects and city-planners must position water conservation at the fore of their designs and ideas, physically erasing the lawn from their plans and re-thinking the possibilities for 'green-spaces.' Second, the American public must learn to dis-embed the cultural and historical legacy of the green lawn as an ecological utopia from our collective psyche. Both of these solutions will require time, money, and ecologically-minded movements on the ground for any real shifts of public perception to occur. 

Meanwhile, in the present, large driveways with their even larger plots of grass are physically embedded within the suburban fabric of many neighborhoods throughout southern California. And since an overhaul of public and private spaces is perhaps impossible, the lawn (or the median, the sidewalk) is here to stay. Yet, this recent shared effort towards water conservation has shaped a new aesthetic and social discourse of moral obligation to our present neighbors and future selves: Brown is the new Green. 

What is Green? Green is a secondary color whose wavelength falls between 495-570 nanometers. In Korean, the root for the word grassland means green. Green is Baum's Emerald City in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Green movements in politics seek to frame economic, social, political issues with environmental discourse. Green companies are businesses whose practices are sustainable and eco-friendly. Across various societies and historical periods, the color green's bundled qualities include aesthetic beauty, spring, nature, abundance, growth, organic, ecology, and sustainability.

However, the suburban lawn of California has shaped a different materiality of green: excess, ignorance, lack of moral obligation, a disavowal of climate change, and conspicuous consumption. Meanwhile, the values of brown have now come to include conservation, community, and eco-awareness. We might remember here, that soil, or the mineralogical foundation for green nature, is also brown. Herein lies a striking contradiction in the way we translate colors within our cultural symbolic system. Undoubtedly, context is crucial, and the micro-climates or micro-systems that we describe will shift our ethical understandings of color. 

Source: Wikipedia. 

Source: Wikipedia. 

As a state-wide, public movement, "Brown is the new Green" has offered an exciting and new cultural understanding of the environmental ethics of color--expanding the ways that we may approach ecological discourse and activism. I'm not sure what will happen to the suburban American lawn as a real space in which we have formed a sense of collective self. But for now, brown grounds are replacing green grasses as spaces that symbolize progress, community, and American morality. 

Source: http://www.ibabuzz.com. 

Source: http://www.ibabuzz.com. 



'Myth, Truth, and Archaeology' at the ICA Philadelphia

This past weekend, I had the honor of leading a conversation called 'Myth, Truth, and Archaeology' at the ICA Philadelphia. The talk was inspired by Becky Suss' work, which focuses on the spaces and objects of her late grandparents' now-extinct mid-century home. Paintings and sculptural works (re)present the books, photographs, and artworks that her grandparents collected in spaces both real and imagined. 

Becky Suss,  Living Room (Yogi 2),  2013, oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches. Becky Suss and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia. 

Becky Suss, Living Room (Yogi 2), 2013, oil on linen, 72 x 96 inches. Becky Suss and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia. 

The conversation focused on the archaeological process of self-reflection and image-making, which resulted in the creation of new myths and truths. Archaeology is a method to understand past societies by excavating sites that have either been forgotten or abandoned. As a method of research, archaeology is at once destructive but also creative and productive because it offers alternative memories, new traditions, and compelling narratives of the past for the present. The objects and artifacts that are excavated must be re-inscribed and re-contextualized by the archaeologist. The moment of unearthing is both contingent and ephemeral, and the degree to which one can fully recover the narratives of the deep past is limited. This limitation parallels our own imperfect abilities to revisit our memories, a theme that runs through the entirety of Suss' work. Moreover, both Suss' artistic process and archaeology as a discipline are place-making practices with cultural, political, and social ramifications. By uncovering material remnants of the past, a new place of collective cultural heritage and wonder is simultaneously created. Similarly, Suss' (re)presentations of familiar interior spaces offer a version of a place entrenched in familial narratives, political struggles, and memories. 

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media

As Suss has explained, her work tells a version of her grandparents' story--the descendants of eastern European Jewish immigrants whose leftist politics clashed with the implications of the financial wealth that they gained later in life. While the paintings offer a picture of the American suburban Dream, they comment on how utopic visions of socioeconomic stability often clash with those constituting progressive, left-leaning ideologies. Suss not only attempts to (re)create the spaces of her grandparents' home, but also struggles to negotiate these different regimes of belief. 

Becky Suss, “Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)” (2015), oil on canvas, 84″ by 60″. Courtesy the artist and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia, Photo by Claire Iltis.


Becky Suss, “Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám)” (2015), oil on canvas, 84″ by 60″. Courtesy the artist and Fleisher/Ollman, Philadelphia, Photo by Claire Iltis.

While Suss' work is clearly object-centered and draws attention to interior spaces of "culture," almost all of the paintings on display at the ICA depict exterior spaces of "nature." In some of her paintings, nature functions as a decorative motif, while others offer views of lush landscapes through fictive window frames:

76 Meadow Woods Road, oil on linen, 72 x 120 inches, 2012

76 Meadow Woods Road, oil on linen, 72 x 120 inches, 2012

In this painting, several objects with eclectic provenances sit against a window that frames a verdant, lush, and 'wild' garden space. The garden as an ecological utopia is an important literary and visual trope that consists of themes of fertility, death, and rebirth. Thus, the themes of place-making and archaeology as well as the persistent dualities of nature/culture and utopia/dystopia provided an opportunity to bring Suss' exhibition in dialogue with three artists of the 20th century in particular: Moyra Davey, Ana Mendieta, and Robert Smithson. Moreover, by approaching Suss' through object-oriented and ecocritical frameworks mobilized to discuss land art of the late 20th century, Sunday's conversation productively offered additional readings of the exhibition's focus on the object, the ephemeral, and the importance of place. I present some highlights of our discussion: 

The Object: Moyra Davey's Copperhead Grid (1990, chromogenic photograph) questions the value attributed to the material world, and in this case zinc pennies. The fetishization of various states of deterioration call to the natural processes of decay of objects that collectively and culturally hold material value but are inherently worthless. By photographically reproducing the coins, Davey questions how and why we value objects.   

The Ephemeral: While Mendieta's body sculptures and photographs of the 1970s (Siluetas, Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yágul (Image from Yagul)) demonstrate that only photographs and human memory can re-narrate specific bodily sensations, they nevertheless essentialize and reduce the experience into one image. 

Place: Robert Smithson's nonsite, or the indoor earthwork, (Franklin, New Jersey, 1968) signals particular places by bringing in rubble and earth into the gallery spaces, ultimately altering the specific place/site. Through repeating geometric forms and modernist materials, Smithson objectifies nature's roughness and primitive aesthetic, thereby highlighting the contrast between "high art" and unshapely piles of rock and dirt, bringing the nature/culture divide to the surface. 

Although I have only provided a few important points from this past weekend, the conversation demonstrated the potential for further exploration and analysis of Suss' work in the context of the past 40 years, and in ways that may not be apparent at first glance. Suss' exhibition will be on display until December 27, 2015, and I look forward to comments and responses!

Penn Program in Environmental Humanities

The Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) is an interdisciplinary forum that aims to create a space that fosters dialogue about environmental issues, sustainability, the humanities, and sciences. It sponsors and creates many wonderful programs and events around the idea that the environment matters

I am lucky to be part of PPEH this academic year as a graduate fellow. Stay tuned, for throughout the academic year I will share the many amazing projects and events that will take place at Penn and in Philadelphia!