Tag Archives: “Natural Discourse”

Digital Nature at the Los Angeles County Arboretum 10/21 & 10/22/16

When: 6-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22, 2016
Where: Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, 301 N. Baldwin Ave., Arcadia.
Tickets: $16 adults and $14 children 5-12.
Information: 626-821-4623, www.arboretum.org.
Read more here.


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Digital Nature opened last night at the Los Angeles County Arboretum, an event designed to be as sparklingly ephemeral as morning dew in Los Angeles.
It closes tonight, so you have a Saturday ahead to plan a fall afternoon at the Los Angeles Co. Arboretum and maybe stop in at their plant sale while waiting for nightfall.

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If like me you tend to feel a twinge of dejection at being cast out of botanical gardens late afternoon, when things really seem to be getting interesting, today is your chance to experience the collective soft breath of the plants as they settle in for the night, the peacocks heading for their roosts, the dim rustling of leaves, the last birdcall. Though it’s been hot here all week, the Arboretum seems to be generating its own celebratory weather for this event, intriguingly chilly and moody, as if expressly ordered for the occasion by impresario Shirley Watts, known to blog readers as the curator of Natural Discourse, the series of symposia that melds the humanities and sciences to illuminate our ever-changing relationship to the natural world.

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In Digital Nature, Shirley gets to explore a favorite theme, the intersection of technology and nature, and has invited video artists and engineers to the Arboretum in a one-off installation for this special event.

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That drift of mist over the aloes is probably emanating from the “Smog House,” a disused greenhouse that once held experiments on the effect of smog on plants.
Artist Kevin Cooley has brought the abandoned greenhouse back to life for Digital Nature

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Other exhibits include cactus blooms opening and closing, over and over, like we’ve always wanted them to.

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Interactive digital artist John Carpenter creates work that allows us all to be maestros of shape and color.

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Come see what’s showing at the Arboretum under the Bismarckia nobilis tonight.

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All photos by MB Maher.


“Gardens: An Essay” by Robert Pogue Harrison (reposted from 10/7/11)

I’m more than a little overexcited at the prospect of hearing Professor Harrison speak at the latest iteration of Natural Discourse entitled “Culture & Cultivation,” to be held October 10, 2013, in Berkeley, California. The previous Natural Discourse programs were held at the nearby University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, which is a stunning setting but limited seating capacity. Co-Curator Shirley Watts found a gem of a new venue, a historic hotel designed by Julia Morgan, The Berkeley City Club. In one stroke, Shirley nailed two of my obsessions: visiting old hotels and listening to clever people discuss why we make gardens. Shirley explained her process for the selection of speakers as simply a matter of “Who do I want to hear“? And having attended the previous ND seminars, I can vouch for her amazing instincts in assembling a riveting series of talks. Never underestimate this woman. This time she’s done it again, including persuading Robert Pogue Harrison to contribute, someone I’ve been following through his pieces for The New York Review of Books and author of:


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Oh, and just a tip when ordering tickets: There is a new, very reduced rate for students and “starving artists,” less than half of a general admission ticket. Starving artists, you know who you are.

Spread this link on Facebook, on your blogs, because I’m selfishly hoping for Natural Discourse IV, V, VI…etc. As far as I know, there’s no other programming like this out there. And with each successful Natural Discourse, there’s a greater chance this program will eventually reach your community.

In honor of the occasion, I’m reviving a two-year-old post that includes a link where you can listen to the mellifluous voice of Professor Harrison.


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Strange how, even in the most unlikely places, thoughts can still turn to gardens. Jury duty last week had me confined for a good part of Friday in a large, drab room full of strangers, all of us potential jurors awaiting selection for a trial. 8:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., lunch break until 1:00 p.m., finally excused at 2:30 p.m., my juror services ultimately never required. I had expected to be there until 5:00 p.m., so when early dismissal was announced I practically skipped down the courthouse hall. Expecting a long, chair-ridden, time sinkhole of a day, I had grabbed a huge amount to read, including The New York Review of Books of October 13, 2011. (Seems I rarely read entire books anymore, just reviews.) Sometime mid-morning, deep in a review of the Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom’s latest book, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life,” the writer of the review was so impressive and his bio in the NYRB so brief that I had to google him on the courthouse’s computers. (Thoughtfully, the courthouse had provided five computers for potential jurors to share.) Among many scholarly works, Robert Pogue Harrison, Professor of Italian Literature at Stanford, published a book in 2008 with the intriguing title “Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition,” and an excerpt from this essay subtitled “The Vocation of Care,” could be brought up on the courthouse computer (found here). The long day was now whizzing by in a gluttony of reading, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my last plane or train journey. In this essay Prof. Harrison explores the myths of Eden and how they drive our age and history. He feels that faced with the prospect of living forever in paradise, as Odysseus was on the island of Kalypso, humans would wish desperately to return to their homes and care-ridden lives, “For unlike earthly paradises, human-made gardens that are brought into and maintained in being by cultivation retain a signature of the human agency to which they owe their existence. Call it the mark of Cura.”

Prof. Harrison recounts the parable of Cura, or Care:

“Once when Care was crossing a river, she saw some clay; she thoughtfully took up a piece and began to shape it. While she was meditating on what she had made, Jupiter came by. Care asked him to give it spirit, and this he gladly granted. But when she wanted her name to be bestowed upon it, he forbade this, and demanded that it be given his name instead. While Care and Jupiter were disputing, Earth arose and desired that her own name be conferred on the creature, since she had furnished it with part of her body. They asked Saturn to be their arbiter, and he made the following decision, which seemed a just one: ‘Since you, Jupiter, have given its spirit, you shall receive that spirit at its death; and since you, Earth, have given its body, you shall receive its body. But since Care first shaped this creature, she shall possess it as long as it lives. And because there is now a dispute among you as to its name, let it be called homo, for it is made out of humus (earth).'”


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While care is a constant, interminable condition for human beings, specific human cares represent dilemmas or intrigues that are resolved in due time, the way the plots of stories are resolved in due time…in general human beings experience time as the working out of one care after another.

“Here too we find a correlation between care and gardens. A humanly created garden comes into being in and through time. It is planned by the gardener in advance, then it is seeded or cultivated accordingly, and in due time it yields its fruits or intended gratifications. Meanwhile the gardener is beset by new cares day in and day out. For like a story, a garden has its own developing plot, as it were, whose intrigues keep the caretaker under more or less constant pressure. The true gardener is always ‘the constant gardener.'”

Yesterday I found this audio clip of Prof. Harrison ruminating on the jacaranda tree in the quadrangle outside his window at Stanford, and how “cultivation” is an apt word for expressing the kind and depth of attention required to sustain a garden, an education, a democracy. So far, I’ve only listened to this part 1 of 4 and will catch the rest this weekend.





anatomy of a late-summer road trip

Is there a tinge of desperation in the road trips of late summer? By the end of summer are we stuffing itineraries with an absurd number of places to see in the dwindling opportunities to experience daylight until 8 p.m.? Guilty here. I’ll give a recent example from just this last weekend. And for the similarly desperate, there will be a trail of bread crumbs to follow for potential future road trips for the fall season. By fall I’ll be reconciled to the inevitability of autumn’s shortened days, and any road trips then will undoubtedly be washed in a golden haze of acquiescence to the rhythms of the seasons.


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image courtesy of Thread and Bones


It all began with a 63-foot-long hall in an apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco that could use the services of our 9-foot-long Turkish rug. The one we can’t use at home because of the prodigious shedding capabilities of the corgi. (Even the thinnest pretense for a late-summer road trip will do.) Los Angeles to San Francisco, roughly six hours. I’ve made this trip many, many times and have lived in a couple of the trip’s stops, like Petaluma and San Francisco. Familiarity increases the speed factor, another important consideration for late-summer road trips. My workload was fairly light, so Thursday to Monday were clear. Marty has been working all summer weekends, so it would just be me and my smart phone, a formidable traveling companion that can read to me How The Irish Saved Civilization in between navigating duties. The only question left was:

Before delivering the rug, where would I like to go?

Continue reading anatomy of a late-summer road trip

a much anticipated visit to the garden of Shirley Watts

I’ve been home for over a week, but I left my heart in….okay, not my heart, because that’s solidly esconced here at home in the LBC, but I think I may have left my sensorium in San Francisco. On the nearby island of Alameda to be exact, in artist and garden designer Shirley Watts’ garden, which undulates and swirls with cultural references, both pop and classical, science, language and poetry, but in teasingly subtle and allusive ways. Shirley has that rare gift of making a space look undesigned, inevitable. Lush and moody, the garden doesn’t give up its secrets all at once and welcomes and rewards the inquisitive. Intimate and intensely personal, humble really in its refreshing lack of assertive, California-style hardscape and “garden features,” it enfolds and envelopes, quietly offering up much to stimulate the eye and mind or just a tranquil place to become lost in thought. Confident, playful, simultaneously artless and artful, relaxed and rigorous, it’s a garden that asks you to peer in closer, look behind, into and around, that engages as much as it restores. A Joseph Cornell shadowbox of a garden. I’ve been wanting to see this garden for ages, and fortuitously Shirley and Emmanuel graciously agreed to open their home and garden Thursday night for a pre-Fling reception. I’ll change the Fling channel soon, I promise, but couldn’t resist offering a look at Shirley’s garden in repose, sans partiers, the prequel to Thursday night. Photos by MB Maher, who also paparazzi’d Thursday night’s festivities here.

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If there’s any doubt that this is the home of a supremely confident artist, constantly tweaking and playing with symmetry and classical expectations, the back view of the recent addition clarifies matters. The black pots are terracotta painted with chalkboard paint.

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A bracing juxtaposition to the exterior view of the addition is the traditional wainscotting, carpets and chandelier of the interior.

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The home and garden of a woman informed by and comfortable in any century.

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Rosa glauca tapping at the window

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The lanterns send out their glowing messages at night, whether fanciful images of coleoptera

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or words from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (Don’t all garden makers veer dangerously close to the same impulses as Dr. Frankenstein?)

Below are some of my photos from Thursday at the kick-off party

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shoes of MB Maher

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Leslie Bennett of Star Apple Edible Gardens and one of the nicest people at the Fling. Swag from the Fling included her new book, The Beautiful Edible Garden

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Behind the vellum, the wooden sculptures and a screen filled with mussel shells.

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Though she doesn’t make a big deal of it, Shirley is a superbly knowledgeable plantswoman with a great eye for layering the plants of a garden down to the smallest detail. Everyone asked about this plant, Mathiasella bupleuroides, rare and not easy to grow (don’t ask). Shirley claims the opposite, that it’s not formidable at all, and said it’s been blooming like this since February. Mathiasella is a designer cocktail of a plant, equal parts angelica, euphorbia, and hellebore.

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Mathiasella bupleuroides, over 5 feet in height

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A wavy-leaved mullein, possibly Verbascum undulatum

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Calla lily tangled in a succulent’s bloom

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I saw this mimulus later on the trip at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials

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Begonia grandis

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One of the hallmarks of Shirley’s work is the subtly elegant use of salvage. She doesn’t hit you over the head with repurposing, but tucked away against a fence you might discern a screen of abstract shapes, the cast-offs from an industrial machinist’s template.

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A rose that reminds me of the Austin rose ‘Othello’

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To scent an open summer window, Nicotiana sylvestris

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A rusted urn filled with Echeveria nodulosa

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When acanthus blooms, a garden instantly becomes timeless

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Possibly the serrated leaves of Eryngium agavifolium

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The owl Emmanual liberated from the Reims cathedral in France

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The visage of Orlando Bloom broods over the garden. Shirley is fearless in sourcing pieces for her garden design work, and provenance can include old movie billboards.

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I’ll close with some images of a garden Shirley worked on for a client that shows traces of the same themes as her own garden. Photos by MB Maher.

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Along with her garden design work, Shirley has recently been acting as co-curator of an ongoing collaboration between artists and the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley entitled “Natural Discourse.” You can search AGO for posts related to Natural Discourse, such as this one here.

To read more about Shirley Watts’ work, check out Stephen Orr’s Tomorrow’s Garden and Zahid Sardar’s New Garden Design, both listed with Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary & Garden Arts.

(Edited 7/10/13 and reposted. Shirley confirmed the rose is indeed ‘Othello’ and that the owl “did not come from the Reims cathedral. It came from a 17th century villa across the street from where Emmanuel grew up. They were tearing it down for condos.”)

UCBG’s Natural Discourse; an epilogue

I was reminded by some recent network news stories on UCBG’s “Natural Discourse” that I’ve yet to post photos from opening night back on July 14, 2012.


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Did you have to read that sentence twice for full comprehension? “Recent network news stories”?
Network news, as in Fox and CBS, covering “Natural Discourse,” a collaboration between artists and a botanical garden?
(Quick, duck! There goes a flying pig!)
Surely, the world must have slipped off its axis. But it’s all true.

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Was network news there to cover the opening? Well, no, not exactly.

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Which is entirely their loss. The St. Germain cocktails were divine.

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And the sarracenia were an exquisite choice for table centerpieces.

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What a happy, celebratory evening it was.

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MB Maher and his banner for the event.

So what exactly has attracted the attention of Fox News and the various feeder blogs that amplify its content in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record?

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The answer lies in this structure, which I described back on June 23, 2012. SOL Grotto


The work of Rael San Fratello Architects, SOL refers not only to the name of the now-bankrupt solar cell manufacturer Solyndra, but also to its fate as being Shit Out of Luck when silicon prices fell. At that point, its unique thin film technology, which obviated the need for silicon, could not compete against China’s much cheaper, silicon-based solar panels heavily subsidized by the Chinese government.

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It is a story with many facets.

The accusations include charges that President Obama is picking “winners and losers” in the field of green technology.
Never mind that former President George W. Bush “picked” the hydrogen fuel cell and sank $1.5 billion into its development during his presidency.

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As to charges that government has no role in fostering technological innovation, “[T]he government has played a key role, either as an early investor or a demanding customer, in the development of virtually every advanced technology we take for granted today, from aviation to biotechnology, to computers and the Internet, microchips, and now clean energy. Indeed, without a visionary government investing in key strategic industries, world-leading companies like Google, Genentech and Boeing would not exist.” (Forbes, “Solyndra’s Failure Is No Reason To Abandon Federal Energy Innovation Policy” 9/2/11)

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This much at least is clear: Improbable as it sounds, UCBG’s “Natural Discourse” has become one of the hottest tickets in the Bay Area.
Go there and see the controversial tubes for yourself.

Natural Discourse at UCBG opens 7/14/12

For the past several months, I’ve been following the development of Natural Discourse, the collaboration of artists with the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, and now we can see the outcome of their efforts at the official opening this Saturday, July 14, 2012. Not to be missed if you’re in the Bay Area this weekend. Ongoing through January 20, 2013.


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Sol House/Natural Discourse UCBG 7/13/12

Some intriguing snippets of information and photos are circulating as the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley is transformed for the July 13, 2012 launch of Natural Discourse, an in-situ collaboration among scientists, artists, and the venerable botanical garden.

Construction has begun on Sol House, a contemporary take on Thoreau’s cabin by architects Rael San Fratello.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

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Contemplative and idyllic, right? But this is Natural Discourse, whose stated aim is to engage the “larger community on matters of conservation, bio-diversity and environment,” which means you may need to look twice and put on your thinking cap, as Sister Immaculata used to say. This simple wooden structure will have perforated walls to hold solar photovoltaic glass tubes (“cylindrical panels of CIGS thin-film solar cells”) salvaged from the wreckage of the bankrupt renewable energy company Solyndra.

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Yes, that Solyndra.

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photo by MB Maher

Thousands upon thousands of the glass tubes lay idle in dark warehouses after the bankruptcy.
Through a shipping acquaintance, Rael San Fratello managed to obtain a small quantity for the Sol House.

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photo by MB Maher

Solyndra’s technology was sound but couldn’t compete with cheaper-to-produce solar panels.
(The University of Tennessee, as just one example, has incorporated Solyndra’s glass tubes in their “Living Light House.”)

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photo by MB Maher

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Natural Discourse at UCBG 7/13/12: You, me, Thoreau, the remnants of a failed solar start-up, and much, much more.

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photo by MB Maher

I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

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“Natural Discourse” July 2012

On July 13, 2012, Natural Discourse, the “collaborative project between the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley (UCBG) and a multidisciplinary group of artists,” will introduce the artists’ installations to the public. MB Maher has been up to some mysterious photo work in conjunction with this project involving a photographic technique known as “light painting.” A rarely seen technique, Maher tells me it involves nothing more complex than going out after dark with a flashlight and your camera. Light painting first came to his notice via the legendary photographer (and Maher’s personal hero) Paolo Roversi, who used the technique to create studio effects such as this:

It is like using a pencil in a way. A writer or a painter or a composer of music is filling a white canvas. But, for me, photography is a black canvas. And on this black page, I use the Mag-Lite to write with the light.”

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When asked how he arrived at this technique, sometimes called “Roversi lighting,” Roversi explained: “Everything in photography is very old. Perhaps this technique had not yet been adapted for fashion photography because the model cannot move too much because of the very long exposure. It is not so simple, but it is easy for me because I work with Polaroid Film. I can see the result immediately. The most difficult thing is establishing the exposure time, how long you keep the light on the subject. Sometimes it is difficult to judge, and with the Mag-Lite it is a matter of a second. So you have to move the flashlight very quickly. But I like this light because it is completely irregular. You never know what will happen.” – from “Paolo Roversi on the Mysteries of Light

Even the monumental agave takes on an ethereal cast with light painting, setting the thorn imprints aglow. Unlike Roversi’s models, the agave is motionless and therefore gives a crisper result.

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Maher tells me he’s light-painted a gunnera too, so hopefully he’ll kick loose some more of these stunning “light paintings.”
I can’t wait to find out how this all ties in with the upcoming July 2012 opening of “Natural Discourse” at UCBG.



Previous posts on Natural Discourse can be found here and here.

road trip destination; Nevada Museum of Art

As road trip season begins, with the price of gas being what it is, the question we’re all asking ourselves has to be, Is the gas tank half empty or half full?

I vowed to make a road trip to the Nevada Museum of Art earlier this year when its Director of the Center for Art + Environment, William Fox, popped this image up on the screen while speaking at UC Berkeley Botanical Garden’s Natural Discourse seminar. A gabion man!

Cairn, by Celeste Roberge

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Now I find that another artist at that UCBG seminar, Gail Wight, will debut her video work on slime mold, Hydraphilia, at the Nevada Museum of Art from April 21 through August 26, 2012.


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At the UCBG Natural Discourse seminar, Gail gave a hilarious account of the slime mold experiment escaping the lab and oozing into the domestic parts of her house and life. As a layperson grappling with the overlay of art and science, she finds that “the obsession to make art is a neurological disease.”

At UCBG Fox spoke on the difficulty of making art in isotropic places like Antarctica, “the unnerving sense of disorientation that humans experience in flat, featureless landscapes,” a part of his “sustained inquiry into how human cognition transforms land into landscape,” or as he put it at the seminar: “What I do is travel around the world in extreme environments and look at how to get lost and look at the ways we deploy both neurophysiology and culture to find ourselves again.”

Both Gail and Bill are rollicking good storytellers. Bill wrote about his day at UCBG here.

You can meet Gail Wight in person at the Nevada Museum of Art on May 4, 2012. (Ask her about the runaway slime on the staircase.)

Hazel White: Aesthetics of Inundation

UC Berkeley Botanical Garden’s symposium “Natural Discourse” held February 10, 2012, has been constantly in my thoughts this past week, whether riding the train, driving freeways, staring at the garden. I’d never visited UCBG before and found the physical location enthralling. I’ve been starved for rain, and a small rainstorm obligingly followed me up the coast, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, and rained off and on most of the weekend. For me, mist and rain always increases a place’s allure, and that day the canyon with its meandering creek and trails was magical.

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Associate Director of Collections and Horticulture Chris Carmichael described this contemplated collaboration with artists as a new direction for this predominantly teaching-based botanical garden in an effort to broaden its appeal as part of an ongoing struggle to attract and connect with new visitors. This is an entirely new direction for UCBG, which dates its inception as a teaching adjunct to the university back to 1890. This “living museum” is a member of the Berkeley Natural History Museums Consortium and has only been open to the public since the 1960s. Bringing artists into this hallowed botanical garden to render site-specific works has not been accomplished without some gnashing of teeth by all involved, but like all of us, new survival strategies must be pursued in these tumultuous times, and botanical gardens are no exception. Despite the joking and joshing, deep affection and respect was readily apparent among all involved. A brief interlude to present Richard Turner with a Monkey Puzzle Tree, Auricaria araucana, in honor of his retirement from Pacific Horticulture, was a wickedly funny touch.

Continue reading Hazel White: Aesthetics of Inundation