by George Philip LeBourdais
Thinking about the future can be a real drag. There’s a lot of bad news out there these days, so in case you missed it, another unfathomably massive iceberg recently broke away from Antarctica. It’s tricky to translate that meaningfully to daily life –”The iceberg was the size of Washington D.C.! It weighed a trillion tons!”– but having grown up on a low coast, episodes like this slowly root down to a single question lodged in the back of my mind: When will the house I grew up in be underwater?
Two exhibitions at San Francisco’s Museum of Craft and Design address this question and the litany of related ecological and humanitarian crises civilization will face during impending changes to global climate. One of them, titled Linda Gass: and then this happened…, features delicately embroidered tapestries that depict the impact of climate change. A second show, Survival Architecture and
the Art of Resilience, is an international survey of architectural and design experiments for survival. Together, they offer a powerful reminder of struggles forthcoming or already here, along with a host of possible solutions designed to preserve life in the not-too-distant future.
Gass’ works chart past and future changes to the local environment, from diminishing snowfall in the Sierra Nevada to the industrialization of San Lorenzo Creek in the East Bay. A multimedia artist who grew up in Los Angeles, Gass finds inspiration in the “relationship between humans and the water and land that sustain them.” Her work is remarkable for how it transforms complex, often dry ecological data into lyrical objects.
The most jarring piece in the show is Dogpatch, the sea is rising, a triptych demonstrating the predicted rise in sea level around San Francisco. While warming global temperatures cause dramatic glacial calving and melting events like the one mentioned above, oceans currently rise about 1/8th of an inch per year. This doesn’t sound apocalyptic at first blush. But studies like one released by the California Ocean Protection Council in 2018 contain more dire prognostications: the ocean will likely be a foot higher by 2050, and three to six feet higher by 2100. Gass translated this to bright, beautiful quilts representing San Francisco’s bay-facing Dogpatch neighborhood, which already sits low at the water’s edge. The three quilts show the water at current levels, at one foot higher, and finally at three feet.
Given San Francisco’s identity as a center of technological innovation, one might think of an intervention closer to After Ice, an app created by the artist Justin Brice Guariglia. Working in a variety of experimental photographic media, Guariglia, like Gass, brings an activist bent to the topic of climate change. The idealistic upshot: an artwork that shocks viewers enough to change their consumptive habits. Guariglia aims to do so through enormous prints on novel substrates (like Styrofoam) that render aerial views of the Greenland ice sheet taken during his residency with NASA. Gass, on the other hand, distills these often-overwhelming washes of imagery and data into the intimate material presence of her quilts. Her process is still a complicated one. She creates map-like paintings on silk, scans and modifies them to show changes in forestation or sea level, and reprints them on silk before finally embroidering them with a sewing machine.
The resulting objects beckon to the viewer as unique combinations of cartography and textile. They give off the appearance of two-dimensional paintings, but exhibit such extraordinary softness and depth that it’s hard to resist touching them. Astutely, the museum supplies a small swatch of unfinished fabric to stroke and hold at the gallery entrance. A useful way to think of these works is as a fusion of Faith Ringgold’s fierce political quilts with the wonderful watercolor-inspired map interface created by the San Francisco design firm Stamen.
But the longer I looked at these quilts, the bleaker they seemed. Sweet and inviting materials reflecting the ruin of a city’s shore and the submersion of a cultural district including the recently opened Chase Center sports complex, the University of San Francisco’s sprawling Mission Bay hospital campus – and, this very museum? Even if the end of these structures won’t approach the historic sense of loss we’ll feel when Venice inevitably crumbles into the Adriatic, it will still be a civic, economic, and environmental calamity; perhaps by then, we’ll have better strategies, both emotional and practical, to deal with life in a postmodern Atlantis.
Though lovely, Gass’ quilts hang heavy with melancholy, so it’s good that the companion exhibition, Survival Architecture and the Art of Resilience, presents a range of ambitious architectural and design projects that aim to mitigate crises of population growth, dwindling resources and homelessness. It’s a tonic to Gass’ sweet and sorrowful gin. Rather than imagine the Atlantis-like ruins of our current metropoles, the show comprises plans and renderings for a lush, verdant, densely populated future.
Welcoming you to the space is a large tessellated structure that resembles a huge, yawning invertebrate. Named Carborigami, the piece is a temporary refuge made of folded cardboard by architect and inventor Tina Hovsepian, and is part of a four-step plan she created to shelter and rehabilitate the homeless over 12 months. While Hovsepian’s inspiration may have come from the homeless population of Los Angeles, where she studied architecture at USC, the idea of a cheap, foldable homeless shelter should certainly resonate in San Francisco and across California, a state suffering from a chronic shortage of affordable housing.
Enthusiasts of environmental and biophilic architecture will recognize several notable names on the wall. There’s William McDonough, an architect known for a cradle-to-cradle design philosophy in which waste provides nourishment back to the surrounding environment. More spectacular are renderings from the Belgian ecological architect Vincent Callebaut, which resemble cascading gardens sprouting cell-like residential units. Some take the shape of known organic forms, like amphibious cities for climate refugees modeled after giant Amazonian lily pads. If one has to dream, Callebaut reasons, then dream big and dream green.
Ambitious projects like these stem from clearly defined design principles. The show’s organizer, Randy Jayne Rosenberg, chief curator of the Oakland-based non-profit Art Works for Change, employs clear wall texts that explain such concepts as “circular economies,” i.e., those that rely on metabolic cycles rather than
extractive processes that use materials only once. A cool case in point: Phil Ross’ “mycotecture,” a blend of dried mushrooms that is resistant to water, mold, and fire, and stronger pound-for-pound than concrete when used as a building material.
The most poignant intervention comes from Mexican artist Pedro Reyes. In the botanical gardens of Culiacan, Mexico, a city ravaged by gun-related deaths, Reyes asked the community to voluntarily trade in their guns for credit towards appliances and electronics. 1,527 weapons, many of them military-style automatics, were collected, then ceremoniously crushed by a steamroller. The metal was melted down and formed into 1,527 shovels, which were then distributed to art institutions and public schools, where 1,527 trees were planted. Three of those shovels hang resolutely in the gallery.
Echoing Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks, Reyes’ project feels urgent in an age of rising extremism, the wizening of democratic government and the violent suppression of public protests. One can’t help but imagine the effects of a similar act in the United States, where more than 100 people die every day from some of its 393 million guns, more than one for every man, woman and child.
Other projects demonstrate a blend of alchemy, idealism and practicality. Cricket Shelter, a work commissioned from Terreform ONE, challenges the taste buds. “Eating bugs is good for you, it’s good for the planet, and it’s good for our future,” the group asserts in a text panel. Along these lines, one could imagine related innovations in the realm of 3D printing enlivening the show, such as Mediated Matter Group’s Aguahoja products that promise biodegradable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics, or perhaps a snack that Dutch designer Elzelinde van Doleweerd manufactures from food waste. Still, the range of projects in the exhibition already leaves plenty of food for thought.
Together, these two shows raise difficult issues with ingratiating doses of playfulness and optimism. They give us a license to meditate on the inevitable challenges ahead. After all, Northern California is still recovering from the devastation caused by the Camp Fire inferno; many people who lost their homes still have no permanent roof above their heads. The next big earthquake could make Cardborigami shelters a fixture on cracked streets rather than on a pedestal in a museum. And as Linda Gass’ tapestry, Dogpatch, the sea is rising, so accurately forecasts, the Museum of Craft and Design will one day itself be underwater.
Rare is the museum that reckons with its own potential demise.
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“Linda Gass: and then this happened….” and “Survival Architecture and the Art of Resilience” @ Museum of Craft and Design through May 3, 2020.
About the author:
George Philip LeBourdais is a historian of American art and photography and works as the Consulting Curator for Digital Initiatives at Stanford University. His exhibitions and writing have earned awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Clark Art Institute, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, among other institutions. A Mainer by birth, he holds a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford and lives in San Francisco.