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Marina Zurkow: Dark Ecologies

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“If you want to be part of a paradigm shift you can’t be an auteur; you need allies - a model of generosity, not scarcity.” - Marina Zurkow

“We really blew it. We’re sorry,” opens Marina Zurkow’s letter, part of her project Dear Climate. What can art do? Artist Zurkow is not afraid to engage the biggest challenges of our time through her works. Scientists and policy makers, as well as artists and designers, could learn from Zurkow’s rigor for pushing the boundaries on how people think about environmental degradation due to climate change. Zurkow makes art that crosses multiple disciplines from animation to participatory environments, which often engage the audience with playful contemplation of what the future may look like. These environments focus on humans’ relationships with other organisms and changing weather patterns. Zurkow points to present day human practices that shape the environment through imagery such as humans walking in hazmat suits or body bags for deer.

Zurkow’s creative practice incorporates diversity and adaptation that reflects directly on how life functions to survive. That is why the theme of survival through play, contemplation, and collaboration across disciplines is threaded throughout Zurkow’s creative endeavors.

Humor and play are an integral part to Zurkow’s work. These characteristics loosen the boundaries of the mind and invite participants to imagine a world that is part fiction and part reality. Freedom is given to envision future scenarios of the world in an ecological balancing act. Zurkow says she chooses humor because it is, “inviting and subversive…a desperate measure,” and “a gateway to set people at ease to address the unknown or uncomfortable.” Zurkow’s 2013 exhibition at Bitforms Gallery entitled Necrocracy, is a prime example. Using video animation, drawing, and sculpture, Zurkow encourages inquiry into the “Romantic-era division between the natural and human,” through pieces such as Body Bag for Deer (2013), Hazmat Suits for Children (2012), and Mesocosm (2012). Hazmat Suits for Children (2012) made from Tychem® TK fabric, acrylic , Velcro, and rubber, reads science fiction with the horrific thought of children actually needing to use Hazmat suits while also using childrens’ proportions in neon green giving an exaggerated comic cartoon style. Zurkow’s work uses play to guide participants into the unknown, and also uses Metta meditation for another means of easing the mind into potential future outcomes. Zurkow says she uses contemplation,“because we all have fatigue from moving so fast and doing so much at the same time. I also have been using the framework of Metta meditation as a way to stay open, friendly and curious in polarizing research situations.”

Zurkow: Deer Body Bag

Image courtesy of Bitforms Gallery.

Dear Climate combines play and meditation. Described as, “Just a conceptual nudge, not a paradigm shift,” Dear Climate addresses the overwhelming evidence that the weather is indeed changing due to global warming. Zurkow is collaborating with artists and educators from multiple backgrounds on this project. The project’s mission is to create a new conversation when talking about climate change. Three “movements of the mind” were made to help participants develop a better understanding of climate change called, “Meet Climate Change,” “Befriend Climate Change,” and “Become Climate Change.” Upon entering the project’s website you are greeted with a sincere letter addressed to Climate Change. The intimate letter explains the actions that will be taken to reimagine humans’ relationship with the weather, and endure and survive the horrific consequences ultimately unfolding. Dear Climate is comprised of over 60 posters, and 6 audio works, which elicit emotions of pity, sardonic humor, connecting seemingly disparate concepts, and more.

Zurkow: Dear Climate

Image courtesy of Dear Climate website.

Collaboration is the guiding infrastructure of Zurkow’s creative practice. “If you want to be part of a paradigm shift you can’t be an auteur; you need allies – a model of generosity, not scarcity,” Zurkow says. She started in pop culture with film video and graphics collaborating with a media and video maker, Abigail Simon. Zurkow says, “One could argue that most post-production models are inherently collaborative, with a project lead (or not),” and also thinks that the problems she tackles cannot be done with media alone. At the root of social engagement and public interaction is successful collaboration, as Joseph Beuys called it, a “social sculpture.” Zurkow’s collaborations have increased over the years with some having clearly defined roles and others having more emergent qualities.

Floating Studios for Dark Ecologies (FSDE) was a recent collaboration with PNCA that Zurkow led as Collaborative Design Research Fellow in PNCA’s MFA in Collaborative Design program. The idea began as a collaboration with The Last Attempt at Greatness in a project called Sampan Super Chai which was presented at a PNCA lecture in spring, and transformed into what is now FSDE. FSDE, “is an art/science residency program and public artwork focused on the present and future health of the Willamette/Columbia Rivers in North Portland, Oregon.” Picture a floating laboratory on which field trips and workshops are conducted by residents who are producing a site-specific field guide based on those experiences. As it is explained on the FSDE website, “FSDE synthesizes social practice, craft, and citizen science in the form of novel, creative engagements with public participants. These aim to address the confluence of social, biological and economic systems, connecting climate change and river health.” The term “Dark Ecology,” was first coined by Timothy Morton, Professor and Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University.

Dark ecology realizes that we are hopelessly entangled in the mesh. Dark ecology finds itself fully responsible for all life forms: like a detective in a noir movie, it discovers it’s complicit in the crime. Dark ecology is melancholic: melancholy is the Earth humour, and the residuum of our unbreakable psychic connection to our mother’s body, which stands metonymically for our connection with all life forms. The irony of dark ecology is like being caught in your own shadow… Environmental awareness is, finally, a sense of irony, because it is through irony that we realize that we might be wrong, that identity might not be as solid as we think, that our own gaze might be the evil that we see.
Timothy Morton, Thinking Ecology: The Mesh, the Strange Stranger, and the Beautiful Soul(2010).


Taking notes during FDSEfield trip. Photo by Jessica Riehl MFA CD ’14.

In summer of 2014 for Phase 1 of FSDE, Zurkow held a fundraiser, organized field trips, and began to develop a field guide. The field guide’s four parts include maps, identification guide, field trips, and interviews with experts and amateurs. Zurkow held an experimental tasting “friendraiser” at Clay Pigeon Winery in June 2014, and served dishes including jellyfish and Columbia River steelhead. She held field trips from August 1-3 including a kayak trip from a non-human perspective, a design charrette focused around bioremediating plants and fungi, and a scavenger hunt on the Willamette Cove, a designated superfund site.


Fundraiser event held at Clay Pigeon Winery. Photo by Jessica Riehl MFA CD ‘14.

Zurkow has scheduled Phase 2 to launch in 2017. She plans a creative lab and a social hub in which residents continue research and make work to create more awareness through new conversations of present and future connections between humans and non-humans in the Lower Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Zurkow says that, “FSDE takes (collaboration) to a new level, where the mechanic of the project is structured to be open, replicable, mutable, owned and interpreted by many. Ownership is shared, blurred. We are nodes that I hope will grow into a larger network, openly and radically approaching and reconsidering the landscapes and waterways in which we are embedded.” Without a doubt, Zurkow is reaching into the depths of what it means to work well together. She is entering territories that are not yet clearly defined, and making co-creation with residents, both human and non-human a possibility.


Marina Zurkow during kayak field trip for FDSE. Photo by Jessica Riehl MFA CD ‘14.

by Laura DeVito

— Posted on 10/28 at 03:02 PM

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