RYAN GRIFFIS

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Urban, Rural, Wild
September 9 - October 22, 2005
I Space Gallery
Chicago, IL

In La Triangle culinaire, noted anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss sketched out his structural theory of cultural development through the metaphor of food. Across cultures, Lévi-Strauss argued, distinctions between food, based on their relationship to “Nature,” created a pattern that could be analyzed. In good structuralist fashion, a triangle diagram was employed to illustrate our perception of food as raw, cooked or rotten. Aside from the obvious observation that raw oysters are not cooked and smoked salmon is, Lévi-Strauss was interested in how these noted differences were part of larger cultural practices governing when certain food was appropriate and who should eat it.
Urban, Rural, Wild, an exhibition at the University of Illinois I-Space Gallery in Chicago, presents some contemporary forays into this terrain between the social and the “natural,” but starts with our relationship to our surroundings rather than food. The curators, Illinois-based artists Nick Brown and Sarah Kanouse, have brought together the work of contemporary artists from Chicago and surrounding areas that takes place in the social and natural environment bridging the psycho-social gulf between culture and nature. While the tension between the social and the natural is explored in some conventionally digestible ways, there are also moments of uncanny realization, when the seams between human nature, culture and that other, external, nature seem to overlap.
In densely populated urban settings, most interaction with “natural” environments are framed by landscaped parks and neglected swatches of earth that lie between freeways and in empty lots. Such places are the subject of Melinda Fries Walking the Perimeter, a video document of the artist’s travels at the periphery of urban Chicago. Nance Klehm’s interactive Collection Suit/Dispersal Suits encourage their wearers to become mobile apparatuses for spreading wild and native plants, not unlike bees and other animals that aid in plant reproduction.
As the “gateway to the West,” the Midwest was the staging ground for the colonizing program of Manifest Destiny, and through the power of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes, managed to host large agricultural and manufacturing industries that have huge impacts on contemporary global affairs. With Open Rivers, a 60 mile “experimental trip by canoe,” Brian Dortmund traverses the natural and social history of the Chicago River. Exhibited through various collected artifacts and observations, presented in a method recalling a field researcher’s lab, Open Rivers also offers some Smithson-esque proposals for reclaiming a series of decommissioned ammunition storage facilities. The industrialization of Chicago required unimaginable amounts of raw materials, some of which came from the ground within the city’s own borders. City Deposits: a Guide to Chicago’s Limestone Quarries, by Laurie Palmer, is an installation and zine that explores the ongoing relationship between the city of Chicago and the earth beneath it. As the artist reveals, the relationship consisted of the city extracting all it could from 400 million year old rock, then filling the remaining holes with garbage. Agriculture is arguably the most important industrial presence in the Midwest - it is after all the “bread basket of the world” - and, with corporate farms and agri-chemical companies running it, is as much a part of the new economy as any dot com start-up. Michael Piazza’s Drop Off Corner/Option Station proposes to recycle the paper waste from the Chicago Board of Trade into functional garlic containers, creating a visual manifestation of the feedback loop between competitive economics and food production.
The manner in which we move through a space contributes greatly to the level and depth of knowledge that we can gather about it. Aside from the health and energy benefits attributed to walking as transportation, many of its proponents also argue that it inherently leads to a deeper understanding of place. With Midwest Migrations Part 1 the Free Walking collective traveled 200 miles through rural and suburban Illinois, exploring the histories of walking and nomadism in the region, and sending custom postcards to the gallery along the way. In the Weather, an ongoing affiliation of cultural producers with an interest in walking, presented directions for walking tours and a request for visitors to submit some of their own.
Even when walking, urban and rural travelers alike often find themselves beholden to mediated systems of knowledge and navigation tools. Frances Whitehead’s Known Territory uses Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping software to create a large drawing of superimposed spatially annotated data, from topographical elevations to census figures, resulting in a web-like mass of indecipherable delineations. The contributions of the Stockyard Institute and the Bikecart Infoshop attempt to circumnavigate these hierarchal forms of information distribution through community-driven exchanges. The Institute’s plan for a “rural survival kit,” produced with Chicago youth, engages some of the social distance between the city and suburban/rural areas experienced by urban kids. The mobile reading room of the Bikecart, which is exactly what it sounds like, is presented as a functional and symbolic form of sharing of ideas and resources through books and zines that can be adapted to various communities’ needs.
The continuum of urban-rural-wild seems an appropriate place to both revisit and challenge Lévi-Strauss’ structural theory of societal relationships with the “Natural.” But what is the likelihood of finding anything “wild” in the current era of nanotechnology, non-native superweeds and fossil fuel-induced climate change? Perhaps that is the point of the exhibition - that we are past the point of passive observation and investigation, beyond the usefulness of finding a structural link between nature and society. The current paradigm, what many consider to represent a social and ecological crisis, could be viewed as just one possibility for governing our actions in social and natural environments. The artists in Urban, Rural, Wild suggest other options, encouraged through new forms of interaction and critical reflection. If, as the show seems to imply, everything is already cooked, maybe the trick is to not get burned.