Untidy Objects

Beginning in Spring 2021, Amber Ginsburg (Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago), Sara Black (Department of Sculpture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Samantha Frost (Department of Political Science and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) engage in a two-year collaborative art project called Untidy Objects. At the center of this project is a multi-sensory living sculpture, through which the collaborators aim to capture the relationship between a living subject and its world.  From its initial installation through the course of its growth and self-transformation, the living sculpture will be a site in which multiple species co-mingle and visitors come to appreciate the extensive forms of co-mingling that make their own lives possible.

Beginning in Spring 2021, Amber Ginsburg (Department of Visual Arts at the University of Chicago), Sara Black (Department of Sculpture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and Samantha Frost (Department of Political Science and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) engage in a two-year collaborative art project called Untidy Objects

At the center of Untidy Objects is a living sculpture sited adjacent to the Logan Center for the Arts. By means of this sculpture, the collaborators aim to capture the relationship between a living subject and its world. When living subjects co-mingle, they are co-constituted, making our familiar tidy distinction between subject and object difficult to maintain. From its initial installation through the course of its growth and self-transformation, the living sculpture will be a site in which multiple species live this co-mingling and visitors come to appreciate the extensive forms of co-mingling that make their own lives possible. 

The sculpture will take the form of a hedged and planted walk-through with multi-storeyed plants in various stages of life and death. Visitors will navigate the topographical shifts that ground species symbiosis and attune themselves to the auditory tones, visual textures, and olfactory and gustatory notes that accompany their passage. All the creatures who visit or live in and through the sculpture may transform its spatial and temporal extension through their activities. 

As Untidy Objects develops, the collaborative will host a series of workshops within the sculpture. Drawing on experts in ecology, law, science fiction, and palliative care, as well as indigenous land activists and environmental and food justice advocates, the workshops will sketch a collection of constitution-like documents concerning its care that will become inscribed in the sculpture. When we notice our enmeshed forms of life, it is not just that our sense of obligation changes but also that the idea of a political subject as an isolated agent becomes obsolete.

Background
In “Untidy Objects,” Amber Ginsburg, Sara Black and Samantha Frost take trees as a touchpoint for thinking about untidy objects. In Western culture, trees often represent iconic nature; they are also taken to represent an edged form, a model living subject. Because trees function as a locus for modes of thinking that are so entrenched that our assumptions become invisible, they provide an opportunity for us to effect a fundamental reorientation in both our thinking and our direct relationship with all untidy objects. 

In order to attend to trees’ entangled and interdependent existence, they use the term tree-being, which evokes the qualities of living through time that can easily get lost when we use the simple noun “tree.” The scenes sketched below capture some of the entanglements that constitute untidy objects, entanglements for which we try to generate concepts and practices in our project.

Forest Tree: How can we think about the various iterations of the material tree as it grows, dies, disintegrates, and becomes retooled into useful and aesthetic objects? Whereas theorists of Object - Oriented Ontology tend to think about how an essence of an object endures even when an object is destroyed, we are interested in how the materiality of an object persists when its form shifts. Some of these shifts are living, some are unliving, and some are dying.

Island Forest: Consider the island in Japan, Yakushima, where people go to do forest bathing for their health and that is also known primarily for being a “virgin” ecology. It takes a lot of work to make a tidy (virgin) object, even or especially when the object is an island. Does the idea of purity or tidiness in an object involve a particular temporal orientation: is the tidy object as much a temporal phenomenon as a spatial one? Is it one that freezes *this* moment or configuration in time so that the future version of whatever the object is (island) is the same as this version before us? If we think about a virgin ecology as a messy object that must be made tidy, how can we figure what is held at bay? Is the aspiration towards a tidy virgin island/object an avoidance of the differentiating force of life? 

Hedge: Hedges are weirdly hybrid. They are objects that define the boundaries of other objects even as they are porous. They naturalize but are cultivated; they are ecosystems that are maintained and that frame spaces of human activity. Is the point of hedges the hedge, or the space of human activity enframed by the hedge? How much maintenance does a hedge require in order to remain a hedge? Would it reach a point at which it was self-maintaining or would it be over-run or over-run its space? What kinds of creatures would facilitate or disrupt its maturation?

Bonsai: Bonsai trees are highly cultivated to represent a nostalgic idea of a natural windswept mountain tree. It is easy to think of such arboriculture as an imposition of an idea on a hapless living thing. However, the relationship between arborist and tree is more tangled. The tree cannot assume a shape through the sheer imposition of human will. The arborist must inhabit the living habits of the tree in order to entice the tree to take on a particular form. Akin to contact improvisation, the topiarist is entrained as much as the tree limbs are entrained.

Shaman Tree: In the Siberian State of Tuva, the sacred shaman tree, Bai Euish, is inseparable from the shaman. The human being and tree being are the same. How does one live with and as such a tree? How does a community care for a shaman tree? Is it possible to know this tree as more than plant, when approaching it through an ethnographic lens?

 

Methodology
The methodology or strategy for this project is a kind of re-habituation or entrainment through proximity: because the concepts we normally use to think tend to take for granted a) tidy objects and b) tidy subjects coming to know tidy objects, we cannot use these concepts to understand the enmeshment we are interested in. We need a multi-faceted set of practices that bring us into close contact with tree beings, an intimacy that enables us to lean differently into the world and perceive living processes in ways that are oblique to common sense. Just as a pea tendril reaches for or gravitates toward a supporting pole, so we hope that our projects will pull us into new orientations to and understandings of our lived worlds. Whether collaborating with mycologists, choreographers, anthropologists, hospice care providers, artists, or permaculturists, we will set up practices that provoke us to shift perceptually and experientially in relation to tree-beings. Thus, the little stories/situations/projects with which we open our letter serve as possible occasions for our experimental collaborations. In the spirit of entrainment, and working with the natural and administrative ecologies of the University of Chicago, we will work directly with tree-beings, forest ecologies, and tree-corpses.

 

“Untidy Objects” diverges in quite remarkable ways from our usual protocols and habitual ways of working. Since their methodology in working with untidy objects consists in a form of entrainment, our fellows will be compelled to move from objects as static, past subjects as individuals: our subjectivity will demand attention.