Reporting on my current residency in Seattle Public Utilities
The practical outcome of this is a plan with multiple strategies for improving water quality. There are solutions that take several forms- building storage facilities to capture wastewater that would otherwise flow directly into streams and lakes in a storm event, building a treatment plant to clean more water, retrofitting existing facilities to make them more efficient, and building green storm water infrastructure to slow the flow of storm water and let it infiltrate on site.
The engineering mindset identifies problems and then proposes solutions. SPU embraces innovative solutions such as Green Storm water Infrastructure- a more elegant answer to the engineering problem of CSO’s dumping dirty storm water and sewage into our water bodies when the system is overwhelmed. There is an aesthetic element at work here as well, and additional values that are gained in livability and other less measurable outcomes.
I’m still in the investigative stages of my research here. The ultimate outcome of the residency will be an art master plan to guide 1% for Art public art investments for the next 15 years, as well as art projects that I will develop while in residency. While initially I’m just wrapping my head around the scope of engineering projects and the range of sites and physical forms involved in this storm water work, I’m also reflecting on some larger questions that this type of art integration work brings up.
A larger question that this residency brings into focus is a perennial one- the role of art: the how, what and why of it. What does art bring to this situation that engineering solutions cannot?
To my thinking, embellishment and decorative functions of art are valuable, but are not enough here. Perhaps education, in its most didactic sense, and interpretation are also not enough. (Do we need more signage to tell us how the water flows?- maybe so). We come then to other ways in which contemporary artists are working: proposing solutions, convening communities, igniting conversations. We come also to the less intellectual, less problem/solution-oriented aspects of art practice: its potential for somatic, sensory and emotional engagement.
This is not to say that art cannot function to solve a problem. I teach a course on Eco-Art at UW-Tacoma, and we look at a lot of artists whose work does this. There are examples of artists leading engineers (see Mel Chin’s Revival Field). However, these days I am often wondering to myself how to articulate the complexity of this “problem-solving” exercise. My students, who are primarily environmental science, business, nursing, or various other majors, are excited about art’s potential to make a difference. But too often the class identifies a problem and then seeks to solve it, or convey a specific “message” about it, in a way that is too simplistic. Ultimately I realize my questions are more related to this larger issue I encounter in both my teaching and public art work- a perceived or real schism between an engineering mind-set (solve problems) and an artistic mind-set (ask questions/make complex meaning/create experiences).
Which brings me back to the exciting work I get to do in Seattle Public Utilities. It is truly invigorating to speak across disciplines. I am both challenged and energized by the chance to synthesize multiple viewpoints and channel dynamic proposals for art in the public realm. I want to make the most of this opportunity to promote a broad range of artistic approaches and collaborations - from social practice oriented work to site integrated, permanent public artwork. The plan must also be sustainable and implementable over 15-20 years. I’ll be doing more research and getting out to talk to more people in the community as the residency continues. Stay tuned!