Why Occupy Colby
Sharon Corwin, Director and Chief Curator at the Colby Museum, and Lee Glazer, director of the Lunder Institute, on the impetus of this iteration of the River Rail.
Last spring, a group of Colby College students came to the Colby Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine, to engage with Maya Lin’s 2013 sculpture Disappearing Bodies of Water, Arctic Ice. Fashioned from Vermont Danby marble, Lin’s piece provides a visual representation, through a series of topographic renderings, of the severe reduction in mass of the Arctic ice shelf between 1980 and 2013. The professor leading the class, a marine biologist, spoke about the effects of warming oceans and rising sea levels on the marine ecosystem. The students began to reflect on how the sculpture—reticent, marmoreal, beautiful—nevertheless expressed themes of fragility, transience, and loss. A table of thinly carved marble balanced atop a granite base was a cautionary metaphor for an imperiled planet. Art offered the scientist and the students new paradigms and vocabularies for the understanding of global warming, and they, in turn, brought new perspectives to a consideration of Lin’s work.
There is now another elegant and thought-provoking piece by Lin on view at the Colby Museum: Interrupted River: Penobscot, a site-specific installation composed of glass marbles that trace the flow of Maine’s largest river from its origins near the Quebec border to its terminus in Penobscot Bay. Lin’s title calls our attention to the small gaps that appear at irregular intervals among the otherwise tightly organized marbles attached to the gallery wall and ceiling. These gaps represent dams, whose construction throughout much of the 19th and 20th centuries not only disrupted the migration of native fish species and threatened the Penobscot Nation’s food supply but also raised water temperatures, impeded natural flood cycles, and generally reduced biodiversity.
Interrupted River is one of nearly twenty environmentally themed works of art featured in the special exhibition Occupy Colby. Curated by Phong Bui (a 2019 Lunder Institute fellow) and on view at the Colby Museum until January 5, 2020, Occupy Colby is part of the ongoing Rail curatorial project Artists Need to Create on the Same Scale That Society Has the Capacity to Destroy. Initiated in 2017 at Mana Contemporary, the first exhibition in the series addressed a host of political and social issues—immigration, human rights, global relations, and the environment. A second presentation, Mare Nostrum (Our Sea), opened during the Venice Biennale earlier this year and addresses the climate crisis, with a focus on the Mediterranean Sea. The decision to orient the Colby iteration around environmental issues and climate change as well reflects the college’s long history of leadership in environmental studies and stewardship. The Colby Museum and the Lunder Institute are committed to advancing these dialogues through exhibitions, artistic and scholarly engagements, and cross-disciplinary partnerships. Occupy Colby is also a response to the urgency of our current moment: witness the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate; record high temperatures around the globe; fires burning north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland; the loss of 12.5 billion tons of the Greenland ice sheet in a single day this summer. The works by Lin, Lauren Bon, Katherine Bradford, David Brooks, Mel Chin, Mark Dion, Justin Brice Guariglia, Alexis Rockman, Clifford Ross, Allyson Vieira, and Meg Webster displayed in the exhibition comment upon current events and visualize a profoundly anthropogenic world. Occupy Colby bears witness to the climate change that humans have set in motion, and it seeks to heighten what art historian Alan Braddock has termed “ecological consciousness.”
The essays, poetry, conversations, and images that appear in these pages aim to share, extend, and amplify the important work of the exhibition, adding new voices to the narrative. The Colby guest editors—Denise Bruesewitz, an aquatic ecologist; Kerill O’Neill, a classicist and director of Colby’s Center for the Arts and Humanities; and Chris Walker, a literary scholar and Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the environmental humanities program—have assembled contributors who offer a wide range of approaches to understanding our impact on the natural world at this moment in history. Topics range from the perils of generational amnesia in recognizing environmental decline to the use of deep ice core samples in understanding climate history; from reflections on river-detritus-as-data to the suggestion that algorithms, which now so massively and ubiquitously organize our data, should actually be regarded as organisms within their own ecosystem. The thread binding these texts together is a common recognition of the interconnectedness of nature and human activity.
As a college art museum and research institute situated within a liberal arts college, our mission is rooted in a commitment to dialogues between art and the sciences, art and the humanities, and art and civic life. When the first issue of the River Rail came out last year, Lauren Bon declared it to be a “collective declaration of our interdependence,” a demonstration of how artists, writers, scholars, and activists working across professional and disciplinary boundaries can indeed develop a communal ecological consciousness that is a first step toward ecological remediation. This issue of the River Rail occasioned by Occupy Colby continues that work.