Spring 2007

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One Hot Topic
 By John Altdorfer

This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.

Just a few miles north of downtown Pittsburgh, bright green buds sprout on a spiky Norwegian spruce tree beside a suburban home. Near the front porch steps, overly eager tulip blades knife through the soft soil to bask in the sun’s warmth. Even the grass is growing. But it shouldn’t be happening. Not during the second week of January. Especially not in western Pennsylvania.

Blame it on global warming? It’s a good possibility, since every year that goes into the books seems to be warmer than the record-breaker that preceded it. You don’t need Al Gore to point out that something’s happening here.

As the evidence stacks up, an increasing number of politicians, scientists, and everyday people agree that global warming is more than an inconvenient truth. Actually, they’ll tell you it’s an undeniable fact. The heat is definitely on. And unless the powers and brains that be come up with a plan or two—and soon—we could all be in hot water. Literally.

Just ask Thomas Homer-Dixon. He’s a native Canadian who lives near Toronto, where this winter’s snowfall measured less than a foot through the first week of 2007. The noted climate change researcher says that the potential consequences of global warming keep him awake at night, “worrying about the future of the world for my 20-month-old son.” Scheduled to speak at Carnegie Museum of Natural History on March 26, he predicts global warming could create worldwide environmental and economic havoc, including widespread wars, mass human migrations, and recessions and depressions. In other words, a daily reality that will be a waking nightmare.

Yet as many government leaders and researchers react with appropriate alarm to the planet’s rising temperatures, artists of every stripe are discovering inspiration in the looming crisis. Through June 17, 6 Billion Perps Held Hostage! Artists Address Global Warming, a new exhibition at The Andy Warhol Museum featuring a dozen local, national, and international artists, takes  a creative look at the causes of and solutions for global warming. Part of the yearlong celebration of the 100th birthday of environmentalist Rachel Carson, it promises to be one cool show about one hot topic.

What Would Andy Do?

Let’s make that the first question on the subject —and the last. Because those who intimately knew Warhol or closely study his work will not speculate on his possible artistic response to the destructive power of what could be mankind’s biggest catastrophe.

“I couldn’t begin to tell you how Andy would react,” says Ron Feldman, Warhol’s longtime Manhattan art dealer. “But he would have done something. He loved disasters. And global warming is the ultimate disaster. This is the big, glamorous one.”

On the phone from his Mercer Street gallery in Soho, Feldman remembers how a conversation about beach erosion birthed Warhol’s Endangered Species works.

“He wanted to know if his home in Montauk could be swept away,” says Feldman. “I told him erosion was very real. What would have been a personal disaster for him led to the creation of something about preservation on a larger, global scale. That was his genius.”

Closer to home, no clearer answers emerge as to Andy’s take on the situation.

“We’re asked that question all the time,” says Matt Wrbican, The Andy Warhol Museum’s archivist and curator of 6 Billion Perps. “We assume he’d be all over it, because he reacted to major events like this. But in terms of what kind of work he’d do, that’s impossible. He was constantly changing. He would have been a different person and artist now.”

In 2002, Wrbican curated a small exhibition of Warhol’s Endangered Species and Vanishing Animals series to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s best-selling book “Silent Spring.” A determined environmentalist, he spent much time during the past few years researching artists who explored the issue of global warming and related themes. The timing couldn’t have been better, as 2007 is the centennial of Carson’s birth.

A Not So Odd Couple

Chances are Rachel Carson and Andy Warhol never met. At least not in or around Pittsburgh.

A Springdale native, Carson left the area just about the same time Warhol was born during the late 1920s. Like Andy, she rarely returned to the area after establishing her career as a scientist and writer.

When she almost single-handedly brought about the worldwide ban on DDT with the 1962 publication of her book “Silent Spring,” Andy Warhol was earning renown for his Pop Art. Three years later, Carson was dead, and Warhol was ruling lower Manhattan’s social scene. Twenty years after Warhol’s death, he and Carson finally are getting together.

“Art is a powerful medium for reaching people,” says Patricia DeMarco, executive director of the Rachel Carson Homestead. “And using art to express the wonders of nature is a well-established tradition. Holding an event at The Warhol was one way to tie everything together and bring her ideas to the forefront.”

For The Warhol, pairing with the Rachel Carson Homestead anniversary project reinforces the museum’s mission to use its collections and other artists’ work to open up dialogue about issues that matter. As Wrbican explains, this exhibition—like so many at The Warhol—will help the public see more than one side of an issue through a variety of approaches.  

Miles To Go Before We Eat

In a nutshell, the culprits of global warming are a couple of “greenhouse” gases: methane and carbon dioxide. When they mix into Earth’s atmosphere, those gases block infrared heat that normally would harmlessly disappear above the planet’s surface. That means the heat stays in, warming the air we breathe and the oceans around us. The more greenhouse gases, the warmer the temperatures.

Deservedly so, carbon dioxide gets most of the blame. Sure, it naturally occurs when any two oxygen molecules hook up with a loose carbon partner. But most CO2 results from burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—to create electricity and power autos, trucks, trains, and other vehicles. The more we turn on our laptops and air conditioners, the more we contribute to global warming. And every time we get in a car, we’re making our air a little dirtier and hotter. Which is exactly the point of local artists Steffi Domike, Suzy Meyer, and Ann Rosenthal.

“What people don’t realize is that there are environmental impacts on getting food to your kitchen table,” says Domike. “The farther away the food you eat has to travel, the more energy it takes. You can measure that in carbon miles. But you can drastically reduce the
number of carbon miles by eating local meats, diary, fruit, and produce.”  

To illustrate the point, the trio turns the normal food pyramid upside down in one part of their art installation. At the tip is a tiny, very clean looking chicken and a small but healthy sampling of local foods. The next band on the pyramid represents things produced greater distances from the region. While the choices are greater, the images are darker and dirtier to represent the carbon miles they traveled. Finally, at the top of the inverted triangle, the selection seems limitless. However, nearly everything is tainted because of the enormous amount of carbon miles they covered from the farm to our homes.

“It’s a way of rethinking how we eat,” says Domike. “Eating locally not only reduces carbon miles, but it’s a great way to enjoy a big selection of organic foods and support local farmers. We want people to think about how they’d feed themselves if the only food they could get was produced regionally.”

Monsters in the Seaweed

Walking along the Maine coastline, Pittsburgh-native Greg Kwiatek finds his demons washed ashore from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. Hidden among clumps of kelp and seaweed left behind at low tide, the faces of monsters convey a forbidding omen.

“The sea is sending us a dark message,” says Kwiatek, who now lives in New York City. “And I’m lucky enough to be there to see it, pick it up, and do something with it. It seems to me, and I’m not a scientist, but a lot of wrong decisions have been made by the human race and the sea has a way of reminding us of our mistakes.”

Back in his studio, Kwiatek creates large, dark, brooding paintings that remind us that the natural world will push back when mankind abuses it. They take time to create. And he expects viewers of his art to take their time to absorb its impact.

“It takes time to understand a painting,” he explains. “It’s not a click-on, click-off process. If a painting’s effective, there’s a slowness to letting it make its impact. There’s a message that must be seen.”

Building Greener Houses

Art doesn’t have to be realistic. And the solutions it offers to real-life problems don’t have to be affordable. And that’s just fine with Bob Bingham.

“My proposals aren’t economically feasible,” says Bingham, a professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University. “But as an artist it’s my job to raise questions and offer solutions. To say, what if we paid more attention to the natural world when we were building? We wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. If every building had a green roof on it, we’d be in a much better place than we are right now.”

That current place is, of course, a world where global warming is virtually hanging over our heads. Where Bingham would like to take us is southern Germany. Stuttgart, to be exact, where tree-topped, grass-growing roofs retain excess storm water, absorb carbon dioxide, insulate the homes and businesses under them, and provide a habitat for birds and other creatures.  

When he steps back a bit, Bingham will admit that scientists and artists really aren’t all that different. They’re both looking for solutions.
“The goal is to look at a problem a different way,” he says. “You need a variety of people working on this to come with a variety of solutions to deal with this problem. The artist can start the conversation. The engineers, scientists, and others can help finish it.”

The Proof Is Out There

Even skeptics admit that global warming is real. But they won’t concede that it will be harmful—or as devastating as some believe. In a sense, both sides are on the same page, but not exactly the same book. Even Homer-Dixon can’t say for sure what he sees in the future.

“There are dramatic changes going on,” he explains. “The Arctic pack is melting faster than predicted, and that will change weather and temperature patterns. But the consequences could be less than expected or more. No one knows for sure. But it will happen.”

The proof is out there, too. Since NASA satellites started to monitor climate changes in 1972, photos show the thinning of polar ice caps, rising ocean temperatures, and atmospheric shifts that indicate the effects of global warming. Yet over the past few years, the space agency redirected funding to manned missions to Moon and Mars instead of further research into global warming.

According to John Radzilowicz, an astronomer and director of visitor experience at Carnegie Science Center, “NASA is well
positioned to add to the body of knowledge concerning global warming. But the government is blocking several projects that would study solar radiation and other issues that contribute to the problem.”

While scientists predict and politicians obstruct, artists don’t need proof or consensus to explore an issue that won’t go away.

“We want people to start looking at global warming in different ways,” says Wrbican. “Whether artists take a satirical approach or a serious study of the issue, they won’t play it safe.”

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Bugging Out

Insects may provide clues about the progress of global warming.

Right now, hordes of mountain pine beetles are devouring boreal forests in British Columbia. In some Canadian cities, they’ve destroyed nearly every tree in sight. According to climate-change researcher Thomas Homer-Dixon, the beetles are on the move because of global warming.

“Because temperatures are staying warmer longer in the summer, they’re able to produce two generations instead of one. Also, the longer warm periods allow them to migrate further than ever before.”

Fortunately, bugs are not causing mass destruction in western Pennsylvania. Still, John Rawlins, associate curator of the Carnegie Museum of History’s Section of Invertebrate Zoology, says that by tracking insect populations and the damage they do,  scientists could learn a lot about global warming.  

“Insects are like the canary in the coal mine,” says Rawlins. “In fact, because there are so many bugs, they’re more like 10 million canaries in the coal mine. We can track changes in the environment by watching different insects and how their behavior varies over time.”

To make his point, he cites the work of University of Texas biologist Camille Parmesan, who tracked the migratory habits of 1,700 European butterflies over several decades. About half of the winged beauties stayed true to their longtime patterns. However, the remainder showed significant shifts in their comings and goings, usually traveling northwards to escape rising temperatures.

So what exactly are bugs telling us locally? Right now, no large-scale studies are under way to study what, if any, changes are occurring in the region’s bug populations—a situation that Rawlins insists must change soon.

“We better check what’s going on in our backyard,” he says. “With so many species of bugs right here in the region, we can get a handle on what’s disappearing. What’s getting more abundant. And determine why. We can get ahead of the curve on this. But we better do it quickly. Now is the time to check on what the bugs are doing.”


Also in this issue:

West Looks East  ·  Golden Years  ·  Off the Wall …and Into Packed Theaters  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Now Showing  ·  Face Time: Lareese Hall  ·  Artistic License: Bizarre Beasts  ·  First Person: Video Art, by Douglas Fogle  ·  About Town: Let's Explore  ·  Another Look: The Natural History Docent  ·  Science & Nature: In Search of the Best Visitor Experience  ·  Then & Now: Hillman Hall