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VIDEO: SFMOMA Reopening, Latino Art Now! and More

May 6, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Thuy Vu here or below: 

Now through Sunday, May 15: Hamlet at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage, Berkeley
‘The play’s the thing’ in this unusual version of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, where the cast members only find out which role they’re going to play that night five minutes before curtain. 

Now through Saturday, May 14: Latino Art Now! exhibition at MACLA, San Jose
For the 18th year running, the region’s premiere Latino art and culture hub presents an exhibition of works by some of the most fabulous contemporary Latino artists of recent times from the Bay Area and beyond, like Carlos Rolón/Dzine, Gilbert “Magu” Lujan, and Ester Hernandez.

Now through Thursday, May 19: Cypress String Quartet’s Beethoven in the City concert series at a variety of locations, San Francisco
After 20 years, the esteemed Bay Area-based chamber ensemble is saying farewell with a series of free pop-up concerts covering all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in different locations around San Francisco. 

Saturday, May 14: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopening, San Francisco After three years of being closed to the public, the expanded SFMOMA reopens with a big public celebration and hundreds of newly added works of contemporary art from the Fisher Collection.



‘6×9’ Solitary Confinement VR Experience Merges Journalism and Art

April 29, 2016

Soon after Dolores Canales was sent to solitary confinement at the California Institute for Women, a state prison located in Chino, CA, she started to feel disoriented. “It’s like you’ve been put into another country where you don’t know the language or the area or anything,” says the ex-prisoner, who spent nine months in solitary after landing in jail for drug-related crimes at the age of 18. “You have to reestablish yourself in this new world.”

Canales did her best to cope with the deprivations of her tiny, airless cell by galvanizing her fellow prisoners in neighboring pens to adorn themselves with their bedsheets to “dress for dinner” and sing songs together. Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” was a favorite; Canales would belt out the Queen of Soul’s melody and the other prisoners would chime in with the “sock it to me, sock it to me” refrain.

[caption id="attachment_11536689" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Delores Canales, formerly incarcerated in solitary confinement poses for a portrait in Fullerton, Orange County, California on 23rd March 2016 Delores Canales, formerly incarcerated in solitary confinement poses for a portrait in Fullerton, Orange County, California on Mar. 23, 2016[/caption]

A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement

Canales’ impressions of life in solitary are part of 6x9: A Virtual Reality Experience of Solitary Confinement, an immersive, audiovisual storytelling experience from the U.K.’s Guardian Media Group. The virtual reality (VR) project had its official launch this week following previews at the Sundance and Tribeca film festivals. The project aims to increase public awareness about the destructive impact of isolation on the thousands of men and women currently in solitary confinement.

“You can be mentally damaged by being placed in isolation,” says 6x9’s executive producer Francesca Panetta. “But by using this technology, I hope that you will get a more visceral feeling of what it is like to be locked in a 6-by-9 cell for 23 hours a day, of the boredom, of the fear, of the confusion.”


Don’t believe the hype about VR?

Ever since The New York Times went live with its first experiments in VR storytelling last year -- The Times wasn't the first mainstream journalism entity in the space, but the most prominent at that point -- media companies have stampeded towards the format. They've have glommed onto the tactile possibilities of VR as a way to capture the public’s faulty-circuit attention span in a media landscape driven by social media’s interactive itch.

According to a Knight Foundation report on VR journalism published in March 2016, the number of new investors in VR technology, content creation and distribution increased 27 percent in 2015 over 2014 and is projected to continue to increase in 2016. And The Times is betting large on this trend. The company announced this week a plan to distribute 300,000 of Google's cheap, basic VR viewer, Google Cardboard, in conjunction with the upcoming release of a new VR project that gives people the chance to explore Pluto.

There’s certainly an unbridled amount of hype around how journalism might exploit the new technology and attached storytelling potential. But the Knight report asks, right upfront, what we all want to know: “Perhaps the biggest question facing the nascent industry is what will happen when the novelty of VR wears off, and whether the quality of the storytelling and the VR experience will bring people back to look at the content on a regular basis.”

I'm betting the answer lies in the space where journalism meets art. And if it succeeds, 6x9 might be a case in point.

Where news meets art

The project is firmly rooted in traditional news reporting: It takes its inspiration from stories about the psychological damage caused by solitary confinement and Barack Obama’s proposed reforms to the system for juveniles and people with severe mental problems; the Guardian team conducted in-depth interviews with seven people who’ve experienced solitary in California and New York for the project; and it weaves in sound from the PBS Frontline documentary Solitary Nation. Panetta says the PBS producers made 25 hours of video footage available to The Guardian for 6x9.


But experiencing 6x9 feels slightly different from most efforts in VR journalism I’ve tested out so far. It’s more akin to Bay Area theater artist Chris Hardman’s longstanding yet still gripping audio tour of Alcatraz than it is to, say, The Los Angeles Times’ attempt to capture what it’s like to explore Mars, the Inside North Korea story from ABC News or USA Today’s jaunt through Old Havana in a vintage bubblegum pink Ford.

And that’s not just because the Alcatraz audio tour and 6x9 are both about incarceration. From the very opening lines of the voice over in 6x9, which flatly announces, “Welcome to your cell. You’re going to be here for 23 hours a day,” to the way in which ghostly snippets of prisoners’ stories seep in and out of your ears depending on where you move your head, 6x9 announces itself above all as an audio forward experience -- and one that's meaningfully triggered by the visual environment. You sit in that tiny space and your pores open up wide to every tiny sound, whether that’s a voice echoing in the distance, or the squeak of the mattress. The visuals actually play second fiddle to the soundscape, and that’s overwhelmingly what transports you in the physical space.

Interestingly, 6x9 isn't the only immersive journalism project about solitary confinement out there right now. The Huffington Post's RYOT team created Confinement, a 360-degree video story which also uses prison sounds and narration to tell of the horrors of life in a cramped, concrete box. But this piece, though it incorporates the voices of prisoners talking about their experiences, doesn't combine the audio and visual components in as sophisticated a fashion as The Guardian's effort. Looking around the cell in Confinement doesn't initiate a new piece of audio. It's a traditional narrative that unfolds in one direction over time.

Ira Glass, the creator of This American Life, famously describes radio as the “most visual medium.” If 6x9 is anything to go by, more VR journalists should pay attention to Glass’ words.

[caption id="attachment_11534436" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A still from '6x9' A still from '6x9'[/caption]

How to experience 6x9

You can experience 6x9 in a variety of ways. The optimal one is to strap on a Samsung Gear VR headset with the 6x9 app downloaded onto a Google Android phone. Or you can don a Google Cardboard viewer for a similar experience (albeit one with less fancy optics). These methods are the most compelling; moving your head around initiates different parts of the story.

You don’t actually have to have a viewer at all, though, as there are two alternative ways to get inside the piece: watch it on a smartphone, which allows you to shuffle around the prison cell by toggling around your smartphone’s screen with a finger; or if you don’t have a smartphone, The Guardian has released a 360-degree video version of the piece on the project’s webpage. These two methods won’t necessarily make you feel like you’re locked behind bars, but they do communicate the essence of the story.

VR in the Bay Area

In addition to the above, 6x9 also exists as a physical installation. People who interacted with the project at the Tribeca Film Festival could explore the story while physically moving about in a model of a prison cell. Solitary confinement survivors present at the festival to share their experiences. The installation is touring, though sadly it won’t come to California anytime soon.

But if you’d like to get more of a handle on the burgeoning world of VR storytelling -- albeit from a fiction-based rather than journalistic angle -- the San Francisco International Film Festival presents a "VR Day" on Saturday, April 30 at Gray Area. The event provides an opportunity for festival goers to steep themselves in VR filmmaking and meet some of the key players in the field. For more information visit



3 Reasons Why Louis C.K.’s ‘Horace and Pete’ Might be the Best Series of Our Time

April 4, 2016

Courtesy of Louis C.K.'s 'Horace and Pete' website

If there's any show that can be said to symbolize our present "golden era" of TV, it's Horace and Pete, the comedian Louis C.K.'s new series set in a Brooklyn bar. C.K. unveiled the 10th and final episode this weekend. This is is an odd thing to say when you consider the fact that C.K. released the series via his website without the need of a network, and that Horace and Pete feels more like a docudrama or an episodic piece of theater than anything I've ever witnessed on a small screen. Nevertheless, here are three reasons why Horace and Pete is brilliant:

1. It tells a story that feels old and new all at once.
I read a tongue-in-cheek elevator pitch-style description of the show in The New Yorker which I thought was right on the nose when it said Horace and Pete was "Cheers meets The Iceman Cometh." And with its story about a group of blood relations destined to repeat their cycle of woes into perpetuity, a tragic hero who ultimately falls despite striving to do the right thing (C.K.'s role as bar co-owner Horace), and "chorus" of barflies, the series veers into the terrain of Greek tragedy.

Yet at the same time, the plot bubbles and spews with today's headlines; Donald Trump's campaign is an intermittent discussion point throughout. And it grapples in an explosive but still non-heavy-handed way with the issues of our time.

One of the most thoughtful scenes, for example, presents a side of transgender politics I've never given much thought to before: the question of whether it's ethical for a transgender person to keep silent about their former gender identity to a person they're sleeping with. Horace, who's resolutely straight, has a happy one-night stand with a beautiful alcoholic. In the morning over eggs and coffee -- well, Horace has coffee; his date Rhonda (played by Karen Pittman) asks for something a little stronger and her gracious host obliges -- the conversation takes a left turn when Horace finds out Rhonda used to be a guy. At least, the possibility of a sex change is inferred, though never explicitly stated. As non-judgmental as Horace is about people who make a habit of drinking whiskey before breakfast, he gets flustered and accusatory at the thought he's somehow been "duped" into a "homosexual" encounter. Fascinating stuff. 

2. It refuses to conform to tried-and-tested formats.
The series exists in a liminal space at the intersection of TV, theater, documentary and feature film and strikes an unusual balance between the structural and content mores of these formats. Louis C.K. has created what feels like an entirely fresh way to tell a story by carefully weaving together elements from different traditions.

The series has the cuts and close-ups of a TV serial. It brings in the actualities of the documentary format. And it has the epic, sweeping quality of a movie. The theatricality of the series is what interests me the most though, like C.K.'s penchant for splicing the action with long monologues. My favorite of these is a bonkers-foulmouthed explanation of the famous Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah told by Kurt Metzger playing one of the bar's regular customers.

There's even an intermission to break up the longer episodes and the entire cast takes a bow at the end of the final show. Oh, and even though Horace and Pete is the work of one of the funniest comedians around today, there are few opportunities for laughter. Unless you count comedy in the sense of the great cosmic joke of which all humankind is a part. C.K. knows all about that, and with this series captures its essence in a bottle.

3. It features some of the most prescient writing and best performances I've ever seen in any format. Period.
What's masterful about Horace and Pete is the casting and the writing. It seems like the two are so closely intertwined (viz Metzger's Sodom monologue mentioned above, which, judging by the reactions of the other cast members in the scene, strikes me as having been partly or fully improvised) that I need to tackle them both at once.

The blend of standup comedians and dramatic actors is an unusual and powerful one. And each performer brings pathos, shadows and moments of levity to his or her role. I cannot speak highly enough of C.K., Steve Buscemi, and Edie Falco as the bar-owning brothers and their sister. Here we have a trio who show us plenty of fallibility and ugliness while at the same commanding our respect. And how tightly wound and carefully controlled the writing feels: C.K. reveals dramatic information to us incrementally, doling out hard-to-digest news about the family's troubled past in lean teaspoonfuls of strong medicine.

Yet despite the economy of the dramaturgy, abetted by the claustrophobic indoor setting of the Brooklyn bar with its flat lighting and ugly furniture, C.K. somehow makes his drama feel airy and spacious. Witness the final episode, which begins suddenly and without explanation in 1976. Here, the principal performers whom we've grown to know and love in the present-day setting -- C. K., Buscemi, Falco -- play their forebears. The scenes are without a doubt the nastiest and most suffocating of the whole series.

But then we jump forward to 2016, to find Amy Sedaris, in the role of a sweetly unhinged wannabe bartender, lightening things up. When she skips over to the bar's old jukebox and puts Simon and Garfunkel's famous song "America," about a journey to find meaning in a country that's lost its way, it's as if a feather duster had temporarily fluffed away all the creepy-crawlies from a cobwebby corner.

Speaking of which, Paul Simon's ghostly little theme song for the series, with its sparsely-chorded guitar riff and far-off lament of a vocal line, captures the "high lonesome sound" of the great roots musicians that have been singing about this country's dashed hopes and failures since the dawn of the Republic. The tune, together with this formidable series, leaves us feeling emotionally drained yet strangely complete.



VIDEO: Sneak Peek at Jay Z & Beyonce Collaborator's Puppet Show, More

April 1, 2016

Watch my monthly KQED Newsroom segment with host Scott Shafer here or below: 

Now through Saturday, Apr. 23: A House Tour of the Infamous Porter Family Mansion with Tour Guide Ludlow Londonderry at Z Space, San Francisco
The world premiere of a surreal, interactive comedy by national award-winning San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb inspired in part by tours of kitsch historic mansions like Hearst Castle and the Winchester Mystery House. Stars Danny Scheie in a role written specifically for the Bay Area veteran actor.
Also at Z Space, Wednesday, Apr. 6 -  Tuesday, Apr. 12: Birdheart
Master puppeteer Julian Crouch (who did the Tony-nominated scenic design for Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Lascivious Biddies rock band member, SF native, and Jay Z/Beyonce collaborator Saskia Lane join forces for a quirky table-top puppet show that weaves a beautiful story from ordinary things: crumpled brown paper, found objects, shadows and a mound of sand.
Now through Sunday, Apr. 10: Capacitor presents When We Were Small at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San FranciscoThe Bay Area-based performing arts company presents a new show at the intersection of dance and circus arts looking at what it's like to experience the world when you're two years old.
Now through Saturday, Dec. 31: History San Jose presents Tattooed & Tenacious: Inked Women in California's History at the Pasetta House, History Park, San JoseA quirky and fascinating exhibition of photos, art work and artifacts relating to the little-known culture of female tattoo wearers and artists in the Golden State.
Saturday, Apr. 9 and Sunday, Apr. 10: Early music supergroups from England -- The Tallis Scholars and Stile Antico, First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Binge out on Renaissance hits over a single weekend with a pair of concerts by two of the world's foremost early music ensembles: Cal Performances presents the august British vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars (Apr. 9) and the San Francisco Early Music Society hosts a visit from hip, young Stile Antico, also from England (Apr. 10).
Tuesday, Apr. 5: Armistead Maupin in conversation with Jewelle Gomez at Herbst Theatre, San FranciscoThe Tales of the City author appears in conversation with writer Jewelle Gomez to celebrate his receipt of the 2016 Mayor's Art AwardSan Francisco's highest artistic prize. Maupin is the first author to win this accolade. The event is free.

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FLAX Art Supply Opens a New Store and a New Era With Move to Oakland

The iconic FLAX store and sign on Market Street

To hear me being interviewed by KQED News host Devin Katayama about the move of FLAX to the East Bay, go here

FLAX, a venerable establishment displaced from Market Street in San Francisco by yet another condo project, has found new life in Oakland, with Thursday’s opening of a spacious and light-drenched store.

“It’s just another sign that people are recognizing the incredible value, vitality and hotness of this city,” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf told KQED’s Tara Siler at the opening-day celebration. “And FLAX is really meant for Oakland … this is a family-owned business … so it’s perfect to place this in a city with so much artistic energy and legacy — so close to public transportation and in the center of the Bay Area, where all artistic souls can get here conveniently.” 

The store’s third-generation owner, Howard Flax, said: “This is definitely an underserved market and the more that we talk to different people in the community, and the more that we get to know Oakland and the greater East Bay, there are a lot of pockets of artists here. And we just look forward to connecting with each and every one of them, and partnering and collaborating to grow the arts in the East Bay.”

The beloved family-owned business has been around for almost 100 years, starting out in New York City in 1918. Its first San Francisco shop opened in 1938 on Kearny Street. A few incarnations later, it moved to Market Street in 1981, but its lease expired last year. A Fort Mason store debuted in November.

The 15,000-square-foot Oakland location, a former auto repair shop at 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, offers storage, a back parking lot and proximity to public transit — all things that Flax was looking for. “We were displaced from Market Street and here we are — and there’s no going back,” Flax said. “There’s no bittersweet feelings on my part. It’s the end of an era. … We attained that iconic status in San Francisco and that’s what we plan on building here in Oakland as well.” 

Schaaf said the opening is a “happy story” for the city in all respects. “We cannot have new people come here at the expense of our longtime businesses, artists, residents,” she said. “But we also have to make sure that we build places for them to come to. One of the things that’s exciting about this store is it is in a new part of town. It did not displace another small business.”

Devin Katayama, who covers Oakland for KQED, said the move by FLAX is symbolic of a massive shift of art and artists in the Bay Area. Many have been priced out of San Francisco, and now Oakland is also becoming unaffordable. Katayama interviewed Chloe Veltman, senior arts editor at KQED, for her take on the departure of FLAX, which had searched for sites to relocate in San Francisco but couldn’t find anything.

Describing FLAX as a true “gem” in the art-supply world, she said, “It wasn’t the cheapest place to buy supplies in town, but nevertheless the community supported it and loved it because it wasn’t a chain and had been around for so long.”

For starters, it means fewer places in the city to buy art supplies. Beyond that, it’s a sign of the “relentless displacement” of San Francisco’s arts community. “On the one hand, we’re seeing a lot of exciting movement in some ways, like the development of Minnesota Street Projects — a facility in Dogpatch which houses many cutting-edge studios and galleries,” Veltman said. “And, of course, big, flashy, attention-grabby things like the reopening of SFMOMA, the rebooting of the Bay Lights. But, on the other hand, it continues to be extremely difficult for local artists and organizations to thrive in this climate.”

For example, the San Francisco Arts Commission heard from nearly 600 artists last summer that either live or recently resided in San Francisco, Veltman said. The survey found that over 70 percent of the respondents had been, or were being, displaced from their workplace, home or both. “Libby Schaaf spoke of the hotness and vitality of Oakland,” Veltman said. “Well, artists have played an immense role in making Oakland vital and hot — look at the gallery and theater and music clubs and restaurant scene, the thriving First Fridays, etc. And now everyone wants to live there.”

KQED’s Tara Siler, Chloe Veltman and Devin Katayama contributed to this post.



VIDEO: Sneak Peek at Berkeley Rep’s ‘Macbeth’ Starring Frances McDormand and more

February 19, 2016

Now through Sunday, Apr. 10: Macbeth at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley
Frances McDormand (FargoHail, Caesar!) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) star in a production of Shakespeare's tragedy of ambition directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Now through Friday, Jul. 1: Living Digital Space and Future Parks at Pace Art + Technology, Menlo Park
An immersive-interactive light, sound and video exhibition featuring 20 works by the members of teamLab, a 400-member art collective based in Tokyo.
Now through Sunday, Apr. 28: Opera Parallele’s Champion an Opera in Jazz at SFJAZZ, San FranciscoSan Francisco's jazz center and one of the region's most cutting-edge contemporary opera companies present jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard's opera about bisexual boxer Emile Griffith.
Friday, Feb. 19: Call your Girlfriend at the Jewish Community Center, San Francisco 
San Francisco's JCC presents a live podcast taping (and webstream) of the whip-smart, feminism-infused pop culture podcast created by columnist Ann Friedman, digital strategist/Forbes “30 Under 30” recipient Aminatou Sow and radio producer Gina Delvac.
Thursday, Mar. 3 - 12: Oakland School for the Arts' School of Rock at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco
OSA snagged the rights to the first ever amateur production of this hit Broadway musical based on the 2003 movie starring Jack Black as a rock guitarist who finds himself working as a substitute teacher at an elementary school.

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How Two Santa Cruz Artists Changed the Course of Environmental History

February 11, 2016

At the University of California Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, small groups of plant species weather out a harsh winter under several feet of snow. There’s not much to see, let alone anything that resembles art. But hard though it may be to believe, the specimens are in fact part of the latest game-changing ecological art project by Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.
To hear my radio profile of Helen and Newton Harrison for KQED FM News and The California Report, click here
One of the Harrisons many eye-catching maps: "The Sagehen ecosystem and experimental sites"
One of the Harrisons many eye-catching maps: "The Sagehen ecosystem and experimental sites"
Widely known as the parents of the eco-art movement, the Harrisons have become world-renowned for using art to tackle environmental problems on a massive, global scale. Over more than four decades, the Santa Cruz-based husband-and-wife team have inspired the public to get behind environmental issues, from climate change to the impact of urbanization on the ecosystem -- and on occasion have even successfully helped to bring about high-level environmental policy change.
“These are million-square-kilometer problems,” says Newton of the issues that he and Helen address with their work.
“What we have to be concerned about is what is happening to the entire planet,” Helen says. “What we are concerned about is the survival of the people and all living things.”
The Harrisons’ acclaim is so great that a few years ago the Getty Research Institute and Stanford University both expressed interest in housing their archives. Stanford won. “We are delighted that the Helen and Newton Harrison archive came to Stanford University,” says Peter Blank, Senior Librarian at Stanford’s Bowes Art & Architecture Library. “Their engagement with the hard questions of our day -- what are our shared responsibilities on a planet fraught with ecological uncertainties -- and the manner in which they integrate the arts and sciences has resulted in a remarkably rich body of work.” And now the artists, who are both in their eighties, are the subject of a kaleidoscopic book, which Random House will put out later this year.
A 50-year-long project in the Sierra Nevada
Under deep snow at UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, groups of plant species hibernate as part of a 50-year-long environmental art project implemented by The Harrisons in collaboration with scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe.
Under deep snow at UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station in the Eastern Sierra Nevada, groups of plant species hibernate as part of a 50-year-long environmental art project implemented by The Harrisons in collaboration with scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe.
At Sagehen, the Harrisons are collaborating with a small team of scientists and members of the Washoe Tribe on a 50-year-long project. It involves physically moving groups of plant species like wild rose and red fir to higher ground with the aim of helping the seedlings become resilient both to the warming effects of climate change and at different altitudes. The Sagehen investigation is part of an even bigger project, entitled The Force Majeure, which looks at finding solutions to two problems through conducting experiments in four different parts of the world -- encroaching water levels and rising temperatures.
"These are two vast forces that we have speeded up to say the least," Newton says of co-opting the legal term "force majeure" which means a huge power that cannot be controlled, kind of like an act of god. "We consider them a force majeure. Why? Go ahead and stop them if you can. But there may be a counter-force on the horizon and that is what we search for."
The Harrisons’ deep interest in involving people of the Washoe Tribe -- who for thousands of years have called the Sagehen area and beyond their ancestral home -- adds an important dimension to the project because of the Native Americans’ deep knowledge of the local ecosystem and its indigenous species. Tribal elder Benny Fillmore says this is the first time he’s ever been asked by anyone outside of his tribe to collaborate on an art project. “I think it’s really rare in this day and age as tribal members to be given a hand in such a big project,” Fillmore says.
UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station scientists Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix. The scientists are collaborating with Newton and Helen Harrison on one part of their massive, global "Force Majeure" project. Here we see them posing in front of another site-specific art project on site at Sagehen.
UC Berkeley Sagehen Creek Field Station managers Jeff Brown and Faerthen Felix. Sagehen is collaborating with Newton and Helen Harrison on one part of their massive, global "Force Majeure" project. Here we see them posing in front of another site-specific art project on site at Sagehen, "Invisible Barn".
The Harrisons’ ability to connect people and ideas that normally wouldn’t come into contact with one another is one of their greatest assets. Sagehen field station manager, Faerthen Felix, says the station’s relationship with the Harrisons is helping to find a wider audience for important but usually dry scientific data. "The problem is that science is by nature a non-emotional process," Felix says. "You have to be dispassionate. The data has to speak for itself. But that’s not what humans are like. Emotion is what drives us. And emotion is the raw material that artists use."
Felix's colleague, Jeff Brown, says the Harrisons’ art -- for instance, the huge, colorful, topographical maps they create for many of their projects -- helps transform cold science into a meaningful story. “They’re allowed to get visceral,” Brown says. “They’re allowed to get emotive. They’re allowed to connect with people in ways science just can’t.”
Shaping environmental policy in Holland
This quality has enabled the Harrisons to shape environmental policy. In the mid-1990s, a branch of the Dutch government challenged the artists to solve an enormous urban planning problem: how to build hundreds of thousands of new houses while protecting the country’s lush green lowlands. The Harrisons created beautiful aerial landscape videos to bewitch the initially skeptical officials. They also audaciously exhibited a big map of Holland -- printed backwards. “The planners got mad at us and they said, ‘Why have you done this?’ Newton recalls. “And we said, ‘Well you’re planning your country backwards, so we printed your map backwards.’”
To get their message across to the Dutch authorities, the Harrisons audaciously created and exhibited a map of Holland --printed backwards
To get their message across to the Dutch authorities, the Harrisons audaciously created and exhibited a map of Holland --printed backwards
“It wasn’t that easy to convince the politicians,” says Adriaan De Regt, who was a cultural official for South Holland at the time the Harrisons undertook their Green Heart of Holland project. “It took some time before they saw that the plan from the Harrisons was a good idea.”
The American couple eventually won over the Dutch officials, who adopted their vision. Bill Fox, who runs the Center for Art and the Environment at the Museum of Nevada and has worked closely with the Harrisons in recent years, says the Harrisons’ work is persuasive because it successfully bridges the worlds of politics and science. “They create these beautiful maps and poetic texts, and do these exhibitions about the problem that really creates empathy for a place,” Fox says. “Once you begin to care about place, you will care about what happens to that place.”
Fomenting environmental activism in San Diego
The Harrisons first met in 1950 at Helen’s family farm in Connecticut. Newton was a budding sculptor still in his teens, and Helen, a few years his senior, a teacher, philosopher and student of English literature. The couple didn’t formally start working on art projects together until 1969, when they both landed jobs at the University of California, San Diego. Newton taught art and Helen ran educational programs.
It was a combination of biological research and the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal book about environmental destruction, that pushed them towards working on art projects in service of the environment together. “We made a decision to do no work that didn’t benefit the ecology, as neither of us could face that alone,” says Newton. “That’s how our collaboration began.”
Electrocuting catfish in London
People exploring the Harrisons' "Portable Fish Farm" installation in 1971
People exploring the Harrisons' "Portable Fish Farm" installation in 1971
Sometimes the couple’s art has gotten them into trouble. In 1971, the Harrisons were part of a high-profile exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery. For their installation about the sustainability of farming practices, they electrocuted catfish and made stew for museumgoers. It caused an uproar. Helen says that although the fish were humanely killed, many people couldn’t see past the shock value. “People wanted the government to cancel our show,” she says.  The tabloid press went berserk. Newton lights up at the memory. “Helen made a weird version of bouillabaisse,” he says. “It smelled so good that nobody went to the other exhibitions.”
Composer Edward Lambert even turned the debacle into a chamber opera entitled The Catfish Conundrum two years ago, with Newton Harrison and the catfish among the characters represented on stage.
Watch a video of the entire opera, performed in 2014 by The Music Troupe of London:

It wasn’t just audiences that balked at the Harrisons’ work in the early days. Because of the couple’s scientific leanings, the art establishment was also fairly hostile towards them in the early years. “It took a while for museums to decide that artists could work in these fields and be artists,” says the Harrisons’ longtime New York dealer Ronald Feldman. “So they had a rough road to get attention for their work as artwork.”
Today, things are different. The Harrisons’ maps, videos and other visual artifacts can fetch up to hundreds of thousands of dollars on the art market, according to Feldman. And Newton and Helen are considered trailblazers. “Many artists work very well with the sciences,” Feldman says. “Newton and Helen have opened that door for everybody.”
The Harrisons aren’t as mobile as they used to be and Helen’s health is particularly fragile. They’re still doggedly focused on their ecological mission, though Newton cautions it’s not up to him and Helen to save the Earth. “You need a big community,” he says. “And that community is slowly forming and the question is will it form quickly enough? Or is mass extinction a fact?”
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison with Laura and Benny Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison with Benny Fillmore of the Washoe Tribe and his daughter, Helen.

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