Biocreativity on the Road: Over The River, in Colorado

Let’s talk landscape ecology today. And contemporary art. In fact, let’s talk about an art project so big, it’s been over 20 years in the making, and it’s the only one to have ever received a federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Just last fall, the Bureau of Land Management gave their final approval for the Over The River project, a temporary art exhibition that will suspend 5.9 miles of translucent fabric over a 42 mile stretch of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City, Colorado. Known for their large-scale structure and monument wrappings, artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude first conceived of Over The River in 1992 and have since been working on details of the project, which include an incredibly lengthy design and permitting process.

OTR is a curious case-study in environmental policy. The federal EIS conducted for this temporary art project was financed entirely by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a process that often happens without much public attention when it comes to more routinely-conducted activities on public land. The BLM allows many activities conducted by private entities on public lands including livestock grazing, oil and gas development (including hydraulic fracturing), mining and logging on public lands in the region. Most of these projects have not been subject the level of public scrutiny that OTR seems to have received. Nevertheless, Christo continues pursuit of the remaining permits to make OTR a reality. Christo paid for the EIS at an expense to himself of over $6 million, which was conducted over a 2.5 year period by a team of engineers, wildlife biologists and environmental consultants. The plans for OTR now include scheduling the two-week temporary exhibition to avoid major wildlife migrations, nesting seasons and to minimize noise and disturbance in any one place on the river to a minimum during the construction and take-down process.

Christo Over the River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, Collage 2007 in two parts: 77,5 x 30,5 and 77,5 and 66,7 cm (30 1/2″ x 12″ and 30 1/2″ x 26 1/4″) Pencil, fabric, twine, pastel, wax crayon, charcoal, enamel paint, hand-drawn topography map, fabric sample and tape. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz © Christo 2007.

Interestingly, the NEPA review process calls for environmental design arts and aesthetics to be considered in EIS reviews. As former National Director of the Bureau of Land management Patrick Shea explained in a 2010 letter to the director of the Colorado State Office of the BLM:

“It is striking to remember that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) itself provides that it is the Federal Government’s responsibility to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings”. In order to do this, NEPA states that the federal Government must “utilize a systematic, interdisciplinary approach which will insure the integrated use of the natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and in decision-making which may have an impact on man’s environment.”

Despite widespread public support for Over The River, there is some opposition to this project from a small local group which seems to simply not want the temporary art exhibition of this scale in their own backyard. Curious to view the area myself, I drove alongside the Arkansas River on my way to Taylor Park Reservoir, Colorado this summer. As I paralleled the Arkansas, I encountered prospectors searching for gold, anglers hopeful for trout, rafting outfitters guiding the adventuresome, cattle grazing, ATV and motorbike trails, freight traffic, agricultural fields and even quarries. And, if you care to look past the immediate roadside to the adjacent landscape, the list of proposed private uses of BLM land out of the Royal Gorge Field Office (can anyone direct me to the list of current uses?) indeed includes energy trasmission, private development right-of-ways, oil and gas development, coal leasing, mining, cattle grazing and christmas tree harvesting.

Why then, I wonder, does the Over The River project seem to have been singled out as a “disturbance of the peace” by a handful of locals? There are certainly activities on our public lands that are much more disturbing to the local ecosystem and to wildlife, including ones with much more long-term consequences than the proposed Over The River project. Is it because Colorado has a long history with mining, fossil fuel extraction, ranching and agriculture? Are these activities therefore more comfortable, commonplace, and acceptable by local residents, despite our current knowledge of how they affect our environment? Is it because art is a much less common use of our public land? Yet, Colorado also has a long and rich history of art, from the artistic traditions of Colorado’s Native American cultures to nineteenth-century geological survey photographer William Henry Jackson and contemporary photographer John Fielder, whose comparative approach to photography has explored how the Colorado landscape has changed since Jackson’s first forays in to the western wilderness (see Colorado 1870-2000). Whatever the reason, just imagine if all activities by private entities on our public lands were held to such a level of public scrutiny as Christo’s temporary art exhibition. It seems that our public lands would be much different places. What do you think?

Over The River Life-Sized Test for aesthetic and technical considerations, four life-sized prototype tests were conducted in 1997, 1998 and 1999 on private property on the Utah/Colorado border. Photo: Wolfgang Voltz, © Christo 1999

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, however, are no strangers to opposition of their monumental-scale works. “This has happened before,” Christo recently told the Denver Post, “This is a natural process for which we are very familiar.” They seem accustomed to the lengthy permitting processes that accompany their projects, and demonstrate a love of their work, an admiration for public discourse and a level of patience that is itself quite admirable. A recent update from the OTR project page indicates that on-the-ground activities will be delayed yet again, perhaps until August 2015, because of ongoing litigation by a local group against two of the agencies that have approved the project (the BLM and the Colorado State Parks).

The opposition remains small, however, and the Over The River project has gained an incredible list of supporters including the Cañon City Chamber of Commerce and City Council, current and former governors of Colorado and the Colorado Council for the Arts, to name just a few. Since Jeanne-Claude’s passing in 2009, her husband Christo remains dedicated to making Over The River a reality. As an art lover and former Colorado resident, I can’t wait to write a future On The Road post along the Arkansas River, under the shimmering canopy of Over The River. Until then, here is Christo in 2010 talking about the origins of the project back in 1975 as he and Jeanne-Claude were wrapping the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris:

Over The River perfectly reflects the type of artistic, social, and cultural engagement that public art seeks to create. Public art such as Over The River is by definition meant to provoke reaction by engaging the public outside the framework of a traditional artistic exhibition — outside of the four walls of a museum, and outside of the four corners of a painting.” – Patrick Shea, Former National Director of the Bureau of Land Management

Biocreativity On The Road: Ecological Society of America Meeting 2012

The 97th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Oregon is here! Though I won’t be able to attend this year, I had a lot of fun putting together last year’s list of biocreative activities at the 2011 ESA meeting and it got me thinking about how the biocreativity blog recently passed its one-year anniversary! So, without further ado, here’s this year’s lineup of biocreativity at #ESA2012. If you find anything I missed, or see any interesting biocreativity going on at the meeting, please let me know about it in the comments or via twitter using #ESA2012 and #biocreativity!


The first day of the conference starts off with a really biocreative-sounding workshop organized by Karim-Aly Kassam, Teresa Mourad, James Lassoie and R. Jamie Herring about how to use the Internet-based platform called ‘ConservationBridge’ that supports interdisciplinary, ecological conservation education by using real-world case studies. (WK 24 – Creative Multi-Media Approaches to Conservation Education for the Next Generation, 11:30-1:15pm, D139).

Monday night also kicks off a week of musical activities by ESA ecologists! An Evening of Music: Live Performance by ESA Musicians (SS 13), hosted annually by Nicholas Gotelli takes place Monday night from 8-10pm in A103 at the Oregon Convention Center. Also, Monday through Thursday 5:00-6:30pm and Friday 11am-12:30pm bring your instruments to ESA Musician’s Central in the Ginkoberry Concourse!


Tuesday morning begins with what may be the most biocreative event on the schedule: WK 35 – Engaging Arts/Humanities with Long-Term Research and Education Programs: Outcomes, Approaches, Networking (11:30am-1:15pm, B116). This workshop, organized by Mary Beth Leigh and Frederick Swanson, focuses on how “the visual arts, performance, environmental ethics and history, and creative writing have all found expression in place-based, long-view programs”. The workshop will cover examples of art-science collaborations, business models and funding, and will include a discussion of how to foster future art/science/humanities collaborations at individual sites.

Tuesday afternoon you might want to stop by COS 59 – Education: Tools And Technology for some biocreative takes on citizen science and classroom teaching. COS 59-5 – Combining art, science, and technology for environmental outreach in an urban watershed (2:50pm, D139) and COS 59-9 – Project BudBurst and FieldScope: Piloting continental-scale citizen science data visualization tools (D139, 4:20pm) sound particularly interesting! SYMP 8-7 – Ecology of self: Stories of trying to use ecology as a verb (Portland Ballroom 252, 4:10pm) also sounded great, though it overlaps with COS 59-9, so you’ll have to choose.

A couple of posters for Tuesday afternoon’s poster sessions (4:30-6:30pm, Exhibition Hall DE) caught my eye. PS 21-49 – Using visual imagery and service learning to teach ecological concepts by Dana Garrigan and Laura Rodman Huaracha describes Carthage College’s course Interpreting Nature: Effective Visual Communication About the Environment. “This course was designed to bring interdisciplinary teams together to complete community-based service projects to facilitate learning about ecological concepts and conservation issues.  During the course, Graphic Design and Communication majors partnered with students from Biology and Environmental Science to produce environmental education materials for a local state park.” PS 23-62 – The Evolution of Sustainable Use, a flash-based classroom tool for teaching population biology and sustainable resource management describes yet another science and digital arts collaboration between Christopher Jensen and Aaron Cohen of the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. “Students act as fishers sharing a fishery, and must make decisions about how to exploit their common resource. Players have the potential to over-exploit or under-exploit their fishery, both of which can cause their fishing village to fail. Playing the game allows students to discover the Tragedy of the Commons first hand, and to experiment with different approaches to regulating a limited resource. The game empowers students to answer questions about population growth, predation, cooperation, and sustainable exploitation through an inquiry-based process.”

To cap off a very busy Tuesday, check out WK 39 – Submit Your Teaching Resource to ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library (8-10pm, D138). This session will provide participants with a hands-on opportunity to submit their own ecology teaching resource to ESA’s EcoEd Digital Library (beta). EcoEdDL is a peer-reviewed online digital commons where ecology educators can share the unique resources they have developed for teaching with the ecology education community. The library provides free access to high-quality teaching resources that have been peer-reviewed for scientific accuracy and instructional value.” Well, that sounds awesome, and even illustrations and photographs are eligible for submission to the library!


Wednesday is a bit more relaxed (art-science wise, anyway). It starts off with SYMP 11-4 – Creating new ways to bring people and knowledge together: Evolving ‘translational ecology’ into ‘transformational ecology’ (9:15am, Portland Ballroom 252). The speakers will be discussing transformational ecology, “a new effort to encourage ecologists to work and communicate with the public and policymakers”. Of course, one of my favorite ways of doing this is through the arts, and that seems to fit well with the transformational ecology philosophy.  “This model requires new multi-way language replacing one-way communication words like ‘outreach’, ‘technology transfer’, and ‘dissemination’ with ‘engagement’ and ‘co-learning’, and borrowing tools from the humanities and social sciences like participatory action research, qualitative data collection, and narratives.  It also requires a basic philosophical shift so that knowledge is not only about data, but about experiences, stories, and spiritual connections.”

Wednesday afternoon’s OOS 33 – Growing Pains: Taking Ecology Into the 21st Century promises some really great talks about maintaining and increasing the relevance of ecology to society. I’m perhaps most intrigued by filmmaker Randy Olsen’s talk Storynomics: Proof that scientists evolved from humans. In fact, I nomintate it for Best Abstract of ESA 2012:

“Scientists suffer from “storyphobia” (the irrational fear of the words “story” and “storytelling”) AND they think they are sooo different from normal people, BUT they need to communicate more effectively, THEREFORE they should work harder on their communication skills (did ya get the “And, But & Therefore” template?). We now know that scientists descended from humans and, more importantly, that the split occurred not that long ago.  This is revealed by the recent common ancestor, “Renaissance Man,” who was in fact capable of both writing literary novels whilst also engaging in scientific inquiry.  More powerfully, we can see the evidence of how recent the divide occurred through the three “Storytelling Vestiges” of speaking, writing and thinking.  Scientists still respond to “well told stories,” they write their papers following a structured template that is clearly descended from three act structure (alignment analysis confirms this), and the “problem/solution” approach of the scientific method is no different than the “question/answer” approach of your basic “who dunnit” novel.  The bottom line is that it’s time for scientists to come down off their high horse, admit they still have human DNA in their genome, realize there is no such science as “Storyomics” that will instantly solve the challenge of effective communication, and accept the need to learn the same age old storytelling processes that all humans have used since before the time of pipettes.

Wow! Right!? This is one of the reasons I write this blog, and why I recently founded Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, TX: to help scientists become more engaging and down-to-earth storytellers about science. Wish I was at the meeting this year to hear this talk!

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Melissa Nelson presents Toward a poly-cognitive science: The Native ecologies of tribal canoe revitalization (2:10pm, A107) about reviving the cultural traditions that go along with reviving the traditional ecological knowledge around watercraft (though, I’m not sure how I feel about the need to abbreviate “traditional ecological knowledge” as “TEK”).


If you’re interested in art-science collaborations, don’t miss OOS 39 – Insights and Innovations From Sustained, Place-Based Collaborations In Arts, Humanities, and Environmental Sciences (8-11:30am, B110)

“The objective of this Session is to inform the ESA community of the fruitful and natural collaboration of arts and humanities with environmental research, education, and outreach programs at sites with a long-term commitment to learning about the natural world and our place in it.”

Many of the talks in this session will explore how artists and scientists can work together to engage the public in ecology and conservation, and introduce more people to long-term thinking about these fields.

At 11:30, join Liana Vitali in WK 42 – Arkive.Org: Using Audio-Visuals to Preserve Threatened Life On Earth (11:30am, D135). I had a great time in this workshop last year and really enjoyed meeting Liana and visiting with her more at the booth in the exhibit hall. Make sure to check it out!

Thursday ends off with some high-tech biocreativity in OOS 46 – From Books to Barcodes: Challenges and Opportunities of Next-Generation Field Guides for Ecologists, Students, and Educators where you can learn about some great new innovations in digital field guides, online biological collections and identification keys (LeafSnap, GoBotany, Merlin). I wrote a little bit about my wishes for more apps and games that could help teach ecology last year, and this session seems to highlight some of the best innovations along these lines in ecology!

I hope you all have a great time at ESA this year! Don’t forget to tweet using #ESA2012 and #biocreativity (or make a comment below) about any biocreative happenings you see that aren’t covered here. Safe travels, everyone!