Sanitation in Style
Taking out the trash became less of a chore in Yonkers after Nicoletta Barolini ’83, an artist from Hastings-on-Hudson, won a city-sponsored competition to design artwork for a garbage truck. The decorated trucks are now rolling through the city, greeting early birds with a message of environmental awareness and a bit of pizazz.
Barolini’s design was one of six chosen to transform Department of Public Works trucks into mobile art galleries.
Printed on outdoor vinyl, it depicts the role the DPW plays in maintaining a clean and safe environment throughout the year. Other winning designs included a banana peel, giant aluminum cans, and a garbage-eating monster.
The Sarah Lawrence community took a critical look at the complexities of race and identity in the United States last spring, as two symposia and a lecture series brought more than two dozen speakers to campus. The events coincided with the first year of Ethnic and Diasporic Studies at the College.
Two three-ton sanitation tractors raise their plows in salutation. In a moment, they will take a break from moving garbage and dance, perform- ing for an audience that, until now, may have never had a chance to question what happens to their trash beyond the curb.
The choreographer, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, spoke on campus in the spring as part of “Strategies of Visibility: Arts of Environmental Resistance,” a series sponsored by the Environmental Studies and Science, Technology, and Society programs. The speakers explored techniques that concerned artists, scientists, and citizens are using to expose environmental threats that would otherwise remain hidden or abstract.
“I’m using the word ‘visible’ in a very broad sense,” explained Charles Zerner, series organizer and holder of the Barbara B. and Bertram J. Cohn Professorship in Environmental Studies. “I’m using it as a metaphor for accessibility to our senses. How can one render environmental problems perceptible? How can artists transform abstract issues into palpable, visual phenomena?”
Ukeles, the New York City sanitation department’s artist-in-residence, answers Zerner’s question with performance art. In Touch Sanitation, she shook hands with 8,500 sanitation workers over 11 months, each time saying, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” According to Zerner, Ukeles’s work comments on the invisibility of waste-treatment processes and our contempt for people who touch our garbage. “We don’t want to see them, smell them, or have them sitting on our stoop,” he said. “If we can be made to see the trajectory of our waste, and the men and women who touch it and move it to the dump, we may begin to seek environmentally sustainable forms of urban consumption and waste treatment.”
Raising awareness through art is a strategy also pursued by Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a Swiss zoological illustrator who collects, studies, and paints morphologically disturbed insects that she finds living near “safe” civilian nuclear reactors, as well as in the fallout areas of Chernobyl and other sites of nuclear accidents. Though Honegger’s illustrations have been rejected as scientific evidence of systemic, nuclear-induced mutations, her watercolor paintings of mutated ladybugs and leaf hoppers have been exhibited throughout Europe and America. She approaches her work as an artist, taking great care to organize the bugs through subtle modulations of color, making the effects of invisible and deadly radiation visible, beautiful, and disturbing.
Cornelia Hesse-Honegger creates watercolor illustrations of mutated insects.
Proof of environmental toxicity often appears after the damage has been done. Phung Tuu Boi, a Vietnamese engineer, spoke about three decades of research he has led, working to make visible the epidemiological and ecological effects of Agent Orange spraying during the Vietnam War. He creates maps that correlate the chemical’s use with high levels of serious birth defects.
The importance of revealing the true impact of environmental disasters was also stressed by Dr. Joseph Masco, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. He focused on the effects of nuclear imagery, including documentary films about and simulations of nuclear testing in Los Alamos, N.M. Masco played a clip of a 1950’s nuclear test: trees bend, crack, and break as a cloud of radioactive dust sweeps through a simulated forest. Scientists today “test” nuclear weapons only through simulations, and because their bodies are no longer subjected to the severe heat, force, and psychological shock of real explosions, Masco thinks they may be less adverse to designing a new generation of nuclear weapons. Nuclear detonations, he says, have become mere spectacles.
Whether through handshakes, insects, or statistics, each speaker explored a strategy to help people understand complex environmental threats. “The goal of these diverse efforts are changes in perception and awareness,” Zerner said. “We need to disturb people in ways that don’t immobilize them, but rather, distress them in ways that move them to act.”
—Joseph Caputo ’07