Proposal: Shrine for Old Pens

Just submitted this proposal to Flashpoint Gallery in DC. A few new things since the last proposal I sent out:

The 2nd paragraph, about a Shrine for Old Pens, is an idea for a way to bring something of the shrines into a gallery setting.

I fretted over the last paragraph. It’s hard to explain briefly about Shrines & Animism without it sounding spooky. Hopefully I pulled it off.


My relationship to the places and things around me is one of the driving forces behind my practice. I make art not by creating something new, but by reordering what’s already there. I primarily use found materials widely considered to be worthless, celebrating their unique sculptural properties as well as historical, cultural, and environmental resonances.

Near the entrance to the gallery, I would like to create a shrine to old pens. In Kyoto, there is a shrine called Fudezuka, where the calligraphy brushes of famous painters and writers are buried. I will invite the public to contribute their old pens, which will accumulate over the course of the exhibition. The main structure of the shrine will be shaped like a small house, which I will construct from a wide variety of materials and textures, possibly including tree branches, scrap wood, intricately woven reeds, plastic bags, and discarded appliances. The eaves of theroof will extend upward, crossing above the peak, and downward, nearly touching the ground. This roof style echoes the construction of Japanese Shinto shrines and symbolizes interconnection and integration of the shrine with its environment. Vessels filled with sand will be placed in front of the shrine for visitors to stick their pens into.

In the back of the gallery, I would like to show photographs and screen a documentary video about Erie Shrines, a special public project I’m now working on in Jersey City, NJ. The Erie Shrines are dedicated to a mile-long, abandoned rail line running through the Erie Cut, an excavated corridor which I discovered in the heart of Jersey City. The cut, a significant technological feat of the time, hosted an active railway from 1910 to 1959. Since then, it’s fallen into ruin. Barely visible from street level, it’s now overgrown with tall weeds and is home to several animal species. It runs beneath the city like a parallel, forgotten world—or a miniature oasis.

I am using materials found on-site to construct and maintain a network of shrines dedicated to this pocket of urban nature and the railroad infrastructure of Jersey City. My process is one of paying consistent attention over time, of growth and accumulation through repeated visits. I will ultimately lead public tours, which will function as pilgrimages. These shrines will act as focal points in the landscape and establish symbolic and ritualistic connections between participants, the natural environment, and the built environment. I will create a documentary video and a series of photographs to chronicle my process and show how the shrines develop and grow over time. To convey the unique energy of the site, the video will be accompanied by lush, high-quality audio recordings of sounds from within the Erie Cut, including birds calls, insects, rustling vegetation, cars and sirens from the city above, the rumbling of nearby trains, water dripping, and cave-like echoing under bridges. This project will function as a meditation on place; focusing on the overlay of ecology, history, and technology onto current land use.

In many cultures, shrines are traditionally dedicated to natural phenomena, such as rivers, trees, and mountains. However, our fates are no longer shaped by natural forces alone. I believe we would do well to honor our relationships to certain synthetic objects and infrastructural systems. Furthermore, as political theorist Jane Bennett wrote in her book Vibrant Matter, “to begin to experience the relationship between persons and other materialities more horizontally is to take a step toward a more ecological sensibility.” This horizontality is precisely what I aim to cultivate by building shrines: a non-hierarchical relationship, defined by respect. And what would it take to regard an object, system, or ecosystem with respect? According to religious scholar Graham Harvey, “All it might take is for someone to address the [object] as a ‘Thou’ rather than an ‘it’.”

Electrical and Breathing Networks

Listen to this 99% Invisible podcast.

I have a couple of theories about why pneumatic tubes are magic. I think they inspire wonder because they’re alive or it feels like they’re alive. They’re reaching out through the city they have tendrils and tentacles and they breathe and they throw things up and they feel much much bigger than we are. I also think they inspire wonder because they manifest communication. For us today, when we think of communication, all the 1’s and 0’s and digital things that we move don’t feel real tangible to us anymore. but i also think that they felt pretty magical to people back then too, that they were electrical and breathing networks of communication. You could scent a handkerchief and send it to your loved one via pneumatic tube, and it would still smell like you. So I think that we’re romantic as well and I think that’s part of the wonder today too.

So in a sense they’re both alive and mechanical. both high and low tech. and there’s also something to be said about the journey of a tube canister. You can imagine it snaking its way through these underground passageways, carrying your message. And so this idea of being able to go somewhere where you wouldn’t otherwise be able to go is amazing.

Glacier Prayers

About 50 people set out on foot from the Swiss village of Fiesch at dawn on July 31. As the sun rose over 13,000-foot (4,000-meter) Alpine peaks, the procession moved slowly up a mountainside and into the cool of a pine forest, stopping at a tiny church.

By 7:30 the group had swollen to around a hundred—too many to fit inside the chapel of Maria Heimsuchung, or Mary of the Visitation, so a makeshift altar was erected outside.

“Glacier is ice, ice is water, water is life,” intoned priest Toni Wenger, before beseeching God to stop the glaciers high above them from melting.

By changing a few, crucial words in the liturgy, Father Wenger reversed a Catholic ritual that for 350 years had implored the heavens to push back the glaciers.

The Vatican had approved the change as the effects of global warming became all too tangible in the Alps…

…We prayed for the ice to recede, and our prayer worked—too well,” said Herbert Volken, mountain guide and mayor of Conches, the district that includes Fiesch.

Read more at National Geographic, article by Laura Spinney.

Also read a blog post by Andrew Revkin on the subject.

The Gutai Manifesto

“With our present awareness, the arts we have known up to now appear to us in general to be fakes fitted out with a tremendous affectation. Let us take leave of these piles of counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops.

“These objects are in disguise and their materials such as paint, pieces of cloth, metals, clay or marble are loaded with false significance by human hand and by way of fraud, so that, instead of just presenting their own material, they take on the appearance of something else. Under the cloak of an intellectual aim, the materials have been completely murdered and can no longer speak to us.

“Lock these corpses into their tombs. Gutai art does not change the material but brings it to life. Gutai art does not falsify the material. In Gutai art the human spirit and the the material reach out their hands to each other, even though they are otherwise opposed to each other. The material is not absorbed by the spirit. The spirit does not force the material into submission. If one leaves the material as it is, presenting it just as material, then it starts to tell us something and speaks with a mighty voice. Keeping the life of the material alive also means bringing the spirit alive, and lifting up the spirit means leading the material up to the height of the spirit.”

excerpt from The Gutai Manifesto by Jiro Yoshihara

A poem about a river

Inversnaid, by Gerard Manley Hopkins

This darksome burn, horseback brown,
His rollrock highroad roaring down,
In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam
Flutes and low to the lake falls home.

A windpuff-bonnet of fawn-froth
Turns and twindles over the broth
Of a pool so pitchblack, fell-frowning,
It rounds and rounds Despair to drowning.

Degged with dew, dappled with dew,
Are the groins of the braes that the brook treads through,
Wiry heathpacks, flitches of fern,
And the beadbonny ash that sits over the burn.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Reading (& Watching) List

Urban outfitters: The Nature Conservancy goes to the city by Greg Hanscom for Grist.

“There are more species in New York City than in Yellowstone,” [Bill Ulfelder] says. “New York City has humpback whales and sharks, peregrine falcon, and sturgeon. There’s stuff worth conserving here.”


Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature by Rachel Armstrong for Next Nature.

Ecologist Fern Wickson argues that humans are intertwined in a complex web of biological systems and cannot be included within a definition of nature where “an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill” and wonders whether there is a better definition of nature.

Garbage explains how we can be connected to nature – but not in an unlimited way. We subjectively distinguish ourselves from the natural world by ‘editing’ our networks through the process of making garbage. We choose what is important to us by applying cultural, rather than material criteria, which does not lend itself to empirical measurement.


Growth Assembly – Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg & Sascha Pohflepp from Sascha Pohflepp on Vimeo.

There is no such thing as a natural disaster.

“There is no such thing as a natural disaster. In earthquakes the architecture fails. If you’re out in a grassy meadow, it doesn’t matter how big the earthquake is: it might knock you down, but if nothing falls on top of you and nothing catches fire from broken gas mains or power lines, then you’re probably okay. Architecture is the first casualty of earthquakes, and human beings under the architecture are the casualties of the architecture. Even with a wholly natural disaster, whatever that might be—a tsunami, maybe—who gets help, who has resources to rebuild, who is treated as a threat or a malingerer—those are not natural but social phenomena. With Katrina you need to talk about the role of climate change in making the hurricane; of the crappy levees built by the US Army Corps of Engineers and not adequately maintained; of the lack of evacuation resources for the poor; of the demonization of those left behind; of the transformation of New Orleans into a prison-city preventing evacuation … nothing could be less natural. The natural disaster was the least of what happened to the people of New Orleans, if not the rest of the Gulf, that week.”

— Rebecca Solnit, interview with Astra Taylor, BOMB Magazine

Lover 9th Ward, from the New Orleans Suite, 2006. Photo by Lewis Watts.

Weedy Proposal

I just finished a proposal for Brooklyn Utopias: Park Space, Play Space in and around Old Stone House Gallery in Park Slope. Here it is:



“Exquisite complex beings in their energy webs inhabiting the fertile corners of the urban world in accord with the rules of wild systems, the visible hardy stalks and stems of vacant lots and railroads, the persistent raccoon squads, bacteria in the loam and in our yogurt… Civilization is permeable, and could be as inhabited as the wild is. “ – Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild

“Weed: a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As an intervention into the lawn of Washington Park, I would like to allow the grass and weeds to grow freely within a confined shape of a 12-pointed star, approximately 10 feet in diameter. I choose this geometric shape as a nod to the aesthetic conventions of ornamental gardens. Over the course of the exhibition, as the plant-life within this region grows, the star shape will become more and more defined.

I am interested in interrogating conventions of public landscaping. What forms and species of vegetation do we consider to be beautiful, useful, and wholesome? Although we normally value lawns in a public space, a lawn is in fact a monoculture. It reduces biodiversity and interrupts local ecological balance. There is evidence that allowing a lawn to convert itself into woodlawn is better for the environment, decreasing storm-water runoff and lessening the need for watering.[1]

[1] In Philadelphia, Going Green or Growing Wild? By Anne Raver – July 20, 2011 – New York Times



At first I will mark off the 12-pointed star shape with wooden stakes and string. I will visit regularly to clip the area directly around the border. Once the grass and weeds grow tall enough so that the shape is clearly visible, I will be able to remove the string and stakes.

At the end of the exhibition, I will work in consultation with the landscaping crew to bring the site back to its original condition.



Indra’s Net

Richard Lang recently emailed me about the concept of Indra’s Net. When I Wikipedia’d it, I found that it’s a name for a Buddhist concept of the interconnectedness of everything in the universe:

Francis Harold Cook describes the metaphor of Indra’s net from the perspective of the Huayan school in the book Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra:

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each “eye” of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.[7]

What a coincidence. Given that the whole concept of Indra’s Cloud is about the ecological interconnectedness of people & nature, and that I used string to sew together the bottles so they form a kind of “net”, and that the plastic bottles are somewhat reflective … NOT TO MENTION the Indra connection… I couldn’t have planned it better myself.

Richard’s work also connects to the concept and is worth checking out. I’ll do a post on his work soon.