Art in the Sacramento Watershed
Art in the Sacramento Watershed drew selectively from the Harrison archive, which Stanford University Libraries acquired in 2010, to introduce materials relating to California water. The archive contains 260 linear feet of material in total, including photographs, original drawings and collage, exhibition posters, audio and video recordings, and maps, supplementing 72 project files that document the Harrisons’ wide-ranging artistic research and site-based works.
One of the primary characteristics of the Harrisons’ artistic research collaboration is the absence of a lead author and the relinquishing of singular identities in favor of role-free conceptualization, making, and performance of work. The broad spectrum of their educational backgrounds in language, learning, social psychology, sculpture, and painting generates a unique mode of working and dialoguing simultaneously, playfully, and with internal disagreement. In fact, disagreement is often made transparent by way of narration, poetry, word-image structures, performance, and public events. It is valued as a form of constructive criticism and feedback that expands their respective capabilities and strengthens their collaboration.
The Harrisons have also contributed to cultures of science and technology in their 50-year tenure as collaborating artists and educators in the UC system. Soon after arriving at UC San Diego in 1967, Newton became a member of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), founded by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. And he was one of the principal artists to participate in the Art & Technology Program curated by Maurice Tuchman for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This led to an intensive three-year period of experimentation in which Newton reflected on the paradoxical feeling of the technological sublime—described by historian David Nye as the awesome and fearsome transformation of raw environments by human power—in fields ranging from ocean engineering, cell biology, and meteorology.
"Science and technology are inherently beautiful and human and have consistently helped clear barriers between people," reads one of the inaugural E.A.T. membership newsletters, and "technology inspired by art...or rather stimulated by artists' requests for art...could radically expand the limits, relax the fixed assumptions, and change the limited direction of contemporary technology."
Helen gradually came forth as an artistic collaborator with Newton in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As early as 1965, she and Newton co-wrote and published an essay in the book New Perspectives on Poverty. And while teaching in the UC Extension Program, from 1969 to 1972, she synthesized the three dimensions of inquiry—language, learning, and social psychology—that would be foundational to her career as an artist while collecting writings by the vanguard of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Strawberry Jam (1973) and Off Strawberry Wall (1974) especially crystallize Helen’s story of becoming an artist because in them she explores new media and methods integral to the production of “The Lagoon Cycle” (1972–1984).
Art in the Sacramento Watershed draws selectively from the Harrison archive to show their development as collaborating artists, and to highlight their extensive research on water in Northern California. Materials from Sacramento Meditations (1976–1977), Sagehen in the Sierra Nevada (2007–present), and The Bays at San Francisco (2007–present) reveal how, in the 1970s, the Harrisons began to pose questions that challenged institutional norms and advanced a new model of artistic research that engaged with both social and environmental issues.
Foundations in Literature, Sculpture, Painting
Born in New York in 1927 and 1932 respectively, Helen and Newton Harrison came of age in the years following WWII and married in 1953 with ambitions to develop and use their abilities in a way that would benefit society. Helen earned a BA in English from Queens College in 1948 and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from NYU in 1952. Newton began working towards a BFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1952. The academy and local art collectors encouraged him to evolve his “Rodin-like” ability in figurative sculpture. But while living in Florence, from 1957 to 1960, he instead began exploring abstraction. Newton ultimately earned a BFA and MFA from Yale University, where he studied color theory with Sewell Silman and hard-edged abstraction with Al Held. Graduating in 1965, he then secured his first faculty position at the University of New Mexico. With four school-aged children, Helen also joined UNM teaching literature and co-wrote an essay with Newton published in New Perspectives on Poverty.
The Harrisons moved to California when, in 1967, the founding chair of the Visual Arts Department at UC San Diego offered Newton a faculty position. Newton mounted a pivotal exhibition of shaped paintings called the “Path Series” in a one-man show at La Jolla Museum of Art in 1968. And in the next several years, Helen would synthesize three domains of expertise—language, learning, and social psychology—by which she would become an artistic collaborator with Newton.
Art and Technology
Making Art in the Original Fields of Earth, Sky, Forest, and Ocean
A transformation began for Newton Harrison in 1968, the year of his one-man show at La Jolla Museum of Art, that rested on the revelation that “color field” painting—a branch of abstract expressionism developed by Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko among others—was merely a fabricated illusion of the original fields of earth, sky, forest, and ocean. Newton explains how “the idea of using the planet’s electromagnetic field to generate a visual field seems [more] straightforward and natural. In the same way using the energy of the ocean to describe itself, and in that process generating an ecological transformation, seems natural.” From this point forward, he resolved to abandon the tenets of abstraction and its reverence for art objects to engage more directly in the compositional fields of the physical environment.
Plasma Chambers (1969–1971), designed in collaboration with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as part of the Art & Technology Program at Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is the most distinguished of Newton’s subsequent art and technology projects. Newton began working with a student in the Physics Department at UC San Diego to experiment with glow discharge demonstrations, which show how an electric force introduced to a medium of noble gas plasma will produce colored light—orange in the case of neon gas—in a process called ionization. A neon light is a miniature glow discharge environment. JPL engineers helped Newton design an even larger glow discharge chamber to increase the visibility of ionization, which can form diffuse shapes and patterns.
The Social and Environmental Turn
A New Horizon of Hope for the Future of Humanity
Recall the student and worker protests that erupted in Paris in May 1968, galvanizing more than 10 million people to demonstrate in the streets and to occupy universities and factories. Revolt flared across France, Italy, and in Czechoslovakia with the Prague Spring as well as in Mexico prior to the Summer Olympic Games. 1968 was also the year that American astronauts launched into space on the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. They were the first to photograph an “Earthrise,” which established what philosopher Rosi Braidotti would call a new “horizon of hope” for the future of humanity on a planetary scale and energized the forward momentum of political movements such as Civil Rights, Free Speech, Anti-War, and Earth Day through the 1970s.
There is a noticeable reemergence of the human figure in works by Newton Harrison in 1970, signaling a renewed interest in the scale of the human body—especially the scale of the individual—as a physical and social being whose agency is defined in relation to a larger environmental field. It is in this spirit that Helen and Newton Harrison carried forward with their artistic research collaboration in the 1970s, questioning the role of individuals in producing sufficient food for all of society without degrading the earth. From 1971 to 1973, the Harrisons developed a total of eight “Survival Pieces,” building from one to the next with a steady stream of commissions by museums and art galleries in the United States and Europe. With each “Survival Piece,” they documented their efforts to design prototypes for indoor farming and backyard farming that could influence a transformation of the industrialized food system and its harmful pollution.
The Lagoon Cycle
Where Fresh and Salt Waters Meet and Mix
Helen and Newton Harrison began developing Survival Piece #8: Lagoon (or Crab Farm) in 1972 as an aquatic farming prototype that could be maintained within the conditions of a museum or art gallery as a work of art. Ranil Senanayake—an experienced collector of tropical marine life from Sri Lanka who in 1971 had enrolled at UC Berkeley to earn a biology degree—suggested they cultivate a high-protein invertebrate Crustacean variably called Lagoon Crab, Mud Crab, or Scylla serrata that has been a staple food source in Sri Lanka for centuries.
“The Lagoon Cycle” (1972–1984) unfolded over the next twelve years as a conceptual series of seven lagoons that present what anthropologist Anna Tsing would call the “friction” of the Harrisons’ research on sustainable aquatic food systems, connecting the Lagoon Crab in Sri Lanka to the Salton Sea and Colorado River system to the world’s oceans and seas. Fifty-seven physical panels comprise the 350-ft long mural of “The Lagoon Cycle,” which premiered at Cornell University’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art in 1985. The Harrisons also published a limited edition of handmade books, entitled The Book of the Seven Lagoons in 1987.
The mural and the book are career-defining works wherein the Harrisons are more fully substantiated as role-free artistic research collaborators. In these works, the Harrisons marry self-critical introspection with scientific research, mixed media technologies, and the live action of performance art to advance a new aesthetics of “hardcore conceptualism” that energizes the epistemologies and ontologies of academia and engages with the economic and political arenas of civic life.
A Proposal for Direct Action with the Floating Museum
The Floating Museum was a temporary artist-run museum active from 1975 to 1978 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Founding artist and curator Lynn Hershman arranged access to existing exhibition venues as well as public buildings, city streets, prison courtyards, rural landscapes, and media outlets. Participating artists produced more than four hundred public and site-specific art projects, many of them in unexpected places, to diversify and extend the value of art for new audiences.
Helen and Newton Harrison submitted a proposal to the Floating Museum in 1976. Parallel to production of “The Lagoon Cycle” in the context of the Colorado River Watershed in Southern California, they proposed a work in three parts called Meditations on the Condition of the Sacramento River, the Delta, and the Bays at San Francisco (or simply Sacramento Meditations) to be realized in the context of the Sacramento Watershed in Northern California. The idea was to create a campaign in the streets, in the media, and in the museums of San Francisco to protest degradation of the state’s water system. They viewed the removal of water from the Sacramento River and its Delta for irrigated farming and development, and the return of that water untreated and laden with pollutants as an expression of “frontier mentality.”
The Harrisons initiated Sacramento Meditations in January 1977 with a series of direct actions that they described as aggressive and yet poetic, including billboard installations, postering in public spaces, and sidewalk graffiti as well as public service announcements on television, radio, and in local newspapers.
Mapping and Discourse on the Future of California Water
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) opened simultaneous exhibitions of Sacramento Meditations in 1977. SFMOMA presented a series of ten maps combining the Harrisons’ research on the existing conditions of Northern California’s water system with a proposal to regenerate its rivers and repair its deserts. The corresponding exhibition at SFAI featured panels from “The Lagoon Cycle” and other “Meditations” on water management practices and policies elsewhere in the world.
Drought in California in the mid-1970s was severe. 1977 was one of the State’s driest years on record. In researching these drought conditions, Helen and Newton Harrison realized the extent of state and federal agricultural subsidies that reinforce the practice of intensive irrigated farming in California’s Central Valley. And they learned that dams, canals, levees, and drains developed since the 1930s as a result of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project have maximized profit for corporations involved in agribusiness by the invention of public water agencies that buy water from the state and sell it to customers. The maps on view at SFMOMA presented these findings as well as an argument for reductions in irrigated farming, advancements in water recycling, and improvements in outreach and public participation in the making of water policy.
The Harrisons further enhanced the exhibitions with a script of Sacramento Meditations to be performed in the physical presence of an audience. Art historian Kristine Stiles later wrote, “Participation and active involvement…support the power and potential which they have indeed revealed by their research.”
Saving the West
A Whole Systems Proposal in Brief
Like an oncoming storm front, the Force Majeure is a fluid frontier; a frontier of heat moving across the planet; a frontier of water advancing on lands. It is a frontier from which we retreat, yet within which we must also adapt.– The Harrison Studio
In 1993 at age 60, prompted by an economic recession and severe budget cuts at UC San Diego, Newton Harrison accepted an early retirement package along with David Antin, Allan Kaprow, and more than 300 other faculty and staff members across campus. However, he was not truly ready to retire. As an emeritus professor, he recruited his youngest son Gabriel and Vera Westergaard to join him and Helen in establishing the Harrison Studio. Over the next decade, Gabriel and Vera would help Newton and Helen Harrison revitalize their reputation as internationally acclaimed contemporary artists with large-scale projects such as A Vision for the Green Heart of Holland and A Brown Coal Park for Südraum Leipzig.
The Harrison Studio relocated from La Jolla to Santa Cruz in 2004. And recognizing that the Harrisons had yet to realize the full scope of their ambitions, UC Santa Cruz invited them to found the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure to bring artists and scientists together to design ecosystem-adaptation projects in response to climate change in critical regions around the world. Sagehen in the Sierra Nevada and The Bays at San Francisco are two ongoing works in “The Force Majeure” series (2007–present) that advance the discourse on California water that the Harrisons initiated in the 1970s.
Saving the West is a digital video produced as part of Sagehen in the Sierra Nevada by the Center for the Study of the Force Majeure in 2016. Harrison Papers, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.