The Question Concerning Hyperaccumulation, Or, the Role of Technology in Mel Chin’s Revival Field

By Sophie Loring, Bryn Mawr College

Originally published in the 2020 print edition.


Thlaspi caerulescens (alpine pennygrass), Silene vulgaris (bladder campion), and Zea mays saccharata (sweet corn) push through the ground in an unusual garden: Mel Chin’s Revival Field, 1991, a sixty-by-sixty-foot plot on toxic earth. Mel Chin is an American conceptual visual artist who is known for his ecological activism; many of his works are politically charged, grappling with international US democratic military intervention and national police brutality. Constructed on a toxic waste site in St. Paul, Minnesota, Revival Field uses a type of plants called hyperaccumulators to extract heavy metals from the soil. The project was conducted in conjunction with Dr. Rufus Chaney, a senior research agronomist at the USDA [1]. Revival Field is a conceptual blueprint intended to be installed in the landscape by sowing seeds in a circular pattern within a square fenced allotment. Using these metal-tolerant plants as tools to both revitalize earth and provoke ecological innovation, Chin demonstrates the tense relationship between technology and nature, calling into question the power structures held by humans over the environment through the lens of artistic creation.

Revival Field is a conceptual art piece involving three materials: plants, fencing, and a hazardous waste site. The original “experiment” was conducted at the Pig’s Eye Landfill in St. Paul, a Superfund site that was labeled hazardous to humans and the environment by the Environmental Protection Agency. Before the project, it was so polluted by incinerated sewage and garbage that it was illegal for anyone to visit or occupy the site [2]. During the project, Chin faced several bureaucratic setbacks; due to the politicized nature of environmental damage, this cleanup strategy had not previously been tested outside of a laboratory. Chin explains, “Litigation involving responsibility for the deposit and cleanup of cadmium-loaded sludge ash on the Pig’s Eye Landfill tended to paralyze any progressive activity. By approaching it as a ‘work of art’ we were able to implement the first replicated field test in the US” [3]. The original Revival Field concluded by 1993 and its structures were removed, but Chin has reinstated the concept in several different locations around the world since then.

Ecological art, preceded by land art, ecofeminism, landscape painting and photography, developed over the last fifty years in response to impending environmental crises. This phrase describes art that uses an ecological system to restore the natural environment, both through physical ecological processes and through political and cultural activism. Some have termed the genre “Ecovention,” pointing to an artist’s intervention in the system. Although contradictory, this practice is a kind of material conceptualism, for though the final form is not static or inherently aesthetic, the organic nature of the materials is integral to the concept. Embodying the utopian drive of minimalism, these works seek the essence of modern humanity using living biological materials.

The 1991 version of Revival Field is immortalized in a sparse collection of aerial photographs. From this view, harsh, industrial barbed-wire fencing forms a square around the work. Inside this square, which is filled with vegetation, a smaller fence is shaped in a circle that houses a few select plants organized in quadrants. The path between these plants is laid out in the shape of an X, similar to the logo of the Red Cross, calling to mind images of the earth crossed with its prime meridian and equator. It is intended to resemble a crosshair target, signaling out the land area chosen for revival [4]. Each of these images highlights a dichotomy: injury and healing, violence and safety, division and unity. Revival Field is a careful balance between these opposing forces, demonstrating that growth occurs not in isolation but in the in-between space that these tensions create. In the photographs, the landscape is speckled with lifeless yellows and browns, a dull green pushing through the soil. Combined with the square fencing, the scene resembles a poorly tended apartment lot, an urban backyard forced over cement. It is a nature in crisis, struggling to bloom in toxic earth.

This aesthetic speaks to a collective societal anxiety about the impending damage of climate change and the potentiality of a post-human utopia. Mel Chin provides biotechnology as a gentle answer to this conflict. It is at the same time frightening and comforting to confront this thriving “vacant lot” with the knowledge that the soil beneath the plants has been stained with toxic waste from our human industries. On one hand, the viewer is meant to feel the guilt of responsibility for environmental damage; on the other hand, it comes as a relief that plants, blooming impossibly in the barren landscape, are doing the work of healing for us. In the Anthropocene—a new descriptor for the present era, as scholars have argued that human interference in the earth’s natural processes has caused a departure from the last geological epoch—climate anxiety can cause one to imagine, as a thought experiment, what a human-free planet would look like. Would Superfund sites like this revert to paradise? Although Revival Field requires constant maintenance for the first years of its installation, there will come a point where human intervention is no longer required and the soil can once again support organic life independently [5].

Designed carefully to fill both ecological and aesthetic functions, Revival Field is a kind of living sculpture. Chin’s blueprints detail a fairly simple design; within a square boundary, two concentric circles are divided into quadrants. The area between the outer fence and inner circle is designated the “control” area, filled with perennial metal-tolerant species. Beyond that, the outer ring of the circle is lined with 800 perennial plants, and the innermost middle circle is planted with a smaller number of annual species. The seeds are laid out in a perfectly circular formation by the human hand, but grow into different sizes and shapes based on their own genetics and the local weather, among other factors. In Chin’s words, sculpture is “a living ecology, using plants as biological carving tools” [6]. In a sense, the artistic agency is removed from the sculptor’s hand, for though he plants the seeds in a predetermined formation, the effect on the soil and the final sculpture is driven by nonhuman forces.

The blueprint for Revival Field is drawn like an architectural floorplan with bluish ink on an organic- looking, cream-colored paper [7]. The structure for the project is represented from ground level and from above, and a photo of a small-scale model is printed on the top right. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the heavy concentration of concentric dots that make up the inner circles; these dots represent the seeds or budding plants that will make up the final project. Three small circles are connected to the larger aerial circle by arrows, and in these are drawn single species in the style of simple observational botanical drawings. The careful design of this poster, both highly detailed and stylistically simple, might as well be concept art for a science fiction film. Clearly well-researched, the sketch reveals the hand of a trained artist. Working with agronomist Rufus Chaney, Chin transgresses the boundaries of the conceptual art ecosystem by integrating experimental technology with artistic vision in an intersectional display of adaptation. In fact, the idea received criticism for being less “art” than “science fiction.” In the proposal for a grant, Chin described the project as having an “invisible aesthetic,” which caused pause among the panelists of the National Endowment for the Arts, which ultimately funded this project [8]. Chin’s reference to “invisibility” refers to the subterranean function of the plants, which perform the brunt of the “revival” out of sight. But what is science fiction if not unrealized plans for extension of the technology that we already have? This project demonstrates that art can draw untested scientific technology out into the field, invisibly curing terrestrial ills while visibly cultivating aesthetic beauty.

In Chin’s artwork, the plants act as biological technology. Hyperaccumulator plants extract heavy metal contaminants (such as lead, zinc, copper, cadmium, and manganese) from soil and groundwater by drawing these metals into their roots and to their leaves [9]. Termed phytoremediation (also called green remediation, botano-remediation, agroremediation, or vegetative remediation), this is a combination of biological processes that are species- and location-specific [10]. At the end of this process, the plants can be harvested and incinerated—the final product being pure metal ore. Their leaves become contaminated, holding the heavy metals that had been in the soil, and must be disposed of sustainably. At this point, the landscape will have been partially revitalized, and more hyperaccumulators can be planted ad infinitum. Although the remediated landscape is undoubtedly healthier, it is undeniable that some nature is destroyed in the process, ceding its life to benefit human living standards and economy. What does it mean to use a natural technology to recover earth that has already been damaged by artificial technology?

Martin Heidegger, a twentieth-century German philosopher and formative critic of technology, considers technology to be both a “human activity” and “a means to an end” [11]. He points out that the word technology stems from the Greek techne, meaning craft—connected etymologically to the production of art. Art is something that is “brought forth” from the earth through the technology of the creator. Working with this definition, technology brings forth and reveals something new in the environment. Heidegger’s definition in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology” focuses on technology as being dependent on, yet in opposition to, nature. Because Heidegger was wrestling with the dialectic of nature and technology, applying these concepts to contemporary eco-art adds another dimension to the discussion.

Heidegger uses hydroelectric plants on the Rhine to exemplify his term “standing-reserve,” positing that in this era, nature is a resource that is on call for human exploitation. In the mid-1800s, the Rhine was straightened from a natural braided river to an artificial meandering river by a series of canalization products. Damming the river increased its velocity, facilitating production of hydropower, and also reduced the amount of flooding, which allowed for safe human settlement but destroyed most ecosystem functions and habitats along the riparian floodplains [12]. Heidegger condemns this extractive mentality, insisting that the Rhine’s poetic value has diminished due to its connection to power stations as opposed to its traditional association to the hymn, “The Rhine” [13]. In contrast, Revival Field is grounded in poetics; by regaining partial control over the landscape, it becomes an intentional living sculpture that returns the land as close as possible to a pre-human state.

Heidegger goes further to argue that by participating in the technological accumulation of natural resources, human beings become a kind of standing-reserve in themselves. He writes, “When man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve” [14]. Somewhat pessimistically, he ties the human subject inextricably to the technology they create, as the technology goes on to create in turn, ad infinitum. In Chin’s case, the subject is a sculptor and gardener who investigates the power of nature as a solution to man-made problems. The subject relies on the genetic competency of the species they plant, the terrain (object) relies on the subject to harvest the now-toxic leaves, and the subject collects the metals as ore from the incinerated product, which is now simply representative of the standing-reserve. In doing so, the sculpture tips the scale towards the natural.

Phytoremediation alters this dynamic by retaking agency from, and eventually dismissing, the human subject. To exemplify his theory, Heidegger writes that “The forester […] is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines” [15]. Here, the mechanisms used by the plants’ roots to take up metals from the soil, including phytoextraction, phytostabilization, rhizofiltration, and rhizodegradation, are almost unfathomable except to the biologist or botanist [16]. This technology, the result of natural evolution, is unrivalled by other more mechanistic technologies designed to achieve the same effect.

The question of agency in the relationship between man and nature is darkened when viewed through the lens of Heidegger. Peter Wollen, a film theorist, points out that the language Heidegger uses to describe the manipulation of the Rhine and the subordination of man is militaristic (which is an unsettling yet expected observation, considering Heidegger’s previous membership to the Nazi party) [17]. The concept of the standing-reserve is centered on the idea of being “on call for duty,” as a marine is in the army, without autonomy. Throughout colonial history, mankind has struggled for control against nature, battling its wild hostility and steadily domesticating it into neat agricultural rows and deep mines. At the same time, mankind is dependent on nature for survival. In Chin’s work, the human continues this act of subjugation by selecting plants for cultivation and destruction; however, the perennial species will continue to grow after the human leaves the project, taking control of both the sculptural product and the ecology. Additionally, Revival Field, as mentioned previously, is cleverly designed to resemble a gunsight reticle. Instead of selecting a target for destruction, an imaginary rifle targets the area from above as a site for healing. This blatant twist on military symbolism points to the worst developments in human technology while revealing the best of it: a harmless and organic yet totally functional healing tool that has broken free of the grasp of human control.

Chin’s conceptual art moves beyond the metaphor in this piece, collaborating with scientists, politicians, and citizens, and making a lasting mark on the land. He believes in “the participatory power of art as a driving force for public awareness, dialogue, and action” [18]. In Revival Field, he uses the fledgling technology of phytoremediation not only to comment on the state of the environment but to kickstart action where there had previously been stagnation. In this way, Chin is an unusual contemporary artist. Unafraid of pushing the boundaries of traditional art, he invites participation at all levels: research and planning, implementation and maintenance, and observation and transmission of ideas. This art piece’s primary goal is not to stir an emotional reaction in the viewer or to change someone’s political opinion, but to actually alter the physical landscape for the better. Since the 1991 piece, communities from around the world have reached out to him to install a Field in their polluted locales. This growing network of actors denotes a shift away from the idea that nature is a resource to be held until it is emptied, and an increasing urge to separate humanity from artificial technology.

For any new Revival Field to start, however, the human hand is heavily involved. To succeed, there must be a constant exchange between human subject and natural object, each in some capacity acting as the standing-reserve. Chin’s hope is that a Revival Field will exist long after the human has stopped interfering—indeed, long after his own death. Phytoremediation breaks the standing-reserve cycle, slowly returning agency to nature: “when a healthy, self-sustaining site is returned to a compromised earth, Revival Field will be born and the sculpture will be complete” [19].

What are the possibilities of scaling up Revival Field beyond Chin’s initial installations, implementing the sculpture on compromised lands across the planet? While Heidegger envisioned technology as a threat to the poetics of the landscape and our way of life, Mel Chin envisioned it as something inherently poetic, working within, not against, the landscape. The pessimistic environmentalist might yearn for human extinction, dreaming of an eco-utopia, but perhaps this energy is misdirected. Revival Field promises a series of mini-utopias, not immediately, but on an ecological time scale. By putting down the technology of weapons and industry and asking natural technology to succeed in their place, we relinquish our command over nature in a demonstration of autonomy. Under Chin’s instruction, we move towards a kinder, healthier relationship with the earth.


NOTES

1. Chin, Mel. “Revival Field.” Accessed October 28, 2019. http:// melchin.org/oeuvre/revival-field/.

2. Weintraub, Linda. “Mel Chin: Soil Remediation.” In To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, 1st ed., 135–41. University of California Press, 2012. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctv1xxwhw.24.

3. Ryan, Zoë, and Mel Chin. “A Conversation With Mel Chin.” Log, no. 8 (2006): 59–68.

4. Boswell, Peter. “Invisible Aesthetic: Peter Boswell Revisits Mel Chin’s Revival Field,” Walker Art Center, October 9, 2017. https://walkerart.org/magazine/mel-chin-revival-field-peter-boswell-rufus-chaney-eco-art.

5. This perspective is often romanticized by environmentalists who do not consider the settler-colonial history that led us to this point, mythologizing a “pristine” earth that never existed and erasing blame from imperialism.

6. Ryan, 59.

7. My favorite part of this blueprint is the note attached to the asterisk stipulating that the fabric used to shade the fences should be made from “used or recycled material.” This indicates to me a total dedication to sustainability that goes beyond surface level, unlike much contemporary art that is intended only to provoke reaction in the viewer.

8. Boswell, n.p.

9. Edenlord, Luci, and Molly Sultany. “Phytoremediation: Utilizing Hyperaccumulator Plants to Extract Toxic Chemical Waste from Soil & Groundwater.” NHSJS blog, March 31, 2017. https://nhsjs.com/2017/phytoremediation-utilizing-hyperaccumulator-plants-to-extract-toxic-chemical-waste-from-soil-groundwater/.

10. Pivetz, Bruce E. “Phytoremediation of Contaminated Soil and Ground Water at Hazardous Waste Sites.” United States Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development, February 2001. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/epa_540_s01_500.pdf.

11. Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, 3–35. New York, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., 1977.

12. Thanks to Professor Michael Anstett, Universität Freiburg. This information was collected during field observation of the Rhine floodplains in October 2018.

13. Heidegger, 16.

14. Heidegger, 19.

15. Heidegger, 18.

16. Pivetz, n.p.

17. Wollen, Peter. “The Question of Technology.” In Paris/Manhattan: Writings on Art, 51–60. New York, USA, and London, England: Verso, n.d.

18. Weintraub, 138.

19. Ryan, 62

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