02 April 2015

art and agriculture ... and life and liberal arts

The weekly Bergren Forum at Alfred University is usually held in the Nevins Auditorium in Powell Campus Center. It was displaced to Seidlin Hall 114 this week, for "131: Endeavors in Art & Agriculture" by Cassandra Bull who is working on a bachelor's degree in the School of Art and Design as well as an associate degree in agricultural technology at Alfred State College.

Seidlin 114 is where I had physics in my freshman year of college (1964-1965) with George Towe. He gave us a lot of pop quizzes. One day, he asked us to describe something that related to a campus lecture the evening before. The lecture was unrelated to physics but Professor Towe had been struck by the fact that none of us had been at the lecture. He taught me a lesson about the value of a broad liberal arts education and diverse interests.

It was therefore fitting that Bull's project mixed art and science. For one of her agriculture classes, she had to live with a cow for 24 hours. The hours did not have to be consecutive. At the same time, she had an assignment in an art class to pick 25 words and turn them into a project. Her words:

Watching cows strap into milking machines
I see all the injustice we're told is necessity
As I shovel shit for something I don't believe in

She turned her horror at the dairy industry into a thought-piece on how you live with your concerns, how calves are taken from their mothers, how you mix aesthetics and content, how art and science influence and need each other. Bull made a pair of coveralls from Japanese mulberry stalks (kozo) to wear while she lived with her cow whose "name" was 131. The coveralls quickly became dirty and torn. When the professor Diane Cox encouraged her to continue, she wrote her field notes and statements about her experience and feelings about industrial agriculture on the coveralls. She then did a performance for her class in which she took off her street clothes, put on the coveralls and read the text, and then returned to her street clothes. She showed a video of the performance as part of her presentation today. What a powerful statement it was, picturing her description of the project.

I also could not help but think about some of the things I saw on my March road trip: the feedlots near Dalhart, Texas; the long barns in central Arkansas, presumably for chickens; the cattle and bison in fields in Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Arkansas; the varying landscapes of the U.S. Lots to think about, mostly about how there is no absolute good, that art is mixed with life, that experience is important.

No comments: