Performative Public Art Ecology




WHEN ADDRESSING ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES THROUGH artistic practice, contemporary artists often find themselves in the role of educator, leader and performer. Leading by example, they go out in the world and create works that remediate or revision sites (1), often with a high level of scientific knowledge and an ability to communicate important ecological processes. When the art is not physically visible it translates as a kind of performance. These artists also consider their research and interactions with a community on a specific site an integral part of the art.

In this essay, I review early examples of performative ecological art beginning in 1970 and follow its evolution up to 2008. By no means a definitive examination of the genre, this essay is more a review of important performance based ecoart that illustrates an evolution from the gestural, poetic, or conceptual, towards more practical actions that provide tools for sustainable living.

The pioneers of this work have roots in the Earth Art movement that began in the late 1960s.  However, most Earth or Land artists were either concerned with making their mark on the land, or were simply performing an act of aesthetic exploration with the earth as their medium with no real concern for the principles of ecology. In contrast the performative art works I discuss are rooted in ecological concerns, as demonstrations or ritual acts, and range from solo performances both documented and undocumented, to community art projects with formal engagement between artist and citizens.


MAKING EARTH, Newton Harrison, San Diego, 1970.


ONE OF THE EARLIEST PERFORMANCES OUTSIDE gallery walls was Newton Harrison’s Making Earth from 1970. This was a process of making earth that was documented with photographs. Upon realizing that topsoil was endangered worldwide in the 1960s, Harrison, while living in San Diego CA with his wife and collaborator Helen, decided to “make earth” or “good soil” with sand, clay, sewage sludge, leaf material and chicken/cow/horse manure. These elements were mixed, watered, and then mixed again several times over a four month period until when combined, they gave off a rich forest-floor smell that the artists’ could symbolically taste. The act of mixing the elements was performed without an audience and was intended by the artists as a meditation on taking action, being an active participant in living sustainably, a demonstration of humans working in collaboration nature.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who wrote her Manifesto for Maintenance Art in 1969, is also considered one of the originators of ecological performance art. From 1973-74, for her Maintenance Art Performance Series she performed Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Outside in 1973 at Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford CN. For this work she mopped and scrubbed the interior galleries and exterior steps of the museum. Although this work was very much a part of the feminist dialogue of the time, her actions highlighted how housekeeping is an essential and timeless act for being a steward of this planet.


HANDSHAKE RITUAL, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Freshkills Landfill Stanton Island, 1978-80.


In 1976, Ukeles was appointed artist-in-residence with the New York City Department of Sanitation, an unsalaried position in which she created multiple pieces for her performative series Touch Sanitation Performance (1978-80). With Handshake Ritual she set out to shake hands with over eight thousand sanitation workers. She faced each worker and said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” These actions included exchanges with literally thousands of city sanitation workers and have been the inspiration for many ecological interventions in the public sphere over the years.



Around this same time in San Francisco, ecological artist Jo Hanson developed a performance-based work that involved a daily sweeping of her residential sidewalk on Buchanan Street. “Evolving into an eco artist couldn’t have been farther from my mind when I went out to clean the 180 feet of my 12-foot wide sidewalk in my windy new neighborhood of San Francisco in 1970 . . . Soon my cleaning extended to the whole block- one to three times daily. City trucks came one to three times daily to haul it away. City workers and I became buddies and collaborators, which led into unanticipated collaborations down the line.” (2)


ART THAT'S SWEEPING THE CITY--Mayor Dianne Feinsten collaborates; Jo Hanson, SF City Hall exhibit, 1980.Â


This public art practice later became a celebrated citywide anti-litter campaign in which Mayor Dianne Feinstein participated in the sweeping of sidewalks as Art. Hanson taking further inspiration from Mierle Ukeles later proposed an artist-in-residency program to NORCAL Sanitary Fill Company in 1982 that has now offered more than 100 artists’ studio time and stipends since 1990 to create artwork from the waste stream to raise public awareness.  (Editor’s Note: See Sharon Spain’s Recology essay re residency in this WEAD Magazine issue.)


THE HARRISONS, UKELES, AND HANSON WERE doing this work simultaneously to Land Artists Smithson and Heizer who developed large-scale projects in the desert southwest with no formal engagement of ecological systems. Although, it is interesting to note that Los Angeles art dealer Doug Chrismas insists that Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) was created as a performance piece. The documentation was a film, which the dealer helped fund, with Smithson running the length of the spiral from the outside inward while a helicopter circles above him. Chrismas has stated that Smithson never really anticipated an audience making the pilgrimage to the site forty years later. (3) Also, British artist Richard Long, who spent days in the landscape walking solo, marking the earth’s surface with his feet and then photographing the remaining patterns in the landscape in the late 1960s, was also engaging land as a performance, a kind of meditation on the human connection with or impacts on nature.


BY THE 1980s THE NEXT WAVE OF ONLY A HANDFUL of artists operating almost completely outside the art world carried on. Some performative examples include artists Agnes Denes, Buster Simpson, and dominique mazeaud.


WHEATFIELD: A CONFRONTATION, Agnes Denes, New York City, 1982.


In 1982 Agnes Denes initiated Wheatfield: A Confrontation with a band of volunteers at the Battery Park Landfill adjacent to the former Twin Towers in Lower Manhattan. She cleared a plot of land, brought in topsoil and planted a field of wheat, which was then harvested and fed to horses stabled by the New York City Police Department. (See WEAD Magazine Issue #2—Denes is Featured Artist)


HUDSON RIVER PURGE, Buster Simpson, 1991. 2" wide soft limestone "rolaids" tossed into the headwaters to neutralize acid pH.


The next year Buster Simpson performed his iconic environmental agitprop performances where the artist would toss large circular hand carved limestone tablets into rivers, unauthorized, meant to neutralize acidic levels of the water. Popularly referred as River Rolaids this activity was a solo inquiry, which was documented by the artist with photographs and film.


THE GREAT CLEANSING OF THE RIO GRANDE, dominique mazeaud, Santa Fe NM, 1987-1994.


The French artist dominique mazeaud (who prefers not to capitalize her name) has lived for decades in Santa Fe NM, where from 1987 to 1994 she created a ritualistic performance, The Great Cleansing of the Rio Grande. Each month she informally walked the Santa Fe River bed and banks in her community (this river is a tributary to the Rio Grande). Both a literal and symbolic river cleansing, this work was performed mostly solo and had no formal photographic documentation–only casual photos taken by friends. Mazeaud did keep written documentation of her experiences in a journal she entitled Riveries; it includes a list of items collected during the cleansings.


BY THE EARLY 1990s THERE WAS A GROWING interest by artists examining issues of native habitat, water quality, and conservation. Art writer Robin Cembalist named it an Ecological Art Explosion in her ARTnews magazine article of the same name. (4)


GATHERING OF THE WATERS, Basia Irland, 1995.

Kathryn Miller and Basia Irland are two such performative artists from this period. In 1992 Kathryn Miller performed Seed Bombing the Landscape in Southern California, throwing handmade soil and seed “balls” in disturbed fields to reintroduce native plants that were destroyed due to real estate development. Thereafter, Basia Irland began a long-term performative series Gathering of Waters in 1995, in which she collected waters from tributaries and rivers flowing from the state of Colorado to the country of Mexico. She continues this work to this day in the form of a library as sculpture.

In 1998 Oakland artist Mark Brest van Kempen set out into the Utah desert to perform Living From the Land, which consisted of thirty days living within a five square mile area of wilderness. The artist did not bring any food with him and relied on plants and animals he foraged and hunted from the site to survive. This action was a solo experience in which the artist decided to put himself into the landscape as an inquiry of survival. He documented his meals with photographs and shot video of bones from the animals he had eaten.


S.O.S. (Sustainable.Organic.Stewardship), Tattfoo Tan, 2009 - ongoing.


IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM, WITH GREATER RECOGNITION from the larger art world for artists addressing environmental issues, the performative work evolved from being more gestural or conceptual to a more direct engagement with the public, a dialogic or relational aesthetic, social practice. Nature became, once again as it did in the late 1960s, an endangered asset that needed to be managed, interpreted and understood, this time especially “in your own backyard.” Examples of activist based artist collectives in major cities performing ecological services in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles include Temescal Amity Works by Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell, LA Urban Rangers, Fallen Fruit, Eve Mosher and Tattfoo Tan (New York City).

Temescal Amity Works (2004-2007) by Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell was a three-year project in a former “orchard suburb” developed in the 1920s in Oakland CA. The artists created a community hub in their own neighborhood as a place to share food resources. They built a pushcart and collected citrus to facilitate an exchange of backyard produce among their neighbors. They also collected stories that were published and circulated as a series of free postcards. Jam making sessions and movie nights were performed through this work.

At this same time, The Los Angeles Urban Rangers were developing a platform for educating urban citizens about public access to beaches and other urban constraints on nature through the guise of a formal State Parks operation. As a collective, the artists took on the personae of Park Rangers, wearing uniforms and hats to look official. After researching and becoming experts on land use and the rights of individual citizens on public lands, they gave formal guided hikes and campfire talks to educate the public.


LA Urban Rangers


For their Malibu Public Beach Safari program the rangers teach the public what a “mean high tide” is and how they can navigate below this line safely and legally without trespassing on the properties of overly entitled landowners. The Rangers also provide information on how to navigate complicated property easements to have access to the beaches and performed Malibu Safari events such as potlucks, hikes and hunts, in these passages, to teach the public how to exercise their right of way.

Dave Burns, Matias Viegener and Austin Young, who make up the collective Fallen Fruit in Los Angeles, also started out in 2004 with their mapping of “public fruit,” fruit growing in or over public property such as streets or sidewalks, in the neighborhood of Silver Lake. Like the Urban Rangers, Fallen Fruit guides citizens on Nocturnal Fruit Forages to educate about public space and how resources are at our disposal daily that we take for granted whilst being uniformed. They too have worn uniforms to give the personae of authority, a performative aspect to their work, in order to deliver the educational information with a sense of adventure and without being pedantic. They have also done Communal Jam-Making events like Temescal Amity Works and Neighborhood Infusions, as well as Community Fruit Tree Plantings as art.



HIGHWATER LINE, Eve Mosher, 2007, New York City


AS SCIENTIFICALLY BASED EVIDENCE OF CLIMATE change has become more graphically visualized in the media, especially since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was first presented to the public in 2005, artist Eve Mosher developed a temporary intervention that visualizes sea level rise on the city streets near the shorelines of New York City. In 2007, every weekend from May through October, Mosher performed HighWaterLine in Lower Manhattan to visualize the 10-foot above sea level line for residents. With a baseball diamond marker she outlined the flood zone with blue chalk creating a temporary intervention on city streets and sidewalks near the city’s shorelines. Scientists predict if we cannot reduce our CO2 levels quickly, severe flooding will be brought on by stronger and more frequent storms, which will occur every 19 years on average by 2050. (5) Being in the public eye during this prolonged performance enabled Mosher to engage in conversation with people of all ages in different neighborhoods about the potential impacts if nothing is done to correct this problem.

New York artist Tattfoo Tan has developed an art practice over the last ten years that involves a persona that is part “Boy Scout,” “Ecological Super Hero,” and “Artist.”  The Green Stewardship, which began in 2008, is Tan’s inquiry into how the public can acquire knowledge to master skills for taking care of the planet. For this project he enrolls in various green courses that offer certification, which he proudly flaunts in the form of custom merit badges that he has designed for his coveralls. For his Master Composter badge he redesigned the Caduceus (KA DO SEE US) symbol of divine providence and the embryo of life from a serpent to a red worm and placed the icon of the earth in the background to represent how composting can save the planet. Tan has also become a certified Citizen Pruner, which allows him to prune street trees in New York City legally. In 2010 he began teaching gardening workshops to the public from his S.O.S. Mobile Classroom, a cargo bicycle featuring, tools, a garden and composting bin.


PERFORMATIVE ART, AS DEFINED BY ALLAN KAPROW, is a “non-theatrical” performance. (6) It is a means to perform a task in which an audience may or may not participate or even witness the act. The goal of the work is not necessarily for the audience to simply watch the task being performed. It is the act of performing the task, which is the art itself. The work is typically temporal and can have layers of interaction with an audience. It may include a dialogue with the artist in which the audience might receive some verbal or written information. It could also become a community project where the artist works in collaboration with the audience. And, it can be presented as a workshop, media intervention or eco-visualization, or an encounter with professional businesses.

In summary these examples convey the importance of the poetic or performative elements in artists’ work that engages the land, ecology, and sustainability. With an emphasis on ritual or demonstrations of creative solutions “in action,” the work illustrates the empowerment that can come from doing rather than representing a concept or idea through a static object. Whether the artist is impersonating or representing authority or agency, facilitating educational experiences, and using their visual skills to make the invisible visible, the work disrupts or subverts public space outside the art world to help change existing conditions in the real world.



(1) Remediate: Revision was the title for an exhibition at Wave Hill in the Bronx, Fall 2010. Curated by Jennifer McGregor.

(2) Jo Hanson quoted from

(3) Douglas Chrismas, Getty talk on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film, early 2000s.

(4) Cembalest, Robin. The Ecological Art Explosion. ARTnews vol. 90, no. 6 (summer 1991): 96-105.

(5) Global and Planetary Changes 32 (2002) 61­88. Impacts of sea level rise in the New York City metropolitan area Vivien

Gornitz (a, *), Stephen Couch (b), Ellen K. Hartig (c, 1) (a) Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University and Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Armstrong Hall 2880, Broadway, New York, NY 10025, USA (b) U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, USA (c) Wildlife Trust, Lamont­Doherty Earth Observatory, USA. Received 2 May 2001; accepted 1 June 2001.

(6) Allan Kaprow. Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993, pp. 163-180.