IN THE FIELD
Art Practice as Material Science in the Great Salt Lake
By Hans Baumann, guest contributor
Codex Gunnison is a mediative engagement with a unique and understudied ecological condition. It is also an effort to reimagine artistic practice as a speculative and vibrantly humanistic material science capable of interacting with and enriching conventional modes of objective inquiry. It does so by reframing representation as a process of critical engagement with the methodological frameworks employed by scientists with the artist manipulating the scope, aims, and outcomes of formal research.
The Great Salt Lake is shrinking. As I write this, the lake has reached its lowest level in recorded history. The reasons for this are many, but a changing climate and increased human demand for the water that feeds into the lake are foremost among them. This trend may portend an ecological catastrophe on scale with the disappearance of the Aral Sea, but, for now, the lake remains.
Historical aerial photographs of the lake reveal that its shoreline has always fluctuated dramatically. In the 1980s the Great Salt Lake was expanding so rapidly that the State of Utah constructed a $60 million pumping station to protect nearby manufacturing plants, Interstate 80, and Salt Lake City International Airport from the threat of flooding. Today the station sits some 13 miles away from the edge of the Great Salt Lake[i]. As the lake level changes, objects are submerged, artifacts are uncovered and materials accumulate in great concentrations - phenomena that led both Robert Smithson and the Morton Salt Company to this place.
[i] No author, “Great Salt Lake Pumping Station, Utah” Center for Land Use Interpretation, Accessed January 18, 2017, http://clui.org/ludb/site/great-salt-lake-pumping-station.
Aerial imagery of the far northern reaches of the Great Salt Lake - known as Gunnison Bay - reveals Smithson’s iconic spiral landform and water of an otherworldly pink hue. Gunnison Bay was formed in the mid-20th century by the construction of a railroad causeway that effectively bisected the Great Salt Lake, thus cutting off the northern arm of the lake from any fresh water inputs. Due to evaporation, the salinity in this portion of the lake has steadily increased over time (it is currently almost ten times saltier than ocean water), and the water appears pink due to massive populations of an extremophilic phytoplankton - one of the only organisms that can survive in this environment[i].
[i] M.R. Lindsay et al., “Microbialite response to an anthropogenic salinity gradient in Great Salt Lake, Utah,” Geobiology 15, no. 1 (2016): 1.
With its broad horizons and flat expanses, Gunnison Bay appears so profoundly abiotic that it marginalizes not only human lifeforms, but essentially any member of the Kingdom Animalia that encounters it. It feels fitting that the Donner Party crossed through this area before they came to their infamous and gruesome end. Yet, according to the scientists that study Gunnison Bay, its anthropogenically induced ecosystem is valuable because it acts as a refugia for rare geobiological organisms that are likely the ancestor to every known life form on this planet. Known as “microbialites,” these entities are essentially living stones and appear to the untrained eye as large boulders in the lakebed. Part biology, part geology, microbialites inhabit the liminal space between organism and inanimate matter and implicitly undermine the supposedly binary relationship between these phenomena (i.e. life vs. matter). Microbialites reorganize our understanding of the biotic/abiotic divide and suggest that the biosphere – humans included – is less a collection of discrete organisms and more an interpenetrating flow of life forces between diverse material conditions.
Codex Gunnison operates not as an authoritative singular endpoint, but as a process of accumulating information, experimental outcomes, and direct sensory experience into an intellectually coherent but materially diverse whole; an aspatial “nonsite” for endless cognitive excavation. If Smithson issued a call to “provide a concrete consciousness for the present as it really exists”[i], this is one method for achieving this end. The formulation of knowledge and documentation of the unknown are radically creative acts that require no embellishment or abstraction.
[i] Robert Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University, 1979), 221.