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Marking a path: Sustainability and the arts

A new art residency connects artists with scientists, students and the community to solve complex sustainability problems.

Finding long-term solutions to complex problems is not just about the destination. It’s about marking the path for others to follow so they can discover the next solution. Named after the human-made piles of stones found at trail markers around the world, “Cairns” is a new art residency at the University of Utah will mark the progress made as we strive for sustainability.

UtahPresents, the campus inter-disciplinary performing arts presenter, is partnering with the Sustainability Office and the Global Change & Sustainability Center on the project. The staff in each department have brought their collective resources and expertise together to make Cairns a success. Together they will convene artists, scientists, students and community organizers to explore complex sustainability questions from the ground up.

“What makes Cairns so unique is the idea that multiple projects will occur over time, or even in conjunction with one another that lead to the next step, then to the next answer and eventually to the solutions to the environmental problems we see today,” said Brooke Horejsi, executive director, UtahPresents. “Our collaborative partner offices have all embodied the OneU approach to come together to find new and innovative ways to explore and solve sustainability related issues.”

Where we have been

The Cairns artist residency is unlike many others and builds on the foundation of the frequently used model. A typical artist residency creates a dedicated space for the artist to escape to and create. Of those residencies, a narrow subset includes artist and scientist collaboration. These residencies are often for a short period of time or have artists exclusively focused on science-driven storytelling.

Cairns intentionally addresses the interrelationships of environmental sustainability and social equity and builds long-term relationships between artists and scientists. Research shows that working with artists early in the research process alters scientists’ views, designs and methods and allows artists to delve deeper into issues.

“This project will create opportunities for deeper collaborations to develop over time,” said Brenda Bowen, director of the Global Change & Sustainability Center. “This is vital to our campus and broader communities because it delves deeper than a single class lecture, or a course created to last over multiple semesters ever could. We need new research driven by creative minds and new works of art or performances that tell a complex scientific narrative.”

Where we are now

Cairns is made possible with the aid of essential seed grant funding provided from the One U for Utah (1U4U) Initiative. Faculty partners on this first grant are Brooke Horejsi, Brenda Bowen, Kimberly Jew and Daniel Mendoza.

The indigenous artist collective, All My Relations (AMR) and their work “GIZHIBAA GHIIZIG | Revolving Sky” was selected as the inaugural multi-year residency in 2020. AMR is an art, theatre, film and design collective committed to making new work that uplifts the interconnectedness of all living things past, present and future. The collectives four core collaborators are Ty Defoe, Kate Freer, Lux Haac and Marika Kent.

AMR is currently embedded with and leading workshops for, faculty and students in the Global Change & Sustainability Center, Dark Sky Studies minor, the Department of Theatre and the Division of Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation.

In the relatively short time that AMR has been in residence, they have completed 14 workshops and lectures for 312 students and faculty across 4 departments. The artists collective also presented a streaming “work in progress” version of “GIZHIBAA GHIIZIG | Revolving Sky” in early March 2021, for audiences to preview how the work is developing in real-time.

The current residency with AMR, on the topic of Dark Skies, is especially important in that it brings Native American perspectives and Traditional Ecological Knowledge on stars to the existing momentum around dark skies initiatives at the U.

“AMR’s time with undergraduate students in the program has brought real people and faces to concepts in dark skies studies that are less obvious for students grounded in science and urban planning,” said Daniel Mendoza, program coordinator and lead collaborator for the Dark Skies Studies minor. “With AMR, the students have explored the richness and heritage of looking at dark skies from a cultural perspective and shared their own star stories.”

Where we will go

To deepen the seeds that have been planted this year and accommodate changes in schedules due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, the All My Relations residency has been extended into the next academic year. Their time in Utah will culminate in a live performance in the 2022-23 season, informed by collaborations with U students and faculty.

This new approach to sustainability and performing arts collaboration will provide faculty and students with the opportunity to discover innovative ways to explore their research and artists with the scientific understanding to create thoughtfully sourced, awe-inspiring performances at the intersection where research and science meet art and creativity.