School of Art Professor Gary Setzer discusses his experience of having a project accepted and exhibited at the recent Biennale Architettura 2021, a prestigious, global event in Venice, Italy.
Setzer and Dan Majka of The Nature Conservatory created “The Corridor: Climate Change, Border Permeability, and Ecosystem Resilience” that asks as climate change alters habitats and disrupts ecosystems, where will animals move to survive? And will human development prevent them from getting there? “The Corridor” is an installation that uses three-channel video and sound to address the relationship between border permeability and ecosystem resilience in a time of climate change.
The Biennale Architettura 2021, curated by Hashim Sarkis, was on view from May 5 – Nov. 21, 2021, and was themed “How Will We Live Together?”
Setzer and Majka created an exhibition floor plan that facilitates a symbolic passage for viewers – their movement through the various stations of the installation parallels the directed movement of animals through a wildlife crossing structure. Viewers are led to an immersive map replete with a dynamic visualization of animal migration data in North and South America. Setzer and Majka created the video using data from scientists at the Nature Conservancy together with researchers at the University of Washington.
Under climate change, animals will be required to move and adapt to new habitats at a rate never seen on Earth. This installation articulates the dramatic urgency of the situation.
“My experience has been that the projects in the Biennale Architettura largely emphasize concept and meaning in the same way that visual art does,” said Setzer. “It asks big questions in the same way. I see it as conceptual architecture, and from where I stand it doesn’t feel that different than an installation art exhibition. I think that is why there is such a rich history of visual artists being participants in the Biennale Architettura.”
Setzer earned the Provost Faculty Award for Innovation in Teaching in 2020.
Setzer discusses his experience
How did the partnership come about with Dan Majka of The Nature Conservatory?
Dan is a conservation scientist and technologist for the Nature Conservancy, and for a time, he worked out of their Tucson office. We met in Tucson on Craigslist, of all places. I was trying to start an electronic music project and Dan replied to the posting. We had tried out several projects, but the only thing that ever stuck was our friendship. I’m a vegan and Dan is a vegetarian—and I’d say that a lot of our friendship centered on eating. Tania’s 33, Rocco’s Little Chicago, and Le Cave’s Bakery were our go to Tucson places.
Dan left Tucson in 2012, but we stayed in touch over the years. When the opportunity to collaborate on this project surfaced, we were both all in.
How cool is it to have a project at the Biennale Architettura 2021?
When you’re roaming about the streets and piazzas of Venice, it’s easy to get caught up in the allure of the city knowing that Michelangelo, Leonardo, or Titian may have stood exactly where you’re standing. I’ve been to numerous Venice Biennales over the years and every time I would walk through those spaces would just drool thinking about what it would be like to exhibit in spaces of that caliber. So, it is surreal. Our installation is in the Giardini’s Central Pavilion—the Biennale’s iconic exhibition space—and it’s just to the right inside of the main entrance. We were gobsmacked. None of it felt real for a long time. That surreal state was exacerbated because for months our involvement had to be kept absolutely secret until the Biennale made their official press release announcing the participants. So, it’s cooler than cool. It’s ice cold.
How did the concept of “The Corridor” evolve?
We began the project in August of 2019 with a series of Zoom meetings. This was before the pandemic and it was my introduction to Zoom—which, for obvious reasons, came in very handy. Because of COVID-19, the entire process from start to finish transpired over Zoom meetings, emails, and texting. One day our families will celebrate together, and it will, no doubt, involve burritos and doughnuts.
The theme of the Biennale Architettura this year was How Will We Live Together? It seemed pertinent that we keep that at the core of the project’s direction. Dan had been developing code to visualize data related to climate change induced animal migration for The Nature Conservancy. We decided that access to that data would give us a unique perspective in light of the theme. Our plan was to create an art installation that not only functioned on poetic and metaphoric levels, but that simultaneously served as a real call to action. With that as the premise, I started drawing.
There were literally hundreds of drawings. I began by giving myself license to draw anything and everything that the installation could possibly be. Things that were not practical, affordable, or even remotely realistic. I would meet with Dan every few days to share the drawings and we would talk about what worked or didn’t work, and I’d go back to it. We were slowly carving the idea into something more concrete. All the while he was sharing articles and research with me in a shared drop box and it was fabulous fuel. When I would stray too far from the science, he would reel me in. When it felt too stiff like a PowerPoint presentation, I would reel him in.
Our attention gradually focused on animal land bridges—also called wildlife corridors. Crossing structures like these are one solution that ecologists have used to allow animals safe passage across hard boundaries like highways. The land bridge maintains the connectivity of the corridors that connect natural habitats. The permeability of human-developed borders is essential for the survival of animals, because as climate change intensifies animals need safe routes to migrate to cooler climates. Shortly after the exhibition opened the New York Times ran a fabulous piece on wildlife crossings, How do animals safely cross a highway?
Ultimately, we decided to design a video installation that facilitated a symbolic passage for the viewer—their movement through the installation would parallel that of the directed movement of animals across these funnel-like land bridges. The viewer moves alongside larger-than-life animals, situating them in the throes of the animals’ tenuous migration experience. The culminating video inside the corridor uses electrical circuit theory to show the average direction that over 2,900 animals in North and South America would have to move in order to adapt to climate change-induced habitat shifts.
What is the significance of the subject matter for you?
Humans are shortsightedly driving climate change through our own selfishness. Because of that, every habitat and every lifeform is at stake. I think humans have a responsibility to ensure the survival of other species we share the Earth with. With this project, we posit that to thrive together with nature in a time of intensifying climate change, we must reconsider how we incorporate permeability into borders and the matrix in between natural environments. Our fates and the fates of animals are indissolubly tethered. We’ve personified the animals—observably humans in costume—to that end.
This project has been made possible by donors to the University of Arizona College of Fine Arts Fund for Excellence, The Morgan and Salomon Professional Development Endowment at the University of Arizona School of Art, The Faculty Professional Development Grant at the University of Arizona School of Art, and the Nature Conservancy.