Natural Assumptions: The Living Culture Initiative at The Ohio State University[uds-billboard name="mercil"]During my undergraduate years in the Department of Art at The Ohio State University, I was invited to participate in a graduate seminar with renowned artists Michael Mercil and Ann Hamilton in their off-campus studio. What follows is an overview of some of Mercil’s recent projects at OSU that I find to be exemplary of the productive ways in which an artist can be both generous with and critical of his environments.
The first line of The Ohio State University Wikipedia entry states, “Founded in 1870, as a land-grant university and ninth university in Ohio with the Morrill Act of 1862, the university was originally known as the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College.” The school was originally situated within a farming community located on the northern edge of Columbus. In 1878, the first class (six men) graduated.
Today, OSU is a highly respected research institution that boasts approximately 65,000 students. The main campus is located in the heart of Columbus, bordering downtown and the historical Short North and German Village neighborhoods. Even though I attended classes on this campus for four years, I was clueless about its agricultural history. In my experience, OSU was beautiful manicured lawns, nice large old scholarly-looking brick or stone buildings, several gigantic paved parking lots and football–not exactly your farmer’s idea of a hoedown. And having been born and raised in the suburbs of Columbus, the city for me had always been simply a college town–a relatively affordable place to buy a house and raise a family, especially if you are a teacher, banker, or insurance agent. This may lead artists to assume there aren’t many opportunities or support networks for creative pursuits. But they would be wrong.
Michael Mercil is an artist and professor in the OSU Department of Art. He and his partner, artist Ann Hamilton, have committed themselves to playing an active role at the University. Conflicted by the fact that an hour of teaching is a hour away from his studio, he decided to take advantage of the campus and assume it as his studio, and in doing so asks, “What is the nature of the culture we produce here?”
This question was largely informed by the original mission of OSU as a public land-grant college dedicated to “a curriculum of the agricultural, mechanical and the liberal arts” and led Mercil to create various projects from time-gifting gift cards to 365 readings of the daily news to The Living Culture Initiative. Described as “a locally focused forum for integrating the fine arts disciplines into the broader university mission and resources, The Living Culture Initiative takes on what Mercil terms “agri/cultural” research around the paradox of the University: now home to the humanities and the liberal arts, its linguistic culture (reading, writing, speaking) is ironically at odds with the artist’s culture (materialization and demonstration). Honoring the agricultural history of OSU, Mercil recognizes that the artist and the farmer share basic means of cultural production and communication: they both require information that is contained in the hand and/or the body.
The Living Culture Initiative involves partnerships with and support from several entities on and off campus including (but not limited to) the Social Responsibility Initiative in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. For example The Beanfield, a project in which Mercil, from 2006 and 2008, converted a flowerbed outside the Wexner Center for the Arts into an artwork evoking the roots of OSU as a public land-grant college. The Beanfield was inspired in part by the two-and-a-half acres of beans that Henry Thoreau cultivated at Walden Pond. (According to Mercil, Thoreau went to Walden to not only naturalize himself but also to socialize himself. For example, Walden disliked beans but he planted them because it provided an opportunity to trade, and therefore socialize, with his neighbors who grew rice, a crop more to his liking.)
In 2008, Mercil converted The Beanfield into The Virtual Pasture, again informed by agri/cultural research. The focus this time was to reintroduce farm animals as an aspect of everyday campus experience–to make them once again visible and relevant to the educational process. To do this, Mercil raised a flock of Shetland sheep on the remote pastures at the Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware, Ohio. Here he placed cameras on fenceposts so that the sheep’s grazing could be monitored and sent as a live video feed to a publicly visible LED monitor placed outdoors (in the flowerbed/beanfield) at the Wexner Center. Once a month he would bring the sheep to campus, and to the Wexner Center, and let them graze. The Virtual Pasture closed in December 2011 and Mercil dispersed the flock in the summer of 2012.
Mercil extends elements of The Virtual Pasture and other of his agri/cultural efforts in Covenant, a video that examines the language of touch, or handling, between animals and their tending farmers. In February 2013, the full-length version of Covenant premieres as a featured event at the Wexner Center’s annual Field & Screen film series.
“As both an artist and a teacher, I am especially interested in types of knowledge gained and communicated by means other than words. And so, because animals do not speak, Covenant is narrated mostly with images rather than talk,” says Mercil.
Mercil’s most recently proposed project is Wind|Farm, a 500 square foot energy park that includes a 60-foot tall, gold gilt wind turbine that generates electricity for the display of new video works on view in the galleries of the Wexner Center for the Arts. Fittingly, the site for Wind|Farm assumes the same flowerbed plot outside the Wexner Center as was used for The Beanfield and The Virtual Pasture. In his proposal he explains, “In completing the rotation of the site from flowerbed, to working garden, to orchard and livestock pasture, to carbon storage bank, Wind|Farm culminates my Living Culture Initiative projects made in partnership with several entities at Ohio State.”
I can’t begin to imagine what Mercil will do next at OSU, but its safe to assume that it will again be a natural fit.
Images courtesy of the artist. Photos by Michael Mercil unless otherwise noted.