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August 28, 2013

anandAs an artist and a professor in the School of Art, Julie Anand questions conventional boundaries including the ones between artistic media, science and art, and bodies and their environments. She first studied evolutionary biology and ecology as an undergraduate, but then became enthralled with photography. Anand combines her love of art and the environment in mix-media creations that explore our interdependency with each other and with the natural world. Her work was featured in ASU Art Museum’s exhibition, “Defining Sustainability.”

1. How did you come to combine ecology with art?

I first loved poetry. A teacher introduced me to the power of metaphor when I was eight years old in rural Virginia. During high school, in the margins of my natural science class notebooks were ideas for poems inspired by astronomy and biology.

I then entered college and took a geology course. We drove up a mountain collecting samples to later reconstruct the history of that mountain. I was completely hooked by using the Earth to tell stories. I was a geology major until I decided that rocks are better as habitat. I took a minor in geosciences and switched majors to ecology and evolutionary biology, but kept going with my two-year paleontology research project on the pattern of light and dark bands on the shells of a living fossil. I found a seasonal periodicity to those bands—like that of tree rings—and presented a paper at the Geologic Society of America. But I was more impressed with the metaphor underneath the data: that bodies (including our own) are record keepers in dialogue with their environments.

After college, I began to look for a new language in which metaphor was centrally vital and valued. I began taking photography—a marriage of art and science—and art history classes. I eventually put together a portfolio of images made in an arboretum and went to graduate school for art. I felt that art was the perfect empty vessel for my concerns and forms that communicated the poetry of an idea.

2. Can you describe the first time you became interested in sustainability?

I played outside all day, every day when I was little and we lived in some very beautiful wild places. I lived across from a farm in Virginia and used to play on hay bales and saw piglets being born. I hung out in a huge dug-out tree stump in the woods. Up to my teens, the main warning when I left my doorstep was “watch out for snakes.” My chores included de-stringing string beans. I don't think I would have been able to call it “sustainability” for many years to come, but I had very early embodied experiences of the complex interconnectedness of environments and organisms.

3. What made you want to become a professor?

I went to art school to become a fuller artist. I had no idea beyond that what I wanted to be when I grew up. As it turns out, in graduate school I taught underclassmen. I had my students dissect cow's eyeballs in an introductory photography class to understand their own systems of vision. It turned out that I really loved talking with students about their ideas and helping them bring those ideas to fruition.

4. What kind of work do you do as a sustainability scholar in the Global Institute of Sustainability?

I am an artist who works with ideas of interdependence and material culture; my artwork is my research. As a teacher, I also advise students interested in linkages between art and science generally, or ecological art, more specifically. I am sometimes asked to participate in panels, workshops, grant steering committees, or working groups related to the role of humanities in sustainability studies. I teach an upper-level course in the School of Art that is open to non-majors called Art and Ecology or Systems, Ecology, Art. My students often exhibit their work in the Institute’s Wrigley Hall after the semester ends.

5. How can art communicate sustainability concepts to those who may not know what “sustainability” is?

First of all, art is often located in very different contexts than where social and physical science lives, reaching a different and sometimes broader audience. Secondly, artists are bridge-building communicators by nature. We make experiences for other people to respond to aesthetically, emotionally, and conceptually. We often make things that affect people in ways that they themselves have a hard time explaining—making an image or space, for example, that someone feels before it enters other kinds of language. We can also take risks because we celebrate subjectivity and are not bound by the same burdens of proof.

6. What can students learn in your art classes?

Students in Art and Ecology see a huge diversity of approaches to making artwork that addresses environmental issues, from works that bring awareness to works that create new opportunities for viewers to participate with their environments, and even works that directly affect the health of the Earth. We also read passages from seminal texts in the history of the environmental movement. Finally, students use their own interests to create experiences for viewers with their minds and hands.

7. Finally, what does the word “sustainability” mean to you?

My opinion on the meaning of this word is always changing in relation to what particular aspect of natural and human systems I’m addressing. Right now, I’m thinking about how within natural systems there isn’t really much that we could call “waste” because inputs and outputs operate in cycles; whereas, many human-designed systems create “waste” because elements are understood to function in terms of inputs and outputs with arbitrary end points. “Sustainability” as I’m thinking about it right now involves getting rid of the concept of waste altogether, creating systems that function as circles rather than lines. If sustainability calls to mind “survival,” then I think we need to go way beyond it to “thrive-al.”