Mary Miss

Mary Miss, WaterMarks: An Atlas of Water for the City of Milwaukee, 2015–, rendering.

Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” pinpointed Mary Miss’s work as an example of how sculpture, landscape architecture, and architecture itself had become problematically entangled over the course of the postmodern 1970s. Forty years later, beyond the gallery, the discipline of sculpture has been transformed to include new genres, while recent generations of artists have joined Miss in the evolving expanded field. Here, Miss talks about the trajectory of her output and her nonprofit, the City as a Living Laboratory (CALL).

I'M INTERESTED IN working at the scale of the city but doing it in a way where intimate engagement is possible. In 2008, I spent a year taking the concepts from previously unrealized projects to develop CALL, which puts forth the idea that artists, working in collaboration with scientists, engineers, planners, and communities, can have an essential role to play in addressing the pressing environmental issues of our times. I started CALL out of my own frustration with my inability to bring large-scale commissions to fruition due to the fact that art was seen as expendable. I found that art always came last in a large-scale project, just as the money ran out. My mission became forging interdisciplinary collaborations to explore how to engage communities on the streets in their own neighborhoods. This meant working on small-scale projects with multiple artists and creating multiple encounters.

The current project that I am working on for CALL is an initiative with the city of Milwaukee called WaterMarks. The goal is to develop a new public narrative around water in the city to help people better understand their relationship to the natural systems and infrastructure that support their lives. My approach has been to create an atlas of water that consists of a multilayered framework—events, an app, other artists, the repurposing of existing infrastructure—to engage citizens and produce a citywide network. For example, in the Inner Harbor of Milwaukee, the three main rivers come together, and the water treatment plant is located there. In the center of the plant is a 350-foot stack that I am repurposing as a beacon to warn of approaching sewage overflows into Lake Michigan. The stack and its vapor will be lit blue under normal conditions. When the plant is full to capacity with raw sewage, the lighting on the stack will turn red in order to prevent sewage overflow in the bay. The stack can be seen by many communities across the city and will set up a call-and-response, as households are encouraged to limit their water usage at this time.

Vertical elements are not part of my normal sculptural vocabulary, but in this case, visibility is the most important aspect. I found in past projects that discrete sites activated in random neighborhoods were only experienced by a limited number of people; in this case, I wanted to establish a central location with an identifiable vocabulary that could appear incrementally across the city. Also, others have transformed or aestheticized sewage plants into sleek designs, but that wasn’t my interest. I wanted to ask: How can you repurpose found structures to help communities understand their relationship to the infrastructure, to the water systems that support their lives? What I have learned in work like this over the past several decades is that little gets communicated through one or two encounters. Change comes through a repetitive process of engagement over time.

Even though they were often temporary, many of my public sculptures from the ’70s were complex structures. In the ’90s, when I tried to make work calling out a city’s relationship to natural systems, people weren’t ready for it. In the case of an urban river walk I proposed for Milwaukee in 1998, the elements pointing out the relationship between the water coming off the city and the river were eliminated. In the Anthropocene, more cities and institutions are becoming more receptive to the importance of the systems that sustain us. The work of the pioneering urban ecologist Steward Pickett has been parallel to my own and continues to influence me. Urban ecology is about community—the economic and political forces, as well the natural ones. Pickett and I share a passion for finding ways of revealing, engaging, and sharing with people the endless aspects of natural systems.

In the wake of climate change, artists need to help redefine nature. I’ve long claimed that the city is nature and we are living in it. It has become increasingly apparent to the scientists that I work with that they are unable to make an impact on the public with their research data alone. They need the help of artists to make important data visceral and accessible.

The art-world notion of the avant-garde figure—the singular hero out in front of the pack—no longer serves: Today it’s all about collaborations and connections and how to make them. It’s about the idea of embracing a constellation of artists who can help to make issues visible, accessible, and meaningful. CALL comes directly out of my experience as a young woman and feminist in the ’70s, of being willing to dismantle things and take on the system. It now seems reasonable for an artist to take on an entire city, as I have done and continue to do. So, now more than ever, I believe artists have the power to help create change.