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Artists work to preserve nature of Nine Mile Run Greenway Project

Thursday, August 12, 1999

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

The orange, almost translucent wings of a monarch butterfly catch the morning sun as it glides in the air above the path. To the right, clusters of wild grapes -- still small and green -- drape over the tree that their vine clings to. Yellow jewelweeds enliven a hill of loose shale that towers on the left.

Reiko Goto and Bob Bingham -- she in hiking boots and a brimmed straw hat, he wearing sandals and sunglasses -- move through this pocket of wildness known as the Nine Mile Run Greenway Project with an ease that comes through familiarity. It is, after all, their project. The curious thing is that they aren't Sierra Club officials. They're artists.

As we walk the well-worn trail, which begins near the former Foodland in Swissvale and ends at the Monongahela River near Duck Hollow, we talk about the project's history, the many people who've worked on it and all of the schoolchildren who've come to learn from it. And we talk about what makes it art.

The latter is a question that's been tossed about frequently by Goto, her husband, Tim Collins, Richard Pell and Bingham, all research fellows at Carnegie Mellon University's Studio for Creative Inquiry. Bingham is also an associate professor of art at CMU. Passing between bemused and intense, they consider the postmodern tenets that have preceded this particular work.

One of these, the deliberate pushing of boundaries that has worked, for example, to eliminate such distinctions as public and private or to expand what was considered acceptable as an art venue, is applied here to encourage reconsideration of the discipline of artmaking. Another, the notion of the interdisciplinary -- which is a credo of the Studio for Creative Inquiry -- found expression in the diversity of the project team, which included artists, an attorney, scientists, engineers, landscape artists, museum staff, academics, city planners and community members, among others.

In addition, the shifting cultural dynamics that have encouraged the redefinition of societal roles in general also embrace the artist, who finds himself more frequently working outside of traditional studio space, applying himself in ways unheard of a couple of decades ago.

Seen within a broad field of intellectual and political debate, it doesn't seem incongruous, then, that these artists would have responded to an open call for proposals from the Urban Redevelopment Authority of the City of Pittsburgh to manage the greenway.

It wasn't long before they found themselves immersed in an ongoing series of planning meetings, generating cabinets of paperwork -- not a likely aesthetic direction. But such evolution is "part of the art process," according to Bingham, and something that differentiates them from, say, landscape architects who would come to the table plan in hand.

As we descend a slope, where erosion has pushed the gray rock underfoot into small gullies, we catch sight of the slag mountain that rose out of this formerly green valley in the first half of the century like some awkward venting at a continental rift. Only slightly colonized by the hardiest of plants, it gives emphasis to the tenaciousness of the greenbelt we walk within.

It was this contrast that was from the beginning apparent to the artists, who realized a need for "interventionist" action. "We were here at the right time -- at that turning point," Goto says. "We were just here ... and we couldn't ignore it."

Bingham's term is "activism light." Pointing out the traditional role of artists as activists, he says that they got into the system through the side door. "We actually joined the system to work within it." Because they chose that path, rather than "putting sand in the bulldozer tanks or hugging trees [to stop development], some have said it's not art anymore," he explains.

But this approach, while current, isn't precedent-setting. "It's not all that avant-garde," Bingham says. "For Pittsburgh it is. In California, it wouldn't be so hard to explain what we're doing."

Indeed, artists Helen and Newton Harrison, who were teaching at the University of California San Diego at the time, created an ecoart project, "Serpentine Lattice," as early as the 1970s. For it, they studied the coastal watersheds from Alaska to Southern California, comparing the ocean-hugging greenbelt to a serpent patterned periodically by gaps made by clear-cutting and development. Through large maps, photography and poetic language, Goto says, they showed "what had happened, what was now and what could be."

When Goto and Collins were in Germany this summer completing a piece that was sponsored by an Aachen museum, they met with the Harrisons to discuss how their work fit within the ecoart context. The conclusion was that Nine Mile was a more focused analysis that allowed for deeper exploration of local issues.

In its localization, the Aachen work was similar to Nine Mile Run. Using gold spray paint, to evoke art historic gold leafing, Goto and Collins mapped the path of an underground stream across 2 1/2 kilometers of the town. The intent was to point out the need to reinvigorate this once-spa, which declined after industry polluted its water. As a result, people began to have conversations about the stream and to tell stories about it to their children and grandchildren. "The marking is a starting point," Goto says. "The dialogue itself we call art. It's a different way of understanding what is art."

As Collins reiterated later, "Our process and intent is to create dialogue. Our product is discourse." In a paper prepared to answer the "why artists?" questions that have arisen during the project's three-year history, he offers "thoughts for artists involved in the restoration of post-industrial public space."

The artists' hypothesis, he says, is that "the public realm is [currently] in need of interventionist care." He argues that the traditional guardians of the public trust have become "shackled to ... commercial development" and that artists, with the value that they place upon "creative-cultural inquiry" are well suited to become the voice for the common good.

Collins cites as a long-term goal the establishment of a "cultural discourse" that would eventually involve everyone in defining the "form and function" (essence) of the "post-industrial public realm."

"We knew someone had to look at it with a different perspective," Bingham says, "and get the community involved as stewards. The concern was how green it is, and how important it is to keep it the way it is -- not that we're changing anything. At the planning meetings, 90 percent of the discussion was about the housing development. All of the potential was up on the top [of the slag mound]. There was no mention -- no aesthetic considerations -- of the greenway.

"The art," he continued, "is in facilitating the process of getting the community involved. To do that, we knew we had to get people on site."

We turn down an access path to the run and enter the shade canopy of trees that line the wide, shallow stream (the last in the city limits that remains open) that is gently lapping at the stones strewn across its bed as it flows towards the Mon.

As Goto bends to pick up a piece of slag that has begun to take on the rusty color of the iron in the water, it's easy to imagine her introducing formal qualities to the students who visit. "We look at the colors of nature, and the children learn how to observe and describe it, so that they have an artistic experience." But they also learn about "the stream, slag, steel industry, plants and animals, environmental issues ... and they see it all in a real setting."

One reason Goto enjoys taking school groups onto the site, which she describes as a "case study for urban watersheds," is that it gives her the opportunity to talk with teachers as well. "A lot of adults, including teachers, think postindustrial sites like this are problem sites -- a dump. Artists see the opportunities, and possibilities. If teachers see that, then they teach the children.

"I feel this is pretty, in chaotic ways. If people's eyes start looking that way, that's a huge change. If the site is kept [natural] because people start accepting that way, I think we've achieved our goals."

Through education, the project team does what artists have always done: present a new way of looking at things. In a contemporary manner, they challenge the simulacrum by immersing visitors into a real site with all of its immediately apparent complexities and slowly revealed beauty.

Last month closure was brought to the proposal stage of the project at a workshop that brought team and community members together to finalize concepts. Bingham hopes that the greenway will be allowed to stay in as natural a state as possible, even as developers express a desire to make it more park-like. The community input, he says, was that "less is more. They like it as it is. Why start pumping money into it, they asked, to make a park?"

He's also concerned about a road that's planned to cross the middle of the site, wondering if the "quietude" will remain if the road is built.

In the meantime, the trailer classroom that's been familiar to Commercial Avenue motorists for the past 2 1/2 years will continue to greet visitors, at least for another five months. And recently, it's begun broadcasting Slag Radio: Tune to 91.7 FM to hear a short and interesting history of the site.

An exhibition at Wood Street Galleries, Downtown, through tomorrow (open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) includes videos, photographs and commentary about the project and the natural history of the site. Goto says, "We wanted to express ourselves as artists. For three years we were quiet, attending meetings. This time, we wanted to engage with the artist community."

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