We recently received an email from a grad student writing a thesis on artist residencies for a Masters in Contemporary Art at Sotherby’s Institute in New York.  She had ten questions.  Here they are. 

1.      Did you purchase the island with the intent of creating an artist residency program?

Not specifically. It is still pretty amazing to me that the opportunity even existed in 2009 but when it was stumbled upon I took a chance. It wasn’t a split second decision but instead a decision that unfolded over several months. Ultimately, I bought it with an open perspective regarding it’s potential uses but things were still definitely vague at the time.  The overwhelming gut feeling was that it was a special place because of it’s intrinsic characteristics–nature, lack of subdivision, never previously cut, Lake Superior setting, etc.  The artist residency eventually came up as an idea amongst friends and evolved to fit as a perfect inclusion within the framework of a larger project.  The island was really only possible because of a unique set of coincidences–crashing financial markets, an ill elderly woman who was selling (she later passed two months after the title was transfered), regional family roots, conservation easement assistance, etc.  Conservation was a major initial motive–it is safe to say that conservation is the primary motive.  Symbolism was important as well.  The island’s symbolic potential is perhaps one of the most profound aspects of the land.  The native environment juxtaposed to contemporary society intrigued me because the island retained rare fundamentals that could figuratively represent many parts of life (arts, civil discourse, sciences, food, culture, conservation, reclamation, government), and it’s intact natural purity and strict isolation make it a unique location to illustrate contrasts.  I think the human mind is generally drawn to things organized well and the fact that Rabbit Island is 90 undeveloped acres is the middle of a lake makes it very different from 90 acres in the countryside surrounded by roads, subdivisions and farms, etc.  It is also very different from 90 acres surrounded by millions of acres of wilderness withing a vastly larger national park.  It is circumscribed and thus very tangible to the human mind.  This isolation doesn’t allow significant “cheating” when experimenting with sustainability projects and stands as a simple analogy upon which one can attempt to tip some of society’s conclusions upside down, etc. 

I think in the end the island leads to the question “what if things were different” and challenges one to act on this.  This underlying theme is admittedly very much a work in process.  Each person who visits the island will potentially interpret this idea very differently though hopefully a concrete set of “rules” can come of the experience in total.  

Personally the Rabbit Island concept leads me to think about my experiences in the national parks, time abroad, rural America, life in New York City, the historical policies of our government, nationalism, health, energy production, philanthropy, conservation, subdivision, etc., and encourages me to attempt to synthesize them in some sort of fundamental order.  Further, it forces me to assign values and pass judgements regarding larger society–a society which has, in many senses, already played its cards and passed its own judgements (for better or worse).  It inspires ideas related to medicine, naturalist thought, the suburbs, what is considered classic, what is considered art, etc.  

Overall, when I think about my life art plays a significant role but so do many other things.  The same will be true of activity on the island, albeit with a heavy concentration on the wilderness/frontier, which I believe to be fundamental to many other constructs if they are traced back far enough.  (Wilderness, it is said, “holds the answers to questions we as a society have not yet learned to ask”. I value this sentiment quite a bit).  Perhaps then Rabbit Island is intended as a backdrop of sorts which addresses the larger society rather than an artist or group of artists singularly.  In that sense the entire project becomes an art piece, perhaps, but not at the level of the individual.  Artists have always been driving forces in arenas of social change and thus it makes sense that they are central participants, and the residency will be built around this, but the residency itself is not the sole purpose of the overall project.  In the beginning it was two sentences in a craigslist ad and since it has grown quite a bit. 

2.     In your Kickstarter Project, Andrew mentioned that “art and ecology are forming an ever-increasing important relationship”, residency programs around the world seem to be taking interest in this trend as well.  What do you hope this residency program will do in reference to the ecological well being of the world?

I hope that art and thought produced in relation to Rabbit Island can shed light on some of the subjective ideas in society that are considered equal (or at least are accepted) which in fact are not equal when external costs and side effects are considered.  A crude example might be something like "cigarettes and wooden blocks are both entertaining".  The obvious moral implications of each option have significant variations in external costs; personally, societally, and ecologically.   

You can apply such judgements across all of society but you can also turn it around and apply it to art itself.  For example, you could pose the question, “Is video art, neon art, and scrolling word banner art (each requiring a plug and an energy source as an intrinsic requirement) as equally valid as a stone sculpture when viewed over thousands of years from a contemporary perspective acknowledging climate change and the issues of associated justice?  Subjectively both can lead a person to be inspired to a degree that is decided by the observer, but objectively the costs of each to society would be very different as centuries pass.  Is art still worthy of praise if it breaks golden rules ecologically?  Should it even be considered art by contemporary society?  Would it be forever locked-in as lowbrow?  Could it be that the most classic and timeless artwork is that which is the most beautiful and rooted the fewest degrees from natural constants?  And, as a broader hypothetical corollary, could it be that the most classic and timeless ways of life are those that are the most stylish while being rooted the fewest degrees away from natural constants?  How would society have to change to fit such an ideal?  

I guess we’ll see.     

On the island perhaps taking a video art piece and putting it on an exposed rock near the shore, unplugged (with a little placard, etc), could exemplify such and could lead to a new discourse related to such popular contemporary practice.  

Or alternatively, perhaps commissioning a simple and elegant machine using the highest grade stainless steel available, the most weatherproof and long-lasting light source and the most efficient and durable solar panel, could produce a single, persistent, machine that would stand somewhere on the island for tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of years to symbolize technology that defies nature but does so in a way that over large expanses of time ultimately collects and exhibits more energy than that which was necessary to create it.  It would be in this aspect that the value of the underlying theory mirrored back on society could be seen.  As long as the sun shined it would continue to defy natural laws of degradation and continue to cast light.  What if your coffee maker did this?    

Rabbit Island forces you to re-think some basics of the art practice as most elements of society do not exist.  Energy production and garbage collection do not exist.  The art supply store does not exist, etc.          

3.    What do you hope the artists will take away from a residency at Rabbit Island?

I hope that artists will appreciate the difficulty of living in isolation and that this difficulty forces them to rethink even simple societal constructs that may be taken for granted.  I hope it also offers them a platform for creative celebration of both civilization and wilderness as well become a soapbox for criticism. 

4.      Andrew references the Land Art movement of the 1960’s, do you expect the artists to take on a Robert Smithson attitude of letting nature take its course with the work they create, even it means that the work is eventually destroyed? Or would you rather create lasting pieces?

I think that both ideas are equally valid.  Thus far we have been concentrating the majority of our energy on practical activities for daily living (shelter, safety, food, dockage, etc) rather than on specifically thinking about and creating art.  Time will tell which ideas predominate the work of artists out there.     

5.     On a similar note, do you think of Rabbit Island as a destination site, where visitors can make a pilgrimage to in order to see all of the artists’ work that’s left behind?

This could become possible many years from now.  Perhaps this would nice.  For now there is simply very little to celebrate or visit besides the nature itself.  Nothing is set in stone.   

6.     You reference Manhattan a few times throughout your blog as well as Rem Koolhass’ book Delirious New York, what are you hoping the world will take away from Rabbit Island becoming inhabited in a sustainable manner? Do you think it’s possible for Manhattan to live sustainably with its current population?

Manhattan and Rabbit Island are obvious non-sequiters from a practical perspective due to the intricate division of labor, specialization, population density, and historical timeframe that is intrinsic to civilization on Manhattan.  But from a figurative and historical perspective I believe interesting ideas can be discussed with both in mind.  The potential for mixing metaphors across scales and timeframes is complicated, however.  That said Rem Koolhaas’ ideas are often not rational or defensible with scientific method (Have you ever heard him speak?  He would be a terrible doctor!), but his ideas about Manhattan do lead people to a different space and theirin lies the profound value of his work.     

I can see this question from many different perspectives.  Sometimes I think of the island as a single block in the East Village, with the lake representing the four surrounding streets/avenues, and wonder if someone could create an ideal unit that could better approximate a sustainable solution over time and be cut and pasted in Manhattan.

Sometimes the island can represent a block in the Suburbs.  Sometimes the island can represent a native Manhattan as the Dutch were founding it.  Sometimes the island can represent a National Park.  Sometimes it can represent the whole of America.  It is a good backdrop for projection.  However, it’s limited absolute size and connectedness to markets does restrain logical comparison in many ways too.  Lets not kid ourselves.       

Regardless, thought specifics are difficult to compare on rational grounds, the ultimate fundamental judgements about some things being more valid ecologically over time than others likely can be passed between Rabbit Island and Manhattan.  Some forms of entertainment, for example are more virtuous and less costly than others.  Some take a lot but do not give in ecological terms, etc.  Such judgements are often difficult to discern within the complex disorder of Manhattan and perhaps a microcosm such as Rabbit Island can lead to some general conceptual rules that can be applied to mainland society, whether it be Manhattan or anywhere else.  How do you live well but simply with actions leading to some future point where more is given back than taken?  We hope to rethink and reorder some of the societal concepts that have evolved together but carry with them varying moral worth from a contemporary ecological perspective.   

7.     What do you believe the benefits of an artist residency program are to the artist in furthering their career?

I think this will depend a lot on the community of artists that ultimately participate.  If we are able to create a network of thinkers that reference each other well then I think that ideas could feed off of themselves and begin to have influence far beyond the island.  Judging by the interest that we have received from the home and abroad I think such a thing is possible, but obviously depends on execution.  It is hard to maintain a perspective on art (one that is largely formulated in the city environment) while in the spare wilderness environment and the context of the adjacent local small town civilization.  There is potential for work to fall into traps of cliche and paths already trodden, but this challenge is also what is exciting.   

8.      What are you going to look for in an artist who applies for the residency?

There will of course be basic practical considerations such as ability to care for self and thrive in a spare and sometimes dangerous native environment.  The ability to operate a boat is significant, for example.  The intellectual underpinnings of an individual’s art practice will also be a primary consideration.  
There are several things I want to be careful to avoid as well.  Wilderness ideas can often be linked by stereotype to other well-worn societal formulas negatively and I would like to stress that formulaic conceptions of wilderness and art will be avoided.  

This is not an attempt at a commune, for example.  What a terrible word.  This is not a 'Bushwick’ satellite or an attempt at utopia something or other.  This isn't real estate development.  It isn’t an attempt to make money or aimed specifically at the green segment of society or anarchists/protesters.  I hope it will be more mature and subtle than many of these things have been stereotyped as.  It is an idea intended to create conversations between people of all backgrounds who have given a lot of thought to the consequences of their actions trickling down and are inspired by the contextual implications of wilderness on their contemporary perspective.  It is for the stark juxtaposition of the natural and the complexities of civilization.  It is hopefully a place for people who are interested in acknowledging the world without distinct mental spliting of the wild and the civilized and for those interested in organizing the intersection of those concepts more efficiently and beautifully.   

9.     I love the idea of artists, scientists and researchers working together to create sustainable living on the island. How do you envision the island ten years from now?

I envision lots of beautiful scientific infographics.  (The number of eagles per year, the dates that the raspberries bloom, the temperature of the water, the amount of rainfall, the substances dissolved in the Lake, the size and quantity of fish caught, the yearly growth of the trees, etc.  If there is anyone that wants to help with this please get in touch).  I envision installations at various points across the island that do not detract from the biologic function of the island.  I envision the collection of art produced on the island to be shown locally as well as in galleries in New York and elsewhere.  I envision some rules to come out of the experience, perhaps akin to Michael Pollan’s "Food Rules”, for example, but aimed more generally at life, society, consumption, foresight.  "Rabbit Island Rules".  (Rule #1:  Everyone should live within x miles of an ecosystem that supports a reproducing population of it’s historical top predator and a climax community of vegetation).  I imagine the island as an icon for a new kind of conservation movement involving crowd-sourcing, social media, and conscientious reclamation of land poorly distributed by earlier generations (un-subdivision) that progresses along contemporary understanding of ecology and external costs of human activities.  Perhaps the island might come to represent one of the smallest and last un-subdivided places in a privatized world that could serve as a turning point in our society thematically.  A remaining little flame or something.  We’re getting down to smaller and smaller specs of land left in private society in spite of the fact that this is inconsistent with science that has emerged even as subdivision has taken place.  There is a certain irony to this which need not necessarily be.

I envision the artists and scientists enunciating these points with their talents and sharing this via a larger audience via social media. 

10.  It seems like you’ve gotten great public response from the Kickstarter Project and your Facebook page. Has it been tough to get the word out? Have you been receiving proposals for future artist residents as well as the architecture project and science researchers?

The word spread by word of mouth initially amongst friends and then at some point it spread via the web.  Gothamist, Treehugger, Gizmodo, NPR, etc. posted on it and it took off.  (Thank you to each of them).  I think there is a certain consciousness everybody shares related to many of the issues referenced by the island which fueled the mostly positive response.  But the thing itself, the physical island, is fundamentally beneath the virtual space and obviously separate from it.  It is rooted in something basic and necessary and real and people seem to feel it in their gut.  It speaks to the most primitive form of sustainability and it creates a very real and tangible experimental space between our desire to create sustainable solutions, our acknowledgement that technology is intrinsic to our human nature (and a necessary and beautiful inclusion to our modern world), and the opposing conflict presented by the story of stuff.  If the web offers a place to brainstorm about these things the island might be a place to test them.   

I’ve received email from a number of artists, architects and scientists interested and will be figuring out the specifics of the residency over the coming winter.

September 26, 2011