Sundown at the Santa Monica beach in Los Angeles: children chase each other in the dying light, arms outstretched to mimic the bird flying on the screen set up near the ocean. Scattered picnic blankets and lawn chairs spot the wide beach. Every pair of eyes focuses on the scenes playing on the 25-feet diameter screen, raised above the sand on a circular truss: a 30 minute film following the Arctic tern, the bird with the longest migration of any living being on the planet and consequently, the creature that experiences the most daylight in the world.
“The Arctic tern pursues the sun,” said artist, filmmaker, designer, and creator of the Arctic tern project CircumSolar Rebeca Mendez, “and that idea was very inspiring for me to follow.”
Mendez, a DESMA (Design Media Arts) professor at UCLA, has focused her career on exploring the intersection between nature and art. As time goes on, it’s become clear to her that any conception of nature is incomplete without a discussion of the current climate crisis. But where does art fit into understanding, as Mendez puts it, the “culture of nature” right now? What defines nature? Does art developed as a love letter to our natural environment truly make any difference when it comes to fighting climate change?
As I waited for Professor Mendez to join the Zoom call on a sunny Friday morning in LA, I prepared to have these questions and more answered once and for all. And though she answered almost none of them with any degree of certainty (as is the status quo with such complex issues), I left the conversation with a budding sense of hope.
Together, Professor Mendez and I grappled with not only exploring the relationship between humanity and the Earth but also the purpose of art as a way to both empathize with the world and find ways to heal it.
Connection & Empathy: CircumSolar and Immersive Art
Whether it be on a beach in Santa Monica following a bird who experiences more of the world than we can begin to imagine or immersed in an installation about the abuse of the North Pacific ocean, art forges for us a connection with the Earth.
“As I am searching to recover my humanity, I feel that as a species, we have lost understanding of what our place in the world is,” said Mendez, explaining the beginnings of her CircumSolar series.
CircumSolar Migration is a four-part focus on the Arctic tern: two films, a mosaic, and a civic art piece displayed in a library in Pico Rivera. The project compares migration with immigration, exploring how in the midst of a continuous demonization of human immigration, understanding the act itself as a “genetic code for evolutionary preservation” puts both journeys into perspective.
Mendez’s work regarding the Arctic tern is almost tender—an effort to “nurture an interspecies friendship.” Each part of the project is for a different audience and serves a different purpose under its respective context. The mosaic, for example, the Arctic tern’s wind backlit by the sun, was created for the Crenshaw metro station and serves as a metaphor for the regulars that use the Metro, many of which are immigrants. She forms an unseen bond between the migratory bird and the migratory human.
“I’m so inspired with this idea of choosing a creature that is not your cat, not your pet that has been domesticated, but choosing a wild animal to recover my wildness, to try rewilding me so that I can connect to the world of this creature. I know that my bubble and the Arctic tern’s bubble will most likely just barely touch, but just the attempt is about considering them as my companions. I’ve traveled for many, many years pursuing and filming and being friendly, observing and living around the Arctic tern as a way of stepping away from my humanity,” said Mendez.
In an effort to deepen the sense of empathy and connection she hopes to form with her art, Mendez focuses on making her projects as immersive as possible.
“The immersive installations that I create have video, sound, and a kind of material. One aspect of it is that it engages much more of your body. It demands much more of your senses, rather than just privileging the eye. It’s as if we modulate each other—we become the work itself, we start entering into dialogue. That’s why I like working at that scale,” said Mendez.
Mendez’s latest installation “The Sea Around Us,” on display at the Laguna Art Museum this November is, according to her, an “immersive, cinematic that focuses on expressing the complexity and voices of the ocean.”
A deep look at the eastern Pacific Ocean, this installation will explore the ocean’s creatures as well as the environmental wrongdoings in the area, specifically the illegal dumping of more than half a million barrels of the DDT chemical in front of Catalina Island.
The film will be played on six projectors in the largest steel gallery the museum has to mimic the experience of the literal sea around visitors.
“I’m working with scientists like Elisa Deming, who is actually learning about DDT effects—20% of the sea lions have cancer. It’s very serious, what’s happening in our seas. At the same time, I’m befriending creatures. In this case, just like with the Arctic term, I’m befriending the Abalone. The Abalone is a very, very important creature that extends past geological time, some 70 million years ago,” said Mendez.
“As I’m entering into these interspecies friendships, like with the Abalone, I’m thinking I can perhaps listen to this creature and learn how to respond to this ecological disaster. I’ll enter into a dialogue,” she finished. “I want this piece to really treat the ocean as a fully animated body as well as a place to focus again on how we are deeply interconnected.”
Mendez’s passion for art about the ecological crisis is seen not only in the art itself, but the steps she takes to educate others about the work she does, allowing for opportunities for collective action and collaboration. One of Mendez’s creations is UCLA’s very own Counterforce lab.
“We are a collection of artists, scientists, educators, and thinkers who enter into interdisciplinary collaborations with our local communities. We engage in art making, grounded in storytelling and placemaking,” said Mendez proudly.
She founded Counterforce Lab at UCLA in 2015 as a research studio that operated largely on artistic fieldwork practices. Its purpose is to engage with the current climate and ecological crisis through art.
“So much of my work as an artist has been about raising awareness or about creating a circumstance that makes you think about the issues around the environment. I felt that wasn’t enough. That’s not enough to actually create change, to restore an environment, restore a river—to do work that has a specific shift and change for a given fellow creature in the world,” said Mendez.
One of Counterforce’s largest projects reflects this mentality exactly. The Biophilia Treehouse will be part public art installation and part avian ecosystem. Within LA’s concrete jungle, the researchers’ goal is to create pockets of green space for endangered and threatened birds, especially in areas with dense architecture.
“Los Angeles is primarily a cement city. Bird communities have been fragmented. The wildlife corridor—the Biophilia Treehouse—helps for their genetic material to remain healthy. When [they] cannot move from one colony and mate with a different colony, the birds begin to meet amongst themselves. The genetic material weakens, and the colony collapses. We’re seeing a lot of collapsing in different communities,” explained Mendez.
“What the Biophilia Treehouse does is that it grows these beautiful stepping stones, especially in areas in the city that have a history of environmental injustice, that by design have been planned without access to parks or nature—not even planted trees. We address that injustice with this project as well.”
A long history of redlining and economic racial injustice has left low-income areas of LA underfunded and severely lacking in green space. This means limited ways to mitigate pollution, social cohesion, and a weaker defense to the urban heat island effect (an increase in temperatures in sequestered urban areas due to how much heat is absorbed by buildings).
Not only does the Biophilia Treehouse proposal address effects of racial inequality in US urban areas, it also means to inspire a love for nature in the younger generation, one that may need a stronger connection with the Earth to muster the energy to fight for it.
“The idea is for us to place these Biophilia Treehouses in public schools and libraries—especially primary schools—so that it also engages the little ones. I want the little ones to fall in love with the natural world so that they become caretakers later. That’s how I became an Earth protector—an Earth caretaker. I fell in love with the natural world at a very early age. I just saw them as my companions, my friends,” said Mendez.
For the participants in CounterForce, the health of the Earth and the health of humanity are intimately connected with one another. By creating a safe space for birds, plants, humans, and animals, they intend to nurture interspecies relationships and foster a more purposeful bond with the planet.
In fact, Mendez’s philosophy regarding this connection was a key part of choosing the symbol for the lab: an abstract expression of Newton’s Cradle. Newton’s Cradle is a device that establishes the conservation of momentum and energy with a series of swinging spheres.
Designed by students in one of Mendez’s undergraduate classes when the lab was still in the midst of formation, the symbol is meant to signify the historical and current effect humanity has had on the Earth.
“Our brain is hardwired to understand cause and effect; this is how we learn and understand our relationship to everything. I put my hand on fire—I’m going to burn. But when we cannot see the effect directly, we begin to lose that connection between cause and effect. When we’re thinking of climate change as an object larger than life, then we cannot really see its ends—our relationship of causality is broken. So we don’t understand that if we actually order a package from Amazon, and we throw everything away, we are destroying the habitat for, perhaps, the orangutans in the jungle. We’re not connecting those dots,” said Mendez.
“And so for me, it was very, very important to think of the costs, the effect of your actions. Think of the effect of what you’re doing, at all costs.”
For Mendez, the question is not whether art is effective in the fight against climate change. It is and isn’t; its effect is direct and indirect. That line of thinking opens a hundred different pathways to a hundred different questions. If art requires a purpose, how do we measure its effect on humanity? Can it even be measured?
Mendez instead questions how art creates connections: between people, animals, anything and everything. How can those connections create a line of defense against the mounting climate crisis?
“The key thing to remember is that the ocean is alive, the forest is alive, and you are alive with it,” she said.
If we are alive with the planet, if we think of ourselves as being with and becoming with instead of against, the relationship—the connection—between the planet’s health and our health snaps into focus.
And if there’s anything Mendez wholeheartedly believes in, it’s the raw, visceral power of a simple connection.
To learn more about Mendez and the UCLA Counterforce, visit https://counterforcelab.org