Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  2

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Submission Number: 3133-5z

Submission Title: AgriProp : Ecological Propaganda

 

AgriProp: Ecological Propaganda

 

Cheryl Beckett, University of Houston, Texas

Patrick Peters, University of Houston, Texas

Author

Cheryl A. Beckett, Associate Professor, University of Houston, School of Art, Graphic Communications Program

with

Patrick Peters, Associate Professor, University of Houston, Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture

 

Beckett is Associate Professor and Area Coordinator of Graphic Communications and Peters is Associate Professor of Architecture and Director of the Graduate Design/Build Studio

 

Abstract

AgriProp is a collaborative project merging students from architecture and graphic design to bring environmental statements and a call-to-action into a public forum. Students worked in teams of four to build a mobile installation that combines structure, agricultural (living) material and typographic/iconic messages. The AgriProp serves as a device to call attention to environmental and ecological issues confronting the greater Houston area. The objective is to present urban environmental issues within a public arena using evocative architectural form and informational content.

 

Introduction

AgriProp, a term coined to name four works of ecological propaganda, was derived from the Russian Agitpróp (Agitatsiónno-propagandístskii otdél), the Agitation Propaganda component of the Communist Party used to influence and mobilize public opinion within the volatile period following the Soviet Revolution. Though Agitpróp originally referred to agitation and propaganda on behalf of Communism, the current sense of the word is more generally propaganda, especially socially or politically motivated propaganda, and is not restricted to communist doctrine.

 

The works of Agitpróp served as emblems of radical politics while employing progressive architectural form and materials. Often nomadic and demountable, these temporary stands or collapsible kiosks were placed in the streets during special events. Many of the Agitpróps served specific agitational functions; the design of Gustav Klucis’“radio-orator” in 1922 provided a loudspeaker with dynamic slogans. Others performed simultaneous functions. Propaganda Stand, Screen and Loudspeaker combined a bookstand, loudspeaker, screen and an expandable structure possibly used to display posters. These constructions economized space and utilized materials that revealed the structure of each function. The formal aesthetic of these stands—which employed numerous linear supports, wood, canvas and cables painted in red, black and white—came to embody the Constructivist ideals. The principle of Construction, from the dialectical triad of Tectonics, Facture and Construction, informed the Agitpróp through consideration of “not only literally creating material form by assembling its elements and parts efficiently to create a viable structure, but also organizing and giving intellectual form to the overall concept.” [1] The Agitpróp represented the move towards art that functions as part of daily life rather than merely as detached aesthectic form.

 

As with the Agitpróps’ role as portable propaganda, public placement of our AgriProps was critical. Strategic deployment in locations specific to the environmental message enhanced communication with an unsuspecting audience. The use of deployment methods recalls the role of activist art in promoting social and political change. AgriProps supplanted pure protest, propaganda and sloganeering with less aggressive tactics— art, architecture, and informative design strategies. The AgriProps prompt positive action—citizen engagement rather than confrontation. Placement within the public sphere serves as an incentive to stimulate or redirect ecology and environmentalism with the goal of turning the message into positive motivation and action.

 

While the Soviet avant-garde served as a model for mobile propaganda devices, more current interventionists also provided inspiration. Numerous activists in the disciplines of both architecture and graphic art work to advance social/political/environmental causes through print graphics, performance, temporary architecture and other artistic means. Reference to nomadic, demountable architecture in the service of public intervention is evident in the work of artist Krzysztof Wodiczko. His homeless shelters are functional objects with the aggressive visual presence needed to promote dialogue around the troubling homelessness issue. Michael Rakowitz’sparaSITE” similarly deals with the homeless, using clear plastic shelters that inflate and are heated when attached to building ventilation systems. Redesigned Los Angeles vendor carts, developed through the Insurgent Urbanism Studio at the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), brought mobile architectural studies to the street. Students, in tandem with vendor feedback, fabricated inexpensive prototypes for an L.A. neighborhood—with the attempt to satisfy new ordinances and meet vendor needs.

 

The precedents for graphic propaganda to push a message are ubiquitous. Martin Luther’s reformation edicts, the “Uncle Sam Wants You” WWI recruitment poster, and Che Guevara’s rallying portrait during the Cuban Revolution are a few iconic examples. Aggressive street graphics include the sniping (illegal wheat-pasting of posters) in the early work of ACT UP and Gran Fury for AIDS awareness, and the anti-consumerist actions by Reclaim the Streets and AdBusters’ “Buy Nothing Day” campaign. Green graphics, dedicated specifically to environmental issues, gained momentum with the first Earth Day on 22 April 1970 and the inaugural event poster by Robert Rauschenberg.

 

One source for public installations that incorporates ecological material and content into construction is compiled at greenmuseum.org, an online museum devoted to environmentally focused art. Work such as the sculptures of Susan Leibovitz Steinman of Artscape are often “temporary, and involve community participation or audience interaction. Designed for multiple functions and meanings, the aspiration is aesthetically dynamic, conceptually relevant artworks that function as educational greenscape models of biointensive gardening, bioremediation, reclamation and recycling.” [2]

 

These groups use sanctioned and unsanctioned sites to deliver the message. Deployment involves a level of risk, exploring the boundaries of ‘freedom of expression.’ Although public spaces have served public issues throughout history, increasingly these common areas are being privatized, with more restrictive rules and regulations. Issues of freedom are assessed through groups such as n55. Their Public Things of 2001, presented a component based system of structures devised to enable people to utilize space in a variety of public and private ways. Components included the dispenser (for an audience interchange), the public address system (for expounding ideas), and various private “home” components such as the toilet, kitchen, shower, and bed. This dialogue continues in Shepard Fairey’s “Obey the Giant” campaign. On his web site, Fairey provides “urban renewal kits” and a warning to be considerate when applying propaganda materials:

 

“It’s all about control of the public space…If we don’t come across as a bunch of vandals we may find that the silent majority is actually supportive of public artistic expression.” [3]

 

These precedents informed the AgriProp teams as they set out to command attention through the re-contextualization and juxtaposition of environmental messages within urban sites. A positive, citizen call-to-action was emphasized over aggressive guerilla tactics or vandalism. In Houston, change is garnered through active local organizations. AgriProp’s strategy reinforced these organizations and encouraged financial or active participation by the audience.

 

Team Challenges and Strategies

To maximize the learning through the cross-disciplinary effort, each team member was challenged to be active in the skill domain of the alternate discipline. The circumstances of the collaboration offered three logistical challenges. The first was that the students had different class meeting times with only 1.5 hours of overlap twice per week. The second was that the architecture students were fourth year undergraduates and the graphic communication students were graduate students. Lastly, the students from the two different disciplines were not present on the teams in equal numbers. These three challenges of a short common meeting time, unequal experience and unequal representation were due to the adhoc nature of the collaboration, an informal arrangement between two faculty members experimenting with a new format. In view of these challenges, it became imperative that each team meet outside of class to push concepts, assemble research and reach consensus if it was to work collaboratively toward shared ideas. Due to the time consuming nature of fabrication and the unpredictability of deployment, the extent and duration of outside meeting time increased significantly during this phase. Especially because AgriProp accounted for only half the semester’s syllabus, it required a rigorous adherence to the project schedule as well as quick decision-making. Thus the seven-week timetable established goals and objectives that each team met for each class session. 

 

Research Phase               

Each team was asked to explore the environmental challenges specific to Houston, collect data to support analysis and generate conceptual solutions. Given that Houston’s environmental shortcomings are well publicized, the students arrived familiar with many of these issues. Often the issues were observable during their daily commutes through the city. All individuals brought diverse issues and supporting data to the team for discussion, analysis and debate.

 

Siting Phase   

Each environmental challenge suggested a site where its issues were poignantly illustrated. Also, each challenge suggested a target audience that would be receptive to the proposed solution.  Therefore, each AgriProp team selected two sites. The first site was chosen to visually exemplify the environmental issue and these were photographed as evidence of the stated problem. The second site was chosen for deployment due to its audience appropriateness, pedestrian availability, and logistics.

 

Development Phase

Major emphasis centered on appropriateness of the architectural form of the AgriProp for conveying the message, fabrication feasibility, on-site assemblage and aesthetics. As environmental issues were clarified, the AgriProps took shape through 1/8” scale models and renderings. The message was refined through choices of plant material, language, icons and architecture. Each team named their AgriProp, thereby coalescing a visual/verbal identity that summarized the main message. Critique and evaluation by related professionals in architecture, design, ecology and art brought further focus and refinement to the work.

 

Fabrication Phase

Fabrication encompassed a wide array of materials and methodologies chosen for their support of the message and their appropriateness for deployment. Construction took place in architecture fabrication facilities, printmaking studios, digital labs, through outside vendors and backyards. Students provided the construction funds which ranged between $400-$800 per AgriProp. Each team was responsible for transporting its structure to and from the various deployment sites.

 

Deployment Phase

The AgriProps were presented in a wide array of public forums. The initial deployment was in front of an unsuspecting general public. Each team investigated a range of options. The uncertainty of guerilla tactics unnerved two groups that opted to secure permission for placement. Two teams deployed in unsanctioned environments without incident. All teams remained with the AgriProp during deployment. They conversed with the audience while distributing additional factual content and contact information to assist in advancing their environmental solutions. Sporting matching T-shirts and designed collateral, the teams were well organized and appeared to be authorized in their activities.

 

Beyond initial deployments, the AgriProps were invited into other sanctioned locations including the courtyard of the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery during an art opening, the George R. Brown Convention Center during Houston’s premiere green building conference Gulf Coast Green, the atrium of the local architectural firm of Kirskey Architects and to a group of high school students enrolled in the Blaffer’s Young Artists Apprenticeship Program at the university.

 

Documentation Phase

Although unique objects of considerable scale and cost, the AgriProps are temporal. The triptych and visual essay, as two forms of print graphics, serve to document. The visual essay compiles research data, exploration and development, final fabrication, deployment strategies, and a final analysis of the interaction with audience and space. The essay provides a platform for contemplation, reports the investigative sequence of events and provides proof of the design process. The triptych condenses the process and results into a dynamic 2-D staging arena conducive to public posting.

 

The AgriProps

AgriProp: Green Shield was developed by architects Gloria Hernandez, Belinda Kanpetch and Richard Kresse, and graphic designer Eddy Roberts who also provided the final data.

Their focus, a proposed highway expansion along the I-10 Katy Corridor, is expected to increase particulate pollution by 42%. In response to this issue, Green Shield serves a dual purpose, as both an information kiosk and bench for bus travelers of the corridor. The map on the kiosk displays areas of dense airborne contaminants in relation to schools directly impacted. Green Shield provides an inviting place to relax while awaiting the bus ride home. The structure supports the message. The metal backrest of the bus bench has circular perforations to signify a filter. Inserted plant material articulates Green Shield’s proposed solution of planting a green buffer along the corridor to reduce particulate pollution.

 

Choosing an appropriate location to engage a larger audience is a crucial component of the Green Shield objectives. A bus stop along the very route that is impacted became the logical choice, providing an audience of Houstonians that travel the Katy Corridor and are familiar with the areas affected by the expansion. Deployment during rush hour captured the attention of the evening commuters and passersby.

 

AgriProp : Oasis Park was developed by architects Veronica Hernandez, Levi Mckee, Martin Ma and Rebecca Pheasant (who also provided the final data) and graphic designer Li Qiao.

Of Houston’s paved area, 56% is surface parking. The goal of Oasis Park is to draw attention to the necessity of increased tree density and other vegetation within vast public parking areas. To site Oasis Park, the team analyzed parking lots surrounding big box stores with a minimal green to gray ratio. For the agricultural component, an on-site tree was incorporated into the design. Lightweight panels of CNC-cut expanded polystyrene enclosed the oasis, focusing the audience on a singular tree, and communicating the message that even a lone tree provides tangible benefit in an otherwise inhospitable paved environment. Exterior graphics implied a parking infrastructure while interior graphic data supported increasing the tree canopy.

 

AgriProp : First Flush Filter was developed by architects Raven Bell, Blake Krause and Brad Naeher and graphic designer Kathy Kelley who also provided the final data.

Of Houston’s 2128 square mile land area, 29% is comprised of paved roads and parking lots. This amounts to 620 square miles of impervious pavement. When coupled with the average annual rainfall of 44 inches, the combination results in large quantities of contaminated stormwater runoff. The mission of the First Flush Filter is to persuade Houstonians to implement bioretention in current and future parking lot greenspaces to control stormwater runoff volume and reduce pollutant loads carried to the bayous.

 

Floating within a thin metal framework, First Flush Filter’s acrylic core displays a cross section of a bioretention system. Near the base, a perforated drainage pipe extends through the tank. Participants pour contaminated water onto simulated pavement watching it flow into the bioretention core, be decontaminated by filtration through layers, and then trickle out the drainage pipe at the base. Observers learn about bioretention through interaction and information silk-screened onto the structure.

 

AgriProp: Refuse CUT was developed by architects Margarita Christensen, Yousef Foteh and Chris Lloyd and graphic designer Ray Ogar who also provided the final data. Refuse CUT warns of the effects of clear-cutting in Houston. It proposes selection management (the retention of a significant number of trees and plants, especially natives) instead of clear-cutting and asks that all harvested material be recycled.

 

Refuse CUT evokes a denuded construction site by penetrating “land” (soil encased in acrylic) with a collision of natural and manufactured building materials. Words of lament, along with iconic representations of displaced flora and fauna, are silk-screened onto relevant materials, reinforcing the relationship between displacement and land development. Additional messages and imagery appear on mock survey flags surrounding the main structure.

 

Conclusion

The determined efforts of the students overcame the compressed schedule making the project a general success despite specific shortcomings. Within a week, the teams advanced environmentally based concepts supported by compiled data, but articulating these concepts via a mobile structure proved a bigger hurdle for each team. One group struggled through this phase and was plagued by it throughout the process. Since neither the architects nor the graphic designers had previously built a structure of this scale and complexity, critiques often concentrated on the built form. Models allowed scrutiny of aesthetics, anticipated fabrication issues and message communicability.  However, the translation from 1/8” models to full-scale structure occurred in less than two weeks. Only small changes were feasible once fabrication began. Construction went well though unexpected glitches caused each team to improvise solutions. A $400 CNC-cut perforated metal sheet was dimensioned incorrectly leading to manual cutting. An eight layer silk-screened map was ruined on the last pull requiring hours of labor for the cleanup, sanding and re-screening. There were also amazing triumphs. 600 pounds of dirt was securely held within a transparent acrylic core, and bus riders were comfortably accommodated on a portable cantilevered bench. Students managed to work together in teams, yet divide tasks when necessary. The efforts required to accomplish the full-size fabrication, five deployments, various presentations, and the final documentation maintained a high level of intensity across the entire project schedule. 

 

Assessment of the outcomes allows refinement of the process. A time increase for the project’s duration was suggested by the extraordinary commitment required by the faculty and students. The weight of the AgriProps and the difficulty of their deployment demonstrated the need for a greater emphasis on design for transportability. Lighter weight structures increases the potential for more numerous deployments. Yet, as an uncommon cross-disciplinary effort, AgriProp merged differing expertise within a common exploration. The project’s premise challenged the students to merge the architectural, agricultural, and typographic/iconic into an organic whole. The students considered ways of solving Houston’s environmental issues, and how their disciplines might interact to instigate change. The sudden appearance of the installations intrigued audiences, inviting closer inspection and assessment of solutions posed.

     

Endnotes

[1] Anatole Senkevitch, Jr., “The Sources and Ideals of Construction in Soviet Architecture”, in Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932, 117. In Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932, organized by Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington, Seattle, Rizzoli, New York 1990.

 

[2] http://www.greenmuseum.org/content/artist_index/artist_id-8.html

 

[3] http://www.obeygiant.com/main.php?page=engineering

 

References

Chase, John, Crawford, Margaret and Kaliski, John, editors. Everyday Urbanism. The Monacelli Press, New York, 1999.

 

Gruson, Edith and Staal, Gert, editors. CopyProof: A New Method for Design Education, 52. 010 Publishers, Rotterdam, 2000.

 

Lodder, Christina “Constructivism and Productivism in the 1920s,” 104-105. In Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932, organized by Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington, Seattle, Rizzoli, New York 1990.

 

Sholette, Gregory, “ Interventionism and the historical uncanny: or; can there be revolutionary art without the revolution”, April 2, 2004 (draft) at www.16beavergroup.org/sholette/massmoca.pdf

 

McQuiston, Liz. Graphic Agitation: Social and Political Graphics since the Sixties. Phaiden Press Limited, London, 2000.