Artists Helen and Newton Harrison had already been happily married for 17 years and raised four kids when they made a pact to do no work that did not benefit Earthâ€™s ecology. That was in 1970, when Helen was 43, and Newton, 38.
Since then, it appears that the Harrisons did nothing but work for the ecology. The proof is in their book, The Time of the Force Majeure: After 45 Years Counterforce is on the Horizon, published in October, which chronicles a joint-career so prolific that the square tomeâ€”a delicate balance of art and philosophical dialogue around the life webâ€”weighs in at 6 pounds and 496 pages.
Since their collaboration began, the Harrisons have acted not just as artists, but as diplomats, historians and investigators, picking up the science they needed to address large-scale challenges, like feeding Europe if food crops are lost to drought and sea level rise.
But even while theyâ€™ve established a worldwide network of biologists, ecologists, architects, politicians and urban planners, and earned wide acclaim around the globeâ€”not just as art activists, but as the pioneers of the eco-art movementâ€”the couple enjoys a certain anonymity in Santa Cruz, which theyâ€™ve called home since 2004.
â€œWeâ€™re isolates,â€ says Newton, 84. â€œI really like being tucked away, and thinking.â€
The Harrison Studio at their midtown home is a spacious room with high ceilings. Its shelving space is piled high with scrolls containing what I can only imagine are the intricate, hand-drawn maps characteristic of their workâ€”present and future topographies of an ever-warming planet.
In their living room, a ceiling-high mural transforms an entire wall into a window looking out on a Sri Lankan lagoonâ€”placing, where the average American household may have placed a big-screen TV, a life-sized water buffalo. Itâ€™s a scene from one of the coupleâ€™s most well-known works, The Lagoon Cycleâ€”a 60-piece, 360-foot-long mixed-media mural completed between 1974 to 1980.
As Helenâ€™s health is fragile, Iâ€™m speaking with Newton, who is fresh from the post office, where heâ€™s just mailed the 6-pound Force Majeure overseas, to friends he and Helen met while lecturing in Budapest years ago.
In an interview with KQED last year, Newton explained that his pact to take on only environmental work with Helen was because â€œneither of us could face that alone.â€ I assumed he meant that solving environmental problems on such a massive, global scale was simply too ominous for one person. But, though their life work certainly does swim against a strong current of human expansion and environmental exploitation of all kinds, thatâ€™s not what he meant at all. Their work together was always fun. And even more so, he was in love with his collaborator.
â€œIt was the kick of a new project,â€ says Newton, settled into his studio chair. â€œThatâ€™s how you get past difficulties. You do something where youâ€™re having a whale of a time.â€
â€œBut there was something else, you know. I had concluded something that I think was very obvious to Helen and most women, and that is that the deep creativity wasnâ€™t going to happen in the work unless there was female energy and male energy thrown together. Thatâ€™s why many ecological works are collaborative,â€ he says. â€œI could be wrong, but I have a hunch thereâ€™s something called an empathy gene. And I think women have more of it than men. I do know that I learned about that from Helen, much more than anybody else.â€
Perhaps itâ€™s fitting that the Harrisonsâ€™ first date was to the Museum of Modern Art in New York Cityâ€”art and intellectual discourse play a key role in their attraction to each other.
“It is too easy to forget that every entrepreneurial act, even recycling, is itself a tax on the ecosystem.” â€” Helen and Newton Harrison
â€œWhat happened was very simple. We met and we talked from the very beginning,â€ Helen told KQED in the same interview. Newton figured that after 20 or 30 years, theyâ€™d still have an infinite supply of things to talk aboutâ€”as he likes to say, â€œIâ€™m way smarter than Helen, but Helen is way smarter than me.â€
Around the time of their pact, Newton and Helen became the first husband-and-wife team to share a professorship at UC San Diego, where Newton was a founding member of the Visual Arts Department and Helen was Director of Educational Programs at UC Extension. But the couple decided never to teach together or administer together. It was a decision based on their different talents in academia, and perhaps a wise move that kept them from working together every single second. The art, then, remained an enclave of shared passion.
â€œWe made this deal. There was a ton of work in front of us. So if Helen disagreed with the work, we didnâ€™t do it. If I disagreed, we didnâ€™t do it. So we didnâ€™t have any arguments,â€ says Newton.
They also encouraged each other to be themselves in the work: Newton was a far better painter than Helen, he says, and she was far better at drawing. A fair amount of dialogue runs through the coupleâ€™s writingsâ€”which accompany most of their works, and which theyâ€™ve made sure to keep in the public domain. Helen, drawing on her philosophical background, takes on the role of questioner, while Newton is often the producer, builder and technician. Newton often writes the initial text, while Helen edits and develops itâ€”a comfortable process, they say, where Newton has the first word and Helen has the last.
â€œIt was a common labor, you know? Like, letâ€™s go back to what used to be normal around here, which is family farms,â€ says Newton. â€œThe husband worked it, the wife, the family, the kids, and grandma and grandpa made butter… it was a unity. So, rather than look at us as a special case, lament the fact that weâ€™ve lost community.â€
In the early â€™70s, the Harrisons focused on urban farming with The Survival Series, whose daring live exhibits included fish farms, portable orchards and a pasture piece that featured a live pig named Wilma. Almost all of these early exhibits are now being repeated at museums around the world, including the worldâ€™s smallest discrete ecosystem of brine shrimp and algae currently at L.A. County Museum, which, driven by the sun, Newton says â€œhas the great advantage of starting to smell extremely strong.â€
By the â€™90s, the Harrisons were traversing the globe, well into their body of large-scale, Earth-inspired art installations and proposals. In addition to uncovering innovative solutions to support biodiversity and community development, their work has also effectively changed governmental policy.
To that respect, one of their greatest successes was The Green Heart Vision, commissioned by Hollandâ€™s Parliament. Taking into account the biodiversity rings in the region, it proposed a solution for saving 800 square kilometers of farmland and 13 small historical villages in the center of the surrounding cities, thus spinning more than 200 billion dollars that would have gone to outside developers back into the country.
â€œSo the right wing moved in and threw us out,â€ says Newton. â€œAnd then five years later, we got a call from the Ministry of the Environment, theyâ€™re going to do the piece, and itâ€™s now part of the government plan.â€
On an even larger scale is the three-part Peninsula Europe (2000-2008), which, looking at Europe as a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, offers a solution to sea-water rise which will negatively impact the food supply for more than 450 million people. â€œIt costs about a trillion dollars, about what a Bush war would cost,â€ says Newton, of the proposal, which proposes re-terraforming the land and reforesting high grounds to conserve waters and generate biodiversity.
â€œItâ€™s on hold. The reason that itâ€™s on hold is itâ€™s too big a mouthful for them to deal with when theyâ€™ve got all the problems theyâ€™ve got,â€ says Newton. â€œAt a certain moment, the drought will get much worse, and this will get pulled off the shelf.â€
He suspects the same thing may happen in America under the Trump administrationâ€”that we may come around to systemic changes, but only after great damage. But the trajectory of our current practices is a slow moving trainwreckâ€”and the Central Valley, which the Harrisons address in 1976â€™s Sacramento Meditations as â€œan improbable profitable expandable systemâ€ is a good example. As early as 1976, the Harrisons predicted a sea level rise of 300 feetâ€”the first artists to do soâ€”coming within 10 percent of glaciologistsâ€™ current estimates of around 270 feet. Â
â€œThe solution suggests that you can keep on doing what youâ€™re doing if you solve this, that and the other, and thatâ€™s not trueâ€”we have to change systematically,â€ says Newton, adding that he thinks itâ€™s the reason Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. â€œBecause she would not propose systemic change, like Sanders.â€
â€œWeâ€™ve messed up so bad that everything is a mess. The ocean, the topsoil, the air, the subsoil, the forests, the rivers, the aquifers,â€ he says. What about Santa Cruz? â€œWe just do a slightly better job than anybody else, which is terrible,â€ he replies. â€œI mean, why would we give all of our water to a bunch of strawberry farmers and then talk about transferring ocean water at a great expense? The flaws of late 20th century capitalism are everywhere.â€
When the Harrisons began their decade-long collaboration to save the ecosystems, they realized quickly that they still needed to understand what an ecosystem wasâ€”a process they say took them four years. After almost a half-century of work theyâ€™ve again adjusted their approach.
Establishing the Center for the Force Majeure at the University of California in 2009, the nonprofit follows four worksâ€”Peninsula Europe, Tibet is the High Ground, Sierra Nevada, and the Bays of San Franciscoâ€”and takes on climate change by bringing artists and scientists together to design ecosystem-adaptation projects in these four critical regions.
â€œWe proposed, about two or three years ago, that the core of all of these works is to drop the entropy of the planet, of the major life web planetary systems,â€ he says. Whereas five years ago that sounded bizarre, says Newton, the idea is starting to sink in. â€œPeople are starting to understand that our problems are at great scale, and we have to start looking at them that way,â€ he says.
The Force Majeure, which proposes â€œentropy analysisâ€ as a new field of research took second prize two years ago in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, which invites designers, architects, activists, artists, entrepreneurs and scientists to submit their â€œgame-changing solutions to solve humanityâ€™s most pressing problems.â€
â€œThe force majeure is of our own making,â€ he says. â€œIt is the gigantic pollutions we let into the air, into the land, into the water. And it is the heat wave that will consequently touch all things, combined with a water rising that will touch all ocean surfaces, and combined with the way we liveâ€”we take energy from all life systems, but we donâ€™t give anything back. So, youâ€™re looking at deeply stressed life systems, the probable death of the ecosystem and the rest of the ocean.â€
The work argues that if we have 11 million species, weâ€™re likely to lose 5 or 6 million. â€œConversely, if you could mediate that, and only lose, not 50 percent but 20 or 25 percent, then nature, the life web can recover.â€
The outlook is not totally bleakâ€”at least for bacteria and smaller critters, who benefit from disturbance, Newton adds. â€œFor all I know, if the life web has consciousness, to a degree, not necessarily Gaia-type stuff, but if it has some kind of knowing, maybe what we consider to be ominous is a big relief, because weâ€™re self-cancelling,â€ he says. â€œSee, it takes nature 10 million years to regenerate from a modest extinction, and 50 or 60 million to regenerate from a big one. So weâ€™ve got four or five 60-million-year periods, at least three, before the sun burns us up. So nature can do it over a few more times.â€
But humans need to realize the responsibility they have to the planet, if any progress is going to be made for our own species. â€œArt is an avenue for that kind of realization,â€ says Newton. â€œBut so is the best of religion, the best of philosophy, the best of many disciplines.â€
His advice to concerned citizens is to take care of their basic needs and then act for the good of the larger whole.
And where does love fall in all of this? â€œSubtract it and you die. Exercise it and everything lives. Manipulate it and you become sick and unhealthy. And thatâ€™s enough,â€ he says.