Art And Etiquette In Chicago’s Art World

August 6, 2012 · Print This Article

I recently heard about, ordered, and read I Like Your Work:  Art And Etiquette.  (Edited by Paper Monument, Brooklyn NY.  2009.)  The book consists of a series of questions and the answers to them given by a number of art world personalities, mainly but not entirely New York based.  (Chicago artist, critic, and curator Michelle Grabner is among the contributors.)  After finishing it, I thought about what I would have said, had I been posed the same questions.  My answers follow.

 What are the rules of etiquette for the art world?

I’d like to think it’s “Don’t be a dick.”  In practice, some people get away with being dicks because they have enough power, influence, money, attractiveness, or other exchange commodities that they can essentially buy the freedom to be dicks.  They get away with it insofar as people tolerate their behavior in exchange for access to these exchange commodities, but their reputations as dicks still circulate.  It has been my experience that only a small minority (between 1-10%) of people in the art world are dicks.

 Was etiquette foregrounded in any memorable situation?

A while ago, my wife Stephanie Burke and I noticed that at every gallery opening we went to, people were drinking wine out of disposable plastic cups and then throwing them away.  Few if any showed any means of recycling.  It occurred to us that those Lexan backpacking wine glasses they sell at REI, where the stem unscrews and stores in the bowl, would be a fun way to bring our own glass and save on waste.  So we bought a pair and started bringing ‘em with us to the galleries.  Most gallerists and their staff responded somewhere between “Oh, how cool!  Where did you get those?” and “Huh, that’s weird, but okay.”  But we did have a problem at one gallery.  The bartender actually thought they were totally awesome, and confided that she’d been bothered by the fact that they didn’t recycle either.  We checked out the show and enjoyed our wine, and then went to leave.  The gallery owner stopped us at the door, saying “You can’t take those outside,” indicating our empty wine glasses.  “Oh, these are ours,” I said, unscrewing the stem and locking it inside the bowl to demonstrate the principle, and how these were clearly not the disposable plastic cups the gallery used.  “You brought your own glass?  Actually…THAT’S ILLEGAL.”  I think it was just a case of misunderstood intent; here we were trying to do our part to cut back on waste and save the planet all all that shit, because at heart we’re just a couple of nature-loving hippies from California, and this gallery owner probably thought we were up to no good, trying to get larger portions of wine or something.  It was an awkward interaction but I’ve tried not to hold a grudge (see below re: “Tit For Two Tats”).

 What customs or mannerisms are particular to the art world?

There are a lot of specifics, like what to do during a studio visit, or how to approach a gallery, or how to deal with collectors, but the one thing I’ve noticed is the role of niceness and/or sincerity.  On one level there’s this veneer of civility where everybody acts nice towards everybody else because you never know when you’ll need them professionally, even if there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes shit talking.  But on another level, there’s a hierarchy.  It seems sometimes as though everybody loves a collector, likes a writer, and tolerates an artist.  If you’re an artist, a gallerist or dealer is as good as a collector, as is an institutional curator, because they can get you in the show.  I’ve worn all these hats in one capacity or another, and it’s really interesting how people have acted differently towards me in subtle ways.  I should add here that almost everyone has been very civil, polite, and friendly towards me no matter what.  Also, I’m sure I act a little differently around people with different roles in the art world, but I do make an effort to be friendly and respectful to everyone, whether or not they’re in a position to advance my career.

 When does breach of etiquette play a role in embarrassing or awkward encounters?

There’s the above example about the wine glasses, of course; here’s another one:  A well-known artist whose work I really like, but had never met, made some very caustic remarks about my wife and I, calling us “idiotic hipsters who eat their way through the openings and don’t know anything about painting.”  This was in response to The Snack Report, a weekly column I authored for several years in which I went to every art opening I could but wrote criticism only of the refreshments.  Following the principle of “tit for two tats,” that is, forgiving anyone their first breach of conduct (again, see below), I engaged in a very civil dialog with this artist, and despite the rude phrasing, actually did become convinced that the joke had gotten old and the Snack Report had become more of a chore than a joy for me, and stopped doing it.  The artist and I became friends, I did a studio visit, and we’ve had some other professional engagements together.  It would have been easy for me to take offense at the initial remarks but by turning the other cheek I’ve allowed us to have some very positive interactions.

 How should people behave?  What would be a maxim for conduct?

“Don’t be a dick.”  Really, that should cover it, and any more specific rules merely serve to clarify this one overlying principle.  For example:

– An artist’s opening is not the time for a critique.

– An opening is not a good time to talk to the gallerist about showing your work there.  The gallerist is busy talking to collectors, trying to generate sales.  Or at least they should be.  This is also true of art fairs.

– If your friends are writers, they are under no obligation to write about your show.  If your friends are curators, they have no obligation to include your work in an exhibition.  As a curator and writer, I have certainly written about and curated my friends’ work, but never felt obligated to do so.  If I curate a friend’s work into an exhibition, it is because their work fits the theme well; if I write about a friend’s show, it is because I have something to say about their work.  Or, in either case, because it’s a paid gig.

– Show up when you say you’re going to.  If you arrange to do a studio visit, for example, and then don’t show up, or cancel at the last minute, you’re saying “My time is more important than yours.”  This is related to a power dynamic.  We live in a world where artists court gallerists, not the other way around.  A gallerist can cancel or reschedule a studio visit without any real consequences on his or her career, whereas an artist who cancels or asks to reschedule might very well find themselves quickly forgotten.  But it’s a dick move either way.

– Conversely, respect other people’s time.  Nobody owes you anything.  People are busy.  Pushing yourself on a gallerist to do a studio visit with you is making a big demand on their time.  Act accordingly.

This raises, of course, the question of what to do when someone else violates the basic principle of “don’t be a dick.”  I advocate a position I learned about while reading about memetics.  Basically these researchers were running a computer simulation of game theory, in which computer programs were written to play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which they could choose to either cooperate or betray one another.  You can read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine to get the whole story in context, but the short version is, the first time they ran the game the winning program was “Tit For Tat,” which would cooperate until betrayed, but would retaliate if betrayed (that is, would not cooperate again with a player who betrayed it).  So, the conclusion seemed to be that it’s best to be nice to others until they fuck you over, at which point you never trust that person again.

But, they ran a later version of the game, in which a new program was introduced, and proved even more successful than “Tit For Tat.”  The new program was called “Tit For Two Tats,” and operated on this principle:  It would forgive a single instance of betrayal, but not a second one.  This was superior to Tit For Tat because it avoided getting into cycles of mutual betrayal with programs which were programmed to betray randomly, or merely occasionally.  This seemed to map perfectly to social behavior in the art world:  If someone says something rude to me, criticizes me publicly, or whatever, I’ll extend the olive branch, let ‘em know we’re still cool, and try to be their friend.  In the few instances this has come up, it’s proven effective.  It’s hard to punch someone who’s hugging you.  (Although it occurred to me recently that it’s actually only a -4 penalty to attack while grappled.)

Has their been a shift in etiquette as the financial climate has changed?

To be honest, if it has, I haven’t noticed.

What constitutes bad manners?

The same stuff that constitutes bad manners in any context:  Making people wait for you.  Interrupting someone who’s in the middle of a conversation.  Tying up the shitter for half a goddamned hour because you’re in there doing coke with your friends.  (Everybody knows, sweetheart, you’re not fooling anyone!)  Taking a couple of beers for the road out of the tub and sticking ‘em in your pockets.  But…uh, nobody’s perfect.

Duchamp’s Unintended Consequences

July 2, 2012 · Print This Article

Anyone who’s taken even a single 20th Century Art History course, or done a little reading on the subject, has gotten the simple, take-home version of the lesson of Duchamp’s readymades:  that “it’s art because I say it is.”  This sophism makes life a lot easier for artists (and perhaps more so, educators) who are faced with the question, “What is art?”  Allowing ourselves to accept anything as an artwork, so long as its creator so designates it, simplifies the task of delineating the definition of art by eliminating them.  It also opens up a vast field of inquiry, discovery, and creation, by allowing creative people access to modes of expression far beyond pencil, paint, and pixels.

Our campsite in Yosemite Valley, with Stephanie Burke.

Some challenge the openness of this definition, or rather this refusal to define, as too easy.  Objections to it from our students, families, and friends outside the art world are either dismissed as naïve, or lead a conversation down the same rabbit hole of irresolvable issues as Thanksgiving dinner politics or dorm-room theology.  It’s easy to forget that the question of what is, and what is not, art, is merely a matter of how we define a word.  (Birds didn’t wake up feeling different, the day we decided to call them dinosaurs.)  There is a sphere of human activity, encompassing everything from impractical object-making to practical experiments in philosophy, and since the activities in this sphere seem to share some traits, we’ve got to call it something, so we might as well call it art.

Stephanie, myself, a friend, and my sister, setting out on our overnight backpacking trip from Glacier Point, to Little Yosemite Valley, and down into Yosemite Valley.

The cause and consequence of this open-ended definition of art has been a dizzying range of activities falling within its scope.  Rirkrit Tiravanija prepares and serves Thai food.  Marina Abramović played the knife game thirteen years before the android Bishop made it famous in the movie Aliens.  Bas Jan Ader fell off of things, rode his bike into a canal, and ultimately tried to cross the Atlantic in a rowboat, after which he was never seen again.  Here in Chicago, Stan Shellabarger goes on 12-hour walks celebrating equinoxes and solstices, and Chicago-based artist Meg Onli walked the length of the underground railroad.


Canoeing in Missouri.

In the name of art, I’ve participated in a Japanese-style game show, played basketball and volleyball, and received a small black tattoo of a dot.  In each of these cases, I was a participant in a project created by someone else, but I’ve also done some weird stuff myself and called it art.  Stephanie Burke and I had coffee sitting in the chairs people left to reserve themselves a parking spot in the winter, and we’ve taken artists to Indiana and taught them to shoot guns.  These projects have been a lot of fun, and have given us the chance to explore avenues of expression other than my usual practice as a painter, and hers as a photographer.

Sitting by the Merced River in Yosemite, with my friends and family.

There is a risk, however, inherent to this open, anything-is-art kind of world, and that is that if anything can be art, it is tempting to turn everything into art.  If we accept ol’ Douchie’s claim that anything is art if an artist says it is, then an artist can, with a word, turn everything he or she makes or does into art.  This power is irresistable.  Like Ice-nine, it spreads throughout an artist’s life, turning everything it touches into art.  Or at least, it can, if we let it.  And it’s hard not to, especially for those of us who are constantly surrounded by and immersed in the art world.  If we earn our livings by teaching or working at a gallery, odds are that we have precious few contacts or activities that are entirely separate from our lives as artists.

At a self-defense workshop at Zombie Con. My partner is practicing the “brachial stun” on me.

I would suggest here that it is essential to maintain exactly this kind of separation in some aspect of our lives.  Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.”  It’s a lovely sentiment, and as good a justification as any for why we do what we do, as artists.  But when one’s workweek consists of making art, teaching art, and writing about out, and then the weekend rolls around and it’s a couple of nights of gallery openings, and maybe a barbecue or party with some art-world friends, art becomes the dust of everyday life.  Not art itself, of course, but the infrastructure surrounding it, the networking, the applications, the paperwork…all of the stuff that comes along with the special thing that happens in the studio.  And sometimes we need to get away from it all.

On top of Hughes Mountain, a remarkable and possibly unique structure composed of polygonally-jointed rhyolite.

One of the advantages of teaching is the relatively open summer schedule it affords one, and both Stephanie and I take advantage of this freedom as much as we’re able.  While we do some teaching at community art centers over the summer, we’re still able to get away quite a bit.  This past May, we flew out to California and did some camping and backpacking in Yosemite National Park.  Then we drove up to Humboldt, crashed an old friend’s party, and then drove across Oregon to Crater Lake, stopping on the way to play with some baby animals at a wild animal park.  We explored some caves in Lava Beds National Monument, and then spent a week in Stephanie’s home town of Grass Valley.  We wrapped up our trip in San Francisco, where we saw the metal band Rhapsody perform, and then got up the next morning to hike around Muir Woods.

Shooting my AR-15 at Little Indian Creek, a public shooting range in Missouri.

We returned to Chicago for a week, then headed down to Missouri for a few days of camping, canoeing, shooting guns, and watching shitty zombie movies on a jagged rock in the middle of nowhere.  We faced sunburn, ticks, and an adorable little scorpion, and ate a strange kind of pizza that is apparently a St. Louis specialty.  We came back sore, filthy, and exhausted, but also washed free of the shimmering but sometimes stifling layer of pixie dust that builds up on the soul of we who live this particularly extraordinary life, as artists.

Public Enemies: The Problem With Public Art

June 4, 2012 · Print This Article

Public art suffers from the same limiting factor as the music you’ll hear piped into a retail store:  there’s no requirement that it be great, so long as it doesn’t offend anybody.  This simple formula has virtually guaranteed that public art will nearly always fall within a rather narrow envelope, usually, but not always, mediocre.  Chicago has some great examples of public art by well-respected artists (Kapoor, Calder, Picasso), but it is not without its problems.

Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate,” embodies one principle of public art:  the public can appreciate art so long as they misunderstand it.  This sounds harsh and unfair, and of course it can always be argued that “there’s no wrong way to appreciate a work of art.”  But it seems true that, in the public sphere, the distance between an artist’s intentions and the average viewer’s interpretation of it will be greater than in other venues.  So Kapoor’s sculpture gets nicknamed “The Bean,” and serves primarily as a funhouse mirror backdrop for tourist’s snapshots.

In this role, ironically, “Cloud Gate” is an overwhelming success, as far as many stated goals of public art are concerned.  It’s for everybody, it is a centerpiece of the city, huge numbers of people interact with and enjoy it…it is, in some ways, everything public art “should” be…from a politician’s perspective.  A generous observer might call it a case of everybody enjoying a work of art in their own way; a cynic might call it a case of casting pearls before swine.

As an abstract form with a pleasing surface, made of a durable material and inviting a whimsical interaction, “Cloud Gate” hits a sweet spot for success in the eyes of the public.  Calder’s “Flamingo” is similarly innocuous, and while it’s not quite so interactive as Cloud Gate, it does at least stay more or less out of the way:  unlike Serra’s Tilted Arc, similarly placed in a public plaza surrounded by offices, which confronted viewers (with an “ugly,” rusted surface), divided the space rather than tucking itself into a corner or loitering overhead, and ostensibly provided a lurking place for muggers.  The basic similarity of these three public sculptures (large abstract forms, made of metal, placed in public squares) and the wildly different responses to them on the part of the public (an almost giddy embrace of Cloud Gate, a cool indifference to Flamingo, and a vitriolic hatred that led to the rapid removal of Tilted Arc) shows the fine lines tread by public art in terms of their acceptance by a seemingly fickle public.

The frustration which artists working in a public sphere must feel, and which I as an observer feel when I read these accounts, stems largely from the public’s refusal to take public sculpture seriously.  This is of course a product of the art professional’s perspective; we are often unconsciously guilty of expecting everyone to act as though they had an MFA, or at least adopted a hushed reverence for anything they were told is “Art.”  This despite the fact that few of us pay similar reverence to other fields, what we might call hobbies, from dog shows to scrapbooking.  There is a usually-unconscious double standard here, a belief that our interest (art) ought be treated differently from others (sports, stamp collecting, and the like) because “art is important.”  It is this hubris which often leaves the public feeling alienated by the world of art, and leads to allegations of elitism, which are at times entirely justified.

Still, whatever the crimes of the art world in regard to art in the public sphere, it’s hard to overlook the juvenile irreverence with which public sculpture is often treated by the public.  Posing with one’s reflection in Cloud Gate is a bit of harmless fun, about on par with “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but it doesn’t stop there.  Witness the indignity of the sports paraphernalia which has been slapped onto the Art Institute’s lions and Picasso’s baboon-like sculpture.  Adorning a piece of sculpture with an oversized ballcap interferes with its aesthetic function no less than installing Tilted Arc in the middle of Wrigley Field would interfere with the playing of baseball.  Actually, I think it would make the game a lot more interesting.  But such is the attitude of the public towards public art that this interference goes unnoticed, the entire idea that a work of art might be DOING something, providing an aesthetic experience, which might be interfered with, goes entirely unconsidered.

In interpretation, that is, the stuff that the park ranger does when she tells you about this-or-that woodpecker, it is said that the recreational visitor to a park or museum has an attention span operating at about a 4th grade level.  That is to say, if you talk to tourists like they’re a bunch of 4th graders, they’ll have fun; anything more and it starts to feel like work.  We can debate whether or not this is a good thing, whether it would be better if the public were more intellectual, but the point is, they’re not.  Tourists want to act like a 4th grader, probably because that’s the most relaxed, fun state to be in, rather than trying to analyze everything like you’re going to have to write a term paper on it later.  As art world professionals, it’s easy to forget that not everyone is as vested in intellectualizing everything we see.

So why the surprise, then, when the public’s first response, on seeing Seward Johnson’s sculpture Forever Marilyn, is to try to look up her dress?  Why would you expect anything different from a public who put a Blackhawks helmet on Picasso’s sculpture in Daley Plaza, and Bears helmets on the Art Institute’s lions?  Tourists on vacation, and locals on their day off, aren’t going to look at a piece of public art the way artists and critics are going to.  As any interpreter will tell you, they’re going to act like a bunch of fourth graders, because that’s what people do when they’re on vacation.  This situation isn’t going to change until or unless the mass culture embraces intellectualism as a virtue, until it becomes cool to think, to ponder, to take seriously not only works of public art but also historical landmarks and interpretive signs about migratory birds.  Unlikely, to be sure, but this long shot is the only hope for a more mature public response to public art…and that, in turn, is the only hope for a public that will support riskier, more challenging, and in short, better public art.



What’s So Fair About Art, Anyway?

May 9, 2012 · Print This Article

Last month would have been the latest round of NEXT/Art Chicago, Chicago’s annual art fair at Merchandise Mart.  I say would have been, because early in February, it was announced that NEXT/Art Chicago had been cancelled.  The announcement came suddenly, and on fairly short notice:  we had already received our VIP invitation, and were planning on sending our students to the fair on a field trip.  News of the fair’s cancellation first came to my attention via Facebook, the New American Paintings blog, and Chicago Art Magazine.  By the following day the story had become the talk of the town, and WBEZ ran a story including an interview with Tony Karmen, VP of Art Chicago from 2006 to 2010, who recently left to start his own Chicago art fair, Expo Chicago.

As the dust of the announcement has settled over the past two months, we’ve been left to reflect on the potential consequences of the cancellation of Art Chicago, and perhaps more importantly, its significance as an indicator of which way the wind is blowing for Chicago’s future as an art city.  At the end of that WBEZ story, host Tony Sarabia asked Allison Cuddy for her closing thoughts:  “It’s a fascinating story, I think we’ll carry through the day working on the story, and think about the relevance of art fairs to the overall art scene in Chicago.”

The end of NEXT/Art Chicago and the beginning of Expo Chicago invite some speculation as to the role art fairs can play.  In her recent article for FNews Magazine, Sarah Hamilton interviewed some local art world players, including Tom Burtonwood, Aron Gent, and Tony Karmen about their thoughts on the end of Next Art Chicago, and the dawn of Expo Chicago.  Hamilton also cites an article by Jerry Saltz in which he describes Adam Lindeman’s view that art fairs should exist solely for the benefit of high-dollar collectors as “autocoprophagic.”

Must the merit of an art fair be determined on economic grounds alone?  Who do they serve?  Are art fairs a simple facilitation of the business transaction between gallerists and collectors?  Not that there’s anything wrong with this; those transactions are how artists make their livings.  But need this be the limit of what an art fair is?

As an educator, I had been bringing my college art classes to NEXT/Art Chicago (facilitated by the really easy access to free passes), and had been looking forward to having Expo Chicago as a Fall Semester counterpoint.  Of course, the very accessibility that would have facilitated this access for my students is the antithesis of the “wall…[made] out of gold or marble,” which my friend Tom Burtonwood, in Hamilton’s article, suggests Karmen build to “keep the riff raff away.”  If Karmen follows Lindeman’s advice, and Burtonwood’s, he wouldn’t let my students anywhere near the place.

It’s easy for a teacher like myself to expect art fairs to provide students with a free art-viewing experience, but if art fairs aren’t profitable, they’ll cease to exist…at least, under the current, profit-motivated model.  Tom (along with Lindeman) may be right about what’s good for the art business, and if he is, access may be a zero-sum game:  what’s good for the art viewing public, having art fairs serve as a traveling carnival of art from around the world for their viewing pleasure, may be exactly the opposite of the exclusive atmosphere that allows them to exist in the first place.

But, and this may just be me and a bunch of other Johnny-and-Janie-Come-Latelys trying to ride the Occupy bandwagon, we could even wonder whether art fairs could exist under other terms, which need not even necessarily be profitable.  Alternative models have been tried, including the numerous satellite fairs that spring up around Art Basel Miami Beach (Aqua, Scope, Pulse, Fountain, Verge, and about a dozen others), which can be seen as symbiotic organisms whose relationship with their host may be either parasitic, commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), or mutualistic (beneficial to both).  The satellite fairs may draw buyers away from the main event, they may increase the overall buzz and street cred of an otherwise conservative event, or they may pick up some table scraps from the periphery without really affecting the main fair.  Satellite fairs have followed both for-profit and non-profit models.

At the end of Hamilton’s article, Aron Gent muses that the loss of NEXT Art Chicago, and the success or failure of the upcoming EXPO, is no big deal:  “Maybe we don’t need to worry about having kickass fairs.  Maybe we should focus on taking artists and galleries down to Miami.”  As an artist, I’d love to get my work in front of a new group of collectors, and any excuse to skip out on Chicago for a few days in December is a good one.  I imagine the cost, and therefore the risk, for a Chicago gallery doing a fair are much higher when the venue is out of town, though, and for a lot of them it may not be worth the risk.

A homegrown fair, whether NEXT/Art Chicago, Expo Chicago, MDW, or something new, could conceivably be a means of attracting collectors local, national, and international, to look at and hopefully collect works by Chicago-based artists worthy of an international audience, without imposing the burden on artists or dealers on traveling and shipping the work to rent a booth at an art fair in another city.  The challenge, though, remains as always to convince collectors that Chicago is a good place to spend their money.  I was recently fortunate enough to have one of the pieces from my show at Linda Warren Projects acquired by Howard Tullman for his collection, and so at least at the moment, I am optimistic.  There are collectors who buy from Chicago artists, and whether it’s at an art fair, from a gallery, or otherwise, they are the supporters who enable artists to continue making their work.

Making Good On A Promise: The Story of the Southern California Steelhead Trout

April 2, 2012 · Print This Article

“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”  (Proverb attributed to Native Americans, tribe unkown.)

Late February, I attended the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles, where I ran into my friend Jenny Kendler.  She told me about an event she was involved with, “In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists,” at UnSpace Ground, which as I was to discover was situated in the outdoor plaza in front of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where CAA was taking place.  Street vendors were selling baggies of sliced mango dipped in lemon juice, cayenne, and sugar, and I managed to buy one before security ran the vendors off, and my friends and I munched mango as the event unfolded.  (In the photo below, you can just make me out, in my fancy new sunglasses, chatting with artist Conrad Freiburg, in the upper right.)

In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists, at UnSpace Ground, College Art Association Conference 2012, Los Angeles Convention Center.

For this event, eight artists and one biologist collaborated to create 35 art works representing endangered species living in southern California.  In order to spread awareness of the endangered status of these organisms, viewers were invited to sign up to take custody of a work of art, in exchange for a commitment to learn and care about the species represented, and to reproduce or represent the artwork online.  This article is my fulfillment of the pledge that I took on that day.

The format ran something like a silent auction, with viewers selecting the work and species they wanted to care for, and signing up on form.  As the event unfolded, Jenny announced each species, artwork, and its new caretaker, auctioneer-style.  Both Stephanie Burke and I took custody of pieces by Jenny Kendler, a friend of ours whose work we have admired for a long time.  Kendler’s work frequently addresses issues of ecology and conservation, but what I’ve always appreciated about its soft, quiet beauty, which has always reminded me of the animated film The Last Unicorn.  This delicate aesthetic carries through her drawings and paintings, her sculptures, and makes an important subject palatable, avoiding any possibility of being called shrill or preachy.  It is pretty with a purpose.

Jenny Kendler, Southern California Steelhead Trout, Muntz's Onion, 2012, grapite and watercolor on paper with vintage ribbon

Kendler’s contributions to “In A Landscape Where Nothing Officially Exists” were rendered in graphite and watercolor on little circles of paper, which were then mounted on vintage ribbons, like one might get for “Best Pig” at the county fair.  They are similar to, although I believe separate from, an installation called “Selection:  23 Endangered Species,” executed in the same medium and also mounted on ribbons. Stephanie took custody of Muntz’s Onion, and I went for the Southern California Steelhead Trout.

Steelhead are a unique type of rainbow trout, which are classified along with salmon, char, and other trout as salmonids.  Unlike other rainbow trout, steelhead, like salmon, are anadromous, spending most of their adult lives in the ocean but spawning in freshwater streams and rivers. The Southern California Steelhead Trout is an “evolutionarily significant unit” (ESU) of the coastal steelhead/rainbow trout, Oncorhyncus mykiss iridius.  Since the end of the last glacial period, some 12,000 years ago, steelhead of the southern ESU have evolved several unique characteristics uniquely adapted to the semi-arid climate of Southern California.  Compared with northern populations, southern steelhead have the ability to tolerate warmer water, the juveniles grow faster and migrate to the ocean more quickly, and they may “stray” more frequently from the exact river or stream of their birth when returning to spawn.

Steelhead Trout, Image by Timothy Knepp/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Southern California steelhead face two major threats to their survival.  Water diversion and extraction cause many streams to dry up for much of the year, much more frequently than previously.  Secondly, various barriers can prevent the fish from returning to their spawning ground:  dams obviously from a major obstacle but flat, concrete-lined channels and narrow culverts can also create high-velocity “wind tunnels” of water which the fish are unable to pass.  The loss of riparian vegetation, the introduction of non-native predatory fish and amphibians, the filling and destruction of estuaries, and pollution from industrial and agricultural runoff have added to the difficulties.

The steelhead was listed under the Endangered Species Act in August 1997, and various populations listed as threatened or endangered.  However, the listing excluded any area upstream of an impassible manmade barrier, leaving most of the vital spawning grounds unprotected, and inaccessible.  Organizations such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Audubon Society, the Friends of the LA River (FOLAR), and the California Coastal Conservancy have fought to revive southern California’s steelhead populations.  Efforts have included the redesign of channels to slow water flow, provision for means for fish to get around barriers, restoring riparian vegetation, and eliminating invasive predators.

There have been some major setbacks, for example in late January 2011, when the California Coastal Conservancy abandoned its efforts at reviving the San Mateo Creek population, in part because of hindrances presented by USMC Camp Pendleton.  There have been successes as well.  The Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara worked with city planners and the Army Corps of Engineers to redesign the concrete channel framing Mission Creek, slowing its flow, and adding step pools and rock weirs to allow fish to migrate upstream.  The Matilija Coalition in Ventura County has been working to remove a dam, modify bridge structures, and restore shade trees along the Ventura River.

The best news is also the most recent.  In January 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration completed its roadmap to recovery for steelhead in southern California.  For the fewer than 500 steelhead remaining in southern California, this plan outlines the best chance of survival.  But the NOAA warns:  “Recovery Plans published by NOAA’s Fisheries Services are guidance documents, not regulatory documents, and their implementation depends on the voluntary cooperation of multiple stakeholders at the local, regional, state, and national levels.”

The information in this article comes from the following sources, which should be consulted for additional information on the status of the southern California steelhead, and what still needs to be done: