Project Note: Marty
Project Note: Marty
How Green Is My City
by Celeste DiNucci
Marty Pottenger is a Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Artist/Thinker. Project Notes document and articulate Marty's process and engagement with Philadelphia as she develops #PHILLYSAVESEARTH, a new performance that will be presented at the Painted Bride April 22-24, 2016.
Celeste DiNucci reflects on working with Artist/Thinker Marty Pottenger, and the ways a particular place can shape one's relationship to the natural world, and vice versa.
Working with Marty on #PHILLYSAVESEARTH has found me calling on all of the skills I most enjoy putting to good use: reaching out to community members, researching local histories, and imagining new experiences for audiences, all while looking for the “weird, wacky, and wonderful,” as Marty has directed. The process has led me to begin filling out a wonderful mosaic of the city’s artists, activists, and ancestors, connected and supported by Philadelphians who shape their own everyday lives in the context of this rich soup of sources and influences.
It has also drawn out several threads regarding the difficulty of feeling connected to the natural world amidst the unyielding surfaces of the city. I grew up on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, a landscape where little islands of strip malls and office parks seemed plopped down on barely leveled-out terrain, and trees towered over the roads where we caught the bus for school. Looking down at Portland from the hills to the west of the city, you could see the massive forest that the city had been carved out of and sense the constant threat that the forest could swallow it all up again.
Needless to say, I haven’t experienced Philadelphia this way. Not much grass grows underfoot here. The trees are often cut back, contained in small sidewalk boxes and trimmed in uneven ways to make way for power and utility lines. Even the lovely Wissahickon has a different feel to it—the ground feels well-trodden, as though human history has been taking place there for centuries and has left a smooth wake.
But I have been mistaken when I perceived myself as being cut off from the natural world here. Many years ago, while working with the American Philosophical Society Museum, I was able to participate in an art project called the Urban Field Station. Artist Mark Dion had set up a field tent in the Jefferson Garden, across from Philosophical Hall on Independence Square, as a sort of “portal” for understanding how nature is all around us, even in the most urbanized spaces in the city. The power of nature is its capacity for infinite adaptation, and the project highlighted, for instance, species that have adapted particularly well to the city: pigeons, for example, or squirrels, or roaches. These species are no less “natural” than the birds and wildlife we associate with a wild forest or jungle.
What Marty has added to this layered understanding of our surroundings are the narratives, the stories that become attached to or worked out through the natural world, and the place that creates for culture[s]: different faiths, different practices, different understandings of how we inhabit the places we do. Working with Marty has already provided a window into exploring these narratives. For some of us, these start with the scientific method: How do we maintain our everyday life in the face of the environmental disasters that we learn more about each day, and how do we connect specific acts and practices to environmental consequences? But there are so many other stories that feed into this. How do faith, culture, and history shape our understanding and practice? And is there a place for—or access to—optimism in all of this?
Marty has described our moment in environmental history as one “at the beginning of an adventure, and that we don’t know how it will turn out.” Calling on the many resources of our place, Philadelphia—our history, our many cultures, our physical circumstances, and our community ties and efforts—may create a new approach that we haven’t yet understood or experienced. And coming together through acts of performance, witnessing, and participation may provide a way forward at this crucial moment.
Celeste DiNucci is the Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia Project Coordinator.