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Performing Agriculture

The “Survival Pieces” of Artists Helen and Newton Harrison

Ecological artists Helen and Newton Harrison, frequently cited as the “pioneers” of the environmental art movement, have engaged large scale ecological projects since 1970 when they determined to do no work that didn’t advantage the biosphere. They explored issues of basic sustainability in an early array of artworks entitled “Survival Pieces.” The series began with “Making Earth” (1970) and expanded to include a portable fish farm (1971) and a portable orchard (1972), among others.


The Survival Pieces emerged from Newton’s examination of systems thinking while a participant in the Art & Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1967-71. As an ensemble, these artworks critically investigated food systems, food security and the sustainability of our actions. As Wendell Berry has said, food is our most persistent relationship with the environment, and we are participants in agriculture. This presentation examines this early work, and its relevance to ethical land use and contemporary issues of food production.


There was great interest in the 1970s for the issues addressed by the Harrisons: the Whole Earth Catalog was published 1968 to 1972; scientist Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his foundational work with the Green Revolution; and in 1972 both the Clean Water Act and a ban on DDT  were passed. The issues raised in the Survival Pieces resonate today, as seen in the championing of local food production by communities worldwide.

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With photographs by Helen and Newton Harrison, Claire Shovelton (The Catfish Conundrum opera)

Presented at the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences annual conference (2015) and the Environmental Arts & Humanities Graduate Conference, Oregon State University.

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