Interviewsand Articles


Restoration: A Conversation with Daniel McCormick and Mary O'Brien

by Richard Whittaker, Aug 23, 2016



Daniel McCormick and Mary O’Brien describe their work as remedial environmental art. They met on a project around one of the last flowing creeks in San Francisco, Islais Creek, and have been together for 26 years.
     I met Daniel briefly at an opening at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco maybe eight years ago. What he said in a talk at the opening made a strong impression; here was an artist working in several disciplines at once and also including students and members of communities in a completely wholesome and even healing way. This was someone I wanted to talk with. But years passed as one thing or another kept me from following up. But the impression was not forgotten. Then one day—who knows how these things happen?—I sent McCormick an email. Yes, he’d be happy to talk, and by the way, he was part of a team with his wife Mary O’Brien. She would be along. Would I mind?
     So much the better! Patrick Jacobs, an architect interested in riparian restoration, came along to listen in. Our conversation at Headland Center for the Arts, as so often happens, was a pure pleasure. —R. Whittaker

works:  Tell me a little about your background.

Daniel McCormick:  I worked in architecture; it’s my background—art, architecture and science. I credit the design processes with learning to solve problems. We take that with us every day. We were coming of age in the ‘70s when the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act were initiated. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Environment Policy were coming up when we were in school and we had our ear to the ground. The Great Lakes are polluted!

Mary O’Brien:  But it’s something you’re almost unaware of until it’s gone. Every generation inherits what’s already lost.

works:  What do you mean by that?

Mary:  Well, there was a lot of degradation in our environment. I remember swimming in Lake Michigan as a kid. People saying, “That’s a polluted lake. You shouldn’t swim there.” Well, we would just dive underneath the dead fish and swim anyway. But each generation inherits what we damage and don’t preserve.

works:  Would you say more about that?

Mary:  We’re in the Anthropocene era now. That means that the human effects on earth are as strong as other forces were in earlier geologic eras, and that will continue until something happens—positive or negative.

Daniel:  There have been a couple of pivotal things for us. One, has been our residencies at the Headland Center for the Arts. The other thing is learning that we’re in a geological era. You want to make a difference? Humans have made a difference! [ironic laugh]—rivers degraded, neighborhood creeks with no fish.
     That sparked a change for me. I was working in urban design. We saw a lot of building on watersheds, developments near rivers, and when those rivers come up and there’s not enough pervious soil to take up the water, you get flooding.
     Those kinds of environmental mishaps started to emerge in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. Now environmental sciences are being taught—like at Cal and Stanford.

Mary:  Right. I actively sought environmental science out after I graduated from college. I guess that’s going back to what I mean by inheriting what we’ve lost. We work with people, with communities, that may not know about the natural environment surrounding them—the little parcels thriving by themselves without borders and fences.
     For instance, we worked in an urban environment in Charlotte, North Carolina with people who had never really been out in the little wild space we were working in. Kids were bringing hand sanitizers with them; they were kind of afraid of it, and this is just a pocket woods. But by the end of the first or second day there was a completely different attitude.

Daniel:  We got into this because of earlier issues like, why are so many fish, especially salmon, on the endangered species list? We learned through science that you can restore these things. You get a hydrologist on your team, a fluvial geomorphologist, a wildlife biologist and an ecologist, and they’ll give you the information. We designed a project along the Truckee River that utilizes all of these professionals.
     As artists we want to have something to do with what the interventions are made of and what they’re going to look like when they’re placed, and we want them to function in further, deeper ways.

works:  Before we go further could I get a little more of your background Mary? When you graduated from college, what was your major?

Mary:  Political science. I was caught up in that whole Watergate era. I went to the University of Minnesota, and then to the Environmental Communications Department at the University of Washington in their Master’s program. But I dropped out and moved to San Francisco and started to work using that environmental communications background. I started making films and multimedia projects. Long story short, I opened the first woman-owned film production house in San Francisco in the late ‘70s. So between my day job and my art life…

Daniel:  You squeezed in a UC Berkeley art degree.

Mary:  Right. Once I was able to support myself with my film business, and as a scriptwriter, I pursued art more. My degree at UC Berkeley was in sculpture.

works:  Okay. Now Daniel how did you get from an architectural background into the art world?

Daniel:  Well, art and architecture—I wanted to understand the process of both. I was really inspired by buildings. But I thought, “To be an architect you would want to know about science and music and art.” So I spent a year at UC Santa Barbara at the College of Creative Studies. That was pivotal. I met James Turrell and I was one of his four students for a term.

works:  Only four of you? Amazing!

Mary:  And that’s the only term Turrell taught, right?

Daniel:  Right. He was a pilot and showed up in a different airplane every week. We’d meet him at the airport.

Mary:  He was working on Roden Crater by then.

works:  Did he fly any of you anywhere?

Daniel:  Yes. That was our classroom. We’d just take turns and fly the coast. He’s an incredible pilot. He landed that thing on Santa Cruz Island. We took off from Santa Barbara. He got out over the ocean and flipped it upside down and flew to the island upside down. He righted it and landed on the island; he just found a big spot.
     I tell you, he was just different. I was never the same after that. So going into architecture school I was really going to be an artist, and I knew that.

works:  You were never the same after Turrell?

Daniel:  Well, it really opened my eyes up to light. We had serious assignments in light and lumens—everything from lumens to the light in the Old Testament.
     I didn’t really know who he was, until I got into the class. The students said, “You’re lucky you’re here.” And I was. We actually did some installations together; I got to see how that worked. Then I went to UC Berkeley and worked in their College of Environmental Design majoring in landscape architecture, and it went great. I was really prepared and had a perspective from working with Turrell.
     So I was kind of on the track. I got a job after I graduated. It’s a fabulous profession—the projects you can be engaged in.

Mary:  But your degree is in architecture.

Daniel:  Yes. But I was taking a lot of landscape architecture, urban design classes and that’s where I ended up—in urban design.

Mary:  We work with a lot of landscape architects, but we don’t want to be considered landscape architects. We look at things differently. And we’re looking at things differently than scientists.

Daniel:  These projects are our children. We do a lot of research in biology and ecology. We’ve taken projects where we can get structures to rot from the inside out; that was a prescription from our ornithologist—in order to get bugs into their habitats. Working in natural systems is what we’re really excited about, finding our way in a natural system that emulates how it was originally, and then letting it take over.

works:  Over the years, you’ve acquired a lot of knowledge in ecology, geology, biology and so forth. Is that mostly from formal courses?

Daniel:  I took a lot of science courses. I have a lower division degree in science.

Mary:  But we also do a lot of continuing education. We go to a lot of conferences. Daniel has certificates in fluvial geomorphology, site design, and ecological restoration.
     We work with a lot of scientists; we work with landscape architects, landscape designers. We want their knowledge so we can bring the artist’s perspective to that. I think that’s the simplest way to explain how what we do may be different from the work of a fluvial geomorphologist or the conservation professional.
     We bring an artist’s perspective. It’s not any big mystery what we do. But we do have a lot of scientific knowledge and before we work on a site, we absolutely have to meet with the site steward, the conservation manager and scientists—and that’s not always an easy thing to do. They’re often like, “We’re going to meet with an artist? What’s that all about?”

Daniel:  But once you break that barrier with a design professional then you’re in like flynn.

Mary:  They get it.

Daniel:  And it’s a really great relationship. But to get to that point is always a little—we’re always concerned about that. Are we going to hit the right note and be able to work together? And it doesn’t always work.
     We’ve learned to start from the top. So the administrators and managers send word down to the Parks & Rec people and field ecologists that artists are going to be talking to them. They can say, “Go to their website and get to know who these people are.” That’s the best preparation. But we still have to win them over.

Mary:  We like living in an art world, but then often stepping into another world, conservation science. And people will say, “What are you doing over here?” Then we have a little uphill work to do as artists.

Daniel:  Our work appears to be a little suspicious, because we’re artists making things that aren’t even going to be there next year. They’ll lose their identity as handmade objects. A funder might think, “I funded this project; now let’s go take a look at it.”
     We like to get them out there the first couple of months. Peter Selz hiked a half-mile to see one of our projects in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Mary:  And you couldn’t even see much of the work because it was really growing out there.

Daniel:  I’ll tell you though, that was one of the best things that’s ever happened, in terms of getting somebody out there to see it work. It was after a big rain and the installation was just totally saturated with silt—and things were growing, which is what it does.

works:  So how is it working with other people—with scientists, with administrators. Is it a plus?

Mary:  It’s definitely a plus. We depend on that. As artists, there’s probably a little bit more effort in getting accepted. We’re aware of that and we know how to position ourselves. It’s not like someone’s handing us a grant and says, “Go ahead and lock yourselves in a room and create.”
     We work with various communities: first, the scientific community; and the people who own the land; the people who are in charge of getting us on the land. It’s not like we just have to get permission. They have to understand what we can bring to it. And that starts at our very first meeting and our very first talk.

Daniel:  And these are all competitive professions, especially with design professionals. So you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.

works:  Is it sort of enriching to have to negotiate all these interrelationships?

Mary:  Yes. I think that’s where it is. And when we started working actively together, that part of it really got to be too big for just one person to handle. I found myself in the background writing a lot of letters and going with Daniel to meetings. But getting through those negotiations, that doesn’t just end when we get on the land.
     We had a project where we knew they were waiting to see this thing finished in order to buy into it. Which is an interesting situation, because they’re questioning everything you do. And they’re not getting it. Then all of a sudden, it’s finished; people from the community are very much behind it and involved and have ownership. And you have your scientists saying, “Yes. It’s a good thing!”

Daniel:  When we bring our own funding, then we get along a lot better with these people. With this last job we had, we connected with the biggest funder we’d ever met. It was brokered by a museum. And the field people rose to the occasion and really helped us out, made it successful.

Mary:  And there’s another aspect. We’ll be with a group of scientists and conservationists—and we do love working with them; they’re great folks—but eventually, you learn about their own art endeavors. And that’s very interesting. At first you’re the artist and they’re the scientist. But we don’t ever look at it that way. For us, this is a team. We have to have the scientists on board in order for us to create what we create. But by the end of it, the scientists really get it and then they start showing us stuff that they’ve done that has, say, a particular attention to design.

Daniel:  Well, on this last project, one of the field restoration specialists, his main degree was in sculpture. And he just got his job with the Nature Conservancy to do this restoration. And he’s real good at it. So we learned that and he gave us a little drawing that we put in the archives.
     We archive this work so that another generation can open it up, see the proposals, see the thinking, and find a position either as a designer or a citizen doing citizen science. We take that seriously. We have an archivist and spend time on that.

Mary:  We’ve been focusing on that for the last two or three years. We’re not changing the work we’re doing, but we’re changing what we keep. The notes and scribbles and grant applications, and even our proposals that get rejected—all of that is important to explain what we do.
     To go back to the beginning, the thing that intrigued and captured me about what Daniel was doing—and he’s the founder of our practice—was creating work that just goes back into the environment, and does something for the environment. It creates environmental healing instead of leaving a legacy of things.

Daniel:  We’re working on systems, finding a little place that’s broken from overgrazing, or something like that. And a lot of scientists have figured this all out. They just have the same problem we do—finding the time and funding to go do these kinds of projects.

works:  What’s your sense about bringing beauty into the science of restoration? Do you think about that?

Mary:  Yes. We see the effect on the scientific community and on the community at large through our volunteers, and the people who fund the projects.

Daniel:  After a couple of days of harvesting the material—you know, put these in a pile here, and okay, now take these and put them over there—by the second or third day, when it’s starting to look good, these guys are seeing what they’re making, they’re saying, “Hey, this is really cool! I want this job!”

works:  That’s beautiful.

Mary:  And there are definitely aspects of what we do that’s performance art. We’ve never called it that.

Daniel:  But it keeps falling over there.

Mary:  It does, because of what’s left behind. What’s left behind in a performance? It’s the memory of the experience.
     When you think about that, we have more than a memory of the experience with the community. They can come out and visit it and they do take pictures and send us pictures. We’ve absolutely been forced into social media in the past couple of years because of this, which is a good thing. So there’s that aspect of performance—to take beauty and put it into the environment. But in three years, when that beauty is gone, we do get calls like, “It’s kind of coming apart now.”

Daniel:  [laughs] Do you want to do a workshop and redo it? [ironic]

Mary:  I tell them, “It’s coming apart now because the trees are growing so well and that’s what we want!” So that’s more than the experience of the performance.

Daniel:  But your point of the experience being left behind. We’re not educated as performance artists; we’re pretty solid on what our practice is, but there are other aspects that come along—like a lot of this could be a performance. The latest thing that came around is the social practice work we’re doing right now.
     We designed a system and an object for the Los Angeles river, which is really cool. It was a very powerful experience for us. It was commissioned, but hasn’t been built.

works:  What was the powerful experience?

Mary:  Okay, let’s explain the project. The site was along the L.A. River. Most of its 48 miles, you stand on a concrete bank. We looked at this awful urban blight site. It’s actually owned by the State Park system. But everything that’s positioned there is either going to be graffitied, destroyed, and/or burnt, mostly burnt.

Daniel:  The criteria they gave us is that anything we might put upright would be graffitied and knocked down.

Mary:  So we’re thinking, “What can we do?” We can’t really grow anything; it’s just a big concrete slab. We challenged each other for several months going, “No, that won’t work. This will happen to it.”

Daniel:  We finally got tired of it.

Mary:  We were trying to be true to how we do things, which is restorative. What can we do that will be restorative or give advantage?

Daniel:  We’re really pretty good at ground works—you know, the relationship of ground chemistry, surface chemistry and getting plantings and structures to work together with water flow and stuff like that.

Mary:  And there’s no water; it’s all concrete.

Daniel:  I’m telling you, we thought about it and we thought about it. And we came up with something: we thought, “Let’s look at vandalism as a design determinant!”

works:  Fascinating.

Daniel:  And I’d seen that done in architecture with Merritt College in the Oakland Hills. The high windows are there because of the ‘60s riots. It’s like a space station. The windows are so high you can’t look out. That was a design determinant, to keep those windows high so that they don’t get broken into. I thought that was fascinating.
     So we thought, okay, let’s take vandalism and look at it. How can we get vandalism to work for us?

Mary:  I mean, without becoming different artists. We had to do something to restore the site or, at the very least, to improve the site. But improvement is a relative term. We don’t like to use that term. So what could we do that would interact with what was there, the invasives and burnt concrete and all kinds of craziness?
     You know, Los Angeles is doing this big thing. None of the palm trees in LA are native, so they want to cut down all the palm trees.

works:  What a thought!

Mary:  Ten years ago we worked on a project where they cut down the palm trees—thank goodness, before we got involved. Anyway, we came up with this crazy idea for the LA River site.

Daniel:  Anything we put up is going to come down, so hey, if it’s going to come down, let’s just plan for that! So we made these soil columns out of…

Mary:  Big cardboard tubes.

Daniel:  Concrete forms, different sizes. So here’s what we thought. Let’s put them around like this, like that, and we’ll build a grave for each one of them. We’ll lean each one toward its grave. So if there’s rain, or dew that softens up the cardboard, it will just fall into the grave. Okay?
     So that was an environmental factor. If you get vandals who come in and graffiti them and knock them down, fine, there’s a grave ready. And these columns are full of soil amendments.

Mary:  A mixture.

Daniel:  A soil amendment that falls into its grave right there. You cover it up and you’ve got a soil-amended strip with just a little bit of grading.

Mary:  That was where the science came in; the soil was going to be amended by the proximity of the tubes to each other. Some were full of one thing and some full of another, a biochar here, and another mixture there. We had the option to put seeds in—which would have been great, because they got rains this year. Even if these things were set on fire, no problem!

Daniel:  Come on in, vandal! Knock them down! And the faster they ruin them, the quicker the whole process goes.

Mary:  We were even going to foster the graffiti so we could get people out there to put identifiers on them.

Daniel:  We thought, let’s get three or four performers who can be vandals, and let’s look at that. That would be really exciting right there just to go out and be vandals. And that whole process would be an ecological installation to rebuild soil on the L.A. River.
     But what if nobody did anything to the soil columns, you know? Well, the environment itself would.

Mary:  You know, this is a huge site. I mean this was meant to be beyond symbolic. It would be interactive with the people who own the land. I don’t mean just the leaseholder, but the people in the area who bring their dogs down there, who live down there, the homeless—that’s where most of the vandalism is coming from. The burning is mostly in the winter. It’s cold down there on the riverside.
     So we had all of this worked out. But it took the two of us a while.

Daniel:  But once we get the idea, it’s easy; we’re so excited and then we can sell the idea. So we have a process for coming up with an idea, and we’ve learned to trust it. But there’s still a lot of anxiety in creating ecological work.

Mary:  One of us will be saying, “I don’t know about this. I mean, I’ve got better things to do.” Then the other person will get sparked. When we walk away from a potential project it’s when people just don’t get what we do.

works:  I know at times you’ve involved with schools and get kids involved. I wanted to ask you about that, because that seems like such a fruitful thing.

Daniel:  It is. We did it for 12 years with a middle school in West Marin.

Mary:  It was great, because we would see some of these kids in our community and find out what they’d done with their lives. A lot of them have gone into fields where they’re working outdoors, or on the land.

works:  So is this part of it something that’s important to you?

Daniel:  In the beginning, I didn’t want to work with kids. I wanted to work with architects and landscape architects. What made the difference was when we worked at an all-girls school, San Domenico, seventh and eighth grades, something like that. We did a big installation on the campus. The girls had a different attention span than I’ve seen when we work with boys. Alone, they were more assertive, but the girls won’t speak up much around the guys.
     The guys take the tools and turn them into weapons; it’s the first thing they do. They’ll run over to those hammers and start a little battle; you have to lock the tools up. So it was just interesting to see the different dynamics in play.

Mary:  For that project we worked through an art organization, which was a great interactive resource. That’s when we started to appreciate working with schools. We have to be careful we don’t get taken advantage of because we’re not coming in to do free babysitting for the teachers.
     Because it’s intense, the logistics of getting the kids to the site, making sure they’re comfortable, making sure they have food and water, that nobody is feeling ill.
     We had a great experience through a nature museum in Charlotte. They managed a lot of that. They were able to get us the students and explain to the school what the opportunity was. Taking care of all that administrative work really requires a third person, which we don’t have.
     So that experience was wonderful and really showed us the advantage of working with younger people and community people, and how they could start to own the project. That’s what we want.
     And there’s social media. We have people who have really adopted the work in Nevada. They post pictures of the work as it evolves. So this kind of experience doesn’t disappear; it turns into something different, and something growing. Most of our work grows. It’s something that creates a situation.

Daniel:  Situations where, ecologically, you have a benefit. There is an ecological advantage.

Mary:  That’s what hooked me. When I was first working with Daniel as a volunteer, I had my own art life; I had my own business life. But more and more I was feeling, “I really like this idea.” And I just got hooked.
     I bring a lot to it from my own sculptural background. But I also bring that production side, the interaction with communities, having a crew here and then having an audience-type thing there. You have to make sure that everything is happening.

Daniel:  If I’m overwhelmed with all of that coming at me, Mary can sort it out.

works:  Earlier you mentioned you see a legacy that happens sometimes with people who participate and it’s carried forward into their lives somehow. That must be very rewarding.

Mary:  It is. It’s somewhat contagious, too. There are people who may have just passed by an area, and to be able to engage them—like people who work in the casino and have never been out to the Truckee River. They come out; they don’t know what to expect. We tread lightly in the beginning.

Daniel:  And there are all these people who can kind of figure it out and want to grab a tool and just get to work, and that feels really good.

Mary:  Some just want to stay behind and cut ties; others will bundle the harvested willows. While they’re cutting the string, they see the Sandhill Cranes landing and the bald eagle over there. We don’t care how hard or how much they work. We just want them to engage with us and know that we couldn’t do it without them. To be honest, it’s a community event. They respect our vision and what we’re trying to do there. And it’s an experience we want to give people. I think Daniel and I have discovered how big a part of the work that is. But we’d go out there on our own, even if we didn’t have anybody helping us.

Daniel:  Actually, we worked alone on a couple of projects with not much funding just to get started. And that worked pretty good. Every project we do is an investment to us; it’s our life. The oyster reefs that we put in the San Francisco Bay started that way, and then we got really good funding after it got started.

Mary:  We’ve got ideas and we’ve got projects—and one of them is our oyster reef.

works:  In some way these are really social works.

Daniel:  I would say it’s a component.

Mary:  They’re definitely social sculpture. And on an ecological level having a cleaner or more robust environment affects people.
     And the thing is, we do direct these projects, but if you were to come out to one of our sites, you’d have to look for us to find us amongst the volunteers.

Daniel:  We’re usually being run ragged by a seventh or eighth grader who has taken the initiative to push us around [laughs].

Mary:  So we work hand in glove with the community, and we leave these projects to the community.

Daniel:  One thing we had to do is to design these works so that we don’t have to come back and maintain them. But we do come back and monitor.

works:  What are the parts of this work that are closest to your hearts?

Daniel:  For me, it’s the process. Because of the ideas. What can come from this? For instance, designing a trick so that somebody who is vandalizing the project is actually helping.

works:  Okay. But underneath all that, there’s something that made you want to initiate the process. Where did that more basic wish come from?

Daniel:  Sometimes it’s the challenge when someone says, “We’re going to give you this site, but we don’t expect you to be able to do anything with it. Nobody else has been able to do anything with it.”

Mary:  Let me say something because I think we have a lot in common on this. We’ve both spent a lot of time in the environment. We’ve wilderness camped for weeks at a time without support, and that was a first love that connected us—being comfortable on the raw land. And I think being able to work and to effect a restoration on the land that lives on—and it does live on—is one of the best ways, as human beings, we can productively spend our time.

works:  There’s some feeling for the land there.

Mary:  Absolutely.

works:  This is getting down to the fundamental question.

Mary:  Well, it’s what I mean about the wilderness trips we’ve taken. Our honeymoon was a 100-mile wilderness canoe trip. At the end of 14 or 15 days, we were saying, “Gee. We’ve still got food left. Too bad they’re coming to get us.”
     For me, it’s a deep love that I was given by my parents. And when I met Daniel, he had that same deep love. It goes beyond camping. It goes beyond understanding what that piece of land is, its history and what our forebearers used to do when they lived on the land. We’re nothing if we don’t have natural, raw earth around us. You can’t really live.

works:  I think there are some early experiences in nature that are formative. Something happens when we’re children, perhaps. Wouldn’t you agree?

Mary:  You should talk about your experiences fishing with your grandma.

Daniel:  Yes. Fishing. I used to love to fish…

works:  What are some of those earliest memories of being in nature that are still with you?

Daniel:  Catching a fish, that little thing that wiggles and the pole is shaking. Being amazed. You can’t see the fish and you’re looking.

Mary:  Right. Staring into the water.

Daniel:  And it nourishes us.

Mary:  Yes. And Richard’s right with digging on this. We’re absolutely fearless when we’re out there. I mean, we’re going to go get the boots on and go out into the water. And now, we’re actually walking in there and trying to make something better for the fish.

Daniel:  Yes. Realizing that there’s a relationship. And maybe that comes from fishing with Grandma Mac. There’s a feeling of some sort of stewardship, you know? I mean it sounds simple. There are a lot of books out now, Last Child in the Woods is one of them. And several other books that talk about children not getting that experience.

works:  Now when I think of you, I think of riparian restoration.

Daniel:  That was pretty much how we spent 12 years in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. We were working in a riparian corridor on salmon streams.

works:  And that’s about bringing a stream back to health, or even back to life.

Mary:  It’s also about the zone along the watercourses. So it’s the area not quite in the water, but not quite upland, and that’s where we find most of our interests and most of our projects.

Daniel:  It’s a really interesting ecozone where it transitions from one dominant zone to another one characterized by its plant life and fauna.

Mary:  So in your project in West Marin, you were in the riparian for years and years. Then you moved to what they call the upland area, which is not in the riparian, but it’s all connected.

Daniel:  In the GGNRA where they have agriculture, an area can get denuded of vegetation and cause erosion, and that’s the typical situation there. So the further you intervene away from the stream where the problem is, the better you can solve the problem.
     Out there the historic spawning streams were being silted in; the gravels were getting silted in. The fish need that gravel for their eggs. The grazing of cows was denuding the grass that holds the soil and it was eroding into the stream along with a lot of nitrogen, which was causing blooms of vegetation in the water and that was eating up all the oxygen for the fish. So it was a real mess.
     We came up with a basket design about 12-feet long that kids could make in class. Two or three of them could carry it out there and stuff the basket with branches, and then stick it in the ground with more branches. And that seemed to work.

Mary:  You can’t believe how willow cuttings will grow!

Daniel:  We learned a lot from that.

works:  It’s so clear that you love what you’re doing.

Mary:  We do. It really is our life. When we met, I kept my day job for a long time and Daniel did some, too. That’s how we funded a good part of the beginnings of this practice. Now we’re enjoying our reputation and people are finding us.
     But there’s still a bit of misunderstanding about what we do. We actually had a site steward call us and say, “The leaves are off the willows and I can see your weaving again. I’m so glad to see your art.”
     We didn’t contradict her, but we’re like: “Every bit of it is the art—getting it to grow, getting it to work.”
     We’ve been working on the oyster project now for about five years. The whole thing happens in the water.

Daniel:  How about we talk about the oyster project?

Mary:  Okay. So this is a substrate for an oyster reef. Oysters will attach to anything hard: rocks, asphalt, concrete. What they like most are other oysters that die; then new ones come and grow on top..

Daniel:  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests there’s evidence of sea level rise in the San Francisco Bay and they’ve prescribed 50,000 acres of reef beds to mitigate the force of that.

Mary:  In scientific terms, it’s “reef substrate.” So, because of the shipping channels in the Bay, there are no hard surfaces for the oysters. They’ve pulled all the hard surfaces out of the bay. We actually found oysters on a piece of Styrofoam a couple of weeks ago. So now scientists are creating concrete reefs out of big sewer pipe molds made with cement and ground up oyster shell. And, they look like hell.

Daniel:  So you’re going around the Bay and you see these round things made of concrete. You see them in San Jose and Berkeley and you see them when you’re crossing the bridge.

Mary:  And you see this down in New Orleans, along the East Coast and all along the Barrier Islands that are going away.

Daniel:  So we were thinking of installing forms that do the same thing and putting them in a whole region. They’re pretty effective. But the real problem is that the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission is not allowing any fill in the Bay. But they’re looking the other way on these oyster reefs with the stipulation that if the landowner or regional park finds that they’re not working and wants you to remove them, you’re responsible to get rid of them.

Mary:  With good reason. I mean. when you think about the Albany Bulb, how did that get there? It’s all fill.

Daniel:  So we thought about that contradiction, and it took us into a whole different realm of our work really, more litigious-oriented.

Mary:  And it was coming off of this L.A. River thing before that. So with the oyster project, we’re asking ourselves, what can we do?

Daniel:  This challenge was given to us by a group of landscape architects and scientists. The scientists are into numbers and carbon footprints. So we thought about the problem and took some bay clay, some silt.

Mary:  Right. What if you took out of the Bay what you wanted to put back in? In other words, if everything you’re going to install is completely sourced from the site itself, would that be considered fill?
     I had experimented with natural clay in a lot of sculptures, and I knew that there had to be some clay in the bay from the gold rush. Gold rush silt from the hydro mining reached the middle of our Bay in about 1962. It’s still coming, and now it’s pushing out into the ocean. Amazing. It took 100 years to come down.

Daniel:  So we harvested some of this clay and made these; we filled this room with these cone shapes—different sizes, different heights—because it turns out it’s the simplest shape to make.

Mary:  These are all 100% with nothing added from outside the site. It took us a long time to figure out the details, what temperature to fire at and all that.

Daniel:  Then we put them in with UC Davis in an experimental area in the Bay where they would try different materials and see what kind of oyster counts they would get. We got ours back after a couple of months and it was full of oysters, beautifully full! We could see the calcium forming like this was a reef.

Mary:  The oysters set their shells on top of each other. So eventually those ugly concrete things will be covered. But here’s another thing that bothered us. When they install those big concrete forms they need a big barge with a big crane on it. So it’s not a community oyster reef in any sense. They line them up geometrically so they can count them. Okay. Well, we can count ours and measure ours without straight lines.

Daniel:  These sculptures have holes and we can thread them together so two people can carry five of these out at a super low tide, set them down, and get another five and create a reef in an area that already has siltation problems.
     The question is, if these come from the Bay, are they considered fill? If we take the silt out, vitrify it and put it back in, is it fill? Either way, what we’ve got with these is still a good substrate for oysters.
     So all of our advisors are saying stop hanging out with scientists and start hanging out with lawyers. So that’s our next project.

Mary:  We’re looking for funding to get a lawyer to take this on. As a species, we love water so much, we insist on living near water whether it floods or not. And do you think we want to look at big concrete bollards in front of our gorgeous shorelines in order to correct the errors and the loss we are inheriting?
     We’re not saying, “Do this.” But there has to be some aesthetics in repairing our Earth. You don’t need much, because the Earth does this itself. The scientist will say, “Just give it a little hand.” Again, this goes back to the community. What we’re proposing is something an individual can do—two individuals; it’s something other individuals can do.
     Sea level rise and climate change is something I particularly believe is happening, and I think the reasons are logical why it’s happening.

Daniel:  Well it’s clear that it’s happening, very clear. And there are designs, the science has been developed enough, to where this will work. So the technology is brilliant. But aesthetically, let’s hold on a second now.
     That’s where we like to intervene. We’ve challenged a number of the scientists and they’ve been receptive. They have to be, because we’re on the same speaking circuit as they are [laughs].

Mary:  In most of our projects we’re just working with an artistic perspective to repair the environment, repair this creek bank or whatever, and not doing it in a massive way that can be measured against something.

Daniel:  But we get the same percentages that anybody else gets. So it will be interesting.

Mary:  It’s what every artist has a problem with: access. What museum is going to show you? What gallery is going to show you? What community is going to embrace you? Who’s going to allow you to do an idea no one’s ever heard of? We realize that working in environmental art the way we do, versus the gallery or museum circuit, gives us special challenges, and we’re kind of used to it now.
     To go back to what I was saying about the loss we’re inheriting or the loss we’re creating. We’ve watched this—you can’t get people out of their cars. They’re just not going to get out of their cars with a big stick. So what do you do? Design a sexy Tesla that uses electricity? It’s part of a solution. Could we design areas, neighborhoods, where people can give up the things that are hurting the environment? I don’t know how many generations it will be before that’s ever solved. Then there’s the exponential business of what we’ve already done—all that spewing of carbon and we’re past the halfway point, as far as deep oil and all of that…

Daniel:  That’s probably why we’re so interested in archiving these projects, and having drawings and the failed grants and nasty letters and all that stuff. It can give another generation an idea of what was happening in this endeavor.

works:  Patrick. Do you have any thoughts here?

Patrick Jacobs:  No. I’m absorbing this. It’s been painfully inspirational. I work in a theoretically creative field, architecture, that’s process driven, and in my case, the process is not always a creative force.
     So what you’re doing truly resonates with me. And the level of sophistication with what you’re doing as you engage at this larger level of ecology is just amazing. But see, this is modern politics right here.

Daniel:  Yes.

Patrick:  I see this real convergence. You’re talking about the NOAA, and they’re throwing out the sexy images with all the colors and they’re the good guys. But they’re still the government. Then you’ve got plant use and you’ve got the Bay. There are different scales coming together. Then the lawyers are involved. And because lawyers have been intimately involved with lots of the things I’ve done, I’ve seen their power; the lawyer gets to define reality. A lawyer says, “This is what the law says.”
     And I say, “But that’s not what’s happening.”
     “But if we abandon the law we’re savages.”
     I mean, there’s no winning in that one. And because of all the past mistakes that were made with fill in the Bay, now we can’t even discuss fill.
     My kids go to school by Lake Merritt and they actively clean it; they’re in there doing it. And there are some fundamental differences in the perspective of children, always. I’m 43 and in my life the culture didn’t break. Technology started pushing hard, cars continued to grow and suburbs continued to expand. But these kids, they don’t want cars.

Daniel:  We’ve noticed that.

Patrick:  There are some real tectonic breaks. Like I don’t remember being 12 and going, “Uh, you guys are all screwing this thing up and you shouldn’t do that.”

Mary:  I really think it’s the next version.

works:  I was touched by your memories around Turrell and light. And I have that feeling about water, too.

Mary:  I used to teach swimming through high school and college. I think the saddest thing is someone who’s never been able to swim. Daniel and I, our first date was six hours in a canoe. We were at an environmental conference in the East Bay. Malcolm Margolin spoke so eloquently about what the Bay Area used to look like, about the flocks of birds lifting up and blocking the sun. And you start to realize it wasn’t that long ago.

Daniel:  Every time I see him I remember his quote, “You can make a deal with the Devil, but you can’t make a deal with erosion.”

Mary:  We had a little project in New Orleans on an island that kept disappearing. That’s how fast it changed in just one generation. The government said, “You know, there’s 130 people in this village. We can’t spend 13 million putting up another concrete barrier for them.” That’s politics, and that’s erosion, too. It never sleeps.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.  


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