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Jenifer Wightman

Trained in Cell Biology (BS Carnegie Mellon, 1994) and Environmental Toxicology (MS Cornell University, 2002), I have spent the last two decades working on greenhouse gas inventory and mitigation strategies. My art practice began in 2002 and employs scientific tropes to incite curiosity about biological phenomena and inform an ecological reflexivity. I am interested in the co-evolution of life and landscape on our finite planet.

It was in the context of Cornell University, trained as a scientist, I also became an itinerant science-based artist. As someone who grew to love science through my wonder of the world, the culture of making scientific knowledge began to erode away my wonder. I would like to generally thank all staff at Cornell where I received diverse support. For example, Cornell Plantations granted me permission to install Surd (2002) on the grounds; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences contributed support for Winogradsky Rothko, Cornell Council for the Arts supported 3 projects over the years including Winogradsky Rothko (2004), Visualizing Meaning Survey (2005), Sensing Change - Spring & Fall (tentative title 2022); Mann Library for stewarding some of the best science in the world, while also supporting creative projects like mine; and the intellectual generosity of the 100+ faculty who participated in my survey of most influential data visualizations. In particular I would like to thank several key supporters: Janet McCue, Buzz Spector, Gene Madsen. For the new piece growing in Mann Library, I am entirely indebted to my brother Coburn Wightman for all of his python coding, framing, and patience for making the sensors, a reality. Know that I know I cannot thank my huge network for all you have shared with me. I offer my art in response to this eternal grift of life.


Winogradsky Rothko: Bacterial Ecosystem as Pastoral Landscape

Made in the dimensions of a Mark Rothko painting, a steel and glass frame was filled with mud and water. By applying a microbiology technique developed by a 19th-century soil scientist, Sergei Winogradsky, pigmented bacteria that existed in the mud and water composed a landscape. As bacteria colonize their optimal zones, they change their environments by depleting their resources and releasing by-products. As a bacterial species reaches its carrying capacity, the environment no longer hospitable to the original colonizer may now be the optimal environment for a potential successor to that zone resulting in an evolving color-field of living pigments. The appearance/disappearance of color indicates both procurement and loss of finite material resources; the agents that act out upon the landscape and synthesize change become acted upon by their consequentially changed world. For this article, the ecological industry of the figure and field of Winogradsky Rothko serves as a point of departure for thinking toward a notion of ecological rationality.

Landfill dominion: The economy of a man-made neo-paradise.

ABSTRACT: Herman Daly once identified the absurdity of shipping Danish cookies to the United States; if efficiency were in fact ‘economic’, one might just e-mail the recipe, save the fuel, reduce the greenhouse gases and still enjoy the cookie. This argument playfully illustrates that resources are scarce, ideas are Inherently Not Scarce (INS) and current financial systems are inefficient and not ‘economical’. The unprecedented industry of 7.5 billion people is now concerned about the resulting scarcity and pollution of the finite resource base. Until humanity shares inherently-not-scarce ideas for effectively managing what is in a steady state, scarcity and pollution will be a constant source of crisis on the landscape. Since 2004, I have made transforming colour field paintings with mud taken from the most pristine to the most toxic landscapes of northeast United States of America (NE USA). Although difficult to see individually, microbes existing within mud photosynthesize pigments. As a species grows from individual to colony, it becomes visible as pointillist pigments amass horizontal blocks of transient colour. As these bacteria express themselves (i.e., live: consume, reproduce, deplete resources, release wastes), they exhaust their habitat and create an altered landscape suitable to a successor. Like us, bacteria are bound by the law of conservation of mass; they constantly select and reject resources from the finite landscape. The resulting processes of growth and decay are intimately linked inversions resulting in beautiful transforming colourfields. As evidenced by my vibrant and literal portraits made from mud, these simple, highly adaptable, single-cell organisms craft a unique, colourful and synthetic existence. As a model system, they exhibit a viable steady state of infinite expression in a finite landscape where life and landscape is an intimate, malleable and reciprocal whole. Here I discuss the beauty of our landfill paradises, made evident by mud taken at two different kinds of landfilled ecosystems in New York City.

Material Empathy in an Indivisible Landscape:Colorful Bacteria Colonize the Underbelly of NYC's Most Polluted Waterways

ABSTRACT: In Robert Smithson's 1973 Artforum article "Frederick Law Olmsted and the Dialectical Landscape", he suggested that the art of remediating could be termed "mud extraction sculpture" where "A consciousness of mud and the realms of sedimentation is necessary in order to understand the landscape as it exists." Extraction engages a process of selection and rejection. In the pursuit of selecting a desired form (positive), an offcast waste product (negative) is also formed. These “wastings” from “production”– often recognized for having adverse impacts on the ecosystem – create new landscapes. In the United States, the worst of these “new” landscapes are designated Superfund Sites (aka Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 [CERCLA]), requiring national, state, and polluting industries to pool funds to remediate highly contaminated sites. To see what was living in New York City’s three Superfund sites, I fabricated steel and glass frames to hold mud and water from each: Hudson River (Polychlorinated biphenyls, PCBs), Gowanus Canal (mire of industrial wastes), and Newtown Creek (chronic oil contamination larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill). As evidenced by these vibrant and literal portraits made from the mud of three Superfund sites, our “wastescapes” still afford simple, highly adaptable, single-cell organisms a viable landscape to craft a unique, colorful, and synthetic existence. Of course, these human transformed habitats are not amenable to all life but the industry of microbial metabolism continues. Life & landscape is an intimate, malleable, and reciprocal whole.

Jeni Wightman sitting on View, Randall's Island, Photo by Benjamin Heller
Jeni Wightman sitting on View, Randall's Island, Photo by Benjamin Heller