Amber Ginsburg’s work explores deep time, so to say she is “having a moment” feels ironic—but it’s true. She was third on Hyperallergic’s “Top 50 Exhibitions of 2022” for the DePaul Museum show “Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture & Reparations | Chicago to Guantánamo,” which she co-curated with Aaron Hughes and featured Ginsburg’s “Tea Project.” Grants are rolling in, and she has embarked on the two largest-scale projects of her career—”Untidy Objects” and “Narrow Bridge Arts Club.”
“Untidy Objects” is a living sculpture behind the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, where Ginsburg teaches. One could be forgiven for entering “Untidy Objects” and assuming that it was simply a garden or a wild green space. But a closer look at the work exposes a questioning of the entire concept of individuality, and the Western perspectives of subject and object.
With her collaborators Sara Black and Sam Frost, Ginsburg took a plain lawn and created the environment for a thriving ecosystem to grow. The plants, animals, trees, insects, mushrooms and microbes are co-constituents of the space, each actively working to co-create a system where hundreds of different species can live.
Ginsburg challenges the basic idea of humans as individuals and the idea of individual political rights. She says “Untidy Objects” questions “the sort of Judeo-Christian and Western philosophical structures of thinking about humans over ‘other.’ I mean, even if you think of Linnaeus classification systems, there’s always a top. And everything comes down from a kingdom.” Instead the sculpture parallels and draws from indigenous views of humans as interconnected with the larger ecological system, and highlights the attendant responsibilities to that system.
Ginsburg first questioned this intellectual structuring of biological systems—including everything from food chains and evolutionary trees to individual hierarchies—when she was working with Sara Black on a deep examination of materials. Eventually, Ginsburg says, they reached a point where they asked, “Can a material show us and teach us a really different way to perceive the world? And I think we were recognizing that by doing that, we were still bounding the difference between the material and us.” As their work progressed, Ginsburg says, “We recognized that actually the tree and us are so linked as to perhaps maybe not even be different.”
“Biocultural Creatures: Toward a New Theory of the Human,” a book by University of Chicago political theorist Samantha Frost, became a central part of their inquiry. Frost’s work showed Ginsburg that “the way that we think about a cell, much less a complete entity as bounded or edged, is actually just patently false. And the permeability that we have is at every level. It’s at the cell membrane level. It’s at the electron and proton level. And if we were porous, what would that mean politically?” Frost was soon invited to become a collaborator.
“And that is what we got really excited about, was that question of porosity as a political question,” Ginsburg says. “Because every amount of politics is based on individual rights. And we already recognize that individual rights, even in the human world, exclude lots of people. And, so, what if there was a complete reframing of what it is that’s protected? Which, if things become more porous or more systemic, then it isn’t about… the classic Western philosophy of the individual, which is also an individual in a natural hierarchy.” If, instead of living within hierarchy, we are all actually overlapping and porous, then does one person having one vote still work? Or do our politics become far more enmeshed?
The challenge of making these concepts perceptible and knowable to others led to creating “Untidy Objects,” with its illustrations of the deep entanglements of biological life. In place of a barren expanse of grass, the living sculpture had mycelium which were working to transport nutrients between trees, microbes that were creating fertile soil, insects that were pollinating and connecting, and it was all working together to create a space for even more constituents. “It’s transformed. The political participants in that space have radically increased in terms of species,” Ginsburg says. “There is multispecies dependence. It’s all happening, but it’s completely invisible to humans, right?”
A grant from the Neubauer Collegium allows a new constituent to be brought into the project in order to make the invisible visible. Marc Downie, a digital artist, will create an augmented-reality model which will allow viewers to go deep into the soil to see the life and the work that is happening there. Ginsburg says that “in this environment where we don’t even think of technology as one of our co-constituents, suddenly technology is going to become this way to tell these stories of what an integrated, enmeshed, untidy object can be and look like.”
“Untidy Objects” is behind the Logan Center at the University of Chicago. Viewers are welcome to visit at any time and enjoy fresh mulberries or strawberries if the season is right. Ginsburg’s “Narrow Bridge Arts Club” is the transformation of a Woodlawn synagogue at 6028 South Champlain into a carbon-positive gathering space for artists and makers. It will house artist work space, a dance studio, woodshop, member-run classes, and a community garden. The exterior façade is an exhibition space; Candace Hunter’s work is on display on the exterior of the building and is visible from the street. Ginsburg anticipates that “Narrow Bridge Arts Club” will open by the end of 2023.