Climate Changing: Connecting Place and Learning

Dave Hullfish Bailey

Jul 28, 2021

Installation view of Dave Hullfish Bailey's work in the exhibition Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment

One of the artists of Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment shares the process behind his installation, which was commissioned by the Wex for this exhibition.

Top of page: Installation view of Dave Hullfish Bailey’s work in Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment.

[Image description: View of a gallery with white walls, wood and gray granite tile floors. In the foreground there is a sculpture that is a prototype trailer, it is made from plywood and metal and includes farming tools, a red cooler, solar panels. Behind the trailer, there are 3 large panels of Homasote with scattered documents pinned to them, the trailer partially obscures the view of the panels. There is another smaller sculpture in the background on the right.]


Columbus was one of the first faraway places to really lodge itself in my mind. My mother had been raised there (my late grandfather had taught at Ohio State) and my grandmother still lived there. But from the reversed gaze of the western plains, I grew up conceiving of it as part of the ‘East Coast’. Maybe the name, with its transatlantic associations, confused my geographical sense. Or perhaps the presence of the university threw me off, connoting something very old and established, an enterprise linked even in my young mind to the authority of the Old World. Or it was simply the amount of moisture in the air when I visited, with the likes of which my body had no prior experience. 

The role of subjective associations, often in spite of cartographic facts, interests me. How places are named and by whom, which systems are used to study and understand them, and how people respond to their physical surroundings are central questions in my work. Confusion about place feels like a structural condition of contemporary (globalized, capitalist) society, rather than an easily corrected knowledge gap. By that I mean that symbols, conventional narratives and iconic stereotypes often do more to conceal than reveal the actual social, historical, and material relationships that structure concrete places. And if you want to resist those representations, or change the underlying reality, I think you need a more expanded mode of learning. 

Working out ways to do this kind of learning is both the deep subject and the core method of my practice. My projects circulate around trying to foster a dual-pronged literacy for thinking about the places we live and visit—ability on the one hand to think critically about the stories (and storytellers) that claim, isolate and essentialize places, and on the other, to foster an imaginative capacity to construct narratives that knit (and/or re-knit) connections to other locations, histories, futures, ecologies, and peoples. 

My project commissioned for Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment extends approaches I’ve developed in earlier projects. Typically, I do a lot of field work, often in collaboration with local stakeholders of different kinds, and various kinds of exchange and informal learning are central processes within the larger orbit of each project. Since these projects and relationships develop over longer time-frames than the normal exhibition cycle, how a particular project is presented in a given exhibition depends a lot upon when that exhibition falls within the longer arc of the project. 

Since this project is in its beginning stages, the works in the gallery have a largely propositional function: they point to some potential research sites, methods, and contextual questions. I try to make structures that are open to bottom-up specification, but also function as their own operating instructions. 

In the gallery there’s a trailer pieced together from re-purposed agricultural implements, scrap materials and equipment culled from Ohio State’s campus greenhouses, as well as various parts designed in digital space and cut in the OSU technical shop from Russian plywood using files sent over the internet from Los Angeles. It carries a small assortment of books and maps and a few pieces of cookware and camping equipment either borrowed or sourced online. Alongside these, other items connect it to elemental flows of matter and energy: solar panels, water filters, fallen limbs, and a few tools for digging. Beyond these basic systems, it’s mostly an array of cavities, armatures, and surfaces: a nervous system and skeletal framework to and from which a wide range of people, materials, and orders of being might be connected, engaged and re-wired depending on how, where, and by whom it is eventually used. 

Installation view of Dave Hullfish Bailey’s Outwird, 2021

Installation view of Dave Hullfish Bailey’s Outwird, 2021 (detail).

[Image description: view from above of part of a sculpture resting on granite tile floor. There are two levels of cut plywood, the top one a cartographic-like form, below that a square. Rope and pieces of metal run through the two tiers. Attached to this low table-like form is a rusty orange seed planter that has been adapted with a plywood seat added to it.]

The grammar of construction includes nonlinear connections as well.  The evocative brand name of small seed planting drills (Planet Junior) triggered an associative riff (to ‘junior planter’ and then to ‘kinder garten’). This language chain is the initial ‘glue’ that joins the parts of a smaller, detached part of the trailer, in which the seed drills are re-purposed as child-sized seats that in turn support a low plywood table. It’s cut in the shape of the Ohio River watershed, with holes drilled in it at the sites of prehistoric glacial drains and the ceremonial roads of the region’s first inhabitants. Rope stitching weaves between the ancient sites and the abstract grid inscribed upon a square lower shelf.  A few rusting implement parts sit in the cubby space between them, a bit like ill-fitting Tinker Toys or reluctant Lincoln Logs.  

Although it looks nothing like one, the jerry-rigged trailer is a bit like a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show: simultaneously an impractical symbolic construction, a concrete network of materials and operations, and also a working prototype for something whose other functions can only be fulfilled outside the space it’s presently in. It has to move to do that. But how should it move? The angle of the trailer tongue to the centerline creates a conundrum: if you were to pull it straight you’d have to drag the old tube tires—salvaged off an OSU soil sterilizing cart—through the ground like tilling discs. Or you could let them float lightly up on top by instead steering spiraling paths outward, or “outwird” as in the title. It’s a play on the German werden for ‘becoming’, which I think is a pretty good shorthand for what can happen in place-based learning.  

Dave Hullfish Bailey, Battle of 1000 Slain, 2021

Battle of 1000 Slain, 2021 (inkjet prints, photocopy, colored pencil, pencil and ink on paper).

[Image description: an off-white piece of paper pulled from a notebook includes a green and red map in the center entitled “Areas Visible to the Native American Allian” with the c and e cut off. Its legend indicates it is a map of the location of St. Clair’s encampment near the Wabash River. Superimposed over part of it and extending further to the left is a map indicating in lavender several moraines left by retreating glaciers. A short text in the lower right explains what a moraine is. Abutting the central map on the right side, a US Geological Survey map shows present-day topography of the land to the east. There are hand-written annotations and highlights on the maps and the page, including lavender colored pencil marks indicating the approximate boundaries of the moraines on the topographic map and the blank areas of the notebook page.]

Toward thinking about possible sites and approaches, a large tackboard collects research surrounding landscapes in, and various human occupations of, the region of present-day Ohio. The materials include a number of maps from different times, authorities, and academic disciplines. They’re collaged or superimposed to get at interconnections between geology, military history, vegetation patterns, the flow of rivers, pre-contact civilizations, soil productivity, topography, current land uses etc.  If the speculative linkages are not seamless from any given (whose?) point-of-view, perhaps the mental channel-surfing they require speaks to the larger questions: against the tendencies of ‘authoritative’ western thinking to fragment place by means of specialized knowledges, how can we make the deeply relational structures of place (and of lived experience generally) more present. I wonder how we build muscles for thinking in inter-generational frames of time, and with awareness of inhabiting multiple orders of being. There’s some urgency to building those muscles internally, as habits of perception, as well as externally, as a basis for political decision-making. 

Dave Hullfish Bailey, Tools of Thinking and Learning, 2021

Tools of Thinking and Learning, 2021, archival inkjet print.

[Image description: a book held open by other books placed on the edges of its pages. The chapter heading printed on the open book pages is ‘Tools for Thinking and Learning’. The title of the book resting atop the left-hand page is ‘Philosophy and History of Education’ edited by Errante, Blount, and Kimball (3 OSU Education Department faculty). The title of the book on the right is ‘The Open Space of Democracy’. The name of its author is obscured by a colorful diagram superimposed on the image, which also covers most of the right-hand page of the open book. The diagram appears references a plan for the trailer in the exhibition.]

Ohio State University, founded as a land grant university and later a leading proponent of John Dewey’s educational philosophy, turns out to be an especially generative place to think about tools for connecting place and learning. And while it’s possible (and customary) to separate the two conversations—ie, the ‘geographical’ and the ‘educational’—it’s really only by holding the two together that you grasp why the land looks the way it does (divided into grids) or why standardized education looks the way it does (divided into discrete subjects and disciplines). That feedback loop, between how American political culture has organized the land and how its educational culture has organized the mind, raises a number of speculative questions I’ve been exploring with a wide range of OSU faculty and in which I hope to engage students and others as the project evolves.