Aerial view of shoreham area with the river
Aerial view of Shoreham Yards

Back in December 2020, the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment announced their newest batch of mini-grant recipients. Among those awarded were faculty members Gudrun Lock, Ben Moren, and Janet Lobberecht for their collaborative project Portrait of a Landscape: Capturing Time, Experience, Perception, and Data Through an Experimental Analysis of Shoreham Yards. An additional grant from the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Study was just awarded to Lock for her ongoing work.

In honor of Earth Day, we caught up with them to learn more about Portrait of a Landscape, their individual creative practices, and the importance of sustainability in everyday life.

Can you talk a bit about Portrait of a Landscape?

Gudrun Lock: Portrait of a Landscape is part of a larger project called Shoreham Yards Collaborative, which focuses on an active rail yard in Northeast Minneapolis owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. I walk past it all the time, it’s a hub of global commerce as well as historic pollution. Lots of our goods move through it, from train cars to truck beds: grain, oil, fertilizer, food. It smells of diesel exhaust and creosote.

Two years ago I started to wonder, can the scrappy tree and grass-lined margins of this site become a living field laboratory? What if we pay attention; will water, soil, and trees respond? Portrait of a Landscape is a step in the process of contextualizing the site in historical and ecological time. We are in the walking, talking, and sensing phase of collecting, thinking about Shoreham Yards’ impact on its human and nonhuman neighbors. Over the next two years, we will map, index, and respond to community voices, data points, and ephemeral and tangible phenomena with the intention of furthering the larger, living field laboratory work of the Shoreham Yards Collaborative project. 

How did you all come together to work on this?

GL: Ben Moren, Janet Lobberecht, and I came together to work on this because we all have an interest in systems and the natural world. Their technical and expressive skills of interpretation and experimentation are what I knew I wanted to work with. I trust them to understand my thinking and to move with it in their own way. They both have the ability to explore without a specific outcome in mind, and they can work with ideas and people from diverse knowledge sets. Also, they are not bogged down by proprietary thinking, nor are they driven only by a desire to “get ahead,” in this way their minds are open. We have only just begun the Portrait work so we shall see where it goes!

Who else is involved in this project? What is their role?

GL: Portrait of a Landscape was conceived of by me and Jessica Rossi-Mastracci, Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture at the University of Minnesota. Her research is focused on developing experimental landscape interventions that speculate on alternative futures. Also from the University of Minnesota are Nic Jelinkski, Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, and Assistant Professor of Plant Biology, Yaniv Brandvain, who are acting as advisors with the potential of incorporating their own or their students’ research into the larger Shoreham Yards Collaborative work.

Also, various folks from the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization are working with us, sharing reams of data, and discussing possible strategies for how to incorporate this into a larger project they are working on. And retired DNR researcher Dave Zumeta is taking some of us birding every two weeks to collect data about species using the margins of the train yard, and finally, Kate Carlson of the University of Minnesota’s U-Spatial Mapping department is helping to visualize the site over time and include layered GIS information. The larger Shoreham Yards Collaborative includes conversations with many more science and social science researchers, industry employees, local government and city officials, artists, and others who know the whole world to be a living organism. But really, we are at the beginning stages with Portrait of a Landscape, we are taking baby steps.

Why did you decide to apply for the mini-grant from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment?

GL: The complexity and interdisciplinary nature of the project fit the parameters of the call.

What do you see for the future of Portrait of a Landscape?

GL: A virtual and physical interdisciplinary exhibition and symposium, also a way to engage both despair and excitement about the future.

What is the best thing about teaching young artists?

GL: Being fed by and feeding their enthusiasm and diverse perspectives. Seeing students grow over time; in their practices and personal understanding of their surroundings. 

What kind of work do you create in your personal practice?

GL: I have always worked with what our culture doesn’t centralize as important, the things it rejects, things that have been relegated to the margins. Using words, sculpture, performative events I am interested in transforming them, or pointing them out so they become more visible. In this case, I am foregrounding the buffers of an active rail yard.

Ben Moren: I am a media artist working with filmmaking, performance, sculpture, creative coding, and custom software systems. My process interprets the environment through data, imagery, and sound. I use captured materials within digital processes to reveal and better understand my own anthropocentric characteristics and viewpoint of the environment. I utilize my backcountry skills to immerse myself within biomes and habitats which are at a critical inflection point due to climate change/collapse. Within the work I am continually asking: if we as humans are now responsible for the natural environment, then what do we want it to be and look like, and how do we choose to preserve, document, and archive its current and future condition? My projects create paradoxical scenarios that explore human perception, simulation, time and scale shifts, documentation, preservation, and our enduring relationship with the natural environment. 

Janet Lobberecht: The drawings and paintings I make are in response to the complex relationship between the built world and the natural world and the consequences of human intervention in ecological systems. To build my compositions, I translate and render images culled from my research that spans disasters to utopias. I then layer, reduce, confuse, and redact my translations until the original references are buried in the structure of the composition. What emerges from this process are fictional landscapes, difficult-to-enter structures, and functionless machines. In this work, I am questioning what is hidden or revealed in the mediation and perception of our relationship with the natural world.

How do you incorporate sustainability into your everyday life? What advice do you have for others to do the same?

GL: That’s a difficult question. Generally I don’t shop very much. I consume mostly second-hand goods, for instance almost everything in my home came from someone throwing it out or giving it to us because they didn't want it anymore. Recently, my children were thrilled when a friend gave us their huge flat screen TV that would have gone into the garbage, they were getting an even bigger one, so, is that sustainable? I don’t know, but I suppose it relieves my guilt and saves my pocketbook! I used to get a lot of my clothes from the free shelf at MCAD, it kept me fashionable! Unfortunately, the fear of bed bugs meant MCAD shut it down.

There is such a great culture of people who scavenge, part of the beauty of it is that you don’t know what you’ll find. I am very particular about what I take. Generally, I would promote more free shelves and more scavenging. Also, we have been part of an unintentional revitalizing project along the Mississippi River near my house. We live-caught about a dozen deer mice (they are very cute but not when they are in your house!) and relocated them to a prairie restoration section of the river where they are thriving (and no longer visiting us!). Now a white-tailed hawk hangs out there all the time. In addition, about 14 people, including grandparents, grandchildren, and other adults spent three hours on a Sunday picking up refuse from the same place, someone had been living there for four years, it was a very desperate situation for them, but because they were gone, we felt we could help stop the garbage from ending up in the river. 

BM: I eat as much local food as possible and shop at local shops. I try to buy as much of my food from bulk sections in reusable containers, and I try to limit my meat consumption. I’ve been consciously cutting down (and out) air travel from my life. I’ve changed my home electric service to wind power (you can do this with a checkbox on the website of Xcel energy for just a tiny bit extra each month).

Recently I’ve been thinking about the 3R’s and I feel like we’ve generally got these mixed up in terms of order. I’m reminding myself all the time that Reduce is the first one, and Reuse is second. I think we’re quick to ‘recycle’ things, when In actuality, recycling is really ineffective, especially for plastics. A friend recently told me about a term she learned while touring a recycling plant: "wishcycling." It’s when you put something in the recycling bin hoping it can be recycled, when in reality, very little from that bin is actually processed into new material at the end of the day. I’m trying to be really conscious around plastic in general, it really lasts forever and there is an absolutely mind-bending amount of it in the ocean and waterways.

Finally, I’ll say that the main thing I’m trying to do is affect institutional and legislative change (where the real big steps can happen). We’ve been told that we can fix this problem as consumers, but It’s really a much bigger problem tied into large corporations shifting blame to the consumer. For example, you wouldn't have to recycle plastic if things were not packaged in it, but many times it’s the only option (I’m aware that this is an oversimplification). I’m writing to politicians and stakeholders and financially supporting efforts to stop environmental pollution and the perpetuation of the climate collapse in our state by donating to and regularly. 

JL: In my everyday life, I try to compost and recycle everything I can. I’ve made a concerted effort to reduce my plastic use and refuse. Plastic is everywhere and nearly impossible to eliminate, but I’m getting better at it! I buy used whenever possible and will try to fix it before I pitch it. I have a landscape/garden design and installation business, I work with the decree: Slow that water down! I work with my clients to reduce the square footage of their stubbornly beloved water-dependent lawns for larger gardens, bee-friendly lawns, and rain gardens. I plant pollinator-loving plants in all my gardens and have successfully convinced many of my clients not to rake their leaves or cut down perennials in the fall—these are important critter hibernation habitats.

GL: Sustainability means understanding that we are not separate from the natural world, that we exist in relation to it, and whatever we do to it, we do to us. And learning where our goods are made and where they go afterward is important. As for advice, I would suggest people tour Eureka Recycling in Minneapolis—they are a one-of-kind community-based nonprofit recycler who manages our city’s recycling. Also, this tour of the Minneapolis Water Treatment Plant is amazing. Hopefully it will be back up for in-person soon? Touring the HERC power plant used to be an option too, now there is this video, importantly, some people question the level of particulate matter released. And finally, anything you can learn about the Canadian owned oil pipeline, Line 3, and how its construction breaks the hunting, fishing, and gathering treaties of sovereign nations. Important note: its oil is for foreign consumption only, none of it for the US!