Artist Buster Simpson's lecture, "The Effluence of Affluence," had one important asset: It could be listened to from any point of view. I heard Art majors gasping at his work because, I assume, of its aesthetic. I looked at it from a political angle, and was still interested for the duration of his hour-and-a-half lecture. Simpson also kept his audience's interests by offhandedly denouncing the junk-bond money that drove excess development in the 1980s, architects and artists who intentionally alienated their products from everyday people, and anyone so arrogant as to design something based on what art was supposed to be like, as opposed to what was needed.
His lecture, broadly speaking, was about what art is today and what it should be. After his opening regarding the declining state of art education in schools, he quickly went on to talk about how he perceived art. Showing slides taken during his visit to the gigantic desert facility Biosphere II, he compared the image of a water processing plant to a roman fountain immediately outside it. The former was a component of the building, and was basically plants growing alongside a concrete wall lined with pipes, while the latter was a large metal fountain to entertain tourists. Simpson asked why the processing plant couldn't have functioned as the fountain, as it was infinitely more relevant to the facility, and more interesting to look at. Several slides later he asked why the people who financed Biosphere II would pay for the area around it to be covered in grass and trees, when they were not native to the habitat, wasted thousands of gallons of water, and when the desert would have been more exciting for the tourists than surroundings they could see in any suburb.
He later moved the discussion to the city, which was the focus of much of his lecture. He showed how city bureaucrats and architects alike try to make urban areas as uniform as possible. At the same time, the components of the city turn order to chaos on the neverending gray sidewalks - shop owners add crude concrete wheelchair ramps to their stores, city workers remove a trolley car pole and fill the crater it leaves with a different color and texture of concrete than the original, fixtures to run power lines over light poles are added to those poles piecemeal, along with other fixtures, and so on. He then showed slides of projects he had done in the city. Among them was one of his more controversial pieces, a portable toiled that drained onto an urban neighborhood's trees, making use of waste that, before the project, ended up on the street. The promotional posters around campus, composed of plates crusted with liquid waste, recreate another controversial project of Simpson's. In an effort to produce art that reflected the state of the environment and involved an element specific to one area, Simpson placed plates two hundred plastic plates he made himself in the beds of several major waterways. They were later retrieved, coated with filth; pointing to his slides he casually explained the content of the effluent on some of his plates. In one case the high iron content of industrial waste dumped upstream was to blame for the red color of the sludge.
And herein lies the rub: Buster Simpson makes his work look a lot easier than it is. He spends a great deal of time talking about how pigheaded bureaucrats are, but mentions only in passing that one particular project took three years to get approved, or that another was shut down after only a few months. Other points he makes, like what element of the liquid waste stained one plate red (iron) suggest a fairly thorough knowledge of environmental science. That notion is only reinforced when he shows projects that demand a background in science: growing a new generation of plants from the carcass of a redwood, devising a wholly new and more environmentally friendly way of cutting granite, or creating an elegant system that stored leftover water from a public water fountain for a tree planted along a street.
Simpson was passionate about the environment and the utility of his art, and how they were ultimately interconnected. In one project he made a bench for a bus stop out of granite slabs, then planted a small grove of trees next to it. The city had asked for a bench; he used granite from a local quarry, in blocks so there would be minimal processing and therefore less waste, and he planted the trees in groves, so they would shelter each other from excess light, so the roots would overlap, and so it would be less generic. As a result those bus stops immediately became popular neighborhood meeting places. In the most literal way, the environment, the process, and the people were all connected.
The best of his art seemed to have that qualities of being environmentally friendly, relevant to the area, and involving people. And Buster Simpson did not mystify his profession; if anything, he emphasized that what held it back was the pigheadedness of bureaucrats, architects, and even artists in different disciplines when they tried to work together. His answer to uniform roads and sidewalks that made every major city look like part of the same franchise was to find what was native, what was needed, and combine them in an environmentally conscious way.
As a self-effacing artist who had the knowledge and perseverance to design and complete his projects, and the integrity to stay with his ideals, Buster Simpson successfully let his audience Tuesday know what art could be - and why they should make it.
Copyright © 1996, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 124, Number 18; March 15, 1996
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