Pocket Change
by Liesel Fenner, ASLA

This piece is reprinted with permission from Public Art Review #40, Spring-Summer 2009.

Most of us would like to have our own little patch of nature: a backyard, an urban pocket park, or a remote conservation area we may never experience. Collectively environmental sustainability consciousness is advancing. For years, artists have been addressing the environment with work that confronts our role in sustaining our ecosystem. Seattle artist Vaughn Bell is one such artist whose temporary, permanent, and performative works are challenging the role of the individual in relationship to natural systems.

Bell creates biospheres that range from large (three feet) to tiny (two inch) plastic spheres containing biomass from a specific region like “New England Forest Floor.” With a Pocket Biosphere, you can take your little mini-ecosystem everywhere. Pocket Biospheres are available for adoption in a ceremony created by Bell where participants sign an adoption form stating that they will sustain their biosphere. 

I adopted my Pocket Biosphere at the opening of Bell’s exhibition “Self Sufficient” at the Cambridge Arts Council Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I selected one containing bright fuzzy chartreuse moss, brown twigs and loamy soil, complete with tiny punched holes allowing for air and water. I filled out an adoption form acknowledging my responsibility to maintain my Pocket Biosphere. With the formality of a treaty-signing ceremony, Bell signed, then I signed. The significance of the Pocket Biosphere adoption represented a personal ethical dimension of global significance beyond the parameters of mere performance art.


Pocket Biosphere. Image courtesy Vaughn Bell.

The Pocket Biosphere was small enough to fit in my pants pocket. It became one of the objects I accounted for in daily life like a wallet, cell phone, and keys. From work, to home, to errands, the biosphere went with me. My personal and professional life’s work has been committed to the stewardship and sustainability of the environment. Maintaining my Pocket Biosphere would take on a new dimension of my commitment to sustainability.

One day, the biosphere did not accompany me to work but stayed home. In a rush, I quickly placed it on a windowsill next to a cactus. The juxtaposition of bioregions, the New England forest floor next to the desert, was done out of ease and familiarity – plants are placed in light. Yet my unconscious act was representative of a culture that builds opposing ecosystems side by side. Whether green lawns in Arizona or snow skiing under a sphere in the desert of Dubai, we continue to keep the performance going, building non-sustainable artifices of nature.

The Pocket Biosphere had begun to change. Compositionally, the moss began to brown, the loamy soil turned white. Formally, it was fascinating to observe its transition to a new form. My attempts at resuscitating the micro-ecosystem failed. Sadly, I knew the biosphere was dying. I was unable to uphold the contract. The performance had come to an end.

Note: Environmental artist Vaughn Bell does temporary interventions in cities addressing ecosystems. She is also an artist-in-residence with the City of Seattle’s Department of Transportation, working with engineers in the incorporation of “green” public art in urban transportation projects. Bell’s work can be viewed at www.vaughnbell.net 

Liesel Fenner, ASLA is Manager of the Public Art Network (PAN) at Americans for the Arts. www.AmericansfortheArts.org. She can be reached at: lfenner@artsusa.org.

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