117 Bridget Quinn

Born Eau Claire, WI, 1985 / BFA, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, WI / Lives in Warren, MI

In 1972 the artist Alan Sekula walked towards workers leaving a secretive aerospace plant in San Diego, photographing as he went, until his actions were stopped by company officials. With this seminal act, Sekula signaled that the military-industrial complex, which existed on the frontiers of his daily life, could still be within the horizon of his artistic inquiry. Some forty years later, the artist Bridget Quinn follows in Sekula’s footsteps. Quinn, however, is not a child of the Cold War, but of a time of accelerating environmental collapse, and her concerns are not directly with the machinations of industry, but with the natural world. More specifically, Quinn is interested in what can be learned from “marginal nature,” that semi-wild world that is hidden in plain sight throughout the developed landscape. And that requires trespassing. As she says of her experience exploring Red Run, a small waterway in her newly adopted hometown of Warren, MI: “I saw an alarming number of “No Trespassing” signs, reminding me that I was not welcome, and that all land is owned. I have never seen a city so concerned with people stepping off of the sidewalk.”

In 2017, Quinn facilitated a series of “site-specific vocal meditations” in Warren’s storm-water drains. A resulting video work, Resonant Underbelly of Suburbia, begins with the sounds of an ad hoc, off-camera choir exploring the acoustics of one such cavernous location through a slowly unfolding vocal improvisation. The camera points out of the rectangular tunnel to a ragged, semi-urban landscape where small trees display the last green leaves of early fall. The light coming into the tunnel makes a bold diagonal on the vertical wall, and reflects off the gently moving water to create a constantly rippling light display. The ghostly sounds seem to be emanating from the innards of the drain itself – a mesmerizing experience in an unlikely location.

On a follow-up trip, kayaking down Red Run with a friend, Quinn observed an oily sheen that seemed “something more than everyday runoff” emerging from another large drain. On returning home, she reported her concerns to various environmental agencies. The resulting tests showed dangerously high levels of E. Coli, and sometime later the local media took up the story, which caused the issue to come to the attention of Warren City Council. Quinn’s video, Resonant Underbelly of Suburbia, concludes with footage of the artist addressing the council with her concerns, followed by similar footage of a couple of city employees working to downplay the situation—which apparently originated from a local business that was illicitly diverting its sewage into the public waterway—in front of generally sympathetic council members.

In exploring broader issues of sewage and stormwater runoff in the city, Quinn discovered a multitude of similar issues that remained unaddressed, as well as outdated practices and urgent structural problems. For a non-specialist, researching such topics is an intimidating task, and hence public meetings to discuss environmental issues are often extremely sparsely populated. Is the resonant underbelly of suburbia to be found in the forgotten waterways, or the empty democratic process? Or are they different sides of the same issue? Tellingly, as part of her project, Quinn produced a double-sided flexi-disc containing field recordings from the choral improvisation in the drain, on one side, and the council meeting, on the other.

The conceptual basis for much of Quinn’s work comes from her studies in environmental psychology, and its key insight that mindfulness of one’s local surroundings is a vital aspect of behavior change with respect to global environmental issues. For example, Explorations in a Mirrored Horizon (2018) was inspired by fellow Warren resident Dave Orlowski’s concern for a local wetland area threatened with development. As part of this project, Quinn organized a clay workshop where participants made objects from material sourced at the site, and investigated the ecology of the area in the context of legal barriers to wetland protection.

Currently, Quinn is engaged in developing This Place is Infinite (2018-present) a self-contained, trike-based system that employs a commercial camera-phone to magnify and project micro-landscapes that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. It is Quinn’s vision that the system may initiate dialog around local and global environmental issues in locations where such discussion might otherwise not take place. In today’s highly polarized social and political landscape, such boundary-crossing activities might actually be every bit as subversive as Sekula’s actions were back in 1972.

Steve Panton, February 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019