Written by Frances Vigna
There’s something very American about setting out into the wilderness with only a backpack, a map, and a compass to survive. Children begin developing self-reliance at an early age, from learning to tie their shoelaces to memorizing the walk home from elementary school. In support of such self-reliance, and in response to the movement from rural areas to urban centers, social progressives began establishing community-building groups for kids in the middle of the nineteenth century, and that trend has remained strong. At the turn of the last century, the scouting tradition in the United States took form, teaching young boys (and girls, beginning shortly after) skills necessary for outdoor adventures, and encouraging good citizenship and individualism. Today, socially conscious artists such as Staten Island–based Tattfoo Tan are developing the concept of self-reliance, teaching urban dwellers skills in the hope that values of sustainability, empathy, and healthy nutrition take root.
Continuing in a direction established with his New Earth Resiliency Training Model series—skill-developing modules for surviving in urban environments—Tan has created installations for Wilderness Camp, on view through June 4, 2017, at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. According to Hana Elwell, director of exhibitions at the museum, “it's important for children to learn about their natural environments so they can make connections between natural resources and materials and how they can be transformed into utilitarian and artistic objects—from shelters to musical instruments to personal adornments.” Scattered in the museum’s main gallery are canvas tents, each designed to teach a camping skill, such as knot tying, to children and their caregivers. A pretend campfire surrounded by logs encourages storytelling and the creation of new narratives in contemporary society. Lining the outer walls are display cases containing artifacts from the museum’s collection, as well as Tan’s current work in the New Earth Resiliency Training Model series, which includes handmade solar panels, sewing kits, and instruments and packs made from recycled materials.
It is important not to disregard the colonial aspect of “heading West” in the American ethos of self-reliance and individualism. Tan immigrated to the United States from Malaysia, a country with a long history of colonization by both Western and Eastern imperialist nations. Much conventional camping knowledge has been appropriated from indigenous cultures, which were relocated or obliterated during colonial expansion throughout history. Tan, for his part, tries to reclaim certain skills, such as food preservation and fire starting, in order to rebuild communities in urban settings. For example, videos on the artist’s website demonstrate how to start a fire using steel wool and a nine-volt battery—materials that could easily be found in the garbage. By reaching out to children in city neighborhoods, Tan hopes to reconnect them to their environments and to one another, an objective shared by the early scouting movements. “Though our visitors are not necessarily going to need to rely on survival skills in the outdoors, there are many applicable lessons that the exhibit elements offer, such as creative problem-solving, self-reliance, and working as a team, among others,” says Elwell. “We hope that Wilderness Camp will instill a curiosity and excitement about all the resources that nature offers us, a respect for the ways that nature sustains us, and encourage children and their families to become stewards of the earth.”
A positive side effect of Tan’s work is the advocation of voices that have historically been marginalized in traditional American narratives. By providing a safe space, such as the galleries inside the museum, for children to explore and learn new skills, and tell stories around a campfire, Tan inspires children to think and play creatively without the influence of systemic oppression. “Tan's work is based on the concepts of ‘learn,’ ‘practice,’ and ‘teach,’ and is a natural fit with our mission to create spaces where children and their caregivers can explore, experiment, and learn together,” Elwell says. Interacting with others in a pretend-natural setting allows children to act freely and build self-esteem, and Tan’s installations in Brooklyn can be viewed in opposition to such recent policies in scouting as bans on children whose gender identity does not match their sex assigned at birth.
Tan’s New Earth Resiliency Training Model is especially important given the current federal government’s numerous orders ending environmental protections. Waterway pollution is being deregulated, government agencies are being stripped of power, and gas pipeline projects are being approved throughout the country, to name just a few of the many disastrous new government actions affecting the environment. Many aspects of the artist’s work focus on sustainability and recycling, including creating new tools out of foraged materials, such as leather from a couch left on a city street for garbage collection. By reimagining the utility of old objects, Tan demonstrates a sustainable lifestyle that may prove necessary for survival in thenear future.
With the outgoing presidential administration, the former First Lady’s efforts to encourage healthy-eating habits and exercise also disappear. The White House’s beloved South Lawn garden, which Michelle Obama used to teach children the benefits of eating fresh produce and spending time outdoors, is in danger of demolition. Portions of Tan’s artmaking deal directly with nutrition and healthy diets, and can be viewed as Obama’s urban gardening on a smaller scale.
As part of his initiative, the artist travels to schools across the city to demonstrate cooking skills. (In videos on Tan’s website, he teaches students in Claremont Village in the South Bronx how to make dehydrated food and a solar oven.) Works in Tan’s previous series Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship. include a mobile garden—a reclaimed shopping cart retrofitted with pots and soil to grow produce—that the artist would install around New York City. In Wilderness Camp, Tan has installed step-by-step guides for food preservation, which can be used to dry herbs, ferment vegetables, or cook pemmican, a mix of dried meat powder and suet.
While New Earth Resiliency Training Model was not created exclusively for children, the benefits of teaching Tan’s skills to young people guarantee the ultimate success of the artist’s project. According to Tan, encouraging young children to connect to their natural surroundings will help them develop a greater understanding of the world around them and learn to love and take care of it. Young people tend to be more sympathetic to social causes, and instilling in them a desire to preserve natural environments and reduce the effects of climate change is vital to the progress of ecological conservation. By collaborating with Tan on Wilderness Camp, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum has multiplied its efforts to create a safe space for children to learn about themselves and their environment.