In 2014, the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, moved a 250 year old Burr Oak 500 feet to make room for an architectural addition. The moving of the oak, which had been originally scheduled to be cut down, incited unrest among the environmentally minded students, faculty, and staff on campus, and called the school’s “sustainability” values into question. In response, Ross tried to appease the community by moving the tree at a cost of $400,000. Such a lavish expense not only enrage the community more, but presented deep ethical questions on issues of sustainability. The tree was moved, its possibility for survival questionable, with a large number of students locked in a permanent state of anguish over the matter.32 While I myself was disturbed by such a move, the gesture seemed reminiscent of how a collector might thoughtfully move a sculpture to make room for a new couch or television.
Fortunately, because of my interdisciplinary practice, and extended network of students throughout the various schools on campus, I was invited by a group of graduate students to give a tour of the Ross art collection. While the invitation was made in the absence of any criticality of the oak tree, I used the tour as an opportunity to educate fellow graduate students on the themes of “Art,” “The Environment,” “Society,” and “Intervention” already present in the collection, with the intention of framing the oak within a larger discourse of relational aesthetics.
While the tour took every opportunity to point out the oddities in the school’s relationship to the art and the environment - including pointing out a Starbucks placed in front of a work by Lita Albuquerque - it also pointed to the work of Nikki Lee and Joseph Beuys as examples of artists who create interventions and participate in socially engaged work, offering a moment of reflection for the audience to realize I was engaging the same methods. Of particular importance was my discussion of Beuy’s use of the term “Social Sculpture”, his connection to oaks as druidian sculpture, and his landmark project 7000 Oaks. This history primed my audience for the "surprise work" in the collection tour: the moved oak.
Because I had framed the moving of the oak within the themes already present in the schools collection, and informed its move with Beuy’s own notions of sculpture, I was able to open a discussion of the tree that went beyond anguish and into debate. Through this debate students were able to have a thoughtful discussion on what the criteria for both art and sustainability are. Collectively we worked through the moving of the oak as a relational work, and consequently were able to have a more complex discussion on the often challenging nuances within the discourse of sustainability and capitalism. Ultimately, the entire process felt both pleasurable and cathartic, a form of nurturing with only one or two of the participants eventually realizing they had been involved in a form of my Social Craft.