Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Erica Damman

Remove the letter A from Scrabble and things get tricky pretty quickly. Likewise, remove apis melliferia, or the honeybee, from the world’s ecosystems and things start to fall apart. Almonds and apples, coffee and avocados—all become, if not extinct, then exceptionally rarer without bees to pollinate them. Industries that employ thousands of people are compromised. The food that sustains certain creatures is threatened. Each link matters.

Life becomes more complicated without A and without bees—exactly the point of Erica Damman’s game Tether, which adapts a regular Scrabble board and letter tiles. Damman has designed cards that represent different species, which range from the Baja California rat snake to Antarctic Krill; each one is connected to a letter. Whatever letter a player draws is discounted for a round. Drawing apis melliferia, which is linked to A, means that letter cannot be played for a round. A booklet that comes with the game explains each species’ import to its ecosystem and illustrates some of the consequences of its extinction.  

Damman is completing an Interdisciplinary PhD in Environmental Humanities, an emerging field that seeks to capture relationships between environmental philosophy, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, ecocriticism, environmental history, and political ecology. A sculptor by training, she is interested in how structured play can be a platform for addressing overwhelming topics such as climate change or species disappearance.

Transformative play

Damman stumbled on to the power of games when she created a 3D map that was also a puzzle representing the Prairie Pothole Region* for an art show capping her artist residency at the UI's Lakeside Lab. “I experienced people sitting down and playing with it for long periods of time,” recalls Damman. “Without prompting, they’d start having conversations about places they used to swim but can’t anymore because of runoff and chemicals from farming.”

This kind of reflective dialogue wasn’t Damman’s central purpose in creating the work, but it was an important moment for her as an artist and scholar:  “I realized that I wanted to create more objects that would generate conversations like that.”

Damman believes the possibilities are great because play is inviting and safe. “When you sit down to a game,” she says, “there’s an unconscious message that this won’t be dangerous.”

The embodied experience is also part of play’s value. What occurs physically during a game, whether it’s joy or tension, is real, and what a player learns during a game continues into so-called reality. “If you can architect a play experience that effects people’s emotions, it’s very impactful,” says Damman.

Dissertating differently

For her PhD, Damman is producing three analog games—Tether and Recollect are completed and another is in the “R&D phase"—in addition to a traditional dissertation in which she engages with three game theorists. One of them is Jane Bennett and her concept of distributive agency. Damman relied on Bennet’s thinking about where responsibility lies within a problem that is too broad for an individual to understand his or her culpability for her card game Recollect. An adaptation of the classic concentration or memory card game, it involves finding pairs from among three groups of extinct or endangered species: prehistoric creatures, such as the triceratops; casualties of more recent, man-made extinction (e.g., the passenger pigeon and the dodo bird); and species currently teetering on the edge of extinction, such as the monarch butterfly. The cards carry Damman's exquisite illustrations, the beauty and fragility of which transmits a profound and disturbing message.

“Right now, there is considerable conversation on the role of gaming and play in how people learn and create,” notes Barbara Eckstein (English, CLAS), Damman’s dissertation advisor. “Erica’s work participates with this in an interesting way, since her games are analog, and so much of the current focus is on digital.” Eckstein thinks that Damman’s handcrafted games offer commentary on materiality and the value of an object that people can hold. Aesthetics matter, she says, and points to Damman’s puzzle, A Present, Tipping into the Future. The game was part of an exhibit, The Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities, which was on display in Madison, WI, and then traveled to Munich, Germany.

While Eckstein acknowledges that Damman’s field of studies is groundbreaking to the University of Iowa, which doesn’t have an environmental humanities program, it follows in the great tradition of the creative dissertation, for which the University of Iowa is known. “I like that Erica’s dissertation is in that context,” she says, noting the English Department’s longstanding practice of accepting undergraduate honors theses that are a combination of creative work, such as a group of short stories, along with analysis of the genre.

Real-world implications

“What Erica has always been good at is making public art about environmental questions and engaging others in thinking about how the art participates in reflection and adds to problem solving,” says Eckstein.

Damman is currently testing the games as part of an IRB study, observing how they affect users. She hosted a game-playing event at the Iowa City Public Library in April. A second gameplay event for Scrabble lovers will take place on May 8 at the Iowa City Public Library from 6:00–8:00 p.m.; and she will host a third event at the Iowa City/Johnson County Senior Center on June 5.

She is already thinking ahead about using play to collaborate with organizations dedicated to engaging people in complex problems, especially ones involving the environment and social justice. To date, she has created projects on her own and then sent them into the world in search of players. How, she wonders, could games and other structured play be used in collaboration with nonprofits to help them address specific issues?

Multi-hyphenated interests

Damman’s interest in public engagement has been central to her time at the University of Iowa. As a third-year MFA student, she was selected as an Obermann Graduate Institute Fellow. "That experience demonstrated the relevancy of academic work that endeavors to engage with problems already being tackled by various publics," comments Damman. The Graduate Institute community has also been a source of multiple collaborators and partners for her, including Kalmia Strong, now a co-director of PS1, who letterpress-printed the cards for Tether, and Lisa Gordillo, now an assistant professor at Michigan Tech University, who founded the artist residency program at Lakeside Lab. 

Damman was also chosen to participate in the Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshop for Pre-Doctoral Students in the Humanities in July 2015. The three-week workshop is a program of the Andrew W. Mellon–funded Humanities Without Walls Initiative and is presented in partnership with the Chicago Humanities Festival with students competitively selected from across CIC institutions and beyond.

“Never before had I thought of how expansive the humanities PhD and my skillset could be,” Damman says of the program, which included visits with design-thinking gurus, ad agencies, public artists, and librarians. “It taught me how to take ownership of my multi-hyphenated interests. Reframing is not just a way of adopting the language of an outside world or translating my academic skills, but recognizing the value and need for people who think from a humanistic viewpoint.”

What remains and what returns

Damman grew up near Ohio’s Great Black Swamp, which has been drained and turned into farmland. “Each spring, it would refill with snow melt and rain water,” says Damman with a bit of a laugh at nature’s enduring power. “Despite man’s best attempt to get rid of it, this natural thing would reappear.” 

What remains and what returns from the past were also questions central to her comprehensive exam project about Mesquakie Park, the last unlined dump in Iowa City. Some questions she investigated included: How does a dump become named after the people who were displaced when the city was formed? What do we take from the word “waste,” in terms of refuse and related to a people whose future has been wasted?

Damman is leaving Iowa City this summer to join her husband for a year in North Carolina, where he is completing an internship for a plant science degree. A Marcus Bach Fellowship for Graduate Students in the Humanities will allow her to focus on writing and related art practice for the year. She is open to what might follow, ruling little out. Working with an R&D agency, joining an environmental nonprofit, teaching, and farming are all in the mix. Much like Damman’s art and research, she says, “It all feels interrelated.”

*Prairie potholes were created by glacier activity about 10,000 years ago. They fill with water from snow melt and rain. As many as 90% of pot holes have been drained, but they remain vital to waterfowl migration.