Costumed, masked figure holding a fishing spear stands in shallow water
Circular photo: “Medusa," from "Carnival at the End of the World" by Kahn & Selesnick 2019
Art meets ecology in Coughlin collaboration on two coasts and in a classroom
Jul 31, 2020, by Denise Kelley

Batfolk. Greenmen. Rope-Slingers. Wildlings. These are just some of the carnivalesque characters appearing in Carnival at the End of the Worldthe latest work of accomplished collaborative artist team Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick

Central to the work is the artists’ concern for the environment, says Professor of Visual Studies Maura Coughlin Ph.D., an art historian who teaches courses in art history, visual studies, and the environmental humanities.

As a scholar of art and ecology, this is an area of focus—and a concern—she shares with the artists. With the pandemic crisis and its brief rewilding of nature as a backdrop, they’re collaborating on multiple projects with the help of Coughlin's scholarship and expertise.

“It’s always a significant experience for students to meet working artists who put their passion for the very material we are studying into practice.”

A collaboration that began on the Cape

Their collaboration includes a unique area of overlap: Kahn & Selesnick have featured the landscape of Cape Cod in their work since their collaboration began there over three decades ago. Coughlin, a resident of Cape Cod, has known the artists almost as long, since the 1990s. She's even appeared in some of their artwork, including posing in 2019 for their photo "Medusa" (above), a character in Carnival.

At the artists’ virtual residency and exhibition at the Lux Institute, an international museum of contemporary art in San Diego, she gave multiple talks and discussed Carnival, the series of evocative photographs starring their fictional, absurdist troupe of actors, Truppe Fledermaus, whose performances deal with the grief and loss of species and ecosystems in our changing climate.

Also featuring talks about art and science by her co-curator, Mark Adams, Lux's online series of programs was designed to make the artists' work accessible to a large public.

Expanding into the classroom

As climate change has accelerated globally, the artists’ work has turned increasingly environmental, explains Coughlin, which will be the focus of Kahn & Selesnick's retrospective exhibition she co-curated with Adams, to open at the Provincetown Art Association Museum in September and about which they recently wrote for the 35th Annual Issue of Provincetown Arts magazine

This project, pursued during her sabbatical leave, will extend to the classroom, says Coughlin. A dedicated teacher, she’s inviting Kahn & Selesnick to visit her class, Intro to the Environmental Humanities (LCS 240), this fall to do a project with her students thanks to a Faculty Innovation Grant offered by the University.

“It’s always a significant experience for students to meet working artists who put their passion for the very material we are studying into practice," says Coughlin. “Artists like Kahn & Selesnick are models of dedication to research, relentless pursuit of ideas, creative synthesis of many mediums and sources, and their technical/technological skills are superb.” She hopes it helps students to develop curiosity and engagement with visual culture, as well as understand the active role of visual arts in constructing meanings and attitudes.

The class, says Coughlin, “is about doing something productive with the environmental humanities to deal with the vast scale of our environmental crisis. We need to cultivate empathy with ecosystems, non-human animals and indigenous communities that inspires action and a desire for environmental justice.”  

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