A Study in Total Sustainability
Most Reed students knew him as the guy who lived in a handmade rolling caravan, cooked outdoor feasts in the quad, and stitched his own shoes out of leather scraps and worn tire treads.
But Mickey Murch ’06 was doing more than making an environmental statement when he passed his senior year living rough. He was also getting a diploma.
Murch’s one-man sustainability show (aka senior art thesis, titled Back of the Bread) was meant to explore just how far one can go on an American college campus to grow, make, find, or recycle the basic necessities of life, and to do so without direct participation in the modern cash-and-credit-card economy and its associated systems of industrial production.
Murch’s performance art was about exploring the process of living sustainably and then showing fellow students how it’s done (pizza making and beer brewing parties were repeat favorites). But as a thesis, the project culminated in a product—a gallery installation displaying the fruits of his year on and off the road.
The exhibit filled a room in the Reed theatre annex, which was stacked floor-to-ceiling with mason jars holding the fruits and vegetables, beer and cider, beans and salmon that Murch preserved over the year. Dried chilies and garlic hung from the ceiling. One shelf displayed homemade sandals that he wore—and wore out—pulling his four-wheeled bedroom on long journeys across the urban landscape (including a trip from Reed to Powell Butte to downtown over spring break). Homemade paper and animal skins imprinted with aphorisms decorated one wall. On another, a documentary film that Murch made about his experiences ran on a continuous loop.
Early in the film a tractor moves slowly across a field of freshly-turned dirt on his parents’ 10-acre organic farm in Bolinas, California. Most of the food for the year came from the farm. Living in Reed’s co-op house during his junior year gave Murch an appreciation for food preparation, he says, “breaking down the walls of the kitchen that hide how we live.”
Murch’s thesis developed through a series of compromises. The original idea had him strictly adhering to a set of survivalist rules: using only found or recycled objects rather than new ones, bartering rather than using cash, living exclusively on food he’d farmed.
But an art project in a class taught by his thesis adviser, Associate Professor Gerri Ondrizek, led him to adopt more realistic guidelines. At one point in Murch’s film, he is shown crouching in a concrete stairwell, laboring frantically to start a fire by rubbing sticks together. It’s wet, it’s cold, and he fails utterly to create a spark. Ondrizek says the performance forced Murch “to come to terms with what wasn’t going to happen . . . [to] realize it was almost impossible to survive in this primitive way.”
The project also pointed out that making fire without matches is more Hollywood than backwoods. “My original thesis was to show this miraculous life, but it’s better to acknowledge the difficulty,” he says. Ultimately, he adjusted his sights to demonstrate how a sustainable lifestyle could actually be crafted in Southeast Portland (showers and the occasional night’s sleep in his girlfriend’s apartment were “in,” as were snack stops at a local convenience store).
“I have the privilege of living on a farm and going to Reed,” says Murch. “It’s all about compromise: do I want to paint myself as extreme, or do I want to just take a step. It’s not about the rejection of the processes of society but about changing them.”
Ondrizek says Murch’s work—with its outdoor feasts and home-cooked mason-jar meals—encouraged the community to consider art in new ways. “I try to teach my students to look at the process and the product,” she says, “to rewrite the aesthetic and ask the question: What is a beautiful object? By putting objects in a gallery, you’re speaking to the converted. Mickey’s project was about teaching people to use their hands. That’s really unique.”
This year, Murch is living sustainably—but in a house —and plans to work on a grant-funded community cooking project in collaboration with Chez Panisse restaurant in Oakland. “I don’t have an aversion to going into Safeway,” he says, “but this has made me realize what it’s like to buy a loaf of bread. In the end, it’s not really important to make homemade things. It’s about understanding and thinking about the way we live.”
—Emily Mentzer ’08