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Home » Discover Rackham » Student Spotlight: Michael Bianco

“I’ve become an activist artist. My work has to do with issues in the environment, social and environmental justice.”

Mike has previous a master’s degree in curatorial practice from the California College of the Arts and an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary art from Alfred University. He says, “I started working in clay when I was 12 years old. Since then I’ve shifted the focus of my work, expanding into conceptual art and curatorial practice, but I continue to work in clay and it’s an important medium for supporting my thinking.” After completing his M.A. at CCA, Mike worked for several years in both for-profit and not-for-profit art institutions. Despite his successes, he found his work in the commercial and nonprofit art world all very dissatisfying.

In 2008 Mike moved back to the artistic community of Marfa, Texas, where he’d met his wife and fallen in love with the vision of Donald Judd while serving as an intern at Judd’s Chinati Foundation. He says, “I fell in love with the landscape, the institution, the work and history of the place. I returned to Marfa to figure out who I was and how I wanted to engage the world. I felt, despite my training as a curator, that I needed to develop my ceramics into my central work. In terms of an artistic practice, I discovered that ceramics deeply connected me to the environment, working with clays that come from a deeper geologic time, fuels that come from dinosaurs or ancient trees. A deep ceramics practice strongly ties you to place and time. At the same time that I was making pots in the desert, I also began my practice of gardening and helping members of the community grow food. Because we were growing food in the remote parts of the West Texas Desert, I couldn’t help but begin to see issues with the environment and so much of what I was doing as not sustainable. Because I’m inherently curious, and passionate about both art and the environment, I wanted to return to graduate school to answer my deeper questions about the role of the artist in regards to issues of sustainability.”

He came to U-M because, “I was impressed by the interdisciplinary research, funding for master’s students, and the ability to conduct research with graduate students in other fields. I knew I wanted access to the resources of a major research institution in addition to feeling I would be supported by a larger academic community.

“When I came here, I knew I was going to get as deeply involved as possible. For my first term, I would take time every day to I walk through every single building I could, just so I could know this campus inside and out and to know what opportunities might exist. I wanted to know absolutely everything this university had to offer. Because of this, I was able to find the immense array of people, sites, and resources that were essential to supporting my interdisciplinary inquiry to understanding a contemporary art practice.”

Michael took an elective in Mechanical Engineering that exposed him to an opportunity to become part of the first cohort of the Dow Sustainability Fellows. Many were curious about what an artist would do in such a fellowship. He recalls, “I would often get asked if I would make paintings, or do graphic design for a research project. The fellowship was a great opportunity to educate my peers about Social Practice and it’s importance in the arts. Because my peers were open and excited to attack sustainability issues in creative ways, I was honored to a lead an impressive team of grad students to focus on honey bee population decline in Michigan.”

The decline is mostly attributed to colony collapse disorder, a phenomena that has resulted in a 30% honey bee population decline the last few years. He expands, “Bees are incredible social creatures, and essential to our survival as a species. They build beautiful architecture, work through collective decision-making, and are directly responsible for one third of all the food we eat. For these reasons and more, I decided I would be dedicated to using my time as a Dow Fellow to explore this subject. The result of our work was a white paper published in the Michigan Journal of Public Affairs. This spring, I got notification that someone from the White House was looking at our paper, and this was right before President Obama made an announcement for his memorandum on pollinator policy. I like to think that our work may have helped inform that policy.”

At the same time Mike was beginning his fellowship, he also became one of the founding members of UMBees, the University’s student beekeeping group. As part of his initiatives within the group, Mike was awarded $14,000 from Planet Blue’s Student Innovation Fund to start a rooftop beekeeping program. He was hoping for space on the second floor terrace of Rackham and had great support from the dean. Unfortunately, because of bureaucratic issues, Mike’s dream has yet to be realized. Despite the setback, Mike’s group is hosting their first symposium in April, with the hope that it will bring awareness and drive support for the many groups exploring the importance of urban agriculture.

In addition to his work as an artist and student leader, Mike has pursued his aspirations to teach by finishing his graduate teaching certificate through the Center for Research and Learning on Teaching (CRLT). To enhance his focus on Engaged Pedegogy, Mike participated in the Rackham Arts of Citizenship (AOC) program. He says, “AOC and CRLT are amazing. If it hadn’t been for these programs, I don’t know that I would have been able to develop successful courses focused on art and community engagement. I got an education and opportunity through Rackham that I don’t know how I could have gotten otherwise.”

Mike’s M.F.A. thesis exhibition, Hive, will open in the Slusser Gallery on March 13th. His exhibition focuses around the interactions of humans and honeybees, and looks to the hive as a metaphor for positive community responses for sustainable environmental change. At the center of his exhibition will be a mobile bee house that Mike has constructed. The house is intended to be a transformative space, and will feature a miniature exhibition on the history of alternative communities in Michigan that worked to live in sustainable and cooperative ways in the early 20th century. Find more information about this project on Mike’s website.

The primary focus of his research looks at the future of environmental collapse and decline, what can communities do to respond and what have they done in the past. He describes, “I look at this history as a set of test cases, and focus on the positive moves that these communities made. It’s my hope to understand both the successes and failures of these communities with the hope to understand alternative approaches for sustainable futures.”

Mike has made the most of his years on campus, taking advantage of opportunities that came his way whenever he could. “Michigan has been incredibly supportive of my work. I traveled to Tanzania to keep bees with a community of Maasai, I received a Rackham Centennial Grant to research and build a kiln that uses shipping pallets and waste oil or fuel, I visited Fukushima, Japan, to meet with farmers and citizens to understand the realities of Japan’s post-3/11 food systems, I studied the relationship of food, craft, culture, and sustainability in Oaxaca, Mexico – I was able to get funding for my research as an artist that I would have normally never thought possible. I feel very grateful to be a grad student who’s been able to find and take advantage of all the resources at U-M, and it’s been amazing. As an artist, I don’t know what position I’ll be in to give back to Michigan, but I hope to. I’m dedicated to giving back to Rackham, Stamps, and the library system – all three have been amazing resources for me. I’m a grad student in the School of Art and Design, but I think of myself first and foremost, as a Rackham student.

Mike and his wife will move to Perth, Australia this summer where he’s applying to a doctoral program that focuses on art and biological research and is home to a world-renowned bee research lab.