In an increasingly overpopulated world where land is subdivided, developed and sold in parcels at a dizzying rate, the opportunity for solitude and inactivity is becoming a luxury of the past. Fighting this trend is Rob Gorski, a New-York-based physician and environmentalist at heart who, in 2009, purchased an island off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where he spent his summers as a child. With 90 acres of raw undeveloped land floating in Lake Superior, Rabbit Island was clearly something to cherish. “I spoke with my brother about it, who called it an ‘unconventional investment property,’ which didn’t really bother me, since I don’t see myself as particularly conventional either.”
Gorski immediately worked up a conservation easement with Keweenaw Land Trust to ensure its protection from subdivision and development into perpetuity. Shortly after locking in its safety, the young doctor met with artist Andrew Ranville through a shared connection and together they decided to start a sustainable, off-the-grid artist residency to creatively explore ideas that require focus and a distraction-free environment. After successfully campaigning for support and funds on crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, Rabbit Island quickly garnered attention as a pristine creative enclave that would provide such a distinct perspective from the developed islands many spend their time on.
Nearly four years later, Gorski and his partners have continued to honour their promise to the land as well as creative visitors. With only two humble and subtle structures made from local cedar, a manual rotary pump for water, and only enough electricity from a small solar panel and temporary generator to charge their power tools, Rabbit Island embodies the notion that intelligence and creativity grow from subtraction.
Balancing the geographical disconnect and it’s perceived luddism, the project remains highly visible and connected with a strong online presence that invites interaction and communal conversation, as well as an annual end-of-season exhibition at The DeVos Art Museum, Michigan, to share the resulting creations and evolving discourses.
The island is more than a landmass isolated in Lake Superior, it is a symbol for new perspectives, thoughtful innovation, and sustainable civilization. It’s about stepping back and applying hindsight, insight and foresight to our plans.
AR — Of all the things to use the island for, you chose to make an artist residency, saying that it was “the highest potential of Rabbit Island.” Why was it so important for you to create this?
Rob Gorski — One of the larger ideas—and a central premise of the project—is that wilderness is civilization in the context of our time. We have shown over the last several hundred or thousands of years that we have the ability to do whatever we want with the landscape. The choice to do nothing with it, to simply leave it be, then becomes an act of thoughtful civility, proof of our civilization. I would say that it’s as high of an act as any other conscious act, even creation. The idea of doing nothing with this island is the strongest proposal for such a beautiful spot in the context of the collective activity on the rest of our global landscape and our current understanding. It’s a small drop in a very large bucket, but it’s still significant and atypical. A natural extension of the non-development is having artists come to it to create and be inspired by it.
Andrew Ranville — We are part of the environmental equation. We are part of nature. It’s about nurturing that relationship in a responsible and celebratory way. We need to participate in nature, not try to tame it. It’s a warped view to think we need to set parks and forests aside and never experience or touch them. We need to interact with nature to understand why we’re preserving it. I live in London now but there’s a huge part of me, and I think in many people, maybe everybody, that needs time in natural spaces. We need to be in the forest or by the lake or in the mountains for at least some part of our life.
You’re simultaneously disconnected physically and hyper-connected digitally, what role does community and communal decision-making play in the development of Rabbit Island?
Rob — We project so much on this space—ideas of food, of art, of construction, of energy, of transportation, of style. Every step of the way we’re conceiving it and considering it and trying to figure out the best way of doing it. In many ways these are the same considerations anyone with a piece of land would have.
Andrew — I wouldn’t say disconnection, there’s always a connection. Even the most basic aspect of the project, going to the island, is quite an undertaking. It requires connecting with locals of Rabbit Bay where we harbor our boats on the mainland, interaction with the larger towns beyond the bay, and it continues to scale up to the most visible level which is of course our presence on the Internet. In that way, Rabbit Island acts as a symbol for the larger ideas we’re exploring, whether you’re partaking directly or remotely. It’s a way for people who aren’t able to get to the island physically to feed back into the process and shape the discussion regardless of their geographical location.
I’d like to talk about this idea of discussion. The island serves as an artist residency in the traditional sense, but also a laboratory for ideas and exploration, a strong discourse requires strong and flexible minds. How are artists chosen for the residency?
Rob — It’s been rather serendipitous. We’ve been curating friends, friends of friends, interesting people who have crossed our path, and people who reached out to us directly. Like the acquisition of the island, it’s been led by gut feeling—so far, trusting that has turned out really well. The ability to find like minds is amazing. For example, a woman by the name of Liz Clark contacted me who has been sailing around the world for five years on a boat named ‘Swell.’ She’s an environmentalist, a surfer, a writer and she’s about to return to the states. She’s created quite a little community for herself and she has an amazing story. She just contacted me out of the blue and said “Hey, I came across your project and I was wondering if I could come out and start writing a book out there.” I think that’s going to be a really exciting collaboration. Like anything in life, when you see something that is attractive to you, or rings your bell, usually it is mutual and it just works out.
Andrew — The goal when we started our Kickstarter campaign was to properly found a residency, but up until now we’ve been selecting people we feel will be a good fit and in a way, act as test pilots during the founding years of the residency. This year we accomplished our goal of formally establishing the non-profit residency arm of the project which enables us to find more funding for the actual residency and open it up and invite even international artists or researchers.
Typically, our experience with islands resonates feelings of being stranded and disconnected; like a discoverer of a ‘New World.’ Similar evocations are brought to mind by current global changes; do you think that Rabbit Island provides a useful metaphor or even microcosm for re-thinking?
Rob — It’s helpful in many places to consider things from both perspectives. We all live on our own islands. We have our neighbourhood, our community, our apartments—we consider these spaces intensely and care for them, consciously or not. For me it might be Central Park or The Brooklyn Bridge, or the little dog walk down the street. Consider how society organizes its islands, figuratively speaking. It divides and sets apart land for parks, land for farmland, areas for cities and urban areas. Knowing now, reasonably, rationally, scientifically, about our own environment and what our effect on it has been, there’s a requisite need for better organization and more thoughtful approach to how we build our islands within our landscape. The one thing we have so little of now in so many places is wilderness of scale. Now that everything has been discovered and mapped, we have to re-evaluate what we do, where, and why. Projecting on this little tiny space all of these larger symbolic societal ideas will help, at the very least, create a discourse where we can better evaluate some of those relationships. For one, the relationship between the individual liberty and the community becomes significant. Our nation is one that has been founded upon individual liberty, but this communal idea is one that is becoming stronger and stronger as we realize that there are tangible benefits to communal decisions.
Andrew — I’d say that to add to the original idea that we’re feeling lost while also feeling like a discoverer, there’s also a third feeling that comes over you when you’re here. It feels right. Not only on beautiful days, but also stormy days, it is comfortable. You find shelter under a dense canopy or in the lean-to or hunker down in your tent and it feels right. Part of it is knowing that you’re the alpha predator on the island, and part of it is knowing that it’s just the right size to get lost in while knowing that if you keep walking forward you’ll be able to walk right through to the other side. It’s unmapped internally which means there is always new space to find, and that has a profound effect on you. You’ll walk out to the coast thinking you’ve been walking west and all of a sudden you find yourself on the north side of the island. Something in the interior can turn you around. That idea of exploring and reflecting on something so deeply that you come out to an entirely different vantage point or destination than you expected, whether through a dialogue with others or simply with inner discussions with yourself. That feeling stays with you even when you leave the island. That understanding that you can turn a corner and have an entirely new perspective on things. It doesn’t last forever though, I feel like I have to go back to the island to ‘top up.’
You’ve started applying this ethos to an urban setting—purchasing a foreclosed lot in Detroit at auction for $600 (USD) with plans to revert the lot to an untouched natural zone where nature can reclaim its territory. No subdividing. No profit. No rows of bright green sod. No manicuring. Why is this the best use of the lot?
Rob — Having grown up near Detroit, there was a whole history of listening to my grandparents’ stories and then listening to the tales every year of how ‘this is going to be the year’ Detroit was going to come back. For a while it was ‘we’ve got the Super Bowl,’ this is going to save the community. It [the Super Bowl] was going to be the saviour of Detroit. Then moving the football stadium from Pontiac to Detroit was going to save the community. I never understood the whole idea of ‘saving the community’ to restore it to what it once was. I second guess that entire premise that it needs to be saved or it needs to be revived to its former glory. Past glory is subjective. In a dynamic world, in a dynamic environment, one constant that you’ll see in any crack of pavement or between any buildings or in any open lot, is growth. I see things with a medical perspective, so just like your hair or nails will grow, if you leave the earth, trees, plants, grass will grow. It doesn’t take a lot to let that happen. It simply takes restraint. At some point we have to realize that we don’t have to rebuild, we simply have to reorganize. The reorganization has to involve open spaces, the larger the better. I’m making a statement with this project to say that in many cases, all we have to do, is do nothing. The next step, which hasn’t been perfected by our civilization or our society, is to do it collectively. We don’t have a system for that yet. We have a way to divide, and that is to purchase, to sell, to divide, to repeat as parcels get smaller and smaller. Very seldom does that process move in reverse. From an absolute perspective, this one little lot means nothing, but from a symbolic perspective, given the reasoning behind it, it becomes an artistic statement, a strong project, and a symbol.
Inaction is rarely celebrated. Breaking ground on a new ‘development’ is met with champagne and applause, while untouched land is seen as inherently temporary. Beyond its interesting role as a place for artistic, social and scientific experimentation, Rabbit Island provides a strong metaphor for our obsession with intervention, which has ramifications far beyond its shorelines. There is room for mini Rabbit Islands in our schools, organizations, cities and backyards that sometimes suffer when change is impulsive rather than thoughtful. It is that ethos, that grander vision that fuels its founders that motivated our decision to select Rabbit Island as a place that matters. Rob’s There is No Antonym for Subdivision on the following pages provides a deeper, more personal exploration of his motivation