Linda Tegg, Cameratrap, contact. Archival Inkjet Print, 2015.

Linda Tegg, Cameratrap, contact. Archival Inkjet Print, 2015.

Linda Tegg is an Australian photographer and filmmaker based out of Chicago. Using those tools, she carves out uncanny situations along the borderland of Nature and Culture. Sheep inhabit galleries; a goat stands on a white pinnacle appearing to be in digital space until it finally steps off its peak and trots away; often the human figure is camouflaged, whether by green screens or proper hunting attire, illustrating the deliberate and often painstaking efforts humanity makes to separate itself from its environment. In the following interview, Tegg and I discuss those borders and how her interest in grass cultivation further errodes delineations between subject and object, background and foreground.

Caroline Picard: You’ve talked about how you’re interested in looking at “nature” as a social construct. Can you say a little more about what you mean by that? 

Linda Tegg: I am interested in how ideas of the natural are formed and manifest in our interactions. This interest began with interpersonal relationships and has expanded to include those generally not considered persons.

Wildlife documentaries, popular science, religious education, almost anything considered non-fiction is of interest to me. From the museum of natural history, to the eco-safari, to YouTube, interest in animals can rest largely on the surface. Through a recent work I call cameratrap, I consider adaptations that humans make to their own surface appearance when attempting to embed themselves in a so-called “natural” environment. I wonder what the hunter achieves when their prey doesn’t show up; or what we understand natural behaviour to be when the when the wildlife documentary doesn’t play out as we expect.

CP: How do the mediums of photography and video differ for you? 

LT: In my work they speak the same language. Sure, they are by no means identical, but they hinge on the same relationships. It’s difficult for me to think about my photographs and videos in isolation of their environment, viewing conditions are so integral to how I make and experience art.

CP: How do you use those mediums to explore (and blur) the nature/culture binary?

LT: I see my photographs and videos as participants in an ecology of images through which we understand and orient ourselves. I seek moments in mediation where categorical shirts can occur, and find focus where illusion meets embodiment, animal actors for example.

Linda Tegg,  Sheep Study, Gallery, Video Still, 2010.

Linda Tegg,  Sheep Study, Gallery, Video Still, 2010.

CP:What do you mean by “animal actors”?

LT: I mean animals that have been trained for the film and television industry. Animals who perform our idea of their natural behaviour for the camera. I once encountered Holliwolves, wolf dog hybrids who are trained to move like wolves.

CP: What made you want to start working with grass? Is there a way that you compare it to a photographic process?

LT: My interest in grass was sparked by a local concern. I was curious to explore what the State Library of Victoria replaced in its founding. What other life forms occupied the grounds of that building? I learned that a grassy plain woodland had once stretched across the site and wanted to see if those plants could somehow grow back there again, and if conditions could be found where those same grasses might co-exist with the State’s collection of cultural artifacts. Had the Library been built on a former rainforest I would be working with completely different plant community. That said, it is no co-incidence that Melbourne was built on grassy terrain.

Linda Tegg, Grasslands, Installation View. Photo by Matthew Stanton, 2012.

Linda Tegg, Grasslands,
Installation View. Photo by Matthew Stanton, 2012.

CP:Why do you say that?

LT: Working and thinking with grasslands led me to consider how humanity approaches the world-for-itself (or us); the impulses, instruments, and frameworks of colonization are at play everywhere. The camera is certainly in line with that same mentality and I constantly wrestle with that awareness in my work. Working with grassland plants prompted me to shift my focus to the background.

CP: How might privileging a background (or grassland) influence your experience of art history?

LT: Looking into the background of 19th century paintings of early Melbourne wasn’t exactly informative in terms of which plants were growing on the site. Enormous complexity rendered by a green brushstroke, something to slide right past. In one sense I felt that researching and growing the grasses was illuminating a blind spot. I was drawing that blur into high resolution, so much so that it shifted into another order entirely. Seeking that kind of clarity is very much a photographic instinct.

CP: At the same time, once you shift that interest, wouldn’t you suddenly just turn grassland—in this case—into a kind of foreground subject? I feel like I’m inadvertently asking you about photography again…

LT: As an artist who thinks through photography I can’t help but draw endless analogies—a tray of seedlings appears as a selection of pixels. Eventually, as I understand more about the plants, my interest in the surface subsides and I can see them differently. Before working with plants I understood more about the chemical processes involved in the development of a roll of film into a photograph than the development of a seed into a plant. This allowed me to understand the seed as a latent image. The growth of the plant was imbued with the magic of an image appearing in the darkroom. Of course they’re not just images, they’re living beings.

Linda Tegg, Grasslands,

Linda Tegg, Grasslands, Documentation during protest, 2012.

CP: How do you consider your grass installations in relation to your photographic interests?

LT: I see the installations as a complex of ecology and illusion. I arrange the regular containers of grasses and plants  into forms that resemble landscapes. The rigidity of the containers persist, advancing and receding in counterpoint to the volume of the plants. Despite my Romantic aspirations of verdant hillsides the grid pattern is a constant reminder that the plants are drawn through an anthropocentric structure. The illusion of “nature” can break apart, the same way that a film’s continuity shatters when it’s slowed down.

CP: What is it like producing grass installation outdoor in/situ (as with Grasslands) for instance, versus producing indoor installations, like Terrain?

LT: My first inclination was to bring the plants indoors, so that they could be in direct proximity to the State Library of Victoria’s picture collection. There were many beautiful gestures to be made in bringing a grassland into the Victorian-era gallery. However, the head of conservation (who, at least in theory, entertained my ideas) calculated how many months each of the paintings would need to be rested if exposed to the same light the grasses required for just one day, and after likening the impact to a natural disaster, vetoed the idea. Eventually the grassland was allowed to occupy the Library’s front steps and lawn. As far as the plants were concerned outside was the right choice. They thrive in the sun and open air.

I remained curious about the quarantine room in the library—the evidence they had collected of bookworm, the oriental rat flea they found in a manuscript, the illustrations of silverfish life cycles on the wall.

CP: I can’t believe I didn’t think about how strange it is to cultivate plants indoors! That seems like a really significant aspect, and maybe also ties into the nature/culture binary…

LT: The indoor installations are a struggle for survival. The plants I grow are not the kind of plants that are suited for indoor conditions. They are spouted from the supermarket, usually grains, that require full sun. As a result I race to keep up with their needs and constantly fail. Changes in the building’s heating have huge impacts. Plants’ also impact their surroundings; the air quality surrounding them improves.

Within most institutional building’s plants are imposters, let alone the other life forms they bring forth. I grew my last installation in a large plastic bubble nested into my studio. Psychologically, I wrestled with it as a self-imposed form of restraint but in the end was happy to share in the plants’ containment.

CP: I was wondering if you would speak a bit more about the significance of the Whole Foods’ bulk bin aisle as the source of your seeds and grasses in Terrain? I feel like there are so many nuances of networks and economies at play, things that become strangely invisible when one is faced with the gallery installation of your work. 

LT: In one sense it was a direct way for me to overcome some of the alienation I feel in the supermarket, a marvel of modernism if you will, where everything is on hand, ripe for consumption. By spoiling the grains they’re able to grow into plants—suddenly they can’t be moved so easily, they can’t be traded as they were, and they shift categorically.

The process also disrupts the order of the bulk section, where plexiglass silos emphasize the diversity and division between varieties. Where every variety is represented by a Product Look Up Number that ensures a uniformity across stores. I seek to undo this, to unknow them as food and understand them as plants, as beings with a potential beyond my consumption. I consider them a community, a manifestation of the various human and non-human networks that brought the grains and legumes together in the bulk aisle, as a kind of reflection of our co-evolution.

Linda Tegg, One World Rice Pilaff, Terrain, Prairie Grass, Installation View, 2015.

Linda Tegg, One World Rice Pilaff, Terrain, Prairie Grass, Installation View,
2015.

CP: The way that the blatant economic/trade relationships becomes so quickly invisible feels important, maybe because it reflects how all of the world’s “natural” landscapes are similarly tied up in economic systems. In your installations, I don’t even recognize the individual types of plants, but am struck instead by a general green clump—maybe that’s like the 19th century green brush stroke, again.

LT: It is not surprising that this complexity is evasive. I must admit that I didn’t have a clue what a garbanzo bean plant looked like until I grew one. The plants in their plurality easily become generic grass a ground for human action and expansion. Even in a gallery installation where every convention would invite one to look closely, to consider the plants. They slide so easily into symbolism, into an image of rolling green hills, another image of prosperity.

I chose Whole Foods as it caters particularly well to people who want more from their food. I think about the reversionist fantasies behind the Paleo diet, that our bodies are more in tune with a pre-agricultural diet. That we can indeed buy a nine dollar packet of Paleonola Maple Pancake Flavored Grain Free Granola and be better for it.

CP:  What about care? As someone who worked with you as a curator, I feel like the way that you have to maintain and grow the grasses mostly invisible to a public, but also essential to the underpinnings of your work. I’m wondering how you think about that in relation to the artistic act or gesture…

LT: As the caretaker and orchestrator I am flat out in the midst of this operation. I grow the plants in regular modular containers and rearrange them throughout the exhibition. Indoors it really is a fight for survival.

When working with the grasslands project I thought a lot about what stays and what goes. The care that goes into preserving the State’s cultural heritage and the recurring acts of violence I saw inflicted on Grasslands. Everywhere I looked I saw them giving way. Even the artwork was pulled up one night by the Library’s own contractors to accommodate a display of BMW’s eco friendly vehicles.

Caring put me into a specific and active relationship to the plants; in some ways we’re in it together. The act of caring creates the potential for us to influence each other. We’re co-constituted. I also think that care bring things into visibility. I remember coming across a grassland restoration group weeding an embankment. To see them on their hands and knees, fighting the tide like that, really stuck with me.

Caroline Picard

Caroline Picard is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art organization—and Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. Her writing and comics have appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Everyday Genius, Hyperallergic, Necessary Fiction, and Tupelo Quarterly. In 2014 she was the Curatorial Fellow at La Box, ENSA in France, and became a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2015. Her first graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune, is due out from Radiator Comics in 2017. www.cocopicard.com