Saya Woolfalk Installation at the Seattle Art Museum in the Disguise Exhibit, 2015 – Photo by Nathaniel Willson
Saya Woolfalk is a New York-based artist who, for the last decade, has been building an elaborate and multi-dimensional narrative about alternate cultures. Woolfalk’s physical installations document the artifacts of these cultures—specifically the No Placeans (plant humans) and the future human culture that discovered No Placean bones, the Empathics—using ethnography-museum displays strategies that she populates with digital projections, elaborate costumes and mannequins, paintings, artifacts, and totems. With that intersection at play, Woolfalk offers alternative models for cultural exchange, societal hierarchy, and the way they mirrors many own conventional norms today.
Caroline Picard: What is No Place?
Saya Woolfalk: No Place is a project I worked on from 2006-2008 with filmmaker and anthropologist Rachel Lears. It was scripted and conceived by collecting the utopian desires of people in our communities. Through a series of ethnographic interviews, the story of No Place emerged. The No Placeans are plant humans who change gender and color, transform into the landscape when they die, and repurpose refuse into usable technologies.
CP: Did that vision of utopia continue to evolve in your work after 2008?
SW: Once this collectively imagined “utopia” was established I began to think about how people in the present could become the plant humans of the future. In 2009, I worked with a group of women dancers to create the first Ritual of the Empathics. Then in 2010, I collaborated with biologists at Tufts University to hash out how humans might actually become part plant in a project called The Institute of Empathy.
In 2012, The Institute of Empathy (IoE) curated and lent an exhibition of objects, dioramas, and videos at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. In this exhibition The Empathics describe how they find a group of No Placean bones into the woods of upstate New York. A fungus on the bones stimulates a physiological mutation that allows Empathics to easily cross species by integrating various genetic materials into their DNA. The nonprofit organization IoE was established to study this new morphology and distill the mutation process into a multi stage system so that any ordinary human can opt into becoming an Empathic.
Screenshots from Institute of Empathy (IoE) website
CP: It seems like you’re talking about cultural exchange, where the fungus becomes a radical agent between Empathics, No Placeans, and the fungus itself. What was it about fungus that makes it a good multi-species ambassador?
SW: When I interviewed the biologists at Tufts, I gave them the backstory for the plant humans of No Place. I then asked what might make people from the present hybridize in such a radical way. One of the researchers offered the example of a fungus that implants itself inside of an ant. The ant is generally risk averse, but the introduction of the fungus alters both its behavior and morphology. Sprouting out of its host body, the fungus eventually kills the ant. When I saw an image of this violent rupture and subsequent transformation, it seemed to be the perfect inspiration for the origination story of the Empathics.
CP: I’m interested in how you borrow scientific, ethnographic, and artistic strategies to build not just new cultural narratives, but also objects and installations. Can you say more about how you incorporate and refract biological, anthropological, and artistic methodologies?
SW: In the visual art program at Brown, we were offered a variety of classes where we could explore combining the methods of art and science. After grad school, I moved to Maranhao, Brazil with my husband, cultural anthropologist Sean Mitchell. We lived in his field site for two years and this is when I began to borrow anthropological methods for thinking about and making my own work. I also got a Fulbright to do research into folkloric performance traditions in northeastern Brazil, which is how I met Rachel. When we got back to the States, she and I decided to collaborate to create the short film I mentioned, Ethnography of No Place. That was the first project I made that really blended artistic and anthropological methods into a single project.
CP: One of the things that struck me about the Empathics is that they are described as being plant/human hybrids; they are very adaptive and easily absorb different influences. I loved this idea because in some way I feel like you are articulating a bridge between nature and culture, which is typically difficult for Western philosophic and cultural frameworks to embrace. What was it about plants that made you interested in plant/human hybridity?
SW: I spent summers of my childhood going to elementary school in rural Japan were there was an emphasis on learning about plant systems in. We nurtured plants, learned about their ecosystems, and relationships with humans.
In 1999, when I was a junior in college, I went to my first Venice biennial. At the biennial I encountered the Kaki Tree project, in which a singe persimmon tree survived the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945. This mother tree emerged out of a catastrophic historic event and its human collaborators stimulated intercultural exchanges using her saplings. On their website they describe how “Art cultivates the imagination to help us feel others’ pain and creativity to build a new world. It goes beyond borders, religion, race and even language, and helps us feel sympathy for each other.” The structure and drives of this project impacted how I wanted to conceive my future work.
CP: What continues to draw you to the Empathics? Do you think of their narrative as a kind of medium?
SW: I always wanted to create a project that would allow me to think about cross cultural relationships and hybridization but did not want to use my personal story or standard tropes of multiculturalism.
CP: ChimaTEK is a corporation developed for the Empathics, by the Empathics, to help with their individual pursuit of self-improvement.
SW: ChimaTEK is the corporate branch of the IoE; through this corporation, the Empathics have patented a multi-step process with home-use technologies that make interspecies and intersubjective hybridization available to all.
CP: Am I right in thinking that the corporation is an ambiguous and even distopic figure in your narrative. Would you say the corporation is kind of dark mirror for the Empathics?
SW: The corporation is intentionally ambiguous and distopic. When I first conceptualized the project in 2006, ChimaTEK was in my notes as The Land of the Pleasure Machines. In this early iteration of the project, the Pleasure Machines are humans who give up their flesh and take on robotic bodies. As No Place and the Empathics developed their own logics, I revised the story to explore what happens when research that seems to be utopian gets coopted into a corporate logic. ChimaTEK allows users to wipe their identities clean and download specially configured identity algorithms. What do we self-select if we are capable of this kind of transformation?
CP: That makes me think about the power of fictional narratives, somehow, as a method to imagine alternative realities and mirror one’s own reality, without implicating a specific, individual biography. Still, I think it’s interesting that empathy plays such a big role in your work. Why is empathy so important?
SW: In graduate school I was inspired by Afrofuturist feminist Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis series. In these books a race called the Oankali go through the universe seeking organisms to trade genetic information with. Empathy plays a complex role in this story, from the perspective of the Oankali they are being empathic, they are saving humanity from the brink of destruction. However, humans lose their autonomy once integrated into the Oankali genetic order. The protagonist, Lilith, establishes a blended family out of her relationship with the Oankali and the books trace her personal and social conflicts with being a trader to her humanity as well as a desire to integrate into a new genetic and social order. The series has been described as an exploration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Butler uses science fiction to consider forced familial relationships forged out of slavery that resulted in generations of African Americans having conflictual relationships with their integration into American culture.
CP: It seems significant that you haven’t written a novel (as yet) but instead make objects, installations, and performances, almost as secondary artifacts that viewers apprehend like archeologists…we don’t access the direct text-narrative, but instead connect the dots via artifacts that narrative produced.
SW: Octavia Butler’s fantastical and psychologically complicated myth fueled my desire to tell a story. As a visual artist, I knew it would not only be told through words but through a physicalization of objects, places, and by building new realities. So, for me, the objects and installations are very important, they are the material manifestation and physicalization of another place. They are the things that make the place real, that allow us to have access to that place.
ChimaTEK Beta Launch by Saya Woolfalk at Smack Mellon
CP: You are able to hit a lot of registers at once and seem comfortable with the seams between digital/material/nonhuman/human mediums; that’s part of what makes your work take on such a cohesive feeling of artifact. How did you develop that process?
SW: I started playing with digital technology early on in my work. I made digital collages with costumed figures using early versions of Photoshop in the 90s. I was trying to use the newly available digital technologies to combine real people and places with new imagined possibilities.
CP: What about the difference between mannequins and live bodies? Does that difference matter?
SW: I gravitate towards the utopian potentials of digital space (post race, post gender, post human etc.), but understand that people live in real bodies that experience real consequences based on how they are gendered, sexed, raced and classed. As I currently explore things like augmented and virtual reality, I constantly bring us back to actual bodies in space, real dancers that have physical manifestations not just phantoms that exist in digital space.
CP: What would the Empathics say about the Anthropocene?
SW: The Empathics are initially ordinary humans and do their work in human centric systems. I imagine they would not be opposed to the current geological epoch being characterized as the Anthropocene. However, I don’t think they would want ChimaTEK or the work of the IoE to be limited by a human centric vision of possibility. I teach at Parsons the New School and a number of mu students last semester worked on projects that centralized birds or rocks as the consumers of the work. I think that the Empathics would be interested in this kind of exploration.
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
At first glance, Essi Kausalainen’s performances are deceptively simple: a woman leans back in an office chair as another figure crouches under a blanket; a child drags another child with a potted plant across a plain stage; a small sprig of grass is lit on fire where it has been positioned around a banana. These gestures are almost mundane. With careful attention, however, complex dynamics start to unfold: why do these figures repeat the same gestures? Their unflinching concentration admits a determined but inaccessible logic, as though we do not sense the constraints they operate within. It seems fitting therefore, that Kausalainen’s is especially inspired by plants and fungi, working through the medium of performance to encounter, explore, and potentially embody more-than-human worlds. Kausalainen is a Helsinki-based artist who studied performance art and theory at Turku Arts Academy and the Theatre Academy of Finland. Her work has been exhibited and performed in venues including KIM? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga; Malmö Moderna Museet; Frankfurt Kunstverein; Museum for Contemporary Art Roskilde; Nikolaj Kunsthalle, Copenhagen and Kunstraum Bethanien, Berlin.
Caroline Picard: What is it about performance that inspires you as a medium?
Essi Kausalainen: My way of thinking is rather physical. I read a lot—I need all kinds of texts from philosophy to science to poetry to make my work—but I’m very slow with that as I’m reading with my whole body. The text needs to reach the breathing, the pulsating, the flowing—I really have to embody the knowledge to accept it, and to be nurtured by it. Performance practice is very helpful in this. It is a way to gather understanding, to digest, to connect with things I cannot reach with words or intellectual abstractions. Through gestures and actions I can make sense of the world and my own place in it. As a medium, performance can guide our attention towards our sensitivity, and the uttermost susceptibility with which we can read other bodies. I’m also inspired by the ephemerality of performance, the fact that the work appears and disappears without producing any “thing.” I’m inspired by bodies doing things: the fantastic silliness of our existence that this media embraces!
CP: What does it mean to view the world as a single organism? How do conceive our experience of individuality within that frame?
EK: For me it is a question of “us,” and the fact that there is no outside of it. It is a question of responsibility and respect. This is one of the key things the plants have taught me. When studying and observing them I’ve realized that when looking at a plant body I’m always looking at the whole ecosystem, the surroundings, the weather, the climate—all of that is inseparable from the plant body. The same goes with us. The “I” making the work is actually the world around me: it is the plants I live with, the plants I eat and drink that build my body and its bacterial terrain, the people around me, the books I read, the society and its values…I am just a compost trying to create fertile ground out of this all. A bug among millions of others, nothing special. But since the being of this bug belongs to the whole ecosystem it is in no way insignificant or irresponsible: it resonates in unexpected, uncontrolled ways in all the life around it. And this brings it all back to the question of being together—how do we think, approach, be, with this great diversity of others? How do we treat the other and ourselves?
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
CP: What connection or parallels do you see between performance and plant growth? Do plants perform? How has that connection manifested in some of your works?
EK: Oh there are so many strategies plants have in their growth! There are the slow and cautious, the risk takers, and everything in between. But they all throw themselves towards the openness, towards the light—and they don’t really need a witness for this growth, instead they need companions. In that sense performance is quite something different. Yes, it is about throwing your body towards the open space, towards the light, but it has all these different levels of meaning making and sharing… I guess it is the difference between being and doing. Performance always seems to fall into the latter category even when it attempts to fall into the first one. Despite these differences the plant body, and the movement of growth in it, has been a great teacher and inspiration in my work. I guess the plant being is a kind of an ideal that is impossible to achieve as a human body—but momentarily, through a gesture, a performance I can set myself and my co-performers into a situation that resembles it. And gives us thus a great pleasure of being the bodies we are.
CP: I’m also interested in this idea of translation—you talk about translating experience or philosophical knowledge into performance. What does that process entail?
EK: Yes—I feel my artistic practice is a lot about that: my personal process of embodying the knowledge, the theories, the science, the being itself. I am making my work to be able to understand something, some phenomena or experience or relation. To explore the ideas of resisting and surrendering and coming together, the opening and nurturing… I just need the capacity of my whole body and its sensitivity to understand the philosophical—and scientific—thinking. A good example is Michael Marder’s concept of “plant thinking,” which I explored first in a dialogue with a plant biologist and then through a series of performances. It made a great difference to actually act out the plant logic—the attempt to situate my own living, breathing body within this logic. At the moment I’m exploring Luce Irigaray’s thinking on and around love and the concept of (sexuate) difference with the help of mycorrhiza. So far it has taken the shape of a (love) song, a video and performance. And more seems to be on its way!
CP: I’m suddenly reminded of hearing you talk about how scientists learned about your performance and instantly recognized what was going on.
EK: I have been really surprised by the generosity and the openness of the scientists I’ve talked to and worked with. They have taught me a lot about curiosity and creativity. I’ve understood that to be a good scientist you have to be open and not too fixed on your presumptions. Instead you need to keep asking questions, to keep moving in search of new viewpoints—keeping your senses alert. I guess this is also what enables them to look at my work with such fresh and observant eyes, and to recognize patterns and logics. Their gaze, and their company, has encouraged me to develop my own practice further and to trust the viewer’s intellect and sensitivity. These dialogues have also made me aware of the conservative and exclusive features of the art world—and in my own thinking!
CP: You also work quite regularly with children?
EK: Children are so great to work with because they are still connected to their senses. They have great flexibility, openness and understanding of our bodily being. A child is with the world through touching, trying things out—it is a very creative and candid relation. The analytical reasoning does not overrule the sense of wonder, the pleasure of sensing, the imagination. Therefore they are brilliant performers and great fun to work with. And when there are children in the group it is also easier for the grown ups to soften, and to be a bit silly. I find a great importance in that.
Essi Kausalainen: Newcomers, still from video (HD), 2016.
CP: You ask this question, but I also want to re-ask it of you—what does it mean to have a body? How has your answer to that question changed for you over time? What insights or moments changed it?
EK: It has been a long journey with this question! I guess in my early works the focus was on identity: Who is this particular body and why is it what it is? Through the years I have slowly been able to open it up. Moving from my body to a larger ecosystem, a relation between the human and the plant body, and very recently also with the fungi. The collaboration with the plant bodies has been crucial in the process of understanding my own body, the ego, and all of that. It has changed my way of being and thinking and making the work. Therefore I’m very curious to see what the fungi will do!
At the moment being a body means for me being a sensing, sensual, sensitive being. It means an amazing capacity of abstract thinking, of theorizing, of creating and solving problems. Being a body means constant movement, constant change. It means the greatest pleasure and joy—a place to connect, to care, to touch the other.
The following interview was originally published on Art21 on Sept 25, 2012. One of my favorite conversations with Norton and Michael Marder was conducted by Monica Westin for BOMB in March 2014. You can see that interview here.
Heidi Norton. “Meditations on Moldavite Besednice (A Symbiosis),” 2012. Glass, wax, mirror, resin, cactus, fern. 43.5 x 61 x 8.5?. Photo by Melissa Fisher.
“The crude solution to the problem of vegetative life, interpreted as qualitatively weak and as verging on inanimate existence, forces this life into retreat, puts it on the run, and so increases the distance between philosophy and the plant.” –Michael Marder, Plant-Soul: The Elusive Meanings of Vegetative Life
Generally we think of plant life as a kind of fuel — a material vitality that exists to be consumed and transformed to a higher purpose: as food, medicine, paper, or housing. As such, vegetation is not often recognized as a material capable of interiority — with an autonomous desire, or a will, that could be inaccessible to humankind. Still, we know that plants seek light. We know they are active in so far as they grow and we know that, left to their own devices, they would consume a given area. Heidi Norton works with common house plants, framing them in planes of glass, resin, wax and paint. She sets up these scenarios in her studio and photographs the transformation of plants over time. In other instances she installs the 3D works as sculptures. Some plants die over the course of an exhibition. Less often, they sprout, generating new life within a sculpture. Photographs and sculptures depict the same phenomena and so play back and forth between something fixed in time — a moment of deterioration — and something in flux. In so doing, Norton creates a moment for apprehension, a moment at which the interiority of plants, framed by the artist in a visible procession towards death and rebirth, might be easier to conceive. Heidi Norton (born in Baltimore, MD in 1977) received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2002. She is currently showing work at the MCA until October 23rd.
Caroline Picard: What led you to incorporate plants into your work?
Heidi Norton: I think mostly it had to do with the primal need to have nature incorporated into my urban space — I wanted to reclaim something I had lost. Up until my mid-twenties, I spent much of my life in a rural part of West Virginia and Maryland, in the valley of Blue Ridge Mountains. My parents were homesteaders and we had a great reliance on nature, we communed in and nurtured it; in return it provided us with food, recreation, and shelter. This symbiotic relationship is integral to my work. The plants’ life is compromised and in exchange it gives something back to you in the form of art. Death can teach more about life than life itself. Destruction is a vital phase in cycles of regeneration.
CP: Why the house plant?
HN: Houseplants are our way of corralling nature, organizing it, and preserving it. They make ecology accessible and domestic. Still, houseplants, vegetation, botanical enterprise all have histories and experiences far bigger than me. As a material, their associated context is greater than my conception, but I like that. Plants, as a medium, have an ability to shift the work through various paradigms and intertexts: from fine art, to science, to personal and intimate, to vernacular.
CP: I keep thinking about the intersection between life/death/passing/preservation which you create in your work. What does it mean to frame such contrary movements?
HN: At its “roots” the work is about ecological cycles: Life, decay, death, passing and preservation — even archiving is included within that. Time is a significant factor and is recorded and observed in the works in various ways. Sometimes the same plant reoccurs in different photographs at varying phases, sometimes the plants die and their detritus is reused as a material, and sometimes the plant sprouts new growth (that can then be pruned and reused). When the plant is “pressed” against glass or embedded in wax, it resonates with scientific notions of preservation and fossilization.
I am thinking about how a scientist kills something to know more about it or how an organism becomes a host to another organism in exchange for nourishment/life. Like something you may see at the Field Museum or in a Field Guide, I use glass as a “canvas.” Paint, resin and plants become the medium. Sometimes the plants are cast or embedded into wax and these plants often birth “new” life and growth, and other times, the plants are photographed and “recorded” in various states of life-decay-rebirth.
CP: How much does “reflectivity,” as a property present in much of your material, influence you?
HN: All the materials — the glass, resin, wax, tarps — have to do with notions of preservation. Michael was the first sculpture that I made after the New Age Still Life series. I wanted to activate the photographs using 3-D strategies. The glass surface and flatness of the “painting” side helped me negotiate that. However, the other side (gesso-ed and primed like a canvas) is very three dimensional, as if the plant is exploding off the surface. So here we see a tension with form, in addition to the life-and-death contrast that I keep referencing. The “pressing” allows the viewer to watch the plants (and themselves — their own reflections) change from green to yellow; while the plants desaturate as time passes, the white side always stays pristine, waiting for something to “happen.”
Read the rest of this interview here.
Jul 20, 2016
A. Laurie Palmer. Heap Leach Field, Nevada (silver). Courtesy of the artist.
In 2015, Black Dog Publishing released A. Laurie Palmer’s book, In the Aura of a Hole: Exploring Sites of Material Extraction, which documents multiple visits the artist made to sites of industrial extraction around the United States. Describing trips to Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Wyoming, and California, among others, Palmer’s essayistic account weaves personal experience and history, philosophy, science, politics, and economics, revealing the complex and reciprocal relationship between humanity and the materials on which it relies. Palmer is a sculptor based in California; she has exhibited widely since 1988, collaborated for twenty years with the artist group Haha, and cofounded the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials.
Caroline Picard: Can you talk about how In The Aura of a Hole developed?
Laurie Palmer: There were many seeds for this project. One is from the early 1980s, when a friend gave me Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura while I was living in San Francisco. In that philosophical poem, Lucretius asks straightforwardly: What is this place? What is it made of? How does it work? His answers are as helpful now as they were in 50 BCE, in the sense that his curiosity, detailed observations, and empirical imagination still reverberate. He was an early proponent of a DIY ethic: he trusted his own experience to make sense of things. As an Epicurean, he believed the gods and their spokespersons were not authorities to be trusted, while being nevertheless supremely humble, in his desire to hear the opinions of others.
Two thousand years later, the world is materially different—perhaps destroyed, certainly drastically altered—and we now question how certain human practices and ideologies have become naturalized, as if they are forces that can’t be changed, that are part of the nature of things. Lucretius’s direct approach is helpful in a different way for questioning the intransigence of these practices and ideologies, but really it was his poetic imagination and inflamed curiosity that moved and affected me so many years ago. And his willingness to ask simple questions…
CP: Was the book at all influenced by your studio practice?
ALP: In the early 1990s, while writing about art, making art, and teaching art, I had the idea to write a book about materials that might be relevant to teaching sculpture. I thought I could write a sort of handbook of descriptions and associations; I would write about the world of matter as if it were art. But I didn’t write it because I didn’t think it had any ground. By ground I mean a more located politics, addressing the privatization of space and resources.
I found the ground for the book when I began to question land use in my own practice of making. Haha’s work had always been place-based, and that long collaboration is another important seed. But in the late ’90s or early 2000s, I started thinking about land as both abstract space and tangible material and to explore its status as a “fictional commodity,” in Karl Polanyi’s term. This led to visiting mines, where land as space and material becomes explicitly commodified—turned into an object. The question of thingness (what makes a thing cohere) has always been an art question for me, a sculpture question. From 2003–04, I was given the unbelievable gift of time to read and think at Radcliffe College; the experience both opened and unhinged me. It took a long time for me to filter out all the joyful noise, and in the end the book is something different from whatever I had hoped would result. The research that went into it has become a bountiful source for making new projects, and the writing helped me find new ways to think about being in the world. As an artist I want to be changed by what I make, through the process of making it. Working on the book did that. I crafted it as a porous whole, to create a certain picture of the world. Even if it’s unevenly geeky, digressive, personal, or didactic at times, it’s nevertheless a porous whole made of eighteen holes. The golfing analogy didn’t occur to me until after it was published. In my mind, it is an art project because it is constructed more as a thing than a coherent narrative and because that thing consists of different kinds of voices, or of information, which might not exist together except perhaps in the permissive context of art. As in artmaking, I let more in than I could make explicit sense of, with the hope of giving the reader and receiver a lot to work with.
CP: In the introduction, you say you want to break the script, to take a “reparative rather than paranoid approach.” I feel ever more aware of how embroiled I am in systemic violence, in no small part due to the modes of industrial extraction on which my daily life relies. While I recognize that entwinement, it seems like a dead end to simply say, “I will not participate,” partly because it’s impossible not to participate. But I also worry that struggling to maintain a refusal might require so much of my energy that I would end up blind to alternative, nonviolent possibilities. I find that your book stirs up a different kind of awareness, but I’m not sure what to call it.
ALP: I’m not sure what to call it, either. In some ways this project involved digging deeper into a wound—learning more about and specifying my complicity in the interconnected violence you speak about—of ecosystem/world destruction, resource depletion, militarism, surveillance, poverty, racism, and unemployment as necessities of capitalism, and other outrageously wrong systemic priorities, all of which support and perpetuate each other. Alternatively, drawing connections between the materiality of the Earth and our bodies reveals our vulnerability and our complicity in a larger-than-human frame and points to a different kind of connection, to focus on and explore as a way forward. Of course it is facile to say everything is connected, but it’s interesting to try to specify how they are connected. And the closer one looks, the more surprises one finds, creating a picture for which the laws of non-contradiction do not apply! I think of art as a really big net, with a broad tolerance for contradictory reality. With writing, one is always struggling against an exclusive logic, which makes it so hard to write and which makes really good writing so exquisite because it refuses that logic. I would like to be a writer, but I am an artist. But to return to your question: a reparative approach assumes disaster has already happened, is happening, and is ongoing alongside a lot of other things that have happened, are happening, are perhaps not so visible, might come to the surface as useful, could offer the seeds for different understandings…
Read more here.
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.
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.
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, 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,
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.