Panel Report: Ecologies of Creative Activism

Stacey Stormes

Independent Artist and Educator

Organizing Committee: Stacey Stormes (chair), Thomas Asmuth, University of West Florida, Elizabeth Demaray, Rutgers University, Renate Ferro, Faculty, Cornell University, Lydia Grey, and Byron Rich

Participating Artists: Andreas Zingerle and Linda Kronman (KairUs Art+Research), Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), April Bojorquez and Matthew Garcia (desert ArtLab), Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau (FICTILIS), and Erin Colleen Johnson

The Media Lounge panel Ecologies of Creative Activism was organized with the intent of examining the language of ecology. We hoped that through a variety of artist presentations and interactions, we could explore not only how current ecological terms intersect with activism, but also expand their usage to investigate how activists adapt to and are shaped by the systems they work within. In discussing these concepts, we found it fruitful to consider the semantics of ecology with these definitions:

  • ecology – study of organisms within an environment to each other and that environment – also those relationships themselves (organisms/environment)
  • ecosystem – system/environment that a particular type of organisms live within small/broad (can be as small as a drop of water on a leaf)
  • ecosphere – broader system that is available to multiple organisms, ecosystems sit inside these
  • biosphere – biology itself that lives within an ecosphere – biosphere = life forms

In our call for participation, we asked: how do the theories of ecology apply towards activism? Is the internet an ecosphere for activists? Can various internet communities be seen as ecosystems for activism? The term “ecology” references both the study of how organisms relate within an environment and those relationships themselves, but it has also come to be synonymous with political activism on behalf of those systems. In seeking work that creatively engages with systems ecology and practices artistic methods of activism, we found exciting practices forging ties between art, activism, and ecologies. When asked to respond to how the systems/environments they work within shape their activist practice, participants approached this question in appropriately diverse ways: for Erin Colleen Johnson, she found that rural farmers responded to signs at feed stores rather than internet postings. For KairUs, the internet provides the larger ecosystem for their activism, with the ecospheres of scam baiter forums and email inboxes directly shaping the resulting art. For desert ArtLAB and FICTILUS, building awareness through engaging community with the local environment is at the core of their works, and EcoArtTech responds to the economy of convenience by modeling a counterpoint through their daily life in Ecologies of Inconvenience.

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech) screened a portion of a work-in-progress, Ecologies of Inconvenience, a two-channel video installation. This largely autobiographical work contrasts industrialized food distribution models with sustainable low-tech processes performed by the artists including cooking with a solar oven, and digging wells. We see these intimate moments of personal toil next to parking lots of convenience stores, freeways, and other depictions of industrialized modern convenience. This juxtaposition highlights the personal nature of effecting change and how the small choices we make in our home and daily activities can become a conscious statement.

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

Ecologies of Inconvenience, 2016, Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech), 2 channel video installation, © Leila Nadir + Cary Peppermint (EcoArtTech). (Used with Permission.)

One of the received checks, 2013, KairUs, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

One of the received checks, 2013, KairUs, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

Andreas Zingerle and Linda Kronman of KairUs study scam baiting communities: forums full of activists discussing tactics to turn the systems internet con-artists use against the perpetrators. Using similar methods, the pair have created a series of works that are both art and intervention. In one instance, they directly communicated with scammers running a fraudulent campaign targeting artists under the auspice of an invitation to exhibit at the Dakar Arts Festival. Rather than simply ignore the email, KairUs created an artist persona (complete with digital footprint and artworks “by” the fake artist) and exchanged correspondence with the scammers for months. KairUs uses the records of their own interventions and data from scam baiting communities as material for installations. In their presentation, they shared the various tactics of anti-fraud activist communities online, exploring their methods through a comparative analysis of their own similar work.

Password: ****** installation view, 2015, KairUs, installation, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

Password: ****** installation view, 2015, KairUs, installation, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

Let’s talk business installation view, 2015, KairUs, installation, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

Let’s talk business installation view, 2015, KairUs, installation, © KairUs. (Used with Permission.)

Walking the Waste Stream: furnace room of the Liquid Sludge, Sludge Cake & Septage Receiving Facilities, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Walking the Waste Stream: furnace room of the Liquid Sludge, Sludge Cake & Septage Receiving Facilities, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

FICTILIS (Andrea Steves and Timothy Furstnau) presented documentation of one of their Waste Water Walks, a series of public actions in which they collaborate with community members to create art based on information about the process of modern waste processing. These works involve mapping, making signs, having discussions, listening to audio guides, and culminate in the physical walking of the path the wastewater pipeline takes through the area.

The purpose of these walks are, as Steves and Furstnau insist, “to effectively humanize information… or, if you prefer, hybridize it.” They construct the performative walks so that participants “consider the poetics and politics of human waste,” allowing them the sensory experience to:

Embody it – in the movements and actions of human bodies
Embed it – in our surroundings, in the physical landscape
Experientialize it – in the lived experience of individuals and groups
Narrativize it – turn it into stories, with characters, drama, arc
Ritualize it – turn it into symbolic forms that can be repeated [2]

In this way, Steves and Furnstau hope that by embodying the information physically through activity, it will resonate more deeply with their participants.

Wastewater Walk: Slugs to Sludge wayfinding sign in Santa Cruz, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: Slugs to Sludge wayfinding sign in Santa Cruz, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: wastewater pipe through redwood ravine, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Wastewater Walk: wastewater pipe through redwood ravine, 2015, FICTILIS, digital photograph, © FICTILIS. (Used with Permission.)

Matthew Garcia of desert ArtLAB presented a selection their work in his talk Aesthetic of Ecological Reliance. Desert ArtLAB (comprised of April Bojorquez and Matthew Garcia) champions the native cacti of their region. They educate and engage the local community around such topics as sustainable gardening practices and culinary usage for desert plants. As Garcia points out, most of us grow the same edible plants regardless of locale. Bojorquez and Garcia advocate for becoming informed on native species that thrive in one’s given climate and topography and integrating them into a sustainable diet, thus adapting our palettes to our environment rather than maintaining gardens unsuited to our ecological region. Garcia’s presentation engaged the audience in a poll [1] and discussion on how well versed we were on location-specific information regarding our own gardening practices, such as annual precipitation. We discussed ways to make the already positive step of growing some or all of our own food more sustainably by selecting native plants. Even though these native species aren’t necessarily as prevalent in recipes as the lettuce and herbs so many grow, they nonetheless can be integrated into a healthy and sustainable urban farming practice with some adaptation.

Garcia shared the successes and challenges encountered in promoting the native Arizona cacti through a series of projects engaging the local community. While Garcia and Bojorquez found many community members enthusiastic about planting and cooking with the native cacti, they also experienced prejudice against the native flora. In one instance, a vacant lot owner agreed to let them stage a planting performance, but later wished to rip up all the cacti when he recognized their crop. Citing opinions that cacti are “ugly” and documenting abuse to the plants tracked in their Geocaching project, desert ArtLAB witnessed plants being hacked, stomped, kicked, and purposely run over. In pointing out the commonality of a reluctance to embrace native flora, desert ArtLAB’s work draws striking correlation between the aesthetics of manicured landscapes and colonialism. To combat this idea that natural is not beautiful, desert ArtLAB leads community in workshops where they draw the local cacti to bring their beauty into view. As modern day settlers don’t we have a responsibility to embrace the aesthetics of the landscapes that adopt us, adapting to them rather than expecting them to bend to our will to cultivate every space to match what we find familiar and comforting?

If it Won’t Hold Water, it Surely Won’t Hold a Goat, 2014, Erin Colleen Johnson, video still, © Erin Colleen Johnson. (Used with Permission.)

If it Won’t Hold Water, it Surely Won’t Hold a Goat, 2014, Erin Colleen Johnson, video still, © Erin Colleen Johnson. (Used with Permission.)

If it Won’t Hold Water, it Surely Won’t Hold a Goat, 2014, Erin Colleen Johnson, video still, © Erin Colleen Johnson. (Used with Permission.)

If it Won’t Hold Water, it Surely Won’t Hold a Goat, 2014, Erin Colleen Johnson, video still, © Erin Colleen Johnson. (Used with Permission.)

In her performative presentation—part storytelling, part video art—Erin Colleen Johnson shared with us her time as a goat keeper and the unexpected connection to her union roots she discovered within the practice. As she tried to network with other goat owners, Johnson found that goat keepers in her area did not reach out to each other online, but instead responded to signs at feed stores. She found her experience as a union organizer, knocking on doors, to be useful in building a network of knowledgeable goat farmers; what started as Johnson pulling over to talk to owners of goats she passed in her daily travels, eventually grew into the The West Georgia Goat Association, a local group dedicated to fostering collaboration between farmers through farm visits and workshops. Through this in-depth engagement with the goat farming community, Johnson not only found a deep connection between art practice and life, but also the desires each of us often experience: to wander, to be set apart, and yet to find community and share knowledge and commonalities.

Chess McCartney’s Goat Caravan, postcard, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Chess McCartney’s Goat Caravan, postcard, North Carolina Collection
Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

After the panel presentations, audience members engaged in a spirited discussion with the artists, asking questions and sharing experiences from their own practices. We unearthed similarities and connections highlighting the commonalities among activists. While our causes and the systems we employ or subvert are distinct, we all find ways to internalize the movements, as drawing connections with our environment and community seem a universal human impulse.

References

1. desert Art Lab Poll:

1. DO YOU KNOW THE ANNUAL PRECIPITATION WHERE YOU GROW?
Yes______ How much_____
No______

2. DO YOU KNOW THE ANNUAL PRECIPITATION FOR EACH YEAR OVER THE LAST 10?
Yes______
No______

3. HOW MANY DAYS DO YOU IRRIGATE DURING YOUR GROW SEASON?
Yes______ List # Days_____
I Don’t Know _______

4. DO YOU KNOW THE ORIGINS OF PLANTS/FOOD YOU GROW?
Yes______ List Origin _____
No _______

5. DO YOU KNOW WHAT WEEDS GROW WHERE YOU LIVE?
Yes______ List Weed_____
No _______

6. CAN YOU SEPARATE WEEDS INTO INDIGENOUS AND INVASIVE/NON -INDIGENOUS GROUPS?
Yes______ List groups_____
No _______

7. DO YOU KNOW WHAT WAS GROWN 100 YEARS AGO WHERE YOU CURRENTLY GROW?
Yes______ List What was grown_____
No _______

8. DO YOU KNOW WHAT WAS GROWN – AND WHO GREW IT -600 YEARS AGO WHERE YOU CURRENTLY GROW.
Yes______ List What was grown_____
No _______

9. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THOSE COMMUNITIES ATE – 600 YEARS AGO?
Yes______ List what was eaten_____
No _______

2. Taken from FICTILIS’ “Walking the Waste Stream” description written for the panel, 2016.

Bio

Stacey Stormes is an interdisciplinary artist and art educator. Creating visual metaphor in a variety of mediums, she enjoys work that simultaneously seduces and repels. Her work explores body, consciousness, and connection to environment. She holds a BFA from the University of South Florida and a MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Currently she is an adjunct professor at multiple schools around the Tampa Bay Area, teaching courses in New Media, Film and Video, Photography, and Digital Foundations. Her current research obsessions are arts of resistance and the mediated body (works that fuse body and new media arts).

Stacey@staceystormes.com
www.staceystormes.com