Interview with Leeann Westman for the Environmental Aesthetics issue, Fall 2015
Leeann Westman (LW): Where did you begin as an artist?
Elizabeth Demaray (ED): Ok, I’m actually going to tell you what happened exactly. I took an elective class in art when I was a junior in college. I was majoring in cognitive psychology and trying to get good grades, so that I could go to medical school. And, I figured that art would be a nice break from classes in my own major. The class I took was Ceramic Sculpture and it was taught by Richard Shaw, a famous member of the Funk Art Movement. It turned out that I loved the concrete nature of the medium and the fact that it allowed me to create forms that were abstract and yet physically present. At the time, my own field of study was the biological basis of thought, in particular, something that was called the “Theory of Multiple Memory Systems (TMMS).” Based on the study of amnesia, the theory explains how an amnesic can lose their memory yet still know what words mean, which is something that actually used to drive me nuts as a kid. I used to wonder, how it was possible for characters in movies to loose all their memories and still know what words mean. The TMMS proposes that humans have two partially dissociable forms of memory. The one we keep when we have amnesia is called Semantic memory, which is a storehouse of basic logical relationships, word meanings and procedures—knowledge that is made up of, but not dependent upon, specific moments or events. The one that amnesiacs loose, episodic memory, is a memory system for qualities and episodes or events, those things that are essentially non-linguistic in nature but give us a unique sense of time, place and who we are.
One afternoon, as I was hand building a clay sculpture in the ceramic studios, I had a startling experience. While I was working, I realized that I was pleased with the object that I was making because I was able to simultaneously present qualities that were totally contradictory in nature. The piece I had created was beautiful and, at the same time, very ugly. With the piece of art that I was making, I was asserting something that was completely illogical yet nevertheless true. I realized that in defying semantic labels, the sculpture was reflecting episodic thought and that that may in fact be, by extension, what art does. When we look at a painting or hear a poem that does not mirror expected semantic patterns, it makes us use the episodic part of our brain. Immediate, meaningful interactions with art are also characterized by other qualities of episodic thought. These moments are often experienced as a pause or as having the sense of being briefly arrested in time and the qualities that we experience at these moments are difficult to put into words or to use language to quantify.
How did you develop an interest in combining natural elements with your work?
I was originally trained in clay, but in grad school I found myself wanting to work with materials that embodied different kinds of intrinsic information. I also wanted to do something to help the natural world, but felt ineffectual and powerless to accomplish any sort of significant change. So I started knitting sweaters for plants (figure 1, Giant Sequoia), to communicate my desire to care for the natural world, but at the same time my feelings of futility. Once I began using plants in my work, it was a natural progression to consider my own cultural orientation towards nature. I became interested in biotopes, which are small environments that are shared by multiple species, including humans. My work also began to involve the notion of “trans-species giving”—the idea that the commonalities between humans and other life forms are such that we humans may be able to give other creatures a “hand up,” however misguided or conceptually hamstrung we may be by our beliefs about the natural world.
My earliest project that grappled with the idea of “trans-species giving” was The Hand Up Project, attempting to meet the new needs of natural life forms (figure 2). The project is dedicated to land hermit crabs, small crustaceans with thin exoskeletons that must adopt abandoned shells from marine gastropods to remain housed and protected from predators. The problem is that because there are not enough shells left on global shorelines for this animal to use, biologists routinely find them living in broken glass jars plastic bottle tops and any other form of refuge that they can get their pincers on.
Based on what we know about the new needs of these animals, The Hand Up Project is dedicated to producing alternative forms of housing specifically designed for use by land hermit crabs. The project utilizes an adaptable AutoCAD design and a stereo lithography process for fabrication. The key to this new design is that it minimizes the spiral in the middle of a traditional shell, reducing the overall weight of each house and increasing its internal volume-to-weight ratio, which is something that the animal likes. In its beta version,The Hand Up Project was a great success. Twenty-five percent of the initial crab population chose to move into new, fabricated homes when presented with the structures for a period of two months.
As might be expected, the project produced what may be the most expensive hermit crab houses ever created and the funding needed to manufacture and distribute them is significant. Although this effort is a minor, genuine attempt to give a struggling life form a hand up via design, the “art part” of this endeavor centers on the way we propose to pay for the new dwellings. The Hand Up Project is currently soliciting corporate sponsorship to fund manufacturing and distribution—by licensing the houses for advertising. In exchange for financial support, the project will print a corporate logo on each alternative shelter before placing it in the wild.
The theme of this issue is “environmental aesthetics” — how do you think your work fits into this theme?
As a sculptor, my primary area of enquiry is the interface between the built and the natural environment. In this vein, I culture lichen on the sides of building in NY City (Lichen For Sky Scrapers Project, figure 3), make listening stations for birds that play human music and build light-sensing robotic supports for houseplants (figure 4). This last endeavor, titled The IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving, entails creating moving floraborgs that utilize machine learning to allow potted plants to roam freely in a domestic environment in search of sunlight and water (https://vimeo.com/90457796). I think that each of these works go beyond the appreciation of art to the aesthetic appreciation of both natural and human environments.
Some of the authors in this issue are critical of the ways in which humans intervene in nature, but your work seems to have a very positive view of the impact humans may have on nature. Do you agree?
Positive? I don’t know if I would say positive. I used to think that human industry was the greatest threat to the continuation of life on Earth as we know it. I now fear that it is our primary hope.
What role does art play in increasing our awareness of the environment?
I think that art may play multiple roles in addressing environmental issues. The first that comes to mind is innovation. Artists often view problems from unusual vantage points and, in relationship to the environment, are innovating in unexpected ways. I also see that art may be able to play a significant role in addressing the kinds of emotional and cultural issues that we are already beginning to encounter in the anthroposcene.
On the topic of innovation, Sol Lewitt once said in his sentences 2 and 3 from Sentences on Conceptual Art, “Rational judgments repeat rational judgments. Irrational judgments lead to new experience.” By asking irrational questions, art can push scholarly enquiry in often unanticipated directions. Three of the artworks pictured here exemplify this kind of enquiry. The Lichen for Skyscrapers Project, cited above in figure 3, has led me to pair with a scientist to identify the minerals that may be added to ceramic tiles to support lichen propagation on buildings. From an art perspective, these modified tiles will, I hope, allow me to completely coat a modernist building in a blanket of mature lichen. From the perspective of creating resilient human habitats, this kind of lichen propagation may serve to alleviate urban heat islands. Another example of art driving innovation is The IndaPlant Project (figure 4). I and a team of researchers have created a group of floraborgs—robotically supported houseplants that can respond to the built environment. This project has necessitated the design for a cyber-physical system that allows each floraborg to close the feedback loop between the plant and its robotic support. This system may, by extension, enable us to better access the unique information that plants gather from their immediate environment.
The Hand Up Project is also pushing science from an unusual applied perspective. The current iteration of this work aims to use biomineralization to fabricate the alternative crabs dwellings directly out of calcium carbonate, the ideal material for a hermit crab dwelling. This artwork may, by extension, pioneer the use of calcium carbonate to “print” three-dimensional forms and to develop sustainable structures for use by humans. If this process can be used instead of plastic to fabricate three dimensional forms,it could ultimately reduce the amount of man-made materials in the built environment.
Your question was however about increasing our awareness of the environment. Artists have a long history of using humor and beauty to help us address issues that we might rather not consider. From this perspective I think that art may play a special role in grappling with the issues of the anthroposcene.
This may happen in many ways. As an example form my own practice, in 2012 I started a project titled The Songs We Singabout the massive species die-off. In this artwork I have humans volunteers make the calls of endangered bird species. The project proposes that, after the species die-off, humans will have to create fictive environments in order to experience a sense of beauty and calm. The Songs project involves recording what are, for the most part, really bad human renditions of birdcalls. I then randomize and install these calls on audio playback systems in various outdoor locations, where they become part of the immediate soundscape.
I remember the first time that I gave a talk about the Songsproject. The presentation was at the Lloyd in Amsterdam, where the project was created and installed in 2013. Right before the lecture I remember realizing, for the first time, that I was about to get up on a stage tell a big room full of people that we may be loosing half of all of our companion species. In that moment I remember really wishing that I could make art that wasn’t about such depressing topics. I was, frankly, also worried that while talking about the species-die off, I might actually start crying. Fortunately, the audio recordings from that Songs installation were really humorous, which allowed myself, and I think by extension the audience, some emotional space in which to navigate through the sadness.
On a positive note, the other aspect of creatively addressing the anthroposcene is that right now we finally have the science to understand the necessity of every naturally occurring life-form and to truly marvel at the concert that all living things are performing each and every day.
The heartening part of my practice as an artist is that, when the concepts are clear, the general public loves this kind of art, and this genre can become a superb platform for the dissemination of scientific information. When the Hand Up Project was originally shown as part of an exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, CA, I would go every day to check on the crabs. And I discovered that the lion’s share of the visitors, in the entire museum, could be found crowded around the hermit crab enclosure, watching the animal’s behavior and considering the new needs of this natural life form.
Your work “Upholstered Stones” appears on the cover of this issue. Will you describe the ways in which this work evolved? And what happens to the upholstered stones over time? Do you return and visit the stones after a period of time? Why or why not?
Wow, those are such good question about that artwork! I started carefully mapping and then upholstering stones (figure 6) in graduate school because I was at an artist residency in Maine, where there were a lot of rocks, and I wanted to know if it was possible to make something hard, like a stone, any softer. To actually upholster a stone, I had to learn how to carefully map all of its surfaces. Because, unlike a piece of furniture, I was unable to simply pound nails into the object in order to hold the upholstery panels in place. With something like a stone, you must get all the faces patterned perfectly so that the upholstery panels will lay flat and join evenly at each seam. At first, I would go out into the Maine woods, find a wonderful bolder and upholster it. At the time I was really interested in the idea of an audience of one. You know, somebody who is walking through a landscape by themselves, who may come across a large upholstered rock and wonder about its origins. After a while I started rolling the boulders back to my studio and upholstering them on my workbench so my visitors to my studio could see what I was doing. This was much easier than trying to actually explain what I was doing out in the woods. It was however still difficult for my viewers to understand what was inside of the upholstery, and I really wanted people to think about how hard and potentially violent a rock can be.
So the upholstered rock piece led to Good Baseball Rocks, please hold (figure 7). This sculpture is a series of rocks that fit in one’s hand, for which I have created leather baseball coverings. These are two-part leather pattern pieces that are held together with a traditional baseball stich. So the artwork is supposed to be picked up and held in one’s hand, which allows you to feel the weight and consider the kinds of impulses that might lead to throwing a rock at somebody or something. The thing that I really like about this work is that simply because I have titled it Good Baseball Rocks, please hold, the museums that own this work actually have to let visitors hold the rocks.
In answer to your question about visiting the stones in the landscape, I’ve never gone back to see the original ones that I upholstered in Maine. I just don’t get out to Northeastern Maine that often.