VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1
SAVE THE PLANET, SAVE THE WORLD
VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1, FEBRUARY 2021
GIRLS MAGAZINE SAVE THE PLANET, SAVE THE WORLD Letter from the Editor, Page 3 Thea Quiray Tagle, Page 5 Svea Lin Soll, Page 11 Connie Zheng, Page 16 Haley Mellin, Page 23 Cameron Shaw, Page 29 Courtney Desiree Morris, Page 32
GIRLS MISSION STATEMENT GIRLS is a revised portfolio of interviews from a nationwide community of real, strong womxn. It's a magazine that is 100% all womxn, which is beautiful in its rarity - the magazine is a safe space FOR womxn ABOUT womxn. Created by Adrianne Ramsey, it serves as a content destination for millennial womxn. Read on for an engagement of feminist voices and a collaborative community for independent girls to discover, share, and connect. FRONT AND BACK COVER IMAGE CREDIT: JOSH EDELSON/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE (GETTY IMAGES, SEPTEMBER 9, 2020)
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR BY ADRIANNE RAMSEY I’m pretty sure that majority of people around the world let out a collective sigh of relief when Joe Biden was sworn in as President of the United States on January 20th. The two weeks leading up to the inauguration was rife with chaos. On January 6th, Donald Trump incited his supporters, primarily white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and QAnon supporters, to breach the U.S. Capitol while Congress certified the results of the 2020 Presidential Election, leading to a security lockdown that lasted hours, the activation of the National Guard, and ongoing mass arrests. The failed insurrection was globally condemned and the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump a week later, making him the only president to be impeached twice. After years of bullying and spreading lies and conspiracy theories on social media, Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended at last. With the wins of newly sworn in Georgia senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, Democrats have taken control of the Senate and now control every chamber. I am choosing to remain hopeful and am keeping my fingers crossed that real, progressive changes can finally take place. One of the cornerstones of President Biden’s agenda is to actively address climate change and environmental issues, which the Trump administration didn’t even acknowledge. Biden has re-entered the U.S. into the Paris Agreement and canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline, but we have a long way to go after four years of climate denial. Environmental justice is intersected with so many issues – racial and gender justice, immigration, food and economic security, and more. Your ability to survive and eat food is respondent to the weather. Migration is linked to climate change; for example, Guatemalan farmers have lost crops due to weather – flooding or drought – and leave their country to go to the U.S. There are so many Central American migrants stuck at the U.S. – Mexico border whose bodies are not susceptible to the weather change of the U.S. Next, think of the high rate of un-housed people in the U.S., especially in California (San Francisco and Skid Row in Los Angeles for example), and how the statewide weather (drought, unbearable heat, smog, air pollution, etc.) must negatively affect them. In the last couple of years, wildfire season in California has gotten especially bad. Californians became used to wearing masks due to hazardous air quality from wildfires a couple of years before wearing masks due the COVID-19 pandemic became a lifesaver. Due to a lightning storm last August, wildfire season started a couple of months earlier and quickly exploded across the state. Oregon and Washington also battled an extraordinary amount of burning fires and strong winds. The smoke from the wildfires traveled across states; in the beginning of September, the sun in Northern California was practically blocked out due to thick smoke, leading to apocalyptic orange looking skies that lasted for a couple of days. (Continued on next page)
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR BY ADRIANNE RAMSEY (Continued) Each year, California’s wildfire season has become increasingly worse, thus threatening lives, air quality, and homes, displacing entire communities, and wreaking havoc on those with sensitivity to smoke, ash, and soot. California is losing millions of acres, homes, and buildings due to the consistent burning and dense ring of flames, and the state and federal governments need to do a much better job at actively addressing and preventing these yearly occurring climate dangers. It is now impossible to discuss sustainability without including COVID. It has been eleven months since the COVID-19 lockdowns began. As of this writing, the United States has 28M confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 500,000 deaths. The national vaccine campaign, which is distributing the two-dose Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, began two months ago; 54M doses have been administered. BIPOC are dying of COVID at 3 to 10 times the rate of white people and are not being provided the governmental funds needed to stay at home. Majority of Black and Brown people are essential workers whose in-person jobs got rid of hazard pay last fall, if they had it at all.The only way to get case numbers down and slow transmissions rates is to expand vaccine accessibility to and prioritize low-income-income and communities of color. White people are getting vaccinated 3 times more than BIPOC and it's simply not fair. We have a long way to go towards racial equity in medicine, science, and vaccinations, which thus taps into environmental justice. GIRLS 9 interviews six womxn (three artists and three curators) about the intersections of art and ecology in their practices, sustainability in art spaces, and climate change. All six participants (and myself!) are currently based in California, which was a deliberate choice on my part due to the heightened effects of climate change on this state. It was really important for me to dedicate an entire issue of GIRLS to environmental justice because that subject needs to evolve into a dominant conversation. When I was younger, the extent of my knowledge about global warming was Former Vice President Al Gore’s Academy Award winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006), and some basic knowledge about companies and entities illegally and secretly dumping toxic chemicals in Black and Brown communities. At the time environmentalism didn’t seem like a big deal, but the last decade has proved that there is a real urgency in discussing climate change. I am so grateful for the amazing conversations I had with each of these womxn and hope that readers enjoy this vital issue.
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE
Courtesy of Erina C. Alejo Thea Quiray Tagle, PhD is a curator, writer, and an assistant professor of ethnic studies and gender & sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts: Boston. Throughout her various research and creative projects, Thea remains interested in the following questions: how can socially engaged art and performance move us, collectively and individually, to inhabit the world and relate to each other in ways that are non extractive, anti-capitalist, and queer? As a practitioner, Thea has curated group and solo exhibitions at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco), Vachon Gallery at Seattle University, The Alice (Seattle, WA), and Feast Arts Center (Tacoma, WA), and has spoken at and coordinated public programs for institutions including the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco, CA), and Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. Her scholarship on Filipinx American contemporary art, visual cultures of violence, urban redevelopment, ecological crisis, and speculative futures in the expanded Pacific Rim can be found in scholarly and popular venues including ASAP/J, American Quarterly, Critical Ethnic Studies Journal, Hyperallergic, and ACME: An International Journal of Critical Geographies. Thea holds a PhD in Ethnic Studies from UC San Diego, and was the Chancellor's postdoctoral research fellow in Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During the COVID-19 crisis, Thea is a visitor on occupied Raymatush Ohlone territory. For more about her writing, teaching, and curatorial projects, visit her website: theaquiraytagle.com
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in January 2021.
GM: How does your practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change? TQT: Before I was a professor at UMass Boston, curator, and art writer, I was an organizer. I entered the graduate program in Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego in 2006 after spending my whole life moving up and down the East Coast and the Philippines. I had previously worked in a domestic violence non-profit and was also an organizer with a transnational women’s mass organization, GABRIELA Network. GABNet was an organization in solidarity with the Philippines national democratic movement, which fights for radical social transformation for poor people, women, and the LGBTQ community. I originally went to grad school with the intention of using the tools and social capital offered by higher education to become a public educator and illuminate Filipino people’s resistance to human rights violations—such as fisherfolk in Guimaras fighting back against the coverup of a major oil spill in 2006. I initially wanted to write a dissertation about different art and political movements in the Philippines, but I didn’t get any funding and lost my health insurance at 30 years old. So I decided to move to the Bay Area and change my dissertation topic, even though I was still focused on questions of activism and [human] rights. I started engaging with different Filipino organizations in the Bay and figuring out how I could connect with them by using my platform of being an academic to amplify their struggles. I moved to the Bay Area in 2012, which was the start of the [most recent] housing crisis. Rent prices radically rose and Filipino, Latino, and Black organizers began sounding the alarm about Airbnb, because they noticed all the ways that these landlords were buying property and how art organizations were a part of these redevelopment efforts. So I ended up writing my dissertation on what was happening on the ground over the 4 years that I lived in the Bay Area, learning and working in the arts and with anti-eviction organizers. I also started supporting artists making socially engaged projects and working with artists and community members in order to create public art interventions. I was on a team that did this at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco) in 2013 with the South of Market Filipino community. Beginning in 2017, I shifted my curation to focus on artists working with video and new media, as well as artists working amongst several disciplines who are interested in the intersections of race, place, and power. These artists help us see and feel differently about climate collapse, surviving through and beyond political violence, and the different structural and institutional forces that turn our communities into wasted spaces. This was the genesis for both AFTER LIFE exhibitions; the first was at The Alice Gallery (Seattle, Washington) in 2018, and the expanded version has been up at YBCA since November 2020 and will close on February 7th, 2021.
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE GM: Could you discuss your experience curating AFTER LIFE (we survive) at YBCA, which addresses art and climate change? TQT: I was awarded YBCA’s [Curatorial] Open Call at the end of 2019. This exhibition, AFTER LIFE (we survive), is a continuation of the first exhibition, AFTER LIFE (what remains). In the first exhibition, there were 5 artists who were Filipino, diasporic Asian American, and Indigenous artists from the U.S. whose work helps us reflect on climate collapse and political violence. The Alice Gallery is an artist-run space with a 700-foot intimate gallery, and there were 7 of us who were co-curators of this space; so it was a really lovely independent art show but small as hell in terms of production and size. When I pitched [the exhibition] to YBCA I asked to expand the show by a lot, with the hopes of discussing climate and political issues in a way that made connections back to Bay Area communities and artists. By March  we were planning the exhibition for the second floor galleries, and then everything shut down due to COVID-19. So for 6 months it was really up in the air and I didn’t know if the show was going to be cancelled or held at a later date. At the end of August, my YBCA program lead floated the idea of mounting the exhibition inside, but making it viewable through the exterior glass windows that sprawl around the building. There was less than a 2-month turnaround for me and the 20 participating artists (6 individual artists and 4 collectives) to completely transform the show’s in-person and online components, which includes onlineonly artworks and a virtual 3-D walkthrough!
My goals as an independent curator is to work primarily and intentionally with artists of color and queer artists who don’t have gallery representation and who make work that in many cases is not considered “commercial enough” to be sold. I steward relationships with artists in order to present their work -- I work for the artists, not for institutions. There was immense labor on the part of the artists to transform this YBCA show, and was made possible because they trusted me to hold their work and make sure the institution would present it properly. The core 3 people I worked with at YBCA who held it down – Martin Strickland, Associate Director of Public Life; John Cartwright, Chief Preparator; and Fiona Ball, Curatorial Project Manager – really fought for [the exhibition] institutionally. I was awarded emergency external grants from the Kinkade Family Foundation, which allowed us to better build the online portion and create the 3-D virtual tour. (Continued on next page)
Coven Intelligence Program, "One two three portions of a secret world/ and soon you'll see a freer world", 2020. Photo by Thea Quiray Tagle
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE (Continued) We were all flying by the seats of our pants and having tons of meetings to figure out how to scale the work and convert all of the artists’ works to be outside. None of artists could be there in person [to install], but I moved back to the Bay Area during the pandemic and I know the [YBCA] building really well. Being here was really important for me, to see this space, visually [map] what it could look like [with the YBCA team], and then work closely with the artists to see if it could happen. GM: Do you believe the art world actively addresses climate change? TQT: In 2018, I applied to participate in a [College Art Association conference] panel about environmental art and the Anthropocene led by TJ Demos and Emily Eliza Scott, and was accepted to present with scholars Heather Davis, Heather Vermeulen, and Sara Mameni. I thought this would be a regular conference presentation where only five people attend, but there were 300 people interested in art and the environment in this ballroom. Some people were even sitting on the floor! The four of us presented work about primarily Black, Indigenous, and POC artists who were working conceptually on questions of the environment, but not in this stereotypical way of, “Here’s a mural about paper bags or recycling!” or “Here’s a project with kids making art about trash!” We discussed more challenging contemporary artworks and artists of color who are never written about as environmental artists. And the audience got mad! They didn’t see the connection between works about race and the environment with what they thought art about the environment should be. There is absolutely a market for folks that make “environmental art” that is very overtly engaged with recycling and climate change or that are land based projects and public art, but I don’t think that there is a deeper recognition of how artists of color making work about intersecting topics, such as police violence and the War on Terror, is very much art about environmental justice and climate change.
Super Futures Haunt Qollective,"Super Furs for the
Super Futures", 2120. Photo by Thea Quiray Tagle
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? TQT: When so many art organizations and institutions think about sustainability surrounding the environment, they reference solar panels, lowering the [electricity] bill, or having a facility that is less draining on natural resources, oil, gas, and electricity. That’s awesome. I wish every art organization could have a LEED-certified building that was less environmentally toxic. But for art spaces to talk about sustainability, they should also make sure that they are able to pay their staff, especially security and janitorial staff, a living wage with health benefits. How can we think about sustainability in a holistic way and consider what resources people need to access organic food and not live in toxic neighborhoods and houses filled with asbestos, and so on? GM: Do you believe that the state of California is actively addressing climate change? If not, what could the state do to improve? TQT: If we’re talking about environmental and social justice more broadly, what are the largest systemic/institutional frameworks in place that make it so Indigenous communities and communities of color are more exposed to harm? Climate change isn’t often tied to the housing crisis and people’s wellness. How are people able to afford to live indoors, period, so they are not exposed to so many elements, whether that’s wildfires, COVID exposure, or just the cold winter? So it’s a question of how housing development is tied to these larger issues surrounding the environment and sustainability. In terms of the [statewide] wildfires, the government and corporations should return some of this land so Indigenous folks can steward it properly, because the state sure isn’t. Companies like PG&E certainly aren’t holding up their end of resource stewardship, and we’re burning up as a result. Also, who is putting out these wildfires that PG&E is starting? Federal inmates, who are only paid $2 minimum, $5 maximum, and when they’re released they’re not allowed to become firefighters due to their felony convictions. So for me, environmental policy has to be part of a larger abolition strategy. How do we push back against the carceral system, which doesn’t let Black and Brown folks, who are more disproportionately incarcerated for non-violent crimes, fully participate in our systems of power? They’re exploited when they are incarcerated; for example, inmates at Folsom State Prison make every single California license plate. Other state prisons have massive manufacturing operations making more than license plates, such as office supplies. California prisoners who are not properly compensated or acknowledged for their labor are making these necessary objects every day.
THEA QUIRAY TAGLE GM: What do you think the Biden administration should do to address environmental justice? TQT: They should listen to Indigenous folks in terms of what they want and need in their space. I saw that President Biden signed an executive order that revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which starts in Alberta, Canada and cuts into the United States, bringing up questions regarding state sovereignty. It’s cool that Biden killed it, but he was also Vice President under President Obama, who let it go through and didn’t kill it until the end of his second term, and then Trump revived it two months later. So yes, let’s clap for Joe Biden not being a fascist, but we need to hold him accountable. He’s our rebound [president] because we’ve been abused for so long; basically anyone who’s not Trump sounds like a better option. We need to actively push to stop existing pipelines and change energy policy entirely, as well as divest from big oil and fortify our Atlantic Ocean and Gulf Coast seawalls. Biden’s certainly not the worst, but he needs to listen to the people’s calls to defund the police and really think broadly about environmental justice as racial justice. Unless [he does] that, nothing will matter in terms of overall impact to our lives as BIPOC and LGBTQ folks.
FIFTY-FIFTY, "Portable Memories in Rising Seas", 2016-Ongoing. Photo by Thea Quiray Tagle
*All photos in this section are installation images from Thea's
"AFTER LIFE (we survive)" exhibition and are courtesy of YBCA
SVEA LIN SOLL
Courtesy of Bonnie Chan Svea Lin Soll is a San Francisco Bay Area based gallerist and independent curator of contemporary art. Svea’s curatorial work includes organizing exhibitions, events, performances, experimental film, artist-inresidency programs, and speaking engagements on the topics of art, environment, and activism. Recent appointments include being a director at Maybaum Gallery (San Francisco) and curating a group exhibition on issues concerning climate change and the environment at the Berkeley Art Center. Svea previously owned and directed Swarm Gallery (Oakland), a brick and mortar contemporary art space that featured work by emerging and established artists through exhibitions, flat files, studio space, and programs, and was an experimental platform for sound, video, and installation-based work. Over the span of seven years, Svea curated over 70 exhibitions with some of the Bay Area’s most treasured artists, represented artists at national art fairs, managed eleven on-site rentals studios to more than 40 artists, and produced hundreds of events and musical programs. Svea has served on several boards, committees, and panels at Bay Area arts organizations, including Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, Alameda County Arts Commission, and San Francisco Art Dealers Association. Previous appointments also include being the Exhibition and Program Director at Pro Arts (Oakland) and the arts editor for the Oakland-based art and literature publication, Tea Party Magazine. She earned a BA in Geology from the University of Montana and a MA in Museum Studies from John F. Kennedy University. Svea is a co-founder of the Anti-Racism Learning Project, an advocate for climate curriculum in schools, and a member of the Green Team at her son’s school.
SVEA LIN SOLL This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in January 2021.
GM: How does your practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change? SLS: There is no separation between ecology and climate change, and art is one lens to think about these things. In the U.S., what we are experiencing climate-wise with the pandemic, extreme weather, water scarcity, and fires is the product of centuries-long white supremacist practices like colonialism, genocide, resource extraction, and capital accumulation that set economic ideals above people and the environment. Staying politically aware and historically informed is a daily practice for me. I read a lot, look at art, and spend as much time in nature with my son as I can. Sharing the outside world with him is important because I am holding the delicate reality of these endangered spaces. When we are out in the woods or by the ocean, I feel the timepiece ticking down to a very different future landscape. These realities were not a part of my consciousness growing up. I had a rural upbringing and saw my mother work towards food justice. But the ethos of environmentalism at that time was about saving the planet from nuclear war. It was abstract, and my current framing of environmentalist conversation is concrete. It’s about opportunity disparities, racism, social isolation, mask wearing, distance learning, access to “nature,” California fires and ash blotting out the sun, and needing to keep air filters on inside. So in one generation, I’m having an entirely different, non-theoretical conversation. Artists are pouring their own subjective experiences into their courageously creative practices, and looking at art and hearing from artists helps me process and think about these concepts more broadly. GM: Do you believe the art world actively addresses climate change? SLS: The art world has been slow to grasp the significance of climate change. When I was in New York City in 2019, we visited the American Museum of Natural History and saw their recently updated hall of Planet Earth, which included current climate change data. A few art museums and galleries are certainly doing great things - the Brooklyn Museum has an exhibit currently up titled “Climate in Crisis: Environmental Change in the Indigenous Americas” and the Nevada Museum of Art has a thematic emphasis on art and the environment; in addition to Adriane Colburn, "The Spoils", 2019. Photo by Adrianne Ramsey
exhibitions and programs, they host an Art + Environment Conference. (Continued on next page)
SVEA LIN SOLL (Continued) A recent exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, “Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment”, claimed to be the “first exhibition to trace environmental awareness in American art over the last three centuries.” I find that alarming, but definitely true. In the commercial art space, 1 in a 1,000 pieces of art might address climate issues. But climate change is not a “fringe” issue. The climate crisis has cast a pall over all of us. More artists have to address these issues, as they become more a part of daily life. We need to use art and public spaces to raise awareness and help shift our collective consciousness. GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? SLS: Art spaces have a responsibility to broadcast Indigenous land legacies as thoroughly and as often as possible. This is an act of authenticity, and art is nothing if not an expression of authenticity. Non-BIPOC people need more awareness of land stewardship, land occupation, and their histories. If art is about connecting, voicing, inspiring, and healing, how can something so important as [land legacies] not be integrated into the experience of looking at art? There is a tremendous opportunity around programming at art spaces as well. The Headlands Center for the Arts focused thematic residency programs on climate change (in 2016) and climate equity (in 2018). Artists convened to address the “effects, dangers, representation, and the cultural psychology of climate change.” This brought these issues into artists’ collective practice and culminated in a public exhibition curated by Aay Preston-Mint. [This method] was effective because it recognized artists as visionary thinkers and created a collective thought process. We need more of that for climate engagement. GM: Could you discuss your experience curating “Experiments in the Field: Creative Collaboration in the Age of Ecological Concern” (Berkeley Art Center), which addresses art and ecology? SLS: “Experiments” was a full-hearted project for me. I felt really scared about the environment, and I heard Dr. Renée Lertzman speak about her book, “Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic dimensions of engagement” (2015). Her work surrounding the environment, psychology, and strategic engagement and activism fascinated me. I later enrolled in a UC Berkeley Extension course, “American Environmental and Cultural History”, which interpreted environmental history through the lens of race, class, and gender. The course work was about understanding history through these different perspectives and encouraged envisioning a socially just world. This, for me, spoke to the practice of making art, as each artist presents a unique window into both personal and historical narratives. This was where I started, and as I visited artist studios and began to curate the show, invaluable themes emerged: identities through time, relationships to land, resource significance from a cultural/religious standpoint, ecosystems and data perspectives, etc. (Continued on next page)
SVEA LIN SOLL (Continued) The timing of the exhibition during COVID and wildfire season was really rough – I give major props to the Berkeley Art Center and the [exhibiting] artists – but at the same time, extremely germane. We were collectively experiencing the efforts of climate change, while exhibiting and dialoguing about it. The concepts and feelings were all right there, raw for exploration. The Berkeley Art Center and the artists were amazingly supportive and the exhibition came together really beautifully. GM: Do you believe that the state of California is actively addressing climate change? If not, what could the state do to improve? SLS: California needs to act like our ass is on fire, because it is! The landmark policies on emissions goals and cleaner energy is a start, but I still worry. What we’ve clearly learned from the pandemic is that there are no safety nets for people. Climate action needs to include people action; there is enough money out there to help everyone sleep well at night. GM: What do you think the Biden administration should do to address climate change? SLS: He’s already re-joined the Paris Agreement and is getting us on track with reducing carbon emissions before it’s too late. Over the last decade, climate scientists have unanimously reported that we are in an age of unprecedented loss of biodiversity, land and soil degradation, increased carbon emissions, air pollution, ocean acidification, deforestation, and water scarcity. These same reports urge immediate action to avoid devastating consequences. Environmental history shows us how we got here, but there are significant barriers to fully grasping the magnitude of our current climate crisis and making necessary changes for a viable future. (Continued on next page)
Minoosh Zomorodinia, "Qanat", 2020. Photo by Adrianne Ramsey
SVEA LIN SOLL (Continued) As hopeful as I am about President Biden and his focus on the environment, I think it’ll be hard for him to make significant changes without a whole new form of politics that puts regulations on economic growth and challenges consumerism. The misinformation, propaganda, and political influence that birthed the climate denial movement, as well as the fossil fuel industry’s coordinated effort to thwart climate policy, are not going to go away. I’d like President Biden to address how political machines protect capitalist exploits, which contribute to the economic inequalities indelibly linked to environmental issues. I’d also like him to possibly consider stepping out of the way and letting others like AOC, or the radical youth movement leaders, take on a new political agenda while he works across the aisle. GM: What is your opinion on the Green New Deal, initiated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? SLS: The Green New Deal Resolution is the radical, ambitious social agenda we need. It provides healthcare, links labor programs to measures to combat the climate crisis, and echoes President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal era, a response to economic collapse of the Great Depression. Despite its popularity, the GND failed in the U.S. Senate, which made me sad, although not surprised. There are endless social dimensions to climate change in addition to science, and antithetical forces make the future outcome of the environmental fight unknowable.
Alicia Escott, "Coastal Live Oak", 2020. Photo by Adrianne Ramsey
*All photos in this section are installation images from Svea's "Experiments" exhibition
Courtesy of Connie Zheng Connie Zheng is a Chinese-born artist, writer, and filmmaker currently based out of Oakland, California. Her practice moves between text, screen-based media, drawing, painting, and installation, and primarily examines diasporic memory, ecological elegy, and divergent articulations of hope from an environmental justice perspective, as told through visual and text-based forms. She has exhibited work in the Netherlands and around the United States, through venues such as the IMPAKT Festival (Utrecht, Netherlands), BAMPFA (Berkeley, CA) and AIR Gallery (New York, NY), with a forthcoming presentation in the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco, CA). She has received fellowships and residencies from the Headlands Center for the Arts, Ragdale, the Oak Spring Garden Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and ACRE, among others, and was a Collection Fellow at the Kadist Foundation in 2020. Her written work has appeared in publications such as Art Practical and SFMOMA’s Open Space, and she recently published a chapter in the Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change. She graduated with BAs in Economics and English from Brown University and an MFA in Art Practice from the University of California: Berkeley, and is currently a PhD student in Visual Studies at the University of California: Santa Cruz.
CONNIE ZHENG This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in January 2021.
GM: How does your practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change? CZ: I was born in China and spent most of my childhood in the Northeastern U.S., “returning” to China nearly every other summer. Because I’ve long viewed both the leafy forests of New England and the dense built environment of Chinese mega-cities as sites of “home”, I grew up with a strong sense of environmental whiplash, as well as confused notions of home. A lot of my work attempts to understand how the past, present, and future collide in places and beings that exist at the intersections between human activity and the natural world, and how an unbounded idea of home can change from a source of otherness and loneliness to one of power and imagination. Every aspect of my artistic practice is fueled by the intersections between art, ecology, and climate change as conceptualized through the lens of environmental justice. Over the past few years I’ve been working with seeds, mostly in a conceptual capacity — as bodies through which to consider migration, survival under apocalyptic circumstances, dormancy, colonialism, and narratives of contamination. I have been drawing seeds, painting seeds in the style of Daoist deities (Mothers paintings, 2019), making animated sequences of seed germinations (Lifecycle of a Pitchforkseed, 2021), creating a three-part film about seeds (The Lonely Age, 2019 and Seedtime, 2020), writing about seeds (A Fog Bath and Seed Search in Three Parts, 2020), populating a VR greenhouse with different images of seeds both imagined and real (Planet Greenhouse, 2020), making spirit tablets to commemorate endangered native plant species (95 spirit tablets for longevity, 2020), making speculative seed catalogues (Millennium Flowers Catalog, 2019 – ongoing), creating maps of seed migrations (A very abridged history, 2020) and even asking people to make seeds out of clay with me (Seed almanac, 2020 – ongoing), to list some projects. Other works, such as my 2-channel video Notes on fluorescence (2018) or my long-form essay Familiar strangers, strange familiars (2018), deal with feelings of grief and seek to examine the ways in which U.S. media narratives of ecological apocalypse have historically been outsourced to a Chinese “Other”.
Connie Zheng, "The Lonely Age (still)", 2019. Courtesy of the artist
CONNIE ZHENG GM: Do you believe the art world actively addresses climate change? CZ: Yes and no. It would be a disservice to the many curators, artists, writers, scholars, and organizers I know, who are working tirelessly at the intersections of art-making and questions of climate and ecology, to just brush off all their efforts by declaring that the “art world” has failed to address climate change. I feel lucky to have connected with many artists, thinkers, and organizations who are deeply committed to using their work to address climate change and who might still consider themselves invested in some “art world”. After all, there are multiple “art worlds” which are geographically, economically, and culturally bounded. I think that the “art world” in the Bay Area is quite different from the international “art world” covered by Frieze or Artforum, and even in the Bay Area there are differences between its various art communities, not all of which overlap. I know plenty of artists who’ve never heard of the Venice Biennale and wouldn’t give a shit about it; are they not part of the “art world”? As far as institutional art exhibitions go, climate change still doesn’t seem to be a very “trendy” subject at the local level in the Bay Area or at the national level in the U.S, whereas I get the sense that it is addressed more frequently by art spaces in Europe and Asia. But I think we have to approach this with nuance, too. Just because an artist makes work that “talks about” climate change in some way doesn’t mean they’re addressing it in what I would consider a thoughtful or considered manner. What kinds of questions are they asking, what are their politics of creation, and who are they accountable to? If an institution commissions an artist to construct a massive ark full of stuffed animals for a biennale, generating tons of material waste in the process, are either of these parties actually “addressing” climate change? Superficially, sure, but that’s about as far as it gets. On the flip side, there are many folks and organizations working in both a contemporary art context and outside of it that are making quite provocative, thoughtful, and potent work related to climate change. These are the people and spaces I want to work with and see more support for. GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? CZ: If we’re only talking about environmental sustainability, I would love to see more art spaces generate their electricity from renewable energy sources. I have yet to see an art museum with a solar panel array – although I’m sure some exist – but the issue goes deeper than whether or not a museum recycles their rainwater or has a wind turbine. I’m skeptical of the waste generated by big-budget, flashy art shows in general. I’m skeptical of the ways in which the art market continues to be synchronized to spectacle at the expense of the actual radical politics of making and challenging the hegemony of market-driven capitalism. And I’m skeptical of the massive pay gap between the museum directors and the minimum-wage workers who support its daily functioning – many of whom are people of color (at least relative to senior museum leadership), working artists themselves, and have little job security. It’s impossible for me to think about sustainability in the context of art spaces without also thinking about economic sustainability and racial equity.
CONNIE ZHENG GM: Could you discuss a recent or upcoming project of yours that addresses art and ecology? CZ: I’ve just started pre-production for the third segment of a multi-year, three-part experimental film project about apocalyptic climate change and collective survival, as seen through the lens of seeds both real and speculative. The third film in this “trilogy” will deal with intersections of climate change, ecology, California natural history, migration, and immigration. My films tend to utilize a collage-based aesthetic, borrowing from and blending the languages of documentary, dystopian film, science fiction, hand-made animation, and propaganda. I recently finished a cut of the second film in the cycle, Seedtime (2020), and have been showing the first film, The Lonely Age (2019) in various venues around the U.S. I was fortunate to have been invited to screen it as part of the IMPAKT 2020 Festival in the Netherlands last fall. The Lonely Age is set in a highly toxic and ecologically ravaged near future, in which people begin to hear rumors of seeds that have washed up on the shores of California after escaping a GMO factory in China. All of the dialogue and movements were improvised and generated in response to some fables I wrote and offered as a loose “script” for collaborators to respond to. Seedtime builds on the narrative begun in The Lonely Age by following a small community of seed-searchers as they navigate between hope, denial, and collective perseverance amidst cascading apocalypses and through the frame of seedtime. I shot almost all of it in February 2020, sat on the footage in
confusion for 9 months, and pulled together a cut for the Headlands Center for the Arts’ Graduate Fellows exhibition in November 2020. (Continued on next page)
Connie Zheng, "We heard the sky used to be a shade of blue", 2019-20. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts
CONNIE ZHENG (Continued) So the work is mostly about the seed behaviors of gestation and dormancy, and what can grow quietly in the soil when we are in a state of dormancy. Like The Lonely Age, Seedtime draws upon improvised voiceovers and movement to build out its narrative; it was originally conceived of as an exercise in practicing the act of collectively hoping and rehearsing for future survival. As climate change threatens to destabilize environments and agricultural systems worldwide, I see questions around climate-induced migration, shifting notions of home, and media portrayals of contaminated foreign “Others”, as well as the interconnections between geopolitical conflict and environmental catastrophe, gaining importance and complexity. This trilogy of “seed” films thus seeks to ask the following: how do we mourn, preserve, and celebrate at the same time? How do we interweave questions of survival with the damage caused by displacement and settler-colonialism ? On a personal level, I hope to use this project to ask: how can I myself be a responsible settler? GM: Do you believe that the state of California is actively addressing climate change? If not, what could the state do to improve? CZ: From my perspective, there are things that California can do to actively mitigate the effects of climate change (e.g., partnering with Indigenous communities for more effective fire management, protecting coastal communities from rising sea levels, etc.) and there are things it can do to actively decrease emissions (e.g., divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in clean energy, investing more in safe and reliable public transportation and de-incentivizing people from driving cars all the time, etc.), which are both crucial endeavors. We are facing so many climate change-related problems right now; it can be overwhelming when you realize how much global warming will shape our lives, but also how many touch points at which we can enact changes to potentially make a difference. Our access to food, safe and comfortable shelter, physical health, clean water, and other necessities will all be impacted by the increased drought, more violent fire seasons, and rising sea levels that climate change is already bringing forth. If we just take the energy grid as one obvious place to think about ways that California can address climate change, there are lots of potential improvements to the existing, failing system. Shifting ownership of the energy grid from broken monoliths like PG&E to communities, increased state-level investment in clean and renewable energy (and union jobs in green energy), robust political frameworks for Indigenous sovereignty and land ownership, and more accountability for utility corporations are a few obvious ways to start. Campaigns such as Reclaim Our Power and Let’s Own PG&E have been pushing for these changes ever since the disastrous Camp Fire in 2018.
CONNIE ZHENG GM: What do you think the Biden administration should do to address climate change? CZ: I’d certainly like the Biden administration to commit to zero [carbon] emissions by 2030, but that’s very unlikely to happen, just based on how many corporate shills are still in Congress and how deeply the U.S. is still entrenched in petrochemical capitalism. Speaking more pragmatically, one of the most powerful things the Biden administration can do to address climate change is to actually get the Green New Deal passed through Congress, implement it immediately, and set it up for long-term success. Re-entering the Paris Agreement is kind of the bare minimum in terms of getting back on track to dealing with climate change. This country needs an actual plan for de-carbonizing and investing in renewable energy, with an emphasis on racial and economic equity. The Biden administration has made some hope-inspiring moves so far, such as revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, reinstating vehicle emissions standards, and ostensibly making environmental justice a prominent cornerstone of its climate policy. But it could go a lot further, and it’s still unclear how many of these promises are just lip service — and how many of them are gateways to real and necessary change. This is not the time for complacency.
Installation view of "Seedtime" (2020) by Connie Zheng. Courtesy of the artist
CONNIE ZHENG GM: What is your opinion on the Green New Deal, initiated by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? CZ: The Green New Deal is critical if we are to make any inroads toward addressing climate change in a racially and economically equitable manner. We can’t just wave a green magic wand and rely on institutionalized models of capitalistic exploitation and extraction – which have historically disenfranchised communities of color and low-income communities – to save ourselves from the effects of a warming climate. We need an economic transition that is predicated on the creation of jobs dedicated to building an environmentally sustainable world, with input from members of frontline communities that have borne the brunt of polluting industries. The Green New Deal’s linkage of economic and environmental investment with community investment is critical. Who’s going to care about transitioning to electric cars if such a transition means they can’t put food on their table? To summarize one of Naomi Klein’s arguments in her excellent essay collection On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019), if properly executed, the Green New Deal would create both a holistic political framework for meeting the IPCC targets for the United States, as well as a path to transforming that framework into actual law. The patchwork quality of local, national and international mobilizations (or failure thereof) that we have seen with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the possibilities of broad change at the governmental level. It has also shown us the abject failures and totally preventable deaths that can ensue when there is no accountability, coordinated plan for protecting people, or holistic framework for keeping communities afloat.
Installation view of "Seed Almanac" (2020) by Connie Zheng. Photo by Andria Lo, courtesy of Headlands Center for the Arts
Courtesy of Zach Gold Haley Mellin is an artist and land conservationist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She focuses on the conservation of carbon-dense ecosystems. To extend this work into the arts community, and to engage fellow artists, Mellin founded Art into Acres, a not-for-profit, to conserve key climate and biodiverse terrestrial landscapes and support new permanent protected areas on behalf of artists and institutions. Mellin co-founded the Environmental Council at The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in 2020. She is a supporter of Art and Climate Action, San Francisco, and of Galleries Commit, New York, two volunteer initiatives in the climate and arts sector. Recent exhibitions include The Journal, New York; Alexander Berggruen, New York; F Houston, Texas; Shoulder, Los Angeles; MoMA Ps1, New York; Bischoff Projects, Germany; Museum Dhondt-Dhaenens, Belgium and Museo Pino Pascali, Italy. She studied at U.C. Berkeley (B.A.), the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and New York University (Ph.D.), and is a student of South African teachers Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky. Mellin received the Rhizome commission from the New Museum, New York.
HALEY MELLIN This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in February 2021.
GM: How does your artistic practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change? HM: I focus on painting and the conservation of large-scale landscapes. Art, conservation, and climate share a sense of awareness: respecting rhythms and the legacy of what we make and leave behind. Conserving land on behalf of artists and colleagues in the arts, and volunteering time to support permanent large-scale land conservation projects from the research stage through due diligence to the protected area declaration, is a humble process. Spending time with conservation biologists, carbon scientists, and talking with local leaders of projects is fascinating. Conservationists are inherently optimistic people; if we weren’t optimistic, we wouldn’t do the work. Land conservation and art are similar in their pace and their process – stemming from slow conversations, continual weekly practices, and unfolding step by step, with the aim of permanence. In a world of entropy, making something permanent takes a range of levels of care and diligence. GM: Can you discuss a recent or upcoming project of yours that addresses art and ecology? HM: One upcoming project is 2-million acres of indigenous territory in the Northern Yukon of Canada that will form a transnational 18-million acre migratory route. For conservation, we focus on climate-based carbon protection in primary and intact forest ecosystems, with an emphasis on indigenous reserves, municipal reserves, National and regional parks. These are often boreal and tropical forests. We research the locations to potentially support, consult with a team of advisors and conservationists, do due diligence on the locations, request carbon reviews, look at the biodiversity data, and read legal and grant materials. For each conservation location there are bi-monthly check-ins and calls on progress. We work with large-scale regions, guided by research by a mentor and friend, Dr. Tom Lovejoy, whose work documents that at least 10,000 acres in scale is needed in a conserved area to keep biodiversity intact. Art and conservation are about legacy and permanence.
Haley Mellin, "Banana Self Portrait", 2019
GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? HM: Some of the first efforts that come to mind are ones that art spaces can begin immediately: set a waste reduction goal and discuss significant waste factors, skip plastic cups at openings in favor of compostable paper cups, reduce the intensity of HVAC use and introduce moderate gallery temperatures, shift air shipping to ground shipping, swap in 100% LED lighting throughout the galleries and offices, shift to plant-based foods at opening dinners, adopt an institutional policy for reusing packing materials and opt for a crate recycling or reuse system, ask staff what individualized opportunities they see for change, shift to 100% electricity from renewable sources, and discuss innovative methods for improved sustainability. Sustainability is a shift in habits and in thinking; it often means planning ahead to reduce use and waste or bringing moderation into demand and allowance. A number of use reductions provide financial savings. In support of the Paris Climate Accord, art spaces may audit and reduce carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, while supporting carbon drawdown solutions for the remaining 50% of emissions. Measures can involve forming a carbon budget for exhibitions and art fairs, and using the budget to reduce, educate, and find new approaches to pre-existing practices. Accelerating change within our organizations and local arts communities, and communicating to our audiences to achieve resilient interconnection, should address intersectionality at its core. In the past year, we supported avoided emissions forest conservation for a range of exhibitions from MCA Chicago, MOCA Toronto, Parker Gallery, Guggenheim New York, to the upcoming 2021 exhibitions of the Kunstmuseum Bonn. Another central action is reducing air travel by either travelling by land or clustering meetings and visits, so that more is fielded during each travel session, and shifting from air shipments to ground shipping or sea freight so that carbon budgets can be reduced by up to 96%. In general, slowing down and planning more is key to sustainability.
HALEY MELLIN GM: In what ways do you believe the art world is actively addressing climate change? HM: In the last year, a number of climate-focused initiatives have formed in art communities. In San Francisco, there is Art and Climate Action, and in New York, there is Galleries Commit, Art to Zero, and www.barder.art, all worker-led initiatives. In the U.K., there is Gallery Climate Coalition. In Amsterdam, you will find Art/Switch and KI. As these sustainability and climate groups formed, they have been in dialogue with one another on a weekly basis. Art to Zero stewards group calls, bringing all initiatives into conversation on a monthly basis. In part supported by these initiatives, the arts community is increasingly discussing and considering climate change. The initiatives underline a focus on systemic and behavioral change to decarbonize daily operations and practices, therefore recognizing that museums and institutions, commercial businesses, and supply chain and service providers must all work in tandem to consider and alter the environmental impact of the visual arts. Conversations on environmental justice, equity, and inclusivity are central to discussing climateconscious solutions. There are a range of recent examples of how initiatives and artists are actively addressing climate change at the start of 2021. Art to Zero is contracted with MOCA LA’s Environmental Council to support all museum staff in conversations about institutional sustainability. Art and Climate Action is supporting the first San Francisco Bay Area institutional carbon audits and reduction efforts. David Zwirner Gallery recently conducted a carbon audit of the Harold Ancart exhibition and engaged forest conservation as a drawdown. Galleries Commit and Art to Acres is collaborating on a project among institutions and artists to support the permanent conservation of a key carbon forest. From the studio, artists are resonant in these steps. Artist Mika Rottenberg includes a line item for carbon conservation on her materials budgets. Artist Helen Mirra, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, includes a sustainability rider that she uses when participating in exhibitions on her Cathartes website. It is provided for anyone to be able to use and adapt; at times it is enthusiastically agreed to and at times invokes a worthwhile conversation that is informative for all parties.
Haley Mellin, "Two Spoons", 2018
HALEY MELLIN GM: You are Co-Founder and Co-Chair of MOCA’s Environmental Council. Could you talk about your experience with the Council and its plans for the future? HM: The Museum of Contemporary Art announced the creation of an Environmental Council, the first for an art museum in the United States, in October 2020. My experience in supporting the Council has been one of continual shifts between reflection and action. We are all learning, humbly, as we move forward step by step. We are engaging at a time when institutions are formally shifting practices towards sustainability and conservation. The Environmental Council is focused on climate, conservation, and environmental justice in furtherance of the museum’s mission, and a good amount of support is committed to artist activism and educational engagement. The museum will unfold initiatives in its first year, including financial contracts to work towards institution-wide carbon negativity, carbon-free energy, environmentally focused museum exhibitions, educational programming, related artist support, and reductions in emissions and consumption. Making changes affordable and content accessible is very important to us. The resulting efforts and materials will be shared on the museum website as a nexus for public dialogue and engagement; the documents, such as an internal plastics audit paperwork, can be used and modified for a range of needs in various art spaces. David Johnson, Council Co-Founder, is a lawyer, long-time environmental justice advocate and filmmaker, and the conversations unfolding around environmental justice with him have been key. The founding members are Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Aileen Getty, Agnes Gund, Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and Brian Sheth. We believe in the import of mentors and are appreciative that Illina Frankiv, Dan Hammer, Lisa Jackson, Lucas Joppa, Jen Morris, Calla Rose Ostrander, and Enrique Ortiz have been advising the council. MOCA Director Klaus Biesenbach and Deputy Director Samuel Vasquez initiated the Council and assure continuity and communication between the Council’s priorities and the museum’s activities and operations. In a first step forward, the upcoming solo exhibition with Pipilotti Rist will be carbon neutral and is primarily sourcing local and reused materials for the installation. My hope is that inclusive sustainability conversations become commonplace in arts institutions and that measures are made throughout the exhibition planning process regarding sustainability (walls-in) and conservation (walls-out) engagements. GM: What do you think the Biden administration should do to address climate change? HM: The word ‘climate’ is generally defined as “the long-term weather.” With climate in mind, there is scientific research that elucidates that to maintain a stable climate, 30% of the Earth's terrestrial and ocean surface should be conserved by 2030, and 50% by 2050. This understanding is often referred to under the rubric of “Half Earth” or “Nature Needs Half.” (Continued on next page)
HALEY MELLIN (Continued) The math behind this is that the Earth’s primary forests, grasslands, and peat bogs store more than 100 parts per million (ppm) carbon in plants and soils, carbon that should remain sequestered in the ground if it doesn’t contribute to climate change. In order to avoid major effects from climate change, the Earth should remain well under 450 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere. At the beginning of 2020, the world was at 408 ppm. Converting even a quarter of our remaining wild areas to use would release significant metric tonnes of carbon. Biden’s transition team embraced the “30 by 30 commitment”, which commits that 30 percent of terrestrial and ocean lands are conserved by 2030, and this directly addresses climate and biodiversity. It would conserve more land than twice the size of Texas within the United States’ federal jurisdiction and is an initiative that Great Britain, Canada, and the EU have committed to, among other locations. As for the administration’s other immediate intentions, the U.S.’s commitment to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord is critically important, and we look forward to the regulatory shifts that will necessarily attend such a commitment. Now that Biden has taken office, a number of executive orders can immediately improve the climate and pollution policies in the U.S.; at the same time, these will take years to be fully instituted due to the required studies that precede implementation. Ceasing plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Keystone XL Pipeline are critical from a balanced climate perspective. If we appreciate the example of countries like Canada, which has banned single use plastics, or Colombia, which has a mandatory carbon tax when you pump gas, there are ways for the United States to embrace systemic changes on dealing with our waste and pollution.
Haley Mellin, "New National Park in Manacacias, Colombia", 2020 *All images are courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of Matt Sayles Cameron Shaw joined the California African American Museum (CAAM) in September 2019 to guide the curatorial and education departments, as well as marketing and communications. Shaw was previously the executive director of New Orleans-based Pelican Bomb, a non-profit contemporary art organization that presented a forum for exhibitions, public programs, and arts journalism. The co-founder and founding editor of Pelican Bomb, Shaw built a robust and expansive publishing and curatorial program for the organization that attracted national attention and funding support. In her eight-year tenure at Pelican Bomb, she oversaw fundraising, management, and editorial, and she organized numerous exhibitions, public projects, and new commissions. Prior to her time in New Orleans, Shaw was research manager at David Zwirner Gallery in New York. She has worked as a freelance writer and editor since 2008. Her writing frequently focuses on the history of Black art and image practices since 1960 and has been widely published, including in The New York Times, Art in America, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and BOMB Magazine, as well as in numerous books and exhibition catalogues on Chris Ofili, Nick Cave, Tameka Norris, and others. She holds a B.A. in History of Art from Yale University, where she worked at the Yale Center for British Art and later took on roles in curatorial departments at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She was awarded a Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing in 2009 and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation | Arts in America Writing Fellowship in 2015.
CAMERON SHAW This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in February 2021.
GM: How does your curatorial practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change? CS: I became deeply interested in how artists could address ecological concerns when I was living in New Orleans. Coastal erosion, industrial pollution, extreme weather, and how they impact our most vulnerable communities remain at the forefront of many artists’ practices in and around that city. It heightened an awareness of something that was long important to me – how contemporary art can be a lens for viewing complex issues in everyday life. Now, with my work at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, I’m particularly interested in the intersections of Black life with some of the most pressing environmental issues of our time, like climate change, natural resource management, and access to safe green spaces. GM: Do you believe the art world actively addresses climate change? CS: Addressing climate change is a complicated, multi-stakeholder endeavor, but I believe there are a number of talented, dedicated artists and creative organizers educating the public, problem solving, and advocating for a healthier, more sustainable future.
GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? CS: One of the things that CAAM is doing is learning how to incorporate more green practices into our building and facility management, including solar technology.
Courtesy of Matt Sayles
CAMERON SHAW GM: Could you discuss a recent or upcoming project of yours that addresses art and ecology? CS: I’m excited that CAAM will be participating in the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: Art x Science x LA initiative, opening in 2024. For that, I’m co-curating – with Yael Lipschutz – an exhibition about George Washington Carver. Carver was a pioneer of plant-based engineering, one of the nation’s earliest public proponents of sustainable organic agriculture, and a practicing artist. His renegade, conservationist ideas and inventions have impacted generations, and we are looking at his legacy for artists, scientists, and activists today. GM: Do you have plans to incorporate the topic of art and ecology into CAAM’s exhibition schedule? CS: I have devised a set of investigative pillars that will help to guide our work at CAAM. One of those pillars will tentatively be called Black Lives x Green Justice, through which we’ll examine some of those important issues I talked about earlier – advocating for safe and equitable access to green and leisure spaces, mitigating climate change, documenting shifts in agriculture and labor practice, and improving public health outcomes. Our central question will be: How do communities of color lead and shape public discourse around land and natural resource management and build new, sustainable, and healthy relationships to the environment for generations to come? I think there are so many valuable ways that museum exhibitions, public programming, and publishing can elevate the work being done in our
Courtesy of Matt Sayles
communities and shine a light on what has been left undone.
COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS
Courtesy of Diamela Cutiño Courtney Desiree Morris is a visual/conceptual artist and an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches courses on critical race theory, feminist theory, Black social movements in the Americas, women’s social movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as race and environmental politics in the African Diaspora. She is a social anthropologist and is currently completing a book entitled To Defend this Sunrise: Black Women’s Activism and the Geography of Race in Nicaragua, which examines how Black women activists have resisted historical and contemporary patterns of racialized state violence, economic exclusion, territorial dispossession, and political repression from the 19th century to the present. As an artist, Morris examines the complexities of place, ecology, memory, and the constant search for “home”. Her work is concerned with understanding the ways that we inhabit place – through migration, ancestry, and shared social memory — and how places inhabit us. Morris works primarily in the fields of photography, experimental video, installation, and performance art. Photography and video are critical tools for providing viewers with a deep sense of place and history. Alternatively, performance functions as a kind of time-traveling technology where she can revisit and restage sites of ancestral memory, interrogate the present, and imagine new kinds of social and environmental futures.
COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place in February 2021.
GM: How does your artistic practice reflect the intersections of art, ecology, and climate change?
CDM: When I initially began making work, I was primarily concerned with understanding the relationship to place and how Blackness is articulated and embodied in different kinds of material, spiritual, and cultural landscapes. I wasn’t consciously making environmental art, but nature quickly emerged as a central theme in my work. Most of my work is really preoccupied with understanding how human beings transform their landscapes – often in ways that are quite harmful and toxic – and the long-term effects of these ecological transformations on Black social life. For example, in my series, Solastalgia, I look at the impact of the petrochemical industry on my mother’s hometown of Mossville in southwest Louisiana. It’s a small, historic freedmen’s community that is surrounded by 15 petrochemical plants.
The town was recently bought out by a South African petrochemical corporation called Sasol, and now only a few families live in the town. This was a town that has existed for at least 150 years – Mossville survived slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but for all of its resilience it will not survive the age of Big Oil. I wanted to do a series about the town and my family’s history there because in a lot of ways small, Black towns like Mossville are really on the front lines of climate change because they are shouldering the brunt of our carbonbased economies and first world consumer lifestyles. I wanted to understand what it means for a place like Mossville to die, and to create an intimate archive of how it was made to die.
Courtney Desiree Morris, "Breath" from the Solastalgia series, 2019. Courtesy of the artist
COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS GM: Could you discuss a recent or upcoming project of yours? CDM: In terms of my current work, I am thinking a lot with the ocean and water. I am currently working on two projects. The first is an experimental short film entitled Sopera de Yemaya, that is a meditation on Black motherhood, the body, and the ocean through the figure of Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha who rules the top of the ocean and is the mother of all living things. I have learned so much as I have dug deeper into Yoruba cosmology and learned more about Yemaya’s many facets, how she is embodied in every aspect of marine life from the dark, unknowable depths of the sea, to the foam that evaporates on the shoreline. It has made me realize that the sacred exists everywhere if we remember to look for it, and made me wonder how we might treat the Earth if we imagined or understood it as imbued with a kind of sentience or something akin to personhood. For example, if we thought the Earth was an intelligent living being, would we stop treating it like a disposable object? I am also working on a series of portraits of Black women, queer folks, and families in or near large bodies of water. I am interested in thinking about the relationships that Black people have to specific bodies of water, and visualizing the complex forms of kinship that developed in the hold of the slave ship. GM: How could art spaces better practice sustainability? CDM: One of the things that I have been shocked about as an artist is just how wasteful the art world is! For example, I have been a part of shows where the gallery will print my work to exhibit, only to destroy the print afterwards. It also seems like the facilities where art organizations are housed could be designed in a more sustainable way – to be energy efficient, etc. But beyond that, there is a deeper conversation to be had about the structural conditions of the art world. For example, how do we talk about the fact that lots of arts spaces receive funding from petrochemical corporations? There was a great piece in The Guardian a few years ago about how the Tate [museum] receives funding from BP, an oil firm – and they aren’t the only ones. In Louisiana, most art museums receive funding from the big petrochemical companies. Greenwashing is pervasive in the art world. These companies hide behind their support of the arts to cover up and sanitize their environmental abuses. We need to hold these institutions to account, just like Nan Goldin forced the art world to confront the ways that pharmaceutical companies that are behind the opioid epidemic have funded the arts to shield themselves from public critique. (Continued on next page)
COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS (Continued) In the end, it doesn’t matter how much art we make about the environment or how much we use art to try to shift paradigms about the environment. If our institutional practices don’t align with our stated values, then we are really just talking to make ourselves feel better. Sustainability is more than an attitude, it’s a value. We either need to actually do it or we don’t. It’s really that simple. GM: In what ways do you believe the art world actively addresses climate change? CDM: It isn’t clear to me if most art institutions are actively addressing climate change. The larger museums and galleries especially don’t seem to address climate change in a substantive way. They might host exhibitions about the environment, but those curatorial practices don’t necessarily produce a broader shift in institutional practice. My sense is that the art world is doing very little to address climate change, but there are notable exceptions to the rule. I have been working with TBA21 in Spain, and their mission is centrally focused on using art and science to cultivate a deeper relationship to the world’s oceans. I have really appreciated learning from their model and thinking about how art can be a force for shifting broader perspectives on the environment, and addressing the present crisis of climate change.
Courtney Desiree Morris, "Cane Queen #1" from the series "Soil", 2016. Courtesy of the artist
COURTNEY DESIREE MORRIS GM: What do you think the Biden administration should do to address environmental justice? CDM: I’m encouraged by some of the steps that the Biden administration is taking – bringing the U.S. back into the Paris accords, shutting down the Keystone XL pipeline, and placing a moratorium on any federal leases for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Those are promising steps, and the fact that he signed those executive orders on his first day in office really suggests that he is serious about making the environment and climate change a top priority in his administration. But there is a lot of work to be done beyond these initial gestures. When President Biden ran for office, he repeatedly said that he did not support the Green New Deal, which was developed by the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But a Green New Deal is exactly what the U.S. needs right now. Our national infrastructure, much of which was built during the original New Deal under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is outdated and in disrepair. We have federal buildings and state funded universities that are still not energy efficient. We need to fund research and development into new, clean, renewable forms of energy, and we need leadership to address environmental inequities and the legacy of environmental racism in this country. There is so much work that needs to be done that will require real, structural transformation. It isn’t work that President Biden can do alone. He will need the support of Congress to push through the legislation that we need. But beyond that, he will need public pressure to make that happen. Frederick Douglass said that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” That is still true, and ultimately the Biden administration will only go as far as we push them.
Courtney Desiree Morris, "She Who Sits With the Dead #2" from the Solastalgia series, 2019. Courtesy of the artist
VOLUME 2, ISSUE 1
SAVE THE PLANET, SAVE THE WORLD