An Edge Effect: An Interview with Bonnie Fortune (part one)
Recently, I sat down with Bonnie Fortune and Brett Bloom (partners and long time collaborators under the projects Let’s ReMake and Mythological Quarter) via Skype to discuss their two recent books, An Edge Effect: Art & Ecology in the Nordic Landscape and Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self. In this two-part interview, we discuss a range of topics that address art and life in Anthropocene.
Bonnie Fortune is an artist and writer, currently based in the Midwestern United States. Her work and artistic research is focused on the intersection of art and the environment, with special attention to the social ecology. She works collaboratively with Brett Bloom as Let’s Remake and Lise Skou as Trade Test Site. Her collection of interviews with artists working with themes of ecology, An Edge Effect: Art and Ecology in the Nordic Landscape was published in 2014.
Sarrita Hunn: Your recent book, An Edge Effect: Art & Ecology in the Nordic Landscape, is full of lots of different examples of projects, collaborations and interviews with individual artists and it is a great reference for people interested in these issues, but there are common themes that are pointed out in the book that I wanted to address. To start out, one is the history of artists’ relationship to the landscape – first as being like a source of inspiration or awe, but there has been a shift to this relationship to the landscape. This is pretty broad, but I was wondering if that transition is interesting to you and if you could describe it a little bit more.
Bonnie Fortune: It has two threads. One is basic art history of environmental/Land Art. The other is how to relate that to ecological thinking. When you are thinking about ecology, you have multiple threads that make up a place. In an ecosystem, there are multiple threads– birth, death, life, the weather, the food, etc. This book was about trying to apply ecological thinking to a cultural analysis. In the art historical sense, we were looking at this history of an artist’s relationship to landscape. Previously, landscape has always been a source of inspiration for artists, but how have they approached it? As a discussion of the sublime, or with paintings of the American West, it became a kind of propaganda to draw people to that landscape, and then in the late 60s–early 70s, the Land Art idea came in.
So, what is the complication now? In the cultural field, as in elsewhere, our relationship to landscape is changing – not only culturally, but also out of necessity because of climate change and the way we use the environment. We have to develop new relationships to landscape because our old ones obviously are not working. We’ve been approaching the landscape as a sort of resource abstraction (a dominant/submissive relationship) and now we have to come up with different ways of relating. The artists in this book show that there are multiple ways of approaching our relationships to landscape – and with ecological thinking there are more diverse and broad approaches to all these different kinds of relationships.
For example in the book, you have Opensourcefood, going out and trying to forage wild plants, but their projet is also about the politics of migration and refugees – as well as Camilla Berner. She’s talking about wild plants and urban gardens in the city, but she is also bringing in the politics of national borders in her analysis of plants. She discusses how different seeds come in with immigrants to Denmark in her project, Specis Plantarum. These new seeds create a different plant landscape in contrast to the national registry of plants which has a cutoff date of 1700.Only plants that were catalogues before 1700, can be considered native to Denmark. She is asking the questions: What is a national plant? What is an indigenous plant? Why can’t it be something that comes later? So these projects are complicating how we relate to landscape – making it more ecological–i.e. taking in all the different threads that shape a landscape.
SH: That leads into one of the other themes that you pull out in the book – this idea of social ecology.
BF: Social ecology is a concept from Murray Bookchin. He is a green, eco-philosopher who has come in and out of fashion because he is also associated with anarchist philosophy. People are revisiting his work now, but social ecology is basically the idea that our problems stem from how we think about how we relate to place (i.e. the landscape) and the kind of social dynamics that we tell ourselves, construct, and build these narratives around. So, ecological problems are a result of the social (the culture) that we have created. The idea is if we start creating different societies, different cultures (which to me is a very important in the artistic sense because artists are the cultural workers), different narrative, and social interactions, then we will create a healthier environment, a more positive relationship to the landscape. That’s a kind of a simplified version of his philosophy.
SH: To talk about artist’s role specifically, there’s the idea that artists are involved with speculative realism, or expanding the social imaginary – that they are somehow expanding the possibilities of what can happen. How do you see the process of the culture that is being created disseminating to a broader society? And the flip side of that question: How is framing things like gardening, or wild edibles as an art practice then effect the affect of those activities and the meaning that they can have?
BF: I wonder that myself. I mean, how do these interventionists practices, these social practices, really get out there in the world? I have no metric for gauging their ultimate success. That is unfortunate, or not.
SH: One thing that comes to my mind (that I’m not sure about either) is that it happens over time. So, it won’t happen immediately, but if you look over fifty or one hundreds years and think about how we’re influenced – like you said with Murray Bookchin who was writing in the 60s and 70s and it has taken however much time for people to be re-looking at his writing, but that it is influencing things now.
BF: Well, there’s a couple of things. The majority of the artists in this book are doing stuff with non-art audiences in mind – whether literally going onto a public street in the case of Et Spiseligt Landskab (An Edible Landscape) with Marie Markman, or working in a community garden in the case of YNKB, or working with refugees in Denmark, as in the example of Opensourcefood, or Kultivator, who worked with refugees in Sweden. I would argue that with the majority of the projects in the book, the majority of their audiences never perceive what they were doing as an artwork.
However, Kultivator also worked with agricultural policy makers in Finland with some of their performative dinners with cows. While that might have been received like “Oh. Art.” (laughs), as this kind of ‘this is a silly’ experience – there’s something else happening here because really, what these artists are trying to do is create a conversation about how we relate to the environment in any new way possible that they can think of – and whether it is received initially as a cultural experience, or an art experience, is maybe not the point. The point is that they are out in public, or their work is out in public, and it’s making people (even for a brief moment) have a discussion about the landscape, the environment, plants, what have you.
SH: So, that kind of answers the second, too. There are cases in which the activity isn’t specifically framed as a cultural or art activity and then there are cases where it is and that is what actually gives it meaning for that audience. So, in a way, it’s all about this relationship between the audience (and who the audience is) and what they’re trying to do.
BF: And the audience varies. The audience, as I said, could be a refugee group, it could be politicians. Interestingly, Inger Kærgaard is not an artist at all (she’s a biologist), but she used this very literal art language (hanging up photographs in an exhibition hall) to engage the very broadest audience possible. She had her exhibition at the Round Tower, which you know is the ultimate tourist gallery because everyone goes there when they go to Copenhagen. She used the (art) language that she thought would attract more viewers so she could talk about the destruction of forests around the world. And that’s another theme in the book. How do we approach our audiences to begin this discussion?
SH: And most, if not all, of these projects are existing outside of art institutions.
BF: Yeah. The majority of them, although not all.
SH: There is a lot of conversation happening in different contexts (I am thinking of W.A.G.E. specifically right now) about the unique position that artists can have – both, for example, inside an institution and outside an institution, being in a position of privilege and not at the same time. This also relates to an essay that is referenced quite a bit in the book, “The Three Ecologies” by Felix Guattari, which talks about a relationship between the social, the ethical and the aesthetic. It seems from Anne Sophie Witzke’s essay, his ultimate point was toward the idea of re-establishing subjectivities, authentic subjectivity even. She says:
“Only by re-establishing an authentic subjectivity or singularity, as he calls it, one can vitalise the mental and social ecologies and thereby create a foundation for a more sustainable relation to the environment. According to Guattari, a healthy mental ecology depends on constant aesthetic experimentation, where the aesthetic is related to different thinking, testing, imagining of new futures, and the lack of safety and certainty.”
We have already discussed it is not just about ecology, it’s about a whole social ecology. So, I was interested in talking about a little more about how re-establishing subjectivity ultimately affects things on a ecological level.
BF: Yeah. I think for me it’s just going back to this idea of a multiple thread kind of perspective – that is bringing in relationships between people and the environment – and he is writing from a cultural, critical perspective so this is what made this essay particularly attractive to a lot of people.
SH: I mean, my understanding of it is that he really puts artists in the role of being the ones that are creating new possibilities, re-orientating….
BF: It’s this idea that what we are trying to do is to create a new narrative for how we are going to be in this world and who better to do that than someone who’s dealing on a daily basis with producing culture or producing stories about the world, or drawing out these stories. In the case of Jane Jin Kaisen, she’s working with this particular island in South Korea (Jeju-do) and on one level it is a beautiful UNESCO world heritage site, on another level the natural landscape of this island reflects the trauma perpetrated there, and on another level it is a discussion about international politics (the United States Army Military Government (1945-1948) and its continuing effects on the South Korean government). The question becomes, how do we weave all these different relationships into a discussion of landscape and place, and into new perspectives about how we can better take care of our environment – and I think Guattari’s essay is trying to articulate that.
SH: In Sue Spade’s essay, she described artists as being “first responders.” That was helpful metaphor for me.
BF: Yes, exactly. As an artist myself, I definitely approached this project as as a producer – it was a way for me to understand what it is that I wanted to do with my own work by talking with all these different people who had a similar kind of practice. You know, you hope that what you are doing is making a difference and you hope that what you are doing is creating a new way of discussing these things. So, yes. I think the idea of the artist as ‘first responder’ is attractive, but then, as you said earlier, then you always struggle with what is the effect – what is this actually doing? Where is this going? That’s definitely for me the push and pull of this research.
Read the second part of this interview: Petro-Subjectivity: An Interview with Brett Bloom (part two).