RECURRING THREADS IN MY PRACTICE
THREAD 1: COLLABORATION BETWEEN HUMANS AND GEOLOGIC FORCES
Human systems have surpassed geologic forces in that they move natural materials faster and farther than nature does on it's own. This opens the prospect of collaborating with geology in a productive way. We already "collaborate" in a malicious way - when our activities trigger ecological destruction, or in bizarre scenarios like beach fires melting ocean pollution plastic and filling the vesicles of basalt lava with molten plastic to become what geologists now call "plastiglomerate" (a new anthropogenic rock). What I'm after is priming landscapes for collaborations across time scales in a way that references the systems that accelerated global warming and delayed the next ice age. These sites of priming are simultaneously memorials, warnings, and sites of hopefulness. Humans are great at mark-making, but that is still one place where I think nature has us beat. If we take our scale and combine it with nature's skill, we can make something beautiful together.
THREAD 2: THE BODY, PROPRIOCEPTION, ATTENTION, & THE SENSES
My work is situated squarely in contemporary embodied cognitive science which asserts:
- that we distribute our cognition into our environment,
- that our bodies strongly influence our cognitive abilities,
- that semantics reflect how a culture conceptualizes the world,
- that those semantics are acquired through direct interaction with the world,
- that we reason with conceptual metaphor systems that are pervasive in speech and grounded in bodily experience,
- that the motor-system and the perceptual system are tightly linked,
- and that sensory-emotional systems and human attention patterns follow image-schema that are available for reasoning.
This pops up in all of my work, but is laid out in theoretic detail in my book Hack the Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science.
THREAD 3: EXTRACTION, VALUE, & CATEGORIZATION OF PLACE
This thread draws a distinction between two models for thinking about place: place as a substance, and place as a container. In the substance model, value is ascribed because of qualities of place, like goût de terroir (the taste of place) with luxury foods - something about the conditions of the place makes the product valuable. In the container model value is obtained from a place by extracting and removing materials from the place, like with mineral rights. How we conceive of “place” influences how we think about the economics of our relationships to land, but also to other people because land and people are inextricably linked.
THREAD 4: SETTLER COLONIALISM & LANDFORM ONTOLOGY
The way that we've approached colonization and settler-indigenous relationships is deeply tied to what we think about place. When indigenous people view themselves as part of the land (as substance) rather than owning the land (e.g., settler views on mineral rights), the displacement of indigenous people by settlers is a violent enactment of a container view of the land (see previous thread). This makes continual colonialism (hence settler colonialism) a continual violence to the land. These models of place show up when places are mapped (a settler strategy) vs. when they are storied through indigenous histories. The settler's map enables the colonized to be swindled because there are not one-for-one translations between the spatial categories of the two cultures. This means our conception of space is a pervasive entangled social matter. When viewed in the substance/container framework it is easy to see that occupation, extraction, removal, and displacement are violences on and to the land (and by extension, to those who belong to the land).
THREAD 5: INFRASTRUCTURAL LANDSCAPES & SUPPLY CHAINS AS GEOLOGIC FORCES
Infrastructure like supply chains have surpassed geologic forces by moving natural materials faster and farther than nature could ever do on it's own. We extract entire deposits of "natural resources" and distribute them across the planet. A glacier moves a granite erratic a few hundred miles very slowly over a thousand years, but Big Box retailers move granite floor tiles from India, China, and the Ukraine to every single store in America in a matter of weeks. Every fifteen years, the domestic cats in America use enough clay cat litter to cover all of Los Angeles and New York City with one inch of cat litter. Most of that clay comes from three quarries in Mississippi and Georgia, but you can buy it at every Walmart in every city in every state of America. That's a massive-scale movement of natural materials because of your cat.
THREAD 6: RELATIONS OF RELATIONS - ENTANGLED ONTOLOGY & UNSTABLE CATEGORIZATIONS
My work understands categories as perspectives on objects, where "objects" can be anything from a grain of sand to a global economy to a set of expectations shared between two people. Categories have conceptual grounding in early human experience and they can be ad hoc assemblages without losing central prototypical members. I believe the next step is to organize categories into tightly integrated ontologies that define the full scope of entanglements that each object touches. In a social sense, this appears as "intersectional theory", in a complex systems sense this appears as "object-oriented ontology" and "hyper-objects", in anthropology and archeology this appears as "entanglements". My work attempts to destabilize categories by pointing out the specific ambiguities that we already accept in the category schemas we live with in daily life. I then tie those ambiguities to a social problem they create. Like, how landform ontology falls apart when we can't agree on the definition of soil, and what that means for global extraction practices based on mapping strategies that are used to swindle indigenous people who categorize the landscape differently.
THREAD 7: HAND TOOLS THAT MIMIC GEOLOGIC FUNCTIONS
A lot of our tools and manufacturing processes perform functions that occur in nature. I make tools that reference the geologic agents enacting those functional processes, and I use materials that reference the human systems that borrow those geologic functions, and then I implement the tools to use a human object to complete a natural function. For instance, glaciers are know for smoothing surfaces, so are hand planes from carpentry. Glaciers use hard stones to smooth softer stones, so one of the tools I make is a hand plane with a stone blade that I then use to smooth rough stones as a mark-making practice, replicating glacial mark-making.
THREAD 8: ANCESTOR WORSHIP & THE DEEP FUTURE
I started thinking about deep time scales because of geology, but then I started to think about it in terms of ancestry and patterns of descent because it was something I could visualize and use as a tool to make sense of my own life.
THREAD 9: HARNESSING RITUAL, CEREMONY, & EMPATHY
Ritual and ceremony are powerful tools that can be used to limit people or to open their options. I bring concrete rituals into my interactive works when it can be used to heighten attention to an abstract concept or an abstract category. Empathy also lends itself as a tool in interaction because it acts as a motivator for the viewer as they engage sympathetic systems (like mirror neurons) and begin to form a relationship to the object of empathy. My work in this area focuses on creating environments where discrete actions build empathy, highlight concepts, and construe familiar situations with unfamiliar framing so that people can experience something old with fresh emotions.
THREAD 10: GENEALOGY
Genealogy in the sense that I use it deals with patterns of inheritance for properties passed down and modified through combinatorial practices. This applies equally to humans as to geologic elements (minerals, soils, waters, clays, stones). I explore the way that combinations produce compounded hybrids and I tie that back to the context that set up the combination, whether that is the lover's bed or strategic nodes for optimized transport in the tangled web of the supply chain. What social relations are produced through patterns of inheritance? What new materials can be extracted from combinations enacted in our infrastructural landscapes? What do lines of descent mean in a speculative sense? What evolutionary processes act upon geologic elements that we perceive as inanimate?
THREAD 11: RESOURCE MOVEMENT & CONFLICTING IDEOLOGIES ACROSS SOCIAL & ECOLOGICAL BOUNDARIES
Imported foods (tea, salt, chocolate, coffee, wine, etc) provide an ideal site for discussing immigration and migration in general, including discussions of ecologies and the impact of transporting pre-soil materials (or even actual soil materials as in the case of natural clay cat litters) from one place to another. Immigration of pre-soil materials and soil materials homogenizes landscapes, and the notion of an open border (socially and economically) clashes with the notion of closed borders (politically and ecologically) in various social moves that produce conflicting and inconsistent ideologies. Using luxury food items (as well as items from resource extraction: such as quarried stone like granite and marble for tiles and countertops, or even materials more readily perceived as geologic like clay cat litters, potting soil, landscaping stones, ceramics) to think about immigration makes uncovering inconsistencies easier because the metaphor is not a metaphor at all, it is substantial in the most basic sense. This reiterates why supply chains and the pervasive distribution of materials across geographies act as a homogenizing agent, it really is changing a place. Using an attapulgite clay cat litter imported from Senegal (a manufacturing and supply decision made because of cheap labor and the mark-up over a domestic clay with domestic labor rates) really does homogenize the soil in a landfill. Drinking a cup of imported Japanese green tea really does bring Japan to me.