Interviews

An Ecologically Minded Artist Navigating the Nature-Culture Continuum

Irons at work. Photo by Dan Phiffer.
Ellie Irons at work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado (photo by Dan Phiffer)

In recent years, my interest has grown in how art can help tackle the environmental devastation of our planet. During that time, I’ve begun following the artist and educator Ellie Irons, both for her work and her thinking.

Using a wide range of materials and practices, Irons practices a unique form of tactical media, or what she terms “public field work.” Perhaps drawing inspiration from the likes of Critical Art Ensemble, Irons seeks to take difficult but necessary discussions out of the studio or the lab and into society at large. Her field work — which can take the form of gathering weeds in Brooklyn’s abandoned spaces, along with the ensuing encounters and conversations — blurs the boundaries of studio, art making, exhibitions, and performance. Like Critical Art Ensemble, she uses scientific methodologies, public interventions, and the creative play that art allows to try to get more people thinking about such complex issues as climate change, the Anthropocene, and the culture-nature divide.

Irons is currently involved in two exhibitions — Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, and Emergent Ecologies, opening this weekend at Kilroy Metal Ceiling in Brooklyn — which finally gave me the excuse to ask her about her work over email.

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Ben Valentine: First, how do you feel about having your work contextualized in a discussion about the Anthropocene? Would you prefer I use a different term?

Ellie Irons: I’m happy to have my work mentioned in the same breath with the term “Anthropocene,” but I hope that the things I make help trouble the term to a degree. I like Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s concept of the “patchy Anthropocene,” with a special relationship to capital “M” Man, rather than to all humans in the universal sense. I think the plethora of alternatives and modifiers the term has spawned, ranging from Donna Haraway’s “Chthulucene” on one end to the Ecomodernist’s “Good Anthropocene” on the other — and including the “Capitalocene” and the “Homogenocene” — are indicators of its salience. I find it to be an extremely useful meme, with caveats. When I talk about it now I often say the “so-called Anthropocene, a hypothetical and contested new geological age.”

There is the issue of how declaring “the age of human impact” can have the effect of universalizing blame for global warming and ensuing climate catastrophes, despite the fact that the bulk of emissions have, historically, come from a small slice of western nations that industrialized early and rapidly. Others point out the hubristic, anthropocentric nature of the term, holding up the Ecomodernists and others promoting a techno-utopian fix as problematic examples of the humans-are-finally-masters-of-the-planet delusion. All of these arguments and discussions are turning discourse, academic and otherwise, towards issues I’ve wanted to talk and think about and act upon for a long time, so I’m glad to have a starting point, even if it’s a bit of a fad. From my perspective, the term and its critique have helped open up and redefine environmentalism, interweaving it with questions of livability, social justice, anthropocentrism and multispecies interactions.

Ellie Irons, “Feral Landscape Typologies: The Rise, Fall, and Rise of a Vacant Lot (Bushwick, Brooklyn)” (2015) (photos by Ellie Irons) (click to enlarge)

BV: As you mention, “Anthropocene” has recently become a buzzword in the liberal arts, but you’ve been exploring these issues in your work for several years now. Talk about how you came to be working in this field.

EI: When I encountered the term for the first time in 2011, I was struck by it immediately — it seemed to fit neatly into an empty gap in the lexicon I used to describe my artistic practice and worldview. I first came across it on the web, while watching Bruce Sterling’s closing talk for the Art and Environment Conference, and the way he talked about it resonated with my own experience. The disorienting transition from a rural childhood in northern California to an undergraduate career studying environmental science in Los Angeles to the concrete-laden, vertical landscape of New York City was still reverberating, and I was struggling to find a connection to my new habitat. As a kid, the separation between nature and humans was a given. I pretended to be an animal a lot (moose and zebra were my go to roles), but I always had to return to society at some point, go inside, sit at a table or a desk like a good human, and gaze out the window at the surrounding landscape, waiting to be out in it again. “Nature” surrounded me, the backdrop for everything I did and was, but it was an other thing — one that I loved desperately but was separate from.

As a young adult studying environmental science I became keenly aware of the problematic aspects of this othering of nature through studying and doing field work in areas that had been decimated by human activity. The feedback loop between humans and the landscape became more clear, and the science of ecology (the interconnectedness of life and earth systems), human and otherwise, came to replace the nature/culture binary. Moving to New York City threw me for another loop, because I had a hard time seeing beyond the extreme dominance of human activity all around me. The concept of the Anthropocene gave me a new way to read that landscape, a way to pull my disparate experiences together and attach them to deep time and futurist visions in a way that I found really compelling.

Anne Percoco gathering seeds for the NESL project, while doing public field work in a traffic median in the Bronx. Photo credit Ellie Irons.
Anne Percoco gathering seeds for the “Next Epoch Seed Library” and doing public field work at a traffic median in the Bronx (photo by Ellie Irons)

BV: So, why art? As lobbying, fundraising, investigative journalism, and big political moves like the Paris Climate Agreement unfold, what role(s) do you believe art plays in shaping this discourse and real change?

EI: All of these things are necessary. I hope that my work reaches people at a different level, allowing those who might have pushed these other inputs aside to reconnect with their urgency. There are so many ways art can function: People’s Climate Arts is out there in the streets in a big way, Not An Alternative’s Natural History Museum is putting pressure on powerful institutions. I support efforts like those and see my work as allied with them, but generally, I’m making smaller interventions in day-to-day life that draw on my immediate habitat, be it the vacant lot across the street or a remote national park.

These responses take many forms, some of them traditional, gallery-based, and easily identified as art, others less so (gardens, walks, workshops). I’m also experimenting with what I’ve started to call “public field work,” a model that takes my studio practice out into the landscape, where I carry out useful tasks (gathering pigments for paint, collecting litter for a sculpture, taking soil samples for a garden project) and engage with the public along the way. I’m not performing, exactly, but I’m open to the possibility of encountering and interacting with passersby and prepared to share my motivations and process, whether this takes the form of simply handing a card to a confused onlooker or developing more formal, long-term connections through recurring workshops or excursions into the urban landscape. This way of working gives me the opportunity to catch people unaware, generating a moment of surprise, wonder, or cognitive dissonance that opens up new possibilities. Through modeling the act of interacting with my local habitat in an unexpected way and inviting others to join me, I hope to offer an alternative pathway into environmental consciousness and ecological thinking that’s not so focused on the universal Human as perpetrator and guilty party.

NESL installation shot
Ellie Irons and Anne Percoco, “The Next Epoch Seed Library” (2016) at William Paterson University as part of the exhibition ‘Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment’ (photo by Anne Percoco) (click to enlarge)

BV: Can you use one piece in your current and upcoming exhibitions as a way to talk about how you hope your work lives in society?

EI: The “Next Epoch Seed Library” (NESL), my collaboration with Anne Percoco, is an example of the kind of project that uses small gestures to get at large ideas. It’s a flexible project that applies anywhere humans have impacted the landscape and involves the efforts of a growing range of collaborators, from individual artists and scientists to institutions like the RISD Nature Lab, who helped us with scanning electron microscopy for the project.

NESL focuses on collecting, storing, and sharing seeds from plants that tend to live in close association with dense human populations or in areas heavily impacted by human activity. Growing where others can’t or won’t, the species held in our seed library are those best adapted to live in the long shadow humans throw on the landscape. They supply important ecosystem services to humans and nonhumans alike, improving habitat in areas where legacy ecosystems have been disrupted through development and industry. Too often, the plants living in these environments are the very plants cities and private landowners pour resources and herbicides into eradicating, “cleaning up” a “messy” life form in favor of the neat and the dead. Recasting these weedy species as companion plants for the Anthropocene age, we use NESL as a vehicle for softening the edges of limiting binaries like native/non-native and nature/culture. Through presentations, workshops, seed swaps, and exhibitions, we encourage viewers and participants to engage with their local habitat and reflect on their own role in the adaptation and success of these plants.

The above ideas are all packed into the project, but engaging with it can be as simple as enjoying the aesthetic qualities of a seed through scanning electron microscopy, finding a place to collect seeds in your neighborhood, or taking seeds from us and planting them if they don’t exist. I like that it’s a project with many entry points and modes of representation. It’s an “artist-run” project, but if you look at one of our installations, like the one at William Paterson University currently, you might not have an easy time pointing to any one thing and saying, “Oh there it is — that’s the art!” Because it’s actually a functional library. It’s made to be used. There is a station for testing seed viability and propagating plants that’s being tended by an environmental science intern for the run of the show, a couch with a reading area and community bulletin board, a table for sorting and packing seeds, and a structure reminiscent of a card catalogue cobbled together from post-consumer waste, where visitors can take and/or donate seed packets.

For our upcoming show in Fort Greene, we’ll have a mobile kiosk of sorts that can be rolled out on the street during open hours, so that it becomes part of the mixed-use, rapidly gentrifying sidewalk culture of Brooklyn. The seeds, neat little packages bursting with the potential to respond to environmental challenges, will be their own advocates for the weedy spaces of Brooklyn, which are gradually disappearing one parking lot, condo, or redevelopment project at a time.

Sanctuary for Weedy Species, (Winter, 2015-16)
Ellie Irons, “The Sanctuary for Weedy Species” (2015), part of Rail Curatorial’s ‘Social Ecologies’ exhibition in Industry City (photo by Ellie Irons)

BV: I want to talk about nature vs. man-made, as I see your work dealing with this negotiation. I find this divide to be misleading, but also helpful in many ways. Maybe I still need to believe in wilderness, even if humankind has shaped it in part.

EI: I started to dive into the question of the nature/culture divide above, so you can tell it’s a huge theme in my work. About six years ago, not too long before I came across the concept of the Anthropocene, I stumbled upon Timothy Morton’s book Ecology without Nature and had another “aha” moment of similar magnitude. Although I still use the term “nature” all the time and find it to be very useful (if extremely hard to define), I have found it helpful to strike it out in certain situations and substitute the word “ecology.” This term has also become somewhat of a meme (I’ve participated in three shows with the word “ecology” in their titles in the last six months), but I don’t think it’s become cliché, at least not for me. I think it’s very useful to ask not “is this nature?” but rather “is this connected to other earth systems, and if so, how and to what degree?” Given that humans are now moving more sediment yearly than wind, rain, and rivers combined, when you’re looking at a construction site or an open pit mine, you’re looking at an ecological force in motion. Maybe it’s not “nature,” but it’s so deeply entangled with it, the separation ceases to make sense to me.

That said, I do very much feel the need to preserve (and if possible, experience regularly!) places where more of the connections between and among living things and earth systems aren’t human-dominated or human-orchestrated. These are the seemingly “wild” places (our big national parks, for instance), and I’ll acknowledge that it feels good to be in places like these — I mourn when I hear they’re being lost and celebrate their expansion. It’s a privilege, though, to have them and to visit them, and a construction of sorts — that landscape was never “pristine” in the sense I experience it to be when I walk through it today, reveling in “nature.” Humans were impacting the landscape for generations before the United States defined our national parks as what they are. The indigenous way of being in the landscape shaped what arriving colonists understood as the wilderness, and the legacies of that clash are still playing out in the landscape. So, softening that binary as much as possible makes sense to me — I see it as more of continuum, or a tangle, with no absolutes and lots of messy intersections.

Living Together: Nurturing Nature in the Built Environment continues at William Paterson University’s Ben Shahn Center for Visual Arts (300 Pompton Road, Wayne, NJ) through May 13. Emergent Ecologies: NYC Emergence runs April 30–June 18 at Kilroy Metal Ceiling (283 Greene Avenue, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

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