An interview for a textbook with Oxford University Press on 4D Art

Tell us a little bit about yourself as an artist. What is your practice like; how do you work?

I never separate the art I make from my life. Art to me is as necessary as our basic human needs. Food, water, shelter, tools, land, the seen and unseen networks that comprise them embody some of my deepest concerns. My work involves processes of research, building, experimenting, and documenting. I begin research through mapping a site from its physical properties to its embedded social, economic, and political power structures. I then map the supply chain for the materials used to build sculptures, and undertake experiments with them, finally documenting them photographically.

Please describe your work, “Waterpod” (2009), from your point of view

The Waterpod was a floating sculptural living system that circumnavigated New York’s five boroughs in 2009. It was built on a 100 x 30’ flat deck barge and consisted of a fully functional ecosystem that provided food, energy, and clean water to inhabitants and guests through regenerating gardens, chickens for eggs, rainwater purification, greywater cycling, solar and human powered electrical energy. The food, water and human waste cycled through the on-board living systems into renewed soil and water. Building materials used to make the structures were also from New York’s waste stream. I left only a few times over the course of five months. One of my goals was to test the living systems to see if they could provide enough sustenance to live on. I imagined the structure as a proposal for a future New York with less dependence on a global supply chain for resources, with more people contending with rising sea levels and less useable or affordable land, but I also wanted to describe the way people the world over are already living, to illustrate our interconnectedness and interdependency. It was a stage, and an experiment. Five friends lived with me on the Waterpod including Ian Daniel, Mira and Derek Hunter, Eve K. Tremblay, and Allison Ward. Close to 200,000 people visited in the span of the five months it traveled around New York.

Have you had any memorable responses to this piece? And if yes, please describe.

Yes, the Waterpod was a unique public and private space. It brought together numerous people and over fifty local businesses with municipal agencies to work towards permits and regulations for this structure to be a city-wide public, floating space. Because it was such a different space especially in a city like New York, I found that most people were very open, letting their guards down. In turn, so did I. People met aboard the Waterpod and I later heard they had formed deep friendships, and a couple even started a business together making sub-irrigated planters from 5-gallon buckets. On some days, strangers brought us gifts like home baked bread. It was remarkable and unforgettable. I also became more aware about just how vast our experiences are as humans. Many people I met onboard Waterpod had never seen a live chicken before, and others came with such vast experience, we learned how to better care for ours through their knowledge. The knowledge sharing that happened on the Waterpod was unlike anything I’ve been able to be in midst of.

Please name three artists you are influenced by and why.

The work of artist/architect Gordon Matta-Clark has been important to me. His work with underused urban architecture in pieces like “Splitting” and “Conical Intersects” are powerful because of their raw spontaneity and their relationships to particular sites and a specific time in NYC. The process of obtaining slivers of land for his Fake Estates project clearly speaks to bureaucracy and the nuances of land ownership in a way that is critical, humorous, laborious and Sisyphean, detailed, and brazen. His collaboration with Carol Goodden called Food, a restaurant and meeting space for a community of artists in Lower Manhattan but also a business that supported many of their friends is a model I experiment with directly. His urban vignettes with containers and spontaneous videos such as Clockshower have all been influential.

Both Robert Smithson and Ana Mendieta’s approach to working with land has been influential. Robert Smithson’s Floating Island has been a clear influence but his ability to take earthly or industrial materials and transform them into something otherworldly has always been something I’ve been conscious of. The importance of the photographic record in their more ephemeral works formed my understanding of photography. Believing in interdependencies between humans and the natural world, Ana Mendieta rejected many attempts to classify her work into familiar limits of medium-based art categories that separate us. Rather than associate herself with Land Art she dismissed associations with a category she associated with the brutalization of nature to glorify industry, and the modernist tradition in turn. Her work is less about the production of objects reliant on alterity (a principal activity for the expansion of capital) and more about being in between places, politics, and bodies. Through gestures that imprint varied histories containing the ability to connect through difference, Mendieta’s work contains a kind of resistance that is both philosophical and interdependent.

“Wearable Home” is a project I worked on from 2001 – 2006. This work was largely influenced by Lygia Clark’s work with body extensions and sensory perception. With Hélio Oiticica she started the Neo-Concretists movement, born out of reactions to more machinist art forms like Concrete Poetry and objective painting. They believed that art was subjective and organic and informed by the participant. This movement influenced the vignettes I was making at the time where friends would use Wearable Homes in very organic ways, and also influenced my work in public spaces going forward. In their work, the borders between artwork and participant are blurred.

What are you currently working on?

A project about ownership and value that involves researching the supply chains of the commodity objects I’ve acquired, recording them digitally and bundling the physical objects into large boulders. I needed to turn my useful objects into something very useless, so wrapped them into boulders to show their mass and obstruction. The objects exist in large bundles, a burden and reminder that must be moved as I move.

As a critique of materialism I’ve been dragging these boulders to narrate rituals of consumption. It refers to the landfill, which has led me to bury one of the boulders in a formal ceremony. These objects deserve as much reverence as a human, considering every relationship that went into making them. There’s a duality between local and a more universal, and how one affects the other. Today everything is a commodity, from homes to objects to land, water, air, garbage and debt. It’s a work about that.

At the same time I’m creating two spherical living systems that are modular with a group of collaborators from Omaha, Nebraska. It’s an extension of the Flock House Project, a project that I began in New York and now we are redesigning for conditions in Omaha. These spheres don’t account for all of our needs, but they do provide shelter, some food, water, and energy. Alongside the structures, we are forming a barter-based network with businesses and individuals who can provide for additional needs in exchange for something a Flock House resident can provide.

What is your dream project?

The projects I do fulfill a need I have to understand something particular to their time and place, and they build upon one another. There isn’t time in life for any projects other than dream projects, and they are always evolving. My dream project right now is to make a permanent space for meeting and sharing in New York City: objects such as tools or books, seeds, skills, and stories.

What is one of your favorite 4D artworks, or pieces of design, and why?

Touch Sanitation by Mierle Ukeles is a piece of 4D artwork that I find very important. Ukeles met and shook the hands of 8,500 sanitation workers in 1977. “I’m not here to watch you, to study you, to analyze you, to judge you. I’m here to be with you: all the shifts, all the seasons, to walk out the whole City with you.” I face each worker, shake hands, and say: “Thank you for keeping NYC alive.” At an event for the Waterpod, curator Sara Reisman led a panel that Ukeles participated in. She told the story of Touch Sanitation to a full house, and her presentation was moving. In the late 70’s the sanitation workers in NYC were on strike. News stories reported New Yorkers being rude and disrespectful towards sanitation workers as their garbage piled up. Ukeles gained such a reputation among the workers that when she notified a crew to let them know she would arrive the following day, even the workers who were sick or on disability arrived to shake her hand. To me, this illustrated two things that I’ll always be conscious of: The waste we make is first our own responsibility. And, a simple gesture, empathy, and dedication can reach so many people. To me the stories she told became fable.