Monday, June 10, 2013

Ecotopia: An Interview with Celeste Connor

My friend and colleague Celeste Connor, who already holds a PhD in Art History, worked toward her MFA in Fine Arts for seven years while she taught at CCA. She installed her culminating MFA exhibition in the Nave at California College of the Arts on the San Francisco campus in May 2013. It featured an integrated mixture of natural materials and found and altered books. Here are excerpts from an interview with Celeste, accompanied by pictures of her installation, which she calls The Ecotopian Archive.

AG: Last summer you had written a story about a post-apocalyptic archive and were thinking of creating your installation around that concept. Can you tell us what prompted you to create Ecotopia?

CC: Iʼd been gleaning things, furniture and other folks’ idea of trash, from the streets in my neighborhoods for years. Living amid these finds slowly conjured up a visual image of The Ecotopian Archive in my imagination, virtually as you see it today. I tried hard to match my initial image/impression in 3-D. This image also gave rise to a post-apocalyptic tale, once I began to examine and question what I was doing and imagining. I deduced, from details of the image, that a terrible catastrophe had occurred and that the location was Earth. I think I told you at the time that the rough story of The Archive and its creators seemed as if “dictated to me” in one sitting. Many iterations after that “dictation,” I turned the story in as my written MFA thesis.

AG: Books seem to be at the center of this installation.

CC: Yes, books became central since they were the most plentiful “things” I could acquire free. Since my medium is gleaned and salvaged things, I benefit from the fact that folks are discarding soft- and hard-backs for Nooks and Kindles at an accelerating rate. In this installation I display books mainly as things, not as textual arguments. Many are pasted shut and only permit access to one page spread. I'd been reading Heidegger's theory of art, particularly Thing Theory; unlike more recent ideas, his seemed to me deeply reflective, but hopeful.

AG: Who is the woman in the video and what is she saying?

CC: In the video component you see and hear my dear friend Sydney Carson (the Founding Director of the Bay Area’s little gem: Nightletter Theater) in costume delivering K-Nova’s “Welcome to the State of Ecotopia” speech, recorded by the Ecotopian Minister of Visual Culture in 2084. It is believed that the Ecotopian President and her Minister planted the video in The Archive so that repatriating Neotopians, returning from colonies on The Moon and Mars, would be reminded of the history of planet Earth, the Great Cataclysm, and especially of the Ecotopian Secession—if and when they returned to their former capitol on the rejuvenated, verdant planet. My idea was to make the two main characters—the Third President of Ecotopia, K-Nova, and her Minister of Visual Culture, Rrosa Seconda, who is introduced to visiters to The Archive as the maker of the video—more dimensional. Visitors are welcomed to imagine themselves as Neotopians.

AG: The installation is a compilation of various books and natural objects. Some you clearly fashioned: a branch that seems to be growing through some books; a series of paintings of red worms; books with nails in them; a shoji screen remade with player piano paper (one of my favorites). Can you talk a little about these? 

CC: I got so deeply into making things in the final months of prep for the MFA show: the small worm portraits, the worm lino prints on old book pages, the 157 photos of the wigglers... that I had to leave a few things out of the exhibit due to the constraints of a 10x10 foot space allotment. The Shoji Screen you commented on is a bit of a clue, I think, that the ensemble has extended roots in Arts and Crafts and early artist-socialist initiatives. It is also the most challenging re-purposing effort in the installation, deliberately emphasizing skilled handwork as an irreplaceable social value. Our opposable thumbs are only enviable if they are finely attuned.

(also the title of the 1940s Xavier Cugat song on the scroll)
includes 1940s scraps of wallpaper at the edges

AG: As you prepared for this installation what kinds of revelations did you have? 

CC: I had friends and acquaintances who focused on installation art in the 1990s, and I always wanted to but worried about the costs (including the cost of storage space and moving fees.) So I began to contrive a plan to work with trash. In fact, in 1999 I created an undergrad seminar at CCA called “Trashformations.” Many of the ideas I gleaned (in prepping the seminar) shaped my thinking. Eco has slowly become, for me as for many others, an adjunct to—even an alternative to—Marxian, Feminist or Queer points of view on arts and culture and society.

from The Lichen Books series
(living lichen planted to grow from the pages)

AG:  I’m wondering if any or all of the objects you’ve chosen to arrange have stories behind them? Can you tell us about a few? 

CC: Yes, the things are all stories, singularly—through repurposing—or in assemblages where an alteration, or three, has been made. One of the most rewarding things that happened for me while the show was open was that most everyone I met who visited The Archive volunteered their own stories about The Archive, or about some specific things assembled in The Archive. In the installation there are many commemorative “shrines” to artists I want to celebrate, and—with luck—jar the memory and the inquisitiveness of Archive visitors. 

AG: What about the book groupings like two copies of Steal this Book with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Autobiography of Malcolm X?

CC: Uncle Tom's Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century; the second best-selling book after the Bible. It was credited by historians with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. During the Bush years the negative associations of Uncle Tom's Cabin somewhat overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a vital antislavery tool. I raise questions about the reinterpretation by including it with the equally-assaulted ideas of Malcolm X and Abbie Hoffman, represented by the archived copies of their thoughts. Ecotopians are interested in the artifact titled Uncle Tom's Cabin because it was written in a currently deplored sentimental style often labeled Women's Fiction: a rhetorical style crafted to evoke a reader's emotions and empathy. The Ecotopians re-claim and repurpose this discarded style.

AG: It seem that the Ecotopians are very political…

CC:  Ecotopians, who seceded from the U.S. in 1980 largely over Green issues, are self-professedly radical eco-feminists. Radical environmentalisms emerged out of concern about the perceived co-option of mainstream environmentalism. The radical position presupposes a need to reconsider Western notions of spirituality and philosophy (including capitalism, patriarchy, globalization, sometimes through what is called resacralizing—I also say enshrining) and reconnecting with nature in a variety of forms.

AG: What does the work say as a whole?

CC: My assemblages of things (gloriously rusted hand-tools—that are pedestal-ized as “tool beings” in recent Thing Theory—a cocooned Elvis, an earth-dyed chair cover) create contexts that communicate more than any one independent thing. Single things might sometimes have special significance for me, like The Autobiography of Malcolm X itself. Reading the words at seventeen made me realize that not everyone who had written in the auto-bio genre was deserving of preserving themselves in paper and inks; while the Muslim minister and human rights activist had crafted a unique, powerful model of persuasive voice in art.

AG: Thank you so much for your time, Celeste! Is there anything that you’d like to address that we didn’t cover?

CC: As the curator and conservator of The Ecotopian Archive, I would like to thank you most sincerely for your interest in our Archive. And I want to assure you no red wigglers were harmed in the creation of this installation. I hope The Archive has some opportunities to reappear. One very cool visitor to it decided the only thing for me do next was to load The Ecotopian Archive into a re-purposed, trash-fueled, bus and tour the country charging admission. There are “souvenirs” of the show available. All my mementos are one of a kind and handmade.

1 comment:

Trish J said...

Oh how I wish I lived closer to California so I could see some of the things you are featuring Alisa! I said it before; all these columns deserve to be in a new book!