Most of us would claim to hold some sort of environmental credentials; few of us it seems are prepared to evolve our practices into something truly sustainable. Having established a strong presence in the photographic world (see for example the encyclopaedic book by Liz Wells, ‘Land Matters’ where she occupies almost six pages — just about as many as anyone gets in that work) in 2002 Marlene Creates set about living and working in just 6 acres of boreal woodland in Newfoundland. Not only has she made the patch of land the limit to her ‘studio’, but she has also progressively dematerialised her outputs into things with minimal environmental footprint. I caught up with her to understand more of what drives her and her artistic practices, pending her visit to the UK in 2015 as Academic Visitor in the ‘Art, Space + Nature’ Masters programme at Edinburgh College of Art ………
WL: Marlene, it’s a delight to be talking with you, but could we start with a brief description from you of this place you have made home and studio? I suspect ‘boreal’ is, if not a Canadian term, then a North American term which many of us would not ordinarily come across. What do these six acres of yours look like?
MC: Boreal simply means ‘northern’. The term comes from the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas. The boreal forest is also known as the taiga or snowforest, and it’s described as “the largest ecosystem on Earth.” It’s a circumpolar halo of vegetation around the crown of the planet just south of the tundra covering 14 million square kilometres across North America (from Alaska to Newfoundland & Labrador), Scandinavia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, northern China and northern Japan. The boreal forest is dominated by coniferous trees, particularly larch, pine, spruce and fir, as well as deciduous shrubs and trees like alder, willow, poplar, and birch. There’s no elm, no oak, no chestnut, hickory, cedar, or walnut. And there’s a multitude of mosses and lichens. Water in many forms — bogs, fens, marshes, rivers, lakes and ponds — is a major feature in the boreal forest. A small river, called the Blast Hole Pond River, flows through my patch of forest and it has been the subject of much of my work since moving here in 2002.
Another major feature that affects what my place “looks like” is a large geological formation that is hardened lava from volcanoes that erupted about 700 million years ago under a pan-African ocean.
MC: I’ve had misgivings for quite some time about the jet-setting and sustainability of my carbon footprint as an artist. It was largely for that reason, over a decade ago, I dramatically changed my practice, and it has become more and more dematerialized. Since 2002, the 6-acre patch of boreal forest where I live, which I’ve named The Boreal Poetry Garden, has been the focus of my work. Most of my work now takes the form of video-poems, a locative internet project, A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden, and in situ public walks with readings of site-specific poems. There are several pages on my website with other projects I’ve done with this particular patch of forest, many of which are photo-based2. I’m always an artist-in-residence now –– in my own place. I don’t feel I need to travel any further afield for subject matter. Besides, as I say, I’ll never live long enough to take in everything that’s here.
Some people feel quite strongly that there’s a crucial distinction between environmental art and ecological art. As I understand it, environmental art is often associated with art that is about or placed in the environment; ecological art is more science-based and often makes a step in the direction of reclaiming, restoring, and remediating damaged environments.
I think both ecological art and environmental art can include interpretive and expressive works with strategies that advocate for the conditions of the planet, and educational activities that inspire the public to care for and respect the wellbeing of the environment.
For example, I’ve been working in schools for over 10 years doing place-based multidisciplinary environmental projects with students. (But these have not been published and are not known by a larger public.) I’ve also done some community-based art projects focusing on the natural and built environments. The public poetry walks that I’ve been leading in the boreal forest where I live and work have included natural historians, poets, acoustic musicians, and contemporary dancers who have contributed to our appreciation of boreal ecology, wildlife, and the very geology under our feet.
So some of my work would be considered ecological, and other would be environmental. I’d say I’m an artist who focuses on the physical, biological, cultural, political, and historical aspects of the environment, while trying to consider and limit the possible damage to the ecosystem that may result from my activities.
WL: I’d like to be able to put the boreal forest work into the context of the bigger picture as your work overall has grown. Am I right in thinking that you have always seen, portrayed, and even used the land with a kind of enchantment? Earlier work is perhaps more ‘intellectual’ in that it is exploring concepts of place, memory, belonging, etc. but it is still pretty ‘magical’ is it not? Would you say that the difference between ‘now’ and ‘then’ is a move from a more academic or conceptual approach to an outright environmental activism?
MC: I’m very curious to know what you see in my recent work that you’ve identified as “outright environmental activism.” I feel there has always been an activism component to my work, though it hasn’t been very explicit; more something between-the-lines. I would point to the series I did in Labrador in 1988 as my most activist work — The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories. These works were done as a response to the low-level jet bomber flight training that was taking place there at the time by five NATO countries. It was as though they saw and used Labrador as if it was an empty no-man’s-land, and I wanted to show that it was inhabited by people who knew the land deeply, including both First Nations and Settlers.
Earlier still, my first photo-landworks from the late 1970s and early ’80s — Paper, Stones and Water — were done as a reaction and in deliberate opposition to the Earthworks that I was aware of at the time. The large-scale interventions on the land that were being done in the ’60s and ’70s, mostly in the USA, did not seem to me to be appropriate actions for art. Taking a bulldozer or a dump truck to the land seemed antithetical to me; I did not want to inflict any large-scale permanent changes on the environment.
And there were practical reasons for my simply arranging bands of rice paper temporarily on the land, taking photographs, and then removing it. I didn’t have a large piece of land on which to exercise any artistic aspirations, so I usually travelled –– including a lot of walking –– to find my subject matter. The paper was quite simply a representation of my temporary presence in the landscape. My work then, as now, came from the circumstances of my life. I think there are aesthetic dimensions to practical solutions. They’re often the most economical solutions and, it turns out, the most ecological ones.
Because of Paper, Stones and Water, someone who worked at the National Gallery of Canada at the time described me as “Canada’s first environmental artist.” That was nice to hear, but I don’t think being a pioneer is as important as sustaining a practice, one where the bottom line is the environment.
If I were to identify an arc to the “bigger picture” of my work over the past 35 years, there would be four main phases. I would say the first phase was work based on my own responses to the land, albeit as a visitor to the sites where I worked. In addition to Paper, Stones and Water, I would point to Sleeping Places, Newfoundland 1982 and A Hand to Standing Stones, Scotland 1983.
Then I worked with other people’s relationship to their places, both people I’d met and people I was related to. These works are based on what I call “memory maps” that were drawn for me by other people: The Distance Between Two Points is Measured in Memories from 1986 to 1988, and Places of Presence: Newfoundland kin and ancestral land from 1989 to 1991.
Then, for a decade, I worked with impersonal and anonymous responses to the land as they’re manifested in found public signs. These series of photographs looked at, among other things, boundaries imposed on the land, signage directing tourists, and some of the prescriptions for what can and cannot be done in specific locations. A few examples are the series Language and Land Use, Newfoundland 1994, Entering and Leaving St. John’s, Newfoundland 1995, Questions about the Place, Nova Scotia 1998, and finally Cues for Sightseers, Yukon 2003.
Since 2002, when I moved to this patch of forest, I’ve returned to exploring my own personal relationship to the natural world. So the arc has become a circle, or maybe a spiral, with the centre being my current multi-year engagement with the environment where I live. My art comes from a ‘slow’ engagement with the details of this particular place, and a stretch of the Blast Hole Pond River that runs through it. As I’ve said, my greatest aspirations are presently constituted by the six acres of boreal forest that I inhabit, and I’m slowly tuning my body and my reflexes to its details. I’m coming to know this habitat by engaging with it in various ways: corporally, emotionally, intellectually, instinctively, linguistically, and in astonishment.
WL: Your work seems to stand in contrast to contemporary issues of placelessness. Do you think the problems are also the effect of so-called globalisation? Everywhere is beginning to look like everywhere else, and we even erect monuments to the generic, as in airports for example. Your work seems a direct challenge to this in that the way you are engaging in what I have come to understand as an essentially parochial approach — that is parochial not in its present ‘soured’ sense of limited vision, but in its original sense of something of deliberately limited geography — achieves an intensity of attention to the local which opens into something wondrous.
MC: Finding my subject matter immediately around me is in step with my interest in ‘place’ and aiming for a smaller carbon footprint. I am extremely pleased that you’ve seen something in my work that “achieves an intensity of attention to the local which opens into something wondrous.” That makes me feel as if I have achieved something. Even though the artistic gestures I make are to this particular patch of boreal forest, I hope they can pertain to the boreal ecosystem in general (which, as I said, is the largest one on the planet) and, indeed, to the importance of any ecosystem.
WL: I can’t help but think of Suzi Gablik’s ‘The Reenchantment of Art’. I can see two of her themes of the mythic and the ecological as being right at the forefront of your work. What about her third issue of greater community? Have you left that behind in moving to the forest? Much of your earlier work certainly seems to embrace it. Am I missing something or do you have a hierarchy of issues that you are conscious of?
MC: I read The Reenchantment of Art when it first came out, and your comments have prompted me to take it off the shelf again to re-read. I see that Gablik wrote, almost twenty-five years ago, of “the emerging ecological age.” If only it had emerged more strongly, especially in the actions of politicians. In the general public, however, I think there are much higher awareness and sense of urgency than there were twenty-five years ago.
I don’t think the mythic is part of my work. For me, the mythic involves the imaginary, the fictitious, and the symbolic, which my phenomenological-based work does not.
The “greater community” is becoming an increasingly important part of my work. For many years I have included quotes from members of the non-art community in my work, and recently I’ve led some community-based projects in which the participants engaged with their own places (for example, Award Ribbons for Places in Pictou County, Nova Scotia and Award Ribbons for Woodhaven Nature Conservancy Expansion in Kelowna, British Columbia).
I’ve also included natural historians and scientists who live in my local community as collaborators on the public walks in The Boreal Poetry Garden. Above all, the shift from gallery-based presentations of my work to in situ participatory events in the forest represents an expanded context for art, one that is aimed at the “greater community” and the potential for ripple effects by facilitating people meeting each other. One of the important aspects of these events for me is the idea that hospitality, aesthetics, and culture are interconnected forces that can be brought to bear on our experience of and appreciation for the environment. And, as one of my collaborators said, the distinction between the arts and sciences seems easier to collapse in the boreal forest itself than in a gallery or museum.
WL: Do you see your current work in any way as something that has much in common with the ideals of the Romantic period? I am thinking in terms of its analysis of our sensual relationship with the world around us.
MC: Paying attention to what is there has always been at the centre of my practice, and focusing on its sensorial aspects by looking, touching, listening, and appreciating. The sources for my work do not come from my imagination. If I were to point to any particular philosophical tradition with which I identify, it would be phenomenology. Some recent examples would be Water Flowing to the Sea Captured at the Speed of Light and About 8½ Minutes from the Sun to the Moon to the River to My Face to the Camera, both of which feature the Blast Hole Pond River that flows through this patch of boreal forest, and Larch, Spruce, Fir, Birch, Hand (ongoing since 2007).
Our sensual relationship with the natural world is very important to me. But I fear that relationship is being affected as more and more of our experience and knowledge about it is mediated through digital technology. At one time, placelessness was inconceivable –– everything that happened had to happen somewhere. But our sensorial experience of the physical world is being displaced by the virtual and the simulated. I think knowledge, and along with it identity, are becoming less and less site-specific. I feel this is having disastrous consequences for the environment –– when its attributes are not perceived, known, named, or appreciated, they become vulnerable.
As for Romanticism, I don’t think my work is in line with one of its main aspects. Yes, the Romantics started by observing the natural world, but then the focus shifted to a celebration of human imagination and the emotions –– nature as a reflection of human moods –– even for great walkers like Wordsworth. As a photographer, I would say my position with my subjects is more an “I-Thou” relationship, as articulated by the philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965), and that would be true whether I was photographing another person or a ‘natural’ subject. I’m not only a spectator, but also an active, subjective participant. My work is where the inside (my mind) and the outside (the environment) meet. I see my work as a co-production with the environment, which is often where the ‘magical’ occurs. But I’m definitely the lesser agent in the production.
Until recently, I’ve felt quite on my own in pursuit of an art practice that could be a better model in terms of environmental concerns. But thanks to the very digital communication systems that have made our experiences of the world so mediated, there are several on-line networks, such as the Walking Artists Network, the Women Environmental Artists Directory (WEAD), the Ecoart Network, the Performance and Ecology listserv, the Place Location Context and Environment (PLaCE) Research Centre, and the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada (ALECC) that are a source of inspiration and critical exchange — as well as hope. I’m starting to feel that there is a very active critical mass of people out there with whom I am in accord.
Much of the contemporary art that gets attention seems to make the largest carbon footprint possible. I’m striving in the opposite direction –– making artistic gestures that are deliberately slight.
WL: Turning for a moment to process, what equipment do you currently use? Are you printing any images?
MC: I have several cameras that I use, depending on the project. The one I’m currently using the most is a small, easy-to-carry digital camera that is waterproof up to 10m/33 feet deep (as well as in any weather conditions!); it also shoots Full HD video. I use my old 35mm camera to photograph black-and-white negatives, and a 6×9 medium-format for colour transparencies. I don’t get many of my images printed (nor framed and crated) any more — I use them mostly in videos and on my website.
In addition to cameras, the most important pieces of equipment are a log-splitter and a chainsaw for the maintenance of the paths in the patch of boreal forest around me. I burn the deadfalls and blow-downs to heat the house in the winter. With climate change, storms and hurricanes are becoming both stronger and more frequent and, sadly, it’s usually the largest spruce and balsam fir trees that are affected. I’d like to underline that this maintenance is unobtrusive, and the site is deliberately not a sculpture park. I think of what I do as “tuning” as well as “being tuned by” this patch of boreal forest.
WL: What about the role of walking in creating your work in the forest? What’s your use and strategy towards walking in relation to the output of your work?
MC: Walking, with its minimal environmental footprint, is integral to my work. For many years, the main way I made my work public was by sending crates of framed artworks to galleries in the outside world. But I’ve inverted that way of doing things, and for almost 10 years I’ve been inviting people to come to The Boreal Poetry Garden. I take groups of up to 30 people on a poetry walk, stopping at certain spots in the forest and along the river to read a poem out loud. No frames, no crates, no shipping, no storage. And these live-art events, as I call them, are a very affordable kind of art, both for me to produce and for the public to experience.
The poems I read out loud on these walks are site-specific. I only perform them in the spots where they arose. I won’t read them anywhere else because the whole environment is part of the poem. The words point to what is there, or to something fleeting that happened there at one time. For me, there’s a resonance that’s created between the voiced poem and the natural phenomena it addresses.
You may wonder how I came to poetry, especially as I’m known more as a visual artist who works mainly in photography. This developed as a result of experiences I’ve had in the boreal forest that cannot be photographed –– something either too ephemeral to photograph, or something involving one of the other senses. So I turned to words and started to write poems. Previously there had been a lot of text in my work, but it was quotes from what other people had said to me. The first poems I composed were short and haiku-like. I wrote them out by hand on cards, and installed them in the relevant spot in the forest to photograph. Then I removed them. This way of working is similar to the early Paper, Stones and Water photo-landworks, and, as I was saying when describing the “bigger picture,” is an example of the arc of my work becoming a circle.
But then I started composing some poems that were too long to write out on a card and photograph. So it dawned on me that the way to present them was to invite people here, take them on a walk along the paths I’ve been making through the forest, and read the poems out loud to them. (An example of a practical solution = an aesthetic solution = an ecological solution.)
I’m particularly interested in the relationship between the Newfoundland dialect and the land. Many local terms fulfil a beautiful sonic relationship with this terrain in remarkably precise, practical, and poetic ways. Those words arose from an intense relationship between the inhabitants, the land, and the sea. I’m currently working on a series of photographs and a long video-poem based on local terms for ice, snow, and winter weather. I compiled a glossary of these terms, and it amounted to over 80. Each one answers the need to name exactly some condition or nuance in the continuous modulations of winter weather. I’ve found that knowing the terms allows me to actually see and distinguish the phenomena. I identify with these words because many of them would have been in the mouths of my Newfoundland ancestors. This work became A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow and has been ongoing since 2011.
WL: Your incorporation of many different disciplines into your work has been no mean feat. What drives this? Is it a better way of translating a multi-sensual experience than a simple ‘two dimensional’ visual representation?
MC: You’ve put your finger on the precise reason why my work is multidisciplinary. There’s something that I call “the persistence of geography.” It’s how the particular features of the bioregion that we inhabit –– the weather, the vegetation, even the gradient of the terrain –– can affect our lives as individuals, and our culture as a group, in every detail. Life itself is “multi-sensual”, but photographs are not.
As I said in 1998, “I photograph landscapes, yet I’m very suspicious of landscape photographs — I wonder what assumptions or conclusions we are led to by the look of places. What meanings are not visible? As a central interpretive device of our culture and our history, photography has the power to form the images and ideas we have of places. But in every view of field and mountain, forest and sea, city and dwelling, the scene hints at something it cannot reveal.”
What a photograph cannot reveal is the multitude of histories and experiences in a place because they are largely invisible and cannot be photographed. For that reason I have often included text with photographs, and that text often undermines ‘the view’. Other media I’ve used include found natural objects collected from the sites (though I don’t do that any more), and video, which is a way of extending photography to include text in an audible form, as well as avoiding the consumption of materials involved with printing, framing, and crating.
WL: Do you see an alignment to what is sometimes called ‘new nature’ writing? I’m referring to the likes of Robert Macfarlane, Tim Robinson, Richard Mabey, etc and also the poetry of say Kathleen Jamie or Thomas Clarke. I’m intrigued by the very healthy and vibrant contemporary landscape/nature scene in literature, compared to the dourness of the majority of critical visual art.
MC: Of those you mentioned, I am aware of some of the writing by Robert Macfarlane, Richard Mabey, and Thomas Clarke. Tom and Laurie Clarke are acquaintances of mine. I’ve been a great admirer of what they do at their Cairn Gallery and the exquisite handmade publications they produce. I’ve visited them a couple of times, once when they lived in Nailsworth in England, and once since they moved to Pittenweem in Scotland.
The literary arts are as important and inspirational to me as the visual arts, so I’d like to read the other writers you mentioned.
WL: Do you see your wanderings around your forest as an art performance in their own right?
MC: My wanderings by myself are not a performance. When I’m on my own, I pay attention to and think about what’s there; I see, hear, and touch things that become part of my art. I have to be by myself to do that well. But when there’s an audience with me, it’s a public event and it’s performative. I prepare a script and a route, and they’re both slightly different for each walk. I’m really pleased that I’ve found a way of presenting my work that entails a direct experience of the local environment for audience members, as well as facilitates social interaction between them.
WL: Your work is also flirting with the ‘scenic’ beauty of the landscape, is it not? In doing so it presents work that is affirmative of life and far from the post-modern perspective. In that context do you employ a conscious strategy as regards critically engaging vs. beautiful? Do we need to distinguish the two? If classical beauty can be critically engaging, why do we not see more of it in contemporary fine art?
MC: Your question raises something important to me. Besides beauty, I think there’s a cluster of considerations that seem to be missing in most critically engaged contemporary art: wonder, awe, astonishment, the poetic, the lyrical, the sacred, the miraculous, and the numinous. I don’t think I ever hear any of this uttered, not even in the eco-art discussion groups of which I am a part. For me, the aesthetic experience includes an appreciation for the world, as well as something that stretches my perception and way of thinking. My art is a way to respond to the world’s beauty and worth as it comes to my attention, or — I should say — as my attention comes to it.
WL: In talking of work that engages with wonder, awe, astonishment etc etc are you talking about something where the ‘meaning’ side or intellectual side is intentionally low profile? I was intrigued a while ago to read an article by environmental activist Jonathan Porrit, who criticised his green peers for their focus on the intellectual argument for environmental change at the expense of the emotional engagement with our environment. This, he argued, would mean a finite and low limit to engagement by the public. It struck me that such an emotional engagement could well be effected through art . . . only to realise how little contemporary art appears to be about affect.
MC: Both the effect and the affect that intellectual and scientific information has on me are very emotional. My work is a kind of template for my learning, and each project I undertake is an experiment to see what will happen. It’s something like, ‘What would it look like if I do such and such?’ It’s not a case of imagining the result I want and then manipulating materials to arrive at a desired image. I’m not a studio artist, so the flux and flow in the natural world have an impact on my outcomes. It is both an emotional and an intellectual engagement with the environment. And, as I think I said, I am the lesser agent in the process.
I think art can both reflect the state of affairs and act as a model for new ways of seeing and thinking. For me, dissent and critique can take the form of doing things “otherwise.”
WL: Can the affective be positioned so as to be simultaneously seen as critically engaging?
MC: I would say that any critique in my work of the world’s state of affairs is implicit rather than explicit. I’m simply offering another way of approaching the land as an artist and a human being. This may imply a critique to the current paradigm, but what would be better is if it could help contribute to a new one.
WL: How important is it to you to create work which changes the viewers’ outlook towards the environment? I guess what I am getting at is, how big of an impact are you wanting?
MC: Some people say the crisis is so profound we need radical tactics for any future at all to be possible. However, if my ultimate goal was to change viewers’ outlooks towards the environment, I’d probably feel as if I was failing because I’m not aware of having brought about any such change. Still, I am a big believer in the ripple effect, even though it is impossible to predict its path in advance, control its movement, or trace the extent of its spreading. I think every small act of perception and awareness has the potential to make a difference.
My greatest wish is for everyone to see that what we all have in common is the planet. I love the idea of “the commons” (which I envy in the UK), but publicly accessible land is disappearing everywhere in the prevailing practice of privatizing everything, even water. This goes beyond “rights of way,” though that’s part of it too, as for example in Walking and No Walking, Alberta 2000.
One of the important factors in protecting both land and water as “common” is for the aesthetic, social, cultural, and ecological importance of the environment to be appreciated. How’s that for wanting a big impact?
WL: I am certainly not going to argue against such a suggestion. Just to close, could you give us a few insights into what is in store during your upcoming stay in Edinburgh and how this fits with this large-scale ambition?
MC: There are several areas I want to research while in the UK. Perhaps the most demanding part of my artistic endeavour at the moment is serving on the first Advisory Committee on the Environment for my local town council where I’m involved in finding community-based creative solutions for local environmental issues. So spending time in the UK may seem paradoxical when I’m so focused on the specificity of the local. But I see my residency as an Academic Visitor in the Art, Space and Nature programme at the Edinburgh College of Art as providing reciprocal, two-way exchanges. I’m very excited to find out what both the faculty members and the students are thinking and doing, as well as discussing my own practice with them. And this extends to several other institutions and arts organizations in the UK that I plan to visit where there is some focus on place and the environment, such as your own Walking, Art, Landskip and Knowledge (WALK) Research Centre at the University of Sunderland.
For several years I’ve been grappling with questions about identity, community outreach and contemporary art practice in the context of rural society. I’m specifically interested in learning about ways others have engaged local rural communities in contemporary environmental art — as opposed to visitors from urban areas who travel to rural areas to see work by metropolitan artists installed in the countryside, which Lucy R. Lippard has identified as “a kind of colonization in itself” in her new book, Undermining: A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (p. 88).
I’m also hoping to meet as many like-minded artists as possible, especially any who are landowners and use their land (or bodies of water) for their subject matter or for projects in situ. I’m particularly interested in finding women artists who are such landowners. It seems to me that, historically, this may be a fairly recent development and deserves attention. Hello, any interested curator out there? I’d be happy to share the results of my research with you.
1. In addition to ‘A Virtual Walk of The Boreal Poetry Garden’, there is a lot of information about The Boreal Poetry Garden on Marlene’s website in various places and forms, including:
– 4 documentary videos of the events in the summer of 2013, which were on the theme of the audible and included acoustic musicians who improvised in relation to her poems and the site.
– a review by Robert Finley, “Marlene Creates: Of Words and Woods” in Canadian Art online, September 15, 2011.
– 2 blogs by people who have attended one of the events in The Boreal Poetry Garden:
“Marlene Creates Makes Art in Tune with the Times” by Gloria Hickey, July 22, 2013
“Poetry and Geology: Being Present to the Ancient Earth––Marlene Creates’ Boreal Poetry Garden” by Ruth Martin, August 21, 2012
– some of the hand-written poems installed in situ for photographing.
2. In addition to those mentioned in the text, some other projects include Spots of Memory: what I remembered during one month away after six years on Blast Hole Pond Road from 2008, and Our Lives Concurrent for 58 Years Until the Hurricane from 2010.