Andi Sutton is an artist, collaborator, and catalyst who works across disciplines including performance, video, installation, and social practice. Following her graduation in 2003 with dual degrees from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (a BFA in interdisciplinary studies and a BA in Women’s Studies), Andi has built an active career as a solo artist, and works with collectives including The National Bitter Melon Council, Platform2: Art and Social Engagement, and Plotform. Her work has been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) (Los Angeles, CA, USA), The Western Front, (Vancouver, BC, Canada), the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco, CA, USA), the Yogyajarta New Media Art Laboratory (Yogyajarta, Indonesia), the SMART Museum (Chicago, IL, USA), Universidad Nacional (Bogota, Colombia), the Anthology Film Archives (New York, NY, USA), the Mills Gallery (Boston, MA, USA), and the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (Lincoln, MA, USA), among others. She has received grants from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Council for the Arts and the LEF Foundation, as well as the SMFA Traveling Scholars Award and the Artadia Award.
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Andi had been on our radar for a while, but we didn’t actually meet until this summer at a few events in the Boston area. We were so glad to finally make the connection, and quickly arranged a studio visit. After a really fabulous conversation in her studio, we are so pleased to share the following interview. Andi’s thoughtful responses delve deep into the subjects of collaboration, social practice, feminism, climate change, and much more.
*Note: We’ve included a number of links throughout our interview where you can find additional information about different pieces, projects, and collaborators. Check them out!
Andrea Evans: Andi, we know you are on a time crunch right now and are preparing for a big upcoming change, so thanks so much for making the time to have us by your studio.
When did you first begin doing collaborative projects? Has this always been a part of your art practice?
Andi Sutton: I first started working collaboratively when I was a student at the SMFA. I was in the combined BA/BFA program with Tufts and the SMFA at the time, working primarily in video and performance art. The moment that served as a catalyst for all of the collaborative work to come came in a class on interactive video installation with a visiting instructor, Larry Shea.
In one of the early projects of the semester, we were asked to use Max MSP to create a simple random image generation program. This was the same year that the 9/11 attacks happened, and I was making a lot of work about the security state, increased surveillance, and political and social aftereffects of the attack. So, for the project, I made a simple Max MSP image scrolling system that mimicked the image scrolls on slot machines, pulling imagery from U.S. Army and Iraq war coverage websites. Two friends of mine were in the class, Andrew Eisenberg and Sean Smith. During the critique, Andrew, Sean, and I started riffing on the possibilities of this Iraq war-inspired slot machine-like image scroll. And after class, the conversation kept going.
Andrew was a sound artist, and Sean primarily worked in sculpture, though all of us had been taking performance classes as well. As the three of us talked, the idea for a persona-based interactive project was formulated: The Compassionate Conservative Authority. As the CCA, we built a slot machine, Slots for Security. As the piece developed, so did we as a collective – the way we bounced ideas off of each other and worked together.
The thing that was most exciting and inspiring to me about that collaborative process was how each of our separate interests and strengths made for a much stronger, bigger, and more dynamic project than each of us could have created alone. Plus, it was so much fun to work in a group! I discovered how, when working in groups, one collaborator’s energy and ideas can feed another’s; the creative, intellectual, and personal relationships that grow fertilize the overall vision and project implementation. And because working with others necessitates a release of total control over the idea and the outcome, there are always delightful surprises that occur along the way.
It was a total epiphany. I was hooked! And I’ve been doing collaborative work ever since.
AE: One of the things that is present in many of your works is a balance between the poetic and the functional. One example of this is The National Bitter Melon Council, where there is both a literal and metaphoric element to the projects under its umbrella. Can you talk a little bit about this strategy?
AS: I think that this strategy comes from an activist sensibility that I have (and that I share with many of the collaborative partners with whom I’ve worked – the National Bitter Melon Council and others). Or, maybe a better way of putting it is that I’m interested in both commenting on and asking questions about the world (read: the poetic) and engaging directly with it and with others in a tangible and transformative way (read: the literal).
I do believe that art in its solely poetic/symbolic capacity is able to engage with and transform the world, mind you. And it often does. In fact, poetic approaches to cultural or political issues can be equally (and differently) potent agents of concrete social and cultural change as concrete political action.
But I also think that ‘Art’, specifically contemporary art, can be alienating to a lot of people – people who, if there was another way in to the ideas that some artwork is trying to present, could be great allies, contributors, and agents in sharing its message. I’ve seen that with the National Bitter Melon Council, for sure. Not everyone feels like they can have an opinion about art, but everyone can form – and share – an opinion about food. And Bitter Melon is very easy to form an opinion about, because it is itself such an expressive (performative?) gourd (the taste, the bumpy texture… it’s hard to be ambivalent about.)
So, developing projects that work on the literal and poetic level (such as literally promoting the culinary, creative, community-building, and nutritional use of Bitter Melon while using it to comment on difference and foreignness and the flavor and the emotion of bitterness) creates that other way in for audience members and participants. The literal serves as the solid ground upon which curious viewers can stand while the poetic aspects of the pieces do their work: sparking confusion, asking questions, destabilizing the space between the real and the not-real, providing other lenses with which to view the world and each other.
And it’s most exciting to me when, for instance, the literal is read as poetic, and vice versa. For example, one of the NBMC projects did not start out as a project per se. A few years ago, we created a Wikipedia page about the National Bitter Melon Council and also edited the information page on Bitter Melon to include, in the definition of Bitter Melon on the site, that Bitter Melon was a vegetable as well as a creative medium. Now, while all the information we posted on Wikipedia was real, and we as a Council are real, our Wikipedia page was pulled down after only a couple of days and our changes to the Bitter Melon Wikipedia page were removed. The editorial comments explaining the removal were amazing! Two of the reasons offered, by two different editors, were:
“This article almost sounds like the NBMC is an arts and cultural organization that uses the Bitter Melon as a metaphor, but reading it carefully it looks like a promotional organization. Delete. Do not redirect”
“Organization’s name gets only 152 Google hits, zero Google news hits. I’ve read the article and visited their website and I’m still not sure whether a Bitter Melon is a real thing or a metaphor. Either way, the organization doesn’t seem that notable, and this looks a lot like spam”
Problematizing the literal with the poetic, or the poetic with the literal, is provocative. It makes even the real seem unreal. And what I love about that is that, if the poetic can make the real unreal, can it also make the unreal real? I think therein lies the potential for revolution and transformation.
AE: The work done by the National Bitter Melon Council revolves around the idea of “bitterness”, but there is still something hopeful in these projects. There is a playful quality to the work; it is not overwhelmingly negative, but it’s not utopian either. It’s rather down-to-earth, incremental, and practical. These days we see many works in social practice that romanticize the utopic vision of the 60’s and 70’s–but they often seem to ignore the fact that these utopic challenges failed. Can you elaborate on this idea of “bitterness”?
AS: Bitterness has been a rewarding emotion for us to work with as it relates to our interest in community building, difference and foreignness, because it is such a complex emotion and such a complex flavor. Bitterness may occasionally be distasteful, foreign, or uncomfortable, but it is not in itself bad. It is part of the panoply of emotions and flavors, and in relation or opposition to others helps the other flavors and emotions define themselves.
Explicitly inviting in and naming this complexity is essential when thinking about community and community building – catch words used by a lot of social practice artists and projects. And in some of these projects, when “community” and “community building” is used, it’s often intended to be read as always already positive, always already the most important outcome, and always already a social good. But communities are varied, heterogeneous, and form for so many different reasons (and reasons that do not always promote the utopic goals of some of these social practice projects.) It does communities in all their individuality a disservice to flatten and over-sweeten Community as an idea and a totality. (There’s where the utopic visions, and the places they fall short come in, perhaps.) Now, as the NBMC, we use the language of community pretty flagrantly – this is true. But seeking to build community through bitterness, difference and foreignness allows space for discord. Sometimes the communities that form are even founded on discord which we feel can be incredibly productive.
When we were invited to be part of the Smart Museum exhibition Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, a historical survey of the use of food and interactivity in contemporary art, curator Stephanie Smith asked us to reflect on our practice in terms of hospitality in an interview for the catalogue. I share a small portion of our response below because I think it is helpful in terms of thinking about the “over sweetening” of community or interactivity in social practice – one way of thinking about hospitality itself. It shares a bit about how, with our focus on bitterness, we’re able to avoid (or at least try to avoid) the kinds of pitfalls in social practice that you are hinting at.
“Our definition of hospitable—or hospitableness—is cultural resonance. Hospitableness is using cultural resonance to form an entry point, an environment, or a relationship. And these entry points come about in our design choices, in our persona, in the language we use to talk about what we do, and more. However, we feel that hospitableness is only relevant for us when it comes in concert with inhospitableness. When the cultural referent of the vegetable promotion board meets the ugly, intensely bitter, “foreign” Bitter Melon, hospitableness meets the inhospitable. And the productive rupture—curiosity, discovery, wonder, confusion—happens only with the meeting of the two. For when our work is solely hospitable, when there is no surprise or subversion (inhospitableness), we become merely a vegetable promotion board instead of especially a vegetable promotion board.”
(From the catalogue Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art, 2013)
AE: NBMC has been your longest lasting collaboration, evolving and growing over 10 years now. Do you attribute the lasting quality of this project to the collaborators involved (how well the three of you work together), or the strength of the idea for this project (in how it has been able to act as an umbrella for so many different exchanges and sub-projects)? What phase is this collaboration at now?
AS: This is an interesting question, and one that I would likely answer differently at different moments in our collaboration. We, as a collaborative, have had several phases of our working relationship, affected by the different stages of the project, where each of us were living at the time, and how busy each of us were in other aspects of our lives, personal and professional. And these factors (particularly the factor of geographical distance) affect how we three work together, and how often.
When we began our work together, Jeremy Liu, Hiroko Kikuchi, and I lived within a few blocks of each other in Jamaica Plain. This allowed for a very intense collaborative relationship for the first few years — long collective work-sessions, long meetings with meandering discussions, and many Boston-based projects that were time intensive and very much of that place. The stage we were in our lives at that moment facilitated this ability to work together so intensively, as did our enthusiasm for the project idea and where it was taking us. And the ways that we grew ideas and made projects together so well contributed to this enthusiasm.
Currently, Jeremy lives in Oakland, CA, Hiroko lives in Tokyo, Japan, and I live here in Boston. And we’ve been at least bi-coastal collaborators, if not international collaborators for several years now. As a result, we now have done some NBMC projects together; some we have spearheaded independently and involved each other in critical stages of concept development, implementation, or in post processing; and some we have done independently. We’ve let ourselves respond to each other and to a given opportunity or situation as the opportunity requires, and this has been working for us more or less so far.
Currently, I’d say that the thing that keeps me most engaged in continuing this collaborative work is the fact that the project itself continues to be so inspiring to me and to others. I don’t think that we’ve exhausted the creative and symbolic uses of Bitter Melon yet, its power as a community-building tool and art medium has not yet been exhausted, and I have not learned all I have yet to learn from this project and the collaborative entity that Hiroko, Jeremy, and I make together.
Now, when we do connect as a three-some in brainstorming conversations or artist talks (which happens less now, but still does happen), I’m reminded of how unique the dynamic between our three minds and worldviews is, and this proves to be sustaining. It’s just not as present as the central sustaining element of the project itself because each of us is also absorbed with various life, work, art, and other projects at the same time.
Kirk Amaral Snow: A few years ago I hosted a panel on collaboratives at Montserrat College of Art. Anthony Graves from Camel Collective talked on the panel. He made this statement that really stuck with me about how his collaboration with Carla Herrera-Prats became more sustainable when they came to an agreement that they could also call their individual practices Camel Collective. You’ve recently been moving to more individual projects. Is this the end of “Andi Sutton, serial collaborator”?
AS: The story about the Camel Collective is interesting — I can see how that definitely would support the resilience and longevity of the collective and also the range of possibilities of one’s own work. I’ve seen similar strategies in other collaborative projects — the Institute for Infinitely Small Things comes to mind in particular. And, each time I hear about this happening, it makes me think about the place that collaboration and authorship, specifically, plays in my art practice as a whole. I ask myself – would this be a strategy that would satisfy me?
And I usually answer ‘no’. I am very clear about work that is from start to finish an Andi Sutton project. In these pieces, if they involve other people in any kind of role (fabrication, research and development, science consultation, etc.) my commitment to building ethical working relationships means that I strive to be very clear about the nature of the working relationship and of authorship. It’s important to me to give credit to project participants, and also be clear for myself and others that the role of project participant should not be confused with that of co-author or collaborative partner.
I do this because I take collaboration very seriously. I have different expectations of co-authors and collaborators and of myself when I am involved in these relationships. I’ve learned to do so having had collaborative experiences that have been positive, some that have been negative, and everything in between. And in this learning, I’ve come to know that my own personality as a collaborator and my expectations for collaborative relationships call for clarity of roles, expectations, and expectations about authorship.
I’m sometimes the one in a collaborative team, during times when our collectives (or lives) are in a moment of flux, to ask the group to discuss whether or not we should continue and reflect on why. Sometimes there’s a joint decision to continue, other times there’s a joint decision to stop the official collaborative relationship, sometimes we decide to change the terms of the collaborative or relationship to become more sustainable. I think some collaboratives just have different life spans than others, and I think it’s OK to notice and name the moment when the life of the project or collective has run its course – or, of course, when it’s time to continue with renewed effort.
Furthermore, my commitment to clarity around authorship, and my commitment to sustaining a solo and collaborative practice, is fueled by my feminist politics and sense of gender justice. The art world like so many other aspects of our culture, is built out of and continues to be a patriarchal system. It still is difficult for women artists or artists of color to get the same kind of recognition or access as white male artists. Therefore, I think there are higher stakes for me as a woman artist to let all of my work be subsumed under the name of a single collective, whether produced individually or not. The possibility of erasure as a thinker, maker, and central contributor is, unfortunately, greater.
On a more positive note, in differentiating solo work from collaborative work, I have retained energy and excitement for both because both feed me in very different ways.
I’m very excited, for example, about my current collaboration with Jane Marsching, Plotform. It feeds my solo work and is different in style and scope from it. Similar to the NBMC or the Compassionate Conservative Authority, I’m delighted by what I am learning from this collaborative work and what we are making and growing together.
AE: You mentioned that your residencies at MassArt’s Brant Gallery and Penland School of Crafts as significant moments when you really found an individual voice and an interest in making things again. Can you elaborate more on these experiences and what you were working on at those times?
AS: What was significant about both of these experiences was what they offered to me in terms of time and space for making artwork. Up until then (both happened in 2012), my primary sites for developing work were out in public, at home, at my office at MIT, or in the homes or studios of collaborative partners. Penland and the Brant Gallery residency offered me the experience of having sustained time and consecrated space for art making.
The focus of Penland, in particular, was on learning, craft, and experimentation. I was accepted in to a 2-week residency program focused on lithography and led by printmaker Erika Adams. Each of the artists in this residency applied with a certain project or outcome in mind, but there was no expectation that that project be realized.
A primarily deadline-driven artist, I arrived in North Carolina with a very specific outcome in mind (there was an exhibition I was working towards, building on thinking around mourning, loss, and climate change.) But I quickly realized as I began to learn different printmaking techniques that that approach was the exact wrong way to go about things, and that I would get much more out of the experience if I were to follow my instincts and excitements and see what came about along the way.
It was a huge relief to do so. I rediscovered a love of drawing – something that hadn’t been a part of my daily practice in years. I rediscovered how exciting the meditative space of making is — the body repetitions that go in to inking a plate or making work in a series. I reveled in the opportunity to focus on art making, and only art making, for 2 full weeks – something that I haven’t been able to do since college because of my work at MIT.
The joy that emerged from this style of making, in particular the joy in the physical aspects of making and crafting an object alongside its concept, infused my experience as an artist in residence at the Brant Gallery. With space to work and a mandate (as part of the show) to transform the space, I let myself experiment with various ideas and with form. I still had a deadline — the work developed there was to be shown at the SMFA Traveling Scholars exhibition that spring. But I was able to be more flexible and physical with my idea and vision as I found practices that delighted me and supported the installation’s concept. These were, primarily, weaving and sculpture. Both were strategies that gave me the meditative, physical satisfaction of making, but both were also intellectually satisfying in that they solved conceptual questions that I was trying to answer in the piece.
At the end of that spring, it became clear to me that I needed a studio, and that that sort of making space would help me continue the parallel physical and intellectual art production that I had started. I was lucky to connect with a friend just as he was leaving Boston for graduate school and was able to take over his space just as the Traveling Scholars and Brandt Gallery shows were ending and get to work.
KAS: One of the things that came up in our conversations was the role of craft, or perhaps “craftsmanship” might be a better term, in social practice. We discussed how in the critical dialogue around social/community based practice, it often seems as though less attention is given to the craftsmanship or design aspects. Can you talk about how this manifests in your own approach?
AS: While I talk in the response above about my discovery – or re-discovery – of craft in those two residencies, I have been very conscious and contentious of it in all of my pieces. At Penland and Mass Art it was about art making strategies that come from traditional sources (printmaking, weaving, furniture making, sewing, chair caning, etc.) But craft (in the craftsmanship sense of the word) this has been a central concern even in my more performance-based or interventionist works, especially in the social practice vein.
In terms of social practice, the issue of craft is a tricky thing to apply at the moment, but one that I feel is incredibly important. I think there is less conversation about craftsmanship in social practice for several reasons. It’s still a relatively new field. Or, rather, relatively newly institutionalized. All we have to do is look at the Departments of Social Practice that are popping up at various art schools around the country to see this. And in social practice work, it often happens that the social concerns (the culture-changing, intervention, activist sensibilities) are the most discussed and or sometimes most prized in terms of importance in relation to the totality of a piece. However, in prioritizing these strategies and outcomes (or in not seeing them as in themselves a kind of craft) does the work and the field as a whole a disservice. It makes for good debate, but tricky evaluation of a piece.
I think the field would be all the better if some time were taken to analyze, discuss, and perhaps name what is the craft of social practice. Are there any universal craftsmanship strategies that are used (conversation could be one, or participation, or…?)
Because this is a bit of an obsession of mine, it comes out in my work. The origin may be in my background in feminist theory and methodology, in which critical reflection about process, intent, and outcome is an integral part of the practice. If dialogue is an element of a piece, I think about what kinds of conversations I want to have, what kind of ‘data’ I want to gather and how, and what kind of impact I want to make with these interactions, and how these relate to performance art methodology and the self-consciously ‘contemporary art’ goals of the piece. I think about site and context specificity… what kind of objects, making-practices, and installation strategies will serve the piece, its concept and impact in this particular place and at this particular moment. And the aesthetic, visual, performative, and craftsmanship-based choices come out of this thinking.
These strategies were nascent in my early projects and were honed through my work with the National Bitter Melon Council. And I have brought them to other collaborative and solo practices. The reason craft was considered in such a detailed manner with the NBMC was that the development and maintenance of our persona is integrally connected to craftsmanship. As a national vegetable promotion board, we meticulously crafted our “corporate” identity and brand image. As artists we were meticulously self-reflective about how this corporate identity-creation created and guided our persona and served as cultural commentary and performance. Font, paper texture, installation materials, email responses, website imagery and text — all these are elements of craft in the project and are choices that that we consider from the literal and symbolic level. It’s exciting to consider the piece this way. And the result of having this attention to craft in the piece is that some of the ephemera from various projects has been able to live on as stand alone ‘art objects’ – it’s not just the story about the ephemera that gives it power as an art object, its the story and the objecty-ness of the object that serves the elevating purpose.
AE: You discussed a shift in your practice from focusing on deadline oriented projects (applying for different opportunities and developing projects for them) to a more…well, maybe freeform practice, I’d almost say. Something a little more like the practice of a painter who is in the studio regularly producing work regardless of exhibitions, etc. But you don’t necessarily have that kind of practice; you do make things, but they are generally part of larger projects. How have you been navigating this change in your work? What does it mean to you, to have a studio practice?
AS: I can’t say that I’ve been navigating this very well lately… but I’m trying. The interest in integrating other strategies began at a time when I felt a bit creatively oppressed by various competing project deadlines. I began to wonder if, without an opportunity for whimsy and spaciousness in my studio practice, I was losing joy in the art making process. I also found I had less space for reflection more generally than I wanted.
So I have, since that point, tried to incorporate more ‘making’ into deadline-driven pieces to bring in the desire for time for reflection and a different kind of satisfaction in my art process. (My recent installation at the DeCordova Sculpture Park, Assisted Flagration, is an example.) And, I’ve tried to incorporate more deadlines into ideas that I’m curious about but don’t know yet where they’ll take me. This sometimes works, and sometimes it feels awkward and I get caught up in resistance and frustration. At those moments, I try to focus on the fact that I might just be in an awkward re-training period.
What I have found in my efforts to change my art making process is that no matter the project, I always find writing (in fact, proposal-style writing) to be helpful in directing my focus and quieting my ‘editorial mind’. I also have found that self imposed deadlines are essential to me no matter what, whether or not the deadlines are not coming from elsewhere, and that I am also unfortunately very good at creatively convincing myself out of and around these deadlines.
AE: You mentioned that a big part of your day job as the Program Manager for the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies at MIT is facilitating conversations, discussions, meetings, and the like. Are there other aspects of your “day job” that have made their way into, or influenced, your work?
AS: The facilitative aspects of my job at MIT especially are the ones that reinforce and are reinforced by the interactive and facilitative aspects of my artwork. Additionally, the way that my work at the GCWS immerses me in feminist thinking, in institutional and cultural critique and in Women’s and Gender Studies issues more generally has a huge influence on my artwork and my sense of self as an artist.
For example, just last semester I taught at Mass Art in their Studio Foundations program. The course that I taught was on persona and most of the students who signed up for it were expecting a class that was primarily about performance art, not necessarily about politics. But to me (influenced by my WGS background and worldview it’s created), one can’t have a conversation about persona (in art or otherwise) without talking about things such as race, class, gender, and sexuality, institutionalized oppression, marginalization, and cultural construction. So throughout my syllabus were approaches to persona as an art-making tool with, through, and affected by an understanding of systems of power and oppression.
Now, one might look at my artwork and have a hard time seeing it as explicitly feminist or gender-related. But feminism is the bedrock of all of the projects that I do – whether it motivates the performance strategies used (such as dialogue-based processes or social research), to the interest in social change outcomes (or at least social change questions), to the commitment to equity and ethics in collaborative relationships and treatment of project partners. Because I’ve been thinking about feminist questions as long as I’ve been making art, I think my work would have carried these ideas through regardless of where I was employed. But being able to do and support feminist work in my full time job, being able to discuss feminist questions in an academic setting, means that my commitment is constantly renewed, and my understanding of what feminism means to me as an artist and as a being-in-the-world constantly evolves.
KAS: Your focus on the craft/design side of socially engaged works seems to allow projects to exist in multiple iterations and phases. With both “Conversation in Memorial” and the National Bitter Melon Council, you have had the opportunity to restage and re-present these projects for different institutions and locations. Do you try to improve on the staging each time? Is this “creative process” on display?
AS: It depends on the piece. With NBMC work and “Conversation in Memorial”, I’ve usually had the opportunity to install the work myself, and therefore I change the work based on site specificity and audience while still using the same elements. For “Conversation in Memorial” in particular, I always learn something new with every new opportunity to install. I pull new bittersweet (the invasive plant I use to create the installation environment) each time, and I build out the space in response to the installation environment. This means I’m making new sculptural decisions and discoveries each time – indeed making new sculptures.
It is true that I have occasionally had work in a show that looks very similar to earlier manifestations. What I try to do when asked to exhibit in this way is ask myself: am I learning anything new in this new iteration? Is this opportunity allowing it to impact a different audience differently than before? If the answer is no to either of these, I try to find ways to tweak the exhibition to make sure that there is some element that brings each answer to a yes.
I also can tell when something has been shown too many times in too-similar locations. This happened back in 2010 with a particular NBMC piece, called the “Meyers-Bitter Survey”. This piece is a Myers-Briggs-inspired survey we created that serves both as real-time performance documentation of our work as the National Bitter Melon Council and as an interactive performance in itself. In it, we interview participants using our series of yes/no questions and, after tallying their results, give them a Meyers-Bitter Bitterness Acronym made from the four emotions involved in our bitterness-based emograph: bitterness, peace, pride, and humility. We used this performance in many, many different environments and exhibitions from 2008-2010. During the first year and a half, we were constantly delighted by the variety of responses and what we were learning from the conversations that ensued. But there were one or two times towards the end of that period where we brought it out and it was new and exciting for our participants but felt a bit old to us. Our strategy as a result: put it away for a bit and transform it in to something else. It’s now in our fluxus kit/book: Better Living through Bitter Melon: A Manual, and the three of us have used it separately on occasion during presentations or artist talks.
AE: Your works ““Conversation in Memorial”, “Assisted Flagration” at the DeCordova, and Marsh Radio Island (a Plotform collaboration) show a shift in your conceptual interests toward issues around climate change. Was this a natural evolution in your work, or was there a clear moment that you can identify where this became a major artistic interest of yours?
AS: A bit of both. A few years ago, I was feeling in my solo practice that while there was a kind of consistency of approach, there was very little consistency in terms of subject matter. I was excited about each piece and what it did in the world, but found myself wanting to build a body of work around a set of central concerns as a way to feel less pulled in multiple directions intellectually and creatively. Besides the NBMC work, which all revolved around Bitter Melon and bitterness, making my other work around a huge variety of different concerns meant that I got to be a sort-of-expert on many things, but didn’t have the chance to really dig in, research-wise, to one set of questions. And I craved that kind of depth.
This all happened at a time, as well, where I was amping up my interest and concern about climate change and the environment as a whole. With Jane Marsching as a collaborative partner in our 4-person collective Platform2 (Catherine D’Ignazio, Sasha Rasovic, Jane Marsching, and I), we made several climate-related projects that were inspired by interests that Jane had brought to the table. After working with her on these I started bringing some climate-inspired ideas of my own to Platform2, based on the reading and research I was doing.
Another catalyzing force was an experience I had, supported through the SMFA Traveling Scholars award, doing work in Santa Marta, Colombia. My original proposal for the award was a cross-border collaborative performance about gender and culture with Maria Christina Agudelo, a performance artist from Santa Marta, Colombia. I spent a month in Colombia with Maria, teaching a performance workshop at the contemporary art museum there and working with her on project ideas.
Santa Marta is a coastal city and I was staying in an apartment that was right on the beach. One of the primary reasons for the city’s economic development was the city’s transformation into an international port used specifically for the import and export of coal. From my balcony I could see the mountain-sized piles of coal right at the edge of the water. Santa Marta is one of the windiest cities in Colombia, and with the coal right next to the water, bits of coal were blown for miles into the ocean and on the sandy beaches. The sand outside my apartment was grey as a result. The marine research station off the coast had no marine life to study once the ocean floor was layered with coal dust. And, every day, I watched the huge ships come and go with their shipping containers, coal piles, and oil rigs I felt more and more strongly about making work that engaged with what I was observing and feeling.
So, alongside the work with Maria I started doing a lot of writing and some performance experiments to try to unpack my thoughts, observations, and judgments. Where was the influence of the U.S. and the Global North in the environmental degradation I was seeing, literally in my backyard? Where was my own feeling of cultural superiority (however misplaced) as an American in my reaction to what I was seeing? How should I reconcile the environmental degradation with the obvious economic growth in the city and the good it was doing for many of the people there, good that supported communities I was getting to know in Santa Marta?
By the time I got back to the U.S., my interest in the gender-informed performance had waned, replaced by my interest in doing work that directly engaged with climate issues (especially the very messy, confusing, tightly knotted strings that connect economic development, climate degradation, social ‘good’, ‘progress’, and ideas about a future that is better than the past). From then on, streamlining all but my work with the NBMC in the direction of climate change was easy.
AE: I want to talk specifically about your piece, “Conversation in Memorial”, that you described as being about developing a “language of loss” as we look towards an uncertain future due to climate change. Can you describe the piece, and how you see it growing and evolving?
AS: Conversation in Memorial is an ongoing dialogue-based performance piece that takes multiple forms: sculpture, installation, public roundtable discussion, one on one performance, etc. I began the piece in 2011 out of an interest in building a larger conversation around loss as it relates to current understandings of climate change and uncertainty about the future.
The project involves several elements. I create habitats for conversation built out of Oriental Bittersweet, a vining plant that used to be ornamental in New England but that, due to warming temperatures, has become invasive as it creeps further north. I work with the conservation department of the town of Lincoln, MA to harvest bittersweet each time I am invited to install the piece (or when I create one of these habitats in a studio or residency environment.) So one lovely outcome is that, the more I show this piece, the more it improves the heavily invaded areas near to Boston.
Inside these habitats I place hand-woven furniture for two. The furniture is designed to be able to support a person’s weight comfortably only if there is another person using it at the same time. This is where often, but not always, I hold the dialogue-based performances. In these performances I invite people to pick one of the seats (choosing to sit back to back, front to front, or side by side) and I ask them to name what one thing they either hope, fear, or mourn will go extinct in the near or the long range future. I engage them in conversation about this thing, asking them to tell me the story of the last year, day, and moment this thing was seen on the earth before disappearing forever. After the conversations, I archive the losses and information about the contributor on an aluminum ‘seed tag’ – the rectangle tags used in botanical gardens and nurseries that include information about the various plants and their origins.
I have had over 300 of these conversations since 2012 with people of all ages (youngest age 5, oldest age 97). And the responses have varied. Mourned, hoped for, or feared extinctions have included: public funding for the arts, polar bears, capitalism, fresh water, human beings, racism, winter in New England, libraries, and more. And I’ve found that while I’m asking about the future what we’re really doing in this conversation is creating a kind of cultural history of the present vis a vis our cultural consciousness around climate change and the future.
I don’t only have these conversations on a one on one basis. Increasingly, I’ve been meeting and talking with large groups, facilitating conversations where multiple people share together the extinctions they hope for, fear, or mourn. It’s here that the piece has felt most powerful, and most important to me. Because I’ve seen that even as we’re deep in the thick of the anthropocene, and the sixth mass extinction in the history of the Earth, we as a culture (in the U.S. at least) do not have many tools with which to receive, connect with, and understand this huge ecological transformation beyond ambiguous and messy emotions like anxiety, apathy, and overwhelm. I believe that our emotional vocabulary is tied to our words and cognitive ability to process and take action. When stuck in anxiety, apathy, and overwhelm I think it’s easy for many people to refrain from action, fail to see the possibility for change, and retreat into other more emotionally safe understandings of the world and the future (inherited ideas of progress, of productivity, protecting the self, immortality, etc.) And I think that getting stuck in overwhelm or anxiety is just as much of a privilege as apathy or willingly turning away from some of the hard truths of being alive in the world right now (or ever, for that matter).
So, I see this piece as inviting people in to an opportunity to practice using other kinds of emotional vocabularies around the idea of loss, change, and the future. In this way, it’s important to me to include hope alongside fear and mourning in these questions. Because there are extinctions that we can hope for and work toward that would make a difference to our human and non-human communities. And there are feared and mourned for losses that, if named in a concrete way, could perhaps be unpacked, analyzed, and prevented.
The element of practice, to me, is most important here. I use a language of performance and of contemporary art to create environments that are ‘other’ and unfamiliar, prickly yet also cozy. My hope is that the fact that these spaces do not look like everyday sites of conversations and debate, participants will feel free to test out and name feelings about the future and loss that may seem weird, inappropriate, or overly politicized in other contexts. This is why I also welcome extinctions that do not specifically have to do with our natural environment or the climate per se. And I think that the more we all practice naming all of our emotions (messy or not) as we look at the distinct possibility of a future that is not better than the past, an environment that may or may not look like the one we’ve come to love (or at least to expect), the better we will be at talking about uncertainty and the future, loss and change, and our responsibilities as humans to each other and to our ecosystem as this change is happening.
In terms of how the piece will grow and evolve, I know for sure that I am not finished with the conversations. I find them to be personally powerful and satisfying, and potent (however subtle) activist gestures in their own right. And I continue to be surprised by the responses, and am starting to see over time how the extinctions that are shared run in parallel to the ways that climate change is spoken about in the mass media at large.
I do plan on making an artist book – and am in the very early stages of prototyping – that serves as a kind of field guide to the future vis a vis these predicted extinctions. I’ve considered an interactive online form in which to share the extinctions (though my present interest in being physical in and with my art practice has put this one on the backburner for a bit). I also remain excited and curious about the woven furniture, and would like to develop more pieces that work on the question of how to bring bodies together to talk about hard, emotional things like climate change and loss, in a way that breeds empathy and safety.
AE: Do you have any new projects coming up that you’d like to share with us?
AS: Well, one new project is a pretty big one — I’m about to have a baby! That has been at the forefront of my mind most recently, in particular how to continue to maintain and grow my art practice while helping to maintain and grow a little human being. I’ve been brainstorming mini-collaboration experiments that could be possible between the baby and I, and also ways that I can develop projects that are already underway during a period of life upheaval, schedule rejiggering, sleep irregularity and general availability. I haven’t done this before, so there are many unknowns… I’m trying to take it all in stride and form appropriate (and flexible) expectations.
AE: Well, congratulations, and thanks so much for your time! It was really such a pleasure to talk with you.
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For more on Andi Sutton’s work and collaborations:
The National Bitter Melon Council: http://www.bittermelon.org
Platform2: Art and Social Engagement: http://www.platform2.info/