Rochester, NY, Feb. 2014: I met up with Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint at Equal Grounds, a cafe in Rochester’s South Wedge neighborhood, on an unusually sunny winter day. While I opted for coffee, Nadir and Peppermint are serious tea drinkers and brought their own special blend. Longtime partners in life and art, together they form EcoArtTech, a new media collaborative dedicated to exploring the environmental imagination through blurring the boundaries of natural, built, and technological spaces. Drawing on diverse training and backgrounds––Nadir completed a PhD in English at Columbia University and Peppermint has long been known as a new media and net artist––their work encompasses net art, mobile apps, digital video, architectural interventions, online performances, public happenings, and published writing. Nadir and Peppermint both teach at the University of Rochester in Western New York, where, in the interest of full disclosure, I have the pleasure of being a teaching assistant for Peppermint. We discussed collaboration, relational aesthetics, avant-garde strategies, digital readymades, nature, modernity, politics, play, and living in Rochester.
EcoArtTech, Generative Landscapes, 2012, custom app made in residence at Joya: Arte y Ecología Residency at Cortijada Los Gázquez Sierra de María-Los Vélez Natural Park, Spain; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
Alicia Chester: Can you tell us about the impetus for EcoArtTech?
Leila Nadir: Cary and I have been together a really long time and informally working together for a long time. He had over a decade of experience as a new media artist, and I was in grad school getting my PhD in literature and theory at Columbia [University]. We both, at the same time, had a huge environmental turn. It happened after we spent four months straight in the middle of the woods [in northern Maine], and we realized, suddenly, all our ideas started really coming together… I ended up changing everything I was studying in grad school and did my dissertation on environmental literature and theory, and Cary started turning his new media art toward a practice that engaged ecological issues and environmental imagination. And a few years after that we created EcoArtTech because it became obvious that the ownership of the ideas was getting so blurry. My writing and his artwork just became something that, even though we were physically making them separately, the ideas and philosophies were interpenetrated, and it just made sense to start to collaborate in a more formal way.
AC: So it was more organic? It was less that you guys decided to collaborate than you realized that your work was going in the same direction?
LN: The collaboration did us. When you do yoga, they say, let the pose do you. The collaboration happened to us. We didn’t really drive it or intend it… We just took a total break from our work and spent this time in the woods. It was so grounding and transformational that we never went back to how we worked again.
Cary Peppermint: I was doing a lot of net art in the 1990s in New York City… I had this idea of net art or digital art as an ephemeral medium. After having such a high exposure to a less-built environment, like northern Maine, it started becoming apparent to me that through asking is nature networked? we quickly realized, of course it’s networked. And, of course, digital objects and digital processes are not ephemeral because they’re all ecologically linked to the environment in many different ways––not just the physical environment, but social, psychic, and cultural. Think in terms of server farms and how much real estate that takes up. Or even electricity from hydroelectric dams, or mining for precious metals that go into your computers. Those are some of the ways in which it was quickly apparent that, hey, wait, this digital thing is anything but ephemeral. It’s anything but disconnected from the environment.
AC: I was thinking about relational aesthetics. Even though that’s a buzzword, it seems central to EcoArtTech’s projects and mission. Collaboration, participation, interactivity, social interaction––in short, relationality––what place do these things have in your work? It seems to be both in the way you relate to each other but also how you relate to your audience.
CP: In the 90s when Nicolas Bourriaud wrote that book, there was no internet or network culture as we know it. One of the criticisms of relational aesthetics has been that it depends too much on the artist or institution as the center or mediator of the experience. While I think it is appropriate to bring up relational aesthetics in conversation with our work, it’s not exactly where we’re coming from. For example, with Indeterminate Hikes [IH+], our app, we initially planned to do a series of walks and social happenings on the High Line that would redirect people’s attention to the conditions of possibility that made that highly designed park what it is. Our proposal to do an exhibition with the Whitney [Independent Study Curatorial Program] was that we would create a series of hikes on the High Line that would direct people’s attention to things like trash cans as feeders for rats, pigeons, and squirrels, or old air conditioner units on decaying buildings adjacent to the High Line, where there’s a lot of pigeon poop. Well, that didn’t go over very well.
LN: Well, it was originally accepted. The Whitney people said great, and then about a week before it was supposed to go up, the High Line people rejected it.
EcoArtTech, Indeterminate Hikes+, 2012–14, wilderness actualizing app for mobile devices; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
CP: We made IH+ because, then, we thought, this is a participatory social experience that anyone can do without the mediation of the artist or the institution or, in that case, the High Line. For me, that was a real creative, artistic, personal moment because, I thought, yeah, there’s no reason to bring it back to the institution or make it the cult of the artist. And, coincidentally, many of the same reasons I was excited about that were [the same as] with net art in the 90s: the fact that it didn’t need an institution or a curator. I would say more that we were interested in Fluxus, happenings––they’ve been more a direct influence on the work than relational aesthetics.
AC: So, how do you view your work’s influences and affiliations––like Fluxus, the Situationists, Duchamp, or McLuhan? What relevance does looking to avant-garde strategies such as readymades hold for contemporary practice?
CP: None whatsoever.
AC: [laughing] None whatsoever?
CP: I was thinking about this the other day in another way. I’m getting back to relational aesthetics. The whole idea was to somehow renew this idea of art as life, and life as art, and art and life existing outside the cube… Duchamp was highly influential to emerging net artists in the 90s because people were still thinking at that time of the net as a purely conceptual or ephemeral medium, or as a medium of found objects. Those kinds of ideas are still important in the way that any good contemporary practice simply begins with reframing expectations and interrupting whatever system it happens to be a part of.
LN: I came to art history a little late because I came from literary history and theory. When I started practicing as an artist with Cary, I had to educate myself to figure out where I was coming from and also start to trace where Cary’s ideas were coming from. I use a lot of Fluxus terms and worldview to articulate our work. Fluxus has an analogous de-hierarchizing impulse to the environmental theorists and philosophers that we are drawn to. With Fluxus, you have the disruption of the artist/audience hierarchy, and you have art being taken out of the gallery and into the open environment. You also have this welcoming of chance operations and unexpected happenings.
A big part of what inspires us is to look at all environments as special and even beautiful, but also in need of preservation and conservation and attention. That’s a de-hierarchizing move as well. Traditionally, the environmental movement was about wilderness. It started with conservation, and it didn’t change until Rachel Carson in the 1960s said, wait, we are nature, what you’re doing outdoors is showing up in our bodies. Chemicals that are being used on fields are in our breast milk. So there’s this complete intertwining of ecology with the body. They’re not distinct. So we have been trying to emphasize more that it’s not just wilderness, not just these sacred spaces that are important. Just like it’s not just high art galleries and museums that are important, it can be everyday life, the spaces you happen to walk through. I think Kaprow said at one point that happenings should reveal near miracles, and I always liked that. I feel like we try to create a platform for little near-miracle experiences without prescribing how people should be experiencing them. I think a lot of people are surprised by our work. They think, oh, EcoArtTech, for sure you guys have an agenda, a political objective, what are you trying to teach us? People are not used to environmentally poetic experiences that leave things open-ended.
CP: Or they think that all three of those words exist in order to make some sort of meaning, but a lot of times they just think of them as three separate words: ecology, art, technology. It’s not as if everything we do has to be this perfectly woven piece of ecology, art, and technology. There’s a piece that we did called Ecology Lessons, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek piece out of the basecamp.exe installation. It’s a series of low-res images found online of things like parking lots, highways, beaches…
LN: The project is like a map. Each starts off with a map of EcoArtTech, and participants contribute what they see as a version of “eco,” a version of “art,” and a version of “tech” after experiencing Indeterminate Hikes and the Basecamp workshop that we do. So they come up with these really cool synonyms for EcoArtTech. One of our favorites to come out of it was “Mind Engagement Muffler.” So it was ecology of mind, engagement was their synonym for art, and muffler was a version of technology.
EcoArtTech, Ecology Lessons, 2013, twenty-six 12”x14” archival inkjet prints, from basecamp.exe; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
AC: I like what you were saying about your projects being more open-ended and not having an exact agenda. I’ve thought a lot about political art because there’s always something about it that bothers me. And I think that’s it, that so much of it is more like propaganda in disguise instead of allowing the experience to unfold and be what it is.
CP: Right, absolutely.
AC: That plays into the way you would think about relationships almost as a form in and of themselves.
LN: Yeah, definitely… The funny thing about our name, EcoArtTech, is that it sounds very technical, and I think sometimes people get stuck on that, or they think we’ve chosen only to work with these three parts. We once had a curator tell us that he wasn’t into work that was prescribed or labeled because it’s limiting. Actually, I think EcoArtTech applies to everything.
CP: Yeah, it’s pretty general, actually.
LN: Because everything’s environmental, we’re constantly using technology, and, hopefully, everyone’s trying to think creatively at all times.
CP: Can I use that to segue into another question [that you sent us]: How does technology operate as an extension of the body? The idea is that humans are inextricable from technology. A couple of people who have been influential in our thinking about technology are, of course, Heidegger, but also, more recently, Bernard Stiegler and his book Technics and Time. He makes a pretty good case that humans evolved with the technics that they created, so that there’s no such thing as a human being without technics. We’re technical beings. So I don’t see it as an extension of the body. I see it as the very place in which we dwell.
LN: You made me think about McLuhan and this article we wrote for Hyperallergic about Tumblr art. When I think of McLuhan, he goes right down to literal extensions of the body. Glasses are extensions of our eyesight. Paper is an extension of our memory.
AC: Something that struck me in researching your work is that it is experienced by the majority of your audience virtually, with photos and videos for many projects on your website functioning partly as documentation of previously live experiences. But then I started to think that perhaps that isn’t the case at all––that the virtual platform is an environment on par with any human-made or natural landscape you may traverse, and that this imbrication of screen space and physical space is your point. What I’m getting to is that both function essentially as landscapes, engaging the full history of human constructions of nature that this word entails. So can you talk about the interaction and slippage between virtual and physical landscapes?
CP: I’m borrowing this from Heidegger…he talks about a being that dwells in a standing presence. So what I take from that––“standing presence”––is that space is no extension, space is your place. So if you take that with something like an online space, that’s where you dwell. That’s it. That’s your place. It’s not as if this is an extension of us and that we have to go there. We’re already there, in ways that it colonizes your mind even when you’re offline––“I have to check email later” or “I should have posted this”––suddenly, your whole ecosystem is technologically intertwined.
LN: I don’t know why people assume that there’s a big distinction between natural and electronic, virtual, digital environments… There’s so many different points of entry to talk about why that distinction doesn’t work. One is, there is no nature. Humans have reworked the whole environment, the whole planet.
AC: So there is no nature, and what we think of [as nature] is an ideal of nature.
CP: Nature is a construction, just like gender.
LN: That’s why we work with that idea of a wild, pristine nature with irony. If what looks like nature isn’t even nature, let’s just treat the city streets like nature, because it would actually help the environment more to do that––because then we may pay attention to flushing our toilets, where our trash is going, how much carbon emissions our houses are creating––rather than leaving the “real” nature, the myth of nature, to protect these wild, mountainous spaces, which needs to be done…but my point is, wilderness and nature are myths... The entire planet has been built, and rebuilt, and un-built, and built again. You can even go into the idea that we’re disembodied when we’re interacting with online spaces––we’re not. We’re still in a body. Our body is still doing something, even if it’s sedentary––that’s embodied. We are living what we’re doing online. Even if we think that, somehow, because we’re not physically moving, it’s disembodied, it’s not. It’s assuming there’s a mind-body distinction that does not exist.
EcoArtTech, Indeterminate Hikes+, 2012–14, wilderness actualizing app for mobile devices; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
CP: I don’t know how this relates, but I was just thinking that it’s important for artists and practitioners and cultural producers to think about these things for all kinds of reasons, but one is purely in the idea of waste and excess… Why does creativity and creative production always have to involve an object?
AC: It has to do with salability.
CP: Right. It’s a scary thing. The capital on ideas is waning, which is another thing that’s really great about taking it back to Duchamp, like In Advance of the Broken Arm. Well, that’s really just a concept, a found object. Nothing new was created. It’s almost a recycling act, but then it’s engendered with a concept that makes it vital.
AC: When I was reading some of your articles and thinking about digital readymades, I can see where the influence comes from, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing. Because you are making something else from it, whereas someone like Duchamp is taking an object and saying, this is the art object, and the whole point is that you’re not actually making anything else. You’re just declaring something to be art. Whereas with digital readymades, if you’re thinking of software programming, you’re taking pieces of things other people have made, which you could classify as readymades, but you’re actually recombining them and making something else.
CP: So I think what you’re referencing is a Leonardo piece from 2006, and that piece was written probably a good three years before that. At that time, Web 2.0 was just emerging. That was my understanding of Web 2.0 at the time, and I’m not so sure that I feel the same way anymore. As a matter of fact, I don’t. Because I think what I was missing in describing Web 2.0 platforms as readymades…especially open-source projects, Linux, Processing––those are amazing projects, people coming together and forming collaborative works based on individual pieces, right?
LN: So just last year when we wrote the Tumblr art piece, why did you call those works digital readymades? Because Alicia does have a really good point. [Your works] were digital readymades relative to the way people were making net art back then, which were personal websites that you construct from the ground up. And you were making things that seemed, in comparison, to be readymades, right? Posting photos on ofoto.com as a series of performances is much more readymade than creating a personal website from the ground up.
AC: If anything’s a readymade, I see taking a photo from one place on the internet and posting it on another website as a readymade, because you’re recontextualizing it and using it for another purpose, which was the same thing Duchamp was doing. But [for your work,] you’re taking pieces of something and remaking something else.
LN: It’s a readymade structure.
CP: You know what we’re missing here? What we’re skirting around is the idea of modularity.
AC: Like from Lev Manovich’s article [“Remixing and Remixability”]?
CP: Yeah. You have all these discrete pieces that people have written, and then you can put them together.
LN: And that doesn’t exist with other art forms, pre-digital. So it’s a digital version of a readymade.
CP: It could be––that’s an interesting question, but because of modularity in projects like Linux or Processing, where you have open-source code and everybody contributing, what you have is an opportunity to, yes, use already constructed code, but then to add to and change that. So that’s where it gets different.
LN: It’s not that different, because if you think about a Duchamp-type readymade, he’s taking that object and moving it into a new context, whereas with a digital readymade, you have a structure that you’re taking and then filling it with new content. One is a physical movement, and one is a shift in content, so it’s like a flip of the readymade.
EcoArtTech, Computer Campfire, 2013, rocks, industrial rubble, Mac minis, LED strips, from basecamp.exe; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
AC: How do chance, unexpected outcomes, and playfulness operate in your work?
LN: Part of learning to be a literary critic or someone who’s an authority in any field is that when you write and when you produce your scholarship, you’re performing truth… I don’t want to perform truth anymore. I want to give talks or create experiences or write stories that are espousing a different way of knowing and relating to the world. And that involves a lot of play and a kind of performativity that doesn’t have as its objective truth through the accumulation of texts, references, vocabulary… I can do all that work, and then I can just let it inhabit me, I can digest it, and I can forget it. And then I can let it come out in a new way. There’s an accountability that is involved if I had become a traditional scholar––I still produce scholarship––[that] I don’t want to be held to. I don’t want to footnote every time I have an idea or give citations. I want to be able to play with what I learn and how I relate to the world. I really see that as what I’ve gained from being friends with Cary for so long. It’s let me have fun and not be involved in attempts at discursive power.
CP: When Leila was talking, I was thinking how important the idea for both of us that Dada has played in our work. Everybody learns about Dada and understands, oh, it means nothing, it’s senseless, it’s funny, it’s crazy, sensational work. But I think because we consider the environment and its limited resources, which modernity is increasingly eating up, Dada makes more sense than ever. I think of our work as a response to “progress”––the idea of progress and the idea of moving forward––introducing ideas and actions in our work that may at first seem senseless, but strategically so… There’s an audio interview with [Tristan Tzara] where they said, tell us about the modern art movement of Dada. Tzara was irate and said, Dada is not modern! It’s almost a primitivist impulse to reject all that’s modern because of [modernity’s] violence.
LN: Modern primitivism. Like all primitivism, it’s modern.
AC: Your work hits upon issues of both space and time. Nature is associated with contemplation, slowness, and spaces set apart from daily existence, while technology is associated with interactivity, speed, and modernity. How do you think about these connotations? How do you engage speed and synchronicity, and how can nature be engaged as an everyday environment?
LN: One of the projects we’re working on right now is called Edible Ecologies. It’s creating a simultaneously documentary and participatory experience through a mobile app, video, and installations about food-ways and food-scapes. Time is a big part of this project in a lot of ways, because the industrial food system has attempted to put agriculture on an assembly line. When this started really gaining momentum was when artificial nitrogen was discovered, and suddenly we didn’t have to wait for nature’s timing to produce more nitrogen in the soil. Nitrogen was actually a finite, scarce resource until the creation of artificial or synthetic nitrogen. So suddenly, now, we can take that time of nature, that waiting for decomposition, the waiting to re-nurture the soil, to create food and plants––that could just be put on an industrial timescale…
One thing we like from The Three Ecologies by Guattari is that, he says, it’s not just plants and animals that are going extinct. It’s certain ways of being, certain understandings, certain experiences of the world… We’re losing ways of being, and one of those ways of being is related to time. As artists and thinkers, and just as human beings, when we go into more natural spaces, we can feel an entire physiological transformation of our bodies––in the way our blood is flowing, in the way our brain is going off, in the way we smell, see, think, touch… As humanity more and more gets on a modern time clock, an urban time clock, things become more instrumentalized. We move through spaces with goals. We don’t move through spaces just to discover and wonder, and that’s why we try to recuperate that kind of relationship to nature. If people aren’t going to live [in nature] or go climb a mountain, we try to bring it to them through this app into city streets with Indeterminate Hikes. And it does work. People go on those hikes, and it’s amazing to see their faces afterwards. They’re totally lighter.
CP: I have to say something, though. We’ve used the word participatory quite a lot, because we can’t seem to escape that word. But participatory was actually coined by Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media. When he schemed in a boardroom his latest series of media books, he came up with that word along with his corporate team: participatory. It was meant to signify changes that came about with Web 2.0, such as Facebook “likes.”
LN: It was created to harness the marketability of internet culture.
CP: Exactly. When we say participatory––for lack of a better way of expressing ourselves––maybe it’s just better to go back to the old action, that is to say, a social action.
AC: But it could also be a recuperation of the word.
CP: That’s a really good point.
LN: Also, in our work, you have this new media strain, you have the art strain, and then you have the environmental strain, and you have all these analogies between them. Environmentally, this whole idea of participation is really significant because the discourse on environmentalism is dominated by science, which you would expect in a world where science is the icon of truth and objectivity––that’s modernity from the Enlightenment going on. When you have a planet that has all these ecological problems, and the only place solutions can come from are the scientists––the top of the hierarchy of knowledge––there’s no public participation in this project of trying to have a sustainable world. So part of our work, too, is about trying to recuperate this participation on a level, not for a specific political end, but more to activate those buttons of, what do we think of the environment? What do we think of nature? What’s going on here? We can participate, and we can interact because we’re part of it. We don’t have to wait for those answers.
CP: Sometimes we joke or bat around the idea, are we performing an environmental, ecological crisis through art? And, if so, are we a collaboration, or a collision?
EcoArtTech, Wilderness Collider, 2013, web app with live data from IH+, from basecamp.exe; Courtesy of EcoArtTech 2012–14.
LN: Yeah. A lot of people think if you’re working on the kinds of projects we are, that we have this utopian end goal where, yes, we can completely create this synergy between technology and the environment, and we’re going to do it through art. We’re not doing that at all. Our work––and this is probably because I’m coming from a theoretical, philosophical background––our work, in a way, is a poetic response, a poetic theory. We’re just asking questions. We’re not proposing answers. We’re not saying we can bring together ecology and technology, and the world will be a better place. We’re asking, is it possible? Some people have asked, what does this mean that you have to use an app to get back in touch with nature? That’s a great question. It’s kind of crazy.
CP: It’s a performance of that. That’s a good question to ask, because it’s not that this is the answer, that you’ll use this app and then feel better. It’s a great question, and even if it doesn’t work, it’s still served its purpose as a conceptual object. One of the instructions in IH+ says––this is built into the design of it––in the middle of your hike, randomly the app can say to you, if you feel okay with this, just turn off your phone for the rest of the day and stop this hike. Stop everything you’re doing and just turn your phone off. Initially we wanted to make a feature that would break people’s phones for twelve hours––that was the radical idea. Then we found out that we’d get in a lot of trouble for doing that with the FCC. You can’t do that. That would be a serious violation. So we give them the option. But it would be a lot of fun if you used our app and it just bricked your phone for twelve hours. That would be some good fun, right?
LN: You’re on your own.
CP: That would be art.
LN: I just have to say one more thing about that––I’m not sure if our work is a series of optimistic or futile acts.
AC: I think a good way to end is, what is it like to be new media artists in an old media town? We’re in Rochester, the home of Kodak and much of film history and technology. So, what does that do to your life?
CP: It’s cool. I find many reasons to feel optimistic about Rochester in particular.
LN: But you don’t want to say too much. We don’t want it to get discovered. It’s so cool, we don’t want it to be ruined. We don’t want the next Williamsburg over here.
CP: The Rust Belt, in our lifetimes, is going to be like the Riviera, especially with global warming… Also, there are all the conditions that people are not enjoying in large cities right now because of the eradication of the middle class going on in America. So, with that happening, Rochester is still a place where you can afford a lot for your money. For Rochester to have that low cost of living, and you couple that with a history of photographic and, also, computational arts, Rochester has the conditions that make creativity still very possible without being flooded by market forces.
LN: If this city gentrifies…
AC: It’s going to be this interview’s fault.
CP: Totally…What you don’t have is the international capital. This is not an international art town, obviously. But, increasingly, I believe there’s a price on that for cultural workers.
AC: Yeah, the price is rent.
CP: And not enough time to think… A good place to invent things is in the boondocks, to retrofit and pioneer.
LN: More spaces of freedom, to quote Michel Foucault… You need spaces of freedom to be creative and innovative.
ArtSlant would like to thank EcoArtTech (Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint) for their assistance in making this interview possible.