Consensus “Has Failed”: ISEA2012 Artist Marina Zurkow on Gila 2.0, Animals and Land
Marina Zurkow is a Brooklyn-based artist who makes media works about humans’ relationships to animals, plants and the weather. These reconfigured and inclusive notions of our environment have taken the form of animated videos, customized multi-screen computer pieces, installations, prints, and participatory public art works. Her project Gila 2.0: Warding off the Wolf, produced in collaboration with Christie Leece, is included in the exhibition ISEA2012: Machine Wilderness at 516 ARTS in Albuquerque through January 6, 2013. Her work will also be at Richard Levy Gallery in a group show entitled Weird Science, opening October 26th.
How did you become interested in the Southwest wilderness and ecological issues of the West?
In the vaguest sense, even die-hard New Yorkers are aware that environmental, historical and social issues of the West are among the core tangles of American identity, prosperity and Manifest Destiny. Last year I had a residency looking at West Texas, in order to produce an exhibition about petroleum. I spent time near Midland: below ground is the Permian Basin, and above ground is the Llano Estacado. I made seven new animation works, prints and hazmat suits for toddlers that examined landscape, time, and the “volition” of hydrocarbons. ISEA 2012 put out a call for artists in conjunction with the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, to respond to the Mexican gray wolf reintroduction program and I applied, not quite knowing what I would be getting into.
The Gila National Forest is located in southwest New Mexico and is part of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Center. Can you describe who needs deterring and why?
Livestock — cattle in this instance — are sharing public lands with an assortment of other animals: elk, deer, wolves, bear, coyotes, domestic dogs, mountain lions, wolves, and many others; streams’ biodiverse edge ecosystems, forests, people, towns, ranch inholdings that lie like holes in public land donuts. The obvious animals that need deterrent are the ones we consider predators: the carniverous ones. But if you are inviting me to extemporize, part of the issue is that people also need deterrents, and many — not all – of those invested in resource extraction and livestock production are resentful of the legislative “deterrents” being implemented on these public lands.
I was shocked to read in your description of the project that ranchers only pay $1.35 per cow or calf for grazing rights on Federal lands. That is a subsidy that perhaps needs to be examined. The Mexican gray wolf was introduced as a protected species into the Gila Forest, but the wolf has a long history as symbol of predation in narratives from fairy tales to rituals, thus the wolf becomes the villain.
Grazing fees have not kept pace with inflation or with comparable grazing leases on state and private land. In trying to efficiently explain the project and the context for it, think of it this way: You have public lands (federally owned and legislated lands), on which cattle (private property of humans who are renting space on this public land but not as sole users) are sharing space with predators that include wolves (who are Federal political subjects protected by specific laws.) Instead of further money and focus on managing and surveilling wolves whose predation record is minimal, it might be time to arm one’s cows. Cows are being turned out onto public lands for months at a time with no human (“adult”) supervision, and need some form of protection. Christie Leece’s and my “cattle armor system” is both an ironic and sincere proposition, which invites viewers to make their own conclusions and think through the complex situation.
I notice that your past work has dealt with symbols and I wanted to point to the symbology included in the project. Can you talk about your interest in symbols, how it has appeared in your work and how you think it adds to the conversation?
Generally, I have always loved icons and pictograms. They speak directly, they leverage signage, a viewer approaches an icon or symbol with a set of expectations about its legibility, and that gives me a great frame with which to extend, turn or twist meaning. With this project, I began by looking at the Mimbres pottery language – which described a vibrant ecosystem and all its energetic qualities as well as the animals, plants and ritual behaviors that had meaning for the Mimbres culture. That was my departure point. I got very interested in new age shamanic visual languages as well, and thought that creating talismans would help position the work between science and superstition or magic.
There is a long tradition of predator deterrents but perhaps not many of them are as aesthetically interesting as the ones you created. There’s a sense of whimsy and irony, and some of the sounds they emit are funny, like yodeling. Do you see yourself as somewhat of an agitprop artist? I notice that other works of yours are also somewhat provocative, but in a beautifully presented way.
Agitprop — agitation and propaganda – is too concerned with bearing an explicit political message, whereas I am interested in asking questions, troubling the landscape, problematizing, and including instead of editing out complexity. I sincerely hope this will bring attention to the issue, through humor and an invitation to debate. To say “save the wolves” or “get cattle off the land” has yielded a total deadlock. I don’t think I have answers, I am just trying to point to elephants in the room. I had to very carefully look at my own biases and intentions, as an urban animal, an outsider, an environmentalist, so the work would not bear traces of judgmentalism. Generally, I am speculating about adopting different positions in our views towards nature, and see nothing wrong with a little struggle or conflict (“agon” is a more nuanced word for this. In sociopolitical theory, agon can refer to the idea that the clash of opposing forces necessarily results in growth and progress.) Consensus has clearly failed as a viable goal.