Artists as Pathfinders: Mastering a Candid Relation to the Earth

Researcher and curator Bénédicte Ramade interviews artist duo Marilou Lemmens and Richard Ibghy on their practice shaping efficient forms in countering the spoil of the earth because of the capitalist, extractivist and colonial strategy of industrial agriculture in Canada.

Bénédicte Ramade (BR): Without making you the archetypes of the Canadian art scene, it should be remembered that Canada has a particular relationship to the land and to agriculture, which includes agricultural capitalism and global extractivism. This relationship appears to be part of the country’s DNA. Can you briefly introduce us to your project developed at the Grantham Foundation for the Arts and the Environment in 2020, entitled Two fleas quarreling over who owns the dog they live on? Your different interests about agriculture, capitalism, colonialism…?

Marilou Lemmens (ML): Our project at the Grantham Foundation emerged from research that we began the year before in Omaha, Nebraska, as we prepared for an exhibition there at the Bemis Center for the Arts. We started looking at large-scale, industrialized and financialized agriculture in the US American Midwest following an interest in issues of cohabitation and hospitality. We wanted to widen these notions to include interspecies relations, especially relations between birds and humans.
One of the fundamental elements of cohabitation is the relationship to the land: how territories are conceived, delimited, inhabited, shared, and exploited.

The massive intensification of agriculture over the past century in North America is grounded in an assumed entitlement to the earth that has justified the transformation and destruction of environments. It is anchored in a logic that binds together the abstraction and appropriation of the world.

So, when we received a fellowship to do a research residency at the Grantham Foundation, which is located near where we live in rural Quebec, it was a great opportunity for us to deepen our engagement with these issues, but this time closer to home. This was an occasion for us to reflect on the politics of land and its uses at provincial and regional levels.

BR: Usually, environmental issues are transcribed as visual data, statistical graphs, numbers, curves, and colored forms. How did you specifically work with or against this visuality that occasionally obscures the reality of pollution, industrial extraction, and ecosystem attrition?
Richard Ibghy (RI): The translation of information into visual forms—in other words, the aesthetics of data visualization—is something that can either be used to attest to or obscure, as you mention. We try to work with and against this visuality by engaging with issues of abstraction and concretion, opacity, and transparency. Pesticide pollution in water is an interesting case since you can’t see it nor can you smell it. Yet you know it is there, so you need to find other ways of making its presence and its effects visible.

Our practice employs abstract forms of representation to reflect the reality of an abstract world. We ask ourselves, what could be the function of art in a world that is increasingly abstract? Our work reflects and resists the real world of abstraction by materializing data from graphs, diagrams, and maps in three-dimensional space. We have also worked with video to record the physical, audible, and material experiences of the world in a way that communicates the sensory and captures the immediacy of being bodily in the world. In this exhibition, we tried to do all three.

ML: Richard and I come from a background of thinking critically about how knowledge is constructed. We are interested in the history of science and how certain types of observations are made possible being also critical about how forms of knowledge, for example, statistical knowledge, have gained authority and dominance in many disciplines. However, over the past couple of years, we’ve seen scientific research come under attack with complete disregard for facts and information. It has been challenged and overruled by fake news, alternative facts, and populist politicians. Conservative and right-wing governments have systematically ignored scientific recommendations and have been especially disdainful of data about environmental and health issues. We feel the need to nuance our criticality toward scientific narratives.

In the exhibition, we explore the impoverishing effects of abstraction and reduction, and their capacity to produce understanding and to promote progressive politics. For example, in the piece entitled L’affaire Louis Robert, about an agronomist employed by Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAPAQ), who was fired after revealing collusion between the pesticide industry and public institutions, we created a human-scale display case with two transparent sides specifically to present a set of data. We wanted to give visibility to the very same data that corporate and political forces had tried to obscure. In another piece, for example Planting, Un-planting, on the contrary, we tried to reveal that which has been left out of the picture when science focuses exclusively on an abstract depiction of land or labor. The video shows a close-up of the hands of a woman as she digs in the soil, planting and weeding. It reveals forms of care for plants and soil, but also violence. It depicts a form of more-than-human care that is not innocent.

BR: How did you choose the colors and the materials of L’affaire Louis Robert or The Great Appropriation, an installation of three hundred sculptures representing the French and British colonial annexation of lands in Quebec? Especially regarding the charts of colors used in data visualization, it’s not as neutral as we think—these are choices, an expression of the subjectivity of a scientist after all. What did you have in mind when conceiving your fragile sculptures?

RI: In L’affaire Louis Robert, our choice of colors reflected the colors of corn seeds coated with pesticides, which are often candy-colored turquoise or pink. At times our choices of colors and forms are referential, but it is also common for us to use colors arbitrarily to create tension between the seriousness of the content we are presenting and an unassuming, playful aesthetic. In The Great Appropriation, colors are selected to appeal to the viewers, to delight them, and make them curious about the work, so that they may feel the desire to dig deeper and engage with it on a more discursive level. In such cases, we chose colors primarily for their aesthetic value.

ML: I would say that we are not interested in creating works that are mystifying, require special skills to produce, or gain value because of their production cost. We like to work with non-precious materials that are assembled simply. We like to have a certain autonomy in the production of our work. But, the most important thing for us is to create objects that are capable of translating ideas. Maybe ‘translating ideas’ is a simplistic phrase; let’s just say that art enables us to make connections—material, linguistic, spatial—that are not possible in scientific or academic forms of thinking.
BR: Regarding The Great Appropriation, is the colonial mapping still effective and relevant?

ML: The colonial mapping practices we examined are historical forms of land division and distribution whose purpose was to promote settlement. Settlement in Quebec was intimately connected to clearing-out the land for agricultural purposes. Such mappings of space are not in use anymore, but they are still visible in the rural landscape. The French colonial system, called seigneuries, can be recognized in the form of long rectangular parcels of land with houses located close to one another, while the British one, called townships, is visible in areas divided into square plots with houses isolated from one another often located at the center. So even today, by looking at the shape of properties it is possible to tell which European empire first colonized the area.

BR: Does a link exist between the environmental issues and the colonial mapping?
ML: The abstract rendering of the land performed by colonial mapping is deeply connected to our current ecological crisis. The surveying and mapping of space were ways to lay claim to the continent’s resources. So they are directly linked to the destruction and dispossession caused by imperial extractive politics today.

On a conceptual level, colonial mapping imposed new conceptions of space and property.

For one thing, the land was not envisioned exclusively for human use by the diverse indigenous nations of Eastern North America. Early settlers brought this idea with them and it is still fundamental in defining our conception of land, territory, and private property.

Once you start thinking about land as something that can be parceled, bought, and sold as property and used as a resource, you set up a conceptual framework that enables you to ignore how you are connected with other beings, each with their specific needs and relationship to the territory. This conception opened the door to a mercantile and later capitalist vision of land, and to a vision of land as a factory: the plantation. The financialization of land is a further abstraction, to render it investible, the kind of thing you can speculate on.

BR: Who owns the land? This question is central in the metaphorical title of the show: Two Fleas Quarreling over Who Owns the Dog They Live on. What are the options?

RI: The question of who owns the land is complex. We only need to consider how a bird, a beaver, or a mosquito conceives of space and sets out to define its territory to see the different options that are possible. Last spring, we spent a lot of time trying to understand how the many birds that come to spend the warm season where we live create territories, which often involves delimiting space with songs. Thinking about the various ways other species conceive of space greatly informs how we treat our own. For us, on the farm, this meant postponing the date we normally would harvest the hay to give time for the bobolinks to complete their nesting.
BR: You are showing a subjective standpoint, empathy for these milieux and ecosystems, for the complexity of the living. How did governmental decision-makers react when you approached them? Were they suspicious?

ML: We spoke with many scientists and researchers who work for governmental institutions and we found them to be surprisingly generous, open, and eager to share information. A researcher working at the Ministry of Environment, who specialized in the issue of pesticides in water, was extremely helpful in preparing the project. She even arranged for us to meet with a technician to learn how to sample water properly. Yet, in the Cahier we published to accompany the exhibition, she didn’t want her name to be credited, not even in the form of thanks.

This was particularly the case when dealing with pesticides. For one work, entitled The Inhospitality of Twelve Rivers (2020), we sampled the water of twelve rivers in different agricultural areas in the province. Our interest was to see the levels of pesticides in the water and to monitor their toxicity for the benthic communities that dwell at the bottom of the rivers, like crayfish, nematodes, mollusks, dragonfly larvae, all the insects nesting in the water. Not surprisingly, it turned out that most rivers were heavily toxic, with levels of pesticides dramatically above the accepted norm.

BR: Do you see yourselves as whistleblowers? Activists?

ML: I wish I could say yes, but definitely, no. It takes a lot of courage to be a whistleblower. Even in a place like Quebec, where there are laws to protect whistleblowers, there are always consequences. Also, you can’t choose to be a whistleblower, you have to be in a position to access sensitive information. Through our work, I hope we participate in the process of changing sensibilities, understanding, and perceptions.

RI: I would not characterize the works we make as activist. Activism presents one side of the problem in a powerful and persuasive manner. We try to present ideas in all their complexity. We have our opinions, our passions, and our commitments, but we try not to impose them on the spectator.

This brings us back to your first question and how we fit within the Canadian art scene. In Canada, there is an activist dimension to art practices concerned with ecological issues, but there is also a strong historical engagement with the landscape as a genre that continues today and which represents the land as pristine nature where human presence is erased. There are also a set of practices, often photographic, the most famous being Ed Burtynsky, that aestheticizes the landscape devasted by industries.

We explore inhabited rural spaces where cohabitation is presented in all of its problematic aspects, from care to hospitality and from extractivism to financialization. We are also interested in the historical roots of our way of living and of using the land, of thinking about soil in an objectified matter. It is a historically situated and politicized attempt to reimagine and rebuild a sense of our place and responsibility in a more-than-human world. The rural is a space where humans can no longer pretend to be in a position of externality in relation to the rest of the living. We are a member of a broad community. The challenge is to reinstate a relational figure of the human being, within this community.

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