Reading time: 11 minutes
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…?
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.
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.
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.
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: 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.