As the world struggles with the pandemic, headlines about “new normals” continue to circulate—but there’s a catch. These aspirations imply the old “normal” should be a goal at all, which ignores ongoing climate disasters, systemic inequality, and capitalist destruction. When thinking about power shifts within alternative capitalist modes, artist Hito Steyerl reminds us “if you are hoping for new opportunities with the authoritarians, you might find yourself disappointed.” The current pandemic raises questions of one’s agency through activism in one’s creative practice. If a few Google searches has the carbon footprint of boiling a kettle, how strongly implicated should creatives be in post-pandemic art-making? I check-in with artists Eden V. Evans and Brian Gillis about a recent experimental website — an enchanting collection of non-atomizing perspectives within a digital framework, akin to net art from the 80s-90s. This website, formally called On Power, is thought-provoking, as today’s art world(s) reconcile with institutional power and digital aesthetic production.
Evans’s and Gillis’s work in On Power explores gestures of “power” through contributions such as conceptual texts, image files, PDFs, physical work installation, video, and more. Its interdisciplinary material mimics how many encounter power: through less articulated lived experiences. It’s housed online as part of the freshly operating University of Oregon Center for Art Research (CFAR), in Eugene, OR. CFAR describes itself as a collaborative, artist-run platform for experimentation at UO. Recent CFAR’s projects includes: we’re out of control, curated by Curator-in-Residence Yaelle S. Amir at Well Well Projects in Portland, OR, and pedagogical projects like recent text Craft and the Hyperobject, which transcribes artist conversations using Timothy Morton’s 2013 notable book as starting point. —Tannon Reckling
TR: Eden, how has your recent art practice been affected by the changing material circumstances of 2020 into 2021, especially as someone graduating from an MFA program during this time?
EVE: I think for me this was an interesting moment because I am already such an isolated individual, so working from home actually suits me. Also, the majority of my work is solo performance that takes place in the landscape, so losing studio access didn’t really affect me as much as I think it did for other people who are working more specifically in the production of objects. I mean, I make sculptural objects and installations as well, but because of my time as a Land Arts student and my time living in the Bay Area without space for a studio, it’s been very familiar for me to have to convert my living room into a studio and to work from home. Having a studio and facility access is such a privilege and while the loss of access to such facilities did shift how we worked, I personally feel that artists are already constantly adapting to material limitations in their lives and their work. I think I viewed this as just another opportunity to adapt.
TR: What were some prominent subjects and feelings you encountered while working through the On Power project, as a contributing artist yourself and as someone who worked on the website logistics?
EVE: My contribution, CILMA Field Study Experiment 03: Combing the Field, 2020, primarily focuses on the power of care, loss, and entanglement within a more-than human world. FSE 03 identifies tracing as a representation for interconnection. In this video, the comb in my hand belonged to my mother and is one of the only things of hers I use daily. Her use is borne upon the comb, as is my own. The comb is an object that holds generational history: I drag it through my own locks and imagine that my hair is hers and, in the field, I tend to the grass with the same care-full attention. As I pull the comb through, I entangle the experiences of the field and the comb with my own and with my mother’s. At the same time, I watch as traces from my own body are strewn upon the grass. As I kneel, I form impressions with my lower legs. The sensation of the grass on my fingers is almost sticky, and I notice the pressure each blade sends in response as I move the comb through the field.
TR: Now that it is summer, I can’t help but think about the possible wildfires we might encounter again here on the West Coast. I think of your work like the Center for Investigation of Land Mass Agency (CILMA), 2020, which was included in On Power. Are you thinking about this or other climate injustices in your work currently?
EVE: Yes! I did some work last summer, as CILMA Agent Evans, during the wildfire season. Since I grew up in San Diego, fire season usually feels so normal, more like an annual cleansing. However, last year got kind of scary and I ended up evacuating and going down to Berkeley for a few weeks where I produced a few performances with water. In one project, an agent makes an offering to the fires by emptying the entire contents of a water bladder onto a hillside of dry brush. It is these attempts of reciprocity, in which CILMA acts as an intermediary between the human and more-than human world.
TR: Brian, you’ve been a pedagogical force behind the project and our community. Were there overarching sensibilities you encountered while working through On Power? Especially in the context of 2021, when (most) contemporary artists are reconciling their own agency within larger systemic issues?
BG: In considering On Power as we have as a community, I’ve been so struck by the range of ways people relate to it and the degrees of complexity such a big concept has in contemporary life and everything that has gotten us to this point over thousands of years. While it’s definitely present in the world outside of the human experience, power in my reality seems so completely tied to global colonialism, the history of our nation, long established patriarchal dominance, and all the ways these are just a scaled manifestation of the history of the world since the dawn of agriculture. Over the last couple years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of our species, our evolution, our social constructs, our relationship to the earth, our various migrations, and the differences between physical and social evolution. Maybe so much technological, mythological, and cultural evolution, and how intoxicated we are by our institutions, which have largely been in service of a ruling minority for so long, simply hasn’t allowed for us to evolve socially or truly realize a society with any semblance of power balance.
TR: It’s been inspiring to see how the UO Center for Art Research (CFAR) has grown through a pandemic setting, especially as many different critical arts spaces & arts workers have struggled. What projects are you looking forward to in CFAR’s near-future?
BG: One project, CFAR’s series of “Papers on Power,” has been especially exciting to work on as it has been so special to see how a broad range of creatives are thinking about power and negotiating issues of power in the current environment. For this series, we have been commissioning artists, writers, and cultural producers to consider the question “What is Power?” as an exercise that could contribute to their work and thinking, which they might otherwise not stake out the time for. Some of these have manifested as a relatively typical academic paper or journal entry of sorts, others use nonstandard formats like grid poems, annotated glossaries, or conversations with multiple parts of one’s personality to explore what power is.
We’re also working on our exhibition series, Dismantling the House, which is curated by our inaugural Curator-in-Residence Yaelle Amir, and has also been so great to be involved in. This series, composed of projects by the Precarious People’s Party (Arianna Jacob and Jea Alford, et al), Garrick Imatani, and garima thakur and Sharita Towne, have explored power in such a range of ways that has really gotten at some important issues through the work and public programming related to issues of labor, identity, structural racism, coloniality, diaspora, capitalist religiosity, and historicity. I’m really looking forward to seeing how this continues to unfold and how this year on powder flows into a year focused on access.
TR: I feel like most of us in these pedagogical spaces are having to hold and face our values after last year, especially in how we might care and support each other moving forward. How has your own more personal practice changed, ebbed, and flowed from 2020 into 2021, especially working on things like On Power?
BG: This year has been rough for all of us. I feel like I’ve never worked this hard, with so much constant complexity and so much less clarity about how to go about things. Juggling my various roles and practices, and squaring it all with my home life has been tough. My immediate family is kind of thriving in a chaotic, bliss-filled, utopian bubble…But just as I have had the gift of spending so much more time with my partner and son, and we’re still employed, healthy, happy, and secure, I have also been just one step removed from so much tragedy. This has been jarring and has led to some pretty major realizations about my work.
All of this, along with my responsibilities as a UO faculty member and as the CFAR Director, and the work I do in my community, has gotten me to realize that my art practice, teaching, and my work through CFAR are all very much rooted in service. I think of service as a direct contribution to the welfare of others, where labor may not produce outcomes that are attributable to one person but exists as a marshaling of resources in response to a need. I’ve come to see that most of my activity comes from a place of service involving the facilitation of spaces that afford other people the ability to have voice or gain access to information that may be socially or practically relevant. In many ways I think this is actually who I’ve been since I was a kid.
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