« Memory is where we learn who we are and where we came from. It is what roots and grounds us .»
Sara, I am so happy to be able to have this meeting with you. I am going to resume the situation you are in right now for the record. You are preparing a group exhibition at the CCC in Paris in which you are going to present three photographs you did recently in the house you are living in, in the Canadian countryside. The series is called Nocturnal Botanical Ontario. (laugh) the title is indeed very clear !
(Laugh) Yes ! I always have trouble with titles. This may be a temporary one if I think of a better one !
Are titles important in your work ?
I think titles can set an intention and help clarify ideas for the audience. I try not to choose titles that are too romantic. In this case, I kept thinking about things that have to do with nighttime, wildlife, plants, and the territory I’m working in. The sense of place was very important to this work the more I do research here. I don't think this is a very beautiful title but at least for the moment it guides the work somewhere. It also has a pseudo scientific sound.
Why don’t we talk a little bit about your work, and where you’re at right now in your plastique experimentations ?
Sure. Where to begin? It’s been a long time. I’ve been scanning for over two years. I started in my very small garden in Toronto. A couple years ago, I decided that I was going to spend a year just documenting every plant and weed that grew in my garden. The journey that got me started had to do with grief actually. I think grief got me thinking about cycles of life from spring to winter. In this state of sadness I retreated into myself and started to look very closely at my own garden, my own footprint. So I scanned every specimen and tried to name every plant whether it was something cultivated or wild that I found. I was not very satisfied with the results, but it was a good exercise, thinking about plants and what they mean and where they come from. I also started to scan in a greenhouse in Toronto, a place called Allan’s Gardens Conservatory:
I have a gardener/friend who works there and helped me get access. I went there and thought a lot about all these incredible plants that come together here that in the world would never be in the same place. It was so strange to see tropical plants in the same building as plants that live in colder temperatures (although they are housed in separate rooms with the appropriate temperature controls). And then of course, because I have a place in the countryside, it only made sense to extend this project here. So now it’s been over a year that I started scanning here.
What do you mean by scanning ?
When I started this project in the city I would very simply put a specimen on my scanner glass in my studio. I made a false box/lid over the glass scanner bed so the plant would not get flattened, and I simply scanned the plant. I isolated a specimen. Then when I got to the greenhouse, what was very interesting was that I started to scan with the lid open and just would scan whatever plants were made available to me. The gardeners were giving me plants that I could work with. With the lid off, and the greenhouse blasting with daylight, I was getting very intense and very strange colours. That was very interesting, and got me thinking about what would happen with no light at all.... So then I thought “well I want to try scanning at night”! When I got to the cottage to try it, my husband said: “you know we have an extension cord that goes a hundred feet, so you can go around the property and scan wherever you want.” This was so exciting for me!
I started to experiment with that. I would go out with my laptop and put everything on the ground where I could find many different plants growing together. I started to think about how and why the plants were there. What did we plant? What is a garden? What is wild? Why are they growing together? What is an indigenous plant? What is an invasive species? So for the last year, while I was scanning, I was studying the plants, learning more about them. And then with COVID, in March, I got locked down here. So it accelerated my connection to this place because before we were staying here on weekends, or on holidays. I would stay here for a few days or a few weeks. But now I have been living here full time since March and I have watched the seasons (and plants) evolve from early spring to full on summer. I have been gardening, and going for long walks in the forest. And that shifted this project into something bigger. I have been coming here for fifteen years and this project has made me develop a deeper relationship with this place.
What I find very interesting in the text you added to the photographs you sent me, is that you talk about that moment, when you go out at night, and where all of your senses are shaken by the night, all the sounds. Because if I remember correctly you live in a wild surrounding. So I guess you can even encounter animals and insects ?
Our property is on a steep hill and we overlook a valley which is a protected provincial forest. So there are very few flat surfaces, and usually whenever I am scanning, I'm sideways on a hill and I am trying to figure out how to get my scanner flat (using rocks and sticks mostly). So what I do is that before it gets dark I set everything up, while I can still see, and then when it’s dark I go back to the spot I chose with a flashlight. One night I had everything set up, and as I was going out I saw something running down the hill towards me right where I was supposed to be working. It was a skunk! So I ran into the house and had to wait until it was gone! That could have been a disaster!
But last week, I had the most incredible experience ever! Normally I see insects like crazy, tons of them. As soon as I turn the flashlight on. I have seen moths, crickets, beetles, and at the beginning of the summer I could see fireflies everywhere. It was spectacular. Anyway, last week I was scanning, and I heard this swooshing-like sound fly past very close to my head. Our house is covered with cedar shingles, and underneath them bats sleep all day long and come out at night. We see tons of them. BUT! what was flying around my head was actually a hawk! This hawk comes here almost every night to hunt the bats, who are flying mice basically. Many times that night he flew past me...very closely. I was amazed at his flying ability.
Yes, it feels like even during your creative process, wildlife is everywhere !
Yes absolutely and you know, at night it is very different because we are equals. Because I can’t see very well, but everything that’s out there can see perfectly. The bats are hunting mosquitos and using echolocation. They’re amazing to watch. It’s their territory at night. I do hear strange sounds sometimes but mostly I'm just curious about what it could be. What could come out? What is that sound? I hear birds, frogs and insects chirping. During the firefly season it was so amazing to be out at night...just magical.
Isn’t it, finally, the whole point of your work ? Being curious about what could come out ? It is so deeply related to your life, and to your experience as a human being in this wilderness...
Absolutely. And you know, I think that there is something very interesting that has been happening for me here and that is that: I can read lots of books about nature, and I can study nature, and I am doing that… but I'm also really trying to be curious in an a-priori kind of way using my senses and intuition. I am paying attention to what is around me almost like a meditation. When I go for a walk I look carefully at the plants, and I'm think “this one, I have never seen before. What is it?” I look very closely and take a picture, I come home, I look it up. I’m trying to have a very one-on-one relationship with what is here. Over the seasons I am watching them emerge and evolve, bloom and then go to seed. I have also been learning to be a forager of wild foods...leeks, mushrooms, fiddleheads, dandelion are some of the things I picked and ate this year.
How can you relate that to the start of your practice as an artist ? Because your work used to focus on the fact that you are actually the first generation of Canadian citizens in an immigrant family from Italy, is that right ?
Yes. Well that is a very big question. I grew up on a very small family farm. My parents came from rural Italy, they were farmers. We moved to our farm in Ontario when I was six and I lived there until I was about 18. When I would go play as a child I would just run into the fields with my dog. I spent a lot of time outdoors and in nature. I think that after I left, I kind of forgot about that experience and connection.
Now that I have been living here, it is like I am re-discovering something in myself. My parents were huge gardeners. And this is the first year I have ever had a garden and grown tomatoes! As I am tending my garden, I keep thinking of my parents and wishing I could ask them questions. Being here is reconnecting me to my roots and my childhood. Also with my parent’s agricultural history but also with the wildness of our farmland too as there were uncultivated parts of the land.
What is the importance of memory ? In this world where we seem to never learn ?
Wow, that is a very big question...Memory is where we learn who we are and where we came from. It is what roots and grounds us. There are so many lessons in the past that we could use as a resource for ourselves, if we only choose to look there and pay attention. And, unfortunately, so many people don't want to learn, to understand. They don't want to learn from their family experience, or from the world experience. We have seen the wrong things that we have done to this planet and to each other. We have all the information. The scientists are telling us. The evidence is all there.
Is that the purpose of your work as an artist ? to learn ? To give to understand ?
I always hope that what I do is meaningful in the world. Ultimately, I'm only driven by my own curiosity, my own experiences, and traumas. My sister died five years ago in a traumatic way, and that shifted my consciousness very deeply around my work. As we know, environmentally the planet is in huge trouble, and I think my personal grief for her has made me connect with a deeper grief for what is happening with climate change and our industrial impact. I think that when you go down the path of grief, it peels you open to connect with other things.
I am asking myself if creating contact with the universality of nature might be a way to create bigger roots, which I feel is necessary after you have been shaken by grief. Can it also help you connect with a form of universality ? As art does, in a way ?
I think so yes. I would also say that I think ultimately, it is our nature as living beings to seek out life (and let go of death). And nature is full of life. So when you are processing grief and loss, being and working in nature has been very healing. I don’t mean to sound cliché, because I think sometimes when you say these things that’s how it sounds, but when I am gardening, and walking in the forest, and I see these miraculous things growing, that’s how I feel. Even though I’m conscious that we are losing animal and plant species everyday, the world around me is still teaming with life. My sister-in-law wrote an amazing book called Surrender which talks about the current environmental state of the world, and I often think of a profound thing that she said: “How do we live with joy on a dying planet?” So my work is also a way to celebrate what is here. What remains. It is not just about all the sadness of loss, it is also about joy!
« How do we live with joy on a dying planet? »
And also I guess very scientific hard work, as an artist/researcher. In the video The twirl of butterfly’s tongue, I feel like you are trying to preserve a state, our state of knowledge around botanical sciences. I see joy, and I see hard work !
Yes that is one component, but the film is also about wonder and beauty. Very much. As I work on that film (still-in-progress), and I see all those images, I think: How extraordinarily beautiful these specimens are. Even pictures that have been taken for scientific purposes!
And I don't know if I mentioned it to you before, but one of the organizing principles for the film has to do with science, but mainly with seeing. We are so curious about the world that we invented ways to expand our vision. In the film, you see x-rays, microscopic images, and telescopic images. If you think about it all of those tools expand our vision. Technically, our eyes now are bigger! (laugh), more powerful, and we can do more, and see more, because we want to know more. That is our nature, we want to know more, and more, and more. We want to see through matter, we want to see microscopic images. We want to see close and we want to see far. That’s why the film is entitled The Twirl of a Butterfly’s Tongue, because before the microscope who knew the tongue of the butterfly was a spiral?
As you said in the text you sent me, there are insects that come and create compositions around those plants. Insects we may have never seen before.
Exactly. And you know when I started this process I didn’t consider the insects at all. It was a surprise to discover them in the compositions. But of course they are there!
That is very interesting because you are a photographer. What is a camera if not a tool similar to x rays, microscopes… ?
Yes. Exactly. I’m by the way very interested in archives. So it makes even more sense. That's when the memory part comes into play. I think of myself as a person who makes photographs and not always takes photographs. Because I often work with found photographs. I do something else with them. The Twirl of a Butterfly’s Tongue is made from scientific lantern slides from a discarded archive. The images used to have a purpose but they don’t anymore. And it is interesting to see a science collection that is not being used for scientific purposes anymore. I have repurposed it for something else.
Why is that ?
It’s because the images were made with a technology that is now obsolete. They are large glass lantern slides which were projected for an audience in a dark space. They are black and white images with colour added by hand painting. Much of this work was done by women working in lantern slide factories. The women’s labor is part of this project is very important to me. Reviewing this collection shows how our understanding of pure science (and social science) keeps evolving. Those pictures come from a time when science was used and taught in a very particular way. In a very colonial way. When I went through the collection boxes there were images of people from all over the world, with labels on them like “Beauties of Java” or “Typical Women of Tibet” or “Country Life in Greece.” There is a lot of that kind of stuff. So by filtering through this material you begin to understand attitudes of the time and the information that got propagated through a colonial lens. While I think these slides are very beautiful, it also opens a way of questioning the role of educational teaching at the time.
And also how is our current science influencing our geo-political surroundings ?
Yes absolutely. That is not new, and sometimes I think “what was photography’s role?” It was after all a colonial tool. When photography was first invented very quickly people began to conquer the world with cameras taking pictures of “exotic” people and animals and bringing them back home to be consumed. Photography has always worked hand-in-hand with the colonial project. There is all this mythology about Christopher Colombus discovering America, but the people that lived here did not need discovering. It was not an “empty land” waiting to be occupied. And so there is this attitude, this European perspective… we came and we civilised the country and made everything great. But that is not the case. It is a very brutal history. Canada has very deep, problematic, violent colonial roots. I don’t know if you are familiar with a program here in Canada called the “Residential school system”. It started in Canada in the 1890’s. It’s stated purpose was “To kill the Indian in the child”. Children were forcibly removed from their communities and taken to residential schools that were administered by the government and churches. They were not allowed to speak their language, or practice any of their customs. They were terribly mistreated. It’s a horrific mark on our history.
Children were forcibly removed from their families as young as the age of five. This went on for almost a hundred years, and it traumatized generations of people. And much of the land was taken through illegal treaties or unfairly negotiated ones. Many treaties are still being disputed. It is something that people outside of Canada usually don’t know about this country. And here we are beginning to speak about it now, but when I was growing up we were never told any part of this history.
Is your work precisely about knowing those things and putting them in front of the viewer’s vision ?
This knowledge has made me think differently about the land that I am privileged to live on and to consider its stewardship. But there is still a lot of denial going on in our country. Our government officially apologized to our First Nations people about residential schools only in 2008. They then set up a truth and reconciliation commission to begin the process of healing. But it has not been a smooth or easy process. Part of it is about people acknowledging their own history, but until real responsibility is taken, people can’t move forward. All we learned at school were stereotypes and the European heroic narrative. I think it’s good that there is a lot of discussion now, a lot of questioning, but why did it take this long for us to begin having these conversations?! There is still so much work to be done.
How are you dealing with all that is happening in the world right now ? I am thinking a lot about the BLM movement as we are talking. Does it affect the way you create ?
I wouldn’t say that the BLM movement is directly impacting the art work I am making but it is affecting the way I think about my teaching. It is affecting what I think about university curriculum. So I think its impact is more on me as a person than directly filtered through any project I am working on right now.
The colonial thinking, its violence, is directly in my mind as I make these pictures about the place I am living in. Because who’s land really is this land? It is my place but it is also not really my place. It is my land, but it is not my land. Every one of us has to question: how did I get the benefit of being here? I am part of a settler colonial culture. My parents were nice Italian immigrants, but the truth of it is that this culture that we are part of was formed in a very violent way. I understand that it is my responsibility to understand this history. So I think that’s how I feel at the moment. I feel like I have to try to decolonialize my own thinking.
Two days ago, I was in another interview with an amazing artist called Jean-François Boclé. He has an amazing way to say it : “decolonialize the retina”. It reminds me of your work, but I can even push my idea forward, because if your work talks about humans, it talks about everything else. We were talking about ecosophy last time, and I think we can apply Boclé’s words to what you attempt to say about nature.
Yes. Absolutely. That is a good way to say the way I have been thinking about nature. I have been reading this phenomenal Indigenous botanist named Robin Wall Kimmerer. Her book
Braiding Sweetgrass is extraordinary. She talks about an Indigenous philosophy of living in harmony with nature, the preservation and respect for nature that has alway been central to Indigineous life and thinking. As westerners we don’t operate this way. We operate as conquerors as above and outside of nature, and this approach is not working! This capitalist attitude towards nature is destroying the planet! So, as I am reading this book, the ideas of gratitude, reciprocity, and respect make me so emotional. I never thought in this way before that everything I touch, everything I look at, everything I hear, is equal to me, in terms of its right to live, in terms of its importance in the ecosystem, in life. Everything is sacred. A tree is a sentient sacred being. Through her eyes, and through this teaching she so generously shares, I walk in this place and see things so differently than I did before. We have been given these incredible gifts on this planet, and through our callous selfishness we are destroying them...and they will not return. And one thing we cannot seem to grasp is that if we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.
In Indigenous communities there are many sacred ceremonies connected with nature which she describes. Of course I cannot adopt them because this is not my culture. But I was thinking about what she said about foraging in the wild: “only take what you need, never take the first one you see, never take the last one you see”. She talks about how in her culture there is always an offering that’s given when you take something. Well, I can't give an offering, so I thought…how can I give back? So you know what I did? I picked up garbage that people had thrown on the road and in the forest! I’m surrounded by protected park land and as I walk around I find plastic water bottles, beer cans, take out coffee cups! What is wrong with people…?! So that is what I do to try to give something back to this place. It is about reciprocity and respect. I have also started to grow native plants that are good for the insects and birds. How do I sustain and nurture this place? I feel a new sense of responsibility.
Let me just tell you something : I was drinking tea, just before we started this call, and at the end oh the teabag, there is a piece of paper, you know ? On it we can read a little quote, it changes on every teabag you pick from the box. Today was : “Become part of the universe, so the universe becomes part of you.”
It is great ! (laugh) put it in our article !! I love it ! YES...that’s it...PERFECT! When I look at the microscopic images and the telescopic images sometimes the close up of a cell looks just like a night with stars. If that doesn’t tell us everything is connected….I don’t know what does?!
Dialogue led by Luci Garcia
Translated by Landry Dasse