EcoArtTech: The wildness in the city

By Teresa de Andrés. June 13, 2012


EcoArtTech was founded by Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint, two artists determined to blur the frontiers between city and countryside by using technologies in a creative way. After a fruitful e-mail exchange, we have assembled this conversation-interview, in which they invite us to lose ourselves in unexplored lands, sinuous urban alleys and arid mountains to the south of the Earth. Contemplate, discover, walk.

You are currently in the creative retreat at Joya: Arte y Ecología at Cortijada Los Gázquez (Natural Park of Sierra María-Los Vélez, Almería). I'm doing this interview from my office, on a 7th floor in the very heart of Madrid. It’s nice here because it's early in the morning and it isn't too hot outside. What about you? If you lift your head from the screen right now, what do you see?

After an early morning hike up a mountain in Parque Natural Sierra María-Los Vélez, we’ve retreated from the mid-day sun to the artist studio, which has a rather large window. The Sierra Larga surround us; the mountainsides are scattered with pine trees. Almond trees grow in rows on terraced land, a sign of the human manipulations of this seemingly natural environment. Closer to the building, there are olive trees, which we have learned were brought to Andalucía by the Phoenicians millenia ago, and drought-resistant lavender and mint plants in the herb garden. We can also see Los Gázquez’s aljibe protruding from the earth, which we saw Simon Beckmann (founder of Joya with his wife, Donna) fill up yesterday with water he trucked in from an abandoned well down the road—a reminder of the shortage of water on this arid land. It’s a serene landscape that offers clues to centuries of human interaction.

You are presenting Indeterminate Hikes+ at Joya: Arte y Ecología, a project initially conceived for the Whitney Museum. How would you assess this movement from New York to the, so to speak, middle of nowhere? What have you learnt on the way?

Movement between environmental extremes –between mega-cities and green landscapes– has always been the most creatively stimulating “place” for us to dwell in. No matter where we go, we are always fascinated by the technologies and systems that human beings use to produce their survival and to create meaning in their lives. We are excited by moments when the two overlap, when the city travels to the country, or the country to the city. At Joya, we saw the opportunity to think about these connections but in a climate and environment unlike what we are accustomed to. At Cortijada Los Gázquez, there is heightened awareness of water and energy consumption and intense appreciation of the land around us, but even here, in the “middle of nowhere,” there is also a keen sense of being networked with a global community. We love learning about new ways of bridging sustainability and modern living, of respecting the limitations of the local while remaining connected to the larger world and enjoying certain modern conveniences. After our residency here, we leave for a road trip to Málaga, where we will perform Indeterminate Hikes+ at the CAC (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga). From city to country and back to city again, the journey continues.

Why and how did you start this project?

Indeterminate Hikes+ is a mobile phone app that turns networked technologies into tools of environmental imagination and meditative wonder. It imports the rhetoric of wilderness into everyday spaces through Google-mapped hiking trails so that walking among the buildings and cars of Málaga can be treated with the same attention and thoughtfulness as our hike this morning through the trees and rocks of Parque Natural Sierra María-Los Vélez. The project is inspired by the ways that wilderness spaces have slowed us down and changed our sense of perception, we wanted to bring that experience into all ecological spaces, no matter how natural or unnatural they seem. Also integral to Indeterminate Hikes+ is the “misuse” of technologies. Most people tend to use their smartphones for speedy consumerism and communication—to overcome the obstacle of distance so that life becomes faster and more convenient. We wanted to see if these devices can be used to create awareness of local places instead, so we might notice the sublimity of the sidewalk, the “music” of a car’s horn, or the wildness of urban spaces.

After this residency, you will produce a new video based on a previous work you did some time ago, Wilderness Trouble. What has changed in these five years?

Wilderness Trouble was very much about our cognitive readjustment when we realized that our ideas about “nature” and “wilderness” were hopelessly romantic. The classic Henry David Thoreau back-to-the-land experience had been our utopian dream, and when we had a chance to live in a shack in the woods, it was much harder and more complicated than we expected. We also began reading environmental history and learned that hardly any wilderness exists on the planet. In addition, in the United States, the idea of wilderness was used to displace indigenous Americans in order to create the national park system in the nineteenth century. However, in the five years since Wilderness Trouble, we have a lot less trouble with wilderness than we used to. We’ve accepted it as a myth while also embracing its imaginative potential. If the myth of wilderness has inspired so much environmental activism and so many transcendental experiences, what if we think about cities as wild and biologically and culturally diverse? Can we protect the free culture of electronic spaces if we think of them as ecosystems?

Why EcoArtTech?

Our collaborative name is a sort of a nod to a 1970s organization, Experiments in Art and Technology, also known as E.A.T., which pioneered some of the first art-technology practices. By using technologies as artistic media like painting and sculpture, E.A.T. revolutionized art-making practices, we have often felt that the organization, and many technologist-artists practising today, adopted a congratulatory approach to technological innovation, applauding human ingenuity without a sense of reflection about technology’s effects on the earth and the quality of life of animals, including humans. Our version of E.A.T.—Ecology, Art, and Technology or EcoArtTech—seeks to update the original E.A.T. with a sense of reflection about technology’s ambiguous role in the quest for a just and sustainable society. The main question that drives our research is: how does technology displace us from meaningful relationships to environments, animals, and each other, while at the same time offering new ways to make connections?

What three words come to your minds when you think about contemporary cities? And what about the countryside?

Cities: CultureNature. Diversity. Wildness.
Countryside: NatureCulture. Diversity. Wildness.

What can you tell us about the art residency program that you have developed in the Maine mountains? Has it already started?

We are in the process of building treehouses in the woods where artists will live primitively yet fully equipped with networked communications. No plumbing or general electricity; only enough solar power to charge laptops and connect to the internet. The residency will be a collaborative experiment in the effects of primitive digital living on the creative imagination.

Any other projects for the near future?

We are currently working on an installation called Basecamp.exe, which will complement our Indeterminate Hikes+ performances. It is a diverse ecosystem of electronic artworks meditating on the environmental and media geography of early twenty-first century life. The file extension “.exe” refers to the executable files that install and run software applications and displaces the familiar image of camping and nature. Likewise, Basecamp.exe acts as the physical manifestation, or the bringing-about, of a mindset for “indeterminate hiking” with our app. Much like traditional basecamps prepare explorers for mountaineering expeditions, Basecamp.exe will function as preparation for adventures through city landscapes. It involves a series of works, including prehistoric-style graffiti paintings, tents illuminated by L.E.D. screens projecting Twitter feeds, a mash-up of data generated by Indeterminate Hikes+ participants, a computer-campfire circle made of rocks and industrial debris, and a series of prints that provide basic art-ecology-technology lessons. We will be returning to Spain in November to exhibit Basecamp.exe and perform Indeterminate Hikes+ at Alhóndiga Bilbao as part of the Hondakin Festival.

I like to picture you as optimist people. Am I wrong?

We would like to picture ourselves as optimistic people too. It’s often difficult, but we do try keep a positive attitude. We find that it helps us be more accepting, tolerant, and aware of the world around us.

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