On a Saturday in November of 2016, during his exhibition Continuous Services Altered Daily at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Connecticut (May 1, 2016 – February 5, 2017 and on view at the Bemis Center in Omaha June 1, 2017 – August 26, 2017), David Brooks, an artist recognized for his commitment to illuminating our complex human relationship with the natural world, sat down with Greg Lindquist to talk about his current show, ecological activism, and scientific fieldwork.
Greg Lindquist (Rail): In your show, you have a mechanized instrument in juxtaposition with a fluid system. It’s fascinating to look at this interface of ecology and human intervention -- whether or not we see it. When we talk about ecology and ways of understanding how we can effect change, I think about those who aren’t aware of or don’t interact with the physical processes by which they get their resources or food. Is that something that you want people to take away from the work in this show?
David Brooks: Yes absolutely, that’s one of the core notions of the project. When I began as a sculptor, I was very much a “truth to materials” artist. So if it was made with plywood it was about plywood or if I worked with concrete it was about concrete. But one day I was looking at a piece on the floor in my studio. I started wondering where the wood of the floor came from and the sheetrock, etc. and extended the thought out from there. I made interventions in my own studio, which then lead to interventions in an exhibition space, which lead to interventions into a more public space— micro to macro in a literal way.
But it comes back to this idea of living systems and cultural systems—how we relate to these vast systems which are practically invisible to the individual and the decisions that go beyond just mere policy making, creating an existential reckoning. We don’t really know the whole story, though we certainly know a lot. So this search into systems and their relationship to the individual has an important history in the arts. Our ecosystems and how we acquire food, water, and so forth have all gone through some sort of service through an ecosystem, even though the idea of a service is anthropocentric. It is, here, purposefully erroneous.
Rail: Do you intend to present this show as an anthropocentric perspective of nonhuman actors? And if so, is that a critique?
Brooks: It’s overtly, unabashedly and exaggeratedly anthropocentric. It’s pushing that perspective to the point of nausea. If you were to read every wall label, you’d find there is a set of relationships not necessarily visible but interpretively based on your projection of what the object is. It’s all anthropocentric – a kind of exacerbation of the Enlightenment project, of mapping the world. In this mapping, there is also a great deal of absurdity being showcased.
Rail: You could extend that absurdity to the degree to which you fetishize machined objects by sand-blasting, brass-plating, and powder-coating the surfaces of them. There’s also a tender care and a preciousness to them. But in the dismantlement of these industrial machines is a critique of commodity and object production itself. In another interview you talk about having to crack some eggs to make an omelet. Maybe this is more a question of efficacy, because many of your projects use the actual object or material to critique its related problems, such as massive amounts of concrete used to critique carbon emissions and rainforest deforestation, evident in Preserved Forest (2010-2011) at MoMA / PS1.
Brooks: And in the Aldrich show, the combine itself is used to critique monoculture and big agriculture. I think Preserved Forest was a real horror that also had poetry. But it was a horror— not a representation of a horror, but a horror in a way that one can approach, see, and apprehend it. Covering a tropical grove of trees in concrete is a drop in the bucket of total ecological impact. These trees were not taken out of an ecosystem, but rather nursery-grown. Nonetheless, it’s a horrible situation to reproduce. That’s why I could only ever make one Preserved Forest. In broadening the scale of the horror in commodity production or how we industrialize the living world, while also marveling at this, I am interested in creating a visceral epiphany that will perhaps evolve into measurable changes.
Rail: I’m struck by you talking about the visceral horror of something like the concrete rainforest because it’s also beautifully resilient as plants shed the concrete.
Brooks: There are two aspects. On the one hand, we are a species that rubbernecks around violence, destruction, corrosion, deterioration, and degeneration. Looking at the current political scene, I’m addicted to the news cycle to find what new degeneration is arising in my own country, which is a horror in its own right.
Rail: This so-called “disaster porn” that exploits the suffering of others.
Brooks: There is an aestheticization of destruction which attracts us. The hubris that sparked the Enlightenment entails a certain level of arrogance, which is a matter of domination—if you can define and measure the world, you can control and therefore dominate it. We’re certainly a “debt species” – meaning it’s just a matter of time before we render ourselves extinct because of how we treat our own environment and other non-humans around us. However, that we can actually proclaim we’ve destroyed our world might be just as arrogant. I myself am trying to poke inquiries into different areas because the more I learn, the more I realize I was completely wrong in my initial impressions.
For example, coral reefs are one of the worse off living systems. But in fact, it’s not all coral. There are corals that are thriving in this disturbance, flourishing under intense heated waters that are acidic. Of course, there’s far fewer of them; so it’s not a call for celebration. But it’s interesting. I can’t make a blanket statement that it’s “all coral.” I’m talking about the obvious things, because clearly we transform the natural world so rapidly in ways that we can’t even keep up with our own perception of its consequences. It’s equally as arrogant to think that we understand it enough to know that we are completely destroying it. It’s more complex than that. The “it”—we often don’t even know what it is yet! On these survey trips that I do with biologists down in South America on a typical collecting trip, there will be almost a dozen new species discovered unknown to science. And that’s just one group, in one place, at one period of time. The more we know the more we realize we don’t know.
Rail: How do your integral fieldwork trips with scientists affect your creative process and what you make?
Brooks: Even with this project at the Aldrich, the labeling system is a direct commentary on decision-making processes in the scientific method. There’s so much human-ness in the scientific method. There are verifiable aspects, of course, but it’s still very human. What we put through the scientific process can be quite subjective. Or simply what somebody finds more interesting, will perhaps therefore receive more attention. Similar to the way an artist marvels about something and then pursues an intuitive line of questioning on that one thing. I say this in praise of biologists and the scientific discourse. It’s just important to understand that it’s very human-centric. It’s only one of many ways of seeing the world. However, it does get you very close to a level of detail of the living world that it is almost at the moment of being able to witness evolution itself—not just measure it and record it, but being able to witness it. It gets you to the very grains of sand that are amidst the evolutionary process.
A good example is when we were doing an aquatic survey along a piedmont area, in the Amazonian drainage of Peru, 300 meters before it descends into the lowlands. This area is broken up by boulders and rapids that can separate species by millions of years. Species can evolve differently from one set of rapids to another. Sometimes a set of rapids is all it takes, let alone a waterfall or a stream that’s just 300 yards down in elevation. I was observing these biologists holding these living breathing beings in their hands that are evolutionarily distinct from a similar looking fish just upstream and realized they were comparatively thinking in terms of millions of years, in that very moment. We were essentially witnessing evolution itself, in the palms of our hands. It’s that moment which is again very visceral. It garners a worldview through the visceral qualities of knowledge production itself.
On a biodiversity survey such as this, specimens are collected and then processed by species designations. If they’re unknown to science, then they are later defined and described, becoming another tier on the phylogenetic tree of the known living world. However it’s that initial visceral moment of knowledge production that’s of real interest to me.
Rail: So art does what for you? Would you be happy just spending all your time in the field?
Brooks: First of all, I’d make a horrible scientist. [Laughs]
Brooks: There’s a certain kind of rigor combined with a belief system that’s almost spiritual.
Rail: So you don’t have the temperament to be a scientist?
Brooks: I like making stuff. And in so doing, there’s a political assertion therein, that the world still needs this other thing. It’s not just me accepting and trying to understand the world as it is. There is still this romanticism of “No, I need to make this thing because it needs to exist in the world and the world’s not quite right yet”. But also, these projects of mine are so materially-based. They’re not just ideas; they’re actually things – to transform, manipulate, articulate, reframe, and re-contextualize materials in a particular way. Images are also material in a certain kind of way. Artwork can embrace all these contradictions. At the Aldrich, this project has many contradictions playing against each other which cannot exist in a scientific discipline, where they must be resolved. In art, the contradictions are actually something to highlight and enhance. Even though it is full of contradictions, conflicts, and confrontations, it is a truthful way of seeing the living world that I am trying to sort out.
But, I’m also a swamp kid. Ever since 1993, I have been spending summers or even entire years in South Florida, in the Everglades and Florida Keys. I first went to the Florida Keys at the age of 13 and went out on my first kayak at the age of 15— by myself, I didn’t tell anybody, I just looked around and took the neighbor’s kayak. [Laughs] I kayaked out to some of the islands and had no idea that’s even what an ocean bottom looked like. Everything was so insanely strange to me. I couldn’t dream up something more fantastical. Seeing stingrays move across the grass flats, coral patches, fire coral, parrot fish, the schools of snapper underneath mangrove buttress roots, I thought, “Wait! Nobody ever told me about this! Why are there not millions of people out here all the time staring at this in complete disbelief?”
Rail: When I was in the Pantanal, Brazil with my brother, we saw toucans and we were floored: “Woah! That’s what they actually look like!” My brother became enamored with toucans.
Brooks: I still feel that way in South Florida. I’ll go out on a Saturday in the middle of spring on a boat with my friend Juan and there’s not another human being in sight. Why are there not millions of people out here marveling at this stuff? Maybe we don’t know how to interface with it. We don’t know how to relate. Part of my experience was simply looking and realizing I’m not alone, there’s all these other beings living with us, not just data or statistics. I almost felt betrayed; that I was from Brazil, Indiana—pretty much the most landlocked place on the entire continent of North America—and no one ever told me that there were living beings like this in the ocean. It was almost like seeing aliens for the first time but they’re our aliens. And therefore I’m also an alien. I was so conditioned to a sheltered way of seeing the world and a landscape of monocultures, because I grew up around cornfields and ranch homes, so the more I involved myself in experiencing other parts of the natural world, the more I could shed that conditioning. This later evolved into a form of institutional critique for me.
Rail: —which I would definitely like to get to. On top of ecological theories we’ve discussed many times, like Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects, when I was reading about this project in particular, I was thinking as well about Miwon Kwon’s One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity (2004) on the notion of site specificity as a network of social and ecological relations. However, going through the show with you today, the network of relations you are making was so much clearer. While we could have an entire conversation about land art, Marcel Duchamp and the readymade seems highly influential in your re-contextualization of objects and systems, isolating and representing them. Robert Smithson wrote: “Duchamp is only trading on the alienated object and bestowing on this object a kind of mystification.” He then goes on to say that he’s had a lot of conversations with Carl Andre about Duchamp, “where I tend to agree with Andre is when he says Duchamp is involved in exchange and not use value. In other words, a Readymade doesn’t offer any kind of engagement. Once again it is the alienated relic of our modern postindustrial society. But he is just using manufactured goods turning them into gold and mystifying them. That is where the alchemy would come in.”
Duchamp also feels important in relation to the humor in your work. The whole show feels like a ruse on some level! Then you realize you’re looking at a serious, timely, and urgent issue. I’m curious to hear you talk about those relationships: to Duchamp, to material transformation, and to re-contextualization.
Brooks: Duchamp has been so influential, even on my mentors and artists who have influenced me. It’s kind of like John Muir and Rachel Carson with the environmentalists: you can’t even approach environmentalism without first going through their lenses of Muir and Carson because they defined its current trajectory. Duchamp was always an artist that I loved and hated.
Rail: He’s also a part of this lineage of artists who started as painters and became sculptors.
Brooks: I was a painter and then I became a sculptor. Actually I was photographer, painter and then sculptor.
Rail: You’ve described your work in terms of theatrics, drama, and effects which encompass narrative painting in various ways. But then it’s interesting what you’ve done with it. You are composing in embodied space.
Brooks: How Smithson discussed Duchamp right there: he demystified him and then re-mystified him in the same train of thought. Which only art can do. The kind of cavalier-ness which I always associate with Duchamp is an incredibly intelligent cavalier-ness.
Rail: A cavalier-ness in what way?
Brooks: Duchamp goes into the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in New York and wraps the entire thing in string (His Twine, 1942). The group exhibition was set up in an art fair-like orientation. He ran a mile of string throughout the entire exhibition, enveloping it like a web. This was a total cavalier-ness, which was absolutely absurd and ridiculous yet absolutely brilliant and true. There’s an epiphany along all those different scales: from the detail moment of the string being wrapped around or next to a Fernand Léger or Max Ernst, to the object-ness of it -- say, that room -- to the macroscopic view of the whole exhibition in relation to 1 mile. On every level of scale, it has different epiphanies along the way, challenging how we perceive.
Of upmost importance for me, even more so than Duchamp, is Marcel Broodthaers, specifically his work Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968). That was really such a radical dismantling and then re-presentation of how value is attributed to objects. You have a Delacroix next to a postcard from his mom that both had eagles in it with no attribution of monetary value or the artist’s name. Everything is collapsed into a moment of pure experience.
My project for Art Basel Statements, Lonely Loricariidae (2014), also looked at how value is attributed, but with actual living life forms. It entailed five medium-sized fish—which were described in the wall text as “…fish unknown to science…”—brought from the Amazon to Art Basel Switzerland, alive, and then put on display in aquariums atop aluminum sports bleachers. In this presentation, there’s a collapsing of how we define these living beings, ultimately for the viewer to have an unmediated experience with them, apart from a culturally defined interpretation of what they are, since they lack a species name. And in fact, the exact location [in the Xingu region of the Amazon] of where they were collected cannot be traced. They were indeed exported from the Xingu region of the Amazon, but the precise location is often omitted, and in some regions is protected under indigenous rights laws.
So these fish from the Xingu arrive in Basel through the legal protocols of the high-end aquarium trade. They are known only by an arbitrary number attributed to them in that niche economy, but not a species name. So really what a viewer is left with is an unknown fish to look at and experience, which are actually totally wild exotic–looking animals. Since they’re sedentary creatures and not predators they lay quite still, looking out of the glass. They’re near-sighted so they can’t see you that well, causing visitors to stare and come closer because they can’t quite determine whether they are real or not. They look unreal, and it seems unreal that we would commodify something that we don’t have a name for, let alone a living being. There’s a moment of simply experiencing a non-human unmediated, devoid of a predetermined cultural definition.
Rail: You cleverly put these fish on bleachers facing the viewers, as if they’re the spectators observing you.
Brooks: Sometimes the humor in the work is more overt, simple-minded or heavy-handed than others, but the fish are completely disinterested in whether or not we know what they are. They don’t care about whether we have a species name for them and they don’t care how much they cost in the aquarium trade. This installation collapsed the ways we attribute value or assign hierarchy. Like the Aldrich show, if we assign a certain kind of meaning or perception to what the objects are, then we are stuck within a particular mode of domination. But if we can free that, we can allow something to take on a different kind of meaning in relation to experience. In the Aldrich show, that’s how the signage works— it depends on how deep the viewer wants to mine the exhibition’s didactics.
When you separate the clutch from the combine and label it “transpiration,” it’s now linked to an ecological process. But I’m doing it in a very associative, comical, poetic, or philosophical way. There’s nothing literal about any of it. The moment of interpretation for the viewer is really when they’re viewing an object, like the operator’s seat, where the farmer would have been sitting, and they read the wall label that it’s titled Apex Predator. We are the apex predators of the planet! To make that relationship immediate there is a cushioned chair with deteriorated fabric inside of a large glass vitrine. There’s a level of preciousness around it, but it’s just a dirty chair with cigarette burns and sweat soaked in it. It has no economic value outside of that room. But it has a custom-made, institutional bonnet encasing it, and its context now evokes the hierarchies of the food chain. Allowing all these different notions of systems to conflate—that was part of the project, which is more of an experiment than a statement.
Rail: Experiment in what ways?
Brooks: I didn’t entirely know how everything would work out. Not too unlike Preserved Forest where I couldn’t control whether or not that particular tree would grow or die. I could only control where the concrete would be poured. There’s only so much you can really compose and control. In a similar vein here it was an experiment that you’re bringing together numerous ways of organizing the same thing all at once. There’s the layout of “ecosystem services” which is totally ridiculous to organize a disassembled combine harvester according to ecosystem services. Then to organize them according to their altered surfaces and materiality – from weathered, to sandblasted, to brass-plated—or, according to the layout of the exhibition room, which is a whole other system, as well as the mechanical system of how its parts operate with each other as cogs.
You’re allowing these parts to merge with each other and form some other relationship. It’s an experiment in that way, left open to moments of interpretation. Some people just want to walk through and marvel at the mechanics. Some people want to walk through and marvel at these objects as autonomous sculptures in their own right; others assume that the combine itself produces those services which is a healthy misread of the project to think that a machine is producing an “ornamental resource”. That this combine is producing “erosion and flood control” is fascinating. You’re allowing the anthropocentric view to have the rug pulled out.
Rail: Art can give you an experience that’s very nuanced and embodies contradictions that we’ve been discussing. It allows a space for doubt, confusion, conflicts, and fluidity of perspectives. And on the other hand, something like environmental activism is very polarized. With your work, some of the pieces maybe have more of a direct message, like the concrete rainforest or maybe Naturae Vulgaris (2010-2011), but this work at the Aldrich seems more over-extended and complicated—there’s a lot of transposition of systems and information.
Brooks: If it has a message, it is to be skeptical of institutionalized, therefore normalized, ways of seeing the world. And to not only trust your own interpretation of certain things, but actually to seek out ways to have a newfound relationship to how you can see the world. You actually can allow yourself to rethink the efficacy of an object from other standpoints, that could be as simple as “where did all that steel come from that made that bolt?” It could be “who designed that bolt?” or “who put that bolt into the machine; and who took it out?” or “where’s it going to be in a hundred years?” To take it out of its obvious or pre-assigned location or meaning, and grant it the opportunity of a new context, elicits a new experience of thingness and potential that didn’t exist before.
The message would be to emphasize one’s own faculties of apprehending the world. That’s not lofty at all! But that goes back to the original idea of what I was saying about the project: you can’t really stand at a forest’s edge and see an ecosystem. It takes time, imagination and your own personal faculties of interpretation to be able to see and witness an ecosystem, even though we’re in an ecosystem all the time. We’re never not in it.
Rail: Considering the macroscopic, how much can we think art can affect change at any level in terms of ecology or in terms of social ramifications of our impact on the environment? Does that drive you in any way? Or do you have other areas in your life where you feel it is more possible to resolve your ecological concerns more effectively?
Brooks: Well, art is not going to change things in an immediate way—it just can’t. And that’s not really its job.
Rail: Do you see this work participating in that goal?
Brooks: I’ve been rethinking that a lot recently. I used to think that yes, it contributes like a trickling effect that slowly fills up the bathtub as a collective consciousness. But that bathtub is not going to fill up fast enough, from a scientific perspective or just a human rights perspective, to really fuel that change. There is a different kind of aesthetic, philosophical consciousness that comes with art that allows us to be human, whether it’s something that’s for just aesthetic pleasure, clarity, or whether it is to allow contradictions to exist in the same place at the same time. For all those things, you have to have a belief that that’s alright; that that’s enough, and you’re cool with that. Because it is more than enough to be okay with. It’s massive.
But for people looking for immediate change, it’s not going to come through art. It’s too much to ask of an artwork, and I think it’s the wrong job. I think there are certain artworks that work toward an activist end, and they affect change, which is great. They might be evaluated as more so acts of activism than works of art, which is also great. I don’t work like that, but we need all of the methods and approaches at the same time: we need the artists that are documenting, artists that are using the art as activism. Earlier, I said that it was the evolution of a visceral understanding of what we’re doing. It allows you to be a human being and perhaps does take account of the world by being it, by being part of it.
Rail: What had you rethinking that recently?
Brooks: Because now I am forty years-old, and I don’t see the change I thought would happen. I have witnessed, felt, and experienced in my own life around art this other notion of a more visceral clarity and evolution that merges the intellect with intuition. That’s precisely what Robert Smithson was doing. He was one of the first artists I had seen that had made work that could be received on a multitude of scales at one time. For Smithson, whether he stole ideas or was founding them, I don’t really care because he merged them.
Rail: It doesn’t matter; they’re a readymade. Even thinking about your piece here, it’s a layer of appropriative scales of time.
Brooks: Very much. Moving from the microscopic to the macroscopic instantly. We’re certainly in a time where we can see this all at the same moment, instantaneously. Timothy Morton uses the phrase “if I’m driving and there’s a person in front of me and I hit that person with this car, I’m responsible for that person, so therefore I’m responsible for them before I even get into this car.” He draws a shared relationship to responsibilities, and fosters a sense of responsibility in the individual. Since we are capable of affecting things on a large and immediate level, there is great importance in being able to simply see it. You already said it, the responsibility that comes with being able to see all this information at our fingertips. That doesn’t mean that the will is there. It’s a real crisis of the will around these issues. That’s a whole other two hour long conversation. But nonetheless, projects like this stem from my ideology of giving agency to the viewer, which I believe fosters a sense of responsibility.