A Wilderness Science and Art Collaboration

Aldo & Leonardo, a partnership between Colorado Art Ranch and the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is a project to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The project is inspired by the scientific wisdom of Aldo Leopold and the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci. Our endeavor is an interdisciplinary collaboration of artists and scientists designed to celebrate the lands, resources and opportunities protected by the Wilderness Act. In 2013, we are hosting one-month residencies in six diverse wilderness areas. Artists will work alongside wildland research scientists and gain firsthand knowledge of the wonders, complexities and challenges of our nation's wildest places. The result will be a body of work that creatively illustrates the value of wild areas and honors the scientific efforts to preserve wilderness for the next fifty years.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Interview with Artist: Duane McDiarmid (John Muir Wilderness~July 10-August 7, 2013)

By:Ryan Mudgett

 Duane McDiarmid studied Biology, Anthropology, Urban Studies, and Dance, prior to completing Fine Art Degrees at the Kansas City Art Institute and Florida State. He constructs sculptures, performances, and initiates social intersections in fine art venues, digital communities and in the landscape. He has fed the public ice cream from a solar work in remote deserts, bathed in used motor oil for an audience of animals in a wetland, worn a French-court inspired wig while traversing mountain passes with a Mr. Coffee pot, and dressed an Arabian horse in ‘I dream of Jeanie’ inspired garb in the Sierras. His work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and been presented at prestigious institutions including The Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, and the Santa Fe Art Institute. 

 Q:Why were you interested in participating at the John Muir Wilderness residency?

D.M.My work has long time been really interested in placing itself in more remote locations for a much more happenstance audience. There was a natural affinity with the basic mission of moving art practice out of the studio, dissemination and the strategies of museums and galleries, into something that is more akin to the natural environment. I have a love for the high altitude locations because it’s like this limitation of flora and fauna, it keeps it from being overloaded, but I don’t get access to that sort of environment. So I applied for all the different biomes for the Aldo and Leonardo, but I made the Alpine biome my first choice.
 I think there is also a personal narrative prompt in there, which is that my grandparents had been trail riding on horseback into the high alpine areas of British Columbia. So I think I had a romance behind that, and I was interested in maybe repeating. At the application stage there was this question on, whether you had ridden a horse and it sounded like maybe the Alpine biome was going to involve that mode of transportation which also made it attractive. The high alpine environment is a completely different world and it has different kinds of hierarchies and I’m really interested in hierarchies. You have this wonderful scale shift between these really large scale things such as mountains and these really small scale things like the tiny little wildflowers and lichens. The middle zone of scale is what we normally deal with, houses, cars, and trees which tend to disappear out of the spectrum. 

Q:Why is the intersection of Art and Science so important to you and your work?

Duane's Canister at 12,000ft.(Photo Credit: D. McDiarmid)
D.M.What I find is of interest for me is the breadth of spectrum with which human beings try to understand our existence within the world. As such I see science and art as different aspects of the same thing. This idea of having these experiences, and this curiosity of wanting to dig deeper for insights or enlightenment, as the case maybe. I think they’re a good pairing because they have sort of a yin-yang relationship. Science is really locked into the cone of vision of the rational. It can’t really be outside of rationality because scientific process doesn't allow for that. I believe human beings are irrational creatures, that our perception is even more irrational than our beings. It means that cone is going to miss certain things. Art on the other hand can really indulge in those non-rational, contradictory to rational aspects that are operative. So when you put those two cones in overlap with each other you get this more dynamic picture.  The multiplicities and overlapping realities that collectively add up to a greater sum is something that I always find interesting.

Q:What are some of your first reactions to the John Muir Wilderness?

D.M.Everyone’s first reactions to the John Muir Wilderness are – are we there yet? The road in is spectacularly long for how short it is. So that becomes a really dominant first impression, it’s a time space collapse were you can drive twenty minutes to go four miles. So you start to begin to understand even before you arrive, that the usual assumptions that you’re going make to measure things are not going to work here.  Time and space have a different proportionally relationship to each other.
The other thing that really stuck me, and I said it out loud even though I was alone was- “Oh my god this is what it would have been like to enter Yosemite 50-100 years ago.” There was a sense that you were in that space before it had become codified. In that, I found it immensely exciting because it was like time travel in a strange way. So that was the first impression of coming into the John Muir. 
In some ways we weren't in the John Muir quite yet because then you go out to the trail head for awhile and then that’s when you actually cross the boundary into the actual wilderness. In many ways that boundary was kind of invisible. You couldn't see it or feel it quite as profoundly as the boundary between the wilderness, its surrounds, and everyday life. One of the things I found myself thinking a lot about was whether or not there should be a discernible shift when you cross these specific boundaries. I found myself leaning towards the side of whether there should be a distinct shift when you cross a boundary into something that’s actually designated as wilderness. In terms of how we think about trail maintenance, and how we think about all these things. There are some real differences in terms of how you maintain the trails - hand tools vs. power tools, wheelbarrows yes vs. wheelbarrows no. But there’s a culture of what is a well maintained trail, and what are the measures that we are heading for, which seems to cross that boundary with utter oblivion to it, and that was something that I found myself pondering quite a lot out there.

Q: What do you believe to be a highlight to your time spent in the John Muir Wilderness?

D.M.I did two eight day tours walking in the John Muir with Wilderness Rangers. As fellas in the program we were sent on an eight day journey. I decided during that journey and the couple of days following as I was developing what my artistic response was going to be to that initial experience. I wanted to express that response actually on the trail in the John Muir, as opposed to off the trail about the John Muir Trail. So I decided to go on a second tour as an artist opposed to as artist/researcher. My fellow artist Tory did eight days on the trail and I ended up doing sixteen because it became really important to my work.  It also profoundly changed the way I perceive the whole thing, and what my discourse around the John Muir would be long term. On my second tour I had prepared all of these props, discourses and these performative acts based on my first tour. On my first tour we were primarily on the John Muir and the Pacific Crest, which are pretty heavily trafficked by hikers. There was a great sense both for Tory and I, which we discussed a lot; we both were stuck by this Disney esc. quality of wilderness on our first tour. Not that we weren't having other experiences that were truly profound and that it wasn't incredibly beautiful in terms of landscape.  We really noticed that there was a lot of performing going on in the wilderness. In terms of performing how great a hiker you are, and performing how many miles you had come,  performing the sustainability of your fashion choices, and performing the duties so that it would appear no one had ever been here even though twenty people are passing there every day.
My work that I developed to go about on my second tour was really predicated on the premise of it being about that phenomenon and for that level of traffic. But on the second tour we went to a very different kind of place. I found myself having much more of the experience that I had hoped for. My work was designed and propped out and loaded onto my pack with the idea of doing these slightly tongue n’ cheek, critical little glib performances. But on my second tour it wasn't really what I encountered, so it’s not what I ended up really doing. I ended up going off trail quite a lot and even when we were on trail we were not on the major trails we were on secondary trails.
 I ended up having this quasi-transcendental experience of hiking and following my shoes higher and higher in elevation to lake and snow field, and over talus. That made me really, get beyond the performing, to the point where - I’m in the wilderness, and actually crossing over to being in the wilderness. Because I made this shift, the art had to change from being discursive about wilderness between people pretending to be in wilderness in different ways and had to shift. It had to shift to,what are the acts that I can make as an artist in the wilderness that don’t pop me out of it, but rather keep me in it? That was a very different question. This led to another whole set of performative gestures that I really ended up considering as the real work of the residency. It had to do with figuring out how to mark and acknowledge presence while leaving no mark of my presence, which is a very strange way for a sculpture to try and work. Most of what we do is material and it’s in some way or another is about shifting material into a new configuration. So it became very interesting for me when I was in a world where my goal was not make any material shifts.

I brought along a couple bear canisters that I decked out as circus props with the idea that even though wild bears were performing a entertainment value to human concerns of wilderness. I was adding this level of adventure and risk that wasn't really real. I did this by perverting the bears foraging behaviors in a way that was responsive to the non-wilderness world, as opposed to the response to the wilderness world. That was central to my original thesis going back in. It was, nothing was operating in response to the wilderness, everything was operating and responding the non-wilderness, and I was going to try and shine a light on that. To that end I had these bear cans with me that were decked out in this circus costume and they had musical instruments in them. The idea being, when the bear came to raid our food they would end up performing a chaotic Dadaist music for us which is a complete perversion of wild bear behavior. That was a potential that I ended up creating, a ritual were I would set these things out with the hope that nothing would happen, and that’s what did happen, the bears never came. They never reduced themselves to that level of clownery.
 But then I also used these devises as sort of a worry stone. When I would walk I would swing this bear can with this wind chime in it and it would be responding both to its contained internal space and to the variations of me going over a terrain. The rhythm of that swing having to be a bodily extension of my body moving through this landscape, and it was performative but it was not for anything or anyone. It was just itself, in its own moment. That became the nexus of the way I thought about my actions up there.  The way to be an artist in the wilderness is for the art to exist like other wilderness elements, which is without self consciousness to external viewership. That was the profundity of it.
Then of course there is the re-entry of it, you come back out of the wilderness and you have a contractual obligation to show something, so you have to negotiate all those spaces. On one hand there was a compromised aspect to it, in that I did record documentary photographs and now I’m processing them for consumption in the non-wilderness world. They really are secondary acts to things that occurred between me and the landscape in the landscape that were about that time and that place and that moment, and nothing and no one else.

Q: As an artist do you feel like you influenced the Forest Service Rangers that you worked with?

D.M.The Forest Service Rangers that I worked with were largely involved with janitorial services, trail management, more labor and less esoteric science. I think that if I left longing for anything that didn't occur it would be that much more intimate overlaying of the scientific research with my own personal artistic research and how those things would mesh. That said, as the big picture-I do think that our presence both Tory and mine on the first tour, and mine on the second influenced the Rangers. I think we did this by presenting two ways of seeing and ways of questioning what they were doing. We also discussed what those things meant emblematically, and how what they meant emblematically may even conflict with what they thought they were doing. In that sense, I think there was a level of expansion of perspective that was exchanged back and forth, where the artists were actually able to contribute some insights. I say that because I believe I experienced it in the moment when it was happening and there was feedback when we were socializing with the Rangers back down off the mountain that seemed to confirm that.
 Our insights may have even been problematizing to the Rangers normal tasks. When you start to discuses in depth which Tory and I did around the stove at night cooking, that your  perceiving there task of firing eliminations of a theater that’s about preparing the set for the next but same play. Preparing for the next person to pretend that they are arriving at this river bank, and no one else had ever slept there before- and that is all bogus.
We have a very thin veneer, and there keeping that thin veneer going. I think that really made them ask some new questions about what their role was as a Wilderness Ranger and where is the center of gravity of this supposed to reside. I’m not sure that we did a lot of good from the Forest Service’s point of view. From the idea of human beings being aware and questioning, or investigating their own behaviors and how that relates to wilderness. I think the art perspective certainly opened up some new vantage points.
It’s very easy to say, or to look at, the action of picking tiny pieces of foil out of some dirty campers, meaning all campers fire rings, because we never came across a fire ring that didn't have little bits of foil in it. To understand that as-I’m out here protecting the wilderness from this foil, that’s what I’m doing, can open up some  new questions. Our perspective really became a questioning of that because essentially what you’re doing is your mitigating the consequences of human interface to such a degree that the people are not confronting it and on top of it there not having the experience they think they’re having because you’re intervening in this un-natural way. What is the wilderness of that? I’m not sure if it’s a question that anyone but an artist would ask? It’s about the non-tangible events of the task rather than the tangible parts.

Q:Did you experience any absurd situations in the John Muir Wilderness?

D.M.I think the whole way Wilderness Ranger work is measured is utterly absurd, completely absurd. Because what these guys and gals had to do at the end of every day; was they had to sit down and make a list, because they had to report it back to their supervisor to prove that they were doing a good job. More or less they have to say like-How many visitors did we talk to? And okay that one is maybe fine. Except for it’s predicated on the notion that you’re serving human beings, which the Wilderness Act is really not predicated on. The Wilderness Act is predicated on the notion that you’re protecting wilderness. So even in that one, that seems so logical, you’re starting to see that the more visitors you have the more visitor contacts you have the better job your doing as a Wilderness Ranger. You’re starting to erode the main mission by the reward structure that has been set up by the employer employee relationship. Then you start extending that to things like- How many trail gutters did you clear? How many windfalls more than 4 in. diameter trees did you cut? How many illegal fire rings did you eliminate? How many legal fire rings did you clean? It’s all really about motel maintenance and interesting enough, what do these guys and gals do on their days off? They go hiking in the wilderness because there not hiking in the wilderness when they are being Wilderness Rangers. When I wanted to know something about the wilderness, about the land, about the flora, about the fauna, about the geology it was all stuff that they garnered on their days off, not doing their job as Wilderness Rangers. As Wilderness Rangers their job is not to range, it’s to clean. It really struck me, and in talking to the director of the John Muir Wilderness, Adam Barnett reaffirmed that. He said casually on a hike that we took together one day, that he felt that the number one job of a ranger is to observe, because if your fixated on doing too many miles then you’re not observing. Just observing is the most important job of a ranger. I think he absolutely meant it, and he absolutely implements it in the way he practices and I admire him immensely for that. Somehow the structure of how the lower ranking Rangers are managed two or three layers beneath his insights, are not supporting that. Nowhere on the list did it say- How much time did you spend observing the wilderness?
I thought about this a lot when I got back, the whole title of Ranger implies if you forget what it means literally in vernacular use, you think about what does it mean much more poetically? It’s about wandering the range. It’s another word for wanderer. Then you add this definition of Wilderness Ranger, which seems like it should confront that more firmly, and yet the wilderness rangers I talked to said they rarely get more than 100ft. away from a trail. There not ranging. So did I find an absurdity out there? Yeah. We don’t know how to pay people to be Wilderness Rangers, we only know how to pay them to be motel maids. That to me is utterly absurd, because cleaning up someone’s campsite is far less important than really protecting, understanding, wandering, and guarding the safe and beautiful, not just safe for humans but safe for the wilderness, its being a protector of the wilderness. I think everyone understands on some level  that is the primary mission of their job, but the accounting for it has completely obscured that. Accounting obscures real mission.

Photo Credit: D. McDiarmid

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