Nature, sustainability, urbanism, and the overlapping interests of two artists who produce very different work.
I first met David at his DUMBO studio with the artist Greg Lindquist. An admirer of Brooks’s work since learning about it at PS1’s Greater New York (2010) exhibition, I was interested in talking with him to learn more about how our work and ideologies overlap and intersect. Our intention was to complete this interview in person in the summer of 2013. Amid traveling, we conducted the entire interview through sporadic email over the course of six months.
Mary Mattingly Walking into your studio and meeting you for the first time, I was confronted with extensive collections of animal bones, rocks, shells, and odd things you have found from all over the world. Can you say something about some of these items?
David Brooks I think of these things less as a collection and more as an array of idiosyncratic objects that occupy very specific points in time. Even more accurate than “object” would be to call them material documentations. I know that sounds a little lofty and harebrained, but it’s quite simple really. For instance, the carapace of a spider crab is a unique object, but more accurately it is a material documentation of the dynamic processes that came together for a duration of time into what was once a living being—the spider crab. The same goes for the petrified sycamore log found in a river in Alabama that is 250 million years old, or the piece of the Pantheon that is circa 2000 years old in its current formation, or the core of the 1800-year-old redwood tree, or the large megabat with a two-and-a-half-foot wingspan that I acquired from the now defunct Mr. Potter's Museum of Curiosities, or the hank of handmade rope I found on a Cuban refugee raft washed up in the mangroves in Florida, or any of the other unique bones, carapaces, architectural fragments, or animal forms. They all had a life, a morphological expression of that life, and now what remains is the residue of that expression of life lived. They’re kind of like fossilized entanglements of unique but disparate linkages of time and constituents, though all are in a constant state of entropy, even in my home and studio. In a tongue-in-cheek way, you could almost see them as momentary snapshots, or fading photographs, mementos, or monuments to individual lives lived and the physical forms that only lived lives can generate. This of course includes fragments of the built environment. They are absolutely no different.
I know your relationship to objects is radically different. Besides your frustration with the sheer quantity of “stuff” that accumulates in such a hyper-consumerist culture, does “stuff” ever emanate a material uniqueness or tell a story of individual importance beyond the suffocating wastefulness that brings such consternation to many of us? Or are you holding out for a way of life that is significantly more fluid, efficient, and adaptable, which has no need to showcase or archive particular objects at a particular point in time?
MM I’m intrigued by mass-produced objects that have a use besides their original intention. Whether it’s a spoon that was repurposed to fix a broken car door handle, a tarp that takes the place of an original roof, or mass-produced objects bundled into sculptures and made useless, I find their stories to be the most important aspects. The object itself is just an indicator for the story it contains, a voyage of mythic proportions: one of a cycle of connection and disconnection that happens between people and things along the route of a supply chain, the life of the object and the underlying fact that everything and everyone in this cycle is a commodity. At a certain point in the project I’m working on now (that focuses on stories of an object’s creation, discard, and eventual reemergence as something else), I realized that the object is the least important part. It plays a necessary role in defining a story and especially answering the “why” of mass-production, but many times the object is just a symbolic excuse to mobilize people, to recirculate and reinvent capital.
You made it a point to talk about how the wood from Desert Rooftops was recycled after the duration of the project and made into permanent housing. Is discussing the afterlife of a temporary project a way to defend the natural resources that are necessary to bring your projects to life?
DB I think it relates to how I just described the material culture in my house and studio. It’s all part of a continuum, a flow, a momentary glimpse or document of an articulation at that one particular time. The act of bringing the materials together for that momentary articulation is only part of the artwork, as there is a greater life being lived that expressed itself in that particular time, material, and place. How to convey, embrace, imply, or portend the alteration of that material into something toward the future (as it was equally born of a history unique to it and only it) is an imperative, since it is simply the truth. So to not convey the future context of the material is to only convey partial truths. I should say though, it is never a concern to “defend” the use of resources. In fact, I choose certain materials because of the very fact that they have a baggage to them, because the energy it took to utilize that resource is materially self-evident and tells part of the story of the project. For instance with Desert Rooftops the roofs had to be built according to New York City building codes in order to get issued permits. The project had to be realized in real, not “representational,” scale. It qualifies its existence by maintaining its true scale, analogous with the inundating sprawl of housing communities and the perpetual bursts of suburban development. It displays its materiality as both form and concept. There is an irrational beauty in this very entropic display (what Robert Smithson termed the “ruins in reverse”), but also an absolute horror. It’s a sculptural event, but also a catastrophe. It’s a glimpse of normalcy, displaced from its conventional context that now awkwardly inhabits a full block in Times Square, out of place like a beached whale.
You’ve also done a number of projects in the public realm throughout New York City. Besides the sheer density of people in the city, is there something idiosyncratic in its infrastructure and design that fuels aspects of your work? You don’t seem to choose obvious or easy sites to work in and it seems that the interaction with site for you is very particular. I’m curious how you might describe that particularity, and whether or not it is a particularity inherent to the New York environment or something more…universal (I say that word carefully—and am perhaps referring to urban sites of conflicting energies that globally inhabit dense capitalist centers).
MM Building a home in New York is a lifetime occupation. The work I do begins from necessity, stemming from the precarious positions many of us are in as artists. Working in gaps between dense urban space and nature is a way for me to reinterpret sites that were once interconnected through their positions as sites of distribution and are now are preserved as parks or are zones forgotten by most people. In these sites I see a chance to work together to build spaces that connect and empower. Obtaining permission to live at these sites is important, because then they are cared for and we can begin to imagine and interpret an idea of a nature that is not separate from human culture and livelihood in urban space. These zones have potential to bring together a site with communities; they can bring people to nature on the edge of the city and bring interdependency to the forefront. Beyond looking at these sites as distinct geographic locations, I’m responding to them as networks of social relations, of political and ethical dimensions.
Triple Island was built on the edge of the East River in 2013. It’s a proposal. I wanted it to address the importance of decentralizing our basic resources by creating a regenerative living system providing food grown from cleaned river water, power from sun and tides, shelter, and collected and purified rainwater for all other needs. It’s amphibious and mobile. It floats if need be and can be wheeled to another location. It’s built just under the height that determines a certain set of permits from New York City's Department of Buildings—because it can move it was permitted through a Temporary Structures permit, which is less complicated and requires less overhead to obtain than a building permit.
What do you consider in a site when you work on mobile sculptures like Still Life with Cherry Pickers? What is that piece’s relationship to urban and rural space?
DB I suppose that is kind of the whole work. I think one of the unique qualities of the time we live in is its heightened propensity for cross-disciplinarity. Not just an “anything goes” kind of spirit, but one in which we actively seek out disciplines to bridge and mend with others. One could just as easily look at the Socrates site (where Still Life with Cherry Pickers and Palms was installed in October 2013) as the result of a 4,000-mile glacial wall from about a million years ago, just as easily as one could look at Socrates historically as the illegal dump site on the East River until Mark di Suvero co-opted it with the neighborhood inhabitants and his fellow artists to make a sculpture park out of it in the 1980s. Just as easily, and in the same moment of consideration, one can understand it as a local gathering place, as a respite from the stresses of urban life today, even though one can also see that this appealing feature of the park drives major development schemes that build high-income housing and push out the very souls that formed its defining character. In short, a site is not a thing the way we conventionally understand things, but displays its power dynamics through its momentary forms. Architecture, infrastructure, access to water and open space, where trees are planted, migratory birds, how much sky is visible, transportation to and from, as well as use-value are all equally the site. I think this idea of considering a site through the lenses of multiple disciplines simultaneously is fast becoming a part of our common language now that it can be embraced experientially as part of the site, and not just theoretically.
MM What do you imagine the future of New York will look like?
DB I suppose it depends on how far into the future you mean. In the short term, the city’s infrastructure will become more porous and designed for greater moments of adaptability. I say this because it has to, if it’s to alleviate the leaks of an antiquated coexistence with its own surroundings. We cannot simply import 20th-century models of infrastructure into a 21st-century world. The scale and context have changed. Not to beat a dead horse, but the storm surge of Sandy in 2012 illustrated exactly this. It made for a larger public consciousness of how the severe demarcations between city over here and “nature” over there is simply an illusion, has always been an illusion, and has now reached a point of crisis for many. We hope for a consciousness shift in folks along with a clear, hardened, and conscientious understanding of the interrelationships between the impact of our collective actions and reactions by the earth’s systems. That’s the optimistic side of my thinking. And I am an optimist. The other side is that perhaps there are no actual flaws in the built environment and its relations to natural systems, and we’re already doing all that we are capable of. Many biologists subscribe to this latter view, which would confirm that, yes, we are but a momentary glitch on the evolutionary timeline: we do what we do and what we do is perfectly natural for our collective capabilities, which would inevitably mean extinction—which is another way of saying “transition.” In other words, though our collective actions and impact on the biosphere may clearly lead to a self-extinction scenario, that is just as natural as the migration of the monarchs, evolutionarily speaking. However, I don’t believe in quick apocalypses. And most certainly not for Homo sapiens! We’re more invasive and stalwart than anything the biosphere has produced. We affect geology on a short term and long term basis. We’re more pervasive than roaches. We most certainly are not going to go out clean and quick. We’re going to drag this ecological degradation into overtime, and we’re going to drag a whole lot of other species out with us in this slow, slow decline. How do you think of duration, speed, or time in regards to urban space?
MM Well I look at the movement and speed of cities through the lens of power, access, and control. I directly connect the speed of cities to the current flow of capital. Those studies that have correlated the speed of walking with economic activity in an urban space, like Helen and Marc Bornstein’s research, which they titled “The Pace of Life.” This firmly relates to urban development: the more capital, the more people can work on a project, the faster it’s completed and developers can move on to the next project. The more capital, the more political alignment is possible, the faster permits are obtained, and the quicker the city changes. From a micro-level it can be argued that the historic weight of a city has an effect on each inhabitant. Histories, environments, and personal agency must all have an effect on speed. I think about Deleuze and Guattari’s Nomadology and the changing position of the nomad as either the underrepresented migrant or the deregulated multinational, I’m especially concerned with property and the formalization of space, or those gaps that, when located and used in mass, change the space of the state—from what the state intended it for into something else. Deleuze has also described a disappearance of gaps, open spaces, and times as the state of a control society. And finally, will we all get to the point when the ability to move is necessary? I’m reading this book right now, Exhausting Dance. The author, André Lepecki, describes the “still-act” in dance, proposed as moments when a subject interrupts historical flow and practices historical interrogation. I’m paraphrasing here, but—With the “still-act” a person effectively interrogates economies of time, because it reveals the possibility of agency within controlling regimes of capital, subjectivity, labor, and mobility. In this case, stillness is defiance in urban space.
DB Does this mean to issue stillness against the flow of capital, like a rock in a river? And isn’t stillness deceiving sometimes also—as in the notion of stillness that I try to demystify in A Proverbial Machine in the Garden? That landscape is dynamic; and any act of stillness (or stasis) is an act of defiance against evolutionary processes and the truth of said landscape. Can you explain how this “stillness” asserts itself? And do you see this as a metaphor or as a strategy?
MM Well in this context, stillness remains alive and changing, but the pace is much different. It’s more akin to loitering. When I attempted to drag a ball of my things over the Bayonne Bridge a police officer was driving next to me at a slow crawl amid the pace of traffic shouting at me to move faster. Speed is often competitive, whether it's the speed of nature versus urban growth or someone walking versus driving, so here you are confronting a competitive pace. So I see it as a long game ideology to confront a pace associated with competition toward each other. What are your thoughts on the speed of nature and (or versus) urban space?
DB Maybe one way to think about that is to look at the recent history of invasive species around the world. It’s no surprise that in a global capitalist environment invasives circulate around the world at a faster pace than the biosphere can absorb the impacts. We know that invasive species are not a new development and not necessarily restricted to human intervention (in fact we ourselves would be considered an invasive species in North America by most definitions). But the speed at which they circulate and impact systems is new, and that is our contribution to this phenomenon. This onslaught of impacts leaves no time for a system to make adjustments, biologically. It is a degenerative act, no matter how you slice it: ideologically, ethically, and biologically. The long-view of our built environment in relation to the natural environment is complicated by inconveniences. Just as you alluded to above, to think about our built environment in the long-term goes against how our economic system functions, and thus is terribly inconvenient. It is inconvenient to think of how every piece of packaging of every piece of food I consume each day will be dispersed daily, monthly, and yearly. It is inconvenient to consider where my toilet sends things. It is inconvenient to think about how everything in my entire apartment, including my apartment, will end up as decomposed matter, garbage, rubble, and some dust, eventually. This reality is unavoidable, this reality is not hypothetical, we know this will happen, and the decision to ignore that is the result of convenience. I think it is imperative to make comparisons between natural processes and the conditions of our built environment, specifically to demystify their convenient bifurcation.
MM When I heard about A Proverbial Machine in the Garden, it struck me that these machines, in a sense, resemble dinosaurs, their bones buried in our everyday landscapes. Will these machines be the dinosaurs of the future?
DB It is indeed a piece that looks with a historical glance while also looking to the future where certain modes of shaping the land, harvesting resources, issuing a dominion over the natural systems will become obsolete and anachronistic in concept and form. They will become obsolete because they must. They’ll exhaust themselves to nothingness if an evolution of behavior doesn’t arrive first. The normalization of this dominion and the shortsightedness it dictates afflicts the health of the natural environment to a degree that is untenable beyond a few more generations.
Not to sound like a Darwinian broken record, but there are really only two options that are physiologically, philosophically, socially, and psychologically possible: 1) We struggle collectively to maintain a semblance of status quo in a world of over population and surplus economic standards. This world will endure a few centuries of parasitically straining the biosphere to a level of exhaustion until we render our own selves inhospitable as a population. Of course an exponentially increased number of extinctions of fellow species will unfortunately come from this trajectory. You can’t expect an innately flawed and self-serving system of manners to right itself. That’s just not natural! Or…2) A complete and absolute consciousness shift occurs, collectively, globally. Just as the civil rights acts that came as an eruptive shift in ’68, bringing racial and gender equality into a mainstream conversation and affecting—albeit slowly—policy, literature, art, education, and social exchanges. This philosophical impasse that is manifesting itself as an environmental crisis and ecological collapse does not discriminate by class, race, or gender. In fact, from a glass-half-full perspective, one could see this as an extraordinary moment in evolutionary history: the decline of biodiversity is one of the first topical events to have united not specific nations, but all of humanity. The social world can be unified for the first time in its history by collectively addressing the physiological conundrum that we face on a global scale. Since we are all in the same boat, at last. As some say: “Evolution, not pollution,” meaning a mere halt to polluting industries, a changing of light bulbs, or more bicycling will not induce the paradigm shift needed. Only with the fervor of a religious revolution, as propounded by dear Bruno Latour, could usher in the urgency of a total life change. Not even eminent death can induce this kind of global fervor!
You also think about different types of apocalyptic scenarios or at least a sort of post-industrial-post-human kind of life. What would the qualities of that life be?
MM In the face of every new disaster, the media and marketplace continue to endorse a techno-utopian idealization of the future: as we alter our own ability to inhabit the planet, we continue to believe we can counter the damage with another technological innovation. This perspective is either naïve to or knowingly benefits economic and political interests. The future needs to be a time of repurposing resources or accounting for some far away land and people. There will need to be increased value placed on repair and second-hand economies, and we will need to act interdependently with our neighbors, near and far, and as an extension of this a post-human interdependency will need to grow, because these things are symbiotic. This is a scenario that could nearly avoid an apocalypse that I imagine would (yes) be slow and resemble JG Ballard’s A Drowned World where cities further from the equator become the tropics, new species proliferate as current species perish, inland becomes wasteland (as far as humans are concerned) with deserts expanding and water engulfing, and the poles become desirable with expensive forms of protection. I’m drawn to water-based communities and informal economies, because people who exist in those spaces are all operating in a future.
DB I think that last sentence is the operative sentence here. I think that is a very sober statement on the future’s existence in today’s world—not one belabored with fantastical scenes of apocalypse, but one that accounts for actual processes, both economical and climatic. We already see microcosms of this sort beginning to plume. So then do you see your artmaking as a way to engage in that conversation, which is already taking place, or perhaps is your work more so preparing an aesthetic context for a “people to come,” which brings up Elizabeth Grosz’s declaration that the role of art is not to speak directly into the present but to prepare a future audience?
MM Part of it is to offer narrative proposals that begin as experiments that subvert (as Rob Nixon says) the slow violence of ecological and economic oppression and find space for another way of living within a space that has become the epicenter of exploitation. For instance, water follows development and redevelopment and it lives under the radar of international law. The sea is where neoliberal globalization dictates the exploitation of the day, and where flags of convenience deregulate nation upon nation—it’s far from a residual space based on mercantilism but is rather the space where everything meets. I’ve been working on proposals for futures where the sea plays an enormous role, it also holds answers for a lot of questions about personal agency for our own daily needs: for example, where will the water we need to drink come from, where will our food come from, and how can we make our own energy, and be mobile if need be? I look at the water as a space ripe for a new continent, a “still-act” within an epicenter.
Do you think about your work as an aesthetic response to the present, or warning for the future, or something else?
DB It must be all of it, as long as it is generative. Again, I like to take advantage of the fact that we live in a time that can entertain the multiple dimensions that an artwork can occupy. It is a document of present conditions, it is also a response to its failings, but it is also an experiential moment that can potentially incite a sense of agency in its audience—since it is they who shape a future.
Mary Mattingly’s work has been widely exhibited in the US and internationally. She recently launched a three-part project, beginning with The Flock House Project. Part two, Triple Island, was on Pier 42 in Lower Manhattan in 2013, and WetLand, part three, will launch from the Delaware River in Philadelphia in the fall of 2014.
David Brooks has exhibited at the Miami Art Museum; Dallas Contemporary; Nouveau Musée National de Monaco; Sculpture Center in New York; Changwon Sculpture Biennale, South Korea; Galerie für Landschaftskunst, Hamburg; James Cohan Gallery, Shanghai; and MoMA/PS1, where he had a large scale installation for two years. Upcoming projects include: The Visual Arts Center, Austin; the deCordova Museum, Lincoln, MA; the Goethe-Institut, in New York; and Art Basel Statements, Switzerland.