Eternity, ecology, and outer space.
Since the book appeared this past April, Rachel Sussman's The Oldest Living Things in the World project has captured the public imagination; it's about time, ecology, and even our deepest conceptions of eternity and life. Sussman has shifted her focus from—in her own words—“deep time” to “deep space,” which she is currently researching during her tenure at LACMA's Art + Technology Lab. She also opened the first gallery show dedicated to this project at Pioneer Works last week. We talked about scales of time in her work, lichens in outer space, and what happens when a sleeper-bestseller photography book is translated into an exhibition.
Monica Westin The show opened yesterday. How did you end up translating the project, which most people know via the resulting book, into the exhibition?
Rachel Sussman The goal was to integrate layers, but not necessarily in the same way the book does. There are large-format photographs, organized aesthetically, but also infographics with Linnaean taxonomy, small photographs that connect to the kingdoms that are part of the project, and a sort of research studio to bring people into the process. There's a wall of published scientific research papers I used, and books from the technical to Rebecca Solnit, and also some objects I brought back with me: pinecones, deer antlers, fungus, bacteria. I wanted to show what the work looked like and how layered the process was. I was particularly interested in the juxtaposition between the research studio room and the very formal large-format photography. As with the book, I wanted to give a number of ways to enter the work.
MW Can you talk about the timeline of The Oldest Living Things in the World? Was there a moment you can point to when you realized you would devote years of your life to this project?
RS It really didn't begin with one of those epiphanic moments that everyone loves to hear about. It took about two years to have the idea—starting long before I saw the first ancient tree in 2004 in Japan, and then another year before the idea for the project crystalized—in a process sometimes called creative churn. Did you know that Darwin, if you look at his old notebooks, had the idea for evolution long before he put it forth? We're driven toward something before we can really make the connections needed to go further with it. Anyway, the short story is I had just finished a residency at Cooper Union when I went to Japan, and was actively looking for an art and science project to do while making philosophical landscapes about the relationship between humanity and nature. It was both a literal and intellectual journey that eventually brought me to the idea to find and photograph continuously living organisms 2,000 years old and older.
MW What about the genre of the photographs? Are they portraits? Landscapes?
RS The nature or landscape photograph as a genre is a democratic entry point. And hopefully the title of each piece gives people a little more, along with the catalog numbers and my writing, which references field notes I took. But ultimately—ideally—the landscape brings us into philosophical landscapes, and the photographs emerge as photographs of philosophical things. It's funny, I went and saw Herzog speaking at BAM a couple weeks ago. He was talking about landscapes a lot and brought up the concept of emotional landscapes. That really struck a chord with me. There's a somewhat fine line between philosophical or emotional landscapes and landscapes as a place. I approach the subjects as portraits rather than grandiose documentary projects. I didn't wait twenty hours for the light to hit in a perfect spot.
MW Why do you think the book struck such a nerve across a huge cultural spectrum?
RS I think it's an almost humorous way to conceptualize deep time and long-term thinking. It's not threatening; the objects in it are tangible. We all have birthdays and think about the passage of time. While the book is definitely about climate change, it doesn't present it as this big thing that cannot be taken in. The approach is more like, “Look, here's this tree.” It's a much easier way to begin thinking about the problem.
MW In trying to characterize your practice, I keep thinking about the act of humanizing the abstract or the infinite, here through the medium of time and photography and in parallel to an archival practice. How much would you agree with this summary? Is humanizing the wrong word here or oversimplifying it?
RS I think that's not oversimplifying at all. Even though it's hard to say the project is about one thing, it is about that at its core. In some sense it also encompasses the other layers—long-term thinking, care for the climate, being more careful and conscientious.
MW Obviously time is a huge theme in your practice. How do you conceptualize it in this project?
RS My work spans three different modes of time here. First, we have shallow human time, which is biologically rooted. Then there's the scale geologic and cosmic time, which force us to step out of our human time scale. And finally, photography as an almost immediate temporal medium—the split second, the shallowest of shallow time—creates even more tension. But you need the third level, between the instantaneous and deep time, which is the deliberate presence of the person making the image. The need for this presence is what made me realize I needed to write as part of this project, as a third layer of mediation. I didn't know when I started that I could and should include myself in this way.
MW Tell me about how thinking about deep time led to your current work on deep space.
RS Both these concepts can be so abstract and so hard to connect to. My goal is to make them felt and understood by forging some kind of connection. Long-term thinking, both forward and backward, led naturally to an interest in the idea of the outer regions of space. A few of the organisms I looked at bridged the gap and made this jump into space, like the lichens that were taken into space for ten days and returned completely fine and intact. This is obviously hugely suggestive about how life either formed on earth or landed on earth from elsewhere in the solar system. Did you know that the strep bacteria can live on the moon? These kinds of discoveries turn our idea of what it is to be alive on its head.
But what maybe really got me thinking about deep space was a living thing: stromatolites, two to three thousand years old, living in Western Australia. This area is not the cradle of human civilization but the cradle of earth, where the oldest, 3.5 billion-year-old rocks have been discovered. It's a place where biologic and geologic time converge, because the stromatolites, these living things, are what actually oxygenated the planet through photosynthesis for nine million years, setting the stage for all life as we know it. I was surprised at how this statistic or that kernel of information. I wasn't expecting that from the oldest living things project.
MW How has this project challenged or changed your own understanding of what being alive means or how and why it matters to define what being alive is?
RS I had a moment while working on this project when I learned about carbon-breathing microbes. I realized we have such a narrow perception of what it means to be alive. “We believe these things to be true”: nothing breathes carbon, that doesn't make sense! We've made these decisions that close off many avenues of potential knowledge. Doing this trandisciplinary work and exposing myself to new methodologies has helped me realize “it's proven” means “it's true for now.”
Monica Westin is an arts writer, a PhD candidate in the history of rhetoric at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and a current visiting student researcher at the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.