Interview: Ryan Pierce talks to Gary Wiseman, embedded artist

A Signal Fire residency allows artist Gary Wiseman to bunk with Bark, an environmental group watchdogging the Mt. Hood National Forest


Through November 21, Portland ‘Pataphysical Society is exhibiting new work by Gary Wiseman, made during Signal Fire’s Tinderbox Residency. Signal Fire is an arts organization that I co-founded with Amy Harwood in 2008 to provide “opportunities for artists and activists to engage in the natural world.” What this mostly means is that we run a nomadic artist colony and several backpacking and canoe trips every year, at little or no cost to artists, on the public lands of the American West. We have a particular interest in public lands as a forum for intellectual and cultural engagement, seeking to tease out the complexity of our landscape’s history.

Tinderbox is a new idea for us in 2015: What if we support an artist to work “embedded” with an environmental group that’s dedicated to defending public lands? The artist could have space within the group’s office, access to their staff and reports, and join them in fieldwork as well. The natural choice to partner with for this inaugural season was our friends at Bark, the watchdog group defending the land and waters of Mt. Hood National Forest from logging and development. We worked with Christine Toth, a visual artist on staff at Bark, to select Gary as our first resident. He generously agreed to be our “guinea pig” for the project.

Gary Wiseman's exhibition at Portland 'Pataphysical Society/Photo by Mario Gallucci

Gary Wiseman’s exhibition at Portland ‘Pataphysical Society/Photo by Mario Gallucci

Gary has earned a reputation as a concept-driven artist, whose work shifts from highly formal painting and sculpture, to photography, to participatory events, such as a series of 33 tea parties that he organized as aestheticized art happenings in the Portland area. Prior to Tinderbox, his most recent project was a show of all-white canvases, collectively titled The B-Painting Archive, which consisted of 81 paintings in all that had been overlaid on nine substrates. By viewing each piece through a special smartphone app, one could unearth the history accrued there, like watching the evolution of a determined but indecisive artist searching for the perfect solution.

Over the past four months, Gary has worked from a desk in Bark’s office, making work in response to Bark’s mission and methods. Early on, he seized on a fascination with the systems and maps that support Bark’s work in both the forest and in the city that adjoins it. As forest fires dominated the summer news feed, Gary explored recent burns with Bark staff and volunteers, learning that the ecological importance of wildfire contradicts and complicates the politicized narrative trumpeted by land management agencies like the US Forest Service. In the charred forests, Gary scraped charcoal into jars, which he then made into ink. He used this tiny piece of the forest to render maps of the fire perimeters.

At the same time that Gary was mapping the fire landscapes of Mt. Hood, he was thinking about the social structures of the Bark office, of the people and moving parts that operate an effective environmental nonprofit. The maps of canvass routes—the area each member of the door-to-door fundraising team would cover each day—became fascinating diagrams. Gary copied and distilled one for each member of the canvass, worked and reworked them, and printed the final series as a group of arcane glyphs. They are inscrutable without context, but each one speaks to an actual route taken by an actual person, and maybe donations to keep the organization afloat.

I talked and emailed with Gary this month to learn more about his experience at Bark and what, if any, impact it had on his artistic practice.

RYAN PIERCE: Can you describe a breakthrough moment (or two) in generating this work?

GARY WISEMAN: Seeing the canvas turf maps laying on the table. I found them very beautiful and compelling, I wanted to know what they were. I knew almost immediately I wanted to use them to generate imagery.

The turf maps of Bark canvassers were the start of these Gary Wiseman artworks./Mario Gallucci

The turf maps of Bark canvassers were the start of these Gary Wiseman artworks./Mario Gallucci

Early on I found a book about fire ecology in the Bark library. It offered a wealth of new information. Then I began visiting burn areas with Bark staff members and realized I wanted to use the charcoal material I found there. I had a conversation with Brenna Bell (Bark staff attorney) about fire that was very helpful and had an ongoing dialog with Michael Krotchta (Forest Watch Coordinator) and Christine Toth (Bark’s grant writer). Michael, in particular, took an ongoing interest in my investigations. He was key in developing the burn perimeter works. Compelling parallels existed between the office fire that happened about a year prior to my arrival at Bark and the way fire functions in the forest. Ultimately, the office fire led the organization to a better space and position in the community—it was the same kind of renewal that fire offers the forest. It got me thinking about the relationship between creation and destruction, a theme that is present in all of the work.

On a ground truthing trip with Michael, we found an illegal shooting gallery at Fish Creek, and witnessed all the targets and destruction. Later I was up near Zig Zag and found another shooting range. What stood out to me was how shooters either put great care into preparing targets—hand painting them or using expensive materials like laser-cut aluminum—or, conversely, used things perceived to have no value: old LP records or CDs, VHS cassettes, textbooks, appliances, old computers, televisions, or car parts. The first group of targets were created to be destroyed. They weren’t created for aesthetic purposes—they were created for practical purposes—but at the end of their functionality they became these unique, beautiful, complex objects.

It strikes me that Bark’s work in preserving the forest must involve a lot of aesthetic considerations: impressive photos of wild landscapes or daunting clearcuts, for example. Did you find that the considerations of beauty inherent in that work influencing or stymieing your work at all?

Targets found on public lands./Mario Gallucci

Targets found on public lands./Mario Gallucci

I am not very responsive to the kind of aesthetic considerations you refer to. I don’t find images of nature very compelling. For example, I don’t really respond to sunsets in themselves. The colors are often compelling for sure, but sunsets get much more interesting to me when I ask myself, “what leads us to consider one sunset more beautiful than another?” The answer is ultimately the amount and type of particulates in the atmosphere. These days those particulates are primarily carbon emissions and pollution, which leads me to think about climate change and, once again, the relationship between creation and destruction. So, as a species, we unintentionally have a hand in making the sunsets seem more beautiful to ourselves. Out of the destruction of the environment emerges an image that we as a species prefer. This is one of the many reasons I am suspicious of accepted cultural notions around beauty and aesthetics.

I do, however, find the experience of a sunset or wild place beautiful—this includes smells, sensations, sounds and danger, which is often equated with an experience of evil. Luc Tuymans said that today we have a wealth of images and a poverty of experience. My idea of beauty is connected to the process that leads to the emergence of the complexity inherent in objects such as the target pieces that I have included in the exhibition. First comes the interaction between the maker, the material, and the technology used to produce such an object. Design is involved—the individual had to choose the shape. Why did they choose a representation of a human torso? They also had to have access to a laser cutter and a vehicle to drive out to the shooting gallery (in this case the 36 Pit along the Clackamas river) and a firearm. For me, the bullets passing through the laser cut torso is a kind of drawing or map. It is also a kind of performance. These objects are highly charged by this process. They raise numerous questions just by existing. When taken out of context and placed in a gallery, all of these things are magnified. This was highlighted even further the evening the exhibit opened, which happened to be the same day that the Roseburg Shootings occurred.

What was it like to be inserted into the office environment and staff dynamic?

Stressful at first because it was new. I was not used to it. Ultimately it was very rewarding. I enjoyed getting to know everybody. The staff are all really kind, thoughtful people. They generously shared their knowledge and experience with me and taught me how to access the information I needed to do my work. I went out in the field with ground truthing teams. The canvassers took me out canvassing and helped me understand their system, how they do what they do. Bark accepted me as part of the staff—eventually I felt like one of them.

Did the jobs of the Bark staff influence how you worked? Were there corollaries to your existing processes that you recognized?

Bark frequently does field work in the forest to gather data in areas that are threatened by timber sales or road building. I do a lot of similar research and gathering in my practice. Bark’s work is also largely about translating the data they collect into meaningful language for the purpose of communication. This is also present in what I do.

What tools or strategies do you or other artists have that are not generally employed by groups like Bark?

I think the strength of art is in its ability to ask questions that don’t have easy, politically convenient answers. This approach is not useful for a reactive activist approach based on political, legal maneuvering. It requires time and space for useful information to emerge and is better suited for a long-term proactive approach where the goal is to create new worlds and solutions rather than react against immediate threats. I think it is dangerous to try to force art into a problem-solving, task oriented mode—not finding answers, making messes, exploration, ambiguity are what make art important and provide a fertile substrate for the emergence of solutions and answers to questions that no one has even considered yet.

Charcoal from a fire site./Mario Gallucci

Charcoal from a fire site./Mario Gallucci

Part of why we were interested in doing this Tinderbox Residency is to acknowledge the differences in expectations between the disciplines of artist and activist. As an artist, I feel comfortable entering a project without an outcome totally in sight, and to let myself reconsider things as it evolves. But I feel like activists, at some point, win or lose a campaign. Am I right to perceive this gulf? Was the Bark staff receptive of the unknown aspects of your project?

I think you are correct. I believe there is a difference between the immediate reactivity required of a politically engaged group such as Bark and the proactivity required to construct a new paradigm altogether. One is a short term approach the other requires a long term engagement. Bark was set up in the context of a crisis—the timber wars of the 1990’s—in which political nimbleness was required and an ability to react fast was paramount. The world has really changed since that time and so has the conversation Bark wants to have. It seems that Bark is beginning to recognize that it is not enough to react to threats to public lands and is beginning to shift focus and change its strategy and tactics.

I would characterize Bark as an organization in transition—it is adapting and moving from a primarily reactive organization to a proactive one. Bark has always had elements of both; both are important. This residency and the relationship between Signal Fire and organizations like Bark are crucial, primarily because Signal Fire has a long term proactive approach that is quite innovative and unique. The strategic model of Signal Fire seems to be that of accumulating artists and offering them experiences and information while keeping in mind that one artist by herself can make an impact, but multiple artists in conversation over time have been known to change the world. In my mind it’s a strategy more akin to the aggregation and emergent systems found in the natural world: the tortoise approach, perhaps?

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