Monday, March 21, 2016

Interview with Brandon Ballengée

S: So, I guess we can start with how do you describe you work?  

B:  It’s a little tricky.  So my work is I’m an artist, biologist, environmental educator activist. As an artist [I’m] inspired by scientific field work that I do. And as a biologist I study clinical bio-indicator species, so amphibians, and now I’m working in a fish lab. But as an educator and activist I’m really interested in the way that you can use the tools of citizen science and participatory science with combining those with the idea of like community-engaged art and the way you can bring people like locals into an environment or into a situation where they are asking questions and also telling you the story of what they already know about local environments and then hopefully inspiring people to care more about species that are there and then work towards like stewardship and “remediation.”

S:  I guess a good follow-up question is that you seem to be really into the community aspect of everything, so how would you compare your work like the Eco-Actions to your less community-driven pieces, more personal works?

B: Well, that’s just it. You said personal, so individual friends are often they almost artefactual in that way, they are derived from the complex sensations of finding these animals that are severely deformed or declining and then thinking that through and then I make this reliquaries often, like I really like the idea of making individual art work which ends up being like a memorial for those species that’s gone or disappearing and hopefully that, it’s my individual expression, but it resonates when people see it and gets them asking questions and emotionally responding and having often hopefully responsive empathy.

S: What do you think is the most important thing you gain from education? I know you have an education in both arts and sciences, so do you think there’s an affect of having both subjects together, and do you think that they should always be used together?

B:  Yeah, to me they are completely complimentary. You know, science we are taught to use kind of a skill set where we are trying to be objective and just analyze the situation and use a particularly very like narrow parameter for understanding a situation and then art is really great because on the flip side of that you can try to look at all the nuances and subtleties and everything from a greater perspective than a narrow end to create art work so to me it’s like you  naturally could do both and from an educational standpoint individuals, as what we were talking about before, we are not right-brained and we are not left-brained, we are always in between.  So if we can have integrated education it’s just another way to reach people. And also I think experiential education, like different types of relaying information to, especially young people, through, you know, very straight-forward objective lessons but also through experiences like through sound, taste and color and different senses.

S:  Do you find that there’s a difference in the way you work on your scientific projects vs. your artistic projects?

B:  Yeah, it’s a totally different kind of methodology so the parameters are really different. What’s great for me and I think one of reasons why art and science for individuals that choose this path it works really well, is if you are using science, again, you have to use these very specific parameters and then reduce it down. So try to figure out a method that is straight-forward enough so that other people can repeat it but the nice side to the art is that it allows you to explore other sides and to express yourself and all of this different, a totally different skill set. And for me as an artist, I’m really interested in the way that you can constantly be using different mediums to tell a story and so the mediums are governed by the story, not the story being governed by the medium if that makes sense.  So to me it’s like really a great innovative way to approach the world.

S:  Right. Do you think that you prefer working in one way or the other?

B:  No, actually I couldn’t do one without the other.

S:  So, it’s completely combined for you?

B:  Yeah, I need to look at that data set to kind of understand what’s happening in an area, but the experience of generating that data set and the experience of working with animals and community inspires the art, and when I’m making the art it makes me think, well, maybe I need to look at the science from this perspective too, like I need to also do the follow up studies and see where it takes me, and the nice thing about that is it keeps me curious and asking questions from both directions. And then working with community, like people have all this indigenous knowledge of their locations and the animals that are in their backyards and that is inspiring because then I learn from then and hopefully I can share some of what I know and it’s like this whole other kind of open-ended dialogue that can happen which is also very inspirational.

S: Has there ever been a challenge for you, as far as approaching something in the scientific field that you think is related to people identifying you as an artist when you come in?

B:  Just the opposite.  

S:  The opposite?

B:  The scientific community like right from the beginning even as an undergrad art student were totally open to communication and collaboration.  In general, I mean there were some people that just didn’t want to respond, they were too busy or whatever, and when I started contacting biologists about deformed amphibians and population declines there were really like encouraging. In fact, one of the guys one of the first people I spoke to really pushed me to go back for a science degree, and so he ended up being one of my PhD advisors and has been a good friend for twenty years now.  What I say the flip side is, the arts community I find is a lot more conservative than the science community. And that was an early criticism when showing my work in New York. Critics were saying his work is too, it’s science, it’s not art. Or his work is activism, it’s not art, and I found that really absurd, and it pushed me, it fueled me to push harder and to keep showing it. But, I find that yes, the arts community tends to much more concerned with titles like scientist or artist which is unusual because some of the artists that I’m hearing are so much more open-ended and talk about how we can move beyond disciplines but in practice, at least in the beginning, at least decades ago, I think it was really closed off.  Though I think it’s changing.  I think it’s really opening up and the arts community is really getting more interested in integrative learning and multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary practice, especially in the last five to ten years.  

S:  How do you see your work progressing? Do you want to follow that Beuys-ian theory of art-making that you mentioned earlier, or do you see it as expanding off that into something new?

B:  I think that the Beuys-ian framework was really about individuals developing their own frameworks, and it’s very like community-specified in that regard, so communities will develop their own framework. So in that way it’s like a guideline but it’s a guideline that he derived from other theorists or ideologies like Rudolf Steiner and its like he gave it a voice for the arts community and I think the important thing is that as living artists, as living human beings, that we creatively come up with our own framework and explore that and see where it takes us. So, for me it’s always changing. I’m always trying to push and develop new ways to approach the world and work with communities and approach ecosystems and learn from those ecosystems.

S:  Do you have something that you collect, or something that you find is really significant that you keep coming back to?

B: Oh yeah, I remember this question, thinking like ‘huh’. Well as a biologist there are a lot of artifacts that I collect from the environment whether those are specimens or data, so I mean,   it depends on what you mean by collection.

S:   I guess I mean like a personal collection, something that you just keep acquiring and you’re not really, maybe it’s not part of a specific work.

B:  So non-work related.. all my collections are related to work. So, now like I’m working with my wife and partner on an heirloom seed collection, but we’re doing it as part of a longer term project called Averte where we’re trying to figure out like how we can obtain about 120 acres of land and set this up as a nature preserve, but then develop about 1% of that land for growing food and inviting residents to come and do residency things, artists and scientists, but also feed them and do everything as we can as sustainably as possible to have very little footprint on the area. But that’s a collection, we are collecting heirloom seeds but we are growing them and recollecting the seeds and doing all of this. But, it is work-related, so I think all of my collections somehow are work-related. I have built up like a nice art collection just from friends and trades and things like that but I guess that’s more of a personal collection that doesn’t relate to work but it’s more about just, you know, really appreciating what other artists do and it’s great to live with those pieces. So, maybe an art collection!

S:  So I guess you just have so many collections you don’t feel a need to have another one on top of that, or is that just not how you like to work?

B:  Yeah, I don’t really like accumulation necessarily unless it’s kind of related to something that relates to an idea or project. So it’s like what I have, even my specimen collection, it’s just all research-related which I make art from or use for science. So I don’t really have any collections outside of that, I try not to have too much extra stuff just from the perspective of having less of an environmental impact. I try not to buy too many new things unless it’s really something that’s required. I like the idea of trading a lot, trading seeds with other people, or specimens. Like we trade specimens, other biologists and I like when we have things that are helpful for one another.  And in art.  Most of the artists from that collection is done through trades and I love that idea. It’s like sharing intimately. Not countercultural, but at least like kind of alternative means of economics where it’s a shared community it’s just like this idea of a wealth community where we’re just acquiring wealth to buy material and 99% of the time we don’t need that material.  Do you have a T-shirt collection? So, it’s like “I’ve had that since  I was a kid”, so yeah. So I don’t know, it’s a little different because I’ll have a t-shirt for like 30 years.  T-shirts from when I was a 12-year old or something.

S:  That makes sense. I want to ask about your Studio Practice. What is your work process like from start to finish or is that not relevant to how you like to work?

B:  No, it’s like totally relevant, like the work progress. But it’s a little different since it’s like it’s not always studio-based, it’s idea-based. I think that’s it. It’s like an idea or concern starts to develop. Often the ideas are about my concerns for an ecosystem or a group of animals or organisms and how those relate to communities. And then from that I start to develop ideas for how you can study that phenomenon from the scientific perspective and then I get a vague idea of like art projects that might come from that. So I have kind of this work list for the next 200 years of my life for projects that I need to get done or whatever. But it’s like this ongoing giant list of concerns and how you address those from a science standpoint, from a community standpoint, but also how I imagine like what the art would be after that or as part of that. Then it changes, when you’re actually in the situation, methodology starts to change for the science. Obviously meeting people from the community  has an impact and some of the projects are community-driven so it’s like I try to be very open and try to listen to what these communities feels are their environmental concerns and what kind of art they would like to see made. So it’s really a whole degree from very straightforward where I have an idea in mind that evolves into something that reaches fruition and is done or finished to ones that are totally open-ended to like you do the open work and the way it’s going to change as soon as the parameters of working with that community and working in that site change what’s going to happen and I try to stay open to that process.

S:  So you don’t really work in the studio as much, you are kind of more about traveling and visiting certain sites?

B:  Mostly I do that, like I do the field work during field seasons, typically in summers, spring, summer and part of the fall but then in the winter months I spend a lot of the time in the studio and in the lab looking at after-processing like looking at the data, chemical, like laboratory work, like doing clearing and staining and imaging and creating art after the fact. But then I also create art along the way like in the field, like during  those experiences, so I do need a space to work in like a studio space but I would say  70% of the work or at least 60% of the work takes place actually outside, outside of the studio and then I set up studios in different places like laboratories and museums or art centers where I can be doing science and art in practice and I like to leave those open to the public because then people can come in and we can have a dialogue about what’s going on and to make it totally transparent too.  So it’s a bit relational in that way, like it really is,  the studio aspect or the laboratory aspect, is really governed again by the project and the project is really governed by the concept or the idea. So yes, it’s always changing.

S:  Do you find that you have a lot of people seeing a project unfolding and then giving you feedback during that time?

B:  Yes, or at least asking questions and then offering ideas. And then what inevitably happens is sometimes people give feedback and I encourage them to make their own art, like in a shared studio situation. I like that  idea a lot, like you have an open laboratory or you have an open studio and people feel like comfortable enough to come in and be doing projects there themselves. When I have set up these open laboratories or studios I have like a library and an area with sofas and books and snacks and coffee and tea and people can kind of come in and  hang out and ask their own questions and feel comfortable enough to keep coming back and then often volunteer working in the lab and then make art themselves along the way and that whole thing is  like it becomes this short term community  experience or a temporal studio-like community-shared studio-laboratory experience.

S:  Yeah, that’s really cool! Awesome, I think that’s it, thank you for talking with me.

B:  Yeah, thank you.

No comments:

Post a Comment