Disrupting Our Disruption: RECYCLING OUR INDELIBLE MARK TO MINE A “WEE BIT OF HOPE.”1Adriane Herman
When presented with the insurmountable, how do we respond? Do we resign? Do we rationalize, turn our backs, look away? Do resistance to and fear of change guide us to hold things in place, making the unacceptable seem reasonable? Do we mend, make right, fix? Do we embrace change and seek positive outcomes? 2 Charles Beneke
Among my favorite of the refrains gifted me by the therapist I stopped seeing when my copay doubled beyond my teacherly reach was: “Just so you know, there’s nothing to fix here.” This remark had analgesic properties, offering the tempting, albeit clearly false, promise that my work was done, if only in one tiny situation or compartment of life. Of course, the reassuring calm would never last much longer than the time it took to put my debit card back in my wallet, but still, it helped make those fifty minute blocks feel like time and money well spent. At the very least it was a welcome respite from seemingly infinite efforts to improve everything both within and all around me.
For printmakers in particular, this seems like an endless quest: what could be better, different, improved? In printmaking classes and workshops, frustrated students offer their results up to their teachers, and as if on auto-pilot the suggestions begin to flow: “Try increasing the pressure…or…maybe mag up the ink? How long did you soak the paper? Maybe the exposure was too long… or…maybe someone left the emulsion out?” So many possibilities and so many things to go wrong/fix/improve. Our status as inveterate (and often successful!) trouble shooters may set us up for additional despair as we individually and collectively face problems that may not be fixable within the time available. These days, “Our time is up” isn’t just something we hear as a therapy session winds down.
I don’t need to (nor could I) enumerate all the brokenness. Anyone who might find themselves reading anything on this site is no doubt painfully aware of the impossibly rife and inextricably entangled issues facing us in present time and casting a long shadowy question mark over the supposition of not only a sustainable future, but even any future at all, at least for our species. And that’s the good news, because the news is infinitely more devastating for myriad species that have already gone extinct, and the many, many more3 that are likely if not certainly heading toward extinction, according to Elizabeth Kolbert and others who assert that the sixth mass extinction is well underway.4 It’s easy to lose hope and curl up in the new fetal position: bingeing on episodic made-for-laptop “TV.”
More bad news: there just isn’t enough good “TV” to keep us blithely sedated in perpetuity. The unavoidably debilitating, demoralizing, heartbreaking and shockingly-no-longer-shocking news coming in on every front renders it crucial to gather and — as one would canned preserves for the winter — “put up” examples of people who are stoking their creative fires with all of this slag and yielding results that help them and their audiences find a way amidst all that is uncertain, overwhelming and profoundly grievable. How? By having the willingness to even go there, by doing the thing one arrives at by process of elimination of the potential responses to the “insurmountable” that Charles Beneke ticks off in his exhibition statement, i.e., the willingness to explore and address without knowing the answer or even, perhaps believing there is one. This important and sometimes seemingly impossible work is necessary to help both makers and audiences face, process, grieve (both retroactively as well as proleptically), and “salvage hope,” to quote Emmy Lingscheit’s statement on the website created in conjunction with “Our Indelible Mark,” the exhibition curated by Blake Sanders and Hannah March Sanders that led Charles Beneke to contemplate the questions above.
Occasioned by the 2018 Impact 10: Encuentro conference held in Santander, Spain, “Our Indelible Mark” evolved out of a panel Blake Sanders organized at the 2017 SGC International conference in Atlanta. The original intent was to focus on ecological exigency, but the concerns of artists invited by Sanders and March Sanders to participate expanded the range of issues to a fully intersectional array of ways that humans leave our marks on both the animate and inanimate, including how we consciously and unconsciously mar one another, both individually and culturally. Assigned one wall amidst the kind of superabundance of exhibitions, portfolios, and installations typical of any dynamic printmaking conference, this micro-exhibition was fortunately fleshed out by Sanders and March Sanders into a macro-website that extends the impact of each participating artist’s visual work and thoughtful writing as well as the timely and savvy curatorial framework and essays by both Sanders and Gary E. Machlis.
Seemingly informed by social media, the website, www.ourindeliblemark.org, harkens to hashtags that divide the exhibition into three subsets determined by the following categories: human consumption, global warming, and social conflict. Some artists’ work appears in conjunction with one of the three issues, while multiple categories apply to the majority of the pieces in the exhibition as installed in Spain. Only one work in the exhibition appears on the pages for all three categories: that which was created by the collaborative team of Roni Gross and Nancy Campbell (who worked together with Peter Schell to design and produce the book “The Night Hunter,” while Gross wrote the text, a pantoum). Viewers can make their own adventure by clicking on the issues individually, bringing up thumbnails leading to pages about each of the works that comprised the “bricks and mortar” exhibition that was deemed by the curators to relate directly to a given topic. We reconfigure the issue-driven buffet by clicking on different categories and watch the works rearrange themselves into new juxtapositions, allowing for re-viewing previously encountered artists through a different lens.
Alternately, we can approach the website by viewing a larger array of work by each artist, much of which could not be accommodated by the single wall provided for the show at the conference. Curators Sanders and March Sanders asked each participating artist to provide two different statements, making the viewing of these issue-driven selections and the artist-specific pages distinct and differently rewarding. For anyone in the classroom today, these carefully crafted statements comprise a trove worthy of sharing with students who benefit from examples spanning the full gamut from sequential geometric abstraction symbolizing global depletion of natural resources (Patricia Delgado’s disappearing “rigid structures”) to the most local manifestations of our least rigid structures – our bodies, namely mammary glands whose life-giving functions are disrupted by chemicals in plastics we consume both consciously and non-consensually.
Hannah March Sanders, Letdown, 2018, Woodcut Prints on Up-cycled Fabrics with Appliqué, Machine and Hand Stitching, Slashing, Poly-Fil, Nylon Stockings, Needle Felted Wool, and Plastic Grocery Bags, 27″ x 52″ x 12″
We are all effectively students who can learn through comparing “Letdown,” the organic, auto-biographical, and multi-media work of Hannah March Sanders, to how other artists in the exhibition approach similar content regarding how technology and its use on the land and the built environment impacts our bodies. Similarly organic in form, Sean Caulfield’s woodcut allegories share what he describes as a “whimsical, absurd quality” with March Sanders’ piece festooned with soft sculpture breasts exuding plastic streamers representing what March Sanders describes as endocrine-disrupting and estrogen mimicking BPA-contaminated milk she continually generated for years after she stopped breast feeding, well after the point when milk production should have tapered. March Sanders deftly assigns the piece she creates to help herself and her audience wrap their brains around this alarming phenomenon with a title “dripping” with double-entendre. It is notable that this is the only piece represented by process shots on the exhibition website, including the photograph shown below of a machine sewing and “slashing” technique utilized to create the layered effect utilizing scraps from the artist’s clothing and art projects, among them synthetics from which microfibers are now known to break off that evade most filtration systems, thus entering the water systems and impacting the the food chain.
process detail: Hannah March Sanders, Letdown, 2018
The issue-driven interface of the “Our Indelible Mark” website allows us to linger on what Caulfield describes as uncomfortably “open-ended and unresolved” aspects of his work and those embedded in the works of others, leading to the juxtaposition of Caulfield not only with March-Sanders but also with additional artists exploring how humans make deleterious marks on fields where battles are waged both domestically and abroad, and during both declared and undeclared wars. When browsing the exhibition site leads me to alight on Michael Reed’s work about the ongoing impact on soldiers and civilians of the use of Agent Orange while still holding the afterimage of Blake Sanders’ attempts to reckon with having brought “another consumer into our family and onto an already overcrowded planet,” I can’t help but think about some of those endocrine-disrupting chemicals March Sanders ascribes her extended “Letdown” to in relation to a fact Reed highlights, i.e., that the manufacturer of Agent Orange was never held accountable for its knowledge of potential dangers before distribution.
Still controversial and often in the news, this company (Monsanto), now profits from individuals and municipalities around the world spraying Roundup, their more contemporary herbicide containing glyphosate, which a 2019 study at the University of Washington confirmed increases the risk of certain cancers by 40%,5 in spaces where pets and children play while parents picnic nearby, and wildlife eat and reproduce.
In “Leveled,” among the works that shared the wall with Reed’s “Byproduct” in Santander, Sanders offers an image of his own son, made from repurposed fabric, which he posits “reduces waste while adding a communal history to the work,” a form of “making amends for [Sanders’] consumption:”
The enormous toddler invading suburbia is my son, Levee. His outsized presence in an overcrowded world emphasizes my complicity in the American obsession with the new and our unprecedented, yawning footprint on the planet. The steamroller he plays with compresses the aggregate, hiding the evidence of our waste and creating a burnished, homogenous pavement that stretches into the infinite present. Beneath his feet are strata of trash, evidence of our insatiable consumption. The occasional dinosaur skeleton references our ersatz fossil record as well as our reliance on fossil fuels.
Both of Sanders’ statements about his works warrant unhurried reading, not least because he expresses the complexities inherent in seeking to preserve and protect without patronizing or bolstering patriarchal phenomena:
In the past I have described respect for the natural world as stewardship, but in some ways this term props up the patriarchy my work challenges. Traditional gender roles and notions of romance are self-consciously called into question through work that challenges chivalry, misogyny, and the archetypes of the frigid breadwinner and the happy housewife.
Perhaps to some degree the underlying substrate of “Leveled” – with its appliqué and reverse appliqué – also offsets the fact of a diapered Levee performing roles proscribed by the gender binary such as playing with trucks and steam roller, not unlike the way I can now “green” a shopping or shipping transaction by purchasing carbon trading credits to, at the very least, assuage post-Paypal pangs of guilt.
Additional works by Blake Sanders included on the “Our Indelible Mark” website, such as “Dig Dug” (screenprint and reduction linocut on repurposed fabric with appliqué stitching) and “Shadows Are What We Leave Behind” (lithography, etching, reduction woodcut, and screenprint), with its consistently colored and textured acid-green lawn, court speculation about whether (or perhaps how soon) the artist and his partner’s values about consumption and the dangers of chemical use on the land might not go by the wayside in the face of the realities inherent in efforts such as using cloth diapers, or keeping up with the neighbors’ expectations – and even neighborhood association edicts – about homogenous lawn appearance.
Both Sanders and March Sanders use the word “complicity” in writing about their own work. Their imagery, material choices and writings articulate a shift away from the external finger pointing and laying of blame at the feet of corporations, governments and other institutions practiced by artists and teams such as Act Up, Sue Coe, Gran Fury, Hans Haacke, David Hammons and Nancy Spero in the latter twentieth century, and toward a doleful acknowledgement of one’s own responsibility that is a hallmark of much of the work included in “Our Indelible Mark,” as typified by Charles Beneke:
I speak as an observer of society, a witness to a crisis, and an active participant in this problem. I urge my viewers to take responsibility for their roles in how we are changing the world by changing behaviors/habits and by taking action. Will we be victims of a disruptive force or will we be the disruptive force itself?
Sanders and March Sanders seem likely to answer “both,” given that their work as artists and curators addresses how choices we make (and don’t have) in our domestic lives play out globally, while at the same time boomeranging back to us in forms such as asphalt-covered land that exacerbates flooding on the macrocosmic level, to microplastics pervading the air, water, and our own bodies.
Through both imagery and material choices, Charles Beneke’s work outs another aspect of our home lives for exposing us to chemicals in construction and renovation materials. A few to come to mind while viewing the work include pressure treated wood, fire-retardant carpets, off-gassing plastics, etc. On the physical level, the consumptive activity of “improving” our living spaces can create miasmas or seeming demons trapped inside our own homes, as suggested by Beneke’s “Specter,” “Absence of Reason,” “Prop,” and “Behold Through the Concealed,” the latter of which pairs relief printed Tyvek with monoprinted washi. Like other artists exploring “Our Indelible Mark,” Beneke addresses the personal and global concurrently:
Upon closer inspection, this home reveals itself to be illogical and unsustainable. The entirety of this situation is presented as a specimen for study upon the organized system of a grid. Its consequences, however, cannot be controlled or contained; shadows of indeterminate origin break the fourth wall, reaching into and affecting the viewer’s space.
Goya, whose works depict the apex of inhumanity, or nadir of human rationality, is present in the physical and virtual rooms occupied by “Our Indelible Mark,” thanks to Beneke’s titling of his piece “Absence of Reason,” as well as swirling fiery forms of Caulfield’s and the intaglio distortions of the human form Michael Reed’s “Byproduct” reminds us result from the military industrial complex’s impact on human life. Lest we think we have learned from our past mistakes, whether by maintaining a “bee friendly” lawn, as we hope Sanders and March Sanders do as we take in Levee’s diaper-clad bottom making contact with grass that looks suspiciously uniform, or avoiding the use of toxic chemicals in our private and common spaces, works that might be characterized as making commentary on the past – such as Michael Reed’s “Byproduct” – sound the alarm that we decisively haven’t.
In keeping with the invisible dangers March Sanders’ “Letdown” reflects, Michael Reed reminds viewers of “Our Indelible Mark” that the impact of the use of Monsanto’s “Rainbow Herbicide,” Agent Orange, in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1970s, is ongoing and doomed to be repeated in an era when deregulation is the battle cry:
An estimated 4.8 million Vietnamese have been exposed to the herbicides. In addition to respiratory issues and cancers for many of those in direct contact, the prolonged life of the chemicals in soil and water have affected intergenerational foetal development, resulting in mental disabilities and a wide variety of physical deformities in communities that are ill-equipped to deal with the outcomes.
“Byproduct” manifested physically as a vertically elongated installation of drypoint prints and found tins, which, one discovers upon visiting Reed’s personal website, in contexts other than wall installation contain cast bronze forms that resemble fetuses with mutations.
Sercan Sahin, February 2nd, 1980, 2018, Screenprint on cardboard placards, 420 mm x 594 mm
Shifting one’s view of “Byproduct” from the frame of consumption to the other of the categories the curators place it in–that of human conflict – chance operations juxtapose Reed’s work as a thumbnail next to that of Sercan Sahin’s “February 2, 1980,” the most overt reference to political protest among the work in the installation of “Our Indelible Mark.” Attached to wooden sticks, Sahin’s silkscreen prints on cardboard leaned against the wall at the 2018 Impact conference, seemingly at the ready for the next protest. But what, exactly, their message would be, is not as overtly or graphically clear as protest signs tend to be. What Sahin’s portable prints poetically address head on (and that we can get even without reading the specifics the statement offers) is the impact a single moment or encounter can have on individuals’ lives, their families, their communities, and – in effect – history as noted in his statement on the exhibition website:
History is replete with stories of encounters. This set of prints is based on a specific encounter that took place in the streets of Ankara in Turkey in the early eighties. The political climate of that era brought people to the streets with much anger, intolerance and prejudice. As a result of these violent street ‘encounters’ among various political factions and government forces, many people lost their lives and thousands got arrested which led to the 12th September 1980 Turkish coup d’état. The work is specifically about two people, Erdal Eren and Zekeriya Onge, and their encounter on February 2nd, 1980.
Sahin contextualizes grainy black and white images of two men (including an image of Erdal Eren as a child, emphasizing aspects of the story that surround questions about his age at the time of arrest for shooting Onge) in his statement without providing a definitive opinion regarding the presence or absence of justice in the unfolding of events after this encounter, or how he hopes these images/individuals are received by viewers at this international conference where many are likely to lack knowledge of the two individuals and their “encounter” without doing further research.
Born in Turkey, educated there and in the U.S., Sahin is currently on faculty at the Limerick School of Art and Design, an environment where he is no doubt used to viewers lacking specific knowledge of his culture. Sahin’s choosing the title “February 2, 1980,” which implies historical specificity while concurrently leaving certain details purposefully non-specific, could be interpreted as the artist avoiding spoon-feeding the viewer a prefabricated point of view on an event that precipitated violence. Despite – or perhaps because — of this determined indeterminacy, Sahin’s work highlights how the reigning political climate in any place and time can give rise to “fanaticism, violence, bigotry and inequality,” against which the form of Sahin’s work makes protest. This uncontextualized specificity implies the artist encourages intentionality about how we engage one another given the potential impact of a single “encounter.”
In no way is my advocacy for deep and frequent revisits to the terrain of asserted uncertainty around which “Our Indelible Mark” was drawn meant to ignore or diminish the fact that many artists not included in this exhibition in fact do respond through the gamut of potential responses to “the insurmountable” that Beneke enumerated in his “Our Indelible Mark” statement quoted above, i.e., resign ourselves, rationalize, deny, cling to a known evil rather than venture into uncharted territory, or seek to (and even in some cases actually) “fix or make right, or embrace change and seek positive outcomes.”
Of course art that successfully fixes, ameliorates or even simply draws attention to certain problems does exist, often receiving critical coverage, social media attention, as well as funding, and rightly so. However, there is an important place for work that neither throws its “hands” up in despair nor waves us in for a landing at some proposed or promised place. The truth is that not all things are fixable; not all problems are even agreeable upon. One or more solutions to something knotty may exist in the future or under certain circumstances, yet we may not be able to conceive of it/them now, and even if we can, we simply cannot unfix ourselves from the trouble without understanding and willingness to reflect upon where we are now. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene6 offers multivalent reinforcement for anyone seeking to vanquish urges toward kinds of busywork that impersonate problem solving and may block us from receiving and passing along the value in contemplation; feeling and expressing grief; and – something my former therapist described as a sign of intelligence: the capacity to hold conflicting ideas in mind simultaneously.
The bravery involved in looking at whatever problems compel, anger, terrify, and/or confuse us most directly, with an unflinching eye and open-ended approach, often goes unacknowledged in this time when work that does not have a clear message or single point of view is often the subject of suggestions for “improvement” or “resolution” during academic critiques. Ambiguity often makes viewers squirm and seek the comfort provided by clarity. Learning objectives and assessment criteria call for students to manifest abilities such as articulating and supporting a clear point of view.
The oxymoronic aspect of seeking clarity in the unclearest of times of course goes without saying, but despite the concentrations of BPA and mercury coursing through our bloodstreams, we are still human, meaning we seek comfort and happy endings, sometimes before we are even aware of it. Despite our best efforts to stay open minded and committed to holding space for multiple points of view, those of us who teach may find ourselves in agreement with other voices offering “helpful” suggestions that, if taken, would discourage the vital effort that Emmy Lingscheit advocates for in her “Our Indelible Mark” statement, i.e., that of:
leaving room for productive ambiguity [to] enable viewers of all ideological stripes to engage with my work without immediately feeling indicted by it. I see a deep and urgent connection between environmental justice and social justice, and am galvanized to advocate for both. To me, success would mean the realization of a just and sustainable human society, in balance with the ecological world in which we live.
Make no mistake, Lingscheit’s work is neither shoulder shrugging, hand wringing nor ceding any territory (a warning against which is the third and last thing I can recall my therapist repeatedly urging), but rather: “seeks to critique entrenched systems and attitudes that inflict harm while remaining largely invisible… These prints deploy irony and visual seduction in an attempt to undermine nationalistic and capitalistic dogmas, and to elevate suppressed narratives and progressive alternatives.”
The intention is clearly to draw attention to serious problems with an aspiration to see a better world. However, Lingscheit, like the other artists involved in “Our Indelible Mark” is doing the steadfast work of fixing serious problems, not in the sense of improving or repairing that my therapist so generously absolved us from concerning ourselves with, but in another sense of the word “fix,” i.e., the one associated with darkroom photography. The longstanding tradition of conveying longevity and accompanying aspects such as authority and believability onto imagery that would otherwise be fleeting is alive and well among the roster of “Our Indelible Mark” artists.
To the “Our Indelible Mark” exhibition in Spain, Lingscheit contributed a print called “Bloom,” a rivulously detailed linoleum print that fixes in the viewer’s mind an image of the kinds of creatures that will likely survive humans. The artist’s statement reflects the kind of detached awe manifest in the print and necessary to contemplate a post-human world:
Jellyfish are among the oldest known species, found preserved in fossils more than 500 million years old. During periods of Earth’s history when conditions were harshest, jellies likely constituted the bulk of organic life on earth. As we cause our planet’s oceans to warm and acidify, slipping again towards these prehistoric conditions, scientists are documenting a sharp increase in jellyfish blooms. These sudden population explosions have turned stretches of sea into a jellied mass, clogged power plant cooling intakes, capsized fishing boats, and closed busy beaches. That a creature without a brain or central nervous system, composed mostly of water and collagen, can so disrupt human beings, the ultimate disrupters, disturbs and thrills me. While we alternately mourn and ignore the many oceanic species that warming, oxygen-depleted seas are driving to extinction, jellyfish are poised to again reign supreme. Perhaps they will outlast homo sapiens for another 500 million years.
In contrast with her measured, timeless, and – presumably — anatomically correct jellyfish “portrait,” Lingscheit reveals a more emotive side through masterful cautionary lithographs with silkscreen, such as “Cover the Earth,” which appropriates the corporate motto bizarrely still in use by Sherwin Williams.
Emmy Lingscheit, Cover the Earth, 2016, lithography and screenprint, 22 x 29 inches
At first glance this print speaks of exaggerated excess to the point of satire, but a close examination reveals that there is little to no exaggeration in this mashup depicting the collision of unchecked human consumption with industrialized agriculture, as represented by hogs standing outside the truck comprising double decker cages – into which a milk tanker has jammed itself–amidst a slick of pig shit at left and, at right, hives of bees forced into unnaturally year-round labor tumbling away from the over-turned flatbed now compressed against crumpled trucks bearing Uhaul, Shell Oil, and Amazon logos.
What differentiates this work from those by Lingscheit’s predecessors working a few decades ago is that at the crux of this consumption-driven gnarl is an immediately recognizable symbol of consumption-conscious Westerners: the Prius. Few, if any, of these trucks would be on the road were it not for our insatiable appetites for all things new, overly sweet, and delivered in two days by a company about to push the limits of human labor further by making overnight delivery standard for dues-paying shoppers.
There is nowhere to escape implication in this morass, in contrast with the “they hid the truth” model of Agent Orange that Michael Reed seeks to fix our attention upon. In Lingscheit’s world, we so-called enlightened liberals represented by the Prius are in the literal and figurative driver’s seat. Lingscheit brings this uncomfortably home in a companion piece also on the “Our Indelible Mark” site, called “TransAmerican Freight,” in which the driver’s seat in the central and now sideways truck, is freshly vacated by someone unlikely to have survived the collision, as manifest by the red baseball cap lying on the pavement as a subtle but powerful signifier.
In contrast with “Bloom,” a portrait of symbiotic coexistence in which fish of various species frolic in the tendrils of the thriving jellyfish, Lingscheit’s “Cover the Earth” and “TransAmerican Freight” could effectively be described as elegantly depicted cultural vomit, coughed up undigestible “scare balls,” created by a conundrum of our own making that need to be seen and picked through in order to help us come to both emotional and bodily understandings, rather than stopping where we tend to hover, i.e., the kind of intellectual understanding gained from charts and graphs of rising temperatures.
Lingscheit’s mashups may serve as what Timothy Morton defined as “progressive ecological elegy, [which] must mobilize some kind of choke or shudder in the reader that causes the environmental loss to stick in her throat, undigested. Environmental elegy must hang out in melancholia and refuse to work through mourning to the (illusory) other side.”7 Jessica Morton Barr refers to Morton’s concept ecological elegy in discussing what she terms “proleptic ecological elegies, grieving and warning about the kinds of future losses that occur given a continuation of the status quo” in “The Art and Ethics of Ecological Grieving,” a chapter in her book, Mourning Nature.8
Todd Anderson, Grinnell Glacier – The Last Glacier, 2015, reductive jigsaw woodcut, five runs and eleven colors, printed on archival Okawara washi paper 22.75” x 35.5” (image)
While Lingscheit fixes our gaze, train wreck style, on the gnarly interconnected problems of fossil fuels; factory farming; the desuetude of buying local and the resultant impact on small businesses, communities, roads, traffic, carbon emissions, etc., in present time, Todd Anderson uses his position on the “Our Indelible Mark” platform in concert with the unique capacity of water-based reductive jigsaw woodcut to transfix viewers with the beauty and transient nature of glaciers in Rocky Mountain National Park and Glacier National Park, sites where he made “multiple soulful journeys” that yielded inspiration for work intended to help us change course:
I retraced my steps back to these glaciers over subsequent years. I witnessed glaciers calve, melt, and ebb over time. The heart of my research lies in bearing witness to catastrophic changes to some of the world’s last wild places. My goals are simple: bring awareness and cause action. At times, I have felt my work feeble, my contentions ill conceived, and my energy misplaced. There are wild places today that my children will one day only experience as diminished spaces. At the toughest moments this knowledge generates a pervasive sorrow that looms over me. However, the natural world is a restorative entity that is hardwired into our being. My journeys have taught me that beauty and wonder still exist. When confronted with these two feelings, love can be stirred within us. On a personal level, love can nourish one’s soul. And a people’s collective love can be a fierce cultural force for change.
Thankfully, Todd Anderson trains his and subsequently our gazes on melting glaciers precisely because they are passing and he wants to provide future generations the chance to see them. He operates as both even-handed documentarian and town crier (two contradictory ideas my therapist would laud holding in mind at one time). Despite the “pervasive sorrow” — Morton’s “proleptic ecological elegy” — inherent in this proposition, Anderson’s work and writing exude a reluctant love-fueled optimism that is essential to avoiding the kind of despair that led lawyer, composting advocate and climate change activist, David Buckel to self-immolation.9
Anderson’s optimistic belief in “people’s collective love [being] a fierce cultural force for change” hearkens to the views stated by Melanie Yazzie, whose “Prayer Flags” stuck not in the throat of Impact 10: Encuentro attendee, Rachel Singel, but rather – along with Nicole Pietrantoni’s homage to Ed Ruscha’s 1966 accordion book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” – stuck out in her mind and appreciative heart nearly a year after the exhibition came down:
I was particularly captivated by Nicole Pietrantoni’s “Sunset Strips,” which was made-up of 11 accordion books that expanded to create a panoramic image… when hanging, the pages of the accordion book were zigzagging back and forth from the wall. It was this sculptural aspect to the prints that I found particularly engaging. The organization of the exhibition made certain works all the more powerful. I loved Melanie Yazzie’s print, “Prayer Flags for the World,” hanging at the very top of the exhibit wall!
Without having had the opportunity to experience the exhibition in the flesh, I feel almost as though I have, thanks in no small part to the use of a detail image of the dynamically zigzagging “Sunset Strips” serving as the website’s frontispiece.
Each of many visits I have made to the “Our Indelible Mark” website has increased my admiration for Blake Sanders and Hannah March Sanders for the curatorial prowess evident in their choice of artists, capacities to mine the most from a necessarily economic installation, and afterward to maximize the capacity of an interactive archive such as the exhibition website. The momentous energy they brought to this project as young parents occasioned a remark by yet another printmaker who responded to my inquiry, April Vollmer: “I don’t know how they managed it with a young child, and only a few days off from work for traveling….” I find it touchingly holistic that this aspect of how art and life intersect received appreciative comment in response to my email about an exhibition seen amidst a flurry of others during a European conference.
Such a bird’s eye view of living, making, curating, teaching, and parenting (or stewardship) as all of a piece evokes the practice of Melanie Yazzie, whose “Prayer Flags for the World” were noted as particularly memorable by several other viewers of the exhibition who replied to my request for impressions of the show as installed. Uniquely well suited to the exhibition’s requirements for ease of installation and portability, Yazzie’s piece reflects the commitment to treading lightly and joyfully on the earth clearly manifest in her emphasis on non-toxic printmaking methods and her statement that: “the difficult stories are still here to tell; however, they are told from a strength-based perspective.”
Melanie Yazzie, Prayer Flags for the World, 2018, Screenprint and mixed media, 11″x46″
One of only five “Our Indelible Mark” artists categorized under social conflict, Yazzie offers an unusually concise statement on the page about her piece in the show: These prints are animal prayer flags that hope to bring peace and calm to the world. The pinpoint focus of this single sentence statement is counterbalanced by the extended statement on her individual artist page that articulates her commitment to teaching, travel and cultural exchange, using and teaching safe non-toxic processes, in addition to her felt responsibility to draw on the cultural heritage of her Diné people, referred to in English as the Navajo People:
The pieces I create stem from the thought and belief that I as a Diné person must create beauty and harmony from within me, from above, from below, from in front, from behind and from my core. We are taught to seek out beauty and create it with our thoughts, action, and prayers. Therefore, when I begin developing a piece of work, be it a print, a painting or a ceramic piece, I start by centering myself, focusing my attention on highlighting the strengths of the image. As a piece emerges, it emulates the values and material culture of my experience growing up in the Diné society. I view my art making as a way to help people confront and improve the conditions in their own communities. For example, when people participate in making art and telling their own stories, they can create opportunities for change.
This statement continues, offering her seasoned approach to exploring content that can at times overpower and demoralize not only an audience, but also her as a maker:
The work I make presents a vision that contrasts with the broken society from which I come. The works I made in the early years of my career first confronted many of these issues head on. Depictions of the harsh realities of Native peoples (i.e, racism, identity conflict, poverty, abuse, etc.) in my earlier works certainly challenged observers to engage with difficult issues. I learned that in order to engage people in the work, I had to make work with a positive twist to give me the strength I needed to do the larger work of teaching and trying to find another way to bring to the forefront issues evident in Native communities…
Yazzie shares Todd Anderson’s belief in the power of work that ultimately affirms our loving connection to the world to effect change, asserting her commitment to cross-cultural dialogue:
My work continues to stretch beyond the boundaries of the United States, to international venues, galleries, and conferences. I see the connections and disconnections, the new relationships emergent in the production of the work, the growth in my processes, and finally I witness evolution in the imagery presented in the prints, paintings and sculptures. I intentionally seek to be an artist/educator who is an agent of change, using art making as the vehicle to address and talk about issues that are difficult to face. I believe that being a change agent while maintaining my artist stance is critical to the ways in which I teach students at University of Colorado –Boulder and beyond.
It would be upbeat (and merciful to any readers and those at SGC International who have been so patient with me as I tried to do justice to this important exhibition and serve as a conceptual highlighter pen) of me to end on this rousing note calling us all to be what Yazzie describes as “change agents.” Looking forward, attending SGC International’s 2020 conference in San Juan offers us all unique opportunities to do just that, i.e., something SGC International President, Charles Beneke hopes to see us all do there: challenge the notion that “because we go to print conferences we need to talk only about printmaking.” Instead – or at least in addition – he told me in a phone call about this piece of writing that he is eager to see the upcoming conference serve as an opportunity to “talk about the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico – history, colonialism, culture, politics, democracy.” Beneke also noted efforts to realize a panel that creates time and space for Puerto Ricans to tell SGC International members “what we need to know, to educate us.”
With that charge in mind, Ericka Walker’s subtle and semi-dematerializing, or ghostly, silkscreen with rubbing (or frottage), called “Savagery” stands out as crucial to look at and sit with, something not all – or perhaps even many – viewers had the time and capacity to absorb, per Anita Jung’s note that “Our Indelible Mark” “[wasn’t] an exhibition that could be photographed. It was experiential and contemplative. I certainly didn’t have enough time to experience it as it was an exhibit that required seeing it several times to even begin taking it all in, a mind map only ginormous.”
Seeking to destabilize ingrained colonial narratives, Walker challenges what viewers think they know, beginning her artist statement about “Savagery” by reframing a place that many American viewers may at first read assume is remote and unfamiliar:
Turtle Island, also referred to as The North American continent, has been subjected to over 500 years of European settlement and conquest. The occupation of this land has been in-part demarcated by the plaques, cairns, cenotaphs, and engraved marble or granite memorials significant to the establishment of colonizing rule and influence. Markers commemorating people, places, and events, fulfill an ambition that many human groups relate to, namely the desire to remember publicly the hardships and triumphs that weave the narrative of our European, male ancestors, visualizing a collective memory but also justifying our current sense of being and purpose. Relative to other commemorative strategies – songs, stories, tapestries, documents, or paintings – the majority of these monuments are affixed. They are heavy, immobile presentations of the facts and priorities of the dominant culture. They are weights on the landscape, by dint of both the generic way they present history, and the untold stories they imply but, for all their heroic punch, fail to truly explicate.
In “Savagery,” Walker chose to layer three lines of serifed text recognizable as that rubbed from monuments, yielding laconic critique: EUROPEANS / GAINED A REPUTATION FOR SAVAGERY / THEIR POPULATION DWINDLED. Below lies an image of some sort of ghostly structure that could be the skeleton of a ship, or a raised oil drilling platform. About this “low-tech” process, Walker states:
Using the most rudimentary of printmaking techniques – the rubbing, or “frottage” – I isolate groups of words or fractions of larger statements found on some of the monuments that surround me, depriving their monumental sentiment of its assuredness and confusing its pride. The in-between space is what some of us yearn to see in our history: gaps in an otherwise seamless story of domination and success that express an appropriate uncertainty about our past, as well as our current trajectory. The stories of North American colonization contain a type of heroism and fortitude that, while it might lend itself to a stoic plaque or statue, also belies more perilous and unscrupulous activities that do not make for such proud and easy reading. Nonetheless, investigating the selective history presented by these stone and metal markers may yet lead to a more accurate picture of ourselves.
Our individual and collective willingness and even eagerness to accept revisions to our understandings of our histories may be as accurate a predictor of the viability of our species as the currently raging debate about where lies the point of no return in terms of temperature rise. Recent weeks have seen stories disseminated of visitors to plantations in the southern United States who feel inconvenienced, i.e., bummed out to have to hear about slavery: “I was depressed when I left;” and “It was not what I expected.”10 This resistance to facing the truth and feeling emboldened to give bad Yelp reviews to these institutions reveals how hard many of us are working to shield ourselves from the realities of the past for fear of feeling indicted or implicated.
While our instinct might be to laugh or smirk, we must heed very seriously the destructive potential of such entrenched resistance to grief, and the resultant walls of denial that form the foundations for the enactment of certain policies and the dismantling of a panoply of hard won regulations and safeguards by the current administration. In “Grieving could offer a pathway out of a destructive economic system,” a brief article in The Guardian I am barely resisting the urge to reproduce in near-entirety, Jo Confino reports attending a healing ceremony conducted by indigenous people from four continents, including Diné/Navajo and Lakota activist, artist, and ceremonial leader, Woman Stands Shining (Pat McCabe), whose words also help contextualize the gravity of the dangers that are manifesting through something as seemingly trivial as Yelp reviews of plantation tours:
Humanity has developed a very deep ability to push devastating information about the impacts of our actions into our subconscious and this is a danger. We are numbing ourselves to this life going out… Expressing grief has always been a cathartic experience and a rebalancing mechanism, and I believe it is a part of building the foundation for any new story we might want to tell.11
While counter-intuitive, it is possible we may find value and yes, ultimately even comfort, through openly-mindedly and egolessly accepting the kind of uncertainty that we now feel about our individual and collective futures and translating that to how we frame and understand the past. Ericka Walker’s subtly insistent reconfiguration of our understanding of our pasts gives her viewers a leg up on developing the valuable skills of resilience of mind and spirit, i.e., the ability to bounce back from unexpected change in one’s understanding and orientation. Such shifts can and do cause trauma, as seen by how dearly some cling to fallacious notions of heroism, having come to see their very personal survival tied to everything from monuments and flags that oppress and disenfranchise others, to unlimited rights to buy and travel with assault rifles. The deceptively simple action involved in sequentially dematerializing, i.e., erasing, a seemingly solid form, such as that in Patricia Delgado’s “Symbiotic Construction” offers inspiration for nimbly shifting and effectively toppling relational hierarchies.
Like graining a stone or degreasing a copper plate, laying a receptive groundwork for receiving and readying both revisionist histories and futures for transmission is a skill we must cultivate and share. Those of us who shut down because hearing about slavery is a downer are hardly developing the resiliency necessary to tolerate the kind of fundamental discomforts and inconveniences that we must run, rather than be dragged kicking and screaming, toward in order for reparations to be made and humility to take root individually and collectively, so that lessons can be learned and implemented.
The survival of many species, quite likely our own among them, depends on our success in conveying the benefits inherent in acknowledging the “pervasive sorrow” Todd Anderson generously shares about feeling. Similarly generous is offering up for noticing small but meaningful gestures, such as shifting from pristine rag pager as printmaking substrate to fabric generated through one’s domestic life, as seen in the work of Melanie Yazzie, Hannah March Sanders and Blake Sanders. Same goes for the granular attention paid by Roni Gross and Nancy Campbell to the sourcing of materials such as: “wild harvested dogbane for cordage, driftwood for covers, scrap metal and horse bone, scavenged wood for the game board in Greenland, where such materials are scarce.” The highly intentional and intensely location-specific material sourcing Campbell and Gross undertook brings to mind Jenny Odell’s advocacy for specificity in the form of “a new ‘placefulness’ that yields sensitivity and responsibility to the historical (what happened here) and the ecological (who and what lives, or lived, here)” in her book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy.
Odell goes on to discuss bioregionalist thought and practices12, ending with a statement that articulately describes the web of interconnected issues that “Our Indelible Mark” asserts and illustrates:
It’s important for me to link my critique of the attention economy to the promise of bioregional awareness because I believe that capitalism, colonialist thinking, loneliness, and an abusive stance toward the environment all coproduce one another.13
There is much more to be gleaned from looking in earnest at “Our Indelible Mark.” The aggregate of these artists’ work and thoughtful, articulate statements, warrants reuse in perpetuity to maximize its impact and realize its potential. SGC International is an important conduit between print practitioners worldwide, and I’m grateful to be able to utilize this platform, to encourage each visitor to the site to consume and recycle each morsel on the “Our Indelible Mark” website.
1 Anita Jung, in an email dated July 27, 2019, described the installation of “Our Indelible Mark,” at the Impact 10: Encuentro conference in Santander, Spain thusly: “…A bit of a Pandora’s Box foreshadowing environmental and humanitarian global crises and then small reminders of the potential within humanity, a wee bit of hope, a choice to still be made. It isn’t an exhibition that could be photographed. It was experiential and contemplative. I certainly didn’t have enough time to experience it as it was an exhibit that required seeing it several times to even begin taking it all in, a mind map only ginormous.”
2 Charles Beneke’s artist statement accompanying his work “Disruption: Name It, from a body of work titled In Absence of Reason,” excerpted within the exhibition “Our Indelible Mark,” presented at the Impact 10: Encuentro conference in Santander, Spain in 2018, curated by Blake Sanders and Hannah March Sanders. https://orangebarrelindustries.com/ourindeliblemark/charles-beneke/
3 The World Wildlife Fund estimates that between 10,000 and 100,000 species are going extinct each year.
4 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, (Henry Holt: 2014).
5 Luoping Zhang, Iemaan Rana, Rachel M. Shaffer, Emanuela Taioli, Lianne Sheppard. “Exposure to Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Risk for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma: A Meta-Analysis and Supporting Evidence. Mutation Research/Reviews in Mutation Research,” 2019; DOI: 10.1016/j.mrrev.2019.02.001
6 Donna Haraway, Staying With The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Duke University Press: 2016)
7 Timothy Morton, The Dark Ecology of Elegy, 256, (published in Karen Weisman, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the Elegy (Oxford UP, 2010), 251–271.
8 Jessica Barr Marion, “The Art and Ethics of Ecological Grieving,” Mourning Nature, page 197.
10 Gillian Brockell, “Some white people don’t want to hear about slavery at plantations built by slaves: The nasty online reviews have gone viral on Twitter,” The Washington Post, August 8, 2019.
11 Jo Confino, “Grieving could offer a pathway out of a destructive economic system,” The Guardian, October 2, 2014
12 Odell defines bioregionalism on page xviii of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy:
Bioregionalism, whose tenets were articulated by the environmentalists Peter Berg in the 1970s, and which is widely visible in indigenous land practices, has to do with an awareness not only of the many life-forms of each place, but how they are interrelated, including with humans. Bioregionalist thought encompasses practices like habitat restoration and permaculture farming, but has a cultural element as well, since it asks us to identify as citizens of the bioregion as much as (if not more than) the state. Our “citizenship” in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.
13 Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2019), xviii.