Max Hooper Schneider in conversation with András Szántó
REEF ECOLOGY AND HUMAN ARTWORK
Max Hooper Schneider is just about to set off on his trip to New Zealand, Singapore, the Pulau Bawah Islands, the Maldives, Oman, the Cocos Keeling, and Christmas Islands. The artist elaborates on his journey into the complex relationship between humans and nature along major reef ecologies in a conversation with cultural consultant András Szántó. Stay tuned for regular updates from Hooper Schneider’s Art Journey.
AS: What was the first thought that came to mind when you heard you were selected for the BMW Art Journey?
MHS: Surprise, then deluxe excitement—an excitement that felt like the terminus of a feverish round of research that would only lead to many more rounds of research. Also, a palpable feeling of abstraction. I may ‘know’ the chosen sites empirically—as text-based curios, as resort-forged necropoli, as coralline labyrinths in varying states of flourishing and decay—but in the end, that means nothing. The fieldwork is what matters: the unforeseen, the polysensorial imprintings offer the final articulation, the ultimate language or immanence of the Journey. Last but not least, one thing that crossed my mind was the necessity of obtaining a scuba-diving certification.
AS: By the time you were selected, two Art Journeys—those of Samson Young and Henning Fehr and Philipp Rühr—had been completed, and Abigail Reynolds’ journey along the Silk Road was underway. Did these substantially influence you in your thinking? Did any prior artist’s journey in history influence you?
MHS: I knew of the prior journeys and explored works by Young and Fehr and Rühr online. I saw Abigail Reynolds’ presentation in Miami. All these projects are extremely good. However, there was no direct influence on my plans, other than an aspiration to conform to their high standards of excellence. The two journeys that, above all, have influenced my thinking were those undertaken by Charles Darwin and André Breton for the specific purpose of exploring coral reefs.
AS: What about the journey that got you here? These are not the typical interests of an artist. I know you studied marine biology in a serious way. How did you end up with this deep fascination with marine ecologies and interdependent human and non-human systems?
MHS: I have had such a multivalent, wayward, impulsive path—hopefully one that has primed me for this adventure. I still remain disciplinarily promiscuous (I’ve been nurtured by the fields of biology, philosophy, art history, urban planning, landscape architecture, animation, even ikebana and so forth).
One of my earliest sources of fascination as a child was the tidepool. I grew up close to thousands of (now defunct) tidepools along the Pacific Coast Highway, in West Los Angeles, and spent most of my free time as an observer of these discrete worlds. I was a participant in their shape-shifting underwater geneses. Despite their varying scales, morphologies and turbidities, tidepools always represented something larger than myself, something that exceeded my anthropocentric, postulatory thumbings at the ‘natural world.’ I loved that one could witness this multi-dimensional play of habitat creation and destruction, mutualistic partnerships, sieges of elemental forces, and peer into a phantasmagorical sub-planar vista of tube feet, stinging tentacles, and regenerated limbs. This insoluble slurry of single-celled ooze, calcium and synaptic blobs, of plague and overabundance, was all held within a perfect frame of kelp-slicked, miniature outcroppings of rock, crushed shell, and flotsam. For me, this was a universe that had no beginning or end, no borders. Although illusory, they possessed the rapture of containment.
I have studied marine biology in the capacity of the autodidact for much of my life, and continue to do so. I actively research marine ecologies because they are the lens through which I prefer to see the world. Marine ecologies offer up allegories on core themes in my work, e.g., interdependence, non-human life, empiricism, genesis, succession, chaos, fantasy, and so on. The maritime environment, from polyp to abyss, is the first responder to changes in humankind’s palpable world.
AS: We’re having this conversation in July of 2017, just a few weeks before you are to set off to your first destination. How are you preparing? What will be the main stops on your Journey?
MHS: At the core of everything is mutation: my practice, fieldwork, the scientific method, this Journey, and thus the preparation is ongoing on several fronts. The final target sites have been both whittled down from the original proposal and expanded to accommodate recent breakthroughs in my artistic research since being awarded this opportunity. They include: White Island in New Zealand, home to extremophilic organisms that thrive within a boiling volcanic landscape (an adumbration of our infernal, alkaline world to come); the Cocos Keeling Islands, where Darwin conducted his seminal research on atoll and coral formation; Christmas Island, a paragon of geographic isolation, limited human disturbance, and a resultant endemicism of flora and fauna; Singapore, the global epicenter of the ornamental fish, invertebrate and aquaculture trade; Bawah Island of the Anambas Islands, Indonesia, a pristine region that serves as an organism capture/cyanide-poaching site stocking much the world’s public and private aquaria; the Maldives, the autocratic atoll nation where relentless resort construction indiscriminately mangles some of the most pristine reef ecologies in the world; and the Sultanate of Oman, where a xenophobic lack of tourism and low-impact subsistence living along coastal human habitats allow for coral reefs and biodiversity to thrive as it did in an ancient epoch. (Oman may be perhaps the least threatened site of this Journey, and hence can serve as a terminus of hope and regeneration in my fieldwork.)
Bikini Atoll, which exists as the paradigm of the post-atomic coral reef—the Chernobyl of the ocean realm, if you will—proved to be a logistical impossibility. I am now on a waiting list for visiting for three hours next year. In any case, I do not think this Journey will adjourn after its formal conclusion. Ultimately, I am going to continue to organize institutional and laboratory contacts for the Marshall and Henderson Islands.
In preparation for all of this, I am becoming familiar with underwater videography and pursuing a scuba-diving certificate, not in the ocean but in the Chihuahuan Desert, at a place called the Blue Hole—or Agua Negra Chiquita—a deep artesian well that is part of the Santa Rosa Sink, in New Mexico.
AS: Such experiences can be life-changing. What are you learning about yourself as you go through these exercises, which to me sound like ordeals, though for you they might just be a thrill?
MHS: Scuba training is not terribly daunting. The one thing that is distressing about scuba courses is being among a gaggle of humans underwater. When I am underwater, I want to see invertebrates, not neoprene-corseted hominids using sign language.
I am learning to manage my expectations. There is more planning involved than I have ever done—e.g., shipping vitrines to the most remote maritime nether-regions of the world; getting protected-site permits, hiring boats and seafaring between atolls, lagoons, reefs; getting vaccinations; conceptualizing dioramas based on materials I find in the field; transporting camera, scuba, and video equipment, etc. For now, I’m still here sitting at my desk. Nothing has happened yet. All aspects of the Journey could change, and probably will. I am trying to abandon speculation. Yet the giddiness of fantasy is already setting in.
AS: Your work has long been concerned with natural habitats, self-contained systems, and a grave concern for the effects of human contacts with nature. How do these shape what you will be looking for in the coral reefs?
MHS: My motivating aesthetic interest is more accurately stated as less a ‘grave’ concern with the effects of humans on nature—a position that implies humans are not an integral part of nature—than with the ‘grave’ consequences of ignoring the mutually modificatory actions of human and non-human modes of nature on one another. My conceptualization of nature is monist and Spinozan (which later became the core of ecological tenets of the sixties): This perspective has implications for understanding what it means to produce a work of art—i.e., the artist alone is not the producer of the work, but the artist in interaction with materials, which are not conceived as passive matter being worked upon, but as an active agent in the productive process.
Art objects are not autonomous from a systems standpoint. Nor are their producers. So while I am certainly concerned with the destructive actions that humans have committed vis-à-vis planetary nature, my ‘base’ concern is with showing the ways in which human and non-human modes of nature interact to produce and reproduce the planet—and thus, art. This mutual morphogenesis—i.e., the transformative interactions between myself and the reef environments—is what I will be exploring throughout the journey. Some of these interactions will be quite obvious to the viewer. Many should be extremely subtle, perhaps even barely perceptible, although I do plan to document them. Together, the reef and I will produce the art works.
AS: Speak a bit more about how specifically you will interact with the sites, and specifically about what you will leave behind.
MHS: Once again, I would like to quote from the proposal, since I chose my words meticulously there. I suggested that the encounter with each reef system will consist of five closely related events:
- Preliminary Research. Relevant research will be undertaken on each reef before the journey begins. Libraries, the internet, and exchanges with appropriate experts will serve as primary and secondary sources.
- Exploration. Each coral holobiont, as contextualized by global environmental and local historical and geographical conditions, will be examined and documented. The explorations are aesthetic in the original sense of the word—i.e., they are concerned with bodies and how human and non-human bodies have engaged in the interactive work of creating, destroying, and transforming the coral holobiont over time and in complex ecological-cultural conditions which are themselves always changing. Exploration of the reef system will be conducted from both above and below water and will include, in addition, on-site material gathering; visits to local marine-research facilities, museums, resorts, corporate offices, etc.; and conversations with local residents, fishers, developers, and authorities.
- Documentation. This will occur as sculptural productions, dioramas, film, video, sound recordings, still photographs, material collections, and written texts.
- The Production of New Trans-Habitats. At the reef sites a sculptural event will be initiated as the burial at sea of an empty vitrine produced by the artist. The mutually morphogenic, generative/degenerative transformation of the vitrines into new Trans-Habitats co-created by artist, reef, and sea, by biota endemic to the reef as well as local travelers, will be monitored periodically and the data recorded.
- Exhibition. The journey continues after its formal conclusion as the exhibiting and archiving of the various documentary materials produced throughout the Journey—written texts, dioramas, films, still photography, sound recordings, collections of artifacts and ready-mades from the reef sites, the exhumed Trans-Habitats. With the exception of the exhumed sculptures these materials will be available for exhibition in 2017.
AS: What do you expect to be the major challenges of undertaking a Journey of this kind? Where do you hope to be surprised?
MHS: The entire Journey will consist of surprises and challenges. There is no way to anticipate in advance what I may discover, even if it has been thoroughly imagined and researched in advance. The challenge consists of what to make of these surprises. This is always the case when I am working with nature and natural materials, which have ideas and wills of their own and cannot be expected to exist in harmony with my own designs. There is an inherent fluidity to the project as well as entropic tendencies. It is absolutely necessary to cede control and dispense with preconceived ideas of success and failure.
AS: Three months from now, we will talk again. They say that such intense experiences change people. How do you expect things to be different then?
MHS: That is a bit difficult to answer in advance. The experience will be intense, and I will be changed—more than I will be changed by a trip to the grocery store, less than by the death of a loved one. I will learn a great deal—that is certain—about myself and my practice, about oceans and coral reefs, about people and machines, about the tensions between theory and practice, imagination and implementation. There will be sensory and experiential overload for years to come. All of these new knowledges and sensations will be integrated and carried forwards in ways that are more or less unpredictable but inevitably valuable. When the Journey is complete, I can perhaps provide a less speculative answer. The answer will continue to become more obvious as I accrete/secrete my subsequent bodies of work.
Los Angeles – New York, July 2017