Lucas Ihlein (centre) with cane farmers Simon Mattsson and Alan McLean in Simon's dual crop of sugar cane and sunflowers, 2015. Photo: Summer Rain Photography, Mackay

Lucas Ihlein: 1:1 scale art and the Yeomans Project in North Queensland

In conversation with Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna (Latitudes)

Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna (Latitudes)___We first met Lucas Ihlein in May 2014 at the recommendation of artist Nicholas Mangan. We had been invited to Melbourne to participate in Gertrude Contemporary’s Visiting Curator Program in partnership with Monash University of Art Design & Architecture, and had taken a few days out to visit the Biennale of Sydney and meet some Sydney-based artists. Nicholas was already familiar with our curatorial interests, stemming from ecology and site-specific practices; indeed, we’ve recently made an extended interview with him for the catalogue of his exhibition Limits to Growth, so his matchmaking with Lucas was prescient. We talked for hours and have been corresponding ever since, with a view to collaborating further.

We were struck by the breadth and enthusiasm of Lucas’s practice and his voracious approach to the process of learning from the point of view of a novice. Where other people might pain over the policing of the roles of artist, curator or researcher, Lucas happily didn’t spend much time worrying about it. Accordingly, although it was the engagement with social and environmental ecology that initially piqued our interest, we soon realised that his was a collaborative practice that has embraced, for example, the re-enactment of “expanded cinema” works from the 1960s and 1970s (in the form of Teaching and Learning Cinema, run with Louise Curham) as well as a “blogging as art”, an approach that really chimed with our project for The Last Newspaper for which we had edited a weekly newspaper within an exhibition.[1]

Indeed, a key impulse of our approach to the projects we have undertaken as Latitudes around art and ecology, in the broadest sense, has been to resist the narrow restraints of normative environmental-concern ecology, in part following Felix Guattari’s essay The Three Ecologies (2000), to encompass social and political relations, human subjectivity as well as historical research. In other words, thinking about a practice that does not necessarily give primacy to exhibition-making as well as considering what an ecological art project might mean in terms of process and site, and thinking through what acting ecologically might entail in relation to acting curatorially, acting editorially, or acting historically, and so on.

Looking back on our projects in collaboration with the Royal Society of Arts “Arts & Ecology” programme—a public commission for London with artist Tue Greenfort (2005–8), our publication Land Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook (Royal Society of Arts/Arts Council England, 2006), and the symposium of “Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change”, 8th Sharjah Biennial (2007)—as well as the exhibition Greenwashing. Environment: Perils, Promises and Perplexities, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin (2008), they now seem to belong to a very specific time when green issues gained wider traction. One might crudely say this began with the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change in 2006 and effectively ended, or was overshadowed, by the 2008 financial crisis and its grim legacies.

We begin this interview at a moment when we’re revisiting some of the concerns left in the wake of such projects from the near past while preparing a group exhibition for CAPC musée d’art contemporain de Bordeaux in 2017 around the carbon cycle and narratives of raw materials. At the time of writing Lucas has just returned from Guangzhou, where he has been exploring the geographical and social dimensions of sea level rise in the Pearl River Delta.

Tue Greenford
Tue Greenfort, Untitled, 2008. Modified refuse containers located outside the exit to Frieze Art Fair, London. Realised as part of Art & Ecology, a project of the Royal Society of Arts in partnership with the Arts Council England. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Latitudes

Lucas, we’d like to start via the Yeomans Project (2011–14) and the investigation that you have developed with artist Ian Milliss into the work of the farmer and landscape engineer P.A. Yeomans. Back in the 1970s, Milliss made the case that Yeomans’s work in designing agricultural land (“keylining”, in order to more sustainably respond to drought conditions) was a form of Land Art that made the work of celebrated artists such as Robert Smithson and Richard Serra “pale in comparison”.[2] Yet today, whether Yeomans is an artist or not, doesn’t seem to be what’s at stake here—would you agree? How did the collaboration with Ian come about?

Lucas Ihlein___The definition of art is a whole area of debate in itself. Ian Milliss and I both subscribe to the Donald Brook school of thought, which posits a clear difference between “works of art” (for example, the physical interventions made by Smithson or Serra in the landscape) and “Art”, which is a form of cultural innovation that can occur in any field. Brook writes that art “is an illumination that enables actions to be performed that subsequent performers of these actions had not previously known to be possible. It is found everywhere and can’t be purposefully made”.[3] Ian argued that Yeomans’s actions (in developing agricultural methods properly suited to the Australian climate and geography) were an excellent example of the latter. By extension, Ian’s provocation threw a challenge to the art world: to expand its conception of art beyond the function it normally performs as an offshoot of the entertainment or fashion industry for the delectation of a rather narrow social group. For those of us who operate in the artworld today (you and me, and the readers of this magazine) I think this is still an important challenge to keep in mind. What are the “real world” stakes of what we do?

As to how Ian and I came to our collaboration—it’s a long story, but it was really thanks to the rise of the internet. Ian dropped out of the artworld in the late 1970s and was unavailable to subsequent generations of socially‑engaged conceptual artists until Web 2.0. I first remember reading his irascible and jolly posts on a blog I set up with my colleague Lisa Kelly for an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 2005 called Situation. Further investigation revealed that Ian had been involved in squatting as a method of urban resistance during the Green Bans movement in the early 1970s in Sydney. This connected with the work that I’d been doing around the time of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, together with a large community of artists and activists at the Broadway Squats. Ian and I established a productive intergenerational dialogue from that time on, and we were looking for the chance to collaborate on something. The opportunity finally arose in 2011, when curator Hannah Mathews invited us to be part of an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), focusing on the relationships between first generation conceptualism and recent post‑conceptualist work.[4] The Yeomans Project began as a way of tackling that problem of intergenerationality, and then spiralled out into a much wider investigation of cultural innovation and climate‑responsive design in Australia.

Yeomans Project, installation view, Art Gallery NSW
Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, The Yeomans Project, 2011–14, Art Gallery of NSW. Photo: Mim Stirling. ©Lucas Michael Ihlein/Licensed  by Viscopy, 2016

Latitudes___You are one of several collaborators involved in what are the early stages of developing the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA), one part of which is a residency‑based initiative exploring the legacy of the former cement works in the town of Kandos, NSW. The project brings to life one of the fictional projects from a poster that Ian Milliss made for the 2013 edition of the Cementa contemporary arts festival. It imagines a future for Kandos in which the town is a world leader in climate science education, sustainable transport and solar thermal energy, with, as its rhetoric states, a School of Cultural Adaptation “turning out graduates who are the new leaders in the international mobilisation against climate change”.[5] What does “cultural adaptation” mean in terms of the landscapes of this project as well as in the Yeomans Project? The term seems to point towards what Maria Hlavajova (director of BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht) has referred to as forms of “being together otherwise” —working in spite of the heritage of modernity, and modelling an alternative that is simultaneously social and ecological.[6]

Kandos poster
Ian Milliss, Welcome to Kandos, Poster, 2013. Courtesy the artist

Lucas___Cultural adaptation is used quite literally here—in the sense of our need to “adapt or die” (the title of another one of Ian Milliss’s provocative essays published in Artlink 30:2).[7] It’s interesting that you point to the intersection of the social and ecological, because one of the sources for wisdom about cultural adaptation is the inter‑discipline of Social Ecology. Stuart B. Hill, an Australian pioneer in this field of research, lives not far from Kandos. His ideas are a touchstone in my own thinking through complex situations that require reframing and collaboration across disciplinary boundaries, in order to discover a pathway towards redesigning the way we do things (i.e., towards cultural adaptation). One of the experiments we are working on right now at KSCA is a collaboration between artist Gilbert Grace and farmer Stuart Andrews, in the growing of a crop of industrial hemp on a piece of degraded land near Kandos. The aims are to rehabilitate the soil and the eroded landscape itself, as well as to explore the possibilities of hemp as an alternative agricultural economy in the mid‑west of NSW, which would obviously lead to cultural transformations in the region. We don’t know how this will turn out, and at this stage the experiment is also at the level of how farmers and artists can work together on a project which is framed ambiguously—simultaneously a large scale work of land art, and an agricultural trial.

Marloo, Stuart Andrew's farm near Kandos, the future site of the hemp plantation that Stuart will be working on with artist Gilbert Grace, 2016. Photo: Gilbert Grace
Marloo, Stuart Andrews' farm near Kandos, the future site of the hemp plantation that Stuart will be working on with artist Gilbert Grace, 2016. Photo: Gilbert Grace

Latitudes____We’ve become quite attracted by a notion that landscape architect Jane Hutton refers to as “reciprocal landscapes”—the study of the paired connection between quarries and forests, for example, and the urban construction that their extraction makes possible. To understand a city, we need to imagine its impact on often‑distant landscapes functioning reciprocally to it and that it inadvertently transforms. Hutton describes case studies of New York in terms of the conveyance of granite from Maine, structural steel from Pennsylvania, and tropical hardwood from Brazil. Yet we could also extend the idea to consider (for example) the relationship between the deleterious effects of phosphate extraction in places such as Nauru and its use as fertiliser in Australian agribusiness. You have referred to the idea of the “peri‑urban” in conjunction with food production and the Yeomans Project—do you see this as a related concept?

Lucas____Exactly, the reciprocal relationships that bind seemingly unlikely pairs are what fascinate me at the moment. I think Hutton’s term “reciprocal landscapes” is very useful for exploring the relationships that material extraction generates over large geographical distances. It makes me think also of Val Plumwood’s “shadow places”—the hidden zones which are so often the necessary conditions of first world resource exploitation.[8] As to the peri‑urban, this refers to land at the fringe of current urban development. Sydney’s population continues to expand, and so peri‑urban land‑use is rapidly being turned over from agriculture to housing. The lack of integration between the various tiers (council, state, federal) of our system of government seems to mitigate against holistic urban design. Housing, food production, and waste disposal are so dependent on well‑designed spatial arrangements, but examples of good design are rare. Generally, a simplistic, partial, short‑term equation prevails. For example, releasing more bushland for housing development will help to keep the cost of living down. Which of course results in a whole range of social and environmental problems down the track.

We’re exploring a similar situation in Sugar vs the Reef: the relationship between two realms of activity and materiality that would ordinarily be regarded as distinct—the ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, and the sugar cane farming industry.[9] In fact, these two domains are linked inextricably first of all by two constants of the planet earth: gravity and water. It seems so obvious, yet it’s worth saying: whatever volume of water falls onto the land eventually makes its way to the sea. So if you have a situation—as you do in North Queensland—where 2,000 km of land alongside the coast is set up for sugar cane farming, then the tropical rainfall which irrigates the sugar will inevitably flow to adjacent creeks and out to the reef, carrying with it particle sedimentation as well as soluble chemicals like nitrogen‑based fertilisers and pesticides. For this reason, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority believes that it should have jurisdiction over the land as well as the sea, but they don’t. What remains are two distinct governing bodies, who have control over an area of land (on the one hand) and the sea (on the other) with an entirely arbitrary boundary (the coast) dividing them from one another. Oh human folly! Sugar vs the Reef throws itself into this situation between now and 2018, to see what artists can do in collaboration with farmers, policy makers and community activists.

Simon Mattsson's Sugar cane and sunflowers dual crop, 2015. Photo: Sophia Mattsson
Simon Mattsson's Sugar cane and sunflowers dual crop, 2015. Photo: Sophie Mattsson
View from Simon Mattson's farm: Sugar cane field and power station
Sugar cane growing with sugar processing mill in background, Mackay, 2015. Photo: Lucas Ihlein

Latitudes___And feminist biologists, perhaps? Sugar vs the Reef seems to highlight the ferocious systemic clashes of a monocrop agribusiness versus a multispecies refuge in terms that evoke the writings of Donna Haraway. She has argued that the use of the term “Anthropocene” to describe how anthropogenic processes have had a deleterious planetary effect is too simplistic. Blaming the human species in general for ecological degradation masks the specificities of certain historically‑situated phenomena. Accordingly “Capitalocene” and “Plantationocene” have been suggested as alternative or supplementary concepts, the latter naming, as Haraway puts it, the “devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human‑tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations”, and how “the slave plantation system was the model and motor for the carbon‑greedy machine‑based factory system”.[10] To what degree is Sugar vs the Reef a conceptual exercise or a practice‑based one? Or, like the coast, are we making yet another entirely arbitrary boundary?

Lucas___Haraway’s challenge with the terms Capitalocene and Plantationocene is to focus our attention on specific technological and cultural practices (like monoculture farming and capitalist land exploitation). This is inspiring because it suggests that the problem is not just “anthro-” (humans) in general, but particular things that we humans do. In other words, there is hope, because we can find new ways of doing things. Haraway urges us to move swiftly beyond the Capitalocene and Plantationocene into what she calls the “Chthulucene”—a future geological period characterised by more responsible relationships between humans and non‑humans. With Sugar vs the Reef, the practical challenge we face, working alongside sugar cane farmers, is how to develop those human and non‑human relationships, when the starting point is an inherently exploitative agricultural industry. The conceptual challenge I am interested in exploring is whether we can nudge the discourse beyond environmental management—the current workaday term used by scientists and policy makers. This term implies a top‑down relationship between humans and something called “the environment”, which is obviously still a paternalistic, if benevolent way of conceiving of the relationship.

Latitudes___Field trips and public tours have often formed an important element of your projects. We also find the notion of fieldwork very compelling in terms of being a form of production and research in itself. Likewise our project Incidents of Travel (2012–ongoing) is concerned with exploring the tour as a format of artistic encounter.[11] It is now moving into a new phase as an online magazine (produced in collaboration with Kadist Online Projects), focusing on the possibilities of reportage.[12] How do tours and field trips figure in your practice?

Lucas___Working with the artist group SquatSpace on the Redfern Waterloo Tour of Beauty (2005–9, 2016)[13] made me aware of the potential for employing tours as a social form for art making.[14] Since then the various members of SquatSpace have found tours to be a useful way of getting around the problem of representation.[15] I mean, rather than documenting and transporting elements of social reality into an art gallery setting, where they then must be decoded and reconstituted by the viewer, tours allow us to physically transport the viewer to a site beyond the gallery walls. This means that our tourists have an experience that is earned through spending an extended period of time within an environment. The art factor tends to drop away—and rather than focusing on the aesthetics of, say, documentary photographs in a gallery, our tour participants are engaging more directly with the social, geographical, or political complexities of the situation.

Of course, one of the things that happens when we go on tours is that stories are generated from the experiences we have. People want to tell those stories, and so another layer of mediation and representation is generated (via blogs, for example). I’d like to know more about your Incidents of Travel project—what do you think is revealed through using the tour as a form, that some other method of engagement might not be able to access?

Latitudes___We totally agree that there is great potential for more direct engagement and personal experience, something due in part to a greatly extended time frame. Coming at it from the perspective of curators, the idea really came about as a more humane and sociable substitute for the apparent conventions of the typically brief studio visit, which often feel like interviews or casting calls. We were interested in the potential of the tour as an organisational form, yet foregrounding the artist‑as‑tour‑guide presenting their own work‑in‑context was really the impulse behind it.

We were also curious about the tour guide’s precursors in antiquity: those who showed travellers around sacred sites, the periegetai (leaders around) and the exegetai (explainers). Only one of the tours that we have done was a public event. Being more casual and inconspicuous, our tours accentuated friendship and personal connection. An audience comes with expectations of engagement, so the dynamics and the logistics would have changed. The tours are not intended as artworks or to be performative.

Lucas___On a related matter, I have a question for you—it’s about the idea of “1:1 scale art”. This is an idea that I became aware of through reading an essay by Stephen Wright.[16] Wright argues that “an increasing number of practices are now operating on the same scale as what they are grappling with, both in time and in space, refusing both a representational paradigm and a reduced‑scale regime”. I immediately identified with this way of working Wright describes, and I think that the tours we’ve been talking about are one way of approaching 1:1 scale. I wonder if you’re aware of this notion, and if you think it’s a useful way to think about practices operating in the “expanded field” these days?

Latitudes___Yes, indeed. Wright’s 2013 Toward a Lexicon of Usership has been very useful for a seminar we have led several times under the name “Near‑Future Artworlds Curatorial Disruption Foresight Group”.[17] Yet Wright’s exploration of usership and 1:1 scale art is uncanny in relation to Sugar vs the Reef and the Yeomans Project as he discusses a fable about a fantastical map from Lewis Carroll’s novel Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893)—later adapted by Jorge Luis Borges—that hinges precisely around farming. The “grandest idea of all … a map of the country on the scale of a mile to the mile” turns out to be useless. It cannot be spread out as “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight!” Representation, symbolised by the map, is not only troublesome—it would bring wholesale ecological devastation, smothering both crops and native plants alike. Yet the situation is resolved in a way that seems to exceptionally echo Yeomans’s understanding of topography: the land is used as its own map.

Lucas Ihlein and Ian Milliss, The Yeomans Project field trip
Lucas Ihlein and Ian Milliss, The Yeomans Project, field trip. Farmer Peter Clinch demonstrates the keyline irrigation channels at The Oaks Organics, Camden, NSW, 2014
The Oaks Organics, Camden
The Oaks Organics, Camden, NSW, 2014. Photo courtesy Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein

Footnotes

  1. ^ The Last Newspaper, New Museum, New York, 6 October 2010 – 9 January 2011. 
  2. ^ “P.A.Yeomans—‘Keyline’ Exhibition proposed by Ian Milliss”, minutes of meeting of the board of trustees,Art Gallery of NSW, 1975. See http://yeomansproject.com/in-the-archives-with-ian-milliss/. Keylining ‘uses the form and shape of the land to determine the layout and position of farm dams, irrigation areas, roads, fences, farm buildings and tree lines’. See http://yeomansplow.com.au/8-yeomanskeyline-systems-explained/.
  3. ^ See Donald Brook, ‘Art is not a Verb”, from the lecture, 19 March2015, in association with the touring exhibition Art As A Verb, Flinders University Art Museum &City Gallery: http://donaldbrook.com.
  4. ^ Power to the People: Contemporary Conceptualism and the Object in Art, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, 6 October – 20 November 2011.
  5. ^ For more on the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation see http://ksca.land/.
  6. ^ Keynote by Maria Hlavajova (Basis Voor Aktuele Kunst, Netherlands) for the Global Art Challenge Conference, 29 April 2016: www.ub.edu/ubtv/en/video/how-to-be-together-otherwise
  7. ^ Ian Milliss, ‘Adapt or die’, Artlink (30:2), June 2010. https://www.artlink.com.au/articles/3399/adapt-or-die/.
  8. ^ See Val Plumwood, 'Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling', Australian Humanities Review, issue 44, March 2008: http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-March-2008/plumwood.html
  9. ^ Lucas Ihlein, Kim Williams, Ian Milliss, Simon Mattsson, John Sweet et. al., Sugar vs the Reef, 2014–18: http://www.sugar-vs-the-reef.net/.
  10. ^ Donna Haraway, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin’, Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp 159–165: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol6/6.7.pdf.
  11. ^ To date, tours have taken place with Latitudes in Mexico City (with Minerva Cuevas, Tania Pérez Córdova, Jerónimo Hagerman, Diego Berruecos, and Terence Gower), Hong Kong (with Nadim Abbas, Ho Sin Tung, Yuk King Tan andSamson Young), and San Francisco (with Amy Balkin, Will Brown, and Megan & Rick Prelinger). 
  12. ^ Kadist Online Projects, Incidents of Travel: http://incidents.kadist.org.
  13. ^ Lucas Ihlein, RedfernWaterloo Tour of Beauty, SquatSpace, 2005–9 and 2016: See http://lucasihlein.net/Redfern-Waterloo-Tour-of-Beauty-1.
  14. ^ As discussed by Ted Purves in Creative Time Summit: Living as Form, 2011.
  15. ^ See Diego Bonetto’s weed tours (2001–ongoing); Keg de Souza’s Ramble through the Rocks (2011); Yeomans Project Field Trips (2011–14); Green Bans Art Walks (2011)
  16. ^ Stephen Wright, ‘Use the country itself, as its own map’: operating on the 1:1 scale, 23 October 2012: http://northeastwestsouth.net/use-country-itself-its-own-map-operating-11-scale.
  17. ^ Stephen Wright, Toward a Lexicon of Usership, 2013: http://museumarteutil.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Towarda-lexicon-of-usership.pdf; http://lttds.blogspot.com.es/2015/11/near-future-artworlds-curatorial.html;http://www.kadist.org/en/programs/all/2190

Latitudes (www.lttds.org) is a Barcelona-based curatorial office founded in 2005 by Max Andrews and Mariana Cánepa Luna. Latitudes is especially interested in research-based projects that explore site, process and context. Its recent interview with Nicholas Mangan is published in Nicholas Mangan: Limits to Growth , Sternberg Press, 2016, in association with the exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 20 July – 17 September 2016; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, 29 October – 18 December 2016.

The Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation (KSCA), in partnership with Cementa, is presenting Futureland II, a public forum bringing together agriculturalists, artists and ecologists, supported by the Space Place and Country Research Group at Sydney College of the Arts, and the MECO Material Ecologies Research Network at the University of Wollongong, 11–13 November 2016 in Kandos, NSW.

Lucas Ihlein is an Australia Council for the Arts Fellow in Emerging and Experimental Arts. He is currently showing alongside Trevor Yeung (Hong Kong) in Sea Pearl White Cloud海珠白雲 at 4a Centre for Contemporary Asian Art until 24 September 2016. Ihlein’s collaborative project Sugar vs the Reef will culminate in an exhibition at Artspace Mackay, Queensland, in mid-2018.