• Olivia Spiers

In Conversation: desertArtLAB and Ciara Ennis

In late November, Executive Director Natalie Marsh connected with one of our Artist-Educator pairs: Ciara Ennis and desertArtLAB’s April Bojorquez and Matthew Garcia. Ciara, April, and Matthew have gotten to know each other over recent months during their partnership at ViVA. Their collaboration has grown more intertwined as Ciara developed a ViVA Artist Packet about April and Matthew’s work with desertArtLAB. ViVA’s Artist Packets serve as toolkits meant to aid our client-partners in situating indigenous practices and art filled conversations with a range of audiences and students. Excerpted here is part of an online dialogue during which a range of topics emerged surrounding desertArtLAB’s work with sustainability, resilience, and community.

Natalie: It’s been so nice to connect with you through ViVA. Both of you have seemingly differing backgrounds that feed into your work – with April coming from the museum field nationally/internationally as an educator, curator, and researcher and Matthew being an Assistant Professor of Creative Practice at Colorado State University with an arts background. Can you talk a little about how each of your experiences feed into your projects and overall goals as a collaborative?

April: When you think about it, our backgrounds aren’t too different. Similar to art, museology has a history of utilizing material culture and narrative to engage the public and a more recent history of creating participatory experiences. Since my museum training is in the anthropology of museums I am also always thinking about how culture is being represented, presented, constructed and stewarded.

Matt: As an MFA in intermedia art my training is in interdisciplinary and emerging forms of artmaking. Early on I developed an interest in ecological art and like April, I had an interest in issues of representation and narrative within this field. We soon realized that our differing trainings offered complementary perspectives that strengthened our work and collaborative practice.

Natalie: Speaking of collaborative practice – your recent work, The Desertification Cookbook, pilots an ecological installation in an urban desert community which will serve as an open site to cultivate desert foods. Can you speak a little about this project and what led to its creation?

April: The DesertArtLAB eco-installation is a growing public space reconnecting community with indigenous dryland ecological and cultural practice. The project also serves as a pilot field-site to cultivate desert crops that are not available commercially as well as to demonstrate the beauty and resilience of arid land ecologies based on the limits of our environment. Early in our practice we had been conducting guerrilla plantings of cactus in public space. We quickly learned we would need to own the land for future projects because the durational nature of our work – regrowing an entire ecosystem takes decades! In 2016, with the support of the Creative Capital award we were able to purchase land in the high desert of Pueblo, Colorado and transform the space into what we call the DesertArtLAB fieldsite.

Natalie: You talk about the “beauty and resilience of arid land ecologies” – The Desertification Cookbook also demonstrates “the resilience of indigenous arid land ecologies and communities.” Can you tell us why resilience is such an important factor with [the historical/communal/ecological contexts of] this project?

April: Resilience within an ecological context is characterized as an ecosystem's capacity to withstand disturbance while maintaining the same function and structure. For us, you cannot separate indigenous dryland ecologies and cultural practice. Our existence and survival is tied to our environment. When you use resilience as a framework for understanding human-non-human communities you begin to understand how intrinsically connected we are to our homelands.

Ciara: Much of your work is concerned with reconceptualizing how the desert is understood and framed so that it can be reimagined as a generative site for food production and habitation rather than as an apocalyptic wasteland. Have you encountered resistance to this way of thinking and if so, how have you managed to shift entrenched notions about this landscape?

Matt: Entrenched notions about deserts are extremely complex and are manifested in various ways such as food, policy, art, groundskeeping, urban planning, etc. Early in our practice we found some resistance to the idea that deserts can be and have been generative sites for food productions, cultural production, and habitation. We know that deserts are generative because they are our ancestral homelands. Our families have lived in the deserts of the American Southwest for generations. We have found that many people think of deserts as a “blank canvas” – which inherently implies that nothing is there. However, deserts are complex ecosystems that have been inhabited by living organisms (human and non-human) for millennia. Our work is about shifting consciousness and value systems regarding aesthetics and beauty. If you google search “landscape paintings” you won’t find a desert landscape until about the three hundredth image despite the fact that 33% of the earth’s land surface is a desert. For us this is indicative how aesthetics can become a value system that can be in conflict with ecological realities. You see examples of this all the time in dryland and drought ridden communities peppered with green grass lawns. We also see this conflict in our food systems. For example, Lettuce is Arizona’s largest crop and accounts for 20% of the state’s crop production. Why grow lettuce in the desert when you can grow edible cactus for a fraction of the cost and resources. Cactus takes less water and provides five times the nutrients than lettuce, yet we continue to grow lettuce in the desert. Why?

Ciara: The use of indigenous knowledge systems is critical to your practice and embedded in every aspect of DesertArtLAB’s work. Can you elaborate on the nature and efficacy of these practices and how they can contribute different ways of thinking about our relationship to the land and to the environmental collapse that we are witnessing?

April: In the Americas, knowledge was crafted in relation to the environment over the course of millennia. Because of this, to maintain the ecology is to maintain this knowledge system. And even though we are witnessing a variety of ecological crises, in the Southwest remnants our ecology is still here. Food practice becomes a product of this relationship between knowledge systems and ecology. For example, look at the milpa gardening system – an ancient indigenous gardening system that utilizes companion planting to grow regional foods to feed a household. There are many lessons to be learned from growing a milpa. The plants grown in a milpa (corn, beans, squash, chile, wild greens, flowers) support each other’s growth. The cornstalk is used as a trellis for the beans to grow up, the beans transfer nitrogen from the air into the soil for all the plants to benefit from, the squashes leaves shades the soil and the squashes prickly vines protect the plants from pests. The sunflowers tower over the corn and offer food to the various birds who might otherwise eat your corn. In the end, the cooperation provides food to feed a household throughout the year. It’s a beautiful system that demonstrates the power of reciprocity and cooperation, rather than a system of competition.

Natalie: The symbiotic nature of indigenous knowledge systems seems so obvious. Ciara, it’s been such a pleasure to have you working with us at ViVA in what I hope has become a sort of symbiotic and mutually supportive Educator-Artist collaboration. Can you tell us a little bit about what experiences led you to pursuing museum education and joining ViVA?

Ciara: Developing an interdisciplinary and layered educational program congruent with my curatorial projects has always been central to my practice. Otherwise, exhibitions can seem opaque or geared only to a contemporary art literate audience, which can be very limiting and unadventurous. In my current context, working within an academic institution, I’m fortunate to be able to draw upon scholars from diverse academic disciplines, which allows me to expand upon the ideas explored in the exhibitions by staging dialogues with scholars, artists, and other cultural workers – this is true of catalogue essays too. The constellations of diverse practitioners provide a multitude of perspectives and alternative ways of accessing complex ideas. Exhibitions, in addition to their experiential and aesthetic function, should provoke a set of questions. This is what keeps them alive.

Natalie: “This is what keeps them alive” – so right. I know you work as the Director and Curator of Pitzer College Art Galleries at Pitzer College. We’ve talked about the ways that your exhibitions explore critical social justice issues and the constructed nature of historical and cultural records. I’m curious to know how this central focus has been reflected in your work at ViVA?

Ciara: ViVA is committed to foregrounding the work of artists whose work calls attention to real world issues. Their practices are research-based, interdisciplinary, morally engaged, and ethically responsive, which makes them especially exciting for me as most of the artists that I work with in my own program follow a similar pattern. ViVA’s inaugural program is focused on artists and collectives concerned with the environment as it intersects with racial, ethnic, social, economic, and multispecies justice. I am fortunate to be working with the remarkable collective DesertArtLAB and the extraordinary artist Marina Zurkow. While their methodologies differ, they are both concerned with creating alternative frameworks through which these momentous issues can be examined and by doing so, provide a productive and generative lens that can envisage a better future. Given the overwhelming subject matter this is no easy task. Artists like this make a difference and are critical to our lives.

Natalie: So very true. April and Matt, we’ve talked about a lot of converging themes: ecology, community, resilience, climate change, and the arts. What have you two noticed about the intersection of these themes while creating your projects? Any “ah-ha!” moments?

Matt: One of our favorite characterizations of our work was by a mentor of ours who has called our work undisciplined rather than interdisciplinary. As artists, we have the ability to challenge the parameters of these themes and bring them together in unexpected ways. For example, over the summer we worked with a choreographer to create a site-specific dance. Unlike most site-specific dances, the dancers performed the literal planting and watering of desert plants at our field site through choreographed movement. For us, the ah-ha moments come when we imagine these new ways (or forgotten ways) of connecting themes, disciplines, and practices.

Natalie: It was so nice to connect with each of you. To end our time together, I just have one more question for April and Matt – if you two were given the chance to speak to college students who are interested in pursuing similar projects to the ones desertArtLAB creates, what is a piece of advice you would give them for getting started?

April: Think big! Don’t be intimidated by those big ideas. Also, don’t forget about the process. It is just as important as the product.

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