ABOUT THE ARTIST
Diana Heise is a filmmaker, photographer, writer, performance and social practice artist. Her work has been exhibited in galleries and festivals internationally, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Film Anthology Archives, Oriel Myrddin Gallery, Cantor Art Center, Institut Français de Maurice, Soho20 Chelsea Gallery, Des Moines Art Center, the H&R Block Artspace and Drain, among others.
Heise holds a MFA in Photography, Video and Related Media from the School of Visual Arts in New York, NY and a BA in Art History from Vassar College. She is an Associate Professor of Photography and Filmmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute. I live and work in North Hero, VT and Kansas City, MO.
with Joe Brommel, April 2019
What is the role of climate change in your work?
My practice has always dealt with ecological questions, but a shift happened in 2012 when I was living in Mauritius on a Fulbright for creative performing arts. The ways in which I was dealing with the environment became more politicized, in that I started making a work that was looking at how these ecological shifts were affecting artisanal fishing communities. Both in Mauritius and — because I had a lot of questions about my positioning in Mauritius — also on the island that I grew up on in North Hero, Vermont. In that work, the context became closer to a bearing witness.
That shifted again when I started making seed-based planting performances. I made a planting performance as part of a transnational exhibition called Ephemeral Coast. It was in Mauritius, and then also in Wales, where I was planting mangrove seeds. Mangroves are known as a harbor for juvenile fish and are very good at absorbing CO2 and preventing beach erosion, but a lot of times those forests get devastated from the tourist industry and construction. That was an almost symbolic act of planting, where I knew full well that the 35 trees that I planted put a very, very small dent in the actual effects of climate change.
It seemed to me that the people who actually had power in that situation were on the US Senate’s Committee for the Environment and Public Works. So I sent them all letters, pieces from the work, and documentation of the performance and text to say, basically, “can we make an exchange? I gift you these, and you work towards addressing climate change.” But as I went through that process, it became really clear to me that because none of the representatives from my state are on that particular committee, those members were actually paying more attention to their constituents than me. Which is an interesting conundrum in terms of representative government.
So the next step has been the project that I'm currently working on, called My National Forest. I am growing the representative trees for all of the US states and territories. (Unincorporated territories like Navarro Island and Johnston Atoll don't have representative trees, so they get an empty container to at least hold space for them — it felt weird for me to make a decision on what their tree would be). If there is this notion that one pays attention mostly to their own local, then I’m growing all of these localities together and seeing how that's going to manifest. I see it almost as a performative act of care.
That emphasis on locality seems connected to your Reassimilation Diet project as well — where you’re thinking about traditional ways of eating and interacting with food outside of an industrialized system.
Yeah, I think both of them speak very closely to notions of care. How does one nurture? What does that process look like? Both came out of having this deep cultural engagement in Mauritius. I almost felt like I was an apprentice there for the six years in which I was making this work, and after that it made me very keenly aware of what aspects of my own cultural context needed to be addressed.
Reassimilation Diet started because I needed to feed my daughter solid foods. I grew up on bottled formula, and I realized that I didn't intrinsically know what to feed her, and I didn't have an ancestral source that I could go to who would have known what to feed her before the industrialization of baby food.
So I started thinking about that sense of lack that happens after a family has assimilated and industrialization becomes the norm. What do we do when there's that schism? Because the choices one makes to care for oneself are one thing, but when you bring children into the world, that’s what they see as a baseline. I became really conscious of the fact that I'm essentially wiring her brain in certain ways, and it put this other emphasis on the decisions that I needed to make.
I like how you put it earlier, that you saw yourself as “bearing witness” while you were in Mauritius. Can you expand on that power of “bearing witness” to loss?
A lot of that came out of research into the effects of post-colonialism. What happens in a colonial context when there is this sense of erasure, or a sense of something being opaque that can't be known?
For me, that manifests in different ways. Part of it is ecocide: thinking of land or resources just as material, instead of thinking of all of the other value that comes along with ecosystems. In the work in Mauritius, it extended to addressing the history of slavery of people of particular colors. And as I move into Reassimilation Diet, I'm thinking about health care and the colonization of the female body. That deep engagement with witnessing the effects of these things then leads me to more symbolic actions or to photographic practices.
I always feel like you have to negotiate the sense of power and authority when you have a tool like a camera or a video rig. But there are ways to address your methodology so that instead of working in a hierarchical model, where I'm the one in control, it can be a method of valorization.
And this is one of the lessons I learned deeply in Mauritius: how when you give that type of attention, people can see something in a different light, and it can reorient relations. The particular thing I was looking at was this drum that was marginalized through its use. And as I was doing this work with this community organization, I could see how people in the community were shifting their relationship to this drum and its music to the point that it now has a UNESCO Safeguarding inscription for Intangible Cultural Heritage.
It’s not just the act of bearing witness, because I think that there are times when uses of media which don't necessarily mobilize people's collective shame. Which I think is how Vietnam shifted. People saw things that they hadn't seen before and it shifted their relationship. And I don't know if that's always a tactic that works anymore in a news media context, but I think in an art context if we can renegotiate that sense of authority in production, and if the goal becomes to valorize a community, then it can be a very powerful tool.
Can you talk about a little bit more about the role of the body in your work, especially as it relates to what we were talking about earlier regarding bearing witness? I suppose I’m thinking about how photography or filmmaking often become abstracted away from the physical body that made them.
I started dancing at [the age of] three, I was doing choreographic work by the time I was in high school, and then I was working with this experimental improvisation group when I was in college. So being rooted in the body is my first instinct.
I moved to film because I was no longer satisfied with the proscenium setting, and I wanted to be able to move the audience around. A lot of my work is self-reflexive, so there's a consciousness of the performativity of either the movement of the camera or my relationship in front of the camera. For the past at least 15 years, the first stage of getting into a project is that I immerse myself as much as physically possible in the environment that I'm in. It is very much tied into how I'm physically relating to the world, and that's part of what then happens with the imagery as well.
You mentioned your work with seeds earlier, and I think there's an interesting throughline there that I want to expand on. Can you talk a little bit about how work like Take Only What You Can Give has evolved into your current practice?
Take Only What You Can Give was probably the first instance where I was very devoted to using seeds. I was interested in the notion that those types of clover seeds are nitrogen fixers — they draw contaminants out of the soil — but I wanted the seeds to act as a method to engage people in the performance. So that when the three performers and I are covered in all of those seeds, it's the responsibility of the audience to get us out. For me, a lot of the work has always gone back to this engagement with social responsibility. Who are we responsible for? And how are we responsible for one another?
The next work was called Breathtake. I made this installation of a silhouette of a tree out of clover seeds on a wall, and then I prompted people to respond to a question and add a post-it note of their response to the wall — like leaves.
So there are definitely been times when I've used seeds more as a metaphoric object and not necessarily for their actual purpose. Whereas the past couple projects, particularly Seeded and My National Forest, are much more about seeds’ ability to be a new life. Reassimilation Diet is in the same vein — thinking more about gestation and regeneration than just the metaphoric or symbolic use of a particular seed.
Was that shift from the metaphoric to a more direct relationship with seeds a conscious choice or something that evolved naturally in your practice?
At this stage I'm trying to use both. My National Forest, for example, is going to eventually turn into a book which will talk about how all of these trees became the tree of that state. Which is absolutely fascinating, because they they all speak in different ways to the nationalistic, colonial aspects of our history. The Sitka spruce from Alaska, for example, is named after the town of Sitka, which is an indigenous name from the Tlingit people, who were ousted from that area. There’s an account of them looking on in boats as the accord between the US and Russia is signed to essentially sign off their territory. So I’m trying to use that symbolic language to generate this notion of nationalism — while there are times when I'm not completely satisfied by the symbolic, I also think it's an incredibly powerful tool that we have as art practitioners. And why not use it?
Photos by Jeff Barnett-Winsby