Dialogue with Leila Nadir and Cary Peppermint, of ecoarttech

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

 Indeterminate Hikes (IH), ecoarttech. Leila Nadir, Cary Peppermint.

Indeterminate Hikes (IH), ecoarttech. Leila Nadir, Cary Peppermint.

Indeterminate Hikes (IH) is an Android app that acts as your personal guide through New York City’s Urban Wilderness. With its database of hiking trails and by determining your location, IH will direct you to a series of Scenic Vistas, where you will have the opportunity to contemplate nature or wildness in a globalized, urban space and the overlapping terrains of psychological and environmental ecologies. At each Scenic Vista you are encouraged (1) to take 30 mindful breaths or a 5-minute break, and (2) after this meditative moment, capture and upload an image of your ecological experience to the IH website with your Smartphone. Your images are archived in the Scenic Vista database and will be available to all IH participants.

How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?

We live together and share studio space, and we spend most of our time together.

When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?

Our working process is more organic than structured or scheduled, flowing through our everyday life.

Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay? Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?

We struggle to keep our personal and professional lives separate. This can be a confusing process though, because the personal and professional are so interwoven in our lives, as they are for many academics and artists. But this may be exacerbated by collaborating as a couple. For example, when we are on a backpacking trip or visiting a new city—a pure personal pleasure—our experiences of the environment invariably shape our theoretical and philosophical interests. We often unselfconsciously capture images and sounds or take notes that could later become central elements in one of our talks or artworks. The point that we try to remember is to “turn off” the strategizing or the directed thinking about a particular project—i.e. what we consider “work”—and remember to play. (Of course that play is central to our work and creativity…)

When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?

We met at Syracuse University. Leila was majoring in Women’s Studies and International Relations as an undergraduate and Cary was working toward his MFA in computer arts. We happened to both rent apartments on Westcott Street, Cary on the second floor, Leila on the first.

At what point did you start making work together?

When we met in 1996, the creative synergy was immediate. Leila helped Cary with his MFA thesis project, Conductor Number One, in conjunction with Artnetweb and the MIT List Visual Arts Center. Cary consulted with Leila about her honors thesis on postcolonialism and feminist theory. Clearly though, our focuses and disciplines at this point were too distinct for a formal collaboration. Leila was a self-described “classical Marxist feminist, and after graduating from Syracuse, worked on a nonprofit serving criminal justice-involved women in the East Village in NYC. Cary was involved in the New York City net art scene and worked in the web design industry. In 2003, we experienced what we call our “environmental turn.” Leila was studying for her doctorate in literature at Columbia, especially “green” literature and thought, and Cary had been researching environmental philosophy while working on ecological installations in the backwoods in New England. The new thematic focus of our work made it possible for us to collaborate on a series of conceptual and digital works about environmental issues and awareness.

Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?

Obviously, we clicked right away when we met for the first time, but when we began working together professionally and artistically, there was definitely a learning curve. Artist talks cause the most trouble for us, and this is a matter of personality as well as disciplinary training. Cary, as a performance artist, is comfortable with a more improvisational style of speaking. Leila, who is trained as a literary scholar, wants to plan the talk out, create an outline with an introduction, some development, and a conclusion. She also wants to cite sources and credit our inspirations in a more thorough way than is usually customary in an artist talk. We have learned to compromise in this regard. Now we have a pre-planned sequence of works and ideas we discuss that are made predictable by a Powerpoint presentation, which pleases Leila, but the content of what we say is unpredictable, which is Cary’s style.

Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?

It is difficult to explain our working process. We have no standard procedure. Our inspirations and our final artistic products seem to arise and proceed according to their own design. Sometimes we negotiate; sometimes we don’t. We do agree, however, that we both have automatic veto power. We have an unspoken agreement that if there is something that one of us particularly dislikes, it will not be pursued.

How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?

Concepts are arrived at through conversations: tea drinking, long drives, or time spent at our rural studio in Maine. Our ideas require stretches of time and space in order to develop. This is why we like the idea of a Slow Life Movement.

What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?

Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?

We have our own distinct projects that we work on concurrently with ecoarttech projects. These individual projects always relate to ecological issues, whether media ecology or environmental ecology, but they diverge disciplinarily. Right now Leila is editing her dissertation on environmental art, media, and literature into a book manuscript. Cary works regularly on programming, performance, and land art.

If you maintain an individual practice as well as a collaborative practice, have you run into conflicts of interest, time-management/priority issues, or experienced communication problems due to multiple focuses at any point? How is this resolved?

Our individual practices do not cause problems as far as conflicts of interests and priorities, but it does make it difficult sometimes to relax together rather than work! There are times when we have to consciously call an end to the work and remind ourselves to breathe and to be a part of the world again. Hikes, meditation, cooking, and running are essential to being in the world.

What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?

Working collaboratively for us has been a natural progression from our more individualized practices and one of the foremost strengths of this sort of work is the intellectual, artistic, and academic partnership and support. The two of us already shared all of our work and our lives with each other; it made sense to turn this synergy into actual artworks. It has been a productive use of our energies and has been freeing in many ways. We get to spend more time together and also have a built-in critical feedback system for all that we do.

What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?

Our decision to collaborate was pragmatic. When you are a couple, living together and sharing similar interests in art and the environment, the collaboration is a natural extension of the rest of your life. Leila was already helping Cary to conceptualize his work on restlessculture.net, and Cary was helping Leila brainstorm her dissertation chapters. Why not take all that energy and hard work and combine it together? However, we didn’t even really ask that question. The boundaries just became increasingly blurry until they dissolved.

If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?

If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?

We co-taught New Media Art: History and Theory in Colgate University in Spring 2008. It was an amazing experience, getting to know each other as teachers, and it helped us understand more about the historical precedents for ecoarttech. However, the psychic energy of co-teaching pervaded our personal lives in an intense way. Next time we will allow for more silence in and out of the classroom.

Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.

Indeterminate Hikes (IH) is an Android app that acts as your personal guide through New York City’s Urban Wilderness. With its database of hiking trails and by determining your location, IH will direct you to a series of Scenic Vistas, where you will have the opportunity to contemplate nature or wildness in a globalized, urban space and the overlapping terrains of psychological and environmental ecologies. At each Scenic Vista you are encouraged (1) to take 30 mindful breaths or a 5-minute break, and (2) after this meditative moment, capture and upload an image of your ecological experience to the IH website with your Smartphone. Your images are archived in the Scenic Vista database and will be available to all IH participants. Through the experience of taking a walk and slowing down in the city, Indeterminate Hikes seeks to cultivate the imagination of nature, wildness, and sustainability in a networked, cosmopolitan environment.

BIOS
Cary Peppermint and Leila Nadir are artists, writers, curators, and teachers. In 2005, they co-founded ecoarttech, an interdisciplinary art and theory collaborative, to explore convergent environments and media. ecoarttech’s recent works include Eclipse, an internet-based work commissioned by Turbulence of New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc., and Untitled Landscape #5, a digital environmental work commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Leila has a Ph.D. in English from Columbia University and is currently Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies at Wellesley College. She is also at work on a book about sacrifice and the imagination of modernity in environmental art and literature as well as a memoir about growing up in an Afghan immigrant community in central New York. Cary teaches the theory and practice of digital art at Colgate University. He was an early practitioner of internet art in the 1990s and his site restlessculture.net provides an ongoing platform for his performative approach to net art and digital culture. His work has been included in the collections of the Walker Art Center, Rhizome.org at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, Computer Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

www.ecoarttech.net/