Ellen Lesperance & Jeanine Oleson interviewed by Sarah Schuster
Sarah Schuster: How did the Off the Grid series come about and, as you have been working with it for almost four years now, do you see it coming to and end? What sustains it?
Ellen Lesperance: We were pretty committed to doing something together since graduate school, but our brainstorming never really jelled until I moved up to Portland (Maine, USA) in 2000. Being back in an atmosphere very similar— both in landscape and in ideology—to the Pacific Northwest, where we both are from, was the catalyst, I think to finally deal together, with a lot of issues which had been settling unresolved in both of us. Plus, we missed each other and planning a pretty labour-intensive project kept us in close contact.
Jeanine Oleson: I grew up in Oregon around a strong hippie culture. As much as I grew up with a sense that some of it was ridiculous, there were still strong values in all of it. Also, I have the idea that when you make work, you want it to do something for you, in your lexicon in the mind, dealing with irony and spirituality, seeing how it happens.
SS: How does the presence of the camera contribute to the work, i.e. you’ve spoken about both an earnest attempt to integrate within nature, and yet there is a self-consciousness present as well. Is the camera, in ultimately codifying this attempt as performance rather than a “natural” action, the cause of self-consciousness?
EL: I don’t think we ever truly attempt to integrate with nature. Myself, I think we are using the natural environment as a tool for commenting on certain subject matter. I would say what we do is never really a “natural action”, though it may seem that way because that’s how we are staging it to appear. The camera, for me, contributes to the work because it makes the work into a physical object. We could make all of our props, do all of our moronic brainstorming, go out and “perform” in the woods, but it’s the camera that places all of that action within a format that can be relayed to people. It’s the tree falling in the woods problem. Also, the format itself, the large format camera, takes what could be first passed off as performance documentation into a different realm of “high art” endeavour.
JO: I agree with Ellen, I never think that we’re trying to pretend to be “captured” by the lens in terms of our actions in the environment. I think the camera does become a self-conscious element, one that we’re playing out different narratives to as well as the 4×5 being a format we labour over as an archaic and clumsy method which constantly re-asserts itself for consideration—have we set it up stable, is the image really focused on the ground glass, are the Polaroids working, are the film sheets inserted correctly—all these things do not allow some of the fantasies that a point and shoot might. It’s a way of setting up checks and balances in terms of methods, and making sure we’ll never be the highly portable photojournalist. I always feel like we’re in the position of 19th century Hudson River School landscape painters—only now very concerned with all the contradictions. And yes, the camera is the complicating factor in sincere integration/ritual in the landscape, but the latter doesn’t let us fall all the way into cultural genre play.
SS: You have also spoken of a celebration of the derogatory, of low-brow culture. I am interested in this in terms of the basic idea of engaging in nature—that is, in our very high-tech, urban-centred, consumer-driven world, has the very idea of a harmonious personal relationship with nature somehow become synonymous with the lower class: rural poor, under-educated etc.—the redneck hick living in the woods?
EL: Although on the East Coast, a lot of people have their “camps” and “summer homes” out in the woods somewhere, this is certainly true in Maine.
JO: I think the derogatory in our case has to do with addressing narratives surrounding nature in a way removed from the prescribed Deliverance ones, but I am completely obsessed with the relationships put out by that film and feel we are living in a post-industrial fear of anything not suburban. Since I did grow up in the sticks with the rednecks, I feel particularly close to that. I think we work more specifically with the idea of derogatory meaning culturally invaluable and discarded ideas like feminism, ecology, ritual-based spirituality—all things the art world ran from after the 80’s and 90’s identity politics. I feel like we are playing both sides in a perverse kind of way that really plays up the low-brow while also getting something out of it as artistic process and insisting on the re-insertion of some disavowed themes. On another note, alongside the lower class rural subject is the lower class urban subject, which is equally degraded and used by the media to represent fear of the non-suburban, white norm. Try watching cop shows as a form of ethnography with native informants.
SS: Is there any such thing as the natural anymore? Or, alternatively, has the definition of what is natural shifted—does it now refer to the urban, or suburban perhaps—what we are most used to being what is deemed natural?
EL: I think the idea of the “natural” has definitely been co-opted as a marketing tool, especially since the 1970’s. Prior to that, maybe by the tourism industry. But I think there is a lot of country left in this world that still has the sort of nature vibe that a lot of city dwellers still think of and seek out as access to some sort of more authentic experience. I think this is a question for someone living in a state more closely aligned to “nature”, not for a city dweller who, I think, would always have either a dreamy escapist response to this question, or a theoretical response based on conjecture. I think my own response would tend to fall on the dreamier side, but the dream only maintains itself so long. I am definitely interested, however, in the quest for authenticity through nature and more “primal” living experiments, and the way these vision quests strive and fail due to contemporary human socialization. The reasons these social experiments fail is the juiciest part for me: because people don’t know how to subside off the land anymore, or all come down with hepatitis from composting their own excrement, or the way nobody can fully burn jealousy out in commune-based free love experiments, or the way the women in the group resent having to go back a century in terms of gendered roles, etc.
JO: I think we have to re-define it into wilderness. Nature is an essentialist notion. It is used in conflict with humanity, but by definition, we’re all living naturally, because we are nature and the external world. Of course, we think we’re above that, and work in conflict in the typical culture/wild split. In our project, I’m really into the idea of approaching “man in nature” and leaving the seams out for view as a way to call attention to the ridiculousness of wanting the illusion of nature. I think there is wilderness, but I don’t think people can understand it since they have no tangible contact outside of a suburban camping ground. And nature/wilderness also represents fear culturally. But on the other side of fear is always the room for enlightenment, like vision quests, off the gridding—all ideas we play with.
SS: How does the current pop-culture tendency to view and discuss each other as if we were viewing and discussing a nature documentary—Big Brother, Survivor, etc.—affect the work, if at all?
EL: You know, when we started this project, and all along really, I never even watched these shows. I know there is a current pop cultural obsession with survivalism, but the project is not too informed by this, I don’t think. I think our pop culture spinning is a little older, more 70’s and 80’s-era movies about prehistory and the apocalypse: Mad Max, Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.
JO: I agree with Ellen, and feel the survivalist shows are a reminder of the separation between culture and the notion of nature. I think pop culture reflects what people want and need (and a little of the reverse), so it seems to me to be a further processing of our development into civilised living after Cro-Magnon man. I think we are responding to this need in a more critical way and pointing our fingers at that tendency instead of simply aping it like mass media.