An interview with artists Miranda Bellamy and Amanda Fauteux, whose exhibition Stone Moves is exhibiting in WHAKAARI from 15 April 2023 - 16 June 2023.
Can you talk about how and when you started to collaborate as artists?
We began working as collaborators in 2019 after about ten years of being independent artists. Our collaboration began at an artist residency in Brooklyn, New York. Prior to bringing our practices together there were already a lot of similarities and sympathies in our work. We didn’t go into it expecting this to work out, we just wanted to see how it would be to work together.
What were the themes that you recognised in each other’s practice?
We were both looking at what was around us, in our immediate environments, through our projects. We were both working in interdisciplinary ways, responding to site-specific research with our works. We were both concerned with overlooked stories or what is hiding in plain sight. These similarities and sympathies formed the basis of our early collaboration.
How has your collaboration developed over time?
Since we began working together in 2019, our collaboration has become the focus of our practice. As we have built on our collaborative body of work, we have extended into many varied mediums, working in a way that is responsive to each project. Having resolved a number of diverse projects now, we can better articulate and demonstrate the conceptual foundation of our collaborative work. It has become more defined and cohesive over time.
In our collaborative work we identify and extend the stories of plants and rocks through site-specific research and experimentation. Through our work we are engaging in dialogue about the anthropocene and the critical reconsideration of human and particularly settler-colonial histories. We work with video, audio, sculpture, installation, photography, and printed matter.
When you were invited to make a site specific installation here in Tāhuna Queenstown, what was your thought process about what materials you might use?
We are inspired by what is around us. We look at plants and rocks, for example, as a way to uncover overlapping and interconnected stories. We are interested in how human stories are interwoven in plant and rock stories.
Because we often work in site-specific ways, we always look at what is around, what is present, in the place we are working. We also try to think about what we see in terms of traces, how has this come to be here? What stories are interconnected with this material, plant, stone, etc?
In Tāhuna Queenstown, and even in the Remarkables Park Shopping Centre where Te Atamira is located, what we noted first was schist, and particularly schist drystone construction (but also modern construction materials that mimic traditional drystone). You see it used for planters and facades in every direction you look. We also learned that schist is quarried less than 5km from the gallery.
We were thinking about the role that schist has played in the region, both as a building material and as the conduit for gold that led to the gold rush. We were thinking about the massive impact that the discovery of gold has had on the region, the waves of people that arrived to the goldfields, and the ways that we can trace the movement and impact of these people, and the capital that flowed, by looking closely at schist.
We looked at schist through social, architectural, and geological lenses. We learned that the layers present in schist are predominantly mica and quartz. The ‘protolith’ of schist, the original stone prior to metamorphosis, is mostly mudstone and sandstone. Within those layers, however, you’ll also find graphite, which comes from carbon-based material: plants and animals. This folding-in of plants was a dovetail for us to think about combining plant sonification with schist as a sculptural material.
Stone Moves invites us to interact with the schist drywall and its environment by passing through it and triggering a soundscape created from plant biodata, almost like a ghostly presence of the plants which have lived in this Central Otago landscape. Can you describe a little of how you’ve formed this soundscape?
The soundscapes present in the work are generated using a biodata sonification technique. In the field, we use a small custom electronic device that plugs into a laptop computer, and then interfaces with the leaves of living plants via sticky electronic probes, similar to those that you might find in a hospital setting. This setup reads the microfluctuations in conductivity between the two probes, which is influenced by what is happening inside the plant. The device then mediates this signal into MIDI, which is a communication standard used for making music. Once we have that captured, we can assign sounds and instruments at a later stage. This requires a lot of creative licence, which we base on our experience meeting and being with the plant, the nature of the data, and other factors. We describe this process as collaborating with the plant, though this is a provocation and we remain cognisant of the impossibility of understanding the plant’s language or obtaining consent.
The plants whose biodata we have included in the soundscapes are thyme, gooseberry, red currant, and elder, which we encountered growing on sites of historic goldfields. All of these plants were introduced by early settlers. It is conceivable that some were introduced by miners, or by the industries that would have been established to support the gold rush. The plants continue to propagate through visits from pollinators and berry-eating birds, many of whom are also introduced.
In the exhibition space, the sounds are activated by PIR (passive infrared) sensors that sense the heat energy from approaching people. This animates the wall and gives it a living presence, but also implicates our audience’s own bodies in relation to the space, which is something we try to do in our work.
It seems that your practice is often about highlighting or re-interpreting the things we take for granted in our landscapes – revealing what is hiding in plain sight.
Where does speculation on histories fit into your practice? Or, for that matter, interpretation of histories or data, biodata or otherwise?
Thinking about and uncovering the subtle, quiet, or invisible things going on around us that can influence and inform our subjectivity, bias, and way of seeing is important to our work. This methodology doesn’t seek to find firm resolutions or to make specific points, it’s more about inviting ourselves and our audience to take a second look at their surroundings. Our work is, for us, a practice in looking closely at what makes up our shared environment, who or what else we share space with, and what we can learn by looking and listening closely in this way.
How does this installation feed into a conversation about colonisation – by people but also by plants and histories?
The form of drystone wall that we have approximated has a loose reference to an agricultural wall, which can be seen as a colonial symbol. Their utility is in clearing the land, dividing, and retaining. They have a relationship to surveying and to the drawn line. They have been used as a device to assist in measuring and partitioning in a way that is informed by a colonial world view motivated to have dominion over nature, that considers an underutilised or untamed environment to be of little value. The wall we have constructed, titled Sunderers, is askew and unfinished, and leaves room to pass through. As such, the wall’s function and legacy is unsettled. Including the presence of introduced plants within the wall adds another layer and offers a lateral approach to thinking about colonisation.
Time seems to stretch and collapse and morph as we talk about different histories in this work. Can you talk about time as a material or an element within your practice?
While researching for this exhibition, we came across many forms associated with prospecting the gold-rich quartz veins within schist. On nearby historic sites you’ll find drystone walls built to retain water for sluicing, piles of rock tailings arranged in ways that kept the fields organised, and stone dwellings left by miners. In understanding modern prospecting, we became fascinated by the form of the core-sample, which is what our sculpture Protolith utilises. We love the way this form references deep-time. Combining it with the drystone wall and the recordings from live plants offers multitudinous timescales at once that collapse into each other and meet in the present moment.
You’ve just been named on the long-list for an important contemporary art award in Canada – what does this mean for you?
The Sobey Art Award is the most generous award for contemporary art in Canada. Organised and presented by the National Gallery of Canada, it champions visual artists from across Canada. The award offers recognition and significant financial support to the long-listed, short-listed, and winning artists.
We are honoured to be long-listed this year and are grateful for the support we receive from our artistic communities that has led to this recognition. We are so excited for the opportunities that being long-listed has the potential to bring, and to celebrate the other artists on the list, whose practices we admire.
To paraphrase our friend Emily Falvey, who is the Director/Curator at Owens Art Gallery in Canada and the person who nominated us for the award; there are also a lot of amazing artists who are not on the list. It’s important to recognise and validate all artists who are brave enough to pursue their practice.
And what are you looking forward to doing next?
We are attending an artist residency at Cove Park in Scotland for the month of May where we will be taking some much needed time for reading, thinking, resting, and experimenting in the studio. We will also be using this time to work on our upcoming exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie in Canada in October 2023 and at Audio Foundation in Tāmaki Makaurau in early 2024.