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FLEFF Intern Voices

The Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival from the interns' point of view

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Posted by Kayla Reopelle at 7:13PM
Skype with Leila Nadir in Park 332, photo by Elma Gonzalez

Blog posting by Kayla Reopelle, Documentary Studies and Production '14, FLEFF Blogger, Roy, WA

This week, the FLEFF Blogging team got to Skype with Dr. Leila Nadir, co-founder of Eco Art Tech, an environmental digital art collective. Nadir will be co-hosting the event "Dissonant Envrionments" with her partner Cary Peppermint

Nadir is an Afghan-American artist, critic and theorist who recently received a PHD in English at Columbia University. She currently teaches courses in the Sustainability and Digital Media Studies programs at the University of Rochester. She is inspired by, "mobility, place, nature, globalization, and environmental identity."

We were greeted by her two dogs, both rescues, before heading upstairs to start the interview. Her partner, Cary Peppermint, also stopped by to introduce himself to us. With a giant smile on his face, he said he was excited to meet us at the festival.

Nadir showed us around her website. 

"The first thing to know about us, we study the environment but not as scientists, usually when people think about the environment, people think about numbers, how we're going to manage resources… but we're studying the environment from the arts and humanities, which means we're studying the environment in the imagination."

This has positive and negative outcomes: "one of our main goals in studying the imagination of the environment is that we'll never have an ecologically sustainable society if we never understand our relationship to space and place.

"At the same time we're challenging the notion of the environment … we see the environment as every place, every room we're in, every sidewalk we walk on, everything has environmental relationships, and ecological relationships all the time. 

"...It's to think about how to create an imagination and respect for the environment that isn't just based on nature, but also on the space we live in every day. Let's face it, people aren't living in nature anymore, and if we base it on that, we're in a problem because we aren't respecting the places we live in.

"Wilderness Trouble is an example of their early work that is trying to bridge environmental consciousness with spaces that aren't natural or romantic. 

"Indeterminate Hikes is our most recent work, it's an app that tries to reinvent phones but also reinvent how we navigate space in the modern world. I think most of you can probably relate when we get on our phones, we probably withdraw from the world..we also use our phones to consumer, overcome obstacles and communicate really quickly. This app was made to:

"1. Slow people down: is it possible to use some of the technologies that are speeding us up to actually make us go slower, to put us in a meditative mindset? 

"One of the things we're inspired by: ecology and environment. It's not just about green spaces - it's about media, social, and environmental ecologies. We tend to think of extinction as something that only happens to animals and plants, but as the environment changes, there are certain forms of being that are getting lost too. … What kinds of moving through the world are we also losing? One of the things we're losing is going slow. 

"This app takes the vocabulary and the discourse of wilderness, hiking, backpacking and using it instead to navigate city streets. When you saw the slideshow online, you probably saw people walking down the street. This app is designed to make people touch a tree, I mean how often do we walk down a city street and actually pay attention to a tree that we see? 

"Some are also inspired by a field of art called psycho geography

"We're developing a relationship to urban spaces that just use streets as an instrumental means to get from point A to B as soon as possible. We're moving from Fluxus art. … It may seem nonsensical, but you're getting to know this patch of grass in a way you didn't know before. 

"Cary and I are Buddhists, we meditate a lot, we try to think of every place, every moment as sacred and bringing that little bit of spirituality together with deconstruction and nature, and a transformation of the way we use mobile technologies." 

Right now, we're loading a video from Nadir about Indeterminate Hike.

The video depicts the experience of going on one of the hikes - Listen for the loudest visual object in this place; try to take a picture of this sound. Reach your arms out toward the sky with arms extended. People in urban clothing on busy city streets, feeling, reaching, interacting with their space whether it is by throwing up leaves or hugging a friend.

Introduce yourself to the nearest living machine… 

Fountains are waterfalls, brooks, streams.

"It's trying to change smartphones as something that works with nature instead of against it. There's often an assumption that technology and nature are antithetical and our work has emphasized that humans have always used technologies, whether hammers or rocks to smash things as a tool… I think that that stops a lot of interesting dialogue that can happen because we do need to think about technology in relation to the environment more, so can humans make their peace with it to create a sustainable society? That's a question of a lot of our work, is that even possible? Is this a futile attempt? Or is this trying to envision the future? 

"Optimism or futility here… we don't really know."

Nadir is about to give the class a special sneak preview of an upcoming work, "Late Anthropocene."

"Our work can range from poetic videos to apps that are in the spirit of digital art.

"Digital art can often just exist digitally, it doesn't have a manifestation that's a pretty picture on a wall, like a lot of film and video, it can have a retinal visual experience, but a lot of digital art is conceptual.

The art is in the idea."

This video is just about to get distributed "a visual meditation on what's its like to be someone who loves nature and is very ecologically aware, but at the same time is also very aware that w'er living in the anthropocene where every moment of the earth has been touched by human hands…that climate change is going to up, possibly, any way of life we've known for the last millennia... It's the cognitive disruption of what living in this time means…"

The video plays with the temporality of nature, cutting back and forth between images, speeding things up and slowing them down, disorienting and reorienting us within natural and meditative spaces. What is normally seen as the natural is juxtaposed with the industrial, the commercial, the technological. The film highlights many different spaces, but largely as fragments. People are included, but play a small role. The film focuses on landscapes. It is almost as if the experience of nature is being fragmented based on a similar tempo to the Anthropcene era's thoughts and attention spans. Jumping back and forth between ideas and images. Animals, plants, people, buildings. Eventually, diegetic sound creeps in, but the reference to the digital in the soundscape is strong. 

"Don't know if we're looking at a progression or a regression, don't know if the two are side by side, if they can exist side by side, if this is a sustainable merger. Nature for a long time, especially since modernization has been a refuge that was constant. As frenetic…chaotic as life could be in the cities, you could go back to nature to heal. .. the video is a little bit about how we can't see nature as a constant anymore. Bees as pollinators are decreasing…water is rising… in a way, it's become ghostly, something that's haunting us because we don't really know if it exists anymore or if it will exist in the future, and we don't really know if humans belong on this planet."

We now moved to questions from the class.

Kayla: How did eco art tech come to be?
N: Cary and I were the founders and we've actually been together for 17 years, so we've been together for a very long time. When we first were together, Cary was a new media artist; I was a women's studies major and got a doctorate in English… 10 years ago, in 2003, we went to a very natural place in Maine in the woods and lived there for four months. It completely transformed us…living in the woods was a huge change not only for our consciousness, but also for our bodies… I started studying environmental literature, he started studying environmental art… we started talking about things and then it just started merging -- art with his ideas in mind, literature with my ideas in mind...

Elma: Living as artist and creating alternative work, how hard is it to sort of finance those things?
N: It's really hard for artists this day in age… funding has dried up…we're academics, so we get a lot of funding that way…we've been lucky to get a lot of grants from NYSCA... paid exhibitions...

Kim: I guess going off of that, how does the New York State Council of the Arts funding work? Is there anything that they've turned down?
N: I think that's a better question to ask NYSCA than to ask me, they've been really supportive… I know one of the grants we got was a distribution grant and they were really forward looking for what distribution means for a new media artist…it seemed to be originally intended for film which is really clear cut, but how do you distribute something online? … When we got the grant it was really amazing, we had the Indeterminate Hikes app on Android and wanted to put it on iPhone… they were really awesome and helped us articulate how 

They're really helpful with trying to adapt film grants for new media work… but honestly, it's really complicated.

Blaize: When looking at the videos on your website, I remember seeing this video of a sleepy pig, I don't remember his name, (Blaize sat and the end of the table and needed to move closer so Nadir could hear her)
how did you decide which material went in that would speak to that message (of your Late Anthropocene video).
N: His name is Bob, he shows up for a minute and he's actually part of the larger work we created called Bob Takes a Nap. You can go to the page and watch the video if you want. So why did we decide to put that in there? One of the things we're really interested in is how animals are treated in the modern world. The late anthropocene video is about how industrialization…development has effected the world, human lives…farm animals. The production of meat and industrialized life and industrialized food sources has entirely changed…animals used to be taken care of, but now they're just cogs. … we think part of the Late Anthropocene idea is what is happening to animals… we put a camera in his face and he wanted to take a nap, he kept snorting and was like come on, leave me alone, let me do my thing! We installed the video at a space in Syracuse… I think it made a lot of people uncomfortable.

Blaize: Are you guys vegetarian?
N: Yeah, we're vegan.

Elma: What's the reception been with some of the alternative videos that you have? 
N: The funny thing about answering that questions is that we haven't released a video since 2007, it's been 7 years. Late Anthropocene hasn't been released yet, so I don't know how it will be received…when people think of the environment and environmental art, they're thinking about romantic ideas and didactic messages… when I've shown it to critics, they've been shocked…you're not just showing us romantic images to make us feel bad about destroying nature…this is about imagination and how we interact with the environment in the modern world… so I don't know a broad popular response yet… I know the piece Wilderness Trouble, was wildly suvvessful. I twas translated into multiple languages… it started out very romantic and then shifted to this knowledge, whoa-- there is no nature…even when I go camping I'm using tools that were made in China or Vietnam… we're all connected now… I thin people are looking for a way to think about the environment in an alternative perspective … our work says 'Look! as artists … we live in the woods every summer, but we love our modern technologies at the same time'… I think people are hungry for this interesting conversation." 

Elma: What about the app's reception?
N: The app has been pretty amazing. I'm actually a little uncomfortable with explaining how much people like it… what you saw in the video was one of our collaborators leading a hike in Spain…at first people don't know what to expect, people are timid, you want us to … touch the ground, touch a tree, look for a rabbit… I don't want to do that, that's not cool! Most of the hikes last 45 minutes to an hour, and by the end of it… people get really excited. … I've had people who attend our hikes that live in different neighborhoods in New York City, and have said I have never noticed this thing on this street corner.

Unfortunately the computer being used for live blogging died during our Skype session, but look out for highlights and reflections to this meeting with Leila Nadir this week! 

To listen to the discussion, check out Lucy Yang's audio.

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