“Yosemite and the like are places that are certainly worth preserving, but they do not reflect of our contemporary environment which is characterized by a compromised, struggling, and tenacious Nature – the nature of the Anthropocene. It is a nature that includes us.”
I am always interested in how people come to making art. Sometimes it is the result of an interest in a medium or an attitude for which creative and expressive forces become refined in art school. Sometimes things happen the other way around, an individual’s specific interest finds art as a potential path through a relationship to subjective self-realization. As you will read below, the latter was the case for Jeff Whetstone. His work caught my attention at Prospect 4 in New Orleans earlier this year as I attempted reconcile my brief touristic experience of the city between Bourbon Street and the profoundly beautiful metaphor of The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp. This was the poetic theme onto which a gently diffuse selection of international art works framed this amazing city as a site of culture and history, a hub between the US, the Caribbean and Central America, its glorious global influences in contrast to the murky Mississippi River. As much as NOLA is a crossroads for people from all over the world, it is also a site where they coexist with a specific ecosystem. Whetstone’s Batture Ritual, a film and series of photographs, makes the region’s ecological and economic relationship to nature the root of its inquiry. It strikes me that the artist’s perspective on the world, and vis-à-vis, art, most certainly grows from the ground, from the earth we stand on.
SS: Jeff, can we start biographically, tell me a little about your background as a photographer, filmmaker and academic. I’m particularly interested in how each influence each other and where that situates your practice?
JW: I started photography when I was about twelve years old. I grew up in a town called Ooltewah, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was rural, and we had no close neighbors, so I roamed the woods. I was an amateur zoologist and collected all kinds of animals – mostly reptiles and amphibians, but the occasional flying squirrel, raccoon or opossum. I even raised a nest of wasps. I used my dad’s camera to photograph my little zoo and the pack of dogs we seemed to always have.
I was a fan of nature magazines, and by the age of twelve wanted to be a wildlife photographer. I even bought a tripod, and the most inexpensive telephoto lens I could find. It was barely telephoto, a 105mm – so I had to be really sneaky and get close to wildlife to photograph it and make it like the pictures I saw in Tennessee Wildlife magazine. I was very good at it. I was extremely patient back then.
In college I received a degree in Zoology in order to expand my knowledge of animals and ecological systems. During that time I abandoned wildlife photography. Mainly because, no matter how accomplished I became, the photographs looked the same as all of the other wildlife photographers. Deer only make about three gestures: Calmly eating, wary surprise, and running away. That’s about it.
Art became a way to portray something I knew deeply – that we are inextricable from the natural world. Humans are in the very center of the so-called web of nature. The web of nature is an interesting metaphor. I guess it means that every strand is connected. I always think it refers to spider webs. They’re delicate but incredibly resilient. They are also predatory devices. Have you ever seen a spider vibrate a web from the very center of it? A fly will get caught, but not quite captured. A spider will come to the center of the web and vibrate it to entangle the fly. So I think the metaphor of the “web of Nature” for the current “Anthroprocene” era is even more descriptive than it seems on the surface. We are not outside the web of nature as if we are watching it on TV narrated by David Attenborough. We are at the center, vibrating it like crazy for our own animal needs and desires. So, I began thinking that wildlife photography, the way I engaged in the genre, was more akin to advertising than documentary. So, my work started transitioning to a documentary style practice akin to the American FSA photographers, which of course had a host of other philosophical dilemmas.
Navios Herakles; Athens, Greece, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2017
SS: Can you describe in more detail how you’ve carried out your photographic projects bearing in mind what you’ve just said?
JW: I guess the first thing I do is start with a site. Now that I have done this for a while, I know what I am looking for. It wasn’t apparent in the first decade of being an artist. But what I am looking for is a frontier. I am looking for a wilderness. The wilderness of the present of the anthropocene. I never photograph in Natural Parks or nature preserves. They do not interest me. They are like tokens of some bygone era, or totems to our frontier past. What I look for is some place that is unmanaged. A commons. Our American commons are very different than European commons. American “commons” – and I am using the term loosely, are places that are usually un-ownable. They can’t be an asset. Like the Batture of the Mississippi River in Lower Louisiana. (The Batture is a French word that describes the space between the Mississippi River’s edge and the levee wall.) It is a ribbon of land that disappears three or four times a year, depending on the water level. It is interstitial, and cannot be capitalized by ownership. So, it is left alone. And it becomes a new wilderness. People congregate there to catch fish, or even sometimes to live for a while. It’s a magnet for wildlife and certain types people who seek a kind of refuge there and are able to deal with the consequences of being in a space that is ignored by civic systems and even by the law. Most of the Batture is unimprovable. (literally and figuratively!)
I did a project on caves in 2008 that was similar. It was called Post-Pliestocene and it was about contemporary cave art. The caves are unowned. Some of the entrances are on private property but still accessible through hidden trails. These caves also attracted people who seek something outside of the systems of ownership. Of course, the caves are fun and adventurous to go in, but there is something else that is compelling people to find these entrances. You can go into another world that is beneath the surface of where ownership, rules, laws, and systems apply.
“I lived right on the River during the Spring and Summer. I was a fixture on the levee, and got to know the people fishing very well. I ate a lot of fish.”
Still Life with Catfish, 2017
SS: I saw your work Batture Ritual, part film and part still photography at Prospect 4 in New Orleans earlier this year. I thought it worked really well with Prospect artistic director, Trevor Schoonmaker’s theme ‘The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp’. Not only with its direct relationship to New Orleans and its waterways, wildlife and the labor of migrant workers around this ecology, but also with its poetic relationship with the “swamp”, that the “lotus” in this case is the fruits of the time and labor expended by the workers in order to survive. Can you tell me how your work came to be part of Prospect and how you read the connection between your work and Trevor Schoonmaker’s theme?
JW: That’s an interesting read of the work, Sunil: The Catfish (Ictalurus) being the fruits of the time and labor, the flower, the lotus. Not many people can imagine that particular animal as something beautiful. I do. They are probably the most evolutionary adaptive and successful fish on the planet. They are incredibly complex creatures that are social, communicative, and incredibly resilient. They have no scales – so they are actually very fragile. Their entire body is a sensor, that can taste, smell, and sense electromagnetic changes around them.
The flora and fauna of the Batture that I photographed mainly consisted of Catfish, Water snakes (Nerodia), Bottle flies (Lucilia), Batture Willows, vultures and crows. These are what may be referred to as “uncharismatic” animals. Catfish are often (and inaccurately) referred to as bottom feeders. All of these animals are considered ugly, scary, crappy animals – the opposite of Bald eagles, Deer and Dolphins. But these species are crucial in that they are the ones that intersect with humans on the river. And in some ways these species have dominated their environment because of how humans have shaped the landscape. They thrive in the wilderness of the Anthroprocene. Their resilience, and adaptability make us intertwined with them.
Lotus in Spite of the Swamp is a title that came from an Archie Shepp about jazz music – it’s complicated beauty and where that beauty comes from – poor communities. But from the perspective of a biologist – the “swamp” is the flower. Swamps can be the most fecund and diverse ecological environments on the planet. That is certainly the case for Lower Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. It’s almost in the tropical zone, gets 65 inches of rain a year, and sits on one of the youngest large river deltas on the planet. It’s rich with flora and fauna. Everything grows like crazy there. It is a hub on the Western Hemisphere migratory flyway for birds, and It is also a main artery for the commercial activity of the global economy. Through shipping transport, “invasive” species from all over the world take root in southern Louisiana and most often flourish. It is a dynamic, ecologically rich, and profoundly contentious place.
Trevor Schoonmaker was an early champion of some of my projects including Post-Pliestocene and a video I made called Drawing E. obsoleta, and some other projects that attempted to portray a contemporary sense of wilderness, or human and animal connection. He never really suggested that I do something about the Mississippi River per se, but asked if I could find some way to describe how people of Lower Louisiana are embedded into the ecology of their region. I got the call to participate in Prospect 4 rather early, and I started almost two years before Prospect 4’s opening. I needed the time to get to a deep understanding of the ecology and culture of the Batture. I lived right on the river during the Spring and Summer. I was a fixture on the levee, and got to know the people fishing very well. I ate a lot of fish. I lived right across from the tree I filmed incessantly for two years. All of the work from the series comes from about 100 yards of river bank.
The video piece “Batture Ritual” depicts the economies of the Mississippi River at work. On the bank of the Mississippi River is a micro-economy. People are fishing for food for their families and their communities and also to sell the fish to locals. In the deep channel of the River, the economy is global, industrial, and incessant. Cargo ships from China and tankers from Saudi Arabia (carrying crude oil derived from the swamps of the Paleozoic era) pass by every few minutes. The relationship of these two economies is fraught with tension. The river is very polluted, so while the fish are wild caught instead of bred on a farm, they are tainted with toxins. As for the commerce, the river and is also very unstable. The course of the river could change at any time. It will change. The rising seas and falling marsh will eventually cause the lower Mississippi River to change its course. There is no debate about that.
Livia and Coal Barge, 2017 @ Jeff Whetsone
SS: Within the separate elements of Batture Ritual coming together then, is a gentle and temporal metaphor delivered through its micro-ecosystem of the resilience of nature and our reliance on it to survive on a global level. It is a message that needs to be read and clearly understood right now, right at the very top of US political power. What effect would you like your work to have on audiences beyond those who visit art spaces and how might this be achieved?
JW: I want to flip what the term “Nature” means. Going out into Nature – like what Thoreau did – seems like a very colonial idea to me. It means having for yourself an unspoiled environment; the privilege of privacy in a protected landscape. That kind of “nature” is something most people must drive to, and they may even have to pay for their entrance into it. Until we see that nature exists between the strip malls, in our vacant, weeded lots, and even within industrial corridors, we will never appreciate what we have left.
I think for most of western capitalist cultures, nature looks like Yosemite Valley, a distant dream, a token of a bygone era, or even some sort of spectacle. Yosemite and the like are places that are certainly worth preserving, but they do not reflect of our contemporary environment which is characterized by a compromised, struggling, and tenacious Nature – the nature of the Anthropocene. It is a nature that includes us.
We need to love and respect places like the Batture. I tried to make my work there as beautiful, frightening, serene, and intense as I could so that I could pay homage to this little strip of young trees, weeds and vines. We must esteem the least spectacular of Nature, because only then will we have the motivation to defeat the forces that are out to destroy all of it, and us as well.
Jeff Whetstone Batture Ritual is on show at Julie Saul Gallery, New York from September 6-October 27, 2018.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Sunil Shah. Images @ Jeff Whetstone.)