This month, I have a wonderful interview with three artists for you. Amanda Maciuba, Jen Morris, and Jessica Tam are all visual artists working in different mediums. However, they share a fascination with how ecological language (surge, spike, wave, etc.) has worked its way into news reports’ descriptions of large phenomena such as crowds, pandemics, and political movements. They recently closed a show at the A.P.E., Ltd. Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts titled WAVE/SURGE/SPIKE.
In our interview below, we discuss what inspired this exhibition, why ecological language is so powerful, and the roles that art can play in discourses surrounding the climate crisis.
Your exhibition WAVE/SURGE/SPIKE, which explores how ecological language is often evoked to describe various crises and political currents, is fascinating. Please tell us what inspired it!
Jessica: This show was conceived before a lot of things happened in this country, so prior to the pandemic, in the summer of 2019.
Amanda: We wanted to get feedback on each other’s works, and so we visited each other’s studios. So, it didn’t start out as a show.
Jen: Jess, I remember you coming downstairs to my studio and saying, “Wow, there’s this woman, Amanda, and it feels like we have a lot in common somehow; we’re thinking about the landscape in critical ways that have a thread of conversation within them.” We decided, “We should set up a studio visit.” And then we decided to do a show together.
Jessica: And because we were in conversation with each other, I noticed that we were using similar language to describe the work and to talk about each other’s work. We had a different president at the time, and also saw the language and metaphors used to describe our work in things that were happening nationally.
Amanda: Also, during the buildup to the 2020 election, there was a lot of election language used in the media [related to landscape] and a lot of angry, angry words.
Jen: We clocked into the idea that abstract ideas and conversations are absolutely embodied by the media in terms of landscape analogies and metaphors.
Jessica: The pandemic ultimately postponed the show, but gave us time to reflect on what was happening, to suggest books to each other that we could read and then discuss. Our work didn’t really change [through this period], but the show’s context changed. For example, I was always making images of the crowd and studying the crowd, but thinking about the crowd before the pandemic was so different. Now, I feel a little bit nervous when I see a group of people, like a crowded bar in a movie or TV show and they’re not wearing masks. But there’s also the positive meaning of crowds as in the protest movements against police violence. The work hasn’t changed, but the readings of the work have multiplied because so many things have happened in the country since this show was first proposed.
Why do you think ecological language is so often used to describe large-scale events like a pandemic or a political movement? Does it communicate something that perhaps other metaphors can’t?
Amanda: When I think about this question, the words that immediately come to mind are acts of God: all these weather events, things people couldn’t explain in the past have been thought to be deities, the gods punishing you, or even gifts from gods. And so I’m thinking about how we have no control over natural disasters. Using this language of things that we can’t control, that’s where that language comes from.
Jen: It’s a threat.
Amanda: It’s not always a threat. It’s just not something we can change. We can only respond to it. To me, that’s the thread running through a lot of the ecological language I’m thinking about, like eruptions, avalanches, storms.
Jessica: Also, we live in a time where things feel so extreme, and the language needs to match that. When we first started thinking about this show, there was a lot of inflammatory and strong language describing the election and then later on, the pandemic. These are really intense moments. It felt like the only words to describe them were things associated with extreme landscape. It’s not enough to say that someone won the race by a large margin. Instead, headlines tend to describe a candidate as having won “by a landslide.” Or it’s not just that COVID cases have gone up. The cases were described as daily climbing new “peaks.” Or the idea that we might be looking off of “a cliff” of financial ruin. It had to be extreme because the situation felt extreme. I also don’t think that this is the first time in history that people have felt this way. It just currently feels that the middle ground doesn’t exist. The other thing I think about is how language is about interconnection, about connecting people. Ecological language is about interconnecting things in an environment. I think that it’s useful to describe large-scale events, like pandemics or political movements, that are so much about relationships.
Jen: Explorations of the relationship between humans and landscape has been everywhere, whether it’s the Eurocentric idea of ownership or whatever other cultural relationship. But that exacerbation, exactly how you’re talking about it, Jess, is so important. There is the Eurocentric version of “how do we conquer the landscape,” but it’s phrased as though the landscape is unconquerable. So if it is a landslide, it couldn’t have happened any other way. Years ago, I researched the national park system in America. It really would be more appropriate to call it the national garden system of America because a lot of the national parks were just, “Let’s clear this so that we can see this vista better.”
Amanda: “Let’s make an aesthetically pleasing landscape, and worse, call this ‘nature.’”
Jen: It’s a constant relationship between colonizers and how they relate to the landscape. To hear this dialogue completely and consistently erupt in our media….
Amanda: It’s ingrained into our vocabulary and shapes how we look at the world. We don’t even notice that we’re doing it.
Jen: It’s normalized. It goes back to George Lakoff, The Metaphors We Live By. These are now metaphors we live by.
Let’s dig in deeper. What is so powerful about ecological words, phrases, metaphors?
Jessica: With my work, I’m interested in eliciting a range of responses. I hope that my work can be gross and funny, unsettling and inspiring, and that these feelings can happen simultaneously. Different emotional registers can happen at the same time by interconnecting abstraction with the work. And maybe that can be linked back to the ecological, interconnecting language and how it’s used to discuss abstract ideas.
Amanda: Yes, I agree. When I think about awe, fear, and jubilance in context with the works that we have put together for this show, the word that comes to mind is “overwhelming,” which goes back to thinking about ecological acts as acts of God. These are all emotions that spill out and overcome. When I was creating the work, I was thinking a lot about “too much.” Things that are too much, too close. You know, we figure it out, we muddle through, but everything feels like too much.
Jen: I regret using this next word, but we all made “walls.” We made walls of something, like a wall of people, a wall of temperature, of news text, and a wall of bittersweet. When I think of our work, yes, I see “surge” and “spike,” but I feel like “wave” is really the one that resonates the most for me right now.
Amanda: This is the first time I’ve thought of this work in context with the word “walls.” It’s interesting because walls can have both positive and negative connotations. I remember one of the events we were thinking a lot about when we conceived of the show was the media’s description of waves of migration and the southern border wall. It was one of the metaphors we noticed a lot cropping up in the news. It’s interesting, we’re creating walls, and walls can block you from things you need. But they also can protect you from things and create a barrier. There can be good and bad barriers. It’s interesting that we’ve all created these walls of work. Are we creating the work to come to terms with the past two years?
Jen: Even more, thinking back to Katrina and the levees?
Jessica: I think you’re implying that the scale increased, right? Because when you talk about walls, you’re talking about work that’s gotten so big that it can be seen as a barrier, or bigger than a person, and it might be overwhelming. But I am reminded of the old idea of a painting as a window. We’re creating work that offers a way to transform the walls that the work is hanging on. For instance, I have one painting that has a lot of hairy arms. And I really like that Amanda said, “This is an upsetting painting, but I like it.” I thought, “That’s perfect because, you know, it is meant to be a tangle of vines or something, a very thickly grown garden of hairy arms. It could be turned into a wall or a barrier, but it also could be something that you can kind of see through.”
Jen: With photography, you don’t start with a size. You frame something, but then you have the ability to make it any size you want. When you print a photograph, you can make it a personal experience for only one person who’s holding a book to see it. Or you can make it an experience where it’s on the wall and two people can stand in front of it, and maybe jockey for position. Or it can be so big that you just feel like you can walk into it. I like the idea of the window and what you’re saying, Jess, because imagining Amanda’s piece installed, I wonder, “Wow, what will it feel like? Will we feel like we’re part of Jess’s crowd? Will we walk into the bittersweet?” We’re thinking about that context of size, considering the way people view the work, interact with the work, and experience it.
Jessica: That applies to our collaborative piece, which is meant to surround people who enter the space. We collaborated on a vinyl drawing made of news headlines that use ecological words and phrases to describe current events. It starts from the front window and then traces of it move into the space in a way where you might happen upon it in a corner of the room or see shadows of it layering over another artwork. The text is almost growing and moving through the space, and creating a kind of landscape.
What do you hope viewers will take away from your exhibition?
Amanda: We’ve been thinking about language. And then we started to notice news headlines’ use of language and think critically about how the media filters information through language. I hope that our viewers will start to think about that or notice it if they haven’t already.
Jessica: Yes, we talk about the fact that so many strong and tense words are used in headlines to grab our attention that we’ve become numb to them. They’ve kind of lost their meaning because they have become empty clichés. The idea for the collaborative project is that these words are repeated, and then become noise that turns into mark-making that becomes really dense. Language has a presence, but it takes on a different type of meaning. The meaning is going to change. And I hope our exhibition can show that you can look at things from a different perspective. We can show that art can do many things at once.
Amanda: When I was making my work, I was hyper-aware of how I was absorbing information. I think the word “doom-scrolling” came up a lot, like “COVID doom-scrolling.” So it’s not only the way we’re getting fed the news, it’s also how we’re ingesting it. At the time, my life was a lot about scrolling down and reading all the really dire, confusing, dramatic headlines. How many of the articles did I actually read? I just kept reading the headlines and feeling sicker and sicker to my stomach. Is that how we’re supposed to ingest the news? I don’t think so, but that’s how a lot of us do it.
Thinking beyond the scope of your respective work to art more generally, what role might art play in discourses surrounding the climate crisis and environmental disaster?
Jen: I can’t help but think about how a lot of art is already an environmental disaster. For instance, as a photographer, what do I do? I don’t use chemicals in film anymore. But what about the cartridges that go in the printer? They’re ostensibly recyclable, but how much plastic is made and shipped and disposed of to create the stuff I use to make art?
Amanda: As a printmaker, I get asked this question a lot. It’s a little bit like the-corporations-versus-the-individuals question, but it’s not entirely, so I don’t want to excuse myself. You can do your best to make your practices as environmentally friendly as possible, but sometimes you reach a point where it’s not possible anymore. However, if you’re making work about the environment, there is value in how your work is changing opinions and bringing these issues into the public view. I guess my hope is that the trade-off is worth it.
Jessica: We’re talking about materials. It’s related. The materials we use are actually contributing to some of the environmental issues we’re trying to bring attention to. And yet we’re destroying the environment as we make the work. The vehicle is part of the problem. But about the role of art in the discourse about climate crisis….
Amanda: Art makes these really large, almost unimaginable problems relatable and observable by someone just in their everyday life. I see art as a document of our time, a reflection on where we are now – and I think that’s really important. But also, art is a way to share different points of view and perspectives. Climate change is happening on a global scale – that’s why it’s taken us so long to come to terms with it, if we even have come to terms with it as a society. That’s still debatable, but I hope that a lot of art is making these issues relatable, understandable, and absorbable.
Jessica: It’s also related to what you said, Amanda, about how these issues are so huge and there’s just so much data. Journalists report these facts, but art can help connect the dots.
Jen: As artists, our superpower is “weird synthesis.” We take seemingly disparate ideas and then somehow we spin them into a thing. I really love what you’re saying, Amanda, about the idea that art is a reflection of what’s happening right now. The more artists make work, the more artists show work, hopefully the more people will engage with these ideas. I wonder a lot about who our audiences are. Are we preaching to the choir? I think in Northampton, Massachusetts, we are. But I’ve had exhibitions where the work engaged with national memorial, with death, and it did spark conversations on both sides of the political spectrum, which was hopeful.
Jessica: I like that idea that the work can be a catalyst to spark these discussions. Jen, you mentioned “weird synthesis.” In order to get people to engage in this conversation, I think “weird” is the key word. It suggests something unexpected in an almost neutral area. It’s possibly something uncomfortable or something really interesting. The work makes you want to question that reaction, and you want to talk about it with someone.
Jen: We’re in a world where everything is so reactionary. Some of my favorite work is the kind of work that, hours after you’ve encountered it, it’s still developing in your head. As a photographer, I think a lot about the latent image, like in the darkroom days when you exposed an image under an enlarger. The image was latent until you put it in the chemicals and it developed on the page. I translate that into a hopeful “additive quality” of art. I know that’s why I value engaging in this process with the two of you; I am so looking forward to putting up this exhibition and laying it out and seeing what happens when the work is next to each other.
What’s next for you three? Anything you’d like my readers to watch for?
Amanda: We would like to keep developing the show; keep making work for it and keep showing it. One of our original dreams was to have more artists involved. Because of the pandemic and all of these other things, that show got postponed, and it just became the three of us. It was what felt manageable at that time. We want to keep thinking about these ideas and we want to get other artists involved. We also talked about more activities in the gallery, or something to activate the gallery space with actual people, which is not possible right now. In short, we’re interested in expanding this body of work ourselves and with other people.
Jessica: I’ll add that we don’t know how it will expand. My hope is that is will grow and develop organically from this one. It’s the way I normally work anyway. I don’t start off with preconceived ideas – it’s really about the painting and the process of exploration and invention. Also, we don’t have control over the world we live in, so we don’t really know what will affect our thinking next.
Amanda: Yes, we thought this was all going to be about the election and it ended up all being about COVID.
Jen: It’s crazy to think about how the work has evolved. Language has continued to develop, our lives have evolved, and our experience of the media has evolved throughout the period of us trying to figure out this show. We were riding a wave and then it just fell apart because of lockdown and not being able to go anywhere. And then we gently tried to make work, and here we are on the other side, or maybe not the other side, but at least another side.
(Top image: Tip of the Iceberg by Amanda Maciuba, Jen Morris, Jessica Tam, dimensions variable, vinyl on glass and wall, 2021)
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.