Aesthetics & Deep Ecology with Eric Stewart
an interview on his practice & the Gold Hill Art Project — Written by Laurie Britton Newell
Can you describe your practice for us?
I am a multimedia artist working primarily in cinema but also in installation, performance and photography. My work finds places in landscape and history to explore our relationship to the “natural” and the ways in which technology complicates or changes this relationship.
I work primarily with analogue film because I enjoy the tactility that it affords.
Can you explain the process of making photograms?
Photograms are a way of taking a picture without a camera. They are a form of photography based not on looking but instead on touch. In a dark room an object is placed on top of photosensitive surface and where the object touches the film, light becomes blocked, forming an image in the objects shadow and rendering it in silhouette. I am fascinated by the way photograms collapse distance and eliminates the traditional 3-dimensional space that lens based photography accomplishes. I have been making photograms for many years now and as I have worked on them I have been articulating an concept I call “The Aesthetics of Deep Ecology”, where photograms I have been searching for a way of depicting landscape from a non-human perspective to find in the surface of the image a place for landscape, wilderness and place to speak for itself. I am fond of Hollis Frampton’s reinterpretation of the meaning in photography’s etymological origins from “writing with light” into “light writing itself”. Photograms are my attempt to find a place for nature to write itself.
Can you tell us a little bit about your site in Gold Hill and your installation?
Scattered throughout Gold Hill are small depressions in the earth hand dug by miners in search of gold. Some are only test pits where nothing was discovered, while the others that were productive have piles of rusty tin can’s around their perimeter, the result of the miner’s lunch’s I’m sure. I am interested in what these marks and accumulations communicate. We can almost measure the productivity of the pit by the density of the tin can pile and this record is a site where history and human agency are written into the landscape. All of the images in the installation are installed outside, leaning against trees and in the open, the images are photograms of crystals and minerals found in and around Gold Hill, they investigate, surface and accumulation. We chose the site because there is where a path that cuts through a wooded area, and eventually leads to one of these pits.
When did your interest in film and photography start? What drew you to this medium?
I have always been interested in nature, philosophy, minimalism and the Avant Garde. When I started becoming exposed to experimental film and alternative photographic techniques I became intensely fascinated by the possibilities that photochemistry affords for investigating issues of space, time and being. For a long time I did painting and drawing but at some point in my early twenties things changed for me and I became intensely interested in the camera’s relationship to the natural world. A description of chemistry that I am very fond of is that chemistry reveals processes in nature. Processes which would normally remain unseen, I love the way that photography and photochemistry allows us to visualize processes and experiences that would otherwise remain unknown.
How did you come up with the idea for the Gold Hill Art Project?
Originally I was interested in the connection between photography and land surveying in Gold Hill during the 19th century. I had planned on creating these large immersive pseudo-cinematic sculptures composed of modified projectors; but over time the project very organically shifted into this ephemeral investigation of the interaction between the surface of the soil and the surface of photographic film. I have always been obsessed with crystals and collecting rocks and for a long time I had wanted to work with color photograms. I was interested in the way that the photograms could act as a form of cartography and way of re-imaging and disrupting Gold Hill’s topography, much like the gold mining pits. Further validating my interest in the connection between mining history, found minerals and photograms was the fact that light sensitive sheets of film only work by virtue of the light sensitive silver they are composed and form another strata of accumulated mineral in counterpoint to the quartz.
You see teaching as part of your art practice; can you explain your pedagogical approach?
Language and social interaction surround my work. I often write, talk and workshop in connection to the exhibition of my work and while that language and social interaction isn’t integral to the work, it is connected to it and expands the works capacity. Building and sustaining community around creative work and experimental film is really important to me because the existence of DIY spaces and artists run spaces is what has supported me in developing my artistic practice. Additionally, I teach art fulltime and it has become my bread and butter. My approach to teaching comes directly out of my work as an activist and I believe strongly in the possibilities for social progress that education and the humanities create. I get a lot out teaching media literacy and empowering people with the tools to produce their own media and articulate their vision of the world.
In an increasingly technological world, we have noticed resurgence in film photography, vinyl records, and Polaroid; why do you think these modes make a comeback?
Every technological advancement seems to spark a cultural existential crisis that can be described as tradition vs. progress. The advent of digital technologies has changed the way we relate socially, financially and materially. This shifting relationship has created insecurity about future possibilities and those anxieties are compounded by global warming which is connected to industrial and technological production. I think it is part nostalgia for an idealized past and a frustration with overly networked and connected lives. Analogue technologies provide a tactility that digital mediums don’t and they happen on a slower scale. People have this idea that analogue technologies are somehow more real because they happen in a physical manner.
What is coming up next for you?
For the next year or so I am Visiting Assistant Professor in photography at Adams State in the beautiful San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. My teaching focuses on photochemical processes and analogue techniques. The library at Adams has agreed to house an archive of oral histories collected from anti-nuclear and peace activists. The archive is an outgrowth of a feature length experimental documentary and photographic project about nuclear weapons testing in the Southwest, which I have been working of for the last two years. I have a show coming up at the Houston Center for Photography called “The Surface of Things” which is a survey of contemporary photograms and includes one of my films. I recently contributed an essay to Otherzine called “The Sound of Breaking Glass” (http://www.othercinema.com/otherzine/the-sound-of-breaking-glass/) and I have some talks in the works connected to those ideas.