Part II: Living with visual arts
NS: In terms of practice, how does your studio engage in the visual art discourse?
MC: At the end of the day, I want my studio to facilitate spaces that connect people through a shared experience. In many ways, I’m interested in how the network of sensory systems engage one another in a process that informs perception—so much of perceiving is visual. I like the ambiguity attached to the term ‘visual arts’ and how it allows for an artists’ intent to freely materialize. For my process, the gallery or studio environment helps emphasize collaboration between people who enjoy intellectual exploration—we try to keep an open mind.
In photography, I’m drawn to the ways it enables us to perceive time differently. Photographs can act as a ‘control’ per se, that allow us to register time as a variable in the equation of life. The experience of viewing a photograph of a past self is particularly fascinating. It’s eerie and provoking.
In land-art, I’m drawn to the ways in which its pieces evolve in time - especially when placed in mechanized environments that are divorced from wilderness. Different from photographs, the experience of revisiting a landscape is more akin to visiting a friend. They’ve changed, I’ve changed, it’s a more slippery relationship.
So—in practice, I’m interested in the studio approach solely as it relates to facilitating an experimental mindset or environment. I’m interested in how the two kinds of artistic experiences can be brought together in a social ritual.
KS: What I’m hearing is that you and your studio engage the arts as a means of encouraging people to think and ask questions—is that right? What are your questions? How does it all manifest?
MC: So I try to get people involved who enjoy participating in an inquiry-driven environment. We spend considerable amounts of time having engaged discussions—which is important to keep a critical perspective. Our process naturally finds itself being expressed in our work. For instance, there’s been times where we’ve spent entire afternoons debating whether or not a plant is just a another piece of furniture. In the end, we see the output of our office as being physical manifestations of our philosophical engagements—so much so that for us, distinctions between the two realms become blurred. Our questions often involve the limitations of discourse as it relates to aesthetic experience—where theory ends and where inspiration begins. How can we facilitate environments that steer perception towards a direct mindfulness? How can we avoid just replicating static environments? What are static environments in the art world? What are static environments in landscape design?
NS: How does the audience go about answering to your questions?
MC: We’re less concerned about anybody coming to answers, and I’m not even sure what you mean by “audience.” I often say I’m reluctant to hang my hat on anything; but, there are some dilemmas in this world that demand questioning. For us, what we hope for is to provoke curiosity in people, perhaps even ignite a process of self-exploration and deep-inquiry rather than be anti-establishment or anti-consumerist, or whatever. What we want to create are ideas that further connect people with their inner-selves and with each-other, or to create an experience that has a profound directness that emphasizes a larger connectivity. I think that the observation of natural networks embodies so much of what morality and our own ethics have asked of us. Hopefully we can try and stimulate that kind of awareness.
KS: When it comes to aesthetics and observation, do you think plants need a built structure in order to frame and contrast their form? Do you envision collaborating with architectural form in making landscape?
MC: By nature of being in New York City, we frequently work with architects. However, ideologically speaking, we don’t see ourselves as being tied down to architecture, or visual arts, or landscape design, or really any single discourse. I think our work can, and ought to be, expressed in a variety of ways. In general, we need to surround ourselves with meanings, rhythms, symbols, and things that are living—to the extent that enables us to connect with more profound experiences.
NS: Previously, you’ve spoken about how you appreciate being able to observe a setting continuously in both landscape and photography. Can you speak a bit more about this idea, both in terms of its aesthetic value to you and as a practice?
MC: Plants and landscapes are unique in that they predate human existence, that they’re mostly pleasing to the eye, and that they’re alive. The living aspect demands a relatable attention that can capture an essential fact of being—plants are alive at such a fundamental level. I think observing a setting and discovering the change and motion of plants immediately conveys a specific meaning relating to this aliveness. Maybe it has to do with change, specifically how our lives are constantly changing, despite our attempts to view them as permanent. Maybe that awareness reflects the grander, networked dynamism of the living environment. I think some of the most moving art is embedded in that living experience.
KS: When you speak about this constant observation of dynamism in a landscape, do you think such views could be framed? Would framing or distancing the viewer from the landscape achieve the same kind of observation as an immersive experience? Do you think people would appreciate landscape more if there were an oscillation between framing it and immersing the viewer within it—could this reiterate the ambiguity/ futility of the divide between humans and nature?
MC: Of course. The fact of the matter is that infrastructure exists. All kinds of constructed forms exist, all kinds of materials exist—that’s part of our world as much as any tree or valley. In this way, I think framing helps tease out the subtle interactions happening between various interactions occurring at the human and these forms. Maybe I’m drawn to framing because it emphasizes the similarity between the human and the natural, how they’re not mutually exclusive or separate paradigms. Framing, as a technique, can create works with interplay. It’s just another gradation, another subtle feature that can provoke a kind of aesthetic experience that we’re going for; with that said, I think plenty of people can appreciate a built form as much as an environment. The urban vs. rural citizen is a division that doesn’t need to be harsh. It’s all fluid—really. I’ve had some of my most profound “natural’ experiences here in New York City. Specifically, I’m really interested in how plants erode and decay built forms, or how the plants themselves wither away in light of obstructions caused by those forms.; where there’s no division or prejudice regarding how the two affect and alter one another.
NS: How can you put into practice these kinds of approaches you have been speaking about, where plants are not as controlled and more complex—or allowed to grow and change? How do you envision this being done in an environment like New York, which often thwarts unauthorized interventions?
MC: Well we’re getting there. I think we’ve slowly begun to integrate that style, if that’s what you want to call it, into our client-driven work. But even still, there are economic and social barriers with every turn you make—especially when there’s a lot of money involved. I think the best thing we can do right now is support creativity within our own infrastructure and push for all of our participants to start thinking about these questions. That way we’re not just automatons idly going about a business-as-usual in the landscape design market. While we do satisfy any client need, we want to be thinking about what’s beyond the traditional scope of the practice. So, I would say that it isn’t just the infrastructure of New York thwarting “unauthorized interventions,” as you say. It’s more of a general state of what the status-quo is on a socio-economic level regarding landscape. Right now in New York, the rooftop terrace is hugely popular with clients because it’s become socially accepted. It also has a pragmatic use of being a great respite from the stress of city life; but, I think as these things become more commonplace we’ll see more and more experimentation. I think the main thing we can do now is support that experimentation.
KS: How would you propose a client interact with a landscape you create? If cultivating an ideal landscape entails allowing it to grow and disperse without control, how does a client collaborate in such a process?
MC: I think all it takes is an open mind. That’s ultimately all we’re offering here: an opportunity to approach a static object or space or idea in a new way. I mean, why settle for what you experience on a regular basis? Why not go for something that might change your perspective simply from the mere process of sitting and observing a space? I hope that’ll catch on when approaching landscape design and greenspace in general. I’m optimistic, I think we’ll see more interesting interstitial spaces popping up all over the city. The complicated aspect is the economic motivation. Many times, the most interesting thing is done in an effort to differentiate a space from others, to enhance its brand appeal. While this is problematic, it’s also fueling a lot of interesting work. We see this in art history, artists have always tried to do what’s “new” in order to differentiate themselves. I can understand that. But that newness can exist everywhere, I think. That’s the perception and the alteration of perception I’ve been talking about. That’s what I mean when I say we’re making things that disconnect us from ourselves. As much as we’ve been told it’s about making it as an individual, something that seems implicit in the New York experience—what happens when we let go of that? What happens when we step outside of ourselves?
A manta ray or, maybe, a humongous Tostito — in any case, a triangular platform
A MANTA RAY OR, MAYBE, A HUMONGOUS TOSTITO — IN ANY CASE, A TRIANGULAR PLATFORM