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Fab Feminist Magazine

The Performance Of Time: Artist Leah Ceriello talks Eco Justice and Art Ethics

The Performance Of Time: Artist Leah Ceriello talks Eco Justice and Art Ethics

by Callie Garp

January 12, 2016

Callie Garp Our readers may have first learned about you from a piece published on Fab Feminist in 2014 by Nicholas Pricopi (read that article here). How would you describe yourself and your work?

Leah Ceriello I consider myself to be a cross disciplinary artist. I use durational performance, performance art walks, performative sculptural experiments, text, photographs, documents and other ephemera to explore time.

Ever since I can remember-- I've sort of been obsessed with the difference between perceived, or lived time that humans experience, versus deep geologic time-- the time of mountains, and glaciers, and deserts, and stars.

Recently, I've also begun to incorporate weaving, spinning, and natural dyeing into my practice-- looking at techniques and methods that are sort of specific to humans pre industrialization. I like to think of my participation in these modes of working as sort of part of an unbroken line running throughout human history. Who knows how long humans have been spinning & weaving some sort of fiber into cloth, and then dyeing it-- using very simple technology. I mean, the first spindles were literally rocks. Pretty amazing-- in terms of multiple levels of time operating simultaneously.

CG How would you describe performative sculptural experiments (especially yours!) to someone who is unfamiliar with performance practices?


LC So, the performative sculptural experiments I was conducting were these short events specifically set up for a camera, with no audience, where I was wedging sometimes the parts or the whole of my body into areas on large boulders (less commonly known as glacial erratics) that showed both damage from time and evidence of movement during New England’s glacial past. I was making a connection between bodies and erratics, or trying to make them function as an analog for each other--- the way they move on top of the landscape but are not really corporeally or conceptually part of it. Also, collecting marks throughout the aging process, or scars even. Both bodies and rocks do that over time. 


 CG The only evidence of these experiments having existed, then, are the photographs - the documentation. The viewer has a sense that this performance has occurred, but doesn’t get to actually witness the happening. Does this relate to how you think about concepts like deep geologic time?

LC Well I think that’s part of the deal-- there are things that we observe every day that we only ever have a ‘photograph’ of, or an image in our minds. I think that a good illustration of this idea that might make more sense is the pattern of waves on a beach. You can observe each wave break, and the thin border of wet sand it leaves behind-- but this isn’t something that is preservable. You can take a photograph but it isn’t the same. However, in viewing that photograph years later, you may be able to recall the day, time, smell, season, the way you were feeling, or the remembered (sometimes inaccurate) experience when you saw that wave break. I think that sometimes I am more interested in the imagined or remembered event, rather than the event itself, because that is how most of us experience time. This can be a sort of confusing and potentially difficult thing to articulate, but if you think about it, it is very rare that we actually experience time in the present, we experience it either in the future or the past (I am going, or I have gone). How often do you stop to be present in your body? To feel your feet firmly rooted on the ground? To feel the exchange of breath inside of your lungs? It is so difficult, not just as artistic practice but general life practice, because the clock is always running. But there are bigger clocks, clocks (like the geologic one) that we don’t really even understand yet. When did it start? When will it end? What happened at 2:30? We don’t know, we have to imagine it. 

Also, this doesn’t make me sound like a crazy person, does it? :)

CG I know I have heard you say this before, and I’m paraphrasing, but how does a human being, with a life span of say 80 to 100 years begin to comprehend the lifetime of a glacier?  Do you think that this inability to both comprehend and/preserve the immediate moment, the present, as well as something like geologic time, has an impact on how humans interact with the environment?

LC I think that part of the thing that I’m interested in is the impossibility of trying to comprehend the lifetime of a glacier-- which is similar to trying to distill or preserve a moment in time, and maybe that is a better way of explaining it. I can only imagine what a thousand years feels like. I cannot experience it or truly comprehend it-- nor will I ever. Thinking about this impossible comprehension problem has a hugely profound impact on how I personally interact with the environment, and I hope that it also has an effect on people who view my work. In the context of deep geologic time, humans are a tiny tiny blip in this line that we really have no idea where it begins or ends. When you are made aware of your own insignificance, I think that this causes you to reflect on your relationship to everything else around you differently. Thinking about the enduring quality of glaciers, vs the current state of their survival because of climate disruption-- it is pretty sobering.

This might be tangential-- but I think it’s worth bringing up in the context of where we are in the conversation right now, because I feel like I can see a path that I like and I want to go down with you :) But, for the most part I actively try to keep my work from being too didactic because I feel like I don’t have any better answers than anyone else, but I think that it is important to say that there is this sort of undercurrent in all of the work that I make that constantly re-evaluates the relationship between humans and nature and who should have the upper hand. I remember having a really heated discussion with a professor in graduate school when I said this and they said, “Well, nature in those terms is just a construct. Nature doesn’t exist”. But I firmly believe that it does exist, and humans (or at least humans in the ‘industrialized’ ((double parenthesis for potentially problematic terminology)) world) no longer consider themselves part of it. Because we don’t consider ourselves to be part of it, we treat everything, including glaciers, mountains, other people, and things as disposable. As children, a lot of us are taught to respect elders, which for the most part I find to be pretty positive, but in my own life-- at the risk of sounding hokey-- I also consider my elders to be trees, mountains, the seasons, glaciers, oceans, migratory birds with thousands of years of shared history preserving patterns of movement, sand dunes that have been shifting for hundreds of years on the shores of cape cod. I think that humans needs to shift toward anti anthropocentrism in order to ensure our survival as a species. For real.


CG Can you expand upon what you think that professor meant when they said nature is just a construct? I think I understand the philosophical spheres/semantics you’re entertaining, but maybe we can break them down further.

LC Hm-- well, I think that there is this argument that purports nature, wild and ‘pure’, is this thing that humans have made up in order to fulfill a longing for simpler times. However, this same theory simultaneously suggests that our unbridled development and consumption is meant to happen, because if there is no such thing as nature worth preserving, then the development of resources is the only way forward for us. The concept of Manifest Destiny in the American West is a great example of this. It was sort of our divine right to be able to push indigenous people off their lands in order to take control of them, for resources and for our expanding population.

It’s sort of confusing, but basically I interpret it as a philosophical paradigm that excuses all kinds of practices that are ultimately detrimental to us and the creatures and things we share the planet with. If there is no nature, I think it makes it a lot easier to clear cut, or pit mine, or frack, or whatever--  and I’m talking big picture here. By us I mean nation states, not individual people.

I think that this perspective of there-is-no-such-thing-as-the-natural-world is sort of skipping hand in hand with capitalism toward the downfall of our species and probably even our entire planet. I mean, we’re in the middle of the largest mass extinction right now. Why? Well, scientists with any kind of legitimacy agree that it’s because of climate disruption. Why are we for the most part just sort of shoving it under the rug? Because there isn’t any nature! Humans are supposed to develop things!!

And I don’t want to sound like I have a holier-than-thou perspective because I don’t. I totally accept responsibility for my single use coffee containers from Dunkin Donuts and driving a car and sometimes forgetting my reusable grocery bags and not always keeping a vegetarian diet even though I really try. But the problem, for me, doesn’t really function at the individual level, and I think that it is a convenience to our corporate overlords to feel as though you are individually responsible for climate change & disruption. We do all have a hand in it-- definitely, but we are also definitely not equally responsible.

I had a really interesting discussion about this with a friend recently when we were both sort of being gloomy after the Paris Climate Talks, and I was going over my usual litany of things that I feel guilty about, and she said-- hey wait, are you just as responsible as an Exxon Mobile CEO, or a senator that votes for legislation to strip mine copper in sovereign Navajo Territory? And I sort of was like oh man-- woah.


CG That’s such an interesting point - the impact of a massive corporation on the planet (especially in a world where companies are so incredibly large and politically powerful) is certainly more substantial than any one person. Yet, do you think there could be some level of passing the buck, there? It’s not my responsibility to alter my daily life; it’s up to Exxon to change their practices! Yet, what agency do individuals have when it comes to causing significant change outside of our immediate lives?

LC No, I totally agree that it is our responsibility to alter our behavior, and we should all be doing the best we can to consume and use less. In opposition to the previous example I gave referencing corporations, as an American-- I am also way more responsible [for altering my behavior] than someone living a traditional Inuit lifestyle in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, or someone living a low impact subsistence lifestyle in Vermont, or someone living in forced poverty in Bangladesh.

Navigating this stuff feels like a minefield, but it’s important to parse it out. I think that this is also why intersectionality in eco politics is necessary, and actually sort of something that I didn’t really think too much about until we became friends in grad school! I always sort of thought as environmental politics as separate from social justice or feminism, I think mostly because I was trying to compartmentalize social, political, economic, racial, and environmental issues. But actually, all of those things are connected. I think the concept of environmental racism is worth a reference here, just to see how this issues intersect-- particularly in the United States. I actually took a class at Tufts University in graduate school called Toxic Chemicals and Human Ecology. I went in thinking it was going to be an environmental science course, and it was actually so much about social justice, because people of color, including indigenous people, are far more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals in the United States

CG I think the need to compartmentalize is a mechanism to aid in initial understanding. You’ve got to dig in deep somewhere, right? My mode of thinking, however, has always involved asking, “Who?” “What are the social structures at play?” -- sometimes to a fault, probably. How do you think your work engages with the different intersections of eco politics and social justice?

LC I think that compartmentalization can definitely be an aid to understanding, especially in terms of breaking things down into manageable chunks, but I also think that it can be another convenient tactic by those who are doing the most harm to divide people. I obviously have no proof of this, and I don’t want to venture into conspiracy territory here-- but I think that there is some truth to that statement. Imagine if environmental groups like the Earth Liberation Front suddenly realized that they needed to be supporting social justice and anti racism groups like Black Lives Matter. If everyone who is part of the Sierra Club also donated to Planned Parenthood, where would we be in terms of expanding access to reproductive services to women (which coincidentally, I believe is also an environmental issue).

[Read: If You Really Care About Environmental Justice, You Should Care About Reproductive Justice!]

However, in terms of my work personally, I mentioned previously about my feelings on avoiding being too didactic. I don’t have definite answers or solutions to any of these problems, and I don’t think it is fair or helpful for me to just point them out over and over again in my work. I only have opinions, and we all know a million adages about how everyone has opinions and they are similar to various nether-regions of the body! But, I think that if considering time causes someone to reflect on their own relationship with the natural world, fantastic-- but I don’t want to force someone to that conclusion. Also, I feel like art made about specific political issues, climate change for example, can turn into a self serving thing, where highly educated people sit around and pat themselves on the back because they’ve made a sculpture that was made out of recycled soda bottle holders or viewed a performance about sea level rise. I’m not saying that a recycled plastic sculpture or a performance about sea level rise are inherently bad, but I think that I am automatically suspicious of rooms full of people who all just sort of blindly agree with each other and think that they are still ‘raising awareness’. If you are making work for a group of people who all have the same political leanings, what are you really accomplishing?


CG The question we’re sort of entertaining here is if it’s possible for activist art to truly exist, to actually engage with social-justice in a moral way in the space, lens and language of fine art. Issues of audience, funding, intention and especially education are all at play. But, when someone experiences one of your performances, or views documentation of a piece you’ve done, there are certain themes -represented by current social justice practices- that people will automatically bring to the piece. That information is there, informing their view of a work, which is primarily discussing time, for instance, or rocks, or earth.


LC Yeah, I mean-- I don’t know if it is possible for activist art to exist. I hope so, but I sometimes feel like just making art is inherently problematic, because usually it is only people of exceptional privilege that are able to make long term, sustainable careers out of being artists-- especially activist artists. Also exactly-- access to an education that allows you to build a platform for becoming an artist is not something everyone has. So I think that is complicated. But I also want to make clear that I’m not saying that activist art is bad in any way. I just think that sometimes it can fail in its intent, because the openness that allows for variety of experiences is not there.

I think that this question is causing me to sort of turn into myself a little bit in a good way. I think that one of the most amazing things about any kind of art experience that someone can have, is that art activates different things in everyone and prompts people to consider a wide spectrum of meaning in the work. Ask any group of people about Bernini’s David, and you’ll get 10 different interpretations of what formal decisions in that work means. Putting the sculpture at eye level with the viewer means that Bernini was a humanist and subverting the Divine, and then someone will counter that with a statement about how that formal decision was just about understanding the physical intensity of the task that was at hand for David, and his struggle before the divine. That debate goes on and on, and ultimately there is no answer. I don’t think I want to live in a world where art gives answers. I want art to ask questions. I always hope that my work asks questions instead of answers them. I don’t mean to sound cheesy here, but I think the answers are inside of us. Art is the vehicle that helps us to find them.

CG I will go one step beyond you and say I think there is some bad activist art (or art with activist intentions, we’ll say) out there, especially for the issues you have outlined (amongst others) and that freakish double-edged sword of intention vs impact. However, I do not think a work of art has to give answers in order to be activist. Art just isn’t a good vehicle for answers, in my opinion. In a way, you could say that art, though perhaps not all art, is an exercise in the Socratic method - wherein the questions that you choose to ask are what matter. This gets us back to the choosing, though and my previous question. You, as the artist (especially a performance artist) are asking certain questions along a theme, and your audience is feeding other questions and assumptions into the meaning of the work through the autopoietic feedback loop. (x) They are reading your body into the work.

LC Well-- as long as I am not the one saying that re: bad activist art! I feel like there is sometimes this antagonistic thing that comes out in me when talking about activist art, mostly because I think it is important to be critical of how self serving and self congratulatory the art world can be. I get so angry sometimes about artists who make work about climate change who are super wasteful, or are politically apathetic. It isn’t right to be proselytizing from the pulpit of art while you are being super problematic, and I feel like an easy solution to that is, just take ownership of the fact that you do problematic things. We all do. It's part of living in a hyper capitalist society founded on the exploitation of people and things. I mean, I think there are AMAZING activist artists too, by the artists that I think are amazing “activist” artists are people like Corita Kent, or Helen Mirra, or Taylor Davis. The work that they make is definitely not overtly activist and I don’t think any of them would self describe as as activists, but the content of the work allows for an exploration of issues related to activism. There is a sense of openness and the opportunity to engage at multiple levels, rather than sort of a one dimensional “THIS IS ACTIVIST ART” kind of thing.

This is the belief system that I try to model my work after. I want there to be multiple levels of engagement. Even though my work engages with materials and concepts that are akin to what activists are concerned with, that isn’t the only thing that it hopes to do. Rocks are pretty simple. Everyone can find them somewhere. But when you sort of transition to a macro view of the material, intense philosophical issues about time can start to become apparent for people. There is a surface level of engagement that is just about formal qualities. You can stay there if you want. But if you want to take a deep dive you can get into the conceptual stuff. However, thinking about time and impermanence, and ephemerality can be difficult and uncomfortable for people. I don’t want to make a space where people are forced to engage in a way that is difficult for them. I don’t think that’s fair. I like for people who view my work to have a choice.


CG Understanding that there are (and should be) multiple levels of engagement is key to any practice, I think. As a creator, you’ve also recently begun creating textile works -- researching and implementing various non-chemical techniques of material preparation. How do you think that exploration communes with your performances with rocks, for instance?

LC Well it’s kind of funny, because sort of the long arc of my becoming an artist began with textiles. As an undergraduate, I used to make these very large soft sculptures that were made from all sorts of different fibers. The more I began to make these, the bigger and more sort of abstract they became. I realized that the actual making was more important than the end result. I would sit down for sometimes 6 or 8 hours at a time on weekends and finger crochet these weird chains. I would wind up with a room full of yarn and my mind would sort of just go somewhere else for hours. I explained this to one of my professors, and she gave me several introductory resources about durational performance art, and it was a total lightbulb moment. For some reason, after graduate school ended, I had this really intense desire to make objects again. I recently taught myself to prepare wool, spin yarn, dye it, and weave. It’s a slow process that I’m falling in love with more and more every day-- because I’m specifically choosing to use methods that are, I wouldn’t say non chemical, but maybe non toxic, or at least low impact, that have also coincidentally been around for thousands of years. Humans have been taking fiber from both plant and animal and twisting it and making cloth for almost our whole history. The technology I use in my studio would be at home in an Iron Age dwelling somewhere in Europe. I’ve also been using foraged materials to find dyestuff in unexpected places. For example, Goldenrod-- the pesky weed that plagues allergy sufferers all over New England at the end of summer, makes the most gorgeous soft buttery yellow you can possibly imagine. It’s like distilled light.

It’s the same thing with wool essentially-- the length of the fiber signifies a length of time. When you take those fibers and turn them into even more yarn, it makes a representation of even more time. When you take the yarn and weave it into cloth, it’s even more time. When you wear the cloth on your body for a lifetime, even more time. It’s sort of like the accumulation of sedimentary rock. You can read the layers of time in the rock face. I feel that way every time I look at a garment or a thing that I’ve made myself. I can see the layers of time that have accumulated through production.  For someone who is interested in being reminded of time, it is a pretty exciting thing.

CG So in a way, you are engaging with the question of time through multiple levels. In such a way, we could say that Time is the performance, and you are the viewer making a choice.


LC Exactly! 

Link Love:

Founder/Director Callie Garp has a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Tufts University. Keep up with Callie here.

Leah Rafaela Ceriello (b. USA 1989) investigates time and impermanence through long durational performance walks, actions, documents, photographs and other ephemera. 



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