University of Wisconsin–Madison

Nina Elder Discusses Art, Sustainability, and Her Visit to the UW

The following is an interview with Nina Elder, who is an artist, adventurer, and arts administrator. Her work focuses on the changing culture and ecology of the American West and on fostering relationships between artists, scientists, and diverse institutions and communities. Elder was at UW-Madison for a week in November as part of the Terra Incognita Art Series Borghesi-Mellon Workshops. She sat down with Communications Director Nathan Jandl at the end of her week in Madison.

Nina’s work has been featured in Art in America, VICE Magazine, on PBS, and elsewhere. She is the co-founder of the Wheelhouse Institute, an initiative for women leaders. Her research has been supported by the Anchorage Museum, Andy Warhol Foundation, Rauschenburg Foundation, Pollock Krasner Foundation, and Nevada Museum of Art. For more, see her website or Instagram.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. All images are courtesy of Nina Elder; please do not copy or reproduce without permission.

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Nathan: Tell me about yourself—who is Nina Elder?

Nina: Who is Nina Elder? I’ve been trying to figure that out for thirty-six years. I consider myself an artist and an activist, and I think most uniquely, I relish my role as a project administrator. A lot of people, especially in the arts, shy away from that, but I do a lot of large-scale, long-term projects that transcend some of the boundaries of what people would think of as an art project. I really like working with organizations.

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Nathan: So I work for the Office of Sustainability, and as you know, sustainability is a very broad word that encompasses a lot of things—in fact, some people are even getting a little shy about it or annoyed with it. But regardless, it speaks to finding ways of living a better, more resilient, more equitable life on this planet. What role would you say art, and especially visual art, can play in sustainability—whether you think about that in political terms or in terms of helping people to inhabit the idea of sustainability in their everyday lives?

Nina: That’s a really good question, and I’m excited to think about it. I’m very critical of the idea of sustainability, because I think it’s often overlooked that [sustainability] is a series of choices: you’re choosing—if there’s an institution or a funding in place in line with sustainability—you’re choosing what to sustain, and oftentimes turning a blind eye to what is being neglected or left behind. And it’s not to say that sustainability is bad, but I just really want to point out that there are so many choices in that process. Especially in this rapid moment of change, the Anthropocene, I think that there’s so much loss that’s happening.  I really have framed my whole visit to Madison around that—this idea that if we’re going to embrace a future and be prepared for a future and have a sustainable future, we have to understand what is going to be lost in that process.

Artists—artists and scientists, especially if they can work together—they create the reliquaries. They get to point to change, they get to help contextualize change, they can help us understand loss. Data is a reliquary of what once was; we can continue look at it and say “wow, we’ve come so far,” or “wow, we should really sink some funding or some brainspace into how we can preserve this thing that’s changing.” For me, the reason for art, number one, is that it’s a place where people from different cultures and different practices and different places around the planet can contribute to dialogues that influence those choices. It’s well known that people don’t change their behavior based on data; they change it because of their hearts and their brains, and those are moved by art. So, not to overburden the arts with a ton of responsibility, but I do think that it helps us make those choices from our hearts, in a better, more informed way. I’m a big cheerleader for well-informed art.

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Nathan: You say “well-informed art”—does that translate to art which considers itself as carrying a kind of message? Because of course plenty of artists would say, “I just make art, and I’m not interested in answering your questions about what it means.”

Nina: Well I might sidestep the question a little bit and say that I think everything has responsibility. Every single action we take. And whether you’re an artist or an economist or a bus driver or a high school teacher, every single action we take has reverberations that go both forward and backward. I look at every single thing I do as a product of colonialism, as a product of ecological exploitation—all these things have allowed me to be here in this moment. And then moving forward, I can maybe help undo some of the problems of colonization, undo some of the problems of extractive industry. I don’t think everybody should make the same choices as I do, but I’m a huge advocate for understanding that all actions have a past and a future.

Nathan: Would you say that you’re interested in a bodily or emotional reaction to art?

Nina: Yeah, a big part of my practice is I travel to extraordinary places on the planet where there’s been something that has happened, whether it’s a mine or a military site, atomic tests, things like that—and I physically experience them, and I really try to understand my reaction to them, and talk to other people who have had a reaction. And that’s my research process. That becomes my art. I’m not sure if my art is 100% successful at conveying all of those nuanced stories—it would be too much in so many ways. But I think that artists are connectors. They have a really special place where they can ask questions that don’t belong in a certain field of practice—they don’t have to be delineated by one form of inquiry. And so that opens up some of that space of actual connection, actual exploration, that’s unbound by science, or journalism, or these other fields of study.

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Nathan: I’ve seen some of your work now in your online portfolio, and I notice you use pulverized raw material, like meteorite, mining slag, and copper ore. How do you get the material? And how does using inform your art—using the actual material?

Nina: That whole process started with realizing that, living in New Mexico, I live surrounded by this atomic legacy. My family has a very close personal connection to the birth of the atomic bomb. I was living off the grid, drinking water that I was collecting and eating food that I was growing at that point, and I realized that I was ingesting so much atomic waste. So started making drawings using radioactive charcoal that I was harvesting from nuclear test sites. It’s strange—I’m very ethically conflicted about this, that I’m criticizing these extractive institutions and corporate entities, but then I’m going and picking up rocks! … but you know, a lot of times I’m just taking a very, very small piece of something, like charcoal. I recently did a big series of drawings about the timber and lumber industry in Oregon, and I broke into some paper mills and stole their industrial waste, which was this beautiful burnt up—just pure charcoal. I mean, it would be valuable to any artist but to me it was conceptually valuable, because it was this beautiful waste. I’m constantly looking at things for their material. I use a coffee grinder to grind things up, and—a lot of the materials that I use, there’s probably not a lot of it actually in the drawing. I kind of massage the paper, I get my hands in it, I spread it out on the paper, and then draw through it—and then brush it off.

So it’s really about this trace element, which is how I think living in a consumer society is. We all have traces of everything we consume, everything we buy, everything we interact with. It’s that sense of imbuing the surface of my drawings with it, even if it’s not making a huge mark or making a visible mark even—sometimes it’s invisible but to me it’s very important.

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Nathan: Would you call your work site-specific?

Nina: Yes, absolutely. Everything I make—if you look at the material list, it points directly to my research, whether it’s been physical research or historical research, there’s always going to be a component of a place in that.

Nathan: So, you published this beautiful piece in Edge Effects about our melting world, and this was based in Alaska, correct?

Nina: And Canada.

Nathan: And Canada, OK, and this was focusing on glacial erratics. And in one of my favorite captions in the piece, you write, “land feels like a verb out here.” You seem really interested in time and the mutability of the natural word, which is also very fraught right now given where we’re at with climate change. I think it’s interesting even to meditate on that word “erratic,” which you clearly are doing; weather has become more erratic, you could even say that each season leaves behind its own erratics…

Nina: My form of research is erratic! I’m sort of bouncing around…

Nathan: And how does looking at glaciated landscapes help you process our environmental moment?

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Nina: Well it was a really amazing piece to work on, because I write everyday—I have a pen pal that I write to, I’m not a journaler but I write letters and I make lists. I don’t keep a sketchbook, I don’t keep a diary, but I write to my friend Frank and I keep lists. So it was really amazing for Edge Effects to say, go through your journals—I mean they didn’t give me that idea, but they gave me this opportunity. They said, well, what is a visual essay, and I said it’s all going to come back to these letters I’ve written. They’re scientifically inaccurate, they are not grammatically clean, you know they were scrawled in a sleeping bag or in an airplane. So it was very fun. I started with the language and then paired it with images.

Nina Elder imageSomething that I’m challenged by and excited by and terrified by that glaciers hold is that—we look at a post-glaciated landscape—and Wisconsin is a really good example—and we view it as normal. But it went through an immense process that some would view as destructive. What this looked like 100,000 years ago is very different from right now, and here we are saying that this is reality, and this is the time we live in, and this is what it should look like, and this is what should be sustained. It makes me think about humanity, and how we resist change, and how we resist loss, and we resist destruction. And I can’t comment on destruction; I can say it terrifies me, but I think that taking the long view and saying “what will the next normal be?”—and I don’t know how to prepare for that. It’s kind of spiritual space that it opens up for me. Glaciers and glaciated places reveal a deep past, but I want to think about a deep future. I’m not sure there will be humans in that, I’m not sure—I mean, there’s nothing to be sure of. But I think it’s a really productive place to consider when thinking about sustainability and adaptive behaviors and all that.

Nathan: It sounds like you’re willing to consider the inevitability of the disastrous type of change that we seem to be bringing upon ourselves, whether or not there’s additional “natural change” alongside it. And some people would say, no, we have to resist this, and obviously some people particularly on the conservative end of the spectrum would say “exactly, the planet changes, this is part of the natural ebb and flow of climate, and what are we going to do about it?”

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Nina: Yeah, I have a dear friend who is a glaciologist, and she’s very jolly yet outspoken, and her nickname is Dr. We’re-F*cked, because she goes around helping people comprehend that there’s not a lot of hope for humanity at this point, yet we must persist. And I will fight tooth and nail with any person who says “drill baby drill” and take it all out of the ground. I’m a big leave-it-in-the-ground proponent, but I think that there are ways to look at natural processes and learn about healthy codependence.

Nathan: Between whom, when you say “codependence”—or between what?

Nina: Great question—in the natural world, something I think about a lot is the rot of trees and then the birth of mushrooms.

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There has to be death for this other thing to live. We’re on the verge of a great extinctive process, and I don’t know if we’ll be around for that, but it’s absolutely asinine to not looking at that and to not start thinking about it on a human spiritual scientific cultural economic ecologic level—to say, this is coming. And glaciers are an amazing metaphor. They destroy everything in their path, but we value them and want to keep them and save them, but they are destroying everything that is underneath them in a way. So the paradox of a glacier is the most fascinating thing to me, because it holds all of that.

Nathan: The reason I asked was because I think it’s a really interesting choice of words—codependence as opposed to say “reciprocity.” Where codependence leans into psychology—and not always a positive psychology! But I’m certainly interested in the psychology of climate change—of this very complicated situation, and how we have to figure out how to deal emotionally with it.

Nina: And I think actually science fiction writing has been the thing that has most primed the pump for that. There’s an amazing exhibit at the [Chazen] museum right now of 1960s illustration, and so much of it predicts this post-ecological disaster moment, and a lot of those illustrations were used on the covers of books.

Nathan: Tell me about your weeklong visit to UW-Madison—what have you done? Any particular insights or takeaways or things that you’re going to bring to the rest of the year?

Nina: So I’ve worked with one of the freshmen groups, a FIG class, which has been really fascinating—trying to kind of turn them on to my way of working.

Nathan: Is this an art class?

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Nina: It’s an interdisciplinary class, so ecology, science, and art is the intersection I’ve been working with them at, and getting them to spark curiosity and look at the spectrum of how they understand, and how—if something really nuanced sparks their curiosity, or something really broad sparks their curiosity, being nimble in that spectrum. I’ve been doing a lot of visits with the MFAs in their studios. And I think one of the most valuable things has been talking with all kinds of people who work here, whether they’re faculty or staff, and learning what it is about this university that makes it more pro-interdisciplinary—makes it more willing to reach across institutional boundaries, to fund and to execute large-scale projects. I’ve never been anywhere like this, where that’s the way people are working. Usually I go to a school and I talk about interdisciplinary work and people are rigid and resistant, and here people are like “oh, we have this amazing initiative…!” There was this really cool breakfast and think tank my first morning here put together by CHE and Helen Bullard. She invited this incredible group of people that have so much knowledge about interdisciplinary collaborations and impact assessments from that—these things that are so interesting and that a lot of people shy away from in other parts of the world. So I’ll take that away, that I love Madison and I want to come back!

Nathan: Well we hope you can! Thanks so much for talking with me.