by Alessandra Stamper
MAKE Reviews Editor Mark Molloy recently sat down with poet and artist E.J. McAdams to discuss his current exhibition Trees Are Alphabets, up at The Bronx Museum of the Arts through February 14, 2016. More on the exhibition, including additional images, here.
MM: First off, can you describe Trees Are Alphabets for the reader? The installation, as well as the original performance?
E.J.: Trees Are Alphabets is a performance and installation using natural materials that emerges out an exploration of text and space. The installation is on the terrace of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, on the second floor. So when you walk up to the second floor you can begin to see it through the glass doors that open out into the installation. As you step outdoors into the installation, the rectangular terrace opens out before you, and there are branches propped up against the walls in different configurations. A series of branches next to one another in some ways may suggest a word or language. I had to collect all of the branches ahead of time and use those as my materials, and so there is also a “reserve” pile of branches just off center on the terrace floor—the remainder of the branches I “wrote” or “drew” with. I first set up the exhibition, putting up the first branches, as a performance on the opening day. Since then I’ve had to redo it repeatedly, as the space is outdoors and the weather has had its own idea as to where the branches belong. The current “text” of Trees Are Alphabets has incorporated these “wind edits.”
MM: You take the title of this exhibition from an observation made by Roland Barthes:
According to the Greeks, trees are alphabets.
How do you interpret Barthes’ observation, and how does the idea fit within the present exhibition?
E.J.: I didn’t know that quote. I had never read the book Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, an autobiographical, critical work. I had originally had this idea of doing concrete poetry on the terrace. So actually writing English words with branches, that’s how the piece began. In a conversation with the museum’s curator, Sergio Bessa, he mentioned that quote. So I found it, and I thought about it, and I got to work trying to understand it. I thought it was such a mysterious quote. Even the way he phrases it—“according to the Greeks”—it makes it sound like it’s common knowledge. I studied philosophy, I took Greek and Latin. But I didn’t know that according to the Greeks all trees are alphabets. I wrote my roommate from college, Matthew McGowan, who is a classics professor at Fordham, and asked him if he knew it. He thought it was strange too, so he posted about it on a Greek listserv, and a couple of people replied. It turns out that the word that Aristotle used for “the matter that is in all things” is the same word that the Greeks used for “wood”: hulê. Anyway, there was something about the mystery of the quote that opened up a new space of possibility for me. It got me thinking about the question of how might trees speak, or how you might create a relationship between humans and trees, and have a trans-species collaboration, or communication. And so it became a question of: is there any way to write in the language of the alphabet of trees?
MM: Which leads us naturally to Kohn. In preparation for this interview I asked you to list any specific influences on this exhibition. You listed two: Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think and the artistic practice of asemic writing. Let’s start with Kohn. In How Forests Think, Kohn challenges our deep-seated intuition that thinking is, essentially, human-language derived, by focusing on a broadened conception of signification. A sign, in this analysis, is anything that stands for something to some agent. An example he gives is the sound of a cracking branch overhead. That is a signal to the animal beneath to take cover. Another sign could be the patterns on the back of a snake. These are both signs that permit the communications of different types of meanings. Even single-celled organisms signify via chemical signals. Thought, then, is the cognitive and behavioral response that arises from the networks of signification on display among all forms of life. How Forests Think is a preliminary work in the project of revealing these non-human forms of thought and experience; it leaves the reader with a view of nature that is awash in signification, interspecies communication, thought. How did that idea of sign systems everywhere in nature—systems primordial and ancestral to those of human communication—inform Trees Are Alphabets?
E.J.: I can’t stress enough that, when I started, I was going to write words with tree branches. That was the idea. The Bronx Museum terrace is a fairly long, narrow space. I was only going to be able to use the walls, so I was trying to imagine what words might fit and resonate in that space. I happened to be reading the Kohn book and was really struck by it. The title alone is very evocative and provocative: How Forests Think. In it Kohn discusses Charles Sanders Peirce’s ideas on signs and semiotics. Pierce showed that there were non-semantic ways signs could operate, which Kohn further develops into a theory of ecological thought outside of human language. I knew that I wanted to incorporate that in my piece. I was getting very excited about Kohn’s book, conceiving the exhibition almost in terms of an untranslatable translation. I was hoping to evoke something like the “thought” of trees in my branch sculptures. But I still couldn’t see the way forward. The turning point was a conversation I had with a good friend, Steve Clay. I explained to him what I was doing. I thought I was so clear about what I was doing, and he said, “you mean asemics?” I just took it in for a second–connecting my reading of Kohn and how it could relate to asemics. That’s when things really started to fall into place.
MM: Let’s talk a bit about asemics. Asemic writing is a form of writing that is visually similar to the writings we are all familiar with, but devoid of any semantic meaning. In particular, you cited Henri Michaux, one of its more famous practitioners, as an influence. Can you describe Michaux’s contribution to asemic writing, and explain how the practice—and the questions it raises—influenced Trees Are Alphabets? You were trying to translate nature, tap into the meanings, and that was not necessarily working; but then you realized that Michaux had an alternative way of approaching this process…
E.J.: To be clear, my project is not strictly asemic. But it definitely did take inspiration from some of the questions that have been raised by other practitioners of asemic writing; principally, for me, Michaux. When I had that conversation with my friend Steve, I knew about Michaux’s mescaline fueled asemic writings but I had never really looked too deeply into them. I started to read some of his writings, to better understand his asemic works. Often he would write essays to accompany his asemic text. I found that these are actually very much in the spirit of the Kohn. He approached his asemic writing as an act of exploration. What is this phenomenon that’s happening? What’s happening to me in my body? Michaux was also very interested in Chinese calligraphic writing. He wasn’t a scholar, but he was curious as to how something like calligraphy would emerge. He was curious about origins. This proved to be extremely stimulating to my own project. It allowed me to rethink my work. The authorship question arises in regards to asemic writing. To what degree am I the author of this writing? To what degree is some intuition of symmetries between the lines, the interrelations of the lines themselves, as they accumulate? Too much over here so maybe I’ll draw there. The question is of course compounded in the case of Michaux and his use of mescaline. As to my own project, I certainly felt like the trees themselves, the evolutionary history within them, the history of their actual growth—that they grew in a specific environment, with certain rain, soil, and wind conditions—all those environmental factors were captured in these branches, in the specific configurations into which they had developed. Their shape, and underlying that their history, was a form of expression that was very real and that was something I definitely wanted to incorporate. I wasn’t entirely the author of the piece anymore. I don’t have any illusions that the trees are speaking or that nature is a book. But the idea that the matter and history of the branches would influence me in their arrangement, and that there was even this sense of how they might want to arrange themselves bodily with each other, that felt very real. Again, there were these material concerns that influenced the shaping and the arranging. It was a collaboration, that’s a word I keep coming back to.
MM: I’m curious as to how Trees are Alphabets relates to your previous work? Do you see it as a natural evolution or is it a more abrupt change?
E.J.: If I look back on it, I would say that there are many projects I have been involved with that relate to it. But I would say that it felt, and feels, very new. Certainly what I have found is that my poetry keeps pushing me into the visual and material, and it’s been an ambition of mine to move beyond the page. Poetry is very important to me, and yet I have always felt that it is very constrained on the page, and within the book, which is cloistered in the library. There was this real desire to do something like poetry, but in a public space, to create a poetry that would engage non-academic audiences. This in some way stems from the fact that I was not an English major. Writing was the thing I was worst at in school. And yet I really cared about it and was drawn to it. So maybe in some ways I am trying to create a poetry that other non-poets, other non-academics, would be interested in. A previous work of mine, TRANSECTs, that used procedueral techniques similar to ones used by John Cage, Jackson Mac Low, and Joan Retallack, started out as written poems and what I felt was missing from them was the context, where the words were found. That seemed important, seemed to add auras or layers of meaning that the words themselves typed on a page didn’t have. It also gave the work a sociological context that was missing without the photos. A big part of working outside was working with this Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art Nature and Dance, a dance research organization that investigates the power of dance, in collaboration with other fields, to illuminate our kinetic understanding of the world, and seeing them dance outside and trying to imagine what the potential for poetry is outside. Perhaps above all there was always this desire to collaborate.
MM: And, to clarify, you were collaborating with…
EJ: The trees. [Laughter] The question that ultimately ended up driving my piece is: what’s the potential for a human / non-human collaboration? I have attempted this before, but Trees are Alphabets has been my most successful attempt yet.
MM: One of the TRANSECTs comes to mind as a previous “collaborative” piece of yours. You are walking along a body of water…
E.J.: Dead Horse Bay.
MM: …and at fixed intervals of time you would walk away from the water and transcribe the things that you found there. That was a really great piece.
E.J.: In that example I was taking a process I had learned from wildlife biology—the transect, which is a replicable path through an environment where measurements are taken—and acting on it in a very procedural way, and seeing what came out of that “experiment.” Part of it is the uncertainty—not knowing what’s going to happen, what you are going to find. Trees are Alphabets is like that as well. I played with branches, and moved them, and set them up, and arranged them in many different ways over the last year or so, trying to get a feel for how they work. I was getting to know the branches as bodies and how my body could work with them. But I never arrived at any definite sense of how the exhibition would be set up. When it came time to set it up I did it in the moment, in an improvised performance that was recorded by Iki Nakagawa. There was the terrace, and I had my branches, and the walls were bare, and I had to “write” on them with the branches. Also, I was never writing from left to right. It was a question of how to get across whatever it is I was going to get across, all at once.
MM: That’s a really interesting idea: juxtaposing the exhibition to the ways that different scripts proceed in a particular direction. In a sense then the piece is almost more like a single thought, or perhaps an emotion, as opposed to an “argument” that proceeds from here to there. And this is, I think, in a sense what Kohn is getting at when he writes about finding a more productive way to think about non-human thought. That it isn’t this complex semantic thing like what we engage in, but is instead something more holistic, more direct, more immediate.
E.J.: Kohn talks about how living thought points at a future that it then shapes. You point. I look. Something has been communicated. This pointing is elemental in much of my work, especially Trees are Alphabets. I am pointing with the branch installation. I am inviting the viewer to take a look and see if there’s anything interesting over there. I’ve read a lot about Noh plays. There’s this great idea in Noh theatre, that all the great Noh actor would have to do is put their hand to their brow and look and you would see the mountain the character was seeing. Trees Are Alphabets is a practice that creates an “ecology of selves” (to steal another Kohn expression), where “I,” “you,” and “it” might shift meaning, and where all these “selves” might manifest new futures toward which we can shape ourselves.
MM: I’m curious about your past, how you came to both the arts and conservation. You work at The Nature Conservancy. Previously, you were the Executive Director for New York City Audubon, where you somewhat famously (in New York) saved the nest of celebrity red-tailed hawks Pale Male and Lola. And before that you were an Urban Park Ranger for the City of New York’s Department of Parks and Recreation, where you re-introduced screech owls to Central Park. So you are, obviously, a poet and artist, but you also have a more “professional,” for lack of a better work, resume in environmental conservation. Did either art or conservation come before the other? Did art help you come to care about conservation? Or the reverse—did conservation lead you to care about art?
E.J.: They are linked. My mom had a haiku anthology from when she was in high school. It may have been the only poetry book in the house. The haikus in that book also had that pointing quality to them. The sense that there is a dissolution of subject and object in the haiku, that all that remains is the moment. That interested me. But that was kind of it for poetry for me until I was in high school again. I was not in the AP English class. The teacher had us write poems, and I really loved it. This ability that you could write and it didn’t have to go in order, that it was hard to criticize. There was a freedom in it. It was a way for me to channel my creative energy that I enjoyed and that, unexpectedly, came easily. In this sense it was poetry that brought me to nature. I grew up in Chicago. When I was growing up I knew there were three kinds of birds—pigeons, small birds and big birds. Then in college, taking classes with the poet Robert Cording, something changed. In particular, it was reading Gary Snyder, who argued that if you are a poet you need to learn the names of everything. Every plant, every bird, every tree. I took that on as a poetic project, and that’s what brought me to the environmental conservation path.
MM: Part of your Trees Are Alphabets exhibition is a series of programs for kids that you lead at the Museum. This is far from the first time community engagement has been part of your work. In your work Memory/Wishing Tree, you asked community members to share their thoughts about a local garden by writing on notes that were then tied to the branches of a tree. You have also led guided “poetic walks” that are open to the public. Can you talk about the importance of community engagement within your work?
E.J.: Teaching has been a part of my life. I taught poetry as an elementary school teacher—3rd and 4th grade—which is an amazing moment in their development. The children were really excited and up for exploration. You could study a bird’s eye view of maps, and the kids could pretend they were the bird, and do the intellectual work of laying down the map from that perspective. That’s really a special age. As artists and poets we get to play in those ways. In the days before Trees Are Alphabets opened, I had to store all those branches at a storage place in the Bronx a couple of blocks away from the museum. I would pull up in my little minivan and I would start dragging rather large branches out onto the street and then into the loading dock of the storage place. People would walk by and ask what I was doing. I would answer “I am an artist,” and, inevitably, they would be like, “oh sure.” That was all they needed to hear. Everything that didn’t make sense suddenly did.
E.J.: There’s a real power in that. So when you talk about communities, I think communities long to have poets and artists in their midst, because they can get away with stuff that you can’t get away with in your daily life, and bring us back to the way we used to approach things when we could be the bird flying over the map. They can bring us back to those things that we’ve been taught out of. I’ve always felt it was important to be engaged with all levels of the community. The parts of art and poetry that get elitist and exclusive I always find to be troubling.
MM: Thanks E. J. Keep it wild.
E. J. McAdams is a published poet and the author of two chapbooks – TRANSECTs (Sona Books) & 4×4 (unarmed journal) – who explores our relationship with language and nature. He lives in New York City with his wife and three children.