Feature – In Conversation with Deborah Jack for SITElines: Unsettled Landscapes

By Tiana Reid Monday, September 1st, 2014 Categories: Biennales, Features, Interview, Updates

As a reaction to the biennialization of the contemporary art industry, SITE Sante Fe recently launched the reoriented ‘SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas’, a biennial exhibition series envisioned to the organizers as a “radical rethinking of SITE Santa Fe’s signature biennial exhibition, originally established in 1995.”

If we take radical for its meaning relating to the root of things, SITElines sees itself as going back to basics, back to the very basic idea that quite literally grounds us: landscape. But if you ask Deborah Jack, the Unsettled Landscapes exhibition is by no means basic.

ARC talked to the St. Maarten-born, Jersey City-based artist about her Bounty series exhibited for Unsettled LandscapesBounty is a grid-like structure that at once offers precision and infidelity. Its thirty ten-by-ten-inch lightboxes holding slides from videos of the Caribbean island of Bonaire, enunciated by vast whiteness, exist as a second in time.

We talked to her for more than that. Thank goodness.

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series – Blue Pan in Bonaire (detail 1), 2007.

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series – Blue Pan in Bonaire (detail 1), 2007.

Tiana Reid: How did you—and your Bounty series specifically—become involved with SITElines?

Deborah Jack: That piece is actually an older piece.

TR: Right, 2006.

DJ: Yeah, Christopher Cozier was one of the consulting curators for SITE Santa Fe so he knew the work from the Brooklyn Museum’s Infinite Island exhibition. And it was one of the pieces that he requested I submit. It was a proposal with two different projects and Janet Dees, the curator that we worked with at Santa Fe, chose Bounty.

TR: In terms of St. Maarten, I want to know more about the history of salt and colonialism and how that figures into the national memory. Was it something, growing up, that was talked about? If so, to what extent? It seems as though, through your work, that this is something you were trying to excavate. To what extent growing up was that part of the conversation? You know, the Great Salt Pond…

DJ: Well, the Salt Pond, because it was so central, it’s literally in our capital, you would drive by it all the time. And as a kid, it would go through stages (you wouldn’t know what it was), but sometimes it would really smell…It’s no longer being used as a salt-producing pond. It’s been polluted over the years to the extent that we would always joke that the pond was rebelling against the pollution. You know, “Since you’re gonna pollute me, I’m gonna stink.”

Not knowing anything else but a polluted pond, it was almost an eyesore in my youth. There are some people who are older…I’ve seen pictures from the seventies, and it’s blue. I was trying to figure out what the person was showing me. She said, “That’s the pond.” I had never known it to be that color.

For a certain generation, it does have this history of colonialism. But I think growing up we were kind of removed from that because we saw it as a natural resource being polluted, and that was something bad.

Later, as an artist, through my work I was starting to think about memory. I was away from St. Maarten trying to think about what things connect me to the space. What is my story? I was in grad school and we were being challenged to produce work. Growing up in St Maarten, we weren’t privy to a lot of the history of the island. There were the sort of basic stories that went around but I was asking, what are the small details?

I was curious about that amnesia, a sort of cultural amnesia, an island-wide sense of loss, of dismemory, and at the time, I was also toying with the notion of the hurricane. I was really drawn to the hurricane, more so than the salt pond initially, thinking about how the rainwater in the hurricane is salty because it sucks up the ocean as it’s going along. So I was like, “Oh yeah, look at that!” That residue, that’s why everyone washes their cars! That residue of salt was interesting to me and that’s when I began connecting it to the salt industry. Salt coming from above, salt being in the earth of the island.

I was constructing, at the time, this story for my work that was about the hurricane being a natural memorial: how nature was reminding us of the Middle Passage. That forgotten history. That history of slavery on the island.

In thinking about something that is corrosive, that will eat away at memory, but also a preservative, right? Salt can do either/or. That’s where the salt became a metaphor that I keep revisiting: to use it as a tool to play and excavate some of those ideas of history.

Deborah Jack, from the ...value of water... series, 2014.

Deborah Jack, from the …value of water… series, 2014.

TR: Yeah, I found it really interesting, doing research to prepare for this interview (reading your artist statements or articles about you), not only the tension between preservation and corrosion but also looking at your …value of water… series, you were playing with another tension: arrival and departure. What attracts you to having nature as a theme?

DJ: It’s weird because initially I was thinking of the hurricane and how I was more interested in the visuals of it; the space of imagery, playing with larger ideas and also ideas that were not controversial but potentially painful, potentially these hot spots, that I’d seen in art before. I felt like maybe there was a different way to tell a similar story about slavery, about the trauma of slavery and colonialism.

When I started thinking about spaces, I started to think about this idea that the site of trauma was also the site of healing, that the Caribbean held all of these beautiful landscapes on all these different islands, but at the same time it had this horrible history that was part of its creation in a way—not creation, but the modern [naming] of it. I started thinking about sites of healing and sites of trauma and that’s where that tension, where things exists in two spaces, came up. It came out of nature constantly regenerating itself. You could see ruins covered up with roots and vines, and nature would cover up some of our histories and integrate it. I was really intrigued by at once looking at ruins where you saw the roots that busted up the foundations of an old structure. It hadn’t eradicated the plantation house that once stood there. There were still remnants. There’s this idea of trace. And no matter how much you want to get rid of something, it’s always there, and nature coopted it and made it something else. It didn’t completely do away with it but was able to reassert a certain amount of power over it. That’s what I wanted the work to communicate and that’s why I was going to nature.

Deborah Jack, from the ...value of water... series, 2014.

Deborah Jack, from the …value of water… series, 2014.

…value of water… was one of the first pieces where I actively had a protagonist (there’s a body in it) as a central figure. It took a while to get there because I did want that absence of a figure. A lot of times when you think about colonialism and slavery, the conversation of race, you can’t avoid it. At the same time, there has [hardly] been a dialogue of: what was the effect of this whole slavery and colonization project on the colonizer and on the slave-owner? They were in exile to a certain extent as well. Even if you grew up in the colonies, your parents would try and send you to Europe to become refined again because living out in the Caribbean, you became this other thing, this other kind of person that needed to be refined so that you could fit back into European sensibility.

That was always one of those things for me growing up that I thought was so great, that [expatriates] who come to St. Maarten change. They initially come in very stiff. Bureaucrats or civil servants would come very put together and in a few years you would see them very relaxed, blending in with the local population. You’d see the new batch come in and be slightly horrified by what they found, and then eventually they would either resist or in a way join in.

Nature itself forces you to modify behaviour. Nature plays a role that is not either/or, but both/and. It can be both things. The Shore, the shoreline is also one of those spaces for me that is both arrival and departure. That was from the perspective of water. Interestingly enough, the …value of water… piece starts in the land. She’s coming from this central position in the land and moving out to the edges and navigating those spaces in between, that trip from the centre to the water; what are the things that happened along the way?

Deborah Jack, Shore, images from the 2005 installation at the Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

Deborah Jack, The Shore, image from the 2005 installation at the Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

Deborah Jack, Shore, images from the 2005 installation at the Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

Deborah Jack, The Shore, image from the 2005 installation at the Big Orbit Gallery in Buffalo, NY.

TR: This question, too, is about process, if you have one that can be replicated or identified. In your video work that I’m familiar with, I liked a lot of it for its slowness. Do you work slowly? Does your work replicate that kind of desire for a slowing down?

DJ: That’s interesting. I do have sort of a process because I live outside of St. Maarten for most of the year. When I go and I make my work in the summer, I shoot, I film, I photograph. I gather all these pieces. I don’t edit in that space; I wait until I come back up here. In a way, I’m working from memory. Maybe it is to slow that process down. I want to work from memory. I want to work from a space where I’ve exiled myself to a certain extent. When I’m working with the images, I’m kind of working from memory again. Initially with the projects, a lot of times I don’t know what I’m going to do with the images. …value of water… has been a two-year process [of shooting, editing and going back]. In that sense, the slowing down of the initial video for it, and even the other pieces, initially was to strip a lot of the images of colour at the beginning of my work. And that was because I felt I was dealing with a space that had a lot of baggage visually that can be triggered when you see a beach. It means vacation. The trigger when I see a beach is, well, that’s the place that I live in. It’s not an escape. It’s not a vacation playground.

I wanted to slow down because to me, there’s a beauty that’s more than entertainment. In the abstractness of it, there was a space for contemplation, to think, to look more deeply beyond the colour. At that point, I had a person who I had worked with, she’s an artist as well, Clara Reyes. She would drive me to certain locations and she would always say that watching me film some of those pieces is a performance in itself. There are some pieces when I have to move along the side of a branch or something. Me moving in a particular way that I know I’m going to slow down even more. It becomes kind of like dance. She’s a choreographer so she’s like, “It looks like you’re dancing with the tree.”

The slowing down is about trying to create a quiet space, not necessarily studied in a quiet way. Either driving by them or running and jumping and swimming in it. That’s the mode of operation.

Deborah Jack, from the ...value of water... series, 2014.

Deborah Jack, from the …value of water… series, 2014.

TR: Before we go back to some of your recurrent themes, can you share a little bit of what you’re working on now? Or plans? Bounty is from 2006 and I know there’s been renewed interest and investment in it for you.

DJ: The …value of water… piece is the newest work and there’s a video component that I’m still working on.

Taking Bounty and installing it again definitely renewed an interest. And you know, I always said, man, I got to go back to the salt. When I did the hurricane piece back in 2000 and used it in an exhibition, people didn’t really know (I was in the US then). They knew that a hurricane was a storm but they didn’t understand what I was talking about in terms of the potential devastation of it, the contrast between the beauty of this satellite image versus the devastation that’s happening on the ground. Then Hurricane Katrina happened. And suddenly everybody knew and was like, “Oh my god, I remember your hurricane piece.”

I’m curious to return to those two symbols: the salt and the storm. Being part of the SITE exhibition is motivating me to look at it again. Looking at the show and that conversation about this unsettled landscape, when I heard that was the title I really loved it because I felt that most of my work dealt with unsettled landscapes.

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series, 2007. Photo of the installation on display in the Infinite Islands exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, 2007. Image courtesy of Africanah.org

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series, 2007. Photo of the installation on display in the Infinite Islands exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, 2007. Image courtesy of Africanah.org

TR: Yes! I know! I really felt like it fit so crazily perfectly.

DJ: In my own ruminations, playing with that notion of unsettled landscape or unresolved spaces or unresolved memories, that is intriguing to me as an artist.

TR: Can you talk more about your interest in rememory? What I really like about rememory, from mostly only reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved (i.e. the primary text for that theory) is the way it both allows us to think about a more active remembering but also something that festers, lies beneath and maybe comes up at certain times when you smell something, or whatever. Can you speak more about your current interest in rememory and how that frames your work?

DJ: Rememory has been there from the beginning in the sense that, when I was in grad school, I couldn’t really connect to a lot of the theorists that I was being asked to read. In trying to find my own theory, I looked to Toni Morrison and Beloved. Beloved being this embodiment of memory and a memory that, yeah, has been festering, that has a surface, but has this underlying chord that’s not pleasant, a haunting that comes back to you. I started thinking about the hurricane, and even my idea around the hurricane, as being a form of rememory.

I had read an essay by Toni Morrison called “The Site of Memory,” where she talks about Beloved and rememory while she was writing Beloved, and how when it came to her she ran out of the house. She ran through the front door. This memory that comes back to you may not necessarily be your own memory, but it needs to be re-membered. There’s this energy that needs to be acknowledged. For me, that’s what the storm was. I started thinking that the storm, if you have all these bodies that were cast overboard and died in the Middle Passage, then you have all these unjust deaths, and you have the soul that doesn’t rest because it has died in an unjust way, then all those souls must create new energy in that space. That’s what the hurricane became to me: this natural memory of all of this loss.

With a lot of my work, sometimes I don’t know where this stuff comes from. So it’s this remembering or re-putting together; remember something that has been dismembered, put back together, whether it’s history or stories.

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series, 2007. Photo of the installation on display in the Infinite Islands exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, 2007. Image courtesy of Africanah.org

Deborah Jack, The Bounty Series, 2007. Photo of the installation on display in the Infinite Islands exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, 2007. Image courtesy of Africanah.org

TR: My last question is about SITElines generally and how you felt it was received, but more importantly, in relationship to the other work present, what kinds of ideas did it spur for you?

DJ: I thought the show was pretty amazing. It was almost a general consensus from most of the artists that I met from the show. We were all really pleased. SITE Sante Fe really honoured the work that was put up. At one point we had a panel discussion, and I remember Blue Curry made a comment that the work wasn’t presented as: “Here are the Caribbean artists in the show.” It was just this larger discussion about unsettled landscapes and how refreshing that was to not be seen as this one-dimensional artist. I want to echo that sentiment as well. The work in the show was really well thought-out. As artists, it was really great to interact with each other and talk to each other about what we were seeing and all these interpretations of the notion of the Americas. For them, extending the Americas to Canada—of course Canada is part of the Americas—but a lot of the time, we tend to exclude them. I lived in Buffalo, so I’m always aware of Canada. [laughs]

It was really refreshing to see what some of the First Nations artists were making and the overlap of ideas, in terms of land issues: use of land, identity, and how identity and land are tied together in some spaces.

Installations were really given an opportunity to breathe. I really love the way my work was installed. Christopher Cozier, he had seen it in Brooklyn, and he thought, wow, this is a really nice presentation of this project. They really thought about what the work was next to and what dialogue it was having in the space.

Unsettled Landscapes runs at SITE Sante Fe until January 11, 2015.

Tiana Reid
Tiana Reid

Tiana Reid is ARC's Junior Arts Writer. Her work has appeared in or on Bitch, The Feminist Wire, Hyperallergic, Maisonneuve Magazine, The New Inquiry, The State, The Toast, VICE, and more. She is also a PhD student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.