Artist Highlight: Ryan Dewey
“Ryan Dewey’s work is a kind of socially-engaged ecological dreaming that takes shape as installation, performance, research, transformational workshops, and land art.
He has an MA in cognitive science from Case Western Reserve University where he wrote Hack the Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science (Punctum Books, in press) during two appointments as visiting researcher. He is the founder and principal of Geologic Cognition Society, an art collaborative focused on reconnecting people to nature by building experiences and site-specific installations that play with emotion and perception in effort to shape collective experience of place. His writing on emotional design and landscape design has appeared in international publications including KERB, MONU, and Archinect. His business-as-form/speculative design work been written about in Nicola Twilley’s Edible Geography & Warren Ellis’ newsletter, Orbital Operations. His spatial-emotional practice has been covered by the Psychonomic Society.
His object-based, performance, and installation work pops up in unexpected venues including the British Society for Geomorphology, the American Association of Geographers, the Annenberg School for Communication, Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, Kickstarter, and living history festivals, as well as more traditional art venues including SPACES, ACRE, and artist run-spaces across the country.”
Tell us a little about your background as an artist
I do post-disciplinary work that addresses ecological and social issues by conjuring new tools and processes for collaboration with nature. But art is kind of a second career for me, I originally worked as an anthropologist, linguist, and cognitive scientist and I bring that history to my work as I look at embodiment, human systems, and ecological systems. I’ve always been fascinated with geology and geography and I starting thinking about ways people and cultures think about landscape and the environment and that sort of led into my current practice. I started off collaborating with architects and other artists to design installations with my collaborative Geologic Cognition Society (geocog.org) and then I just started working more and more on my own. I guess I came to art through academics and research and I feel like that set me up to do the kind of work I do now.
Where are you based now and how would you describe what you do?
I’m currently in Cleveland, Ohio, but I’ve lived a lot of places: Chicago, Hawai’i, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, England, and my practice has definitely been informed by my time in those other places. I’d actually say what I’m doing now is thinking about what we mean when we talk about “place” - I look at the shuffling of resources across the globe, the way we categorize places, how place is a fluid concept. I’d also say my work focuses on illuminating the hidden costs of modern society to help people think about nature in new ways. I utilize empathy, ritual and speculative design to communicate important topics in climate change, land use, and infrastructural systems.
Also, being in the Great Lakes region is interesting because I can’t help but think about geologic time and the ancient Silurian sea that covered this area 300 million years ago, how that produced limestone deposits and then a salt deposit, how glaciers covered that massive salt deposit with 2,000 feet of glacial till, and then how receding glaciers melted into the current Great Lakes, and then how in civic time the limestone and salt deposits prompted the types of towns and cities that popped up along the lakes - limestone is a flux material in making steel, salt is a commodity that enabled westward expansion, etc. Now thinking about the Great Lakes as a reserve of almost 25% of the freshwater on earth, this region is an ideal spot to be investigating and making work about the deep future and the social, ecological, and political effects of climate change. I make work that looks at the way systems are entangled into what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects” - huge networks of non-local connections between dynamic massive systems and I feel like the Great Lakes has plenty of sites to untangle.
Describe the technical process you use to create your work
My process is pretty simple. I usually start with a readily available raw material that I find through a supply chain (whether it’s a big-box retailer, a direct source like a quarry, the internet, etc.) and I explore the way that material is entangled in the geologic system that produced it. And then I look at how some human system connects to that geologic system. This lets me draw formal comparisons between geologic systems and human systems.
Here’s an example: a big part of my work compares supply chains to glaciers. I started this project called IMPLEMENTS FOR FUTURE GLACIAL SCOURING to look at how our supply chains make marks in the environment in a functionally similar way as the mark-making performed by glaciers. One day I was walking in a limestone quarry and I found granite erratic. An erratic is a stone that has been moved by a glacier - it usually leaves a mark in the environment like a groove or a striation (there are some famous glacial striations in Central Park in New York City). This particular erratic had moved maybe a thousand miles over a thousand years down from Canada between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. A thousand miles is far for a rock to move by a natural process. But I can buy a box of granite floor tiles from China at a local home improvement store and it only takes two weeks for the tiles to move from China to Ohio. Human systems have exceeded natural systems in moving natural materials, it’s like supply chains have become geologic forces in their own right. By drawing formal comparisons between supply chains and geologic forces like glaciers my work highlights how capitalism acts as a geologic process to extract and displace resources on global scales.
And the granite moved by the supply chain leaves a mark just like the granite moved by the glacier - only in the case of the supply chain granite it is actually leaving the mark of global warming which is pushing off the next ice age further and further into the deep future. So I started to think about how I could take the supply chain granite and turn it into something that referenced the natural system of glacial movement of granite in a way that also highlighted the climate consequences of global warming. I used the Chinese granite floor tiles to reconstruct granite boulders to be placed in arrays in the landscape to prime the landscape with future erratic’s (or future cutting tools) to be used by the next glacier in the next ice age. In the meantime, they sit like memorial stones and latent objects to help people think about how supply chains played a part in accelerated global warming.
Why would you describe yourself as an environmental artist? What is the relationship between your work and nature?
I would probably identify more as an ecological artist, because I typically isolate a system and look at the ecology at play, the relationships and the entanglements - this lets me abstract away from nature to see how a natural ecology is perforated by a human system like a supply chain and a big box retailer’s store shelves, but I always bring the conversation back to the ecological impact, so I guess in that sense I am an environmental artist.
Why would you say that your art is purpose-driven? If so, what do you aim to accomplish through your creative expression?
Sure, you could say that it is purpose driven - I work to produce tools that enable some sort of human-geologic collaboration, but I also leave room for producing other work that is tangled in the other threads of my practice. I want people to experience nature in new ways; I want people to be able to mentally encounter deep time in both directions, the deep geologic past and the deep future. I want people to think about collaborations that they can build with natural systems and how they might take the focus of off humans and to think more ecologically about the problems we currently face.
What do you hope your art communicates to those who come into contact with it?
I have this piece I made that is an empathy-machine of sorts that aims to encourage people to take discrete actions to nurture and protect the environment. It’s called KEEP US ALIVE and it is a terrarium planting of a selaginella moss in a sealed acrylic cylinder that I embedded in a block of cement. The moss has everything it needs to live, it has water, enough soil and soil nutrients to grow, but it lacks an essential ingredient for life: it doesn’t have any light, so it can’t complete respiration through photosynthesis. But I embedded a tiny LED grow light in the cement block with a red push-button that sticks up out of the top of the cement, and when you press and hold down the button, the moss is fed with light. This moss has to be nurtured, but I don’t actually know if it is alive or dead (it’s kind of like Schrödinger's cat meets a Tamagotchi digital pet) - it takes faith and empathy that my discrete action of depressing the tiny red button actually makes a difference for the moss (that I can’t see because it’s buried in the cement block). You know, with a houseplant you can see if it needs watering, but this plant doesn’t let me know anything about it’s health, I have to just do my part even though I don’t know if it makes a difference or not. The question for me is, if I can encourage people to take a discrete action on a small environment that they can’t see, can I also encourage them to take action on a larger environment that they can’t see because it is non-local (bigger than any one location)? I guess that’s a big message I try to make with all of my work - in seeing the way I frame an ecological problem, I want people to think about untangling and solving the problem.
Which environmental issues and causes are you most passionate about?
I’m mostly interested in resource-extraction and the shuffling of geologic materials on planetary scales through supply chain optimisation, but I’m also interested in landform ontology - the way that people, cultures and corporations have different ways of categorising the same space because that has implications for resource extraction. And, I’m interested in the way that capitalism drives global warming and what that means for our cultural expressions in the deep future. How political value systems clash with social value systems when it comes to issues of globalisation is something I’m starting to think more about lately. Stuff like that.
Do you have any upcoming projects or exhibitions that you’d like to share with us?
Yes, I do! Thanks for asking. I have a few things lined up for next year, but the ones I’m most excited about are: an upcoming show at ACRE projects in Chicago next November that is curated by Kate Sierzputowski, and the release of my upcoming book Hack the Experience: Tools for Artists from Cognitive Science (Punctum Books) that is due out early next year. It’s a solid book of skills and templates that installation artists, architects, curators, and gallerists can use to design spatial experiences that subtly engage visitors through sensory, spatial, emotional, and other phenomenological channels to basically hack people’s experience of your art. You can check it out on the publisher’s website here.