Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Rachel Sussman’

30 APRIL, 2014

Perseverance, Self-Transcendence, and the “Slow Churn” of Creativity: A Conversation with Artist Rachel Sussman

By:

How deep time puts our fleeting human lives in perspective, what it takes to persist, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires sacrifice.

At a recent event at the School of Visual Arts Theater in New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman about The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — her decade-long labor-of-love photographic masterpiece at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy highlighting thirty humbling organisms over 2,000 years of age, which I’ve covered at length previously. In our conversation, we explore how deep time helps make sense of our fleeting human lives, what the role of the “slow churn” of ideation is in the creative process, and why any meaningful creative endeavor requires an act of self-transcendence.

Transcribed highlights below, and be sure to see Sussman’s superb photographs, contextualized by her thoughtful essays.

On the project as a cultural reality check and a personal reminder of our place in the universe:

MP: NPR recently shared a survey that found 40% of the American public doesn’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old. We know, of course, that scientifically speaking, Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. And yet what’s most striking is that we — all of us, globally, still use Christianity as the basis for measuring and dating time. The year 2014, for instance, is based on the story of Christ, year one being his birth in that story. But when one beholds, say, a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, it’s impossible — impossible — to continue believing such mythology. When you were starting this project, did you have any sense that besides a masterwork of art, it would also be a tremendously important and powerful piece of science communication and a cultural reality-check? And how do you see the project’s role in that regard, now that the book is complete?

RS: One of the things I was aiming to do was to anthropomorphize these organisms as a way to connect and start to forge a personal connection, which really is a philosophical one, when you start to look at, for instance, the 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree, and what does that mean. For me, this is something that has taken years to sink in — you get it, on an intellectual level, but by returning to this topic again and again … and making more connections to these organisms and understanding how they are all interconnected, that starts to create a bigger picture that’s both about deeper and broader time that belongs to all of us, but also that our individual moments matter quite a bit and are part of that chronology.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

On finding a sense of purpose, the doggedness necessary for creating meaningful work, and the importance of defining our success in terms more authentic than outside approval:

MP: I want to talk a little bit about this notion of faith — ungrounded, unevidenced faith that carried you through.

A young woman recently reached out to me and asked for some advice, and complained that she had just started working for a major publication six weeks prior. She complained that she was really frustrated that she couldn’t build an audience in those six weeks, and she was ready to throw in the towel.

You’ve been doing this for a decade — you’ve been doing it completely guided by your own inner compass, inner radar, and not having any sort of solid positive reinforcement from the outside. What carried you through it, what gave you that center that told you this was something that had a sense of purpose on the scale of your life and defined success in terms other than immediate rewards?

RS: [Laughing] I certainly wasn’t in it for the immediate rewards.

I couldn’t not do it — that is the simplest answer. I felt so compelled by that idea, and it felt important to me that I see it through.

That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t terrifying along the way… It was quite a long battle just getting to the point where I felt this is something that really is worth my time and attention, and then I had the idea and I thought, “How am I ever going to do this idea justice?” And I grappled with that for a while. And over the years it just changed and transformed, and I grew more confident the more I looked at it. But it took that time. When I started … I didn’t know what I was doing, and these things revealed themselves to me by having that continued attention to it.

It’s hard to say what the magic ingredient is, other than perseverance. And, certainly, you can’t throw in the towel after six weeks.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

MP: Since you started the project, you’ve been working with the Climate Reality Project as an official presenter doing public outreach. So I wonder how the ecological component of the work accelerated in urgency for you, personally, doing this?

RS: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist, for whatever that term means, and it’s something that I think, as an artist, was an interesting thing — because for a long time, I don’t think it was particularly acceptable in the fine art world to be doing work about nature. It’s something that was sort of in a compartment somewhere off to the side…

The problem of climate change is so pressing and actually is something of a moral imperative for us all, and I think artists do a tremendous job of engaging the public on different levels [compared to hearing] some numbers about the C02 levels — it’s hard to internalize that. And I think that’s one of the beauties of being able, as a creative person, to create the parameters of what you want to talk about. The science and the climate science are a very important component of the overall project. That message certainly underpins the whole thing and has been with me and with it from the beginning.

The question has been this idea of making portraits of these organisms and thinking of them as individuals. I think one of the most important things to do when dealing with climate science and climate change is to create a personal connection, and to create some relationship. That was my way of trying to forge a relationship to these organisms.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

On how the project began when Sussman first photographed an ancient tree in Japan, the myth of the Eureka! moment, and how the slow accumulation of combinatorial creativity sparked this decade-long journey:

I didn’t know I was doing the project yet — I didn’t have the idea, and I didn’t have an epiphany standing in front of [that first tree] … It was actually sitting at a Thai restaurant in Soho over a year later that I got the idea — so you never know when inspiration [will strike].

But this is actually something that I think is so vital to the creative process… I didn’t know at the time, but I find it incredibly comforting now — it’s something that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of the “the slow churn” … just following these different paths, the things that intrigue you, and allowing them to simmer in there until something fires in your brain and all of a sudden these connections happen.

I did have the a-ha! moment — but it probably was a year and a half in the making.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

On self-doubt, creative resilience and making the choice to pursue this project:

I knew I was going to make sacrifices — I don’t think I knew I was going to make as many sacrifices as I did. But that’s okay. There are moments where I felt doubt, because I think every creative person does — and if they don’t, there’s probably an issue [laughing] — but there was never a moment that I wanted to give up.

On the disconnect between exposure and financial success, an important reminder in a culture where artists are constantly asked to do work for free and be “paid” in exposure:

Just because your name is in the paper, it doesn’t mean you have money to pay your rent.

On realizing, while working as a digital producer, that paying work and fulfilling work are not always the same thing:

I had a moment while I was sitting working for some website for some brand, and I thought, “This doesn’t matter. This isn’t how I want to spend my days, this is not the way that I want to put something out into the world that is of significance.”

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

On the notion of the “audience”:

MP: Oscar Wilde famously said that to the artist, the public is “nonexistent” and Hemingway believed that writing is a solitary act which necessitates no witnessing audience until the very end. And for you, certainly, this was a very solitary project… But you wrote in Nature, in a beautiful essay:

“There are a lot of happy accidents. Both art and science can be filled with passion and frustration, setbacks and breakthroughs. But, most importantly, the work is never meant to exist in a vacuum … it is the audience that completes the picture.”

So I wonder how your sense of “the audience” evolved over the course of the project.

RS: When I first started the project, even though I knew it was meant to exist on these different levels and have different aspects, I didn’t really know how I was going to communicate that. So I think that it was just important that I be able to create a connection with these different aspects, but that it would be different for different people. So, if you’re a scientist, you may go straight for the science, and if you’re a visual artist, you might just look at the pictures. But the idea was that I wanted to intermingle all of these things, and let people bring what they will to it. So there’s not a right and a wrong way — it’s not prescriptive in that way…

It’s completed by the person taking it in, and that’s something that I realized over time as well — that I want to have all of those layers there, and I see them as a whole, but I also have an understanding that … there’s just as much value if you get one thing out of it and not the other. My hope is that it sparks some thought or conversation in the audience, and it’s not just meant to be a document filed away — it’s actually meant to engage, and I hope that it will serve as something that is a call to action, whatever that might mean for people.

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

And engage it does — The Oldest Living Things in the World is a masterwork of pause-giving perspective, both cultural and personal. Sample its dimensional genius here.

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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14 APRIL, 2014

The Oldest Living Things in the World: A Decade-Long Photographic Masterpiece at the Intersection of Art, Science, and Philosophy

By:

What a 13,000-year-old eucalyptus tree reveals about the meaning of human life.

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Indeed, it is this capacity for questioning that makes Sussman’s perspective particularly powerful. She herself, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art, considers it the supreme responsibility of the artist:

The role as an artist [is] to answer some questions, but to ask many more.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Bristlecone pine detail

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Sussman writes in the preface:

What does it mean when the organic goes head-to-head with the geologic? We start talking about deep time and the quotidian in the same breath, along with all the strata in between. All of these organisms are living palimpsests: they contain myriad layers of their own histories within themselves, along with records of natural and human events; new chapters written over the old, year after year, millennium after millennium. When we look at them in the frame of deep time, a bigger picture emerges, and we start to see how all of the individuals have stories, and that all of those stories are in turn interconnected — and in turn, inextricably connected to us all.

[…]

The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future.

Brain coral

2,000 years | Speyside, Tobago

Baobab

2,000 years | Limpopo, South Africa

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

To be sure, the project has resonance far deeper and wider than a purely artistic pursuit. In a culture where 40% of people don’t believe the world is more than 6,000 years old — a kind of faith-washing known as Young Earth Creationism — Sussman’s work brings to light tangible, irrefutable, gloriously alive evidence of the scientific reality. After all, when beholding a majestic 13,000-year-old Eucalyptus tree, how can human arrogance dare deny its reality under the blindness of dogma?

Indeed, the exploration of deep time is one of the most powerful elements in Sussman’s work — certainly a scientific concept, in terms of being concerned with biology, geology, and astrophysics, but also very much a philosophical one raising enormously important, if unsettling, existential questions: Why are we here? How can we matter if we’re gone in the blink of a cosmic eye, the metaphorical minute of a Bristlecone Pine’s day? And, most importantly, what gives us the arrogance to consider ourselves atop the hierarchy of living organisms? We extol our intelligence as the uniquely human faculty that sets us apart from other animals, but even our definitions of intelligence are narrowly anthropocentric and based on things we humans happen to be good at. Surely there’s a special kind of biological and existential intelligence in an organism capable of such remarkable resilience — an organism that can outlive us by millennia and witness all of our fleeting struggles while it remains unflinchingly rooted in its particular corner of the ecosystem.

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria

400,000-600,000 years | Kolyma Lowlands, Siberia

Chestnut of 100 Horses with fresh lava

3,000 years | Sant'Alfio, Sicily

Because of its unique cross-disciplinary slant and dimensional scope, the book comes with two introductory essays — an art one by art-world legend and curator extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist and a science one by Carl Zimmer, one of the finest and most respected science writers working today.

Obrist elegantly applies the late and great philosopher Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of “the protest against forgetting” to Sussman’s work and celebrates it as a living archive of remembrance. He writes:

The oldest living things may well not be a clear category science-wise, but it is a category that is defined by curiosity, humane character, a fascination with deep time, and the courage of an explorer.

In the science essay, Zimmer explores how lives become long and why the remarkable timescale of these organisms’ lifespans matters — not just scientifically, but also culturally:

The durable mystery of longevity makes the species in this book all the more precious, and all the more worthy of being preserved. Looking at an organism that has endured for thousands of years is an awesome experience, because it makes us feel like mere gastrotrichs. But it is an even more awesome experience to recognize the bond we share with a 13,000-year-old Palmer’s oak tree, and to wonder how we evolved such different lifetimes on this Earth.

Lower slope leading to Palmer's Oak

13,000 years | Riverside, California, USA

Box Huckleberry (Bibleberry) branches stripped by deer

8,000 to 13,000 years | Perry County, Pennsylvania, USA

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Even more fascinating than how much we know, however, is how much we don’t — many of these organisms stand as a testament to the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” that drives science. In a book chapter exploring the 2,000-year-old Stromatolites of Western Australia — a species composed of bound cyanobacteria that formed about 3 billion years ago and undertook the Herculean task of oxygenating our then-oxygen-poor planet — Sussman observes:

It’s remarkable that we know so little about the origins of life on our planet. We know more about surfaces of other planets than we do about the beginnings of life on our own.

The Senator (bald cypress)

3,500 years | Seminole County, Florida

One of the most moving stories in the book is that of the Senator tree in Florida, one of the oldest Cypress trees in the world, which Sussman originally wrote for Brain Pickings a few years ago. She had photographed the Senator in 2007, but upon developing the film — Sussman shoots with a medium-format film camera for her high-quality fine art prints — she found herself unhappy with the result and resolved to return to the tree down the line. Since it was one of the most easily accessible organisms in her stable — what’s a sunny flight to Florida next to a harrowing weeklong voyage to Antarctica’s icy cliffs? — and since the tree had been around for 3,500 years, she figured it could wait.

Then, in January of 2012, news broke that a mysterious fire had burned the Senator to the ground. Unsettled and full of unease, Sussman immediately got on a plane to shoot the charred remains of the mighty tree, the only sign of its former brush with Forever. She poignantly observes:

Extreme longevity can lull us into a false sense of permanence. We fall into a quotidian reality devoid of long-term thinking, certain that things which have been here “forever” will remain, unchanging. But being old is not the same as being immortal. Even second chances have expiration dates. The comparative ease of access and the seeming lack of urgency bred a complacency in my return to the Senator.

The charred remains of the Senator Tree, February 8, 2012

The most devastating part? It was later discovered that the cause of the fire was a group of twenty-somethings who had broken into the park after dark, high on meth, climbed inside the tree, and lit matches or a lighter to “see the drugs better,” setting the Senator ablaze and erasing thousands of years of natural wisdom under the influence of synthetic senility.

But this story, too, is one of optimism. Sussman writes:

For the Senator, there is a chance at a second life: clippings from the tree were taken years ago and successfully propagated in a nursery. In February 2013, after a careful root-stabilization process, a forty-foot grafted tree was successfully transplanted back into the Senator’s original spot and has already sprouted fresh growth and gained in height. Four artisans and several institutions were selected to make works honoring the Senator’s legacy. The stump has been incorporated into the playground area.

In this beautiful short trailer by filmmaker Jonathan Minnard offers glimpse of Sussman’s extraordinary world:

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

The Oldest Living Things in the World is absolutely remarkable in its entirety — a true masterpiece of compassionate curiosity and cross-disciplinary brilliance. A limited collectors’ edition is also available, housed in a gorgeous handcrafted, cloth-encased box, including a signed print of the Spruce image on the cover.

For more, see Sussman’s 2010 TED talk:

All photographs © Rachel Sussman published exclusively with the artist’s permission

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