A. Laurie Palmer
The ground locates us, offers us a place to stand. It locates our body in relation to what isn’t only human, but also mineral, vegetable, and otherly-animal, and we can feel when any of these elements are severely lacking, even if we aren’t conscious of that lack. Ground, earth, soil, dirt, rock, matter, nature (not synonymous, but linked) engage us in an infinite conversation with materiality: its givingness manifesting our longings and plans, and its resistance frustrating them. Our relationship with matter is characterized by longstanding ambivalence and constant revision, most obviously as matter’s grain size shrinks and evades our sensory grasp, and as image and screen preempt the need for being, or going, there.
Is it possible to imagine agentic matter? Active matter? Matter pushing back on the conveyor belt, in the factory assembly line? At every point that we think we are making something—even the “making” of sand—we are responding to matter’s dictates as we build our factories and assembly lines around these requirements. The wallboard plant above the gypsum mine in central Indiana is exactly 900 feet long based on the hardening time that gypsum requires, combined with the speed of the conveyor belt calculated to turn out product in time with market demands. If such calibrations seem like the epitome of instrumentalization and control, they can also be seen as collaborations, matter exerting its requirements, a version of the resistance of the material world that Michael Benedikt called “real,” in contrast with cyberspace (“What is real pushes back”). What would a politics of matter look like? Would it be located in a broad understanding of materiality (and nature) as complexity itself, and even accident, what is not, and can’t be, totally known, designed, or programmed? Such a perspective of respect, in which our knowledge is understood as supplementary, and not presumed to be comprehensive, could, paradoxically, return a willfulness to matter, a willfulness that can’t be dominated—so that matter, in its quantum emptiness and irreducible complexity, is understood to exert an active force. If animal, vegetable, mineral, and human all share aspects of the same mobile substance, we might recognize aspects of ourselves in the non-human world, and through this identification it might be possible to unravel the approach of domination and hierarchical control that structures our relations to the material earth, and by extension, to each other.
 “Resistance to desire constitutes realness.” Michael Benedikt quoted in Jeffrey Meikle, American Plastic (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1995), 301-302.
From 'Introduction', In the Aura of a Hole
The day we spent at the beach in California Sam had been telling me about his dissertation which was almost finished. He explained how the same thing can be described accurately in two different ways but not at the same time, and therefore could be statistically either one of those two things. His project addressed the problem of groundwater contamination by nuclear wastes and how to devise means to calculate how quickly and in what ways contaminated water would percolate through an aquifer. Time was important—it was not a question of whether this stuff would move, but when, how fast, and in what manner. Sam’s project combined uncertainty with determinism. He was dying then, but didn’t know how soon—it would be six years before protease inhibitors were developed. He was on an experimental protocol, but not one that was working. I understood for a moment that statistics was not simply a default mode for guessing what we don’t yet know for sure (but will be able to know eventually, in a deterministic universe), but an attempt to deal deterministically with fundamental unknowing. If quantum theory gives us permission to imagine anything as what it is and what it’s not simultaneously—both particle and wave, matter and anti-matter—how does this help? In one of the nuclear explosion dreams I had been having at the time, I watched my two lovers dematerialize into tiny glittering points like pixels on a computer screen. Sam, who was not my lover, dematerialized too, like them, and he also stood there, fully formed and watching, next to me.
From 'Silicon', In the Aura of a Hole
Palmer's work is concerned, most immediately, with resistance to privatization, and more generally, with theoretical and material explorations of matter’s active nature as it asserts itself on different scales and in different speeds. She also collaborates on strategic actions in the contexts of social and environmental justice. Collaboration, with other humans and with non-humans, is a central ethic in her practice. Her work takes various forms as sculpture, installation, public projects, and writing. She pursued an extended exploration of mineral extraction sites in the U.S. and published this work in 2014 as In the Aura of a Hole, with Black Dog Publishing. She is currently researching how lichen resists capitalism, and how we might feel empathy for a stone through visualizing deep underground shale deposits. Palmer collaborated with the four-person art collective Haha for twenty years. She is currently a Professor in the Art Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
What are you currently working on?
Thank you for asking! I am watching lichen, with a video camera, organizing lichen walks, and interviewing people who spend a lot of time with lichen. This relationship, the human/lichen relationship, seems to me to carry a lot of potential for altering human behavior, or at least providing alternative models for how to be with. Of course the scale of this project remains intimate, small, and slow — which is part of the idea, to slow down and pay a different kind of attention to a very non-spectacular organism. But I am also drawn to some seriously radical qualities of lichen that render them almost heroic: their longevity (long life spans, some into the thousands of years); their adaptability and worldwide distribution (evolved on earth before vascular plants and live in every kind of environment including where nothing else can, like deserts and at both cold poles); their refusal to grow or reproduce on demand (can’t be cultivated in a lab, for instance, and certainly can’t be farmed at any speed that would render the mysterious and useful substances they produce profitable, hence their resistance to capitalism); their two-ness (every lichen is a composite organism of a fungus and an alga that depend on each other — a relational being that undermines the primacy of individualism, and western assumptions that everything starts with one). So even as I accept the intimacy at the core of the project, I would also like to involve more people in looking and thinking together — lichen walks anyone?
There is another project on the back burner that focuses on very large scale underground structures, shale deposits. In this I am exploring the limits of scientific visualizations of the underground, and also how political boundaries and geologic entities intersect. But this project is in its infancy. I have made a grossly distorted and giant dress form as a stand-in for human hubris and am fashioning a cape striped in fractured strata. Just a beginning (a sculptural sketch) to think about these things.
Your practice straddles disciplines and media. You work in sculpture, installation. You've worked as an art critic and social activist. Is there a principal creative practice for you?
Working begins with writing, and reading, and projects erupt in their own necessary forms out of those practices. It is exhausting and I always feel like a beginner. I wish I also looked at lots of other peoples work as much as I used to, because that is necessary for working in context, as part of a conversation. The art writing was a way to thoroughly think through what someone else was doing, and publishing that made the thinking more precise. It was also an opportunity to contribute ideas to a public forum. I would like to do some of that again, though the forms have changed, and teaching has taken up a lot of those energies of thinking into the work of others.
Social activism is separate from art making for me now. I didn’t always think of it as separate, and I don’t think it has to be, but right now there is an urgency that supersedes the time-frame of how I make art (which is slow) and the kinds of expectations I have for art. Chicago Torture Justice Memorials started with art as a central component but it shifted halfway to an all-out activist campaign and then, to concrete implementation of our victory via setting up long-term institutions. That’s an interesting shift, and I am sorry that I am no longer living in Chicago to continue working on that. (face to face and place-based are crucial components for me).
Is there, in this, any core that unifies these interest, concerns, practices (is there even a need for a core)?
Good question! But we become different in every relationship, and every project is a relationship. If I might use the lichen analogy here, neither the fungus nor the alga on their own would look anything like the lichen they form together. Of course I would like to be good at something, but maybe I am good at theorizing multiplicity, which is necessary to make room to manifest many selves, and to proselytize about it, because generally it is coherent identities that are valued most for being strong, rather than understood as also perhaps constrained?
Constraint can be good too — I want to make room for many versions of being.
That might be the core — a strong desire to open up alternate ways to be, to be with, to think about things, and to imagine different futures. This brings up potentiality and open-ended processes of creative evolution as “spaces” where I like to hang out (which also means that projects take a long time to finish).
Is it right to say that your practice isn't traditional? In your art practice you don't limit your work to one material or craft? Similarly in Hole there's a knowledgeable slip between types of writing - from biography, to science writing, history, to testimony, to analysis, to social observation and commentary.
In the Aura of a Hole manifests in writing something of the multiplicity mentioned above. I am not, to be clear, talking about a psychological experience of multiple selves, but about contextual differences that bring out different selves. In the book, I wanted to engage with many different aspects of a place, and this seemed to require different kinds of writing. I also wanted to stay immersed, or entangled, in the place and the writing myself, not to keep my distance. This was my reason to physically visit each place, and also why autobiography comes in sometimes.
How hard was it to place for publishing? It would fit well with works like Forensis - The Architecture of Public Truth, as it is an enquiry, or better still, Taussig's My Cocaine Museum, which strikes a similar personable relation to the reader.
It was very hard to place the book. I had imagined it would be primarily writing, but Black Dog does art books, so the images became important. In the end, Black Dog seemed a good fit, and I am glad there are a lot of pictures, but that meant the writing is too small and the margins are much too tight!
You put yourself as the locus, smack in the centre. What's unusual here, is that this presence is so full of questions. Some of these questions are pragmatic and practical, about mining, about business, and history. Most notably, when you speak about social contexts you are cautious about making assumptions, and you interrogate your own assumptions. You place questions and doubt in a considered way. This approach turns a dense subject into a conversation.
It was important to me not to write a screed against mining, or to write anything predictable. This is not only for aesthetic reasons but because complexity is a certain kind of politic. This is why I feel the need to separate activism from art - not because I don’t want to address similar, serious issues in both art and political realms, or because I don’t think art can contribute to change, but because it works differently.
Your work has involved collaborative practices, not only with Haha (1987-2001), but more recently with political and social concerns. The group you worked with were key to forcing the official recognition of police violence in Chicago.
We started Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) with a core group of 17 artists, attorneys, scholars, and activists, initially to use art to push for justice because the justice system had failed, reached a dead end, when the main perpetrator of 20 years of police torture on Chicago's SouthSide was sentenced for only 4 years for perjuring himself, and the torture was not acknowledged . CTJM worked on cultural projects for two years, including staging a massive exhibition of 75 proposals for how to support and memorialize African American survivors of torture by Chicago police. Then the project shifted gears to an all-out political campaign for Reparations, and it was the collaboration, in this stage, with other activist groups (Black People Against Police Torture, Project NIA, Black and Pink, We Charge Genocide, and others involved with Black Lives Matter campaigns) that led to passing the Reparations Ordinance in May 2015, the first reparations legislation in a U.S. municipality for racially motivated law enforcement violence (chicagotorture.org). (All of this work developed from a foundation of decades of relentless street activism in the Black community as well.)
The book bridges writing disciplines, in the way that cultural anthropology texts manage to move from personal accounts, to social and cultural analysis. How aware of the type of book you were writing were you. In other words, who is the perfect reader?
You! Your questions speak to what I had hoped to do. Thank you for being such an attentive and curious reader.
A. Laurie Palmer website
UK / US publisher Black Dog Publishing
In the Aura of a Hole: Exploring Sites of Material Extraction at Amazon at Powells
Chicago Torture Justice Memorials, website
Chicago Torture Justice Memorials (CTJM) aims to honor and to seek justice for the survivors of Chicago police torture, their family members and the African American communities affected by the torture. In 2010 CTJM, a group of attorneys, artists, educators, and social justice activists, put out a call for speculative memorials to recall and honor the two-decades long struggle for justice waged by torture survivors and their families, attorneys, community organizers, and people from every neighborhood and walk of life in Chicago. This effort culminated in a major exhibition of 75 proposals and a year-long series of associated teach-ins, roundtables, and other public events in 2011-2013.CTJM now turns its attention to a campaign for reparations for those affected by Chicago Police torture, and to working in solidarity with other groups and individuals for racial justice and to end police violence and mass incarceration.
From the CTJM website