Disrupt the Everyday and Point to the Critical: Interview with Alana Bartol
Interview held by Anj Fermor in April 2020 on Treaty 7 Territory in Mohkintstis (Calgary)
Alana Bartol comes from a long line of water witches. Through collaborative and individual works, she creates relationships between the personal sphere and the landscape, particular to this time of ecological crisis. A multidisciplinary artist with a B.F.A. from the University of Windsor and an M.F.A. from Detroit’s Wayne State University, she has been a visitor to Mohkinstsis (Calgary), Alberta for 5 years. In 2019, she was longlisted for the Sobey Art Award. She currently teaches at Alberta University of the Arts.
"I’m interested in having conversations with people who completely disagree with me [...] But how do you even enter into these conversations in Alberta?"
Alana Bartol, Dowser. Dowsing at orphan well site 02-26-031-25W4 (Three Hills, AB). Photo by Karin McGinn. Courtesy of the artist.
I’ve seen many artists including the theme of the flaneur in their work. That idea of the walker, the urban observer, the saunterer if you will. But many of them are male. Many are cis, able-bodied. Many are white. The artistic and written embodiments of the flaneur, all the way to its literary origins in 19th-century France, are most often privileged. Those who can walk the streets, float around, and observe the world without worry are, to be frank, a privileged few. However, there are contemporary artists who are now questioning this character of the flaneur or walker and its assumptions about access and the body in the public realm.
When I was looking into your works that surround themes of walking such as the 2012 Un-camouflaging #12 and the Ghillie Suit project, I appreciated that you often — actually, almost always —included the political and social aspects of what it meant for you to be the one walking. And then furthermore you often contextualized what it meant to be walking in the specific environment that you were in.
I’ve read this theme in your work but I want to know what experiences or research that you’re drawing from that feeds into this theme of walking, exploring, or existing in a space.
With Ghillie Suit, I think the idea of the flaneur hadn’t entered my conceptualization of that work when I started. I was thinking about using camouflage as a way to blur the boundaries between human and non-human worlds. I was thinking about how we can use things to attempt to commune with nature but also address how that character was always out of step with nature, how it could never quite get there. There was a humour to that work where it pointed out a desire to connect but to also distance ourselves from nature and attempt to control it in various ways.
With that project I wasn’t thinking of the flaneur specifically but always thinking from the perspective of someone who is white, who is cisgender, who identifies as heterosexual, who is very privileged. Who is even able to be an artist. The artist perspective is a very privileged point of view. So I’m trying to acknowledge my own history and thinking about what it means to have white settler ancestry, as someone who lives in so-called Canada.
Alana Bartol, Un-camouflaging #7, 2012. Windsor, Ontario, archival inkjet print, 57 x 76 cm. Photo: Arturo Herrera. Courtesy of the artist
"... walking as a way to become attuned to a place while you are within it. How do you feel your body, how do you move differently, what are you more aware of?"
Just before the project I had taken a break from art making. And that was my first project coming back. I was really nervous. I had thought, “Ugh, I don’t know if I’m an artist anymore.” I felt really young and I wasn’t confident. So that body of work was my first way of getting back into art making and I used that suit to explore our relationship to what we call “nature” (even though obviously we’re a part of it).
I thought of performance art as a starting point but working with it in a way that wasn’t concerned about an immediate audience. They were performances that were documented, and it was their documentation that served as a record. Whether or not anyone was there was more incidental.
When I moved to Calgary [Mohkinstsis] and Alberta a few years ago, I tried to understand what it means to live here and to arrive not knowing that much about this place or the history of Treaty 7 territory. I wanted to start recognizing and understanding the different histories and perspectives of place while learning in an embodied and experiential way.
Walking had always been a very natural thinking process for me. I’m a pacer [laughs]. When I need to think, it seems to help.
Makes sense. Thinking through movement, investigating through movement.
Exactly. And as a way to feel the comfort or discomfort within a complicated feeling or experience. Walking as a way to become attuned to a place while you are within it. How do you feel your body, how do you move differently, what are you more aware of? Those are things that I think of when coming from a performance-based practice. Ghillie Suit was seminal and solidified that need to root everything in my practice in performative strategies and embodied experiences.
I watched an artist talk that you did in 2015. The talk was with Kimberly Phillips and David Semeniuk at Access Gallery when you were exhibiting Un-camouflaging #12 as a part of the exhibition Far Away So Close: Part III. During the artist talk you described becoming interested in camouflage and how it’s made. Especially how the large amount of labour that is put into the making of camouflage suits (or “ghillie” suits), which is often done by hand, is the kind of labour traditionally associated with women: sewing, dying fabrics, weaving.
You said that camouflage’s association with masculinity often meant that anyone who did happen to see you while you were walking and performing in the ghillie suit, that you later on made for yourself, would likely assume that you were male identified.
I want to know, for Un-camouflaging #12 and any other projects where you’ve gone through a process where your gender was made anonymous or where you enter into a field that isn’t typically designated for women (like oil and gas in Alberta in your later projects) — was there an investigative process at play? Why are you so often entering spaces or mindsets associated with the masculine, and then making work about your experience?
I think I’ve always been fascinated by binary notions. How we cross these divides. What assumptions are made about people and how we disrupt them. Why we have to fall into particular categories. How have those categories been constructed? How do these categories dictate relationships between people, places, and systems of power structure? What happens when those things are upset in some way or their lines are blurred?
I’ve always been interested in these liminal spaces and how I can explore them. When I was doing the research for the ghillie suit and learning how to make them ... I was just watching YouTube videos posted by hunters and military guys. They’re doing these activities that we associate with female labour — they’re dyeing, they’re sewing — and they’re using the camera close-ups to show you all the little details they worked on. It's funny to me that we have these notions of what someone should do or how they should act or what types of labour they should do because of their appearance.
It's interesting that people wanted to participate in something like sewing and weaving, and that they did want to show off the details of something they had spent time making but because of set standards for gender they had to take this very niche avenue of making ghillie suits in order to do it. It’s great that they were able to find that avenue — but it’s unfortunate if they felt it had to be done through something hyper-masculine.
Alana Bartol, TOTAL FIELD (still), 2017. Full HD video, 10 minutes, 02 seconds. Courtesy of the artist. Link to video here.
1. Dowsing is a type of divination that has been used for centuries to find groundwater, oil, precious minerals, and other materials. Most often it is a y-shaped twig, or "rod", while walking over a stretch of land. The dowser walks slowly, scanning the earth, and waits for the rod to bounce or twitch, which is the indicator that something is nearby.
Something else I’ve been looking at is how the oil and gas industry sell themselves to the public and what rhetoric is being used around so-called ethical oil. Certainly women are included in these images they share because they want to show diversity. For the project TOTAL FIELD I was thinking about how I could create a character that is me, but not me: someone who would make sense in the context of [the oil and gas industry]. What would she look like? I knew that I wanted it to be a female character. It wanted her to be an everyday worker but to somehow have some odd connection to the supernatural.
Part of that strategy is trying to learn more about my own history and ancestry and that learning process is, in part, how I started thinking about dowsing1 in my practice. It was a family folklore that has been dismissed but I thought that it was interesting and also related to the themes of moving, walking, and an embodied connection to place that I had already been working with.
What was the family folklore that you had heard?
On my mother’s side, the women in the family had a gift or ability to divine for water using dowsing. They would be asked to go out into rural areas of Nova Scotia [Mi’kma’ki, the traditional and current territory of the Mi’kmaq people], which is where my family first settled here.
I had heard about the lore before, but had dismissed it because it was laughed at [in my family]. A pseudo science kind of thing. But later I started to look at what dowsing is, what would it mean if I did have this ability, and what would it feel or look like. What does it suggest that it was the women in the family who had this power?
When I was thinking about making work that responds to the oil and gas industry — first of all, I wanted to go to some sites. I couldn’t really wrap my head around what these sites are like or how the experience of visiting one would affect me. Or anyone really. I wanted to think about a way to enter the site, and take on a character. One that would empower me in some way.
What made sense to me was the character of the oil and gas worker, such as in the project TOTAL FIELD.
Do you think that because you’re not from Alberta that you’re better able to analyze this so thoroughly? Because you were not yet a part of the environment or economy and because you were those few sober steps away from it — I wonder if you are able to analyze it in a way that artists here haven’t been able to.
Being an outsider … that’s the position I’m taking. It’s who I am. It can bring a different perspective from people who feel indebted to the industry to some degree because they have family who work in it or who themselves work in it.
Alana Bartol, Orphan Well Adoption AgencyOffice, 2018.Orphan Well Adoption Agency, installation view at Latitude 53. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain. Courtesy of Latitude 53.
2. "Orphan" wells are oil wells that have been taken out of production because they are no longer providing oil and are abandoned by the company that was extracting from them (the company could also have gone bankrupt). Orphan wells are those considered to have no party who is legally or fiscally responsible for their decommission and reclamation.
It was reported on 23 January 2020, that there were 3,406 abandoned oil wells in the province of Alberta. The Alberta Energy Regulator estimates that the financial liabilities and remediation process will cost $30.1 billion dollars CAD.
The [topic of the] orphan well2 was, to me, the perfect way into this conversation around the devastation that the oil and gas industry has created not only for the surrounding environment but in our society and world. It’s such a polarizing issue here. I’m interested in having conversations with people who completely disagree with me — and I want to talk to people in the industry who don’t see it as an issue. But how do you even enter into these conversations in Alberta?
But no one is going to say that orphaned oil and gas wells are not a result of a dying industry. You can’t deny all of the liabilities. When you look at Alberta, it’s a huge issue. These sites are contaminated and dangerous. The wells might be a way into a conversation with someone who I otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
The Orphan Well Adoption Agency also includes this idea of bringing to light the absurdity of something or the absurdity that something exists and so many people don’t know about it. Through humour and absurdity tactics, the Orphan Well Adoption Agency is pointing to something that already exists, and has for a long time. But it’s a way of pointing that captures a wider-reaching attention to the crisis and it’s mishandling.
I use humour as a strategy of disruption that allows people to enter a conversation. Or as a way to disarm. Someone may have a solidified view on something but once they start laughing it can change. I believe that’s the role of the artist: to disrupt the everyday and to point out the critical. To say, “Look at this thing, it’s right in front of you but no one’s looking at it.” And there are reasons no one’s looking at [the orphan wells]. It’s made completely invisible. Or we just accept it.
I think the Orphan Well Adoption Agency was certainly an entry point for audiences here. When you live inside Alberta there is a huge cacophony of media, criticism that you hear (and perhaps hold yourself), and misinformation from all sides … and you hear this while simultaneously being supported in some way through this industry (be it through grant funding or the education systems). Getting through that cacophony of noise can be overwhelming or hard to navigate. The Orphan Well Adoption Agency was great at creating a quick path through this mire and one that an Alberta audience wasn’t expecting. People were able to quickly absorb the information you were providing.
Alana Bartol, research in Orphan Well Adoption Agency Office, 2018. Photographs of orphan well sites visited and related research, installation view at Latitude 53. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain. Courtesy of Latitude 53.
"When I would talk to the landowners they would ask,
"You're not an environmentalist are you?"
3. Tsēmā Igharas, another artist interviewed by Studio, is another artist who visited Treaty 7 and approached this issue as well. You can read the interview here.
I find the use of language so interesting too. [The term was used by the oil and gas industry] so the wells were already being personified. The project picks up on that and looks at the language of industry and policy. A big part of the Orphan Well Adoption Agency is presenting the research behind the project in the office built in the gallery and, to some degree, online.
Another important part of the project is to talk to the people who have been affected by the industry, who I’ve contacted through surface rights groups. If I hadn’t had those conversations with [the landowners whose land these orphan wells are on] it would be difficult to really understand how they affect peoples’ lives.
Though I was always in the role of the artist, sometimes it felt like I was a journalist. When I would talk with the landowners they would ask, “You’re not an environmentalist are you?” You’re in rural Alberta meeting with mostly white folks who have farms. They have these wells on their land and were getting a lease payment from a company for them who are not getting it anymore —mind you it may not have been that much. The value of their assets and their land has gone down as a result. Maybe they can’t even sell their house. Their farmland could now be contaminated. If there’s obvious contamination it can lead to a direct effect on someone’s health in a severe way. There’s so many different problems just with the site itself.
And maybe there is a concern for the environment [held by the landowners] but the concern is very much tied to their own economic prosperity. It’s always through this very colonial lens of: “How is this going to affect my income?” Trying to talk to them about it through, say, a feminist lens or through decolonization, the environment — those are the discussions that I do want to have but it is really complicated to even get into.
How do I sift through all of this and present something that people can engage with? I knew I wanted to directly engage people and to create some kind of emotional connection. That’s how people connect to issues. Even when I was at the sites I thought, “if this site could say something to me what would it say?” I can talk to the landowner, but even the concept of owning land is colonial. So how do we think about what the land would say?
I wonder if one of the reasons that so many artists in Treaty 7 (myself included) don’t address the oil and gas industry is because we don’t know how to connect the things that we do want to be talking about — feminist, queer, disabled, indigenous, racialized perspectives — to the reality of oil and gas. I’ve found the art community that I’m a part of in Mohkinstsis to be extremely progressive. It’s fascinating how the arts community here has flourished like this while having such close proximity to conservatism.
So it’s interesting that it was you, as an artist who isn’t from here, not only wanted to address the topic but actually wanted to talk to the people at the sites who understand the situation in a different way and who also likely don’t use the same progressive lenses that a lot of the artists here utilize.3
I like it when my research connects me with people that I wouldn’t normally connect with. I would say there’s aspects of information sharing but there wasn’t any direct collaboration with other people. I actually almost see the sites themselves as collaborators.
I don’t know if I’m the person to gauge this — but perhaps that could be an anti-colonial way of approaching the project. To understand land as collaborator.
It’s a way to extend these processes. It cant just be through a scientific lens, through an economic lens — there’s multiple ways to understand a place.
Alana Bartol, Interior, Orphan Well Adoption Agency office, 2018. Orphan Well Adoption Agency, installation view at Latitude 53. Photo by Adam Waldron-Blain. Courtesy of Latitude 53.
"We have to consider it alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we have to think about how to transition out of fossil fuels, we have to think about proposals like the Green New Deal. Or even how to just make room for these discussions. Because they have to happen."
Before the interview I was thinking about how I don’t want to force anyone to talk about COVID-19 right now. We already have a constant barrage of media about it coming at us every day. But then I thought, “If Alana and I are talking about oil and gas … we might have to talk about it.”
[laughs] It’s fine. I think it makes sense.
The circumstances are changing all over world but certainly for the Alberta oil and gas economy. I was wondering whether or not you feel the Orphan Well Adoption Agency is now more relevant or whether it’s being displaced by the spectacle of the quick fall of oil and gas. Have you had a chance to think about it? We’re only some weeks in but …
I have been thinking about it. So much has changed in the past few weeks. I was contacted, some months ago and right before all of this happened, by someone who is pitching a documentary about orphan wells. And I started working with Untitled Art Society on considering an updated version of the project. It wouldn’t be under the title of the adoption agency but there’s a project I wanted to get started that’s also connected to oil and gas issues in Alberta. It was meant to be for the Lilac Festival, which would be upcoming in June. But the way things are going I imagine they’re not going to take place.
It seemed liked orphan wells were getting a lot of attention again, especially in January and February of this year. I think because it’s also becoming an issue in British Columbia [the colonial name for a large stretch of land between the Rocky Mountains (Anglo translation of “as-sin-wati”, the Cree term for the mountain range) and the western coast of Turtle Island]. There were a number of news stories about it. There were some new initiatives considering how these sites could be repurposed for a renewable energy of some kind. There’s also been direct action on the part of farmer’s who have these wells on their land: they’re disconnecting the electricity or trying to cut power to the sites as a way to say this has to stop.
We have to look at it in a holistic way. We have to consider it alongside the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we have to think about how to transition off of fossil fuels, we have to think about proposals like the Green New Deal. Or even how to just make room for these discussions. Because they have to happen.
COVID-19 is making things come out of the woodwork. It’s bringing to light things that were hidden under the rug. Much of what is happening now, was always happening before (such as the ups-and-down of the oil and gas economy), but now they can’t be disguised as sustainable under these new circumstances. The public and international outcry to Jason Kenney’s [citation: current premier of Alberta] very poor timing in laying off thousands of education workers during the pandemic and then, the next day, pumping billions into oil and gas — the outcry was huge. I don’t know if it’s just because so many people are connected to the news and following the steps of governments right now but I think a move like that could have gone under the international radar before this or shrugged off as, “same-old Alberta”. But now that everyone’s priority is to be as informed as possible, everyone feels invested in every topic.
I think it’s too early to be making conclusions about what artists are going to be making, what we should be writing about, et cetera. I think people who are making lofty statements about how everything is going to change and will be dramatically different and better … we don’t know that yet.
Yeah, I think it’s a big pause for everyone. I’m reading about how great this moment is for the environment, how things are stopping, and there’s less pollution but I’m also [simultaneously] reading about how these pipelines are being approved and how, in the U.S., Trump has basically taken away the environmental protections for the whole industry. Indefinitely.
So there are things happening in this moment that would never normally happen but it’s both good and bad. How do we find ways to take action in these moments?
What does action even look like right now? We can’t protest at a city hall. I’ve signed so many online petitions this week because I can’t get to the streets to protest.
Me too. But it has at least shown us that we can reconsider priorities. And it shouldn’t take a crisis to do that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity, with Bartol's consent.
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