In 2014, we sit down with Janet Biggs, a Brooklyn-based artist whose video projects tell stories of toxic environments and endangered cultures. She explains what led her to follow miners inside a volcano in Indonesia and embed herself in a community at the edge of China’s Silk Road. Her next destination is South of the border. In Mexico, she’ll be donning an ice suit to explore a spectacular, white-hot crystal cave that lies 300 meters below the Earth’s surface.
Sound Editor: Kris McConnachie | Production Assistant: Amy Sherald | Photography, sound and video excerpts: Janet Biggs
Related Episode: Janet Biggs 2011
Cathy Byrd: I’ve been following Janet Biggs’ work from girls to horses, to sports and drugs, and to these extreme territories of the Arctic and volcanoes. We saw each other when you had a mid-career survey, and the full range of your work there was stunning.
Janet Biggs: It was an interesting experience for me to see that scope of work, production from fifteen years all together in one space. It really did span all those periods you were talking about: my early interest in identity, which used a lot of girls and horse imagery, through an exploration of identity, again using world-class athletes, and then trying to understand a sense of self in terms of medication. There is an undercurrent which runs through all this work. And then, at some point, the athletes and that focus turned into an obsession with place. It wasn’t enough that it was just person. It became place as well, and I thought that they are so intrinsically tied that a sense of self had everything to do with a sense of place. I recently was on a residency with artists who were displaced because of Hurricane Sandy, and I was talking to another artist there and it was so profound for me, that they had completely lost any idea of studio or how to go forward because their place was gone. To get back to my connection with place, for me place has to be extreme. It has to be ends of the earth. I am continuing that and I try and push myself in new ways in the production of the work, which is kind of my back story. But in terms of the work itself, the landscape and the place has become an equal character to people who exist within that landscape that I’m focusing on.
CB: So what took you to Indonesia? Why did you want to go there? What was waiting there for you?
JB: I got my first issue of National Geographic when I was five, and I’ve been committed to that magazine forever, with its problems, with its pluses. I saw an image in National Geographic, probably, ten years ago now, you know it was a long time ago. It was this incredibly gorgeous image inside an active volcano in Indonesia. And it stuck in my brain, which is kind of my barometer. If something stays there long enough, then I finally give into it and say, okay, I have to go and explore this and figure out why it’s still there. In the East Java region of Indonesia, there are men mining sulfur inside the active Ijen Volcano. It’s this weird combination of the most horrific and exploitive thing I have ever seen in my life, and yet there’s this indescribable beauty of the region.
CB: In the volcano, you followed a laborer, and I’m wondering how you found poetry in labor within a toxic environment like that?
JB: It’s so beautiful there. At the base of the caldera is a large sulfuric acid lake, which is this turquoise that is luscious, luscious blue. The sulfur dioxide fumes are billowing off this lake, and they’re coming up through the fumaroles in the walls of the caldera. And laborers go in and they tap these clay pipes into the crevices, the fumaroles, and they catch the fumes. It condenses and it pours out as liquid sulfur. When it’s pouring out, it’s this blood red. And then it solidifies into what we all know as sulfur, which is this intense, intense yellow. So you have these colors. You have this environment, and the fumes are unbelievably toxic. And it’s not rotten egg smell—it is so acrid, when it hits you, all you can do even in a gas mask, is get as low as you can and groan until it stops. But even that, even those clouds billowing up becomes really beautiful in that environment. The workers are independent employees. There is no overarching company. There is nothing. They weave their own baskets. They go into this volcano. There’s nothing mechanized at all. They use steel rods and they break apart the sulfur. They fit it into the basket and they carry out more than they weigh. For each trip, you climb up the outside of the volcano which is about two to three hours, and then into the caldera, which is about another hour, load up your basket and do the exact same thing back down, carrying more than your body weight. And within that, there’s also a kind of beauty, in that they’ve had to develop a very specific gait. The only way the workers can carry more than their body weight is to lower their center of balance. And then they move as smoothly as possible, because the strap of the basket across their shoulder not only cuts into flesh, but also reshapes the body in really severe ways. They look like beautiful dancers moving in this unbelievably gorgeous space. And then you remember what’s actually happening there. The biggest moment of poetry, of transcendence, was while I was there for two weeks sleeping on the rim of the volcano with a couple of the miners, in gas masks in a very small tent with too many of us in it. And even within these conditions, Abi, who is the miner I ended up focusing on…while he was carrying more than his body weight, would stop and point out something that was so beautiful I needed to recognize it. He was able to see outside of his situation in ways that I couldn’t even imagine. What always happens is I go in first with a kind of documentary eye and record an action, record a place. Once I’m back in the studio, another part of the poetry for me is that I have no intention whatsoever of making documentary films. I am very much an artist, first and foremost. So I have to then figure out how to frame it, how to clarify it, in ways that expand it for me and hopefully expand it for my viewer. I give them a new kind of access and hopefully allow them to make their own decisions.
CB: To create one of your poetic visual metaphors, you filmed an atmospheric test, achieved by launching weather balloons.
JB: In this case, I juxtaposed the footage that I had shot of Abi within the Ijen volcano with footage of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s balloon launch. And it’s something that’s synchronized around the world, so I really liked that kind of global perspective. There are balloon launches that go from both poles at the exact same time. All over the earth, they are doing these balloon launches that give them a global weather analysis—a way to analyze the weather in a global perspective. I used a balloon launch not only as a kind of metaphor for transcendence, because you see this balloon lyrically moving off into space, but also because I think it holds a promise, or a promise that we understand in the West, of alleviating hardship through science; that science is going to improve our lives. But I think there are so many parts of the world where that doesn’t even touch. There is no promise with science. There is what I consider no hope, and yet the human spirit is unbelievable in those situations and still has hope and still finds some kind of transcendence. It is a sad piece, ultimately, the final piece that I completed, because anytime there’s a balloon launch, it goes high enough into the atmosphere and then it expands, expands, expands as it is ascending and it has to burst at some point. So it does burst and it comes back down. There is hope, there’s promise, and often it is failed.
CB: How, in researching and developing your projects, do you look for opportunities to work with scientists and students?
JB: I worked with students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to do this balloon launch. I filmed at NOAA, but then I also went up to MIT and worked with some students who were doing balloon launches. I attached a camera onto the balloon as it went up, so I had both the from-ground perspective of the ascent and the onboard perspective of once it got up into the atmosphere, and burst and then plummets back down.
CB: I see your work with the weather balloons and the Arctic and the volcano as being very tied to or concerned with the environment. Is that a continuing desire for you to explore and use as a metaphor?
JB: I really think of it in terms of the elemental. And so I am constantly looking for places that somehow fit whatever my definition of the elemental is, and often those kinds of places are the places that are at most risk on our planet. You know, I think that any time I point my camera, it’s political. It’s a political act, just by the fact that I am focusing attention on a region or an action. There’s certainly an activist side to my personality, but I keep that separate from my art production. I think that when work is too pedantic and overtly political in terms of an environmental statement, at least for me, often it shuts it down. It’s so specific that it doesn’t allow you to enter in and bring new meaning or find new meaning within the piece. It’s important to me that that does happen. For me that becomes successful. It defines a successful piece.
CB: You deeply value the world you’re able to enter as an artist.
JB: I think I have a huge degree of privilege because I’m an artist and a tourist coexisting. And I get to go to amazing parts of the world to produce work and see regions that probably won’t be there forever, if not be there in the near future. And I recognize that, and I think there is a power through that. Just presenting images, that in itself can help cause change. But the political voice is not my strong voice. The poetic voice is what I really try to seek.
CB: Right. I’m thinking about the fact that that documentary element is there, the poetry is there. But one way you keep it separate is relying on the visual language and the audio. You are not interviewing these people: “how do you feel about where you are?” or “what is your life like?” You’re just showing it. That seems to be really important to you.
JB: Yes. I think I do not define myself as a documentary filmmaker in any way, even though I ride that line very closely sometimes. But it’s important I tip off it. If I don’t slide sideways off that line, then it doesn’t work for me as a piece. The work is getting more narrative in structure. Sometimes I will blow that apart into a multichannel installation which makes it even less specific in terms of narrative and more experiential. But even when it’s a single-channel piece with just one screen, which is a traditional movie setup, I don’t want (or I haven’t wanted to date, because I have something coming up that I may change on this) the voiceover. I don’t want the interviews. I love interweaving music and not only just the music itself, but often musical performances. In a way, the artists that produce the music for me give voice to what you’re seeing; they witness it in a really elemental kind of way that becomes essential, or is evocative in terms of emotion but not specific in terms of limitations.
CB: I was just thinking about where you went after the volcano. You went someplace that people dream about going. It’s very romantic and exotic; the Silk Road in China. What led you there and what was the work you made?
JB: The Silk Road, it actually started from a very good friend of mine, Barbara Pollack, who is an art writer. She has written amazing pieces for the New York Times and a book about contemporary art in China. She has always had this dream of putting together a group of friends and traveling the Silk Road. It was one of the things I always said, yes, yes, I’d love to do that. That would be great. Then it got closer and closer to reality, and suddenly the Silk Road and that whole trip stopped being this romantic notion and it changed, because if I really was going to commit both the time and the resources (write grants, etc.) to be able to do that, I needed to find a way to work within the region. What I found was that Barbara’s trip and going from place to place—that is, everything about the Silk Road and all the romantic notions of travel from oasis to oasis—would not function for me. It’s not how I work. What I did what find a home base, which was Kashgar, and later Hotan. These are cities in the far west of China on the Pakistan border. We were right in the Pamir Mountains. We actually went up into the Pamirs and got about an hour from the Pakistan border. But there was enough military action that we thought maybe we should not go further.
CB: Why did Janet choose to focus on her lens on the Uighur people living at the far western edge of China?
JB: The reason I decided to use this area as a home base, and what became so compelling for me, was once I started researching I realized that all Uighur kids have to go to boarding schools where they are only taught Mandarin. So when they go home on the weekends, they lose the language and can’t speak to their parents anymore. It kind of goes on and on. The Han Chinese came in and tore down all the traditional homes, saying they weren’t earthquake safe, even though they’d been in existence for two thousand years. There are all these moments that are happening in that place. And when I talked to my Uighur guides both of them said we won’t be here by the next generation. We as a people won’t be here. As the violence is escalating, and if anyone is watching the news knows, it just severely escalated with knife stabbings in the East. And, unlike the Tibetans, the Uighurs are not pacifists. Everything is getting so much more heightened. One fascinating thing was talking to people with families that care about the same things all of us care about: happiness, family, providing for your loved ones. And these people are saying that now without any hope, they are becoming radicals. Their hope is to get over the border into Pakistan and become jihadists. So it was very powerful to be able to see that, and have a different and more nuanced understanding about how opinions and world viewpoints are come into being, and how at times random and at times very specific influences and situations change people in such profound ways.
CB: And I’m wondering what drove you to the desert?
JB: So ultimately, it was risky to be there as a Westerner. And any Uighur person or guide that I was around for a long time, I also put them at risk. We were followed by security police everywhere. So, at one point, we decided that the easiest thing to do was to just go into the desert. We would be safest in the desert. And the Taklamakan Desert is amazing, the second-largest desert in the world. It’s an advancing desert rather than a receding one. The first time it was crossed was in 1984, which lets you know it’s not an easy desert. We took a caravan with six camels, two camel men, a translator, myself, and a backup camera person. So there we are in 125 to 130 degree temperatures every day. That was only broken by the sandstorm, which brought the temperature down to 100, but had its own set of problems. But it gave me a moment to sort of put aside the political and again focus on this visual element and find an analogy through the visual. I realized that when I got back to the studio again, it wasn’t the specifics of the Uighur situation that I needed to focus on. I do have an obligation to get that out, because the Chinese press is not getting that out. There’s so much censorship. But for me as an artist, in terms of the production, I needed to look broader and I needed to look at that overarching question of cultural loss. Change and assimilation is inherent and it happens to all of us in different ways and at different times. And sometimes it can be subtle and you don’t even realize change is happening, and sometimes it’s incredibly violent. So the piece I made became just about that, rather than about the specific situation.
CB: Far from what anybody would expect from that trip.
JB: In some ways far from what I initially expected from that trip, and I think that part of being able to make a successful piece is to not be so attached to my original concepts and to be able to embrace failure. There were times when I was pulling my camera out of the bag and the sand was getting so trapped in it that it shut down and I lost camera after camera. And I was thinking, am I going to get anything out of here? I think in some ways that experience, and certainly the footage that I got from those moments before the cameras died was essential to the final piece. So looking at failure as opportunity versus endpoint has become important for me.
CB: You just got back from Cartagena, and that is a very exotic idea for me as well. I’ve never been to Colombia. From the photographs we were able to share on Fresh VUE that were sent by Terry Berkowitz, one of the participating artists, it looked like an amazing experience.
JB: It was my first trip to South America. This is actually the very first biennial to happen in Colombia. Cartagena is the most magical place I’ve been. It’s everything you think it’s going to be. It’s this beautiful walled colonial town. It’s on the Caribbean, so the temperatures were just incredible and it was beautiful with the breezes coming through. The curator, Berta Sichel, who came from the Reina Sofia Museum, did a phenomenal job curating. She realized that the town itself was a monument. She became very aware of past and present and what that means in terms of the past that then creates the monument that you recognize in the present. Can you truly take moments in the past and make them present? So her curatorial voice interwove with the city in a way that I have never seen in a biennial before, honestly. There was generosity in that voice that was incredible. It’s this kind of labyrinth situation wandering through the streets of Cartagena, where the street names actually only exist for a block. Every block the street name changes. So everyone’s always lost. The sense of discovery, both in terms of her curatorial voice and the physical sense of discovery through the place, just walked hand in hand everywhere you went.
CB: This year, in the first ever Cartagena biennial, one of your video installations is on view inside the town’s historic naval museum.
JB: I did an installation of the piece that I shot in Indonesia, which is titled A Step On the Sun. Depending on the space, I varied the number of channels. In Cartagena, it was a four-channel installation, so it was a kind of three-quarter piece where the viewer was immersed peripherally as well as frontally within the volcano. I love the connection with the naval museum because I can’t help but think of an old family singing about joining the Navy to see the world. One thing that Berta did, which was also incredibly lovely, was include so many sound pieces. You would walk out of my piece into a garden situation in the middle of the Museo Naval and experience Kristin Oppenheim’s piece, where there is just voices singing “sail on, sail on, the sailor,” from the Beach Boys, but in a kind of round. And it’s so beautifully lyrical, it really puts you in a frame of mind. It changes your physical presence within the space.
CB: I like that word you were using, “witness,” because that seems to me what you feel through your work—witnessing something that you might not have ever had the thought of witnessing. National Geographic shows you a view, but you take us inside that view and make it dimensional and make it real. It feels like you understand the metaphoric presence of that reality, which I think is really poetic. That is what I love about your work. But tell me what you’re working on next.
JB: I’m in the middle of a new project, which is always an exciting place to be. It’s a project that will open at the Blaffer Museum in Houston in January 2015. They’re producing the new project for me, which is also a wonderful situation to be in because I can really flex my art muscles. In the past interview we talked about a personal biography and my relationship with relatives who have suffered from Alzheimer’s or autism. In this case, I revisit both memories, adding new knowledge about Alzheimer’s sufferers. The piece is developing in threads. I’m in that stage where I’m not limiting myself in any way. I’m just following any thread and seeing where it takes me. I think what makes a good artist is once you follow them, if you can edit it down, that is that moment it becomes essential. But right now, I’m looking in all directions. I’ve been at New York University in the brain research department, looking at imaging and trying to understand what the proteins are that form on the brain. There’s this kind of connection to science that I love when my work overlaps—I get to personally learn new things and make leaps through the work.
CB: Working with scientists is important to your projects, but extreme environments are indispensable.
JB: First and foremost, this piece is rooted in Chihuahua, Mexico about a mile under the earth in the Crystal Cavern in Naica. There is a silver mine above it, and the miners drilled so deep because they were depleting the silver thread that they broke into a chamber and realized it was full of water. It was extremely hot. But they realized there was something extraordinary in there and they couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. The mining company took the time to pump out the water. What they found was a cavern about the size of a football field filled with selenite crystals. They are the size of Greek columns. So it’s like physically walking into a geode. It’s just beautiful. Ridiculously beautiful and also ridiculously dangerous, because the cavern is sitting on a pool of magma, which is why the crystals formed on that scale. It ranges from 160 to 180 degrees. It’s 99% humidity. A global consortium of scientists wrote a contract with the mining company to get in there to do research. I love that one of the things they thought was that it would be a great place to do Mars program research, because some of the conditions were similar to Mars.
CB: That’s someplace you haven’t thought about going yet.
JB: Not yet! For me, the reason I want to go there is of course the visuals are compelling, and I’m seduced constantly and I want to seduce my viewer. But when you go into this cavern, they custom-make a suit for you that has pockets all over it that are then filled with ice, so you’re wearing an ice suit. And then you have a sealant suit that you seal on top of that. You have to breathe through an ice respirator and you’re still only allowed to be in there for fifteen minutes tops. You are monitored by a medical team. Even with all that, as soon as you enter the cavern, within minutes you start losing your cognitive skills. So, essentially, it creates the exact same symptoms as someone who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. My grandfather was a collector. And two of his collections, stamps and minerals, are strong memories for me as a child, watching his pleasure. And as he hit those moments where the grandfather, the person I knew, was gone and he couldn’t recognize any family members, he still had this connection to his mineral collection and could spout out their scientific names. He could tell you when and where he got his stamps. So that was his last connection. To go into a place that has those kind of memories for me, but then removes those memories in the physical present—that’s the place I want to start and then I will let the threads kind of go off from there.
CB: I cannot help but remember how you had to have a special suit in the Arctic so you wouldn’t freeze the minute you went outside. And now, you’re wearing an ice suit. It’s still there, that desire for the extreme experience.
JB: I do like extremes. I like ends of the earth. I’m really excited to go there.