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Rachel Sussman: “My dream is to help people connect with long term thinking”

Photo: Rachel Susman

Rachel Sussman works in the field of science and art. Her freedom as an artist allows her to conceptualize scientific knowledge through visual complexity and personified systematic studies. In the following Sussman reveals insights and opportunities that we can learn to grasp when combining our silos and looking at the Oldest Living Things In The World.

Why is the combination of science and art interesting to you?

I have gone to art school and always been attracted to art. But science has always been a part of my life too – especially nature as an entry point into natural science and earth science. “Just” doing artwork didn’t feel like it was inclusive enough for the things that felt important to me.

I was seeking a way to make meaning in my artwork through different things. Traveling for instance – puts you in this different place. Mostly I would travel out into nature. That is where I feel most at home and most connected. I love being able to weave scientific knowledge back into art. Because we tend to silo everything – you know art is separate from science is separate from philosophy is separate from economics. But we don’t live our lives in this compartmentalized way. When I started out in this direction I was just following feelings and intuition. My intuition said to combine these things.

What do you mean when you say “weave science back into art?”

When doing science there is a creative spark, a quest for knowledge, a quest for understanding. That is the same in art. In art, it might be far more poetic and you have far more license to explore in any way you would like. But we are still an embodied consciousness whether you say you are a scientist or an artist or something else. It doesn’t matter. It is how we choose to explore that is the art of being alive.

What light bulb appeared when you got the idea for The Oldest Living Things?

When you are trying to come up with a big idea, you are seeking something. It can take quite a while for all the pieces to constellate. I had gone on this amazing adventure to Japan and ended up visiting the Juman Suki Tree that is over 2000 years old. Around a year after some pieces came together. The pieces meaning my landscape photography, my traveling, using actual science and connecting with scientists and researchers. And also to connect with deep time and long term thinking. The philosophical aspects were resonant within me but not necessarily something I knew how to express in a photograph before.

You refer to “deep time” – what is that?

Deep time is a more poetic way of thinking about timescales. It is not a geological epoch or a set number of years. It has much more fluidity to it. That said I think of deep time not as big as cosmic time. Deep time still feels earthbound: it is very terrestrial.

With my projects about expanded time I am trying to create a relationship - like guide points in time - so that we can create a personal relationship with these time scales that otherwise would be just too abstract for us to process. Physiologically we are not naturally equipped to understand time in that way.

Photo: Rachel Susman

When you visited these old living things what kind of contrasts or similarities do you see between the life that they belong to and the human understanding of life?

One of the primary principles that I did when I engaged with The Oldest Living Things was this idea of anthropomorphizing the organisms: to project our human ideas onto the organisms. Sometimes the anthropomorphizing can be something that distances you and can be dangerous. In this case, creating a relational aesthetic between us and these organisms was a way to say: what qualities do these organisms have? How do I relate to that on a personal level? Qualities like longevity, perseverance, and efficiency which are things that we have positive associations with as humans.

Organisms don’t share human values and yet they are creating and thriving against the odds in very different ecosystems all over the world. I didn’t know when starting the research that these ancient organisms live on every single continent. Including Antarctica. To me it is about collective identity too: look at these amazing sentinels of longevity and perseverance. If we chose to engage with them there is so much to learn. And if we chose to protect them we are protecting ourselves.

The project is about climate and the state of the planet right now. At the same time, it is meant to be a personal introduction to these organisms so you can say: oh I have met you now. I now want to take a little more care.

Which meeting with an organism stood out you?

They were all so different. Some of them were incredibly hard to get to. Some of them were very small compared to the potency of their meaning. The deepest experience for me was finding the 5500-year-old moss in Antarctica. It had taken me two years to secure passage on the ship that was going there and it was on Elephant Island which is where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned. It was a three-week expedition on the ship. The chances of being able to land on Elephant Island were one in ten because the weather is so intense that you never know. Nobody had been there in 25 years. I had to work with somebody at Google to get an up to date map because there was no satellite tracking from a previous time. And so I had this moment on the ship with the captain where I sighted the moss through the binoculars – we made it to Elephant Island! This was also the end of the 10 years of doing this work and it was the last organism on my list. It really brought tears to my eyes to get there and to find it .. So where do you go after Antarctica? I say: space!

Photo: Rachel Sussman

Your project is called The Oldest Living Things In The World– how did you define what “living” is?

When I initially got the idea I thought that I would partner with a scientist that could do the science and I could do the art. I met with an evolutionary biologist and we had a fascinating conversation where he told me: there is no way an evolutionary biologist would be qualified to do this. He said: you are talking about multiple organisms in different kingdoms – this I not how science works. Science is based on specialization. Not only are you in your science silo – it is narrowed down into something so specialized that you might be talking to yourself about it. I understood in that moment that I had to be the primary scientist. It is not a photography project, not a science project, it is a conceptual art project. I got to create the concept: I want to photograph things that have been continuously living for 2000 years or longer. Setting the stage with: why is it 2020 now – why isn’t it 5 billion 400 million 2020, you know?

The other aspect was to define what living means. I wanted to include both unitary and clonal organisms because the clonal organisms are different from us. Humans are unitary organisms so we feel comfortable with that definition. The clonal organisms are genetically the same today as they were 100.000 years ago – it is a way to expand our sense of what it means to be an individual. Pando – the clonal colony of aspen trees – which looks like a forest is a single tree because it is one giant interconnected root system. Because it has this massive root system it can move the colony up the mountain if it gets too warm - or send water from one part of the colony to another. The clonal organisms are in theory immortal. They are self-propagating until their environment no longer can support them. The Tasmanian Lomatia is my favorite example. There is only one of its kind left on the planet and it is 43600 years old. Still it is both critically endangered and theoretically immortal at the same time.

In your dreams how will people use the things that you put together?

I hope that people will connect with long term thinking. That is the ingle most important thing that we need to consider. Looking at The Oldest Living Things is one way to connect with long term thinking in a way that I hope will create personal resonance. I am only here a short time, and the way I spend my time here matters. If everybody connected with that aspect of being then already we are setting the world into a better trajectory.

People are suffering, people are in pain, all sorts of things are happening in the world – and when we are in a state of trauma we can’t connect with long term thinking. My dream would be to create a sense of safety and healing and self-love in human beings that helps connect with long term thinking. And that is why deep time is enticing and fascinating. Cultures around the world has lost sense of that we are part of a continuum. Our actions are affecting that ..there are so many terrible things happening in the world right now. Where does this narrow-minded, short-sighted thinking come from? It is coming from this place of scarcity rather than abundance. Scarcity mindset creates more scarcity.

What projects do you have in mind for the future?

I am in an exciting and interesting place right now - I don’t know what is up next. After going into the depths of what is wrong in the world I think it is a very exciting and dynamic time to be alive. I am hopeful.

Why is it a dynamic time right now? What is it that you notice?

We can see that we can’t hide in old ways of thinking anymore. We are required to do some internal searching. What do I believe? Where do I stand? How far will I go to defend what I believe? How far will I allow things that aren’t right to go forward? Before I stand up and defend those who can’t defend themselves? We have had these lessons very painfully in the past in this world. So now I think there is a general feeling – even though so many terrible things are happening – where more people are awake and paying attention. Things are shifting. The way life was is not the way life is moving forward. As we challenge the patriarchal system that has created so much pain for thousands of years now it is time for it to change. And it is changing. The systems have reached the point where they can’t hold anymore. And if there is one collective thing that we all share it is that we live on this planet. Nature is the life blood.

Let’s enter 2020 with Sussmans end quote: Nature is the life blood. Happy New Year!

Interview and text by Ida Marie Andersen.

Ida is a writer for the Rewild Magazine. She is driven by the work with nature, aesthetics and the immersion in crafts and writing.

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