Boston-based artist Allison Maria Rodriguez critically examines the health of our planet and the interconnection between species. In this light, the extinction of animals and environmental devastation are not just ecological horrors. They are also failures of human consciousness and imagination. Rodriguez’s recent multichannel video installations combine scenes observed in the arctic, digitally generated imagery, green screen performances, and collaged photographs. Rodriguez’s Legends Breathe (2019–present) shows a human figure in a tent that floats over a herd of wild horses. In another scene, two human figures coexist with foxes, all surrounded by an outer-space purple glow. A video still from another work, In the Presence of Absence (2017–present), shows Rodriguez sitting on the ground grazing flower petals with her fingertips. Another woman stands in front of her, smiling and comfortable, a crocodile at her feet. In the sky behind them, the heat map of a hurricane.
I had two video conversations with Rodriguez, in February and April 2021. These conversations revealed that remarkably, Rodriguez is not completely despondent about our future. Suppose we can shift our values, attention, and focus—we might discover where we fit in a firmament that is immediate, everywhere, minute, and amazingly larger than ourselves. We might recognize the intelligence of other animals. We might be less self-centered, more conscious, aligned, and in tune with history and other beings. Although all that is now lost will not return, we might aspire to some healing, responsible growth, and reconnection. It is possible.
What would you say your work is about?
In my work, the underlying component is this idea of interconnection. I think fundamentally we’ve broken our connection to the earth, to the land, to things that are external to ourselves. I take a broad approach to kindle a moment in which someone can feel connected to something outside of themselves. My hope is not that someone walks out of one of my installations with additional knowledge per se, but rather with this sense that there is something larger out there than themself. That could lead to furthering their knowledge, but that’s not what they would get out of my installations immediately. It’s about feeling; it’s about connecting. If you’re a part of something larger than yourself, your life is meaningful as well. We are a part of the planet. And, there can be a certain sense of agency in being a part of all of this. You are not alone.
In my opinion, there isn’t this division of existence that we’ve created—to conquer, claim ownership, or create the notion of property. I think taking that away, even for a moment, can be empowering. My approach is an overall philosophical trajectory. We use the term “nonhuman” to refer to things outside of ourselves, but we don’t use the term “nontortoise.” That’s such a privileged way of looking at the world. In our world view, all of these other species are “nonhuman,” but there aren’t, from the perspective of a whale, “nonwhale” ways of being. When that comes to the surface in very obvious ways, that definite privilege and promotion of this aggressive ownership of existence, it really bothers me.
I shared with you the 2014 video The Great Silence by the artists Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla in collaboration with the science fiction writer Ted Chiang. In it, parrots in Puerto Rico seem to speak about their extinction. Nearby, the humans use a giant radio telescope to observe the galaxy.
I definitely had a visceral response watching the video. I have thought about those ideas. We don’t value the things around us. We look toward outer space to find some other “nonhuman” species even though we are surrounded by “nonhuman” species all the time. It’s a hierarchy, though. These are beings that we categorize as lesser than us. We don’t look to them for learning about existence or learning about different ways of being in the world. We are looking toward outer space for that kind of knowledge. We are going to get that knowledge from some “higher being” potentially, but we are running out of time. Our existence is going to be obliterated. We are headed toward our own extinction. If we go along this path of not caring about our responsibility in relationship to the land and existence, that’s the end product.
We have driven so many other species out of existence. We are the first species to really do that—to wipe out so much so fast. I think that’s why most humans see themselves as the center of the universe. Other animals build with an internalized knowledge of the ecosystem that we don’t have, that we could learn by watching. We don’t have access to that knowledge because we don’t pay attention. Destruction happens when we physically relocate animals, when we move them, when we put them in situations where they’re not supposed to be or we take away their resources, and they are forced to go somewhere else. Then, they mess up the ecosystem over there because they weren’t supposed to be there in the first place. There is a way that they know how to be in harmony with the earth that we really could learn from.
Can you tell me about the imagery in your multichannel video installation from 2020, The Strength of Very Small Things?
All of that imagery is from a fellowship that I did in 2018 in the arctic in Churchill, Manitoba, where I was working with scientists at a research station, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I couldn’t leave the station without an armed bear guard. For me to do anything, I had to tag along with other folks. I ended up tagging along with two scientists who were studying Daphnia, which are water fleas. Seeing these women conducting their research and engaging with the animals, I started to feel a connection to those animals. To me, that felt spiritual. You can barely see Daphnia with the naked eye. They’re tiny; they’re invertebrates. Even though I think I knew intellectually that we’re all interconnected, I don’t think I’d experienced that with something so small, existing so physically different from me in the world.
I did an artist talk when I was there for the scientists and researchers who come to the research station from all over the world. I was really nervous. I thought they were going to ask me all these facts about the animals that were in my work, and I wasn’t going to know anything. They didn’t. They actually asked me emotionally driven questions. One scientist was upset and asked me, “Why don’t you have more invertebrates in your work? Why don’t you focus on these animals? Why do you only care about big things?” He didn’t quite word it like that, but that’s exactly what he meant. He was right. I needed to lean into it.
The Strength of Very Small Things is predominately about Daphnia. I did a lot of work with the women in the lab, took a lot of photographs under microscopes of Daphnia, took bunches of them and removed them from their photographic context, animated them, colored them, and made them large scale and also floating in the air. You experience them differently than you would in the natural world. And there’s also imagery of those two scientists going into the landscape and collecting Daphnia. To me, those images are really beautiful: two people in this vast landscape, looking for these tiny beings. I instinctively set up my video camera and let it run. They’re very stationary shots, landscape portraits of scientists working in the natural world with Daphnia. There is this sense of large and small. Also, these women are studying Daphnia as indicator species. They’re seeing how Daphnia respond to changes in water temperature and predicting how humans could potentially respond to changes in climate and temperature. We are interwoven with these tiny beings. We are intertwined. Scientists are searching for the survival of our species, and they know how profoundly connected our future is to these little water fleas.
There is also imagery of the beluga whales that go into Hudson Bay. I was juxtaposing whales with Daphnia. The time that I was there in July is when all of the whales migrate into the bay. There are tons of beluga whales in the Hudson Bay near Churchill at that time of year. It’s incredible. It’s part of their yearly migration to come to the warmer waters for the summer to eat and give birth, and that’s why they all come into the bay. I went out on a kayak, and they swam alongside and bumped us a little bit and interacted with us. Belugas really respond to music, so if you play music, they will come closer. I had a breakdown when I was out on that kayak. I started crying because I felt so connected to something that I felt was going to disappear. They told me at the study center that in twenty years, there will be no ice on the Hudson Bay in the summertime.
I think part of the reason we as a species are not responding to climate change is because we don’t see it in the same way. I shouldn’t say we don’t see it—obviously, folks who are less privileged see it sooner. But, it doesn’t always look like a burning house that you need to get in there to get the child out of. It’s easy to think, this isn’t pressing. The data we get is so difficult to conceptualize. And then, if you do try to conceptualize it, it’s overwhelming. There’s a point at which folks can also shut down. People who aren’t engaging with the landscape on a regular basis don’t see it. We’re starting to see all these storms and floods, and these are obviously impacting a lot of people, but being out on Hudson Bay, surrounded by these belugas, I felt my own as well as humanity’s destruction of the planet. I had this sense of things fleeting, of beautiful things disappearing. It hit me really hard. Talk about a whole other world existing! Underwater, there’s so much life that we could learn so much from. I saw these scientists coming back that summer to study birds or a particular species that they had studied the previous year, and they were reporting that they couldn’t find as many. They see it that rapidly, and that’s how fast it’s happening. As the ice on the Hudson Bay disappears, a part of ourselves is disappearing too, whether we’re aware of it or not.
I plan to return to Churchill and do an installation in the research center there. It’s not devastatingly difficult to get there, but it can be complicated and expensive. There’s a railroad that goes into Churchill that was the main method of transport, and it was flooded in 2018. You have to fly to Winnipeg and take a little plane. It’s really remote and isolated.
Legends Breathe, the video project you started in 2019, puts actors in what we might call video simulations that resemble in some ways your situation in the kayak with the whales. The scenarios for Legends Breathe are based on interviews you conduct with mostly anonymous, female-identified, and nonbinary artists about childhood fantasies that helped them overcome trauma. All of the fantasies involve nature and animals. How did you start down this path? Where did you begin?
The first interview was with my sister. This seemed like a logical place to start. I use this snowball effect where one person finds the next. I started with someone I knew very well. She’s a writer, so I had her write. I started developing the same rules that I use now. I do a thorough interview in whatever form that person is comfortable with. I only go back one time with questions when I’m creating the artwork and I’m in process. Other than that, it has to come from me. I really believe that I can never duplicate their fantasy. I’m not going to recreate it. They’re experiencing it via memory. It’s their memory of their fantasy from childhood. It’s not a collaboration in the traditional sense. This allows me a certain amount of freedom. I also don’t want to make the process tedious for them. It becomes something where they can share this with me, and then I can take it and make it a part of a conversation about creativity, fantasy, dreams, and trauma. I start by simply asking: can you describe it in as much visual detail as possible? And then they talk, and I ask questions, specific questions like: do you remember what color it was? They give me all this information. Sometimes it’s via an interview where I actually sit down with them in a physical place, and we have coffee and talk. Sometimes it’s via email or on the phone, depending on what works for them.
Then, I start to go out to explore and collect. I take photographs and video, and I collect objects. Often there are things that anchor it for me. They might say [of their fantasy], “I’m in a giant bird’s nest.” So, I’ll go out and look at different birds’ nests and think about how I’m going to create the nest, taking photographs and collecting materials. Often, the image will end up being a conglomerate. I will have photographed a couple of nests, and I’ll draw some things digitally. Some of the aspects that they don’t necessarily give me, I discover when I’m putting it all together. That’s where I make aesthetic choices. When I invite an artist to perform in the piece it is not the same individual I interviewed. I don’t tell them what it is that they are going to be doing exactly. They don’t prepare anything. They show up on a green screen location set. I give them a costume, then I tell them what they’ll be doing. I describe the fantasy in some detail. I direct them, but I also let them play with the idea. It’s important to me that the performers are artists in some capacity and also comfortable with the idea of performing and being in front of the camera.
I get the sense that this is a healing process.
I think so. I’ve been asked if I would be open to referencing the original trauma in some way as a part of the installation, be it text or audio. I’m very against that. That’s not what this project is about. I am someone who’s experienced trauma, so trauma is part of my interest in this project. But, I’m not asking people to recount something traumatic. I’m asking them to talk to me about things that made them happy, gave them solace, or helped them feel strong or connected to themselves. One person went to one of my exhibitions where I built a fort-like tent they could sit inside where these fantasies were projected. She told me, “This brings me a lot of joy, and I need joy right now in my life.” I loved that response. It’s a project about trauma that’s positive, which is sort of an oxymoron, but that’s what it is. When I’m approaching people to tell me their fantasy, it’s not the same as approaching them and asking them to share some terrible event with me. I would never classify myself as a healer, but I would say there’s shared healing.
I saw your installation In The Presence of Absence, which was on view at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn in 2021. It performs a similar operation. Instead of locating performers into a fantasy landscape, you took some of your family photographs, cut out your Cuban relatives, and situated them in new contexts. You also appear.
When I first started making that work, I was a little nervous, it being about me and that being indulgent or self-centered in some way, but it felt like the direction I needed to go at that moment. I try to let my work guide me where it needs to go. I quickly realized that other folks could relate to this idea of the loss of culture and the loss of connection. I don’t approach my work from a theory-based perspective to start. I approach it driven from my gut, then I try to figure out what I am doing, what I am trying to say. When I started, I thought it didn’t make sense. Does putting my ancestor with an extinct animal and a hurricane make sense? It made sense to people. It became a personal experience contextualized in a way that folks could relate to. I showed this work at the Fitchburg Art Museum in 2020, and I noticed a lot of people related to those kinds of family photographs. The work immediately brought them to their own family photographs, immediately brought them into their family history and their family’s legacy and culture. I’m putting family history with these extinct animals. I’m putting it in this other context. They’re bringing their family to the piece. It’s personal.
In the United States, we’ve been in a period of massive upheaval and social change since at least 2013. In various ways, we’ve been questioning who we are.
There is a searching and a longing for identity that is a part of In the Presence of Absence in both a cultural context and in an interspecies context. It’s layered. It came from my own yearning and drive to find myself. Where do I fit in this picture? I don’t think I could have made the work at another time. It’s all context. I felt driven. I put the image of my grandmother up in my studio alongside a Thylacine, a Tasmanian tiger. I felt the immediate connection.
I’ve started reading Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (2016) by Frans de Waal. Our language, our way of approaching the world is so specifically human. To try to think about the consciousness of these other beings is really complicated. This book goes into our value judgments around human intelligence versus the intelligence of different species. Certain species don’t need certain skills, so why would being intelligent in that area be valuable? They’re intelligent and created with the needs that they have. I think the individual identity is really human. Trees talk to each other and come together and make decisions for themselves as a group. There is a collective identity and collective consciousness for some other species that we as a species don’t have, potentially because we’ve never tried to cultivate it. In the Presence of Absence is very much about trying to find or explore individual identity. It’s very particular to Cuba. It’s very particular to my family. But, it’s also about exploring our ecological whole. The way that I present the piece is as a sacred space. I am thinking about the ways two things can coexist. Presence and Absence. Difference and universal wholeness.
Our identities are always mediated by imperfect histories and omissions. In family lore, there is sometimes a fair amount of fabrication or untruth.
I’m thinking about folklore and the merging of actual events and mythological approaches to creating this whole new, surreal, magically real space. Storytelling passed down in a family is really important to understanding who you are. If what actually happened has to do with political circumstances or non-ideal circumstances, how is a story of how it happened of any less value? In Legends Breathe, people tell their childhood fantasies as adults. There isn’t an authentic thing that we’re going toward. The magically real is real. The memory of the memory of the memory is valid.
What are you working on now?
I usually work on multiple projects at once. I have one in its very nascent stage—it’s still emerging in my consciousness and I don’t have language around it yet, which is an exciting place in my process for me, very instinct driven. All I want to say right now is that it will be a video installation involving critically endangered species and lots and lots of stained glass. I also just exhibited a new work entitled Once in a Lifetime (2021) at Spoke Gallery in Boston this past summer that focuses on my witnessing the remains of a stranded juvenile blue whale, the largest creature on earth, and the volunteer work I did in Costa Rica right before the pandemic with tiny hatchling turtles. It’s a piece about memorial and loss, but also about hope and resilience.
I’ve also returned to the arctic research with a larger project in process entitled all that moves. It focuses specifically on the history embedded in the landscape of Churchill, Manitoba, and what is seen and unseen. It is another project about both science and spirituality, and is very focused on the specifics of the land—my personal experience of interconnection with the land and the profound impact of that experience. The grounds on which the Churchill Northern Studies Centre exists used to be the Churchill Rocket Research Range, an army research facility for both Canada and the US to study the upper atmosphere. There are rockets that have been abandoned throughout the landscape. There are not a lot of them, but against the starkness of the landscape, they are so blatant. They make so evident our touch on the land. The Sayisi Dene were forcibly relocated to Churchill. I have a lot of imagery from spaces where the genocide of these Indigenous people happened. Those places have this incredibly intense, heavy, potent feeling. I could physically feel the presence of the absence when I was there. I personally think there’s an energy that’s contained and then saved in spaces. That component is coming into my work in this project. I’m showing this terrain where something happened, but you don’t see it.
When I lived in San Francisco, my friends and I would hang out in Dolores Park. It was always a great time, but something felt off to me. When I visited the church next to the park one day, I learned that the park had been an Indigenous village. According to the contemporary church, its founders brutalized and enslaved the people who lived in the village, also forcing them to construct the church building. Maybe it sounds unusual, but I think I sensed that in the park.
In my installations, that’s part of what I’m doing, giving folks the opportunity to be open to being more in tune with those connections. Feeling something’s off is not intellectual. It’s a connection to that space that you’re sensing. Humans can do that, but we’re usually not quiet enough. We’re not focused or open enough to let it happen. Being impacted like that could shift our ways of being in the world.