Climate, 2015. Jacquard woven tapestry, copper magnet wire, and indigo-dyed cotton, 46 x 188 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Visceral Science: A Conversation with Ruth Beer

The cross-disciplinary, installation-based projects of Vancouver artist Ruth Beer form intricate woven narratives, blending stories, histories, and information related to the specifics of climate change in Northern Canada. Collaboration and innovative thinking lie at the heart of her approach, which finds its most ambitious expression to date in two multi-part projects sponsored by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Catch & Release: Mapping cultural and geographic transitions (2009–13) focuses on Pacific coast communities and the demise of the salmon canning industry, while Trading Routes: Grease trails, oil futures (2013–17) addresses issues related to contested geography and changing landscape at the intersection of cultural heritage and the economy in northern British Columbia. Promoting dialogue among artists, as well as viewers, Beer aims to envision change in remote regions and ecologies affected by the demand for natural resources.

Ruth Beer
Waterfall (detail), 2017. Copper magnet wire and urethane rubber, 82 x 54 in. Photo: Kai Mushens

Maeve Hanna: Your work is influenced by the environment and issues surrounding the oil and gas industries in Canada. Where did that inspiration come from?
Ruth Beer: It comes from a very broad understanding of landscape, not a romanticized version. The landscape trope historically emerged from the aristocratic idea of picturing land to display wealth and ownership. It was a socioeconomic and political consideration of the landscape. I’m interested in this notion in relation to Canada. As a child and newcomer to this country, I was always in awe of the beauty of the place—the vast expanses, the sublimity—and I came to feel at home here through the social, political, and cultural experience of landscape and water. It’s through these lenses that we can find a place to belong. A great deal of my understanding came from camping in the woods with my family and growing up in the Laurentians in Quebec. But it also originated with images of paintings by the Group of Seven, which were the quintessential images of Canada. When I moved to the west, I was very keen to understand a whole different landscape and its history, especially the water and the coast. I started to consider projects that looked at people, place, geography, and culture as it changes over time. Through the lens of landscape, the economy, and changes to and within communities, I examine political decisions that affect the land, including proposals for resource extraction.

MH: How did your understanding of Canada change when you came to the North for Trading Routes,which dealt directly with the now-dismissed Northern Gateway Pipelines project?
RB: I was struck by how the people of the north were so committed to their natural surroundings. It seems like a very proactive choice and an acknowledgement of a way of living with a strong appreciation of and reliance on the natural environment in rural and remote areas. Everyone I spoke to expressed love for this place regardless of whether they were for or against the pipeline. There is a real sense of community and tremendous commitment to local issues. It was amazing to learn first-hand about the diverse communities, including various First Nations, their relationship to the land, their differing perspectives on the pipeline proposal, and they considered the risks and benefits and defined priorities for future generations. I was equally struck by how much more complex the issues of extraction industry development became when played out in the communities—much more so than the simplified “for and against” stance portrayed in the media.

Installation view of Disrupting Currents: Catch and Release, 2012. Interactive projection. Gulf of Georgia Museum National Historic Site, Steveston, British Columbia, Canada.

MH: Could you talk about the differences between representations of the North in the work of the Group of Seven, for instance, and what you experienced first-hand visiting communities such as Kitimat, Terrace, Smithers, Nisga’a, and Prince Rupert?
RB: I started Trading Routes because I wanted to learn about these places and to understand them through experience, walking the land and building relationships with people, not through historical paintings, arguments, or national debates. Seeking direct experience fed the project. I became sensitized to the place. I’m much more passionate about the issues than I would have been if I had not become familiar with these places in person. I feel as if I have an understanding of the issues, the ethics involved in infrastructure development projects, and a stronger basis for my personal position on these matters. I have a commitment to contributing to the debates and making an impact through producing and exhibiting work derived from my observations and experiences in the Northwest.

MH: Much of your work in Trading Routes involves different takes on weaving: there are jacquard weavings like Oil Topography, weavings made of audio magnetic tape (Loop and Seep) or copper (Neptune and Waterfall), and the weaving of imagery in your video Intersections. Why choose this combination of technique, materials, and subject matter?
RB: My use of weaving, copper, and the imagery of oil interrogates each of these things as a commodity and the significance of their use locally and globally. I am deeply interested in materiality and its potential to carry meaning. Oil as a material intrigues me; it is mostly invisible as energy, yet its impact is everywhere. Like copper, oil is a seductive material, beautiful in its blackness and “rainbow” reflectivity, but also damaging and dirty in its extraction and mass shipment to international markets. I am interested in acknowledging the historical significance of copper and oil and their role in everyday life. They are an integral part of considering Canada’s North. I see weaving as the creation of a network or fabric that becomes a metaphor for the interconnectedness of people, land, water, society, culture, and materiality. Copper, which is mined in British Columbia, is a huge part of our Northwest economy (and its continuous boom and bust) and also a huge polluter. It is immensely valuable not least because of its ability to conduct electricity; it is ubiquitous in electronics, including digital devices. It has also played an important role in regional Indigenous cultures, which have used it as trading currency and also in the production of highly symbolic objects.

Oil Topography (detail), 2014. Jacquard woven tapestry, copper magnet wire, and cotton, 120 x 82 in. Photo: Kai Mushens

MH: Are you able to source your copper in an environmentally sustainable way?
RB: There is a hypocrisy here, because I am talking about the problematics of mining copper and its effect on rivers in the North and elsewhere. I’m thinking about its relevance to Indigenous land claims in unceded territory and issues of consultation and ownership. The question of how I can use copper when I am being critical of its production is salient but tricky to answer. As much as we feel we should not use fossil fuels, we still use these commodities on a daily basis. The same can be said of copper. As much as we contest the effects of mining on the environment, we still turn on our computers, cell phones, and lights. The tension that emerges in such a dichotomy is important to me. I want my work to be a catalyst for the viewer to contemplate the situation critically.

This is like the structural tension in weaving. The jacquard and other weavings are large in scale. For example, Oil Topography, which is composed of three panels, has a very physical presence and appears aesthetically pleasing. But contrary to what the piece looks like at first glance, it is derived from a Google image documenting an oil spill. These contradictions interest me because I hope to provoke viewers to question their assumptions and to think imaginatively. The interpretation of the micro versus macro, the image appearing differently from up close and far away, how the woven work is composed of individual strands that together support a collective form—a matrix of information, histories, stories—this is what I want to convey.

Intersections, 2015. Video still, video with sound, 4:33 min. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MH: Could you talk a bit more about the hypocrisy of materiality and how you present these problematics to the viewer?
RB: I am hoping to give viewers a visceral experience. Strategies such as physical juxtaposition in the selection and use of materials and conceptual juxtaposition in the ideas allow viewers to make sense of the work and reevaluate their preconceptions. This means directing attention to the material qualities of copper, on the one hand, as well as to its perniciousness, on the other. It has a warm presence, with a comforting color, an inviting, reflective surface, attractive sheen, and seductive opulence, but I use it in an unconventional manner. It’s not immediately recognizable as it exists in its usual forms.

MH: Oil Topography and Intersections speak directly to an understanding of water in relation to the oil, gas, and fishing industries. How are you trying to renegotiate water as a different kind of landscape?
RB: In Trading Routes, the place that interested me most was the coastal town of Kitimat (BC), which is a threshold between land and water. It is a company town that is gearing up for tankers in the harbor. The concern is that many of these tankers will end up in distress because of the treacherous channel to open water. In the case of spills, there is the question of who would be held responsible. I deal with concerns about water and fish by thinking about how oil and water don’t mix, and how in both cases, a dazzling surface detracts from substance. I think about reflections and patterns. Audio magnetic tape weavings such as Seep and Loop, as well as some of the jacquard weaving textures, refer to water with a shimmering effects and patterning. These works, and especially the three-panel Water derived from a close-up photo of coastal water, change effect and appearance when viewed from different angles. They are highly reactive and interactive. To me, water integrates thinking about surface and what lies beneath it—all that patterning, reflectivity, and physicality, the slipperiness, light, and radiance that plays out as the viewer moves through space. There is an ephemeral quality to these pieces. When I work with copper, I don’t really think of it as solid, perhaps because it has attributes that enable the transmission of energy. I am interested in how my materials manifest energy. Liminal spaces that don’t mark a separation, such as the surface of water or the town of Kitimat, also interest me, especially their potential for permeability and flux. There is no black and white. It’s gray like the clouds rolling in over an ocean peppered with oil tankers.

Loop 1, 2015. Audio cassette tape and indigo-dyed cotton, 90 x 40 x 14 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

MH: Both the copper and audio tape weavings relate to your interest in radio frequencies and the sharing of information. Why are you interested in sound?
RB: Sound is becoming more central to my work. It’s a way of describing space and place. Recordings from different surroundings can be considered reflections or portraits or mediated measures of a place. Sound as an invisible link transcends physical distances. I think of radio waves as a dynamic form capable of transmitting sound in expressive ways. My sound-related works include a piece that I did a few years ago in the Catch and Release project, which involved translating audio and scientific data collected by NEPTUNE CANADA, an underwater research observatory, from sensors in the depths of the Gulf of Georgia. In addition to livestream sound from hydrophones, I used the interpreted data to visualize changes in oxygen and salinity. Reconstituting the sound and data in an aesthetic form as an interactive projection allowed viewers to change the patterns of the projection through their movements in front of the screen. I was interested in conveying the science in a visceral and emotional way, rather than as cold, objective numbers.

Sound, transmission, and transcending spaces also emerged as themes in Antenna I (2016), a work composed of woven copper, steel, and a broadband radio, which was exhibited at the Surrey Art Gallery and the Bellevue Museum, and in a follow-up work shown at the Audain AVHA Gallery at UBC. In both works, the copper functions as an antenna. In Antenna 1, it is supported by a steel structure referencing radio towers. The broadband radio, tuned to the 24-hour public service marine weather report, produced a droning, repetitive sound. I really like the mesmerizing rhythm of this repetition, the strands of information in reference to the wind speed—all the scientific measurements and directional references translated in unexpected ways through the sculpture and brought into the gallery, linking the outdoors and the local port with the piece and the exhibition. I’m interested in using sound to join spaces, including underwater depths or the Far North, that are not easily accessible.

Ruth Beer
Scape, 2017. Copper magnet wire and cotton, 30 x 66 in. Photo: Kai Mushens

MH: Do you have any projects coming up that are going to take you North again?
RB: Yes, I’m working on another project using sound as a mapping tool. Mapping can be considered problematic because it suggests political agendas and hard borders marking exclusions, but I’m thinking about it as a critique of those terms. Critical mapping could provide a framework for much more flexible, fluid, and malleable ways to build an understanding of places by working through collaborative practices and partnerships to exchange knowledge through workshops and residencies. In a reciprocal arrangement, artists from other regions of Canada could go and work with artists from the North and vice versa to share knowledge and experiences, as well as reflections concerned with energy extraction and future imaginaries. There is an important, guiding role for feminist thinking and Indigenous ways of understanding the land with regard to sustainability.

MH: How will you navigate this new idea of mapping?
RB: Mapping is a very general term. I intend to approach it in relation to how it has been used by other artists and Indigenous communities and through a feminist lens, considering issues such as social and environmental justice. It is important to me to think about equity across genders as well as interculturally. I am really intrigued by how the Inuit navigated spaces. They used to create maps not with pencil on paper, but by carving objects that they held in their hands and put in their pockets. This was their way of understanding the space and how to traverse it. Following the lessons of this idea will allow me to push viewers to think about haptic and embodied possibilities in mapping, replacing technological means with a more physically engaged relationship with the land.

Ruth Beer
Antenna 1, 2016. Copper magnet wire, steel, urethane rubber, broadband radio, and sound, 102 x 33 x 22 in. Photo: Emily Smith

MH: Are you also taking inspiration from the songlines of Indigenous Australians, traplines, and ley lines?
RB: All of those things, and that is also where sound comes into this process, because it can traverse spaces multi-dimensionally and be a descriptor of place. I’m not sure exactly how it will come together.

MH: It sounds like you’re moving in more performative direction.
RB: To an extent. I describe the way to do this as a kind of artistic research, walking methodology based on a direct physical relationship with a place and being respectfully attuned to its sensibilities. This walking methodology was at the core of Trading Routes: doing “fieldwork” that is performative, emergent, and process-based. The performative also operates for viewers. They need to align themselves in various positions relative to the work in order to see the reflectivity and color shifts. In the jacquard weaving Climate, for instance, as viewers move from one end to the other, this performative shift produces various colors and metallic highlights or somber forms. There are a lot of performative elements in my work. The barely audible, droning, meditative sound of the marine weather report draws you in and out at the same time. It repositions the outdoors and the dynamic of climate inside the gallery, a neutralized indoor space of contemplation.

Installation view of “Ruth Beer: States of Matter,” 2016–17. The Reach Gallery Museum, Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Kai Mushens

MH: Hearing you speak about the performative makes me realize that your practice is also very process-based.
RB: My work is heavily invested in process, both in terms of its conception and its production, which is physical, performative, and research based. Then, objects emerge from the selection and manipulation of materials to build out ideas. I don’t rely on a consistent material or process. My practice is diverse. I might start by investigating a material or exploring its cultural significance and a conventional use that I can invert somehow, so that it can become its own language.

MH: The absence of consistency in your practice correlates to the constant flux of the natural environment.
RB: Yes, that’s key. The sense of dynamic change inspires me. In fact, the mapping project is called Mapping Change.