Visual artist and forest ecologist in training.

Bending the fields of art and environmental science towards each other.
Un/Predictable Environments: Politics, Ecology and Agency
Digital Conference - 20-21 May 2021
link to program

This conference was co-hosted by the Public Humanities Hub at UBC-Vancouver and the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, in collaboration with the University of Allahabad. Keynote events and sessions were held online, and organised according to time zones for Vancouver, Belfast, and Delhi.

When I Skype Milah at 15.00 on 13th April 2021, she replies through her mobile phone. It takes a while to connect but once she appears on the screen she is walking in the forest on her way home. We start the interview.

Can you tell me something about your background? How did you get interested in ecology?

I sometimes try to figure out how my work is connected to my past but I’m not sure where my interest in nature comes from. When I finished my secondary school I wasn’t sure whether to study ecology or art. I chose art because I realised that ecology was very time intensive so I wouldn’t have time for art at all. So my choice for the art academy had a practical reason. I also welcomed the freedom this gave, to formulate my own ideas and develop my own projects. It allowed me to develop my interest in nature. At the same time, I gathered more knowledge about ecology as an autodidact.

I was not raised in a conventional family. My parents are both musicians and work in an alternative scene. There were always different kinds of people visiting, both musicians and people interested in meditation. That meant that as a child I was confronted with many different creative perspectives, so it is not surprising that I was drawn to art as a form of expression. Because my parents are trained in Indian classical music and perform both nationally and internationally, we also travelled a lot. Not as tourists for a beach holiday, encountering a stylised version of a country, but traveling for the music and visiting many different places, meeting all sorts of people. Rich, poor, of different backgrounds and engaged in different kinds of creative practice. These travels also made me aware of how people in different parts of the world relate differently to nature. In India I saw how some people are directly dependent on nature, but was also faced with pollution and a disconnect between humans and the natural world. These contradictions are now at the centre of my work. I found them in other settings as well. I remember, for example, staying with friends in France who live right by a huge lavender field. It was beatiful, but it was of course still a monoculture solely for human use.

As if shocked by this insight, the screen freezes

She calls me a few minutes later. She is now sitting in her lounge by a table.

I lost the connection so ran home, she says. We continue the conversation.

I like to be confronted with another person’s perspective on the landscape, through reading, traveling, education or meeting with new people. This influences and enriches my own experience. I enjoy that, and it is of course an endless process. Why I am so fascinated by the landscape I am not sure. But I find the shifts in perspective, the confrontation with different truths, fascinating.

Do you think that all these perspectives have equal truth value?

Of course some of these perspectives are destructive. But as you learn more about different perspectives, you can better understand why different people come to take on certain views. At the moment, I am living in a forest-rich part of the Netherlands with people who hunt. I was always against hunting, but now that I live with hunters, I try to get their perspective. From their point of view, there are simply too many deer in this area, which endangers tree rejuvenation. So I understand their perspective, which does not necessarily mean that I agree with it.

How does this process of gaining and perhaps changing perspectives resonate with your work?

Sometimes it arises from the process of making. At the moment, I search for different leaves in the forest, dry them, and cut them up in squares. This initial idea was to reflect on monoculturalism, of growing a single crop in a given area, which reflects a human-centric ideology of cultivation. I cut the leaves in squares and stick them together on a panel. As I was doing this, it made me think of pixels. I study photography and it made me think about the ways in which photographers represent nature in their work through ‘new’, or digital photography.

In our collaborative project Finding Objects, Finding Sounds, you were particularly interested in the presence of nature in the urban environment. Could you elaborate on that?

Because of climate change, policy makers are increasingly interested in creating green areas in the city. My search for nature in the city is perhaps more basic: I simply prefer being in nature to being in the city.

Would that be related to your experience of growing up in a quiet landscape that was rapidly urbanised?

It is true that I witnessed rapid urban development, which shocked me as a child. When I was born, my parents lived in a house on a dike from which we could look far into the distance. We were surrounded by kilometres of fields with pheasants and other birds. Although this was still a very cultivated form of land-use, these wide vistas gave me a sense of freedom. The absence of people and the presence of green. Then slowly the space was built up with houses. We could first see them far away in the distance, but they came closer and closer, until only a narrow ditch at the end of our garden separated us from the new-build neighbourhood. It made me very conscious of population growth, people taking up space as they settle and how that has huge consequences for the landscape. We lost that sense of freedom in our garden and could no longer look far into the distance. Because the Netherlands is so flat, it is hard to get that experience at all; we don’t have mountains so you need a lot of space to be able to see the horizon. It made me feel frustrated about the ways in which humans relate to nature, but it also increased my awareness of the significance of green in the urban society.

Some artists of your generation have started working on the topic of pollution. Is that something that attracts you as a theme?

I regard pollution as a symptom of our modern human existence, of how we dominate the environment as we settle and interact with our surroundings. We behave as if we exist above nature. In my current work I explore the relationship between the human perspective with that of non-human environmental perspectives. This is where the anthropocene comes in.

So your criticism of the current geological age, understood as a period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment?

Yes. And I don’t think you can escape from that human gaze. While you have to accept that, however, it does not mean that you cannot engage with other perspectives. I gained that insight through my artistic work. In my last project, I explored the question of authorship as a maker. I asked myself how I could share my human perspective with the perspective of the landscape. In art, two approaches to the landscape have dominated. The land has either been romanticised as a study object or appropriated as ‘material’, shaped by the artists’ work. In both cases, the landscape has been subjected to the will of the artist, which means that the human perspective has remained dominant. In my work, I asked how I could share parts of the creative process with nature itself. I am still exploring whether this is possible. You can of course make something, place it outside, let it whither and become overgrown. But this process is still dependent on your own curatorship. I was frustrated when I realised that, so in my current work I reflect on that paradox. How can two perspectives interact and exist in parallel? And how do perspectives shift?

In Feburary 2021, you started studying Ecology at the University of Wageningen. Did that add again other perspectives?

They teach a scientific approach, which is a particular perspective but not necessarily the truth. The perspective is well-developed and substantiated, and is often presented as truth: this is how we name and approach things. But there is also an acknowledgement of the fact that in the application of certain findings there is an element of subjectivity. Who wants what? How? Whose perspective will be central? What is the powerplay between different scientific actors? The scientists at my university agree that climate change is real, which colours their value system, and binds them in their shared aim to care for the landscape.

Would they disagree within that paradigm?

Yes, there are differences in opinion, discussions about the best approach, and different speculations about the future. Forest ecologists, for example, discuss to what extent the forest can deal with the effects of climate change. They also necessarily deal with past approaches and speculations. Many trees in the Netherlands were deliberately planted in the past, so the existence of a 70-year old tree, for example, resulted from speculations about the future made 70 years ago. We need to go back to discussions about conservation and historical heritage in the 1950s to understand the process. To ongoing discussions about nature in a crowded country. The Netherlands is diverse in terms of soil types and vegetation. It is interesting to explore how people in the past related to these different elements in the environment, priotitising some and neglecting others.

Did anyone in your study refer to your grandfather’s plan ‘Building with Nature’ (bouwen met de natuur)? [Milah’s grandfather was closely involved in the development of the Dutch Delta Works]

No, they haven’t mentioned it. It is now an accepted concept. I did get a lecture on the Delta Works, but they did not mention his name in relation to his nature oriented approach. Now that I study ecology, I do think about him more often. We had classes on hydrology, and I suddenly looked differently at his old book in the Czech Republic with hydrological maps. The link to my family history provides another perspective and experience. And my art background also influences the ways in which I perceive some of my study materials. When I see a scientific map, for example, I immediately get ideas as to what I could do with this artistically.

What about your current work?

It is a bit different from what I did before in the sense that I used to work quite fast, creating a finished end product that was based on a predetermined concept or framed by a conceptual interpretation that I added at the end. What I am doing now is time-consuming: collecting leaves, cutting them into squares, sticking them onto paper. It is slow work, and in the process things start to happen.   

What about your plans for the future?

I am super interested in gaining more scientific knowledge, so I will continue on that journey. In my view, art and ecology can enrich each other. Science can observe, analyse and draw conclusions about the landscape, and the creative and speculative aspects of artistic practice can add to that, especially through its reflective tendencies. All the things I am learning at university trigger thoughts about possible art projects. The scientific visualisation of research data, for example, is an intriguing process. When I become an ecologist, I will be able to integrate my artistic view as a valuable unique perspective. Through art, I can make my own statement. I had to get used to the fact that ecologists do not seem to aim for a unique perspective, at least not in the same way that artists do.

Don’t you think that the myth of artistic individuality and uniqueness, and the underlying ideology of creativity as innovation, should be questioned? Artists, like scientists, generally draw on the work of other artists, and numerous artists collaborate. I noticed that more and more artists of your generation make work that reacts to environmental concerns, so they are clearly influenced by a trend.

Yes that is true. For some reason I was a bit annoyed by that at first but now I am grateful. More and more artists feel an urgency to reflect on the current ecological crisis and are in a good position to do so. This proofs again that artistic engagement is valuable to science.