In occasione della performance LIVING MATTERS al Castello di Rivoli, Claire Pentecost parla del suo background, del ruolo dell’artista, di suolo, fertilità, vita, morte e apprendimento collettivo, nell’ambito di una riflessione sulla nozione generativa di compost da cui ha preso le mosse il progetto LIVING MATTERS, un inedito formato performativo appositamente concepito per COMP(H)OST (testo in inglese).

On the occasion of the LIVING MATTERS performance at Castello di Rivoli, Claire Pentecost talks about her background, the role of the artist, soil, fertility, life and death, and collective learning, as part of a reflection on the generative notion of compost from which the LIVING MATTERS project started, a new performative format specifically conceived for COMP(H)OST (Text in English).


Federico Pozuelo: First of all, I would like to ask you about your background. How did it influence your practice? As far as I can understand, it is an important part of it…

Claire Pentecost: That is interesting. I am not asked this question very often. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, which is in the southeast of the United States, and I was deeply influenced by the fact that my grandparents had a farm, right outside of the city, where I spent summers and weekends. It was a working farm and then my grandparents got too old to work it… this family farm for me was like a playground, because it was huge and had fields and woods and a lake and streams… I had a lot of unstructured time there. It was a place where I could follow my imagination, a place for playing. I think there I got the idea that nature was a place of freedom, in an almost utopian way.

Before I started out as an artist, actually a painter, I was a community organizer, because I wanted my life to have some element of service. When I was very young, I couldn’t see that art was helping anyone. Being a community organizer was very hard work. We worked from morning until late at night; we thought nobody else´s project was as important as ours: we were working to build a power base for working and lower-class people using democratic methods. Anyway, I missed painting—I had been painting before that—and so I quit and just started painting again.

Then I was a painter for ten years; that is what I studied in graduate school in New York. But painting began to feel too limited for me. However, I am always very restless and I have always enjoyed learning and trying new things out, so I gradually moved into photography, and then sculpture and installation. I started working on our relationship to nature, but not so much directly. Instead, it was very much about the organizations and institutions that represent nature to us, like the natural history museums or the zoo, or even our structures of imagination, for instance, there is a very romantic idea of Native Americans in my country… As I wanted to get beyond those structures, I had to study the ways in which nature was treated from the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile, I was increasingly aware of the environmental crisis that we are in, so my work became more urgent… My parents supported me in being an artist, which I think was really great. I think that for a young artist, if you have people who support you, just appreciate it, don’t feel guilty about it, it is so important!

FP: There are many things in your background that we still can see in your work today. Now that you are going to make this performance in Castello di Rivoli involving young people, I would like to ask you about the importance of the educational value of art. Do you think that today art has really an educational value or it is just a commodity?

CP: Well, art is many things, and certainly, it has been treated as a commodity, and now is treated as an investment asset. People invest in art purely for a speculative approach, and its value is going up and there are lot of forces that keep certain artists high priced in the market because once people have invested, they want their investments to stay advantageous etc. It is something that is related to art, but it is not something that interests me, except in the way that I am interested in almost everything.

I think that art can definitely be educational but it is so much more. I am afraid that when we say “educational” people think of school, and I cannot speak about schools here in Europe —I know they are different from schools in the United States— but I think that school in general is a disaster. It is all about performance, about testing and performing to the expectations of the authorities. For so many young people, it makes learning into something that is boring at best, and punishing at worst. I think that there is an evolutionary drive to learn. If you are around little children you see that they want to know everything—What is that? Why? Who is that? I think it is a natural inclination; I don’t say it lightly because many things in the human are called natural, which I question, but this is something I have been thinking about for a long time. It is very important to remember that learning can be a pleasure, because when it is pleasurable we learn more, we learn better, we learn while enjoying it.

Now, what do I think is the role of art in all that? We have obvious ecological problems and social problems too, and they are related. The problem of climate change, we can call it climate crisis now, is related to our economy, an economy that is based on growth in a world that has reached its maximum growth. This earth is not going to get any bigger, and we have exploited it down on a level that we have been mining everything in it. I mean, we have an extractive culture, which takes, takes, takes, from the natural world, as a resource that can be converted to the “standard equivalent” that is money, so that you can trade it. Anything that has a price can be traded for something else, but when you have extracted it, you have separated it from its ontological presence.

I believe we have the technology to change. It is becoming more and more evident how we could inhabit this planet differently, although we don’t have the cultural desire to do it. It seems that now there is a limitation on how much people can imagine to live differently: maybe a life that is not based on consumption, or on success or reward or pleasure, a life that is not about how much money you make or how many credit cards or cars you have… the fantasy life that is perpetuated by the media and is very narcissistic. Most of us are very vulnerable to that and we all care about what people think of us. This is the kind of vulnerability the media exploit all the time. We want to look in the right way, speak in the right way and belong to some part of culture. So we need to create different visions to base our values on, different kinds of pleasures, different kinds of rewards, rewards that to me are about just appreciating the amazing complexity of the natural world. I have been studying nature for most of my adult life and I am continuously astounded, every day. I think it was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel who said that what we should strive for—or pray for in his words, is wonder, or radical amazement. I don’t see any difficulty in that as I find myself being amazed all the time, as we continue to learn things about nature. I want to communicate that kind of richness, or just little clues to it, and to do so I think cultural work is very important. In my organizing days, I could not see that. I had a very limited idea of art that just seemed to me like the pleasure of the elites, people who were highly educated and could afford it, but I changed my mind. It is a tragedy when people think art is not for them, or that they need to have some kind of specialized education in order to even appreciate it. I have many very smart well-educated friends, who are not artists and they would say, “Oh please, come to the museum with me and help me understand, I feel so stupid when I look at contemporary art.” That is a travesty, because the creative impulse is so much a part of what makes us thrive.

Although I don’t think of myself as an activist artist, some people think I am, and they always ask me questions about activism. I think this is because I have a position or I advocate for certain things. I am not neutral. I run across this with my students all the time, because I teach in an art college in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I have undergraduates and graduates students. Students always prefer to be ambiguous. They think that if they have a clear opinion driving the work somewhere, it is not artistic anymore, it ́is didactic, or maybe it is journalism. I hear so often from them, “I don’t want it to be too political.” I think that is probably because we have made these categories like “art” and “politics” and they don’t mix in a lot of people’s minds. Politics is this category where there are politicians and they are all corrupt, and at its best is boring… Oh, it’s not boring anymore, but it is outrageous, it is the scene of outrage. Anyway, people think that if a work is political it has to be simplistic, and I hear many of my students saying, “I don’t want to hit them over the head,” which in English means to be too blunt, or too simplistic and direct.

In many ways, I am some kind of an old-fashioned gallery or museum artist. Well, that is not completely true because I do a lot of different things, but I have made many works that are shown in art spaces which can be spaces for contemplation… What am I hoping that art can do? We all walk around with a little frame, around what we think is possible. I want to shift this frame a little bit, so that people can feel that there are other possibilities, for reality and their relationship to it.

I have also been in a couple of collectives, and I am part of one now in Chicago called Deep Time Chicago. Several years ago, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the HKW in Berlin started a multiyear project about the Anthropocene that they call the Anthropocene Curriculum.

It is about creating a field of knowledge that is interdisciplinary, which our problems require now. Specialization has accomplished amazing things, and specialization and mastery can be very rewarding for the individual. But now it is important to bring specializations into intensive dialog to tackle very complex problems.

The HKW has been doing this in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. A group of us from Chicago went to their Anthropocene Campus in Berlin in 2016, a weeklong series of ten seminars. I and four other collaborators had proposed to convene one of the seminars, and we were accepted, and then it turned out that other colleagues from Chicago had also proposed one, and were accepted. Therefore, two out of the ten seminars were convened by people from Chicago, and there were also other participants from Chicago, so when we came back, we got together and said let’s keep doing this work.

One of the things that we do is called Walk about It. We select sites in or near Chicago and we go and visit these sites (anyone can join), and we always invite one or two people who have a specialized knowledge of the site. For instance, we went to the Morton Arboretum where the chief researcher of the trees walked with us and talked to us about how trees communicate with each other. We went to Site A, which was the first nuclear fission experiment site, and which is now located in a forest reserve near the edge of the city. The experiment started at the University of Chicago, but realizing the danger of what they were doing, they built a little village outside the city for doing these experiments. They had housing, a commissary… it was a kind of like a military base. Now all that has disappeared, but the first nuclear reactor is buried there, and there is a stone marker. This is relevant because nuclear power, whether for war or “peacetime purposes,” is one of the ways we have changed the planet effectively forever. We also visited the BP oil refinery in South Chicago. These walks are about understanding more about how our world works and how to make the anthropogenic forcers readily visible in our everyday landscapes. I believe in a collective kind of autonomous learning, where, as a group, we go together and explore something. We put what we can learn by researching together with what we can see with our own eyes, proceeding with all the senses.

We also publish essays in the form of pamphlets, and we have sponsored lectures and panel discussions. Now we are working with the HKW and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science on a project called The Mississippi: an Anthropocene River. Along the Mississippi, there will be several field stations put together by artists and some scientists, people from different fields. It will all happen in the fall, so you could travel down the River and stop at the different sites where artists have produced exhibits or seminars etc. It is very exciting, and it is supported very generously by the institutions, mainly by the German Federal Foreign Office. So, you were asking about this project here at Castello di Rivoli…

FP: I don’t know what kind of performance are you going to do, but I imagined that it has some kind of educational purpose. I mean, it is not only your performance as an artist, as a leading figure. Here you involved a group of local youngsters that are going to learn and share this experience with you, creating a small community for 3-4 days. There is a museum opening its doors and an artist opening her mind and perspective. I imagine that this is related to your recent practice in Chicago, and to what you said before about collective learning…

CP: I was really fascinated by agriculture and food systems for years, and I think the industrial food system is one of our big problems. We could talk about it all day, but the global food system is about corporate control of our food. I have also studied alternative methods to the industrial methods, and the key is the care of the soil. A very important part of that is composting. The project that has been put together here is about composting, so we will study compost but will also talk about what kind of philosophy you can derive from the principles of composting. Principles like “use what you have”, “waste can be wealth”, “think in cycles”, “think of yourself as a purpose cycle”. Compost is part of a cycle that includes life and death, because compost is “dead” organic material in a process of decomposition by a whole cosmos of microorganisms recycling nutrients to make them available to new life. The dead becomes food for the living. It could sound macabre, but compost is actually a kind of alchemy, because you convert things that in our culture you might throw away into rich fertilizer…

When we grow food in the soil, we are taking things out of this world and we have to replenish those minerals in forms that plants can absorb. This is what compost does, it converts waste into forms that can be absorbed by plants and then of course plants feed us etc., there is a whole trophic cycle, a trophic cascade. Instead, in industrial farming which has separated the animals from growing crops, we make these horrible, I would say demonic feedlots, crowding these animals together to feed them and grow them as fast as we can to “harvest” the meat. Meanwhile you have all that manure concentrating in one place, you have these huge lagoons of manure, which is a big problem… Whereas, if we spread those animals out in small farms on the land, you would be converting that waste into a good soil, right? What I am talking about is the kind of thinking that you can entertain when you begin with the principles of compost. I want to present some of the basics of compost in this workshop, but I am an artist who studies things that interest me, and I am not a scientist, even if I speak with scientists and I read them. I am a kind of “lay expert”; does it make sense? It is like someone who has not been certified institutionally, but has educated herself. One of the things that I advocate for in my work is people educating themselves. I have written some essays in which I have talked about a possible position for the artist, which I call the public amateur. The amateur is the person who learns because of love. What is the Italian word for love?

FP: Amore, in Spanish it is amor.

CP: That is the basis of the word amateur. See our experts, at least the ones in power: they have failed us. Our politicians and the people who are in control of the decisions that drive society have really failed us. Look where we are, we are facing a possible end of the world as we know it. It is amazing to be alive right now, because who could have imagined this? It is like science fiction, but it is real. My idea of the public amateur is that you learn in public, and you make knowledge—even the production of knowledge—something that can be examined, and not just in the territory of experts, where we just say, “well I don’t understand it—so somebody else is going to make the decision.” I think we all need to educate ourselves, and participate in those decisions that affect all our lives, so in this workshop I will be sharing some knowledge I have acquired. I thought of converting it into a performance, above all because I have no idea of what that would be, and that interests me. I don’t have an idea of what the performance has to be. I have many ideas of what it could be, but I know from teaching and from collaborating that people will bring something. Everybody bring things, they bring knowledge of their own, they bring ideas, and they bring creativity. I don’t know what can happen when we get together in that room… I also think that dancing is healing, and almost a natural impulse for humans, and if you have been somewhat deprived of dance—everybody knows people that say, “Oh, I can’t dance”—it is so sad, because dancing is a way of being in your body in the world. A way that is dynamic, and that is possibly “off” the script. We are all living scripts that were handled to us… When I used to live in NY, I did computer work for corporations, and there were all these people in their little grey boxes with their computers and sitting in their chairs… it is like a kind of containment, a restriction that starts with the body. I think that when we allow ourselves other ways of moving, we break some of that restriction, and that might once again give us a sense of our different possibilities.

FP: Sometimes when you go out of the script, when you don’t follow the script, you can get in trouble. I have read a paper that you wrote, When Art Becomes Life, in which you talk about Steve Kurtz and his issues with the FBI, and you say that sometimes the system, the power, can see the artist or the citizens who learn by themselves as a threat.

CP: That is right, it is a risk, but it is worthy. The case of Steve Kurtz—the whole story you can read it in the Internet—he is an artist from the Critical Art Ensemble, which has been very important and very influential in the late 20th century and early 21st century art. He was accused of bioterrorism because of the experiments he was doing for his art, but everything he did was public. Publicity is part of your protection, because he was not hiding anything, he wasn’t like a terrorist. He was not trying to do something in secret that he was then going to create a threat with; everything was public, that was the point, but the authorities were alarmed. It was a time in my country where federal prosecutors were making their reputations on convicting people of terrorism, and people saw terrorists everywhere. This happened in 2004, which was just three years after 911. What happened was that they could not really get him on a charge of bioterrorism, but they wanted to punish him for having ideas that were… radical, not really radical… they were not about destroying anything, but about creating things differently. So, they accused him of these charges of wire fraud and mail fraud, it was a complicated case—you can read my paper or other people’s papers about it—there was a lot of press at the time. Steve could have done a plea bargain, in which he would say he was guilty of a minor offence, and then he would get off and the case would be over. However, he didn’t do that, he wanted to fight this, because he knew it was ridiculous, so many artists came out to support him. We had a whole defense team and raised a lot of money for his lawyers, and after four years, he finally got to a judge, after many delays in the justice system, and the judge threw the whole case out. He said this case is ridiculous! It doesn’t make any sense to do this… you are free to go! There are risks when you step out of line, and that is why so many people don’t. There are all kind of risks, but a truly authentic life includes risk. The avoidance of risk, I think means half living, I don’t know how say it any better, how would you say it?

FP: I understand perfectly what you say. You are living inside the box, like in the job that you had in New York. I think that is the big threat, living in that box.

CP: That’s right! You do what you are told to do. The big threat is we continue on the course that we are on, of consumption and of people just working, working, working, and never thinking, what is this doing? What is all this work leading to? What are the consequences of the financial industry? What are the human costs in the course of the Natural World? However, we don’t calculate our wealth that way. In financial accounting, those are called externalities. So, let us say that a chemical company like Monsanto can produce something very toxic like dioxins and let them leak into a creek that goes through the neighborhood of poor people, and maybe those poor people organize themselves and they sue Monsanto because they are all getting cancer and so Monsanto pays them off. Those expenses are not calculated in the profit. Those expenses, eventually paid for by society, are “externalities.” Like all the damages that are done environmentally, for example by an oil company or a mining company, or all the health problems they create. The State has to take care of that, or the individual has to take care of that. They have to have insurance, and if they don’t, they are just out of luck. Society is paying these costs, but corporations are not, because of externalities. It is a really twisted way of thinking, because it is not holistic, it is just seeing what you want to see. I think that the real risk is to keep doing what is expected of us, in the most normalizing sense, meaning the norms of our society, which are still servicing the narratives of capitalism, which is digging our grave. This way, we are producing ourselves to death…

Eds. Luisa Perlo and Giulia Crispiani