A CONVERSATION BETWEEN BELLEAU + CHURCHILL, ERIK DAVIS-HEIM AND LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON
ON THE OCCASION OF FANTASIA COLORADO AT GRIN
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Could you two talk about the genesis of your idea for this show and some of the individual pieces you made for it? I listened to the podcast on The Camel Corp ("The Red Ghost" of Arizona" on Stuff You Missed In History Class) and looked over all of the material Corey and Lindsey gave us plus the previous works on both of your websites. The story seems well suited as an intersection of some of the driving interests behind your individual art practices. What was your initial response to the story? What sort of follow up research did you do, and how did that inform the development of the show?
RAINA BELLEAU: Our initial response was that this story was too good to be true, or that is was so crazy it must be true. The idea of fact and fiction being inextricably intertwined is very appealing to both of us. Working collaboratively allows us a freedom that we don’t always feel working in our separate practices. Our collaboration developed very organically as a way to play and experiment with our shared interests. It gives us a fluidity between humor and reverence, play and criticism.
CALEB CHURCHILL: As for the idea of individual pieces some are more loaded than others. So for example Founders consists of three busts and an oil painting. Each bust is made of a different material that correlates to what their professions were… foam for example, because Beale was an entrepreneur whose enterprises constantly deteriorated or failed. In building the story through the works we sought out imagery and forms that would convey elements of the story without directly illustrating it. The carpet we made in many ways houses the iconography of the history while the cacti and camel sculpture reflect more the legend.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Oh that level of symbolism regarding the busts and their materials really appeals to me. I never think about art in those terms; I doubt I would have made that connection if you hadn’t pointed it out.
CALEB CHURCHILL: We researched the hell out of this, library of congress archives, Texas state archives, anything we could find via the internet, jstor, and of course the camel community & Calvary buffs.
We absorbed it all, let it seep in while simultaneously trying to forget it in the studio.
RAINA BELLEAU: The most striking thing about the research was the amount of discrepancy. Especially because half the research was on both a legend and a historical event. Of course the legend changes over time with new details, sub plots or missing components. But the history surprised us with it’s own changes, sometimes feeling like it too were a legend with missing pieces and exaggerations.
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: I’d love to hear more about your research process. Did you start with the suggested reading from the podcast? How did you “live with” that research? I’m especially curious about how you tried to forget it in the studio...will you talk more about that?
CALEB CHURCHILL: At first yes, we listened to the podcast several, if not a dozen times, took note on what they found and expanded and cross referenced those sources via the internet. Once Raina and I started talking about the project other sources would appear from simple conversations with others and we would follow up on those leads. The “lived with” aspect is interesting, we treated it like oral history. We took in as much as possible and committed it to memory, if those facts got misconstrued or confused all the better as that's the gist of the entire exercise. The forgetting aspect came naturally as we layered ideas and pieces, then became caught up in different aspects of the story whether generated from the research or our failed recollection of those facts. The trying to forget aspect came by embracing this idea of the oral history (the idea that memory is flawed and the story changes with each retelling) as we made pieces and letting the pieces evolve naturally, with a bit of truth and a bit of looseness.
RAINA BELLEAU: The postcards were a way to have the research visually and physically remind us of the history, the story and the seeds of each piece. They gave us enough of a memory jog without locking us into all the specifics. The still life is the accumulated detritus of the research. We are collectors of objects and books and these are the physical things that we kept on hand in the studio while we worked.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: How did you arrive at the specific form for the camel carpet? I get the references to tapestries and regimental banners. The fact that it’s a carpet makes me think of Americana, domestic settings, and gift shop kitsch (particularly in conjunction with the postcards).
That’s interesting to note that the different collections of work you’ve included evolved out of different phases of developing the show. Some of the pieces were planned out with specific aims while others were essentially notes or byproducts of the research process. Again I suspect this wouldn’t be readily apparent on a quick initial look at the show. Art Objects can emerge from nearly any step in the creative process and can blend seamlessly with one another despite this.
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Yes, the aesthetic references to folk or naive art forms--from hook rugs to wood carvings, to the postcards--is so rich in this work. In the early twentieth century, people used picture postcards, as well as newspaper advertisements, to decorate their homes. This practice is visible in some of the photographs that Walker Evans took for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men...torn out ads are tacked on the walls of sharecroppers’ homes.
So I am wondering how you researched folk art forms, if at all? How have you absorbed those forms and made them into something new?
RAINA BELLEAU: The carpet was the first piece we came up with. I think the ideas of tapestry and heraldry were in there pretty deeply but we wanted to be sure to connect this story to it’s location: the American West. One way we tried to do that is to look at the types of art people were making for themselves during the time period we were researching, like punch rugs. The carpet’s motif and the technique we used come from that research. The busts are another way we referenced the time period. But since we are also examining the evolution of the story from fact to fantasy, it was important to call on different time periods as well. The diagrams are a reflection of the research we did, accumulating and reflecting the events today. The postcards came from an association with the region, nostalgia and the idea if roadtrips and a particular tourist trap that commemorates a Syrian Camel trainer who immigrated to the US as part of the Camel Corp initiative.
CALEB CHURCHILL: Naive is such a good word for the aesthetic that came to mind. We still decorate our house with a lot of these types of objects, postcards on every surface, paint by numbers and a tapestry in every other room, etc… The story itself is built on a kind of naivete. If the people of the area had been aware of camels, what they were and where they came from, there never would have been a ghost story. We also embraced this idea for ourselves in branching out into mediums we wouldn’t necessarily think of using within our individual practices.
We didn't really research folk art forms, however Raina and I are very aware of them. And that was definitely in our minds as we made these pieces. There are a lot of legends built up around folk artists. Artists like Mary Nohl or Henry Darger have mysticism built around them that is just as intriguing as their work. Nohl’s community in Wisconsin thought she was a witch and children ran past her house, afraid. We have references to her around our house and we’re thinking about her concrete works as we made the busts.
Using the busts as an example of how we evolved beyond these references while still hanging on to them, we used our iPhone and the photo app’s face recognition technology. We both tend to want to be perfectionists so to help keep things loose with the busts, we stopped carving when the phone was able to recognize a face.
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: I’m fascinated by all of the mysteriousness of this history….and also by the language that we used to talk about mystery and myth, generally speaking. For instance, in the podcast, both speakers say things like “she was said to,” or that one of the deaths was from “causes unknown.” How much did this language of ambiguity influence your process? How do your works augment this ambiguity?
RAINA BELLEAU: The ambiguity of the language itself wasn’t something I feel like we ever talked about. Although a certain amount of ambiguity to the show on a whole was always something we had in mind. We liked the idea of adding the works up one by one. Though some pieces give away more than others. Retelling the story was never our intention so perhaps we were influenced subconsciously!
CALEB CHURCHILL: It seems like the ambiguous language gives more weight to the “facts” even if those things had were “said to have” happened actually did. We try not to pick a side: history vs. legend. The diagrams go both ways. One, the timeline, lays everything but with an even hand dealt to each event. The pie chart goes to the ambiguous side with fantastical data categories and colors and percentages that make a pyramid shape rather than present findings.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Raina what you’re saying about adding the works up one by one seems to jibe with what I was thinking regarding the individual pieces being a collection of objects that evolved out of multiple stages of research for the show I like the line toward the end of your statement, “The works themselves do not seek to simply illustrate the story, but to add elements of complication.“ I feel like this gets at the heart of what you’re trying to achieve with this show and how it differs from a literal historic retelling of events.
I saw that you guys went to see a camel in person. Could you talk a bit about that? Not that I think anyone needs an excuse to go hang out with a camel, but were you hoping to get anything in particular out of the meeting?
CALEB CHURCHILL: One of the reasons I became an artist is to be able to pick up and learn or research whatever topic that I fancy. If Raina and I are going to do a show on camels not only are we going to read everything we can get our hands on concerning the topic, that isn’t enough, we need to connect to the idea in a real life context. Meeting a camel is to build a respect for the topic, experience a part of it, and also logistical things like how is a camel put together, attitude etc.
RAINA BELLEAU: It was also really interesting to talk to the guys who work with the camel. They have not only a vast knowledge of camels (mannerisms, anatomy, personality, etc.) but they have an enthusiasm and historical knowledge base similar to our own. It was great to find two more people who have invested in this history but with completely different motivations to do so.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Yeah I think one of the most exciting parts of being a fine artist (particularly one who isn’t tied down to a specific medium or approach to art making) is the odd paths you end up taking through other disciplines and professions in the course of researching and developing your work. I brought this up with a friend of mine once who kind of put me on the spot to offer a defense of contemporary art as a whole. They responded that most of the encounters with people/materials/ideas this way must necessarily be shallow due to their brevity and lack of purpose beyond the artist’s aims. I don’t think that’s a fair assertion (not all artists are the same, obviously, and it’s not up to my friend to officiate over when a moment passes from trivial to meaningful) but I also think being comfortable with the idea that art might be a pointless endeavor is just a cost of entry for dealing with it seriously.
Were there any specific things you learned during your meeting with the camel and its handlers that you hadn’t come across earlier? Had the handlers heard about the Camel Corp or the legend of The Red Ghost? Do you feel like your approach to the show changed in any concrete terms after the meeting with them?
CALEB CHURCHILL: To finish up the story of meeting Duma the Camel, I think most of it was details about camels and what it was like to be near one and get to know it. The handlers were well aware of the history of the camel corp. They hadn’t heard of the Red Ghost and they were interested in that but mostly they were interested to meet people who wanted to know about camels that weren’t biologists or veterinarians! To Leah’s point about the non-deliverables of contemporary art, that kind of encounter is definitely one of them. We got to make a connection with two guys and camel and talk about our work and their work on a personal level. That could only happen because of this project. But as the age old adage says (I think it was Aristotle), “Haters gonna hate.”
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Stuff You Missed in History Class is a favorite podcast of mine- I think I heard this specific episode a few months ago. I imagine a story like Fantasia Colorado would have captured people’s imaginations at any point in time, but it’s interesting to think that podcasts have created a network for widely dispersing material like this. Podcasts have likely also helped to foster a greater demand for engaging reports on minor historic oddities in general. Were you intending to deal with this in your show given that a podcast was one of your initial points of contact with the story?
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Podcasts have also reemphasized the role of the imagination in entertainment. In the nineteenth century, when long, multi-chapter novels were popular and the primary forms of pop culture (I’m thinking of Dickens or Wilkie Collins and others), individual imagination was primary in experiencing pop culture. With TV and social media, you are really encountering other people’s imagination. So I’m struck that the podcast has returned the written word, and the imagined world, back.
CALEB CHURCHILL: Our project doesn't really deal much with podcasts as a format. However the cultural phenomenon of podcast is they are usually fleeting or factoids, but because we have this practice based off of not taking things seriously or of taking humorous fleeting or whimsical things to a whole new level, starting with this podcast seemed appropriate. We really felt like this story begged to be retold and we saw a lot of ways we could do that.
RAINA BELLEAU: I do like this idea of podcasts creating a new kind of creative platform or of fostering creative output for others, rather than just the creators. In a lot of ways it makes stories like this accessible and sharable for a much wider range of people. I’m very much an audio learner but this is the first time I’ve ever dealt with a podcast as a primary source for material.
Podcasts are usually just entertainment you relay to friends as anecdotes. The great thing about working with Caleb is that we take these small seemingly trivial or amusing (at least to us) things and expand on them taking them to extremes. Like an art show dedicated to a camel. We can take what at first seems like a funny idea or even a joke and become very serious about it through conversations. Our initial ideas build into something worth investing in.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Could you talk about that process? About how your initial interest builds into something worth investing in? What were some of the conversations you had along the way that made the whole thing more meaningful for you two? I imagine just dealing with the logistics of getting the show put together ends up adding a sense of urgency to the whole process.
I get what you mean about podcasts being fleeting/factoids/anecdotal. I was thinking of lumping in listicles along with them as part of the same phenomena of novel information as entertainment. What I find exciting about them as a format is that since the floor for creating them is so low nearly anyone can make one, and by extension they can be about nearly anything. They help close the gap between producer and consumer.
Moving on from podcasts though, I think what I’m interested in clarifying here is how you two have gone about finding subjects to apply your practice of taking things seriously/not seriously in the past. Is that a lens you end up using to examine a lot of things you encounter in daily life?
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: Erik, I think your question about applying practice to taking thing seriously or not is really perceptive. Could you expand on what you mean that?
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Yeah sure thing Leah. I’ve seen a number of contemporary artists working in a way where they start with a kind of absurd premise and then really follow through on that idea in a very thorough way. Thomas Thwaites piece GoatMan (A Holiday From Being Human) is a good example. He built this rig that let him crawl around on all fours and lower his head to eat grass. Then he went out and lived with a herd of goats for three days. Scott Lawrence’s Folding Chair comes to mind as another case of what I’m thinking of.
I’d like to hear more about how Raina and Caleb see being serious/not serious plays into their work since it’s an important aspect of both their practices.
RAINA BELLEAU: I think our practice is part earnest curiosity mixed with equal parts dark and absurdist humor. We apply the serious/not serious practice of looking at the world to daily life for sure. That’s how ideas like the carpet happen. But it’s hard to really pinpoint where or how it happens.
It’s something in both of us that we have definitely created a bond over. We can both be pretty intense so it’s important to be able poke fun at the things you’re worked up about and I guess that’s the same source for becoming serious about playfulness.
CALEB CHURCHILL: Our first piece together was a kinetic sculpture titled Save the Last Dance made of a broken party light and disco ball that when laid on the floor spun in slow circles almost like a turtle on it’s back. It was tragic and humorous and nothing like either of us had ever considered to be like our own work. That’s how we figured out we wanted to work together. We saw something, said that should be art, but it’s not my art. And in saying that we realized it could be our art, but only if it was ours as it’s own thing.
ERIK DAVIS-HEIM: Oh that’s a really nice anecdote about your collaborative work starting off with a shared moment of melancholy and humor. I’d be curious to hear how working together influences your individual practices moving forward from here.
One thing that occurred to me while I was looking over the material for the show is that there must be a multitude of folkloric stories like this one that have totally uninteresting backstories to them. Not every ghost turns out to be a rogue camel imported by the military with a corpse tied to its back; some must just be umbrellas that blew away and got stuck in a tree. It’s funny to think that similarly fantastic stories could derive from relatively banal events and sightings.
RAINA BELLEAU: I feel pretty certain that most stories like this one have backgrounds that we aren’t aware of. True, probably not as outlandish as the one that inspired Fantasia Colorado. But I think our practice has an openness to possibility and a certain amount obsession that could even find something intriguing in a windswept umbrella.That's the beauty of working to together, we can be a kind of sounding board to amplify the things that catch our attention. The world is full of great stories. We’re looking for the ones that extend our notion of belief and disbelief.
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON: I’d be really interested to hear more how belief and disbelief has factored into your previous and individual work. And Is obsession integral to your ideas of belief and disbelief? How do those obsessions translate into your individual works?
CALEB CHURCHILL: I guess towards the end of last year was when I started playing with belief and disbelief in objects. Photography is based on a belief system that isn’t real, which gets you into some heavy photo theory. Photography is incredible subjective: you’re always seeing something the way someone else presented it to you. In that way I’ve been thinking about this duality for a long time. As I’ve been branching out into mediums other than photography, I’m finding new way of using it, beyond the theoretical.
RAINA BELLEAU: I think obsession might be integral to some individuals belief or disbelief, like conspiracy theorists. And while conspiracy could be fertile ground for future projects, I think it’s separate for us. The belief/disbelief dichotomy is one that I think will continue to drive us to find new topics but the topics and stories will create the obsession. I think art needs a little obsession to keep it going. After all, if we concede that there might not be a point, something has to fuel the furnace.
Erik Davis-Heim is an artist and writer living in Providence, Rhode Island. He received his bachelors degree in painting from the Maryland Institute of Art where he also studied installation and theory. Feel free to stop and approach him if you see him drawing around the city.
LEAH TRIPLETT HARRINGTON
Leah Triplett Harrington is a writer, editor, and independent curator focused on modern and contemporary art. She currently serves as senior editor of the non-profit contemporary art publication Big Red and Shiny, which was nominated for an International Association of Art Critics Award in 2014. She has contributed catalogue essays to CUE Art Foundation (New York) and Gallery Bergelli (California), as well as articles to Harper's Bizarre Art, Hyperallergic, Burnaway, Pelican Bomb, and others.
My work has been influenced by wildlife and a cultural relationship to nature. I engage linear and non-linear narrative, often using animal forms to create characters and symbols. Inspired by cinema, natural history and environmental issues, I create surreal scenes with an underlying dark sense of humor. These scenes are at times ideals and at others, dystopias. They convey my personal desires and anxieties surrounding the environment and it’s inhabitants. Through my sculptural work I explore nature’s influence on culture with an empathetic yet critical eye.
My precise and detailed sculptures are constructed from a wide variety of materials and techniques. I frequently use man-made materials to mimic those found in nature such as zip ties for porcupine quills or window blinds for feathers. This use of material speaks to our relationship with the natural world and draws attention to where and how the boundaries between the built, urban world and nature collide. I build quickly and freely, drawing in references through my characters and materials. I am drawn to small moments of realism where a detail of a large piece is hand rendered and painted to draw in the viewers’ attention. These moments create resting places in sometimes chaotic scenes. The sculptures become their own ecologies in which we can explore our place in the larger environment.
My work seeks to expand the way we see the world around us. Whether this is taking notice of subtle moments of beauty and humor in the seemingly mundane or questioning ideas we have taken for granted as fact. A background in photography has informed my way of looking at the world and of how we view art, both images and objects. In expanding my practice beyond just photography and into one that is multidisciplinary, I am able to explore, play with and manipulate my concepts and the overall experience of the work.
Overarching concept and medium, is a sense of both humor and earnest curiosity. I draw upon my interests in science, conspiracy, literature and art history to act as starting points for bodies of work to evolve. The works, both photographic and otherwise, take inspiration from poetry, always conscious of a sense of rhythm and over all cohesive fluidity. I ask that we step back at ask ourselves exactly how and why we see, both art and the everyday, and the rules that we have set up to do so.