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Aviva Rahmani's Virtual Concerts


by greenmuseum.org

This interview with artist, Aviva Rahmani, was conducted via email from her home in Vinalhaven, Maine, by Sam Bower of greenmuseum.org. Note: The five audio links at the bottom may take some time to download completely...

First, Aviva, how did the idea for Virtual Concerts come about?

It was cumulative. I have always been interested in creating models to address environmental degradation. One of the earliest I designed was "Synapse Reality," an ecologically sustainable commune in Southern California, conceived as a performative sculpture in 1969. When I did Ghost Nets (1990- 2000), the idea of envisioning restoration sites as landscape "Trigger Points" came together. But the Virtual Concerts took that premise one step further into virtual analogging. It brought together my interests as an artist-activist, in human interactions, technologies and environmental restoration.

Aviva Rahmani in her media studio, 2008.
Aviva Rahmani in her media studio, Vinalhaven, Maine, 2008.
Throughout my career, the implications of transparency have fascinated me. As a person who grows in conversations with wonderful people, I wanted to share that privilege. Since 2001, I had observed the effect of the 9/11 terrorists and their effective use of the internet and minimal resources to leverage dramatic results. I had been working for some years with Susan Steinman on an anthology of writings by ecological art practitioners that emerged from the ecodialog, an invitational group. But by 2005, that task proved to be too much for us. In 2005, I was enormously impacted by Katrina. I wanted to move away from the carbon emissions of jet flight to collaborate and effect large landscape change in response to global warming. At a workshop I conducted for the New England Workshop for Science and Social Change, I realized we were all polluting the earth's waters unconscionably just to arrive at the same site together. Finally, as a person who struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome I wanted to further explore how to use my disability as a model for sustainability. I wanted to see how small an action I could take to leverage how large an impact.

Before I began the Virtual Concerts, I did a six week "Virtual Residency" the summer of 2006, which culminated in two twelve hour podcasts I called the first Virtual Concerts. I expected there to be far more participation than I had and had envisioned them to include a major acoustic-music element. There were some contributions, for example Rob Rosenthal on hunting dolphins, but not nearly what I hoped for. I still have the idea of integrating sound improvisationally. But there are many technical problems I wasn't able to solve at that time and still don't have funding to solve. Nonetheless, when the fall came, I still felt I had something I wanted to build upon.

They began as a composite solution; a way to archive important data and explore how to leverage ideas. In the process, over two years, they became something more, the beginnings of a virtual Think Tank.

Why do you call them Concerts? Do you see these conversations as music?

Absolutely. In 1969, I did a performance work called "The Pocketbook Piece," in which three women enter the audience (which was loosely seated on the floor,) made space for themselves, sat down, emptied the contents of their purses and then simultaneously described each object to the audience around them until the last object was narrated before leaving. One of the aspects of that work that has always stayed with me, was the musicality of their voices as they raised and lowered, attaining different cadences and pitches. Later in my work, I introduced other sound elements, some found, others deliberate. In the Virtual Concerts, one of the things I work on, besides the timbre and delivery of my own voice, is sensitivity to the guest's rhythms and tone. I did extensive work with my voice teacher, the first year of the Concerts towards that end. Human voices can be as musical in exchange as birds or whales if we're attentive. And that is determined, in part by content and mood. A one note voice raised in fear or rage, affects us very differently than an exchange driven by passions strongly held but received with acceptance and friendly challenge. At it's best, what I've strived for is the manner of a successful dinner party with extraordinary guests. If you have ever been to such an event, you know the host or hostess is key to that experience. I have wanted to make such a "performance" a public and transparent situation. Often, it is in such private venues, that critical decisions and insights emerge. But it is only rarely that the mainstream public has a clue to the origin of that thinking. Since such things are often the purview of "invisible" women, it was even more attractive an experiment for me.

The latinate derivatives of "concert" are a conflation of two sources. Con means "with" and cert, L. certus, is "certainty." So one could conjecture that a concert is a place and time where people come together with each other to achieve a certainty. Significantly, we now colloquially associate that coming together with the making of music. Yet music is often described as the most subjective experience. It is not at all a "certain" experience that we would all agree upon. All that brings us back to the idea of conversation as an acoustically pleasing, musical experience. Pleasing being very much determined by chance in the case of the Virtual Concerts. So many things can go wrong or be out of my control.

How has your understanding of interviews or the structuring of recorded conversations evolved as you've been doing this?

Tremendously. I have the greatest respect for good interviewers. But I think I am doing something somewhat different and perhaps more difficult, because my goal is not just to highlight the brilliance of my guests, although I certainly hope that happens. It is to break into new territory of possibility. As I've gone along, I've become aware of how difficult that is, extemporaneously, without edits, each week come what may. I've learned a great deal about steering guests. Some, as Suzanne Lacy or Paul McCarthy, are so tuned into getting their own message across, that I have to really rise to the occasion to get to my own agenda in as well. Those two examples do so much public speaking and so many interviews that it's harder to break into a spontaneous exchange. But they were both, also, very willing to respond thoughtfully when I asked questions.

Many factors have forced me to swing with some punches, more than simply technical glitches, such as using skype from abroad. Health can be a big one for me. With Subankhar Bannerjee, for example, we had had a lot of trouble scheduling a good time when he was really busy last fall, just back from Siberia and working on the Vanity Fair green issue. When we finally recorded, I was still very sick with a terrible cough and could barely speak or concentrate. Normally with such a wonderful guest, I would go longer and get into critical issues, such as the impact of southern species on northern fish stocks with global warming, but I simply couldn't continue and could barely close with grace. I was able to edit a small amount of the noise out later but I really regretted my limits on that one. Because of the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, even without another illness, my stamina isn't always up to the episode. When I listen later, sometimes I can hear my muted, soft tones as weakness in the vocal balance. Recently, talking with Bob Costanza, I was heckled throughout the program by a (probably young) caller who interrupted sixteen times under various obscene pseudonyms with offensive or simply irrelevant remarks. My attention was completely diverted to controlling his outbursts because he was able to override my muting capacity. I had to stay on top of the buttons and couldn't engage in the sort of back & forth I had keenly looked forward to. Still, both Subankhar & Bob did splendid presentations.

A lot of what I've learned has been about acceptance, letting go and my own humility. I do not have a fancy studio or even an attendant producer. There's just me & my hand held phone. Although I don't pay for talkshoe, what I earn is minuscule, pennies on each download. But what I have also learned very clearly, is that these are more than archives and they are, on a good day, great fun as well as productive. One reason I am taking a hiatus now, is to think thru how to enable a platform to do more of what I want with my same limited means.

How do you decide who to invite?

Someone recently asked me the same question and I replied, "intellectual chemistry". I often look for a certain frisson of ideas, for example Tom Stokes of the Climate Crisis Coalition, whose work isn't widely known but who has his finger on the pulse of many stories about climate change and is very smart about his insights.

There are different reasons. Initially, I extended a blanket invitation to all those who had been members of the ecodialog at that time, because I wanted to see my vision for the anthology we had worked on come to fruition. But as time went on, I had the courage to define my personal interests and comfort level more clearly and began gravitating to people I knew or whom I had met where the relationship to the environment or global warming wasn't that overt. An example was Tony Ramos, now living in Aix, France, who is a painter. In his earlier days, he was one of the most progressive videographers working internationally. We have remained good friends since graduate school and many of our conversations have been around politics and art. I feel like he is still an important voice and our conversations continue to have a relevance to the issues that engage me now. Janet Goldner is another one who isn't obvious. She is a sculptor working in Africa. What she had to contribute were the subtleties of and personal quality of involvement in "other" cultures and peoples. A big bridge for her with the people she works with there is in the beautiful local music.

At times, I've wanted to include people whose ideas or history I wanted to honor as essential to the movement of ecological art into a mainstream, as Susan Lerner and Steve Katona, who were among the early founders of the first ecologically grounded college, the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, Maine. Newton & Helen Harrison have agreed to do an episode but it is very hard to work out scheduling with them. As much as possible I try to stick with 10:00 AM Tuesday ET. They travel so much and in California, where they live, that is quite early to be bright and alert.

What impact do you think the Virtual Concerts have had?

"We have to design a sustainable and desirable future; too important a task to leave to engineers and economists." -Ecological economist and Virtual Concert guest Robert Costanza wrote me that on the question of artists as lead agents in ecological restoration after an episode with him in June.

The only evidence I have for impact is anecdotal. Two instructors at College of the Atlantic told me an artist is making a "Tree of Knowledge" from excerpts of the episodes. Lillian Ball gave me a stipend for using them in her class at the Cooper Union. There's no way, however, for me to track who is downloading and unless I encounter someone, I don't know what they heard, when or what it meant to them. Many people have told me they think they are "important," but it's hard to know what exactly that means besides the obvious: they are a permanent archive. Two impacts I HOPE they have are to get across the basic idea that artists can be lead agents on substantive environmental policy and projects and to make the process of collaborative engagement between disciplines less intimidating.

Another effort I have made has been to group guests according to avenues of interest, as artists and finances or ecofeminism. I have a strong feminist slant in my life and my work but it isn't gender exclusive. It is based in more catholic concerns for a world that includes all life, all culture, other species as of equal importance.

How long do you think you'll keep doing this and what do you see happening next?

That's very hard to say. Right now, they have run the course of my enthusiasm until and if I can get funding to do more of what I envision they could be with adequate bandwidth, as desktop sharing visuals. The factors I've recounted previously- support staff, acoustic equipment and some remuneration for my time would make a big difference between doing them as a service at my expense and doing them as a joy. Two years is a long time to do something without substantive support, particularly when dealing with a disability. There are a few people I'd still like to podcast, besides the Harrisons, including a live session with Ravi Agarwal, from India, one of my collaborators for the Virtual Residency, Sue Dakin, an artist who ran a campaign for President for the United States in 1984 and then celebrated that anniversary this year and Susan Steinman, with whom I initiated the 1999 College Art Association (CAA) panel, "Into the Mainstream, Out of the Mainstream," about the state of the art of environmental art. Susan, with Jo Hanson, was also a founder of WEAD and the three of us co-chaired the CAA panel. Jo did her own Virtual Concert with me shortly before her death. Susan has done some extraordinary community engagement land reclamation work in Northern California. Susan identified then, that what the genre of ecological art required was some good writing that distinguished our emerging practice from the great morass of work being done now with vague "greenness" appellations.

It was in that spirit of generating public awareness with critical exchanges that the Virtual Concerts began: to let artists and scientists speak for themselves about what this genre may be: not by talking about it but by engaging in practice. It was my particular definition. As I state in the opening, "Ecological art is a practice, often in collaboration with scientists, architects, city planners, activists, engineers, politicians and other artists, that results in direct intervention in environmental degradation. Often the artist is the lead agent in this work. " I think I've succeeded in making that statement with the over 100 podcasts recorded for the Virtual Concerts and it may be time for me to go back to work on the ground, in whatever form that takes. The Virtual Concerts were certainly works of art by my lights but I need time to decide whether they have been a direct enough intervention for me.

Recently, in relation to Ellen Levy's panel at the CAA in Los Angeles next year on Proof, she asked me to go back and query about ten of my guests about their experiences with artists as lead agents on environmental triage, as I call it. I'm still getting those responses in and they would be presented as part of my paper for her panel.

There were a few people who were so popular or with whom I felt such an affinity, as Beverly Naidus, Lillian Ball, Sacha Kagan or Michele Dionne that I did "revisits," but I came to feel unsure whether that was as vital a direction. It's sort of like re-reading a good sci fi novel. There isn't the same freshness. But I do like the idea of updating on work being done. I'd like to follow up Subankhar more on Siberia in relation to ocean fisheries, maybe with Ted Ames, Michele and Len Bahr and some others I have in mind. But I need to design the right format for that. I still have one last grant request out for support.

What are your top five favorite episodes and why?

I went through and made a list of fourteen participants who got me really excited for different reasons. Singling out just over a third of that list is hard. But I'd mention Moritz Wettstein of NETPD. We had some tech problems but the ideas we discussed about how to apply cutting edge music technologies to global interdependence were wonderful. Bernie Krause's work on the acoustic records of forestry over time is extraordinary and prescient:
Tom McCormack addressed the problems of engaging Indigenous Peoples, Ted Ames was marvelous and particularly important to me because we talked about Trigger Points in the ocean, one of my theoretical foci. That is the only episode I have a transcript of now, thanks to Sara Dewey, an intern. Ted has an approach to the commons that is similar to Robert Constanza's. In Ted's episode he said, "instead of right of access being a suitcase full of money (to a natural resource such as the fisheries), make the right of access to a fishery a non-negotiable agreement to accomodate all of the needs for the life stages of the species you're interacting with."
Len Bahr:
Michele Dionne:
...and Veronica Young:
...also addressed wetlands and ocean ecologies in moving ways and Jan van Boeckel did an amazing job on education.

I am immensely grateful to all my illustrious, kind and patient guests for their willingness to engage, despite occasional difficulties, as Jeroen van Westen, who called in from the Netherlands almost twenty times until we could establish a skype connection or Lucy Lippard from the Boulder Museum when we struggled with a connection to the Venice Beinnale with Oleg Koefoed. Those I've mentioned stuck in my mind as the most provocative, friendly and generous with the most information to take away and the least tech or personal impediments to a good exchange. They are the ones that floated up in my mind because there are still unanswered questions to explore. But ask me tomorrow, and it may be an entirely different list, for example, Beth Carruthers with Claude Schryer on a Canadian Think Tank for artists, Sacha Kagan and Hans Dielemann on the social sciences and sustainability in the arts, and their project in Africa, Amy Lipton with Tricia Watts on curating ecological art, Jodi Hanel on curating "The Drop" show at Exit Art or Eve Laramee on nuclear waste. In each of these conversations, there was the kernel of what hope will look like in this era of climate change: Trigger Points for environmental triage.

For a full list of all the Virtual Concerts, please visit the Virtual Concerts Archive List.

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