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Artist Interview: Jesse Boylan

Artist Beth Thronber stands in front of her large scale comission It's Flamin Hot Darl
When
2024-02-20
Author
Murray Art Museum Albury

Jesse Boylan is an artist living on Djaara country in Central Victoria, Australia, interested in expanded documentary practice and the role art plays in environmental and social justice issues. In November 2023, they spent three weeks in the Murray region as part of Parched: Cultures of Drought – a research project exploring how people and communities have lived through and managed drought over time and in different regions.

This interview took place between Jesse Boylan and Parched coordinator Jacqueline Milner, to discuss Jesse's residency and new experimental video-essay poem, Where there is wind (there will be dust).

Photograph of a partly cloudy sky at sunrise or sunset, the sky reflects off a lake, and a large tree sits on the bank to the left

JM: You have for some time been exploring environmental harm through your art practice. What drew you to the subject?

JB: In the 1980s, my dad was involved in the North Sydney Peace Group who protested US nuclear war ships docking in Sydney Harbour and were part of the broader peace movement in Sydney at the time. So, I peripherally had anti-nuclear slogans imprinted both in my mind, and on the fridge door. We moved to the Blue Mountains when I was two, and to Canberra after that, where we had easy access to bushland, open spaces, and big bodies of water. I developed a deep respect for these places and loved to be in them. I also saw how a landscape changed after severe bushfires, having experienced fires in both the Blue Mountains and Canberra. I have no doubt that these contributed to a kind of reckoning with the natural world, for me.

When I moved to Melbourne to study photography, I became involved with the anti-nuclear movement through Friends of the Earth, who ran tours into the South Australian outback to highlight the impacts of the nuclear industry on First Nations and non-Indigenous communities, nuclear veterans, and the environment. The first trip I went on, in 2005, profoundly impacted me as a young person, and I have continued to focus on these issues in my art practice and campaigning work ever since.



Links to previous work:

The Smallest Measure, 2021-2024

Rupture, 2018 - 2023

Rising Gently About Here, 2021

Dispersal, 2019

Ngurini (searching for home), 2015

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Ngurini (searching for home), QUT ‘The Block’, with Nuclear Futures, 2015

Jesse Boylan,
Ngurini (searching for home),
QUT ‘The Block’, with Nuclear Futures, 2015

JM: One of the key areas of interest in your work is ‘slow emergencies’ and those harmful phenomena that are invisible to the naked eye, like radiation: why did this become your focus?

JB: I came to realise that most of the ideas I was engaging with had the characteristics of a slow emergency at their core. Slow emergencies, or ‘slow violence’ is what Humanities and Environment Professor Rob Nixon describes as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” These kinds of slow emergencies are not just referring to climate change, but can be seen in other spaces, such as family and sexual violence, systemic racism, entrenched poverty, etc. These things we tend to ignore until something terrible happens, which then prompts an emergency response, perhaps some funding, a commission, a report, etc., however, we return to business as usual soon afterwards.

The Smallest Measure, 2021, Castlemaine State Festival, Victoria

Jesse Boylan,
The Smallest Measure, 2021,
Castlemaine State Festival, Victoria

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Slow emergencies research asks, “what forms of life can and should be secured by Emergency governance”? (Anderson, et al: 2019) To answer this question requires a plurality of voices from varying disciplines to enable us to reconsider something seemingly mundane and ordinary (such the above) as an emergency, which may help it become “something demanding urgent action.”

I’m really interested in creating a kind of paradox in my work, where you feel that what is happening is a slow build, maybe nothing much is happening, but gradually you begin to feel the creeping nature of the crisis that is underlying it.

Rupture: at the seams, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, 2023

Jesse Boylan
Rupture: at the seams, with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, 2023

JM: Much of your practice is collaborative, where you often engage with specialists in other disciplines, including climate science. What appeals to you about this way of working?

JB: Collaborating with people in other disciplines and other artforms is so enriching for a project and for developing a way of ‘thinking together’ about a particular subject. Other people have such immense knowledge and skills that I don’t have; how amazing to share those with each other! Working with other artists also helps do away with notions of individual authorship and the concept of the lone genius. It also enacts the premise of ‘sympoiesis’, a term coined by American professor Donna Haraway, which means ‘making-with.’ Haraway states: “Nothing makes itself; nothing is really auto-poietic or self-organising.” I really want to acknowledge how all actors in a project are collaborators, whether it’s the landscape or the people I’m working with, the stories, the science, or the wind, they are all integral, indispensable parts.


Working on ‘Rupture’ with Linda Dement, V. Barratt, Frances Barrett & Victoria Hunt, Bundanon, 2021.

Jesse Boylan,
Working on ‘Rupture’ with Linda Dement, V. Barratt, Frances Barrett & Victoria Hunt, Bundanon, 2021.

In the case of my PhD, which is about visualising atmospheric change, I’ve been lucky enough to work with climate scientists from CSIRO who have been extremely generous in sharing their time and knowledge with me, but I can also see that it’s a two-way street. They have been receptive and engaged with my way of working not only because it offers another way to present their work to the public, but also allows them to see the work they do from a different perspective.

Video still from ‘The Smallest Measure’ 2022

Jesse Boylan
Video still from ‘The Smallest Measure’ 2022


Zoe Loh, the lead scientist for the Kennaook-Cape Grim program at CSIRO, has reflected on our engagement over the past three years, and she said that collaborating with an artist has helped bridge the gap between the science and the human experience. “For me, the collaboration has changed how I think about my work. It is less clinical and more intimately tied to the place and the elements because I feel quite deeply that these are integral parts of the work now.” (Loh, 2023)

JM: How did you approach your artist residency for the Parched project? What research have you undertaken and how did it inform your process?

JB: I wanted to build on my current research in air, atmosphere, and climate change and continue to explore how air contains histories and stories of how we have lived here on earth—of our action and inaction—and how we are all connected through what is contained in the air.


In the context of drought, I was particularly interested in dust and dust storms and how farming and agricultural practices create erosion, which worsens dust storms. I was keen to speak to local people, including farmers, about their experiences of drought and extreme weather events, such as fires, floods, and dust storms. I was also really interested in talking with soil scientists to learn more about the ways they study soil and if there was a way that you could tell how far the dust has travelled and what kind of biological and chemical substances are contained within it, and what they can tell us about our past, present, and potential future.


As well as delving into university and library resources, I drew on existing research by the Parched team, specifically by PhD candidate Rochelle Schoff, who grew up in the Albury area. She had spoken with local community members about how people have experienced and responded to the WWII drought and the south-eastern Australian Dust Bowl. Rochelle generously shared her interviews, research, and contacts with me, which helped inform my process and understanding of historical and ongoing impacts of drought in the region. I interviewed a couple of farmers, Graeme Wenke and Marcus Richardson, who spoke of the hardships of working through, and specifically after, drought years. They also spoke about their different approaches to land and soil management, and how integral it is to their livelihoods.

Driving in a dust storm back from Old Man Creek near Arajoel NSW, 2009. Source: Graeme Wenke.

Driving in a dust storm back from Old Man Creek near Arajoel NSW, 2009. Source: Graeme Wenke.

Transcript of sections of an interview with Graeme Wenke, Farmer, Walla Walla, NSW, 2023

I've lived through many seasons of drought.

Seasons of drought are associated with shortage of water and hot weather, maybe dust storms and searing heat.

Those things sort of go in a pattern.

They have peaks and then after those peaks there comes a cool off.
Cool patterns of weather, sometimes rain.

Sometimes your drought can be right in the wintertime when it's cold, but you will have very light or no rain at all.

In those months where we are needing rain, which is through the winter and into spring, they are the focal points of how a drought begins.

If you miss those rains in the spring, they don't complete the cycle of finishing your crops. They don't come to their full bounty.

It's often the year after the drought that is the hard year.

We don't hear it so much in the news because we're all so glad it's rained, but it's then those pressures that come on us.

Where's the next dollar coming from?

People talk about the black dog.

I think it's the year after the drought that it comes.

You can just see by how bare the ground is.

Any strong wind will create dust.

There were whirlwinds.

Where there is wind there is dust.

Our house was very not very well sealed, so it would go right through the house.

We spent a lot of money putting in better sealed windows.

One day, in 2008, there was this strange, like, not dust.

Dust would normally envelop things, but the whole sky just went brown.

It got darker and darker.

At 2:00 in the afternoon.

It nearly blotted out the whole sky.

And yet I wasn't enveloped in it.

I've never seen anything like that.

High strong winds and gusts of dust.

Get the clothes off the line.

It's going to pass within a few hours.

Media reports during the Australian Dustbowl. Source: NLA/Trove.

Media reports during the Australian Dustbowl. Source: NLA/Trove.

Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 - 1954), Thursday 27 January 1927, page 7

ALBURY'S DUST STORM: Water Carnival on the Murray Spoiled

Albury, Thursday. — A fierce dust storm, followed by thunder, and heavy rain storm, completely marred the Henley on the Murray carnival arranged at Nobel Park yesterday.

The procession of decorated boats and canoes had just commenced when the storm broke, whirling sand into the air from the river banks and working general havoc.

Hundreds of people in bathing costumes dashed from the beach and sought shelter in motor cars lined around the park. The dressing sheds were overcrowded. There were some thousands present, many picnic parties . having arranged to spend the day and evening at the carnival. All were drenched. The big programme arranged had to be abandoned, and impromptu events substituted. The storm ceased before nightfall.

Labor Daily (Sydney, NSW : 1924 - 1938), Tuesday 7 December 1926, page 6

DUST STORM AT ALBURY

A powerful dust and wind storm blow over Albury and district on Sunday. Roofs were lifted from several houses, and limbs of trees scattered all over the streets.

Damage was done to the electrical and telephone services, and telephone communication was cut off from most of the surrounding towns. - Albury


Daily Advertiser (Wagga Wagga, NSW : 1911 - 1954), Wednesday 1 March 1933, page 2

DUST STORM AT ALBURY: ALBURY Tuesday.

The weather was dull and close at Albury to-day, but at 6 o'clock a terrific duststorm occurred which lasted for several minutes. Later a light shower of rain fell, but it was scarcely sufficient to lay the dust.

I visited the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment's Soil Archive in Yanco, NSW, where at least fifteen years of soil samples are stored. It was fascinating to visit this soil archive, which is made up of hundreds of containers of soil from all over NSW. The manager of the Soil and Water Monitoring Laboratory, Dr. Mano Veeragathipillai, was very accommodating of my visit, stating “no one is really interested in dirt.

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A man in a white laboratory coat and glasses reaching for a white tub between two tall shelves filled with rows of white tubs

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I also spoke to academics from La Trobe University, Professor Nick Bond, the Director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystems, and Timothy Clune, an agronomist, who helped contextualise the cycles of drought in the Albury area. We spoke at length about the slow emergency of drought and how, with droughts, “you don’t know you’re in one until you’re fully in one.”


I was also reading about ‘investigative aesthetics’ and ‘investigative commons’; practices that bring together “a combination of aesthetic, political and epistemic structures” (Fuller and Weizman, 2021) that are built around a community of practice who are engaged with different ‘evidence production’ processes in the lab, studio, or field. I am interested in how the collection of scientific and other material data, whether intentionally or not, builds up archives of ‘evidence’ about lack of action in relation to climate change and environmental management.

Lake Hume: photogravure

A photograph of a yellow and white film canister in a shallow puddle of branches, leaves and mud, the water reflecting the grey sky and trees
A photograph of a black camera on a tripod sitting on the wet sand a few metres away from a lake flooding a field of trees
Five coloured photo transfers, three in blue, two in yellow, making up a landscape series of trees in a line across a lake
A photograph of a black camera covered in rain droplets filming a lake flooding a field of trees

JB: As with most of my projects that are place-based, I knew that I wouldn’t really be able to do much until I was there, in situ, responding to what I was seeing and hearing. Soon after I arrived, I began to document the area using photography, video and sound. I soaked some film in Lake Hume, which washed away a lot of the original colour chemicals, creating an overall blue colour. I then used the film to take multiple exposures of the lake, with its submerged river red gums, speaking to the layers of history related to the use and damming of the Murray River—such an integral body of water—and all the flow on effects of that. I recently used an image from Lake Hume to make a photogravure at Baldessin Press in St. Andrews, Vic. I was interested in using this process to create something tactile and create a series of multiples of a place already so layered.

I filmed and recorded sounds across the area, including Lake Hume, and seagulls flying above the Lake Hume weir, a farmer threshing his fava bean crops creating huge amounts of dust, and at the Yanco Soil Archive, where the scientists and lab technicians humbly performed their tasks for my camera.

JM: Tell us about your work in progress that is currently projected on MAMA’s exterior walls (until 25 Feb 2024), Where there is wind (there will be dust). How did you decide on the work’s elements and medium, and what other iteration/s do you imagine for the work?

JB: The title of the work ‘Where there is wind (there will be dust)’ comes from my conversation with livestock and crop farmer, Graeme Wenke, from Culcairn, NSW. He told me about his experiences of living through different seasons of drought and the conditions that lead to dust storms. During extended periods of drought, the severity of a dust storm will heighten. The ground hardens up and becomes very bare—enhanced by agricultural and farming practices—and there is very little to keep the dirt on the ground anymore. During this time, Graeme said, whenever there is wind, there will be dust. Graeme spoke about how eerie dust storms can be, and how the dust gets through everything, but it’s just something people learn to live with.


I come from a documentary background and I love using verbatim material from interviews to form the basis of a narrative or storyline. For the first test version of Where there is wind, I used bits and pieces from interviews and research to create a kind of preliminary prose poem, which I then used as a guide for the video of the landscape, soil laboratory and archive, to speak to how dust contains memory and history, and its traces left on— or in—us are both biological and psychological. I wanted to link the scientific process of studying and analysing soil to understand its qualities with the more personal experiences of living in a landscape of drought. The second version of Where there is wind juxtaposes the landscape imagery of dust, thunderstorms, the lake and the weir with footage from the soil archive and laboratory. This way of viewing two quite drastically different scenes helps us link what it actually is that they are studying with the substances that we create, absorb and consume every day.


Link to 2-channel version of Where there is wind (there will be dust), 2023.



The version that is currently projected on the QEII Square Exterior Screen at MAMA is a work-in-progress and is being updated until it finishes later this month. The work doesn’t have sound, as it’s shown outside, where sound would get lost, (the work online has a preliminary soundtrack). It’s great to use this kind of opportunity to test work out, especially when it’s come from the area that it’s being shown in. There’s a kind of feedback loop that connects the residency, research, and stories, back with the people and place of its origins.


The next iterations of this work would have other elements in an installation/exhibition context, including soil, data, photographs, sound, etc. I would like to be able to delve deeper into the soil archive and learn more about the scientific processes and data relating to different soils and how we can understand their origins and chemical qualities.


Two photographs beside each other, left a monochromatic dust cloud over a paddock, right a man standing between to revolving shelves

JM: Artist residencies allow for a particular way of working: site-based, dedicated time, at a remove from the artist’s every day, entailing encounters with new people and places. What have you most enjoyed about the Parched MAMA artist residency based at Dunraven?

JB: I think it is very much about the space that you get when you make way for a residency. A lot of things have to be lined up in order for you to get there, to be able to be there and immerse yourself in a new place, without dealing with the day to day of everyday life, kids, a job, etc. Once all of that can happen there is this incredible ability to see the place you’re in at a different pace, and to try and understand a little about it, then delve into how to engage and respond to it through your practice.


The residency location itself was fantastic. I had a small kind of granny flat that came off the larger Dunraven residence, which was built in the 1970s for the former Liberal Party member for Farrer, Sir David Fairbairn. It had been designed by Roy Grounds, the architect who designed the NGV. There was a pool that overlooked Lake Hume that I swam in every day. I could run or walk down to the lake to swim in that too. It was the perfect location to disappear for a little while and try to make sense of my project.


I think what was particularly special about the Parched residency was that it was funded for material research. This is a very rare thing. An honouring of the artist’s role in imagining and reimagining ‘cultures of drought’; how can artists play a role in this much larger conversation that is going on, and what is our particular lens on it? The residency acknowledged just the actual amount of time, space, and resources required to make anything meaningful. Without the requirement of a particular outcome in mind, the residency can make space for anything to happen.


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