On March 1st, 2020, Day visited Elizabeth Demaray’s studio on the 70th floor of World Trade 3. This was the last non-resident artist to visit Demaray’s work site before the World Trade Center was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Emmanuelle Day is a Franco-American art historian and curator based in Paris. She teaches art history at Paris College of Art and The American University and École du Louvre. She has worked with the Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum in Paris and currently works for the Pompidou Museum.
Could you talk about your studio in the World Trade Center? Does this particularly charged space resonate in your work?
Sure. In 2017, I was awarded a studio in Building 4 of the World Trade Center. This past year, I was awarded another residency in Building 3, where I’m currently on the 70th floor. Being at these heights is extraordinary. You can actually see the curvature of the earth from up here. It’s also sort of wonderfully eerie. The main sound you hear is the humming ventilation system. And even though it is hermetically sealed, when you’re up here, you’re very connected to the elements. Every day, a new weather pattern completely changes everything I see on all sides of me. Entire clouds envelop me while I’m working. Last September, on a sunny day, it snowed outside my window.
To me, this seems like an articulation of space-station aesthetics. In a way you are constructing a new parameter for empirical observation that is entirely novel.
That’s such an interesting observation. Up here, I have an entirely different vantage point. What I see is entirely new and it is changing the way that I work.
When I first moved into the space, I remember wondering how my eco-art practice would respond to being in such a controlled environment that is seemingly so removed from nature. I had, however, been interested in the urban landscape for some time. Back in 2011, I started a project called Lichen for Skyscrapers, in which I cultured lichen on the sides of highrises in New York City. I’m from the San Francisco Bay Area originally, which is a mountainous landscape. So for me, skyscrapers seem like an extension of a super hilly terrain. I found myself thinking of the cityscape as a vertically undulating surface inhabited, underground, by humans.
I had also already started formulating the beginning of the Manhattan Tundra Project. I thought that it would be wonderful to plant the top of a super tall highrise with a tundra landscape. I envisioned an elevator rising up from the street to open onto a tundra perspective, with a big, wide sky above it. So when I saw my first studio at the World Trade Center, the view knocked my socks off. The space also offered a vantage point, from above, that looks down on the tops of all the old modernist skyscrapers. I’m sure that when these structures were originally designed, nobody thought about what they might look like from above. Instead, the tops of these buildings are the same size and shape as the form’s footprint and it looks like the architects considered these spaces to be akin to vacant lots. They stuck a bunch of mechanicals up there and covered all the leftover space in tar and gravel.
The first time I really considered Lower Manhattan from above, I couldn’t believe how much unused space is up here! It’s also space that’s inaccessible to humans, which makes it valuable to our non-human companion species.
So, the view from my studio really led me to create the Manhattan Tundra Project, which proposes to cover the unused areas on the tops of skyscrapers with six to eight inches of topsoil to support emergent ecosystems. This project also proposes to install webcams on the tops of these buildings so that people living and working in these spaces can log on and see what, or possibly who, is living on their rooftops.
In the design of this artwork, it’s important to me that these landscapes be emergent. The tops of skyscrapers are very unusual places. They are subject to fast, harsh temperature changes. Each rooftop may be at a dramatically different altitude. They may be subject to different wind conditions and periodically inaccessible to birds and insects based on wind-tunnel patterns between buildings. So, I don’t want the responsibility of consciously placing or planting anything on these roofscapes, at least at first. The truth of the matter is that we don’t actually know what’s going to be able to thrive in these varied conditions. This is a work of generative art. The really exciting part is to see what shows up of its own accord.
As an update on this project, I was working in my studio last February drafting a letter explaining the Tundra Project to the owners of the Millennium Hotel and the U.S. Steel Building, both of which are neighboring skyscrapers below me to the east. Dara McQuillan, the World Trade Center curator, was visiting my art studio that day. I explained what I was proposing to our neighbors with the Tundra Project. To my amazement, he pointed to the World Trade Center Building 7, which is directly across from my workspace to the north, and offered me the rooftop. So, Manhattan’s first emergent ecosystem is going to be on the top of the World Trade 7 Building.
I took a video in your studio of a carpet with a camera installation that I found beautiful in the emptiness of your space. Could you talk about this magic carpet installation?
My husband enjoys collecting things, especially rugs. I love the way a rug defines a space. It can become its own little island. I’ve been planning to grow grass through the one you’re seeing in the studio. It’s my homage to Hans Haacke’s Grass Grows.
I was hoping that you would talk about magic tricks with the camera à la Méliès.
Like a camera obscura! I had sort of envisioned it like a magic carpet. You missed a camera obscura mural piece in my studio because it was on exhibit. My husband Hugo and I did a giant multipart mural using a digital camera obscura technique. We documented the creation of WTC Building 4 from the 69th floor of WTC Building 3. We ended up doing 12 panels that were two square feet each. The final image is extraordinary.
Where did you grow up? Is the post-industrial Western landscape part of your imagination?
I grew up in Northern California, about an hour south of San Francisco, in a college town called Santa Cruz. The terrain is mountainous with redwood forests and edged by miles of beautiful coastline. In terms of post-industrial landscapes, as an adult I moved to San Francisco and then to Oakland, California, which are both places that have serious issues with toxic waste.
What type of waste is present? Paradoxically, I find that the countryside is a place in which we are often confronted with a hyper-futuristic infrastructure.
My live/work space on the West Coast was in the Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco. This area surrounds a harbor where the Navy has a base and shipyard. This is where the U.S. government used to sand and paint its warships. So, contaminants like lead and cadmium were sanded off the ships into the water. These substances are collected in the soil of the harbor. This is also the site where the Navy cleaned the ships coming back from the Bikini Atoll during the nuclear testing from 1946 to 1958. I remember that if you got mud from the marshes in Hunter’s Point on your skin, it would leave a rash.
If you could take a freeze frame image from your childhood, what memory would you choose?
I had an unusual childhood. My parents were young and were hippies when I was a kid. My childhood memory would be a sleepover at my best friend’s house. She lived in a geodesic dome at American High, which was a hippie commune in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I remember the two of us staying awake as long as possible in her candlelit dome (nobody had electricity up there) while listening to a simulcast of one of the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve concerts. The year was probably 1977.
What is the human labor that goes into machine learning? Could you describe how a machine learning laboratory operates?
In general, the aim with machine learning is to allow computers to learn by themselves, without direct human intervention and without being explicitly programmed. Often this process takes the form of a system that generates a data set and then learns from the information it has collected. In terms of labor, we humans must design and then initially program these systems. However, even simple systems can generate large data sets. These are powerful tools. They can give us information that may not be at our disposal otherwise.
For example, we have systems that can now gather audio information from remote forests and jungles. These systems allow us to measure the ecological diversity in these otherwise inaccessible places. My artwork the IndaPlant Project: An Act of Trans-Species Giving involves creating a cyber-physical system to monitor plant signaling so that we can better understand how plants respond to their environment. Another one of my artworks that uses machine learning, PandoraBird: Identifying the Musical Tastes of Our Avian Co-Inhabitants, was created to identify the musical tastes of wild feeder birds. The plan with this artwork is to create a system that ultimately allows birds themselves to dictate the type of music that is played in our shared environment. So, in a machine learning laboratory, we design, build, and program these kinds of systems.
The Endangered Species Recipe Book reminds me of cannibalism. What does it mean to ingest that which we kill? Is it a sort of rite of passage?
Wow! What a great question. Other than an oyster or two, I’ve never killed an animal myself in order to eat. So, I may not be able to answer that question. I am, however, thrilled that the Endangered Species Recipe Book reminds you of cannibalism because it sort of feels like that to me also. I think this is because, in hindsight, we view these lost, extraordinary creatures with a level of sadness that might be reserved for other people.
The plant sweater image from the Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibition is really disturbing. I feel as though the plant looks more fragile dressed up as a human. Can you explain this image? Is it about the domestication of the environment?
Honestly, the plant sweater is about futility. I started doing those pieces when I was in grad school. At the time, I had this desire to help the natural world but felt futile in my actions. So, I wanted to communicate my sense of futility and I thought to myself, “What could be more futile than knitting a sweater for a plant?” I also wanted to communicate the fragility of life, so that is a very insightful read on your part.
What position should discussions around radioactivity occupy in the larger discussions around climate change? I have heard some propose radioactive power as a solution. Is radioactivity going to generate heat? Is it legitimate in discussions of the Green New Deal? I am skeptical, but also willing to engage in discussion.
Adopting this mode of energy production feels like a Faustian bargain to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about nuclear waste recently. I teach a biodesign class at Rutgers and we’ve been working on designs that envision our waste products as our resources. An older work of mine titled the Nike Missile Cozy Project is currently touring in the U.S. as part of the Hot Spots exhibition. So, I’ve been thinking about our nuclear legacy. The Cozy Project involved upholstering a decommissioned Nike Hercules warhead in 400 yards of quilted satin. After the exhibition at the missile site, I took the cozy-style covering off and stuffed it, making my own lumpy, soft-bodied variant of the original form. I made the pattern for the cozy while actually down in the underground bunker with the missile, so I had a lot of time to contemplate these weapons. The Hercules warheads were the land-to-air civil defense for most of the world. They were supposed to take out incoming warheads. The missile itself looked like an old go-kart. It was super primitive with metal flanges at the ends of its wings so that it could change course based on radio control signals. Jim Porter, the director of the site who was an Army veteran, told me that the aim on the Nike Hercules was so bad that the designers, at the height of the Cold War, decided to make the missile nuclear so that it could take out any incoming projectile within a five-mile radius. That’s how I think many of these design decisions get made—by terrified people who are attempting to contemplate their actions in the future without any kind of past framework or history to rely upon. They were making heartbreaking decisions in an effort to do their best to protect their people. Everybody was attempting to do this, on both sides of that conflict.
Now that we’re faced with issues like climate change, a massive species die-off, or even a worldwide pandemic, we are in the same boat. We are all attempting to make decisions that will ultimately be the best for humanity. It’s tough. I really feel for our species right now. We poor, fallible humans have only six thousand years of recorded history to fall back on! Not to mention that rapid technological change has only been something we’ve had to grapple with for the last two hundred years. One of the interesting things about the pandemic is that it’s making the humans on earth conscious of our collective action and shared destiny.
I think one of the most compelling aspects of your work is that I could imagine all your installations in a space station. Visiting your studio is a little bit like visiting a space station. Could you talk about space-station aesthetics?
I can imagine my work on a space station as well! I actually made the IndaPlant Project with a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In the grant proposal, I told NASA that the project, which involves building robotic supports that allow potted plants to move so they can freely seek sunlight and water, would allow these floraborgs to grow all by themselves.
In terms of space-station aesthetics, I think you’re talking about a space where life is only tenable when and where it is supported by some sort of clearly defined scaffold or system. The artworks that I’m currently working on all involve the concept of a biotope, which is a small environment that is inhabited by multiple species that may also include humans. These are not closed systems, but this concept does allow us some consideration of what’s necessary in such situations. With these works, I’m thinking about resources, and these concerns scale to where we are now. We are in a rapidly closing system. There already isn’t enough oxygen. There already isn’t enough fresh water. We are becoming aware that every non-human life form on the planet is doing ecological work on behalf of life as we know it. We are beginning to see how dependent we are on a scaffold, which in our case is a functioning ecosystem. And this support is rapidly disappearing.
I like the idea of associating tree planting with nationalistic discourse. Is that where the subversive element comes in? Imagine if nations were fighting with each other to plant the most trees!
The work you are referring to is titled the Namesake Project: Italian Beach on the Seine. Scientists believe that if each human could plant six trees, global warming would be a thing of the past. Many human settlements have a rich cultural heritage that connects to nature through their namesakes. So yes, if I can utilize the concept of historical consciousness to get people to plant trees, I will do so gladly.
Italian Beach on the Seine involved planting six Lombardy poplars on the bank of the Seine. It turns out that these trees are also called Italian poplars. They were the rage in Europe in the late 1700s. Attaining heights of 120 feet, they were used as wind blocks and were planted on both sides of roads in long stretches, creating formal avenues through which to travel between communities. In the village of Marnay-Sur-Seine, only a few old folks remembered an Italian poplar so tall that it towered above the landscape. I loved taking this tenuous memory and allowing it to guide my actions.
So I’m planting this stand of trees as a form of bio-sculpture. Italian poplars may actually also be ideal trees for energy generation. In this avenue of biodesign, the movement of leaves is used to produce energy. My hope is to spend some time at the botanical garden at Marnay-Sur-Seine figuring out how my artwork is going to be the community’s new source of power. Maybe this could even be our answer to the nuclear question. Plant six trees, end nuclear power, and live to breathe another day!
I have hearing loss due to having listened to too much recorded sound with my Apple earbuds. The only thing that can help my chronic ear pain after hours of Zoom calls is to take a walk in nature and listen to the REAL sound of birds. You had asked me to record the sounds that I heard in nature, but I am so frustrated by the loss of texture that I could not bring myself to do it.
No worries on the recordings. However, take heart because simply being near nature has a restorative effect. My thought for you is that actually listening to and responding to the environment in a real space makes you much more attuned to what’s happening around you. My other thought on this is that recorded sounds don’t excite our senses in the same way that unexpected stimuli can enchant us in real time.
Could you talk more about some of your media archaeology projects like the One Bit Projector? Is it an autopsy of the surveillance state?
I’m a sculptor and a tinkerer. I love pulling technology apart and seeing what I can make with it. I create devices that pay attention when nobody is around. The One Bit Projector project came out of the delirious joy of tinkering. In terms of a surveillance state, I really think we all need to be comfortable being makers, artists, designers, and anarchists when it comes to technology.