Vaughn Bell’s work brings a quirky, humorous sensibility to a sphere that is often treated with deadly seriousness: our relationship with the environment. The Seattle-based artist literally “models” human relationships with the natural world by creating offbeat objects like the Portable Personal Biosphere, a terrarium that fits over the head so that the wearer carries a little green “environment” around, smelling the earth and experiencing it in miniature. She’s created miniature mountains that you can take for a walk on a leash, like pet poodles, and “Pocket Biospheres” that she offers for “adoption.”
Bell has carried out public projects and performances and has exhibited her sculpture, installations, and video internationally, including commissions for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Edith Russ Site for New Media Art in Odenburg, Germany.
JON SPAYDE: Vaughn, your work is usually about the “outside,” in the sense of the environment. Naturally, you do pieces outside—but also for galleries. Talk about the relationship between your gallery work and your public art.
VAUGHN BELL: I do have those two different modes of working, although I feel like most of my work has a common thread of inquiry running through it. I’ve had a series of projects that move out of an idea and into a body of work—like the Personal Biospheres. Those have been in galleries and museums, but the idea behind them started out as an idea for a public piece.
It was this sort of goofy idea that I would make a portable biosphere that you’d wear on your head, like a little helmet. I actually wore it around. I made a little mountain on a leash; you can check it out of the gallery and walk it around outside and then bring it back. That’s another kind of movement from inside to outside.
But there’s another way in which the pieces are both indoor and outdoor works. They’re site-specific in the sense that even if they’re for a gallery, they are usually reflecting the specific place where it’s located. Even if the gallery or museum is in a very artificial urban environment, my piece might be imagining a “what-was-here-before?” scenario, recreating an earlier natural environment.
So there’s always a process of site research, for me, whether the piece is an outdoor, public piece or in a gallery.
You’ve shot videos of yourself wheeling your shopping carts full of dirt and plants around Seattle and other places. Why was it important to go around the city with them?
I realized that as soon as I started making objects that had plants growing in them, I had created something that required care. I realized the shopping cart project was a survival thing, an absurd survival thing. It was like I was saying: Let’s test this. How hard is it to keep the plants alive as I go around the city with them?
It turns out it’s not easy. And that struggle, which was kind of pathetic and humorous, was really interesting to me. It implied the question of how we encounter larger ecological issues. Dealing with the environment can seem like an insurmountable struggle. Approaching it with a spirit of playful tenacity seemed appropriate to me.
All of these works reduce the environment to a scale that’s playful, and also playfully manageable.
Yes, they do that, in one sense. But there’s another aspect: the absurdity of our sense of control. You go to an exhibition of bonsai, miniaturized Japanese trees, and think, here’s something natural that’s more or less within an individual’s care or control. But that points to the absurdity of the general human proposition that we can somehow control the environment. Of course we impact everything, but we really don’t have a rational handle on it. It’s still so much bigger than us. I think that paradox is pretty interesting.
How do you get ideas and develop them?
Usually I do a lot of research and walking and taking pictures, pictures not necessarily related to specific sites. All of the ideas come out of just being out in the world. You know, I keep this big list of vague ideas, most of which I never pursue!
When it’s a specific public commission, a few of which I’ve had the opportunity to do recently, I go to the site—and have no idea. I try to stay in that realm of having no idea for as long as possible. I’m trying not to force it, trying not to jump on the first thing that comes up, which might send me down a path that’s not successful. I do a lot of sketching and taking photographs.
Because I work in such diverse media, I usually have a phase in which I’m asking, okay, how am I going to do this? Who am I going to work with? Who can help me figure this out?
On a project in Portland last year, I worked with a moth expert from the University of Washington. She took me on some moth identification walks, where we went 50 feet into the woods and saw 30 species of moth.
I get all this information, but I don’t know where it’s going. I try to be a kind of sponge during that process. And then I refine.
What are some of your influences and inspirations?
This work owes so much to the generation of land artists. In the ’60s and ’70s, with Robert Smithson and others, there was this gesture of moving out into the landscape. This work is kind of the reverse of that, bringing the landscape back!
But another really important influence on my thinking is feminist performance art, art that looks at the activities of daily life. Mierle Ukeles and the actions of sanitation and maintenance—that’s a huge informer to this work. That framing of performance as an activity that’s kind of ritualized but also calls attention to everyday relationships.
Speaking of Ukeles and social practice, you were “embedded” with the Seattle Department of Transportation.
I was hired to work there as an artist, but also as a kind of insider, trying to inform the process by which they handled the one-percent-for-the-arts requirement. So it was like an artist-in-residence position.
I’m doing another project, one that just started a couple of weeks ago, with Seattle Public Utilities, closer to the heart of what I’m interested in. I’m working in drainage and wastewater, storm water, looking at water quality and integrating artists into the work of Seattle Public Utilities.
This is a long tradition in Seattle, having artists embedded in the public utility, including some big names. Buster Simpson was a resident at SPU back in the ’90s.
There’s a big potential in the project for doing temporary or participatory or performance-based public art, which is not always the norm in a percent-for-art program. We’re going to find ways to do that, ways that are really engaging for people.
Talk more about Seattle as an environment for your work.
I moved out here sight unseen, in 2004, with my husband, who went to graduate school at the University of Washington. It’s a great place for someone doing the kind of work I do. Seattle’s a really progressive city and there’s a lot of support for public arts. But there’s also this amazing natural environment.
I was coming from a very urban neighborhood, South Boston. I had been making this work that was about the need for contact with living things when you’re in a gritty city. Even though Seattle is a city, it felt so green. And that was a bit of a shock to me.
But now I love it that northern Washington is such an ecologically unique and rich space. And there’s attention here to these issues that I care about. There’s agreement, too, with the idea of artists being part of the fabric.
But at the same time there are always questions when it comes to public art. How do we fund it? How do we get it out there? And can it be responsive to the times and to the place?
I think those questions are even more important here than they would be in a town in which the main issue was just how to get some money into some kind of public art. Here there’s a chance to really be reflective about what we’re doing.