Originally published No. 4. 2012
Artist A. Bitterman of Kansas City spent six weeks this summer living on the grounds of Indianapolis Museum of Art for a project called “Indigenous: Out of the Wild,” imamuseum.org/island2012. Bitterman recently posed inside a diorama at Lakeside Nature Center. This conversation took place at Julian restaurant.
Q What was the “indigenous” project?
A The idea was created around an island in a pond in a 100-acre sculpture park at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. They have an artist-in-residence there every year. I got picked out of 150 applicants from around the world.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Q How big is the island?
A It’s a floating platform with an igloo-like structure on it, about 18 feet across. I used the island as part of a wilderness narrative, with the artist as an animal that was being released into the park.
I designed a possum trap enlarged to human size and had a friend weld it. It had a wingback chair, a TV, a minifridge. The trap-and-release cage was out in a meadow, so that was where the artist came from. And there were viewing stations on either side of the lake where people could look at the island and at me if I was on the island.
Q How did you interact with museum visitors?
A I wore a GPS tracker all the time so you could see on your phone where the artist was in the park and go find him. People could make reservations to watch nature films with the artist inside the igloo in the evening. The cost was, the people had to bring me dinner. I did two parties of up to four people per evening. The first group would bring me dinner, and the second group would bring me dessert.
Q How did that work out?
A Well, I didn’t speak during the residency. If you knew who I was from the kiosk - I’d made a film about how to communicate with the artist - you could approach me and use a set of signs I developed. But some people would come meet me on the boat landing and say, “Hi. We’re here for dinner!” and I would raise my arm and they would realize, “Oh, he’s not going to speak.”
So we would do the standard greeting, and then they would make the sign for “We are here to watch a movie” and the sign for “Are you hungry?” and I would make the sign for “yes.” And they would have a picnic basket or a cooler, and then they’d say, “Can we talk to you now?” And I’d just look at them, and sometimes I’d pull my arms out of their sleeves and cross them under my shirt, which meant, “I don’t understand.” And they’d get kind of worried, like, “My God, we’re gonna be rowed out to this island, and he’s not going to speak to us at all.”
I’d row them out in total silence and get them onto the dock and I’d go into the igloo, slam the door and put on a beaver suit.
A When I had my costume on I’d open the door and say, “Welcome to my island.” Because I could speak when I had on my magic beaver suit.
Q Is there any videographic record of this?
No. Maybe. I’m not sure. So they’d be like, “Oh, he’s a beaver. That’s weird. But he’s talking to us, so that’s good.”
Q What kinds of people came?
A All kinds. There were a couple of lonely hearts that just wanted to hang out and it was unnerving, so I kind of cut those visits short. Sometimes elderly people came and they weren’t very fit. And it was scary getting them into the boat and onto the island. And you just have to figure out how to handle it. But I had really wonderful interactions with people.
Q Tell us about one.
A One day I was out in a very remote part of the park reclaiming trash. I had labels printed that said, like: “A. Bitterman, born 1963. Beer Can. Anonymous gift.” And I would put it next to a beer can. I had labels for other kinds of trash: “Lid,” “Bag” and so on. So I was doing that, and a mother and daughter walked by. They looked at me and kept going. It’s kind of creepy - you’re in a remote place, and there’s a weird guy.
I just kept walking, then stopped to take a picture and they came back. The daughter was kind of giggling and pulled her camera out and she raised her arm up. So I did the whole greeting with her, and then she did the sign for taking a picture and she took my picture, and then I took her picture and posted it on my blog. She was super-excited and I was super-gratified.
Q What point were you trying to make?
A I’m fascinated by how people perceive nature as a real place, as if it exists, and it really doesn’t exist at all. Nature is a word that we use to describe a romantic or idealized view of the natural world. We have created a false dichotomy between the built environment and the natural environment. People on both sides of environmental issues use the same false narratives to achieve totally opposite goals.
Q Can you give an example of that?
A The BP-Amoco ad about how they are protecting the environment uses big pictures of beautiful wildlife and beaches to say, “Nature is a place that humans haven’t corrupted.” And that’s the same narrative the Sierra Club uses: “We’re going to preserve lands and create areas where there are no human corruptions.” The human being is an evil presence. It’s super-(messed) up.
Q What got you interested in this idea about our view of nature?
A About 15 years ago I took my two little kids down to a prairie preserve for the weekend. They were trying to return it to its natural state, as it were. People were out with weed trimmers and chain saws, which was very unpleasant, cutting all this invasive brush out. But I accepted it as part of the deal. They did a partial burn and that was cool. And there was a small lake they said they were going to get rid of because a farmer put it in 80 years ago, so it doesn’t belong here. So we hike over and water is gushing out one side where they had blown a hole through the berm. And there are all these fish flopping around in the mud and turtles running to nowhere. This whole ecosystem had built up over three generations.
It hit me right then like a ton of bricks that there’s a thin line between preservation and eco-fascism. And that was a great example of eco-fascism.
Q How so?
A What’s the point? What’s the cost benefit? You want to make a prairie. Well, who decides what dies in service of this reclamation? Why is the farmer such an evil (guy) for putting in this pond? He wasn’t a corporate farmer, he just needed a place to water his animals.
Q You’ve applied to do a project in New York. What is it?
A I want to create something like Old Faithful in Madison Square Park. Because Old Faithful is sort of orgasmic and vertical, like New York, and it fits into my whole idea of “Why can’t we bring nature, quote unquote, to you?” And what’s the difference? The human initiative is not unnatural. We are natural creatures. And what is interesting about Old Faithful is really that it goes off at certain times. So it’s something you can replicate with a half million dollars and the right kind of steam condensers.
Follow Cindy Hoedel on Facebook and Twitter @cindyhoedel