The video performance Being With is a five-channel installation filmed at the St Michel recycling center in Montreal. In three of the frames is a snowcapped mountain of trash, the wind rustling through the innumerable tattered plastic bags matted into it. In another, a woman sits at the base of the trash heap in a puffy silver coat. She is in a meditation pose, legs crossed, hands resting on knees, eyes closed.
One labours to describe the sound. Is it like that pebbly dry snow blowing down a frozen street? Shards of broken glass in a cardboard box? Flags flapping madly in the Ikea parking lot? It is challenging to find an analogous sound, perhaps because there is none comparable to thousands upon thousands of plastic bags tossed about in the icy wind, tenuously anchored to a mountain of refuse. Because municipally collected trash and recycling are kept from our eyes and ears and noses and hands, we may struggle to define their effects on our senses.
In the middle of one of the frames a white bag begins to move. It stands up. It is the artist Miri Chekhanovich, who is also the woman meditating at the base of the heap. The screens then transform into five frames showing Chekhanovich carefully walking in front of stacks of compressed garbage, wearing a patchwork kind of skirt/face cape made in part with one of those enormous Omar de Serres bags you often see tucked between the arm and torso of busy fine arts students. “It is important,” Chekhanovich writes on her website, “for me to use humour and speculation, both are tools that allow us to reconnect to difficult subjects.”
Chekhanovich is a research fellow with the Institute for Urban Futures and is completing an MFA in Fine Arts at Concordia. Her creative output—video, sculpture, video sculpture, performance, ritual— is often about garbage. By virtue, it is about so many of the things we create, corrupt, and then willfully ignore. Her most recent video project has her sitting at a table, unwrapping an apple and methodically eating the wrapping itself, the implication being that it is safer than the chemically treated apple.
The IUF recently visited her in her studio, which is full of bioplastic samples composed of algae, starch, kombucha, beeswax and hibiscus. They are edible, or at the very least compostable, and they are of varying degrees of manipulability. Some are scrunchy and translucent like cellophane, others are floppy and pink like a raw pork chop. She is currently creating, among other things, projection screens out of bioplastics. She unrolls one upon which she projected a film of a human in a green bodysuit being formed through the process of a black, occluding liquid poured over them. The screen is dank and cool and fleshy and smells a little moldy. It feels and looks and smells exactly like all the feelings and objects we collectively avoid. You know, like death and decay and their intimate relationship with our lives.
It is unsurprising that Chekhanovich is deeply touched by the work of the American poet CAConrad, who once instructed readers to collect their weekly trash and dump it in wealthy neighborhoods and then take copious notes on the process in order to “wrench” their poems “into existence” (2017). Chekhanovich gives guided “Trash Tours” where she instructs participants to develop new ways of being with that which we “refuse” to see. CAConrad makes ritualistic somatic poetry as a method of healing from violence and trauma. Their last book, While Standing in Line for Death is a series of rituals and subsequent poems they made to heal from the extremely violent murder of their boyfriend Earth in 1998. Chekhanovich makes rituals to heal as well. “Being an artist in our times,” she writes, “I have to make work that addresses my environment. Environment being all of what is external to my body and all that is internal, within the boundaries of the skin. The environment and the things that compose it, are in a constant stage of transformation, they change through time and space.” Borrowing from scholar Heather Davis, Chekhanovich sees the obsession with plastic as the ultimate Cartesian relationship: “an all-encompassing membrane that separates and distinguishes us (humans) from the environment, it is considered; safe, clean, sterile and disposable.”
As a fan of CAConrad’s belief in and application of the restorative power of creative ritual, I used their work as a springboard to dialogue with Chekhanovich about her work.
IUF: CAConrad wrote the poems in While Standing in Line for Death as a way of healing from their boyfriend Earth’s violent murder, as a means, as the book’s description says, of “putting an end to our alienation on the planet.” Plastic is literally designed to alienate us from the planet. What is your goal in trying to develop a relationship with plastic and its overwhelming position on the planet?
MC: Plastic is a material that was designed to “protect” us humans from contamination in the environment, as our world becomes increasingly saturated with plastic, ironically it became a dominant substance of our environment. The plastic membrane, which envelopes everything around us is also modifying our bodies. I am inspired to think with instead of against, if plastic is already a part of me, what does it mean? And how can I be creative with that notion. I am inspired by authors such as Donna Haraway and Heather Davis. Haraway invites us to ‘Stay with the trouble’ and that is what I do when I meditate in the dump. I recognize my privilege in doing such an action, and simultaneously I am allowing a new narrative for crisis to emerge. In ‘staying with,’ there is an embodied experience that I strongly believe can transform one’s perceptions. Heather Davis writes about the queer futurity of plastic, essentially our bodies are becoming biologically queer due to the ingestion of microplastics. Female bodies are becoming less fertile and male bodies become more saturated with the feminine hormone estrogen. Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating for becoming more plastified necessarily, however, I seek to communicate in a non-binary way, beyond the simplistic affirmations of what is considered “good” or “bad”.
IUF: What are you finding inspirational about CAConrad’s work? I love their certainty that poetry can be ritualistic and that ritual is important and that it can actually have a material impact on healing. I like that they design rituals through trial and error, and that this trial and error implies seeking with intent.
MC: I am deeply inspired by the somatic poetry work that CAConrad practices and shares. Especially I quote: “I cannot stress enough how much this mechanistic world, as it becomes more and more efficient, resulting in ever increasing brutality, has required me to FIND MY BODY to FIND MY PLANET in order to find my poetry” (2012). Ritual and healing are so deeply intertwined, I think western capitalist patriarchal society really misses on that. To find my art and to make work in this world today, I have to use scores/ rituals/ poetics to be able to live.
IUF: You have mentioned the many human connections you have fostered in your trips to the Saint Michel Ecocentre. Will you describe a few of the exchanges you have had with workers there?
MC: The connections I have made with the workers are very precious to me. It is not easy to explain what I am doing and find myself facing my own privilege in such a blunt way, however, it is so important. Most of the contact I have had are with the workers outside, the ones that drive the small vehicles and transport piles of garbage in the facility. They wear very elaborate protection uniforms almost like space suits. The most epic conversation I have had was with one of the workers, who had worked in the facility for 11 months at that point. It was about how the site of the dump is a metaphor for life in its entirety. He said that it was a place that has everything a person could imagine and that stories of entire families are buried beneath its ground.
IUF: On your website, you write that you wish to share your “deepest reflections and intuitions in regards to materials, body, time, space and community.” You state that as you observe the changes in yourself and your environment, you “feel the responsibility both to accept and respect what is occurring and simultaneously to react, and co-create a future with others using the powerful tools of speculation and storytelling.” What do you find serviceable about intuition as a methodology in your work? And what are the changes in yourself you are referring to here?
MC: What I am referring to by changing is the environment becoming toxic, my city becoming an unsafe territory for my body and all our bodies to be in. Climate change, and all of those scary and real transformations. Simultaneously, changes are constant, everything moves, so that is what I mean by accepting or referring back to Haraway, staying with the uncomfortable. Responding is equally important. It is crucial to voice, to speak up, to listen to be an active participant in and with the transformation. I often say that following my intuition is a political act!
IUF: As you state in the above quote, you believe that speculation is a powerful tool. Our work at the IUF involves imagining futures that are radically inclusive and sustainable. We are grounded in a praxis of inclusion and collaboration with all communities who are stakeholders in both the present and the future of the urban environment. Our actions in the present must reflect our desires for the future. I will ask you to elaborate on these ideas as they pertain to your own work, and tell me: what does your urban future include?
MC: Speculation is one of the only tools that I know that can actively help me rethink what I know to be true, in this way I can be actively creating a future, as speculation is beyond what I know and therefore can become. What if we had exercised daily as a community of citizens a speculation of our collective futures? Speculation is a tool of creative reimagining, it is a way to combat mass media and misleading information.
My urban future includes food gardens everywhere, affordable housing, and community that is stronger than governments. My urban future includes the darkness, the pain and the holes in the pavements, it includes genuine conversation and deep listening. It includes the thriving of humans and other species, it is QUEER, the not yet formed, the undefined by the limitation of language. My urban future is a collective co-creation. I know it’s possible, and I have to keep that in mind.
The Saint Michel recycling centre is owned by Rebuts Solides Canadiens (RSC), which has recently been placed under the protection of the Companies Creditors’ Arrangement Act. The CCAA is a federal law that permits insolvent companies in arears of more than five million dollars to their creditors to restructure their business and financial issues. The recycling centre, which was set to close, will remain open for business while RSC sorts itself out.
CAConrad (2012). A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon – New (Soma)tics. Wave Books: Seattle.
Ridker, A (2017). “Queer Bubbles: How CAConrad turns ritual into poetry.” The Paris Review.