Congratulations 2017 Residents

We are pleased to announce the awarded residencies for the 2017 program on Rabbit Island. Last fall we received 223 applications representing individuals and artist groups from 26 countries. The selection committee—comprised of cofounders Rob Gorski and Andrew Ranville, DeVos Art Museum director Melissa Matuscak Alan, and former Rabbit Island residents Beau Carey, Nich McElroy, and Josefina Muñoz—spent seven weeks reviewing applications and deliberating internally, finally awarding residencies to the six artists featured below.

The process for this years program was especially challenging due to the quality and thoughtfulness of applications. This is how we worked: After researching each proposal in detail and hosting several long discussions, the committee created a list of 10 finalists. Each of the finalists were then interviewed in a 20 minute videoconference during which committee members and applicants asked questions of each other. The six-person committee then continued discussing the quality of each artist’s previous work, conceptual strength of their proposal, its relationship to both the Rabbit Island program and wider contemporary issues, and the artist’s ability to demonstrate competence in the wilderness environment. It is safe to say all 10 finalists interviewed were deserving of a residency, but due to limitations related to our annual funding, maintaining the ecological integrity of the island environment, and the brief summer period on Lake Superior, the committee made the challenging decision to award four residencies. This conclusion was reached after a thoroughly democratic numerical voting process.

Interestingly, and also unintentionally, the six awarded residents make up three collaborative twosomes. It will be interesting to see how small group dynamics—in each case strongly established through previous shared projects—are manifested within the wilderness environment of Rabbit Island.

The committee sincerely thanks each applicant who offered exceptional work and a carefully considered proposal. We are excited to be working with the following artists over the next year. This year we choose to share the awarded proposals in full—providing the community a peek at the critically rigorous, thoughtful, and adventurous proposals we receive. While the time leading up to their residency and experience on the island may transform the original concepts and methods of our awarded residents, the 700+ applications we have received over the last four residency calls offer a facinating glimpse at the state of today’s discourse on the intersection of art and ecology.

Julieta Aguinaco and Sarah Demoen

Julieta Aguinaco and Sarah Demoen. After meeting at the Dutch Art Institute in 2013, Aguinaco (Mexico City, Mexico) and Demoen (Brussels, Belgium) have worked collaboratively since. By combining their respective interests in performance and writing, their works often question and challenge notions of institutionalized art and politics. Together they have recently presented work in Mexico City, Mexico; Berlin, Germany; and Arnhem, The Netherlands.

Their statement and proposal:

Julieta Aguinaco and Sarah Demoen met in 2013 at the Dutch Art Institute, and have been working collaboratively since. In her individual practice, Julieta focuses on non-linearity, questioning where to place things that do not match the hierarchical, categorical system that dominates our ways of knowing. She researches the geological history of the earth and the land we walk on and tries to destabilize the notion of private property in light of non-western cosmovisions. Sarah has an interest in the history of resistance and alternative ways of institutionalizing. In this, she tries to critically disrupt preconceived notions about art, politics (social movements) and ownership, primarily through language.

In their joint practice, Julieta and Sarah combine their respective research interests into a dynamic discourse resulting in writing and performance. In a constant to and fro, they discuss their issues of concern directing critical questions at each other and the world, driven by a strong focus on process. They take on roles: where Julieta is the artist, Sarah is the anti-artist; where Julieta looks for visibility, Sarah is looking for abandoned places outside of the attention economy. Together, they create a philosophical form of theater, where poetics and fiction could be a way to withdraw from the linear world. They are convinced that alternatives can be found in the paradoxes, in non-linearity; in that what’s easily ignored.

An important question running through their work is: what can be named and known without undoing or destroying that same thing? In previous works they discussed the desert landscape and the influence of human colonization; the question: ‘you don’t find a different paradigm, we make it!’ and the idea of utopia as immanent in the here and now, and not as some far-fetched idea in the future.

When You Cut into the Present, the Future Leaks Out (working title)

’It is not yours,’ the one-eyed woman said with the mildness of utter certainty. ‘Nothing is yours. It is to use. It is to share. If you will not share it you cannot use it.’ (The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin)

The fresh water cephalopod could be an animal that lives in the depths of Lake Superior. It would have eight inky legs, a giant head, a glimmering opacity and the skills to survive in waters with a very low oxygen level. Its shape could be amorphous; radiating with pink, blue and yellow colors as the cephalopod takes on the role as the overarching umbrella for a small but vibrant community of corpuscles that constitute the shapeless blob. Creatures crawling, swimming and climbing through and over and into one another, sharing space and place without appropriating it. There is no pecking-order here, no room for dichotomies, no hierarchy. This lot can become anything and commit to everything. (i) At present, this taxon of cephalopods does not exist. Nor in the Great Lakes, nor in any other fresh water pool in the world. However, millions of years ago, the area where Rabbit Island is located used to be a shallow sea, with salt water. (ii) Who can claim then that there was never an octopus seen on the shores of Lake Superior? 

What once was, could become again, and even grow beyond itself. Speculation and fictionalization offer a key for past, present and future to come together in a non-linear way; where diverse, collective forms of living and paradoxes are embraced. The way the not-yet-existent fresh water cephalopod would live, with and through multiple other organisms, constructs an image of what a possible future world could be. But to summon the fictive fresh water cephalopod into a future life form, a method is needed. We believe Rabbit Island is the place for developing that method as it has hardly been touched or modified by human hands.

American poet William S. Burroughs’ famous quote: ‘When you cut into the present, the future leaks out’, could bring that future cephalopod to life. The sentence refers to the cut-up technique in poetry and literature, where parts of text are literally cut out, mixed up and ordered into new texts. This aleatory method of collecting and rearranging pieces of the present through a creative process, allows for chance to enter the work, not in an undetermined way, but as a factor that doesn’t ignore the paradoxes inherent to existence. Paradoxes are often discarded as redundant, for in their complexity, they do not offer straightforward and easy answers. We believe that exactly in those paradoxes there might be some possibilities for a future ‘to leak out’. We do aim for a different future than the one at present: a future devoid of the consequences of global warming, devoid of the destructive forces of the neoliberal economy where 1% of the world population has access to all wealth, and devoid of an oversimplified vision of complex dimensions.

To collect the material for the cut up method, we will set up The RI-School - a place for epistemic disobedience. (iii) The RI-school will make it possible to take a class with plant and fish, soil and rock. It will organize courses, lectures and field trips on the island for H2O, nonvascular plants, vertebrates and anthropoids. We are aware that this way of gathering knowledge through a school is an anthropocentric, western manner, that will lead to bringing human-inspired subjective findings to the mainland. Also, many ‘alternative’ forms of knowledge are already inherent to this area as indigenous people have been roaming these waters for centuries. How can we – through this known educational format – learn from the island’s clarifying content? If we want to understand and translate an alternative knowledge, we need to epistemologically disobey; to deliberately undermine the western structures we have been brought up with. A rebelliousness towards that system of dual categorization, of hierarchy and ownership, we know and live in. Could this island give us a different understanding of the larger contingencies happening on the mainland?

Practically, the classes, seminars and field trips are documented through sound recording and our written notes. We will be recording some typical sounds of nature: wind in a tree, the flapping of a bird’s wings, hands digging a hole, the insect’s buzz, etc. Not to romanticize nature - with a beautiful sunset always comes a group of bloodsucking mosquitoes - but to give it a voice in the conversation. Also, we will record the noise we make during class, the sound of written words read out loud to the land, to the water, to each other. There will be discussions about forms of resistance in nature and culture alike, renewal through fictionalization, the potency of mimicry and theories of exit. The selected texts will handle the story of the non-existent fresh water cephalopod, they will question us setting up a school on an island without an invitation from that island, and whether to get to know each other is also to eventually destroy each other? Next to our own essays and scribbles and the island’s contributions, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness by Donna Haraway will function as a basic textbook, as she talks of the impossibility to split between nature and culture. The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin will be another study-book as it deals with the discrepancy between two planets, one capitalist, earth-like, the other anarchist, arranged as a place of equality and solidarity. This overload of different materials is necessary to make the collection of present material for an aleatory purpose, constructing a constellation from which a possible future might leak out.

Since the island remained untouched by human colonization of land and resources, it symbolizes a pre-capitalist world and is therefore indispensable for research into different ways of living. As an epitome of larger society, its land, water and species have the capacity to re-map past, present and future. We think our collection of sound pieces and text, where nature and culture are protagonists alike, through the cut up technique, could bring that potential into the larger world, where there is a pressing need for a leak of another future than the one we are heading towards. We want that utopian cephalopod to become alive, not as some far-fetched forthcoming ideal, but here and now, starting at Lake Superior.

The final outcome is a soundscape which we will present in the small forest outside of the museum. The soundscape contains the information gathered through the RI-school, cut up and edited into complex layers of sound fragments containing text, different voices, recordings from the seminars and natural sounds form the island. This sound piece will enter into a conversation with the noises and voices that surround the museum. In addition, we will do a small performance as we will take a class with the local ‘fouled’ nature. Inside the museum, a publication with our notes and texts and drawings from the time on the island will form another element of the work. This ‘textbook’ is freely available, for as mentioned in the above quote: ‘nothing is ever yours, it is to use, to share’. What else is the point of working towards a future ideal if it is not shared, used and altered; no one owns the future.

Jasmine Johnson and Rachel Pimm

Rachel Pimm and Jasmine Johnson. London-based Pimm and Johnson met during their MFA studies at Goldsmiths University. Collaboratively they assist each other in the realization of their individual works, and collectively as part of the group MoreUtopia!, of which they are members. Both work across disciplines utilizing video, writing, performance, drawing, and sculpture to investigate complex systems both artificial and natural. Recent program participations and exhibitions include the Serpentine Gallery, Chisenhale Gallery, Jerwood Visual Arts, and Bloomberg New Contemporaries.

Their statement and proposal:

Johnson & Pimm are partners who both live and work in London, where they met during an MFA in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2011 they have collaborated unofficially on each others’ individual projects and officially as two members of MoreUtopia! including a recent solo exhibition at ANDOR, London (2016).

Rachel Pimm works in sculpture, video, writing and performance to make work that explores ecosystems and their materiality, both natural and artificial, often from the point of view of non-human agents, such as plants, worms, water, gravity or rubber. American architect and urbanist Keller Easterling described her recent work Polymethyl Methacrylake as a ‘plastic fossils as the new confetti of empire or geological traces suspended in a matrix of global currents’.

Jasmine Johnson works in video, sculpture and drawing. Recent work explores modes of escape and wildness as a progressive prospect, playing to the propensity of individuals and societies to consult the ‘then’ and ‘there’ for clues for how to negotiate the ‘here’ and ‘now’. An ongoing series of video works stem from encounters that Johnson has had with individuals in different locations (UK, Russia, Lithuania and India) who then become central characters in the work. 

Interrelations between an ancient tablet with prophetic instructions and a formula for painting with electricity form the basis of SURFACE NORMALS, a CGI video work and series of copper conductive paintings, which explore recorded manifestations of human presence and time passing on in its widest sense.

The outside face, the uppermost or most superficial layer, the cosmetic skin of something. To surface is to uncover, or to come to the top.

Usual, typical, expected state, or a term in geometry which refers to the rising and falling of a level on a plane. In CGI modelling, this is a word describing the approximate value used to calculate the image of surfaces.

In every specific location there is a conflation of histories, economies, mythologies, politics, matter and movement. For Rabbit Island, itself a volcanic remnant of a tectonic shift, these consist as a web of intricately connected links to water, trade routes, national boundaries and the extraction of resources. Mining on the copper rich ridge of the neighbouring Keweenaw Peninsula played a pivotal role in human history and technology, the successful extraction of which played a large part in making Europe rich.

Operating under the Rabbit Island’s policy of ‘leave no trace’, we will respond to the movements and extractions following a local myth that originates from archaeological fragments dated to the Bronze Age rumoured to have been lost along with an unknown quantity of missing copper in the waters of Lake Superior. Among which, the Newberry Tablet (circa 3000 BC, discovered in 1890, Michigan) is said to prove Pre-Columbian contact with Europe and now resides in the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing.

In 1890, James Scotford, a sign painter from Edmore, MI, claimed he had found a number of artifacts, including clay cups and carved tablets, with symbols on their surfaces resembling hieroglyphics. Nearly 3000 relics appeared to suggest that ancient Near Eastern civilisations had lived in the state of Michigan, evidencing Pre-Columbian contact with Europe. Using trade routes galvanized for mining, Scotford sold and transported the 3000 artifacts out from the area including the Newberry Tablet. One archaeologist translated the symbols on the tablet as an ancient Hittite-Minoan formula for getting good luck from the gods. According to another translation, the symbols were describing a bird eating grain. Most of the relics were widely discredited due to symbols not matching with the Minoan symbols of the period, marks being clearly made by more modern tools, or hieroglyphics with characters that were upside-down. In 1911, Scotford’s stepdaughter signed an affidavit stating that she had actually seen him making the objects. The Newberry Tablet was lost for many years and when it resurfaced, it had evaded such discrediting. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kept 797 of the objects including the tablet in the Salt Lake City Museum and gave them up to the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing where they currently reside.

SURFACE NORMALS poses the possible translations of the Newberry Tablet as two viewpoints on this legacy of copper and water, and the ways in which human activity and natural resources are increasingly hybridised: 1. It’s a formula for good luck, 2. It’s about a bird eating grain (or 3. it’s not translatable). We propose to create work that does not leave a trace in the physical makeup of Rabbit Island, but maps onto it a digital path mimicking the flow of water, or the hyperspeed of the conductivity of energy through copper. On our way to Rabbit Island, at the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing we will photograph the Newberry Tablet from every angle. Using macro photographs and lighting techniques to reveal surface phenomena as light and shadows carve forms into two-dimensional digital planes. Using CGI video and copper conductive paintings we will translate the landscape, conflating the objects of water and copper; into a formula for good luck, or narrative about a bird eating grain.

As ‘peak’ copper mining approaches, it seems prescient to consider the scarcity of natural resources including freshwater and copper, both finite and in decline, and actively fought for in the post-industrial environment of global capitalism. The ‘hyperobjects’ of copper (found in home appliances, telephone communications, the internet) and water, both travel along ancient trade routes established in the Great Lakes around Rabbit Island. Local copper is repeatedly melted and reformed. The hydro cycle of the Great Lakes, feeding rivers and aquifers fluctuate cyclically but are also recently subject to dramatic evaporation and increased demand. Six of the warmest years on record there have occurred in the last decade. Lakeside home owners extend their jetties to reach the ever receding water. Freightliners run aground, forcing traders to lessen their loads, losing billions of dollars per annum.

A formula for good luck: Copper conductive paint is comprised of copper sulphate solution (commonly industrially produced for weeding and keeping algae out of ponds), water heated to 70 degrees celsius and ascorbic acid (vitamin C). The local sourcing of which will comprise part of our field research on Rabbit Island. The formula works through suspension of copper nanoparticles in the solution of water. The application of pressure by a metal tool or a press to paint after it has dried enhances conductivity and durability - a process re-enacting the forces of geology itself, making the surface shine with the familiar glow of copper. Utilising of make-shift technologies for electricity in the off-grid context of Rabbit Island, and providing an immediate medium in which to work with whilst providing a form in order to begin constructing the CGI video. Once the paintings are completed we will experiment with different types of circuitry, to make the copper conductive paint perform (i.e. with lighting or sound).

A bird eating grain has the potential to transport plant life in the form of seeds over oceans and expanses of land. It is an analogy and maps out another perspective, an impossible as-the-crow-flies viewpoint of a migrating animal, the trade path of a cargo vessel or an explorer’s ship, a satellite or drone view over the Great Lakes, an electron in a single amp of conductive energy along a copper path, or a camera in a computer generated image. This second translation has the role of the overview perspective and can ascend and cover unimaginable distances over the landscape, its historicities and its ecosystems.

In SURFACE NORMALS the Newberry Tablet is a location in itself, a world-sized object that exists in multiple time-zones, whether an archaeological forgery or a genuine object imbued with narratives of human and material movement. From the off-grid location of Rabbit Island we utilise the natural resources of water and copper to understand the notion of the wilderness and connectivity as a whole.

Martin Schick and Mirko Winkel

Mirko Winkel and Martin Schick. Coming from a visual arts background, Winkel (East Germany) has collaborated on several occasions with dance/performance artist Martin Schick (Switzerland). Recent performances have been staged throughout Europe including MANIFESTA 11 2016, the 9th Istanbul Biennial, FRINGE Beijing, and Kiasma Helsinki. Both look to transform and challenge the conventions in theater and public space.

Their statement and proposal:

Our reflections about our new project NATURE POLITICS are the result of our artistic practices: we investigate alternative thinking and acting within contemporary society. We want to transform the social architectures and the control systems and move them into changeable material.  

Art is the place where society can be re-negotiated without boundaries, where we can dare to think the impossible and improbable, even to allow those utopias to coexist and to try them out together with an audience. The liveness and liveliness are crucial to our work. Performance is a way of experiencing a proposal. A method that might inspire processes of the real world. Our projects attempt to connect with political, educational or institutional organisms, extending and radicalizing the performative, getting rid of the representational position and have an impact on contemporary society.  

We seek to move our work to uncanny places, to environments that provoke unusual questions and challenge them in their functionality and implicitness. Spatial practice is where we meet and this is where the representation becomes a challenge. 


During our residency period on Rabbit Island we plan to construct a new performative work which shall be called »Nature Politics«. This is a practical investigation and a rehearsal for a new performance art work. We plan to build an experimental setup and discussions between living human beings and »natural objects«. The aim of this laboratory on site is to develop a vision for a new society and to design techniques and procedures to make this new society happen.

The French theorist and philosopher Bruno Latour developed a concept of a radical democracy. He wants to leave behind the old opposition between subjects and objects, between humans and non-humans – so called »things«. Things have become hybrids, mixed beings. According to him people and things are extremely entangled with each other. We humans depend on them, they affect us. Together we form collectives with a common destiny. Examples can be found in the medical system: The AIDS virus, the homosexuals, the virologists, the drug – they all form such an association of people and non-human beings. Or: If we look at street traffic: Speed bumps, traffic planners, cars and their drivers form another collective. Or: The Internet of Things. The more advanced the technology, the more things and people are confused.

But we still treat technology as a monster. Monsters are constructions of technical objects, which are regarded as manageable and predictable. This is the figure of the cyborg, celebrated by postmodernism. Hybrids, on the other hand, are mixtures of human and nonhuman beings that are not controllable, which are dynamic. And so they demand respect. Only when we socialize technical innovation, we transform monsters into beings. This also means making them subject to the democratic decision.

However, this interdependence between material and humans is not limited to economic or social progress or technology. Humans have always formed communities and alliances with the surrounding nature, since thousands of years actually. These communities appear to have fallen into oblivion. But maybe through our relational structure with new technology, we can re-access the connection to natural elements. Ecology is all about beings that depend on us, forests, waters, animals.

We must decide on a global scale. In which kind of nature do we want to live? Our world is a huge laboratory in which many crazy people are experimenting. We work on all sorts of dangerous things without asking the involved »things« for consent. The meat and bone meal or the cows were probably not asked for their opinion before it all lead to mad cow disease. In order to realign power structures we must rethink the institutions. The question now is which policy suits this situation. What institutions do we need for democratic nature politics. Who are the new parliamentarians and who the new lobbyists. We need to clarify who is part of the arena. The »parliament of things« might restore the balance between people and nonhuman beings.

Our work on Rabbit Island could be an example for his. First, we want to map all living and non-living beings there – everything in real or approximate numbers. This is the comprehensible society of Rabbit Island. Who might be their representatives? In an inaugural assembly, we will develop a
Charta of the fundamental rights that includes all parties. How does a constitution look like, that includes every fly, grain of sand, bush plant. We develop a fictive script of this first assembly, a portrait of the different parties and reenact possible conflicts. This will be the material for an exhibition with a performative setup, presenting results of this experiment.

The island and our procedure of a fictive listening to the different voices of nature stands exemplarily for a bigger society and a growing interest in wilderness, complex politics and alternatives and performative forms of negation.

Our 2017 program is made possible with support from the MCACA (Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs) and the National Endowment for the Arts.

January 29, 2017