INTERVIEW: Mike Bianco for Proximity Festival

September 21, 2017
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Interview by Holly Ferguson 

From September 26 to October 7, Perth’s Cathedral Square will transform into a land of boundless creativity. Proximity Festival is a unique event, exclusive to Perth, constructed solely of one on one intimate performances with accompanying workshops, exploring a latitude of topics and issues. This year Proximity is taking over several buildings and outdoor areas and audiences will have a choice of three programs, each with three unique and vastly different performances (audiences can also select to see all three programs).

I spoke with artist Mike Bianco, who’s performing in program C, to find out more about his piece, The Trees of St. George Square:

[I also spoke with Tyrone Robinson on his performance at Proximity, Consent. Click here to read.]

What can you tell me about your performance The Trees of St. George Square?

Well let’s see, there’s a lot I could tell you. In its basic form it’s a one-on-one experience for people, that is modelled on a sort of training induction on how to be a gardener. The piece is exploring this broader question which is, what are the rights of plants?

What are botanical rights?

As far as I can tell plants don’t have any rights. There are some rights for plants based on if they’re endangered or native but most rights surrounding plants aren’t for the plants themselves, they’re for the owners of the plants. So, as an example if someone went to your house and cut down the tree in your front yard it’s not a crime against the tree, it’s not tree slaughter, it’s destruction of private property. So, plants are never autonomous, they never have rights to themselves because humans have this concept they’re not sentient, they have no rights, they have no sensibilities in the world, they’re not conscious.

In an ethical sense, vegans don’t eat animals because they have a central nervous system and they are sentient beings,

And they experience pain.

Yeah! So how do we navigate this with plants?

That’s the real issue. That’s the question, do they experience suffering? The problem is that you can’t talk about it in human terms because they’re not human. So, anytime you talk about a non-human and you use human terms it doesn’t really make sense because they have their own way of being in the world and own sensory perception. However, in human terms I think what we’re seeing is research coming out that plants have an ability to express what we might call ‘desire’. So, there was researcher at UWA, Monica Gagliano, who demonstrated the ability of plants to have what might be called a ‘hearing’ and this hearing was directed in a form of desire towards water. The there’s research that shows when one plant gets harmed they have a chemical signalling, which signals to other plants that there’s danger near. Now, if that demonstrates suffering that’s a different question altogether. But as far as getting into is it unethical to eat plants that a much a bigger and boarder debate and one that with this piece I’m not trying to take a position on. I’m simply opening up some questions.

Speaking of research, I see that you’re doing a PhD at the moment, so what’s the relationship between your performance making and academic research?

I work predominantly in this lab that’s called SymbioticA, which is a biological arts lab. So, my research and work is focused on interspecies relationships and predominantly I’m interested in the relationship between humans and honey bees. But the way that I explore these issues is through art making and trying to figure out ways to explore these issues and relationships. Not just through a scientific method but through the artistic methods. That might be sculptural or image based works, or for instance, in the Proximity work creating a time-based experiential, performative project that can explore these relationships and these issues. So, as far as what I’m doing there’s a theoretical, historical side, which I research and there’s the practice which comes out in actually producing these works.

Why do you choose to present your findings and what comes out of your academic research in an artistic format?

I do both. I publish in journals, like I just published an article in the Journal for Performance Research. I’ve published policy papers on for instance honey been population decline. So, I do publish in academic journals in addition to producing my work. They offer different outcomes. One is perhaps of a more philosophical exploration of the issues and the other might be a policy analysis. They both offer a different way to engage with the material and issues. As a researcher, I am producing scholarly literature and artworks and it’s because they operate in different ways and with different audiences. I think they offer a different perspective and experience of the subject. 

Do you believe that humans realising their capacity as social agents of change is an important step to taking action in the face of big world issues?

Most of my work is coming out of and in response to the ecological clusterfuck we find ourselves in and which we are largely responsible for. Whether that’s climate change, whether that’s environmental degradation, many of these are the result of human activity on this planet. There are certainly things that happen that are not human activity that contribute and change the world, which is an important aspect because I think there’s this idea that the non-human world doesn’t have agency and that’s a fallacy. We know that non-humans have quite a bit of agency over the planet. But there’s this reality that humans have a tremendous impact, as a species, on the planet. I think often times the problem is people have a very passive relationship to the world. An example in this performance something that is normalised, a normal activity, which is gardening; I’m trying to shift the perception of it to have people question or have a more active engagement with it as practise, to consider “what is my relationship to plants?” and “what agency am I acting out in ways that I’m not fully aware of when I garden.” I do think it’s important for people to become aware of their capacity to act on the world and what that amounts to collectively and I’m not necessarily advocating that people don’t garden. I’m just simply saying here’s this issue, it’s a great example of how humans, on any given day, manipulate the non-human world to pretty radical extremes. Yet we don’t think of it as anything major at all. I think that’s exemplary of human behaviour broadly, which is creating this era of environmental crisis.

Another part of that question, which you touched on, is how do you empower audiences in the respect of making them question through your work and challenge their perceptions?

I don’t think I can empower anyone. I also teach and I teach my students skills and I share knowledge in the hope that they will empower themselves as a result of being exposed to these things. I think what I’m trying to do, in the instance of where the performance is taking place which is in St. George Square, is simply looking around at what is arguably an environment that people don’t necessarily consider very much. [I’m going to] try to examine and excavate, deeper histories, different ideas, maybe even problematize certain relationships and present those back. So, it’s a kind of lens, maybe you even want to call it a mirror, which is to simply show back what is banal quotidian thing and say well isn’t this strange that we do this? And through that offer a different moment of contemplation on our relationship to the rest of the world. Which I think is ultimately the job of art. I think the job of art is not to direct people how they should think or how they should behave, that’s propaganda. I think it’s more taking a look at the world and saying, “wow look and consider this for a moment.” You don’t have to do anything about but just think, “what’s going on here, how does this work,” did you ever think of it or look at it or see the world this way. I think that’s what my job is.

When you’re developing a piece, you have your research that influences it. What else goes into the process of developing a performance piece like what you’re doing with Proximity?

A lot has gone into this. I’ve been working on this for about a year, pretty consistently. It’s everything from doing archival research, visiting the site regularly and at all times of the day, observing people, observing plants, observing other animals. So, there’s a lot of observation and a lot of time that’s involved in this. I’ve also been growing plants as part of this process. Which is both to create elements for this piece and explore the subject very intimately on a very personal level, so I’m implicating myself in the thing that I’m questioning as part of the method of understanding it. There’s also very practical stuff. On a site like St. George Square, which is a mixture of different interests, you’re having to negotiate a lot of stake holders, a lot of bureaucracies, a lot of policies. So, how you as an artist do a live public performance sometimes is a lot of just being flexible to deal with the nuts and bolts and barriers. It’s a combination of research, creative exploration and administrative maze work.

 Speaking of stakeholders, are there any particular elements that you’re worried about impacting the work whilst it’s happening?

Not really, I guess I’m interested in those moments that will kind of present themselves as an oddity on the street to those who aren’t part of the performance, which is everyone apart from me and my singular audience member. Whether someone chooses to intervene from the public I invite that, although I don’t really know what to do with it. I’m not too concerned about it and the organisers of the festival have been in dialogue with all the stake holders so they’re aware of what will be happening and all that. I’m hoping that my audience will have some sense based on the description of the work, as part of the festival, what they’re getting into.

You’re also doing a workshop, Guerrilla Botanics. What can we expect with that?

I don’t want to give too much away but I’ve been, for a while, exploring Guerrilla gardening. Which has ranged from figuring out methods to put native plants into areas that may have been degraded by human activity to guerrilla grafting of other species of plants to other species of plants to ,for the past year, in my own garden, reading political theory to my plants. So, there are a number of ways in which one can have a guerrilla or politicised relationship with a plant that may be a little less common, I’m hoping to share that with people at the workshop.

Can I ask what inspired your focus and relationship to plants throughout your work?

The deeper relationship begins with my cooking. I’m a very passionate home cook and I love food. So, that has been an inspiration for a lot of my work and that’s what got me into bee keeping because if you love food then you bees because bees pollinate one third of all the food we eat in a European style food system. Of course, if you love the pollination then you love the plants themselves. So, I am an artist that gardens, keeps bees and cooks. So, I have an interest and fascination with plants because they’re primary to my experience and pleasure of being in the world. As far as how that inspired this project specifically, during the workshop session a year ago, we were engaging the grounds and I was quickly struck by these jacaranda trees which are installed throughout the square. Looking at the gardening techniques used to secure them in place, these plants looked like they were in bondage. From that point, I began to ask well what are the rights of plants and as I have continued to ask this question and research the different species on the site, the history of that site, it’s become very clear to me that there is a long and contested history to how humans have manipulated not only the environment on that site but specifically plants and specifically trees. It’s something that began, again, with an observation that I’ve questioned and it’s developed through research and time.

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