Briefly describe the work you do.
The collaborative team of Wendy DesChene (Canada) + Jeff Schmuki (USA) form PlantBot Genetics and link the environmental and social costs of bioengineered crops to a diverse array of creative operations and tactics. PlantBot Genetics parodies and satirically comments on the aggressive and misleading practices commonly employed by the biotech sector. We can only guess what will happen to the world’s food supply after subsequent generations of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and other transgenic modifications are inserted into food crops. In answer to this, PlantBot Genetics Inc. grafts plants onto remote controlled robotic bases to become organisms with no clear heritage and no clear future.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
Wendy and Jeff both hold MFA’s from prestigious universities. Wendy holds an MFA in Painting from Tyler School of Art and Jeff earned an MFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. What influenced them to move beyond the limitation of making art in their concentration was an interest in art’s ability to generate dialogue. Both realized that art making that transpired in public spaces and involved the community created a more lasting impact than any single exhibition. Inspiring a community to engage issues became paramount to making nice tidy objects that fit into the expected and often prescribed models.
Our goal is to motivate the public to question current environmental systems while offering sustainable alternatives to industrial food and energy production. Those visiting our exhibitions, lectures, and workshops hopefully come away empowered and think differently about the natural environment.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
Our team uses the world as its studio and projects are designed to be mobile. We began with one remote controlled robo-plant and the second we took it to the street we realized we were in our studio. People came up to us to interact with the work and we soon realized the power in delivering a message with humor. If we had stood on the soapbox and lectured, everyone would ignore us or cross to the other side of the street. We had discovered that by making people laugh, they would be curious, feel at ease, and come talk to us!
This removed all social and political boundaries that an art institution often has to grapple with. Our studio could literally interact with anyone from any background and culture. In traveling around the world, the French, Koreans, Italians, and others all laughed and related to our PlantBots despite language barriers. As the project grew and the conversations became more complex, our studio evolved to keep pace. Today, an 18’ off-grid trailer or ArtLab continues the street based experience. Painted bright yellow, a color that captures the dichotomy of caution and fun, the ArtLab can deploy in 15 minutes. Videos, computer art, interactive sculptures and drawings are found alongside a library of helpful information on food, gardening, composting, pollinators etc. that people can take. Parking lots, festivals, schoolyards, street corners, forests and roads to anywhere can all be transformed into activated discussion spaces for the public.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
Activism is a significant aspect of our practice. It is quite difficult for any beautiful, well-crafted and thoughtful art object to directly impact social justice issues when sitting in a gallery or a collector’s home. In fact how can anyone change the way society thinks about an issue without huge amounts of money? A biased news corporation or a lobbyist with a multi million dollar company behind them can easily manipulate social thought, but what can an unfunded artist do? We both began our careers making well-crafted objects, but drifted away to this place we find more important that tries to answer these questions. History shows us that change can begin with one person and art that is interventionist and active has to power to try to generate positive cultural movement on issues.
Jeff lost his home, studio, community and teaching position during Hurricane Katrina and was treated poorly by the large insurance companies. In the aftermath, it was necessary for him to re-think and recreate who he was. Although Wendy did not have anything as devastating happen, it was always clear to her that a painting had a very limited audience and if she really wanted to bring art to communities, she had to get it out of the art world and redefine it.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
Unfortunately we are workaholics. We are partners in life as well as collaborators in art so our biggest challenge is slowing down to have a date night. Also we are both academics as well as full time art makers and in order to do this well, we have given up much. Free time to be a normal couple is the thing we sacrifice the most and it seems we are always working and that there is very little time for anything else. It’s our hope that one day we can be in a place where this is not the case.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
We began working together in 2009, 5 years ago. Although we both had a fair amount of success on our own, our environmental collaborative work was suddenly doing really well. Our first video “Monsantra” took off and was displayed in several international film festivals months after we completed it. This was a movie that we created in an hour and it was doing as well as work we had spent years on. That’s when we realized we had something and should really break down why it was working well. The entire PlantBot Genetics project boiled down to what made that first video successful and from there we kept building. For Wendy it gave her a place to continue to play with the myth making of arts and artists in the project and also allowed her subversive tactics like street interventions to continue. Jeff was keenly interested in keeping elements of his garden lost to the storm along with the portability from becoming nomadic in the aftermath. For both of us, these familiar elements kept it exciting and moving forward.
In addition, one of the benefits to a creative collaboration is we do not have to shoulder the project all alone. Together we both bring completely different skill sets and attitudes to the table. Our personalities push the work to different areas and make it more complex. For example Wendy is more playful and optimistic, which helps balance out Jeff’s love of chaos and dissonance. Creating discussion is extremely important for it encourages a desire for knowledge and action. PlantBot Genetics urges others to read up on current farming practices, GM products, pollinator decline, and to decide for themselves. We know from experience the more we know about how our food is produced, the more we are called to action.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Environmental/Activist artists and scientists influence us, but more importantly we were influenced by the way we were raised. Both Wendy and Jeff spent much time outdoors as children. Jeff grew up in the Sonoran Desert on a gentleman’s farm. goats, snakes, drought and a harsh climate where a big part of his childhood. Wendy was raised at the center of the Great Lakes, and her dad built an off grid cabin in the woods on a lake when she was five. Every year her family spent all summer without plumbing or electricity in this beautiful spot. Both spent as much time as possible as children in these extremely different natural places. Our work grows out of respect to the environment that formed us. How can anyone turn his or her back on such an important influence when it is in trouble?
History proves change in our community, our country, and the world can begin with one person. Change begins with a conversation that can lead to action and policy. Recently in the US, the beef based food additive or “pink slime” was blogged on by one person. Sweeping changes resulting in the product being pulled from many food stores resulted. The American public had unknowingly consumed this product for the last 20 years since it legally constituted up to 15% of ground beef without additional labeling. With regard to GMOs, I would say we need more transparency. Label the foods that contain GM products and let the consumer decide, let the market decide. It is fair and right that we all know what is in our food
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
This is a question every artist who is having a dry spell asks. We all have days when we dream of greener pastures. We think an artist who doesn’t dream about these things once in a while really isn’t putting it all out there. If Wendy did become a baker or interior decorator, she would still be environmentally and community conscious. If Jeff was a carpenter or mechanic, he would still be socially aware and goal oriented. Bottom line no matter what job, we would be authentic, only the material of how we express ourselves and call ourselves to action would change.
PlantBot Genetics has exhibited and/or completed projects at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, Missouri.Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the Goethe Institute of Cairo, Egypt, and the Bach Modern of Austria. In 2010, a significant contribution to their body of work was produced at the American Academy in Rome as visiting artists. Recent exhibitions include Foodture at the Elaine L Jacob Gallery of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan and PlantBot Genetics: a Critical Contact Exhibition Series at the Cafritz Foundation Arts Center in Takoma Park, Maryland, and artist lectures and studio visits at Long Island University in Brookville, New York. Public projects while artists in residence at The Hafnarborg Art Center and Museum in Iceland and the McColl Center for the Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina has gained invitations to the Landscape Laboratory at Buitenwerkplaats in the Netherlands, the KulttuuriKauppila Art Center in Il, Finland as well as the Studio’s of Key West Florida.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.