The Future We Want

Erica Deeman and Denice Frohman on art and activism in the face of a changing climate.
arts

Denice Frohman, Puerto Rico No Se Vende / Puerto Rico Is Not For Sale, 2023, neon, 42 x 91 inches.

Courtesy of the artist and Pioneer Works.

“What if we get it right?” That’s the question that prompted Climate Futurism—an exhibition at Pioneer Works last fall, co-presented with Headlands Center for the Arts—that featured new work by Erica Deeman, Denice Frohman, and Olalekan Jeyifous. The startling optimism of this prompt from the project's curator, the ecologist and climate policy expert Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, aimed to curb doomsday attitudes towards the ever-worsening climate crisis. In the three years leading up to the exhibition’s debut—two of which the artists and curator spent as part of Headlands' Threshold Fellowship—Deeman and Frohman found kinship in their shared heritage as descendants of Caribbean farmers, and as representatives of a global diaspora whose histories have been indelibly shaped by Western, hegemonic powers.

Although the artists worked and resided on opposite coasts of the country, their synergy was palpable. For Climate Futurism, Deeman created a contemplative, nearly spiritual environment that paid homage to the efforts of Black farmers and fishermen in Jamaica, from which her family emigrated during the 1960s. Hundreds of sculptures, each hand-molded from gypsum and cast with seeds that alluded to the global Black diaspora, cascaded from a grid of biodegradable fishing wires; their contours were illuminated by a shadowy video filmed in an underground mine similar to one the artist’s grandfather once toiled in in the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, Frohman took a political stance against the continuing commercialization of Puerto Rican soil and labor, emblazoning the slogan ‘Puerto Rico Is Not For Sale’ in neon words, translated bilingually in Spanish and English, across the gallery wall. The phrase’s sentiment reverberated across the adjacent videos and poems, each of which channeled the artist’s vision of a decolonialized future.

Last November, the duo reconvened to reflect on their commonalities and shared inspirations, the particularities that defined their individual perspectives, and the intersection between art and activism, especially as it pertains to resistance in the face of climate change.

— Vivian Chui, Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects, Pioneer Works


Denice Frohman

The driving force behind my work in Climate Futurism was learning that the hacienda my mother was born and grew up on, in Puerto Rico, had become an Airbnb rental. I wanted to channel the anger and frustration I felt, connecting it to the larger, colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico that continues to shape the everyday realities of Puerto Ricans on the island.

Both my grandparents were coffee farmers. They were jíbaros. My family didn't own the land or the wooden home they lived in. They were part of a group of families who were laborers, and the owners of the house were from Spain. What I wanted to explore was the idea that—if I am a descendant of what I characterize as intergenerational trauma from growing up on, and then being pushed off that land and off Puerto Rico through colonial policies—then I’m also a descendant of the care and the intimacy that my maternal family had with that land.

I believe that a climate future in Puerto Rico must be a decolonial future. I wanted to speak to the political policies that create a forced, dependent relationship [between Puerto Rico and the United States], and the feelings of loss—of a daughter wanting to reclaim and reenact that closeness with the land. I wanted to speak to both of those things because, obviously, one impacts the other.

One of the things that I learned through this process was my abuela's vast knowledge of plant medicine. I discovered this through an interview I conducted with my mother as part of this project that became the backbone for my video installation Hacienda La Balear (2023). It was an invitation for me to get to know my mother and her experience in a deeper way, and to reflect on diaspora and self-determination in order to envision a Puerto Rico for and by Puerto Ricans.

Erica, what were some of the seeds that you were chasing after or interested in? And how did those seeds bloom?

Erica Deeman

One of the thoughts I had, in thinking about climate futurism, is how invisibilized histories have been. Much of the conversation about climate futures does not address colonial histories.

How do I find my body in actual, physical space? I thought about those histories that have not always been presented to the Black diaspora, to the Caribbean, to the farmers, [or] to my grandparents who were also farmers in Jamaica. How do we uncover this history, use the knowledge that sits under this veil, under the pretense of what this hegemonic structure is? How do we go back to that time before, and use that space?

So much of the conversation about climate futures does not address colonial histories.
DF

I'm remembering now. You and I began thinking about the exhibition by having conversations about our families, and the farmland that they grew up on.

ED

We realized the commonality of our stories, the fact that we had this relationship to the ground—that we, in an ancestral form, knew how to tend to the ground—even though it feels like we walk on top of it. In the case of my grandfather [who worked in a coal mine], he was actually inside of the ground.

Even down to our mothers and the relationship that they have with their homes, these love-hate memories that are held in the body and also never communicated. I remember we talked about the tension that your mother has when she goes back to Puerto Rico. My mum has never been back to Jamaica. Give Us Back Our Bones (2023) is structured on a return, whether it be to a practice, or a physical return of our history in order to move to the future.

DF

The tension that we were exploring together felt like the tension between the sites of trauma that these islands represented and the sites of longing and desire.

ED

You spoke many great words about these colonial relationships. I think to what is known as the Commonwealth, and how that call from Great Britain to its old colonies after World War II, to continue its capitalist growth, was the reason why my grandparents, mother, and uncle moved to the United Kingdom as part of the Windrush Generation. So much of that story was never told to me. There is this gap in which the Black Caribbean diaspora exists. We have the ground, but we don't really have the ground. We have the language, but we don't really have the language.

I read a lot of Sylvia Winter, who talks about how the invention of man is only 500/600 years old. But there was significant knowledge before. How do we reconnect ourselves with that? You and I talked through much of the indigenous relationship to the Caribbean, how that has also been erased. We share a heritage, even though we have different connections to it.

I think about “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde, the essay she wrote about how emotion can fuel and propel us. I'm intrigued to hear your thoughts on that, as you touched upon that anger of learning that your family's farm space has now turned into an Airbnb.

DF

I love that Audre Lorde essay because I feel like, especially in the past several years, many of us have had to remind ourselves that it's important to harness our energy rather than stew in it. The stewing is when I feel hopeless.

In thinking about climate futures and what happened to my mother’s hacienda, I felt a clear call to uplift the desires of so many in Puerto Rico—and in the diaspora—for self-determination. And I wanted to speak to the emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact of that.

I was so lucky to have Cecilia Aldarondo's Landfall film excerpted in my installation, because it depicts a young Puerto Rican farmer in Bartolo, which is very close to where my mother grew up in Adjuntas. The farmer talks about the challenges of growing her own food in a political climate that doesn't make it easy for Puerto Ricans on the island to do so. Oftentimes, the policies benefit non-Puerto Rican residents by giving them a red carpet through tax breaks that local Puerto Ricans don't get.

She talked about the psychological damage of colonialism—that when you are told you can't do something, that when you are told that your indigenous ways of growing food are useless, you feel disempowered. When you feel disempowered, you'll believe anything. But here was someone who was part of a growing community of young farmers reclaiming the land and rejecting that “colonial logic” (if we can call it that). That, to me, was the context for the poem, Hacienda La Balear (2023).

The belief we are fed is that Puerto Rico cannot function without the United States, that it would not be a thriving place. But we know from writers, scholars, and historians that the United States’ policies are written to benefit itself, not the people of Puerto Rico. Hacienda La Balear was a way to have a conversation with my mom that, yes, honored her relationship and intimacy with that particular land, but also imagines a world where the land is given back to those who tended to it, who know it best, who honor it.

ED

I'm reminded of how many visions of the land are about possession and extraction, that extractive practices have shaped our present-day moment, the conditions of the planet, and the environments we live in. Going back to familial history, it became increasingly important for me to think about my Caribbeanness through my ancestors.

In March 2022, I returned to the UK, and visited a coal mine in Wakefield, Yorkshire,similar to where my grandfather once worked. Going down into that space felt incredibly liminal. It felt like the space held so much grief; it wasn't a grave, but it was a space that had experienced so much death. I thought about that energy underground fueling Modernity, and my emergence from that space, and what connections I could find between that emergence and the possibilities for the future.

Our work deals with grief, loss, and uncertainty. So much of that is in relation to the violence that has been enacted in order to possess the land. Yet still there is a seed wherein something could grow. Even though we are aware that the climate future may not be perfect, there is still something that we can nurture in that space. We have known how to nurture it in the past, so we can draw upon the knowledge of our families and ancestors.

DF

Speaking of seeds, I was with you when you were first building Give Us Back Our Bones. I'd love for you to talk about the literal seeds that are in the structure that you created.

Hundreds of plaster pieces hang in the air in a dar room.

Erica Deeman, Give Us Back Our Bones, 2022-2023. Plaster, seeds, biodegradable fishing line, rope, wood, video, and sound. Dimensions variable.

Courtesy the artist and Pioneer Works
ED

The structure is an aesthetic ode to the coastal communities in Jamaica that suspend fragments of coral in the sea, to reinvigorate and replant coral reefs ravished through disease or overfishing. There is a possibility for them to grow and be placed back onto the reef. In Give Us Back Our Bones, biodegradable fishing line holds fragments of plaster, which are embedded with seeds from the Caribbean, West Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States, all sourced from Black farmers. The Plaster of Paris is formed from the memory of breaking my arm—a personal recognition of the material’s physical restriction, but also healing aspect. I wanted to use it, because it pulled me into the piece through personal memory.

The work’s title came from a conversation we had, about a museum in Germany that refused to give back the bones of children from Africa that they had taken. We were incensed, and you said, “They just need to give us back our bones.” I really wanted to put that in writing, and to acknowledge your skill for naming things that sometimes feel that they cannot be named.

The seeds are a “diasporic planting.” They allowed me to connect the lands of my heritage to a physical space, which happened to be my garden during the summer of 2021. It was the hottest summer on record in the state of Washington. In this diasporic planting pattern that I created, many crops that should not have been able to survive had the opportunity to become seedlings and bear fruit. That summer, an okra grew in my garden in Seattle, which is unheard of because the temperature of the soil needs to be over 70 degrees consistently. For me, it was metaphor, a space for catastrophe and possibility. The possibility was that while these new climates would be challenging, they could give way for new shoots to grow, whether it be actual shoots or for people to create a more humane, community-driven society.

In addition, many of the seeds grown in the United States and the Caribbean were carried through the Middle Passage. Whether it be within the braids of enslaved Africans or on the slaving ships of the Europeans, this kind of transportation was made with the body.

DF

What happened with the seeds, after the installation?

ED

I always knew that they could potentially grow while embedded in the plaster, which is dehydrated gypsum [gypsum is a fertilizer used in agriculture], but it was all very much hypothetical until rainwater fell onto some unused fragments during a deluge that New York experienced right before the installation of the show. Homes were completely flooded in Red Hook. I witnessed people having to pump out their basement apartments, and I saw the subway completely underwater in certain parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn. These plaster fragments sprouted into seedlings after the exhibition opened to the public.

DF

One of the many themes that connect our installations is remembrance. I feel like there is a very literal interpretation to imagining a climate future that is important, but there are other modes and lenses to interpret the question that we were given [of “What If We Get It Right?”]. What I reveled in is the spiritual, emotional, psychological, and historical invitation to call up the act of remembrance.

I don't think a future that is sustainable, and that we can thrive in, requires the erasure of history. I think it is actually quite the opposite. Obviously, there are some lessons that we've learned that we should not repeat, but there are some elements of our history—for example, indigenous food ways and the things that we've talked about in this conversation—that should not be discarded.

There is an invitation to do some real healing, as we call up the future that we want. I would argue that it is integral to not dismiss or omit the emotional, psychological, and historical elements of our changing climate. That's where I've found a lot of kinship with you, as an artist: a deep understanding of the imperative to create a space of reflection and healing—not as a way to stay there, but as a place to begin.

ED

It accentuates the notion of the portal that we have both created. In moving from Give Us Back Our Bones to the suitcases, which my mother brought with her to the United Kingdom on her maiden voyage from Jamaica, there is this act of remembrance of that journey.

Two old timey looking suitcases are stacked on top of each other.

Erica Deeman, Dearest Belongings, 2023. Suitcases. 30 x 40 x 20 inches.

Courtesy the artist and Pioneer Works.
DF

It’s incredible that your mother has those suitcases, and that you were able to include them in this exhibition in their original condition. I feel like there's such a deep connection to this idea of return. We've talked about what returning to Jamaica means for you and your family.

Also, in "Post-Maria Puerto Rico,” there was a mass and, I’d say, forced exodus of Puerto Ricans because of the failure of two governments to provide humanitarian aid and a just recovery so people could survive. In thinking about Puerto Ricans’ call for self-determination, there are multiple invitations to think about building a Puerto Rico for and by Puerto Ricans, in a future that centers our people and not outside interests.

The poem, Our Terms Have Changed (2023), is an erasure poem of the Jones Act, which is a law—still in effect—that was created in 1920 to benefit the United States' maritime industry. There are many sections of it, but essentially it says that any goods that arrive or leave ports in Puerto Rico must be on an American ship, which is the most expensive option. It is at the expense of Puerto Ricans, who have to pay more for their goods.

The left side of the poem is an erasure of the Jones Act, while the right side is an addendum which pulls words and phrases from the remaining 13 pages of the document. This document spells out a forced, dependent relationship. The poem inverts that language, to create a kind of textual resistance that calls for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans.

Even though we are aware that the climate future may not be perfect, there is still something that we can nurture in that space. We have known how to nurture it in the past, so we can draw upon the knowledge of our families and ancestors.
ED

When you recall the footage and the sensitivity of these areas, it reminds me of the mining that is currently happening in Jamaica, and how companies are able to go into the island and lease the land from the government for huge figures, which benefits the government. What I'm actually thinking about is bauxite mining, which is used in the creation of aluminum. It reminds me of open sores—the open mine sites, where people in the surrounding community experience respiratory issues and infections [because of the industry’s effects].

There are laws that permit the land to be owned by external sources. In Puerto Rico's case, that is the United States; in Jamaica's case, it is both the United Kingdom and the United States, [which] continue to mine the resources of the ground that our ancestors are from.

One of the drivers in the creation of my work is using materials that can be repurposed—whether it is using the beams that were taken from Pioneer Works, or the sisal rope that holds the fragments suspended from biodegradable fishing line. There is an acknowledgment of the materials used to create an installation, which comments on climate futures and how we need to consider and amend the way that we exist and move through the world ourselves as artists, as people, as human beings.

DF

I love this word you're using of repurposing, because that's what poets do. I never thought about it like that—poems as the repurposing of language. I love that in thinking about how we actually don't need to reinvent the wheel, which is not to say that there isn't a space for new things to be created or new ways of being. But this idea of remixing and reusing—as a sustainable model that's reflected in the materials that you use as part of your artistic practice, and my own repurposing of language—point to a more sustainable, vibrant future that is not beholden to corporate interests or colonial interests.

ED

I want to add one thing in connection with all of the themes and crossovers: we are collectively thinking about what we are bringing into the future and what we are leaving behind.

DF

I love that. I don't think that art is necessarily here to create one vision that everyone can follow; it is an invitation for each person to imagine what they want to bring and leave.♩

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