Philip Larratt-Smith in conversation with Peter Nadin
February–October, 2006, New York City
Philip Larratt-Smith: The paintings in the series “First Marks” have an intense physicality. Please explain the materials you use to make them – cochineal, indigo, beeswax, goat’s hair, and others. Do you produce these materials yourself on your farm in upstate New York?
Peter Nadin: Most of the materials come from the farm, although by no means all. The cochineal and indigo come from Oaxaca, Mexico. I use them because they are the appropriate materials for my subject.
Larratt-Smith: What is the history of these materials? Are there symbolic connotations to these materials, as in the work of Joseph Beuys?
Nadin: The materials do not have symbolic connotations so much as resonances – for example, indigo comes from the leaves of the indigo plant. It is the color of blue jeans, and at the same time Mao’s worker’s clothes. It is also the color of the Anja Chakra, the third eye in the pineal gland. Indigo formed the basis of the Medici family’s fortunes. There was an Indigo war.
Cochineal comes from an insect that lives on a cactus. After gold, it was the most sought-after product the Spanish found in Mesoamerica. Cochineal is the color of cardinal’s robes in the Catholic church. Also, it is the color of the Kundalini Chakra, associated with the rectum.
The colors function as themselves and as metonyms and metaphors. The essence of the plant is found in the indigo and the essence of the insect is found in the cochineal red. But they also have historic overtones and associations, some of which are important, others less so.
Larratt-Smith: Will these natural materials change the look of the work over time?
Nadin: They are all surprisingly stable. The only substance that really changes is honey, and that is either crystalline or fluid depending on the temperature and the time of year when the honey is collected. But there is always some change, as a good number of the artworks are destroyed and the honey is taken back by the bees. The crucial change takes place through a process of absorption. The artworks do not visually change but they alter depending on their placement. They absorb elements from their surroundings. What is absorbed is then released . I place my sculptures in boxes so that I can control the rate of release or emanation.
Larratt-Smith: Is this organic quality part of your conceptual construct? How does this tie into the meaning of the final product?
Nadin: What I try and do is release what is latent in the materials. The goat in the cashmere, the insect in the cochineal, and of course in the wax many things but particularly the traces of Queen substance that maintains social order within the hive. But I also let the objects absorb other substances. I leave the bronze in the ground for twelve months, then in a stream for another year. I return the wax sculpture to the apiary for a few months. This way the sculptures absorb something of their location. Then, with the lid of the box opened, they emanate what has been absorbed – almost like a smell, but actually between the visual, the haptic, and the olfactory.
I am the composer and the conductor but the materials are the musicians.
Larratt-Smith: Can you describe how you make these works, step-by-step?
Nadin: I start around September 15th, when the black walnuts start to fall from the tree. I then begin the dye pots, making one of black walnut, one of indigo, and one of cochineal. I take the honey off the hives – normally it weighs in around 300 lbs. I then separate the honey from the wax. I begin dyeing the polish lines, the cashmere and the silk cocoons. That goes on for a couple of weeks. Then I begin the painting.
I end the paintings when it becomes too cold for them to dry (I work outside). I have to be finished by November 15th, when the heavy frosts come on.
I approach the paintings with intentions but those always fail and it is only when I have reached a critical mass of failed paintings – normally twenty to thirty which I throw away - that I find the original intention. But only after it has been lost and forgotten. Then I begin the paintings I will keep.
Larratt-Smith: What exactly is your subject?
Nadin: My subject is consciousness. In my work up to 1992, I tried to represent consciousness in the form of memories, dreams, thoughts, and fears. But since 1992 I have moved on from representing consciousness to trying to embody it. To paint the experience, not the objects, of the underlying process of consciousness itself.
Larratt-Smith: The Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the Abstract Expressionists all sought to bypass the controls of the conscious mind in order to access a deeper, or higher, or truer state of being. The Dadaists used chance procedures, the surrealists emphasized the unconscious in practices such as corpse exquisite, and the Abstract Expressionists were recording acts that reflected the tapping into the unconscious. Henri Michaux took hallucinatory drugs to evade conscious controls. Do you see any similarity in method or emphasis in your process?
Nadin: The mind obviously has many layers – and I certainly have tried to lose the conscious controls of representation, the conventions of representation, but only to make the paintings more accurate and realistic.
It took me a number of years to unlearn the process of making art. Strangely, it was only when I forgot the intention to make art that art appeared. But I think access to the levels of thought under the conscious mind for me came through maintaining a thought, holding a thought, letting the thought move unimpeded in and out of the conscious and unconscious mind.
There are dye vats in Oaxaca that have been fermenting for over a hundred years. I have been holding some thoughts for about fifteen years. Yet I have to keep some ingredients out of my mental vat. For me, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs impeded the fermentation process. So for the past fifteen years I have had no interference.
Larratt-Smith: But what exactly are you expressing – is it an unconscious state, a pre-verbal state, or what?
Nadin: A thought or impulse moves through different areas of the mind and brain, but it also moves through the mind and the body, back and forth, pancreas to skin to fingernails to eyes. I have found complete clarity allows for unimpeded movement of a thought throughout my body and mind and onto the canvas. So the painting is rather like a body map of a thought or an emotion or a landscape.
Larratt-Smith: You say you want to express not merely your consciousness or unconsciousness, but the consciousness inherent in your materials as well. In doing so, you place yourself and your work outside the human-centric view of the universe. You are, perhaps, trying to give a voice to aspects of consciousness that have hitherto remained unexpressed in human art. Is this a fair description?
Nadin: You know, I try and paint what I see, that is, my experience of the world. Once you realize that our shared ocular reality is only one of an infinite number of visual constructions, it opens up new areas for artistic exploration. In that sense, I consider myself a realist painter.
Larratt-Smith: Yet the decision that one stretch of canvas honours your intention while another does not is a conscious one, made a posteriori. Doesn’t that conflict with the goal of escaping ego-based consciousness and the critical faculty?
Nadin: I understand what you mean. It is not that one passage is better than another, but rather that one passage achieves greater clarity than another. So I concentrate on that – but often against my own wishes. I destroy the self-conscious paintings. There is an objectivity when I begin to paint, and only when I have exhausted myself does an equivalent subjectivity enter the picture. At that point, it becomes interesting…. It is only when there is a seamless flow from mind body to hand that I feel they become more accurate representations
Larratt-Smith: Notwithstanding the process by which they have been produced, the paintings in their final form appear highly formal. Do you see this as contradictory?
Nadin: No, I don’t. If I have a child, the child has the genes of the human species. So even if I want a goat as offspring, it is not possible. Similarly, given the possibilities of mark-making by the human hand on a surface, the marks will appear within a certain range of possibilities. That defines what it will look like - but what it looks like is less important than what it means. If two people look alike we don’t assume they will act alike.
Larratt-Smith: “What it looks like is less important than what it means.” Does that mean you privilege the conceptual over the visual?
Nadin: No, I think both are equally valid and inextricably entwined
Larratt-Smith: How do you determine the boundaries of the finished work, and how do you decide what to crop out? Could you explain the black frames and the framing process? Does the size of the frame for a given work have any bearing on the final product?
Nadin: I designed the frame before I began to paint in this way. So the frame came first. The frame is a way of keeping some things in and other things out. Or you could say I am the framer and the painting is the constitution, the way of being. Or you could look at the frame as the tree – a piece of maple – and the marks as the leaves. It is an exoskeleton, the bones under the flesh of the paint.
Larratt-Smith: Certain works appear to be triptychs: is there any broader significance to this?
Nadin: The paintings in three parts have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Larratt-Smith: Are these tripartite paintings a narrative, then? If so, a narrative of what?
Nadin: Yes, there is a narrative, but I would like to think it is a new narrative, a narrative of the self – I hope not so bound up in the old stories. A traditionally leads to B, but isn’t it possible for A and B to occur simultaneously? They are telling the story of a switch that is on and off at the same time.
Larratt-Smith: You have also produced a series of book-forms. What is it about the book form that interests you? Is there an implied narrative?
Nadin: Yes, there is. The books are books and have a story. A linear sequence, but also a linear narrative of physical materials, not the abstract sequencing of events. As I said earlier, both a metaphor and a metonym
Larratt-Smith: What does this mean?
Nadin: It means that a mark or a color progresses over a number of pages and that it is a movement that has a metaphoric meaning and also a purely physical meaning. As my hand moves to the ground, I find what I touch is edible and I begin to eat – but the story is physical – the story is a physical fact.
Larratt-Smith: You are a published poet, and you have collaborated with artists such as Jenny Holzer, whose work relies on subtle shadings of meaning. Do you see a relationship between your work as an artist and your poetic output?
Nadin: Yes, I see my artwork as the body and my poetry as the words, sounds, and associations that surround the body and are made by it..
Larratt-Smith: Are there contemporary artists you particularly admire or value? Do you see any affinities to Francis Bacon?
Nadin: Bacon is a great artist and one whom I admire, but his challenge was the representation of the figure and my work has no figures in it, so I don’t really feel any great sense of shared purpose. I would say the artist who has had the most prolonged impact would be Kurt Schwitters.
Larratt-Smith: You had an early encounter with Schwitters’s work, since his Merzbau was installed in the Art Department of Newcastle University, where you were an art student.
Nadin: I was around Schwitters’s Merzbau every day for the four years I studied at Newcastle University. It took me a long time to understand it, and over the years I have come to greatly appreciate it. I think Schwitters understood something very deep about our experience of life, and I think we do him a disservice to continually pigeonhole him as a Dada artist. We overstate his ideology and understate the great humanity and beauty of his work
Larratt-Smith: What then would you say is the prolonged impact he has had on your work? What makes you view him as a predecessor?
Nadin: You know, it would be hard to say. I feel he taught me something when I was young, but it was beneath the level of conscious thought
Larratt-Smith: You have also said you feel a connection to the Hudson River School, and specifically Thomas Cole. What is the connection to your work?
Nadin: I feel Cole experienced and understood the powerful poetry of the landscape in Greene County [in upstate New York. – ed.]. Many people experience it, but he gave it form. He saw the landscape as central to American identity. Also, in his works there is great intuitive understanding of our tragic dealings with the American Indian. Their spirit haunts the great painting Kaaterskill Falls.
What is more, he seems to have understood the ideational problems of American identity. We do not have a long relationship with the land we occupy; we destroyed the people who had. Of course, Cole believed it was our destiny to take the land, as manifest destiny and Biblical prophecy.
Larratt-Smith: Yet the artists of the Hudson River School sought to express the beauty of the landscape through representation, whereas your work eschews representation, and at the same time is literally made out of the products of that landscape. It seems your aims and methods are radically different.
Nadin: Well, but Church was a very different artist from Cole, and frankly I feel no affinity with Church. But Cole painted an ocular reality of the landscape in Greene county to give form to his experience of the landscape, and he did so using the conventional means of representation at the time. I am using an ocular reality that is held in balance with the haptic, the sense of touch – a real description of a spatial relationship with the landscape.
Larratt-Smith: You describe an alternative tradition of American aesthetics, comprising Cole, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Jack Kerouac. How would you define this tradition?
Nadin: In this tradition, art stems from the experience of the individual in relation to the American landscape, the exploration of the spiritual or mystical relation to the landscape – not the mere potential of land for development.
Pop Art is now the academy. You could as easily call it Consumer Art. Call it whatever you want, it has no humanity.
Pop Art began as a great egalitarian movement but soon became co-opted by the mainstream to the point where now it is merely part of the poisoned chalice of corporate culture. The artist who drinks from this chalice murders his own creativity and acknowledges the supremacy of the common images of this culture. It’s self-murder. I know all the arguments that Pop Art is not an embrace but rather a critique, but I don’t buy it. If you act dead as an artist, then maybe you really are dead.
Emerson, Thoreau, Cole, and Kerouac were egalitarians who fought back against rapacious forces. They certainly did not embrace them. In our time, we all have become so rapacious. I think we have to ask ourselves why we value our own cultural shit more highly than the lives of the citizens of other cultures. We value ourselves way too highly.
I came to America mainly from the lure of Pop culture. I loved it, in fact I went to Newcastle university to study with Richard Hamilton. So I am an apostate to Pop culture. I loved the sense it gave of America and what it stood for. But that came from artists, before it had been co-opted. I feel that its great promise has been thwarted and that it is now a commercial tool.
Larratt-Smith: You teach at Cooper Union, a college in New York City where tuition is free and where the model of education differs from the norm in the US. What subjects do you teach?
Nadin: Cooper Union is one of the great visionary educational institutions in America. I teach a course on the relationship of cognitive science to art. I enjoy teaching very much.
Larratt-Smith: And you are carrying out a project in tandem with Cooper Union at your farm upstate, a kind of alternative community. What is the idea behind this?
Nadin: The project’s called “Re-Imagining the American Landscape.” And the idea is to use the farm as a laboratory to envision new forms of management and development in a regenerated landscape. The farm now has the same boundaries it did in 1790 when it was cleared from the wilderness. What is interesting is that a large part of the land has returned to wilderness as the acreage under production has been dwindling since the 1880’s. Of 155 acres, 110 are woodland again.
Larratt-Smith: It’s nice to hear something positive about the environment.
Nadin: And most of the animals have returned to the wild: the turkey, the coyote, the porcupine, the beaver, just about everything that was there in 1790, except the passenger pigeon, of course. Even the black bear…. It’s just teeming with wildlife. Yet it’s a precarious balance, because now there is encroachment from suburban developments and similar threats. So the question for us is how do we re-imagine the American landscape? In other words, we followed this industrial developmental model since 1790, but then it stopped, which led to where we are now. So what are we going to do? After two hundred and something years, which is something like a full cycle, the woods have returned. So how are we going to establish a new relationship to the land, and how will this shape our identity? Last time we clear cut the forest from New York to Maine.
I want to do this as a real thing, to try and integrate the expertise of the engineers and architects at Cooper Union We’re going to build something up there that would be completely off the grid. It is a communal effort. Maybe it’ll be a disaster. Maybe there’s no way of doing it. Maybe it’s a fantasy. But for the moment, the various faculties have all agreed to do it.
Larratt-Smith: What a fantastic idea. Your own kibbutz.
Nadin: It would be a real experiment. It would put into practice some of the ideas we’ve all been thinking and talking about.
Larratt-Smith: Thought into action.
Nadin: Also a test of sorts. Can we really leave our old ideas behind? I don’t know. Maybe our decline is inevitable.
Larratt-Smith: Oh, it’s coming down the turnpike.
Nadin: [laughing] Well, you can come up there!
Larratt-Smith: I could be a temporary member of the tribe.
Nadin: You could join the tribe!
Larratt-Smith: On a day-pass.
Nadin: But wouldn’t that be an interesting idea? Because here’s the thing: the land is ideally situated because it’s 110 acres between two roads.
Larratt-Smith: You mean two country roads?
Nadin: Yeah. It’s really in the middle of nowhere.
It’s an interesting idea: we’re all artists, so what do we know about putting in solar power? But the engineers! That’s where they come in. Everyone contributes according to his or her expertise.
The ideal is to be able to actually stay up there within four or five years, when it had become a self-sustaining system, a free-floating community, not just people from Cooper Union, but anybody who wants to participate. Also, I don’t think there should be a hierarchy. The community should consist of people who want to spend the time, make the effort, go up there and think, and do their work.
Larratt-Smith: You could have a sister branch in Cuba, no?
Nadin: Fantastic. Imagine. The ideal community.
Larratt-Smith: The utopian dream. Have you read many books on planned communities, for example Utopia by Thomas More?
Nadin: At the moment, I’m reading the catalogue to the Utopia show that was on at the Public Library of New York City. A great collection of documents from the long history of utopian ideals. Of course, it’s so ingrained in America, this utopian ideal. It’s startling that America has got these two elements.
Larratt-Smith: Yes, these coexisting polarities. On the other hand, it places a premium on pragmatism and practicality, and on a materialist culture, and yet on the other hand, it is utopian, idealistic, prone to fantasy.
Nadin: It is. So it’s this odd thing where the first cycle, first of all, we went crazy in the 1790s, and we now have this window where it’s back. Wildlife, wild bear, raccoons, deer, pheasants, beavers in the ponds.
The only thing that you would really need to build is some structure, almost a sacred structure that has to do with the ego, a transformative piece of architecture, a place where you walked in and were aware, self-aware, that this had to be a place of transformation, from the standard ego-based identity. A sacred space that has to do with a different sense of identity and a different sense of ego. Almost like when you go in the shower or the swimming pool, you go into the bath to disinfect your feet. You kinda go here to disinfect your brain before you get to work. I like the prospect of making it happen, it would integrate well with my other interests
Larratt-Smith: It would really synchronize the whole project.
Nadin: Yeah. Raising animals, growing crops, bees, the honey – it would be fantastic.
Larratt-Smith: You are a farmer, a poet, and a painter, and each of these activities takes place in a symbiotic relationship with the others. Kurt Schwitters conceived of his Merzbau as a total work of art or Gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of multiple art forms. Do you view your various activities as such?
Nadin: Maybe, but I hadn’t thought of it that way.
Larratt-Smith: Would you agree that your work has an implicit political dimension?
Nadin: Yes, if only in the sense that Aristotle spoke of: a political system will put the well-being of the community above that of the individual, whereas the artist tends to put the sensibility of the individual above that of the community. So art is a balance to any political system. In that sense, good art will always be political art.
Larratt-Smith: We discussed the idea of making this catalogue into a sort of recipe book, which other artists, professional or otherwise, could use to realize your works elsewhere. Why does this interest you?
Nadin: I like the possibility that the ideas I have may be taken up and used, expanded or reworked by others. I like the idea that the recipe for the fermentation vat, both real and metaphoric, is made available to everyone.
Larratt-Smith: When I first met you two years ago, you had just returned from Cuba, where you had visited several organopónicos, the urban organic cooperatives that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In particular, you were excited about the way bees were being used in Cuban agriculture, since you have long been engaged in bee-husbandry.
Now this interest in bees, where did that come from?
Nadin: Well, I started about ten years ago up in Greene county with a couple of hives from a local fellow, a bee-man, who had a place a couple of miles away and who showed me how to keep them. I gradually became very interested in the question of bee’s consciousness. I wanted to know, is the bee conscious? Well, when I’m working with the bee, there’s no question in my mind that the bee is conscious. No question.
Larratt-Smith: You mean reflexive self-consciousness, such as we have?
Nadin: No, not like us! The bee is conscious, but in a species-specific way.
Larratt-Smith: So it’s not conscious of being conscious. Would you say that the bee participates in a collective consciousness at the level of the hive – that the hive has its own consciousness as if it were a single entity?
Nadin: Well, that I don’t know. The individual bee certainly only works for the well-being of the hive, yet it has a cortex with about a million neurons. So it has some form of consciousness. The rigid order of the hive is maintained by the bees being exposed to a pheromone secreted by the queen that regulates an extremely complex social order. The hive is hierarchical, even fascist. And if the queen loses her scent, the social order is disturbed.
Larratt-Smith: A top-down organization.
Nadin: Ah! Top-down, and at the top the queen! And if she doesn’t perform…. Kicked out!
Larratt-Smith: Regicide. Reginicide.
Nadin: But you know that the workers also create the queen, so the queen is just a worker who’s been given the role by the hive of possessing what’s called the royal jelly. The hive senses when the queen is old or incapable.
Larratt-Smith: Do the other bees wait until she dies, or is she normally offed?
Nadin: Oh, she’s normally offed. But what really fascinates me is what we’ve done to the bees. We’ve really fucked them up by forcing them into slavery. This reality is so striking. Believe it or not, the bee-hive is basically a slave-house. We’ve developed an architectural system to make the bees our slaves, in order to create insane amounts of honey. A system of hive architecture was created by a man named Langstrom in the nineteenth century that forces the bees into maximum honey production.
Larratt-Smith: We really industrialized every aspect of nature, didn’t we?
Nadin: Yeah, we’ve really fucked it up. One of the things I’m working on is to change the architecture of the beehive. My farm is organic and aims to produce honey in sustainable ways. Yet it’s extremely difficult. Let me explain what the bee situation basically is. First of all, the honeybee is not native to North America and so have difficulties wintering over.
Larratt-Smith: Where does it come from?
Nadin: Africa, I think. It was domesticated.
Larratt-Smith: Definitely in the Mediterranean. Virgil, in one of his four Georgics, discusses bee husbandry. It was one of the four supreme activities of agriculture, and a whole metaphor for the Roman gentleman farmer. It was considered a sort of civilizing passion, caring for bees.
Nadin: It’s interesting, the number of references to bees in literature. You know that Tolstoi was a bee man. And the image that he uses in War and Peace when the Russians leave Moscow, abandoning it to the French army, is that it is like a queenless hive. It’s still functions as if normal, but it’s lost the invisible thread that binds it, the abstraction that drives it is gone. The pheromone – the invisible queen substance.
Now, there are many specific roles the bees perform. There are guard bees, nurse bees, undertaker bees, foragers.
Larratt-Smith: What about the drones? Aren’t they male concubines, effectively? What are they?
Nadin: Well, the drones are the males, the largest. Much larger than the others.
Larratt-Smith: What, are they the guards? The Praetorian guard of the hive?
Nadin: No! They don’t do anything. They just hang around by themselves.
Larratt-Smith: Now that sounds like the class to belong to
Nadin: Here’s what they do. Drones hang around by themselves in a little area in the hive, and in a nearby tree with the drones from other hives. They don’t really do much of anything. During the rearing of the queen, when a virgin queen is hatched, she flies out of the hive, once only, and the drones mate with her in the air.
Larratt-Smith: Separately or all at once?
Nadin: Sequentially, as many as possible. So she may mate with five or ten, or she may mate with one.
Larratt-Smith: Lucky girl.
Nadin: [laughing] Then she returns to the hive
Larratt-Smith: And how often does that happen?
Nadin: Once. The queen can live for up to seven years but is normally dead after two or three.
Larratt-Smith: And from that single sexual encounter she produces the entire hive?
Nadin: Yes, she has enough eggs to lay between one thousand and two thousand a day, during the laying season from February to October. So – at the height of the summer, the population of the bee hive is between 25,000 and 50,000 bees. The females do all the work.
Larratt-Smith: And the drones?
Nadin: They don’t do anything. At the end of the year, the worker bees, who are all female, kill them and toss them out. The drones are purely there to inseminate the queen. Once they’ve done that, they are useless.
Larratt-Smith: That’s a ferocious social model, I have to say. [laughing] So how have these industrialized techniques of husbandry altered the bee hive?
Nadin: The bee hive, at this point, is very sick. The pressure for maximum bee size and honey production has weakened it, and now there is a worldwide epidemic of
Varroa mites, Tracheal mites, and foulbrood. All of these viruses eventually destroy the hive. Thus, in order to keep the entire hive going, the vast majority of the bee population in this country has been medicated with antibiotics.
But it is not done just in the United States. When I went to the bee conference in Cuba, there was a fellow there who was giving a presentation on the beekeeping practices in China. Most of our honey comes from China now.
Larratt-Smith: Are the hives medicated there as well?
Nadin: They do, and I know the EU is worried about the level of antibiotics showing up in Chinese honey. The root cause of all this madness is the fact that the honey industry is really a byproduct of the bee industry, which is an integral part of the industrialization of agriculture. The bees are used to pollinate enormous areas of crops. So imagine when 10,000 bee hives are moved, down to the south, down to Florida, for example, for the citrus crop, the result is an inordinate number of bees in a small area, and any kind of disease just spreads like wildfire. And then they’re all shipped out to other locations for the pollination of, say, the squash crop.
Larratt-Smith: So just as with avian flu, it can travel within a matter of days.
Nadin: Exactly. It’s become a global problem. Even worse, with the excess use of the antibiotics, the Varroa mite is becoming resistant to the antibiotics.
Larratt-Smith: That is so shocking.
Nadin: It is shocking, especially because it is related to our having artificially increased the size of the bee
Larratt-Smith: Like everything else.
Nadin: Exactly. So the bee is much bigger than it should be. And there’s an idea now that if you reduce the bee and you put less stress on it to make as much honey, then maybe the immune system will naturally –
Nadin: Yeah. So I am trying to breed a smaller bee in a different type of architecture, to see if that can make any difference. But there’s no question that what we’ve done to the bees is sick
Larratt-Smith: It’s what we’ve done to everything.
Nadin: It’s madness. But it was predicted in the 1920s by Rudolf Steiner, who was also a bee-man. He warned that the practice of artificially inseminating queens and then placing them in hives would create problems in the future, because natural supercedure of the hive ensures strong queens. To artificially inseminate queens would weaken the bee stock and the bees would become susceptible to disease.
Everything he wrote turned out to be true. Yet still almost all commercial bee-keepers kill the queen themselves after one or two seasons and introduce a new one. Nowadays, believe it or not, the new queens come through the post. You order them, and they come in a little bee box.
Larratt-Smith: That can’t be possible. Alive?
Nadin: Yes, alive.
Larratt-Smith: You mean the bee is sitting in a little box, and you ship them out on a truck, and it ends up in your post-box?
Nadin: There’s a whole industry of bee production, like there’s chicken production industry. It’s extraordinary how deeply these industrial models have gone into the agricultural world. It’s not just cattle or chicken. It’s everywhere, and it’s so short-sighted.
Larratt-Smith: Plus, once you start moving populations of anything around, you unavoidably disrupt local ecosystems.
Nadin: That’s right. There’s this emphasis on production, that you have produce more and more and more, more honey, more meat, more whatever. So even if you get a hundred pounds out of a hive, the mentality is, let’s try to get a hundred and twenty, let’s try to get a hundred and forty. It’s too much. It just puts too much stress on the species and the ecosystem. Whereas one of the things that we’re trying to do upstate on the farm is to create a new model for farming, which is about how each species contributes to the other. It’s a kind of contributive farming. For example, rather than having enormous production, you actually don’t have production above what’s optimum for the health of the species. So, in other words, this madness that you have about growing the hugest carrot or the biggest squash, why not just have an optimum size.
Larratt-Smith: Whereas with the old models, the emphasis is on efficiency and size.
Nadin: Efficiency in the short-term, but in the long-term the damage is so extreme that it’s not sustainable, which of course is what we’re finding. I think it’s all the same thing. It’s taking place in artistic practice. It’s like the models are the same. There’s no difference. It’s the same.
I mean, this kind of rapaciousness is insane. When you think of what we Europeans did when we first came here.
Larratt-Smith: When the Europeans first came to Cuba, the soil was so fertile that you could grow anything there. You just threw a seed in the ground and it grew; the next year you would have the most delicious mangos, to take an example, which were brought from India. Yet, thanks to the Spaniards and then the Americans, by the time the Revolution occurred Cuba had been reduced to a single-crop economy, a sugar economy. Now since the Revolution, the Cuban regime to its credit has tried to do everything possible to break the dependency on this single crop, but in the event it has proven very difficult to do so. And so, as you said, the long-term damage is near-total and the long-term efficiency is nil, because sugar is not a major commodity anymore, which the Spanish never foresaw.
Nadin: This is one of the things that interests me most about Cuba. One of the great experiments in Cuba is this idea of building an organic form of producing food that’s also inside the cities. A kind of urban organic agriculture.
When I first visited Cuba on my agricultural license, I learned that in the first three decades of the Revolution the Cubans had been massively dependent on a Soviet industrial model of agriculture, involving the use of tractors, chemical fertilizer, and the like. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cubans farmers and producers have relearned the old ways of agriculture: composting, using animal traction, reintroducing the use of oxen, planting in rotation, avoiding pesticides and herbicides, and so forth.
In the United States, when you fly over the Midwest, you can see that our fields are now circular, and this is because there are these enormous arms that move around like the arms of a clock spraying herbicides and pesticides to kill everything in the soil, followed immediately by seeds, and then fertilizer. The entire process is inorganic and controlled.
And this has to do, in this particular case, with potatoes, specifically with getting the kind of potato that McDonald’s wants. It’s got to look a certain way, have a certain texture…it can’t have blemishes on it, because people expect their French fries to look perfect, as they do in the ad. And if they don’t get them that way, well, then the consumer won’t eat them.
Larratt-Smith: Yet simply by eating all this food, we are all on a steady diet of antibiotics and pesticides.
Nadin: Yes, absolutely. Of course you are eating what the animal has eaten.
It’s also a matter of just basic respect for the animal. In other words, if you raise an animal in pasture, I believe you must develop a different relationship with it than if you just go and slaughter it after having caged it. The chicken has its own personality. The chicken’s conscious. It’s a very sensitive animal. Smart. So is the pig.
What we’re doing is so brutal. There’s something deeply wrong about it, about the way we’re acting in the world.
Larratt-Smith: It is said that torture disfigures the torturer. You can’t do these things with impunity, and certainly not without changing who you are.
Nadin: I think that’s true.
Larratt-Smith: But – and this may be naiveté on my part – I have to believe this is due to a lack of consciousness, not to cynicism or indifference. Before speaking with you, I didn’t know this was the case with the bee industry. By contrast, the abuses of other industries, such as the meat industry, are very well-documented; same goes for seal-hunting.
Nadin: It is startling that our model of production extends all the way to insects. In some ways, the bee is kind of a central metaphor. Our relationship with the bee is ancient. You mentioned antiquity. The Egyptians produced the first writing on wax tablets, if I’m not mistaken: the first marks. Likewise, I think the first inks were made from lamp black from the candle, where wax is what gives us light.
Larratt-Smith: Also in the wings of Icarus. Moderation and limits are required; if you go too far, you risk the revenge of the gods, you risk bringing down disaster.
Nadin: You’re right. The old medieval bee hives, the old skeps were made out of straw and then you just kind of put your hand in and grabbed a load of honey. So obviously you could not take that much.
Larratt-Smith: Descartes postulated that animals, being incapable of self-reflexive consciousness, were no different from machines, and hence there was no moral problem in treating them as such. For all that we inhabit a supposedly more humane age, evidently this assumption has not changed.
Nadin: We do treat them as if they’re machines, and it is wrong. But Descartes also got the mind-body dichotomy wrong. It could be time to change the model before it is too late, but I don’t know how we’re going to do it. If there wasn’t medication in the hive, I think we’d lose 80% of the bee population.
Larratt-Smith: It’s that bad.
Nadin: It’s a crisis. Bee suppliers nowadays provide antibiotic strips to put in the hive to keep it going. If the hive weakens too much, it can’t survive the winter.
Larratt-Smith: It needs artificial support.
Nadin: Completely. The hive’s on life support. But there are steps that can be taken to lessen the dependence on antibiotics. I am breeding feral bees in order to build up a population of wild bees that could develop in their own way- they could then be used as stock for domestic colonies.
Larratt-Smith: I thought this was going to be an interview about your work but – [laughing]
Nadin: The birds and the bees! But, you see, it’s central to this idea of consciousness, embodied consciousness. No, this is very much part of my work.
Larratt-Smith: So to return to what you were saying before, it’s as if your connection with the land is the same as your connection with the bees.
Nadin: It is. You’re really sharing the same experience. And it’s the same with the goats, pigs and chickens. They aren’t sort of proto-humans we are constantly shown in cartoons for children. They have their own species-specific consciousness.
Larratt-Smith: The philosopher John Gray discusses the great delusion that humans have this grand destiny to master nature and organize the world according to human principles. He contends that it’s eventually going to founder on two things: on the ecological disaster that is so clearly in the wings, and the fact that any ideological system like Western liberal capitalism or fascism is ultimately condemned to conflict with enduring and unalterable human needs.
Nadin: One of the ways of thinking about it is to really grapple and understand the fundamentals of consciousness itself. In other words, how is the basic sense of self, the basic awareness, constructed? And then, how do we build the sense of self and the sense of community, and the sense of social organizations from that? I believe all of these things are actually rather malleable. We think of them as being somehow set or solid. But they’re really not. They’re essentially of our own making, our own agreement. But we can alter them, if we reconsider our understanding of what we’re experiencing.
Larratt-Smith: You have visited Cuba several times on an agricultural license; in fact, you’re something of an old Cuba hand at this point. How did you first come to Cuba?
Nadin: I first came to Cuba as a US representative to the South American bee-keepers conference.
Larratt-Smith: Do you think Cuban agriculture represents a viable model for the rest of the world?
Nadin: I think in a number of areas the Cubans are way ahead of us. Integrating farming activity into the city is a great idea. Using agriculture as the flood plain of employment in the economy is an idea worth exploring. Cuban agriculture is inspiring. I have also found interaction with Cuban farmers of great use for my farming activity at Old Field Farm.
Larratt-Smith: What is the significance to you of exhibiting this work in Cuba?
Nadin: I was brought up in the north of England, and I loved Liverpool. When I arrived in New York in 1976 and saw the city, I loved it - the people, the buildings, the cultural ferment, everything. When I came to Cuba a few years ago and saw Havana, I felt the same thing, and I loved it right away. So, on a personal level I feel an affinity with the country.
On a cultural level, Cuba is unique because it has been spared the poisoned chalice of Pop Corporate culture. It is a place where culture still plays an important role in the life of the country and the identity of the people. Cubans take culture seriously and rightly take pride in their culture. It is my hope, whether we are Cubans or Americans and no matter what the political situation, that these first mark paintings have some universal application.
Really, this show at the Lam Center is only showing opportunity I have been excited about in many, many years. So for me it is a great honor to be showing my work in Cuba.