Art of Interference
Special Edition 01
Reverberations: Ancient Rock Art Today
Stephen Alvarez: “For most of human history, 300,000 years, our important stories aren’t recorded as words. They’re recorded as images and some of those stories still survive on the landscape. And I think by looking at them, we learn a lot about who we are and what we have in common we have a lot more in common than we have separate from each other.”
Lutz Koepnick: “What you just heard is the voice of Stephen Alvarez, a photographer well known for the many striking images he has contributed to National Geographic magazine. But Stephen is also one of the co-founders of the Ancient Art Archive, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of rock and cave art.
And he’s here with me today, along with some other guests, to discuss a current exhibition about ancient art, at Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy, entitled “Reverberations, Roots of the Cedar Tree”. I am Lutz Koepnick, hosting this special edition of Art of Interference from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
“In our regular seasons, we explore creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we feature the work of different artists, filmmakers, musicians, photographers, or creative makers, and ask how contemporary art navigates our planetary crisis. In our special editions, of which this program today is the first, we present thought-provoking conversations about the arts as a transformative medium of inquiry, the role of art within the landscapes of higher education, and the relation of artistic research and scientific discovery.
For our first special edition, our program on ancient rock art and its echoes today, we have four guests.”
Stephen: “Hi, I’m Stephen Alvarez. I am a lifelong National Geographic photographer and the founder of the Ancient Art Archive. I started the Archive out of a passion for humanity’s oldest stories: rock art, cave art across the planet.”
Steph Welsh: “Hi, I’m Steph Welsh and I’m the Executive Director of the Ancient Art Archive.”
Dustin Mater: “Hi, my name is Dustin Mater, I’m the Artistic Director for the Ancient Art Archive. I’ve been doing fine art and graphic design for about 16 years, and I am a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation.”
Leah Lowe: “Hi, I’m Leah Lowe, I am a Professor of Theatre here at Vanderbilt, and I am the Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy.
Lutz: ““Reverberations”, the show on display at the Curb Center, brings together images by Stephen of caves and rock art from across the planet with recent paintings and works on paper by Dustin. In this, the exhibit investigates fascinating resonances between some of the oldest art made on this planet, between petroglyphs and pictographs thousands of years in age, and contemporary artistic practice.
It asks tough questions about what we understand as art today, how to preserve and make accessible the past, and how art, past and present, can interact with the natural environment, with rocks and stones, caves and cliffs. Key questions at the heart of what the Ancient Art Archive has been doing for some time now. Critical questions also of what Art of Interference discusses in its regular seasons.”
Lutz: “Let’s first talk a bit about the show before we delve into the Ancient Art Archive. Why don’t you tell us a little bit, Stephen, Dustin, about what visitors will actually see here when they, when they enter the show. Curious what you think your audience is up to when walking through the exhibit.”
Dustin: “A lot of the pieces in this are speaking of the underworld. The underworld is not taken in this sense of like a negative. It is more of where all of the water emanates from and is actually a dynamic place. The most prominent design in the piece that I am just completely enamored with is the falcon warrior or falcon man.
He is the equivalent of Hercules. He is our monster slayer. And in one hand he is holding the severed head of his enemy, as like a flag of victory, and holds two maces connoting, chiefly power. It’s just so dynamic when you go there. You get this sense of being swallowed up like Jonah and the whale.
And when you go into this cave and you see what these people that have come before us had to endure. There’s such a humanity there. We’re a thousand years apart from the people who made this, and I still kind of identify. And it’s such a wonderful opportunity to have people walk in the shoes of those that have come before.
Lutz Koepnick: “Most of the work you show in this exhibition, Dustin, is very recent work.”
Lutz Koepnick: “Some of it just a few weeks old, like the Falcon Man you just mentioned. Fresh off the easel.”
Dustin: “Uh, it is — the other one, Tiwwi is about a year old. But most of the pieces are all pretty young. It’s surreal to see something that I was, you know, when it’s in your studio, it, it’s, it’s like watching the sausage get made. It’s not you, you hope it’s like how you envision it, but you know, you just kind of have to have faith in the process, which is, actually funny enough, the same problem the people who made that Falcon man had to do where they’re like, ‘Oh, I hope this thing executes the way I’m seeing it in my mind.’ And for me it was an opportunity to walk in their shoes. And each of these pieces was trying to be thoughtful whimsical in some spots to get people engaged in the way that I feel with our work.”
Lutz Koepnick: “There’s plenty of cave images and images of rock art in the show, you take us really on a fascinating ride to Spain to France to Utah and, yes, to Tennessee as well. Often to sites that are, for some good reasons, not actually accessible to the public.”
Stephen: “So what I was trying to do in, in this show is set up a visual conversation between images that I have made of some of the oldest artwork in the world, paintings in France that are 36,000 years old, handprints in Spain that are 37,000 years old, and then slightly more contemporary material from North America. Making artwork is really a basic human instinct. It is one of the things that separates us from all the other animals – not just the animals that we encounter today, but animals in the past that look a lot like us and act a lot like us. It’s what makes us and we wanted in this show to kind of set that up. And so, we have handprints from across the world, but also these images from Chauvet cave in France. Chauvet is a cave with 36,000 year old paintings in it that are extraordinary. Everything separates us from the people who made Chauvet. It is so long ago. Imagine a world where if you are a person in France, you have to worry about lions that roamed the countryside. You have to worry about being gored by rhinoceros in France, and they painted that world in Chauvet, and even though so much separates us, those images are still effective, they’re still emotive, and they’re still beautiful. And so that’s what we were trying to set up is the basic human instinct to make art. And then move on to North America and look at Devil’s Step Hollow Cave, which is not far from here. A thousand years ago, Native American people were going into that cave and making images in order to do the same thing that people in France were doing 37, 000 years ago to change the experience of the visitor, to make them receptive to a spirit world. And Dustin’s art incorporates those old motifs and gives them contemporary meaning. But Dustin, one of the things I’m curious about is You know, why did you become an artist? I mean, I I know why I did.”
Dustin: “My earliest memory actually was when I was about two years old I was making an illustration of a train and an engineer and it caught my mom’s attention and she was like, what are you drawing Dust? And I showed her and she called her dad and said, “Dad come in here! Dustin drew a train and an engineer!” And I think that praise was the moment that kind of really turned the lights on for me, and it has just been this lifelong pursuit. Initially, it was just to make my mom happy, but then it’s kind of allowed me to find my own voice through trauma. It allowed me to kind of find a catharsis and it’s, it was like my secret garden growing up whenever there was a lot of trauma in the house I could go into this secret garden and I could create, and I could be. That’s really kind of when it started. And I’ve had a bunch of jobs and tried different fields and I’ve been terrible at all of them.”
Dustin: “But being an artist is like, it’s like, why do birds sing? It’s, it’s the song of my soul.”
Lutz Koepnick: “When seeing some of the images here it’s, it’s really hard not to think of Vanner hat. His, his haunting film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, shot in and outside the Chauvet Cave around 2010, shortly after the cave’s actual discovery. Like, Stephen Hetzog somehow managed to get access to the cave, and some of the rock art he films then inside makes him think about the cave as, I think he calls it, ‘a proto cinema.’ The way in which these early artists really tried to record movement. The way they anticipated the physical motion of the viewer. It’s really motion pictures in the truest sense of the word. What I found always deeply fascinating about this is how Herzog sees analogies between the past and the present.
Between his technologically advanced way of making images, of capturing the world, and what people 35,000 or 36,000 years ago actually did to create art. One is in conversation with the other and it’s a kind of process in both directions. Which, which makes me wonder, Steve and Dustin, about the conversations behind your artistic collaboration.”
Dustin: “We worked on a project for the Chickasaw Nation some years back and we just had such a wonderful conversation about the imagery and he, Stephen was like, Hey, I got something to show you.
And he showed me Devilstep Hollow. And I was like, that’s Falcon Man! That’s the worm maze. And, and it was like the light bulbs, my head was kind of going off and then Stephen started hearing me and then the light bulbs started going off in his head. And we just started talking more and more and sharing more of his photography and my art.
And it just, we became fast friends and it has been just a marvelous dance and like his ideas and my ideas. It’s just like, there’s a synchronicity that it was like this is this is this is a play path forward.”
Stephen: For, for me with photography, when I’m, I’m photographing artwork, I’m aware of a lot of things. First off, I’m, someone else made the art, right? However, there’s a feeling of standing in front of a piece of artwork, and that you don’t necessarily get if you just look at the artwork reproduced on the page.
So I’m often trying to make an image that’s not maybe so much of the artwork as what it feels like to stand in front of it. So I, I light things very carefully. When you’re photographing in paleolithic caves in particular, you can’t use very much light because it’s not very good for the painting. So we’re, we’re very careful about things. So rather than reproduce what the artwork looks like necessarily, you’re trying to, to get to an emotion. and then when we do the 3d modeling begin to curate experiences. That’s where, where things get really fun, working closely with Dustin. So we did a 3D model of Devilstep Hollow Cave, and then flew a virtual camera through it. And Dustin curates that experience. Within a 3D VR experience you can put lights anywhere you want to in the cave, you can reproduce what the cave might have looked like at the time. And that was so much fun because we worked on that the script together, we we traded ideas back and forth, and got to something that neither of us would have gotten to on our own.”
Lutz Koepnick: The sites you visit and capture, Stephen, are all pretty spiritual places, sacred places, to many people, past and present. And your image is dusted in a full of complex symbolism, representing more than human worlds. They’re full of spiritual dimensions and the stories that come with these.
The caves and the paintings we have here in the show, they all share this idea, this, this dedication to storytelling, to narrative. They might show things many viewers might actually not be able to decipher, to decode at first. But in this they encourage, they evoke the power of storytelling to make sense of what we see.
So, so let me ask you both. How important are stories actually for your work as visual artists? And how much do you reflect about whose stories are being told to you actually? Whose stories are preserved and, and for whom?”
Stephen: That question, whose stories are being told, is One of the reasons I, I’ve turned, not away from photojournalism, but, but turned towards art asking that question. What story is it? I should be telling. . I’m, I’m very aware that culturally I, I have no connection to these stories whatsoever. That doesn’t mean I don’t find them moving. That doesn’t mean I don’t find the places spiritual and important — I, I do. But what is really important is to make sure that we’re talking to the right people about what story that is and what story is appropriate to tell. What’s the important thing to me is, is to get people to understand that places are important, that they’ve been oftentimes important for a very long time and continue to be, and that there are living communities around them that are still here, that, that still have things to say.”
Lutz: “Let me ask Dustin to contribute to this discussion as well at this point. Your images, Dustin, are so rich with narrative references, but they do, of course, so much more than just illustrate very old stories. I’m thinking here of this one small image that is part of the show — it really caught my attention. .It’s called Deep Dive. It shows us some creature or spirit from the underworld, a very friendly underworld of sorts. Not, not one that necessarily strikes us with fear or, let alone horror. Can you speak a bit more about this image and what it does?”
Dustin: “Absolutely. In Southeastern Muskokian culture, the underworld and the above world were kind of almost indifferent to us. Some were for us, some were against us. It was just like the natural order. Humans were living in the middle world. The horned serpent is an intermediary of the underworld, but is a symbol of the renewal of the waters and the feathered variant is The bringer of rain it’s where thunder comes from when it flaps its wings So it’s not in a negative sense that it’s so foreboding and that there’s like devils below with pitchforks and that kind of thing.
When I, when I see these caves and I see the petroglyphs and, and just the rock art in general, it’s just, the humanity is there when you see their handprints. It’s, gives you that opportunity to touch hands with people who were around thousands of years ago, and we all still kind of have, have those same needs, health, wealth, progeny, and a little fun. Whenever I make these pieces, I just think of those that were in those caves. They were in those places and they were singing their songs. They were singing their medicine.”
Lutz Koepnick: “I really love how you described the spiritual dimensions of rock art, of these cave paintings. And of course, these sites, these images are intensely physical things as well. Full of these material inscriptions of, of traces, we want to touch them, do the kind of, do all the kinds of things that we’re actually not allowed to do in today’s museums. Many of these images here also on display, we see images of hands, of outlines of hands. In most of the cases, it’s actually the left hand, I guess because the right hand was mostly used to spray pigment and create the other hand’s contour. For this type of rock art, it seems to me that touching the rock was really essential for these early artists. They must have experienced some kind of synergy between hand and rock, between I guess what we would call the human and the nonhuman, between canvas and the maker. Some reciprocity because they sort of thought of the world of things of matter, as something alive, as animated, as vibrant, as vibrant as the human world.
Let me read this amazing quote by David Lewis Williams, who wrote a book a while back called The Mind in the Cave. It’s about cave painting, art making 30, 000 years ago. Here, listen to this. ‘It is as if the rock were a living membrane between those who ventured and the lowest levels of the tiered cosmos. Behind the membrane lay a realm inhabited by spirit animals and spirits themselves. And the passages and chambers of the caves penetrated deep into that realm.’ I love these lines. All of this, of course, makes me think about how we understand art making today. Its materials, its media, or its mediums. What the Ancient Art Archive wants to do is to bring the past and the present into a conversation as well. So, so Stephen, I’m wondering what you as a photographer can learn from this synergy of physical and spiritual dimensions in the oldest art on this planet for your own photographic practice today.”
Stephen: “There’s a physicality to rock art to cave art because it’s on the landscape and you can’t remove it. If you remove it from the landscape, you abstract it. These are very sophisticated artists, a thousand, five thousand, 20,000, you know, 35,000, 40,000 years ago, they’re as sophisticated as we are, certainly. And they’re putting that artwork there for a reason. This isn’t portable art. It’s not made to be seen in abstraction. It’s made to be seen on the landscape. And it’s in a conversation with the landscape for, for reasons oftentimes that are lost. Someone put that handprint there in that cave, in that specific place for a reason, and you can look at that image in abstract, but you lose the context. And that context is always so important. And then in cave art in particular, but in other rock art, the idea of permeability, of images going into and coming out of the rock, you see all the time.
In Chauvet, there’s a very famous cave bear that’s painted, and it is really just a few thin red lines, and the artist is using the cracks in the cave wall to complete the composition, as if that animal already existed within the rock, and they were bringing it out with just a few brushstrokes. If you look at , the the panel from Chauvet that’s in this show, there’s one bison that is, it’s not, it’s the only animal in the show that’s not in profile and it’s coming out of the rock towards you. That idea that animals come and go into and out of the actual surface is something we see repeated again and again.
And it’s important, but when you’re looking at artwork that’s 30, 000 years old. It’s hard to say why, and what that meant to them. And something that we’re careful about at the archive is we’re never trying to fix the meaning of things. We’re never trying to say, oh, this image means this. Well, because we can say, well, this image means this to us now, but we don’t know what it meant.
I mean a long time ago and the important thing is that the images are there and that they were important and that they are still important and still meaningful. if, if you think about as these things would’ve appeared in flickering light, there has been work that said, yeah, people were making the equivalent of gifs, right? Little short animation clips 40,000 years ago. And it’s still magical to look at those things.”
Lutz: “To draw images out of the rock really required these artists to approach and respect the natural environment as something animate, as something alive. Rock art is all about the interactions, the entanglement between different elements. Let’s make it so fascinating, something the modern world in its, in its efforts, in our crazy efforts to control and extract nature, natural resources has somehow forgotten.”
Dustin has contributed an image to the show about a monster that I think speaks to this as well.”
Dustin: “The piece is called Tiwwi. It is a Chickasaw word for means he is opening it and it’s of the Monster Slayer, Redhorn, he is also referred to as the Morningstar and he is the one who splits the dawn and in my design Redhorn is opening himself up and there’s a new world that’s revealing and opening up, from his belly outward and it is kind of speaking to the change of environment, the changing of our world, and Redhorn is opening up this new era, and we’re beyond the event horizon, and we are, whether we’re ready or not, we’re here.
And you can see a small little figure at the bottom, and it’s him again, in his next incarnation, when he opens it yet again. And on his shoulders, he has two herons that are guarding over him. When I went to Nanawea the Choctaw mother mound we had to hike like a mile in to get to it and she was swarmed with these herons and they were watching us. I was in such awe, it was like when you’re at the base of the ocean or you’re at it like the Grand Canyon or somewhere, you feel so small and insignificant to this thing that is greater and larger and more ancient than you can possibly imagine. And I, I would just, was, felt in such awe that these were the guardians, the, the, the herons. So when I made this piece, the herons are over watching his shoulder and the world that we grew up in, the world we know is concluded.
And this new era he’s ushering us in is upon us. To the Muskokian people, specifically to the Chickasaw and Chada, Abba Benilli, the creator, is in all things. All things speak of the creator. There is no difference between this microphone to my skin, to the atoms, and the universe. All things speak of Abba Benilli.
And so when I see that art, you know, what is their connection to the universe? How are they feeling when they make this piece. You can kind of see little nuances in the curve and the simple curves of the lines to the hard edges of the lines and you can even tell if the person was left handed or right handed There’s so much humanity in these pieces I don’t see that there’s any separation of like the spiritual with the environmental. I think for a lot of these people there was no defining line.”
Lutz: What you say, Dustin, really also describes the common ground between the Ancient Art Archive and our Art of Interference project. A podcast that is meant to feature different contemporary artists. Some have managed to sharpen our attention to the agency, the intelligence of the non human world, the entanglement of everything. I sense that the Ancient Art Archive is dedicated to a similar question and aim. So, let’s talk a bit more in detail about this organization and its mission. Time to actually finally bring Steph Welch into the conversation as well (the organization’s director). So, Steph, what’s, what’s the Ancient Art Archive all about?
Steph: Well, I think at the heart of it it’s about what Stephen and Dustin have been talking about. It’s using rock art as a way to respect and celebrate our common humanity and and rock art is just this wonderful window into that because it, it goes to the heart of what unites us and what we have in common and, and how we can look at that in the past and the present and have that unify and pull us together. There are ten sites in the Mural of America, it’s about how do we bring people into this conversation and share their perspectives and their expertise about rock art and what rock art can represent.
So even selecting the 10 sites was informed by, different people around the country: Native Americans and archaeologists and landowners. And selecting 10 sites that—I think the big things were that we’re not going to harm them by directing attention to them. The other thing we looked at was making sure that people recognized that rock art is not just about the Southwest, but that there’s rock art all over the country, in addition to all over the world.
And so, selecting sites that show the diversity of place and also the diversity of types of rock art. Being from the Southwest myself, I didn’t even realize at the beginning of this, there were these giant mound sites in the East. People here think everyone knows about them and no, not so much.
So, so it’s really fun to be able to, educate everybody about the different types of art. It’s an educational project. both for adults and for kids.”
Lutz: “Earlier this year I actually had the wonderful opportunity to see some fascinating rock art in the Atacama Desert in Chile. What struck me was that these drawings there had been, Very different motifs compared to what I’ve seen elsewhere. I mean, it shouldn’t have surprised me, but, but somehow it did. Rock art, too, speaks, I learned, in different languages. It has, local dialects, so to speak.”
Steph: “Right, you know. You know, you can collapse it all together, but then once you start looking at the different types of things that are in different places, whether it’s how it’s made or the symbols used or even the style, you know, Northwest rock art is very different from Southwest, for example. But then another thing that’s interesting is then there is common imagery all around the world, not just the hand, but other things too, and you know, this concentric circles or things like that. So it’s pretty fascinating.”
Lutz: “I’m sure you often run into issues about cultural heritage with indigenous communities who rightly claim these sites as, as their ancestral ground, as their sacred territory, and probably don’t want really anyone else to be there in the first place.They might insist that even taking a picture is yet another act of colonial extraction. How do you address this?”
Steph: “I’m really glad you asked that question because that’s a very important part of our process There were a larger number of sites that we initially identified and part of the culling is to get permission and so one of our other core collaborators, Dr. Joe Watkins, is an archaeologist and was with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and so has many contacts among different tribes. And so, he’ll reach out for different sites to all the tribal affiliates of that site who, who have a historical connection to it and ask them, if they’re comfortable with us, pursuing that in, with this project or not. And if they’re not, then we won’t. I mean, it’s not a negotiation or anything like that, it’s, it’s us deferring to whatever their wishes are. There’s definitely time and effort involved and it’s—but it’s really, really important because, we really want this to be a project that brings people together and doesn’t cause controversy or contention.”
Stephen: “Relationships, relationships with each other, relationships with the land, as close as we can get to talking to those people is looking at their artwork. And the descendant communities are, are wonderful and, and help us understand what we’re looking at, and, and help guide people through that.
I grew up in Tennessee on the Cumberland Plateau, and I grew up with this myth of the landscape I was on that there weren’t really Native American people there. That there were only nomadic people, no one built anything of any lasting value. And even as a child, I would go out on the landscape and the landscape told me a different story because I’d go into rock shelters and see lithic scatters that were five, ten feet deep, and I would realize that, you know, these weren’t nomadic hunter-gatherers moving through here, there were a lot of people on this landscape for a long time. The Mural of America project begins to address that, that this was not really a wilderness. This was a very peopled landscape before European contact. We, we need to appreciate it as such because there is so much wisdom and so much knowledge about the continent that we can, we can fall back on and we can use. I mean, look, look at how we’re beginning to manage forest landscape now, in the West in particular, but by going back to indigenous practices of controlled burning.
That’s changing the landscape dramatically. If we had been doing that up until now, maybe we wouldn’t be having the tremendous wildfires that we’re having. Rediscovering what was lost, what was destroyed is, is an important part of the project.
I look out my office window, I see a branch of the Trail of Tears. I mean, literally, out my office window. And it’s a reminder every day of what happened. And we can’t roll that back, but we can certainly acknowledge it.”
Lutz: I think that’s why we’re also really so glad that you brought this project, actually, this material here this show to Nashville. Nashville was, of course, a major crossroads of the Trail of Tears, but the city is still struggling with how to actually acknowledge this history.
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, they’re tough conversations. Artwork is a way into the conversation. and the great thing about rock art is because it’s on the landscape, you really can’t ignore it. I mean, Devilstep Hollow is there and that was not one dude making that.
Painted Bluff in Alabama. That is not one person making that 600 foot high, multi-tiered mural that, that is a culture over a long period of time.”
Lutz: One challenge you must often face is how to negotiate this desire to make things accessible to the public, to educate people about rock art. On the one hand, the need to preserve this ancient art on the other. You want people to see this art, but not too much. Not at the cost of destroying it. Is this a tension?”
Stephen: “I know about a lot of rock art that’s near here. We record it sometimes we 3D model it and those things sit on our server. If someone in a descendant community reaches out and wants to see it, yeah, absolutely. But there’s lots of stuff we just don’t talk about. Because, secrecy is how most of this stuff is protected just by it not being well known and that’s worked pretty well so far. But I, I always think secrecy works really well in a world with like 4 billion people in it. I’m not sure how well it works in the world of 9 billion people in it. And so, those conversations need to be ongoing, but I do know this from working for years in conservation, at National Geographic is that people will not conserve what they don’t understand.
And so if you don’t talk about there being artwork on the landscape, people won’t appreciate it. They won’t think that there’s anything wrong with turning a cliff face into a rock quarry. Because they don’t understand the value of what might be preserved there.
So we got to figure out a way to talk about it that’s, respectful of the artwork, and of the descended communities as well. And those are big conversations.”
Steph: “I think Devilstep Hollow is a very interesting example because it is closed to the public and Stephen was able to get special permission to get access in there, and because he did and was able to 3D model it, anybody can go online and have a virtual experience that’s a lot more comfortable for sure and move in and zoom in and move around.
It’s not the same as being there, but it’s, it’s pretty great. So many people can experience it that way where they wouldn’t be able to otherwise, including kids.”
Lutz: “Since we’re talking about questions of accessibility, of bringing things to the public, maybe this is a good moment to talk in some more detail about what actually happened here at Vanderbilt and the Curb Center, the collaboration between the Ancient Art Archive and the Center.
We have Leah Lowe here. She’s the center’s director, and she played a really important role to bring the show here. So, Leah, could you speak a bit about this? What kind of activities did you organize aside from the show, and what were the responses from students and faculty?
Leah: “One of the things we’re really interested in doing here at the Curb Center is taking the notion of art as a form of inquiry really seriously, right? I want to challenge people to take art thinking as seriously as scholarly thinking.
If there is a question that animates this exhibition for me, it’s about how does the past continue to reverberate in the contemporary moment, right? This is a show about history, and it’s a show about history that’s that challenges us imaginatively, not so much with facts and with things that we know, but it challenges us to inhabit the space of what we don’t know. In my other life, I am a theater professor and I’m very interested in how the past reverberates in the present in terms of theater, but that’s like 500 years, like 600 if I really reach back there into medieval drama there’s something that is so theatrical about these images, right? Like when you look at those handprints, you know that there was a living hand. There’s something really beautiful about that.
We’ve talked a lot about the cave images in the show, but I did want to, draw attention to an aspect of Dustin’s work that we also have visible, which, he does these things that he calls ledger doodles. When I met Dustin through Stephen in May, I became immediately fascinated by these works of Dustin’s.
He takes photographs of contemporary citizens, native citizens, and then puts them into a historical moment through, traditional dress, tattoos, and creates these drawings on paper, on ledger paper. And, just like the hands bring the past into the present, I find these drawings so incredibly moving, that , they’re bringing present folks into the past, right? Could you talk a little bit about those? Cause I’m just so curious about them.”
Dustin: Well, the ledger art, itself started in the 1870s with the Lakota and other Plains tribes that were forced onto American government, camps.
And so traditionally they would have done the art on buffalo hides or deer hides. And after the removal they were just giving scrap paper. And from that art form to the 20th century, it became Native art motif. And so now it is, just considered an art medium of indigenous people.
I, I try to get ledger that’s from Indian territory or just in the general Oklahoma area. The pieces that I did for this show were from 1915 from a town in, Durant, Oklahoma. It was like an old general store ledger book, a lot of the motivation behind a lot of what I do is not seeing people that looked like my mother in galleries and in, in places where you would see portraiture. When I got the traditional tattoo of the sun, the Hashi on my skin, I felt. For the first time, really comfortable in my own skin. And, it kind of was like a visual, center point for me to see my ancestors carried with me.
And so when I made these illustrations I want them to see contemporary people with these accoutrements because when our ancestors were alive and they were doing things just like the people who made these caves, that was contemporary art. Those were contemporary people. This is just our turn at the wheel.
There’ll be other people at the wheel after us. When I make these pieces, I want the people that are represented to see their ancestors with them, it’s very stylized, obviously. But I just, it gives me that exciting, ah, moment and when I see the reaction, like last night seeing the reaction of the young lady, seeing her own portrait on there, it’s just gives me butterflies in my stomach.”
Lutz: I think it’s a, it’s a tremendously generous gesture, Dustin, to include a portrait of a Vanderbilt student in this show. It’s actually, it was a student who’s very engaged in Vanderbilt’s Indigenous Scholars Organization. I think seeing one of their own in the show for, for the students here must have been, a very empowering experience. Leah, I understand that you had a group of students here at the Curb Center , and you asked them to interact with the work. What happened?”
Leah: “We had two student groups in yesterday, the Curb Scholars, who are a scholarship cohort that’s associated with the Center. And then after them we had a small group of our Indigenous scholars come. And, for both of them, Steph led them in this like really, really interesting exercise. We moved our copier machine out of this little alcove and Steph and Stephen and Dustin created a cave made of butcher paper. And after taking the students through the exhibit, Steph gave them some little battery-operated tea lights and we turned down all the lights and, led them into the cave with an invitation to put something on the cave walls that they found important. Do you want to talk about that activity a little bit and where it came from?”
Steph: “Sure. It’s an editing of the activity that we have on our website and this goes into the Devilstep Hollow Cave and, it teaches them about iconography and recognizing symbols, you know, the project invites students to think of a symbol that represents who they are and invites them to do some self-reflection and some self-expression through art. And, it’s really delightful to watch the different things that come out. Especially their reactions about being asked the question. For the indigenous scholars in particular, I ask those students to think about, what is the wisdom you have that you would like to leave behind for the scholars who come after you that you think might help them in their journey? And so then they went in there, in the dark and it’s kind of quiet and, and thought about that and, and what that meant to them, and used some charcoal to create the images. And then, the rest of us went in there and they talked about what they drew and why and it was, it was really amazing to hear.”
Leah: “I hope we are establishing a tradition of cave drawing that will last until December 1st, when it all comes down.”
Leah: “It was really beautiful to see what these students chose, and it was also really gratifying to see them move into the spirit of the experiment. We saw with the indigenous scholars, some of the folks were leaving traces of their own specific cultures. Someone left a drawing of an indigenous scholars meeting itself because that community is, is so important to them. So it was a really lovely way to invite those students to use their own creativity, and to enter into the spirit of the cave drawings and of Dustin’s work.”
Dustin: “The one thing I would like to add about the, the cave thing that it’s an opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes. And while we can’t, you know, put them in the cave, there is certain levels of anxiety and that they bring to the table and it kind of, you know, being in an uncomfortable position, trying to draw, you’ve got this little flickering light, it’s not exactly lighting up the way you want, you have to kind of move your head so you don’t get dust particles in your eye.
These are all little struggles. That the people who came before us had to endure and even though it’s a small little bite there were some people who were like I don’t know what to make and just they were they were so overwhelmed with that and we talked them through and they went back in there and did something that was meaningful. But seeing that frustration, that little aggravation, the embarrassment of like messing up those same people that were in those caves, a thousand years ago, thousands of years ago on the walls, they struggled with the exact same problem. In fact, in that Devilstep Hollow Cave [photograph] of Falcon man, you can see where they initially were starting in the original drawing and something went wrong, whether it was the location or the placement, something wasn’t right. And they kind of scratched out, drew something else over it and then move the Falcon man, like a couple inches over. It’s to share that commonality and I think that if you can walk even a couple steps in someone else’s shoes, you’ll just have greater understanding of their humanity and just hopefully appreciate the art that you see that much more.”
Lutz: Don’t we so often think about the art world as a world of grand openings, of splashy display settings, of vanity, of big gestures? Very indualized performances.
Your images here, and the collaboration that we see in play, and yes, the cave in the former copy room, they remind us all of different form of artistic practice, one without signatures and clearly identified authors, an art that stresses really collaboration. It’s all about teamwork, it’s something in which everyone become everyone else’s viewer.”
Stephen: “Yeah, and then you hear them laughing and then they’re, they, they, you know, it’s a team effort. You got one person that’s trying to light it for them, the other one’s trying to get it and hold the light too. And this was with the kids, the little kids that we, we reached out to in elementary school and the college kids as well, is like, they get it.
And then when other people do it, they get it. I know that when we did the practice ourselves, trying to figure out the game plan, We were all laughing and, and you as the viewer, you’re a participant in it as well. You’re, you’re in, you’re taking in what they made and you’re having a conversation with someone that was here yesterday or here thousands of years ago. And there’s a timeless beauty that I just, I hope other people gleam that as well.”
Lutz: “Reverberations makes a great case that ancient art continues to matter today. Contemporary art practice and education can still learn a great deal from the oldest art of this planet, perhaps more so than ever before.
The exhibit here at the Curb Center at Vanderbilt University will be open until December 1st, 2023, and I hope some of our listeners will embrace the opportunity to watch the show. We will also post some images and links on our website, artofinterference.com. Let me thank my four guests today, Stephen Alvarez and Dustin Mader, Steph Welch and Leah Lowe, for taking the time to chat about the show and offering all this wonderful insight into the mission of the Ancient Art Archive. Thank you so, so much.”
Stephen: “Thank you.”
Steph: “Thank you.”
Dustin: “Thank you.”
Lutz: “Thank you for listening to this special edition of Art of Interference, recorded and prodced at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. In our egular seasons, we explore creative responses to climate change. In each episode, we talk with different artsits, filmmakers, musicians, photographers, and creative makers who work at the intersection of nature, technology, and science today. In our special edition, of which this program was the first, we present thought provoking conversations about the arts as a transofmrative menial thinker about the role of art within the landscapes of high education, and the relation for artistic research and scientific discovery. For images, links, and more information related to this or any of our other programs, please visit artofinterference.com.”