An “Ecology of Practices”: New Materialism and Ecofeminism with Julieanna Preston
May 26, 2021
To say that Julieanna Preston’s research is dynamic would be an understatement. Preston’s coming to her transdisciplinary practice, spanning performance art, construction, installation, feminist new materialist theory and philosophy, is itself remarkably transdisciplinary. Moving from studies in landscape architecture to geology, theories of architecture to practices of renovation, Preston’s work affirms that knowledge acquisition and production is seldom linear or categorical, but constellated, collaborative, and unpredictable. Such is affirmed—and celebrated—in Preston’s commitment to process. Her method of releasing works into the public that some might deem “unpolished” is itself a disruption of prevailing metrics of completeness, making space for loose-ends and inspired connections and signalling what “rhizomatic” philosophy might look like, in practice.
In a virtual space somewhere between Wellington, New Zealand and Montreal, Canada, we discussed Preston’s work in close relation to the conditions, collaborations and trajectories that make it so. The sound of breath, Scandinavian külning, ventilators, cuckoo-clocks and the body all emerged as conduits. Preston’s investment in situating her work and self-situating within it—locating her projects within their particular connections, collaborations, memories, histories and skills—was inspiring, especially at a time of such fragmentation and disjuncture. Hearing Preston’s voice through a frozen screen, persisting over visual glitches and lagged response, not only affirmed Preston’s assertion that “sound always pierces the visual” but too, that sound is a vital index to the present: “it’s always the now.”
The following is a condensed transcript of our conversation, which can be heard below. Included are embedded links that Julieanna provided following our meeting.
Good morning! How are you, Julieanna?
I’m well. You must be Sadie.
Yes, nice to meet you! What time is it—early morning? 9 a.m. in New Zealand?
Well it’s 9 a.m. but that’s not early here, not for me. It’s been duck hunting season in my part of the world and those hunters, they were out at the crack of dawn.
That’s an abrupt way to start the day…
It’s slightly alarming. It’s really the only gunfire we hear in New Zealand on a regular basis, but it is still alarming.
I have a few questions that I was hoping to talk to you about. I know your work, broadly, sits at the intersection of philosophy and architecture, design and performance. I was interested to know, firstly, of your trajectory and how you arrived at this interdisciplinary space?
First of all thank you for recognizing the trans-disciplinary aspect of my practice. So much of the world is in taxonomies, classification, and pigeonholing. I grew up with that.
I started my journey, officially, through education. I first studied landscape architecture, geology, and then switched to architecture. I switched because I was not getting the intellectual stimulation that I needed from landscape architecture, which at that time was—at the risk of offending all the landscape architects in the world—lots of markers, lots of colour-coding. Not really looking at ecological systems in general, and not really keyed into a theoretical base. During that time I had three houses that I renovated, and this really started my construction phase of tearing things apart, putting them back together again—developing a kind of signature approach to building that had to do with what’s existing, how to make it better for the building site, in terms of maintenance but also for the inhabitants and the climate. This has lingered—I think I’ve renovated fifteen or sixteen houses.
I grew up in a household with a mother who was a painter and an English teacher. Those two things have influenced me a great deal, especially the English teaching—I think that’s really what introduced me to poetry and fiction. Writing has always been a serious endeavour for me.
I finished my architectural education which is a five year degree from Virginia Tech, and then, shifted to Charleston, South Carolina. From Charleston, South Carolina I worked as an intern architect mostly for Amanda Griffith, where I did historic preservation work in the Old Charleston sector as well as some pro-bono work for the City of Charleston. So, my construction sensibility set in.
From there I went back to Virginia Tech and I started teaching. I then moved to Boston where I worked as a construction labourer as well as an intern architect, and decided that I really wanted to go back to university and focus on the arts side of architecture. I saw architecture as an art form that engaged purpose. I went from Boston to Cranbrook Academy of Art, where I got my Master’s. At Cranbrook I had many side jobs—anything from repairing people’s houses, to gardening, to cleaning people’s houses. All of those things started to add to my repertoire of concern, especially for daily life and how one lives.
I graduated from Cranbrook and there was a recession as well as an Iraq war, and there were no jobs. I sent out 50 applications and got nothing back in the Detroit, Michigan area. I got a job as a gardener at a greenhouse, and then eventually started my own landscaping business, which went all over the Michigan-Detroit-Pontiac Lakes district. And that was blissful. I learned that there was a real need for basic repairs—required skills not so much in your garden, but in their houses. So I set up a business to do these jobs, and that eventuated into how to teach people to do them.
These are things that are usually pulled apart—theoretical concerns for architecture, art, construction technology, the science of architecture. When I added landscape, it opened up an ecology of practices. I shouldn’t forget the feminist part; for me that’s kind of like drinking air and breathing water—just there all the time. It’s changed a great deal over the last forty years. I play with wearing certain tags: I wouldn’t call myself a first-wave feminist, but I do play with the notion of being an ecofeminist.
I struggle in describing this interdisciplinary stuff a lot. I struggle with it because it’s not the same as a jack-of-all-trades—it’s not a generalist thing. I’m practicing, I believe, what Deleuze and Guattari speak about as kind of a ‘rhizomatic’ practice, or an Actor Network Theory.
I so appreciate your hearing your trajectory. As someone working in an interdisciplinary field, the difficulty of describing it certainly resonates. I find even the discipline of ‘sound studies’ a very hard field to describe.
I was really struck, hearing you speak about the material conditions (such as building a house) of spatial theory. These concepts of intimacy and care that you discuss (as someone studying ‘theory’) seem often to remain very theoretical. This relationship you outline, between the theoretical and the material and tactile—that seems really important.
I was thinking about these relationships when I was watching your video for “Tryst”. I was struck that you didn’t include visuals, but also, these ideas of care and intimacy that seem to emerge in this kind of sterile hospital setting. I’d be interested to hear a bit about that project, and maybe, some of the theories that were at work for you in making it.
So, it’s important to credit “Tryst” as a collaborative work, which I did with Andy Lock, and to recognize the hospital in Bergen, who gave us the room and permission to use the ventilators. We worked for a couple of months ahead of time, sharing and thinking about words like interlude, gap, the ‘between.’ He was coming to it as an ‘absent presence,’ and I was coming from the direction of hiatus, or a suspension, or pause—a pause that is idle and poised. I think that’s when we went towards breath—he latched onto the ventilator machine and I saw this amazing possibility to explore that moment of ‘between’ through the inhale and exhale.
If one reads my other creative works, you will know I’m an advocate for the vitality of all matter, not just organic matter. This hiatus was kind of a sine curve in mathematics, where it changes from amplitude and then it might come down, or it might change direction, like a sound wave. I can’t remember what the actual geometric term is, but these are the moments where the breath takes a change of direction, I was looking for that. I was cutting up files, I was looking for ‘where do I take that razor blade’ and ‘where do I put that’ or ‘what space is it?’ It was an amazing experiment in that it revealed to me that when you’re speaking the sentence and you take a breath, you’re actually taking in air while you’re pushing out air. It’s circular, there’s this kind of rhythmic, cyclical, ongoing thing that happens. So, that was my contribution to “Tryst”.
It’s really interesting what you’re saying about the ‘in-between’—a ventilator being an instrument of the precipice, or, different stages of vulnerability. I also loved how you described ‘Tryst’ as a ‘duet’. It makes me think about notions of musical sound versus ‘non-musical’: there’s something about the hospital setting that is so not outwardly musical, and yet, the work itself has such a musical quality.
Yes. And the visuals: we didn’t take any visuals other than that one photograph. For the audio, we’re turning knobs, we’re reaching over that stainless steel cart into the other person’s machine work, we are doing this kind of entanglement. I like those moments where one gets lost in it and there’s no sense of beginning or end.
I noticed that you that you do a lot of sound work—there is another project with breathing. I know you work across many mediums, but I was interested to hear you talk about what draws you to sound as a medium of expression?
Well, this kind of goes back to your first question: The construction, the gardening, and everything coming together—that’s what motivated me to do my PhD. I shifted from this, let’s draw, let’s imagine it, and let somebody else build it, to I’m going to do all of this myself—I’m going to look at what that encounter is. One of the things I found when that happened was that space was not about the visual. When I opened up my body to spatial experience, the aural rose to the top.
I’m nervous about calling myself a sound artist. I’m not trained in sound, I’m probably the least musical person (unless you can get a degree in hearing—hearing acutely, that is). So, the breathing work, and the entering into sound, was not for sound and musicality, necessarily. It was the phenomena that registers body and bodies, all kinds of bodies: human, non-human entities, physical, spiritual things. I know I’m in the world because I’m getting signals from other things around me that are hearing me or I’m hearing. There’s a presence-ing going on. So, that’s the reason for the emphasis on sound, and why there are usually no visuals connected. When there are visuals, I think that they deter from the experience. Sound has this power to pierce through the visual. It’s always the now and it’s always present.
I’ve lately been thinking about how, being in quarantine, I’ve come to notice so many sounds that I never really considered before. Not musical sounds but sounds, as you say, that are suddenly very ‘presenced’. Even if it’s just the dripping of a tap.
Are you I’m in the middle of a project right now? What’s your research at the moment?
I tried to slow down, because I found over the last couple years that I’ve put a lot out. I’m not afraid to put out things that are perhaps, as some say, not ‘polished’. But for me it’s about making public my practice. I put stuff out whether it’s completely ready or not.
But the projects I had going have all shifted, they’ve had to. I had four works that I was supposed to be doing later on this year overseas, and all of them have fallen over, of course. I’m finding new ways to imagine them. One of them will be back to New Zealand, in the Wellington harbour. That I can speak about.
I’m collaborating with Frazer Walker, a composer and sound artist/installation artist. He and I are working on a performance video in which I am behaving as a temporary cuckoo clock to warn, give farewell, and greeting, to what comes in and out of the Wellington harbour. Just forty-odd years ago there was a disaster where a ferry hit the reef coming into the harbour on a stormy day and many lives were lost. There happens to be a small cave at the entrance to the harbour, on the Wellington side, and there was a man who lived there for many years that carved extensively into the caves by hand.
So I’m looking at this idea of a cuckoo clock that comes in and out of the cave to greet freight-liners, booties, airplanes. The sound part of it is not just a recording of the performance, but an original work that imagines rock, tnot just as the rock of a mountain, but of the cave, breathing. There are many examples of record earthquakes, where the sound is not just a sound when the land shifts in a big way, but the rocks are moving and sounding for many months, sometimes years, afterwards. So, I maintain that we can still feel the auditory vibrations. The sound work that we’re putting into the film is looking at whole bunch of different ways that rocks have been recorded as sounding.
I would love to see it. I just have one last question: what you’re listening to these days?
I knew you were going to ask that question! I wish I had a long repertoire or that I could send you a Spotify list. I am listening to a lot of Waiata or Mōteatea, which, in spoken poetry form or sung form, helps me increase my Te Reo Māori aural language skills. I tend to learn things better when they’re performed, so hearing the language and hearing it with music is helpful.
I’m also a big fan of PJ Harvey.
Over the last three years I have gotten into taking lessons online for külning, which is Scandinavian—Swedish perhaps. I went searching for my roots, and I veer towards three places: Wales, Croatia, and Sweden. That’s my bloodline. In Sweden, külning is a practice of young and elderly women calling their herds—their cows, sheep, and horses. Historically, it’s a practice where they go out into the forest, the landscape, with their herds to raise them, and then they will call them back around a body of water, where they camp. These calls have a siren quality to them—this melodic, lyrical quality. It’s a different way of singing or sounding with your body, but you pull up from your pelvis and the sound comes out of your body as if it’s a force of air and the force is regulated, but you push it through the forest. So, you learn to throw your voice so the animals can hear and of course the animals learn your sound and they learn that its time to come home. So that’s what I’m listening to right now.
That’s way better than a Spotify playlist! I love it you’re listening to learn language and to connect with your heritage.
If you want to come to a lake in Sweden around 2022, I’ll be there.
I’ll be there!
Julieanna Preston is a Professor of Spatial Practice at Toi Rauwharangi/ College of Creative Arts, Massey University, Wellington, Aotearoa/ New Zealand. Spanning across architecture, art and philosophy, her transdisciplinary research draws from art, sonic practices, architecture, feminist philosophy, interior design, building construction, landscape gardening, material processes and performance writing. Julieanna has delivered live art performances and lectured on her creative and scholarly works in the United States, UK, Sweden, Australia, Italy, Norway, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland, The Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Germany and New Zealand. She received a Bachelor of Architecture from Virginia Tech (1983), Master of Architecture from Cranbrook Academy of Art (1990) and a PhD through creative practice from RMIT (2013). Articles, book chapters, videos, and sound works can be found on her website.
This article is published as part of the Listening, Sound, Agency Forum which presents profiles, interviews, and other materials featuring the research and interests of future participants in the 2021 SpokenWeb symposium. This series of articles provides a space for dialogical and multimedia exchange on topics from the fields of literature and sound studies, and serves as a prelude to the live conference.