A Conversation with Artist and Naturalist Rachel Sussman
Rachel Sussman has just finished explaining her relationship to the concept of “deep time” when a friendly dog runs up to greet us. We’re standing in the sprawling main gallery of Pioneer Works, where her photography exhibit The Oldest Living Things in the World is in the process of being installed. “Does this interview need a dog?” she asks with a grin.
In a certain sense, it might. Many children are introduced to the idea that our perception of time is relative through the concept of “dog years.” Human beings often live well into their seventies and beyond while, unfortunately, our canine friends rarely reach a second decade. We are taught — rather unscientifically — that one “human year” equals seven “dog years.” Now, think about the human lifespan in comparison to Methuselah, a 4,846 year-old bristlecone pine tree. Or Pando, a quaking aspen that has formed a forest-sized colony by cloning itself continuously for the past 80,000 years. As I immerse myself in Sussman’s stunning photos of such wondrous creatures — beings that have outlived entire civilizations — I find myself grasping to come to terms with the unfathomable nature of a life that long. “Deep” is just one of many words that come to mind.
Sussman has spent the past 10 years traveling across all seven continents in search of extraordinarily long-lived organisms — what she affectionately refers to as “things” — that are 2,000 years old or older. Her work combines art, adventure, education, research, collaboration with scientists across a myriad of specialized fields, as well as forays into deep time — a philosophical mode of thinking about human perceptions of time in comparison to larger timescales. And, while the concept of “dog years” might not be an exact science, meditating on the longevity of organisms like Pando can certainly help us to put our comparatively brief time on earth in perspective.
Sussman walks us through her exhibition on a humid September morning that accentuates the transporting effect of her images. She speaks with us about her own relationship to time, the dynamics of art and science collaborations, the perils of climate change, the importance of making her research and personal experience part of the work, and, of course, The Oldest Living Things in the World themselves.
Our hour-long conversation could be measured in approximately .0008 dog years, .0001 human years, and .000000001 Pando years.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: First of all, can you explain to us the overall idea of your project?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Simply stated, the project is called The Oldest Living Things in the World. It's a work that includes research, travel, and taking photographs of organisms that have been alive for 2,000 years and longer. The idea was sparked by a trip to Japan I took in 2004. Now, after 10 years of work and travel all over the world, an exhibition of the photographs and research is finally being launched. I also recently completed a book that came out in April.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Can you tell us a little bit about the trip to Japan that spurred this project?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: One thing I like to talk about when it comes to the creative process is being in what is sometimes referred to as “creative churn.” Creative churn can entail having interest in something — a number of things, really — and having all these different thoughts and ideas start to percolate, but not having them quite coalesce yet. That was what was happening around the time I went to Japan. I was visiting some friends in Tokyo and I knew I wanted to go on some sort of travel adventure but didn't quite know what it was going to be. At the time, I was making a lot of landscape work about the relationship between humanity and nature. I had also read a lot of philosophy as an undergrad and was interested in the concept of deep time. This was a subject that kept coming up — along with long-term thinking and some other existential philosophical questions — that I somehow wanted to get across in my landscapes. I wanted to make landscapes about ideas rather than about literal places. I was also having a not great time in Japan. I was traveling by myself. I didn’t speak the language. I was in Kyoto and I thought, “You know, I might just go home,” which is very unlike me. I had this moment where I gave myself permission to go home. Then I remembered this tree that a couple of different people had mentioned to me. They had said, "Oh, you like nature! You have to visit this 7,000 year-old tree on this remote island!" So I said, "Huh, maybe I'll just go give that a try."
What happened was that I ended up having one of the most amazing travel adventures I've ever had. I went to the southernmost part of Kyushu and got on a ferry and took a three hour ferry ride to the island of Yakushima. While I was on the ferry, I was befriended by this couple who were like, "What are you doing here?" [Laughs.] And by the time I had reached the other side, I had been adopted by the Japanese family they were going to visit for the week. They also guided me to the tree. It was a two-day hike, a two-day commitment, to get to this tree. We did it and it was incredible.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: What is the name of this tree?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: It's called Jōmon Sugi and it's not actually 7,000 years old, although it is named after the Jōmon Era (c. 12,000 BC – 300 BC) in Japanese history. It's probably closer to 2,200 years old.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: 2,200? That’s alright...
RACHEL SUSSMAN: It's pretty good… [Laughs.] But I didn't get the idea for The Oldest Living Things in the World while standing in front of the tree, and that's an important point too. It was over a year later that all of these ideas finally coalesced and it was like [snaps fingers], "I've got it." I realized that I could start layering everything I had been talking about by photographing nature — but specifically through photographs of long-lived individual organisms. That’s where the “year zero” idea came in, and that’s why the minimum age is 2,000 years old — to draw attention to how arbitrary it is that we consider it to be 2014 right now. It was a really important baseline for the project. It was a way to layer in this idea of deep time and the shallowness of human time and our human timescales. It also eliminated a number of subjects. If I had said 1,500 years old or older there'd be five times as many trees in the project and it would lose its resonance with some of the more philosophical aspects.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Right, because from the human perspective, 2,000 years is just such a long period of time. It's a milestone in human history, one that we have based our entire Western calendar off of.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Exactly. That's something I write a little bit about in the book, too. It's kind of remarkable that we even somehow came to some kind of an agreement. Who sat around and said, "Okay, now it's year one?" We basically know, but it's just fascinating to look at different cultural — and obviously strongly religious — timescales.
I wanted to make landscapes about ideas rather than about literal places.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: That's almost a long durational phenomena in itself, in a way. I wonder what the longest-running consistent time system was. I think previous to the current BC / AD designations, time was being reset pretty frequently in different cultures. There’d be a new ruler somewhere and they'd come in say, "Okay, I'm in charge now. It's year zero."
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Right, yes!
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Actually, while we were on the way here, we read an article about Stonehenge, which said that they've recently found out that it’s a much larger complex than they thought it was. So I forced everyone to watch the Eddie Izzard skit about Stonehenge. There's a moment in that where he's going, "And that was before the BC / AD switchover, when everyone just looked at their watches and went, 'What's happening!?!'”
RACHEL SUSSMAN: [Laughs] It’s like Y2K…
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: “You didn't have to reset your watch, you had to get a whole new watch!” He's joking, but I thought it was kind of wonderful, and now we're talking about that moment. Can you tell me what the term “deep time” means to you?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: The nice thing — and the confusing thing — about deep time is that it's not a technical term. Deep time doesn't start at 2,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 years ago. My use of deep time is about creating perspective and differentiating between the shallowness of human timescales and the depth of natural, geologic, and cosmic timescales. It's really meant as a way of shifting our perspective so that we're not talking about what happened five minutes ago, or 100 years ago, or even 500 years ago — but to really place yourself in a timescale where you are disoriented; where you can visit, but aren’t meant to reside. Physiologically, humans are not comfortable with deep time. We don't process it because it's biologically so different from our internal clocks.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Have you found that exploring these phenomena, getting to know them and documenting them, has changed your own relationship to how you experience time in any way?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I think so. Yes and no. I mean, I have the same challenges and problems as any person. [Laughs.] But I am certain that I've internalized some long-term thinking — specifically allowing some deeper perspective onto my day-to-day life — in a way that I didn't before. Not all the time. It's not like I've achieved some Zen state. But it has changed something, and I think after so many years of working on this project it finally has sunk in in a deeper way, and I hope it will continue to. Somewhere along the way I came to the thought that every problem — personal, societal, anything — can benefit from long-term thinking. It’s a simple idea, but it asks you to slow down and consider long-term consequences before acting.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Can you talk a little more about the perspective that thinking about deep time helps to create?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: It’s a reminder. I like to use the analogy that being in deep time is akin to being in deep water. You're always brought back to the surface. You’re drawn back to the everyday things — "I'm hungry. I'm tired. I have a deadline. I need more money." — but still, you can swim back down there. You don't stay down there for very long because it's so detached from the way our lives work. The flip-side is that engaging in that kind of thinking, engaging with deep time, helps you connect to longer-term thinking. “Okay, I'm engulfed in a stressful time right now, but I know that's a brief period in a longer timescale.”
I like to use the analogy that being in deep time is akin to being in deep water. You're always brought back to the surface. You’re drawn back to the everyday things — "I'm hungry. I'm tired. I have a deadline. I need more money." — but still, you can swim back down there.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Definitely.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: We often hear something similar from audience members and performers of long durational performances. They describe that it’s like deep water, where you go into a different kind of space and at the end you resurface with a new understanding that that space is possible. That it’s something you can then access in the future.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: And the more you go there the more accessible it is.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you ever experienced a long durational performance of six hours or more?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I definitely have, but it's been a while. I think that when we first met I told you about how I went to a marathon reading of Finnegan's Wake. I don't remember how long I was there, but it was at least a 24-hour reading. I also attended a lecture series called 24 Hours on the Concept of Time. I didn't stay for all 24 hours, but I was there for quite awhile. It was a lecture program that Hans Ulrich Obrist put together at the Guggenheim five or so years ago. It involved combinations of people from different disciplines talking about time: an astrophysicist and a geologist and a sound artist, dancers — everyone doing either a talk or a performance related to time in some way. This is something I would like to revive but on the subject of 24 Hours in Deep Time. I originally wanted to do it in conjunction with the exhibit, but it just became too much too soon. We're still going to do it, though.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Hans Ulrich Obrist wrote the foreword for your book, is that correct? How did you come to be in contact with him? Was it through the experience at the lecture program?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I initially just wrote to him and introduced myself and then he wrote back, which was very kind of him. We also have a number of different personal connections in common. He got to know my work — albeit mostly from afar on screen as opposed to seeing my exhibition prints — and he wrote a very thoughtful foreword for my book, yes. Carl Zimmer wrote an essay as well, from a scientific perspective.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Can you walk us through the exhibition and tell us about some of The Oldest Living Things in the World?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Sure. Let me start by explaining that the photographs in the show are comprised of a combination of things. Most of them are of old organisms but some of them are landscapes that provide context for these organisms. They're arranged aesthetically. Starting at the beginning, this is a landscape I made in Greenland while I was photographing some ancient lichens, which can be seen over there, on the far wall. I included landscapes like this because they’re so primal. They set the stage and the tone in a great way because sometimes when you look at the old organisms out of a larger context, you're not getting enough of the story.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Especially with the smaller or microscopic scale organisms, I imagine. Without that context, you might not have a sense of perspective.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Absolutely. I did the same thing in the book, except that it’s organized by continent and by organism. As you'll see as we walk through, the exhibition is divided into three sections. First, we have the main space with the photographs of the organisms and their landscapes. Then we'll transition into a space where I have placed a Linnaean taxonomy infographic (I worked with designer Michael Paukner and evolutionary biologist Ruben Gutzat to get both the information design, not to mention the information, right) alongside some images that illustrate the different kingdoms represented in this work. Finally, there's a research studio room that exhibits the science and art research, and uncovers the process behind the work. The idea was to not give a false impression of the complexity of the work by having visitors just see a pristine, finished room of photographs, because taking in all of the layers is a vital part of understanding the work as a whole.
The idea was to not give a false impression of the complexity of the work by having visitors just see a pristine, finished room of photographs, because taking in all of the layers is a vital part of understanding the work as a whole.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Have you always had an interest in both science and art? I know you were a photographer first — did your interest in science deepen or even get spurred by this project?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I think I've always had an interest in science, nature, and the environment. My early experiences with art were really tied to photographing nature. I was probably around eight years old and I would take my mother’s 110 camera and take pictures of trees during thunderstorms. But my formal education is all art school rather than science. Everything regarding the science I just had to learn through personal research into the field.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: You've also collaborated with scientists, am I correct?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Yes. For this project I worked with probably 30 different scientists. The whole basis of the project was to use real scientific research. I didn't make this stuff up, you know? [Laughs.] I had to know enough background about each of the organisms before I could have a meaningful conversation with the scientists who specialized in studying them. My ideal scenario was to go meet the scientists out in the field while they were doing field research on an organism that we knew or suspected was older than 2,000 years.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Were there any misconceptions or wrong tracks you followed in your research, when you saw something and thought that it would qualify as an Oldest Living Thing, but it turned out that you were wrong?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Oh, sure. There is no area in the sciences that deals specifically with longevity across species because the sciences tend toward specialization, and this subject matter is incredibly broad. That meant that I had to create the list of old things I was looking for, while at the same time trying to figure out what met my criteria. Local legends sometimes tend toward exaggeration. In one instance, an old tree in Mexico with an immense girth was claimed to be quite old, but upon further investigation, it turned out to be two or more trees fused together and therefore didn’t meet the 2,000-year mark. But more common than something getting removed from the list, was something getting added. A number of ancient organisms were discovered in the course of the past ten years, and I’m certain there are many other ancient organisms that we have yet to discover.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Can you talk a little more about your criteria for including an organism in the project? For instance, why do you include clonal colonies alongside individuals?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I include clonal colonies because genetically, they are still the same as the original organism. As an artist, I have the freedom of saying, "These are the criteria I want to adhere to," whereas a scientist might say, "Well, I don't want to look at colonial organisms and unitary organisms in the same breath because that's not how the science is done." I have the benefit of coming at it from outside of the discipline. For my criteria, yes, I include both unitary and colonial organisms that are considered to be continuously living because they are both individual in the sense that, genetically, they are the same as the day they were born, so to speak. No new outside genetic information has been introduced. From a philosophical perspective, I found that the idea of “self” was a powerful way to anthropomorphize these organisms in order to forge a more personal way for us to relate to them.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: In having that broader perspective than a single scientist might within their particular slice of research, have you noticed any characteristics that are similar between these organisms across the spectrum?
From a philosophical perspective, I found that the idea of “self” was a powerful way to anthropomorphize these organisms in order to forge a more personal way for us to relate to them.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Yes, absolutely. In some cases, there are organisms that to me seem very similar. For instance, I would notice that an organism growing colonially in the Mojave Desert seemed to be exhibiting similar characteristics to an organism growing colonially in Pretoria, South Africa. There have been times where I have put different researchers in contact with each other and they were like, “Oh, I haven't heard of that before!" It’s really gratifying to be able to do that.
In general — as humans tend to do — I have tried to find commonalities amongst all of them. I’ve found that a number of the shared traits have to do with hardship and living in extreme environments: extreme cold or extreme heat, very high elevations or low nutrient availability, amongst others. There are exceptions to these rules — but these are some of the commonalities that I’ve seen.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So, resilience, then.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Resilience, yes, but also slow growth. That's an important one. In the book, there's an infographic showing a “growth strategy analysis” of the organisms. Even though the growth rates are measured in different ways, you find that the longest-lived tend to be the slowest growing. Then there are species like the baobab tree that are the youngsters of the project. This Pafuri baobab tree in Limpopo Province, South Africa, for instance is just about 2,000 years old, but it’s one of the largest organisms here.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Because of the root structure?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: No, no, no. [Laughs.] The baobabs are not growing clonally — they are unitary organisms. This is just an example of an enormous tree. That's a nine or twelve-seater jeep next to it so you can really get a sense of its size. These are growing more fast-and-furious style and are on the younger side, as opposed to something like the bristlecone — the oldest known unitary organisms — which are known to surpass 5,000 years old, yet are a small fraction of the size of the oldest baobabs.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: “Fast and furious” meaning — do you know the rate of growth?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I don't have a number for you offhand, but that's an enormous tree and it's just barely 2,000 years old. The next photo in the exhibit is of this chestnut tree in Sicily called the Chestnut of 100 Horses. I chose this image mostly because of how striking it is with Mount Etna in the distance, which had just erupted, so you can see the lava here. This is one of the few organisms that I revisited. The first time that I visited this tree, it was September and it was so leafy that you couldn't see the actual tree. The structure of it is really remarkable — which you don't necessarily see in this photo — but, in the book, there are a number of different pictures of this particular tree. It still bears chestnuts. There is a big difference between visiting something like this, which is basically a tourist attraction in a tiny town in Sicily, and finding the llareta plants in Chile where I had to spend a couple of days driving around with a researcher who's an expert in the flora of the Atacama desert.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: So did you find these journeys sometimes tested your own limits and resilience?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Quite often. Absolutely. Yes! [Laughs.] It's one of those things where travel is obviously incredibly exciting and interesting, but it's also exhausting and it's work. It’s not like going on a tour. It often took many many months to plan these trips. They were frequently physically stressful too. In some cases, I had to carry a camping backpack on my back and my camera bag on my front. This resulted in some injuries that I still have. It's not all glamour, to say the least. [Laughs.] Also, it did take ten years to get this all done.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: This next photo is the cover of the book. Can you describe this organism? I love the starkness of the image and how tiny and skinny it looks relative to its environment.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Yeah, you wouldn't look at this and immediately think, "Oh, of course, this tree is thousands of years old — ancient."
RACHEL SUSSMAN: This is the Spruce Gran Picea in Dalarna, Sweden. Going back to your earlier question about the similarities between organisms, I find that they are often slow growing, but also unassuming. That’s another shared characteristic. A number of my subjects, including this spruce, which is 9,550 years old, are growing clonally, which tends to send energy and growth in many different directions as opposed to just a single trunk of a unitary tree, for instance. In this case you would walk right past it and have no idea it was anything special at all unless you already knew exactly what you were looking for. Quite a few of the Oldest Things are like that — you would see them and not register that there is anything special about them.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I'm curious about this as the choice for cover because there are some images that you would look at immediately and be in awe of. You’d think, “This must be a really old living thing.” Why did you choose to have this relatively unassuming tree as the cover?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I didn't. [Laughs.]
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Would you have chosen something else?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I was thinking of having the llareta for the cover because it’s both striking and strange. You don't really know what it is. I'm very fond of this photograph of the spruce, but no, it's not what I would have chosen. Still, the reason that I'm quite happy that it’s on the cover is that it's essentially a photograph of climate change. Climate is a critical issue throughout the project, and the thing that's so interesting about this spruce is that this stem right here — what we read as the tree — is only around 50 years old. The rest of the tree is really this clump, this mass of branches at the base, which only reaches the snowline. It’s that portion of the organism that has been cloning itself for 9,500 years. 50 years ago, it started to get so warm on the top of this plateau that the climate zone changed, and that's why now it has grown a single, tall spindly trunk in the center. So, it's like watching climate change as it happens.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: It's almost like looking at adaptation in action a bit, or the signs of it.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Well, certainly it's change, but adaptation sounds a little too positive. It’s more reactive than strategic. This tree had a strategy that worked for it for almost 10,000 years. One of the reasons that cloning is such a good strategy is that if one of those branches or stems were to die off, it doesn't have all its eggs in one basket, so to speak. But if instead it puts all its energy into a single trunk and then harm befalls that trunk, it might not be able to regenerate itself, in which case, it’s more vulnerable.
50 years ago, it started to get so warm on the top of this plateau that the climate zone changed, and that's why now it has grown a single, tall spindly trunk in the center. So, it's like watching climate change as it happens.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: I would like to ask a general question along these lines. There is a stereotypical interpretation of evolution as a kind of survival of the fittest, where “fittest” means progress — better and more advanced — and where more simple organisms die off. But that's often not the case. The simplest strategies can be some of the most enduring, and simple creatures like microbes have outlasted many more complex forms of life. How do you fit The Oldest Living Things into that sort of argument?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Well, that's the double-edged sword of anthropomorphizing. We can say that culturally, from a human perspective, it’s “survival of the fittest,” but that’s not really how things work in an evolutionary sense. It’s not so much complexity that is key, but rather biodiversity. Exceptions being — and there are always exceptions — places like under-sea thermal vents where you can find uniquely adapted extremophiles as opposed to a lot of diversity. In the science forward of my book, Carl Zimmer writes about the trade-offs between living a long life as an individual, or putting your energy into reproduction, which allows for more adaptation from one generation to the next. There are a number of long-lived organisms that are uniquely adapted to specific types of environments. When those environments change, they either have to adapt or they're going to die. The ideal scenario is that we have balance that includes the full gamut from the microbes up to the more complex organisms. Hopefully we're not destroying all the diversity in between because that's what makes a healthy ecosystem. There are all sorts of studies on this — for instance, a rainforest study that examined a rainforest that had been deforested, cultivated for something, and then returned to wild use. The biodiversity in that kind of space never returns to its former levels, even if it's completely left alone, and even if it is replanted. When we mess shit up, we mess shit up.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: That's a concise way of putting it.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: There is a another conversation that revolves around the idea of “de-extinction,” which is a sort of fringely popular idea that is now being discussed in the scientific community and beyond. For instance, “What if we bring back the passenger pigeon, or clone mammoth DNA,” or all sorts of things that are now in the realm of possibility due to advancements in genetics. There's a really interesting episode of Radiolab about certain species of tortoises that are unique to a particular island in the Galapagos. They are endangered because of invasive species — in this case invasive goats — which are obviously a huge problem. Some of the turtles had also probably been moved by ships from island to island and interbred with other species. So how do you get back to a “natural state” and what point in time to do you pick to return to?
TOM ORISTAGLIO: At what point does something become sacred?
The ideal scenario is that we have balance that includes the full gamut from the microbes up to the more complex organisms. Hopefully we're not destroying all the diversity in between because that's what makes a healthy ecosystem.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Not the sacredness so much, because we've already intervened pretty much everywhere, whether we intended to or not. I guess “intervene” is the wrong word. We've had a very strong effect pretty much everywhere on the planet. So the question is, “At what point is it responsible to intervene, and how far back do we go?” Evolution itself has caused changes; there are some naturally occurring changes in climate. There are naturally occurring changes in geology that affect an ecosystem. At what point do we say, "Time Machine! I want to back up to September 3000 BCE!” When is the right time? We've created such a mess, but is it irresponsible or responsible to consciously intervene?
TOM ORISTAGLIO: There is a difference between preventative measures and retroactively trying to bring things back to a certain state.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: We’ve so casually created so much destruction, even if we just look at invasive species alone. For instance, on South Georgia Island in the Antarctic convergence there are rats all over the place because they were brought in the holds of ships. Even the sea grass that lines the eastern seaboard, most of that came over as ballast on the holds of ships from Europe and then ended up taking over. Maybe that's the “survival of the fittest thing” too, that basically an invasive species comes in and wreaks havoc on the subtle balance of an ecosystem because it’s strong enough to take over. Is that a good thing? No. It's not even a question — it just isn't — because it has now destroyed the biodiversity.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Is this next photograph of Antarctica? It's such a beautiful image.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: That's Antarctica. It's a little difficult to see, but this [points to the photograph] is moss on Elephant Island, which is where the Shackleton expedition was marooned. This is 5,500 year-old moss.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: We've done some research on long durational natural phenomena and we’ve found information on mosses in Antarctica but none as old as 5,500 years. What was your process like for finding the oldest of a particular type of organism?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Well, once I knew that there was moss that is over 2,000 years old I definitely wanted to find out where the oldest was. In some cases it's a combination of looking at what research is available — often what's online — my first source was Google searches. Then I would track down the actual published research paper and the researchers. Then I could engage in a more nuanced conversation with them and see what other research was going on.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Did you find that the researchers were typically very open to speaking with you?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Nine out of ten times, they were thrilled. They loved that a) somebody was paying attention to the research at all, and b) that it was somebody outside their field. A lot of the work they do is so specialized and esoteric that nobody else is talking about it. You know, you get your paper published and then that's it.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: I could imagine that an artistic bridge to a wider audience might be very appealing to them.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I don't know how much they cared about it being art per se, but it being someone outside their field is exciting in and of itself. I think of the term “scientific community” as the same kind of misnomer as the term “arts community.” There are so many different nooks and crannies and specialties in the arts, where maybe a performance artist is not really interested in what a painter is doing. The same kind of hierarchies and structures exist in the science world as well.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Our experiences with working with scientists have been very similar. They are often really excited to share what they are working on with us, but not necessarily because we are coming from an arts background.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Exactly. And every once in a while there's a scientist who's like, "I have some art ideas to share with you!" But not usually. [Laughs.]
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Do you find any commonalities between the scientists who research these long-lived organisms?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I don't think that the scientists look at these organisms that way. Often times, the fact that the organisms they study have lived for along time is incidental. As I said, there's not an area of the sciences that deals with duration so there's not a study of longevity across species. They sometimes are excited when they find something that has some general mass appeal because that also means a wider audience for their research, too — like, "Great! Now people will know that I've found this 13,000 year old colonial oak shrub in Riverside, California. Cool!"
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Could you walk us through a few more of The Oldest Living Things?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Well, this is the lichen I mentioned at the beginning that lives nearby that rather primal landscape in Greenland. They’re called map lichens and you can see they have this sort of aerial map structure. They are a great example of an organism that is incredibly unassuming. You would have no idea that they were anything exciting. They grow one centimeter every 100 years. They exist in lower latitudes as well and they grow faster where it’s warmer but in this area of Greenland, it’s one centimeter every 100 years. That's my favorite statistic in the project — in part because we can relate to 100 years as a human lifespan or our aspirational human lifespan, anyway. Just imagine growing one centimeter in your entire lifetime, if that was all that you did! This goes back to the deep time question and geological time question too. Continents are drifting away at a faster rate than this lichen is growing. Another fascinating tidbit is that some map lichens — not this particular one — were taken into outer space by some astrobiologists and exposed to outer space conditions for 10 days and then returned completely healthy and intact. This is part of the study of astrobiology, looking at clues to figuring out how life either started or arrived on earth.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Again, in that field, you might see the resilience in extreme environments that you were describing before.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Are you familiar with extremophiles?
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Yes. There's a hypothesis that extremophile bacteria could have been the earliest forms of life on earth.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Astrobiology looks at the potential that some life form piggybacked its way to earth on a comet or asteroid, survived through the entry into the atmosphere. That could be the origin of life on earth. And that, actually, brings us to the stromatolites. Stromatolites are bound cyanobacteria, and are part biologic (the bacteria) and part geologic (non-living sediments like silt and sand.) These photos are of the oldest living stromatolites. This is in western Australia. There are the ones in Shark Bay, Australia that most people know of, but this is further up. The ones in Shark Bay are actually dead, for the most part, but most people don't know that. You can see in the photo that some of them are black — the black bits are dead. Stromatolites are one of the earliest known life forms on earth. They existed 3.5 billion years ago, and perhaps landed on Earth from elsewhere. One of the most exciting things I learned while doing my research for this project is that the stromatolites oxygenated the planet by performing photosynthesis. It took 900 million years to create enough oxygen to make earth's atmosphere inhabitable.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Enough oxygen for basically all the other life that we know on earth to be able exist.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: So, we should thank the stromatolites for us being here today. [Laughs.]
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: [Waves to photo] Thank you.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: There's a deep irony there, I think, which is that they are sort of the original climate changers. The one's that made it possible for us to —
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Well, they created the climate.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: True. They're the climate creators, in a sense. Now we're destroying what they did.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I think the important thing to think about when talking about climate change and climate cycles, especially over these long timescales, is to differentiate between a natural climate change cycle and something that is happening so rapidly. Man-made rapid climate change doesn't allow anything to adapt. It's happening too quickly and it’s creating a combination of biodiversity loss and a lack of lead-time for organisms to be able to adapt to a new environment. Just think about humans and how we have all sorts of characteristics that don't really benefit us anymore. When I first started doing some public speaking, I read a book that said something like, "Of course you feel nervous when you're standing on a stage with 500 pairs of eyes staring at you — because that means you're in an open space and that you're in danger." You know, primitive instincts of fight or flight. Got to go. [Laughs.] So if you think about it, it’s another way to personalize and understand the relationships between deep time, climate change, and evolution. We have all of these characteristics physiologically that don't benefit us anymore but it takes us so long to evolve. When the climate has changed so rapidly and is continuing to change, it puts every single one of these things in danger.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Can you tell us about the taxonomy section included in the exhibit? This is one of my favorite graphics.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Mine too. I worked with an illustrator, Michael Paukner, to create this Linnaean taxonomy infographic, as well as a number of scientists to make sure my information was correct. The graphic is divided into categories "Domain, Kingdom, Class." You might remember this from school — though if you're my age we really didn't talk about Domain when I was — I’m thinking back to middle school biology where we did "Kingdom, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species." Again, in the context of an art gallery, I think it's important to show the different levels or layers of the work — that this just wasn’t ad hoc. There was a whole lot of method to the madness. This is also a way that I hope will start to show some of the relationships of the organisms to one another. As you can see, The Oldest Living Things are mostly plants. That's not a surprise.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: What animals even come close to qualifying for the list of Oldest Living Things?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I'll let you answer that question yourself by referring to the taxonomy infographic... [Laughs. Points.] Corals and sponges.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: So, not animal in the way that we would not necessarily, immediately think of.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I'm just giving you a hard time — I hadn’t even really given much thought to the fact that coral is an animal before doing this project. I photographed one of the four subjects listed in the taxonomy, and that's the brain coral, which is on the wall over there. Next to the taxonomy, I chose to display one photo of a subject from each kingdom: bacteria, plantae, fungi, animalia, so that a visitor can relate the organisms back to the taxonomy. One of the other corals on the list is the barrel sponge — or volcano sponge — that lives in the seafloor off Antarctica. I just didn't have access to the submarine or R.O.V. necessary to visit them. They're in very deep water so they did not make it into the project.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Volcano sponges. What a wonderful name.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Yes. They have these great fantastic shapes. They really look like barrels but they also kind of look like a kid's model of a volcano. The oldest ones are thought to be around 15,000 years old. There are also two other corals which qualify — one is in the Scandinavian arctic, and the other is off of Hawaii in very deep water.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: This will be a beautiful way for people to step out of the purely aesthetic realm. It creates a nice bridge to the research room, which exemplifies the second layer of what you do: the scientific research angle. This infographic really contextualizes the organisms within a scientific body of research. I think it’s wonderful to have this.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Thank you. That's the imagined flow. This is sort of an interesting thing to think about in terms of durational work and audience attention. You start in the main room and take in the work, but hopefully, the more time the audience spends with the various aspects of the work, the more it will give back. The idea is that you can, just look at the photographs, take them in visually, leave, and still get something out of it. But, hopefully, you're rewarded with more if you choose to put more effort into exploring all the aspects of the project.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Absolutely. You asked me if my research on long-term thinking and deep time has changed my own way of thinking, and I think that it has. But in addition to that, it's really changed how I think about trying to incorporate all the different layers of my process into the exhibition. Questions like, “What should I expose, and how much of the personal nature of the work do I want to share, and is that part of the work?” The idea of life as practice. All these different things that — when I started the project — I hadn't figured out. It was originally just, “I know what I'm looking for.” In retrospect, there are a lot of other objects that I wish I had saved and collected. I tend to not throw things away that are related to the work, but even the idea of taking other photographs of things that were part of the process was something that I didn't do at first. I began to do this as the project went on because I realized that I had siloed things a little too much. Maybe I was waiting for permission from somebody, for somebody to say, "Oh no, you can mix it all together!” I had started out thinking it's science when it’s in the news but it’s art when it’s in an art gallery. I hadn't quite figured out how to weave them together. But now my perspective has completely changed.
I had a very interesting conversation with Jerry Saltz about this after doing my TED talk. I had regretted not talking about the artistic process and the personal aspects of the work. Jerry was the first person to say, "Wait a second, you should break all these walls down. For one thing, I want to know everything about the work and for another thing, I want to know about you." That was such an important conversation for me to have before I did the book. The book has quite a lot of writing in it — I wrote over a 100 pages of text — which I wasn't expecting to do, necessarily. It turned out I needed to do that to add a level of storytelling that would weave together the science, the art, and the personal experience, as well as the philosophical aspects in book form.
For me, the research/studio room that we're standing in now embodies all of that in an exhibition context. This room is really about all of the layers. See, there's the photo of Jōmon Sugi, the first tree I visited on that early trip to Japan. Here are some antlers from the Yakushima deer that's an endemic species on that island. These are things that I collected along the way. Here, I have on display some travel brochures, and these are my actual project notebooks with their index tabs.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Are people allowed to go through them?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: No! [Laughs.] Unfortunately, it's not a tactile room. Also I brought in some of the things that are on my bookshelf, including my travel books and some of the things I was reading while doing the project. There's Pando, the 80,000 year-old colony of quaking aspen, and the bristlecone pine. [Points to USPS “Superlatives of America” stamp collection.]
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I love the kitschy quality of these stamps.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I definitely wanted to bring out some of the quirky aspects because this work can seem so heavy and serious. I wanted to show some of the weird playful side as well.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: [Looking at tacked-up photographs.] “Pig 1.5.” Oh my god, that's fantastic! “Dinosaur footprints 150 - 180 million years ago.” Wonderful.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Also I want to give a second life to the research papers, as well, so those have been hung in two rows across this wall. It helps illustrate that I actually read this stuff. Nothing was done on a whim. There was a lot of homework but there was a lot of fun along the way, too.
Here are a few snapshots of a Danish archaeologist I was working alongside. We were camping, actually, in the area with the view of Greenland from the first photo we talked about. They were digging up some Norse ruins at a Norse gravesite. This is a photo of one of the archaeologists on the team, y'know, just catching some trout with his bare hands [Laughs.] The sort of things that happen in the margins but end up being these really profound experiences.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: This really helps to illustrate the journey. It gives a sense of the human time that you spent developing this project.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I've never done this kind of installation before and I hope that this will connect people to that process. Even bringing in the travel books — I mean, that's a lot travel books! It's something that I hope will be another window into understanding what this work is, and that it will be something that's fun and funny and quirky too. It's serious work but it’s also about living life. Even though there's a lot of homework involved, its not an academic project. It's truly a transdisciplinary project that I think everybody will bring something different to and get something different out of. I wanted to basically lay all my cards on the table.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: That's wonderful. One thing I'm curious about, after seeing so much of the actual scientific research that went into the project, is what your artistic process is like. When you found an organism that you knew you were going to photograph, how did you select the angle, the lighting? I'm curious about your photographic sense and how that came to be?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I'm glad you brought that up. It varies. In some cases, I had all the time in the world. I could hang out for a couple of days and photograph it in the morning, photograph it at night. But a number of times, I had an hour to visit this thing and it happened to be in the middle of the Namib-Naukluft Desert at high noon, so that's when I photographed it. I do take a lot images, so I spent a lot of time editing down the images for the both book and the exhibition. The other thing, taking a step back, was that I was really trying to think of them as portraits of these organisms and not as landscapes. The landscapes are landscapes. The organisms, however, I thought of as individuals and I asked myself, “How would I make a portrait of them?” Is that a portrait of the lichen? [Points to photograph of the map lichen.] I don't know. But it’s not meant to be literal.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: I do get that sense from looking at these pictures. That's why I asked. It is a character study in a way, looking at the character of each organism from an aesthetic perspective.
It's truly a transdisciplinary project that I think everybody will bring something different to and get something different out of. I wanted to basically lay all my cards on the table.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I wasn't approaching it as a pure documentary project. Obviously, there's a strong documentary element to it, but it’s more of a creative archive. At the same time, I wasn't waiting for National Geographic-style light to hit each organism. I wasn’t going to sit there all day for a beam of sunlight to hit something. I didn't want to overly heroicize these organisms, especially the ones that are the most diminutive. Because, “Oh, it’s this thing you just trampled over in the woods.” That was part of the point, in a sense. I wanted to present them as they were. In some cases, though, I did add additional images to help create context because if you saw the map lichen without the Greenland landscape, I don't think you would get enough of a sense of both the environment that it lives in and the differences of scale. The heroic scale of the landscape, and well — maybe equally heroic scale — of the organism.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: They are sort of like the anti-heroes of nature. That's the word that's coming to mind.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: Yes. I like that.
TOM ORISTAGLIO: Is there any one of these organisms that you personally identify with the most? A sort of “spirit animal,” in quotes? Or is that too much personification?
RACHEL SUSSMAN: [Laughs.] Well, I haven't gone quite that far with the anthropomorphizing. But for me, this element of connection is tied to my travel experiences. It's hard for me not to feel pretty strongly about the llareta, which is the one organism that most people relate to, in part because it’s so alien-looking. The things that have been the most profound over the years are not the organisms but the landscapes — anything that gives me that feeling of opening a window into some past time. I would say that I personally identify most with a place rather than a thing, and I would choose South Georgia Island as that place. That was a profound landscape.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Which organism was there?
The things that have been the most profound over the years are not the organisms but the landscapes — anything that gives me that feeling of opening a window into some past time.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: I was there because of the 5,500 year-old moss in Antarctica, and South Georgia was home to my “backup moss” — 2,200 years old — in case I couldn’t find the bank on Elephant Island. Some of the most striking landscapes in the project are from South Georgia Island. It's in the Antarctic convergence, which shares the same tidal currents and weather as Antarctica, but it’s just a little bit warmer. It has some of the same species that live on Antarctica but 10- or 100- fold more abundant. We stopped on a beach one morning that had 300,000 penguins on it.
SIENA ORISTAGLIO: Oh my god.
RACHEL SUSSMAN: You just can't believe that it’s there. Still, there are remains of old whaling stations there as well, so we know that we've done so much damage to this place that seems impossibly remote and is just incredibly gorgeous. That’s the combination of feelings I get when I look at it. It’s an emotional landscape and a philosophical landscape, but we've also damaged it. It represents a profound, sad, and also sort of hopeful moment of maybe being able to — not turn back the clock — but have a better plan moving forward.
The solo exhibition of Sussman’s work is on view at the Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation in Red Hook, Brooklyn, until November 2, 2014. To purchase Rachel Sussman's book, The Oldest Living Things in the World, click here.