A conversation between Monique Jansen & Xin Cheng

February 2022

Xin Cheng & Monique Jansen, what could this become?, 2020. Foraged materials from AUT. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Xin: Since our collaboration for Speaking Surfaces at St Pauls St Gallery, I have been wondering about an art/making practice that is kinder for the planet. As we talked about before, we buy art supplies from Gordon Harris, but actually everything comes from overseas. Recently I found a book called The Organic Artist by Nick Neddo, where he showed ways of making art supplies from locally-available materials, which makes a lot more sense.

Here is something I made with bamboo. It’s like a dip pen and then you just carve the ends.

Monique: When my kids were little we would go to the farm down the road. They had turkeys and we would collect the turkey feathers — we’d make quilt pens out of them and they’d do all of their drawings with turkey feathers.

X: This is another thing also from the book, a felt-tipped pen. I didn’t have felt in the house, so I just used wood shaving here. The wooden sticks are bound together with string that I made from tī kōuka/ cabbage tree.

M: It’s great, perfect for here.

X: There is this wedge that makes it tight.

M: It’s nice, simple technology. In permaculture we talk about appropriate technology. About using what’s appropriate. If a low-tech solution is the most appropriate, use that, if a high-tech solution is appropriate, use that! It’s about what’s using what’s appropriate in terms of energy, resources and efficiency with the aim to reduce our dependence on fossil energy. There is a book called Green Wizardry, by John Michael Greer, which talks about appropriate technologies.

X: Sounds good. Did he talk about being appropriate to particular contexts?

M: Absolutely. It is really important to consider the whole range of contexts from environmental impacts, energy efficiency, history, colonisation, to cultural stories, as much as you can.

X: With the research I’ve been doing on Oakley Creek, I found that a lot of the weeds are medicinal Chinese plants. For people doing conservation work, they see them as weeds. However, when my mum visited, she noted, for example, the tree privet has medicinal properties and is good for menstruation.

M: That’s so cool. It’s an interesting conversation that Mark (Harvey) and I have sometimes at home, too. He tends to take the line that any plant that’s not indigenous to here [Aotearoa New Zealand] is a problem, so get rid of it. I’m all for getting rid of pests like possums, but it’s complex and maybe we shouldn’t always assume that a pest plant is a bad thing: I’m interested in thinking about what ecosystem-service is it playing? Could it be useful? As opposed to: ‘it’s wrong, take it out.’ Sometimes plants, like gorse, can be a nursery plant and a nitrogen fixer. It’s not bad, per se. It’s how you manage it for the context in which it is growing that could make the difference. Could the problem become an opportunity? This seems like a better way to consider conservation to me because conservation, sometimes assumes that there was a ground zero that we’re trying to get back to. There wasn’t. Earth has changed all the time and human have effected and changed landscape since the beginning of time by doing things like spreading seeds. So, it seems like a futile exercise to try and ‘go back’ to something. Some of these introduced plants and animals are terrible pests in Aotearoa but it’s complex. If something is considered a pest, could it then become an opportunity, something useful?

X: We’ve got a whole lot of fennel from the railway because it seems to be abundant here. Did you come across The Forager’s Treasurer? It’s written by Johanna Knox who lives in Wellington.

M: I think I got that from Mark for Christmas but it’s on the pile of books we haven’t got to yet.

X: It’s a great book, where she also wrote about dying with plants. Apparently, the fennel flowers make a great yellow dye. Johanna wrote that, after you’ve dyed whatever fabric with the liquid, you can actually let it evaporate and then use it as ink, which I didn’t realise before. Such thrifty knacks!

M: I’ve got an ex-student who is doing her PhD, Arielle Walker. Look at her website. She produces a lot of dyeing using natural dyes and dyeing wool and used woollen blankets. She did a whole work where she used old second-hand blankets that were dyed with natural dyes. She has been doing it for herself with her own craft stuff for years. She’s really knowledgeable now and would be a good person to talk to.

X: Sounds good!

We’ve also been looking at textile recycling. There is a guy who has a textile recycling business in the Hutt Valley. around the place and he used to run the shop in Petone where he would sell some of the clothing and then the rest would be sent overseas for recycling. And then he would import rags back, to be sold for cleaning. However there are heaps of stuff that can’t be recycled like duvets, pillows and cushions. They get sent to the landfill. We got some from him and are thinking about ways we can use them. He was saying back in the days, in the 1930s, there was a really big textile recycling industry here. All the wool could be recycled into other objects.

M: But they’re all polyester now, what would they do with them?

X: They can’t do anything with it.

M: So depressing! There is a National Film Unit film from the 1950’s that shows the harekeke industry in Foxton. They used to have a large flax industry, around the early 20C. They were making ropes and the like. The footage shows all the guys working in the mills and processing the harekeke. The footage of them harvesting is a bit distressing as they are chopping down the whole plant and not leaving the mother, father and baby in the centre of the plant. I am working with Dr. Huhana Smith from Massey University on a project called Te Waituhi A Nuku, which is part of a much larger project about the effects of climate change on coastal Maori farming communities. One of the other projects is a harakeke plantation to try and retain the flax industry and see if it can be viable again.

X: Cool! How are they undertaking this? Do you need all the equipment and tools?

M: I don’t think they’ve got that far. Harkeke planting is part of their wetland restoration but they have planted harakeke in rows with the view to being able to harvest it more easily in the future. I think they are also looking at natural plant dyes for dying harakeke?

X: Sounds good.

Fired pottery crushed to become garden filling, and drawing material. Photo: Xin Cheng

X: I wanted to talk to you about art schools actually. Over the summer I was sorting through stuff from my own art education. There was so much material I had to just throw out. I felt really overwhelmed. When I was in art school, no one ever talked about what happens to the stuff afterwards. At the end of each semester, they’d bring a giant skip and everything is chucked out.

M: It’s horrible — we do the same at AUT and it’s awful.

X: Do you think there is another way of running art education where you keep the end in mind? Before you go and get the materials, you think about where they would go and then maybe you wouldn’t get the materials in the first place?

M: I’ve done various little projects with students, with varying success. I think you could start at first-year level and get students to think about the life cycle of their artwork and the carbon footprint of the materials they are using. What is it called when businesses have to take charge of the waste that comes from it?

X: Life-cycle analysis?

M: Yeah that’s it — if students have to do a life cycle analysis of their artwork, they will make different choices from the beginning. If they know they’re going to have to account for the materials and processes they are using and deal with their waste, they would likely make quite different artworks? It would naturally effect what the end product might be made of and what it might look like.

The other option is for students to make their own art materials: paper, charcoal, crayons, pigments, dyes, clay etc. It’s not difficult to make these traditional art materials, and I think the students would enjoy it. I think the barrier to doing this, in the contemporary, western model of art school, is that it feels restrictive and the worry is that the student art work would all end up looking the same, because of the restricted material range. Of course, what people are fearful of is that you’d just end up with a whole lot of hippy art (laughs) and that it wont be very experimental. I think it’s a bit easier to engage with making your own materials through conventional painting and drawing. But when you get into sculpture and installation it becomes trickier. That’s my feeling anyway.

X: Things like plaster or metal casting?

M: We always try to reuse or recycle plaster and clay, so we’re starting to teach students about waste and life cycle of the materials, but there is still a long way to go. I think you just have to start with a few projects with students right from the start: impressing on them, that to be an ethical artist then you need to be responsible for the life-cycle of your artwork, therefore, think about what materials will you use, what is their impact on the environment and how will you deal with the artwork when you don’t want it anymore?

Working with found/scavenged materials is always an option. In the first instance, you are reusing waste and some of those materials can go back into the recycling waste stream when you are done with them, but ultimately it is just delaying the inevitable – all those materials will eventually end up in landfill, creating more problems. I think that’s a big problem to try and figure out at art schools. How do you work through all of these issues but not restrict students in their experimentation? High school art is so restrictive, so when they get to art school you want them to experiment widely and go crazy but if we’re going to deal with the life cycle of our artworks, then you might choose rather restrictive materials to work with and that might shut everything [creativity] down. On the other hand, necessity is the mother of invention – restrictions can also create space for creativity and problem solving. So I don’t know what the answer is. It’s problematic.

X: Everyone is still exploring. With the architecture paper I taught at AUT’s Future Environments last semester, they were getting the students to start thinking about those sorts of questions—they talked about the whakapapa of the materials, where it came from and where it will go after. The project brief was to make an installation for art week using materials from waste streams. That was useful for us to think about the relationship between materials and architecture and what happens to the materials after. Buildings generally get renovated after a certain number of decades, and so it’s good to start to think in that direction.

The school also has a material library. At the end of their projects, the students are encouraged to disassemble their models, and the material becomes available for use by others, thus reducing the need to buy new materials from art-supply shops.

M: It’s a good stepping stone, phase one is getting students to work from waste-streams and think about what to do with it after. But if you take my logic, which is that it is a futile effort because things can only be recycled once or maybe twice before ending up in landfill, then students will end up not making anything material. That’s where we’re at with humanity — you feel stuck to make the big moves that we need to do. Therefore maybe it is still good to take that first step and just get students to recognise the amount of waste and make something with that, reuse it rather than consuming more new products? Then, down the line, there is the whole life cycle that they have to start thinking about.

X: Once you start to have is this question in mind — maybe you start to look at things differently. It was quite interesting, Adam and I have been going to this place called Earthlink, they take e-waste and then sort it for recycling. We’ve seen computers being taken apart, different parts cut out, but apparently, all the plastic just goes to the landfill — the glass which is glued to the screens, that can’t be recycled so are smashed. So the only bit that is the recycled is the precious metals, which are actually sent overseas for processing: gold is sent to Belgium and others are sent to Asia, because in New Zealand, we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with them.

M: Ultimately you have to question the carbon footprint and logic of doing that. Does it balance out?

X: Yes, they also melt them into a soup with the circuit-board plastics and then extract the metals out of it. So in the end, there is only a tiny percentage of metal that’s ‘recycled’. The rest is still dumped in the landfill. It’s bewildering.

M: And very energy-intensive to extract the small amount of reusable e-waste.

X: It was interesting because there is The Learning Connection nearby. They often get art students coming over asking for materials like copper wire, which for Earthlink already has a high monetary value — they sell it for recycling and get about $5 per kilo. [This has recently increased due to the war in Ukraine.] The staff told me, ‘If artists want to deal with this issue, they should look at the things we have to send to the landfill and find a way to use them, instead of the other materials which have a recycling process.’

M: Yes I agree, but it comes full circle to where we started this conversation, about your garage full of art stuff you’d accumulated over the years. In art school, you make a lot of work and accumulate lots of materials that we don’t value and don’t want to store. So we end up throwing it all away.

X: That’s one interesting thing about artworks: they are meant to last forever when it is a collection. However, with most of our things (whether art or not), at some point they stop being valued. Then you need ways to transform them. I find there is a lack of facilities that would do these transformations. Over the summer, I had all of these fired pottery which I broken into small parts, because I heard they could be turned into grog and used again. But I couldn’t break them into fine enough components. People working with glass get these grinders, which you can get in India for grinding chickpeas for chickpea flour. If I had access to this machine, I could have turned them into grog. Or if I knew someone who made terrazzo, they could make terrazzo out of those. In a way, the workshops at art schools are these places where these transformations occur.

One of my design students interviewed Gary Marshall and talked about the future of waste in Auckland. Then they consulted me, we came up with this idea of localised rubbish/re-making hubs: where materials like wood could be stored, and facilities for woodwork, machines for grinding up pottery to become other things etc. They could be run similarly to community libraries or composting hubs. Perhaps this would also tie into your idea of decentralised art schools. Anyone could come and learn about these processes. If they wanted to make terrazzo for their bathroom, for example, they could make it themselves.

M: That would, as you say require the workshops at art schools. There needs to be the machinery that unmake things: an unmakery as well as a makery! You need the skills to pull something apart and use the components. It’s a nice shift in what an art school workshop does — making and unmaking, I like that.

X: The metal foundry already does that.

M: Yeah, repurposing and reusing scraps.

X: Maybe we need more of those facilities, for different types of materials.

M: I’ve been thinking a lot about the western model of art school. There is assumption that art schools need to be in proximity to the ‘artworld’ – and that the ‘artworld’ inhabits the inner-city, cosmopolitan, metropolis… living in a grungy flats… going to gallery openings to drink the wine. I’m just not sure it’s relevant anymore so why do art schools hang on to this model?

When I think about the things we have talked about— making materials from scratch and repurposing waste — these resources are not in the centres, they’re out in the suburbs and city fringe. The inner city is restrictive and it’s hard for students to be resourceful and inventive when they’re in the middle of the city. And most students don’t live in the city centre and have to travel long distances to attend. What if the art school came to them? Decentralise the art school!

I think people’s communities and ideas of our place in the bio-region that we live in, should feature much more heavily in an art school education — what is the bioregion that you’re working in? What’s available in the bioregion that you live in? What is the context?

How can a student really understand materials and their life-cycles while sitting in a concrete studio in the city? — If you talk about the life cycle of timber while standing next to a tree in a forest, that conversation lands in a way that it doesn’t land in a concrete studio in the city centre. We can talk about waste with students but if you’re standing in the refuse centre and see all that waste coming in, it lands in a way that doesn’t when we just tell them. I think we need these decentralised art schools that do something different, where we can walk out to a paddock or forest and find natural materials to make things with and you can access waste streams and you have these different options.

So, I think my art school would be in a suburb, with large productive gardens, next to a farm and a forest and close to a rubbish and recycling facility. Where students learn how to lead a resilient, creative life! That’s my theory, are you in?

X: Yes!

M: We’ll start our own art school!

X: I felt the same when I visited The Learning Connection the other day, after we’d been at Earthlink. It’s 5 minutes drive down the road and they are at the bottom of a forest. There were workshops for metal and pottery. Students get materials from Earthlink: screens, diffuser plastic sheets, acrylic panels behind computer monitors that could be used for things like printmaking, laser cutting to other things. When you have been there and seen all of these old screens piled up outside, it’s an amazing landscape to think about our consumption. I feel like I’m really thinking about this in new ways. Knowing they all came here from overseas and then they’re going back overseas after we’ve stopped using them.

M: Exactly. My dream art school would be an integrated art and gardening school. If you can teach young people, in the physical environment of a garden, where they can grow the plants that they’re going to use for natural pigments, then I think you get a more powerful lesson about the life-cycle of an artwork, than just talking about it and showing powerpoints about waste. A massive garden with an art school in the middle of it—that’s what I want.

X: It would be so cool.

M: It would be amazing!

X: If we combine these threads together: waste minimisation, growing communities, convivial neighbourhood and holistic education, then we could get funding from different sources.

M: Artists tend to be really outward-looking and naturally inter-disciplinary, but I just don’t think art education is setting that example. Maybe if the art school was in a suburban centre, in their communities, in a garden and next to a science lab and the students worked in the recycling and refuse centre, then you really would be doing it, you’d be leading the integrated idea? I know there is a place for the art school as we know it and I love art school, it’s incredible. Its transformative education, it’s different to other forms of education, students come out changed and as different people. But I would like to teach art alongside gardening, community practice, science… My dream job, Xin, is to be an artist and gardener in residence at a high school. I just want to be the crazy art-gardening lady that just hangs out all day at school. Kids can come and help and hang out, have a cup of tea. The art room would be in the middle of the garden and would be open during break times, so kids flow from the garden to the art room and can just make the things they want to make, sit in the garden, hang out and grow stuff and stay after school…

High schools need to feel like a sanctuary, with gardens everywhere and I really believe that changes people’s feelings, allows them to breathe. Come, take your socks and shoes off, hang out on the earth, we’ll do art and gardening and not worry about if it’s art or gardening or how it all works. It’s all one and the same you’re just making and doing stuff. Making/Doing, Right? If we can get high school kids to be making and doing I think we would be creating a group of kids who are much more resilient and much more able to cope with our current situation. That’s my current dream. Making, doing, growing.

X: With our current project we hope to continue it in Lower Hutt. We’re going to approach Rebecca Kiddle who is working for the Hutt City Council. They just bought an old post-office to turn it into a space for the community.

M: That sounds amazing!

X: We’ll see how it goes!

M: Fantastic, well maybe this is the start of a project that integrates art with growing and community gardens? Artists are great at popping into those worlds right? We do that stuff, artists are magpies, we jump into all those other worlds and collaborate with other people but I don’t think they come to us, it’s not an integrated thing as much as it could be. I think you need physical proximity to really pull that off. You need to have those projects next to the gardens in the same space so people can see it happening — that’s my thinking anyway. I consider community garden and urban agriculture as part of that cultural sphere because it creates community and culture.

X: This reminds me of Common Unity Project Aotearoa’s urban farms. They have edible gardens across the Hutt Valley, including one inside a school.

M: I think schools need to be utilised better in this way. I know many schools have food gardens but if you think about the amount of land most schools have, it could be better utilised. (Don’t get me started on golf courses!). If we saw schools more as the hub of the community – you know like how schools in Finland have have a medical centre and other wrap around support stuff integrated in to the school… if we integrated thriving community and urban market gardens in to schools, what a wonderful environment in which to learn. If we could bring the art and gardening thing together, it could be a catalyst for other things.

And then you could get kids making their own charcoal to draw with, kids making their own crayons from melting beeswax with charcoal, you could get them to make paper and all sorts of things. Rather than what we currently have which is, “here is some shitty, toxic paper bought in from the other side of the world that took heaps of chemical to make”.

X: In The Organic Artist, he talked about making crayons with rock powder and different kinds of clay. He just uses a pestle and mortar because there is really into these stone-age technologies.

M: Which is fine if you’re making tiny quantities for yourself but if you’re making a class load of stuff it might be harder?

X: I guess you can always try.

M: Have our own bee hives to get the wax. And then you learn a whole lot about ecology and geology in the process!

That’s what I mean—it’s such a good learning opportunity for students, via the vehicle of art, you learn about earth science and the garden and about a whole bunch of things and in the garden, you learn about art. More integrated learning!