The Contents of My Rucksack: an Interview with Andy Davis

Andy Davis,  Malady of the Vine , digital video (still).

Andy Davis, Malady of the Vine, digital video (still).

By Scott Gleeson

The art historical motif of the figure within the landscape dates to the prehistory of human civilization. From ancient Mediterranean hunting and gathering scenes and romantic idylls to Land/Earth Art and the psychologically charged paintings of Peter Doig, the landscape has been a site for the projection of political and religious ideologies as well as a mirror reflecting historically contingent notions of selfhood and being. Multidisciplinary artist Andy Davis views the landscape through the lens of ecology and climate science, posing the question, "What is our place within the landscape in the Anthropocene epoch, an age in which humans are believed to be the driving force of geologic change?" In creating his art, Davis ventures forth into the landscape, much as the Impressionists once hiked to the Fontainebleau Forest, to make first-hand observations of the terrain. Unlike his forbearers, however, Davis acknowledges the technologically mediated experience of the landscape in contemporary screen culture, often by assuming a spectral alter ego equipped with a video camera and clad in a chromakey green suit. These interactions within natural and agricultural spaces form the basis for nuanced, research-based performances and gallery installations, several involving interactive dioramas and climate data diagrams. Peripheral Vision talks to the artist about his methods and the inspirations driving his research.


How old were you when you decided to become an artist? Describe your training and how it has contributed to your current practice.

I passed many hours drawing when I was small. Later, I decided to go to art school because I couldn’t imagine another option. After four years, I completed my BFA in the painting department at Kansas City Art Institute. Going into painting was simply to have a studio in the department that provided the most freedom. After the foundation year, I had three years to find a studio practice. I was always drawing, but also making sculptures with wooden blocks, tape loop drones, programming LED arrays, etc. all within the painting department. It was rigorous, fascinating and I made a lot of work, but my friends from KCAI are still the most enduring aspect from that formative period. I did not seek out much practical information about making paintings while I was in the painting department, so when I moved to New York I pursued the gaps in my formal education at the Art Students’ League of New York in Manhattan. I trained in figurative painting in the manner of Russian realism from a very strict Ukrainian painter. I also had the opportunity to copy paintings at the Met. I now have a somewhat convincing and bizarre ¾ scale Courbet nude in my life.  

Andy P. Davis,  Impotence (IPCC AR5) , Performative Installation / Video

Andy P. Davis, Impotence (IPCC AR5), Performative Installation / Video

Later, after living in NYC and Vietnam I decided to go back to complete my MFA. The story follows: I got a message from a friend and mentor in NYC while I was in Vietnam asking me if I knew anyone in Saigon who would be interested in a free art program in the US. It was the MFA program in Studio Art at Southern Methodist University. Dallas was in no way on my radar and although I couldn’t find any artists in VN interested, I thought, ‘Well, I’m in Vietnam and I’m interested…’ I contacted a (now former) faculty member and she gave me information on the program. I was very interested in her work and pedagogy so after being accepted I decided to attend. Coming back to the US and going straight to Dallas after an immersive period in SE Asia was shocking to say the least. However, the faculty were pretty gentle with me in the beginning. During the first semester I was given a travel grant to return to Vietnam to attend a residency at Muong Studio in Hoa Binh Province. That was the beginning of a pattern of support from SMU for travel and materials in addition to my tuition and teaching assistantship. In total, in the last two years, I’ve traveled for site seminars or residencies to Vietnam, Mexico City (twice), Berlin, Warsaw and Dijon, France where I’m currently based all through the support of SMU.

During my time in the MFA program, I waded through my share of frustrations, as I think most grad students do. Despite my belly-aching, I came out a more equipped artist than when I entered. If anything, because of conversations and critical discourse with particular faculty, I question my work from a range of positions and discourses. The faculty were sometimes like storm clouds striking my insecurities with bolts. Generally, they were quite open. Even when I went through a semester-long reverie of staging an operetta of singing seaweed for my thesis exhibition, they were receptive, listened and gave useful feedback. Furthermore, the opportunity to leave graduate school free from debt is a profound gift (though in France, it’s just routine: a DNSEP – the equivalent of a masters - might set you back 300 Euro in fees. N’importe quoi).


Describe a work of art that has been meaningful to you or influential in some way.

As a teenager, I had the privilege to spend a day wandering alone in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. There were two temporary exhibitions – drawings from the German surrealist Hans Bellmer and a survey of art from L.A. between 1955-1985. The latter exhibition featured documentation and artifacts from several of Chris Burden’s performances. These included the .22 caliber bullet extracted from the artist’s upper-left arm in his seminal work “Shoot” from 1971 in which a sharpshooter intentionally fired at him from close range. My gentle, Midwestern psyche had never been exposed to such extreme gestures for the sake of art. Thus, the piece left an indelible mark and expanded the contents of my artistic repertoire – though I’ve since decided that art involving direct violence is something best left to the annals of 1970s performance.

The Hans Bellmer exhibition was also pivotal for me. The sadistic delicacy of Bellmer’s lines made my stomach hurt. I did not know how to react to the confrontation between fetishist images of truncated bodies and the seductive grace of their rendering. I left the museum feeling guilty, as though I’d been voyeur to a crime. This was my first encounter with the ambiguous ethical / emotional spaces accessed through art. Thinking of my work now, I still feel ‘plugged in’ to that singular experience.


What are the dominant themes in your current body of work and how did your practice evolve to focus on these concerns?

I’m entangled in matters of planetary concern. I think many - if not all - humans are. I’m mired, enmeshed and constituted by contradiction. My current body of work grows out of contradiction, while seldom addressing it directly. For example, in August, I flew eight times in four weeks between the US and Mexico. On one flight, I’m looking at a graph showing the direct correlation between the radical escalation in global tourism and the hockey-stick rise in atmospheric CO2 from 1950 – 2010 (see The Great Acceleration, Steffen et al). This behavior is completely unsustainable. Welcome to the Anthropocene – the proposed geologic epoch defined by humanity becoming the main force of planetary change [Note: Various theorists and critics promulgate their own ‘-cenes’, for valid reasons. After all, it wasn’t the entire Anthropos- that launched the planet into our current climatic regime].

The relationship between form and discourse is less literal in my current work than in the past (when I inserted my body into climate diagrams). Still, the Anthropocene remains the foundation of my research and my fundamental concern. To address this discourse, I use video, performance and the special ‘affect’ of Green Screen, or Chromakey to examine the relationship between the human / more-than-human world and the deluge of images obscuring environments from view. Of our screen-based affliction, I ask, “Do images constitute our environment? What tool can wrest perception from the screen to address urgent challenges in the world?”


Describe your studio practice and working methods? How does this space contribute to your process and development of idea?

Some contents of my rucksack: A waxed-canvas bag (intended for toiletries) with pencil sharpener, shavings, gummy eraser and a range of pencils; leaves of paper; a box for collecting plant specimen; Green sailcloth canvas for Chromakey; Green suit and hood; mini-tripod and threaded adapter for cell phone mounting; computer; dried fruits and nuts (fresh fruit becomes mushy when moving about).

I move between a stationary practice of making drawings at a table and going to locations to make videos or go on walks. When I’m walking through a city, I’m looking for green buildings or objects that I can use as found greenscreens. When I walk in parks or botanical gardens, I look out for algae blooms suitable for keying. I’m not a botanist (and certainly not a Linnaean), but I love to look closely at plants. I am always searching for seaweed or fallen leaves to press.

Andy P. Davis,  Figure SPM.02 (MOLE) , Performative Installation / Video

Andy P. Davis, Figure SPM.02 (MOLE), Performative Installation / Video

Attention to gesture establishes the relationship between the videos and studio work. There are often figures in the drawings gesturing to something or toward themselves. I look through art history texts to find gestures in painting and sculpture. Enacting these gestures forms a circuit between drawing, image, personal archive, and the master narrative of art history. This practice resonates with the early 20th Century art historian Aby Warburg’s notion of the Pathosformel, but I’m still researching to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between gesture, images, history and empathy.

In front of the camera, I’m typically wearing a greenscreen suit. I go into the landscape alone and without permission which can render me vulnerable. In the video Malady of the Vine, there’s some footage of me crouching between the vine rows in my suit. In this moment I was actually hiding from two attendants in a van who had spotted me and started shouting. They confronted me and I had to use my limited French to explain why I was green. One man asked, “Are you an alien?” I could only respond, “Je suis… l’homme vert…”


Tell us about your experience at an artist residency. Where did you go and who did you meet? Would you recommend the residency to others?

Following my graduation in 2017 from Southern Methodist University was the year of residencies for me beginning with a stint at SOMA Summer in Mexico City. Each summer the artist-run, independent art program operates an international residency surrounding a specific theme. SOMA Summer 2016 ‘Archive Fever’ borrowed its name from Derrida’s eponymous text. The focus on the role of archives and documents in contemporary art sent us to several archives and artists’ studios throughout the city. Notable among them are the national archives of Mexico. As though parsed from Foucault’s dream, the archives are housed in a former prison based on the panopticon architectural schema. Where prisoners were once piled into derelict cells, now the countries institutional history since colonization is controlled by a similar security apparatus.

SOMA is unique among residencies I’ve been involved with in the past. They make it very clear in the beginning of the summer that the residency is not focused on ‘production.’ The 8-week program is comprised of seminars and studio visits with artists and critics from within Mexico and throughout the world. Likewise, there are around 30 residents from multiple continents. The program is developed by artists and they understand that 8 weeks of non-stop visits to sites and studios does not provide enough time or space for making work in keeping with the experience – that will come in the following weeks / years. The summer concluded with an evening of Miercoles de SOMA, the weekly lecture series. The residents ran a series of lectures, performances and events including a seated meditation session focusing on the tactility of different types of Maize, an intimate karaoke booth in a closet of the SOMA house, and a DJ set of bird songs to name a few. The evening was a counterpoint to the weighty discourse of and around the archive that saturated our summer.

The most valuable aspect of the SOMA experience was interacting with the other residents. Being surrounded by more than thirty international artists deeply invested in their practices and in the summer’s subject gave the residency a dynamism that was only heightened by the energy of Mexico City. From the programming, I found the meetings with visiting artists, curators and critics very useful. On a practical level, the intensity of doing one or two visits a week for the entire session helped me find the most succinct way to speak about my work and feel more comfortable doing-so. I would certainly recommend SOMA Summer to other artists.