In conversation: Laura Donkers
Meet Laura Donkers, a multi-media visual artist, curator, and independent researcher who skillfully navigates the intricate spaces between nature, culture, and science. With a diverse range of methods and strategies, Laura's work delves into complex ideas associated with contemporary, historical, and cultural interpretations of place. Through field-based research, interdisciplinary collaboration, and socially engaged activism, she brings together artists, scientists, organizations, and communities to create conversations, actions, drawings, and public interventions.
Insights of an Eco Artist Team
23 de junho de 2023
To begin, can you tell us about your background and how it has influenced your artistic practice?
I was born in London but always loved being outside. As a young person, I felt restricted and uncomfortable in doors but much freer and more confident as soon as I stepped out of doors. I left home as soon as I could and went to work on a dairy farm in South West England, which I enjoyed immensely but was not a ‘career’ as I was eager to travel as much as I could. I found work as a herdswoman in Australia and the Netherlands, and I eventually settled in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with my veterinary husband Geert. We had a family and built a steady life there for 30 years. In recent years we had the chance to travel again and found a temporary home in New Zealand. When I began to learn about art I found it difficult to make work in a studio setting but solved this issue by building temporary outside studios each time I started a new work. I could work big and experimentally and allow the climatic and environmental conditions to influence how and what I made.
Your work often deals with the relationship between nature, culture, and science. Can you speak more about your approach to exploring these themes?
The correspondence between conditions, matter and making are the foundations of my practice, which I develop intuitively through the process of creating each new work. However, it is also underpinned by the knowledge that I gain from others such as naturalists, ecologists and scientists but also and perhaps more importantly, local knowledge that I learn about from members of communities. A valuable part of my practice includes my capacity for social engagement which is an ability to engage people in conversations and dialogue. I learn so much more about places, species, practices, societal interactions and culture by simply listening and talking to people. Relationships often develop out of these casual, innocent discussions that can either be the beginning of rich and fruitful collaborations or become nodes in the development of an idea that leads me towards making new connections. It is a mysterious, trust-building process that cannot be rushed or manipulated; it just has to develop in its own time, at its own pace and leads where it must.
In your artist statement, you mentioned that "perceptions of the climate crisis can be changed through creativity and co-production". Can you elaborate on this line of thought?
My practice brings together art-science-activist perspectives into a sensorial, emotional, and scientific space with the intention of imaginatively engaging citizens into thinking about climate change as a collective phenomenon. I use the experimental and cognitive effects of creativity as a platform for dialogue on the role of human activity and contemporary lifestyles in relation to species extinction and climate change.
I use creativity as an empathetic means to engage people with locally experienced climate change and biodiversity loss as a method to develop their personal connection. I work with them to explore what climate change means to them through some form of creative activity that instigates direct sensory experiences with nature. The social interactions and creative encounters we share together help to create an open space for mutual learning from different, individual perspectives. I come with materials and a plan of the day’s activities that include time for learning from an ecological expert and exploring, collecting and making together outside. I think the open outside environment helps people to feel freer to talk and share their thoughts that then develops into a camaraderie around the subject that enables exploration and questioning to arise. People need to feel safe to express their thoughts and fears on climate change and creative activities and working together helps them to do this.
This work involves exploring difficult themes with people, some of which are possibly outside of their current knowledge base and certainly way beyond their control. This state of ignorance and helplessness can leave people feeling ambivalent or numb to the extractive and destructive practices that are causing the problems and lie at the origins of climate change. However, my approach aims to show that we can work towards changing these feelings if we reconnect more intimately to nature and each other by making art together, using participatory and collaborative methods to collectively alter perceptions of the living environment and develop co-responsibility towards it.
One of your submitted projects is the work entitled Metamorphic 2023. What can you tell us about its processes and creation?
'Metamorphic' presents the 'frottage' drawing process as a method to transform tactile surface textures into a visible artefact on paper. This process results from an intimate exchange between the maker, materials and surface, which, in this case, occurred through a combination of blue pastel shades drawn onto Japanese Okawara paper onto a Lewisian gneiss outcrop in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Gneiss is a crystalline, metamorphic rock formed by immense heat and pressure deep within the Earth’s crust. Lewisian gneiss is 3.0 - 1.7 billion years old and is found in thrust faults formed during tectonic events that produced Scotland’s mountains. The mark-making I created was achieved through gentle stroking actions onto the sensitive cream paper to reveal the diverse surface tensions displayed in these ancient, weathered rocks. The chosen colour palette creates a visual link to its oceanic location, and I develop my engagement with this cold, harsh environment through my sustained, uncomfortable experience of executing the work. These facets combine to illustrate the cycle of intimate encounters between the maker, materials and surface, thereby completing the transformative process.
How do you collaborate with artists, activists, communities, and stakeholder organizations to create events, exhibitions, and projects that explore ecological concerns?
Developing collaborations with people is a slow, painstaking process that involves trustworthiness and patience on all sides. I am constantly surprised at the outcomes we co-produce through this process as they often have humble beginnings, such as a private chat with someone about what they would like to see happen to improve things in their communities. This starting point seems to get my mind and creative thoughts working. I think a project begins with an identified need from a local person(s) - it might be something I am not familiar with at all but I can see how it would make a difference to the person, or their community, and this seems to get the ball rolling and fire up the faith and believability of what becomes a proposed project. But this cannot be too fantastical - it has to be possible. Anything that I achieve is a result of the discussion. My contribution is to ask questions and learn about the issue from the perspective of others. I seem to then be able to form a picture in my head of an outcome and then share it and mould it by working with those involved to help make it happen. I think the contribution of people’s own experiences is so vital to making successful projects as their experiential knowledge stems from the location, concern or interest that already holds the energy necessary to bring the project to life. If that energy isn’t there in the first place, I cannot generate it on my own. I tap into what is already present and lend my support and creative capacity to help people change things for themselves. I am just part of the process.
Your work involves a range of media and methods, from field-based research to interdisciplinary collaboration. How do you decide which methods to use for each project?
I have always trusted my own intuition even though I do not fully believe that I am either capable or worthy of success. I like to just jump in and respond in the way that feels right. I don’t fully expect things to work. I am willing to fail. I have developed a field-based approach to exploring the environment because it allows me to discover ‘in the moment' rather than coming up with a fixed idea of what I was looking for and going to make. It has become more usual to work like this, but when I first began to develop this process I found it hard to explain to residencies, galleries, or even other artists that I would just go out and find something to make art with or about. What I would need would be there, somehow. I believe that the process has already started in choosing that place. I just have to follow my instincts and not doubt them. All this sounds a bit arrogant perhaps, but I think it comes more from a place of humility. I am an instrument responding and creating with and for the environment rather than an orchestrator or manipulator. I use this approach in my collaborations too. I have much to give but also to learn. I like to listen and then respond with my own thoughts, experiences and visions.
You have a drawing series entitled Tree Works Aotearoa that applies Frottage, a drawing practice that converts haptic experience into a visual encounter. Can you explain a bit about this drawing practice and the project?
I developed my knowledge and skills of the frottage drawing process while on an artist residency in France in 2015. I had thought I would make a large (10 x 1.5m) drawing in the landscape, but when I arrived at the location I was totally overwhelmed. I could not settle on any one place and found myself walking and walking each day. It was an amazing, oak tree-lined, agricultural landscape, criss-crossed with old stone paths and was a paradise of exploration. A Chinese artist was also at the residency and she offered me some of her handmade paper to draw on. It was so delicate and soft that I just laid it on the ground where I was sitting and started to make a rubbing of the surface. I couldn’t believe how sensitive yet resilient the paper was - and so began my encounter with frottage. I had just started a PhD in Contemporary Art Practice and was reading Karen Barad’s theory on Agential Realism. It was a heavy text to absorb yet the very practices I was engaged in seemed to perfectly illustrate the theory.
‘Rather like Barad’s scientists, we artists are part of the apparatus of the experiment. Effecting the agential cut by laying the paper down to start the work. Making a mark, the mark which simultaneously creates and reveals. Yielding to the limitations and the revelation that comes with that act to find the marks that can be made. Sometimes something pokes through, interrupting. Yet it is not about being limited, it is about discovering how to get the most out of the apparatus; it is a dialogue that reveals possibility and being within the journey of exploration, discovery and revelation.’
Abstract from my paper ‘Wall, Paper, Plant (2015)’
(Available at: https://core.ac.uk/reader/287602030 )
I created the drawing series, Tree Works Aotearoa, when I first came to Aotearoa New Zealand. I found it was the best way to get to know the trees and surfaces that were so very different from any I had encountered before. I had learned to identify the different bark surfaces before I learned any names, but could describe their idiosyncrasies to those who knew them. Frottage is a very intimate way of getting to know something.
How has your understanding of Kaupapa Māori Theory influenced your artistic practice?
My Practice-led PhD research in Contemporary Art Practice, completed in 2020, explored collaborative artistic co-creative methods to strategically promote eco-social regeneration for small island communities through local food growing to mitigate carbon emissions. This included research visits to Elam School of Art, University of Auckland to undertake comparative research into Kaupapa Māori - a Māori perspective that demonstrates respect for all lifeforms via a set of values, principles, and plans that serve as a foundation for action. I am cognizant of the boundaries that exist between indigenous and non-indigenous perspectives and as a non-indigenous person, I know that I have no capacity to ever grasp this perspective fully as it is a deep, time-based, intergenerational and cultural approach to holistic learning. Yet indigenous knowledge can help us to understand more about our place in the ecosphere and help us to think more holistically and because of this, I seek out the wisdom of indigenous practitioners to inform and develop the collaborative projects.
Part of my submission for my PhD included a public exhibition entitled Meeting Ground, that presented audiovisual documentation of the performative activities undertaken by each micro-community involved in the growing project. Meeting Ground is a translation of Marae, which is the Māori name for their communal and sacred meeting ground that provides everything from eating and sleeping space to religious and educational facilities.
Can you share a specific project or exhibition that you feel exemplifies your artistic and ecological values?
Spanning photography, sculpture, audio-visual installation, and video gaming, Blue Radius presented ecologically focused art as a platform for critical engagement by juxtaposing the perspectives of artists and activists, scientists and organisations to examine sea level rise impacts on the lives of citizens. The works were presented in a community gallery in one of Auckland’s many coastal suburbs for a four-week period from 3 to 28 September 2022.
I instigated Blue Radius as a collaborative, interdisciplinary, co-curated exhibition and events programme to open up knowledge exchange across art, sustainability education, ecology, and environmental disciplines. It aimed to connect with a broad cross-section of citizens who are confronted by locally experienced biodiversity loss and climate change-induced sea level rise. I sought to develop this as a creative engagement with children and young people, teachers, local communities, indigenous communities, artists, politicians, local authorities, business owners, tourists, new immigrants, and community organisations. I wished to extend the reach of artistic production to build awareness and encourage local communities to undertake pro-environmental action.
Blue Radius brought together art-science-activist perspectives in a sensorial, emotional, and scientific exhibition with the intention of imaginatively engaging citizens into thinking about sea level rise as a ‘collective phenomenon’. Artists, marine scientists, activists, and a carbon composting business presented the spectacle of climate change-induced sea level rise using creative and indigenous perspectives, environmental science and decision-making strategies to create a confronting yet holistic perspective of a locally relevant problem. Blue Radius presented key interrelated artworks that visualised how the future is impacted by human-driven climate change and biodiversity loss. And juxtaposed this with the impact on residents who will lose their favourite beaches, homes and lifestyles as a result of sea level rise.
It also presented viewers with related issues such as marina construction in ecologically sensitive areas; oppressive attitudes towards environmental activists; and how the impacts of warming oceans on marine life are diminishing not only biodiversity but the potential of human lives and the prospects of future generations. Blue Radius sought to open up conceptual space to contemplate the ecological crises we have caused and consider the choices/actions we take next.
It sought to change perceptions through a range of spatial interventions for gallery visitors to navigate, such as observational imagery, audio-visual testimony, a towering, tactile, three-dimensional object, and an interactive “Serious” game . The exhibition explored how individual and collective voices can help to illuminate structures of policy and decision-making and give voice to the non-human entities that suffer because of destructive human activity. This multi-disciplinary approach supported connection-building across human and nonhuman communities presenting the impacts of decision-making that have resulted in eroded favourite beaches, ruined shellfish colonies, and destroyed habitats, such as that of the Kororā.
At two meters high, Tuakana Teina disrupted views across the gallery. Ranson conceived of the idea to create a Carbon Stack as a sculptural metaphor for healing environmental and societal ills.
Climate justice starts with those most vulnerable in our community including our taonga (treasure) species. Extraction, pollution, and governance have left our moana (ocean) in a biodiversity crisis, facing ecological collapse. The mauri (life force) of our moana is under threat. (Bianca Ranson September 2022)
It was developed from the Carbon Stack concept, which belongs to Richard Wallis, founder of The Carbon Cycle Company, and inventor of the Carbon Composter who helps individuals, companies, and communities to reduce CO2 emissions by composting local food waste. Using carbon in the compost heap ensures that food waste gets properly composted down to a beneficial growing medium. Wallis met Ranson when his company set up a composting system at the community garden that she helps to run at Piritahi Marae on Waiheke Island.
Ranson’s sculpture conveys the Māori worldview of reverence for the natural world and responsibility to protect species like the Kororā that have been in existence for millennia. Ranson is part of Protect Pūtiki an activist group that undertook to protect this endangered species. But their protest about the destruction caused to the habitats of the nesting Kororā by the construction company who are building the unwelcome luxury 140-berth marina, resulted in their group’s activity (swimming in the bay) being criminalised and sanctioned with a trespassing injunction and given a $750,000 fine. In defiance of this injustice, the “elephant-sized” Carbon Stack is decorated with the shredded 1000-page court injunction and a Pohutukawa tree that was ripped out by the private developers. The injunction forms a traditional weaving design on the north and south face of the stack. It represents mangōpare (the Hammerhead Shark). Māori believe that the rare appearance of this creature in their waters shows that the gods are watching over their families and that the oceans are clean and balanced – and thus its placement on the stack offers a sign of hope.
NIWA’s My Coastal Future Game afforded a very different experience to visitors, due to its familiar format for all ages. NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research), is Aotearoa New Zealand’s Crown Research Institute for climate, freshwater and marine science. They provide decision makers with the science-based information they need to make informed choices. The game was created especially for the exhibition as a way to bring the implications of sea level rise into a form of ‘playful’ decision-making about a fictional coastal property.
The game exposes the player to the realities of sea level rise impacts and storm surges to highlight the role of decision-making. It provides options around building seawalls, physically moving the property to higher ground, or moving away completely. The introduction of worsening conditions and financial considerations provides additional facets to further complicate the player’s choices. Its obvious appeal to young people carries the hope that the challenges of climate change will become a thought process and talking point in the home.
I envisaged Blue Radius as having a restorative function within the open space of the gallery, through its capacity to convey solidarity, appreciation and respect for the people who are experiencing and witnessing the main drivers of biodiversity loss on their doorsteps and feel as powerless as the species they advocate for to do anything about it. While the exhibition and events programme cannot alter the impacts of environmental and ecological destruction, the purpose behind the exhibition and events programme was to promote dialogue with the people who are motivated to speak out and protest environmental calamity and injustice; or who bear witness to it as they walk along the shore each day; or who study it or advocate for those who live with its consequences. Blue Radius was for all of these people to let them know that their voices have been heard, amplified and validated as worth listening to, and as exemplars for the public to connect with. My hope was that it could help others to understand and contribute to the fight for more effective and greater environmental responsibility at all levels of society in recognition of our interrelationship and interdependence with nature.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists who are interested in exploring ecological themes in their work?
The subject of ecology, climate change and biodiversity losses are some of the most vital subjects of our era. I think it is important that aspiring artists find ways to work collaboratively to develop their knowledge and gain a holistic perspective of their chosen subject by reaching out to all kinds of people and forms of knowledge in order to do this.
Find more about the artist here.
Treeworks by Laura Donkers. Image courtesy of Laura Donkers.
Laura Donkers is a multi-media visual artist, curator and independent researcher . Her work mediates complex ideas associated with contemporary, historical and cultural readings of place through a variety of methods, strategies and processes. She employs field-based research, interdisciplinary collaboration and socially engaged activism to explore the complex spaces between nature, culture and science. Works are expressed through conversations, actions, drawings and public interventions in partnerships with artists, scientists, organisations and communities.
She holds a BFA Hons in Fine Art, MFA in Art, Society, Publics, and PhD in Contemporary Art Practice. Her Practice-led PhD research was carried out at University of Dundee and awarded an AHRC scholarship. This work explored collaborative artistic co-creative methods to strategically promote eco-social regeneration for small island communities, and included research visits to Elam School of Art, University of Auckland to gain underpinning knowledge of Kaupapa Māori Theory. She received several awards to develop her work in Aotearoa New Zealand and is now based in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.