Cole Swanson is an artist and educator based in Toronto, Canada. He has exhibited in solo and group exhibitions across Canada and throughout international venues in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. He is a two-time national fellowship winner through the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute for his research on miniature painting and fresco techniques in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Under the supervision of modern Indian artist and professor Nathulal Verma, Swanson studied techniques for the manufacture and use of natural materials, mineral pigments and handmade supports. At the heart of recent work is a cross-disciplinary exploration of materials and their sociocultural and biological histories. Embedded within art media and commonplace resources are complex relations between nature and culture, humans and other agents, consumers and the consumed. Swanson has engaged in a broad material practice using sound, installation, painting, and sculpture to explore interspecies relationships.
Could you please describe who you are, where you are from and what your relationship to Anthropocene is?
I am a contemporary, Toronto-based artist whose practice has grown from the painting studio into an interdisciplinary forum exploring human relationships with the natural world. Before the Anthropocene (and its subsequent discourses) appeared in mainstream circulation, I gave up my studies in zoology in favour of studio art at the University of Guelph. In those days, the disciplinary boundaries were very strong, and an artist with dual interests – in my case, environmental studies and contemporary art – did not have much access to interdisciplinary training and practice. Over the course of fifteen years, I found ways to engage beyond the studio with scientists, conservationists, and community groups in order to set my critical and creative sights on the social, political, and biological connections we humans share with non-human worlds. I stumbled into the post humanities through a personal studio practice that re-engaged my interests in other organisms, especially those that we share our lives and environments with.
The term Anthropocene – and the dozens of spin-off or reactionary terms explored by critical theorists – has become a locus for cross-disciplinary activity in recent years. As an artist, the concept of ‘Anthropocene Art’ has given an identifier to the kind of work that I stumbled into. I feel like our understanding of the Anthropocene, as a geological age and as a cultural construct, is still very much in its infancy; however, movements to confront human ills start with a name, and so greater potential to consider the future of our planet in more nuanced and creative ways has arisen through the genesis of this term.
What type of art do you mostly identify with? Is there any piece of art you created that supports this?
I have been inspired by artists who helped set the stage for the kind of work I have dedicated myself to – those with a deep engagement or reverence for natural systems. I was very lucky to train in material methods in India, both in my undergraduate degree and afterward through arts fellowships in Jaipur, Rajasthan. There, I was exposed to rarified methods and the use of purely natural, sustainable materials. I studied miniature painting, Indian fresco, and the harvesting, preparation, and application of mineral pigments under the tutelage of master Indian miniaturist Nathulal Verma. The reclamation of earthen media, and the acknowledgment of the relationship between the earth, its materials, and the development human civilizations was imparted to me through that ongoing education, and so the work of unnamed miniaturists and modern artists like Verma, Nandalal Bose, Kripal Singh Shekhawat, and the artists and students of Santiniketan in West Bengal have had an enormous impact on my practice. There has been no single work above the rest that best represents the values and skills taught to me by my mentors in India – all bodies of work embody the material and technical considerations at various stages of their processes.
What are your favorite materials to create art?
As previously noted, my practice shifted at a pivotal moment away from industrially produced materials to accessible and sustainable media found in nature. For paintings, I typically work with mineral colours, which I find in different parts of the world and render into paint for use in living murals and miniatures. In other projects, I have reclaimed organic matter, sometimes from my environment (like collecting dead insect specimens), or through commodity industries and agricultural systems. Recently, I built a large-scale installation from invasive phragmites, a UK-native plant species that is decimating the biodiversity in our region of Canada. I have always regarded the meaning in materials, and so the conceptual drivers behind my work are almost always concretely linked to the sociocultural and environmental narratives embedded in materials themselves.
What creative process of making Anthropocene art excites you the most?
My first engagements with Anthropocene-oriented processes provided me with an opportunity to use the skills I had been training in (gilding, miniature painting, material prep) while also opening my eyes to the complex worlds of other things we share our lives with. Whether you are collaborating alongside or merely observing other organisms, an endlessly complex realm of creative inquiry opens up. Each organism lives in its own world. My work has brought me into contact with species that are often misunderstood and/or overtly reviled; the work challenges that human tendency to pick and choose which kinds of organisms deserve our admiration and which we would seek to eradicate. Immersing myself in microbial systems, cattle herds, insect swarms, and cormorant colonies has forced me to look at the world differently, and to deliberately question human dominance and superiority over other beings. Making art might not solve the ecological crises embedded in these relationships, but it does shift the conversation and promote empathy in patrons, and to my mind, that is profoundly important.
When it comes to Anthropocene, what do you think is the world’s biggest issue at the moment? Has this affected you as an artist?
I cannot even begin to identify which aspects of our current geological age are the most problematic, but on the social side of things, a lack of education and a mistrust of the sciences represents the greatest threat to the health and security of our planet. We live in a highly polarizing world in which fear and anger have far too much agency in shaping social and political action. As an artist, there is an opportunity here to focus creative energy in ways that might help deepen public engagement with key issues in science and ecology. Collaboration between the disciplines inevitably leads to broadening audiences, and much of the work I have adopted in the past few years involved mobilizing the community toward some kind of positive ecological action. The purpose of these works is to educate through real-world activity. Everyone who contributes to the process walks away having learned something.
How do you think that art contributes to the growing interest of young people in Anthropocene?
As an artist and a teacher, I bear witness to the growing anxiety in the youth around the fate of our planet in the coming years. Young people live with the uncertainty of our times, and this has profound effects on their mental and spiritual wellbeing. Art practices that confront critical issues presented by the Anthropocene provide the youth with a toolkit, or a starter methodology for working through that anxiety and focusing energy on projects that promote planetary and personal well-being. My teaching and art practices have become more closely aligned these days. Confronting the Anthropocene in an educational environment must no longer be a niche form of study but integrated into everyday learning for the benefit of all (humans and nature).
Is there, in your opinion, a correlation between art, science and politics in the Anthropocene?
In the early years of my art practice, the relationships between art, science, and politics was far less apparent to me, most likely because I was a painter working in a painting studio. As my work navigated toward an examination of natural systems, countless disciplinary boundaries became blurred. This was exciting because now, art could also address or embody science, mythology, history, sociology, and politics simultaneously. You cannot consider any issue pertinent in the Anthropocene (as a construct) without acknowledging the intrinsic disciplinary relationships that constellate to make up its being. The resulting artwork is always complex – sometimes so much so that it is difficult to discuss in shorthand, but it is exactly this complexity that continues to motivate me.
Despite the COVID-19 circumstances, are you working on any new projects or exhibitions?
I have been very lucky to have the means to continue producing artwork and engaging in research. The recent shutdown of parks in Canada has provided a unique opportunity to continue my study of cormorant colonies. In fact, having fewer (or no) humans around means that I can conduct my collaborative research experiments without interruption. Right now, I am working with Dr. Gail Fraser (Environmental Science, York University) to test colour preferences in cormorant trash collecting behaviours. This is an endlessly fascinating project that confounds the overtly negative attention afforded to these birds, and since Toronto has the largest colony of double-crested cormorants in the world, the opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and empathy toward these organisms are plentiful.
When I’m not working with the colony, I am in my home studio re-discovering my miniature painting practice. Creating paint from natural mineral deposits and applying it in the form of unconscious, materially indulgent compositions has provided me with a meditation-like activity that helps settle my mind in these uncertain times.