Text and images by Naomi Bailey-Cooper, PhD Practice-based Research Student at London College of Fashion
Naomi Bailey-Cooper is a PhD Practice-based Research Student at London College of Fashion has been selected for the 2017 Art for the Environemnt International (AER) residency with LABVERDE in the Amazon Rain Forest in Brazil happening in July 2017. Naaomi reports back to the Postgraduate Community at UAL here:
LABVERDE is an art immersion programme in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil, for artists and creators to reflect on nature and landscape and explore the connection between science, art and the natural environment.
My residency there started on the 20th July and would last 10 days, starting on a boat on the Rio Negro branch of the Amazon river and continuing in the Adolpho Ducke Reserve, just outside Manaus. There would be no internet or phone signal for the duration of the residency, the point being to switch off and respond to your surroundings. The participants on the programme were mostly artists, with work spanning across film, photography, painting, drawing, interaction and performance. I came with my current PhD research, which is exploring how the design of embellishment can offer an alternative to the decorative notion of exotic animal materials; in short, I am trying to develop alternatives to materials such as fur, feathers and reptile skins with embellishment as the focus.
The idea I came with for this residency was to engage with biologists and discover the way they are documenting life in the forest, in particular the need for new species identification through taking a euthanised animal specimen. My aim was to explore the recording of species further as a designer by using an alternative, more poetic approach linked to my research project. Once the residency started my mind was opened to the diversity and delicate balance of life is in the rainforest, and it was hard not to respond to all the stimulus that we were fed through various expeditions and talks from artists and scientists.
After initial introductions on board the boat, we were given a talk about the geography and geology of the river at the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ where the Rio Negro meets the Rio Solimões to form the Rio Amazon. We were able to understand by the colour difference that the Rio Negro is denser due to the amount of decomposing plants in the water, and in fact the Rio Solimões lies on top of it, rather than being side by side. We would be sailing up the Rio Negro branch over two days, sleeping on board the boat for one night.
The first stop on our journey was at Water Lilies Lake, where we were immediately greeted by a group of capuchin monkeys! It was incredible to stand still just for a few seconds a take in all the life around you. In the space of about 10 minutes I saw a howler monkey, a kingfisher, herons, and other more exotic birds which were too quick to identify, for example what looked like a navy-blue hummingbird which vibrated past and was gone in seconds, as well as eels and fish in the water. I think we all found this first experience of being surrounded by life so removed from the cities we had travelled from quite overwhelming!
After that short excursion, we took smaller boats to explore Igapós, which are water flooded forests. It was amazing to feel completely immersed in nature, in particular to hear all the sounds which were bizarre at times. Actually spotting animals was a lot harder! After catching glimpses of owls, an eagle, and other unidentified monkeys and birds who were too quick to photograph, we watched the sunset back out on the Rio Negro and a few people swam in the water. That night we slept in hammocks on the boat which was a once in a lifetime experience as the boat was completely open and the number of stars were the most I’ve ever seen.
We woke the next day to discover we had docked at Praia Grande beach, which is a long skinny island on the Rio Negro with white sand and red water, vultures on the beach, and cashew fruit growing on the trees. Later that morning we were taken on an excursion to swim with Amazon river dolphins, at a place where they are fed and interacted with in small groups but are still wild, so they could come and go as they pleased. It was a totally bizarre experience, as the dolphins would brush up next to you and swim between your legs, and were not shy at all. Their skin was incredibly soft, and the whole experience was not like anything else! At this point it was really beginning to feel like we were on a luxury holiday rather than a residency, but I really appreciated this time to absorb and understand everything that was around us with no fixed agenda. In fact, it was an incredibly moving first two days and myself and others felt close to tears at some points because of just how awe-inspiring it was.
After lunch, we visited a local community on the river and were able to learn about their day-to-day life; including growing vegetables, wood carving and making jewellery and other crafts from local beads such as acai.
After that we visited the Tatuyo tribe, an Indigenous community on the river, where we watched traditional dances and learnt about some of their customs. This was balanced with also understanding that they are no longer isolated, that they occasionally travel into Manaus and engage in these tourist activities so that they can maintain their community in the forest.
At the end of this second day, we docked and travelled by coach to the Adolpho Ducke Reserve in the middle of the forest, where we would stay for the rest of the residency. We slept that night in shared lodges, comprising of three basic rooms and a bathroom.
By this time, I had started taking notes and writing down ideas to do with the residency, at the same time understanding that there was so much to take in that the best way to use the experience was to document as much as possible for further development back in London. I started thinking about some of the textile samples I had been working on prior to the residency and how difficult it had been to source alternative plant-based textiles which had any trace of natural markings left. I was motivated to do this because it linked to some of my research findings about the value of exotic animal materials being unique natural markings. This was enhanced by the objects I had seen in the two communities we visited – whether it was feather headdresses or acai bead necklaces – they had some clear trace of provenance and therefor there was a deeper understanding and respect for where it came from and in turn, the forest itself.
Adolpho Ducke Reserve:
The next day we had an introductory guided expedition into the forest of the Adolpho Ducke Reserve, which surrounded the small site comprising of the lodges, classrooms and a kitchen and dining area. It was explained to us that we could explore the forest ourselves in our free time if we kept to the main trail, which was incredibly exciting! The forest was dense, with dappled light coming through tall trees who fought for sunlight. As it was still much harder to spot animals – partly because they were well camouflaged – so much of the focus was understanding the role of plants in the forest.
That afternoon each of the participants presented their work and background before coming to the residency, and I explained a little more about my PhD research. I was especially inspired by the mindset of those producing art and the approach they had to concepts, thoughts and ideas which seemed to be given much more focus than the design world that I am used to which is more about product. In the evening myself and another participant decided to go into the forest by ourselves with torches as it was just too tempting to see what was there! Mostly, it is insects that come out at night and we experienced an array of bizarre things – iridescent, glow in the dark flying insects, spiders suspended on a leaf in mid-air, ants, termites, as well as bats, noises you couldn’t identify and finally a huge toad which I almost stepped on!
More wildlife photos from Adolpho Ducke Reserve:
Over the next few days we had a mix of free time and talks with scientists about topics including the domestication of the Amazon to learn about dark earth which are essentially ancient human dumping grounds where discarded things such as seeds affect nature. For example, we learnt that there is a strong relationship between Brazilian nut growth and dark earth sites. Another talk was about dendrochronology (tree rings) and how they reflect climate variability. I found this talk especially thought provoking as it got me thinking more deeply about what natural markings represent and communicate from another perspective.
After a short trip into the forest with the dendrochronologist which included taking samples from trees by extraction which does not harm the tree, I was able to understand that this technique combined with image analysis and measuring anatomical features was used in the recording of species. My thoughts at this point were to adopt this way of thinking but to try and incorporate textiles as a method of recording.
One of the trees which was selected for extraction was called ‘Alligator House’ which I immediately thought was interesting, as the bark did look like gnarled alligator skin. I documented the texture of the bark by taking a charcoal rubbing onto fabric. It also made me think again about camouflage and if you could find a match for exotic animal skins in the forest. The first way I tried to do this was to see if I could match any of my existing alternative samples to anything in the forest. I had brought crystals which I had previously grown myself and some laser cut textile samples. I knew they needed something extra and to immerse them in the wild like this would help me understand how the colour, texture and details would need to be developed if I wanted them to look natural and relate to the exotic.
I wanted to find another way to record some of the interesting bark patterns I’d found in the forest. There was one tree in particular which had bright orange and green markings that I’d never seen before. I had some organic cotton yarn with me and wanted to mark it with the same colours and shapes from the bark of the tree. I had been thinking about warp printing (which is where you print the warp of a woven textile before weaving it, and once woven, it gives an interestingly abstract depiction of the print) and I decided to try my own version of it. I did this by looping the yarn around the tree trunk and then colouring the yarn, copying the markings of the tree. After cutting the yarn off my aim is to weave this back in the UK to see if you could still recognise the pattern from the tree and if there is value in this way of recording. This is something I am still keen to further develop.
The next two talks were; edible plants from the forest – and tasting! – and a trip to a tower to spot birds on the canopy of the forest with an ornithologist (bird expert). The edible plants talk was fascinating and even though I came with doubts, everything tasted delicious! In fact, the food during the entre residency was really good; fresh and varied. The bird talk was off site and immersive, travelling outside the Adolpho Ducke reserve for about 2 hours, with the last part by jeep over a dirt track before finally climbing the tower to see the fantastic view. We watched the sunset after spotting macaw’s, toucans and a range of other exotic birds which were lured in by playing previous recordings of bird sounds. It was harder to spot animals than I had imagined, and sound really was the best way to locate life. I took many sound recordings whilst there which made me think about sensory experiences and if there is something lost when taking euthanised specimens. It was also a fantastic opportunity for me to discuss these ideas with the ornithologist and to greater understand the factors which determine new species identification; what makes certain traits new, different and unique and they ways in which these are currently recorded and communicated with others.
Some of the last talks on the programme were with artists who talked about the Amazon landscape and their own responses to the forest. The phrase “art is ideas, art is thoughts” from artist Roberto Evangelista stuck with me and summed up how I was inspired by the mindset of those working around me on this residency. We also discussed the Amazon’s unsustainability and in particular, the political situation in Brazil and how this affects the work of artists currently living there who are engaging with environmental issues. It was fantastic to share thoughts and opinions for solutions with others from varied backgrounds.
During the final days of the residency I continued to think of ways to document the forest through textiles. I had been inspired by an enormous spider web I had seen high in the trees and the leaves that had collected in it, and by the way in which scientists put cloth up underneath specific sites of interest to collect whatever would fall from the canopy. The impression it gave me was that whatever was falling was embellishing the fabric and that it was entirely unpredictable. I decided to set up my own experiment and hang silk in the forest in an embroidery hoop with a light underneath to see if it would attract insects. I left this overnight and came back early in the morning to see if anything had collected there – what had ‘embellished’ the fabric. Unfortunately, not much collected in that short amount of time apart from leaf parts, but I quickly photographed and hand stitched around those fallen pieces as a record for embellishment that I could further develop back in London.
On the last day of the residency we left the Adolpho Ducke Reserve and transferred to MUSA, a gallery in Manaus where we would deliver final presentations of the ideas we’d had during the residency. It was really inspiring to see how differently the participants had responded to the forest and the variety of ideas and thoughts that we had which will be further developed back in our home countries. Our group are already in touch with each other; sharing photos, ideas and thoughts and I feel lucky to have met this inspiring group of people. I still have my original aim for the residency in mind, but of course I have also questioned it and expanded upon it through the residency experience. There was an enormous value in immersing myself in this environment and being cut off from communication which gave so much more focus.
It was one of the best experiences of my life and I would like to thank Lucy Orta, Camilla Palestra, UAL PG Community, Lilian Fraiji, Juliana Rotta and all others involved in selecting me for this residency. This account is a brief re-cap of the main things I experienced and thought about while out there.
- The Art for the Environment International Residency Programme
- UAL Research Centre for Sustainable Fashion
- Lucy Orta UAL Research Profile
- Naomi Bailey-Cooper UAL PhD Profile
- LABVERDE Website
- AER LABVERDE 2017 Residency Details
The Art for the Environment International Residency Programme (AER):
In 2015, internationally acclaimed artist, Professor Lucy Orta UAL Chair of Art for the Environment – Centre for Sustainable Fashion, launched the Art for the Environment Residency Programme (AER), in partnership with residency programmes across Europe. Applicants can choose from a 2 to 4 week period at one of the hosting institutions, to explore concerns that define the twenty-first century – biodiversity, environmental sustainability, social economy, human rights – and through their artistic practice, envision a world of tomorrow.
Through personal research, studio production time, critiques and mentoring sessions with Lucy Orta and a selection of Europe’s most exciting cultural institutions, the residency programme provides a platform for creative individuals, working across various disciplines, to imagine and create work that can make an impact on how we interact with the environment and each other.
A distinguished selection panel assess the applicants for this unique opportunity to partake in the UAL Art for the Environment Residency Programme.
NOTE: Applications accepted from UAL graduates, postgraduates and recent alumni (within 12 months from graduation date).