130 Ash Arder

Born Flint, MI, 1988 / BA,  University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, MI

Can you grow an apple with an Apple? Can you ever really describe the wind? These are the sort of questions – often at the intersection of culture and agriculture, and at the boundary between the digital and the physical – with which Ash Arder likes to engage. Her investigations are esoteric but allude to something universal. Trained in media studies, Arder uses art, with its essentially undisciplined relationship to knowledge, to explore the world she has been born into.  

Plants are her friends, even Urtica dioica, the American stinging nettle, which she adopted to create textiles and cloth, initially for a locally sourced sustainable clothing line, and eventually for sculptures like Untitled (2016) and Strange Fruit (2015). Preparing the fibers  was, she admits, hard work, but researching on YouTube, where most of the how-to videos at the time were from white male survivalists or scientists, led her to another question:  what is the relationship of someone in her body (black and female) to sources of knowledge she may historically have been excluded from?

With time, Arder moved from foraging plants to cultivating them, and from thinking of plants as material to thinking of them as collaborators in her artistic practice. (This latter change was partly inspired by Michael Pollan’s book Botany of Desire, with its thesis that plants have used us as much as we have used them.) In growing plants in her studio, Arder noticed how frequently she was calling her father for his advice. This, in turn, led to the realization of how intertwined her family’s history is with agriculture – her “great-uncle” came from the rural south and appropriated unused lots all over Flint for the then-unusual practice of urban gardening; her father continued this tradition during Arder’s childhood. Eventually, Arder recorded her father narrating the story of how he learned to garden as a child and used it in the work Untitled (Story Box) (2017), an interactive piece in which the volume of her father’s voice is controlled using a water tap.

The idea of the broadcast is important to Arder, and she sees it as common to culture and agriculture – sound and seeds both being forms of information that can be propagated. These concepts come together in 2018’s Broadcast #3, where she uses the recording of her father’s voice to activate speakers which in turn scatter stinging nettle seeds into the surrounding soil. The sculpture is modular, which references design concerns about interchangeability, but the overall aesthetic is consciously low-tech, with the components resting on milk crates and the recording stored on magnetic tape. 

The ubiquitous contemporary broadcast mechanism is the screen of a personal electronic device. In the 2017 sculpture Untitled (Charging Station) Arder reconfigures the components of a typical domestic micro-landscape (bedside cabinet, iPad charging station, plants) to ask what the light emitted from an iPad can do for a plant. Can the frequency range allow it to be used as a grow lamp, for example? There is a satirical element here, but the piece also asks profound ecological questions about social passivity in the digital age, and about the energy transfers in the microcosmic world that Arder has created – the fossil fuels that power grow lamps originated as plants. 

In recent works, Arder has begun exploring how plants are represented in the virtual world of computer-generated imagery. Her starting point is a Ph.D. thesis on the digital animation of leaves moving in the wind, and her intention is to translate the arcane technical terms she encounters into symbols and concepts she can relate to. In Untitled (Glory) a grid is projected onto hand fans connected to oscillating fans. The piece reads in numerous ways. The “glory” of the title is both the name cast onto the housings of the oscillating fans and a possible reference to the black church. The hand fan is an iconic symbol of the black church but, uncoincidentally, has a geometry similar to a large leaf. The grid, static on the backscreen but rotating with the movement of the planar fans, invokes the “spatial distribution of vectors” that digitally defines the wind, but which seems quite inadequate to describe, say, the movement of air in a southern church on a hot day. This is the power of Arder’s project – it translates the increasingly abstract systems that determine contemporary life into sensory environments that resonate with our own experiences. 

Steve Panton, September 2019

Copyright Essay’d 2019