Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Megan Heeres: The Artist as Invasive Species

In the summer of 2015, I wrote an essay for the catalog published by Simone DeSousa Gallery to document the solo exhibition "The More We Get Together" by Megan Heeres. I had long wanted to write something about Meg and was happy to finally have an opportunity to do so. Below is the text of the essay, which also corrects a misprint (my error not theirs) contained in the original. Copies of the catalog, which also includes a lot of good images and an essay by the redoubtable Sarah Rose Sharp, are available at the gallery or they can be ordered from the gallery's online store.

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Megan Heeres's "Invasive Paper Project" is a milestone in the artist's evolution. Begun in 2014, the "Invasive Paper Project," as its title conveys, uses fibers processed from invasive plants to create handmade paper products. From a more global perspective, it engages what French psychotherapist and philosopher Felix Guattari terms the three ecologies: mental, social, and environmental.

The "Invasive Paper Project" primarily uses three forms of so-called invasive plants commonly found in Detroit: phragmites, also known as the common reed, honeysuckle, an ornamental plant originating from Asia, and garlic mustard, an herb used in Europe for cooking and medicinal purposes. The plants have been harvested from various places around the city-parks, abandoned lots, and other green spaces of the once industrial colossus of Detroit now literally gone to seed. Each species requires different methods of processing to convert the raw fibers to pulp suitable for papermaking. Heeres has worked with several community organizations to harvest the plants and then used the materials to present papermaking demonstrations and workshops in her own facility, Threadbare Studios in Southwest Detroit, and at other locations around the city. In spring 2015, elements of the project were presented at Re:View (now Simone DeSousa) Gallery in the exhibition "The More We Get Together."

The "Invasive Paper Project" is a logical progression of Heeres's oeuvre out of the privileged sphere of the atelier and into the world. Heeres's earlier work, begun as a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, involved working with materials, processes, and time in order to explore situations of accretion (building up) and entropy (breaking down).

Megan Heeres, Home. HomGrown, 2012, installation view (source: Vimeo from Megan Heeres).

This is especially evident in the series "Material Mappings," which sets up situations for various materials to do what they will in response to time, gravity, and other environmental factors out of the artist's control. Home. HomeGrown, 2012, for example, filters various viscosities and colors of ink pumped up a tube and dripped through paper filters, which accumulate onto panels set on the floor, resulting in a series of aleatoric compositions created during the period of its installation.

More recently, Heeres's work has embraced an interactive aspect. This tends to take the form of installations either in the gallery or in public spaces in which the presence of the audience is registered in the work through changes in color, sound, and movement. Spaces of Sound (Thank You Mr. Cage), 2013, was installed in a stairway of the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art in Grand Rapids. Consisting of linked Slinky toys and LEDs encased in paper tubes and suspended from the ceiling, the work used electronic sensors to change patterns of color in response to the movement of passersby up and down the stairs. Similarly, Beacon, 2014, installed in the bell tower of the First Congregational Church of Detroit during the Dlectricity festival, used electronically activated light and sound to reflect the ebb and flow of audience members. The installation added a site-specific narrative element in recognition of the historic role of the church as a terminus of the Underground Railroad.

Megan Heeres, Spaces of Sound (Thank You, Mr. Cage), 2013 (source: Vimeo from Megan Heeres).

The engagement with community that the interactive works investigate finds its fullest expression in Heeres's practice in the "Invasive Paper Project." Using a cybernetic metaphor, the project can be understood as a node for the convergence of various social networks in Detroit and potentially beyond. There are the community organizations with which Heeres interacts in bringing the project to inner-city neighborhoods where contemporary art often fears to tread. There are the environmental groups, such as the Student Conservation Association and the Detroit Picnic Club, that have helped guide Heeres in sustainable practices of harvesting invasive species. Then there is this thing called the artworld and its current preoccupation with art as a form of social practice. (With respect to that latter notion, it must be acknowledged that all art is social practice, but that is a topic for another time.)

The "Invasive Paper Projects" navigates the city's environment and social circles to open up contexts for interaction that ultimately may change the way we perceive our relationship with the world and with one another. It is thus an expression of what Guattari terms "ecosophy," a way of thinking and experiencing that holistically combines mental, social, and environmental awareness in order to acknowledge all that we share while at the same time accepting our differences.

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