It’s 2019. Seventeen bodies float and paddle in a silky black lake, faces tilted up to the sky. Treading water or spread-eagled, their limbs occasionally overlap, forming an imperfect, shifting web. There is no land in sight. Watching them from a bird’s eye view, I envy the casualness of their touch and proximity, the tranquility of their bodies both in motion and repose. This is Lake, a video installation by the artist Erin Johnson, part of an ongoing series featuring a group of her “friends, lovers, and mentors” floating in bodies of water, marking time. Now, in 2020, as time dilates and contracts in revolt against the usual signposts, and the old rituals seem ever-more arbitrary, Johnson’s association of duration with fluidity and intimacy feels prescient.
When I sat down to talk with her about her practice, Johnson notes that she often begins her projects with an inquiry into something she finds “sticky”—a nuclear weapons site in disguise as a wildlife sanctuary, a tomato with fluid sexual expression, a queer love letter, an interspecies family. These topics and the social relationships that constitute them serve as points of entry into larger structural questions of colonization, white supremacy, and how histories are made and told. A body of research precedes and informs each work, much of which never touches the surface of the videos. The resulting works, however, are heavy with references and traces. Because of an openness to being led, like Alice in Wonderland, down dark and twisting passages, encountering and learning from whatever crosses her path, her work is eminently porous. “It’s so interesting that you use that word,” Johnson says to me during our conversation, “because I recently came across this scientific term ‘porous envelope’ and I identify with the words so much.” She imagines it to mean something that “gets to hold things but holds them loosely, a temporary gathering of things, then letting them spill back out”—an approach she takes to her work. “I’m really interested in facilitating experiences, both for myself and for the people I work with,” she explains. “There’s the work that people see in the gallery, but to me the work is also the experience of togetherness [when making it] that feels like the porous envelope: we’re together for a moment in time.”
Johnson’s preoccupation with bringing people together through and in her work stems from her time as a campaign coordinator and organizer for a labour union and as a community organizer for LGBTQ groups. For the installation Salidas y Entradas | Entrances and Exits (2018), Johnson and fellow artist Jessica Hankey facilitated improv workshops —along with applied theater practitioner Gina Sandí Díaz—at three public senior centers for a group of elders in El Paso, Texas. “I was interested in the idea of the public community center as this really important site of care that’s always in a precarious state, because it’s city-funded,” Johnson notes. Her desire to connect people and empower them by strengthening ties is a way of contesting the modes by which capitalism alienates us from one another. Her works Lake (2020– ) and Tomatoes (2020– ) are “also attempts at thinking about collectivity on a non-narrative, purely visual level,” Johnson says. She is heavily influenced by feminist scholar and activist Silvia Federici’s appeal to “reconnect what capitalism has divided: our relation with nature, with others, and our bodies,” and these works foreground queer desire and affinity in nature as forms of resistance to the alienated conditions Federici identifies.
The idea that science and other systems of categorization are perfectly objective—immune to the systems and conditions that value certain lives over others—is something Johnson seeks to undermine in her work.
In her video work, There are things in this world that are yet to be named (2020), footage of plants and a team of botanists are set to a soundscape made up of, among other things, excerpts from a final love letter. The letter was written by Silent Spring author Rachel Carson to her lover Dorothy Freeman when the former was dying of cancer. Carson writes, “You are starting on your way to me this morning, but I have this strange feeling that I might not be here when you come.” Their relationship was never public, and a brief Google search of their names brings up the usual euphemistic and negating narratives: Freeman was Carson’s “dearest friend”; “one of her closest friends”; the two “shared an intimate friendship.” “Carson had written all of these fundamental environmental texts foreseeing extinction and destruction,” Johnson says, “and then in her own love life, she and Freeman never got to have the full life together that they yearned for”—itself a kind of extinction. The subject—as much as any of Johnson’s work has subjects—of There are things in this world that are yet to be named is an Australian bush tomato that has confused botanists since at least the 1970s. These scientists refused to name, and thus acknowledge, the plant because its sexual expression is ever-changing—a “problem” they attributed to “a wrong sample or something or other, rather than admitting something was wrong with their system of knowing” says Johnson. The botanists featured in the work—who sing lines from their research paper about the plant, which they named Solanum plastisexum—are explicitly working to “challenge these white men from the ‘70s who didn’t see the plant because it didn’t fit into their preconceived ideas of what a plant can do.” Johnson’s insertion of this lesbian love story into a work about omission and illegitimacy in scientific history both highlights the entangled violence of heteronormative scientific and social narratives and offers a radical revisionism in its stead.
“The history of science,” she continues, “is so fascinating and fraught because it’s so tied up in colonialism and white supremacy—but it often works hard not to be seen as that.” The idea that science and other systems of categorization are perfectly objective—immune to the systems and conditions that value certain lives over others—is something Johnson seeks to undermine in her work. Although her videos are primarily experimental and non-narrative, the artist’s projects often begin with an inquiry into (what at first appear to be) more concrete and tangible subjects. Taking a scientific study or a nuclear weapons site, for example, as a jumping-off point, the artist then chips away at the scaffolding that legitimizes them—bureaucracy, facts, systems of naming and categorization, and so on. Johnson “just find[s] the people who can talk,” zeroing in on the social relations often obscured by ideology-laden commitments to the notion of objectivity.
For her two-channel video installation Heavy Water (2018), Johnson attempted to visit a nuclear weapons production facility called the Savannah River Site, which has existed since the early Cold War years. In 1972, the site was rebranded as a quasi-nature preserve—a National Environmental Research Park—by the Department of Energy, who contracted ecologists to study the effects of massive radioactive contamination on the area’s plants and animals. Johnson was initially denied access—Homeland Security flagged her as a potential spy—but managed to gain entry with the help of an ecologist, Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin. Brisbin has spent the past four decades studying the radioactive animals on the site, with particular attention to the area’s wild dogs, and agreed to give a lecture in the video and help her get security access. His lecture blends fact and fiction, reiterating the Department of Energy’s mythology about the site—that it is a wildlife sanctuary—and refusing to acknowledge the site’s militaristic history and the devastating effects of radiation on its ecology. What interested Johnson was “all these ideas of what’s natural and what’s not natural, and the ways we use language to justify things and categorize them.” In addition to discussions with the people experiencing the phenomena that her work pivots on, Johnson plays with and confounds documentary, re-enactment, and improvisation to undermine dominant histories and structures. “I’m interested,” the artist explains, “in addressing the impossibility of historical accuracy and interrupting these state or scientific narratives that are based in imperialism by making work that shifts and bends, borrowing and picking from various devices and genres..”
In addition to being a mode or lens through which to disrupt categories, queerness in Johnson’s work also figures as a vehicle to imagine and explore abundance, joy, and collectivity. Although it’s not always explicit—the histories and research that prefigures her work rarely is—for Johnson, “all the work has always been queer.” This, she tells me, is both “because I’m a lesbian but also because those are the people I love, and I want to see them do queer and desirous things.” Queer or chosen family figures heavily in her work, in part because of the crucial role it has played in her life; Johnson was rejected by her biological family as a teenager for being gay. “I think that Lake is a kind of family portrait over time,” she says, “Everyone in those images are people who are actively sustaining both my emotional and artistic self all the time,” she adds, “and there’s so much labour of connecting and reproduction that’s happening in those images with those people.”
After growing up in various places across the United States, Johnson moved to the Bay area “as a kid who was like, I have no money, I have no stability, and I’ve heard that San Francisco is a place I can maybe get free healthcare.” She ended up living in the area for five years, and when she took a teaching job in Georgia, Johnson felt as though “I was losing this queer community that I had built—and wondered, who is going to be my family?” So she bought a herd of goats—partially as a project related to her practice, and in part as a way to sustain herself. “The goats became this queer family for me,” Johnson recalls. “I was taking care of them, they were taking care of me, and I started to think about goats as the ultimate queer animal—unlike sheep and cows, they can’t be easily contained—there’s this phrase: ‘If it can’t hold water, it surely can’t hold a goat.’” This phrase became the title of a 2014 video in which she thinks about the animals as “like water, [having] this slipperiness” and endeavoured to navigate systems such as “academia or living in a very straight, segregated, and religious place” with these qualities in mind. The project, she tells me, “is about building family wherever you can with whatever means you have available.” Biological family contains you and, if you’re lucky, holds you; queer, chosen family holds you but doesn’t contain you, I suggest. She agrees: “There are no restrictions in chosen family.” Her practice—the porous envelope—applies this logic to the people who inform and participate in her work. For Johnson, intimacy, desire, and subjectivity are the most powerful challenges to structures and systems that purport to be immutable, cold, and objective. Heavy water erodes rock, in time.