Archer Boyette MFA EDA ‘21: “we breathe each other in and out of existence”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Lauren Henschel MFA EDA ’20 interviews Archer Boyette MFA EDA ’21.

Let’s begin by talking about the wider scope of your work and how you arrived at making this project. How did it feel to return home to make it?

I began making work related to the Blue Ridge Mountains at the start of graduate school. I was experiencing a kind of displacement that I hadn’t really felt before. I’d lived in the Triangle previously, so I didn’t anticipate feeling a sense of loss when I moved to Durham, but for whatever reason I found myself longing for the mountain landscapes, and I decided to explore it in my work.

I’d simultaneously grown interested in filmmaking after previously working with analog photography. I gravitated to 16mm film and considered the ways in which film as a medium could speak to the environment and could be a collaborator with the environment, thinking of organic materials – and film as a material – and how those things could play off and speak to one another. I filmed with a camera, but over time I became more interested in tactile filmmaking. I think that’s partially because the first art projects I ever made were visual journals. Working with my hands and feeling connected to physical material is something that’s important to me, and it’s a way of working that I enjoy.

I can imagine you now as an adult returning to the same places that you explored as a child, picking through the landscape using your hands and making meaning in a new way. It seems the act of doing that is both playful and reverent. Was there a return to a time when you were freer, when you were that little kid playing in the woods?

Yes, definitely. When you’re a kid, there is this real unbridled creativity, and there’s a way in which you don’t judge your own thoughts and imagination. Being able to embrace that sense of play in the work that I make allows for a kind of intuition and presence in place that isn’t so self-focused or self-critical. You mentioned reverence – I’m thinking about reverence in a different way than we might in a church or a gallery. We’re taught not to touch, to keep our hands to ourselves, and to be quiet. When thinking of the natural world as a reverential space, it’s the opposite. You’re supposed to touch, you’re supposed to make sounds and run around.

To that extent, I feel a bit selfish. Mostly, I just want to be in the woods, and making this kind of art puts me there, climbing on logs and playing in the creek, admiring trees and plants. It feels like it’s where I’m supposed to be.

The acts of collecting and creating are solo journeys, but then you have to translate the experience of being alone and collecting to something that can be experienced by anyone who walks into your installation. I’m wondering if you could talk about what the installation will look like, and how you’ve brought those elements from the forest, from your home, into a space that others can now experience.

I’ve optically printed the 16mm and I’m showing projections of plants as a digital medium, but I’m also hanging the film strips. You can walk up and see the plants adhered to the film – examine them, touch them, and feel their outlines. There are tree stumps for seating and the sounds of the forest echoing through the space.

I had initially gone into this project trying to make a film. I was adhering the plants to the leader in order to digitize it and subsequently make a film for people to sit down and watch. But over time, in growing more attached to the plants and the beauty of the film strips, it felt like a real waste to not share that with people. I’m hoping that by keeping the plants central, people will feel that sense of magic the plants have, that we have, that anything living has, that anything on this earth has; this weird cosmic material that we all are.

Can you talk a bit about the title of the installation?

On the surface, we breathe each other in and out of existence seems like a grandiose or lofty statement, but it’s really just fundamentally true. It’s a fact, our interdependence with plants and our connectedness. We literally facilitate each other’s breath. So I think it’s about allowing these truths to be as spectacular and inconceivable as they are, and to call more attention to them.

I’m wondering about the conscious choice to work in both analog and digital for your project.

I think this consideration of medium, and my connection to the plants and place, gets at the heart of why we make images. We want to preserve a moment or a memory; we want to immortalize something that we know will die. Because of its regenerative, infinite quality, there’s a way in which digital can immortalize where analog film can’t, because the analog will die – like the plucking of the plants. It’s a destructive action, one that I have trouble reconciling. Perhaps the move to digital speaks to my own desire to immortalize these plants, and maybe to some extent assuage my guilt for what I’ve done and allow them to live forever.

While I was thinking about the installation as a temple, as a reverential space to facilitate communion, it also has started to feel somewhat dark. All of these hanging film strips and all of these plant bodies are just slowly, quietly dying. It’s a temple, but it’s also a tomb. Maybe there’s some connection between this funerary aspect and the climate crisis, thinking about species as both living and dying. The landscape that I love, the Blue Ridge Mountains, as something that’s slowly eroding. I’m interested, I guess, in the way that preservation and the lack thereof can be explored through both analog and digital media.

we breathe each other in and out of existence

On View: May 7–June 5, 2021 at the Rubenstein Arts Center (Gallery 235)
In-person viewing is available for Duke students, faculty, and staff.
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