Conversations On Everything: Interviews Spring 2021
Interspecies Collaborations & Socially Engaged Art
“There is something magical about being with animals and some people get it and others don’t, which is okay. I tread very carefully on this ground, and take care not to over intellectualize this magic. I don’t want to see that mystery quantified and packaged up nicely in a study.”
– Ruth Burke
Humans are animals. There is no getting around that. We humans are kin to the animals we domesticate and share space with, be it as pets in our homes or otherwise. We are kin to the rodents who live underground, to the birds overhead, to the fish in the ocean. As mammals we share likeness and living requirements with bison, bears, and bobcats, our warmblooded brothers and sisters. As mammals we require a certain environment that provides us warmth, oxygen, water, and food. Even though we humans are a specific band of primates with large brains and developed languages, this doesn’t exactly separate us from the animal kingdom that we as beings extend from. Furthermore, many of the species we coexist with on this planet are social creatures just like us.
When my graduate school classmates and I were offered the opportunity to commission an artist through a small sum of money, I couldn’t help but think of my friend, the artist Ruth Burke. Ruth has been collaborating with a variety of non-human animals for as long as I’ve known her. I’m incredibly fascinated by her aptitude as an advocate for reconciling a deeper understanding of our complex relationships to other animals. I asked Ruth to share video footage of her social-collaborative work with animals, which will be presented at this year’s Assembly, an annual conference of the Art & Social Practice MFA program. The following is an interview between Ruth and I where we discuss her work, processes, and why her collaborations are socially engaged art.
Rebecca Copper: Who are you?
Ruth Burke: I am an artist, professor, mentor, mentee, multispecies caregiver, midwesterner, equestrian, farm worker, horse groomer, stall-mucker, pragmatic ecofeminist, beginning teamster. (1) I’m a lover of paradoxes, messes, and questions without a clear answer.
My name is Ruth Burke (Ruth K. Burke) and my pronouns are she/her/hers.
Rebecca: How do you describe your work?
Ruth: Much of my work is multisensory and relational. It is, by nature, socially engaged, collaborative, and performative. Sometimes, it is site specific but always considerate of the real animals and the human caretakers involved in various aspects of the work. My work is slow in both pace and its generation. It is bound by trust and built from long term relationships with animal and human collaborators.
My work looks closely at traces of inter and intra species relationships; this residue appears throughout projects as land art, photographs, and animal-based materials. Sometimes the work happens in a gallery. Sometimes it’s in the middle of a thirty acre pasture.
My work is influenced by weaving together theories and practices in contemporary art and human-animal studies (HAS). In HAS, I am influenced by the research of sociologists Dr. Jocelyne Porcher (2) for her ideas around interspecies work and Dr. Jean O’Malley Halley’s (3) ideas of capital produced by interspecies relationships. Additionally, my work is influenced by the aesthetics of land art and the performativity spurred by the Fluxus movement. Works like The Virtual Pasture by Michael Mercil and Allison Janae Hamilton’s oeuvre inform my ideas on site-specificity and its relationship to interspecies history. manuel arturo abreu’s critical approach to socially engaged art (SEA) reminds me to consider who is “at the table” in social practice. I look to the multispecies choreography of Ann Carlson, and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ engagement of labor, especially when problematic.
The last twenty years of my life have been directed by a need to be close to animals. My research is informed by this lived experience and nurtured by continued participation in farm work and as an active equestrian involved in animal husbandry. My past work emphasizes reciprocal, long-term relationships and begins to argue that interspecies relationships are legitimate social communities and should be considered as such in socially engaged art.
Rebecca: What are you currently working on?
Ruth: My new research project is in its infancy so please bear with my excitement! It pulls from traditions and aesthetics in land art, performance art, and the social engagement and collaboration inherent in animal powered agricultural practices. The five year plan for the project is to collaborate with draft animals (4) and local agricultural communities to cultivate a 15-20 acre pollinator garden, in the form of a labyrinth in central Illinois (where industrialized agriculture and monocrops (5) are prolific.) Beyond the collaborative multispecies labor/social engagement to create the walking labyrinth garden, the site will be activated by performances, workshops, demonstrations, and conversations with regional stakeholders, for public audiences. Below is a description of the project:
“Slow (Co)Working Spaces: Interspecies Labor and Collaboration is an ecological and socially- engaged project that takes primary form as land art (worksite) in central Illinois and is created and activated by human and nonhuman communities. Using the performative labor of animal-powered agriculture, like horse-drawn plows or oxen-powered grass mowers, the work will be a walking path in the form of a labyrinth, surrounded by wildflowers and native prairie tallgrasses. These plants are “pollinator friendly” and thus will facilitate further interspecies labor.
The worksite will serve as a gathering place for conversation, events, performances, and ecologically-minded workshops, as dictated by stakeholders including ecological conservation groups, animal-powered agricultural communities, agricultural groups, and Indigenous advocacy communities. By contributing to the validation of nonhuman entities as fruitful creative collaborators, this project expands notions of community and relationships in socially engaged art. For regional communities in a highly industrialized agricultural area, the worksite will challenge ideas of “unproductive land.” Though slower and less quantifiable, the contributions of multispecies communities are work and valued as productive. Worksite cultivation will be documented through drone video, mounted cameras and piezo microphones to provide various visual and aural perspectives of interspecies labor and relationships. These assets will be collaged into a video installation for indoor exhibitions. After substantial completion of the central Illinois worksite, I will solicit regional institutions to host similar site-specific land artworks and will partner with experienced teamsters to carry out these satellite works.” (Burke, Creative Capital Application, 2021)
I’ve just started the research phase of the project, taking classes at Tillers International (a non-profit organization that offers specialized classes for driving draft horses and more), connecting with potential mentors, a ton of reading, and ground driving with my riding horse. A generous University Research Grant from Illinois State University, where I’m an assistant professor, will kick-start the project this July. I am so excited to be part of the small community of teamsters across the United States, to learn more, and to establish human-animal relationships as socially engaged art.
Rebecca: How do you describe relationships between humans and other living beings such as plants and animals?
Ruth: I think these relationships are always in flux and are highly relational and intersectional. In responding I can only speak to my experience. I’m reminded of one of adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Principles, “what you pay attention to grows.” These relationships are often quiet and unassuming. If we can’t, don’t, or won’t listen close enough to other living beings, we might perceive our relationships to them, or their existence, as unimportant or unworthy in comparison to our human to human relationships. As Traci Warkentin describes in her article “Interspecies Etiquette”, humans don’t have the right to grant moral status to other living things (Warkentin, 107.) But we need each other. Most plants can’t flourish without a healthy tropospheric ozone. (5) And we can’t eat rocks. But it sure doesn’t feel like our relationship to nonhuman life is reciprocal at the moment. If we can, as Warkentin encourages us, accept that as humans we don’t have the right to grant or deny moral status, I wonder how general attitudes towards nonhuman life might change. I say this while also recognizing that it’s easy to over-romanticize these relationships or paint broad strokes, ignoring individual and social circumstances of a person or place.
Capitalism, racism, and our “patriotic” American individualism have distorted our priorities so intensely that shared resources, returning land to Indigenous communities, and reparations for the folks whose ancestors built the agricultural and economic structures of our country, seem like radical ideas. In agriculture, the semi-recent trends of no-till farming and regenerative farming becoming popular seems to signal a recognition that the way we’ve been interacting with plant and animal life isn’t working. Regenerative agriculture is Indigenous knowledge. It’s not new, just new to many white people. And white folks own most of the land in the U.S. It’s horribly ironic that these practices are now becoming popular in the United States, after our government puts, and continues to put, such an extraordinary amount of effort into wiping out Indigenous culture.
Rebecca: Why is it important for you to work with animals in the context of art?
Ruth: I very much work between the fields of human-animal studies and contemporary art practices and these two disciplines have much to offer one another in conversation, especially for practices that engage real, living animals. Just as we can get close to knowing what an animal thinks and how they perceive the world, there’s still a vast unknown and an excess of unanswerable questions. A barrier is ever present. In general, I find human-animal studies on one side of that barrier and art is what allows us, even in imaginary or speculative ways, to get over that barrier.
Human-animal studies provide concrete, quantifiable understanding between humans and animals. In a broader sense, art allows us (in ways different than science) to explore the unknown, the possibility, the potential for spontaneity, and to consider our relationship with animals in a more quantifiable manner. In some way, this question is analogous to why art itself is important. It allows us to see from new perspectives, to imagine futures, to question assumptions about who we are as individuals and as a species.
On a personal level, I’ve always been an animal person and from a young age, an artist. I was exposed to horse people and artists on different and quite separate terms; I got to be part of communities made up of people who value the shared appreciation for animals, as well as communities for artmaking.
Rebecca: What is it like to communicate with animals? Or how do you communicate with animals?
Ruth: It’s hard! It is very much like learning another language and one has to accept there are going to be blunders, missteps, and confusion along the way. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince that “language is the source of misunderstandings.” He is, of course, talking about a human verbal language.
Communicating with an animal is an act of listening, and talking less. It’s crafting the ability to be open and respond with a species and individual-specific gesture—one that an animal can understand. Without clear communication, how is this other being to know what’s being asked? Even if it’s as simple as picking up a foot or standing still. Impenetrable barriers in “understanding” animals are unavoidable, but just as spending time with other people builds relationships and ways of understanding, time spent together can lead us to a place of mutual understanding. This is evident in the workshop I describe below, where an incredibly seasoned instructor worked with a new (to them) team of horses over the course of a few days. By the end of the workshop, the instructor and the team communicated much more clearly than at the beginning. All six students also experienced a learning curve with this team. We have to allow for time to figure each other out.
I recently attended a Draft Animal Workshop at Tillers International in Scotts, MI (they’re an incredible organization, check them out) and as someone whose equine foundation was built on the horse-rider relationship, it was an enriching four days. Ground work (non-mounted work) invites a different dynamic between horse and human, and different nuanced modes of communication. Whereas a rider uses their legs, seat, and hands to ask, a teamster uses their hands and voice. Some of the most talented teamsters are completely silent and don’t talk to their horses at all.
One of the aspects of human-animal communication that is particularly exciting to me is its rootedness in embodied practice. You cannot sit behind a desk and theorize about how to communicate with a team of oxen if you’ve never worked with them. It requires actual proximity to individual living animals.
I think communicating with people is much harder than communicating with animals. People often can’t read emotional states as clearly as a horse or an ox. In conversation, a person can be cool and collected on the outside and a nervous wreck on the inside, and I’d probably never know it unless I knew them intimately. Animals sense emotions below a visible surface and respond to that.
Rebecca: Is it possible for animals to consent to work with you? What does getting consent from an animal look like?
Ruth: Yes, it is. And it’s quite possible for animals to refuse to work with their human caregivers.
The animals I work with are living, breathing, thinking, sensing beings (like humans) who have deeply embedded evolutionary and situational responses to stimuli. When I’m asked questions about consent I tell the story about a failure.
In 2015, I was interested in doing a project with a cow. I didn’t have a cow friend at that time so I called around to local farms and rescue organizations in Southeast Michigan. I was looking for a particular cow to fit the mold so I could, quite literally, place my project on the animal. SASHA Farm Animal Sanctuary in Manchester, MI, was excited by my proposal of the project and enthusiastically said they’ve got a freemartin (barren) cow named Shania. They said, “She’s really docile. She’d be perfect to fill the character in this project.”
So, I go out and meet this cow. She’s nice enough and not scared of people, unlike most of the rest of the herd. I go back to my studio and dye, sew, embroider and embellish a fiber-art cow blanket. I had visions that Shania the cow would wear the blanket and peacefully graze on the hill of the sanctuary. The outcome of the project was going to be a long meditative video of her grazing with the blanket on. I spent a stupid amount of hours on the object and probably made seven or so visits to the sanctuary to spend time with Shania. I’d love on her, take measurements, and I worked on desensitizing her to having fabric on her back. I scheduled a day and time for the actual performative work to occur and invited some people out to the Sanctuary to watch this bucolic scene.
We had a stunningly beautiful day. Not a cloud in the sky. It was warm for October and so many friends showed up to watch! Well when it was time to start the performance, my partner and I lifted the garment/fiber work over Shania’s back and she freaked out. She was horribly frightened by my gesture and the object stayed on her back for maybe three seconds. Shania moved as fast as I’ve ever seen a cow move before, and she threw giant bucks in the air. The object I’d labored over was dirtied and smashed in the mud. I was sort of in shock at this reaction. After all, we’d practiced putting garments on her many times with no issue. After a few minutes, the rest of the herd approached the object, unafraid and very curious. They licked it, chewed it, and ate some of the organic components attached. It was totally destroyed but was a revelatory moment.
I prioritized the outcome of work before considerations of my bovine contributor. The beautiful sunny day made shadows dark and dramatic—cows have horrible depth perception and are often hesitant to step into areas of high contrast. The garment created a huge shadow in front of the cow as I attempted to lay it on her back. Of course she was frightened.
By focusing on the outcome of the work rather than the relationships developed within and through it, I violated Shania’s trust. I used her as a means to an end, and she rightfully dissented. After this, I understood how important it is to establish long term, trusting relationships with my nonhuman collaborators. And that those relationships are the work. The resulting image, video, sculpture, or mark in the ground are secondary to the social connections. Seeing the object on the ground suddenly become interesting to this entire herd of cows reinforced that I’d need to meet animals on their terms and to step outside my own anthropocentric considerations.
In every work that directly involves real animals, they are considered shared authors. They are my collaborators. In Polyrhythms (Fuerst Rendition), 2020, if my horse Renn wouldn’t have walked off the trailer in the residential-industrial Cudell neighborhood outside of Cleveland, that would’ve been the piece. If Griffin, my collaborator in Epona, 2018, had chosen not to walk through the very small door to ROYGBIV gallery in Columbus, OH, that would have been the piece. It helps that the horses and cows I work with are, in general, willing animals. But I no longer work backwards in the creative process. I start with individual relationships and move forward from there.
The possibility of refusal is really exciting and humbling. It’s a fun creative constraint to work around and put simply, is a part of shared authorship and working with others. The social engagement is first. Whatever comes after isn’t all in my control.
Rebecca: From what I understand about your practice, you work with domestic animals that we have historically used for survival, things like food and transport. Can you talk a little about how this plays out in your work?
Ruth: Yes, the historical relationships reinforce a few key considerations. One is the cultural specificity of attitudes towards animals. To reference Dr. Jean O’Malley Halley’s term, a cow creates different “symbolic, economic and material capital” (Horse Crazy, pg 12) in India than it does in the United States. Another consideration is the way domesticated farm animal species have been used as tools in white supremacy throughout the world, but particularly in the U.S. No matter how “holistic” these relationships may appear to be, these types of domestic entanglements were and still are problematic.
The midwestern United States is the only place my work is from. I intentionally do not generalize when talking about small family farms, often considered hobby farms by the IRS, as the place from which the work emerges, and often where it occurs. At these types of small farms, animals are rarely a number. They have names. Their human caretakers know them each as individuals, even if they are meant for consumption. I have yet to spend extended time on farms in other parts of the U.S.
Author and historian Virginia DeJohn Anderson writes extensively in her book, Creatures of Empire, about how domesticated species were used as tools to assimilate Indigenous peoples into “civilized” and anglo-Christian ways of life. How closely one adhered to Eurocentric principles of animal husbandry, and how one cared for their farm animals, was a reflection of one’s level of civility. “Good fences make good neighbors.” White colonizers brought their cows, goats, and pigs to their freshly stolen established plots of “private property.” Only white men were allowed to own land. Killing of thousands of Indigenous people and the consequential acquisition of their land was justified because there would now be more space for grazing animals along the quickly-growing East Coast. The violent ways that animals were used as pawns in colonialism underlies our contemporary interactions. Domesticated horses, cows, goats, pigs and other farm animals are still considered property in the eyes of modern-day law.
This isn’t to say that animals on farms are perpetually helpless and exploited victims. In fact, French sociologist Jocelyne Porcher puts together a highly compelling argument for why it’s unproductive to only consider domesticated farm animals as exploited beings. In Vinciane Despret’s book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions, she devotes a chapter “W is for Work” to Porcher’s findings. Especially before WWII, animals contributed greatly to the economy and labor force. The work done by a pair of oxen or that of a carrier pigeon is easy to recognize, but Porcher asserts that much of the collaborative work farm animals do is unseen and unrecognized, particularly by farmers (and sociologists.)
To no longer consider animals as victims is to think of a relation as capable of being other than an exploitative one; at the same time, it is to think of a relation in which animals, because they are not natural or cultural idiots, actively implicate themselves, give, exchange, receive, and because it is not exploitative, farmers give, receive, exchange, and grow along with their animals.
Vinciane Despret on Jocelyne Porcher’s work, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions, pg 178.
Porcher asserts that contemporary interspecies work can be a site of contribution and of cooperation. Lives that are intertwined with animals are spent together. Our (human) species has spent the better part of the last 8,000 years alongside cattle and horses. We’ve evolved to offer one another benefits of living closely between species.
Rebecca: Do you see your work in connection to forms of knowledge outside the usual measurable forms of knowledge that we see in educational institutions?
Ruth: In some ways, yes. Others, no. There is something magical about being with animals and some people get it and others don’t, which is okay. I tread very carefully on this ground, and take care not to over intellectualize this magic. I don’t want to see that mystery quantified and packaged up nicely in a study.
Dance can get to a close translation of embodied knowledge utilized in living and being with animals. NPR just published an article that points to one of the biggest issues of educational institutions: our dependency on a specific “type” of English. I think when we deal with connections or problems that can’t be fully described in a certain linguistic way, that presents issues for educational institutions.
Rebecca: When I approached you about doing a $100 commission project for me as a part of my work within the Art and Social Practice MFA Program at Portland State University, what were some initial thoughts you had?
Ruth: I was really excited because I thought of it as an opportunity to present some of my arguments to the leading practitioners and voices of authority in social practice. Nonhuman collaborations and interspecies social engagement should be considered in definitions of socially engaged art. But they’re noticeably absent.
I was also excited to work with you on a project, Rebecca. You’re a really special person and I value your thoughts and the many conversations we’ve had over the past seven years. You inspire me creatively and personally. That you might think of my work is a huge honor.
Rebecca: Do you see intersections between your interspecies collaborations and socially engaged art?
Ruth: The work, the interspecies collaborations are socially engaged art. But they only become so when definitions of “social engagement” and “community” extend beyond anthropocentric assumptions. Until then! I’m confident that this will change as folks in our generation continue to create creative footprints that demonstrate this type of work is, in fact, socially engaged art.
Rebecca: Who or where do you look to for inspiration for your work?
Ruth: I sort of touched on this when I described my practice, but not mentioned is the daily performance of care. Domesticated animals rely on their human caregivers for basic needs, even if it’s just occasional hoof trims or filling a water trough in a pasture. Those daily rituals are extremely influential to the aesthetic and performative sensibility in my work. An immense amount of the inspiration for the work comes through daily participation in caregiving, and the labor required to sustain the animal collaborators. The human caregivers who contribute to care and also directly to projects with me are invaluable sources of social engagement and expertise. I’d be remiss not to mention my farm mentor, Ruth Ehman, and our farm family in this conversation. She’s the owner and operator of Firesign Family Farm. The community at the farm constantly pushes me to reconsider assumptions about art, about social engagement, and about who and what contributes to the work. We are a family. I have a deep felt gratitude for the human community at Firesign. All love!
Rebecca: Do you have any advice for other artists who are interested in interspecies collaborations?
Ruth: Some best practices in socially engaged art, such as doing due diligence with the communities you want to work with, are applicable and beneficial in approaching nonhuman collaborations. Interspecies work requires time, often travel, and patience. Link up with experts and leaders and carry out embodied research over an extended period of time. I’d say don’t be afraid to make work that happens slowly. Listen, and consider your collaborators. It’s helpful to consider what material difference or benefit you can offer the folks who invite you into their homes or their spaces, and who share their expertise with you. Get dirty! And don’t shy away from work that isn’t necessarily sexy or doesn’t photograph well. Do your thing for the community. Make your work and the rest will follow.
F(1) a team of draft animals driven by a person
(2) A sociologist and director of research at the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, a French public research institute dedicated to agricultural science
(3) A sociology professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) and author of Horse Crazy: Girls and the Lives of Horses
(4) An animal used to assist in labor
(5) A crop that does not rotate with other crops, single crop grown on the same piece of land over and over
(6) Ground-level ozone created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx gases) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Rebecca Copper is currently an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Contemporary Art Practice: Art and Social Practice Program. Rebecca is interested in experiential knowledge and how people are influenced in mediated ways. She works through themes such as phenomenology, intersectional feminist politics, American education, and institutions of care. Recently, she worked as a research assistant for the Art and Social Practice Archive, which is housed within PSU’s Special Collections, and finished a fellowship with the Columbus Printed Arts Center in Columbus, Ohio.
Ruth Burke is an interdisciplinary artist working throughout the upper midwestern United States. She works between the fields of contemporary art and human-animal studies to address notions of interspecies kinship, multispecies history, and more-than-human collaboration through performance, installation, sound, and social practice. Ruth’s solo exhibitions include Polyrhythms (2020) at HSpace Gallery/The Muted Horn in Cleveland, Ohio, Susurrus (2019) at Mantle Artspace in San Antonio, Texas, and Mapping Empathy (2016) at halka art project in Istanbul, Turkey. Ruth often collaborates with artist Dulcee Boehm and they will mount a collaborative installation at Vox Populi in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in late 2021. Ruth received grant funding for projects from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the University of Michigan, the Greater Columbus Arts Council, Bowling Green State University, and was recently recipient of a University Research Grant at Illinois State University. She was twice a Fulbright Research Award semi-finalist (Ireland.) Ruth was a resident artist at ACRE (2019), a Michele Schara AIR at Detroit Community School, and was a fellow in the inaugural cohort at the Animals & Society Institute (2017), at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is a longstanding artist-in-residence at Firesign Farm where she apprentices under subsistence farmer Ruth Ehman. Ruth Burke is currently an Assistant Professor of Video Art in the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts, School of Art at Illinois State University.
Things I asked people who thought I was weird just because I have a pet potato
“A [creative] project is something someone sets their mind to and tries to finish, but then stops to eat cookies.”
– Joanna Yien
In this interview—conducted in the Spring of 2021—I sat down with Joanna Yien to discuss our collaboration for a project tentatively titled Things I asked people who thought I was weird just because I have a pet potato. Joanna and I previously worked together through the RECESS! Design Studio—a design class and artist project that I co-direct with Kim Sutherland in collaboration with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art, housed inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, an elementary school in Northeast Portland. Our projects together include Home Museum, where we named, branded, created and curated collections for museums in our own homes, and What’s Up With My Block?, where we designed maps for the street we each live on, based on our personal experiences of our neighborhoods.
For her $100 commission, Joanna interviews people about their feelings towards the relationship she has with her pet potato. The interviews will be published in book form, as a limited print edition. A portion of the budget has been reserved for ice cream. In the conversation, we discuss the value of money, strategies for making successful projects, and her pet potato, Potato.
Jordan Rosenblum: Hi, Joanna. I’d like to start by asking you what you thought when your dad told you that I was interested in collaborating with you on a new project, where we had a $100 budget that needed to be spent.
Joanna Yien: I thought—“Oh, man, monnnnnneyyyy.”
Jordan: And, after that?
Joanna: My next thought was “Oh, man, monnnnnneyyyy.”
Jordan: Ok, what was your first thought after money?
Joanna: I then started thinking about my pet potato, and how I hadn’t fed it yet today.
Jordan: Your pet potato is clearly taking up a lot of your mental space. Let’s forget about the project for a second. If you were just given $100 and you could just do whatever you wanted with it, what would you do?
Joanna: So, I wouldn’t have to create a project? I would just waste it on things.
I would get some potatoes. Did I mention I’m really into potatoes right now?
Jordan: Yes, you certainly have.
Joanna: After getting more potatoes, I would probably spend the rest of it on food. Maybe on pastries.
Jordan: Would you spend it all in one go?
Joanna: No, because then they wouldn’t be fresh.
Jordan: That’s smart. I love pastries, and if I bought that many at once, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop eating them.
Joanna: Yeah, I would probably actually eat them all at once.
Jordan: I respect that. So, we keep using the word “project,” and I’m curious about what that means to you. How would you define a project?
Joanna: A project is something someone sets their mind to and tries to finish, but then stops to eat cookies. But, eventually they start working on it again. Having a project involves having a goal in mind.
Jordan: So if your potato was a project, what would the finishing of that project be?
Joanna: I need to be quiet so Potato doesn’t hear. [In a hushed tone] I would make mashed potatoes.
Jordan: [In a shocked, hushed tone] Joanna!
Joanna: Just kidding! I would let it get all big and healthy. I would let it just do its thing.
Jordan: How lovely.
I want to talk a little more about your definition of a project, which I really like. You mentioned cookie breaks that can get in the way of finishing projects. For me, it’s ice cream breaks.
The issue for me is that after I’ve eaten ice cream, I don’t want to do any more work, and I just want to watch TV.
Joanna: Exactly. That’s why I often don’t finish projects.
Jordan: Believe you me, you are not alone there. It’s a big reason why I work with other people on projects. Sometimes the only way I can get anything done is to have someone that I have to make things with.
Joanna: If we do a project, I’m going to prevent you from eating ice cream.
I need to tell you though, I just ate ice cream.
Jordan: I’m jealous. What kind?
Joanna: Ah, well it’s kind of a story. Would you like to hear an ice cream story?
Joanna: Three years ago I went to my friend Marina’s house, and when I was leaving, she said her family was going to get Phish Food, and I had no idea what they meant.
Jordan: Oh yeah, the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor! That would have been confusing to me, too.
Joanna: Well, I had never seen the flavor in any stores until three days ago. So, we bought some, and that’s what I just ate. It’s delicious.
Jordan: Well, I guess the real question for us to think about for the project is, “How much of the $100 do we want to save for Phish Food?”
Joanna: I already have an answer—$50.
Jordan: Great. Well, it sounds like our project will require tons of ice cream breaks. Before we turn off the recorder, is there anything else you’d like to state for the interview, before we say goodbye?
Joanna: Potatoes are awesome. Purple potatoes are even better.
Jordan: Well, Joanna, this was a pleasure as always. Thank you for taking the time to talk.
Joanna: You’re welcome! Please thank Potato, too.
Jordan: Thanks, Potato—until next time.
Jordan Rosenblum (he/him) works as a socially engaged artist, designer, and educator. His projects include workshops, installations, and publications. He teaches at Portland State University, works as a visual designer, and co-directs the RECESS! Design Studio (in affiliation with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art)—an artist project that explores the power of design with elementary school students. He received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MFA from Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program. www.jordanrosenblum.com
Joanna Yien (she/her) is a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Here are some weird facts about her: Joanna has a pet potato named Potato, her foot can touch her head, and Joanna sometimes randomly does the splits… who is she kidding—she does it everywhere.
Surfing in Maine
“With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf.”
– Tess from Maine
I used the $100 to pay Tess, a woman surfer from Maine, to go surfing for a week. This is a conceptual art project where we are both collaborators. I am claiming the action of her surfing for a week as an art project and I am supporting her as a woman surfer by paying her $100 to surf. Similar to the art world, women have been marginalized, underrepresented, and underpaid in surf culture. What form of work is being paid and who gets to be paid? What does it mean to get paid to surf? How does getting paid to surf shift your identity, power, and how you relate to others in a space? How does surf localism filter who deserves power?
Surf localism is what all of my previous artwork is about or was inspired by. It involves usually male surfers who claim a particular surfing spot on the beach as their own, and use power and intimidation tactics to assert their dominance at a place or surf break, filtering who belongs and who doesn’t belong in their space according to oftentimes contradictory or shifting prerequisites. This ties back again to the marginalization of women in surf spaces and colonial practices of white men owning space in the ocean.
I interviewed a person who I will name Tess to protect her identity. Tess is a local, but she is not seen as local by the locals because she does not fit credentials of being angry enough (towards people who live out of town) or other unknown and shifting credentials. She requested to be anonymous to protect her identity and safety in her local surf community. She also had a photographer take photos of her surfing to document the project, but was reluctant to share those photos to protect both her identity and safety, and her local surf spots in Maine. But she thinks it’s super important to have discussions on how surf localism affects personal identity, and that these conversations on surf localism should be made public. With her interest in sociology and different cultures, she had wanted to write about surf localism for a long time. Tess also wanted to mention her support of the women’s surf magazine I started, Sea Together, saying, “It makes women feel like they’re not alone in this man-dominated sport. Now we have our own community of people who also get us, when we all were previously the only woman in the group.” She removed things that she wouldn’t be comfortable having in this interview, like anything that could be perceived as negative by the localized surf spot locals. Tess wanted to add that “references to them being scary and defending the break is something the locals are proud of and something that further protects the break from being surfed by the people they don’t like. It scares people off.” She also ended with saying, “Feel free to use this feature as a way to advertise the rules of surfing.”
In the interview, Tess felt guilty for taking the money; not being paid to surf is seen as the proper way to go and she felt locals would not accept her taking the money. To me, this signifies that to Maine locals, money is power, and they do not want to feel threatened by someone else’s power—let alone a woman who is not a pro surfer. I
Brianna: So, how does it feel to be paid a hundred dollars to go surfing?
Tess: I would’ve done it for free. Donate this money to a good cause. Paying me to go surfing makes me feel uncomfortable.
Brianna: How do you feel about surfers that get sponsored to go surf?
Tess: Oh, well they’re selling their souls. Just kidding. I don’t know. I think getting paid to surf is generally thought of as a sign of making it or respect. And it is fun. I get fun out of surfing. I don’t know if they actually give you money unless you’re a pro.
Brianna: You mentioned respect. So do you feel like if you get paid to surf, people will respect you more?
Tess: I think in one sense or another, you have to kind of earn the right to be paid to surf, except in this instance.
So I think kind of along that path, you’ve gained respect from your surf cohort per se to get recognized on a local or regional or national level sponsorship or through private organizations.
Brianna: How do you feel about me paying you $100 to go surfing as an art collaboration?
Tess: I guess I can see how surfing is art. It is a fluid activity, where you also can’t really judge it. There’s no line drawn between different movements. No movement is done the same way for every person because everyone also has a different body and the way that they react to the wave.
Brianna: Do you feel like it’s similar to dancing or performance?
Tess: Yes. But also no. It is our bodies moving. But instead of our bodies dancing and dancing freely, when we surf, we are responding to the wave.
I guess you could say it’s a collaboration with the wave. Because without the wave, we couldn’t surf. And it depends on what the wave allows us to do on it.
Brianna: I guess it’s similar to art in that it is its own specific medium. Kind of like painting—oil paints only let you do certain things and they prevent you from doing other things with the paintbrush. Or acrylic paint, it dries faster.
How do you feel when people are watching you on the beach?
Tess: On the beach people are always watching the surfers. It’s like we are entertainment for people in a way. Or especially people who aren’t used to seeing surfers; they seem to be more enamored with it than anyone else.
Brianna: So do you feel supported specifically as a woman surfer in the surf community?
Tess: [Long, long pause] I believe that there are marginalized communities within the surf community, which is a subculture. Sometimes women and the elderly, regardless of their surfing abilities, have to prove themselves every single time they go out, even if it’s with the same group of people, to, I guess, earn the right to not be dropped in on. (1)
Brianna: Do you feel that this $100 is supporting you more?
Tess: I feel guilty taking the $100.
Brianna: Why do you feel guilty?
Tess: Because I don’t need to be paid to surf to feel like I’m getting the most out of surfing. I think being in the water is rewarding enough.
With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf.
Brianna: Do you feel that you’ve been given the same opportunity as your male sibling in surfing?
Tess: Because I had an extremely supportive father and he had extremely high expectations of us regardless of our sex slash gender.
I was stepping into the same spots as my brother and had to face the same fears. I don’t know. My dad pushed the limits with both of us and didn’t baby either of us.
So in that sense, I had the same opportunities.
Brianna: Do you feel that you have been given the same respect at the localized surf break?
Tess: I don’t surf the localized surf break. So do you mean the same respect at the other break?
Tess: I feel the same necessity to protect our local spots. And I think by demonstrating that in the water, that would earn me respect if it was seen by the locals. Demonstrating that looks like being angry towards outsiders, being angry towards anyone who is not seen as a local, or yelling at people when perceived as needing to. According to the local culture, people need to be yelled at when they are not from here, or if they are doing anything that’s considered bad in the water, such as dropping in on someone, or if they are not surfing well, or if they fall.
I think my surfing earns me respect in the water. They eventually stopped dropping in on me. I don’t know.
But, I don’t think gaining respect is necessarily a habit from the get-go.
Brianna: Do you feel like they would be supportive of you being paid a hundred dollars for surfing?
Brianna: Why not?
Tess: I think they think they should’ve been paid a hundred dollars.
Brianna: Did it feel like work surfing for a week? Do you feel like you worked hard to earn the hundred by surfing?
I’m just really interested in people’s idea of work, what is worthy of being compensated as work.
Tess: I don’t know how to answer this. I mean like today, for example, I guess I was more willing to wake up early for dawn patrol (2) because I knew the session was going to be photographed. And I was surfing to get paid and we were going to have an interview. So I felt more of an obligation, slash there’s a chance I would not have woken up for dawn patrol if it wasn’t partially work.
If I wasn’t going to let you down, I’m not sure I would have had the willingness to wake up this morning.
So in that sense, I guess it was, I guess there was some feeling of, this is more like work.
I think any time you’re being photographed, it feels more like work. You have to kind of give everything that you’ve got to try to get good photos and get as many waves and do as much on each wave as you can, because a lot of your waves are going to be missed (by the photographer).
In contest surfing, when you’re surfing for a prize and there’s limited time, it definitely feels more like work. And I think sometimes, I get more energized in that situation. I’m less chill and more… not aggro, but like whatever it takes…I push myself harder than I normally would.
And I imagine that for pro surfers, everytime they go out, their job is essentially on the line. That would add a significant sense of responsibility and intensity and urgency.
If you have all the time, I think on some level you can risk your love for the sport. I just think there is a rejuvenating aspect of getting into the water without expectations.
Because I feel like, normally every time I get into the water, I never want to get out of the water. I never think, Oh, I wish I hadn’t gone surfing.
Brianna: I remember one day this guy was yelling at me and calling me stupid for protecting the puffins. And I went to surf after and it was crowded. And the same guy was in the water and in my way three waves in a row. I raised my voice a little bit and said, “If you need to paddle back out, you need to paddle around again.” And looking back, I just feel guilty about that. You know?
Cause other people saw me and maybe I thought, They’re thinking, Oh Bri isn’t being like her positive self, you know. I was trying to both stand up for myself and also educate this guy as he probably didn’t know what he was doing maybe.
Tess: And it’s a safety concern too.
Brianna: Totally. It is a safety concern. I guess there’s this discrepancy, which ties into surf culture. There’s people that think you can’t do that or say that (like what I said to educate the guy). And then there’s people that are like, Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s like skiing. You can’t just go to a double diamond trail and think that you can do that if you’ve not reached that level before.
Also, sometimes I feel the pressure that I have to always smile and talk with everyone in the water. But, sometimes I want to just go and surf. Surfing is like a meditation for me.
I don’t want to have to say hi to everyone all the time.
Tess: I think I feel maybe the opposite end of that, where, I need to go out and be more aggro and just be super, super good. And when I’m having an off day, I just feel that I can’t justify being an asshole—not that I am an asshole on any level—but I can’t justify glaring at people ever. It’s hard to not only balance the part of that protective side of myself, the part that says I want to fit in as a local or I want to make the locals proud, but also go out there with no expectations, to have a good time and be happy. Which I feel like I end up surfing better in the latter situation anyways.
And then when people are actually being stupid and unsafe and, you know, ruining great waves for so many other people… Even if you’re nice to them, and you try and redirect them, I feel that they’re less likely to listen because you’re a woman and you just feel guilty about it afterwards.
Brianna: Yeah. I think there’s like this expectation, you know.
I try not to engage with new guys in the parking lot anymore, just because I don’t really want to deal with them trying to date me. And I know that’s not always the case, but I think I got kind of burnt out on that experience repeating itself many times in a short period. So now, sometimes I don’t say hi to random strangers and smile at them because I’m just tired of it, you know? There’s this expectation for women to always be super happy and smiley and give their energy to everyone, you know?
Tess: Yeah. That’s totally an expectation.
Brianna: But then if like a woman surfer is in the parking lot, and then she doesn’t say hi or anything, or just keeps to herself, then I feel like she’s seen as a bitch or something, you know, but men do that all the time. There are so many guy surfers I know that don’t say hi and they just keep to themselves.
Tess: Maybe it’s because I was always out with my dad and my brother. I don’t know. I would hate to talk to people. When I’m out surfing, I’m out to surf. I hate when someone’s talking to you and you feel this in the water, and the set is coming up, and you’re thinking, I need to reposition so that I can get this sick wave.
Brianna: So going back to localism. You were born here, but you mentioned before that you don’t see yourself as a local.
Tess: Guys are pissed at me and they just look like they’re fucking pissed because I’m longboarding. (3) So I’m sitting out on them and then getting the biggest wave set and then yelling at them if they try and go for my wave.
Tess: You definitely can’t just be born here [to be a local]. You have to have the talent [to be a local]. And then you also have… It’s like rushing a frat (to become a local).
You have to prove that you will defend the localized spot, and all of our spots from kooks and from tourists who come in and think that they just own shit because they’re a straight white male and they rent a surfboard, you know? And they’re fucking terrible idiot assholes.
You’d have to prove yourself in that sense too. The locals want you to be mean, you have to be mean when it might be deserved to protect the spot.
Brianna: And then you’re saying you’re only a local if you surf the localized spot, correct?
Tess: Yeah. And it’s just the guys who surf the localized spot, and sit at the beach at their locals-only spot and cheer for their homies, the other locals, and then just heckle everyone else.
Brianna: It’s like a game.
Tess: It’s 100% a game. No one knows who I am.
Brianna: Why don’t the locals know who you are if you were born and raised here and grew up surfing here?
Tess: No one knows who I am.
I feel like I’ve been hidden away or just cause I don’t surf the localized spot… There are the stories from everyone of the dangers socially and physically from surfing the localized surf spot. The rocks aren’t the most dangerous thing.
Brianna: So the people are?
Tess: Yeah, you could legitimately get the shit beat out of you.
And I know, as a girl, that’s not gonna happen, but anytime that someone is yelling in the surf, or even if they’re just talking loudly—because no one can hear with their hoods up—to their friends and joking around or whatever, I’m always scared that they’re yelling at me or telling me to get out of there. As if I don’t deserve to be there or something. And I think being at the localized surf spot, I know that they would yell at a girl. They still yell at you, but they probably won’t punch you as a girl.
Brianna: How did you feel surfing other spots in your home area?
Tess: I kind of just turned it into my own spot and try and earn my stripes, but obviously all the people at the other spots are a lot more chill and I feel like we’re just like a big family, you know, I love that.
In my general localized area though, there’s a hierarchy in the water. And if you don’t know who your senior is and you disrespect them, they’re going to do everything in their power to make you suffer. You don’t want to be the bad apple.
To wrap up this interview, I want to share a few quotes about localism from women surfers around the world from ISSUE 002 of Sea Together. You can check out Tara Ruttenberg’s article in ISSUE 002 of Sea Together, titled Does localism redress neocolonial privilege in Global South surfing destinations? You can read more on my work about surfing in my graduation publication; feel free to email me for a copy at email@example.com
– Brianna Ortega
“Localism to me is having emotional and physical ties to a given spot, after putting in the time to gain respect from others doing the same. Localism can be good by enforcing etiquette in the water, and by inspiring a love for coastal conservation in a given area. Localism can be bad when people use whatever reason they feel local as an excuse to simply be an asshole, as in acting above etiquette rather than leading by example.”
“I don’t see localism as a positive. But being a local and enjoying your break with others is awesome.”
“As someone who’s only been surfing for a few years, I’m still terrified of localism. Despite not having experienced any incidences so far, it’s always in the back of my head–especially as a girl who surfs by herself.”
“I’ve been a local and also traveled to places where localism was downright dangerous. Really the root feels like a call for ‘respect’ in the water. We can have a long talk about rules and etiquette, but in the end it’s about recognition and earned respect.”
“I’m ok with localism. It is a big part of the roots of surf culture and I don’t think it should die.”
“I believe localism is best used when it protects and betters the community. For instance, when ‘locals’ put pressure on individuals who disrespect said place and/or the people within it (i.e. stealing, harassing, urinating, and defecating in public areas, etc…).”
“As much as I despise the localism often displayed at surf breaks all over the world, I believe it’s a tricky topic. Localism should protect and better the community, and also not harm the environment. I’ve had many talks with Kala Alexander and other locals on the North Shore as well as in Maui, and while I don’t agree with how that localism is sometimes executed, I understand why they are protecting their breaks so harshly. It’s a fine balance. The professional surf industry has often chosen spots and put on contests without enough communication and involvement with the community, which leaves a sour aftertaste. They are now slowly addressing the problem and seem to act more responsibly. Some localism is unacceptable, and we’ve seen the results (even if it took a very long time) in our backyard not too long ago (Lunada Bay).”
“The only locals are the marine animals. Seriously though, stewardship means more than localism to us. If you’re a steward and taking care of your spot in all the ways that preserve it for the future, that service means way more than localism protectionism in the name of ego.”
“I feel like localism is there for a reason; when a local yells “GO” on a set wave, you bet your ass I better catch that wave. When a local has been surfing the same break their entire lives, they automatically have first dibs. However, it’s common courtesy to share the waves. When it’s super crowded, I believe it’s okay for locals to play the ‘local card.’ It’s not okay when locals get super territorial and start fights, especially if the waves are small! I think it’s best to always salute the locals when you paddle out and share your gratitude.”
“I’ve been surfing Cardiff Reef for just over two years, and last week I pulled up in my car just to look at it and a local who has been surfing this spot for 40 years sees me, walks over to my car, and says, ‘Definitely go out. It won’t get any more windy than this, trust me.’ He was right. I had an epic session that afternoon, in gratitude. How blessed I felt to receive that wisdom. That’s the best of what localism means, isn’t it? One generation learning from the next, the wisdom of the elders.”
“I feel quite strongly that localism is okay in very few instances. I surf in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.). It’s cold. I’m a beginner and trying my hardest as an adult woman to get into the sport. When I go to spots in Washington and men give me dirty looks and just seem annoyed I’m there, I get it I guess. I think I understand when the lineup is extremely crowded, that locals would want some [waves] to themselves, but I think that should be a time to teach people about surf etiquette and just invite them to learn more about the sport instead of starting fights or making faces. Especially up here, I feel there should be a bit more understanding of what we have to do to catch waves. Most people are traveling to catch waves and so most of the time there is no big local surf scene. It’s just frustrating driving hours, trying my hardest to get just one wave at least, and then getting dropped in on by someone every time who assumes that because they are better they get unlimited access to every wave.”
“Localism is ridiculous!!! What does it really mean? That only locals can surf all the waves??? The only local/owner of the ocean is GOD!! Respect is the key and many times locals are not respectful! If you don’t respect, you can’t ask to be respected! Localism sucks!”
“Localism is rubbish. Not everyone has the privilege of living on the coast, but they are still drawn to the ocean. Sure, it’s annoying when you have perfect conditions on a long weekend and the peaks are crowded, but no one has dominion over the waves. Just because someone isn’t a local, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are unsafe. There are plenty of arrogant locals making bad calls, as well.”
“The term localism gets tossed around frequently in L.A., and I simply see it as an intimidation tactic. People warned me about Topanga for years, so I stayed away for that reason, but then finally got the courage to surf there and have had many wonderful sessions and met some amazing and welcoming people. The key for me is to be patient when I surf a new place–pay attention to where the wave breaks, the feel of the crowd, and observe for a bit. I don’t roll up to a new spot and pretend I already know everything; there is something to be learned from each other and you can usually read individuals in a crowd, and who is approachable. I’ve also had those idiots at Topanga say ‘I’ve been surfing here 20 years and never seen you.’ Ok buddy good for you, want a cookie?”
(1) Dropped in on means when a surfer takes someone else’s wave by paddling into the wave and getting into the other surfer’s way.
(2) When you wake up early to go surf, usually at dawn or before dawn or after dawn, depending on each surfer’s unique relationship to how much earlier than normal they can tolerate waking up.
(3) The original type of surfing from Hawai’i, where you are on a larger board and you paddle into waves sooner than people who are on shortboards, so technically you can get more waves overall because you have to sit on the outside.
Brianna (she/her) is in her third year of the MFA program in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. Through embedding herself in surf culture, Brianna Ortega uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She values making art in relationship with others at the global or local site. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning across performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation. www.briandthesea.com
Tess is a surfer who lives in Maine. She wants to be unidentified to protect her local identity as a surfer.
The Candy Project
“Okay! So let me get this right—me and my mom are going to go to Galena to pick out [one hundred dollars worth of] candy?”
– Carter Collins
In March 2021, I commissioned first grader Carter Collins to ideate a project by asking: “What would you do with one hundred dollars?” The following series of interviews are sections of the ideation process to bring Collins’ hundred dollar project into fruition.
Carter decided that he wanted to buy one hundred dollars worth of candy for every person at Bryant Elementary School in Iowa. Carter went to Kandy Kitchen in Galena, Illinois and personally selected various flavors of salt-water taffy to share with his school. While discussing the purpose of the project, he decided to give his teacher, Mrs. Oberhoffer, all of the candy to conduct a math project for the students.
After discussing Carter’s aspirations with Mrs. Oberhoffer, she decided that every person in the school would guess: How many pieces of taffy are there in this candy pile? The three people who make the closest guess will take a photo with Carter and help him distribute candy to the rest of the school. Carter and Mrs. Oberhoffer will count the candy together on May 14th and the candy will be distributed the last week of the school year.
Carter Collins curated, designed, and built the candy pile inside a display case in the hallways of his school. The final shape of the project was influenced by artist Félix González-Torres’ work [Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.] also known as “candy piles,” which weighs 175lb at all times and encourages viewers to take a piece of the candy.
To learn more about the final outcome of this project, visit www.emmaduehrmitchell.com/cartercollinscandyproject
Emma Duehr Mitchell: What are some things that you think cost one hundred dollars?
Carter Collins: This [a toy wand]? I am just kidding, because this realistically only cost like 20 dollars.
Emma: Realistically, what do you think is worth one hundred dollars?
Carter: That house?
Emma: That house costs thousands of dollars.
Carter: That car?
Emma: That, too, cost thousands of dollars.
Carter: That bed?
Emma: Maybe the mattress, sure.
Carter: What about me?
Emma: You are priceless.
Carter: What does priceless mean?
Emma: Like there is no amount of money that is as valuable as you are.
Emma: What would you do with one hundred dollars?
Carter Collins: I would really like to go to the candy store and take all the candy.
Emma: For yourself?
Emma: What if I said that I would actually give you one hundred dollars to do an art project with?
Carter: From where?
Emma: The money would come from another artist, who is my teacher! The hundred dollars has to fund an art project that involves other people, so not just yourself. What would you do then?
Carter: I would give my teacher the hundred dollars.
Emma: What do you think your teacher would do with a hundred dollars?
Carter: Umm. She would buy us all a bunch of snacks —we wouldn’t have to share it— and we could return to the classroom after lunch.
Emma: So you’d want the hundred dollars to buy snacks for everyone?
Carter: Yes, for all twenty of us.
Emma: That’s a lot of snacks for twenty people.
Carter: Maybe we could share with the whole school.
Emma: What kind of snacks?
Carter: Like Sour Patch Kids or Fruities—if you don’t know what Fruities are they are like this little candy, like rectangular but carved more like a sphere. It’s not like a normal circle. It looks like this [draws in chalk]. This is what a Fruity looks like. Now I just have to draw the same thing on the other side. Like a cylinder. That’s what it looks like.
Emma: What do you think your teacher could do with that much candy?
Carter: Well we could do a math project with it. The only thing we are doing in first grade right now is adding and subtracting. We would probably do something like that.
[A few weeks later]
Carter: How is the project?
Emma: What do you mean?
Carter: You know, the project with the… the… THE CANDY PROJECT!
Emma: Well, actually I have some exciting news!
Carter: What is it?!
Emma: So, I talked to your teacher.
Carter: Oh, really? How did you do that?
Emma: I sent her an email. She and your principal are okay with you bringing in a hundred dollars’ worth of candy for the entire school for the project.
Carter: Really?! Wow.
Emma: What do you think?
Carter: What is the opposite of horrible?
Emma: So the next step is that SOMEBODY needs to go pick out the candy!
Emma: No, you!
Carter: Mom, when is the next Halloween? She said October… I’ll get trick-or-treating—or, Emma, I need you to buy as much candy as you can find.
Emma: Remember that this all started with me giving you one hundred dollars––so I am giving you the hundred dollars and sending you somewhere to pick out the candy yourself!
Carter: Which is where?
Emma: The candy store [Kandy Kitchen] in Galena [Illinois]!
Carter: MOM!!!! Are you going to buy all of this?!
Emma: No Carter, I am giving YOU the money. You are buying it.
Emma: You have one hundred dollars to pick out candy to bring to your school.
Carter: Are you actually going to give ME the hundred dollars; and when?!
Emma: Grandma Heidi has it.
Carter: I was just there last night and she didn’t give it to me!
Emma: Well that is because I just gave it to her today.
Carter: Well where did she put it? Because I don’t have it!
Emma: She will give it to you tomorrow when you go to the candy store.
Carter: Where is that at?
Emma: In Galena.
Carter: Oh! Yeah! I love that place!
Emma: I know you do! So, you’ll pick out all the flavors that you think students in your school will like.
Carter: Okay! So let me get this right—me and my mom are going to go to Galena to pick out [a hundred dollars’ worth of] candy?
Emma: Yup, that is right!
Carter: When do I bring it to school?
Emma: Maybe like next Friday.
Carter: Today is Friday!
Emma: Next Friday.
Carter: Okay, did Mrs. Oberhauffer say what she was going to do with it?
Emma: The project is going to include math, like your idea.
Carter: Okay! I can do a backflip with the phone in my hands.
Diane: Galena’s Kandy Kitchen, this is Diane, how can I help you?
Emma: Hi, my name is Emma and I am interested in buying a bulk amount of candy from your store and would like to make sure you have enough in stock.
Diane: Yeah, okay. What kind of candy? Due to the pandemic, we are running a little low on candy. I still don’t know why.
Emma: They need to be individually wrapped, not sour, and not contain nuts.
Diane: Okay well we have caramels, licorice, swedish fish, jelly beans, gummi bears, Goetze’s Bulls-Eyes, and Chuckles. We also have a bunch of taffy and those are always fresh and made locally.
Emma: Do I need to order this in advance or do you have enough in stock to come in anytime?
Diane: We have a full stock of taffy right now and shouldn’t be a problem. It took a month to get this order in and we just placed another one that we should get soon. I have plenty of the assorted kind. When will you be coming?
Emma: Actually, I am not the one picking it up or picking them out. I’m sending over a six-year-old boy to pick out all of the candy himself.
Diane: Oh wow! He is going to have a blast doing that! How much do you need?
Emma: One hundred dollars’ worth.
Diane: Oh, okay that’s a lot. We do $8.99 a pound so you’ll be getting a lot.
Emma: Yeah, it’s for an art project. I told him I’d give him a hundred dollars to do a project with and he decided to buy a hundred dollars worth of candy for his entire school.
Diane: Wow that’s incredible and really nice of him. He will have a lot of different flavors to choose from. He will definitely leave with a big bag of candy. Thank you for calling us in advance and supporting us.
Emma: How much taffy can he get for a hundred dollars? There are about 400 people in his school. I need to make sure there is enough for everyone.
Diane: Well there are thirty-seven pieces in each bag and that is one pound, so I think you’ll be good.
Emma: Great! Would it be okay for him to come in tomorrow?
Diane: Yep! I am here every day at 10:00am so I will keep an eye out for him. What is his name?
Emma: Amazing. His name is Carter Collins. Thank you so much for your time.
Diane: My pleasure. Have a nice day.
Carter: I got the taffy
Emma: Oh yeah? How did it go?
Carter: It was SOOOO much candy.
Emma: How much do you think there is?
Carter: I would guess like ten thousand pieces.
Emma: Is that your final guess?
Carter: Well two whole bags full! Probably about ten hundred. I haven’t counted yet.
Visit www.emmaduehrmitchell.com/thecandyproject to see the final outcome of the project.
Emma Duehr Mitchell (she/her) is an artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, Oregon. She works with collective storytelling, notions of care, and exchange through domestic practices such as gardening, craft, and mail. Her work examines the intersection of public and private spaces, personal and collective value, and agency in qualifications. With an emphasis on approachability and social engagement, her work occupies neighborhoods, metropolitan surroundings, social media, and museums.
Carter Collins (he/him) was born in 2014 and is living and attending first grade in Dubuque, Iowa. He is Emma Duehr Mitchell’s nephew.
The Whole Thing Done Changed
“I think that was beautiful though, doing a project on it. ‘Cause that’s how they keep living—by people keep talking about them and keep reminding that this how it went at this time, and so I think that was really beautiful.”
– Carl Westbrooks
My dad has lived in the same ten block radius in Waukesha, Wisconsin–the town I grew up in– his whole life. When I was a kid, we’d drive around and he would point out buildings or locations in our neighborhood and talk about their history, and would tell us about some specific memory he had associated with it. As a result of that, I obtained all of these second-hand associations and the added context made my local area a lot more interesting to me.
I didn’t really realize that I was essentially recreating this experience with Carl through this $100 project until after the project was done and I had finished transcribing the interview. Carl Westbrooks–who I commissioned to drive me around Bed Stuy and talk about his memories–is my boxing trainer, and he’s like a father figure to me. We spend a lot more time driving around together now than we did before COVID, because we train mostly outside at different parks in Brooklyn. Carl and I met in 2017 at the same gym he boxed at as a teenager– the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center, in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, where Carl was born and raised.
My perspective of the Bed Stuy neighborhood has been largely informed by the people I know who have lived there for decades, and who have significant connections to the community. I’ve learned a lot from Carl, and I thought this project might be a way for other people to learn from him, too.
[Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” playing]
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier
Ooh child, things will get brighter…
Carl Westbrooks: It was times when I was wild and crazy. I learned to be calm. I think Cheryl (1) calmed me down and helped me out too. Cuz I didn’t need to be that way in this world. I probably wouldn’t have been here.
My family used to live right here in this building here.
Nolan Hanson: Which one?
Carl: This one right here. This white one.
They changed a whole lot of these houses, you know, it used to be a little bit more different, you know. As time went they changed things, you know. That’s how it is, everything gotta be upgraded, nothing can stay the same, otherwise it’ll fall down and decay and hurt somebody.
This right here used to be one of the worstest neighborhoods right here, because everybody was in on some type of drugs or something, and it affected the whole community.
Over here, this was another rough spot. You had to watch where you come down here certain times. I remember my uncle and them used to carry around straight razors. Right down there on Nostrand and Gates my uncle cut a cop in his hand.
He went to Attica and did time. And when they had this thing they called Attica Riots, my uncle was in there too. He had to throw dead bodies on top of him with blood in order to survive, cuz they was coming in there, killing up everybody if they wasn’t butt naked or if they didn’t like your aura. They were shooting up everybody.
I remember my aunt used to drive there on the weekends to see him. She’d take his kids and take me, cause she was kind of scared to go there by herself, so she used to take me. Like, “What I’ma do?!” [Laughs] “I’m a little kid!”
But they felt secure with me. So there’s nothing you can do about that.
I remember I was little. My sisters was older than me! They used to get me out of the bed, like if I was going to get up there and do something. But I guess they knew I did know to do something because I did go get the butcher knife and went up to my stepfather when my mother and him were fighting and tried to poke him.
And then my stepfather said, “Karen,” —my mother’s name was Carie, he used to call her Karen— “You better get this little motherfucker, ‘fore I throw him out the window!”
My sisters and them still joke about that today… Yep… [nods head]
“Get that little motherfucker ‘fore I throw him out the window!” That’s what he said. [Laughs]
He the one that stayed with me in this gym right here. Bed Stuy. Mmmhm.
Every day he used to see what I was doing and how I was learning more. When I sparred, he told me when I did good. You know, he said, “Everytime when you spar with somebody, you dominate them.” You know, he said, “You learning how to slip good!”
One day I went to hang out with some girls, right? The same girls that Johnny Boy told me not to bring to the gym ‘cause they was a distraction. I went ahead and hanged out with ‘em, and Charles came to the gym and he seen I wasn’t there.
And he went home on Gates Avenue, and I guess he drank, and he fell, then he died.
Nolan: Oh man.
Carl: Yeah. Normally I’ll be there, you know, and things would work out. He’d go home and he’d control himself. Just that day, he fell and died.
All of these gates used to be open at one time.
Nolan: So everyone could see right?
Carl: Yeah, exactly.
Carl: See this park right here? These wasn’t here, these swings and kid rides. They just put these here. The courts was over here on that side…
This was where this group they call the Five-Percent Nation(2) was at. They would come here, and they would start building on the lessons that they learned about who they are, where they come from, their origins and so on and so on. And if you ain’t know your lesson, you’d get in a fight, and they’d beat you up.
One day I came through right here and this dude seen my Universal Flag on, and saw that I knew what they knew. I just came from Bed Stuy, and this dude—I just seen him fighting the 52 style beating somebody up bad—I just seen him. But he seen that Universal Flag right on me and he said, “God, come on in here.” They used to call people God. So I came in there and he asked me today’s mathematics. (3)
I told him today’s mathematics, boom, boom, boom. Then he looked at my Universal Flag and said, “You ain’t got your name on it!” and snatched it.
So… We got into a fight. He just came out of jail now. And I just came from Bed Stuy Boxing. And we start fighting.
Bam bam bam bam!
Then I started remembering, you know, lemme jab on him. Pop, pop, bam! Then he felt that power. Pop pop! Bam!
So he kinda like, calmed down and got in his perspective. And I got my Universal Flag back and started building with the other Gods and everything came in order. But he tried to bogart me, he tried to take my flag.
And then one day, I was in Bed Stuy and this dude with a beard came up to me and said, “You don’t remember me do you?” I said, “Nah.” “You remember when we was young? And, and the God tried to take your Universal Flag?” I said, “Oh yeah, Knowledge was with me!” He said, “I’ve been in jail for 30 years.” He said, “I did 20, and then I did another thing in there and did another 10 years” So when he did the 10 years, you know, he came back. I guess his family still live in the neighborhood.
He was walking all diesel and whatnot. He talked to me over there for a while that day. I ain’t see him no more, but he probably in the neighborhood.
Nolan: This was just a few years ago?
Carl: Yeah this is Bed Stuy! This is when I came and met you in there.
Nolan: He wasn’t the guy you fought though, right?
Carl: Right. He was just—there was one of my friends, you know. He was one of the peoples that used to come with me in the neighborhood and watch me fight. He was one of the Five Percenters. And that day we were actually going to see the fight.
Nolan: What fight?
Carl: There was always fighting. Right here!
Nolan: And people would watch?
Nolan: Like boxing, or street fighting?
Carl: Fifty-twos. (4)
I lived right down the block right there, right there. I lived right there between Lewis and Monroe. Right on the corner, that apartment right there. There with my mother. She had ten kids and her sister’s kids used to live there with the boyfriend and my cousin and them. It was ‘77, I remember it was the blackouts and when the blackout came, everybody was going to Broadway to steal everything. But this happened before the blackouts.
This is called 44 Park, this was 44 Public School, you know, it was rough over here.
Nolan: What do you think about it now?
Carl: It’s neutralized now, I like it now.
Over here it was kinda rough, you see these buildings right here? They was dark. That means they was dirty from years and years and decades of filth and pollution and car dust. And now they cleaned them and you come down here and it’s so light and clean. It’s different now.
Yeah, it used to be you come down here certain times, you don’t ever come back home.
[Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” playing]
I ain’t mad, at cha (I ain’t mad at cha)
I ain’t mad (hell nah I ain’t mad at cha)…
Carl: This place right here, this used to be the church. I got baptized in this church.
Nolan: Oh, really?
Carl: Mhhm, mmhm! See it ain’t no church no more.
Nolan: What was it called?
Carl: Baptist… something. My sister’s boyfriend Troy brought me over here and I got baptized. And Troy died because one of his friends, Donald his name was, he couldn’t see out of one eye, and he had a 38 snub on the bed, a chrome one, and a bullet was still in there, and he picked up the gun and pointed at him and shot him in front of my nephew. Yep. Yep.
Nolan: It was accidental?
Carl: Accidentally, but he did that.
Nolan: Oh my god.
Carl: Yep, picked it up, thought all the bullets was on the bed. You know, that’s what happens when you get high.
Nolan: There was one in the chamber?
Carl: Yeah, one in the chamber. And, bam! Yep. Shot him dead.
And it’s funny, right? Cause that same gun I took and tried to, when I looked young, I took out the house and I tried to sell it. [Laughs] When I was little I tried to sell it. I actually tried to sell it!
Nolan: [Laughs] When you were how old?
Carl: I was like, no more than 11 years old, like that. And if I had actually sold a gun, my brother-in-law would have still been here today, but the gun was registered, so I couldn’t sell it.
Carl: This part is Tompkins Projects. I used to go to that school right there, 33. That’s when the gangs used to come around here, you know, and they try to bogart you and draft you in the school. Mark Breland(5) and my brother-in-law lived in this building over here.
Nolan: This one right here?
Carl: Oh, at the end, over on Park. Mark Breland lived on the same floor with my brother-in-law.
Nolan: Oh really?
Carl: Yeah. That’s how I ended up meeting him. He brought him to my hallway in Brownsville, I lived in Brownsville. He brought him there. And Mark was boxing, and I ain’t knew nothing about boxing. All I knew they used to teach me the 52. And when he came… shhh..
Now this right here is Marcy Projects over here. Over here was no joke. You see this park? This park was here for a long time. This where Jay-Z from… and Meph Bleek. You know more rappers are from here, they just didn’t make it like Jay-Z and A and Meph Bleak did.
Over on the other side, over there, the entrance over there. That’s where this dude they called Eric Tweety used to have fights and call peoples out.
But all over here, they know about him, you know? Cause he was that type of person. He’ll fight anybody that come over there to fight him.
Yep. If I would pull up over there and ask those dudes back there, do they know Eric Tweety? They’ll tell you. Eric Tweety is like, this dude who liked to show off cuz he knew how to fight.
Yep, he could fight, so he’d show off. I heard he went to jail and one of his friends was in jail with him and they was supposed to be friends, but he embarrassed him in jail. So the dude waited till he came home and Eric Tweety was home and shot Eric Tweety in the hallway and killed him.
Yeah you ask anybody over here about Eric Tweety (6) they’ll probably know.
[Tupac’s “Ride or Die” plays]
Carl: This is the part right here where they’d have all the fights.
When they had fights, they had fights. I lived on Pulaski down there, and I’d come all the way down here—and I wasn’t supposed to be down here—to watch Eric Tweety fight.
Nolan: That’s not the same guy they called “Mother Dear” (7) is it?
Carl: No Mother Dear was treacherous. Mother Dear was Bed Stuy too, but he was treacherous. Yup. He wasn’t nothing to play with. He’d catch your fist and actually kiss it [kisses fist] and bam!
And he was so good, even in jail he was notorious. He was nothing to play with.
See, every time you have an open space like this, they’ll set up the fight. See, they didn’t want to be on a busy avenue, if you on a busy avenue you know the cops will stop it.
This used to be a transit hall where the transit people used to come and party.
Nolan: On the corner?
Carl: Yeah right here this building, (8) so I used to sneak up there and party with them.
Carl: This the school I used to go to, PS 54. I remember I had a teacher named Mr. Greenspan. He used to bring them records, them white records, [sings] “Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old oak tree.” This is Mr. Reverend Dinkel. He was a gay preacher, so-called. He was always a closet person. This is the building that I lived in here. I lived right there on the second floor. My puppies used to come out this basement right here and they used to steal them. [Laughs]
My man Mark used to live right here. He was in a smart class at our school, PS 54.
One day I was hungry and I was waiting for my grandfather and them to fix me something. So I went down to go to the store and I see him Mark, and I start picking at him about his mother. [Laughs] I couldn’t do nothing with Mark, I had to hold him right there on the fence until he got tired. And when he got tired, you know, that’s when I let him go. [Laughs]
And my grandfather, he was steady up there and watching me fight Mark, and I came up, I ain’t had no more appetite. He said, “That boy, that boy gave you a hard time, didn’t he?” [Laughs]
This place right here was where my brother-in-law lived. Mr. Lawson. 18 Pulaski. Right here. This where he got shot and he ran out here. My nephew was right there and whatnot. We used to all sit here on this bench right here.
And you know, now they sold it. She just moved, you know. Like two years ago. They sold the house. Yeah. This used to be our house. Yeah, this has to be one of my friend’s house.
Carl: Yep, they all moved and died.
I used to hang out on this block all the time. Right here. When they built this house over here, we used to hang out right here.
I used to go with some girls over here and Ms. Heartfield’s house burned down, completely. Yup burned down completely.
I used to go to the store right here. You know, we used to buy Heroes and whatnot. This Lucky Wine and Spirits place was a candy store. I used to go there and buy penny cookies.
Nolan: What are those?
Carl: Just little cookies. Yeah, that was good though. When you a little kid? You get a quarter, you get 25 cookies! Shit… man they was good!
Marcy Pool, when they opened, people coming over the fence drowning because they didn’t know how to swim. I remember when they built it.
I had a bunch of dogs, so we used to walk them around there.
Nolan: You had the mostly Doberman Pinschers, right?
Carl: I had German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Belgian Shepherds. Oh, they get big. But when they get old they get arthritis in the back of the legs for some reason. They’re smart though. They’re good with kids. You can’t chastise the kids and yell around them. Yeah, don’t do that. Yup. We used to get whoopings, so my mother used to have to lock the dog up. Yeah. We had one dog, we had that dog since we was little, until we got big and she was still alive. Her name was Queenie.
See all these new houses. It wasn’t there. I have friends that went to 54 and they all lived around here.
Nolan: You went there all through elementary school? 54.
Carl: Yeah I went to 54. I went to, uh, 33 for junior high and, uh I went to a lot of schools around here. I got kicked outta schools.
Nolan: Oh yeah. How come? Fighting?
Carl: Yeah I was bad.
Carl: This right here? Myrtle Avenue was notorious for gangs, drugs, the whole thing done changed. Yeah, you would never see me down here at a certain time, because you would get beat up and the gang peoples was down here. Yeah. I would only come down there when it was light, you wouldn’t catch me down here at night. Not at all.
We passed um, Marcy and Myrtle. Used to be a place called Cascade (9) over there, where they used to clean sheets, and a lot of things from restaurants, cloth, napkins, a lot of stuff. The Cascade used to actually pick them up from all the restaurants.
This right here was all like almost Jewish neighborhoods, you know, Jewish on this side, Lee Avenue, you know, Black and white, and Jews and Spanish. We all lived together over here.
Nolan: Yeah. Do you feel like it’s more segregated now?
Carl: Well, down here by the Jews it’s segregated.
Nolan: Yeah. But even like Brooklyn in general, you know, like, do you feel like it used to be more diverse or it’s more diverse now?
Carl: It’s more now. It makes the neighborhood a little bit more better too. You get more aid when it’s mixed. You know, you get took care of a little bit more better. [Laughs]
Nolan: Yeah. It’s so different now. I mean, I don’t know, I’ve always felt safe. Nothing’s ever happened to me, you know?
Carl: Yeah. Cause see, time changed so much. What year you moved to New York?
Carl: 2014? The year my son died? (10)
Yeah it even changed since then Nol.
Things had to change.
Carl: Nothing could stay the same.
[Follow up phone call, Friday April 30th, at 9:12pm ]
Nolan: Hey Carl.
Carl: What’s up Nol how are you?
Nolan: Good, good. Hey, I wanted to ask you–you remember that project we did? The $100 project?
Nolan: So remember how I told you the concept of the project? Like how it was a commission?
Carl: Yeah—so how it turn out?
Nolan: Well, good. There are a couple of components to it, and one of them is the interview part, and my instructor wanted to have us include in the interview what the person we commissioned thought about the project. So I wanted to ask you a little about that, like what you thought about the whole concept, and what you think about that being an art project.
Carl: Lemme tell you somethin’ Nol…those are like, they suspended in time. So for you to put it on paper, I think anybody and everybody that was there fighting and went through them changes would be proud of that. Cause back then they ain’t have peoples to talk about it and represent them and things like that. It was just like hearsay.
So it’s a pleasure that somebody making a report out of it, like a project.
Nolan: Yeah, that’s what I was curious about, like when you think of art, do you usually think about people exploring history?
Carl: When you hear “art” right? It’s like it’s frozen in time. It’s outstanding to me.
Nolan: Yeah, and part of what the art is for me is the social part of it too, you know? Like the drive we took, and you talking about your memories, and the relationship we have that makes that possible. And I consider the photographs and the interview the documentation of that.
Carl: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that was beautiful though, doing a project on it. ‘Cause that’s how they keep living, by people keep talking about them and keep reminding that this how it went at this time, and so I think that was really beautiful.
Nolan: Well I’m glad we were able to do it together. You have such a rich archive of stories and such a vivid memory—so for this project my role is really just helping make that available to other people, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to learn about it.
Carl: If it was on film people would love it. They would love to see how it went down and how it happened. But even just writing about it, it’s beautiful.
Nolan: Well when I finish it up I’ll send it to you.
Carl: Definitely, definitely.
(1) Cheryl was Carl’s wife of 35 years, who passed away in April 2020.
(2) The Five Percent Nation—also referred to as the Nation of Gods and Earths—is a social movement influenced by the Nation of Islam, and founded in New York City in 1964. The movement has been affiliated with hip hop since it’s initial development, and has been referenced in the music of Jay-Z, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, Erc B and Rakim, AZ, Big Daddy Kane, Mos Def, and others.
(3) In the Five Percent Nation, “mathematics” refers to a numerical system which correlates with core ideological concepts of the Nation of Gods and Earths. Practitioners were often asked to “show and prove” the day’s mathematics, demonstrating that they had studied their lessons.
(4) The “52’s”– also called the 52 Blocks– is an American martial art developed in correctional facilities in the 1960’s and 1970’s and most prominently used in New York City. The name refers to the blocks the discipline employs, which consists of western boxing defensive techniques, as well as offensive elbows, knees, and headbutts.
(5) Mark Breland is a retired world champion professional boxer, and five time New York City Daily News Golden Gloves amateur champion. He was trained by George Washington, Carl’s former trainer, and the founder of the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center.
(6) Eric “Tweety” Steele was a member of the D-Nice Enterprise gang (AKA “The Family”). He was shot and killed in 1998 by rival gang members from the Little Jus Crew.
(7) “Mother Dear” was the nickname of a man who was a well known practitioner of the 52 Blocks fighting style, and a serial perpetrator of sexual violence. Mother Dear spent time in Rikers Island and Clinton Correctional Facility, and was killed by a fellow inmate in the 1990’s.
(8) The Transit Hall building, at 442 Willoughby Avenue was built in 1931. The building is now a housing complex, and a 2 bedroom unit recently sold for $800,000.
(9) The Cascade linen complex closed in 2010, after 112 years in operation. The building was sold in 2013 to a group of investors from the Hasidic Satmar community in Williamsburg, and was redeveloped as a residential complex. Condos in the building are currently priced at 1 million dollars.
(10) Carl’s son Keith was killed in 2014, at age 22. Carl often talks about him, and tells a story about a time when Keith was a toddler. They were watching a scary movie together. Keith shouted out, “Can somebody hold me?” Another time, Keith was hitting the bag at New Bed Stuy, and punched it so hard that all the sand fell out of it.
Nolan Hanson (they/he) is an artist and one of Carl’s fighters. In 2017, Nolan started Trans Boxing—an ongoing art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people—and works to pass along to their boxers what they learn from Carl.
Carl Westbrooks (he/him) is a boxing trainer, father, grandfather, and lifelong resident of Brooklyn. He has trained hundreds of kids in Bed Stuy, East New York, and Brownsville. Carl trains kids and adults in East New York on Saturdays at the Prince Joshua Avitto Community Center, on Sundays at Gershwin Park, and on Thursdays at the New Bed Stuy Boxing Center. Carl works with several members of Trans Boxing, and is a passionate advocate for trans inclusion in sports. IG: @_coachcarl
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