by Gary Green

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting XLVII: Cordillera Blanca, Peru, 2008, archival pigment print, 40” x 50” (from 'A History of the Future' series)

Can you tell me about the Canary Project and how and when it began? How many people are involved and how did you all connect?

Susannah Sayler (SS): I co‐founded 'The Canary Project' in 2006 with my collaborator, Edward Morris, with the mission to produce art and media that deepen public understanding of climate change and other ecological issues such as extinction, food systems and water resources. Since its founding, The Canary Project has produced more than 20 projects involving and engaging with hundreds of artists, designers, writers, educators and volunteers. As I will explain, the project initially was conceived as a landscape photography project and it wasn’t until later that we began collaborating with others.

The inspiration for starting this work came from reading a three‐part series on climate change in the New Yorker magazine in 2005 written by Elizabeth Kolbert titled “The Climate of Man.” (The essays were later published in the book Fieldnotes for a Catastrophe.) It is not an exaggeration to say these articles changed our lives—both in terms of our working together collaboratively and also working on issues related to climate change and ecology. Before reading these articles, we were aware of climate change, of course, but we were not activists as we are now. We were not even very politically engaged beyond voting. Having been shocked into recognition of the threat that climate change poses to life and prosperity, and further, the extreme discrepancy between scientific understanding of the issue and political will to address it, we were moved to act with the tools we felt were most available to us. It was really that simple. Those articles changed our lives.

Initially we planned to photograph landscapes around the world in places where scientists are studying the impacts of climate change, with the hope of creating visual evidence that would move viewers to have a deeper understanding about what is at stake with climate change. From the beginning, we had a clear goal to show the work to as broad and diverse an audience as possible. We had both artistic and activist motivations. The first “exhibition” of the images was on the sides of buses in Denver, through a program at the The Museum of Contemporary Art Denver (MCA Denver) called Creative Acts that Matter. They worked with us to do a series of billboards, and we collaborated with a very talented graphic designer named Dmitri Siegel to design the ads. That was very early on. We had shot maybe four locations at that point. Producing the bus ads was a transformative moment for the project because we understood at that point that we needed to collaborate with other people and foster other projects in order to reach broader audiences. And then, branching out from there, all of a sudden, we were sponsoring other projects and forming 'The Canary Project'.

Installations on bus ads and billboards

The photography work that was foundational to the project now has a separate name: A History of the Future. 'The Canary Project' became a sort of collective or umbrella for artists including ourselves. We wanted to open up a cultural space for other people to work in on the subject and to enlarge the scope of what we were doing. The motivation for developing 'The Canary Project' was in some ways a reaction to the limitations of photographs as activist art. 'The Canary Project' creates projects on a spectrum between art and activism with work that is directly activist on one end of the spectrum and art production where the polemical message is more oblique and indirect at the other end. Canary also engages in educational and community outreach on a regional and national level.

Are you still making the kinds of landscape photographs that fit into 'A History of the Future'? Do you think that work is as effective now as the broader based Canary Project works are?

SS: We are still making landscape photographs both for 'A History of the Future' and other projects. I would even go so far as to say photography remains the core of our practice. We think each medium has its strengths and limitations. Traditional photographs are effective in their own way. In fact, broadly speaking both informational and what we call “contemplative” photographs are effective in their own distinctive ways. And by effective, we mean specifically with respect to deepening public understanding of climate change and/or developing ecological consciousness.

We have written a couple of articles on this topic. One is tilted: 'The Pensive Photograph as Agent: What Can Non‐Illustrative Images Do to Galvanize Public Support for Climate Change Action?' The other, which is just out, is called 'Photographs and Fossils'.

Somebody’s Blanket, 2016, Archival pigment print , 56 x 60 inches (from 'Water, Gold Soil: The American River')

Enframing I, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches (from 'Water, Gold Soil: The American River')

Our most recent work, 'Water Gold Soil', stems from 'A History of the Future'. The project tells the story of a single flow of water in California from origin to end‐use. Landscape photographs are a big part of the work but we also incorporate video, archival images and maps. As a whole, the project is a form of historiography and a form of allegory–—using this single flow of water to investigate both the water crisis in California and our Age of Extraction more broadly. The landscape photographs are large (56”x60”) in the traditional style, but we also annotated the images with footnotes that were printed on the bottom margin of the image. We felt that this complicated the reading of the images. In general, we want to have our cake and eat it too, with respect to indexicality. We want the images to have the concrete‐truth claim of pointing to something that was at a given moment in time but also, at the same time, to engage a more allegorical reading of the image.

End Use, 2016, Archival pigment print , 56 x 60 inches (from 'Water, Gold Soil: The American River')

Do you and Edward share the same tasks or are each of you responsible for a specific part of the work? In practice do you create photographs together (like the Bechers) or do you each have your own practice? Are there difficulties in collaborating so closely as partners and parents?

SS: We love to discuss the second part of the question, particularly the part about parenting because it still feels like artists need to be embarrassed about being parents. There is absolutely a strain of art‐ world culture in which you are treated as not a serious artist if it you are discovered to be also a mom or dad. We hate that and want to fight against that. It is a symptom of what I’d call the Modernist Hangover. I think the biggest difficulty in collaborating is that it can make your practice a little more conservative than it might otherwise be. Sometimes an idea presents itself as an intuition and cannot be fully explained. This is hard sometimes in a collaboration because every direction needs to be unanimous, so to speak. I think we are beginning to navigate this a bit better and to allow more space for experimentation. On the other hand, collaboration is wonderful because it combines strengths and very often your collaborator will come up with something you never would have thought of. Your collaborator can also save you from bad ideas! It can just sometimes be a less nimble practice.

It was also a challenge at the beginning separating work‐life from all the rest. That is still hard but we are a lot better at it. Having a child helped in that department. It really puts things in perspective. Our practice is fully collaborative. We have found that is the only way to operate. If we start parsing it and saying I am the photographer, Ed is the writer, etc., not only does it cramp our style, but it doesn’t really tell the story. We make all decisions together. With respect to photography, we don’t feel that who operates the camera, even who frames the image is decisive to authorship.

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting XXXVI: Bellingshause Base, King George Island, Antarctica, 2008, archival pigment print, 40” x 50” (from 'A History of the Future' series)

What is the range of work and media now reflected by the Canary Project ? How many people are involved?

SS: The range is pretty extensive and we are very proud of that. Every project does its own work in its way and the ends are more important than the means. We have now done everything from open‐ source poster campaigns to five‐channel video installations for a contemporary art museum to workshops to performance. We work as creators but also as producers and even administrators. We recently re‐designed our website to reflect this kaleidoscopic nature of 'The Canary Project'. That being said, as individuals, Ed and I are looking more and more to being able to focus on one project at a time. This is probably a function of being parents and teachers as well as artists. And it is probably a bit of a function of age actually! We are not sure what affect that will have on 'The Canary Project' going forward.

Installation views from 'A History of the Future' series

All‐in‐all, there have been literally hundreds of people involved in some way with 'The Canary Project' works. A lot of the volume, though, comes specifically out of the poster projects to which many hundreds of people have submitted to. The core of 'The Canary Project' remains Ed and I, and different projects have different collaborators and creators.

Do you ever feel creatively limited by the rigor of a project such as the two we've discussed?

SS: If so, do you make work outside of those parameters? How do you not let yourself get pigeonholed by the parameters? Yes, a few years ago we felt the need to make space for ourselves to make work outside of the 'Canary Project'. So since 2013, Ed and I have been making video essays and some other projects that are authored by “Sayler/Morris.” The work is certainly related to the projects we have discussed but deals more broadly with ecology. For example, we made a video about urban wilderness called 'Gowane' (2013); a two‐channel video titled 'Water Gold Soil' (2015) that looks at the economic history of extraction in the American West; and most recently, a video about the relationship between humans and non‐humans called 'Their World is Not Our World' (2016). While we continue to collaborate with others and act as producers for various initiatives that deal with climate change through The Canary Project, we also allow ourselves to pursue personal work that does not fall within these bounds. We each wear two hats—we are Canary Project co‐directors and Sayler/Morris.

Rising Sea Level XXI: Johan Huibers’ Ark, The Netherlands, 2010, archival pigment print, 40” x 50” (from 'Their World is Not Our World' series) 

The urgency of addressing climate change and other ecological issues just took on epic proportions with the election. At the same time, within social movements there is widespread acknowledgement that we will have to come together—that working within the silos of our causes will not be sufficient in the face of fascism. 'The Canary Project' has a set of art‐activism skills and practices that need not be exclusive to environmental issues. I believe that we now need to work cross‐movement. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like but I do think that is where we are headed in the next few years.

Would you tell us about The Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University? How is it constructed and how might it effect the way you teach photography? Is there photography outside of that program? Do you work with students on your personal projects as well?

SS: The Department of Transmedia at Syracuse University includes lens‐based and time‐based media. I teach both photography courses and interdisciplinary studios. Syracuse also has a school of journalism where students are trained in editorial and illustrative modes of photography. Having these areas separated allows us to teach photography in the context of contemporary art.

We are really thrilled because a little over a year ago, the College of Visual and Performing Arts/Department of Transmedia gave us the opportunity to start a lab that relates directly to our research (Ed and I both teach at SU). It is called the Canary Lab and the mission is to develop research‐based art and media focused on ecology. We host a variety of programming and offer courses open to students across the university. Each semester, we focus on a particular topic (food, shelter, animals, climate change, etc.). Students read, research and make projects in response to their findings often in collaboration with each other. The cross‐pollination of ideas results in publications, exhibitions, events, or public interventions, all designed by the class.


The Canary Project
urbanautica United States