Traversing every continent over the span of a decade, Rachel Sussman’s empathetic portraits of ‘The Oldest Living Things in the World’ stirs up a sense of the past, as well as a sense of ourselves. Working closely with a myriad of scientists and creating a traveling exhibition that has reached as many shores as herself, Rachel’s photography takes us to the place where ‘science, beauty, and eternity meet’. We sit down to chat about deep time, how you plan for a decade long project, and how it feels for a supposed outsider to suddenly be welcomed in.
FCLTY: Without a classical background in science, I know you’ve done a lot of personal research in addition to approaching scientists in a variety of fields. Can you tell us a little about that experience and how you breached the boundary between those disciplines?
In the beginning, I thought I would find a scientist who would partner with me on this project. Quickly realizing that wasn’t going to happen, I then said, ‘Okay, well I need to start learning this stuff’. In some ways it was intimidating but it was also really exciting since I had a reason. It’s so much easier if you’re trying to learn something that you’re genuinely interested in. So I definitely put in a lot of research. In part, I had to figure out what I was looking for before I could create a project around it—I needed to create my own criteria.
FCLTY: Were there any challenges or surprises? What do you think you took away from that kind of approach?
I found that many of the scientists were so thrilled that somebody had contacted them since a lot of their work was so esoteric and anybody who reached out was usually in their own field. So, if anything, I found that they were incredibly open and, because I did my homework first, I was able to have an intelligent conversation with them. Just like with anyone, you want to understand what their work is so that you can talk to them in a way that feels like you’re connecting and relating.
Something that I really advocate is that if you’re interested in something, reach out to people. It doesn’t have to be as closed off as it is.
I feel like over time it became more and more natural for me—so I kind of lost all shyness in describing ‘this is what I’m doing’, asking if they wanted to meet me in the field or had any advice. And 9 times out of 10, I got a great response.
FCLTY: Well, I think that humble feeling comes through a lot in your own work. It feels like the viewer is visiting and spending a moment with these organisms. There’s an honesty that comes across as being really relatable.
I think a big part of it, as well, was not to create a project that felt too much like it was in an ivory tower and wasn’t relatable. That would have undercut the whole point of it—which is to create a relationship to deep-time and long-term thinking through these individual organisms that have been alive for over 2000 years.
And to encourage the anthropomorphizing of them so you have this feeling of connecting with lives and timelines beyond your own. I mean, how can you connect with other lives while also being an intellectual snob?
FCLTY: I guess that’s always the big challenge. From outside looking in, the language and communication of academic science almost seem to put up a barrier.
From the outside, it definitely feels that way. With the scientists, I read all their papers and got all of their facts. But when I met them they were always a hundred times more interesting than their papers. There are all sorts of weird stories that don’t fit in the context of an academic research paper, but really give the color of what their research is all about.
FCLTY: So I read somewhere that you had quite a bit of experience as a producer? How do you think that experience affected you or guided you along the way?
While in art school, one of my instructors worked for NBC interactive and got me an internship from which I became an associate producer for this TV show called Homicide: Second Shift. So I hadn’t even finished my final year and was basically doing this sort of interdisciplinary storytelling right out of school.
As a producer, you’re communicating with different disciplines all the time while keeping an eye on the big picture. You also need to understand how all of these things, how the designers and the engineers and the clients and the sponsors are all going to work together. It ended up being this hands-on tutorial on how to manage projects and communicate across disciplines.
So for me it was really amazing because I was just coming out of art school with no idea of how to have a job, you know. Art school does not prepare you very well for…life. *Laughs* So I felt incredibly fortunate, not only to have this career path, but also something that was so fascinating.
FCLTY: So I understand you started to break away from that and concentrate more on your art as a practice. Can you tell me about how that evolved?
I was a producer for about 10 years and doing all kinds of different of jobs. But after a while, I felt like I had learned what I needed to learn and it just wasn’t working for me anymore. I was still doing art the whole time, but you know when you’re working crazy hours and you’re in the corporate environment, it’s hard to maintain both.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be an artist in the world and just the amount of dedication and the leap of faith that it takes. You have to keep choosing to invest in yourself and your work, and it’s a challenge. And that’s been something I’ve been talking about, the difference between artists and scientists, and where the money comes from. I mean, I have rarely if ever, met an independent scientist. They’re all working for an institution. If the project doesn’t get funded, they don’t do it. Whereas with artists, it’s almost always the opposite.
FCLTY: You also talk a lot about your role as a writer. You do such a good job of bringing all kinds of different things across in a very seamless way—in the moment of the photo, in the discussion of geological time. Could you talk a bit more about how conscious that is and where it comes from?
Although I started keeping a blog while doing my travels, I never really thought of writing as a part of my art practice. But I realized over time that the writing and the storytelling aspects were really important. I mean, the way you internalize these things is through storytelling and that’s how you’re going to connect to these organisms.
So I felt that without the stories, the photos alone aren’t enough—because they’re not meant to be. They’re documents, they’re art objects. But the organisms are meant to be experienced in a context and the best way to do that is through writing.
However, in the exhibition that’s traveling right now, I have a research studio installation that’s filled with research papers and weird stuff I brought back from my trips and all sorts of different, quirky ephemera that serve to bridge the gap in the same way that the writing does. That’s meant to show that it’s personal, there’s also a lot of academic work in there. Weird shit happens. And it’s all mixed together.
FCLTY: I think it really paints the picture that the work doesn’t need to exist in a vacuum—whether it’s art or science. There’s so much context behind it and so much involved, and like you said, there are all of these other stories of when you met scientists and the myriad of beautiful things that happen. It doesn’t fit into the slots we’ve already arranged so maybe we need to create those ourselves.
Definitely, I realized there were so many different ways I could have written the book. It could have just been the facts or a travel log or some other very abstract, philosophical direction, but to me the best choice was to combine all of them because I feel like that’s what I was actually doing. Sometimes you have these weird travel experiences that are worth sharing and create some more color to a story. Sometimes the facts of these organisms are just so vivid that they can carry themselves. And sometimes it’s the philosophical musings that kind of connect with the deep-time scales and the interconnectedness of life on Earth. But really I think it’s all these things woven together.
That’s why I’m such a proponent to trans-disciplinary approaches to pretty much anything because we are trans-disciplinary. People are not defined by one thing.
It felt like the most authentic thing to do was to connect on all the different levels and to share all the connections that I was making on these different levels. That even with a quarter-turn in perspective, you might really crack something wide open.
FCTLY: Definitely. Aside from the art and science aspects, your work seems to have an inherently environmental and philosophical bend. What do you want people to take away from your work overall?
The biggest thing is really a connection to long-term thinking via this perspective on deep-time. Even though there are all these layers in the project, it’s all in service to this idea of connecting to deeper time scales. With every organism continuously living for over 2000 years, what is the year zero in our own timescales and what does that mean, how long is a human life span? My hope is that you start to feel this connection to the part of this continuum that is so much bigger than our own individual lives.
And ultimately, I just think it’s a more moral approach to living. It’s really combating the shallowness of our current human time-keeping. We’re caught in this moment that is divorced from the rest of the continuum and it’s really detrimental. And it’s not like we can always be engaged in long-term thinking but if we could start to think, “well, what’s the impact of this decision 100 years from now, 200 years from now, 2000 years from now,” I think it could really positively impact people’s decision making.