by John Critelli
Do you ever stop and think about the oil stains on the road?
Probably not – but Christy Speakman does. And to her, they’re works of art.
“I want to be an advocate for the micro, the human, the specific, the individual, the numbered, the ephemeral and momentary,” she says. And she does a great job. Who else would notice the resemblance between those oil stains and distant galaxies?
On the left is a photo from Speakman’s 2009 project Cosmic Territory. On the right is a Hubble telescope photo of a barred spiral galaxy. The similarities are clear once they’re pointed out, but the fact that someone has to point them out shows just how much we take for granted.
That’s why Speakman’s work is all about gaining a fresh perspective. “Photography can teach us to live in the moment with our eyes wide open,” she says. “Patterns and forms found in the everyday can be something more.”
Even something as simple as moss can become fascinating. Speakman’s 2010 project, Moss Map, portrayed patches of moss as islands floating across the sky.
But it’s not just everyday objects that get overlooked. Environmental problems are ignored too. That’s why Speakman’s new project, Watershed, is all about the Louisiana wetlands. Speakman, a New Orleans native, moved to New York after Hurricane Katrina. But she’s still concerned about what she calls the “environmental urgency” of coastal Louisiana.
Watershed combines Speakman’s wetlands photography with 3D imaging. The result is like a video game, letting viewers move through a surreal landscape where Speakman’s photos hover as spheres. She says she hopes the project will “raise consciousness about the fragility and importance of coastal Louisiana.”
Speakman created Watershed for the United Secret Society of Subversive Artists (USSSA), a political art collective. Read below for an abridged interview about USSSA, Watershed, and more:
AiOP: Tell us about USSSA.
Speakman: USSSA is essentially a movement and a revision to the art exhibition model, striving to create more opportunities, fairness and diversity for artists.
It’s also an educational forum where artists can bring voice to any political theme of personal/cultural relevance. Artists in the USSSA are in hope of reaching an audience and generating support for projects during the months leading up to the Presidential Election, which too often overlooks these important issues for storylines, gossip and dynamics between candidates.
A still from Watershed
AiOP: What makes the Louisiana wetlands a current political issue?
Speakman: After Hurricane Katrina, the state created the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority that recently released the 2012 Master Plan outlining detailed projects over the next 50 years at an estimated cost of $50 billion.
Louisiana congressional members are still seeking approval of the RESTORE Act, legislation that would designate billions of dollars in Clean Water Act fines from the 2010 BP oil spill to fund Gulf Coast restoration projects.
There’s an urgent need for political support to bring these projects to fruition. Louisiana has lost nearly 1,900 square miles of land since the 1930s and the Master Plan says the state will lose nearly that amount by 2050 if nothing is done.
Doing nothing comes at an even larger price tag and affects our entire nation’s energy supply, not to mention the cultural losses that would incur.
Another still from Watershed
AiOP: Can you walk us through the development of Watershed? How did you get the idea, and how did it grow?
Speakman: The Louisiana swamp will always be my home and where I gained my intuition as an artist. Walking through a floating forest, you realize how intricate the surface of the water is, there is so much texture everywhere.
In 2007, I was an artist-in-residence at A Studio in the Woods, a bottomland hardwood forest within the city limits of New Orleans. During my research there, I started to grasp the environmental urgency of coastal Louisiana’s precarious state.
I originally envisioned making a more traditional documentary but was inspired by watching my husband design and build video games. I decided to borrow from that innovative technology and use UDK software to create an interactive piece that offers a more direct experience of looking at this incredible landscape.
Another still from Watershed
AiOP: Why do you think perspective is such an important subject to explore?
Speakman: Where we stand connotes power. It was especially heart-breaking to watch news footage of New Orleanians trapped on rooftops while we were safely evacuated after the storm.
We’ve since become so accustomed to looking at images taken from airplanes, where everything is abstracted and map-like. I want to show people what that looks like on micro level.
A close-up of Speakman’s 2010 project Moss Map
AiOP: For Cosmic Territory you described oil stains as “microscopic galaxies.” For Moss Map you portrayed patches of moss as islands scattered across the sky. Why do you think you see everyday objects in such a unique way?
Speakman: My relationship with photography has always been rooted in a desire to call attention to small pleasures. Almost everything I do comes from simply observing and paying attention.
I am fascinated at how an oil stain on my street can for a fleeting moment resemble a distant galaxy. I use photography to create new worlds, or call attention to the magic within our own – a fantasy within grasp. There’s definitely an element of day-dreaming involved.
Speakman standing next to her 2009 project Cosmic Territory
AiOP: You’ve said that “Satellite mapping, astrophotography and Google Earth have notably influenced” your views. Can you explain how?
Speakman: Google Earth played an enormous role in Hurricane Katrina. After the levees broke the city shut down for months. Plugging your address into Google Earth was the most accurate way to measure the flood levels of your home.
Many displaced New Orleanians collectively experienced the storm this way. There was also the now iconic image of Katrina spinning towards the gulf in the often replayed weather forecasts that I could not get out of my head – originally sparking the idea for my oil stain photographs while wandering around NYC in the rain.
Years later I began studying cosmology and astrophotography – which has become a kind of postmodern mysticism for me.
A NASA satellite image of Hurricane Katrina
Note: Speakman needs funding for Watershed. Please check out her Indiegogo campaign, which ends Monday, June 25th at midnight!