Welcome to a series of blogs and recordings based on other artists who consciously take up methods of un/making as part of their practice. Personally inspired by each one of them for different reasons, I hope you will enjoy reading these interviews as much as I did learning more about how these artists are choosing to work in today's social and ecological climate.
The first artist you will have a chance to read about is Twyla Exner who I had the privilege to meet and converse with during a curatorial project entitled RE-crafted. Unfortunately cancelled during COVID, I wanted to reach out to Twyla for the UN/makers Series as she was making clever use of the technological devices that become obsolete daily.
As a brief introduction, Twyla is a Canadian artist who currently resides as a visitor on the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory, situated within the unceded ancestral lands of the Secwépemc Nation. Inspired by the wonders of nature and electronic equipment gone awry, Exner, both fascinated and repelled by technology and its increasingly invasive role in our daily lives, uses the materials and imagery of discarded electronics to arrive at wondrous and worrisome installations, sculptures and drawings that propose hybrids of technological structures and living organisms. If you would like to read more about Twyla's formal training, you can scroll down to the bottom of the interview or visit her website.
Twyla Exner (Photo provided by artist)
Image description: Young white woman with big brown eyes wearing reddish orange lipstick that matches two intricately woven wire sculptures which she is wearing on her shoulder and head. Twyla is also holding a very organic looking sculpture in purples and oranges made of reclaimed wire.
Jill: Twyla, thank you for taking time out from your busy schedule for this interview! I was wondering if you could start off by providing us a little bit of a context on what were some key factors that pivoted your practice towards working with electronic waste? So ultimately, when, why and how did you begin to unmake yourself from more traditional fine art materials and modes of representation?
Twyla: I grew up with Grandparents who lived through the Great Depression and the mentality that all objects can potentially be precious materials was a value that was communicated to me from an early age. I loved rummaging through my Grandmother’s drawers that were filled with bread tags, elastics, bottle caps, and other treasures – all
neatly organized in tattered candy boxes. Bits and pieces saved over time were the raw materials of many of my childhood creations. When I went to university to study visual art, I enjoyed learning to make molds, throw pots, weld armatures, work with wood, apply paint, and much more, but the most inspiring part of my learning experience was
watching one of my professors, Sean Whalley, collect wood construction waste and transform it into large-scale, abstracted, tree-like architectural forms. There seems to be a certain kind of magic in working with unwanted things and making them valuable through the investment of care and labour. I’m not sure that I had to unmake myself from
traditional materials, so much as I had a predisposition toward working in this way. I started working with electronic waste in the third year of my Bachelor’s degree.
Previously, I had been working with willow branches to weave nests and similar forms but the material quickly became limiting to my aspirations. I sought a material that connected more with “urban” than “nature” and that is how I began to experiment with discarded telecommunications cables, which were being removed from buildings at the time as society shifted to mobile phones. I very quickly grew to adore these cables which consist of colourful plastic coated copper wires. As a material, they are incredibly versatile, hold within them an entire history of connection and communication, and perhaps best of all, I have been able to access them for free (generously donated from telecommunication companies). Using the cables as a jumping point (pun intended), I meandered down a research path where I explored the history of communication and electrical networks, electronic waste cycles, electrical system development, ancient batteries, and much more, which eventually led me towards other forms of electronic waste. Once I began to collect old things, more waste quickly came my way. Friends, family, and strangers are always delighted for me to take their sentimental yet “useless” possessions and make them into art.
Images Top to Bottom: Morph, Monument, Cling, Invasion (Images from artist's website)
Jill: If as artists we choose to recognize how the visual arts contribute to and / or perpetuate capitalist, industrial, patriarchal, and colonial perspectives, and gestures towards land, how do you see your praxis in relation to the concept of unmaking or undoing these different phenomena and their contribution to the Anthropocene?
Twyla: I find simultaneous delight and horror in imagining “what if?” within my work: What if electronics could evolve on their own? What happens when hybridized electronics and living organisms go awry? What circumstances would allow for barnacle growth on home satellite dishes? What if computer circuits were sentient? These questions draw attention to the Anthropocene by empowering human creations to join us in changing the environment. Instead of presenting these ideas in a doom and gloom format, my work is cute, playful, and candy-coloured. In a sense, its content is
“packaged” in a friendly way while also delivering a warning for possible futures.
Twyla Exner, Things 2 & 3 (Friends), 2: 14”x15”x14” / 12”x8”x9” Woven Telecommunications Cables Collection of Saskatchewan Arts Board ( Image from artist's website )
Image Description: Two very organic looking wire sculptures connecting across to plinths, where one's orange protruding extremities inserts into the others purple, green and blue outstretched receptacles.
Additionally, I don’t believe that I divert enough waste or that my work has enough of an impact to undo or unmake any of the incredibly complicated systems that contribute to the Anthropocene. I used to believe that art could change people’s minds and have an impact on our collective future. I still hope it does, but I also recognize that the systems we are up against are so much more difficult to change than people’s minds. Investing time, care, and attention into expendable materials feels aligned and meaningful for me. For my small part and short time on this beautiful planet, I hope to contribute a collection of artworks that connect with people through material, process, or imagery, and spark imagination and narratives around some of the challenging questions and concerns of our shared time.
Jill: Perhaps a follow up question, much of British Columbia is an extremely charged geography due to it being located on the unceded traditional territories of many first nations. As we have become more informed and sensitive to these truths, have you needed to further redress or unmake how you approach your projects?
Twyla: I am grateful to live as an uninvited guest in what we now call Canada. I grew up on Treaty 4 lands, situated on the territories of the Nêhiyawak, Anihšināpēk, Dakota, Lakota, and Nakoda, and the homeland of the Métis / Michif Nation. More recently, I lived on the unceded ancestral territory of the Lheidli T’enneh for five years prior to relocating to Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc territory, situated within the unceded ancestral lands of the Secwépemc Nation. Only very recently I began to explore how I might use inspirations from my local environment in my work…but then I moved from Prince George to Kamloops and what is my local environment has now changed. At this time in my practice, I don’t have an answer to how my artwork relates to or is informed by the unceded territory in which I reside. I am trying to unpack my own associations and feelings toward land and I’m not yet sure how that all fits within my art practice.
Jill: If you think about how many artists or even the stereotype of an artist maneuvers through the world, what else have you had to unmake, relinquish, resist, refuse or refrain from to work the way you do?
Twyla: There are a couple significant challenges in working with the materials and at the scale of some of my projects: storage is a challenge and the preparation of materials and hand-made processes for art-making are extremely time-consuming. The question of studio and storage has meant that I’ve spent the last decade living in smaller communities which are (often) more affordable places. Because my work is so labour intensive, it is difficult to sell if I want to be
compensated, even marginally, for my efforts. I am more interested in creating artworks to share in public spaces than in individual homes, so I have focused mainly on pursuing exhibitions in public galleries and sharing my works on through other public channels. Although this way of working is in alignment with my values and ideals, as time marches on and I continue to make new things, I am having to confront having to manage so much stuff (artworks). In these moments, I wish I could just sell it all so I wouldn’t have to store it any longer! But, this can also be seen as a new opportunity and (when I have a moment) I am hoping to revisit some older works and remake them into “new” works.
Jill: You speak about having a personal love hate relationship with technology. Are there any technologies you have purposely chosen to resist, disrupt or remove yourself from so as to unmake yourself from its seduction, corruption, manipulation…
Twyla: I try to resist purchasing new electronics as long as possible, but, my second-hand iPhone 7 is barely hanging in there and the laptop I bought in 2013 struggles to render anything in digital imaging software. I will delay as long as possible, but I am not beyond the seduction or manipulation of any electronic media or new technological gadgets.
I’ve been building skills in 3D modelling and printing over the past couple of years. Just this week I scanned a plasticine model that I made and 3D printed it at Thompson Rivers University’s new MakerSpace and I am way more excited about this than I should be. Because I grew up in the 1990s during this culture of promise for the digital era…it feels like magic that it has all come true and I am consistently amazed at our technological accomplishments. But it has
come with huge costs, and the mixture of technological impetus and late-stage capitalism has proven to be a recipe for environmental and social strain. Technology isn’t inherently bad but the system we’ve developed around it is certainly problematic. These things are always on my mind when I collect electronic waste: I think of all of the design and ingenuity that went into its creation and how in a matter of a few years it becomes obsolete, only to be replaced by a newer and flashier model…I feel a sense of empathy for it and through art-making can draw attention to that process.
Jill: I know that you primarily work with wire and its different encasings as your material. Can you give us some examples of the physical or conceptual processes of unmaking that occur during your research or creative production? For example, what stages of unmaking need to happen just to arrive at material that is ready to twist and bend into
Photos provided by artist
Images Description: Photos of hand holding reclaimed wire and the tool used to strip the plastic coating away from the metal wire inside. The third picture shows five large bins of stripped and unstripped wire that Twyla has sourced and organized for future use.
Twyla: To start with I need to source the wires that I want to work with. A decade ago, it was fairly easy: I would call the local telecommunications company at their industrial site and be passed around a few times on the phone before being connected to someone who would invite me to come and raid their recycling piles. It is far more difficult today because the only phone numbers listed for telecommunication companies do not connect to a local district and only connect to cellular sales or customer support, which is often sourced out of province or out of country. Today I have to ask friends, family and colleagues if they know anyone who works for a telecommunication company and build a relationship in order to access materials.
Another issue I need to consider is that telecommunication cables come as a bundle of colourful plastic-coated copper wires that are inside a grey or black casing. Depending on where the cable was used, for example, inside an office wall or strung between telephone poles outdoors, the casing may also have fibreglass thread, corrugated steel wrap, or a woven aluminum protector. When I first started working with wire, I took any cable and had to contend with the metal casings which held a lot of wires but were extremely difficult to remove. Over the years I have become more selective and choose the smaller bundles of wire inside a thin grey plastic casing which are much easier to unmake. For the grey plastic cables, I cut the cable into a manageable length, approximately three feet or so using shears. I use a utility knife to slice down the casing, then pull the bundle of wires out. I remove a fibreglass thread that is binding the bundle of wires together. Finally, I have to separate the bundle of wire into individual colours. Often, the wires are twisted around one another in sets of two, which requires some further unwinding. It’s not a difficult process, but it is time-consuming. For centuries, human weavers have had to prepare natural materials before making their wares, so I suppose in many ways this is the same. It would be much faster to purchase spools of already separated plastic-coated copper wires…but it wouldn’t hold the same significance and I feel the content of the work would be compromised.
Jill: Is there anything you have unmade about yourself through research or the creative process?
Twyla: I believe it is difficult to exist as an artist. Confronting conceptual inquiry in art is challenging. Justifying life choices to society is challenging. Surviving in society as an artist is challenging. Having your value questioned is challenging. And I say these things as an artist who has been extremely privileged in gaining opportunities and
(recent) stable employment. Most days I ask myself why I make art…and why I want to continue to make art. Many days I wish I wanted to do something else. But, I do not want to do something else. It is sometimes exhausting to unmake and remake things and one’s self…but for me, so far, challenge and growth seem to win over comfort and acceptance.
Jill: Is there any book, essay, blog, or podcast that has been instrumental in informing the way you approach your praxis or that has helped to disrupt anthropocentric perspectives, approaches, and presentations of land.?
Twyla: Early in my art career, ideas that were formative to my approach came from: David Suzuki’s “The Sacred Balance”, David Nye’s “American Technological Sublime”, Charlene Cerny’s “Recycled, Re-Seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap”. More recently, most of my perspective-changing information comes from my three favourite podcasts: Alie Ward’s “Ologies”, Roman Mar’s “99% Invisible”, and the Smithsonian’s “Sidedoor”. One thing all
these podcasts have in common is storytelling from different perspectives about topics I never expected to be interested in.
Jill: I also read that you have been involved in many collaborative projects. Were there other positive examples of unmaking or undoing happening within your extended art community?
Twyla: I feel that the most important un-doing in community projects is the un-doing of attitudes around or towards art and what art can be. I’ve worked with many people who have told me they don’t have artistic “talent” or that they don’t even like art. For reasons that likely have to do with expectations around what art “is”, many folks are more open to working with a bundle of old wires or a circuit board than they are to working with a pencil and paper. I believe they are open because these are materials already seen as “waste” and figure that they can’t make waste worse, so the stakes are low. I often begin by asking for their help in making something, we chat, and we twist wires, and before they even know it, they’ve created a small wire sculpture. To any given prompt, I can imagine one hundred outcomes, but in community-engaged projects, I am always surprised by what people come up with.
Jill: I love that you are breaking down barriers by modelling the process of un/making and re/configuring waste with and for others. Based on these experiences, what else do you feel needs more unmaking in the world, or more specifically, in the art world today?
Twyla: There are soooo... many things that, in my opinion, need to be unmade in the so-called art world. To save you from reading an essay, I will focus on my main pet peeve: accessibility. Accessibility, in all its forms, is a challenge faced by many artists and galleries. Artists and galleries have a lot of work to do to unmake the “general public’s” perception of art: what it is, and who it is for. Stating “This is for you!”, or “Everyone Welcome” into a gallery space only to confront visitors with an inaccessible curatorial statement and artwork that requires a critical theory course to understand will not remove barriers to understanding, nor will it solve the issue of years of exclusion. I am not saying that academically challenging work isn’t important, but I do advocate for a balance. I am also a part of this system and am guilty of writing inaccessible statements, and I am working on unmaking that part of myself as well. As artists, we have to justify our existence and our need for funding for our research, our production, and our arts institutions in perpetuity because we have not done a good or equitable job in connecting with the public and making them feel like they belong. Many artists and galleries are working to make these changes and I look forward to seeing all of the ways that we will do better in the future.
Jill: I am sure I could ask you a thousand more questions, but in nearing the end of this amazing discussion, is there anything else you would like to further unmake yourself from in the future and why?
Twyla: I am always in the process of reflecting upon myself as an academically trained artist educated in a colonial system with a strong bias toward western art perspectives and trained to produce artworks and statements and pursue opportunities that “fit” and exist within a relatively small and inaccessible sphere. It’s difficult and confusing to untangle what is myself from what are the biases of my education and experiences and even more difficult to continue to pursue
opportunities as an artist and an academic within these systems. I don’t have the answers…but I am privileged to be able to continue to ask questions, learn, make and un-make.
Jill: Okay, final question. If you could add one line or word to an unmaking manifesto or unmaking dictionary, what would it be?
Twyla: Re-collect: collect old things, make them new, and celebrate their memories!
Jill: Perfect! Great last words. I can't thank you enough for your thoughtful consideration and time given to this interview.
Twyla Exner holds a BFA from the University of Regina (Regina, SK) and a MFA from Concordia University (Montreal, QC), Twyla has also held artist residencies with Herschel Supply Co. Gastown in Vancouver, BC and the Omineca Arts Center in Prince George, BC and been involved in many collaborative projects with other public institutions. To share her expertise, Twyla has also held teaching positions with Sheridan College, Emily Carr University, College of New Caledonia, Prince George, BC, Grande Prairie Regional College, and Concordia University. The recipient of numerous grants from Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council, Alberta Foundation for the Arts and Saskatchewan Arts, her works have been exhibited in Canada and the USA including at the Appalachian Center for Craft (Tennessee, USA), Dunlop Art Gallery (Regina, SK), Art Mûr (Montreal, QC), and VIVO (Vancouver, BC). Currently held in numerous public collections including the Royal BC Museum (Victoria, BC), Saskatchewan Arts (Regina, SK) and the Kamloops Art Gallery (Kamloops, BC), Exner’s most recent news is she has been hired on as an Assistant Professor at the Thompson Rivers University in the Department of Communications and Visual Arts in
Kamloops, BC as she also prepares herself for a long line up of exhibitions.