Meredith Laura Lynn and Katie Hargrave examine
the histories and industries that shape our
experiences in the outdoors
By Kate Mothes
Fascinated by travel and nature throughout America’s expanses, artists Katie Hargrave and Meredith Laura Lynn discovered some common threads between their practices, highlighting shared interests in the prevalent yet often problematic legacies of Manifest Destiny, capitalism, the curation and interpretation of nature, and the role of photography in perpetuating and mythologizing attitudes about “authentic” outdoor experiences. In the interview below, Dovetail spoke with Hargrave and Lynn, who are based in Florida and Tennessee, respectively, about archives and the power of images, settler colonialism, the cult of personality in early conservationist writing, and modes of accessing and interpreting public land.
Hargrave and Lynn’s work Developed, Developing is on view at Knoxville Art Museum in the Tennessee Triennial for Contemporary Art through May 7, 2023, and you can visit their collaboration page to explore more work.
How did you first connect? When did your practices first converge?
We actually went to graduate school together, so we’ve known each other for over 10 years, but we really started collaborating in 2018. It began when we did a residency together in Oregon called Signal Fire. It’s a really unusual residency which brings artists, writers, curators together to spend time in the outdoors with the goal that participants become advocates for these spaces. We drove together from Oregon back home after the residency. In the process of that drive, we learned that we just had all of these overlaps in the ways that we were approaching space, thinking about land, and interrogating the histories that are contained in these spaces, and questioning the way those histories are interpreted.
So, driving back, we visited a bunch of national parks and different cultural and historical places and just started talking a lot about how we were both responding. Out of that came some initial collaborative projects, and then things just kind of snowballed from there.
Both of us were interested in the same topics and making work about landscape in some way, but by working together, we were able to make work that is more ambitious. It’s exciting that it feels natural, and we also kind of push each other to be more specific in terms of the concept behind what we’re working on.
There’s a through-theme with the tent specifically, and the national parks within the context of the American landscape. Speaking of the tents, do you come from a center point of sculpture or is there a beginning point that you come from, like photography or multimedia?
Actually, it’s funny, our first project that we did together was almost all wall drawing, photography, and video. It was very two-dimensionally oriented work. And then we got an opportunity to make work about Utah and the Big Five, or the five national parks in Utah (Bryce Canyon, Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks). I don’t remember where the idea of the tent initially came from, but we decided that it would make sense for us to make a tent for Arches and then bring it there and photograph it on site. So, honestly, while we’re thinking about it in relationship to sculpture—we think sculpturally, and make a lot of sculpture— we are oftentimes thinking in terms of image.
You asked, do we start with sculpture or do we start in another place… I actually think that where we really start is in research, where we are drawn to specific sites for one reason or another. Maybe we read a thing about an ecologist who had a certain experience in one particular site, and then we start researching the site. Through that research, we end up devising different strategies to coalesce or condense that content into a sculptural format. Sometimes it’s a tent, sometimes it’s a cooler, sometimes it’s something else, and it really starts with engagement with a particular place and research into that place, which is articulated in something more formal or visual. What makes the tent an interesting object to us—and an object that we continue to return to—is that it has a sculptural presence in the gallery and in space that I think is really interesting.
Yeah, it’s funny actually, oftentimes the tent is a problem for us because it’s physically like an installation problem. They feel really small in the landscape, so they’re dwarfed when we’re taking something out onto a site and photographing it. Then when you bring it into the galleries, they’re really quite big. They just take up a lot of physical presence, which is interesting when we think about the work existing both within the gallery and outside of the gallery.
We also are engaged with the tent as a capitalist device as well. I’m thinking of it as something that you go and purchase, something that is advertised to you through a very specific visual language.
Vast open spaces are such a contrast to a white cube exhibition space, and the idea of utilizing a tent is almost like a portal between them. And to your comment about the capitalist element of the tent, too, like the portal to the outdoors is going to REI first, for instance, before actually getting outside.
The capitalism element has become something that we’re more and more interested in. And thinking about the camera and the vehicle of a car and RV, and that interest in those particular tools—and the culture around those tools, like the culture around the Airstreams, for instance—naturally led us into thinking about the culture around so-called public lands and the outdoors more generally.
A lot of that is capitalism, so even if we think about Manifest Destiny, it’s a capitalist idea, right? Like, we’re going to settle and conquer and steal everything that we can from those landscapes, even down to the views. The vistas were something captured through photography as a way to encourage westward expansion by settler colonialism and (we think about) the way that photographers are implicated in that.
History is really continued through the ways in which companies are photographing their products on the landscape. Like in the project that we have at the Knoxville Museum of Art (as part of the Tennessee Triennial), you see really clear relationships between images that people take for social media, product images, and images from 19th-century geological surveys of the west—down to like the framing, the position of people’s bodies. So much of it now is so ingrained in the culture that we don’t even know we’re doing it, but it’s something that has been telegraphed to us across generations, which is fascinating.
With today’s technology and social media, and mapping, we have a way that we can kind of place ourselves within a landscape without even connecting experientially to the landscape because you’re stuck on your phone. Does current technology play into how you view some of these topics as well or how you’ve even accessed certain archives over time?
Yeah, definitely. We pull from crowd sourced imagery a lot, so we look at creative commons images of so-called public land spaces. We look at Instagram and think about social media posts as a contemporary articulation of these 19th century ideas of settler colonialism and Manifest Destiny. What’s been great is that we’ve been able to make connections with people on social media. We always get permission to use the photographs that we use, and we’re trying to be thoughtful about the way we’re engaging with people who are posting those kinds of images.
We also are aware that we ourselves are participating in that same creation of content while existing in the landscape. We know that we are also tourists in these spaces and that we are doing a very similar thing in a lot of cases to the people whose photographs we’re using. We’re interested in implicating ourselves and placing ourselves directly within that conversation as well. We do use a lot of new media like video, projection mapping, and things like that, and contemporary technology exists in a continuum of technologies that also existed in the 19th century that enabled the project of settler colonialism or the project of capitalism.
We’re considering media technology in some of the projects that we’re thinking about now, for instance, we’ve been working on a project about the History Channel television show Alone. Participants photograph themselves so they have to learn how to use a GoPro and a couple of other different types of cameras like night vision cameras, and they have to set up multiple shots for every scene because they don’t have a camera crew there.
The camera is really an important part of that whole show, so that’s something we’re starting to think about as well: how do we make sure that we’re pitching ourselves as actors and directors within the work? For instance, in a video project that we did a couple of years ago called Pitch / Strike, the soundtrack that you hear is me directing Meredith, and Meredith is putting up a tent over and over again. We’re definitely thinking about the ways in which our bodies are positioned in relationship to the technology of the smartphone or the DSLR, the night vision camera, whatever.
What about the idea of a prescribed or “authentic” experience of the outdoors and the relationship to social media? There’s this automatic expectation that if you have been there, you have to document it. Do you view it as a tension between ideas of a so-called authentic experience and a secondary, observational documentation aspect?
That relationship is really interesting. I mean, before the smartphone camera, it was the slide, right, and you’d have a slide show when you returned home. Before that it was the postcard, so there have been these ways in which you prove presence, at least in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, that was really important, and that’s really as the highways and the access to these spaces become so much easier.
Even the mythology around the creation of the first National Park is (connected to) Albert Bierstadt, who was commissioned to make paintings of Yellowstone. But it’s William Henry Jackson‘s photographs that convinced the U.S. Senate to preserve that space as a national park. It’s the idea that photography is somehow true, right? Even though, of course, we know that not to be the case, and I think it’s going to become even more complicated—it’s obviously not the case with how AI is infiltrating our construction of images. We just think about presence and proof as being very important.
We don’t really talk about the idea of authenticity very often. Part of that is that there’s an implied moral judgment in that idea. Once you introduce the idea of authenticity—that you can have an authentic experience in landscape or an inauthentic experience in landscape—then you’re reasserting these ideas that are embedded in capitalism or nationalism that prioritize one kind of experience over another. So if you have the right kind of equipment and if you’re packing light enough—this idea of packing light is really big in the outdoor industry—then you’re having an authentic relationship in the outdoors. But if you need to have a heavy tent and a really thick sleeping bag, then you’re having an inauthentic experience. These are ideas that actually have been permeating the culture for over 100 years.
We often return to this Edward Abbey quote he said about Arches, which is basically: “You can’t see anything from a car.” Katie and I started thinking about that and we were like, well, then who gets to see Arches, right? Who gets to be part of this landscape, and who gets to authentically experience this landscape?
Just to bring up one example, John Muir’s writings and his experience over decades mythologized the west and the national parks in a way that people still rely so heavily on—a somewhat antiquated text about this one person’s experience that contributed to shaping attitudes over time, which are problematic, such as how privileged you need to be in order to have that type of freedom. To have that flexibility, what do you have to be able to afford in order to be free of everything?
We read and have been drawing from John Muir’s text A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, in which he walks from Indiana to Florida and writes essentially a travelogue that’s published posthumously. In that travelogue, it’s clear that he’s actually not very good at being outside. He’s not very good at camping. His brother has to wire him money because he has to pay to stay in inns and buy food and stuff. Studying John Muir in that way got us thinking more critically about these other people, usually white men, who we uphold as somehow being better at being outside than the rest of us.
In the fall, we were able to do a residency in St. Augustine, Florida, at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum that enabled us the time to do some research into early conservationists who had traveled through Northern Florida in the late 18th and early 19th centuries… people like John Audubon and William Bartram and thinking about how those people are upheld as being somehow in mastery of nature. Then, when you actually really dig into what they were doing and how they were behaving outdoors, you realize they didn’t know what they were doing either, and they don’t have any more authority to be telling anyone else how to be outside.
In terms of destinations and places that you visited, or also other things that maybe you have on the docket coming up, is there a place you would consider revisiting because it stuck with you specifically? Or is there a place that surprised you once you made it there?
For me, I would say, Cumberland Island National Seashore was a really surprising place. It’s a national seashore that’s run by the National Park Service, but it’s not a national park—it’s like, second tier. The history of that is really fascinating. The Carnegies owned a big portion of the island, and then they couldn’t decide what to do with it after the matriarch died. Her will stipulated that eventually it went to the National Park Service, and thinking about the way in which that landscape has been developed is really fascinating.
Essentially, they make it very easy to see all the Carnegie sites and very difficult to see the other sites unless you want to ride a bike like, eight miles on sand. I did it; it’s difficult. So it’s just interesting the ways in which the history is constructed and captured for folks. These sites, which feel like they’re historical, are meant to feel like they’re away from time in some way and are really tied up in the current ways in which we are using the landscape, which is quite fascinating. I don’t know that we’ll ever do another project there, but we could talk about that project and that place forever.
We do seem to just keep returning to Utah for a lot of different reasons, but the national parks in Utah are pretty beautiful and really have been quite fruitful areas for us. We both have a little bit of a fantasy of going to the Dry Tortugas, which is off the coast of Florida. It’s probably among the most remote national parks; you have to take a plane or like a three-hour boat ride to get there. There’s no fresh water source on the island—the “dry” in Dry Tortugas—so it’s actually a really difficult site to maintain and be on for a long period of time.
We were just in Portland, and we went to an arboretum, sort of like a tree museum, in a way. There’s a little bit more interpretation, and it’s a little bit more curated. I had never been to an arboretum before, so that was very interesting. Katie’s really knowledgeable about trees, she was telling me all about different kinds of trees. Whenever we’re traveling, we try to understand how different sites are managed, how different sites are interpreted, or how different people interact with spaces that are supposed to be designated for the public.
There are these massive national parks in Utah, this national seashore, islands, and an arboretum, but all of them—no matter the scale—there’s a narrative associated with it in some way that someone has had to write, or in a sense curate.
Yes, these are interpreted spaces, and we think about the work that park rangers do as interpretation. And we think of the way that roads or constructed spaces are built as a level of interpretation, and the photographs that are taken by tourists and by the National Park Service—this is another layer of interpretation. So we’re always thinking about how these sites are mediated and are presented to the public.
And then where Bureau of Land Management sites and National Forest sites tend to not have that same level of interpretation. There are exceptions to that, but by and large, the lack of interpretations at those sites is really because they are intended to be resources to be harvested. If there is interpretation or if there is acknowledgement of the rich history of Indigenous people on those landscapes, that would make it more difficult for resource extraction, so even the lack of interpretation is also an intentional choice.
All images © Katie Hargrave and Meredith Laura Lynn.
Header: Inside Eureka (detail). Photo by John Dooley.
Side-by-side Images: From the series Cataloguing. Photos by John Dooley