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November 2, 2021

Introducing Ash Arder, Flint Artist in Residence

By UMS Education
Ash Arder

Ash Arder; Photo: Colin Conces; Courtesy of the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE.

UMS is pleased to welcome Ash Arder as this season’s Flint Artist in Residence. Ash Arder (she, they) is a transdisciplinary artist whose research-based approach works to expose, deconstruct, or reconfigure ecological and industrial systems. Born and raised in Flint MI, they hope their residency on the University of Michigan Flint campus will put community stories on a platform to be celebrated. Ash’s process-based residency will continue their research of broadcasting as a concept in both agricultural and technological spaces, with the sun as a prominent source of energy.

UMS Education and Community Engagement student staff member Kristin Hanson recently interviewed Ash about their hopes for the residency, personal connections to Flint, and overall artistic process.

What is your connection to Flint, MI and how will it inspire your work during this residency?

Flint is my home. I was born there, raised there, and lived there until I went to college. It’s the classic story of Black families coming up from the south to work in the automotive industries in Detroit and in Flint. There is this constant through-line of machinery and cars in my life, spending so much time in transit for work and play growing up. My dad trusted me a lot, and I learned street smarts when I was able to go off and explore on my own. Flint really created space for me to have a multitude of life experiences. I come home to visit family and be inspired.

It’s important to remember what’s being portrayed in the news about Flint, which in the last decade or so has been a lot of emphasis on toxicity, decay, and health challenges. It’s important for me to remind myself and others that there are so many beautiful things about Flint.

Flint feels like a space that is home – but Flint is also a teacher. Flint finds its way into my work through familial stories and histories, and even literal sound bites and videos collected from inside of the city. It is part of the well-known story of the Great Migration – this co-dependent relationship between the automotive industry and Black families. This relationship is wrapped up in complexity, beauty, and challenge. Well-funded opportunities to make art at home are rare, so this will be really special.


You have created work centered around your father’s story as an automotive worker and urban gardener. Could you give an example of how your memories with him and of your childhood influence your work?

Almost 10 years ago I started to explore making fiber from plants harvested around the city of Detroit. When I was doing that work, it was really frustrating because I couldn’t find anybody in the community to show me how to process these plants into yarn.

I found myself calling my dad often to ask for tips on so many things: how to cultivate plants inside, how to make clones of plants, what types of soils to use, what lights to get, how to prune effectively, etc. I don’t know why it took so long to realize that I didn’t need to be going into this work alone. It was a kind of an “Aha” moment when I realized that moving into this work was about the trajectory of my relationship with plants, which started when I was really young. There was always a beautiful garden with strawberries and grapes and watermelon and vegetables growing in our very small backyard. My father was always cultivating herbs and drying them in the kitchen. My dad would play music for plants. He would set up these really involved altars and greenhouses for the plants.

Looking back at the photos, he would set up what looks like an art installation – where mirrors and rocks are sort of intertwined into the plants so that the light can reflect on them. I took these childhood experiences for granted. It wasn’t until I went off into the world on my own that I realized my relationship with plants was sacred and natural, and that I had been exposed to creative gardening in an urban context for as long as I could remember. My art reminds me of that creative gardening, especially in the context of Black people in urban spaces working with traditional and almost forgotten forms of cultivating plants. I started to document those stories and document my current conversations with others, so I could pass them along to other folks that may be asking the same questions.

Ash Arder; Photo: Colin Conces; Courtesy of the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE.

What does your artistic process look like?

My work is really process-oriented and process-based. I’m constantly collecting information and stories. Information for me comes in the form of sound and field recordings. It comes in the form of prompts to interview members of my own family or members in the community where I’m teasing out information about a specific subject or place.

The process also looks like spelunking in sectors and labs and environments that are interesting to me, but unfamiliar. I don’t have any hesitations about cold calling a physicist or an electrician or a biologist and asking if I can observe their lab activity. I don’t always know how what I learn will be incorporated into my work, but I usually come away with information about how questions can be asked differently. I’m never really trying to resolve anything; the final output is rarely a buttoned-up, resolved concept.

Another thing that’s super interesting to me is the tangibility of information. I’m often carrying around a cassette recorder and that’s how I capture the sound clips in the interviews. Sometimes I capture a digital version as well, but there’s something about being able to literally touch a piece of tape – that a physical object and material represents a specific moment in a story. To be able to physically hold on to that moment means something to me. It feels like more of a connection to the person and the event behind the story.


Ash Arder

Ash Arder activating ‘Broadcast #3’

You’ve mentioned that your previous work, Broadcast #3, will inform what’s going to happen during your residency. Can you tell us about that connection?

I’m thinking about seeds and soil, and the process of seeds going into soil. It is literally called broadcasting. Seeds are being broadcast into bodies of soil so that they can make more of themselves and grow. What does it look like to think about a generation of people being cast out into the world to amplify or make more of the stories, lessons, memories that they know? What if I’m a seed that’s being broadcast out into space? And what does it look like when I am allowed to grow? What form will that take?

I’m thinking about broadcasting being something in agriculture, but also being a concept in communications. I’m interested in the dual meaning of things, and the ways I can create a moment of pause for people to rethink their relationship with everyday objects or everyday concepts.

Broadcast #3 is showing up as inspiration for this particular project in the way that it uses natural materials, like soil or seeds, and also uses personal and shared narratives to create a meditation or experience for a larger group of people. Broadcast #3 is a sound sculpture that plays an analog synthesizer on a loop when no one is activating it. It kind of sounds like a heartbeat. When I activate the piece, I show up with a cassette tape recorder that holds a pre-composed, 20-minute sound piece. That sound piece is a nonlinear story about some relationship between people and the environment. That story is the literal thing that’s creating a vibration inside of the speakers, that are inside of the sculpture. These vibrations make the seeds move from one place to another – to be broadcasted. Story, history, and personal and shared narratives act as a kind of catalyst, if you will, for some sort of movement of organic material.

So that work’s being brought over to this residency. I’m still thinking a lot about interactivity and performance. What’s different for this iteration are the things that I would like to experiment with or prototype. I’m exploring ways to take the project off the power grid so that it can truly be immersed on a site and be its own module – its own kind of entity. Untethering the sculpture from the grid is something that I’m going to be really invested in figuring out.


On the subject of taking the project off the power grid, can you talk about that and how Solar Party Detroit will participate in conjunction with your work?

Solar Party Detroit is a low-profit company that I started a few years ago with some friends. We’re continuing to figure out how we can get solar energy into urban spaces. Incorporating art into the organization and showing people how that can look has been super important.

Art is one of those sectors where it doesn’t matter what your job is, or where you’re from, or how old you are. I think it has the capacity to connect with people in a way that feels genuine and emotional, and not always intellectual or didactic.

Solar Party Detroit will act as a support for figuring out how to power this project using solar or photovoltaics. It’ll be really exciting to merge my technical interest in addressing climate catastrophe with the creative, intuitive, art-making part of my brain.

Ash Arder; Photo: Colin Conces; Courtesy of the artist and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, NE.

What does your ideal world look like? What would your utopia be?

I think often about non-human or more-than-human entities and their perspectives on what’s happening all around us. I think it would be really beautiful if there was a disintegration of the hierarchies that exist between humans and more-than-humans. If we were able to channel indigenous ideas around trees being ancestors and family members, for example, I think there would be a lot more slowness and understanding.

I don’t think time is linear. My utopia would be a space where time is related to experiences and emotion as much as it’s related to systems and logic-based frameworks.


You create a lot of time-based media art. What draws you to this type of art-making?

From a very early age, I was interested in making music. I think music is like my entry point into the way I make and receive creative visions. That just translated over to video because it was a natural partner to music.

I grew up watching MTV and being allowed to watch music videos all day long if I wanted to. In the early 2000s, popular music videos reflected a lot of experimentation in world-building. I’m thinking about Missy Elliott videos, and really, many of Hype Williams’ directorial projects.

My dad would always buy me technical equipment, keyboards, and cameras, and things. I was the friend that would document everything – shooting videos of random moments. I’m still doing that. For me, recording isn’t a means to an end. For example, it feels natural for me to record a random bird chirping on my cassette player on a random Tuesday. There’s usually no particular reason I’m doing it other than the process of capturing that time-based thing makes me feel alive. It makes me feel here.