Interview With Artist Maru García

Alice S., Librarian, Art, Music & Recreation Dept. ,
Artist Maru García
Artist Maru García: March 18 – April 22, 2021, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Los Angeles

Maru García is a Mexican artist who is now based in Los Angeles. Her work merges the fields of art, science, and technology. She often uses organic, living material in her artworks to explore biological processes and the ability of living creatures (including humans) to restore polluted sites. She has received a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in Biotechnology from the Tecnológico de Monterrey, México and a MFA in Design and Media Arts from UCLA.

Maru García is the recipient of a Getty Foundation Grant (collaborating with Self Help Graphics & Art) for the upcoming exhibit “Sink: places we call home” for the Getty’s 2024 Pacific Standard Time initiative. Currently, she is an artist in residence at the Pando Populus Campus in Monrovia, and a 2020-21 SciArt Ambassador for Supercollider.

You have degrees in both visual arts and science. Were you always interested in the ways these disciplines connect or did one interest lead you somewhere you weren’t expecting?

I started first in the sciences. Since a young age, I was fascinated by the natural world and I was worried about the environmental problems that I started to learn about. This made me choose an undergraduate degree in Chemistry (plant chemistry) and other graduate studies in Biotechnology before moving into the arts and coming here to pursue an MFA in Media Arts.

I think my transition into the arts was something that comes from a desire for self-integration. For me, transdisciplinarity means that knowledge can be obtained through the sciences (physical, earth, and life sciences, social sciences), but also through the arts and other sources of knowledge (lived experiences, indigenous traditions, spiritual practices, etc). With this approach, I want to go beyond the compartments of disciplines and look at the world and my work in a holistic way.

How has the global pandemic influenced or changed your work?

The pandemic created restrictions in the way I thought of this piece to be produced and exhibited. In my case, it restricted me access to my previous studio and made me rethink the way I could show work. Everything started to be transformed into a virtual exhibition.

Fortunately, my work before 2020 has been already thought to contain some kind of mediation: cameras, microscopes, sensors, etc. I use technology to help me extend my own senses and to invite the audience to be part of the piece in a more interactive way.

In the case of living organisms, it is a challenge to think of a piece to be placed in a gallery where I don’t have access to install because I cannot have a full sense of the conditions. But at the same time, this is allowing me to think more in the audience, as we both are sharing the same situation of encountering the piece through the screen.

The sensorial part of the piece (smell and the physical qualities of the materials) is the most difficult to be translated. These are the limits of the image, and it is interesting to think about that too.

The online format has the capacity to be more accessible. People from other places can “visit” and engage with the work. I like the idea of the work living outside of the gallery and being part of the people’s homes at least for a moment.

Membrane tension’s central material is Medusomyces gisevii, or what is commonly called SCOBY (a Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast) that is used to make kombucha tea. What initially inspired you to use this in your artwork?

For the work to present at LAMAG I am coming back to one of my favorite collaborators: microorganisms. I’ve worked in the past with SCOBY (the same used for Kombucha production) because this culture produces a cellulosic film that can be shaped in different ways. For ‘membrane tensions’ I wanted to present these films as membranes and develop further the concept of symbiogenesis and the tension between the individual and the collective.

Part of the piece is site-specific and thought for the Gallery’s big glass window/balcony doors. The intervention is both human and non-human. As we extend the membrane that brings us together, the site is extended in the metaphor of the window. The one that is giving us access to the work through the use of technology (screens) and forming a sense of common experience, and at the same time separating us from the work. But also the window that is shared, where the sense of community is formed as we are all invited to continue intervening spaces. This is why the workshop ‘Playing with SCOBY’ on March 26 was part of the piece, and the windows of our own homes a site-specific installation.

You’ve said that this work, membrane tensions, explores the concept of symbiogenesis. Could you explain what symbiogenesis is and why you want to delve deeper into it?

For this piece, one concept that informed my research was encountering Lynn Margulis’ Endosymbiotic theory. She was an American evolutionary theorist, biologist, science author, educator, and was the primary modern proponent for the significance of symbiosis in evolution.

Before explaining what this theory is about, I want to mention how Margulis' work has been very important to me. First, her position about the way scientists are making research and the need to go further reductionist approaches. Shifting the perspective of studying isolated objects to focusing on the relationships between the objects. The idea of going beyond linear thinking governed by cause-effect and embracing systems thinking that considers feedback loops. Thinking in terms of patterns and relationships. For her, there is not such a thing as a fully independent organism.

Symbiosis means “living together” and symbiogenesis or endosymbiotic theory is the theory that proposes that mitochondria, chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles of eukaryotic cells are descended from formerly free-living cells that were engulfed and that stayed there through generations. As a type of permanent community, sharing space and resources. This allows us to understand that one of the main drivers of evolution was through associations.

Could you describe how you initially begin an art project? Do you start with an unanswered question or is it usually something else that inspires you?

My work is the research itself and the methodologies that I use, I mentioned before, are coming from a transdisciplinary perspective.

I value the process over the results. I start with an idea and then that idea starts to develop in different ramifications like dendritic growth where new connections are formed. I give room to the unexpected, allowing the system to develop itself. That is why I like to work with living organisms or biosystems because I can receive a response. It's like a conversation.

The challenge of working with organic matter is actually desired and corresponds to the lack of complete control over the system. Since I am trying to find new “surprises” with materials or research sometimes new but usually known, I try to start pretending that I know nothing about the topic and then I start with the “what if” in all its ramifications. Some of the experiments can’t continue, and instead of calling them failures, I make a pause or just find them as a dead end and start to research one of the other ramifications. I usually have parallel experimentations and I continue with the ones that have more potential from my point of view. Usually, I have a sense of urgency to try a specific path, and this propels me to go in that direction.

My “normal” challenges are contamination by other microorganisms, conditions that are not ideal for development and that I cannot modify, strong smells, sometimes even personal health conditions as being allergic to some kind of organism.

Reading and watching videos of your previous projects, I found them to be deeply beautiful and hopeful, even though you are often drawing attention to serious environmental issues (such as your works about industrial lead contamination in the soil of many East Los Angeles communities). What do you hope viewers take away from your artworks?

My work tries to look at humans as integral beings and part of a bigger system that is interconnected and in constant change. Unfortunately during the Anthropocene, this change has happened that fast that our systems are collapsing as a consequence of our disconnection with the rest of the natural world. My research highlights the importance of ‘eco-aesthetics’, where relationships and community are proposed to build a culture of regeneration.

I use the term ‘eco-cultures’ to talk about the idea of culture as part of the natural processes. Through embodied encounters with the non-human, I want to invite the public to reflect on ways to foster better relationships with other living organisms: plants, animals, or even microscopic creatures like bacteria and yeast. By highlighting the culture produced by other organisms and acknowledging the importance of interspecies relationships, my practice moves beyond the nature-culture divide.

My art practice wants to start by raising awareness about the environmental crisis we live in, through research of contaminated sites, but also by proposing solutions for transforming humans into remediators and healers instead of exploiters.

To see García's work, visit the virtual exhibit, and her website.

Reading List

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Dunn, Rob R.

Book cover for Luminous Fish: Tales of Science and Love
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Weintraub, Linda