It’s often said that houseplants are popular among millennials because our generation faces so much economic and housing precarity that plants are the most practical way to satisfy our human impulse to care for other living things. For “A Green New Deal,” his 2020 solo exhibition at Participant Inc. in New York, artist Conrad Ventur built off this idea, mapping myriad other connections between plant care and contemporary concerns about climate, politics, and the economy. The show documented Ventur’s personal green new deal—his transition from working in various art world posts to taking up horticulture in search of financial stability and a chance to contribute meaningfully to the world. The show included a video he shot at Wave Hill, a public garden and culture center in the Bronx, where he interned. To shoot the 45-minute piece, The Internship (2018–19), Ventur wore video-enabled glasses as he commuted to Wave Hill and worked onsite for several months. Shot from the artist’s point of view and accompanied by a soundtrack in which he reflects on his changing life, the video was projected on the gallery wall outside a small greenhouse set up within the Participant space. Throughout the show, Ventur hung photographs of flowers, of feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer, and of himself—as a garden gnome. He also mounted a four-and-a-half-foot cyanotype of a branch on a platform. Included as a print in the March 2022 bio art issue of Art in America is another work from his 2020 cyanotype series, which merges Ventur’s art and horticulture practices. Below, the artist explains the series and discusses his evolving ecological and aesthetic concerns.
EMILY WATLINGTON “A Green New Deal” was one of the last exhibitions I saw before the Covid lockdown began in New York.
CONRAD VENTUR That show is one of the last times I felt a sense of real freedom. The timing was lucky. Especially since one major component involved inviting the public inside a greenhouse I built in the gallery. Some people came simply to enjoy the plants; others brought their own specimens to have a kind of playdate with me for a month.
WATLINGTON Did you decide to have the show during the winter because that’s when your work as
a horticulturist is lightest?
VENTUR Yes, I often complete art projects in the winter for that reason. But I also thought that the greenhouse would be a much more magical offering to people in the dead of winter, rather than during the times of year when it’s easy to take greenery for granted.
I began the greenhouse by seeding plants of my own, and also included a few in pots that I’d bought. Then, through social media, I invited others to bring plants to the greenhouse, where I took care of them. I was there every other day, if not more. I wound up needing to manage a few different microclimates inside a small space—some plants like lots of moisture, others don’t. It was a challenge, but everything thrived. Nothing was going to die on my watch!
WATLINGTON You’ve mentioned thinking about plants as materials, but I’m curious to what extent, if any, you thought of them as metaphors. Shown alongside the video and photographs, they certainly speak to themes of community, as well as vitality and care—all common themes in your practice. But I also get the sense that you don’t want to simply impute this human meaning to other species. Certainly, you’re thinking about the plants’ needs in addition to your own agenda. And you were thoughtful about the afterlife of the installation’s components, donating the greenhouse to a community garden and making sure the plants found homes.
VENTUR To me, the plants represent relationships and connectivity. Plenty were gifts from friends involved in New York culture. I was gifted an aloe plant that once belonged to Judith Molina, who cofounded the storied Living Theater. I was also given a Christmas cactus that had been propagated from one that Harvey Milk [California’s first openly gay elected official] had owned. There are a couple cuttings of that cactus going around—[artist] Kang Seung Lee recently displayed one in the New Museum Triennial—which is to say, these plants are not exactly metaphors, but they’re certainly meaningful.
WATLINGTON Tell me about your transition from picking up miscellaneous art world jobs to working for a horticulture firm.
VENTUR I started taking horticulture classes in 2016. The idea of going into a green field and bringing something beautiful back to people was very appealing. I have a lot of anxiety, and one of the ways I’ve been dealing with it is by taking Lexapro. But also, as things get worse out in the world, whether in terms of climate crisis or politics, I just try to double down on doing things that are helpful and feel good. I can’t really be an activist—I’m bad at it. I just wanted to find something that I enjoy, and that I’m good at, but that also helps make a difference.
Before, I was trying to be a full-time artist, occasionally picking up odd jobs [often in archives, installing exhibitions, or editing photos], and it was so bad for me. It had the effect of putting all this desperation on what I made, how fast I made it, and getting it to market. The work I do is really personal, and I’m always collaborating with people, so this pressure was not conducive to my creativity.
WATLINGTON At first glance, your horticulture-inflected work looks very different from some of your earlier projects. For the 2010 Greater New York Biennial at MoMA PS1, for instance, you downloaded footage of Shirley Bassey performing her 1968 hit “This Is My Life,” then projected it through rotating crystals that were attached to a motor, creating a kaleidoscopic effect. Do you identify any through lines between then and now?
VENTUR I moved to New York in 2000, and I didn’t know anyone. I had just completed my photography BFA at the Rochester Institute of Technology Upstate, and I was a huge photo nerd. When I came to the city, I was looking for a community, and trying to find a way to survive. I photographed everyone I was around, and eventually I fell into a music scene. For about five years, my photographs were of musicians and DJs; I shot for magazines like Rolling Stone, as
well as Useless, the magazine I published at the time. I didn’t really think of myself as an artist, though I did have an exhibition with Elizabeth Dee in 2002. That was more or less a party—it was a photo show, and I had a couple bands play at the opening.
After graduate school [at Goldsmiths, University of London], I started doing these screen tests [2009–11] of Warhol’s factory stars, like Ivy Nicholson, John Giorno, and Mario Montez. I kept running into them at parties, and always wondered, what the hell could I do with them? I didn’t want to just photograph them, so, forty-five years later, I borrowed Warhol’s own format from the ’60s and asked them to stand in front of neutral backgrounds for four-minute black-and-white silent films. Basically, I’ve been trying to figure out how to work with communities for years. Even though I’m shy, I find working with people very rewarding. My own childhood was kind of broken, so I started creating more family members in my life.
WATLINGTON Your film and photo background certainly came through in “A Green New Deal,” even if that’s not the most obvious way to situate a lot of the work. You used cyanotype, a camera-less photographic process, and you also referenced some of your mentors and heroes who worked in that medium—namely, artists Barbara Hammer and Carolee Schneemann. In one video scene, you walk with Hammer in a West Village garden; in another, you reflect on visiting Schneemann’s house Upstate after her death and saying hello to her cat.
VENTUR I usually work with multigenerational groups of people. Also, Schneemann and Hammer both died the year before that show, so I was working through their deaths, thinking about their examples as I transitioned from one life to another.
WATLINGTON That intergenerational thread sounds in part like the archivist in you. I’m curious if there are any eco artists or bio artists or people working with plants who have inspired you. Or maybe it’s more that your thinking about plants comes from spending all day with them.
VENTUR I often think about Agnes Denes’s wheatfield project [Wheatfield—A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982], especially when I’m at the World Trade Center, gardening for some corporation, thinking about how all those years ago, Denes planted a field to let us know just how crazy urban life was getting.
WATLINGTON Let’s talk about the cyanotypes, which are the perfect meeting ground for your interest in plants and your photo nerd background.
VENTUR I started making them in 2016, after getting kicked out of my Bed-Stuy apartment due to gentrification. Under unfortunate circumstances, I had an opportunity to move into a friend’s girlfriend’s apartment—she had just died of cancer, and I watched over the apartment and helped out while her boyfriend, Rafael, sorted out probate. Some aspects of that arrangement were beautiful and tender, and it was a big help financially, but I got in over my head by helping my friend through the process of grieving. When he would come over, we would go through his girlfriend’s belongings and talk and have meals. He hung dozens of bouquets of flowers around the bed where she’d died. At first, their presence was touching. I ended up staying there for two years, and Rafael would talk about taking the flowers down as a form of release, but he never did.
I spent many nights and days looking at how the shadows from the bouquets would change over time, and I thought back to this alternative process I’d learned many years earlier—cyanotype. I was struck by this sense that maybe if I could make impressions of them, their energy could move out into the world, even if they never really came down or got packed away. My father was a linguist and an anthropologist—I was conceived in Guatemala, where he was doing research in the jungle while my mother collected botanical specimens. I grew up around fossils and plants, and I found myself wondering how I could make some sort of fossil-like direct impression, wanting to capture the haunting materiality of Rafael’s flowers.
Using a few bottles of chemicals, I coated some paper to make it light sensitive, then exposed it to the sunlight with a bouquet placed directly on top. The result is the negative shape of the flowers, created by the sun. I made the prints by taking the flowers and the treated paper outside and exposing them to the sunlight in nearby community gardens. This meant I spent a lot of the summer of 2016 talking to gardeners, and that’s when I decided to enroll in horticulture classes at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
WATLINGTON And that opened up a whole new phase in your life and your art practice, didn’t it?
VENTUR For sure. I made more cyanotypes again in 2019. During my internship in the Bronx, I started collecting material while I worked—things I’d pruned, or groomed off a plant, or dug out of the ground. At one point, my apartment was full of stumps and twigs and piles of bags. I didn’t have a plan when I started collecting that stuff—mostly, I was just excited to have created something so expansive in my life. I felt that I’d opened up a multidisciplinary kind of potential.
This article appears in the March 2022 issue, pp. 62–65.