"not cool, orange rock"
a conversation between rita leduc and rich blundell
Rita Leduc is an interdisciplinary artist whose work chronicles an intimate transition from temporal experience to abiding relationship with the living world. Through the accumulation and conflation of physical, psychological, and phenomenological experiences with chosen locations, her work characterizes idiosyncratic intersections between person, place, and time.
Rich Blundell is an ecologist and communicator working at the intersection of art, science, nature, and culture, whose research examines how transformation happens across the scales of person, place, and planet. Through his organization, OIKA, Rich collaborates with artists to tell new stories that include art and human creativity as natural phenomena.
Leduc and Blundell met in 2019 through GROUNDWORK, Leduc's interdisciplinary retreat. Since then, they have been communicating across the art-science divide to uncover convergent truths, and heal the injuries that result from separating humans and nature.
"Not Cool, Orange Rock" is an example of how a conversation between an artist and a scientist unfolds. Here Leduc and Blundell are conversing about "Rock Portrait (Orange in Grass)", Leduc's artwork depicted on the cover of this issue.
Blundell: In our preparation for this, you sent me a backstory to this project. Would you mind reading it aloud and I’ll interrupt you as thoughts arise? Except, I’m going to interrupt you a lot.
Blundell: Like a lot.
Leduc: That's okay! Okay, here goes.
"On my way to a residency in the high desert of Oregon, I observed groups of rocks making their ways down craggy hillsides."
Blundell: Okay, I'm interrupting you. When you say that, what it conjures up to me is what's called a talus slope. That’s when you have some kind of escarpment—any kind of vertical rock face—and at the base
of it is the rubble that's fallen off of the cliff. It takes on what's called an “angle of repose” which defines not only the angle of the rock pile’s slope but a lot of other things. Different minerals show different angles of repose, which I think is kind of cool. So what you're describing is the geological dynamic of how the rocks make their way across a landscape through that gravitational process.
Leduc: Oh, that’s really useful. These particular hillsides were a bit further away so the fallen rocks near the road looked almost like footsteps stepping away from the rock face.
Okay, I'll keep going:
"They were particularly noticeable due to a combination of their color and the time of day in which I was driving. Minerals in the soil and the composition of the rocks themselves caused areas of the rocks to turn either copper or blue. These two colors are, loosely, complimentary. So their shared presence on any one rock was striking."
Blundell: Ha, yes. There’s a process called “winnowing” where the primary constituent of most rocks, usually aluminosilicate, gets eroded away and becomes silt and dust. So the composition of the rocks—and the soil—actually changes over time. It retains some of the proportions of the original minerals but the winnowing takes something away.
Leduc: Ooh, yes. Okay, let’s keep that in mind:
"As I drove toward my unknown home for the next two weeks, having left my family and flown across the country, I felt a kinship to these rocks. Each one had journeyed over the course of who-knows-how-long from mountainside to ground level. They carried with them a sense of purpose and direction, though exactly where to was unclear."
Blundell: You know you’re anthropomorphizing, right? How you're seeing your journey in their journey.
Leduc: Oh for sure. I was using them as a physical manifestation of my psychological state, completely.
Blundell: Alright, so, another thing—if you spend a lot of time looking at landforms and thinking about geologic time, suddenly the landscape is no longer a thing that's eternal. I think this will appeal to you because it's about process and ephemerality. You no longer see the landform, you see the process of a land form. So even the singular rocks that are making their way from the mountainside to wherever they're going, they actually are entities moving, they're in transition themselves. And so are you. We are all just what we are in a particular moment; we are only what we are in relation to what we are going to be and what we were, you know?
Leduc: Absolutely. That sentiment is everything to me—yes.
Blundell: Yeah and see—your work can do that same thing: it can get viewers to see the world differently. It can elicit a paradigm shift in one's seeing. You know, you'd think I see that in other work but I don’t. Maybe it's there, but nobody takes the time to explore it. I think what you're doing is taking the time to explore it, and that makes a big difference.
Leduc: Well, first off, thank you. I love that you feel that; it’s that very impermanence that I’m trying to push. It’s that impermanence that keeps me up at night! The only constant I want in my work is the developing conversation. In a way, that's why I say I'm not object-oriented. Eventually, as I go, things are made. But they never come to a close. I think that’s why everything starts to carry this air of process.
Blundell: It can be unraveled in a way, disarticulated. Like, you've taken this orange, artificial, raw object, and put it in a context. It's that act of contextualizing that raises all of this exploration that we're having. We wouldn't really have it if that orange rock wasn't there in that image. It's the placement—that you've taken this noteworthy object and put it into a framework that reveals the context. And it's a bright orange rock but we're talking about is everything around it!
Leduc: It's almost like that improv game where you have to respond to your partner’s question with another question. I can only decide the very next move because who knows how my partner—the playa—will respond? So in this particular instance, my move was: I want to make some fake rocks and bring them around in the landscape and photograph them. And then after I do that, we'll assess the conversation, but the conversation isn’t just the rock—it’s the whole context.
Blundell: So are you provoking a continuity there? Like, you're creating the conditions for continuity to be noticed and acknowledged?
Leduc: Yes. But I also wouldn't know it any other way. I was talking to an artist friend about what art really makes me excited. I speculated that it happens when I can tell that the artist remained open throughout their process of making. There's some work where the artist has figured it out long before completion, so they execute from that point on until the object is made. I prefer to make work where I don't really know exactly what it's going to be until that very last moment when I finish it. I have a plan, but.
Blundell: Oh, you're sooo tapping into the fundamental principle of enaction! You're talking about an open-ended system. They create what's called "asymmetry of interaction." When you create that asymmetry, emergence happens. But it's a directional process, the emergent thing. It's the new idea, the new realization, the new experience that the art produces—that's the emergent function. And it can't be reduced. This is what is so interesting! It can't be reduced to all of the individual instantiations that created the emergent property. What you're doing, like what you're REALLY doing, is instantiating the creativity of nature by asserting and holding that intention of openness. And without that, there's no identity formation, there's no entity formation. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but I see it as a microcosm of the way the universe elicits creativity.
Leduc: I think it makes a lot of sense! To me, any other way of working feels like I'm subscribing to a system that is inauthentic or constructed. So this just feels the most natural to me.
Blundell: Okay. And THAT'S where the vulnerability is. It's that act of creation that creates that vulnerability.
Leduc: It goes back to the improv thing. You just never know if it's going to be something or not. So there's a creative tension. It's a little bit nerve-wracking, but then I remind myself that this is the way everything happens and we're kind of fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. So I embrace it and try to figure out the rhythm.
Do you want me to keep reading? Okay:
"Also unclear was their state of independence. Were they traveling alone, heading toward a solitary existence? Or were they traveling as a group, cheering each other on, warning of the topography ahead?"
Blundell: How comfortable are you with all that anthropomorphizing?
Leduc: It's directly paralleling how I was feeling. I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t acknowledge that that’s why I found myself drawn to the rocks. It was me feeling like, by traveling out there, I had broken off from my family. I was traveling out, away from them. But the rocks, well, they were meeting up with these other rocks that were also part of their family. They all came from the same place but now they're all going somewhere else.
I think anthropomorphizing is helpful. It's an entry point. Not only does it help me ease into a relationship with the non-human, but it helps me notice the lens through which I am seeing; it’s total projection. My experience of these rocks was so clearly colored by how I was feeling in that moment. It goes back to how you can't separate yourself from the time or the place that you're in.
All of this that I’m reading is the backstory’s backstory. I don’t usually talk about this before introducing the Rock Portraits. But it was this psychological state that made those rocks resonate with me and that is why, when I got to Playa, I turned to them once again.
When I arrived, I felt very displaced, like the land did not need me at all. I wanted to be friends with it and it was just completely uninterested. I was trying to think, “how can I dip my toe in or try to show the playa that I mean no harm?” I thought about the rocks and how I felt like they were creeping in. I wanted to creep in, but I was super foreign, so what could I create that would creep in so that the playa would embrace it? Rocks, of course!
Blundell: Yeah, you're covering a lot of ground here! What's coming to me from what you're saying is that you talked about leaving your family, but in some ways, if you expand the definition of family...those rocks can be family. Those rocks, they've pulled away from the cliff face. But the cliff face isn't the entirety of the family. Those rocks will end up, depending on what side of the continental divide you are on, they will end up at the bottom of the sea. And so there's a bigger family that's not the cliff face but in fact the continent itself, the oceans, the depths of the oceans.
Leduc: Zooming out, yes. Okay, I'll read the next part:
"When I arrived at Playa, I knew I couldn't kick off my planned project as I had anticipated. Jumping into site-specific installations where I collaborate with a place just felt too forward; I was a stranger to this place. So I reassessed my process of acquaintance and took a step back. This is how and why I started making the faux rocks.
“I made them from cardboard, tape, and paint, so they were light in weight, synthetic in color, and suspiciously more ‘papery’ in their surface patterns than your average authentic rock. The series of Rock Portraits that ensued depicted them in a variety of scenes as they attempted to assimilate into the playa. Ultimately, the rocks became both an initial offering to the site and an intermediary before I directly applied my own human hand—and reached it out to the playa to join me in collaboration."
Blundell: Okay. So what's that all about?
Leduc: Well, I felt so foreign. My plan was to go out onto the playa and start doing these place-based, collaborative installations. But that just felt too intimate; I didn't know the place yet. That's why I decided to make these ridiculous rocks. The orange one is kind of the most “out there.” But parts of the landscape were such cold blues that I needed to use a hot orange. I’m attracted to that contrast with the more earthly tones, but the hot orange also holds an energy that speaks to the underlying experience. Not the visual experience, but the phenomenological experience.
Blundell: That's a nice ecological energy. Your process here is a kind of remedy for awkwardness. So in other words, when you got there and realized that you were not prepared to know it intimately, just because it needed some time, then you did what wildebeests do which is displacement behavior. When two wildebeests, about the same size, meet each other, they're awkward and they don't know what they're going to do. They'll kind of hoof the ground. You were doing something like that. You're taking attention off of the elephant in the room, which is the "I need to get to know you" thing and saying, "I'm going to just do process here and let those things develop."
Leduc: Yes. It’s like when you meet somebody for the first time. You go to hang out...well, we're all doing this right now because of the pandemic, right? We're seeing friends for the first time in a long time. But with people that we know, we can just jump right back in. With people we’ve never met before, we have to do this little dance first. We can't just jump in the way that we can with somebody who knows us. So that's exactly what I was feeling like. I got to Playa expecting to jump right in and I couldn't.
The other thing with these is that I just thought they were so funny. Humor helps. Having a funny experience with someone new eases the tension and speeds up our understanding of each other.
Blundell: Yes, haha, that's awesome. That's indispensable: humor.
Leduc: Yeah. This particular rock was…I mean, the rocks kind of wanted to blend in.
Blundell: Well they can't help but blend in, because they literally are bedrock!
Leduc: Ha, right! So for this particular rock, it's refusing to fit in. It's a little obnoxious. There are some of the other photos of it where it's with other rocks and they're all just kind of playing it cool. And this one is just not. This is the not chill rock.
Blundell: I know other artists who are going for realism. There's something interesting and valuable in the fact that you're not. What do you gain as a result?
Leduc: Well, part of it is that I have a background in theater and I've done a lot of faux finishes. So just from a practical standpoint, I am very uninterested in creating something that looks realistic. But also it's not real, so why make it look real? For me it's more about how this fake rock became the intersection of me and the place. There’s the fact of it emulating a rock, there's the shape of it, but then the materials are trash and synthetic colors. The faux rocks were a meeting point between us. If I made them look more real, I wouldn't be meeting the playa halfway, I'd be going a little bit closer to the playa than the playa was coming to me; overextending.
Blundell: Okay. So I'm looking at some other images here. These are beautiful. Like they are like, WOW. The color palette too.
Leduc: Thank you. When I'm using photos of the landscape, especially in landscape like this, it's so easy to exploit the beauty of the landscape and make the art look good because the landscape is just amazing. So it's important to me that it's working with the landscape, but it's not leaning on the landscape to make the work awesome.
Blundell: Yeah. I get that.
Leduc: I also think each rock in each individual image is creating a direct relationship with something in the landscape that then gets the viewer to acknowledge that relationship. So looking at the orange rock specifically, it tends to find the blue. Or it finds—there are a couple of the orange ones with a white sky. That's where the orange rock has found this group of other rocks that are taking this little journey together. The orange one is sort of defying the group dynamic. That orange rock is just always announcing its presence in a way that then makes you see how the other ones are too busy working together to care about their individual selves.
Blundell: You know, things like that tend to get eaten pretty quickly. They don't leave a legacy. You do that in a real ecosystem and you're more likely to just go extinct.
Leduc: Ahh, that's great. That's really great! It's like, it goes from humor to stupidity. Like this rock is definitely not going to survive.
Blundell: Right. It's just at odds with its surroundings. It's going to get snuffed.
Leduc: Not cool, orange rock.
Blundell: There are all kinds of really interesting ecological strategies though, that do that. Have you ever seen a phospholuminescent ctenophore? Tiny little comb jellies? It’s an interesting strategy because it highlights our continuity as kin selection. They flash and they go green which attracts bigger predators. So whatever's eating the ctenophore, causes them to flash green, which then attracts bigger predators that eat the original predators of the jellyfish. It's a weird sacrifice to make in order to save your kin. But I don't know if that's helpful or useful.
Leduc: Well, it depends who the artworks’ bigger predators are.
Artwork by Rita Leduc is exclusively available at
RITA LEDUC is an interdisciplinary artist, based in the Hudson Valley. She currently teaches at William Paterson College of New Jersey, Ramapo College, Rutgers University, and Caldwell University. Leduc is creator and Director of GROUNDWORK, an interdisciplinary creative retreat. WEBSITE. INSTAGRAM.
RICH BLUNDELL is an ecologist and communicator working at the intersection of art, science, nature and culture. He is founder of OIKA, a community of scientists, artists and storytellers dedicated to manifesting Ecological Intelligence through work that realigns culture with nature. WEBSITE. TWITTER.
(Image Credits: From top to bottom—all works date: 2017, medium: photograph, size: dimensions variable—Rock Portrait (Blue Stripes), Rock Portrait (Three Rocks), Rock Portrait (Orange with Rocks), Rock Portrait (Orange with Rocks, Profile), published by kind permission of the artist.)