The Art of Attentiveness: Q&A With Tanja Geis

Bay Nature

December 28, 2018


Speaking about responses to the global climate crisis, attorney and author Karenna Gore insisted at the 2017 Rights of Nature Symposium that “we need to deepen our sense of place—and cultivate an awareness that we are living not just in one community, or one country, but on one earth.” She added that nonhuman life has inherent value, not just utility for humans.

Through everything from single-celled microorganisms and Bay oyster colonies to the ocean’s sublittoral zone, Berkeley-based artist Tanja Geis explores that value. Her meditative underwater videos, for example, direct attention to what we often overlook, and her totem-like paintings using Bay mud blur the distinction between subject and medium. Geis’s art invites viewers to linger, ponder, and question what they see.

Geis has been interested in biology since she was young. As a teenager she watched the small creatures she had access to in Hong Kong, like ants and other insects. As an undergrad at Yale University, she was required to choose between studying art or biology. Deciding that it is a “much more flexible tool,” Geis chose art. She would later earn a Master of Resource Management degree in coastal and marine management in Iceland and then a Master of Fine Arts from UC Berkeley, but she says uniting art and science in a completely satisfying way has remained a struggle.

TG: I find the scientific process and inquiry to be somewhat limiting, and I find the art side… it’s hard to measure any impact. I realize the effect that you’re having, if you’re having any effect, is probably internal, and it’s small, and it’s subtle, and it’s more on the imaginative, emotional level. But we’ve been [acculturated] to value things that you can measure. So part of me just wants to be doing something where I can see, in a measurable way, the impact that I’m having.

BN: Do you hope that when someone experiences your art they walk away with either a piece of knowledge or a feeling about a subject?

TG: I hope that they experience some kind of connection to the subject, and that could be a physical reaction, an emotional response, or a response like, “Whoa, that is weird looking. I want to know more.” I think if we all just paid attention a little bit more to things, we would naturally come to care about them more and connect with them a bit more.

BN: Is there anything else art offers viewers that they might not get from reading a research paper or listening to a talk from a scientist?

TG: I did a master’s in marine and coastal management, and I spent a lot of time reading papers about how people end up changing their behavior in relation to anything about the environment. And the vast majority of these papers were showing that it didn’t matter how much information you gave somebody, or how much data you gave them. It didn’t matter how convincing that data was or how many times you gave them this data; it was not very effective in changing any kind of behavior. The most effective way seemed to be to trigger some sort of emotional or physical connection with the subject.

BN: Does it create empathy?

TG: Yes, and I think that takes attention and knowledge, and not just a cerebral understanding. I think that connection is what art can offer that science doesn’t necessarily offer … I don’t even necessarily have an objective. Often, especially with the video work that I’ve done, it’s just about looking, and paying attention to things that you might not otherwise pay attention to. It’s a very trite thing to say, but if you change your perspective, the whole world looks different.

But it’s not just art and science. There are indigenous ways of looking at the world; there are animal ways of looking at the world.

Part of all this is to keep reminding myself that there are different ways of looking at the world—and maybe somebody else wants to look at it too.