A Subtle Wilderness

In Conversation with Rob Gorski and and Andrew Ranville

Before our trip even started, Andrew Ranville reached out to us and asked “Would you like to stop by our island?” We happily said yes. As we ran through the southeast of the Keweenaw we met up with Andrew who drove then boated us out to Rabbit Island. Usually, during the summer months, the island is home to any number of artistic residents from around the world. But when we stopped by for a night it was a downtime between activity. Once on the island we met up with Rob Gorski and some of his visiting friends from around the country. What started for Rob as a desire to own a little bit of land back home has now blossomed into an international artist residency program as well as successful attempts at land conservation. During our time out there we explored the island by boat as well as foot. After a couple relaxing saunas we sat down with both Rob and Andrew to talk about art, conservation, and, of course, water. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

How did you find yourself here?

Rob Gorski: I’m a fourth generation Finnish descendant. My mom came from two Finnish immigrants. My mom is 100-percent Finnish - card carrying member, flag-waving. She went to Calumet High School and, after college, ended up downstate and met my father who is from Ontario. They settled in Detroit. Growing up we’d come up here every summer. My grandfather would tell stories of how the lake was cleaner, clearer, the sky was bluer, the trees were greener, the fish were bigger. I was probably four or five. This place became my Hemingway spot, culturally but also experientially. Throughout college I always wanted to come back out here. My last year of college I got a job on Isle Royale. I got to really know the lake, I remember looking down in a boat and the water was so clear and so perfect and so blue. It really got in the blood from way back.

This project came along in 2009. My brother and I were talking about our relationship to the Keweenaw Peninsula and the lake and we thought we would get a little piece of property some place. Maybe 40 acres or something like that. In the process of looking for that we came across the listing for this island on Craigslist. I sent it to some friends and my brother. He said “that’s cool but that’d be crazy, you can’t get insurance for that. What if you have a fire? It’s gonna be hard to get to.” So I kept looking for more property but finally decided to call and got in touch with the realtor. He said, “Well son, you’re the first person that’s called.” That was in May in 2009 and shortly after the financial crash, the whole world was freaking out, and nobody had any appetite for risk. Shortly after, a year and a half later I was introduced to Andrew. He was finishing up art school and said he’d love to do some work out here. And that’s the birth of the residency. Since then it’s been nothing but great. People are really giving some critical thought to wilderness and how they relate to something larger than themselves. And the relationship of creation to consumption, conservation and the ethical tenets that underlay it all. But it started out with the stories of the trout and the lake and the history that was in my blood.

Andrew Ranville: We both grew up downstate. I remember coming up north since I was a little kid. We did a few trips to the Upper Peninsula but we usually stopped a little bit before the bridge, historically where our family vacationed. But I worked for one summer as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps. I was working with a bunch of self-described degenerates. It was a job I took because I thought you could choose it but up to 70% of the people I worked with were there because they got some kind of minor possession or something like that.  

After, I moved to Ohio for undergrad then London for graduate school. I didn’t expect to spend 10 years in England. I always came back to Michigan and my artistic practice took a turn, not a big turn, I was already focusing on the landscape and outdoors and outside. I started to challenge these ideas of form and function. Just because something is aesthetically considered doesn’t mean it can’t have a functional use. And just because something is functional, doesn’t negate it as an artwork as well. I finished grad school in 2008, had a studio in London. In 2008 I was invited to build a treehouse in Finland for a friend that was half-Finnish half-English. She had this amazing property in Finland spent a lot of time on the lake there and just sauna culture and people there are just incredible. It reminded me so much of the UP. I guess that’s why so many Finns ended up settling here. I think they stuck around because it was so similar.      

Rob and I met in winter 2010 and put a kickstarter together that was first denied because it was curated back then. So we just decided to make a video anyway, got one of Rob’s friends to help us make a video and put it up on Vimeo and sent that in again. Then they were like “Oh, these guys are legit.” So we got accepted for those early Kickstarter years. We raised $14,000 to help kick it off. That helped pay for just a few materials to complete the infrastructure, power tools, a boat that ended up not working. And yeah I’ve been coming back each summer to help administrate, help build and run the place.

Can you speak more to the overall vision of this island?

RG: It’s easy for the mind to bounce around and get overly complicated. But you know, out here, if something doesn’t get used for a few weeks, then it gets taken away. There have been several iterations of how we solved living out here. And it’s kinda exciting what it entails. Its an exciting metaphor for life in general back in civilization. It's not entirely uncivilized, but it has a light touch.

This whole project is social project work. Its lead to some conservation in the mainland. We’ve got kind of indirectly about 1,500 acres preserved. Think about it, every drop of water that falls on this island with the exception of the 100 square feet of the shelter and the 120 square feet of the sauna, hits the ground exactly where it's hit the ground for 10,000 years and goes into the lake undisturbed. I think about the function of this island and what it's always been. It’s completely intact so we come out here and we learn from that and celebrate that and interpret it and we have different opinions and some of them are conflicting. Some of the projects we bring out here are great and some are less successful but all in all if you were to test for water quality, when you guys test for your microplastics, there won’t be a single piece of plastic in the lake that came from this island. 

There’s such a grand idea that’s happening now. These individual projects that are forming everywhere, they’re like little sparkling stars in the sky. And if you get enough stars you get a beautiful starry sky. If you look east here there’s about 8 different groups doing conservation work and each one is small but additive. It’s becoming a very beautiful thing. It’s a transition from complete wilderness, to a native population, to colonial population and then a mining industry that completely pillaged the land and then went bust because the economic downfall. And because of circumstance it was allowed to grow back. Now, 15-20 years ago, people started saying “Wow, this is beautiful, we should start to preserve it.”  It's part of this larger narrative that’s happening out here. So to come out and more formally celebrate that with artists from all over the world who may even come from places that don’t have any wilderness. So what does it mean to come out and live in wilderness, to live next to this lake, to drink the water right from it? It’s important. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never seen it.

AR: It’s funny how many people we have visit that call it the sea or the ocean just because it’s a lake on a scale they’re not used to.

RG: You know we have this idea of a North American wilderness. And the people we have that have visited from Europe relate to the wilderness in a completely different way which has re-affirmed and re-inspired this cultural heritage of wilderness that we have as Americans. Things that John Muir and Edward Abbey and all these wonderful people wrote about way back when.

One saying that has come from the island is “Wilderness is civilization,” meaning wilderness needs a constant act of restraint for it to exist because if you don’t protect it it gets developed. There’s a higher economic purpose for every piece of land, including here. If you wanted to you could sell it and subdivide and and build houses on it. You can make a lot of money. But in order to protect the wilderness it has to be a conscious thought. It’s an idea that doesn’t come naturally to people who are concerned with the bottom line or profit.  

Another idea is the way civilization is organized. We’re not saying civilization is bad, that’s not what we’re saying at all. Like in Thunder Bay there’s a lot of industry on the lake front which at one point served a purpose but now doesn’t make any sense. The way things are organized makes a huge difference and we can change that. We can think about how we want to organize ourselves to protect what we have to form the littlest watershed to large ecological areas where mass migrations like caribou or the salmon spawn happen. 

Why is art important to all this?

AR: Artists and arts practice, we use that term widely. We have had writers, choreographers, even chefs out here. I think art is one of our kicking off points. Sure, Rob is a doctor in New York but all of his friends are artists.  I always tell people if he wasn’t a doctor he probably would be a photographer. I think art was a good starting point for this platform because there's often people who point the finger at situations that can lead to social change through creative methods. If we give artists who are in these situations who are on the edge of something but are also in bubbles. We can really challenge their practice by not having access to certain conveniences to creation. They’ll start to think about themselves as a node in a network of material. It's a privileged thing to engage in art, to engage in it and consume it and create it. Its an important place as any to say “What’s my role here?  What can art do outside of itself, outside of its own world?”

RG: Its multi-level, multi-layered, this whole project. There's the questions of how do we live out here? What types of tools do we bring out? The practicalities of living remotely. But then there's also specifically what have we done to the island?  There is a conservation easement regarding development out here. Then, what about, who do we choose as artists and why?

We get about 200 applications every year from thirty-seven countries. That’s pretty wild. It’s a great group of very interesting thinkers. And what does it mean when we then broadcast that back to the mainland? Not just the Keweenaw I mean, but the modern world? Culture, and I think that's a nice word for what we’re doing out here, it's the sum product of what we want.  Yet it’s a drop in the bucket of what’s bouncing around in the world. It’s still something that influences people to say “Oh, if I buy this property what should I do with it? Maybe we could do nothing with it or maybe we could act a little more socially-minded.”

I think about what flies as art and culture in New York, in the Met or the [Museum of Modern Art] and the opera, what is curated there is often times stuck in this tradition that has been handed down to us. I think about it like a scientist. If you think about a doctor that was thinking about medicine in the 1800s and you think about a doctor in 2016. A doctor in 2016 has benefit of the knowledge of DNA and blood testing and the microbial world within us and around and the ramifications of it. So to practice medicine like you were in the 1850s in the modern world would make no sense. I think the art world is still stuck in some traditions that are rooted in the pre-science understanding of the consequences of our actions. This history is based on politics, money, social connections, social relevance, it's completely missing the point of modern responsibility; this modern ethic that we’re all developing this sensitivity for. Art, for some reason, is not quite there.

AR: It’s starting to change though. We hope we can be this blip on the radar for the artists that are trying to engage in a different way. I think we’re starting to understand that we’re not in bubble materially.

RG: There are people working on it but there’s no institutional response to it. There’s no wing in the Met for environmental art.

AR: Right, but I’m saying there are grumblings out there. There can be programs out there that are integrating art and science. Almost like fieldwork but come from an aesthetic framework and help people communicate the data and help engage a public that might not usually engage in that. They might not read the most recent scientific journal but maybe they would see something in the museum or gallery. Institutionally, out west, I think there are maybe three organizations doing work like this that I really respect and there’s no reason that the Great Lakes Watershed can’t have something like that. And there are organizations and universities that could start to become part of this growing network of artists working on science and art in the field.  

As creators of this residency, how have you seen folks that come from around the U.S. or even internationally, be affected by Lake Superior and this experience?

AR: I think some of them become ambassadors, champions really. And they come back. We have this artist Nich McElroy, he’s from [British Colombia] and he’s gonna be coming back through for his third or fourth time this fall. He says that his practice of art isn’t the same. My practice isn’t the same either! When I think about making things I find that my practice is becoming increasingly non-material. I don’t have to create an object to have made the work. Sometimes the process of this expedition is more about the experience and communicating the idea - a landscape, its remoteness, its sensitivity to humans from the outside. Now you don’t necessarily have to make a thing that can have a price tag and be hung in white-walled gallery. And that’s the last reason I make art anyway.

RG: There’s this woman named Josephina [Muñoz] that came from Chile for 28 days - solo -  and she said “I don’t want to talk to anybody I don’t want anybody to come out and visit me. If I see a boat I’m going to run into the woods.” She just sort of sat here and meditated on the island, all day every day. She said that when she left she felt like she had blown her mind. But you know, some people have had trouble with the elements, with the remoteness of the island. And that’s fine because when it comes down to it the lake is boss, the weather is boss. We’re sort of just transient fixtures here and we respect all that.

AR: And there's this certain realization that happens after a while of being on the island, of being in nature, that it doesn’t even matter if you’re here to witness it or not. This place has been here for so long and it will be so long after which is really humbling. This island will just continue to be this island.  

RG: Extending on that idea -  this island is picturesque from a distance. And there are a lot of beautiful places here but it doesn't have the grandeur of some more noted wilderness spaces. It doesn’t have the Grand Canyon, the giant Redwoods, the big bear, the salmon run. It's a subtle wilderness. I think because of that it was overlooked for development for so long. For us to come out and say “This is beautiful,” not just because of its physical beauty, but because of its functional beauty. I’d rather spend time in an ecosystem that appears mediocre aesthetically but is completely intact instead of being in one that is beautiful but comprised. It's kind of like wilderness 2.0. The real beauty of wilderness is in its function.

Like the drop of water falling, how many places can you say when the drop of water falls it goes through the same amount of soil, it doesn’t go through soil that has been torn up by a logging operation or doesn’t go through a sewer or hit a piece of pavement. It just hits the ground and goes back into the lake like it should. There are very few places where that happens. I think we recognize the symbolic power of doing this on an island that's surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater lake.

What would you say have been the biggest challenges to starting this program and living here?

RG: It’s like your running trip. Maybe it's not just about what you choose to do but how you choose to do it, how you pare down what you have until it's only what you need. The beauty is in that act, that process. Being simple. I think that has happened here too.

Of course there's always the problem of not going where we want to when we want to because when it comes down to it, the lake is boss. And of course too there's the difficulty of telling our story. How do you sell an idea over social media? Other people are using Facebook and Instagram as a marketing tool to sell a product but we’re selling an idea.

We started talking about how this is a lifestyle choice, and not in a cheesy way like we’re trying to sell something. There’s a distinction between a lifestyle where someone is trying to prove something or gain social notoriety and a lifestyle where you live for a reason. We’re five years in now and it has turned into a lifestyle, not something that will be in a magazine. It’s something unique and there’s always this force of thought that brings you back to this place and informs everything else you’re doing. Also there’s a yearning for it when you’re away from it for a while.