Colin McMullan, The New Connecticut School

ColinThis conversation presents the work by the multidisciplinary artist Colin McMullan, part of what the curator Olu Oguibe defines as The New Connecticut School.
The New Connecticut School, as defined by Oguibe, embraces artists brought together by their desire to practice away from the pressures of the big cities. It centres on themes such as a sensitivity toward the environment, as well as a bond with the place and its inhabitants. These are all artists who live and have studied in Connecticut. In addition to Colin McMullan, Olu Oguibe also included Ted Efremoff and Lani Asuncion.

Born in Coventry, Connecticut, in 1979, Colin McMullan graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in sculpture in 2005.  His artistic practice unites large scale social projects and the organisation of collaborative public events which involve using books, music, film, vehicles and food as well as having conversations and issuing publications. Currently McMullan lives and works in Connecticut where he teaches art at the university.

Recent exhibitions include: 20th Anniversary Show, Smack Mellon (Nov., Brooklyn, New York); Dwelling, an installation done in collaboration with Lani Assuncion and commissioned by Artspace, (Oct. 2015, New Haven, Connecticut); Hand/Made: the Digital Age and the Industrial Revolution, Kleinert/James Center for the Arts (Sept. 2015, Woodstock, New York); Sharing the Joys of Tree Juice (2010-in progress, Hartford, Mansfield and East Hampton, Connecticut).

In this conversation, Colin McMullan talks to us about his most recent projects, his decision to return to work and live in Connecticut after six years in New York and the importance of involving people in creating his work.

You might also be interested in:
A conversation with Lani Asuncion
A conversation with Ted Efremoff
Olu Oguibe talks with us about his work for Documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel

  • A conversation with Colin McMullan

  • A 2 minutes excerpt from our conversation 

  • Maple Syrup at UHart

  • How We Hunted for the Ice Cream Tree on the Hottest Day of Summer

  • MOBILIZE 2’48”

Tiziana Casapietra : It would be nice if you could tell us something about yourself and just talk about your work and your approach to art and the idea of living outside the big city. 
Colin McMullan: I grew up in Connecticut, my parents and my family are here so it is close to New York. Growing up here you always sort of feel like you are in the shadow of New York, the city is like towering over you  and looming. There is a pull – everyone goes there and checks it out. There is a kind of magnetic pull about it, but I went to Boston for my undergraduate work which is the other way. Connecticut is right between these two big cities but nobody really thinks about what happens here, everyone just drives through.
I moved to New York after I finished grad school at UConn where I met Olu, I went to New York and lived there for six years so I had that time where I was really based there and doing a lot of art projects in the city. I did a bunch of different things with different non-profit organizations down there, a place called Smack Mellon Studio, I did some other programs there. I did this program in the Bronx that it’s basically like a professional development program, “Artist in the Marketplace (AIM)“, and they bring in art professionals from different fields and introduce a group of young artists to them, help them, figure out how to promote their work, how to find opportunities to show their work and all that kind of stuff. And then I had a show at Bronx Museum of the Arts at the end of that. That was cool. So I have had that city experience. By the way, while I was there doing these programs, I met a lot of other artists and it was great to feel like part of a scene and a network that was definitely thriving like thousands of artists from all over the world, of course. And just not the artists but people. I mean it is such a cosmopolitan city. It was very inspiring and I think it really raised the bar of my work for me to be there for a while, to push myself to make better work, a more ambitious work and think about my work in different ways. I didn’t plan to move to New York – it sort of happened, it happened by accident a little bit. I got a job there and I was at a time where I just want to try something different. I never saw myself living in a big city, but that’s where I ended up and for some reasons I stayed for a long time.

TC: How long did you stay?
CMM: Six years.

TC: Yeah, it’s quite enough.
CMM: Yeah, I know it was enough, I really wanted to leave by the end of six years.

TC: Yeah, I can imagine because in six years you manage to understand and see many things. It’s enough to understand if the city is good for you or not.
CMM: Yeah, it’s limiting in certain ways to be there because real estate is so expensive, it’s hard to find space to make your work and I wanted to do work that was more on the land and larger scale stuff, so it really makes sense to come back to Connecticut at that point. Even while I lived in New York I was coming back to Connecticut and making projects because I had a network here and friends and family and opportunities. Ted (Efremoff) and I collaborated on a project in Connecticut in like 2007 – well actually it went on for a few years but it started in 2006. And I was already living in New York then but I was coming back to Connecticut. It didn’t really make sense. I was like driving back and forward two hours to work on a project, but it was a good collaboration.
I sort of like the way Connecticut gets forgotten about actually.  There is something nice about the feel that you can breathe here and still be really close to the city and swoop in there and do something, see people, do a project and then kind of go back to a quieter space where you can think.

TC: Yes, it’s true. Colin, what is your approach to art? How do you work? Maybe you want to introduce some of your most recent projects or upcoming projects you are working on?
CMM: I work in a lot of different media, but I do have a focus on engaging people, kind of in a direct way, so there is like a social aspect to what I do and sometimes I talk about it like a social practice.

TC: Yeah, it’s nice because this is what Lani told me too. Ted also was saying that is very important for him too to have this kind of social life and to include people in this work. So this is something where I see similarities already. 
CMM: Yeah, totally. I mean I think that especially Ted and I, our working process has kind of evolved at the same time in some ways. So I think that he and I kind of were influencing each other and learning about these ways of working. It just was a natural fit for our personalities also. I come from a really big family and I have always felt really sociable and liked people, liked collaborating. I like collaborating because it makes me lose control, like I can’t be in charge of every detail of the project. I like having other voices come in to things and interrupt maybe what I was thinking about of how I would direct something or where I would want the project to go.

TC: Doesn’t it make you feel anxious the idea of not being able to control everything? 
CMM: It does sometimes. Yeah, I think I also really like it, I like the chaos of it. I think I’m a kind of anarchist, I think I like that unusual and unexpected things happen. For recent projects I have been working a lot in the last couple of years, doing a lot of research and experimenting a lot with working on different kinds of food production. So I think my creative drive has really shifted it in some ways from making work that is sort of based in material or making work that is like in a context of art that maybe is more easily digestible or seen that way.  Like in New York I was doing a lot of work that was out in public space. I was making vehicles, like I had this tricycle that I was doing a lot of projects with, and then Ted and I made a boat that was on wheels – that was a moving vehicle.
I guess maybe the point is more that in the city there is a different sort of lifestyle and ways of engaging the public directly on the street, which I was taking advantage of. I was using the street as a venue for what I made and as place for direct engagement of strangers and the public, people that maybe were in my network, but I would create events happening that were in public space on the street. That has shifted a little bit coming to Connecticut because I’m working more directly with the land, and a really interesting kind of group of people around it that are just obsessed with the process of making Maple syrup and tapping trees and getting the water from the trees. Engaging with this process of syrup production really puts you in tune with the weather and with climate and thinking about climate change in this very direct way where you are really in tune, are experiencing it, worrying about what the temperature is and thinking about it constantly, because the flow of the sap in the trees is completely dependent on weather. As someone engaging with that natural process, you have to think like the trees and feel what they are doing in this abstract, fascinating way where it puts you in tune with the internal life of the trees.

TC: Colin it is nice that you are telling me about this work with Maples, with the trees. So do you see it as an artistic process as well?
CMM: Yeah, I have some ideas about how to share the process with the larger public, so I’m sort of in this proposal stage where I’m trying to find a venue that would be appropriate and it needs to be a pretty specific type of venue. I’d like to do it in a museum space, museum space with a hill, with a lot of trees on the hill right next to it.

TC: How do you bring the trees there?
CMM: Yeah, that’s the problem. I need to find a museum that already has the trees.
It’s interesting you bring that up because there are people experimenting producing Maple syrup in a complete different way. Generally,what has always been, you find trees that are already growing, so it’s like working with the wilderness. In a sense,  you’re working with nature directly, but there are people experimenting now with growing maple trees in a row, like any other agricultural crop.

TC: Can you do that with Maples?
Yes, it’s controversial, honestly, there’s like a university research program in Vermont that does maple production research. What they do is about the economics of it but also the natural processing with the Science stuff, but they are experimenting with planting maple syrup in rows so you would have a field and you would only grow the trees to be maybe 6 to 8 feet tall, short 2 or 3 meters, cut them off at the top and pull the sap out of them. What I wanna do is make an ambitious work with the trees. It’s very elegant. You have this tubing running through the forest coming down to a collection point, where the liquid collects in some sort of vessel, and I want to make a beautiful vessel for that. Then I want it to be a project that is a way of sharing that experience. I’m not interested in making the syrup so much in a public way, although I’m doing that with my students. I teach art at the University here.

TC: Is it good this syrup you make? Does it taste good?
CMM: Yeah, it’s very good. You can also drink the water without processing it into the syrup. it’s much more efficient and you can still taste the trees almost more directly. The raw water is really kind of magical substance and it’s called tree sap, but I think what I would like to do is have maybe a variety of different saps. You can also tap other trees and I think it would be interesting to have like a tasting space, where you get to taste the sap from different trees.

TC: Is it ok to drink this syrup coming from other plants? 
CMM: Yeah, many of them are good. It is really interesting when you read about all the different trees have very different internal mechanisms for their life, so some of their internal workings are better suited to sap flow than others, some of them are not, don’t have a lot of sap or it doesn’t flow well or it is difficult; it would be difficult to extract the sap from certain trees. But there are a number of species of tree that people use currently around the world to make syrup or to get the sap. In Russia they use Birch sap, in Alaska also they make syrup from the Birch trees and Walnut trees.

TC: But do the trees suffer from this procedure? 
CMM: No, it’s done in a very careful way. There are recommendations and guidelines about only making holes in trees that are large enough that they can handle the stress of it. You wouldn’t tap a tree that is very young unless you wanted to kill the tree for some reason. Generally what happens is you drill a hole, the sap goes out of the hole for about five or six weeks, and then by that time the tree has closed off that area of the wood and sealed it up.  So you are creating these little dead spots in the living wood of the tree, but it just grows around them and continues growing it doesn’t have any long lasting effect.

TC: Ok. Can you do it frequently on the same tree or only once a year? 
CMM: Yeah, once a year is typical.

TC: And then, for the rest of the year, you will not torture the tree anymore.
CMM: Yeah, exactly. You give the tree a break after you’ve taken some of its water.

TC: You said that you want to bring it to museums, right? It’s a very long process how do you imagine to develop this process within a museum?
CMM: Well, I think that probably I would have a series of workshops that I would set up, there would be a sort of open invitation for people to come and be involved in different stages of the process. I did it this past year at the University of Hartford here, where I have been teaching. I was making Maple syrup on the grounds of the University . We did a workshop where I taught  people  how to tap a tree and what is the collecting process and how that’s done. There are different ways of collecting syru: the old way that was typical is you hang a bucket on the tree and then the sap drips into the bucket. So I made these special buckets that had like a spigot on it, so you can open the bucket at the bottom and fill up a cup to taste the liquid.

TC: How many buckets can you fill up with a single tree?
CMM: With the single tree? If it’s a really big tree you can put two or three buckets on it. Usually is one bucket for tree, but if it’s a big tree you can do more.
I put the spigot in the bucket so that way people could taste it and I made a sign inviting people to try the liquid. So this was right on campus, lots of people walking around all the time. Then I did a couple of other events over the course of the season so I had some people who helped me chop the firewood and we were teaching how to chop firewood.

TC: Yeah, of course. And then at the end the focus of this workshop – I would call it workshop – was it to taste the syrup or the entire procedure, the entire process?
CMM: The first workshop was really just getting the collection started so we didn’t process the syrup immediately you have to wait awhile until you have enough sap that you can boil down because to get one liter of syrup you need to boil down 50 liters of sap, fifty to one. So it’s a lot. But then there was another event, I didn’t get there yet but we have a pancake making festival where everybody, it was BYOB: Bring your own butter.  So people brought their own pancake butter and made pancakes and the syrup was there and we were making the syrup too. The syrup is made with a wood fire so it takes on this flavor of the wood a little bit and you cook it down really slowly so it’s develops this complex flavor of caramel. Maple syrup production was done by the Native American – that’s where it came from. The process was learned by the European settlers who came here, from the Native Americans; they were already doing this.

TC: At the end you were doing these pancakes and you were eating these things and then tasting your syrup? So it was kind of a party.

CMM: Yeah it was a party and we sort of had a competition about who made the best pancakes. Yeah, it was a great day.  We have a lot of fun and it was a nice way to share the process.
TC: Are you inside your home?
: Yes, I’m home. Some of Maple trees are right out there.