Class of 2020 | Nancy Dayanne Valladares

Nancy Dayanne Valladares, Soil Field Notes, 2018 Samples of Honduran Soil
ACT at MIT

Nancy Dayanne Valladares is an interdisciplinary artist from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Collecting and reclassifying images and objects, her work attempts to trace the ecosystems of power embedded within modes of representation and image making technologies. Drawing from the historical entanglement between filmmaking, photography, and colonial consciousness, her work is a reconfiguration of storytelling and cultural memory.

Nancy’s background is in film and photography, and she received her Bachelor’s Degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She came to ACT with a curiosity of our relationship to technology, and for her thesis is exploring how this relates to the spread of colonial projects, the history of botanical and agricultural spread in Honduras, as well as their connection to extraction and the hierarchy of nature. Experimenting with different media, Nancy has been developing a body of work that involves delving deep into research, histories, and archives, and going back to Honduras for field work to film, photograph, and collect information for her various projects.

Nancy Dayanne Valladares, Botanical Ghosts: Soil Field Notes and their Sonic Idiosyncrasies. Field Notebook, microphone, two-way mirror, Honduran soil and clay, contact microphones.

“What I’ve come out of this program with is a kind of method for working, which is more open to experimentation, to asking questions. I think the ability to access the resources that are in this program and around the Institute and this town, and the other institutions around has completely changed the way that I approach making work,” Nancy said. “I’ve been introduced to discourses and topics that I never knew existed, and that has definitely enriched my experiences as a student, as an artist, as a maker. And then also spending time to think and write about all of the things that are at the periphery of an art practice. What is informing the history of art? With changes in technologies or new ways of thinking and seeing that I think are really interesting. And just curiosity. The ability to have time to be curious is invaluable, and I hope to take that with me.”

Botanical Ghosts, which focuses on the history of the Lancetilla Botanical Garden, is the largest project Nancy has developed at ACT, and it is both for her studio work and her thesis. Founded in 1925 by the United Fruit Company, Lancetilla became a laboratory for botanical and agricultural experimentation, and is where many of the agricultural paradigms that have dominated the landscape of Latin America were developed.

Dorothy Popenoe

“This project in particular traces the voyage of a couple botanical species, in particular the story of the ackee tree, which is deeply connected to the colonial landscape of the Caribbean and the transatlantic slave trade. I was very interested in these histories of botanical exchange and the transportation of fruit that occurred at the same time that these colonial projects were happening. This story is an encounter between a few characters, including Dorothy Popenoe, an archeologist and botanist at Lancetilla.

I was interested in her story, which is a submerged history, as not a lot is known about her, and the story is that she died at Lancetilla by eating an unripe ackee fruit, which is poisonous if you don’t cook it right or don’t know how to eat it. I spent a lot of time looking through archive materials, in Honduras and in one of Harvard’s collections, and through other online and physical archives, digging through these submerged histories of the plant world and of this figure who has been obscured. I had the privilege of finding many interesting and personal and institutional archives that told her story. It involved looking at some communications, including her personal letters, and finally also what would become her final manifesto, which she wrote before she died in December 1932.

“For me, it was looking at the complexity of these histories of Dorothy and the fruit as being characters and having agency; these characters who have been silenced by history but who are also complicit in the creation of extractive paradigms and these hierarchies of being. From this project, my other larger interest emerged, which is this engagement with art ecology in the climate crisis. Linking the technologies of vision and history of visuality to the spreading of colonial projects. I’ve been working looking back at what I was collecting, soil as material, technologies of transportation, and these exchanges that drew me to the project and looking at a semi-fictional deep history that connects evolution, photosynthesis, chlorophyll and linking it to the colonial legacy of extraction of resources from nature.

“I’m really interested in these crossings and transfers that happen in history between species that often remain ignored or submerged, because they also tell a complicated story. It’s another layer to add to the complexity. And so, one of the chapters I’ve been writing about, I don’t even know if it’s going to remain in the final one, is about plant voyages that happened during the 1700s. How plants were transported, seedlings, from one end of the earth to another and how with technologies Europe is eating potatoes and tomatoes and avocados and we’re eating things like mango and jackfruit. So, you don’t really think about it, but a bowl of salad can tell you the history of the world.”

While much of Nancy’s work focuses on the history of colonialism, she is also looking at ways to apply its rhetoric to other contexts, such as space. Along with fellow ACT graduate students Rae Yuping Hsu (SMACT ’20 candidate) and Po-Hao Chi (SMACT ’21 candidate), Nancy is working on a film project that is dealing with questions surrounding the narratives about the new space age travel, science fiction, and non-human space travelers. The span of the project is two years, and eventually the film will be screened in Taiwan as the students received a grant from the Ministry of Culture of Taiwan for it. “I think it’s a story about first contact between non-human astronauts,” Nancy said. “Right now, of course that process has been put on hold [due to COVID-19], but we’re still in the pre-production process and trying to recalibrate what it might look like in a few months.”

When asked how COVID-19 is affecting her practice, Nancy explained that since her work focuses more on film and photo as mediums, her practice is less impacted that some of her classmates’. She said she’s been writing more and thinking about how that in itself is an extension of her practice. “It is part of my work, and I’ve been trying to spend more time doing that. I’ve been thinking a lot about fiction, or the possibility for fiction, because in times like this, I think, in times of isolation, our universe becomes the four walls that we’re surrounded by, which is a huge privilege. And thinking of the possibilities of imagination through fiction is, for me, really liberating. I don’t think that we have been able to really process any of this, and I don’t think we’ll be able to for a long time. It is a really traumatizing experience, so for now I guess I’m taking the time in isolation to think about this, which is a luxury, the time to think.”

Speaking of fiction, Nancy said that in addition to thesis research and writing, she is making sure to take the time right now to enjoy the arts in its’ various forms. Currently, she is reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous. “It is such a beautiful, poignant novel,” she said. “At night, when I’m shutting everything down and need something that’s not about thesis, I’ve been enjoying sitting with this. It’s been a really nice change of pace. And what am I watching for fun? I’ve been watching a lot of Wong Kar-wai films, which are classics, and I also recently rewatched this film called The Color of Pomegranates [a 1969 Soviet art film by Sergei Parajanov] that I really enjoy. Oh, and I’ve been rewatching Star Trek. That is for sure my guilty pleasure.”