Unpacking Utopias: The Work of Ruth Dusseault

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Ruth Dusseault doesn’t feel like an artist. “I just spent my whole career documenting other people’s creations,” she says.
Those creations make for an eclectic list, including the transformation of a large-scale industrial site into a mixed-use development (Atlantic Steel Redevelopment, 1999-2006), homemade tourist attractions in Florida (Modern Nature, 2006-08), improvised recreational battlefields (Play War, 2008 – 2015); the iconic interior of Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta (Unpacking Manuel’s, in progress), and, most recently, idealistic communities that have turned to one of civilization’s largest infrastructures — the Internet — to move off the grid (Ecotopia, 2012 – present).
Dusseault characterizes these disparate enterprises as “utopian expressions in the built environment,” a phrase she uses in her artist’s statement and that also framed our two-hour conversation on Georgia State’s campus in January. That tag line that covers a lot of ground – romantic idealism grappling with the practicalities of modern life, the natural world vying for space in the context of a mechanized society. And it’s Dusseault’s eye for these complexities, as well as her ability to make them visible to others, that gives her work its vitality and energy and has earned her recognition, such as a National Endowment for the Arts grant for Modern Nature, a finalist spot for the Hudgens Prize in 2011, a Grand Jury Prize at Atlanta Celebrates Photography (also 2011) and recognition on Creative Capital’s “On Our Radar” as a project to watch.
Much of that energy also comes from Dusseault herself. She gives the impression of always being on the move, so much so that our “studio visit” had to take place on Georgia State’s campus, where she teaches film production in the Department of Communication. “My studio is my car,” she explains.
In person, she’s dynamic, pouring out ideas in sound bites that combine scholarly earnestness with humor. Sharply intelligent, she also comes across as warm and inviting, qualities that no doubt help her draw out interviewees and students alike.
Our conversation began in Saxby’s Coffee Shop, talking about those students. She’s passionate about teaching: “I loved it,” she says of her time at Georgia Tech from 2001 to 2012, and she calls her current students at Georgia State, “the most creative students in town . . . because they’re diverse, they’re courageous, and their faculty cares.”
But Dusseault has also dealt with some of the changes art professors face these days, including the end of her artist in residence stint at Georgia Tech and the closing of Emory’s Visual Arts department, where she’d worked as visiting faculty.
You might think that would make her pessimistic about the future of arts and humanities within the university. But, you would be wrong. Dusseault is passionate and even hopeful about that future. “The MFA is the perfect degree,” she claims. “It’s a maker’s degree with scholarship. You read, make, critique, read, make, critique for two years. Strangely enough, that type of learning is becoming popular across all disciplines – creativity, making, engagement in the community, the digital humanities.” She jokingly adds, “I would like to see a future with an MFA in mechanical engineering.”
The discussion about teaching and the academy continued as we finished our coffee, but to discuss Dusseault’s film and photography we moved to a screening room in upstairs in the library. The first topic was her project Unpacking Manuel’s, which has been featured locally in Atlanta as well as in national venues such as The New York Times and NPR.
For this project, Dusseault is working with a collaborative in which they took GigaPan photographs of the iconic interior of Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta before the current renovations began in late December of 2015. Stitched together from a series of high-resolution photographs, the final product will allow online visitors to zoom in and out, pan around virtual recreations of rooms, and see fine details, down to marks on the wall.  Designed as a teaching tool, students from various disciplines will use the objects as starting points for writing, research, and documentary projects. It will not only help recreate the original in the new space but also preserve the memory of the old for the patrons, politicians, and locals who contributed to its “creation” over the course of 60 years.
To Dusseault, Unpacking Manuel’s is more than a clever way to preserve the interior of a place visited by multiple big-name politicians — including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — as well as housing a beloved hodgepodge of memorabilia spanning six decades. While we were chatting about the Manuel’s project, Dusseault was clicking through images from the Florida attractions in Modern Nature that includes footage of alligator pits, a site that features the skulls of Everglades animals and specimens preserved in formaldehyde, and an English-style topiary garden replete with “Southern belles” in hoop skirts.
The roots of Unpacking Manuel’s go deep into this odd terrain. “Here’s the birth of the idea of the homemade world,” Dusseault says, a place where people like Manuel’s owners fashion an idealized, often quirky space within the manufactured environment. “That is what’s stayed through my work,” Dusseault asserts, “ever since I did these [Modern Nature] in 2006 —this sort of amateurism, and making, and expressing a utopia.”
Dusseault suggests that she doesn’t so much create as curate. Modern Nature, she says, is “a curatorial process”: “The artistic act is actually being there and stringing [everything] all together.” And she sees a similar method at work in Unpacking Manuel’s, where “the current of time has created this collection. It’s kind of a catchbasket for a lot of culture that happened there. And the walls are the evidence of that.”  The renovation will transform Manuel’s into what Dusseault calls “a curated installation.”
She knows such changes are inevitable in the urban landscape. But when they occur, it’s important not to eradicate layers of memory, which is something that didn’t always happen in Florida as she was growing up, or even with the transformation of Atlanta Steel into Atlantic Station.
“Look at what happens with you, when you go into a historic place, or a place with memory, like a basilica in Rome,” she says. “Don’t you feel more interesting? [It’s] because you own it. You own it. You can say you’ve been there, and also you have the perspective. You’ve connected to a continuum of time. You’ve gone back a thousand years by walking in the door.” In recording what’s on the walls at Manuel’s, or the oddball tourist attractions dotting the landscape of her childhood, Dusseault is keeping that connection alive.
The conversation turns to other recent projects, but the emphasis stays on the process of archiving homemade utopias. Dusseault may say she doesn’t feel like an artist, but she has an uncanny ability to see and capture creative expression in these strangely beautiful places well outside the bounds of traditional artistic venues.
“Play War,” a long-term photography and film project, most recently screened at Eyedrum in September, documents improvised, elaborate paintball battlefields where participants act out mock battles over the course of several days. The stunning, haunted, almost surreal images look virtually staged, “like installation art,” Dusseault says.
But the project is about more than the images, and the creative process involves more than re-using PVC pipe or donated construction materials to build an imaginary war zone. “The photography was about the landscapes and the places,” Dusseault says of one stage of the project, “and the film ended up being about PTSD. Because I discovered, not only is it [a paintball battlefield] recruiting grounds — I mean, the Army ROTC booth is right over there by the hot dog stand – not only is it recruiting grounds, but it’s also a place for returning vets to use for exposure therapy.”
All of this is moving to the highly mediated realm of the internet, another thread running through Dusseault’s recent work and one that is particularly apparent in her latest project, Ecotopia, which documents several groups of mostly college-educated, white, and middle-class communities who have, in Dusseault’s words, “gone to the woods to experiment in smaller living.” But to get there, they’ve first gone to the Internet.
“Some of them have no electricity, no telephone service, no running water, no road,” she says, “but the first thing they do is hook up a solar-powered Internet router, and open up their laptops for all the tutorials they need for survival in the wilderness.” The results are remote communities living in mud houses festooned with gardens, using homemade water collection and filtration systems and driving tractors built from reclaimed materials, all skills picked up from various web sites. “The irony is that they’ve rejected [modern] culture, but at the same time they’re using the largest infrastructure ever built.”
Ecotopia is, in Dusseault’s words, “the culmination of everything” – an archive of a utopian expression in nature, made possible by cybernetics. “This is in response to a culture that, through media, can see its own world and make it.”
She laughs. You would think some of these changes would make her pessimistic. But you would be wrong: “maybe we’re entering the most creative period of humankind.”
Jami Moss Wise is a lapsed academic with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is co-owner of Fred Wise Studio along with her artist husband. 

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