To contain a forest fire, you have to dig a trench.
I learn this from Nicole Dextras, a Vancouver-based environmental artist being featured at the Richmond World Festival this weekend.
Fire doesn’t just spread by leaping from one tree canopy to another, she explains. It also burrows into the ground, and finds its next host through the network of tree roots that sprawls under the forest floor.
We’re talking fire because that’s the theme of the festival’s “Digital Carnival” this year. It’s a topic that’s important to many British Columbians, given the increasing regularity of summertime wildfires in the province and elsewhere.
And Dextras is no stranger to a little fire.
Before she became known for her “Weedrobes” dresses made from plants, she was a firefighter in the Kootenays.
“If the fire season was very high, they would take anybody as crew,” she recalls over the phone.
“They’d drop us off in the middle of this pristine forest that nobody had ever been in, and we’d hike down to the fire and try to contain it.”
It was something she enjoyed doing—not despite its danger, but because of it. “Fire is just so immediate,” she says. “You’re not thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow. You have to be very present because it’s very dangerous.
“I kind of thrived on it,” she adds.
Since her firefighting days, nature has played an important role in Dextras’s work. She makes high fashion from flowers. She freezes fabric to form bouquets. Her creations, in sum, are both ethereal and ephemeral: they look otherworldly, and they don’t last long in this world.
“Nature inspires me and also limits me,” she tells the Straight. And learning how to accept nature’s imposed limits has been an important lesson for her.
“We think that we are above nature and that our choices and our lifestyles take precedent, but in reality, nature does rule everything that we do,” she says. “We only figure that out every time there's some kind of disaster.”
Natural disaster has become a present theme in her work. Dextras is currently working on a series of short films called “A Dressing the Future” featuring sole survivors of different hypothetical disasters. The first one, “Waiting for Spring: Persephone and the Pomegranate”, depicts a young woman in a time when all the world’s crops have been wiped out due to raging wildfires. It will play this weekend at the festival.
It’s a haunting piece.
Festivalgoers will also have the chance to meet Dextras, who, for the first time since she started making her Weedrobes garments, will actually be wearing her creation instead of filming someone else in it. Or really, they’ll be able to meet Stata Mater—a new character based on the Roman goddess of fire prevention.
While wearing a new dress (made in the past three days for freshness) and a cape of magnolia leaves, Dextras as Stata Mater will talk to guests about wildfires. She wants to hear their concerns, what they think the problem is, and what should be done.
Sometimes getting people to engage can prove difficult, though. “Fifty percent of the time, people just want selfies,” she says, laughing.
She’ll also wheel around what she’s calling her Dystopian Museum. It’s her idea of what the museums of a postcapitalist future will be, once large corporations have shut down, taking the large museums who are dependent upon them for funding with them.
In this DIY reality, “the artists and curators will be forced to take their wares to the street,” she envisions, “so you won't be showing in a gallery anymore. You will be literally creating something that you can carry around on the street.”
It’s this adaptability of humans that gives her hope for the future—even one with natural disasters.
“I'm not trying to show a utopian type of future, but I'm trying to show that we could survive. And we could survive without it being the zombie apocalypse,” she says.
“In my mind, dystopias can have hope.”
Nicole Dextras’s exhibition runs until September 13 at the Richmond Cultural Centre and Atrium Performance Hall (7700 Minoru Gate). For more information, click here.