How the colorful ‘Rhizome’ art installation blends sustainability and community

The Laredo project mixes recycled materials, mariachi music and interpretive dancers.

By Jesus VidalesMarch 26, 2024 11:11 am,

“Rhizome” is a botanical word referring to an underground plant stem that runs out horizontally, sending out roots and shoots for new plants. In Laredo, the word has a special significance, not as part of a plant, but as the name of a colorful collaborative art installation with roots and shoots coming from different communities. 

Artist and visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M International Crystal Wagner is helping to nurture this unique project. She joined the Standard to explain “Rhizome” and its involvement in the community. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Before we talk about the concept behind this installation, can you paint a picture of it for us? What does it look like?

Crystal Wagner: Oh, it’s so interesting. All of my work is based on and inspired by nature. So, forms and structures found in nature. So butterfly wings, flowers, all kinds of different organic matter – cells, root systems. If you take all of that together and you mix it up into an abstract work that’s growing on the side of a building like fungus, it’s kind of like that.

Oh, wow. So tell us a little bit more about it. Is it sculptural? Would you say that’s the traditional category it would fall under?

Yeah, I would say that they’re sculptural installations.

So one of the things that I do as an artist is I show up on location and I use the architecture as this canvas. And I’m really interested in making work that lives in an environment.

That’s what’s so significant about what I’m doing here at Texas A&M International University, which is really growing what is going to be the largest installation that I’ve done through and on the outside of the building and on the inside of the building. So it very much is very immersive.

I mean, I try not to get a little sci-fi, but there’s very much a “Stranger Things” kind of element to the way that the fungus can grow. But it’s not fungus. It’s very much like my vocabulary as an observant person who lives on the planet.

So I guess you could say this is an art installation that has kind of taken on a life of its own, in a sense.

Oh, yeah. And they have life cycles from inception, from the moment they start growing until they come down.

That’s what’s so unique about the project that I’m doing here in Laredo, because this is the first one where I’m really using art as action. So it’s not just that the installation happens and there’s a multidisciplinary element to it, but it’s very much art as action.

Courtesy of Crystal Wagner

Wagner works on the "Rhizome" art installation.

So what does that mean? “Art as action.”

Yeah. So for me, it’s to see the material become practical. The installation itself is a large-scale sculptural installation. It’s made with hex netting and fabric. So, the fabric itself is made from plastic bottles that have been pulled from the ocean and collected from the coastlines. So all of the fabric that you’ll see on the installation, it’s woven into this sculptural armature and is made from plastic bottles from waste.

In using that, I’m taking one material that was trash, and I’m turning it into this art form that’s this kind of platform for conversations about eco-philosophy, about sustainability. Then, on the other side of the project, the action comes in. The material all comes down and we work with local agencies and different communities here in Laredo to sew the fabric into reusable tote bags that get distributed to the community here for free.

I want to show that not only can art be this kind of like catalyst, but like the next step is okay, well, how can we then make a practical kind of moment on the other side where the material itself becomes something that helps reduce waste?

Courtesy of Crystal Wagner

I heard that this is a collaboration between faculty and students in the music, art, dance, theater and humanities and the community at large. How are they getting involved in this?

Yeah, so I’ve been working closely with the community. They’ve been coming in for open build days and working with me to actually construct the piece, process the material. And then I’ve also hosted printmaking workshops where the community members have come in and contributed their printed mark to what will be a permanent section inside the main building.

We’re trying to really establish discourse related to really important conversations we need to have right now in the world about the way that we use things and the way that we kind of can be stewards to our planet.

So it’s not just a static installation or something that you’re adding to, but you’ve actually got this performative element, right?

Yeah. And there will be a contemporary dance piece. I wanted to work with the community in a way that was cognizant of the regional culture, so I made sure that folklórico dancers and mariachi music were a part of it.

So there’s this kind of moment where this is what we’ve made together. So the collaboration has really come from me being like, I will create the stage for everyone to show up and respond to this main theme.

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