Five Questions for Nina Montenegro and Nolan Calisch

In the fall of 2013, artists Nina Montenegro and Nolan Calisch pulled seven abandoned tires from a creek near their home; they brought them inside, photographed them, and began an investigation into the psychology of waste in contemporary culture. Images from “Seven Tires at Miller Creek,” Nina and Nolan’s ongoing collaborative series, appear on pages 14 and 15 of the March/April 2014 issue of Orion.

Where did you discover these tires, and what state were they in when they were salvaged?

We encountered them while walking the length of the Miller Creek watershed, near our home in Oregon. Miller Creek is a two-mile stream originating in an ecologically intact forest area, but it empties into the Willamette River within proximity to several Superfund sites. The tires inhabited a physical and conceptual grey area, a place where the lines blur between industrial land use and conservation.

We came upon the tires sequentially at the bottom of the creek. Some were embedded in the landscape, covered in ferns and moss, while others appeared to have been dumped only recently, resting at the surface of the creek bed.

It’s interesting to think about the tires’ past lives in light of their new function as art objects. Do you have any idea how they were used before they reached Miller Creek?

More than art objects, we see these tires as historical artifacts. When we encountered them, it was apparent that they constituted a range of eras and uses: there was a tractor tire, a truck tire, and a sports-car tire, among others. This discovery added a level of intrigue as we realized that the seven tires were not the result of a single act of dumping, but, rather, a representation of a longer and more complex human relationship to the site.

There’s an impressive amount of plant life colonizing the tires. Do you know how old they are?

After we pulled the tires from the creek bed, we worked with a mechanic to date and gather information about each tire’s history. We discovered that their ages spanned the duration of fifty years, the oldest being from the 1960s. Even the oldest was still in extremely good condition, despite having hosted an array of plants and organic matter for years.

You’ve said that your interest in these tires is related to an interest in the psychology of waste in our culture. What ideas or questions do you hope these images will inspire in their viewers?

The discarded tire has almost become an icon of pollution these days. Unfortunately, it’s something many people are accustomed to seeing—in their neighborhoods, in ditches, on a riverbank. For this reason we made a choice to remove the tires from the stream and reframe them as artifacts suitable for a natural history museum. In this way, they can be viewed through an anthropological lens; they become emblematic of a relatively short time period in which humans have interacted with the Earth in a particular way.

The larger body of work that both of you have produced seems to examine that interaction in a number of ways. How might you describe your work’s larger mission?

As artists, it’s important to us that we are not just documentarians but also active participants in the places we inhabit. While one part of the Miller Creek project was the photographic aestheticization of the tires, another was actually inheriting them and taking on responsibility for their future. In fact, they’re piled up here on our farm right now. Now that they’re out of the creek, where do they go? To the dump? To the recycler? Do they find new uses as planters, or as Earthship walls? They remind us daily of the complexity of the human predicament.

Nina Montenegro and Nolan Calisch are interdisciplinary artists living in Portland, Oregon. They use photography, film, illustration, and installation to create place-based and socially engaged projects. Limited-edition prints from “Seven Tires at Miller Creek” are available; contact information can be found at the artists’ websites.