Hannah Tishkoff: Can you describe some of your early influences as an artist? 

Kirsten Stolle:
When I was a kid I had a little art table. I was an introvert at heart and an only child, so I would entertain myself alot. My mom doesn’t identify as an artist, but she is an excellent writer and singer. My dad is an engineer, so absolutely not art-related, but I think the research aspects of my practice definitely come from my dad’s side of the family.

My mom was really involved in the anti-GMO protests in 1996, when Monsanto was trying to genetically engineer a strawberry. Their idea was to insert a flounder gene to produce strawberries that could withstand cold temperatures (the technology failed). My mom was living in Santa Cruz and I was living in San Francisco, and she said, “Come on down, we're doing this puppet theatre protest thing!” So I went, but I didn't want to participate because I’m an introvert. I watched her and the whole thing and I thought it was fascinating, even though I didn't really understand the complexities of GMOs at the time. 

In the 2000s, I started having health problems related to genetically modified soy (and corresponding pesticides) which led to making art that was very research-based and involved looking into things that had to do with my politics and the environment. It was interesting because even when I was in the San Francisco Bay area, which of course has lots of politics around it, I just couldn't find a way to meld the two. It wasn't until I had health problems of my own that the way to do that really presented itself, so, in a way, that was beneficial not to my health, but to my art. 
How did your health problems end up influencing your art?

I was and still am a vegetarian. At that time I was eating a ton of products that had a lot of GMOs and pesticides in them which I didn’t realize. Ultimately, what that did was push me to research companies that were genetically engineering the soy I was eating, as well as corn and canola. I was thinking, “why is this chemical company Monsanto and also Dow Chemical Company getting into the food business?” I could not understand it. It turns out they were genetically engineering these plants to withstand giant influxes of herbicides, which by the way, they had used to great effect during the Vietnam War. So they had lots of extra herbicides left over. My mind was exploding, wondering what the hell was happening. 

I knew there were pesticides being used by agricultural farmers, but this was a whole new ballgame with genetically engineering plants. Imagine these tight rows of soybeans in the beautiful field and tons and tons of weeds. All the farmer has to do is spray this herbicide and it kills all the weeds. It does not kill the plant, which is kind of miraculous. So you go, “that's cool,” right? But, at the same time, you've changed the genetic makeup of this plant. So that's a little disconcerting, because now you've also killed the ecosystem around the plant because you've dumped all this herbicide on it that gets into the soil and water. I just went down this rabbit hole of trying to understand these chemical companies. Then, more importantly, I started researching why they were doing this. 

This is the '90s right, so are you using a computer to do this? 

This is actually around 2008, so it was a lot of internet research. I did go to the library to look at books, government websites, scientific journals, and articles. Some of it is a little beyond my pay grade, as they say. But I'm smart enough to get the abstract and look at data, and I love a good spreadsheet. I’m looking at data from various advocacy organizations, and also from the chemical companies themselves because again, I'm not a journalist, I'm not a researcher with a capital R. But I am an artistic researcher, which is important to undergird the work that I make. 
Do you think that these companies have any awareness about your work?

Sometimes my friends say, “Oh my god, you're on a list!” Maybe, potentially, but I feel like I'm a small artist in a big pond. I also don't personally know any artists that are doing work specifically about the agrochemical companies. One would think there are others because there are so many people on the planet, but I don't know about them and I would like to know about them. I don't know if the agricultural companies know about me. If they do, they're not too worried about it, you know what I mean?  But, something that is really important for me is to get out to people that Bayer, the pharmaceutical company, bought  Monsanto in 2018 which is a really really big deal.

I had no idea about that! How has that information influenced your recent work?

Monsanto has been around since 1901. They started as a chemical company that made hundreds of chemicals, like aspartame and caffeine, and glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in Roundup®, which you can buy at Home Depot and Ace Hardware. People use it on their own lawns to kill weeds, and farmers use it too.

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup®, had been hugely profitable for Monsanto. Because of the success of Roundup®, Bayer wanted to incorporate Monsanto’s seed traits and chemicals into Bayer’s existing agricultural division. However, prior to purchasing Monsanto, there were hundreds of glyphosate-related lawsuits against Monsanto making their way through the U.S. courts. People who had regularly used Roundup® and had developed cancer, particularly Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, were presenting a case that glyphosate had caused them direct harm. This was a huge negative for many Bayer shareholders and in fact, many shareholders encouraged Bayer executives not to buy Monsanto. Bayer went through with the purchase. These letters are publicly available as shareholder minutes on Bayer’s website. 

For me as an artist, I get excited when I can find original source material, like shareholder minutes and data sets. It’s then that I will often incorporate the material into some type of a collage or visual poetry piece. My excitement comes from the data, the information and spin, and the words that the chemical companies use to either minimize, misdirect, or redirect.

In as little or as long as you’d like, can you tell me why you make your art?

Art is my way of communicating. It is my language to understand something and then reflect it back. In the case of what I'm working on now, it's information, ideas, people putting things out that are kind of scary, or too daunting to digest. The only way that I can do that for myself is through art. I create another way for people that are more visually inclined in their processing to relate to these topics. I love language, and I love to incorporate language with images, either in a complimentary way or in an opposing fashion. 

The process you are describing reminds me of collage, does that feel true? 

With my work in particular I really branch out into different mediums. I have done all this sort of archeological digging, right? I've done this digging because it excites me and then I'll make work about it so that you, the viewer, have a sense of what's going on. With my work, I feel like much of it can be interpreted visually in different ways depending on who is looking at it. It is a bit like word play; different words mean different things and have multiple meanings for different people. I don't like to just sing one note, I don't want my art to be obvious.

Your work is a great example of why art is important for solving and working through social problems. It seems playful rather than instructive.  I'm interested in the interactive Monsanto Scramble! and the Bayer-Monsanto Scramble! pieces you have, can you tell me more?

Yes! Let me give you a little bit of backstory. I have done that piece several times. The initial word-search puzzle actually started out as just a takeaway pad of paper, so you can probably still see how that exists as part of it. People would come to the gallery and they would, using little pencils I provided, fill out the word scramble or do the word scramble in the gallery and then take it home with them. 

The next iteration was the Monsanto Scramble! which is this life-size dry-erase board where people can try to find words associated with Monsanto. And then when Bayer bought Monsanto, I updated it (to include words like holocaust associated with Bayer). That updated version was shown in my gallery in Germany (NOME Gallery). I love that piece. It seems really simple, but the reason for doing it is because it's playful. But then you go, “Oh, why is DDT there? What does that have to do with Monsanto?” Or, I pick out another word to include that people might not know that has to do with Monsanto, like military or Vietnam. So it's like you're “learning” but it is fun, and interactive, so maybe people will get an ear worm. 
Can you tell me a bit more about what your research methods are, particularly when you're beginning a new project?

Generally the idea will come first, but not always. Then the research, then the actual, physical making of the work. It involves a lot of reading, writing, and listening. I have studio notebooks going back over 15 years and I often refer back to them when I’m stuck. 

We talked about how I initially started getting into researching agrochemical companies because of my health issues –  fast forward to now and I've been doing this for over 10 years. After my Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (Charleston, SC) solo show last year I kind of thought I would be done (researching chemical companies). Then when I was researching Agent Orange, because that was a part of the earlier project, I ended up down this rabbit hole about the Vietnam War and then to this term I’d never seen before, precision agriculture. It is also known as digital farming. That seemed interesting…so now I’m researching digital farming and precision agriculture, which are basically terms for monitoring the productivity of an industrial farm using drones and satellites that incorporate pesticide mapping. There is a lot of  super interesting stuff around it that I don't know enough about yet, but now I'm off to the races, right?  

So that's what happens for me. Once I find something interesting I want to follow it. Right now I'm compiling folders on my computer, taking screenshots or writing notes to myself and jotting down words I might like to use. Sometimes I'll print stuff out, so I also have a physical folder in my studio that says “precision agriculture.” I've been working on this for four months and I still don't know where it's going yet as far as a medium, although I have a couple ideas. One is a sculptural piece, one is maybe a textile piece. I definitely want to do something that involves images of satellites and potentially drones. I'm kind of branching out right now  into mediums I know nothing about. Sometimes the medium won’t present itself to me until I have gathered enough information. I love this process, I can’t imagine doing anything else. 

If you didn't do art, what would you do?

Maybe I'd be a scientist. Since I am not a scientist, I’m an artistic researcher, it is important to me that I get the facts right, but not to the point where I'm unable to explain it to someone. For example, “You said they dropped 74 million liters of herbicide but it's actually 74.75!” The exact number isn't interesting to me but the fact that our U. S. government is dropping millions of liters of herbicides (in Vietnam) is interesting to me.

Do you have a particular intention in terms of the impact that you hope for your work to have?

Yes, definitely. First and foremost, it's about making an impact for myself. That sounds kind of obvious to most artists. You want to do it for yourself. I do what I do to have curiosity, to have a critical eye. Maybe people will leave my work and want to further investigate something they see on the news. My intention is to open people’s eyes and encourage having an awareness.

It is also important that the work I make is crafted well. The way I make my work, how it is crafted, and what medium I use, are all integral. The work has to hit aesthetically to be effective. I can’t just make a poster. 
Revolutionary Control, 2015

Extracted and manipulated audio loop, iPod shuffle, speaker, vintage radio. 1 minute, 40 seconds.

Audio files from 1940-1950s USDA agricultural pesticide videos have been extracted and reorganized to create a manipulated audio loop, recontextualizing pesticide propaganda within a 21st century framework. The reinterpreted audio highlights the government’s heavy-handed messaging in light of the documented dangers of pesticide use.
(Courtesy of the Artist)
I'm curious to hear more about the Science For a Better Life project. How did that start and how is it connected to the corresponding series, the Monsanto Intervention

Monsanto Intervention was the first project. That one uses vintage magazine advertisements put out by Monsanto, and there are some Dow Chemical ads in there as well. This was propaganda that was put in magazines like LIFE and TIME, where they would promote their chemicals, especially during wartime in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The advertisements promoted their chemicals for war and agriculture, but they also pitched chemicals for the home to homemakers. I love original source material. I found all these original ads for purchase online. 

I’ve mentioned that I like language and image, so next I read the text and then I go into the text and I redact it similar to how the U. S. Government blacks out sensitive information that they don't want people to know about. I do this to reflect the methods that already exist in the world. I do this completely analog. I cut out and collage black strips of paper onto the advertisement and change the narrative from pro-chemical to this darker, true threat of what these chemicals are really doing in the world. In tandem with the redaction, I add some type of a collage to the existing image in the ad. Those are from 2013, and there are maybe 20 of them. When Bayer bought Monsanto, I decided to start doing it again, because I just love doing them. I love finding new ways to play with words, new language, new narratives within an already existing narrative. There is this whole history of visual poetry that I like.

In 2020, I went back to eBay and I found more advertisements from Bayer, Monsanto, and Dow Chemical and did a similar thing with redacting to tell a different story. I'll find the ad and then I’ll photocopy it many many times and then redact it in different ways to see what is the clearest and most compelling new narrative that I can write. Then I settle on one, and cut it out physically with an X-acto knife.
Would you like to share anything new that you are working on?

Right now I’m in the research phase. I don't know enough about precision agriculture yet, so for me it's fascinating and exciting and also potentially problematic. Right now I am trying to understand who owns the data. Bayer is licensing the satellite imagery and satellite technology to the farmer, so that the farmer can get data on his or her field. Currently my understanding is that the corporation then owns that data. To me, that sounds a little scary, but I'm not exactly sure because I don't have enough information yet. Why it sounds scary to me is that if a giant corporation knows exactly what you're planting, exactly all the chemicals you're using, and then happens to have a patent on those seeds, that sounds like a lot of corporate control to me. I'm just at the beginning of this, so I don't have all the information, but that is what excites me because the technology also sounds kind of cool. You can monitor exactly how much pesticide you need to drop, how much feed you need to drop, but again, at what cost? 

ARTIST Bio (Courtesy of the Artist)

Kirsten Stolle is a visual artist working in collage, text-based images, and installation. Her research-based practice, at the intersection of art, science, and culture, examines the global influence of agrichemical companies on our food system. Delving into propaganda and greenwashing, Stolle’s recent projects have looked into agribusiness disinformation, corporate advertising strategies, and the historical ties between Bayer-Monsanto and chemical warfare.Kirsten was born in Newton, Massachusetts, lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area for 19 years, and currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, United States. Her work is included in the permanent collections of the North Carolina Museum of Art, San Jose Museum of Art, Crocker Art Museum, and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Solo exhibitions include NOME Projects, Berlin; Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, SC; Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, Winston-Salem, NC; Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC;  Second Street Gallery, Charlottesville, VA; Turchin Center for the Visual Arts/Appalachian State University, Boone, NC; Tracey Morgan Gallery, Asheville, NC; Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Roy G Biv Gallery, Columbus, OH; and Kathryn Markel Fine Arts, NYC. Select group exhibition highlights include Balzer Projects/Basel, Datscha Radio/Berlin, Terrain Biennial, Fridman Gallery, Lesley Heller Workspace, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, North Carolina Museum of Art, San Jose Museum of Art, The Mint Museum, Gregg Museum of Art & Design, Hunterdon Museum of Art, Tweed Museum of Art, Riverside Art Museum, Triton Museum of Art, The Billboard Creative, Jack Fischer Gallery (2-person show), Power Plant Gallery/Duke University, and the Torpedo Factory. Her work has been published in The Atlantic, Photograph, Topic Magazine, The Billboard Creative, TAZ Berlin, Le Monde diplomatique, Berlin Art Link, SLEEK, Made in Mind Magazine, Poetry Magazine, Creators Project, Widewalls, Spolia Literary Magazine, Burnaway, LEONARDO, Vhcle Magazine, DIALOGIST, Slice Magazine, New American Paintings, ElevenEleven, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Manifest International Drawing Annual. She is a recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a Dave Bown Project Award, as well as grants from the North Carolina Arts Commission, San Francisco Arts Commission, Artists’ Fellowship Inc., Puffin Foundation, Change Inc., and the Creative Capacity Fund. She has been awarded residencies at the Ucross Foundation, Millay Colony, Blue Mountain Center, Marble House Project, Willapa Bay AiR, Turkey Land Cove Foundation, Oregon College of Arts & Crafts, Spiro Arts Center, Anderson Center, and Ballinglen Arts Foundation. Stolle received a BA in Visual Arts from Framingham State University, and completed studies at Richmond College (London, England) and Massachusetts College of Art (Boston, MA).