Ellen Mueller

Survival Skills


While I was in residence at Weir Farm Art Center, I was exploring the idea of survival, from stereotypical wilderness tactics to intellectual, emotional, financial, and social survival. I am influenced by overwhelming news cycles covering international politics, environmental disasters, and growing inequality. This work builds on my interests in navigating capitalism in everyday life, general preparedness, absurdity, and high contrast – both visually and conceptually.

I discussed these ideas and asked visitors to the art center about their impressions of survival. I pulled imagery from old art history textbooks, personal training manuals, and vintage young adult novels. After collecting all this imagery based on my research and discussions, I used a variety of media, from watercolor spills and color aid paper, to matte medium transfers and china markers, to layered collages conveying new meaning through various juxtapositions.


After an artist talk with the community, it was clear that people wanted a closer look at the small works, which often leads viewers to find further connections. Making a zine with this imagery felt like a natural next step, as zines satisfy a deeply human desire for tactility and intimacy. I also like how a zine provides further opportunities for visual juxtaposition as one flips through the pages. I used this format to delve deeper into my interest in adolescent literature focused on self-sufficiency and survival situated in nature (My Side of the Mountain, Swiss Family Robinson, Little House on the Prairie books, etc.).

Prints available here.

Modes of Survival from Ellen Mueller on Vimeo.

Performance Score

Survival Skills - Performance

While at the residency, I also engaged the public with an installation of red satin gloves, accompanied by a score (set of instructions). Participants were asked to think of various poses related to the concept of survival, and to teach them to each other for an informal collaborative performance. This score was also be performed at Wedge Projects in Chicago (2019) and as a part of Second Shift Studios’ curatorial projects (2019).

Score / Instructions:

1. One or more people put on a pair of gloves.

2. Each person thinks of a pose that represents survival to themselves; if more than one person is interacting with the installation, try to think of differing poses.

3. If there is more than one person, each person teaches their pose to the other(s).

4. Standing in a line, the participant(s) perform each pose (in sequence if a group).

With this interactive installation, I am investigating how gestures can convey meaning that language cannot. With a multidimensional idea like survival, working beyond the bounds of language is a way to discover both common ground and new information. I’m also very interested in the role of mimicry in addressing audiences. What does it mean to embody someone else’s gesture or pose? I’m curious about how interaction with this score can provide an opportunity for conversations that might not otherwise take place, while also using gestures and the body to liberate, amplify, or extend communication and speech.