Ouida Biddle is an architect, artist, and designer whose work has shown in cities around the world, including New York, Los Angeles, and Reykjavik. Recently, while researching a project on brilliant minds forgotten by history, she came upon Lotusland, the private botanical garden of late opera singer and eccentric Ganna Walska. Biddle entered the garden in Santa Barbara, CA with a plan to film improvised performances for Pin-Up Magazine’s garden issue. She emerged, however, with a radically different plan: to put the soothing drone video footage she captured to therapeutic use in hospital waiting rooms.
EP contributor, Clay Kerrigan, sat down with Ouida in to talk about ‘Over Lotusland,’ waiting rooms, Ouida’s cancer experience, and the therapeutic value of art.
Clay Kerrigan: So, tell me about the making of this video.
Ouida Biddle: It was mysteriously easy to make. I had no money at the time, and I wasn't sure what Pin-Up Magazine was going to be able to cover. I didn't know how I was going to manage the shoot because I only had three hours total to be at Lotusland—which was a very generous thing for the garden to let us do. It's an extremely limited private operation, even to its members. We hired a drone cameraman who was familiar with the garden already. He was extremely knowledgeable.
CY: What kind of footage did you hope to capture?
OB: It’s funny. A lot of what we included in the edit were things that would be edited out of a normal kind of conventional drone fly-through of a space. I was interested in how the drone registered its existence by the propeller’s wind hitting a plant or the surface of water, as well as all of the small camera adjustments that are totally unique to that technology. That was what we kept in, and that's what a typical drone video editor would have probably taken out.
CY: It's amazing that you did all that in three hours.
OB: We loosely structured each shot around human activity, but we cut out as much of that as possible. Once we started editing, we realized that it was important to focus on the video’s ability to transport the viewer and really show them the plants in a way that can't be shown without a drone.
I WAS INTERESTED IN HOW THE DRONE REGISTERED ITS EXISTENCE BY THE PROPELLER’S WIND HITTING A PLANT OR THE SURFACE OF WATER.
The great thing about this garden is that it's the first of its kind in California. The woman who owned and developed the garden, Ganna Walska, invented ways of clustering succulents over a period of 30 or 40 years that had never been done before. Her passion was exotic plants, so there was no concept of conservation of local species (or the issue of invasive ones) as we know it now. She had no interest in that. She was interested in the most difficult, rarest specimens of plants.
CY: In what era was this?
OB: She bought the land in the '40s. It's where Oprah and Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson have all lived. That's why Lotusland is so private: it's located within one of the richest communities in the world. She was not really interested in this being a public space.
THAT PERFORMATIVITY BECAME LESS IMPORTANT THAN THE DRONE'S FREEDOM OF MOVEMENT OVER THIS BEAUTIFUL, CURATED PRESENTATION OF FORMS OF LIFE.
My desired application for the video came after seeing the footage a few times and realizing that the whole story of this place—the way it came together, its history—had a mysterious spiritual element to it. Walska and her boyfriend, who was a prominent Western yogi, originally intended to make the property a place for Tibetan monks, or lamas, to visit while in America as a meditative space. Hence, the name Lotusland.
I read her book, looked at maps and plans, and noticed the performance element in the garden’s design. That performativity became less important than the drone's freedom of movement over this beautiful, curated presentation of forms of life.
CY: At what point did you see it having therapeutic value?
OB: While we were editing it and cutting down on the human focus, we realized that it had this wonderful mystical sense of freedom to it—exactly what I have always wanted when you're waiting in a clinical situation and your life is on the line. At those moments, you’d just give anything to take your mind off of your immediate space. The need to transcend is just enormous, and it's very hard to get into that headspace. Everything is fighting you.
When I had a tumor in 2011, I went through a period of about three months of thinking I was going to die. I had a GIST tumor in my small intestines that blocked my ability to eat. That was followed by around six months of recuperation.
CY: And it's gone?
OB: Yeah, I had emergency surgery. They cut me in half and took all my organs out and figured out where it was. Maybe it was just my intestines, but I definitely got taken apart at a table. They cut out about a foot of intestines, and the biopsy period lasted about another month. So, during the time I was getting sick and waiting on the results, I wasn't sure what was going to happen. They weren't sure if it was metastasizing.
CY: They weren't sure if it had gone anywhere else.
OB: Yeah. And they didn't know what kind of tumor it was when they took it out, either. They had to wait for the biopsy to tell us anything. I also didn't have health insurance, and I didn't have a job. That means you get sick and you don't have recourse. There are programs in place in the state of California, though, that are really helpful. You apply for emergency Medicaid, which you can get pretty quickly. You get seen, but you have to wait about five hours for every visit. My problem was that they kept putting me with residency people—like, people that were training to be doctors.
WHEN YOU'RE... IN A CLINICAL SITUATION... YOU’D JUST GIVE ANYTHING TO TAKE YOUR MIND OFF OF YOUR IMMEDIATE SPACE. THE NEED TO TRANSCEND IS JUST ENORMOUS.
I saw five or six different residents, and they didn't really ask any questions. They just gave me x-rays and asked me standard questions. They would say things like, "Well, it's probably stress. You probably have irritable bowel syndrome. You should take up yoga. You should consider painting. I know when I'm stressed out my stomach hurts, too." And I was just like, “No... you don't understand.”
Taking any medication for this was impossible. I couldn't take Vicodin for pain because anything that I digested hurt. So, I could only basically drink water and broth. It started with pain whenever I was eating food. Then, I stopped eating solid food and stopped drinking alcohol. I stopped drinking coffee. I stopped drinking mineral water. At that point, I was like, “Maybe there's something really wrong with me.” Like really, really wrong with me. If mineral water is painful...
CY: How long was the period when you didn't know that you had something inside of you?
OB: It was about two months, and in that time I lost 22 pounds. The weird thing was I didn't really have problems pooping, but then again, after not eating for a while, the whole system just basically ground to a halt. I couldn't take Ibuprofen. Everything hurt my stomach.
One time, I was waiting in the emergency room for 12 hours with my mom, and somebody finally saw me, looked at my chart and the weight loss, and said, "Oh, wow! You probably have a tumor. We're going to get you an MRI right now. There's something clearly extremely wrong with you." And they shot me up with morphine right then. I stayed on morphine for the next month or so.
THE GOAL FOR THIS VIDEO IS TO EXPOSE PEOPLE THAT HAVE THE ABILITY TO PROGRAM AMBIENT KIND OF VIDEO IN ANY CLINIC... I WANT TO JUST GIVE THEM THE VIDEO—I WANT IT TO BE AVAILABLE.
They said that it had grown from something that might have been in my body a long time and that it just kind of snowballed. My intestine had also doubled back on itself, like if you had a rock in a sock and then pulled part of the sock back.
Memories of all this waiting made me realize that I want to make this video available so that it’s really easy for doctors and healthcare practitioners to download is as an app or video screensaver. It doesn’t need to be something that they play, but whenever they leave the room, and somebody's just waiting in a room with a monitor in it, it’ll be there to watch.
CY: Absolutely. It’s such a deadening space when you're waiting in a room like that.
OB: Right. When you're sick, so much of your time is spent in that space. So much time. Over and over again.
CY: Do you feel like that your experience with cancer continues to affect how you work?
OB: I think that it probably changed my life for the better overall, but I lost at least six months of working. It was definitely traumatic, and I was afraid to eat for a long time after I was allowed to. Like, phobic of food because I wasn't sure what the hell was going on inside me. The opening they made during surgery was a crack in my sternum that went through to my spine. They stapled it up right after the surgery—32 of them, I think. After they had taken them all out, I had to heal from the inside out, which meant I had to pack the wound twice a day.
CY: With what?
OB: With gauze. My abdominal wall was cut in half, and I had to pack that until it closed. It was, by far, the most disgusting thing I've ever done. I stuck around with the morphine and the Percocet; a lot of that was just dealing with the gore of it, for real.
MEMORIES OF ALL THIS WAITING MADE ME REALIZE THAT I WANT TO MAKE THIS VIDEO AVAILABLE SO THAT IT’S REALLY EASY FOR DOCTORS AND HEALTHCARE PRACTITIONERS TO DOWNLOAD [AND SHOW PATIENTS].
The first time I had the wound packed, somebody woke me up in the middle of the night to change the gauze, and it was this really beautiful rockabilly nurse. Her makeup was flawless, even at 4:00 in the morning. She had an Amy Winehouse bouffant and looked like an opera star. She was just gorgeous—and showed absolutely no emotion. She totally took care of it. Her professionalism helped me do it every single time I had to do it. Just her managing it—and also just the attitude of nurses, in general, of being very matter of fact and dealing with disgusting things that we never think about—helps so much.
CY: A lot of your work is a lot about infiltration—of spaces, but also freedom within those spaces. I see that in ‘Over Lotusland,’ freeing that space and using it for your purposes, but then wanting to distribute it to other people. I see that in your pop-up meditation pieces as well—you kind of infiltrate a gallery space with solitude, even though you're surrounded by people.
OB: That was my attempt at performance. I wouldn't say the performance was particularly successful, but I think it is a great idea to create meditation space. Meditation is something that I really believe in and helps me every single day. I wouldn't say that I have total control of my thoughts and emotions, but at least I know that I am not my thoughts and my feelings, which is an important thing to understand. That there's a consciousness outside of your perceived problems, attachments, fears, ego trips, all of it. If you can be outside of that for a small period of time every day, it gives you the ability to link these continuous states of being over time. You don't have to feel like you're just stuck in your perspective all the time.
CY: So you’ve got the footage now. Have you reached out to hospitals, clinics, or doctors about your vision for its therapeutic use?
OB: I was looking at ENDPAIN, and the project seems to have potential in terms of organizing healthcare practitioners in a different way than the typical divide between Western medicine and holistic practices. The focus becomes rethinking chronic pain and rethinking approaches to it so that people can work together better.
That said, the goal for this video is to expose people that have the ability to program ambient kind of video in any clinic. I would really like to find these people and talk to them. I want to just give them the video—I want it to be available. Every clinic has so many different layers to it, and nobody has time. But, there are a lot of non-profits and people working on the relationships between meditation and pain treatment, and those people are the people that can get it into the right hands. CY: Yes. There are so many Beverly Hills chiropractors who make sure that their office is feng shui and has the right energy flow going on. There have to be openings somewhere. OB: Totally. I think that meditation, in general, has been hijacked by YouTube slideshow aesthetics, and it needs to stop. CY: How so? OB: I’m certain that meditation is part of the future of healthcare, and I also know that it doesn't have to have this borrowed, poorly executed mandala/quasi-orientalist Indian aesthetic that doesn't have anything to do with anything but Lululemon. I am completely opposed to that and want to offer an alternative.