MELISSA WYMAN’s training in close contact martial arts informs her grappling performances and workshops, drawings of wrestling bodies and private Fight Therapy Sessions. Her interdisciplinary art practice involves teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a method of exploring the psychological and physical relationships of the participants. Melissa received her MFA in Social Practice from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco (2008), where she was a recipient of the Barclay Simpson Award. She has created and presented work in the United States, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Chile, and her book, Fight Therapy: A Discussion about Agency, Art and the Reverse Triangle Choke, was published in 2010. Melissa lives in Stanford, California.
OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you give us a brief history of your background in martial arts? When did you start training? What style?
Melissa Wyman: My love of movement and awkwardness in dance class lead me to martial arts. I started with aikido in 1995 and trained for about four years, and then I trained in Japanese jiu-jitsu and tai chi for a couple of years. When I moved to Japan in 1999, I was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and was immediately hooked. BJJ is specifically designed for smaller and weaker people to be able to deal with larger opponents. In turn, larger people learn how to grapple with smaller opponents and have the opportunity to focus on their technique rather than strength. For the last twelve years, I have been training mainly in BJJ, complimented by a little kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA). I’ve trained in Japan, New Zealand, San Francisco and South Korea. I took a brief break when I got pregnant, but I’ll enter competitions again when my daughter will let me train more than three days a week, maybe when she is old enough to train with me.Now I am back in the United States. I help instruct the Stanford Grappling Club. I also attend Women’s Open Mat organized by Shawn Tamaribuchi and Lana Stefanac in the Bay Area, which is when an awesome group of women from different clubs all over the area get together to spar. I actively competed in BJJ from 2002 to 2007 in Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
OPP: Since 2006, your project Fight Therapy has included performances, installations, workshops and drawings that all make use of or reference various forms of organized sparring. What was the impetus for Fight Therapy?MW: Many forms of physical activity are therapeutic, especially sports that provide a healthy release of built up tension and give you an adrenaline boost to work with. When I train regularly, I feel more productive, more ready to participate in the world. Whether it’s boxing, kickboxing, MMA or wrestling, there is a deep camaraderie and empathy that takes place between people who ritualistically grapple, punch or kick each other by mutual agreement in a safe environment. I want my training partners to come back and train with me the next day, so we can also take care of each other. The project began when I decided to take grappling out of the gym and put it into an art context.
OPP: Can you talk about the tension between aggression and collaboration in your work?MW: I am very interested in the tension between aggression and collaboration and the difference between aggression and violence. I come from hippie roots with a strong belief in empathy and non-violence. I would define a violent act as one in which an organism—plant, animal, human, organization, corporation or government—acts in a way that isn’t mutually understood or wanted by its counterpart(s). Aggression, on the other hand, is energy that can be channeled, matched and worked with in various productive ways. Most of my work is based around interpersonal relationships and communication. As someone who has been in a relationship for thirteen years and has lived in various countries during this time, I’ve learned that miscommunications and disagreements are a natural part of the human experience. But if you statically butt heads with someone, no one goes anywhere. If you can move, turn, roll and transition from one position to another, it gets interesting. Relationship building depends on the flow of both verbal and non-verbal communication between “grappling partners.” Awkward moments and transitions offer opportunities for growth.
MW: The different aspects of the project fall under the same conceptual framework, but in practice, the Fight Therapy Sessions do something that the performance can’t and vice versa.The private Fight Therapy Sessions take place in peoples' homes; they are always between two people and without an audience. As the fight therapist, I act as a coach. This creates a personal experience for the participants to work it out on the mat. Anyone can invite someone to do a Fight Therapy Session for any reason. I’ve had friends, lovers, ex-lovers, family members, teachers and students, and even diplomats from different countries work with one another. I provide the mats, teach grappling techniques, offer guidance and create a safe context in which people can grapple with one another. I make it possible for the smaller or physically weaker person of the pair to keep the grappling conversation going. The private Fight Therapy Sessions remain an undocumented experience and live on in conversation, thus giving depth to the project as a whole. The interactive performances are more of a spectacle with multiple participants and an audience. They are run similarly to the private sessions: I do a warm-up, teach some techniques, and then facilitate grappling between people. The grappling itself, like in the private sessions, is not choreographed. Some performances have a theme. In Costume Fight Therapy, participants dressed up in costumes that represented identities they were grappling with. This provided a group experience to “discuss”—through the physical grappling—shared issues. In Spring Play I fought my husband, Dion, in front of a huge audience in South Korea. This performance was loosely choreographed because we were telling the story of our relationship through our fighting. We actually met through Japanese jiu-jitsu in California when Dion came to visit and trained at the same place I was training. He was a New Zealander living in Japan where he was also training in BJJ. I moved to Japan and began to train at the same club. We were both teaching English at the time. After moving countries several times together, we found ourselves living in South Korea where he was working as a New Zealand diplomat. I was working on being a diplomat’s wife and an artist with odd jobs. For this performance, I wore a dress and Dion wore a suit. Feedback from the audience made me realize that the performance was also about grappling with societal expectations about gender roles.
OPP: Collaborative Combative (2012) was part of an exhibition at Error Plain 206 in Chicago. You invited the gallery going public to collaborate with you by defacing the previously completed Fight Therapy paintings and drawings. Was this sanctioned defacement of your drawings and paintings always part of the plan? Was it difficult to watch as the collaboration/defacement began?MW: That show was initially going to be a Fight Therapy event. Before the show, the gallery owner was advised that inviting the public to participate in a fight-related event in his space could have some legal implications. So the curator, Sarah Nelson, and I discussed other options. I decided to bring a selection of drawings and paintings and invite another kind of aggressive participation. I felt that my drawings were missing the energy that existed in the participatory work. One of the aspects of that work that I enjoy is that I create a context for things to happen. I don’t have total control over the outcome. I wanted to do this with my drawings. I was curious to see to what extent the drawings would actually be defaced. Oddly enough, it was satisfying and surprisingly rewarding to see people draw and write on the drawings. I was happy that the audience engaged with them even when what was written and drawn wasn’t complimentary. Each piece is now it’s own conversation, and I think they are all more interesting and energetic works. After agreeing that participants could sign a waiver and that I would be very clear with people that I was not a licensed therapist, I also facilitated a few Fight Therapy Sessions in the space.
OPP: Are there any new developments in your practice? Any upcoming public events?
Currently, I'm working on ways to push and explore the Collaborative Combative concept. I've been inviting Bay Area artists to do one-on-one Collaborative Combative Coffee (and drawing) Sessions with me. These sessions are similar to the other Collaborative Combative Drawing sessions, but each one is a more personal experience between me and another artist. We discuss our work and the challenges we face in our practices, ranging from time, space, material or financial limitations to mental blocks in our creative processes. We each come up with a visual representation for one of our artistic blocks and combat draw with each other.
I've also been presenting my work at various colleges and workshopping both Fight Therapy and Collaborative Combative Drawing with the students. This model is simultaneously a cross-disciplinary ice-breaker, a physical warm up and an intervention into everyday problem-solving in personal, professional and academic settings. I plan to find more and interesting contexts to explore this platform as an art practice. Stay tuned!
Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis.
When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the emotional and
existential significance of participating in mediated culture in her
embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her
MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where
she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, and is currently a
2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Notable
exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, Chicago).