NOELLE MASON embodies collective trauma in time-consuming and
endurance-based processes like cross-stitch embroidery, tapestry
weaving, performance and skydiving. Her interdisciplinary practice juxtaposes the presence of the human body with the voyeuristic nature of surveillance video and photography, exploring
the effect of such technological mediation on our responses to
traumatic events and tragedies. Noelle received her MFA from the School
of the Art Institute of Chicago and is represented by Thomas Robertello Gallery
in Chicago. She is an educator and board member at SuperTest, a
non-profit organization established to facilitate the production of
contemporary art related events in Tampa, Florida, where she lives and
OtherPeoplePixels: How does the recreation of video surveillance images in handmade embroidery and tapestry weaving address the mediation of trauma?
Noelle Mason: I am
primarily interested in the fact that we are manipulated not only by the
content of the media spectacle but also by the nature of the computer
and television screens through which we view it. The embroideries
investigate surveillance images that are associated with traumatic
events that gain traction with a mass audience. These images are
forensic; they are mined after the event has already taken place. The
dead eye of the surveillance camera captures images without discretion. Cartier-Bresson’s
decisive moment is forgone in favor of a general and indiscriminate
view. This non-human aesthetic imbues these images with a kind of
perceived trustworthiness that most photographic images lack in the age
of Photoshop. There is now a broader understanding of how easily the
photographic image can be manipulated.
Our access to the surveillance images is most often screen-based and always editorialized. The embroideries, weavings and the stained glass works specifically address the flatness of digital imagery through a marginal shift in medium, while the installations and performances drastically re-mediate the event in question, sometimes to the point of complete obliteration. By changing the form of content and the spectators’ spatial relationship to it, I de-editorialize the images that I use. This unpacking provides an alternative space for contemplation of traumatic events and destabilizes the mediated image.
OPP: What is the significance of time and endurance in this work?
NM: The Columbine, Rodney King and Loadtruck
images are cross-stitch embroideries. This form of stitchery is an
analog to pixilization. I wanted to digest these images one pixel at a
time, to own them by remaking . . . to attempt to understand by
processing them through my body, thus making me a participant in them.
The Columbine image gave me tendonitis in my elbows and carpel tunnel in
my hands. In a very painful and material way, it changed me as I
Time is a huge part of this work. These iconic images depict 1/30th of a second of the events that they represent, and that frame bears a timecode that contributes to it’s “truthiness.” This 1/30th of a second became something much larger and more memorable—a kind of evidence not only for the police but for the nation. The process of cross-stitch is slow, calculated and conservative. It’s deliberate in contradistinction to the messy and disposable nature of surveillance video. I wanted the viewer to feel the disorientation of two different speeds, two different senses of time smashing together.
In recent years, the scope of content addressed in embroidery has
broadened dramatically, but we have not entirely shaken off the
persistent perception of embroidery as women's work. Much of
contemporary embroidery challenges such culturally constructed notions,
which grew out of the Victorian performance of femininity. Are your
cross-stitch embroideries of surveillance images of traumatic events
part of this trajectory?
NM: I very deliberately chose cross-stitch embroidery because of its historical location as a feminine craft. One of the most intriguing things about Columbine and the Rodney King beating is the performance of masculinity through clothing and accessories. The Columbine kids wore trench coats and army boots, and the LAPD wore dark uniforms and carried guns and billy clubs. In this way, these events are very much about gender performance. I’m interested in the idea of hysterical masculinity. The word hysteria is derived from the female anatomy—the Greek hystera means uterus. Hysterical masculinity is the distinctly irrational behavior of men and boys who, fearful of acknowledging their own frailties, seek to expunge "weakness" through violence and accessorizing.
OPP: Many of your pieces or bodies of work are titled with a date. Sometimes it's undeniably recognizable like 9/11/2001. Others like 3/3/1991 or 4/20/1999
didn't stand out to me as numbers, but the content of the images made
it immediately clear that these are dates of national significance, too.
The series of weavings and cross-stitch embroideries in 7/18/1984
depict the transportation of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican
border by coyotes. But when I googled the date, I found it was the date
of the San Ysidro McDonalds' Massacre, when James Oliver Huberty
opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in a McDonald's, killing 21
people and injuring 19 more. Can you talk about the connection between the
massacre and the border-crossing images?
NM: I have begun grouping the date pieces under the title Human Hunting, which is a direct reference to the Huberty Shooting. All of these works are concerned with the dehumanization which is brought about by both the act of being surveilled and the aesthetics of machine vision. Each of the dates that I chose identifies a significant moment of collective trauma, and they often uncover prejudices that are bubbling just under the surface. The Rodney King beating uncovered deep-seated racism within the LAPD and across the nation as we witnessed the varied responses to the event.
The Huberty shooting was similar in that it that exposed a violent hatred toward Mexican immigrants. I also have a more personal experience of that event. My father was a San Diego police SWAT sniper. I remember watching the standoff after the McDonalds Massacre unfold on TV at my grandparents' house. At the time, I was less affected by the trauma of the event than I was excited at the possibility of seeing my father on television. Ultimately, James Huberty was killed by one of other snipers on the team. The body of work that is identified by the Huberty massacre deals specifically with immigration, surveillance and points of conflict on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Huberty massacre seemed to be an interesting vector for this work. At some point I wish to deal directly with the Huberty massacre but haven’t yet figured out how to approach it.
OPP: You've done many performances that draw on the history of performance art, using your own body to explore experiences and perceptions of discomfort and endurance. The audience gets to witness and imagine what you are experiencing in interactive, durational performances like Well Hung Over: In honor of those who died in the Chicago Lager Beer Riots (2008) and Mise-en-Scene (2004). Did you perform either of these more than once? What did it feel like physically and emotionally to perform these works?
NM: I have performed all of the pieces more than once. As a classically trained actor who studied techniques derived from theatre of cruelty,
I don’t have to think much about the performances anymore. There is a
headspace or performance mode I occupy—much like in meditation—that
helps me ignore discomfort or pain. It is important to rehearse
performance art in the same way one rehearses a play. People are to some
degree unpredictable; rehearsal helps the performer anticipate a
variety of interactions and plan for them so as to maintain control over
the image s/he is creating.
For Mise-en-Scene, I stood in darkness inside a sealed eight-foot cube, receiving electric shocks whenever a viewer pressed a large, red video game button located on the outer wall of the cube. The viewers watched what was happening inside on monitors that received a real-time feed from closed circuit, infrared surveillance cameras. The most difficult part was my inability to anticipate where or when I was going to be shocked. Up until the moment that performance began, I had thought about my body as a sculptural object. I had prepared for the pain involved, but I underestimated the psychological difficulty of being alone in the dark, unable to return the gaze of the viewer.
OPP: Decision Altitude
(2011), a recent series of photographs made using a pinhole camera
while skydiving, appears upon first glance very different from all your
previous work. It seems to lack any political or collective trauma
content. Is this a break from previous work or is this a more abstract
exploration of themes in your previous work?
NM: It is true that Decision Altitude is not as directly political in nature as some of the other work, but I don’t feel the need to be thematically consistent in my work. That being said, this work does have interesting intersections with my performance work, and it continues my investigation of the ability and failure of photography to represent experience. When you jump out of an airplane, the ground—and everything on it—is an indecipherable, Cartesian mess. In the time between jumping out of the plane and landing on the ground, one goes through an intense physical and psychological experience that completely defies the sterile view of the Earth from above. It is a more embodying experience than almost anything except pain, and death is always present. My intent was to capture that incomprehensible mixture of aerodynamics and adrenaline on film. Skydiving gets you as close as possible to the fantasy and freedom of unassisted human flight, but that pleasure is also peppered with the possibility of premature death.
OPP: I see what you mean about photography’s inability to communicate the complexity of the psychological, emotional and—dare I say?— spiritual aspects of the experience of diving. Any plans to incorporate video or live performance into this exploration?
NM: Decision Altitude
is the beginning of an ongoing exploration into skydiving, a sport that
I have become increasingly more invested in. I have begun to organize freeflyers at my local drop zone and recently
set a national record for Women's Upright Vertical formation skydiving. I am currently training for the Women's Head Down Vertical Formation
Skydiving World Record. I also compete on a four-way belly team with the
Florida Skydiving League and will be taking my exam to get my accelerated free fall instructor rating this month.
In terms of new work, Vertical World Record is a multichannel video installation that shows the moment of stillness when a world record-breaking vertical formation skydive comes together and settles out just before it breaks apart into pieces again. Ground Rush is a parachute inflated by fans in perpetual flight. I am also working on a project called Column, which serves as an anti-monument to western architecture—the foundation of Renaissance perspectival vision. This project is essentially an airboat fan encased in a large (9' x 9' x 5') white pedestal. A column of air is pushed out through a six-foot hole in the pedestal at a speed of 150 miles per hour. A net made of stranded stainless steel wire would allow the viewer to experience this work by moving close to, touching and potentially walking through the column of wind. I will also mount performances in which I hover within the column of wind that I hope will be completed later this summer.
To view more of Noelle's work, please visit noellemason.com.