@ VIAF Performance Festival.
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.
3min and 20sec
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.
Collaborative project with artist Andrew Tosiello
(Art) and action weaver Travis Meinolf
(Craft), who trained with me for an intense two months before having
an unchoreographed match at California College of the Arts in San
OPP: You've conducted over 100 Fight Therapy Sessions between 2006 and 2011. How are those different from the interactive performances Costume Fight Therapy and Spring Play (both 2009)?
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.
Mixed media on paper
A collaboration with the Chicago art going public who were invited to draw on, write on, and deface my paintings.
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.
Participatory Combat Drawing: documentation
OPP: Animal: Collaborative Combative Drawing at Southern Exposure in San Francisco (2012) combines the participatory events with drawing in a completely new way? Can you describe what happened?MW: This event
was both a workshop and a performance. I invited a handful of Bay Area
artists. Some brought their own partners. Others allowed me to pair them
up. Fourteen artists were asked to come prepared with an animal that
they wanted to draw; this could be a power animal or a creature with
which they identified. We started the evening with a physical warm
up. I taught self-defense and movement techniques relevant to the
activity that they would be doing. I gave each pair a 5 x 8 feet piece
of paper. The public was invited to participate with smaller paper or
watch. Each piece of paper was marked lightly down the middle. The
artists had 45 minutes to draw the body of the animal on their side of
the paper starting at the ass (or tail) and working towards the middle
of the paper. They would meet in the middle at the shoulders of the
animal and stop. When the whistle blew—marking the end of the 45
minutes—the objective was for each artist to draw the head of his or her
animal on the partner’s side of the paper without letting the partner
do the same. So it was a visual, physical and metaphorical clashing of
heads. They had three minutes to push, pull and fight with each other to
get their marks down on the paper. It turned into a very high energy
evening with lots of movement and some maniacal laughter. The works
created stayed up for the weekend and may still be shown at a future
OPP: Are there any new developments in your practice? Any upcoming public events?
I have a few more Collaborative Combative Drawing
events coming up in August 2013. First, on August 2nd at the Steynberg Gallery
in San Luis Obispo, I will have a Collaborative Combative Drawing
event with local artists that will be open to the public to witness.
The works will remain up for the month at the gallery. Then, on August 10th, I will do a separate workshop at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art
for people who where interested in trying Collaborative Combative Drawing
Anyone can sign up. The workshop will be from 1 to 3 pm. The work will remain on display for the rest of the month. Then in the summer of 2014, my work will be in Soft Muscle,
curated by Adrienne Heloise
, at Root Division
in San Francisco.
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!
To see more of Melissa's work, please visit melissawyman.info
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).