OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Roxana Halls

Beauty Queen
2014
Oil on Linen
90cm x 90cm

ROXANA HALLS' mostly female subjects negotiate the at-best-awkward, at-worst-strangling internalized cultural constructions/constrictions of femininity. In her representational oil paintings, they balance precariously on the edges of chairs and nervously/ecstatically laugh while consuming salad. Some sit statically with unconsumed popcorn, berries or sushi in their open mouths, while others pose demurely behind luscious heads of hair which threaten to envelop them. Roxana has been the recipient of the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation Award (2001), the Villiers David Prize (2004) and the Founder's Purchase Prize (The Discerning Eye) (2010). Her numerous solo exhibitions include Appetite (2014) and Unknown Women (2015) at Hayhill Gallery in London. She is currently working towards her next solo show in 2016, and will be exhibiting in upcoming group shows and at art fairs. Roxana lives in London.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Beauty Queen (2014) and Laughing While Eating Salad (2013), which is directly connected to an internet meme, both take representations of femininity and make them slightly grotesque. I see these paintings as challenging cultural constructions of the Feminine, as perpetuated by mass media. Thoughts?

Roxana Halls: Well, firstly, you are right in your analysis and in connecting these images. They do indeed have a direct relationship although clearly the nature of it may not initially seem explicit. In essence you could see these pieces as representing the polar reaches of a preoccupation with the depiction of women's internalized rules of conduct and a conflicted, ever-fluctuating response to external expectations. They could be read as different stages in a life's cyclical return to phases of stasis and engagement, that while some of my figures suggest an escalating desire for abandonment, others are palpably constrained.

In my ongoing body of work Appetite, I'm posing questions about the ways in which women are appraised, influenced and policed within contemporary culture and how this 'self- surveillance' circumscribes the repertoire of legitimate actions available to women. The paintings themselves offer a riposte to any such self consciousness. The subjects instead indulge in 'catastrophic' behaviour; they are inappropriate and immune to self-censure. In many of these paintings the consumption of food seems to be the focus, but eating is so much more than a biological process. It is fraught with tension and expectation. In Beauty Queen, I wanted to extend the metaphor into the realm of female ambition, also seen to be indecorous in its pursuit of attention and fulfillment. The piece Oranges was directly inspired by Carolee Schneemann's 1968 performance at the ICA London, when the artist threw oranges at the audience while simultaneously delivering a lecture about Cezanne. She kept dressing and undressing, naked under her overalls.

Laughing While Eating Salad was directly inspired by the trend I tuned into in advertising & the media of women laughing alone while eating salad. I found these images captivating: this stereotypically feminine and inoffensive foodstuff being enjoyed with such over-articulated ecstasy! It's interesting that you see these images as slightly grotesque, I personally don't think of them in that way exactly, more unbounded and at risk of hysteria, but I'm aware of how uncommon it is that such expressions are depicted and this fascinates me and continues to inspire me.

Nest II
2015
Oil on Linen
65cm x 60cm

OPP: Nest I and Nest II are related. They also call into question external expectations about the Feminine by covering the faces of what look to be supermodels—their postures evoke fashion photography—with their own hair.

RH: In the Nest paintings I wanted take a more mysterious, disconcerting approach. They hint at detachment and disengagement while simultaneously seeking to entice with the evident seductiveness of their bodies, clothing and hair. These women in contrast to those in the Appetite seem lost in a troubling borderline state. Possibly they are undergoing an evolution, or perhaps are smothered by self censorship? It won't surprise you to hear I'm very interested in the writing of Julia Kristeva and her discussion of abjection.

Equally the exploration I undertook in making such imagery calls to mind sources such as Baudelaire’s poem La Chevelure (c1857), and the Nick Cave song Black Hair. In both cases, there is something about the investment and singular focus upon one part of the female body which transmutes into something strange and peculiar. The more you get intensely involved with one part of the body, the more it starts to move into the abject and it becomes a substance which is both of itself and yet separate from itself.

Oranges
2013
Oil on Linen
75cm x 75cm

OPP: I've noticed a lot of precariousness in your work. A Little Light Reading (2012) and A Startler for the Careful Housekeeper (2011) are a few examples. These works and others from Shadow Play and Suspended Women read as allegorical to me. What's being balanced, on the verge of falling, in these series?


RH: These earlier pictures have very similar concerns to the other later pictures we've discussed. This apparent precariousness is a primary underlying theme in most of my work. I see it in the image of a teetering pile of crockery in danger of toppling, a laugh which seems to be just to one side of the boundary of hysteria or even the discomfiting ambivalence of a female performer. In Shadow Play, I wanted to reference the then-prevalent taste for vintage objets and the way this seemed to hint at a desire to posses the symbols of a certain kind of idealized polite culture and, as I saw it, the secure and 'lady-like' life they seemed to represent. I wanted to subvert such domesticated aspirations, and in some of the paintings I felt the barely glimpsed female protagonists were themselves seeking to sabotage the props of their lives.

Girl Table
2014
Oil on Linen
105cm x 105cm


OPP: Your studio is in the saloon bar of a defunct 1930s London theatre, now a Bingo Hall. Aside from the influence of this physical space, what captivates you about Cabaret?

RH: Yes, I am extravagantly fortunate in having such a wonderful space to work in, and it clearly has exerted a powerful influence over my work. But in the best traditions of serendipity it has always felt oddly inevitable that I would make theatrical paintings. As a child I only wanted to be an actor, and until my very first, life-changing attempt at oil painting I had very little interest in any other direction.

In 2004 I was the recipient of the Villiers David Prize, an award intended to provide funds to enable an artist to travel and undertake research in order to embark on a creative project. My early fascination with theatre was clearly a component in my choice of subject, and at that time I was beginning to notice an emergent cabaret and burlesque scene in London, which exploded by the time I'd finished and exhibited the paintings. Also I've long been fascinated by the whole Weimar milieu, as much as a more home-grown Music Hall & Variety tradition. Mainly I saw within the theme an opportunity to explore the possibilities of artistry and autonomy and reflect on notions of gender, sexuality, identity and spectatorship. And of course it also unleashed a desire to engage in a project of ambitious and spectacular proportions! I've never entirely felt that the series was finished, and am still harbouring a smouldering wish to revisit the theme.

The Girlie Hurdy Gurdy
2009
Oil on Linen
72 x 72 in

OPP: Could you talk about the relationship between the paintings in Tingle-Tangle, made between 2005 and 2009, and CURTAIN FALL - The Tingle Tangle Photographs, created in collaboration with photographer Matthew Tugwell in 2009? None of the photographs are direct re-stagings of the paintings, but they seem to have the same models. What led to the creation of the photographs?

RH: The creation of the Tingle-Tangle paintings was a complex and involved process which required a lot of commitment from my models. Many of them were actors and performers and genuinely brought something of their professional understanding to the characters I asked them to inhabit. I constructed sets in order to depict each separate performance. I made, sourced and found costumes and props. My practice of essentially building my own cabaret show out of cardboard and charity shop discoveries linked with the improvisational spirit of third rate variety! While I'm wary of ever explicitly revealing how a picture has been made because of the way this can affect the reading of a piece, I wanted to somehow offer a glimpse into the process of transforming these mundane elements into the spectacle you see in the paintings. I wanted to show the 'performers' themselves and give a glimpse of the glorious theatre in which I have my studio which partially inspired them. Once I was offered a show at the National Theatre, the possibilities of the exhibition space itself gave me the scope to explore this in collaboration with Matthew Tugwell.

Babette the Baloonette
2009
Photograph
Roxana Halls/Matthew Tugwell

OPP: In 2013, you completed a bespoke commissioned project, The Alice Staircase, an eight-interlinking-canvas interpretation of Lewis Carroll's famous work and, according to your website, you are currently creating a new major commissioned artwork, a seven-interlinking-canvas interpretation of The Wizard Of Oz. How do you balance commissions with your own projects? Have you ever turned a commission down? Do the commissions ever end up influencing your own work?
 
RH: Balancing commissioned work with my own projects is unsurprisingly a little tricky at times, as an interesting job may of course be offered just as you're fully engaged with your own momentum. But I've always seen the right commissioned work as not only financially rewarding but also a real opportunity for development. I say the right commissioned work because, yes, I have turned down work along the way when I felt the project wasn't best suited to my abilities or I've been too busy with preexisting commitments. The Alice and Wizard projects have given me really quite extraordinary opportunities to develop narrative structure and complexity, and to produce work based upon preexisting source material has been immensely challenging, freeing and rewarding. The development of these projects has undoubtedly had a powerful affect on my work which is affecting the direction I'm taking in my practice subsequently, even though my underlying themes remain a constant.

As I've described with the making of the Tingle-Tangle paintings, I've employed a somewhat extensive and complicated process of creation. When I came to conceive of the Alice Staircase, I knew right away that I couldn't build Wonderland in my studio! So while I again made my own costumes and asked friends to 'perform' the characters—I used this familiar approach partly to circumvent the inevitable difficulty in attempting to sidestep the dominance of John Tenniel's wonderful illustrations—I also decided to use photography, a source material I had rarely used up until this point. I've been using the same method in my ongoing Wizard of Oz series.
 
I've long held the view that the image I make and that which I hope to explore and convey within this image should be the guiding principle of my work and that the image should be brought into existence by whatever means necessary. Partly through the making of Alice and Wizard I feel I'm beginning to sense what further possibilities might be unfolding.

To see more of Roxana's work, please visit roxanahalls.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Form Unbound, a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien,just opened at Dominican University's O’Connor Art Gallery (River Forest, IL) and runs through December 19, 2015.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Natalie Loveless

22-minute video loop (documentation of seven-year performance)
Soundtrack by Derek Champion
2012

NATALIE LOVELESS is an artist, academic, writer and curator with a specialization in feminist and performance art history. For this interview, we’ll be focusing on her curatorial project New Maternalisms (2012), as her website for the exhibition first brought her to OPP’s attention. In 2004, she simultaneously earned an MA from Tufts University and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She went on to earn her PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2010. Natalie has a chapter in the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Feminist Art Practice and Theory, co-edited by Hilary Robinson and Maria Elena Buszek. She will be a participating artist at the upcoming SLSA in Houston, Texas in November 2015 and will be presenting research at the Sea Change Colloquium in October 2015. Natalie is an Assistant Professor in History of Art, Design & Visual Culture at the University of Alberta in Canada.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Tell us a bit about your history as a curator, an academic and an artist.

Natalie Loveless: I wrote an autoethnographic essay about this once!  The short version is: I came up in art school at a time when crit sessions were still dominated by the language of post-structuralism popularized by Art Forum and October in the 80s/90s. It was all "performativity" this and "deconstruction" that. I found myself curious about what Austin and Derrida were trying to build with these concepts. I wanted less to use these ideas in my artist statements than to figure out, social-sculpture-style, what these thinkers were doing with these ideas—the politics and passions behind them. So I talked to folks at the School of the Museum School of Fine Arts and our sister school, Tufts, and convinced all involved to let me do an MA in Contemporary Art History at the same time as my MFA. No one had done that there yet; they didn’t have a structure for supporting work that crossed practice-theory lines. But they supported it anyway. My experience of SMFA was that it was a very visionary place when it came to interdisciplinarity. Their approval was the gateway drug I needed to say to myself, as I was researching and developing my MFA show: “Uh, maybe I should stay in school and do a PhD next. . .”

At the time, in North America, the world of “practice-led” and “fine-arts” PhDs was really, really nascent. No one had ever mentioned it to me as a possibility. I was completely in the dark about the few programs that did exist in the U.S. and even about what had already been happening for quite a while in Europe. No one was talking about art practice at the doctoral level at the Museum School, or in Art Forum, or October, or at CAA. Times certainly have changed! Instead, I ended up attending a really visionary PhD program—colloquially referred to as “HistCon”—at UC Santa Cruz that let me pursue my work as an artist and curator alongside my academic work, in ways that ended up tangling the three together.

I want to give a really big shout out to the two people who were my primary supervisors at each institution. Their vision, passion, politics and pedagogy provided a model and road-map for me. Was it Korzybski who said “the map is not the territory?" They made the territory the map for me. They walked the walk. They not only taught me the stuff they knew in the areas that they were interested in, they modeled an affirmative, incisive, generous, unflinching approach to creating artistic-intellectual-political spaces without which I don’t even want to think about what my life would look like today! So here is the shout out:

Marilyn, Donna, I am forever, and gratefully, in your debt. I literally could not have done it without you. Thank you for everything.

Ok. Almost everything. There is someone else whose affirmative, incisive, generous, unflinching approach to life made it possible for me to gravitate towards the mentors that I did, because she modeled it for me from the get-go: my momma, Evelyne Lord. Thank you, mom. Your generosity and vision and bravery will never cease to inspire me and (my sister) Stephie.

Skype-based Durational Performance
2012

OPP: How was New Maternalisms (2012) first conceived?

NL: In 2010, I gave birth to a little human who was born eight weeks prematurely and totally topsy-turvied my life. I had been planning on giving birth in my mother’s house in Canada and submitting my PhD before D-day. So there I was working on the PhD, in the last two months of revisions, and suddenly found myself in the hospital with a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Over the next few months, I just kinda held on, taking it one day (hour, minute, second) at a time, trying to survive and build a livable system to support this new, intensive, immersive, daily practice/labour. I began working on what became a three-year, daily-practice art piece called Maternal Ecologies. In effect, I took all the artistic and intellectual literacies that I had at hand and applied them to my lived situation out of desperation.

In art school, Mary Kelly was a huge (HUGE) influence on me, specifically in the way that she brought daily practice, feminist politics and psychoanalytic theory together. So, inspired by my memories of her work, I started looking around for models and support structures. I came across Andrea Liss’ 2008 book Feminist Art and the Maternal. I came across the UK-based research network MaMSIE and their journal Studies in the Maternal. Myrel Chernick and Jennie Klein’s edited volume The M Word came out in 2011, and I was introduced to both of the incredible exhibitions they had curated. Then Shannon Cochrane (Artistic & Administrative Director of FADO Performance Art) asked if I would be interested in curating something for their upcoming season. The rest, as they say, is herstory.

3 hour durational performance
2012

OPP: What was the curatorial premise of the show?

NL: I started by asking myself what was most interesting in the field of contemporary art and the maternal, and I decided to build an exhibition that focused on performance-based practices. Performance-based work (of all stripes) makes a lot of sense to me when looking critically at the early years of maternal labour. The ideological politics of visibility that inform and surround the maternal body are important, as is the historical censuring of the professional female body on the basis of its maternal status. Performance-based practices interest me for the many ways that they can comment on and intervene into these politics and histories to foreground the temporality and complex materiality of labouring bodies, making the texture of that labour central to the work itself.

OPP: New Maternalisms was first mounted in 2012. In 2014, you co-curated New Maternalisms-Chile with Soledad Novoa Donoso for the National Museum in Santiago, Chile. What was different in this second exhibition?

NL: Alejandra Herrera, one of the artists in the original show, suggested developing an iteration of the exhibition in Chile. She knew Soledad, a curator who has been committed to the discourse of feminist art in Chile for decades. I curated the non-Chilean (largely North American) artists, and Soledad curated the Chilean artists. The exhibition was an experiment in bringing two different national perspectives together for conversation and reflection.

What neither of us expected when we began organizing the exhibition, held concurrently at the National Museum of Fine Arts and the Santiago Museum of Contemporary Art, was that the president of Chile would, in the months leading up to our opening, announce that they would be re-evaluating Chile’s strict national laws forbidding abortion. We were interviewed non-stop by radio, television and newspapers and were sometimes quoted inaccurately in ways that tried to polarize the exhibition as “pro-natalist” in the context of these abortion debates. The positive side is that we had over 600 people at the opening.  

Jill Miller: The Milk Truck
Ongoing Social Practice Performance
2012

OPP: What changed in your understanding of the discourse of motherhood between the two exhibits?

NL: For one thing, I had two more years of research and thinking under my belt. Over the last five years, there has been a notable surge of exhibitions, books, journals, networks and conferences at the intersection of feminist art and the maternal. (Of course, the moment you start looking for something you tend to see it everywhere.) I just returned from two conferences on the topic, one in London and one in Rotterdam, and an edited volume is about to be published taking my first exhibition as the inspiration for its title! I have two hypotheses as to why this is happening right now.

Firstly, I see the maternal as a really interesting test case for feminists of my generation who were born in the seventies. At that time, Mary Kelly made Post-Partum Document, Miriam Shapiro and Judy Chicago founded on Womanhouse and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto for Maintenance Art was circulating. I, for one, was raised with the idea that my status as a middle-class, cis-gendered woman in North America translated into a future in which a choice between maternal and professional status did not have to be made. I could be a mother and an artist and an academic; this was the territory my mother’s generation fought for. The maternal didn’t occur to me as a political problem until it hit me in the face (uterus?). In gathering artist-mothers of my generation together around me, I discovered that this “rude awakening” was not unique to my experience. I consider the maternal to be a potent location from which feminists of my generation can ask questions about the status of feminist art and political practice today.

Performance action
30 minutes
2012

OPP: And the second hypothesis?

NL: There is another pressing social and political issue that I see as linked to the maternal: the current ecological crisis. To ask questions of the maternal as a structure of care, labour, pedagogy and sustainability—that is, to examine the maternal as an ecological matrix—is to ask questions relevant to global climate change. As dominant norms, the individualistic, nuclear-familial ideologies that structure much of contemporary North American family life are part of what is killing the planet. Phallogocentric, global capitalist social ideologies and kinship structures have given us anthropogenic climate change. To address the maternal in this day and age is to address the structures that have led to and support global ecological collapse. I have found myself in conversations over the past few years with colleagues who work politically in the university and who parent small children. We have to ask ourselves what our duties are in training our students and our children. It is they who will have to face the worst of it. What approaches to learning, living and critically creating in the world are relevant? How do these affect the art I make, the syllabi I construct, the articles I write and the conversations I have with my five-year-old son? This line of thinking has expanded my thinking on the maternal, and it structures the exhibition I am currently working on, New Maternalisms Redux (May 2016).

Performance action, 45 minutes
2012

OPP: What about fathers? Do you have any interest in male artists making work about fatherhood? Have you encountered any?

NL: In short: Great question. Yes. Few.

One of the glaring things I’ve had to contend with in this work is the overwhelming gender, sexuality, race and class biases that seep into it. When my child was born, I was a finishing PhD student, without a job or guarantee of one and in crazy debt (which I will likely carry for the rest of my life). But I was also incredibly privileged. I went to art school, earned a PhD and passed as white, hetero-normative, middle-class and cis-gendered (though I don’t identify with all of these). I have a biological and daily partner in parenthood (Sha LaBare) who is willing to parent with me. I have a mother whose house I stayed in while I recovered from my son’s premature birth and finished my PhD. I had folks that I could draw on as allies for emotional and intellectual support… all of these constitute incredible privilege. No matter how tough things have been at times, they have not been so tough that I couldn’t turn to art and theory and political action as part of my arsenal of survival techniques.

Mother and father are identities and roles that, like male and female, have difficult, enduring histories that have been used in service of a sexist worlding practice. These histories are thick and sticky, and there is a real need for more critical art practices dealing with fathering—fathering done by men, women or other-identified folk. I know few cis-men or trans-men (or trans-women for that matter) making performance-based art work from their experiences of early maternal labour, or folks of any identification dealing with early paternal labour through performance-based practices. I am currently writing on work that queers the maternal. For example, Sadie Lune's performance-based work not only deals with queer insemination but also queers insemination, and Lissette Olivares' work explores trans-species mothering or what she calls the post-humanist maternal. I know folks attempting to sidestep the gendered frameworks of mother and father entirely by working on the discourse of parentingEnemies of Good Art in the UK and Cultural ReProducers in the U.S. I ally myself strongly with these projects, but still find myself interested in the metaphorics of gendered performance and its genres. When it comes to the debates raised by this work I say: the more the merrier. It takes a village. To raise a child. To have a debate. To change the world. 

In the shout out above I named three "mommas"—one domestic, one artistic, one academic. But there have also been lots of sisters and aunties, brothers and uncles, critters and widgets, lovers and partners of all persuasions, and, of course, fathers. I love creative kinship maps. And I love the idea of aligning these functional roles, these kinship identities, with the language of “persuasion.” My parenting and life partner, Sha, performs both "mother" and “father” with care, compassion and attention that inspires me daily. He and I are co-writing a piece that takes a critique of hetero-and-mononormative, capitalist patriarchy as a basis for thinking about ecological and maternal ethics together. If he hadn’t chosen to stay home and mother our son while I started my tenure-track job at the University of Alberta, I never could have accepted the position and wouldn’t have the support to be doing what I am doing.

Video projection
60 minute loop
2012

OPP: Tell us about The VACCINES Project.

NL: While my academic and artistic work on the maternal is topically grounded, my methodology is indebted to what we call Research-Creation here in Canada. (I recently published something on this.)  The VACCINES Project (our working title) is a collaborative research-creation project initially proposed by Dr. Steven Hoffman, the director of Global Strategy Lab at University of Ottawa as part of a larger initiative funded by the Research Council of Norway. Steven asked my colleague Sean Caulfield and myself to join him in developing an international collaborative project bringing research-based artists together with health-policy academics and activists around the issue of vaccines and the public. We are starting off with a workshop in Ottawa this summer to begin work towards a research-based exhibition on vaccination in Geneva in 2017.

Some of our objectives for the first workshop are to (a) identify and examine challenging issues surrounding global vaccination from scientific, artistic and social perspectives; (b) foster mutual understanding and interdisciplinary dialogue from across the arts, academia and activism; and (c) problematize and deconstruct existing perceptions of the role that art, research and advocacy can and should play in informing and challenging global governance related to vaccines. These objectives will be guided by a set of questions such as: (a) what key issues around vaccination might benefit by being interrogated by artistic practice?; (b) how important is formative and impact evaluation in assessing the importance of research-based artistic and creative practice?; and (c) how important are different understandings of the “public” in public policy and the “public” in the context of socially engaged/research-based contemporary forms such as “art as social practice” and “new genre public art”?

One link between this and my maternal work, other than methodology, is that Jill Miller has joined the team and will be doing work on maternal anti-vaxers. The vaccination and autism scandal is a perfect example of a sophisticated misinformation campaign orchestrated to breed maternal and ecological anxiety. . . but that is a conversation for another day!

To learn more about New Maternalisms, please visit newmaternalisms.ca.
To learn more about Natalie's other projects and research, please visit loveless.ca.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based, interdisciplinary artist Stacia Yeapanis. When she’s not writing for OPP, Stacia explores the relationship between repetition, desire and impermanence in cross-stitch embroideries, remix video, collage and impermanent installations. She is an instructor in the Department of Fiber and Material Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where received her MFA in 2006, and was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan), Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery (Chicago) and When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (Chicago). Stacia recently completed an installation for Chicago Artists' Coalition's 2015 Starving Artist Benefit and is currently working towards a two-person show, also featuring the work of Aimée Beaubien, for O’Connor Art Gallery at Dominican University (River Forest, IL). The show will open on November 5, 2015.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sara Holwerda

Barmaiden (Frame 4)
2011
Digital Image
16" x 11.5"

SARA HOLWERDA is a performance and video artist who uses movement and dance to explore the limitations of the represenations of the female body in western culture. Her references are varied and include painting, burlesque, vaudeville, movies, contemporary pop music videos, and YouTube tutorials to name a few. Sara recently received her MFA from Cranbrook and now lives and works in Chicago, IL.

 

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your performances and videos involve movement and dance. Do you have a formal background in these fields?

Sara Holwerda: Yes. I figure skated competitively for over ten years, and, as part of my training, I did ballet and yoga. In college I took modern dance at the YMCA and fell into some barefoot dance performances with middle aged hippies in the woods. (I went to college in Ann Arbor!)

What stuck with me the most profoundly from my experiences as a figure skater are the athleticism, costumes, badly-cut music, and kitschy sensibility. I also spent a few formative years performing on a synchronized skating team with about twenty other girls. We were all dressed the same and had the same hair and makeup. We performed in circles and pinwheels and did kicklines... It was the closest I have ever gotten to being a Rockette, and it was bizarre in a lot of ways.

The experience of being active in a completely self-conscious way for all my teen years has followed me into my late twenties. Even though I'm only moderately active, I notice that much of my self-concept is still tied up in how my body looks and how it performs. There is something about being female that requires you to perform at some level all the time, and as an artist responding to this cultural condition, I feel the need to do performance work.

One and Three Women
2012

OPP: In many performances such as One and Three Women (2012) or The Fall (2012), you perform with others. Are you always the choreographer of these performances or are they collaborators in creating the work?

SH: In both of those performances, I am the director, choreographer, and costume designer/seamstress. These two performances are an interesting comparison. In One and Three Women, I am performing with the group intentionally because this piece is about both the shared experiences between women and the ways one person can be split and see herself in parts. It's also personal in a lot of ways, and it felt natural to be in it. In rehearsals, my other performers helped me visualize the movements, and there was some collaboration in those moments. It was a choreograph-as-you-go type process, in which I would trap us or tangle us up and have to figure out where to go from there.

For The Fall, I had a much larger castfive dancers, a singer, a Tree of Knowledge, and three paparazziso I had to be more prepared with my choreography. I drew diagrams and sent PDFs to everyone to make rehearsals go faster. The scale of the project made it difficult for me to both direct and perform effectively. I performed as a Marilyn Monroe imitator, because I felt I needed to return to that rolewhen I was seventeen, I performed Marilyn Monroe's "Diamonds" solo in an ice show. That solo became an unintentional drag performance failure! My wig came off during a layback spin, and my middle-aged male partners were so nervous that they could barely velcro the "Cartier" on my wrists or lift me up. My inability to fit into this hyper-feminine role, which has been so iconic for so long, was part of my inspiration for the piece. Before I did this performance, I created the Marilyn fuchsia dress from that number as a burlesque costume, and I worked tearing off the costume bit by bit in The Fall. In retrospect, after going through the whole process of staging that work, I realized that I didn't need to perform this role. I learned an important lesson: with a large cast, I can direct more freely if I remove myself as a performer. I'm planning a re-staging of this performance, and I will not perform in it. 

The Fall
2012
Marilyn mimicry duet/ burlesque

OPP: Can you talk more specifically about The Fall and explain the performance to our readers?

SH: The Fall is the kind of work I imagine myself doing more of, and it's probably the most emblematic of how my mind works creatively. There is a lot going on in this performance. I wanted to create a performance collage, with cultural, historical, and personal symbols and themes butting up against each other. The Fall is a theatrical spectacle that takes place in a restaurant/lounge, that puts the viewer in the position of guest/consumer. They are consuming the spectacle, all the costumes and dancing bodies, along with cocktails. The photographers are performing as much as the chorus girls, and the "star" is a lip-syncing Marilyn Monroe mimic. In this setting, the iconic Marilyn Monroe becomes Eve in the garden. She's a temptress and culturally understood as a sexual being andmaybe as a resulta tragic figure.

The performance had three main parts. First, viewers were greeted by servers wearing feathers. They were staring, stomping, hissing, and passing out pomegranate drinks. After everyone was served, the chorus line of servers performed the second part: the champagne parade, in which they held bottles above their heads as they did an aggressive song and dance number. While this was happening, a Tree of Knowledge was juggling pomegranates. The two Marilyn Monroe figures were frozen, coming to life every once in a while to do a little shimmy and sing a bit. The paparazzi were mirroring the chorus line, snapping pictures of the chorus and the audience. The third section was the musical mimicry. One of the two Marilyns sang a mash-up of the "Diamonds" number with Nicki Manaj's "Super Bass" while the other Marilyn lip-synced. All the while, the chorus line  was chiming in, and the paparazzi were snapping pictures. The mimicry/ lip sync became a burlesque with the second Marilyn taking off the iconic costume piece by piece, throwing it to the chorus, and finally slinking off the stage to join the hissing chorus line. 

The next time I do this, I plan on having more Marilyns, maybe interacting with video projections, and I would like to make the environment more specific, getting the details just right. It was a huge production for me at the time, and I tested the limits of what I could do with the resources I had. I learned a lot, and now that I've already made all the costumes, written a script, and have had the experience of performing it, I can think about improving the rest of the work. I want it to be a surreal experience that takes place in a working bar that has been transformed into a pop culture Eden.  
 

Chair Dance II
2012

OPP:  Chair Dance II references  stripping, in general, and Flashdance, specificallyat least to someone who grew up in the 80s. You start by simply performing standard sexualized gestures that we all recognize from movies about strippers, and perhaps real strippers. But that mimicry quickly becomes a struggle.

 

SH: That film was definitely in my mind, as well as the "Mein Herr" number from Cabaret. Also, when I was researching burlesque performances for The Fall, I noticed the chair reoccurring as a prop. It's definitely a sexualized prop, and you expect the female performer to behave a certain way with it. The dance is metaphorical, with the chair as a stand-in for the male viewer's body. In the dancer's interactions with the chair, there's a metaphor for an idealized sexual relationship or encounter. The woman is performing for the pleasure of the man, moving in ways that are objectifying her and making her physically vulnerable. Certainly, it's fun and possible to do these dances for one's own pleasure, but I'm not sure everyone doing or watching a chair dance is cognizant of the implications of it. 

 

I also researched chair dances via YouTube tutorials and found the whole thing a bit absurd. In one video a woman is counting off seductive gestures in eight counts, like "and rub his thigh, six seven eight." It seemed so crazy, this choreographed sexuality. I wondered what was being left out. In working with the chair, I realized how limited the motion is for the performer, and thus, how limited the metaphorical relationship is. I was also researching other more violent dance forms, like the turn-of-the century Parisian apache (AH-PAHSH), where a woman is dragged, thrown, and strangled in a dramatized street fight between her and two or more menusually, she's playing a prostitute, and the men are her pimp and her client. I wanted to explore the kind of danger a woman can experience if she presents herself in such a practiced, sexualized manner, and how far from ideal the relationships she gets into could be. 

 

OPP: What was it like to make this video? Did your personal experience mirror the metaphor? 

 

SH: Making this video required a great deal of training and rest. For about three weeks, I practiced prop falls and stage fighting moves with a mat every other day. On the days in between, I would go to the gym and focus on my core and flexibility. The shooting of the video took two days. The first day, I didn't get the framing right, yet I performed my whole routine several times full out anyway, foolishly exhausting myself. I got caught up in the performance, and forgot that it had to read on video and that I may need to save some energy to shoot it again. On the second day of shooting, I got the framing right, choosing a tighter shot that showed the camera in the mirrors. I performed several times. Finally on the last few takes, I had the right amount of abandon in the falls and had a good sense of improvisationeven though, by then, I had my routine down. Somewhere toward the end, my right shoulder began to hurt, probably from falling on it for two days. It got really tight and I lost some feeling in my hand. I had to sleep sitting up for two weeks, taking nightly Epsom salt baths to relax enough to sleep.


Chair Dance II was also an emotionally challenging piece to make. I'm a survivor of domestic violence; nine years ago I was attacked by an ex-boyfriend. The situations I was putting myself into with the chair definitely paralleled my attack. I never intended it to be a re-enactment or strictly autobiographical—until I saw the footage, I didn't realize how powerful the connections were. Even though I am no longer at the mercy of that experienceI've had time, therapy, and a wonderful husband to help me healI need to acknowledge my history when it appears in my work, and I need to be kind to myself in my process. In this piece, I did everything I could to make sure I was always in control, even when it looks like I'm not, and that allowed me to wholeheartedly explore the chair as a prop and a violent metaphor without being overcome by my own personal history. 

Put a Ring on It
2010
Digital Video

OPP: Your stop motion animations Put a Ring on It (2010) and Candyman (2011) explore the representation of women's bodies in contemporary music videos and are set to the pop songs by Beyonce and Christina Aguilera which give them their titles.  Why did you choose stop motion instead of live performance for these pieces?

 

SH: This is a great question. In these works, I was very interested in the way that stop-action animation in particular depicts an illusion of motion and how each frame is mediated by an outside force. In other words, the paper legs I use in Put a Ring On It cannot move themselves, and must be arranged very carefully in every frame. I see this level of mediation in all our pop culture images, from stylists, makeup artists, editors, Photoshop, and social normsevery image we see is carefully composed, every movement is carefully choreographed. It's an unnatural, artificial presentation, and I felt animation as a process expressed these conceptual concerns. In Candyman, animation allows me to create the illusion that I am a blond, a redhead and a brunette in a trio, dancing with a sailor's outfit on, none of which are true outside Photoshop and sequential imagery. I liked how false the image is, and how weird and jerky the animated movements are.

 

I could also dismember the body in Put a Ring On It, which would be harder to do in performance! I also like the flatness of cut paper and the composite digital image. It reminds me of paper dolls and makes the animations feel a bit playful and childlike, which emphasizes the fact that young girls model behavior from these videos. There are hundreds of videos posted to YouTube with girls mimicking Beyonce. Making my own frame by frame imitation of that video felt like the most absurdly devoted way to re-create it, using the most simple and helpless materials.

 

OPP: Post-feminism is a term I hear as often as post-racial, and I'm shocked that anyone thinks we are post-anything. Why is it still important to be making work about the representation of women's bodies, roles, and movements in art and pop culture?

 

SH: I'm so glad you asked this! I was lucky to work with the wonderfully feminist-friendly Mark Newport in graduate school. He is a great supporter of my work, and since he responds to cultural gender norms directly in his own work (re-imagining hyper-masculine superheros and football players), he is engaged with the issues I'm dealing with and gave me a lot of thoughtful feedback. Unfortunately, I've also experienced quite the opposite male perspective as well. Recently, a few male artists and academics have reacted to my mimetic performances as simply seductive acts, adding to all the other images of women being seductive. They refused to engage with the feminist discussion that is the content of my work, could not acknowledge that I was challenging the male gaze by photographing and video taping myself, and didn't seem to understand the decades of female self-portraiture, body art and performance art that I am in dialog with. They acted as if there was no need for this. One even said to me, "There have already been like, four or five waves of Feminism." This floored me! He displayed his devastating lack of knowledge and dismissed my work in one fell swoop. This kind of ignorance of Feminism at the highest levels of artistic production and discourse proved to me that it is important to continue making this work, and that it is important for all women to continue to cast a critical eye toward the culture they consume and the messages they are receiving. 

 

Certainly, Feminism has evolved. After all, I can call myself a feminist and still wear bras and shave my legs. But I agree with you that terms like post-feminism are premature, and worse could be part of a movement toward what author Susan Douglas calls "enlightened sexism." We're in a strong backlash, and there are daily reminders of this that reassure me that I need to keep making work. It's 2012, and being a woman is still fraught with demands on our bodies and roles. I walk down the street, and a stranger demands I smile. I see an ad with a close up of a woman's wet lips putting something in her mouth. I hear of another state threatening to take reproductive rights away from women. I see another Judd Apatow comedy using pussy, having a vagina, or being gay as the worst-possible, "hilarious" insult one man can hurl at another man. I hear about the struggles of women to give birth on their own terms: without lying down, without an unnecessary C-section, without being rushed to labor by an impatient doctor.

 

It's dangerous to be a woman in this culture, and if we're not careful, we will all believe our greatest value is how we look, how we move, and how well we can please others. Through my work, I aim to expose these dangers, to reveal the absurdities of what culture expects of us, and to imagine new possibilities for expression.

 

As long as Kelly Ripa is on TV  in her skinny jeans, breezing through 1950s housewife duties without a man in sight and telling me how I can be "even more amazing" with a new kitchen appliance, I have more work to do.

 

To view more of Sara's work, please visit http://saramholwerda.com.