OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Jen Graham

Health Care, 2012. Embroidery and acrylic on fabric. 36 1/2" x 35"

JEN GRAHAM's hand-embroidered portraits of American presidents and divisive, media "loudmouths" ask us to slow down and consider the information we receive and how we receive it. In Trajectory Patterns, Jen offers us an embodied way to comprehend gun violence by quantifying the numbers of victims of mass shootings during 2016 in a tangible fabric timeline. And her mash-ups of Civil War imagery culled from the Library of Congress Archive with contemporary text remind us to bring knowledge of American History to our understanding of current events. Jen earned her BA in Art at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Truckee Meadows Community College (2015) and McNamara Gallery (2012), both in Reno, Nevada. Her work was recently included in the group exhibition Tilting the Basin: Contemporary Art of Nevada at the Nevada Museum of Art in 2016. The show will travel to Las Vegas and be on view from March 17-May 14, 2017 at 920 Commerce Street. Jen’s project At War With Ourselves will be on view at the Carson City Legislative Building in Nevada from March 20- April 7, 2017. Jen currently resides in Reno, Nevada.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your most recent work Trajectory Patterns is a textile timeline of mass shootings in the U.S. in 2016. Can you talk about the value of visualizing the data that represents violence in this way?

Jen Graham: Gun violence has become something that we mostly overlook or accept as a part of American life. When confronted with a visual depiction of the sheer volume of mass shootings that have taken place, the scale and atrocity of the statistics are undeniable and have more of a lasting impact than reading a number or a headline.

I chose to represent each mass shooting individually, while still focusing on depicting the immense quantity of the shootings as they accumulated. Each panel represents one mass shooting. One inch of length in the panel represents one person who was shot in that incident (not including the shooter). For each panel, I hand embroidered a label with the street address of the location of the mass shooting the panel represented, intentionally omitting the city and state from the address. The street address alone feels more personal and familiar, and it leaves the viewer with a sense of ambiguity as to where exactly each shooting took place. They could have happened anywhere, and they do happen everywhere.

As mass shootings occurred and I added them to the piece, the previous panels would need to be pushed back to make room for the new ones, just as these tragedies get pushed back in our minds or in the news to make room for new tragedies. The pile that amassed at the back of the piece was particularly haunting to me.  I felt it quietly mirrored the number of human bodies that were piling up as the year went on. 

Trajectory Patterns, 2016. Embroidery and fabric. 24"w x 167"h.

OPP: How has making this piece affected you?

JG: Creating this piece has been emotionally draining for me. I struggled to keep up with the amount of work that was needed to represent each shooting as they occurred, and I was overwhelmed with the sadness of it all. I only just completed the piece last week, which now measures 167 feet in length, representing 385 mass shootings that took place last year in the United States. 

Because Tilting the Basin was on view for three months last August through October, I had decided to continue to add panels to Trajectory Patterns as mass shootings took place while it was on display. I added to the piece outside of visitor hours, but if someone visited the exhibit multiple times, they would have noticed the growth of the piece.

OPP: When did you first start working with embroidery, the dominant medium in your practice?

JG: I began to experiment with embroidery around 2009, and at the time I wasn’t aware of much contemporary work being created in the medium, which freed me to develop my own style outside of influence from other contemporary artists. At the time I wasn’t interested in learning the formal techniques of the medium. I just jumped right in and tried to figure out what I wanted this new hand-sewn work to look like.

Margaret Sanger (detail), 2013. Embroidery and fabric. 29" x 22"

OPP: Your embroidered drawings are visually simple, made primarily of outline stitches. Nothing is filled in. Can you speak about this formal choice as it relates to your content?

JG: Embroidery is incredibly time-consuming, and the end result is usually quite ornate. My intention was to find a way to embrace this medium while abandoning the ‘precious’ quality it often exudes. This led me to the more straightforward style that I began using in my initial embroidery series My Presidents. I created portraits of every past president of the United States that are less formal than we are used to seeing. Using only straight stitches and chain stitches helped steer the portraits away from the tradition of regal oil paintings and marble sculptures. 

With the series At War With Ourselves, I was primarily using imagery from the Civil War, many of which were photographs of Union and Confederate soldiers I found in the Library of Congress Archives. Some of these photographs were hand-tinted, a technique that has always intrigued me. Hand-tinted photographs represent the photographic medium’s early struggle to be accepted as an art form or even as realistic depictions of the world. The addition of color was intended to bring the image to life, though it often arguably had the opposite effect. With this series I began incorporating a similar hand-tint to some of the embroidered elements in my work.

I have recently begun to utilize more decorative, complex stitches into my work, but I will likely continue working with primarily straight stitches and chain stitches.  I like the humble quality this type of stitching brings to my work.  Everything is little un-refined, not quite perfect, a little frayed. There is never a question that this work may have been produced by machine.  My hand is always evident.

Wealth and Privilege (Jay Gould), 2011. Embroidery and acrylic on fabric. 22" x 14."

OPP: You mentioned At War with Ourselves, which draws together images and text from the Civil War Era. But this work isn’t about the Civil War. It’s about American politics now. Why is this imagery from the 1800s relevant today?

JG: As I was doing research for the My Presidents series, I became fascinated with the years leading up to the American Civil War. I began to see so many parallels with the disputes that led to the Civil War and the arguments within contemporary politics at the time (in 2011), and I think these conflicts are even more prevalent today. I also feel that imagery from the Civil War is still very impactful and emotional in American memory. 

The most prominent example of this is the continuing discussion about the offensive nature of the Confederate battle flag and what place it should serve in the American public and in history. In many ways our society has progressed, yet these same arguments and tensions are still threaded within American society today, they have just transformed and evolved. 

I initially exclusively paired up contemporary text with imagery from the Civil War to draw a comparison to the two, but I quickly expanded to sometimes using 19th century text with contemporary imagery instead. By framing contemporary ideas in the context of the Civil War, I am challenging the meaning and motives of the concepts and questioning how far we have really come as a society since the Civil War.

Loudmouth (Donald Trump), 2013. Embroidery and acrylic on canvas. 27" x 20."

OPP: My Presidents (2011) has new resonance in light of the protest rally cry “Not My President.” Can you talk about the research that went into this series, how you settled on the banner titles for each former president?

JG: I knew very little about the U.S. presidents before beginning the My Presidents series. The goal of this series was to change that, to indulge in the biographies and presidencies of all 43 of the past presidents of the United States, and to embrace their history as a part of my own history, whether I agree with their policies and decisions or not. I individually researched every past president, and I then re-framed their legacy with my own personal interpretation of who they were as men and as presidents by giving each a nickname.

#12 Zachary Taylor, 2010. Embroidery on canvas. 11" x 8 1/2."

OPP: Can you highlight a few of your favorites?

JG: Zachary Taylor was one president I knew nothing about before I began this project, but his portrait is one of my favorites. Taylor spent his career in the military, and he was admired nationally as a war hero. But he admittedly knew nothing about politics, and he had never even voted. He also had no regard for formal attire, military or otherwise, and was known to dress in tattered clothes with a big floppy hat, even as president. He was often mistaken as a farmer.

His presidency was largely absorbed by the arguments over whether California should be admitted to the union as a free state, thus he accomplished very little before dying in office. At the time he was known as “Old Rough and Ready,” but I nicknamed him “The Slovenly Celebrity” as I felt this better summed up what kind of man he was as president.

Another president known for his unsophisticated persona was Lyndon Johnson. I think he is one of the most interesting men to have served as our president. He was a career politician who was first elected to congress in 1937 when he was just 29. By the time he was sworn in as president in 1963, he was a master legislator and manipulator of Congress, which is how he succeeded to pass a heap of legislation aimed at lifting up the disenfranchised, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Though ideologically he was closely aligned with his predecessor, Kennedy, their personalities were polar opposites. Johnson was unapologetically foul-mouthed, obscene, and unrefined. I gave him the nickname “The Foul-mouthed Schmoozer.”

#36 Lyndon B. Johnson, 2010. Embroidery on canvas. 11" x 8 1/2."

OPP: Why no Barack Obama?

JG: This series does not currently include a portrait of Barack Obama, because I only included every past president, and I completed the series in 2011 while Obama was still in office. I could not accurately give him a nickname until his presidency was over. Just imagine the difference in perspective you would have of the presidency of Richard Nixon if you only looked at his first two years in office.

I considered this series to have been completed in 2011, and I did not plan to continue it. But Barack Obama was the first President who I truly felt was my president, so I am now considering adding his portrait to the series.

OPP: Any ideas for his nickname?

JG: I have put a lot of thought into this, and I am currently leaning towards the nickname "My President." My mom has always had great love and admiration for John F. Kennedy. He seemed to inspire and define her generation. He will always be her president. I think Obama is that president for me and my generation, and it would be fitting for me to end this series with Obama as "My President."

OPP: How has the recent presidential election and the first few weeks of the Trump administration affected your practice, both in terms of potential new projects and your ability to work?

JG: I have been deeply saddened, ashamed, and distressed by every action taken and word spoken by Donald Trump and his administration. To see our society slide so far backwards is disheartening, and it does make it difficult for me to feel motivated to make work. It’s hard not to feel completely defeated. But I just need to move past this sense of defeat, and when I do, I find a greater sense of urgency, a greater need to be making artwork right now.

I do think that the kind of work I make will need to change. The majority of my work has been focused on confronting and combating underlying issues in American society and politics, but now all of these issues are shamelessly out in the open. This is an entirely new political landscape. As I move forward, my work will likely need to be more pointed and confrontational than it has been in the past. We now have to speak louder to be heard over the incessant roar of this disgraceful administration.

To see more of Jen's work, please visit jengrahamart.com.

Featured Artist Interviews are conducted by Chicago-based 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 Adjunct Assistant Professor 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 2011-2012 Artist-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her solo exhibitions include shows at Siena Heights University (2013), Heaven Gallery (2014) and the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center (2014). She created site-responsive installations for Form Unbound (2015) at Dominican University and SENTIENCE (2016) at The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. Resist the Urge to Press Forward, a two-person show with Brent Fogt, is on view at Riverside Art Center (Riverside, Illinois) until April 15th, when there will be a closing reception and artist talk. Throughout March 2017, Stacia is working on an evolving, duration installation at The Stolbun Collection (Chicago). You can watch Witness change via live feed.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Lisa Vinebaum

New Demands? (Chicago)
2013
Performance, Chicago
Photos: Kenny Smilovitch

Interdisciplinary artist, writer and educator LISA VINEBAUM uses the visual language of protest placards to commemorate historical struggles for workers’ rights. In New Demands?, her ongoing series of walking performances, she calls attention to the present-day erosion of these rights by reinscribing slogans back into historically significant sites of the labor movement. Lisa holds a PhD in Art and an MA in Textiles from Goldsmiths, University of London and a BFA in Fibers from Concordia University in Montreal. In her critical writings, she explores the social histories of textiles and the performance of labor in the work of contemporary artists. She will co-chair the panel "Crafting Community: Textiles, Collaboration, and Social Space" at the annual College Art Association conference (February 2014) and co-edit a special issue of "Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture" with Dr. Kirsty Robertson. Lisa lives and works in Chicago, Illinois.

OtherPeoplesPixels: How are your placard performances like one-person protests? How are they not protests?

Lisa Vinebaum: The performances draw on the form, rhetorics and histories of protest, but they aren’t protests. Protest is fundamentally about social change, making demands and proposing concrete alternatives. I’m concerned with raising awareness about specific issues and with commemoration, history and memory. I'm interested in performance as a vehicle for social interaction. I do understand how the performances can be read as one-person protests, but they also draw on street performance, performance art, memory studies, social practice and dialogical art, as well as discourse in gender, feminist and postcolonial studies.

I alter slogans adopted from historical protests and strikes to make them more universal. The placards reference specific events from the history of labor activism, but the work is about inscribing these histories into urban sites today, drawing connections between past and present struggles. I rely on ambiguity to allow the work to transcend protest. The slogans “On Strike for Fair Wages” or “The Right To Collective Bargaining” are easily associated with protest but not necessarily any specific one. The slogans resonate across time and are still relevant today.

Not a self-hating jew
2010
Performance, Montreal, Quebec

OPP: Do you initiate conversation with viewers while you are performing? Which slogan elicited the most engagement and response from viewers?

LV:  I wait for viewers to engage with me. I want to leave any interaction up to them. I get the most responses when I use a Yiddish language slogan. So many people stop me to ask what language it is and what the placard says. I also get a lot of Jewish viewers who want to talk to me. They all recognize the language even if they don't speak Yiddish. Many of them also had parents or grandparents who worked in the garment industry. These placards also attract interaction from Hasidic Jews, who tend to be more insular and not have a great deal of interaction outside of their own community. The Not a self-hating jew performance got a hugely positive response, which I wasn't expecting.

OPP: Your 2011 performance Radical Jewish Emplacement was censored by campus security despite being part of an official Concordia University conference event. I love the look on your face—both irritated and amused—in the image on your website that documents the moment of confrontation with the security guard. What were you feeling at that moment? 


LV: My reaction was, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” It was so ironic. I was having a heated discussion about Israel and Palestine at the site of so much censorship on the issue—this was the exact goal of the performance—and along came Mr. Security Guard to censor it. I couldn’t believe it. The conference organizers tried to intervene, but the security guard threatened my job—I was part-time faculty at the time—if I didn’t stop the performance. I later learned that the guard lied about why the performance was stopped. The incident reinforced my views about the need for more discussion and debate on what’s going on in Palestine. There has been a lot of censorship regarding Israeli government policies and the treatment of Palestinians, not only in Montreal but also Toronto and New York and on many university campuses. It’s incredibly counterproductive.

OPP: Do you have a planned strategy for dealing with the shutdown of discourse?

LV: It’s up to me to decide when to walk away from viewers who want to talk to me. Fortunately, I haven’t had many hostile responses. Most people are very receptive and engaging. There was one instance in Montreal when a man, who clearly had some mental health issues, became enraged by a slogan on my placard and threw a garbage can. That was the only time I felt threatened and unsafe. Generally, I’m vigilant and always do a site visit or practice run in advance. Also I’m very aware that I might be stopped by the police or other authorities, in which case I’d be non-confrontational and stop the performance if needed.


Collective Bargaining
2012
Performance, Chicago
Photos: Kenny Smilovitch

OPP: Your ongoing series New Demands? "[connects] the current crisis in timed labor to historical struggles for workers’ rights." What do you mean by the "crisis in timed labor”?


LV: I mean a general assault on workers’ rights and the massive decline in pay and benefits for workers. Ever since Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, there has been a concerted attempt to curtail rights—the right to unionize, to paid vacations, to health benefits, to earn overtime—that workers won during the first half of the 20th century. Working conditions have been on the decline for the past 30 years, and today companies tend to employ large numbers of part-time workers so as not to pay health benefits or contribute to retirement savings. The minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation—it should be almost $30/hour. There have been a plethora of laws and corporate policies that make it harder to join a union or maintain collective bargaining rights. In 2012, unionization rates were at their lowest in 97 years in the US. There’s also globalization, which has led to the loss of tens of thousands of good American jobs and to the creation of dangerous, low paid jobs across the developing world. Overall, there have been dramatic losses for workers while there’s been an exponential rise in the accumulation of wealth by executives.

OPP: You’ve performed New Demands? in the U.S. and in Canada. Is there a different history of protest in Canada than in the U.S. that affects the reception of the work?

LV: I’m not that well versed in the history of protest in Canada. In general, people in Canada are more passive than here in the U.S. There’s a certain “Canadian reserve” that probably comes from having been a British colony for so long. One exception is Québec (where I grew up), which was mainly colonized by France and is a predominantly French-speaking province. As in France, demonstrations and protests happen all the time. People are adamant about defending certain rights and taking to the streets to do so.

When I performed New Demands? in Montreal in 2012, there was a province-wide student strike against higher tuition fees. There were tens of thousands of people out in the streets for over two months, and it brought down the provincial government. You don’t see that happening in the rest of Canada. Also, unions are extremely powerful in Québec. McDonald’s and Walmart workers unionized there for the first time ever. Since you don’t see the same kinds of cutbacks to worker’s rights in Québec as here in the U.S., people generally take the right to unionize for granted. That difference was reflected in the responses to my 2012 performance in Montreal.  Many viewers didn’t consider the slogans on my placards to be as relevant today.

I think the response has less to do with national borders and more to do with specific, local contexts. For example, there are differences in how viewers respond to the performances in various neighborhoods within Chicago. I recently performed in New York, and no one talked to me. That was a first. In Montreal and Chicago, lots of people talk to me when I perform. Chicago has a really rich history of labor struggles. There are many more artists who explore labor issues in Chicago than there were in Montreal. I don't think people there relate to the messages in my performances in the same way; they don't see that labor rights and working conditions are under attack. It's not that one city is necessarily better or worse than the other in terms of audience. Viewers in Montreal are still very interested in the histories and strikes that I seek to commemorate in the work.

New Demands?
2012
Performance, Montreal, Québec
Photo: Vincent Lafrance

OPP: Could you talk about your recent performances in Chicago that deal with artistic labor?

LV: For the last two iterations of New Demands?, I held a bright yellow placard that read, “Art work IS Work.” The point, which may seem obvious to those of us who are practicing artists, is to recognize art work as work. Statistically, very few practicing artists are actually paid for their labor—only the most commercially successful artists can live off making art. Most artists must work as educators, studio assistants, arts administrators, graphic designers, web designers. . . and many, many artists work in the service industry.

The terrible working conditions for part-time and adjunct faculty is an area that I’ve begun to explore in my performance work. There are large numbers of artists with MFAs and substantially fewer full-time positions. Part-time teachers aren’t paid very well and receive no health benefits, summer pay, or employer pension/retirement contributions. So working conditions for artists are incredibly precarious, especially so when you consider the general lack of respect for the arts in our society—the arts are seen as a luxury or as frivolous. So the issue of timed labor is very connected to issues of artistic labor. These performances pay tribute to the many attempts by artists to organize and unionize, including the Artist’s Union and the American Artists’ Congress of the New Deal era, the Art Workers’ Coalition of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, and W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) and Occupy Museums today.

OPP: What new performances are you planning now?

LV: As part of the Performance Studies International (PSi19) conference in June 2013, I’ll be doing two performances at Stanford University commemorating recent strikes on the campus and exploring working conditions for part-time faculty.

I’m also hoping to do a performance in London in the near future. It will explore connections between the recent fires and building collapses in the garment industry in Bangladesh and domestic sweatshop conditions for Bangladeshi immigrants in East London. This neighborhood, where I lived for five years, is a historical site of domestic textile labor by immigrant workers: French Huguenot weavers, Eastern European Jewish tailors and seamstresses, Caribbean garment workers and now large numbers of Bangladeshi women doing piecework in their homes. I’m in the initial stages of research toward a series of public performances: I want to stage larger processions using banners and possibly costumes to commemorate the strikes and actions I’ve been referencing as a solo performer.

To see more of Lisa's work, please visit lisavinebaum.com.

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 mass media culture in her cross-stitch embroideries, remix video and collage 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 is currently a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT Residency in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago) and she will mount a solo show titled I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.