Performed at Centre Culturel Colombier (Former Military Base and Pigeon House)
artist MADELINE STILLWELL improvises with intention in her
site-specific performances. She uses her body as a drawing tool,
alternately struggling against and collaborating with found construction
materials and trash that she collects onsite. Her physical actions
become metaphors for human experiences—breaking through barriers, climbing the walls, emerging from the rubble, rolling around in the muck, untangling oneself—making marks as she literally and figuratively works through each space.
Madeline received her MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2008. She
has performed and exhibited widely throughout the United States, Canada
and Western Europe, most recently in the group exhibitions Re-Made // Re-Used at REH Kunst Berlin and A Night in the Park at das Moosdorf in Berlin. Madeline lives and works in Berlin, where she is an Adjunct Professor in Performance at the Evangelische Hochschule Berlin.
Talk about the repeated motif of emerging from or breaking through a
barrier in your performances. I think of birthing and butterflies
emerging from cocoons while watching the video documentation of the
Madeline Stillwell: On a visual level, I've always enjoyed the sensations that occur from seeing something pushing itself through another thing. The meeting place between opposing materials engaging in a temporary dance of overlap has always stirred something powerful in me. Ocean waves lapping against a gridded surface, for example, or wet cement swirling gently through the blades of its mixer. Ultimately, I believe we humans are never alone; we are always acting in response to nature, to culture, to circumstance, to each other. We are constantly confronted with life's given situations, and often times find ourselves struggling against the limitations of our own minds. I am fascinated by such barriers because so many unexpected possibilities can open up from finding our way through something that appears at first to be a roadblock. It is about the will to grow. Coming out on the other side of a personal, social or physical barrier can be one of the most satisfying of all human experiences.
How important are the specifics of the materials that you use in your
performances, beyond the fact that they are often found garbage in or
near the sites you perform in?
MS: The materials I collect and use for my work function as my palette. I search for materials that will bring tension and yet create a harmonious visual composition. I find myself attracted to materials that come from real life, have an industrial patina to them and contain a functionality that is in question. For example, in site-specific performances such as No more sugar for the monkey or Read? Read What?, I wanted to equalize the relationship between our discarded waste and excess and the very structures that exist to build up and accumulate such waste. In a similar way, the works Pigeon House or Pedestal Piece insert abject construction materials (dirt, rubble, mud, plastic, etc) into the gallery context. While breaking myself through a gallery wall or breaking myself out of a gallery pedestal, I call into question the structures—the white cube, for example—that exist to keep an institution erect. That said, I prefer hovering closer to parody and within the realm of human imagination, such as in my most recent videos Stasi Prison or Stick Werfen, rather than pushing my work in any specific political direction. Perhaps if I'm really honest with myself, I simply choose materials that turn me on. I am, after all, smearing them all over myself. :)
Your movements seem very intentional: when they are clunky, they seem
purposefully so. When they are graceful, your performance is similar to
modern dance. Are the performances choreographed or improvised?
MS: Intention plays perhaps the most important role of all in my work. I truly believe it doesn't really matter what you use, what you do or how you do it, as long as you are clear with your intentions and you are open to accepting and incorporating the unknown along the way. This is not just true in art-making. It applies to walking down the street and to living the life you want to live. It is always much easier to keep going in the same habitual patterns that feel comfortable, than it is to truly follow our intentions, incorporate the unknown and be willing to change. Because of this, I never choreograph in the traditional sense. I resist processes of memorization because I want to get away from the assumption that there is a right way of doing things. It is easy for us to fall into such mind patterns if we practice and over-practice something again and again.
For each work of art or performance, I set up a series of intentions, and the rest is improvised. I incorporate spatial intentions, like "I'm going to start here and end over there," or physical challenges, such as "I’m going to try to climb along those pipes which are five meters from the ground without falling." Also quite important are my mental structures, such as "I'm going to have a conversation with my ex," or "I'm going on a road trip with my family” or “I’m going to contemplate escape.” Finally I also set formal goals such as “I’m going to both make a sculpture and become a sculpture” or “I'm going to make a drawing in space.”
All of this is easier said than done, however. It is difficult to stay
true to your mental game when you are standing with the lights between
your eyes. After a "failed" performance experience, it is often
difficult for me to really know what went wrong. It usually has
something to do with losing sight of the original intention or letting
it slipping away. I take some comfort in sports psychology. In this post-performance interview, I speak about the delicate balance between intention and letting go.
OPP: How do your background, your daily life and teaching affect your work?
MS: My early experience (ages five to twenty) with jazz and modern dance, musical theater, classical piano and vocal training allows me to think of my body and voice as natural and viable tools for art-making. My mother holds a degree in Performing Arts, one of my sisters is a dancer and choreographer and my brother is a set designer for the stage. I suppose you could also say it runs in the family. But I decided to study visual art because I've always had visions in my head that I want to manifest in a tangible way. It stressed me out to memorize choreography or lines from a play. Somehow, I didn't trust that process as much as I did the spontaneity of making a form from a lump of clay. By the end of graduate school, I realized I could communicate on multiple levels by translating movement or sound into tactile experience (and vice versa) so my current practice embodies that.
Additionally, the performance class I now teach at university also influences my practice. The class is based around structured improvisation as a means to communicate using our bodies, voices and material. We explore experiences like talking without words, acting versus reacting, emotional versus pedestrian movement and sounds, having a conversation with only facial expressions (no voice or gesture), balancing on one another, using materials as a means to express something, drawing in space, setting an unspoken goal together in the moment and finding an end. We work both in the studio and in public urban places, including the subway, the farmer's market, a public park or the university hallway. When not performing, the students are challenged to direct each other on the spot. Each student must plan a structured improvisation and direct a small group. By the end of the course, students work together to structure and perform a piece of their own creation in front of a live audience.
On a daily basis, my physical practice, which combines
swimming, biking, pilates, yoga, voice-journaling and singing, allows me
to stay fit enough to use the full range of my strength as well as the
full range of my imagination.
OPP: What is voice-journaling?
MS: Voice-journaling is my way of getting things expressed and off my chest. It often happens spontaneously while out in the world or when I'm alone. It helps me to clear my head and process my artwork. It's also a way to communicate with another person privately, like writing a letter without the pressure of having to send it. In this way, it's more like "writing letters" to myself. The Only Capacity, You're Gonna Love It and I Hate It Here (I Heart Michigan) all made in 2007, are videos that use excerpts of voice-journaling.
OPP: Drawing is a fundamental part of your practice. I'm thinking of performances like Road Trip (Machine Pipe Drawing) (2011) and I've Been Digging in the Garden (Untitled Wall Drawing) (2011) and your Drawing Collage, Diagram Drawings, Music Drawings and Video Drawings. Could you talk about the connection between drawing and performance in your work?
MS: For me, drawing is gesture-making. First comes the stage fright of the blank page, then the music starts and then you go. Just don't look back until you're finished. That way you won't over think what you're doing, and more life can result from the marks you make. A primary function of drawing by hand (or body, in my case) is to leave a mark, to act, to respond to something, to communicate. When I set the mental goal for myself of “making a drawing,” I am always curious to see what kinds of gestures are left behind because they become markers of spontaneous decision-making. Such gestures can serve as a kind of memory map of improvisation. In the same way that a photograph captures a moment in time, so does slinging a clump of clay onto a wall. Even though they have two very different results, there is an inherent risk-taking in making a mark, whether that is drawing lines on a piece of paper, stepping out onto a stage or trespassing into a construction site in order to take a photograph.
MS: I first came to Berlin for a short residency at Takt Kunstprojektraum in
the summer of 2008, and I'm still here. I was instantly drawn to the
tension of the city's history, and I felt a huge amount of admiration
for the endurance, tolerance and freedom that exists in the city's
mentality. I felt at home within a constantly changing community of
international artists, and I was drawn to the aesthetics of the raw
industrial spaces and materials I first found in Berlin. I am still
drawn to the construction sites in Germany and to the absurd logic of
how they are organized and re-organized. In the United States,
construction sites are usually hidden behind walls of wood. Here they
exist as living parts of the street itself, so that you can see the
pipes embedded in the sand below as they are constructed. I love living
in a city whose guts are exposed.
When it comes to the
reception of my work, I have found German audiences to be
extremely well-educated about art history and architecture, emotionally
intelligent and unafraid to engage in discussion about art. This
includes my university students as well. There is a true love of
discussion in the German culture. German people are unafraid to offer
criticism or dissent; neutrality of emotion and independence of mind are
valued higher than pleasing others or being well-liked. What I
appreciate most about American audiences, on the other hand, is their
enthusiasm, acceptance and appreciation of the unique. Their unchained,
youthful sense of history means they highly value the reinvention of the
self. I find that a certain amount of naiveté in American culture
actually allows for a pure and fearless go-get-em mentality when it
comes to following one's vision.
Perhaps that is what drives me to invade construction sites and climb through pipes and suspend myself in a crane while Singin' in the Rain! Or perhaps I'm more German now, organizing and re-organizing until everything falls to rubble.
To see more of Madeline's work, please visit madelinestillwell.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 spiritual significance of repetition 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 was a 2012-2013 Mentor-in-Residence at BOLT in Chicago. Her work is on view through September 2013 in Abstracting the Seam (Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago), and she has two upcoming solo exhibitions: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Klemm Gallery, Adrian, Michigan) in November 2013 and Right Here, Right Now (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.