OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Meg Leary

Douse the Diva
Digital Video (still)

MEG LEARY is a Chicago-based performance and video artist who uses music theory strategies and music materials such as cassette tape and vinyl records to evoke the body in relation to objects, space, and sound. She is a classically trained vocalist, who often references this history in her visual and performance work. Leary received an MA in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts (2003) and an MFA in Performance from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006). Her upcoming performance and exhibition Muses & Valkyries opens on May 18th at Thalia Hall in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You have an interesting history. You were trained as an opera singer at a young age. How does this early education in music affect the work you make now as a performance artist? How has it been awesome to have this other context informing your work?

Meg Leary: It’s funny. I never felt fulfilled by the technical expertise of opera. Being a classical singer it is not unlike being an athlete in which you train your mind and body to act in expectable outcomes. What always interested me was the failure of these things: stage fright, voices cracking, forgetting the words to a song. These things seem like less explored territory than the perfection of musical phrases - there are other people who do that better and have a concrete interest in that.

The feeling of using your voice to fill a space and impart emotion is the thing that I loved about opera. I still that get out of my work, but I get to explore the performative context of this act rather than the mimetic repetition of a musical score. I am really interested in the artifice of the “Diva” and use this as a tool in my work, particularly around issues of the body, gender, and queerness. As a “fat lady who sings,” I like to play with the viewer’s awareness around the cultural associations and stereotypes about classical singers.
Performance documentation

OPP: How has it been difficult to have this other context informing your work?

ML: Because I began in music, my creative vocabulary is very much based around music theory and principles. When I am thinking about art making, I can’t help but associate what I am doing with sound. So things like improvisation, harmonics and sampling are the concepts that I think about. This seems really natural to me, but in a visual art context, it sometimes feels like I am bi-lingual, constantly relating my first language to this new context. Ultimately, I think what I am trying to do is to break down the barrier between the two by taking music ideas into the visual and the visual into music.

OPP: I see your work as falling into two distinct camps: work about audio artifacts and their cultural implications, as seen in the Silly Putty Works and your formal paintings made with cassette tape, and work about sound itself and how we experience it, as in your performances, installations and videos. Could you talk about how each of these informs the other?

ML: In my mind, all of my work has the same message but is presented in different mediums. In practice, the formal work I do is a way for me to work out micro problems within macro ideas. By pulling out one idea and working with it in a very different way, it creates a more rigid frame with which to think about things, sort of like re-creating a social construction in order to expose it. I think that by working in these very different ways I am playing out the tension between my intuitive process and the very formal training I received.

Untitled, Silly Putty Work

OPP: Your piece Douse the Diva has been both a live performance and a video exhibited in a gallery. Do you think one way is more successful than the other? Did the different forms drastically change the responses of viewers in any way?

ML: I always think that my live performances are more successful than my videos. Maybe because my early training was in performance, and I feel more comfortable in that vein. I am really attached the ephemeral nature of performance because I enjoy improvisation. I think one of the best moments of Douse the Diva is when I wipe my face with my dress. That was a spur of the moment decision in that particular performance that I have kept in subsequent performances.

What I appreciate about video is the ability to make something new out of a performance - not to mention having it seen more widely. It is pretty rare (with the exception of Tapehead) that I have felt that a performance would be more successful if it began as a video. Ultimately, in a video, your image and your performance are mediated by so many factors (camera angle, recording device etc.). But, in person, you are actually confronted by a real live person - a video can never capture that energy. Video is a lot safer/ more controlled, and the responses tend to be more muted.
Michael Jackson, Off The Wall
De-magnetized cassette tape

OPP: Cassette tape makes a recurring appearance in your work. It's been in your abstract paintings, your video Tapehead (2010), and you made a wig out of it, which will be part of an upcoming performance. Could you talk a little bit about the significance of this material to you personally and in your work?

ML: I just think it is exceptionally beautiful material. The varying colors, reflection, and possible textures are really exciting to me aesthetically. I also think that it is a very poetic material; it is a constantly-degrading and delicate material with such a limited lifespan. I love the idea of a mix tape. It is such a powerful gesture and makes you so vulnerable and was something I did ALL THE TIME as a kid. I have a big box of all my old mix tapes I made, and they are artifacts of particular times in my life. I play the tape I made for my first year of college, and it is a snapshot of the emotion, angst and frenzy I felt… it’s pretty funny to listen to a tape of Mazzy Star and Nine Inch Nails and remember that I was singing Mozart all day!

I use cassette tape in my work as a metaphor for hidden information, which was the impetus behind the decision to make a wig out of magnetic tape. Hair is this thing that has enormous cultural significance, but it also contains so much information about your body (DNA, toxins, etc.) and can be analyzed to extract information. I think cassette tape is a lot like this… run a magnetic tapehead over it, and it reveals a wealth of information about sound, the person who made the recording and the culture it came from. I particularly love the paintings I have done where I use a recording of a loved one’s voice to physically put them into the painting. It may not be that evident to the viewer, but the work is imbued with the ineffable quality of that person’s voice.
Playlist 4
Oil paint, plaster and cassette tape on canvas

OPP: Oh, I love that idea! There is always so much buried personal information that is unaccessible to the viewer in paintings anyway... well, all art, really. That makes me wonder about Tapehead, in which you essentially lick the entire length of tape from an unidentified cassette, at times lovingly and sensually, at times violently. There’s a lot going on in this piece. While watching, I am thinking of your tongue as a playhead, of the difference between the voice in the video and what appears to be a mass-produced cassette and of the metaphor of your personal and emotional relationship to whatever music is on the tape itself. Is there any special significance to the cassette you used to shoot this video?

ML: To be honest, I did so many takes of this video that I don't know which album is the one that ended up in piece. The action is based on a sketch I saw by the poet Stevie Smith where a woman is holding a cat and saying "I love you so much I could eat you." I wanted to have that kind of physical interaction with music - almost consuming it. That feeling is not limited to one artist or tape for me.
Video (in frame)

OPP: You are in the middle of planning an ambitious performance event at Thalia Hall in Chicago. Can you tell us about the space and what you have planned?

ML: Yes, I am going to be doing an exhibition of visual and performance work called Muses & Valkyries beginning on May 18th at Thalia Hall. I am thinking about this exhibition essentially as a collaboration with the architecture. The space has been empty since the eighties and the walls are crumbling and filled with junk. I am using the space as a vessel for thinking about cultural memory, so the show references many eras of performance production from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Michael Jackson’s Thriller and will include sculpture, performance, music, and dance. It will also be the first time that I have performers re-creating some of my past performances.

One of the unique aspects of this work is that it I get to take over a whole building for the performance, and then have an ongoing exhibition of the documentation and materials from the show that will exist in the storefront gallery after the performance is over. It is a rare and special thing for a performance artist to have the opportunity in the immediate to think about how the work will live on after the performance ends.
To view more work by Meg Leary, please visit megleary.com.

Support Meg Leary's upcoming show Muses & Valkyeries by donating to her Kickstarter campaign.