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
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.
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.
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.
OPP: What changed in your understanding of the discourse of motherhood between the two exhibits?
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
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.
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).
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 parenting—Enemies 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.
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”?
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.