OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Noelle Mason

Reversed Racism
Hand-embroidered cotton
Series of 12 counted cross-stitch images of stills taken from the George Holiday video of the Rodney King beating

NOELLE MASON embodies collective trauma in time-consuming and endurance-based processes like cross-stitch embroidery, tapestry weaving, performance and skydiving. Her interdisciplinary practice juxtaposes the presence of the human body with the voyeuristic nature of surveillance video and photography, exploring the effect of such technological mediation on our responses to traumatic events and tragedies. Noelle received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is represented by Thomas Robertello Gallery in Chicago. She is an educator and board member at SuperTest, a non-profit organization established to facilitate the production of contemporary art related events in Tampa, Florida, where she lives and works.

OtherPeoplePixels: How does the recreation of video surveillance images in handmade embroidery and tapestry weaving address the mediation of trauma? 

Noelle Mason: I am primarily interested in the fact that we are manipulated not only by the content of the media spectacle but also by the nature of the computer and television screens through which we view it. The embroideries investigate surveillance images that are associated with traumatic events that gain traction with a mass audience. These images are forensic; they are mined after the event has already taken place. The dead eye of the surveillance camera captures images without discretion. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment is forgone in favor of a general and indiscriminate view. This non-human aesthetic imbues these images with a kind of perceived trustworthiness that most photographic images lack in the age of Photoshop. There is now a broader understanding of how easily the photographic image can be manipulated.

Our access to the surveillance images is most often screen-based and always editorialized. The embroideries, weavings and the stained glass works specifically address the flatness of digital imagery through a marginal shift in medium, while the installations and performances drastically re-mediate the event in question, sometimes to the point of complete obliteration. By changing the form of content and the spectators’ spatial relationship to it, I de-editorialize the images that I use. This unpacking provides an alternative space for contemplation of traumatic events and destabilizes the mediated image. 

Nothing Much Happened Today (for Eric and Dylan)
Cotton cross-stitch

OPP: What is the significance of time and endurance in this work?

NM: The Columbine, Rodney King and Loadtruck images are cross-stitch embroideries. This form of stitchery is an analog to pixilization. I wanted to digest these images one pixel at a time, to own them by remaking . . . to attempt to understand by processing them through my body, thus making me a participant in them. The Columbine image gave me tendonitis in my elbows and carpel tunnel in my hands. In a very painful and material way, it changed me as I changed it.

Time is a huge part of this work. These iconic images depict 1/30th of a second of the events that they represent, and that frame bears a timecode that contributes to it’s “truthiness.” This 1/30th of a second became something much larger and more memorable—a kind of evidence not only for the police but for the nation. The process of cross-stitch is slow, calculated and conservative. It’s deliberate in contradistinction to the messy and disposable nature of surveillance video. I wanted the viewer to feel the disorientation of two different speeds, two different senses of time smashing together. 

OPP: In recent years, the scope of content addressed in embroidery has broadened dramatically, but we have not entirely shaken off the persistent perception of embroidery as women's work. Much of contemporary embroidery challenges such culturally constructed notions, which grew out of the Victorian performance of femininity. Are your cross-stitch embroideries of surveillance images of traumatic events part of this trajectory?

NM: I very deliberately chose cross-stitch embroidery because of its historical location as a feminine craft. One of the most intriguing things about Columbine and the Rodney King beating is the performance of masculinity through clothing and accessories. The Columbine kids wore trench coats and army boots, and the LAPD wore dark uniforms and carried guns and billy clubs. In this way, these events are very much about gender performance. I’m interested in the idea of hysterical masculinity. The word hysteria is derived from the female anatomy—the Greek hystera means uterus. Hysterical masculinity is the distinctly irrational behavior of men and boys who, fearful of acknowledging their own frailties, seek to expunge "weakness" through violence and accessorizing.

Ground Control
Wool rug made in Mexico by José Antonio Flores and Jonathan Samaniego in exchange for the amount of money it would cost a family of four to be illegally transported across the US/Mex border, ASTER
6' x 8'

OPP: Many of your pieces or bodies of work are titled with a date. Sometimes it's undeniably recognizable like 9/11/2001. Others like 3/3/1991 or 4/20/1999 didn't stand out to me as numbers, but the content of the images made it immediately clear that these are dates of national significance, too. The series of weavings and cross-stitch embroideries in 7/18/1984 depict the transportation of illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border by coyotes. But when I googled the date, I found it was the date of the San Ysidro McDonalds' Massacre, when James Oliver Huberty opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle in a McDonald's, killing 21 people and injuring 19 more. Can you talk about the connection between the massacre and the border-crossing images?

NM: I have begun grouping the date pieces under the title Human Hunting, which is a direct reference to the Huberty Shooting. All of these works are concerned with the dehumanization which is brought about by both the act of being surveilled and the aesthetics of machine vision. Each of the dates that I chose identifies a significant moment of collective trauma, and they often uncover prejudices that are bubbling just under the surface. The Rodney King beating uncovered deep-seated racism within the LAPD and across the nation as we witnessed the varied responses to the event.

The Huberty shooting was similar in that it that exposed a violent hatred toward Mexican immigrants. I also have a more personal experience of that event. My father was a San Diego police SWAT sniper. I remember watching the standoff after the McDonalds Massacre unfold on TV at my grandparents' house. At the time, I was less affected by the trauma of the event than I was excited at the possibility of seeing my father on television. Ultimately, James Huberty was killed by one of other snipers on the team. The body of work that is identified by the Huberty massacre deals specifically with immigration, surveillance and points of conflict on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Huberty massacre seemed to be an interesting vector for this work. At some point I wish to deal directly with the Huberty massacre but haven’t yet figured out how to approach it.

Drywall, electronics, lights, surveillance cameras, monitors
8' x 8' x 8'

OPP: You've done many performances that draw on the history of performance art, using your own body to explore experiences and perceptions of discomfort and endurance. The audience gets to witness and imagine what you are experiencing in interactive, durational performances like Well Hung Over: In honor of those who died in the Chicago Lager Beer Riots (2008) and Mise-en-Scene (2004). Did you perform either of these more than once? What did it feel like physically and emotionally to perform these works?

NM: I have performed all of the pieces more than once. As a classically trained actor who studied techniques derived from theatre of cruelty, I don’t have to think much about the performances anymore. There is a headspace or performance mode I occupy—much like in meditation—that helps me ignore discomfort or pain. It is important to rehearse performance art in the same way one rehearses a play. People are to some degree unpredictable; rehearsal helps the performer anticipate a variety of interactions and plan for them so as to maintain control over the image s/he is creating.

For Mise-en-Scene, I stood in darkness inside a sealed eight-foot cube, receiving electric shocks whenever a viewer pressed a large, red video game button located on the outer wall of the cube. The viewers watched what was happening inside on monitors that received a real-time feed from closed circuit, infrared surveillance cameras. The most difficult part was my inability to anticipate where or when I was going to be shocked. Up until the moment that performance began, I had thought about my body as a sculptural object. I had prepared for the pain involved, but I underestimated the psychological difficulty of being alone in the dark, unable to return the gaze of the viewer.

Gravity Study
Pinhole photography, skydiving
20" x 20"

OPP: Decision Altitude (2011), a recent series of photographs made using a pinhole camera while skydiving, appears upon first glance very different from all your previous work. It seems to lack any political or collective trauma content. Is this a break from previous work or is this a more abstract exploration of themes in your previous work?

NM: It is true that Decision Altitude is not as directly political in nature as some of the other work, but I don’t feel the need to be thematically consistent in my work. That being said, this work does have interesting intersections with my performance work, and it continues my investigation of the ability and failure of photography to represent experience. When you jump out of an airplane, the ground—and everything on it—is an indecipherable, Cartesian mess. In the time between jumping out of the plane and landing on the ground, one goes through an intense physical and psychological experience that completely defies the sterile view of the Earth from above. It is a more embodying experience than almost anything except pain, and death is always present. My intent was to capture that incomprehensible mixture of aerodynamics and adrenaline on film. Skydiving gets you as close as possible to the fantasy and freedom of unassisted human flight, but that pleasure is also peppered with the possibility of premature death.

OPP: I see what you mean about photography’s inability to communicate the complexity of the psychological, emotional and—dare I say?— spiritual aspects of the experience of diving. Any plans to incorporate video or live performance into this exploration?

NM: Decision Altitude is the beginning of an ongoing exploration into skydiving, a sport that I have become increasingly more invested in. I have begun to organize freeflyers at my local drop zone and recently set a national record for Women's Upright Vertical formation skydiving. I am currently training for the Women's Head Down Vertical Formation Skydiving World Record. I also compete on a four-way belly team with the Florida Skydiving League and will be taking my exam to get my accelerated free fall instructor rating this month.

In terms of new work, Vertical World Record is a multichannel video installation that shows the moment of stillness when a world record-breaking vertical formation skydive comes together and settles out just before it breaks apart into pieces again. Ground Rush is a parachute inflated by fans in perpetual flight. I am also working on a project called Column, which serves as an anti-monument to western architecture—the foundation of Renaissance perspectival vision. This project is essentially an airboat fan encased in a large (9' x 9' x 5') white pedestal. A column of air is pushed out through a six-foot hole in the pedestal at a speed of 150 miles per hour. A net made of stranded stainless steel wire would allow the viewer to experience this work by moving close to, touching and potentially walking through the column of wind.  I will also mount performances in which I hover within the column of wind that I hope will be completed later this summer.

To view more of Noelle's work, please visit noellemason.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. Notable exhibitions include Losing Yourself in the 21st Century (Maryland Art Place, Baltimore), MP3 (The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago), Please Stand By: Stacia Yeapanis + Readymade (Baang & Burne Contemporary, New York), Over and Over Again (BOLT Project Space, 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.