OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Kris Grey/Justin Credible

Homage
Performance Still (Clifford Owens Seminar at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY)
2013
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Fivel Rothberg

Gender queer artist KRIS GREY/JUSTIN CREDIBLE’s interdisciplinary practice includes video and ceramics, as well as a variety of performance modes: storytelling, drag, educational lectures, social interaction in public space and endurance. They explore the intersection of gendered embodiment, authority, intimacy and social justice. Kris received their BFA in Ceramics from Maryland Institute College of Art (2003) and their MFA in Fine Arts from Ohio University (2012). They perform and lecture internationally, most recently at Performatorium: Making It, Difficult at Neutral Ground Contemporary Art Forum at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada and Performing Franklin Furnace, curated by Clifford Owens at Participant Inc. in New York. Gender/Power, a collaboration with Maya Ciarrocchi, will begin a series of 2015 residencies at Baryshnikov Arts Center in March, Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn in the summer and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Process Space in the fall. From March 25 - 28, 2015, you can see Gender/Power performances at Gibney Dance Center in New York City. Kris will be the 2015 Perry Lecturer at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kris’s home base is Brooklyn.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Both your BFA and MFA are in Ceramics, but it seems that you are now focused on performance, video and social activism. What led to the shift from object-making to performance? Do you still find time for the studio? Do you ever miss object-making as a practice?



Kris Grey: I’ve been making objects and performances in parallel for as long as I can remember. I developed a performance persona named Justin Credible as a parallel to my studio practice in the early 2000s. That character allowed me to perform an array of alternative masculinities through drag performance. As Justin, I organized and performed with the Charm City Kitty Club from 2005-2009. I also performed in bars and on stages all over Baltimore and the Washington DC metro area. It wasn’t until grad school that I started producing performance and live art under the banner of visual art—in essence combining my creative identities.

I come to my work through craft. The way I use my body is closely tied to the way I use clay or other sculptural materials. With clay I work through form and build objects that exhibit, subvert or superseded gendered expectations. Ceramics is magical alchemy! You combine materials, manipulate forms and then place them under extreme duress to produce beauty. The material qualities of the body are similar. Bodies are always marked by socialization. Much in the way that clay records its own history, the body reveals its own stories. Flesh is pliable and plastic. It can be formed and reformed just like clay. 

I have taken that methodology on as a life project. My body is my main raw material. I use hormones and surgeries as a way to craft a queer form outside the binary of male and female. The material may change, but the core interests are constant—namely gender, authority and social justice.

Bottoms Up
2009
Porcelain, glaze, decal
6"x 6"x 3"
Butt Plug service, microwave and dishwasher safe.

OPP:Ask A Tranny is an ongoing, interactive, public performance, social action and online project" which has been performed in Newark, London, Baltimore and Kuopio, Finland. How do you pick where to perform this piece? Has one place been more challenging than another? Where did you receive the most welcoming, enthusiastic response?



KG: The first time I performed Ask A Tranny (AAT) I was in London on a study abroad trip. I didn’t even have a passport before that summer. I was 30 years old, and travel was something I thought to be beyond my class status. Getting a passport probably seems simple to most people, although costly. However, for me there was a major consideration about what “sex” I should list myself as. I am gender-queer identified with a transgender history. I don’t self-identify as either male or female exclusively. When I applied for my passport, I had begun to take testosterone and my appearance was somewhere on the masculine spectrum though I didn’t have facial hair. I’ve never had the intention of changing my ID sex markers since I feel the M/F binary is arbitrary and insufficient. I am listed as “F” on all of my IDs including my license and my passport. I like to think of that F as standing for feminism. I saw my new passport as a conversation piece that made passing through security checkpoints particularly contentious. Whether I’m holding a passport or a sign, I’m enacting the same “performance”—performing myself as gender-queer for an audience of strangers and with differing stakes. At a border I risk detainment. In the public there are different risks. The passport and the cardboard sign both function as prompts for conversations around gender, embodiment and self-actualization. 

Since travel provoked this work, it seemed appropriate to perform it in many different geographical locations. I made a sign that fits into my suitcase and I take it along wherever I go. I usually perform in places of public gathering. Some sites have a particular resonance their history, for example Speakers Corner. I’ve run AAT in public parks, shopping centers and on college campuses. Sometimes there is resistance from police or authority figures who think, at first, that I am soliciting money. It helps to know and understand local laws for public use, which can vary greatly across cultures. In general, it is not illegal to hold a sign and conduct conversations in public spaces. That is what happens in AAT. The result, when I appear in public and make myself vulnerable, is that strangers meet me there with their own care and vulnerability. We exchange stories and create empathetic connections. Gender and my transness is the place we start but the conversations are as varied as the participants. Every single time I’ve performed AAT, I have had genuine, interesting and transcendent experiences with people I’ve never met before and will likely never see again.

How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps
2012
A quick "how to" for those interested in performing trans visibility in the public.

OPP: Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is my understanding that tranny is generally considered a derogatory term these days. I can definitely see that you are reclaiming the term and therefore controlling it's perception with your performance, but I wonder if you ever get push back within the trans community for using the term tranny?

KG: I use the term tranny to identify myself. It’s personal to me. You are correct. Tranny is a trigger word that makes some folks feel unsafe. Though I’m very intentional in my use, I know that this particular word can be difficult and potentially harmful for those people. I would never say I’m “reclaiming” the word tranny. As someone on the trans masculine spectrum, it is not mine to reclaim. There is a great wide debate about who may use the term and who should not. I am certainly not advocating any position by my use of the word to identify myself.

I make my work with sincerity and I am always open to being challenged or critiqued. When people attend the public performances or see video footage I think that sincerity is communicated.

(Sub)merge
Performance Still (The Ice Palace at Cherry Grove, NY)
2012
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Gordon Hall

OPP: While looking at all your work online, I was reminded of Bob Flanagan nailing his penis to a board, Stelarc's suspension and body modification and Marina Abramovic's 1974 performance Rhythm 0. Suspicious Packages (2010 and 2012) also reminds me at times of Martha Rossler's seminal feminist video Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). How does your work relate to the art historical trajectory of endurance work?

KG: I’ve certainly been influenced by all the artists you list. I hope that my work continues in a legacy built of live art/body work, AIDS activism and feminism. I could make a list a mile long of writers, artists and activists I admire and seek to emulate. Trans* and gender queer artists like Kate Bornstein, Del LaGrace Volcano, Vaginal Davis, Leon Mostovoy, Heather Cassils and Tobaron Waxman come to mind. Body/live art artists including Linda Montano, Annie Sprinkle, Elizabeth Stephens, Barbara Hammer, Martha Wilson, Julie Tolentino, Rocio Boliver, Franko B, Dominic Johnson and Ron Athey, inspire me. I owe a great deal to the leadership and guidance of my teachers and mentors from high school to the present. While I look to other artists for inspiration, I am also indebted to the body workers and healers, trans* people, queers, crafters, sex workers and outcasts who have made their lives and work outside the frame of visual art.

Intergenerational dialog has been the key to my development in performance. I’ve had the great pleasure of performing for and working with amazing artists. Ron Athey’s work and writing have deeply influenced me and I’m so humbled to have built a relationship with him over the past two years. The first time I performed Homage, in 2013, Ron installed my chest piercings. In January 2015, we both performed in Regina, Saskatchewan, at Performatorium. We had the chance to participate in each other’s work again. This time, Ron worked together with another artist, Jon John, to help prepare my body for my performance. It’s an incredibly intimate thing to bring other people into your work through your body. And it’s such a gift when the people you admire invite you to perform in their work, as Ron did at Performatorium. That’s the best kind of mentorship for a live artist! 

Suspicious Packages (Finland)
Single Chanel Video
2012
10:07

OPP: Whether in casual conversations in public spaces, in videos like How To Perform Trans Visibility in Three Easy Steps (2012) or in storytelling performances like Body Dialectic (2012), you project a warm, down-to-earth presence. You put people at ease and make it comfortable for them to ask questions. Is this just your personality or something you to cultivate and maintain?

KG: It may just be my personality. I was always coming home with report cards from school with teacher comments that read “too social in class.” I’ve always been interested in people; I just want to tell stories and hear stories. In a way I’ve built my practice around that desire. But being welcoming is a practice I’ve cultivated over time. I grew up in hospitality. My parents owned a small, seasonal motel in Upstate New York. I worked there from the time that I was in diapers until I left for college in Baltimore. While other kids were on summer vacations with their family, I was working. The motel was very formative. It brought strangers from all over into my life. I learned how to entertain.

OPP: Do you generally feel drained or jazzed after a public performance?

KG: Some of the content of my work is challenging. The core of my identity is an agitation to the very structure of binary socialization. I work through the lens of gender, but I’m ultimately interested in disrupting systems of power and dominance. I find it most effective to lead with vulnerability. I get nervous before I perform, sometimes for weeks before I appear on stage or in public. I’m an extrovert and something of an exhibitionist, but when the content of the work is so raw and personal I find it necessary to recharge after. During and immediately following a performance I feel elated. Some works, like Homage and (sub)Merge, take me through my body and out. Homage is really a meditative transcendence. Afterwards, I feel very vulnerable and fragile. I try to treat myself tenderly and with extra care. Sometimes that means that I need to be alone in a space that feels safe.

Intimate Gestures
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
2011
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Paige Wright

OPP: I love what you say about leading with vulnerability. Personally, I believe that social and political change can be best brought about through activism based in storytelling, as opposed to protest, although they can certainly work in tandem. I’m thinking specifically about the changes in representations of LGBTQ characters in TV and movies over the last decade.

KG: I agree. Storytelling is an incredibly effective tool for social change. I cannot say if it's more or less effective than protest or if there is a clear delineation between the two. ACT UP and Gran Fury created an incredible amount of social change through protest. There is a vast difference between mainstream media storytelling and street-level activism, but it's hard to totally dismiss television programs because they have an incredibly wide reach. I think it's dangerous to judge work based on political efficacy alone.

We may also be thinking about storytelling in different ways. In my practice, direct community engagement through storytelling—and by storytelling, I mean people saying their truths of their lives in their words out loud to others for witness—can create revolution.

Body Dialectic
Performance Still (Athens, OH)
2012
Performance and Concept by Kris Grey
Photograph by Kris Grey and Louise O'Rourke

OPP: What are your thoughts on recent media representations of trans characters, specifically Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black and Maura Pfefferman from Transparent?

KG: The radical potential of trans* narratives is that they could disrupt a central power structure which touches every part of our lives: binary gender. I will say that we’ve never had a champion like Lavern Cox. She is such an incredible force, and I’m proud of the conversations she’s creating off screen. I admire her tremendously.

I am wary of mainstream media. Some of my earliest memories of trans* people come from daytime talk shows I saw as a kid. Someone would come out and be introduced to the audience who would be waiting with placards to guess if the guest was a man or a woman. From that kind of sensationalism, which still happens today, we have newer exploitations where after a lengthy introduction, the trans* guests break down and thank the host for letting them tell their story. . . except they hadn't just told their story! The host had interpreted and mediated it for the audience.

Consistently, in movies, on television and in the news, trans* people are portrayed as pathological. The dominant narrative produced is of being trapped in the wrong body. The wrong body narrative, so closely tied to the definition of transexualism from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, centers heteronormativity and distracts from any variation on the male/female binary. This dominant narrative reaffirms trans* folks as a strange apparition in need of medical and psychological intervention rather than a part of human diversity and who need access to life chances in health, housing, education and employment. Further, it skirts the real societal ills— sexism, misogyny, patriarchy and racism—that produce violence.

I suppose what I want to say here is that it depends on who's doing the telling. Trans* characters are increasingly complex; this is a good thing. The media machines that produce them are starting to cast actual trans* people, though not all the time and certainly not enough. I think trans* roles can be played by trans* people but I also think trans* actors can play non-trans roles. We often hear backlash when a cisgender person gets cast as a trans* character, but I'd like to see more diverse casting across all media, on TV, on stage, in movies, etc. Instead of casting for the lead “female” role, why not just cast for the role? Don’t immediately limit the possibilities of who could play that person. I want to see new representations of gender-queer and non-binary folks. It’s totally fine for people to feel like they’ve been “trapped in the wrong body,” but I don’t feel that way. I’d like to see more visibility for other non-binary people who feel differently.

To see more of Kris's work, please visit kristingrey.com.

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. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.



OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Courtney Kessel

In Balance With
2014
Performance

Mother, artist and academic COURTNEY KESSEL collapses the divide between public and private by performing with her daughter Chloe and bringing the objects of her everyday life into the gallery. In performance, video and installation, she "strives to make visible the quiet, understated, and often unseen love and labor of motherhood." Courtney received her BFA in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art (1998) and completed an MFA in Sculpture & Expanded Practices and a certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies (2012) from Ohio University. In 2014, her solo exhibition Mother Lode opened at David Brooks Art Gallery, Fairmont State University in West Virginia, and she performed as part of New Maternalisms (2014) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Santiago, Chile. Jennie Klein has covered her work in a chapter titled “Grains and Crumbs: Performing Maternity” in the hot-off-the-presses Performing Motherhood: Artistic, Activist, and Everyday Enactments. E.g. Courtney Kessel: You and Me is on view at Brigham Young University Art Museum (Provo, Utah) through May 2015, and her work is included in the upcoming group show Mother at University of Southern Queensland Arts Gallery (Toowoomba, Australia). Courtney is the Exhibitions & Events Coordinator for the non-profit arts organization, The Dairy Barn Arts Center and teaches in the School of Art at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your sculptural installations and performances mostly revolve around the themes of balance and space as they relate to motherhood. You've collaborated with your daughter in the creation of works like In Balance With, which has been performed a handful of times, the video Sharing Space (2012) and the cut plywood sculptures of Spaces in Between (2012). How did this collaboration begin and how has it evolved? Is your daughter a decision-maker in the work or a performer?

Courtney Kessel: In Balance With was first performed in 2010.  At the time, my daughter Chloé was 5 years old. She informed the work and was an active participant, but she was not so much a collaborator. During that first performance, which was for a small audience of maybe 20-30 invited guests, I didn’t know exactly how the piece was going to end. I had been communicating with Chloé throughout making sure she was comfortable and okay. After I reached a balance, I asked if she wanted to come down. She said no. It was then that I realized the performance is over when she is no longer interested and occupied. It is a metaphor for our lives together. I can only do my work so long as she is content.

Now that she is older and understands the work differently, she has had an influence on things. We were at a restaurant one day, and she was cold. I had on a cardigan. She sat on my lap and put her arms inside my sleeves. It was she who said that we should do this as a performance. That’s where the video sketches became Sharing Space.

Sharing Space
2012
Video
1:55

OPP: In your recent solo exhibition Mother Lode (2014), you created three sculptures made from "curated household items." For anyone who has ever been in a home with children, it is clear that all this stuff takes over. It is constantly being moved, cleaned up, reorganized. It encroaches on the environment. I love the way these "monuments" allow you, as the mother, to play and build like a child while simultaneously reclaiming the adult space of having a art practice and art career. Can you describe the process of curating the objects?

CK: I love how you understand these pieces! They are very much monuments that tower from floor to ceiling. Not that my house looks this way. . . but it feels like it! These sculptures derive from In Balance With: they include the household items that were on the seesaw. These things from home became like self-portraits that change each time. They are specific to us, though not so specific that others cannot relate.

The curated aspect of the selected objects truly holds the meaning; those proximities and juxtapositions make each work different. That was the fun part for me! Like you said, it allowed me to pretend and play the same as Chloé does at home, but in the gallery in a very formal way. I actually took a U-Haul trailer to my parents’ house to get some of the stuff. THEY had children (three of us and then grandkids) and still had mounds of toys, books and things lying around. They are preparing to retire soon and will downsize, so I just gave them a head start! The work really is to visibly demonstrate that children do take up space, both physically, but also mentally. Once they are in your life, they are always there. . . no matter how old they get. I call this the “eternal maternal.”

As I went through the objects at our house and my parents' house, I was looking for things that could create structure like furniture, drawers, a dollhouse built by my dad, a car seat, a TV. Then I looked for sheer quantity. I went through books, stuffed animals, small plastic toys, VHS tapes and more with the intention of these things telling a story. From Cabbage Patch Kids to Finding Nemo, there is a timeline of "stuff." But there was a limitation: I couldn't take things that my siblings would get mad at me for taking. . . :)

Mother Lode (installation view)
2014
David Brooks Art Gallery, Fairmont State University

OPP: Was there a construction plan before you began?

CK: Once the truck bed and U-Haul were unloaded into the gallery, I had absolutely NO idea how the towers would look.  Initially, I had planned to take rope, yarn, twine and bungee cords to attach everything together. But once I got started, it became a balancing act. Could I connect the ceiling to the floor in order to architecturally change the space? How did the individual objects change once they were turned on their side and stuffed with other objects? What kinds of meanings were formed by the side by side placements? It was very intuitive, but it was also very formal. Like the formal balance of a post-modern sculpture or putting a mark on a canvas, there were very specific decisions that weren't necessarily based on color per se, but rather based on aesthetic decisions. 

OPP: Was your house empty for the run of Mother Lode?

CK: I have an ongoing joke in our house that if I can’t find it, it’s probably in the gallery. . .  I really do the take things that we are currently using and put them in my work. One day, I was looking for a jar of dried beans that I knew I had just had in my hands. I wanted to make soup and was determined to find those beans. I eventually realized that they were in fact in the show.

Mother Lode
(detail)
2014

OPP: Will you ever recreate these sculptures as they were in this show?

CK: The sculptures from Mother Lode will never be recreated. Like a portrait, the work will always be different; evolving, changing, and growing. Each time these objects are restructured into a new work, they tell a different story and take on new meanings. In Symphony of the Domestic II, I added to the "stuff" from In Balance With, which represented my daughter and I. It grew to include people who formed my foundation. Like a pedestal holding something up, the base is comprised of items that represented my family, friends and mentors who continue to support me.

The pedestal holds up a 16mm projector which plays a stream of consciousness text: love every body as any body of water mater water under the bridge the gap gape gap her words her story write her story word for word for word for word forward. I used a script typewriter to stamp, print, embed the words onto the film. I am interested in the non-gendered, non-hierarchical aspect of printing or stenciling. Where a pen to paper or brush to canvas has the element of “acting” upon something, I am more engaged with leveling that or flattening the hierarchy. By stamping, printing, imprinting and stenciling, I am able to mechanize/mobilize language to becoming one with the substrate or at least to become equal to it. Each time the film passes through the projector and the other items for that matter, the words slowly degrade and will disappear eventually.

Symphony of the Domestic II (detail)
2014

OPP: Who influences you in thinking about the labor of motherhood?

CK: I think about the labor that Mierles Laderman Ukeles’ work was about. That was the labor of maintenance. It was gendered, but not specifically about mothering. It is important that she put that in the gallery. I reference her because of the politics of placing that gendered and private practice into the gallery. I think about the work that Mary Kelly made that was about her son through the lens of psychoanalysis. That was about mothering, but not so much about the subjectivity of maternity. By placing psychoanalysis in there, she was able to distance herself as a mother but still sneak it into the space of the gallery through the didactic referencing of the objects.

2012

OPP: Do you ever feel like your work is not taken seriously because it is about the labor of motherhood? Have you had any dismissive comments from viewers?

CK: So far, I have not received any dismissive sentiments from viewers or critics. I’m sure it exists, but I haven’t heard any yet. Many people have the ability to relate to my work. Whether they are mothers or children of mothers, viewers witness a little bit of their own experience or that of their mother’s.

I do this work in part as a protest. For all the amazing women artists who have gone before me, who had to hide their maternity for the sake of their careers and for so many who chose NOT to have children for their careers. . . that was one kind of “choice” from the second wave of Feminism. I always wondered why it was so frowned upon to be a mother and a professional. It’s the gendering of those stereotypes that I really can’t stand. Why do girls have to have pink things and boys blue? Why are women trying to hide wrinkles, fat and gray hair, but for men it is fine?

I am interested in putting the specific, subjective experience of the mother in the gallery whether you want to see it or not. It is not some idealized/generalization of the mother, but rather a specific, real experience.

To see more of Courtney's work, please visit courtneykessel.com.

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. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Alana Bartol

Wrapped Rocks
2009
Performed at Artcite Inc. in Windsor, ON

ALANA BARTOL "hopes to create spaces in which transformation, moments of connection and reflection can occur." In both community-engaged and studio-based projects, she acts as a facilitator and a catalyst for communal creations, inviting viewers and participants to actively shape the work. Alana earned her BFA from University of Windsor in 2004 and her MFA in Sculpture from Wayne State University in Detroit. She has received numerous grants through the Ontario Arts Council, including the National and International Residency Grant to fund her upcoming residency with bioart pioneer Joe Davis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in spring 2015. She will also be participating in a six-week residency with Lucy + Jorge Orta at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Upcoming exhibitions include Bioart: Collaborating with Life at Karsh-Masson Gallery (Ottawa, Ontario) and Far Away So Close: Part III at Access Gallery (Vancouver, BC). Along with friend and collaborator Arturo Herrera, she will debut the first issue of ARTWINDSOR, a quarterly publication that focuses on art created in Windsor, Ontario, where Alana lives and works.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Do projects like Detroit Windsor Journal Project (2006), Wrapped Rocks (2009 and 2013) and Hands to the Earth: After cj fleury (2012) have a shared aim? How do these projects fulfill your conceptual concerns?

Alana Bartol: I am interested in how humans find, confront and engage with the living, non-human world. We are part of nature, yet we separate ourselves from it. We control, manipulate and contain it, while longing to find our place within it. My work is based in the idea of micro-transformations. Through everyday, individual actions, we can effect change in our relationships with the environments and one another.

In Wrapped Rocks and Detroit Windsor Journal Project, participants were invited to create an individual piece that is then presented as part of a larger installation. Often the methods of “art making” are simple, everyday actions: wrapping, arranging, collecting, tying, weaving, walking, journaling. If objects are produced, they often exist temporarily or are given away to the participants. For Hands to the Earth, the mandala was left in the community garden and dispersed by the elements. In Wrapped Rocks, participants have the option to contribute their rock to the pile or take it with them.

For the Detroit Windsor Journal Project, journals were created on the same day by hundreds of people of all ages in both cities. As the journals arrived by mail, my collaborator, Ben Good and I documented and installed the journals in the gallery. We invited the participating students to see the show. Many had never been to an art gallery and were excited by the scale of the project and the fact that their contributions were important and unique. I hope it instilled a sense of confidence and pride.

Since 2009, I have re-created Wrapped Rocks over five times in different environments including galleries and community organizations. In some spaces, what begins as a quiet, reflective activity slowly turns into a room buzzing with conversations. The first time it was created, a woman was adamant that I explain what the piece meant, “was it a comment on climate change or a reference to war?” My response was “both.” In all of my work, I am concerned with how we relate to the earth and one another. These relationships are deeply intertwined. 

Detroit Windsor Journal Project
October 2, 2006
A field trip was arranged for participants from Christ the King Elementary School in Detroit to visit the Elaine Jacobs Gallery where their work was on display.

OPP: How do you solicit participation?

AB: My approach has generally been to set up a space and invite people to participate. For example, Hands to the Earth began with a small group of community gardeners, but quickly attracted many people. There were many reasons for this: we were working outside, food was offered, it was part of a MayWorks celebration, it was promoted in various ways and it was visually pleasing. People wanted to be part of it. Passersby became participants, assisting in the design and placement of materials. One man went home and came back with yard waste from his garden to contribute to the creation of the mandala. Another man left and came back with a camera and a ladder so he could document the work. It is amazing to see how a work can have a  ripple effect in a community, even a small one can leave a lasting impression. I still get requests to re-create this piece by groups all over Windsor.

Hands to the Earth: After cj fleury
2012
A community arts project in collaboration with the Campus Community Garden Project at the University of Windsor, local artists and community members.

OPP: Please introduce your curatorial projects Artist For Hire (2013) and Art S.E.A.L.S. and talk about responses from the public. Are non-artists generally surprised to find out the kinds of jobs artists do?

AB: Both projects arose from community discussions regarding the often-poor working conditions and levels of remuneration within the arts. In 2013, I had just finished a contract with the Ontario Arts Council, working with artists and organizations to develop community-engaged projects and secure grant funding. I was struggling to find a balance between my work in the arts and my own art practice, as is the case for so many artists. Artist For Hire: All Skills Required (2013) was a series of performances. I invited 16 Windsor, Ontario-based artists and arts workers/administrators to perform skills that they have used to generate income in the gallery space. These included housekeeping, dish washing, holistic energy work, dog walking, nude modeling, administrative, data entry and office work. Artist for Hire didn’t draw a large audience outside of the arts community, but it served as a starting point for these types of conversations in Windsor and lead to the development of Art S.E.A.L.S. (Skills Exchange and Learning Series): Survival Skills Training, a project I co-curated in 2014 with Andrew Lochhead.

For Art S.E.A.L.S., nine artists from Windsor and Hamilton, Ontario each presented a skill they use in their art practice at the Hamilton Farmers’ Market and the Windsor Public Library and a “non-art” skill used in employment outside of their artistic practice at the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Workers, Arts and Heritage Centre (Hamilton). Audiences in both cities were curious about what it was like to work as an artist. There was a lot of interest in having conversations with the artists to gain insight into their working processes and the ways in which their work outside the arts influenced their artwork. It broke down the audience/artist barrier. Depending on the nature of the “performance,” audience members felt comfortable approaching the artists and initiating conversations. It made visible and acknowledged the time, materials, resources and labor required to create artwork.

Artist For Hire
Srimoyee Mitra, Curator
Skill: Cleaning
While pursuing her MA in Art History, Mitra worked as a housekeeper.

OPP: How persistent is the myth of the starving artist?

AB: The myth of the “starving artist” does persist and is somewhat warranted. Like many artists, I have held a number of jobs including a nude model, factory worker, cashier, server, janitor, educator, arts administrator, sessional and adjunct instructor, arts consultant and grant writer. I also worked as an employment advocate and a career counselor for art and design students. I have had a lot of experience working with people in the arts and it is incredibly difficult to make a living as an artist without additional employment or another source of income or financial support. Many artists can expect to spend 75% of their time on administrative work for their practice: responding to emails, applying for exhibitions, balancing budgets, promotion through social media, updating websites, organizing documentation, adjusting images and writing grants, creating application materials or developing proposals. On top of that, you need a space to create, time to connect with other artists, resources and tools, the ability and means to travel and take time off work to participate in residencies, professional development activities, conferences, workshops or exhibitions. These are all important aspects of a career in the arts. In my experience, these are not skills that students of art always learn and they are not easy skills to attain. If you have representation, a dealer, curator or agent might do many of these things for you. However, if you don’t create works that can be distributed in the commercial art market, you probably need to learn how to do most of these things on your own or find good collaborators. Skill sharing and bartering are central support systems in many arts communities.

Un-camouflaging #16
Photo Credit: Brigham Bartol

OPP: What's a ghille suit? Could you explain the idea of "un-camouflaging?"

AB: A ghillie suit is traditionally worn by military snipers and hunters to camouflage the human body in natural landscapes. It is created with a combination of synthetic and natural materials. I order ghillie suit kits from hunting supply stores. I sew the netting into wearable forms and tie the jute onto it. Burlap and other materials can also be used. It is a time-consuming process. The colors, textures and form are important considerations. Plants, grasses and other natural materials from the landscape are then gathered and woven into the suit. When moving through various landscapes, the threads of the suit pick up leaves, burs, sticks and sometimes garbage from the environment.

I find inspiration in environments that are familiar to many North Americans: urban pathways, community gardens, parks, domestic spaces, backyards and suburban neighborhoods. The term “un-camouflaging” explains what I do as Ghillie. A shift between concealing and revealing is integral to the work. I began to do public walks in the suit, deciding where I might stop to camouflage and choosing when to reveal and conceal myself, altering my form. The suit allows me to become part of, while also standing apart from, the landscape. As Ghillie, I am still and quiet. I do not speak or respond verbally. I become invisible and watch, much like a hunter or sniper. I sit, stand, crouch or sometimes fold my body in on itself, becoming a pile of grassy material.

I first learned about ghillie suits when I was living in Vermont, but the character Ghillie evolved after I moved back to Windsor, a city fraught with many environmental and socio-economic issues. Around this time, I was reading trickster stories from different cultures and began thinking about how these tales often revolve around modes of survival. These stories offer insights into how humans make choices about what we need and value and how those choices affect the world. In Windsor, Ghille may serve as a foreboding or protective guardian figure, but she is also a trickster of sorts. She moves between human-made and wild environments. As a non-human entity that can travel between worlds, she embodies the masculine and feminine and transcends the body.

Ghillie Crossing
Photo Credit: Brigham Bartol

OPP: If money and resources were not an issue, what's your fantasy community arts project?

AB: It’s hard to imagine a project where funding, time and resources are not an issue! I would create a sustainable community arts project that could serve as a support organization and residency program of sorts for artists. The program itself would be envisioned as a community arts project, one that would allow artists to work alongside professionals in other fields and be properly compensated for their time, much like the Artist Placement Group, a radical artist-run organization founded in Britain in the 1960s that temporarily “placed” artists in businesses and government offices. Though each artist was paid for their time, labor and expertise, there was no expectation that they produce ideas, objects or projects for the place of work.

I have always found ways to work and create opportunities for other artists to work in spaces where they “don’t belong.” Artists, through their inherent creativity can bring new insights, perspectives and ideas, contributing to and transforming society. Bioartist Joe Davis is a great example. An Artist, Researcher and Scientist, working in the Biology Department at MIT and the George Church Lab in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, he is able to connect with scientists and collaborate with them to realize projects that most artists could only dream of creating. 

In my hypothetical program, a team of artists and professionals from other disciplines would work to develop the project philosophy and program structure. Securing places for artists to work would be part of my job and practice. With a supportive work environment, a good wage (including benefits) and a schedule that allowed me to sustain my practice, it would be a dream job.

To see more projects by Alana, please visit alanabartol.com.

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. Recent exhibitions include solo shows I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago, as well as Here|Now, a two-person exhibition curated by MK Meador and also featuring the work of Jason Uriah White, at Design Cloud in Chicago (2014). Most recently, Stacia created  When Things Fall Apart, a durational, collage installation in the Annex Gallery at Lillstreet Art Center. Closing reception guests were invited to help break down the piece by pulling pins out of the wall.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Sandrine Schaefer

Stairs to Nowhere
2009
Duration: untimed
Location: Boston, MA USA
photo by Philip Fryer

Performance artist, writer and independent curator SANDRINE SCHAEFER literally and figuratively explores the concept and experience of fitting in. Her site-sensitive live actions in public space offer the opportunity to contemplate the relationship of our bodies to time and space. In 2004, Sandrine co-founded The Present Tense, dedicated to the presentation and preservation of live action art in transient spaces. In 2012, she was a recipient of The Tanne Foundation Award for artistic excellence. Her curatorial project ACCUMULATION is on view through March 26, 2014 at Boston University’s 808 Gallery in conjunction with the group exhibition The Lightning Speed of The Present. Sandrine lives and works in Boston.

OtherPeoplesPixels: You use the term "site-sensitive" instead of the more prevalent "site-specific" when referring to your performances. Could you clarify the difference?

Sandrine Schaefer: Working site-sensitively requires an artist to surrender to the present moment and accept all of the chance encounters that come along with making work for a specific environment in real time. Site-specific work can do this too, but this it isn’t a requirement.

Organico
2012
An infiltration into a trash can in Mexico City
Duration: 57 minutes

OPP: In 2012, you spent time in Mexico and did a series of durational live actions in public space—including Ascensions, Fusions and Illusions—that grew out of your 2009 project Adventures in Being (small), which was a literal and figurative exploration of the theme of fitting in. How were the performances in Mexico an extension of that earlier project? What was different? How did time factor into these projects?

SS: When I began working on Being (small), I was measuring my body by infiltrating a wide array spaces and was not too discriminating about what those spaces were. If I thought I could fit some part of my body into a space, I would try. In the early work, I was interested in the accumulation of the project. There are two rules for Being (small): I enter the space the way that I find it, and I stay (often in sustained stillness) for as long as my body or the space allows. My intention was to work similarly in Mexico, but there were many historical and environmental elements that insisted on becoming part of the work. 

My first destination was Puebla, a place that is known for its cathedrals. Locals kept telling me that these cathedrals were “built on the backs” of the indigenous communities. It is said that the indigenous people built idols of their own deities into the churches in Puebla. When forced to pray to the saints, they were actually praying to something they believed in. I appreciated the rebellion of this story, and I found the notion of a hidden history kept alive through memory inspiring. It made me reconsider the notion of “smallness” and “being.”

A Nicho for Coatlicue
2012
Site-sensitive action with sun-burned image of Coatlicue on back, infiltration into domestic space in Puebla, Mexico
Duration: 50 minutes
Photo by Daniel S. DeLuca

OPP: What other unexpected factors changed the work?

SS: The sun has a presence throughout Mexico that I had never experienced before. It’s no wonder why early civilizations were influenced by the cycles of the sun! It had a profound effect on my body and impacted my internal clock. The work became shorter because I had to be very specific about what times of the day I was outside. I had to move at a different pace while in the sun. I wanted to actively incorporate these limitations into the work, rather than allowing them to be passive byproducts, so I started researching. 

I found that before Puebla was called Puebla, the Aztecs named it Cuetlaxcoapan, which means "where the serpents shed their skin.” I began engaging in sun rituals where I sunburned the image of Coatlicue, an Aztec serpent goddess, onto my back. I then sought out places of tension throughout Puebla: places where ruins had been built over or where buildings with different architectural styles touched. As I fit my body into these spaces, I simultaneously placed this (literally) fading historic icon into contemporary situations.

As I continued my travels, I chose images relevant to the history of other locations throughout Mexico. In Oaxaca, I burned a Zapotec huipil onto my chest. In Mexico City, I burned an image designed from ruins I studied at Monte Alban onto my stomach. There was something powerful about wearing the traces of one place and bringing them into another. Histories travel through us.

Half Sadhu
2013

OPP: How does the presence of a camera, used to document your performances, affect the performances themselves?

SS: While working on Being (small), I started to view the camera as a collaborator. Although the actions I performed were rather benign, being still in public spaces can cause concern. This is intensified because of my perceived gender. The goal in all of my work is to create a pause for my audience. . . a chance encounter that inspires a shift in their perceptions about how we interact with our environment. The presence of a camera gives people permission to look. I’ve found that the more professional the camera looks, the less anxiety the encounter induces. The audience is usually more willing to engage. Being (small) intentionally has two different audiences: those who encounter the work in the present moment and those who encounter it through its documentation. But is the “art” in the live act, the photograph or video or both? This is slippery territory that performance artists of our time are navigating in different ways. For me, the art is the live act, but I also see the artistic value of the documents themselves.

For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching (1)
2013
Photo by Daniel S. DeLuca

OPP: That brings to mind recent pieces like Mirror Stage (2013) and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching (2013), that include video-sharing technologies like the iPhone and live-cam on the Internet as integral ways for viewers to experience live actions. How have these technologies changed your work? Do you think they are changing the nature of performance art in general?

SS: Living in an increasingly documented society, it is impossible not to consider the potential and the limitations of these technologies. I certainly think that technology is changing spectatorship of performance art. These technologies are amazing in the sense that we can connect easily—almost instantly—and see documentation from pieces that might be impossible to witness live. However, no matter how thorough, documentation is not a substitute for the live piece. In Mirror Stage and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching, I use contemporary technologies to intentionally fragment the experience of the performance in order to inspire an active dialogue about the tensions around the act of witnessing in the 21st century. 

I often work with the idea of breaking the traditional performance space by rewarding the curious viewer. This is expressed through small details that can only be experienced at a close proximately. In both Mirror Stage and For You. . . and anyone else who might be watching, I found that viewers are willing to engage a bit more intimately than in some of my other work. Perhaps the mediation of an interface reads as an invitation to interact.

Mirror Stage
2013

OPP: For you, is documentation of live performance a problem to be solved or a creative opportunity?

SS: Both. As an independent curator and archivist of performance art, I am always thinking about this. False Summit (phase 2), my collaborative project with Phil Fryer, revolved around the idea of archiving through the body and memory. There are many artists that are doing interesting work with archiving and alternative strategies for documentation. Jamie McMurry, Boris Nieslony, Márcio Carvalho and Shannon Cochrane are just a few.

My curatorial project ACCUMULATION explores documentation of art action through objects. Over the duration of this exhibition, participating artists are given one day to create a live-art piece. All evidence from their actions is left behind, challenging the following artists to incorporate these remnants into their own work. Any materials that come into the space must remain until the exhibition closes. ACCUMULATION challenges ideas about artist collaboration and simultaneously creates an innovative exhibition of experiential art documentation. This has been generative for me. 

OPP: What is The Present Tense?

SS: In 2003, action art experienced a resurgence in Boston. Inspired by the explosive movement happening around us, Phil Fryer and I created The Present Tense in 2004. It started out as an initiative that organized and produced live art events and exchanges, but quickly grew into much more. We believe that art is an access point for growth. To date, we have organized and curated dozens of art events, festivals (including the Contaminate Festival), artist exchanges and exhibitions. In 2009, we co-founded the late MEME Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We have shown over 300 artists from across the globe, accumulating footage and relics from performances. We wanted to share this further, so The Present Tense launched an online archive in 2009. The goal of this living archive is to provide a permanent presence for ephemeral art that has difficulty finding space to be seen. The Present Tense challenges cultural perceptions of what art can be through its commitment to curating this often misunderstood art form.

We are celebrating our tenth birthday later this year, so Phil and I are also using this time to reflect and explore what the future of The Present Tense might look like. In 2014, the archive will include never-before-seen footage, posts by guest writers, a series of posts with the theme "Family" and artist accounts of performances that have had no witnesses.

To see more of Sandrine's work, please visit sandrineschaefer.com.

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 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. Recent solo exhibitions include I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (2013) at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) and Everything You Need is Already Here (2014) at Heaven Gallery in Chicago.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Doo-Sung Yoo

Vishtauroborg001.OMH5 version1.0
May 2011
Robotic Performance (preparation)

DOO-SUNG YOO has been re-contextualizing discarded animal organs in installations, robotics and performances since 2007. The mechanical sculptures of Organ-machine Hybrids have evolved into Vishtauroborg001.OMH5, a "performance project that incorporates robotics, electronic music and sound, dance, visual performance, and industrial design." Vishtauroborg Version 2.6 was featured on the cover of the 2013 summer edition of Media-N, a new media art journal. Doo-Sung's solo exhibition Replay: Red, Stench, Shriek, & Heat will be on view at the Columbus Metropolitan Library Gallery in Columbus, Ohio from November 9 to December 12, 2013. Doo-Sung has two MFA degrees: one from Sejong University in Seoul, South Korea (2003) and the other from Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio (2010), where he now teaches several courses.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Could you explain the title Vishtauroborg001.OMH5? How did this project grew out of your series Organ-machine Hybrids?

DooSung Yoo: Vishtauroborg is a compound word: Vishnu, minotaur, robot, organ, and cyborg. The 001.OMH5 is the artificial species’ number. Vishtauroborg is the fifth character in my Organ-machine Hybrids project (OMH), for which I reused and recontextualized discarded animal organs in installations, robotics and performances. The OMH characters—low-art-hybrids or low-artificial-animals—are ancestors to Vishtauroborg’s characters—high-art-hybrids or high-artificial-animals.  

Both projects aim to create a hybrid through artistic synthesis: physical transformation, as opposed to genetic modification. Both combine animal organs and electronic devices that collaborate with live animals (fish, for example) and human performers. The Vishtauroborgs are more technically advanced hybrid models and involve interdisciplinary media, exploring more complex experimental articulations. While the early organ-electronic devices are visual metaphors of transforming the body through mechanical means, Vishtauroborg explores how the mechanical motions can be harmonized with the human body and how artists find possible solutions for the disjunctions that occur when the natural is combined with the artificial.

Vishtauroborg version 3.1 - Incompatibility
September 15th, 2012
Robotic Performance at Ingenuity Fest 2012, Cleveland

OPP: Do you have a favorite version/performance?

DSY: It is really difficult to choose a favorite. As the director, I, of course, like all five of Vishtauroborg’s versions because each one has different theme and focus with different characteristics. However, if I must decide, the 3.1 performance was the best so far. It was romantic; it combined Kazuo Ohno’s style of butoh improvisations and Merce Cunningham’s western style of improvisations with mechanical and random motions. The exaggerated facial expressions and improvised dance created a balletic harmony with both the organs and machines. The makeup designer also perfectly understood my vision, including androgynous characteristics and the combination of shamanistic visualizations of Japanese natives and Native Americans. It seems that art movements like contemporary dance can extend their life span with technological augmentations or evolve into new "species" of fine art.

The performance day of 3.1 was also very dramatic. Believe it or not, the crew of Vishtauroborg 3.1 and I had only two hours to set up and test the machines— ideally five to six hours are needed—due to the horribly unlucky break down of my car on the way to the Ingenuity Fest 2012 in Cleveland, Ohio. The machines worked well, although a part of the sound sensors was broken in the accident. It seemed to me somehow there was a spirit in the machine that automatically controlled itself through intelligence without the technical team’s perfect maintenance. It felt like a car racing competition: eight hours lost on a track, two hours with the car technician team and 30 minutes on the dead run to the finishing line. Unbelievably, we won the race!

OPP: You are usually the director, not the performer. But you wore the suit/exoskeleton at the Vishtauroborg project's inaugural performance at the ROY G BIV Gallery in 2011. What's it feel like to have it on?

DSY: It’s just like carrying two-year-old twins on your chest and back. Luckily, we don’t need to tie/untie the carrier of machines to change diapers! The machines weigh approximately 30 pounds each, but they are very stable and easy to balance the front and back for performing motions. Wearing one felt like exercising with dumbbells attached to my body.

It was quite strange to feel the wriggles, shakes, vibrations and pressures and hear the sound effects, which were mechanically created to react to the motion of my arms and hand. It gave the illusion of being a robot or cyborg, but my physical feelings were still in disjunction with the mechanical movements. 

Interestingly, I don’t feel any elements of fantasy or physical phenomena when I use a computer or smartphone. I cannot imagine how wearable technological augmentation, like the Google Glass, might expand our five senses at this point. The wearable devices will probably result in an experience of revulsion—as Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley theory states—due to disjunctions between our organic, human senses and technology.

Vishtauroborg Version2.0 - Reembody
December 18th, 2011
Interdisciplinary performance at The Columbus Performing Arts Center (Columbus, Ohio)

OPP: For the performances you direct, are you choreographing the dance or collaborating with dancers who improvise?

DSY: I collaborate with professional dancers in the sense that I design the scenario for his/her own choreography within my artwork. The dancer’s choreography and improvisations have to illustrate the mood of each scenario of the performance. For instance, the introduction and the climax require different motions, sounds and other visual effects. The dancers must be able to create natural improvisations or choreography beforehand that works in conjunction with the articulations of other media, especially the mechanical motions.

As a director, I interweave visual and audio narratives from multiple media into a real time and place. It’s like recontextualizing material and expression, which creates new visual and audio metaphors and contexts. I ask questions when creating the scenario: What motions and expressions could be useful in the multiple performances? How do the choreographed motions (acting) connect with different media simultaneously (installation, sculpture, sound, makeup, costume, lighting, color, place)? What moments of harmony or disharmony of multiple media could be aesthetic metaphors? How do choreography and improvisation incorporate the mechanical motions in real time? How do the dancing motions enhance the visual narratives (like Mis-en-scen in cinematic and theatrical production) and create a mood, such as verisimilitude or surrealism?

Preparing for the performances of Pig Bladder-clouds in Rainforest, for example, all six dancers and I had many meetings and rehearsals for designing their choreography and allowing for improvisation. I recorded videos of all their practices and rehearsals. These were good sources to develop the art plan with other collaborators, including the mechanical engineer, the sound designer and the industrial designer. One day, I drove four hours round trip to capture Merce Cunningham’s original Rainforest (1968) video with my camera because only two libraries in Ohio have the original video tapes, and they do not check those tapes out. I showed my dancers the clips and other reference videos to influence the choreography. Also, I collected and recorded a lot of sound samples as references for the sound designers to create background music and sound effects.

It is not always easy to match my ideas with other collaborators’ creations. However, I am a driver of the art bus. The driver has to guide the project to a desired destination safely. Sometimes, my passengers cause a stir and suggest different routes. My art bus has been on a few happy journeys so far with my excellent passengers.

Pig Bladder-clouds in Rainforest
May 8th, 2010
Multimedia Performance

OPP: The feedback between movement and sound in the Vishtauroborg performances creates a different mood—for me, it's more cerebral, less visceral—than in your earlier robotic sculptures. I've only experienced sculptures such as Kinetic Pig Stomach (2007) and Lie: Robotic Cow Tongues (2007) through the video documentation on your website. Even though I've never seen them in person, I become very aware of sensations in my own body. I feel nauseous as I watch these dead parts moving. Do you have a strong visceral response to the organic materials you use?

DSY: I love raw flesh, meat and animal entrails in my art work. However, ironically, I am a vegetarian. Touching raw flesh and organs is still uncomfortable for me although I have used them for seven years. I observed more than three hundred butcherings of hogs, cows and lambs in slaughterhouses when I was collecting pig bladders and other organs for my pig bladder series. I still remember the red color, the stench, the sounds and the temperature of those horrible moments. As an artist, I challenge myself to transform disgusting materials into art. I ask myself, “How can discarded biological materials be used in art? How can a spectacle be both repulsive and beautiful at the same time?

OPP: Your work explores both negative and positive aspects of the human body’s response to an increasingly technologized society. Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about technology's effect on the body and on our lives?

DSY: I would prefer to be optimistic about technology. I do not believe that technology can solve everything, and there are risks associated with its effects on our mental and physical health. Human beings may encounter the tragedy of genetic catastrophe and the destruction of the human form from the evolutionary decay caused by technology. Or, dominant genes could ultimately choose technology to reconstruct new bodies to survive as the natural selection in the technological evolution.

The futurist Dr. Max More’s Technological Self-Transformation is quite interesting for me. Dr. More champions Extropianism, which argues that human beings may overcome biological, physical and mental constraints to improve human conditions with science and technology. The ideal human ultimately ascends to be a more advanced species or to move beyond the conventional parameters of human nature. Humanization of technology could save humans from the force majeure and extend human lifespans, leading to a techno-utopia, which conveys the notion of the human being’s rebirth with technology.

Video_Aqua001.c02: Robotic Pig Heart-jellyfish
2009
Robotics & Installation

OPP:
In other interviews, you've mentioned art-world influences including Nam June Paik, Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst, Duchamp and Stelarc. What fictional representations of cyborgs or human-machine hybrids are interesting to you?

DSY: Most sci-fi cyborgs or robots embody fantastical fairy tales. They are much too exaggerated, likely in order to create a strong enemy for plausible stories. I do not believe that human beings will create an artificial intelligence that surpasses the human brain or organic processes. Android robots or humanoid machines would need to mimic a living being’s neural network to be lifelike entities capable of to overcoming their limited algorithms and forms. Cyborgs, which extend the existing human form and expand physical abilities, are possible.

In Robocop, police officer Alex Murphy, who was already murdered, is revived as a cyborg policeman. However, that story is still chimerical idea in physics. Can the human’s dead organism be revived in a machine without incorporating another living organism? Could the mechanical system perfectly cover or functionally replace the dead organism without inserting cloning and growing stem cells? How can the revived natural body in the cyborg sustain its life?

I agree with Stephen Hawking’s opinion that a disembodied human brain (data) could live permanently in a computer network, although it is just a theory for now. So, could the humans’ spirit (data) experience a revival into the digital network, like Major Motoko Kusanagi, the heroine of Ghost in the Shell? Kusanagi’s spirit-data briefly appears through hacking (connecting network) a gynoid (adult doll-female-robot) in the next series, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. I believe that those ideas could at least contribute to develop artificial intelligent systems in the robot industry. However, the duplication of human brain’s data and memories with/without an avatar or machine could be lifelike, but not a real-organic-existence. So, could we define that immaterial entity as a human? The current technology is still a small leap in the long voyage of those ideals.

My favorite robot character is the only surviving Laputan soldier in Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky, which is a very optimistic narrative of the human-nature-machine world. Lichen live on the robot’s shoulder and other animals play on the gigantic, walking robot’s body. The robot soldier is devoted to keeping bird’s eggs and gives flowers to other destroyed robot soldiers. It ultimately rescues the main human characters, illustrating robot goodwill toward humankind. Miyazaki’s robot soldier is a perfect example of an advanced machines that enhances the lives of humans and the natural environment.

To see more of Doo-Sung's work, please visit doosungyoo.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 solo exhibition I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For is on view at Klemm Gallery, Siena Heights University (Adrian, Michigan) until December 6, 2013, and she is currently preparing for another solo exhibition titled Everything You Need Is Already Here (Heaven Gallery, Chicago) in January 2014.

OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Madeline Stillwell

Pigeon House
2011
Materials found onsite and in the city of Rennes, France
Performed at Centre Culturel Colombier (Former Military Base and Pigeon House)

American 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.

OtherPeoplesPixels: 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 performances.

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.  

Pedestal Piece
2011
3-part performance
8 minute video (part 1)
Pedestal, clay, plaster, and found construction materials

OPP: 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. :)

OPP: 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.

Aluminum Drawing Collage
2011
Cut photographs and acrylic on aluminum
80 x 100 cm

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.

Road Trip (Machine Pipe Drawing)
2011
2-part performance
15 minute video (Part 2)

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.  

Gesture-making, or art in general, can be seen as both a tool for finding meaning and a tool for letting go of meaning itself. While arranging and rearranging the structures we find around ourselves, the conscious and unconscious gestures we make create waves of impact in our lives. In such gestures, we recognize the threads of harmony and moments of clarity that allow us to make sense of our experiences within the chaos of an irrational world. 

Untitled (Drawing Collage White)
2012
Cut photographs, silkscreen and acrylic on paper
40 x 60 cm

OPP: You've made a lot of work in Germany, including a performance with two dancers at Temporary Home as part of Documenta 13 in Kassel (2012). How and when did you first have the opportunity to perform there? Has the reception to your work been different in Germany than in the US?

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.

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.

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
Detail

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.

OtherPeoplePixels Interviews Melissa Wyman

Spring Play @ VIAF Performance Festival.
2009
Performance/ Installation

MELISSA WYMAN’s training in close contact martial arts informs her grappling performances and workshops, drawings of wrestling bodies and private Fight Therapy Sessions. Her interdisciplinary art practice involves teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a method of exploring the psychological and physical relationships of the participants. Melissa received her MFA in Social Practice from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco (2008), where she was a recipient of the Barclay Simpson Award. She has created and presented work in the United States, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Chile, and her book, Fight Therapy: A Discussion about Agency, Art and the Reverse Triangle Choke, was published in 2010. Melissa lives in Stanford, California.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Can you give us a brief history of your background in martial arts? When did you start training? What style?

Melissa Wyman: My love of movement and awkwardness in dance class lead me to martial arts. I started with aikido in 1995 and trained for about four years, and then I trained in Japanese jiu-jitsu and tai chi for a couple of years. When I moved to Japan in 1999, I was introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) and was immediately hooked. BJJ is specifically designed for smaller and weaker people to be able to deal with larger opponents. In turn, larger people learn how to grapple with smaller opponents and have the opportunity to focus on their technique rather than strength. For the last twelve years, I have been training mainly in BJJ, complimented by a little kickboxing and mixed martial arts (MMA). I’ve trained in Japan, New Zealand, San Francisco and South Korea. I took a brief break when I got pregnant, but I’ll enter competitions again when my daughter will let me train more than three days a week, maybe when she is old enough to train with me. 

Now I am back in the United States. I help instruct the Stanford Grappling Club. I also attend Women’s Open Mat organized by Shawn Tamaribuchi and Lana Stefanac in the Bay Area, which is when an awesome group of women from different clubs all over the area get together to spar. I actively competed in BJJ from 2002 to 2007 in Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
2008
Video
3min and 20sec

OPP: Since 2006, your project Fight Therapy has included performances, installations, workshops and drawings that all make use of or reference various forms of organized sparring. What was the impetus for Fight Therapy?

MW: Many forms of physical activity are therapeutic, especially sports that provide a healthy release of built up tension and give you an adrenaline boost to work with. When I train regularly, I feel more productive, more ready to participate in the world. Whether it’s boxing, kickboxing, MMA or wrestling, there is a deep camaraderie and empathy that takes place between people who ritualistically grapple, punch or kick each other by mutual agreement in a safe environment. I want my training partners to come back and train with me the next day, so we can also take care of each other. The project began when I decided to take grappling out of the gym and put it  into an art context.

OPP: Can you talk about the tension between aggression and collaboration in your work?

MW: I am very interested in the tension between aggression and collaboration and the difference between aggression and violence. I come from hippie roots with a strong belief in empathy and non-violence. I would define a violent act as one in which an organism—plant, animal, human, organization, corporation or government—acts in a way that isn’t mutually understood or wanted by its counterpart(s). Aggression, on the other hand, is energy that can be channeled, matched and worked with in various productive ways.  Most of my work is based around interpersonal relationships and communication. As someone who has been in a relationship for thirteen years and has lived in various countries during this time, I’ve learned that miscommunications and disagreements are a natural part of the human experience. But if you statically butt heads with someone, no one goes anywhere. If you can move, turn, roll and transition from one position to another, it gets interesting. Relationship building depends on the flow of both verbal and non-verbal communication between “grappling partners.” Awkward moments and transitions offer opportunities for growth.
Art vs Craft
2008
Collaborative project with artist Andrew Tosiello (Art) and action weaver Travis Meinolf (Craft), who trained with me for an intense two months before having an unchoreographed match at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

OPP: You've conducted over 100 Fight Therapy Sessions between 2006 and 2011. How are those different from the interactive performances Costume Fight Therapy and Spring Play (both 2009)?

MW: The different aspects of the project fall under the same conceptual framework, but in practice, the Fight Therapy Sessions do something that the performance can’t and vice versa.

The private Fight Therapy Sessions take place in peoples' homes; they are always between two people and without an audience. As the fight therapist, I act as a coach. This creates a personal experience for the participants to work it out on the mat. Anyone can invite someone to do a Fight Therapy Session for any reason. I’ve had friends, lovers, ex-lovers, family members, teachers and students, and even diplomats from different countries work with one another. I provide the mats, teach grappling techniques, offer guidance and create a safe context in which people can grapple with one another. I make it possible for the smaller or physically weaker person of the pair to keep the grappling conversation going. The private Fight Therapy Sessions remain an undocumented experience and live on in conversation, thus giving depth to the project as a whole. The interactive performances are more of a spectacle with multiple participants and an audience. They are run similarly to the private sessions: I do a warm-up, teach some techniques, and then facilitate grappling between people. The grappling itself, like in the private sessions, is not choreographed. Some performances have a theme. In Costume Fight Therapy, participants dressed up in costumes that represented identities they were grappling with. This provided a group experience to “discuss”—through the physical grappling—shared issues. In Spring Play I fought my husband, Dion, in front of a huge audience in South Korea. This performance was loosely choreographed because we were telling the story of our relationship through our fighting. We actually met through Japanese jiu-jitsu in California when Dion came to visit and trained at the same place I was training. He was a New Zealander living in Japan where he was also training in BJJ. I moved to Japan and began to train at the same club. We were both teaching English at the time. After moving countries several times together, we found ourselves living in South Korea where he was working as a New Zealand diplomat. I was working on being a diplomat’s wife and an artist with odd jobs. For this performance, I wore a dress and Dion wore a suit. Feedback from the audience made me realize that the performance was also about grappling with societal expectations about gender roles.
I See 3 Asses
2012
Mixed media on paper
A collaboration with the Chicago art going public who were invited to draw on, write on, and deface my paintings.
2 X 3 feet

OPP: Collaborative Combative (2012) was part of an exhibition at Error Plain 206 in Chicago. You invited the gallery going public to collaborate with you by defacing the previously completed Fight Therapy paintings and drawings. Was this sanctioned defacement of your drawings and paintings always part of the plan? Was it difficult to watch as the collaboration/defacement began?

MW: That show was initially going to be a Fight Therapy event. Before the show, the gallery owner was advised that inviting the public to participate in a fight-related event in his space could have some legal implications. So the curator, Sarah Nelson, and I discussed other options. I decided to bring a selection of drawings and paintings and invite another kind of aggressive participation. I felt that my drawings were missing the energy that existed in the participatory work. One of the aspects of that work that I enjoy is that I create a context for things to happen. I don’t have total control over the outcome. I wanted to do this with my drawings. I was curious to see to what extent the drawings would actually be defaced. Oddly enough, it was satisfying and surprisingly rewarding to see people draw and write on the drawings. I was happy that the audience engaged with them even when what was written and drawn wasn’t complimentary. Each piece is now it’s own conversation, and I think they are all more interesting and energetic works. After agreeing that participants could sign a waiver and that I would be very clear with people that I was not a licensed therapist, I also facilitated a few Fight Therapy Sessions in the space.

2012
Participatory Combat Drawing: documentation

OPP: Animal: Collaborative Combative Drawing at Southern Exposure in San Francisco (2012) combines the participatory events with drawing in a completely new way? Can you describe what happened?

MW: This event was both a workshop and a performance. I invited a handful of Bay Area artists. Some brought their own partners. Others allowed me to pair them up. Fourteen artists were asked to come prepared with an animal that they wanted to draw; this could be a power animal or a creature with which they identified. We started the evening with a physical warm up. I taught self-defense and movement techniques relevant to the activity that they would be doing. I gave each pair a 5 x 8 feet piece of paper. The public was invited to participate with smaller paper or watch. Each piece of paper was marked lightly down the middle. The artists had 45 minutes to draw the body of the animal on their side of the paper starting at the ass (or tail) and working towards the middle of the paper. They would meet in the middle at the shoulders of the animal and stop. When the whistle blew—marking the end of the 45 minutes—the objective was for each artist to draw the head of his or her animal on the partner’s side of the paper without letting the partner do the same. So it was a visual, physical and metaphorical clashing of heads. They had three minutes to push, pull and fight with each other to get their marks down on the paper. It turned into a very high energy evening with lots of movement and some maniacal laughter. The works created stayed up for the weekend and may still be shown at a future date.

OPP: Are there any new developments in your practice? Any upcoming public events?

MW: I have a few more Collaborative Combative Drawing events coming up in August 2013. First, on August 2nd at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo, I will have a Collaborative Combative Drawing event with local artists that will be open to the public to witness. The works will remain up for the month at the gallery. Then, on August 10th, I will do a separate workshop at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art for people who where interested in trying Collaborative Combative Drawing. Anyone can sign up. The workshop will be from 1 to 3 pm. The work will remain on display for the rest of the month. Then in the summer of 2014, my work will be in Soft Muscle, curated by Adrienne Heloise, at Root Division in San Francisco.

Currently, I'm working on ways to push and explore the Collaborative Combative concept. I've been inviting Bay Area artists to do one-on-one Collaborative Combative Coffee (and drawing) Sessions with me. These sessions are similar to the other Collaborative Combative Drawing sessions, but each one is a more personal experience between me and another artist. We discuss our work and the challenges we face in our practices, ranging from time, space, material or financial limitations to mental blocks in our creative processes. We each come up with a visual representation for one of our artistic blocks and combat draw with each other.

I've also been presenting my work at various colleges and workshopping both Fight Therapy and Collaborative Combative Drawing with the students. This model is simultaneously a cross-disciplinary ice-breaker, a physical warm up and an intervention into everyday problem-solving in personal, professional and academic settings. I plan to find more and interesting contexts to explore this platform as an art practice. Stay tuned!

To see more of Melissa's work, please visit melissawyman.info.

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 mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will begin teaching in Spring 2013, 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).


OtherPeoplesPixels Interviews Abdul Abdullah

Adik Lelaki (little brother)
2012
oil on canvas
40" x 40"

ABDUL ABDULLAH explores themes of belonging and alienation in the context of a Muslim-Australian identity, using his own background as a touch point. His paintings, photographs, video and performative public collaborations operate from a spirit of generosity, while they simultaneously reveal cultural misperceptions about the Muslim-Australian experience. In 2009, he received the Highly Commended in the NYSPP at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra and was named a Perth Rising Star by Insite Magazine. In 2010, he was included in the inaugural Triple J list of 25 Under 25 + Smashin' It. Abdul lives in Perth, Australia.

OtherPeoplesPixels: Your background is in painting, but lately you're taking more of an interdisciplinary approach. Tell me about your interest in portraiture. How did it begin?

Abdul Abdullah: Before I studied art, I studied journalism. I am a curious person, and I am particularly curious about people. Art school for me better satisfied my curiosities and was a more immediate way to address the questions I had. I like people, and I want to understand them. Portraiture seemed like a rational method to pursue. To the chagrin of my lecturers, I painted throughout art school and resisted other mediums. At the time, I wanted to graduate from art school with a practical skill. While painting is still the backbone of my practice, I now see the medium as second to the idea and look to find what processes best suit what I am trying to communicate visually.

Celebration 8
2011
oil and enamel on canvas
48" x 48"

OPP: One thing that really stands out for me about your portraits is the consistency with which the context is stripped away from the figures you paint. Mostly they float in blank fields of color, as in King Keanu (2011), although sometimes the light from some unknown source remains on their faces, as in Serani (2012). How does this formal choice reveal your conceptual concerns?

AA: What I am looking to do is find an efficient mode for the consumption of an idea. It is a reductive method that seeks to put across a simple idea quickly. Often the canvas serves the purpose a plinth can serve in a sculpture. I want to direct the audience to what I find important in an idea.

OPP: I find your body of work Celebrations and Gold refreshing in its emphasis on joy and the notion of honoring the individual. Can you talk about this work and how it developed? Is it a reaction to something in the art world?

AA: Celebrations and Gold was my return show to my hometown Perth after almost two years away in Melbourne and Europe. Melbourne was an amazing city with a lot going on, and I found myself only trying to replace the friends I already had in Perth. I began to feel that cities were much more the same than different, and what really matters is the people you love who live in them. This particular body of work was a way of celebrating the friendships I had in my hometown. I painted the people around me who I loved and in the way that I liked to think of them. I put them in crowns and showered them in confetti. In essence, I celebrated what they meant to me. It wasn't consciously a reaction to anything in the art world, but in hindsight, I can see how this was a way of differentiating myself from a lot of the clinical, academic art I was surrounded by in Melbourne and positioning myself unapologetically as the emotional and reactionary artist I am.

Abdul-Hamid Ibrahim Percival Charles Charles Charles Charles 2
2012
C-type print

OPP:  Your most recent photographs were shown at the Melbourne Art Fair in August. They feature you and an older man, and the titles refer to your paternal lineage. Could you talk about this theme in your work?

AA: The photographs featured my father, or likenesses of my father. Lineage is a subject that has become very important to me. I am a seventh generation Australian with a direct paternal link to a convict who arrived here in 1815, after stealing two stamps and a watch chain in London. My paternal line is exclusively of British origin. On my mother’s side, it is Malay. My father converted to Islam in 1972 and took the Arabic name Ibrahim Abdullah. He married my already Muslim mother, and they raised their children as Muslims.

While my roots run deep in this country, I have found myself continuously having to justify my position as both an Australian and as a Muslim. My skin is brown, and I have an Arabic name so people think I must be from somewhere else with values that don’t correspond with Australian values, or they say that I have assimilated well. Both statements are incorrect. My family has been in Australia for 200 years. I haven’t changed to assimilate into Australian society; I have always been the way I am. Even the cable guy that came to fix my internet the other day said, “I saw your name and thought I’d have trouble with you, but you speak English well." This is symptomatic of the broader Australian attitude. We might have opened our borders, but the White Australia Policy, which restricted non-white immigration to Australia, was only abolished 40 years ago. The personal revolution my father underwent when he became a Muslim that same year defined who I am and how I identify myself today. I am an Australian, I love my country, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else, but I certainly don’t fit the Aussie stereotype.

OPP: As an American, I'm not sure I know exactly what the Aussie stereotype is. Could you explain what you mean?

AA: The Aussie stereotype, as I understand it, is the white, sun-bleached by-product of British colonization. At best it's the laid-back, rough-around-the-edges Crocodile Dundee type. At worst, it's nationalist, xenophobic and white-supremacist. Australia did not suffer apartheid, but our historical experience is not dissimilar. Indigenous people were not classed as human beings until the 1970s, and the term asylum-seeker has somehow become synonymous with illegal immigrant. The Cronulla riots in 2005 were perpetrated by flag-bearing people fitting this stereotype who claimed ownership of the term Aussie. Placards on the day denounced Wogs, referring intially to Lebanese-Australians. But as the day went on, the term seemed to refer to anyone who wasn't white. Broadly speaking, I wouldn't call those who fit the young Aussie stereotype consciously racist, but rather they are South Park Conservatives, and by that I mean, well-meaning idealists with oversimplified, right-leaning politics. They have an egocentric view of the world that reveals a limited understanding of domestic and international history. They wear Rusty brand shorts and flipflops no what the weather is, and they look like Chris Hemsworth or Kylie Minogue.

Intimate Ambassador Ayres
2012
oil on canvas
16" x 16"

OPP: You did a collaborative project with two other emerging Australian artists, Nathan Beard and Casey Ayres, called The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The project deals with cultural stereotypes and the experience of living in a multicultural society. Explain the historical reference of the project's title and describe the public performance project.

AA: The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was a collaboration with fellow Eurasian artists Casey Ayres and Nathan Beard for the 2012 Next Wave festival in Melbourne. The title refers to Japan’s geo-political ambition in World War II, called the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." We dropped "East" from the title and made it more inclusive. The project consisted of an embassy for the fictional empire where we the artists acted as hosts or ambassadors. We transformed a space at the National Gallery of Victoria into an orientalized kitsch set that acted as the backdrop for a series of performances and workshops. These included dancers, musicians and performers, as well as experts in different Asian arts and cultures. We wanted to turn a mirror on the exotic and hold it up to the way Asia is consumed by the Australian public. The whole project was tongue-in-cheek, but we were able to reveal some uncomfortable stereotypes.

OPP: There seems to be a precarious balance between irony and a sincerity in the act of performing as ambassadors. This irony-sincerity hybridity underscores what you've said about your experience as a Muslim-Australian, in the sense that it is a synthesis of two things which people often think of as opposing. I'm wondering about the tone of the performances and workshops. Was it in contrast to the "orientalized kitsch set" or in line with it?

AA: It's important that The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was a humorous engagement with these topics, it was also an earnest investigation that carefully handled different cultural discourses. Our workshops were authentic collaborations with Asian-Australian performers, artists and experts. The set and our costumes were exaggerated facsimiles of the real thing, but our engagement with the people we hosted was sincere and not supposed to be ironic.

The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere
Promotional image
2011

OPP: Those gold suits are amazing! Could you talk about the role of costuming and accessorizing in the project?

AA: The costumes we wore for the duration of festival were based on a Prada design and were made while on a research trip to Thailand in 2011. As the ambassadors we decided we were each going to identify with one of the three imagined pillars of our empire: passion, beauty and wisdom. The crowns we chose and our demeanors were designed to reflect these traits. The gold fabric was chosen, because we felt it reflected the kitsch themes of the space and idea.

OPP: What effect did your collaboration in The Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere have on your own individual practice?

AA: While I have been consciously expanding my practice over the last three years, this collaboration took it to places I hadn’t ever imagined. It involved theatre, dance, performance and audience interactivity. We existed in the space as part of the artwork and interacted with our audience as performers. It really revealed to me what is possible when you are trying to communicate an idea and how, when making art, the idea absolutely must be privileged over the medium. At the same time this does not undermine the value of painting, but rather reinforces the reasons I paint when I do and when I use other means of communications as opposed to painting. 

OPP: What new idea or project are you excited about right now?

AA:  In 2013 I will be exhibiting and working on a body of work that explores the notion of "home." Australia, being a relatively new nation with colonial beginnings has an uncomfortable relationship with this idea. What does "home" mean in the contemporary multicultural Australian context? As a seventh generation Australian, who is also a Muslim and who isn't white, I have mixed feelings about identifying with my nationality. I am an Australian and I love my country, but there is a segment of society in which people claim the same thing but deny my right to do so. I don't have a "mother-country," and if this isn't my home, then where is? I think this question is relevant to an entire generation of Australians who don't identify with bushrangers.

To see more of Abdul's work, please visit abdulabdullah.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 mediated culture in her embroidery, video, sculpture and collage works. She received her MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006), where she will be teaching in Spring 2013, 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).