Conversations On Everything: Interviews Fall 2020
Letter from the editor
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Conversations On Everything, an ongoing collection of interviews for the Social Forms of Art Journal.
Each term, graduate students in Portland State University’s Art & Social Practice MFA program interview someone as part of their artistic research. This publication exemplifies what the socially engaged realm of art looks like-one that, at the risk of sounding reductive, can encompass everything. I mean the entire cosmos, from your Dad’s lifelong collecting hobby to feminist music theory as a radical business model to life partnerships based on sharing water, simply because the ontology of art & social practice necessitates ongoing conversation about its fluid position, where it lives between and within both art and life. There is nothing that cannot find an intersection with this lens of artmaking.
As a whole, the interviews in this collection reflect the diverse concerns of a band of today’s contextual practitioners, who are sited and making work in different locations within the U.S. during a global pandemic and political upheaval. In conversing with Justin Maxon, H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams highlights critical concerns about the field of social practice: Who are its gatekeepers? What socially engaged lineages are invisible within the capitalist matrix of domination? Should artists be working outside of their own communities? With Brianna Ortega, Soheila Azadi contemplates her shifting identity in different contexts as well as the complex intersections of religion, culture and art. Mo Geiger talks to Mary Mattingly about living systems and ecosystems in relation to the current state of the world. Kiara Walls’ interview with Sunset Art Studios where she had a transformative artist residency experience, Diana Marcela Cuartas’ with Espacio Ode6n where she headed public programs, and Nolan Hanson’s with badass artist Gavilan Rayna Rusom, are particularly inspiring accounts of arts administration and production as radical social practices that support artists and activists.
Roz Crews notes in her conversation with Emma Mitchell that research is about agency, and agency is about identity, privilege and context. Using casual interviews as an accessible and powerful form of research, each conversation creates an opportunity for interviewer to approach interviewee in a possibly new way, whether it’s an artist-artist, parent-child or ex-colleague relationship. What can arise from sitting down for a recorded interview within the frame of artistic research? Within a limited space-time shared in conversation, hitherto unshared anecdotes and reflections might be brought forth, then transcribed, edited and served to you, the reader, who perhaps conjures the speakers within your own internal space-time. There, one bears witness to Rita Glazer recalling the details of her federal letter-writing profession for her letter-writer daughter Laura, as well as Adrian Rosser interviewing his mum Rebecca Copper using a set of Polaroids, a departure from the limits of language. Caryn Aasness’ interview with their father Jon is both intimate research into human-object relationships and an archival of his dogged passion. Years after she was forever changed by his exhibition, Shelbie Loomis chats with Enrique Martinez Celaya about context and transdisciplinary work. Haughty as it may initially come off, digging into one’s psyche as Becca Kauffman does candidly with her former therapist is a reminder of the deeply performative nature of public-facing work, and the internal forces that drive us to make work the way we do.
Representing a humble collection of knowledge resulting from exchanges between two (or more) individuals with a unique relationship to each other, these interviews might elicit quiet moments of everyday transcendence, or perhaps disagreement, anger, guilt, surprise. To come into true relation with something is to connect with it emotionally. The feelings that arise may be easy, difficult, alien, or something else, but the point is to connect with heart more than head. In a time where the world seems to be moving as a slow iceberg towards the heart of things -of what is wrong, and how to make it right- may you, in reading and feeling, find yourself in the liminal space alongside apparitions of interviewer and interviewee, encountering them with the deepest relevance of your everyday being.
Salty Xi Jie Ng
Salty Xi Jie Ng is an artist co-creating semi-fictional paradigms for the real and imagined lives of humans within the poetics of the intimate vernacular. She is from the tropical metropolis of Singapore and is an alumni of the Art & Social Practice MFA program. Salty receives letters to the editor at email@example.com.
What’s One Other Thing?
“Part of [my approach] is a resistance to signing on to conventional norms of how things get done. It’s basically an application of a certain type of feminist music theory to a business model.”
On March 9th, 2020, just eight days after the first confirmed case of the Coronavirus in New York City, people had already begun to substitute handshakes with elbow bumps. When my friend Rayna and I stood in front of The Center on 13th street and hugged each other, the gesture felt transgressive. The next day, Rayna launched her record label, Voluminous Arts. Just days after that, the city went into a period of quarantine and both Rayna and myself became infected with the virus. We’ve since talked about that hug, and both wondered if we got each other sick.
As a social practice artist, I’ve observed how other artists and institutions have responded—or, in many cases, failed to respond—to the rapidly changing social conditions imposed on our society as a result of the pandemic over the past nine months. Overwhelmingly, I’ve witnessed a lack of preparedness and a complete inability to adapt, which to me, signifies the degree to which the commercial art world has attempted to divorce itself from humanity and lived experience.
Which is why watching Rayna’s project has been so exciting to me. Rather than adopting a framework which reinscribes the values that have supported the production of creative material without regard for the humans who produce it, Voluminous Arts is a structural intervention, providing an alternative to conventional record labels, through nurturing care, conversation, and exchange.
I called Rayna on the phone to talk about her experience as an artist, and how it informs her approach to running a record label.
Nolan Hanson: You describe your label, Voluminous Arts, as a “creative support network disguised as a record label,” which I think is really interesting. I’m curious; do you see this record label as part of your art practice?
Gavilán Rayna Russom: I think a quick background sketch might be helpful. Growing up, while I was sort of aware of fine arts practices and classical music, you know, the kinds of things that become labeled as “high art,” I certainly was not introduced to contemporary art at all. But in terms of my experience of how I might be a creative person in the world, what really framed that was growing up in the punk rock and underground scenes in Providence. That was very naturally interdisciplinary—not in an academic way, but because, like in a club, you have multiple disciplines happening all at the same time. There’s dance, there’s how people dress, there’s visual art, there’s performance, there’s all these dynamics, there’s
the visual elements with fliers, album covers… And all those sorts of things exist in an interdisciplinary way and also in a polyvocal way, with multiple
And within that was not only interdisciplinary creativity, but it also expanded beyond that, to what you might call social practice, you know, the political, spiritual, the conversational… People would publish zines, texts and we would get together and say, like, “Hey, we could start doing shows in the basement of this building.” And we’d get together and make that happen.
I just recently started to think about how that was naturally interdisciplinary, and that was how I understood a creative person could be in the world, and I just kind of operated on that model. As I started to advance in my education I encountered a very compartmentalized way of thinking about creativity, which I found to be problematic.
But at some point—along a very circuitous educational journey—I encountered this guy Benjamin Boretz, who was a music theorist. His approach was deeply theoretical and academic and he was on a sort of “unlearning trajectory.” My experiences with him were profound, and at the center was this idea of music and composition as an activity of structuring creative material over time. And that it was a thing that was absolutely inherently political. [He said] that what happens to us in a capitalist society is that our time is taken away from us, and then sold back to us and co-opted in all these ways. And the creative act can be this radical act of re-claiming agency over your time. Because if you say, “Well, I’m going to spend an hour composing,” you have, at least, the opportunity to encode meaning onto time in a way that is your own, which you can share with other people.
This idea of composition has become very expansive for me, and extends beyond writing a piece of music, and into other disciplines. The real idea was that everything that one does can be composition. The label came out of that idea, and as a result, I think about the pieces of it in an intentional way. And that’s really how I see my role—as the composer of this creative network.
Nolan: What makes your label different from a conventional record label?
Rayna: The main thing that makes Voluminous Arts a little bit different than other independent artist-run labels that I’m aware of, is that it’s very intrinsically based around my experience and particularly the ways in which working with other labels and working within the music industry was really detrimental to my creativity and also to the political impact of it.
Nolan: We live in this era where artists can operate independently, and self-release their own music. So why sign to a label?
Rayna: Because you get to talk to me, and you get the benefit from my relatively uncompromising, very carefully thought about thirty plus year career in the arts. And part of that is a resistance to signing on to conventional norms of how things get done. It’s basically an application of a certain type of feminist music theory to a business model. You know, Susan McClary talks about how there is no thing that’s like “how music goes.” You can talk about the Western tonal system, and its rules, but those rules are not this background of context. Those rules are also a composition. They have meaning; they come from somewhere, they have social resonances and political motives. So that’s the thing—it’s like looking at running a business in that way, compositionally and with intention. And again in that way It’s absolutely part of my creative practice.
Nolan: That’s really interesting in terms of the values of your label. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think practices around care and support are prioritized in the majority of record labels.
Rayna: Right, I mean, a conventional record contract says the word exploit about a hundred different times. For a conventional record label, the number one goal is to collect as many master recordings as possible and to gain creative ownership over someone else’s art, and to do that as much as possible, so that when they die, the label will be able to continue to make money from it.
And I mean, that’s not what I’m doing at all. And that’s not what Voluminous Arts is doing. So, I describe it as a creative support network disguised as a record label. And what that’s really about is creating these little pockets of care and nourishment where some really radical ideas can gestate, and then be shared in the world in a way that doesn’t negate the individual artists or artist collectives that created the work. It’s very much based on care and conversation. In a sense it flips the twenty-first century commercial model, where you have a brand, and then you seek out content that allows that brand to continue to propagate itself. Voluminous Arts is not a brand-based idea, what it’s about is facilitating a conversation that continues the process of unearthing the identity of what the thing is.
Nolan: Considering how unconventional the label is, how do you explain your approach to people who are interested in working with you?
Rayna: I think one thing has been to try to communicate as clearly as possible what the label is about, and how it’s operated. And I know we talked about this, but like one thing that was helpful for me was the shift to, you know, I started the label in March, and it was like, “Oh this is not year one, this is year zero.” And what “year zero” is about is showing people what we’re doing and modeling what we’re doing. It’s a gradual process. I’m exploring these alternative ways of doing things not for their own sake, but because I’ve analyzed structurally the way that things work in this world and I understand how problematic that is.
You know, there are these deep problematic structures in place in things that we just sort of let run freely. So I’m trying to find alternative ways to do things because I need to do that to keep my soul from turning into a charred black crumb. [Laughs] It’s not about being intentionally obscure, or capitalizing on the cachet of being avant garde—it’s really about clarifying why I’m making different choices.
That’s what’s happened in the shifting from doing my own creative work and relying on other labels or galleries to put it out in the world, to realizing that I’m interested in not only composing the creative materials, but also composing the way that those get shared with the world.
And I think you’re right [with Voluminous Arts]. There are these existing frameworks I needed to engage with, and then there are these ways in which a lot of it is built from the ground up, or bent in these ways that move it away from the sort of, default setting, towards something that operates with more intentionality and a commitment to a particular set of concerns.
Nolan: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of the process is about the framing of the work itself. You describe this “flattening” that was happening through conventional channels, where you’d make something, but then the framing of the thing—everything that’s around it, all of the context—was not actually supportive of the work.
Rayna: Yeah. And it was helpful to understand that that was very intentional, that it was very built into the structure. And in fact what was actually happening was a process with complete intention and with complete historical lineage that was actually about taking something that was creative and full of intention and communicating on a certain frequency, and flattening it into something that reinforced status quo agendas.
Once I saw that that was what was happening, I was really just disgusted and it was sort of impossible for me to just kind of keep going. You know, it’s like I saw behind the veil and it wasn’t really possible to sort of be like, okay, well I’ll forget I ever saw that and keep going. It required a total reevaluation of the whole thing.
Which is also why I started my own label. Because I understood that there was an intentional hijacking of creative materials, and a reorienting of them back towards a status quo affirming agenda, which promotes dysfunctional ideas about individuality, supports homogeneity and disregards cultural context and ancestral lineage. And I just can’t get good at pretending that’s not happening.
The whole experience and the framework of the label is based on a lot of investigation and understanding that I’ve done—so that people can come into it being able to breathe, because I’ve gone through the labor of excavating that particular flavor of bullshit. With the idea that, having done that, I can hopefully pass it on to people and maybe save them some time.
It’s also related to queer lineage—this idea that by sharing our story as queer and trans people that had a hard time coming out and didn’t start self actualizing until later in life, we can help some younger person get to that point a little earlier, and as a result, experience more freedom, less pain, and also hopefully pass it on again so eventually we reach a point where that becomes a sort of baseline of how people come into the world, with an understanding of queerness and transness…and one that is not mediated by the market.
Nolan: Right. There is one sort of way in which queer and trans people can be represented through like conventional channels or frameworks that actually just reinscribe and reinform exploitative, market driven ethics that just kind of plug new identities into it. And then there are works like Voluminous Arts, which are looking at existing platforms and actually structurally queering them and creating them from a trans perspective.
I think Voluminous Arts, and other projects like it, are doing things in alternative and interesting ways on the structural level—beyond representing something that’s different, but actually structurally embodying and supporting different values and engaging in ways that are not supported in the mainstream. I feel like the high degree of specificity is what gives your work so much depth. I find that the projects I’m most interested in are very specific; they do one thing and they do that one thing very differently than it’s ever been done before.
The autobiographical nature of Voluminous Arts is so interesting to me. You know, it’s like the materialization of things that have been pressing on you and your work for a very long time, you know. It’s like a diamond. But because it is so specific to you, it’s also very complicated. Can you speak to the complexity of your work?
Rayna: Thank you, I really appreciate that. And yeah, I think one of the biggest things in the creative arts is that, you know, if you want to be successful it has to be simple. And it’s based on this bizarre idea that people aren’t complex, or that they can’t understand complexity. It’s so patronizing and classist. You know, this idea that it has to be simple and bite-sized… I’m like, yeah, to some degree that’s true. But also I’m like, look, I’m fucking 46 years old. I haven’t died yet. Yeah, I’ve had some hard times, but I’m still fucking here. And I’m also like you know what? Fuck that shit. I actually don’t want to hear what you think I need to do to be successful. And I want to create a space where other people don’t have to hear that either, where some kid can come to me with a record and I can be like, “I really like what you’re doing, it seems like there’s part of it that you feel like you have to do because it’s what you’re supposed to do. Can we minimize that? Where can I give you permission?
Where can we make this more expansive? Where can we make this more you?” And also ask, “What would be a success to you?” And I’m like, you know, I just think about the 20th century. So many successes and successful records, successful art careers, successful victories in battle, successful inventions and you know, in a hundred years the planet was fucking decimated. Like that’s the price of that. And you know we look at those achievements, those amazing things continue to be held up to justify continuing to live the way we’re living. And that shit’s not real. It’s not real. It’s a fucking haunted weird shadow world that’s killing us. Like, now, very quickly. So, you know, what are some other things we could do, or make? Like what’s one other thing?
Gavilán Rayna Russom is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. Over the past two decades she has produced a complex and compelling body of creative output that fuses theory with expression, nightlife with academia and spirituality with everyday life. Rayna’s renowned prowess with analog and digital synthesizers as composing instruments locates itself within her larger vision of synthesis; an artistic method of weaving together highly differentiated strands of information and creative material into cogent expressive wholes. The central thread of this practice is the exploration of liminality as a healing agent, a phenomenon she has been engaged with since childhood and has researched at an astounding depth. Her work is cumulative and experiential. It requires time and attention to take in, and it powerfully rewards those who bring their time and attention to it.
Nolan Hanson is an artist based in New York City. Their practice includes independent work as well as collaborative socially engaged projects. Nolan is the founder of Trans Boxing, an art project in the form of a boxing club that centers trans and gender variant people. They are an MFA candidate in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University, and the 2020 Artist-in-Residence at More Art, an NYC non-profit organization that supports public art projects.
“I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it.”
My artistic practice has recently been focused on objects: our relationships to them, and the distinction between collecting and hoarding. I spoke with my dad Jon Aasness to get his insight as a person interested in objects and their histories. He is a retired employee of the Southern California Gas Company, and the first person to introduce me to the magic of “junk.”
Caryn Aasness: Do you collect anything?
Jon Aasness: I don’t have any official collections, I don’t think, but I collect a lot of things. At some points I collect cars. I try to limit my collections.
Caryn: What makes a collection official? You said you don’t have any official collections?
Jon: Yeah, you know what I think? I think part of that is being organized versus just, some of my stuff is unorganized. So I wouldn’t consider it an actual collection [if it is disorganized]. When I think of if I had a collection, I would have the case to put the things in and to display them.
Caryn: Where have you found some of your favorite objects?
Jon: At abandonments. I’d go to an abandoned house, where I’d have to be there for work and find interesting stuff. Architectural salvage type stuff, where it’s just like, oh, man, that is cool. I’d love to drag that home but I often didn’t, because they’re either big or I don’t really necessarily need it in my home.
Caryn: That kind of leads into another question I have, which is, if something’s free, how do you decide whether or not to take it?
Jon: Yeah, that’s a good question. Because it used to be that I would bring home tons of stuff and stuff that I didn’t need. But now I try to get stuff that I know I could use, or that I need. I have to force myself but you know, small house, I can’t bring a ton of stuff home. Sometimes I’ll say, Oh, you know what, somebody else probably could use that more than me. And I will let it go. That’s how I justify leaving something that’s just killer.
Caryn: If it’s in an abandonment, are there going to be more people going through the house after you?
Jon: Yes. So that was one of the things. Well, when I worked in Redondo Beach, I would cheat a little bit because they have a board in the office, and I just go in my office, and I’d look and there’s a board of upcoming abandonments, and I’d write down addresses. When I worked the four to midnight shift, and I had downtime, sometimes I would get to work and there would be nothing for me to do. So I just go to those abandonments. I could write myself an order to pull the meter and be able to check it out. And typically, we would be one of the first people on that abandonment.
Caryn: Does it usually feel like people who were moving out had time to move out what they wanted? Or do people just kind of up and go when they leave a house?
Jon: It is a mix because that was a kind of a unique deal timing wise where people that lived in that house for 30 years and paid $100,000 for it, now sold it for $900,000 and they left the bulk of their stuff. They just pocketed a ton of cash. And they weren’t concerned, they were going to buy all new stuff so people would leave just everything. The garage will be completely full and they just take keepsakes and leave everything else and it was interesting, interesting times.
Caryn: So it’s not like those people in those houses got kicked out?
Jon: No, they were selling and builders were buying the lots. Yeah, that’s what an abandonment is. You go and remove the meter. And then the crew comes and picks it up in the street and pinches the gas because they’re gonna tear the house down. So it was different, I mean, there was a time in 2008, 9, 10, where there were just tons of foreclosures, that was different, those people were leaving, and they didn’t necessarily have a place to go. So they left a lot of stuff behind. That was different. That was sad. The other one was, like, they hit the lottery, and just bailed, two very different things.
Caryn: How did you first become aware of hoarding?
Jon: That’s one thing about my job—going into people’s homes, I saw a lot of hoarding for the last thirty plus years. Thirty years ago, I didn’t know that it was hoarding. I just thought, how can they live like that? There’s a trail leading to the bathroom, the kitchen, and the bedroom; everything else is just piled up to the ceiling.
Caryn: And probably not a trail leading to the water heater.
Jon: Yeah, exactly. I was a nice guy. So I would make a trail if I had to, to get them some hot water. I don’t know if I told you that story about out in Huntington Beach, a multi million dollar neighborhood. This gal, she didn’t have any money but she probably inherited that house. She didn’t want me to look at her water heater. And I told her, “Well, I could look at it.” And she goes, “No, no, no, I don’t want you to go in the garage.” And I had already been in her house. It was disgusting. Animal feces all over the place. Probably human feces as well. But I went out, and she said that the rats have been eating through her water heater, so she knows it doesn’t work. Hmm. And I was able to get it working. She hadn’t had hot water for probably a year. I had to be there. Because the gas was shut off to the whole block or whole neighborhood. We had to go in and restore. Turn the gas back on and stuff and you can’t just say, okay, well, I’ll turn it on. You’re responsible for it in the house. It doesn’t work like that, you know, I can’t turn it back on unless I look at every appliance. So she was embarrassed. And I totally was decent, treated her decently, so she let me in. She just assumed that the water heater quit working because of the rats. That was the one where she said that her neighbor had complained. So the city sent an exterminator to the house and killed, I think it was 16 rats in that one day, then had traps set. And she said she kept hearing them going off all night long. She was alone with a tiny little dog. It wasn’t a chihuahua, it was something smaller than a chihuahua. She wouldn’t set the dog down because of the rodents.
I don’t know that I ever heard [the term] hoarding thirty years ago. It was more just tied with disgust. I mean, you didn’t think about maybe some mental illness working, with something that drastic. I mean, I was in a house one time where there was just stuff everywhere. The floor was like a hoarder’s house. But it was all pornography. That was in Santa Monica. And I was just blown away, like, oh, my gosh, and to see this person standing there in this filth, and just like, oh, my, but I would have never called that hoarding. It was just like this person is just sick. I mean, there was really, really not any furniture or anything. It was just like, wow, what the hell? And at work we would all talk about it. Everybody saw it. We come back at the end of the day and say, “This is the worst one I’ve ever been in!”
Caryn: Is there anyone whose collection you admire?
Jon: One that probably got me started on my collecting or my interest in junk was a farm that I went to in South Dakota, one of my dad’s relatives. He had probably a couple hundred thousand things. I mean, just an unbelievable collection. Little bit of everything—antiques, oddities and just bizarre stuff. His house, his barn, his outbuildings, everything was just packed full of stuff. And I remember being there as a kid. I was probably eight or nine. And he gave me a Dr. Pepper sign. It was new old stock. It was still wrapped in paper. But he had probably 12 of them. He pulled one out and gave it to me. And I was like, oh, this is cool. I was a kid, but I love Dr. Pepper. And it was advertising! That guy had just an unbelievable amount of stuff. And he let people go through and look at his collection. He had stuff displayed, hundreds of thousands of pieces. Some of them are just amazing. But it wasn’t dirty, just dusty and stuff. It was a barn, but he had stuff displayed like this was a kitchen from the 1880’s or whatever. This is a way a kitchen would look in the 1880’s. Just everything you could imagine. This guy had at least one of everything that had ever been produced. I mean, it was incredible. But he just had always been a collector. He just had a regular nine to five job, but he just collected from an early age, and he just appreciated older things. That one stuck in my head. I still have the sign that he gave me.
Caryn: Are there objects that you have gotten rid of that you still think of?
Jon: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting that collecting was the kind of thing that’s completely different now. Because back in the day, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of something because there’s always something better. So usually, when I got rid of something, it was because I had my eye on something else. And it was the kind of thing where you can wait a couple of weeks and something interesting is going to pop up in the area that we live in. There were so many cars and nobody cared about them. And usually, you’d find something even cooler than what you had but there were a few cars I regret selling. But I still probably would have sold them because there’s something even more interesting in that next garage that I go in or whatever, but I still maybe regret selling a couple of cars.
Caryn: Can you talk a little bit about your mental map of all the cars on your work routes?
Jon: Yeah, I actually had notes, I had a notepad. And if I saw something that was not for sale, I’d still write it down. If it was something that was for sale, I would usually go back and buy it. But I did. I kept track of cars when I was working in Redondo, and then I was working in Orange County. And I typically have twenty, maybe thirty cars that I knew where they were, and maybe check up on them every once in a while. I just was looking and I actually found one of my old notebooks. It was from 2004. Because I knew in downtown Huntington Beach there was a garage that I went into, where there was a Porsche speedster sitting there. I asked and it was not for sale. But it was kind of an interesting situation. And that’s the thing, they all have stories, it was her husband’s car. He was no longer living. He was a mechanic. He had tons of parts, he probably had other hundred thousand dollars worth of Porsche parts sitting in the garage there, but she just wasn’t at the point where she was going to sell anything. I never even went back and I just had it in my notes. And then I was like, I know, I wrote that down. And I went back and found it. It’s sitting on my nightstand right now, that address.
Caryn: How do you know when to get rid of something?
Jon: Well you know me, I don’t get rid of a lot.
Caryn: I don’t think that’s true.
Jon: I mean, I used to just collect stuff. Just, it was cool. But at that point, it becomes like a hoarding situation where nobody’s enjoying it. You see those shows, and it’s like, oh, yeah, I know, there’s some really cool stuff in that room, from an eight foot ceiling, you know, you get down about seven feet. That’s where the cool stuff is. But somebody could get some joy out of it if you pass it on.
Caryn: Final thoughts?
Jon: You know what I always pictured, like having a collection, for me, it would probably be automotive related. Like, if you go to the Petersen Museum, you see how they display stuff, it’s like, not just the cars, they’ve got their cars laid out. And then they have cases with radios or carburetors or different things. When I see that it’s like, wow, that’s what I would like to have, where you can just appreciate it. That’s my collection, not just something that I purchased but you could actually appreciate it, not sitting in a box somewhere in the attic. I would like to organize my garage one of these days and get some stuff up on the shelf.
Caryn: If you could ask the reader of this interview a question, what would you want to know?
Jon: If they had the space and money, what would they collect? Or, if they ended up with someone’s collection, would they keep it, or any of it?
Caryn Aasness is an artist and grad student living in Portland, OR.
Jon Aasness is a retired gas company technician living in Long Beach, CA.
“It starts as something I need or desire access to: whether it’s fresh food in NYC, clean drinking water, or a living space.”
Mary Mattingly is a contemporary artist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. She was born in Rockville, Connecticut. In her work, she builds living systems or ecosystems, often by transforming industrial equipment and personal objects. Creating projects around the world, Mary examines the way humans interact with natural and manufactured resources: initiating ideas, models, and evidence for imaginative community-based economies.
In this conversation, I wanted to ask Mary about her response to this year’s social, environmental, and physical circumstances. I am interested in the ways she incorporates tools and motion into her art projects, creating connections between the activities of life and the materials we use to sustain it. During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time considering human and material movement, and Mary’s work explores this subject extensively. Growing up in a mobile home, she came to understand mobility as a choice or a necessity, reflecting now on the ways mobility has come into focus recently. One of her early projects, Tools (2008-2012), encapsulates tasks such as “floating,” “breathing,” and “island-building” into prototypical concept-objects. Wearable Homes (2004-ongoing) utilizes layers of specific performance fabrics and body-sensing technology to create individual ecosystems that could ultimately be linked together with other wearers to create “wearable cities.”
Both of these projects exhibit a commitment to living systems that activate the human body within various contexts, and they position individual people in relation to a collective, communal whole. Both projects view utility in playful ways, by imagining situations or extreme that require adaptive, portable shelters. These works ultimately led to some of her later projects involving water and natural ecosystems. Recently, in her 2020 works A Year of Public Water and Ecotopian Library, Mary builds on those early experiments in systems, form, and utility by collecting information and objects through interdisciplinary methods of research and presentation.
This interview was conducted in writing during November of 2020.
Mo Geiger: What is your favorite tool, and do you remember who taught you how to use it?
Mary Mattingly: It’s probably a toss-up between tools for physical building and tools for communication. I’d have to say that a writing utensil is by far my favorite tool (although I use a computer equally as much). Since I can make a writing utensil, there’s a sense that this is something I’ll almost always have access to, and I feel an affinity for it. It was probably my mother who taught me how to use one. A close second is one my father taught me to use: he had a Pentax K1000 and taught me how to use a film camera when I was young. Now I often use a digital Nikon and a Hasselblad camera, and I can say a camera is my second favorite tool.
Mo: In your project Tools, you used objects to replicate and reimagine systems for survival. In Wetland, you combined many tools and systems into one living space on a boat. The act of examining systems can easily appear academic or pedantic, but to me, your work does not—how do you hold onto (and amplify) imaginative and playful elements of your projects?
Mary: Since Wetland was a living space, its survival systems were in use and constantly in flux. The Tools series was more provocative and suggestive—they questioned what a tool could be. I suppose my objective in both projects was to creatively interpret systems (tools or living systems). The living systems in Wetland needed to work, but that wasn’t the point in Tools. They interpreted tools as broad-ranging. My approach to both (and to most things) was to use materials with a previous life or recognizable use, and repurpose them in somewhat absurd ways. These projects are rarely perfectly designed living systems, but instead cobbled-together approaches to appropriate technologies.
Mo: In your Wearable Homes project, I was struck by how you describe the users as “voyagers.” Can you tell me about that project and what inspired it?
Mary: In 2001, I started making wearable sculptures that embodied my personal concerns about a growing lack of access to clean water and paired them with future speculations about sea level rise and ecological instability. As both a climate change prediction and an assumption that more people will lack access to basic resources, the Wearable Homes project began as a useful suit for navigating through harsh, desertified terrains, and later bordered on more absurd dystopic commentary about what consumption might look like—after most everything imaginable had been marketized and sold. I often called people “navigators” as well. While the Wearable Homes project assumed one set of dystopic future conditions based on a dominant extractive culture, it also fetishized the idea of alienation brought on by electric technologies that led to physical separation; narrative introduced that separation. So for example, while Wearable Homes contained electric technologies, they also contained tools like “island builders,” which would suck sand from one place and bring it to another, so a person could make her own island.
Mo: In what ways has this period of quarantine and shelter-in-place earlier this year affected the ways you think about human movement through space and time?
Mary: Before, I was responding to a dystopic assumption that constant use of electric technologies for communication makes people become less familiar with communicating in person, so people start to move toward physical distance from each other. Of course, the pandemic has created another set of conditions for separation. It did strike me that the roles of “reachers” and “receivers” in Wearable Homes would be useful in the time of Coronavirus physical distancing. These were sewn into the back of the suit, and they were supposed to be used instead of touching another person with a body part. It was an extension of technological predictions that there would be a future in which people touched each other less and communicated via machines. Of course, now people have been moving safely amongst each other for some time with masks and without being in enclosed spaces for prolonged amounts of time, so while I’m not sure human movement through space and time will change much, I’m much more aware of how quickly a pandemic can spread through people and also how that spread can be mitigated.
Mo: Two of your projects this year, A Year of Public Water and Ecotopian Library, attempt a similar task of examining systems, but they do it on a broader scale. In what ways did those earlier projects regarding tools and experimental living space inform your interest in research and archiving?
Mary: I went from having access to undrinkable water as a young person, living 2.5 hours away from New York City, to living in Brooklyn as an adult where I have access to a healthy watershed. So I’m dependent on New Yorkers who live within the watershed to protect the drinking water for the city. Public Water is a project that starts to explore these relationships as life partnerships that need to be more equitable. So there is a website that is a repository for interviews, accumulated knowledge about the watershed (sourcing from preexisting archives), and artists who work with the watershed. More than it being an archive, it’s a way to activate interest and concern for this essential part of life that often goes unrecognized.
Ecotopian Library is a cross between a contemplative exhibition and a tool library that combines art, literature, and poetry with political histories, social utopian studies, earth sciences, forestry and TEK (traditional ecological knowledge)(1). It contributes to what I’ll call ecotopian subject-making. I wanted to begin building something like this to glean from these tools how to imagine other ways of doing and being. These projects were both informed by deep research I’d been doing into the photographic supply chain, and specifically cobalt, which is in the digital camera I use.
Mo: Does “ecotopian subject making” relate to using narrative as an artistic method? In your work, I see an exchange between real and imagined scenarios, in addition to a recurring fascination with transformation over time.
Mary: I think with all of these projects, it starts as something I need or desire access to: whether it’s fresh food in NYC, clean drinking water, or a living space, it’s no different with the Ecotopian Library. I desired access to the tools I imagined could be found inside of it.
Mo: What is the role of collecting and archiving knowledge (and tools) in a nomadic existence? How do we collect, archive, and use knowledge as we’re often on the move, adapting?
Mary: Well, let me just say that the Wearable Homes project was something that I worked on through 2006. At that point the wearables grew into small living spaces for multiple people, and these have often been mobile. With the Ecotopian Library, I’m working towards a permanent home for it, but it’s a place where people can visit for bouts of time and don’t permanently live there. These are all places of exchange (with visitors from “outside” coming in, and neighbors). I’d say the most important part of collecting and archiving is the exchange.
Mo: Did your approach to these projects (A Year of Public Water and Ecotopian Library) change as the events of this year unfolded, as failures of existing systems became more blatant?
Mary: What drives me to include water in much of the artwork I do, and to follow the business of water privatization, was when around the year 2000 [prior to beginning work on Wearable Homes], when [engineering and construction company] Bechtel, with the World Bank, privatized water in Bolivia, which made the water unaffordable for most people. In Cochabamba, tens of thousands of people protested, until unrest led the government to revoke those water contracts. Since then, water privatization has been something I’ve followed closely. So in the beginning of the pandemic when water was being turned off in Detroit, the effects of hollowing out state and national support for basic needs was more apparent than ever.
(1) TEK, an abbreviation of “traditional ecological knowledge,” is a term that “encompasses a subset of traditional knowledge maintained by Indigenous nations about the relationships between people and the natural environment.” This description can be found in an article titled “The Value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge for the Environmental Health Sciences and Biomedical Research,” which was published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2017. View the full text here.
Mary Mattingly is a visual artist who lives in Brooklyn, NY. She founded Swale, an edible landscape on a barge in New York City. In 2017, Swale instigated and co-created the “foodway” in the Bronx’s Concrete Plant Park. The introduction to her 2015 manifesto states: “Art and utopian thought can cultivate systemic social change. Art can transform people’s perceptions about value, and collective art forms can reframe predominant ideologies.” For more information about her artwork, exhibitions, and publications, visit marymattingly.com
Mary Olin (Mo) Geiger makes collaborative artworks and performances that emphasize tactile, interdisciplinary processes and the act of searching. She is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice makes collaborative artworks and performances that emphasize tactile, interdisciplinary processes and the act of searching. She is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice Program. For more information, visit mogeiger.com
Identity and Spaces
“My Muslim audience is the most challenging audience I have and they respond to my work differently based on if or how familiar they are with art and American culture.”
I chose to interview Soheila due to my own background of creating work about women surfers or surf culture in general, which is a specific culture and identity outside of the art world. Soheila explores the identity of Muslim women in her work. She explores this personal and cultural identity that comes along with social norms and constructs, in relationship to places, within which she questions power. In this interview, Soheila opens up about navigating different worlds, considering private and public, how her work has changed over time since moving from Iran, how she navigates talking about her work to audiences not familiar with Islam, and the stereotyping of religion and spirituality in societies.
Brianna Ortega: How has your work changed over time since leaving Iran and how has living in the U.S. impacted your work?
Soheila Azadi: My work has changed a lot. That is a good question. I realize over time it is changing even more. When you live in a place longer you realize that to some degree you are cutting ties from your homeland. It’s been happening to me especially in recent years, maybe two to three years since having my child. I feel like I am much more connected to the culture here than I am to my culture back home. Learning the American humor was part of it. I think it was in graduate school when I started incorporating American humor in my work. Our humor is very dark and very offensive to americans. The more I stay here the more I connect to pop culture which you can see traces of in my work.
In the beginning when I started working, I was really angry and the art form was a way for me to get all the anger out, but at this point in my life I am not angry anymore and I have come to peace with myself, my home country and my identity. That is why how I make work is very different from how I made work at the beginning.
Brianna: Can you give an example of how you work differently now?
Soheila: Now I think about my Muslim born identity in a more open minded way. It is to accept it, acknowledge it and celebrate it. Whereas before I was angry—asking myself questions like why I was born in that country and thinking about how it affected my childhood and teenage years; I was angry all the time. Versus now, I am just celebrating it. For example the Hijabi is Having a Bad Hair Day piece is a celebration of being a Muslim. It is a celebration of an identity, of which a huge part ties to religion.
Brianna: How has your audience changed over time in your work and how do different audiences respond to your work?
Soheila: I moved from Chicago to Portland. And then that automatically brought a different audience to my work. My last solo exhibition was at George Fox University, which is a Christian university. It was very interesting for me to get that invitation and thinking that there were
conservative Christian people viewing my work, which is a celebration of another religion…it was fascinating to me. That was a huge change. That could be the most different audience I have ever had. But, other than that, most of my work has been in galleries and in festivals and universities, so all of them were in these sorts of safe bubbles.
The other audience I have is the Muslim audience, to whom I recently have started opening my work. Before I was hesitant and wasn’t sure if I was ready to receive any criticism from them, because again my work is sitting on this very fine line that becomes either appropriated or not, or becomes offensive or not. If you are not familiar with American culture and humor, there are parts of my work that may come off as offensive. With the Hijabi is Having a Bad Hair Day project, I’ve had friends come to my house and I have to explain what it means from the beginning, like when someone is having a bad hair day. It is very different from what they think. So my Muslim audience is the most challenging audience I have and they respond to my work differently based on if or how familiar they are with art and American culture. Some of them are very excited that I am taking on this role to represent them. And some are worried that I might represent a very romanticized version of Muslim women, espeically those who have not come to peace with their own Muslim identity. So it is very mixed, but I would say the most diverse audience I have is my Muslim audience.
Brianna: You mentioned in your lecture at King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) that you don’t really talk about your work in Iran?
Soheila: I don’t. Even with family…I just make it very brief if anyone asks and say that it’s on human rights. But then I don’t tell them from which dimension I deal with this issue. The religion subject is very touchy especially back home, because of restrictions with the government and because of different religious views within Iran. Not everybody thinks they are Muslim because they were born Muslim, not everyone is practicing and there are many people who do practice and in different ways, like Christianity. But because of government restrictions, they are not allowed to express that. Just like here, you cannot assume just because someone was born Christian that they practice that. So because it’s such a hush hush subject back home, it is very touchy and I don’t talk about it. They ask me and know I am an artist, but they don’t know my work. I usually disable my website when I go home just to be safe.
Brianna: Have you ever made work about that experience?
Soheila: No, but that is a good idea. It’s this cloud that I feel I am not ready to touch and deal with for now. That is the question that regularly comes up in discussion in regards to my practice. Would you ever have a show in Iran? And I would say, yes I am hoping that I would, but would I be producing similar work that I am producing here? I don’t know, I am not sure.
Brianna: How does it make you feel that you can’t talk about your work when you go back there?
Soheila: I feel like in general going to Iran, I try to be invisible in every aspect. It is such a male-dominated culture that I regularly get disappointed. So to not be disappointed as much, I try to keep it all in and try to stay within the family and celebrate being with them. Something as simple as buying a bag of chips is challenging for me when I go to Iran. And so when it comes to my practice, first of all, most people don’t even want to acknowledge that you have accomplished anything. If they ask me questions, men especially, when they ask me questions, when I answer, so many of them say, “Oh maybe you don’t know, we should ask your husband.” Not in regards to my practice, but in general. So for me to have a concrete conversation with these types of people is not something I welcome. I have been preventing it.
Even there was a point where we were mostly women and talking about feminism and all of a sudden there was a guy there. He started talking about feminism and I had to tell him that feminism is not what he thinks it is. And I talked about different waves of feminism. He was one of the few guys in Iran that had the tolerance to sit down and talk. But there are very few out there so I am not ready to deal with it.
Brianna: I feel like I can relate to the conversation you are bringing up about hiding parts of ourselves due to stereotypes. People always think there is one type of person within a box that they are creating. And I don’t always want to open up and engage with people with my personal spiritual beliefs or other beliefs because there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes. I feel like I don’t want to always jump into their stereotype, because a lot of people are closed and not ready to hear about someone else’s experience. Like you’re saying—it’s like this cloud and I don’t always want to engage with that.
Soheila: Exactly, and it is so much heavier in the arts community. I have had friends whose work dealt with Christianity; one of them received so much hateful criticism. Her work was on the intersection between Christianity and obsessiveness. Her work is very interesting, but in graduate school, she was getting many hateful comments. I can see what you are saying. To be cool, that means to not believe in anything.
Brianna: Interesting. I had a conversation recently with someone in Portland who said they loved India. And I asked why did you love India? They said because they had spirituality in all they did in India and that they were really drawn to that, that it was interesting to be around since Portland is not very religious at all. I think ultimately people have a fear of believing in something that is greater than them, but then they are drawn to that at the same time.
Soheila: Double standard.
Brianna: Maybe I should include all of this in the interview. It’s interesting to talk about.
Soheila: Why not? I personally don’t identify as a Muslim and don’t practice it and believe in it, but I have no issues with who believes in it. Because I lived a life where I believed in it and now I can recognize how I felt before as a non-believer. It gives me relief to still be connected to people who do believe and be connected to people who don’t believe.
Brianna: After watching the KSMoCA interview with you, I was thinking about men giving women access to spaces and women giving women access to spaces. Do you have any thoughts on this and in reference to your work?
Soheila: That is very interesting. The spaces for example—the female only taxis are a systematic way of separating people based on their sex which is organized by men in society, and then there are women who are for it within the system and support that. Let’s say that is the creation of men—the gendered space, versus the space of female only parties that women create for themselves.
I think I deal less with the ones that are systematic in a way. I feel like they are all systematic, but I deal with the ones that are invisible. I deal with the ones that women create as a way to liberate themselves. I think about female-only parties. Most of my projects deal with that—almost all of them. Like the creation of craft as a result of these separations. The craft could happen either way. Unveiling is something I would say is the thing that happens in female space that they create for themselves. The unveiling part is the most challenging aspect for me to deal with in my practice because I did deal with it shortly in my work Bazar, where there was a tent within a tent and in the smaller tent there was a Hijabi woman in that community and she was unveiled and only women were allowed to enter that smaller ten. Other than that it has been very challenging to deal with that part.
My focus has been more on women creating gendered spaces for themselves as a way to liberate each other. But the truth is: it is men who created those spaces, which is the result of religion. Please keep in mind that I am specifically speaking about Muslim societies such as Iran.
Brianna: How do you think about private versus public space in your work?
Soheila: It is so challenging because for us in the United States, public is public and private is private. There is no confusion. But in Iran and in my work because I deal with those spaces, public at times can be private and private at times could be public. Lines and boundaries are not defined. And especially in Iran because of different ways of thinking—as long as it is a governmental building for example, rules that define the public are rigid and you know you cannot cross them. But, there are restaurants and cafes and places that people go and unveil secretly. So in those spaces, if government officials come, they will be in trouble, but they still do it. Or for example, if you do mountain climbing, you can at times unveil. That’s why I call them semi-private spaces. They are still public. There’s a huge mountain in my city. It’s such a thing to climb it on weekends. It is a public space. But the further you get to the top the less busy it gets, so the government officials have less access to the top. And so those lines between private and public get blurry on top as you climb it and you realize it. People’s veils get looser and looser to the point where people lose their veil. And many people take alcohol with them which is forbidden in Iran and drink it there. So it’s fascinating.
I remember growing up, I had so many questions that I was puzzled by. I didn’t know what was appropriate based on what is private and what is not, and I still struggle with that.
Brianna: I was also interested in your relationship to explaining your work. For example, all of my work is inspired by surf culture so I sometimes have to explain it a lot. So I was wondering how you navigate that.
Soheila: Yeah, I mean there are two things in my work that I have to explain: one is the history and culture of Iran and then the other aspect is specially talking about Muslim women. These two, although they are related, are different. At times depending on my audience, if it is in a university, sometimes I assume that the audience knows a little bit about the history or social construct of Iran. Or knows a little bit about Islam. So I don’t go deep into explaining to them. But there are communities to whom I felt like I had to explain further. You still want to keep it brief to not take away from your presentation time and your work.
But I think the most challenging time I had was talking about these experiences during graduate school. At that time my work was not dealing with what it deals with now. That is one reason why I started doing events and performance art because it is more tangible with people’s bodily experiences. That is why I started, for example, the Bazar project where people came into a semi-private space and paid for different services from Muslim women, like henna, and others. Eventually, I learned about socially engaged art and how there is no limit for the form of the work.
At that time I knew these two forms of making gave me the liberty to talk about experiences and made it much easier.
Brianna: How did you navigate mirroring social realities in some of your past work?
Soheila: At the beginning I was doing that more, but then I started questioning all the separations. At that time, my work was mirroring those separations and I was, in a way, creating exactly what I was questioning and criticizing. There was a point where I realized, if I am creating the same issue, how am I helping the cause? I was reading so many feminist theories and I realized one of the things they think about constantly is how by recreating an issue you are not helping the issue.
That is why I stopped creating works that were separating people based on sex and rather I focused later on the result of these spaces—the material that could come out and the conversations rather than recreating these spaces.
Brianna: What is one of your favorite memories of how someone has interacted with your work?
Soheila: Grow Some Balls was a part of my thesis exhibition. People could sit on it and swing and there were balls underneath it. It was poking fun at the language we use that is problematic and gendered, as in “grow some balls.” The funny thing is that only men physically interacted with the piece. I thought, I am going to give the people the chance to sit on balls, be elevated and gain some sort of power in a playful way. But men who actually have balls sat on it and rode it. Unfortunately, you see that everywhere—women are more shy in galleries to interact with pieces and men have the confidence to interact. That is the only one that comes to my mind.
Soheila Azadi is an interdisciplinary practicing artist, educator, writer, and a mother based in Iran and Portland. She narrates stories of lived experiences of Muslim women of color visually and verbally. Her practice is concerned with political weight within the context of historic marginalization based on gender in different cultures. Drawing from the expansive conceptual terrain of architecture and its relationship to religion, she thinks through how segregated spaces that are the results of religion utilize a framework for creativity.
Brianna Ortega is an artist, educator, writer, and surfer based on the Oregon coast. Through embedding herself in surf culture, she uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning across performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation. www.briandthesea.com
Social Practice and Equity
“The field [of social practice] has to turn toward the mirror on this question of equity before it can answer that question about its contribution to equity in society.”
This interview between H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams and Justin Maxon is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project they have been developing. Since 2017, Williams and Maxon have been working on a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work Maxon completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from Maxon’s childhood archives. Using the latter, Williams and Maxon built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack Maxon’s relationship to whiteness. They use this framework to reconsider Maxon’s work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
The following questions were created in collaboration.
Justin Maxon: I feel like intersectionality has recently been elevated in academia and in the arts. It seems like you were way ahead of the times. Long before it became a thing artists and scholars were doing in the mainstream, you were bringing together systems of knowledge that were siloed.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams: In terms of intersectionality, I had the benefit of engaging Black feminists texts like the Combahee River Collective, which is a Third World and transnational feminist text [written in 1977]. They talk about the interlocking systems of oppression and how people are impacted by holding multiple identities. I had that within my educational learning because I come from parents that were politically active in the 60’s and 70’s. On my mother’s side, our family would be considered “race people” back in the day. They used to call them “race people,” people who were conscious of the racism that existed, what it meant for Black people to own their greatness and own who and what they are in the world. So, regardless of the formal educational environment I was in, I always knew that there were resources out there to develop my own intellectual lineage. I had a mentor, Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje , who was an intersectional scholar, and talked about intersectionality in various kinds of ways.
And so the intersectionality that I knew actually came from a different lineage than what most people think about. Like when most people think about intersectionality, they think about Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work as a critical race theorist in legal studies who talked about how Black women in particular would be impacted by the law and treated differently than Black men, because of their gender, and different than white women because of their race. That there were these intersecting identities that made them particularly vulnerable on both levels of race and gender. Most people reference Kimberlé Crenshaw as the founder of intersectionality theory but she coined the term in writing from a concept that had been a part of Black feminist thought and Third World feminist thought for decades before Crenshaw published on the topic.
Some of the stuff that people articulate now, I’ve heard before from generations prior. The whole idea of pleasure activism, for example, that’s something that’s become trendy now. But when I opened up a sexual cultural center, in the early 2000s, and was organizing sex parties and massage groups and having sexual Olympics, where people had these Olympic style meets that had an erotic component, it wasn’t as trendy. So back in the early 2000s, and even the late nineties, when I was trying to find a way to operationalize Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” it wasn’t as popular. It was more seen as, “That’s the nasty stuff.” How can you both be an intellectual, and a sacred whore or how could you be an academic and organize sex parties? How could you be a scholar, and be coaching people in how to have orgasms and experience richer, deeper levels of pleasure?
Justin: A lot of the work that we’re doing together is staring down the white gaze. I’m curious, you talk about systems of knowing and being that have become popularized and trendy. How do you think that dynamic works within a white supremacist system?
Herukhuti: So the matrix of domination that is currently operating in the clinical Western world is what I described as settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy capitalism, and cisheteropatriarchy. The capitalism piece of that matrix of domination functions to commodify any and everything, in ways that extract resources from the masses of people, to increase and build the wealth of a small elite who are at the top of the social hierarchy. So why does something that was once considered heresy or scandalous or problematic become popularized? It’s because the capitalist part of the matrix of domination found a way to commodify it. It took more people being open to the idea as mildly acceptable. It took the desensitization process and the commercialization process time to get to the point where now, “Oh, yeah, we can commodify it.” You can tell when it’s the matrix of domination doing it as compared to something else when there is no lineage. It’s been plucked out of its original context and served to you on a platter, with the new packaging. When it has a lineage, that’s about people working continuously contributing to become what it is.
Justin: So when things are plucked out of context, out of that lineage, do you think it becomes less of a confrontation towards white supremacy? In my opinion, whiteness only gives ground when under fire, under pressure. It doesn’t volunteer anything.
Herukhuti: Part of the commercialization and commodification process is to make it legible and digestible for people racialized as white. Because of the white supremacy part of the matrix of domination, things have to be in service to the convenience of people racialized as white, and the extraction of wealth has to benefit people who are racialized as white. In making it legible for people racialized as white, it has to be taken up out of the cultural context in which it develops. You can see that in foods, now quinoa—we know quinoa, quinoa, quinoa. There’s a cultural context for the cultivation, preparation and eating of quinoa, but we again pluck it out so it’s now legible to a particular class, a particular group.
Justin: Yeah, we got quinoa burgers. We got quinoa salads. We got quinoa soups.
Herukhuti: Yeah, because now it can be in service to white supremacy. It can be in service to the market. Again, that’s all about those interlocking systems of oppression, that interlocking matrix of domination in which settler, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and cis- heteropatriarchy, all relying upon each other to feed the beast contained within each of them.
Justin: Well, I think that’s a perfect segue into talking about social practice given what we had discussed before on a separate occasion. First off, what’s your relationship to social practice?
Herukhuti: I am one of the founding core faculty in the new BFA in socially engaged art at Goddard College. I also am an adjunct assistant professor in City University of New York’s school of professional studies in the masters in applied theater program. My relationship to social practice and socially engaged art is rooted in the lineages that I spoke about earlier, which Toni Cade Bambara comes from. Bambara, a Philadelphia-based artist, filmmaker, writer, and author wrote a great novel called Salt Eaters. Bambara talks about the work of cultural workers, what it meant to be a cultural worker. She was talking, in particular, with and to Black people and Black artists in terms of this concept of a cultural worker. She talks about the cultural worker as someone that makes revolution and resistance irresistible to the masses.
Her concept of the cultural worker is someone who is rooted in the Black community—artists who are members of the Black community, living in the same social and cultural context as other Black people. Who are working to address the same struggles, the same challenges of other Black people who are faced with the horrors of that matrix of domination. They use their gifts in service of that struggle; as everyone in the community should be leveraging the things that they bring to the table as well as to offer works of art that affirm our existence as well as inspire us to vision and envision a way out of that matrix of domination, and a future in which the matrix we know no longer exists.
I come out of the lineage of Nina Simone, who spoke about the role of the artist to represent, reflect and comment upon the times in which they live. To do so, they can contribute to their communities’ conversations about, is this all that there is, is this all that there can be? And if not, okay, so then what do we have to do to change up some things?
I find that for a number of my BIPOC colleagues, Black, Indigenous people of color, when we talk about socially engaged art and social practice, we have lineages that are not represented or reflected in the sanctioned discourse of social practice by academic gatekeepers, in publishing, grant making and within academic programs. They’re operating with and in conversation with different lineages. So then our lineages then become illegible, and therefore invisible.
Justin: From your perspective what is the relationship between social practice and equity?
Herukhuti: The capitalism part of that matrix of domination attempts to commodify and exploit any and everything, in the interests of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy and cis-heteropatriarchy. So the question of equity in social practice functions at multiple levels. It’s about what resources are available to do the work and who has access to them and who does not; it’s about who’s at the table that makes the decisions about that distribution of resources, and who’s not; it is about who gets written into the popular history of social practice and socially engaged art, and who does not; and who makes those decisions? So there’s the equity piece that is about holding up the mirror on the field of social practice and asking what’s going on in the field. Then it’s about the degree to which social practice can contribute to the struggle for equity, justice, decolonization in the larger world. And I would say the field cannot do the latter without doing the former.
There can not be an adequate, appropriate, or consequential contribution to that struggle without the field doing that internal work and asking those critical questions and dismantling the functions of the matrix of domination within the field for a whole host of reasons. One, you’re not a credible messenger; you’re spending resources to maintain the hypocrisy. There has to be effort to be in denial and effort to not know. So that means then there’s significant resources that aren’t dedicated to the contribution of the larger struggle.
Justin: You mentioned how whiteness plucks ways of knowing and being from lineages of BIPOC communities. Can you speak about what that looks like, specifically in the context of social practice?
Herukhuti: So the arts that African people brought to the United States had to be, by necessity, turned to helping them deal with and manage the horrors of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, and slavery in the Americas. The stepping that Africans were doing in the Americas, which included the tap dance, shuffle foot, and the jig, developed because the Europeans who were enslaving them would not allow them access to the drum. So they became the drum that they couldn’t physically access. There was a difference in the performance of those steps based upon the context, in community with other African people, and when the European slavers asked for entertainment to be performed. There was an attention to context, community and audience. That was already happening just even in that small example.
I have a quilt that my mother made for me that is called the Underground Railroad quilt, which is a quilt that provided messages to support African people, liberating themselves from the slave plantations. You would quilt certain designs and those designs would be communications about what could happen in that journey of the Underground Railroad, being able to move from place to place. So you could put out a quilt as a signal. When somebody was preparing to liberate themselves, or in the process of liberating themselves, seeing that quilt was a signal about what to do.
There’s art, communication, and semiotics coming together. The humming and the singing as well, the spirituals were sung to communicate when it was time to liberate oneself, and when it was not time to liberate oneself. So these African people could be communicating with each other on the plantation and across plantations, underneath the surveillance of the Europeans who had them in bondage, to talk about their struggle for liberation. Can there be any more rich, deeper, meaningful, powerful artistic practice that is socially engaged? Where people’s lives were on the line and people’s destinies and futures were on the table?
Using something as simple as, “Wade in the water, wade in the water children, wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water.” That was about communication, a subliminal message. “Go down, Moses.” Moses was one of the code names for Harriet Tubman, one of the most successful conductors on the Underground Railroad, one of the most successful liberators of African people. So when people are singing, “Go down, Moses,” they’re taking this Christian hymn song that was a part of their indoctrination, a part of the imperialism of European slavery. Taking that and turning it on its head and using it as a way to liberate themselves by singing, “Go down, Moses” to communicate, “Oh, Harriet is on the way.” Or, “Harriet, you know, they’re looking for you now.” Is that a part of the canon of social practice and socially engaged? This was happening in the 1600s and 1700s. Again, the mirror has to be turned on the field; rather, I should say, the field has to turn toward the mirror on this question of equity before it can answer that question about its contribution to equity in society.
Justin: That just gave me shivers. I didn’t know you could sing, one of your many talents! Wow. Thank you for that!
So, what is the impact of divorcing the histories and development of social practice art from the work of BIPOC artists in their communities?
Herukhuti: The impact is more settler-colonialism and imperialism. The impact is that the field becomes anemic because of its inability to recognize the role, the function and the power of soul food. Of soul, as food. What ends up happening is that things get heady, sterile and respectable.
Justin: There’s this common association within social practice of the “do gooder,” a perceived benevolence in terms of its impact on community spaces. And from what you’re saying, the lineage of social practice comes from benefiting the local context. So, I wonder if when we talk about plucking something from lineage, are white artists plucking this “do gooder” dynamic?
Herukhuti: I think, again, of Toni Cade Bambara’s concept of the culture worker. One of the hallmarks of lineages that come out of BIPOC traditions of social practice, is that the person is already a member of the community as opposed to going into somebody else’s community, somebody else’s world, someone else’s context. Which is that settler-colonial, imperialist framework. In theater, we talk about stakes; what are the stakes for the character; what are the stakes for the audience and what is happening on stage, as a piece of contributing to the allure of theatre? There are different stakes when you’re doing work in your community as compared to doing work in somebody else’s community. No matter what you do or whether you have good relationships or bad relationships, whether you fuck up or not, if you can never see those people again, the stakes are different than if you’re doing work with members of your own family. The stakes are much higher if you’re doing work in your neighborhood where you grew up, or if you’re doing work with the people who you got to see at some point. You won’t be able to just never be impacted by them again.
So oftentimes, I observe that students and practitioners, who are racialized as white, their starting point is working in somebody else’s community. It’s not even a thought, it’s like, “Oh, no, I’m going to go over there.” And part of that comes from how whiteness is marketed within white supremacy. Whiteness is marketed as devoid of color. Whiteness is marketed as devoid of culture. It’s just the a-priority. It’s just what is. It’s the norm. And so if something is going to be interesting, it has to be located outside. And so if one is going to do good, one has to do good with the stuff that’s really messed up outside. When it’s white supremacy that has made the stuff over there in that other community fucked up. It’s the soul murdering and the intergenerational trauma carried in families and communities, racialized as white, that creates this will to power. This fear based will to dominate, and have power over, leads to the matrix of domination: targeting those folks out there, fucking up their countries and their lives, exploiting their natural resources and jailing members of their community.
There’s a whole lot of interesting work that can be done in families racialized as white. There is intergenerational trauma. There is domestic violence. There’s intimate partner violence. There’s childhood sexual assault. There’s rape, there’s incest, there’s patriarchy and sexism. There’s the feeling as though one cannot measure up to the standards of whiteness that have been promoted and articulated in white supremacy. So one is always feeling less than, and always feeling that one doesn’t measure up, and always feeling that one is an impostor, and always feeling that somebody in the next moment is going to find out that one is just faking it until they can make it. Yet the well-meaning, missionary inspired, white savior thinks first about going into some Black, Indigenous people of color community and helping those folks better manage their lives, living under the horrors that were created by settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism and cisheteropatriarchy.
Justin: You’re talking to me! You really are talking to me. That’s exactly what I did, right, and that’s the context in which we are working together. I did all of that which you said. And I wonder for white artists that have gained tremendous social capital from spending years facilitating stories to BIPOC experiences [like I did], who are in the process of turning that mirror around, what is their role in engaging initiatives to remedy the harm they’ve caused, contribute to reparations and develop anti-oppressive ways of working.
Herukhuti: One is to say to themselves and to their colleagues that this work is not over until the matrix of domination no longer exists. Even once it’s been dismantled, there will still be internal work necessary to envision and to create a new world and a new way of being. So part of their role is to always say to themselves and to their colleagues that we still got more work to do. The acapella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, has a song, “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.” So, yeah, the work continues.
That’s one. Two, is to ask critical questions about the structures of power, the distribution of resources, and who is at the table and what’s being done at that table? That’s in their work as artists, and in their discourses and conversations with not just their professional networks, but in their families and in their communities.
I would say another role is to leverage their position and their positionality in institutions and structures to disrupt the functioning of settler colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism and cisheteropatriarchy. It means contributing to the shifting of the standards and the criteria upon which decisions are made and actions that are taken from eurocentric and settler values to ones that provide reparations and restoration to BIPOC people, BIPOC communities and BIPOC lands. It means finding out from the BIPOC people in their proximity how they can be of service. There’s the golden rule that says, “Do unto others as you’d like them to do unto you.” And then there is the platinum rule, which is about do unto others, as they would have done unto them. Two very different paradigms, so the golden rule is that missionary savior approach, which is, I know based upon my value system, what is good for you. Platinum rule is recognizing different strokes for different folks. So ask the person, “How can I be of service?” and allow their articulated needs to determine and dictate how you show up, and what you do to support them.
Justin: I think that even in the context of the long journey ahead for people racialized as white, there’s pitfalls along the way, right? You mentioned plucking and divorcing lineage, so even in this moment of reckoning that’s upon us, with the Floyd Rebellion, I see a lot of white people responding to social pressures in ways that are empty gestures. Virtue signalling gives white people a vocabulary to say and do just enough to keep themselves at a distance from their complicated relationship in the matrix of domination.
How do people racialized as white not fall into those pitfalls? Even someone like Robin D’Angelo, who is lauded as this great critical whiteness scholar, pushing white people to turn that mirror on themselves. In appearance she does that throughout her book, but yet she’s divorcing, right? She’s divorcing lineages because she makes the claim that she is the sole purveyor of that information. She infrequently references BIPOC authors and scholars in her book and on stage. She gains tremendous social capital. How do white people not fall into that? Even in the context of the work that we’re doing together, I’m going to be gaining social capital by centering myself and re-entering whiteness in the process. There’s going to be a book published. My name is going to be on it. I’m going to be speaking publicly. What’s the solution here?
Herukhuti: The book project is a good example; yes, your name is on it, but so are other people’s names as well. When I say this is a continual thing, you can’t be caught sleeping. “We who believe in freedom shall not rest.” You have to keep thinking and keep being conscious. The matrix of domination will always do its thing. Remember how we started this? That capitalism part is always seeking to find out, “How can I commodify this?” The settler-colonial part of it is always seeking, “How can I own this?” It’s being conscious of it, so when opportunities arise, like being invited to speak, to be compensated, or to be canonized, you have to always think, okay, so what’s the angle that the matrix of domination is putting on this thing? As you do that questioning more and more, you begin to become more adept at being able to ask that immediately. As soon as you hear the offer, as soon as you hear the invitation, as soon as you see the way in which things are written, and framed, the font size and the positioning, you begin to say, “Ah ah, that’s that stuff!” It’s developing that as a practice. I had a professor in undergrad in social psychology that talked about tangible material goods. What are the tangible material goods that are coming out of this project? And then look at where they’re being distributed. The matrix of domination is a distribution system. It distributes advantages as resources to people and communities and away from other folks. It distributes disadvantages to certain people and communities and away from other folks. Doing that kind of audit on any project, okay, where are the advantages and disadvantages? That gives you a glimpse at the functioning of that matrix of domination.
Justin: I think it’s interesting, whenever we’ve had an opportunity in the public sphere, like, for example, when the Washington Post magazine commissioned us for the race issue they were producing, we have been met with resistance and hypocrisy. We did the survey that you just mentioned, right: what are they asking for, what do we want to say, and where are they willing to go? And in the end they killed it because our work was too inflammatory for their readers. I was dejected, all that work we did and at the last hour they said no. And you told me this is a common response within white supremacy, as it relates to white people engaging in inequity. As soon as they start losing access to resources, they begin to question the struggle and if it’s worth engaging in.
Herukhuti: When you demonstrate that you’re able, willing and committed to disrupting that flow of the advantages and disadvantages to and from, the system then moves you out of the equation. So you don’t affect what it’s set up to do. The Washington Post offer was a great example of that. It’s like, oh, wait, you’re not willing to keep this distribution system going the way it’s going. Okay, okay, well then we’ve got to move you out, even though it’s a commentary on race and racism, because again, settler colonialism is about owning any and everything. And capitalism is about commodifying everything, so white supremacist capitalism can commodify anti-racism. In ways that benefit people racialized as white, that benefit white supremacy.
Justin: It’s ironic; every turn for a person racialized as white there’s an opportunity for them to commodify, right? Like in the context of the white person who sacrifices their access to resources, the next choice they have is I could exploit this, right? I’m a savior in this situation. I’m sacrificing myself. I could go on TV. I could write a book. I can do all of these things to recenter my resources, right?
Herukhuti: Right, all of us are given the opportunity to collude with that matrix of domination. Even if we have decided in the past not to collude with it, we’re still given an additional offer to come back. You remember the movie, The Matrix. There was the opportunity for one of the characters to get hooked back up into the Matrix. So we always are given the opportunity to come back into compliance.
Justin: That’s a very tight system, right?
Herukhuti: Yeah, again, my doctorate is in human and organization systems. What you learn in systems thinking and systems theory is a thing called autopoiesis, which is a system’s ability to maintain itself, its resilience and ability to incorporate any new dynamic or threat to maintain its core functions, ie: its basic reason for being. The strength of a system is measured in this way. And yes, this matrix of domination is a self-sustaining system. Though, like anything, it has an end because it had a beginning. It didn’t always exist. It lives in reality rather than in theoretical physics, where you can have a continuous perpetuating machine that just goes on to infinity. It had a beginning. It will have an end.
Justin: Can you see an end or is it too far away to see?Herukhuti: If you look at the history of human time, the life cycle and duration of this matrix, is not a significant amount of that whole history up to this date. Yes, I see its end as a felt sense, rather than looking out of the window at the horizon—that’s not how I experienced the end of this matrix of domination. It’s a yearning in my heart and in my core. It’s a knowing that resides in the marrow of my bones. It’s the fuel for the rage that I experience at another example of the violence and the trauma that’s inflicted. That’s how I experience the vision of its end. And what comes after I experience in moments of joy and in moments of orgasm and pleasure. I experienced those moments to be a microcosm and a finite example of what comes after.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD, is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men . Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in socially engaged art, co-founder and core faculty member in the sexuality studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College and adjunct associate professor of applied theatre research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.
Justin Maxon is an award winning visual storyteller, arts educator, journalist and aspiring social practice artist who often examines social, political and environmental issues. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionality plays out in his work as a storyteller. He is a second year student in PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He has given more than 50 lectures and has taught photography workshops in over 8 different countries across the world. He was a teaching artist in an US State Department- sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.
Research Is Constant
“Research has so much to do with agency, and whether or not you feel like you have the agency to research something a certain way, or to intervene in an institution. Agency has a lot to do with identity, privilege, and context.”
I have been a tertiary audience member to Roz Crews’ practice since beginning the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University, and have been influenced and driven by the work she has done with specific people and places. I appreciate her diverse practice which engages people across multiple aspects of life. She lets her research guide her experience facilitating projects within educational systems, traditional gallery environments, and other localized places. Her collaborative, self-initiated, and interdisciplinary work provides a great look into a socially engaged practice. I invited Roz to share her approach to research, mentorship, and teaching.
The following interview took place on November 16th, 2020 over Zoom, connecting Roz Crews in Florida and Emma Mitchell in Oregon.
Emma Mitchell: How would you describe what you do in one to two sentences?
Roz Crews: If you asked me this three or four weeks ago, my answer would have been so different. Right now, I would describe what I do every day as: I go to work at an elementary school, and I teach art to kindergarten, first, and second grade. I’m also an artist who studies education and research methods, and I think a lot about how institutions both support and oppress our drive to learn things. Now I’m kind of in this new phase of in-depth research as a full-time elementary art teacher in the same district where I went to public school as a kid.
Emma: I was excited to learn that a master’s degree from the PSU MFA Art & Social Practice program granted an opportunity to teach in early childhood education systems.
Roz: It’s shocking. It’s been such an interesting process and experience. When I first looked into getting certified by the state when I was offered the job, it seemed like they were not going to accept my degree as a Masters of Fine Art because my transcript didn’t include things like “painting” or
“sculpture”. It took a little bit of navigating, but I worked with an amazing person from the school board’s human resources department who is an expert about teacher certification regulations. He was immediately able to persuade the state officials. I just had to send in my transcripts, and let them know that in fact, it is an art degree even though I’m not a painter or a sculptor. That was a really insightful conversation to have with the certification person. I’m really glad that it worked, and I think so many opportunities will come from this.
Emma: What experiences of yours do you feel ended up qualifying you to teach more traditional art methods?
Roz: That’s so funny. I don’t necessarily have the “required” qualifications. I’ve always loved drawing and painting. I’ve always studied it on my own, and a little bit in college. I also learned a lot about object oriented art and performance while working as a curatorial assistant at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Kristan Kennedy was one of my mentors; she loves telling me about paintings and installations and sculptures, and I love asking her about them.
So, I have this casually acquired knowledge…plus, technically I have an MFA. Having an MFA qualifies me as an art teacher working “in my field.” Because I’ve taught college for a couple of years, that qualifies me for the general knowledge portion of the K-12 teaching certificate, too. My work with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art
(KSMoCA) since 2014 showed the principal who hired me that I am dedicated to working with children. By working there, I gained real experience working with kids in an authentic way, developing art workshops and projects, and facilitating various projects with the school. The principal at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, where KSMoCA is located, was one of my references for the job.
I have these relationships that support the fact that I am qualified, even though I don’t have an elementary education degree or experience as an elementary classroom teacher. In Oregon, I’m not qualified for the temporary teaching certificate I have now. For me to get a teaching certificate in Oregon, I’d have to do two more years of graduate school and get a master’s in education. Here in Florida, because I already have a master’s in my field of art, I don’t have to do any more school. Right now I have a temporary certificate that qualifies me for three years, and to earn a full certificate, I’d have to do ESOL training, pass an art subject test, and complete the beginning teacher mentorship program that I’m in now. It’s like I’m qualified and not qualified at the same time. Honestly, there’s a huge shortage of teachers right now because of COVID, so I think that may have helped me too. They need people and in my case, I know a lot about art. They could tell from my interview.
I love the question of qualification. How do we know if we’re qualified to do something? Who gets to decide if we are or are not qualified? I think I’m interested in those questions pedagogically and conceptually. I’ve been making work about these questions for a while now. In particular, my projects about research—research has so much to do with agency, and whether or not you feel like you have the agency to research something a certain way, or to intervene in an institution. Agency has a lot to do with identity, privilege, and context.
Emma: Roz, thank you so much for sharing that. I am also really interested in expanding traditional qualifications. I feel like there is a fear or pressure to be an expert that can hold someone back. When beginning a new project, I frequently associate research with qualifications. How do you research? I am also curious if you see research as a social practice?
Roz: Yeah, I love that question. I’ve been thinking about how embodied and experiential my approach to research is. I first learned about research through public school, and I was not enchanted. I wasn’t interested in it at all, and I never wanted to do a research paper. Then in college, I started taking experiential learning classes and a lot of my college coursework included independent study projects instead of
pre-designed courses determined by a professor. I got a lot of opportunities to learn collaboratively with my professors and with other students, too. Through that process, I realized I could be researching or learning by participating in community, talking to neighbors, or leading workshops for kids. Being an assistant on my archaeology professor’s project was an influential experience for me. My approach to research now is rooted in the experiential, embodied, and participatory. Going out, doing things, talking to people, trying things out…I’m interested in experimentation, and I’m uninterested in being told what to do. Now I’m asking myself, do I think of research as a social practice?
Emma: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Sometimes I feel that my conversations, interviews, and engagements with people is where the art lies. I am incredibly aware of the learning occurring in those moments. I’m starting to see it as a form of social practice, experiential learning, and/or research.
Roz: I don’t exactly know if I think of research as a social practice. I’ve been spinning the question around in my head. While I was in the Art & Social Practice program at PSU, I spent most of my time practicing in public. I think I went a little overboard with experimentation… I probably did somewhere around 50 “projects” in the three years of graduate school. They weren’t big projects or important ones, but they each offered me the chance to learn something new about socially engaged art. It was fast-paced experimentation, in public view.
Thinking about it now, all of those years feel like research. I was researching how to be a social practice artist. I don’t know if any of those projects are worth anything on their own. The value lies in the group as a whole. They represent sincere curiosity and a willingness to make mistakes in public, accept those mistakes, and move on. I learned how to own up to the consequences of my mistakes, and I learned how to apologize to strangers and acquaintances. That was my social practice in grad school. After school, I started to spend more time planning and thinking through my projects. So my research phase of the work at this point is not as big a part of the actual project. It’s more of a precursor to the project; research as a precursor. The research often is social, and it’s often participatory and experimental, but it’s usually before the project starts. Then I’ll do a project based on the research. So, for me, research is a social act but it’s not really my socially engaged art anymore. Maybe it was for a while…
Emma: I really connect with what you shared. For myself, sometimes the research fuels a project, and sometimes research becomes the project. When research is a precursor, you can select what aspects of the research to bring into practice. Do you still see the whole research process as a part of the project? Is the relationship, the experience, the research, and the outcome all one project for you?
Roz: They’re together in my interior mind and my heart, but I wouldn’t describe the project to a public audience at an artist talk by explaining all the background research. I love that there is complexity and layers to how projects develop. I was invited to present a performance work for a performance and comics festival in Czechia — I did a lot of research ahead of time. The festival’s theme was ‘taboo.’ I don’t know what is taboo in Czechia, though I know what’s taboo in my own life and what is taboo in American culture broadly. I did a lot of research trying to figure out what is taboo there. The research included reading stuff online, looking at a lot of imagery, looking at and studying the architecture of the building where this festival was happening. I actually did some baking as part of the research. None of that even entered the project; the project wound up being completely different.
In this context, I like that we can talk about the fact that I research how to make a dessert as part of a project and the process of it, and in other contexts, I wouldn’t bring that up, because it sort of derails the purpose of the end project, which ultimately became about labor and the gig economy during the global pandemic. Within this conversation, it doesn’t really matter what that project was about. It’s more important to highlight the narrative that research doesn’t necessarily start in one place and go on a linear trajectory to the end. You know, it goes all around. That’s what I usually teach students, it’s not like you go to the library with a question and you develop your hypothesis, and then you simply find the answer you predicted. It’s complicated, and there are many things that get in the way of a tidy conclusion.
Emma: I think that is a great lesson to learn early—letting research guide your understanding and inspiration for a project. I’ve never taken an Introduction to Social Practice class. What is a main objective you had when teaching that class?
Roz: I love that class, I haven’t gotten to teach it in a while. It’s the first class that I ever taught. So it has a special place in my memories. The students that were in that first class are also important to me; I have an enamel pin of a hand holding a flower that I wear often, and I got it from a student in that class as a gift when she graduated. The objectives were based around expanding how people thought about art because a lot of times people came into the class expecting that it was a social justice class or a community art class or something that I wasn’t necessarily emphasizing within the course. My goal wasn’t to make everyone have the same idea of what social practice is; I didn’t care about that. I was interested in expanding from whatever point somebody was at. Some people came into the class thinking art is only 2D drawings, maybe they weren’t an art major and stumbled into the class through another entry point. I tried to use the assignments as an opportunity to open people’s minds to different processes you could use as an artist, including things like walking, and baking. We were practicing unusual forms of exchange, challenging social norms, and putting ourselves in situations we might not normally be in (of course, safety was a priority). Overall just expanding the tool belt of the artist to include social interaction.
I was also trying to draw from whatever students were passionate about outside of their art practices, or outside of their design practices, and my goal was to use the class to build on those interests. I found out that people can be understandably shy about sharing their passions. I kind of assumed that people would want to automatically share and talk about that stuff with me and the class, and that wasn’t true. It takes a lot of relationship building and trust establishing before you can understand how someone’s practice is interdisciplinary. I realized that part of my goal was to teach people how to feel comfortable opening up about those things (if they want to…). Maybe unearthing passions was part of the class, too.
Emma: I’m sure that is a really useful exercise. I feel that social practice is responsive to one as an individual, one’s experiences, and then gathering to respond to those things. I think starting those conversations early is super important. In my experience working with younger people, they frequently have a preconceived idea of art. The more I get to know them and their interests, we are able to expand in deeper directions specific to their passions.
Roz: Yeah, it’s always important to ask questions, no matter what age someone is. I like starting with questions about who someone is as a person, and then slowly we move into questions about the content. I think that’s why teachers and mentors are so important and so wonderful. In my life, I’ve had the great fortune to find mentors that are good at asking me the right questions. Without them, I would probably be a bit lost in all of my eccentricities. Having mentorship has given me structure and given me pathways forward that I just wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Emma: I agree completely. With my prior knowledge of your mentorship at KSMoCA, other projects that feature mentorship, and your current teaching role, what would you say are the similarities and differences between teaching and mentorship?
Roz: In the last few years, I’ve been much more comfortable in the mentor role than I am in the mentee role. I think switching back and forth between the roles is a super humbling process and maybe should be part of official mentorship programs. I play around with that reversal a lot in my practices as an artist and a teacher. One example is my mentorship with Moe at KSMoCA. He’s a third grader now, and he teaches me more than I teach him at this point. He often tells me that he’s ready to begin teaching photography to other kids, and he has already taught me a lot about dance. I’ve found that when you give kids the opportunity to teach, they’re excellent at it. Of course, I think I teach him things, too, but I try to downplay it. I embrace that sort of exchange in my style of mentorship, and in my teaching. I think my philosophy comes from Paulo Friere who rejects the banking model of education in which students are “empty vessels” to be filled with knowledge He proposes the idea that all students are people who come to class with whole lives of experience and information, and by acknowledging that and sharing the role of teacher, we can have more humane and dignified interactions in the context of schools.
Right now I have a mentor that was assigned to me through the beginning teacher program at my district. She is an amazing teacher who has been teaching in public schools for twenty years or more. I’m learning so much. I am trying to be very open to everything she suggests because even though I’m used to being a mentor now, I realize there are SO many things I don’t know about teaching. Luckily, she can help me learn those things.
I think mentorship is really about openness both on the side of the mentee, and the mentor, because otherwise, no one will be able to grow or offer insight. Occasionally I’ve mentored graduate students over the last couple years, and I’ve had both positive and negative experiences. Sometimes people are very open and excited about their growth and their potential. Other times, it seems like maybe people aren’t open to that, or maybe there is some kind of block in the way. This makes it difficult to understand the mentee’s goals. If I can’t understand where someone wants their work to go, it’s hard to know how to help them get there. I think that’s true across different ages, but when I work with younger students, they are open to anything—there’s hardly ever specific goals. The questions mentees ask me vary across different age groups, but it’s interesting to look for commonalities. I do explore this in my art practice.
Specifically during the Center for Undisciplined Research (CURE) at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, a project I did during 2017 and 2018 when I was the Artist in Residence there, and When
research can be a rainbow… (WRCBAR) which I made as the Artist in Residence at Lewis & Clark
College. WRCBAR was kind of a bookend to a series of work exploring how casual interactions and research are intertwined. In both of those projects, mentorship played a big role. At Lewis & Clark, I worked very closely with seven undergraduate students from various disciplines to develop and manage the exhibition. Through working together, I hoped I would help them gain skills, and I hoped they would learn from seeing how I did things. They were paid employees, but they were also a bit like mentees. They contributed a lot and made the project what it was. It wouldn’t have existed without them. It was this kind of strange employee-employer relationship, a mentor-mentee relationship, and a student-teacher relationship all at once. That was great. It wasn’t very complicated at all. It was really sweet and really rewarding. And I’m still in touch with most of them.
Back to discussing the differences between teaching and mentoring, there definitely are differences because a lot of times mentorship is purely about a relationship, at least in my experience. Oftentimes it has more to do with life skills and not necessarily specific art or academic skills. It can be a lot more casual than teaching, and there doesn’t have to be tough learning moments that can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching. But…I do think those moments often happen in good mentorship. You are teaching and learning.
Another big difference I can think of is the responsibility of a teacher to reach every student and offer them an equitable experience within a class or program. As a mentor, you don’t have to do that! In teaching, I have a specific series of objectives and goals that I have to teach everyone. My job is to teach everyone those things, to reach every student, or to at least try to reach every student. This is true with almost every kind of teaching. With mentorship, it’s funny, because there are two kinds that I’ve had. One is where the mentor is hired and specifically assigned to a student, and in this type, they don’t get to choose each other. You can run into more contentious moments, kind of like you can in teaching, because you’re not choosing your mentees, and they’re not choosing you. I’ve also had positive mentorship situations where the person selected me and wanted to have that exchange, or I selected them and they agreed to the relationship. I think that the process of selection is a pretty key difference. It’s not always possible in mentorship, but it’s rarely possible in teaching. You can never predict who will be in your class. That’s the biggest difference I can think of.
Emma: That’s a great difference to point out, thank you for sharing that. I’m interested in how you may look back at your project Drawing Time now that you’ve started your first teaching job in elementary school. You are now teaching a full class that was assigned to you in more of a formal institution after facilitating a non-traditional virtual art group.
Roz: Drawing Time came out of a really manic moment in my life when the pandemic started. It was the second week of shutdown in Portland, it was the third week in March. One day I made 10 paintings because I didn’t have anything else to do, and it inspired me to begin drawing multiple pictures every day. I didn’t have a teaching contract anymore. I didn’t have projects or speaking engagements; everything had been canceled. It was the first time in my adult life where I felt like there was nothing to do.
I was talking to my friend, Rebecca Uchill, who is an art historian, and I told her about all the drawings I was making. She said, “Why don’t you teach classes for kids, lots of people are doing classes for kids online, plus you love working with kids!” Because I had never taught a class online, I felt nervous about it, but I realized quickly I could do it any way I wanted. I got excited about how I might advertise the class, and how casual it could be. I decided to start a class that was just about drawing from your imagination. We never talked about the elements of art or anything like that, it was just about drawing together online. I thought I’d open it up to anyone—my college students, my mom, my friends that are kids, my friends that are teenagers, and I wondered what would happen if I brought all these people together in one Zoom session. I just started doing that, I guess I advertised it on Instagram, and I sent it to my email list.
All of a sudden there were like 150 people signed up to get the emails every week. I taught a class twice a week for 10 weeks, and every class was different—anyone could drop in or out at any time. I planned the sessions in advance with themes and lectures, and each one lasted for one hour. We would get through five to seven drawing prompts that lasted anywhere from one to ten minutes each. I got really into making the lectures, excited by the challenge to make them appealing to such a wide range of people. I would talk for about ten minutes in the beginning of class about something like Polly Pocket, Rocko’s Modern Life, or the Disney Pixar film Inside Out . Knowing that I was designing the lectures for six and seven year olds, I would also sometimes throw in appropriate adult humor to keep the adults intrigued. We often looked at contemporary performance and painting as part of the class, too. Drawing Time is weirdly inspired by SpongeBob, the kids TV show. I think that show does an amazing job of infusing a kid show with adult-level jokes, and also educational things.
Emma: I think Drawing Time is an amazing project; it was adaptive and innovative and useful for so many. After teaching a freely structured class and transitioning to a more structured routine inside an elementary school, how do you see your social practice background coming into your work now in that field?
Roz: I know it’s too early to know how it’s gonna manifest. I think that one of the things that’s very clear is: I have learned so much about working with people from being a social practice artist. As an artist who collaborates and cooperates with many different people and institutions, I’m always learning about conflict resolution. I think those two things have already been huge assets for working in an elementary school. The other thing I’m appreciating about my background is my practice and experience organizing projects and preparing for events. A lot of my practice has been about preparing frameworks for people to have experiences within, and teaching at this level is very similar. Everyday I prepare materials and lesson plans ahead of time so the students can drop into class and have a meaningful and fun experience in 45 minutes with minimal amount of stress, preparing things in advance so that students can have a positive learning experience. I’m very responsive, resilient, and flexible because of my social practice life as an artist, and that benefits me in the classroom, too. There are endless things that come up, and I’m happy to report that so far, most of those things don’t stress me out! I’m surprised because I think the last time I was teaching by myself in this kind of context with little kids, I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve grown a lot, and I’m still not good at it. I’m excited that part of my life practice has translated into me becoming a more effective teacher.
In terms of art skills, I think I have lofty goals of social practice at the elementary level. One of my dreams may be to infiltrate the curriculum design of Florida public schools and help initiate a shift. As part of that shift, maybe we could include social practice in the lesson plans. At this point, I’m sticking to very traditional media because I’m still learning how to “manage” the classroom and present relevant lesson plans, but I spend a lot of time focused on sharing a diverse range of contemporary artists. In some ways, the kids have very clear expectations around what art is and what they’re going to get to do in art class, but I’ve noticed that those expectations can change quickly. As long as you set up a procedure for how something’s going to happen, they’re pretty quick to say, “Alright, I can do this.” So I guess it’s just about setting up the procedure to shift the expectation.
Emma: Would you say you are in the research phase of this new chapter?
Roz: Yeah. There’s just so much. I have a lot of ideas for projects already, but I am just getting to know all the office staff, the custodians, the principal, and the other teachers, and how they do things and figuring out that dynamic. I’m so used to being friends with my bosses, and now I have a boss who is really like my boss. I love her. She’s so impressive, but she’s my boss. Hopefully, a friendship will grow with time. Today she showed me photos of a DIY craft project she did at home over the weekend. She said she felt inspired by me to try doing it even though she had never tried something like that before. It looked great.
Emma: I am excited to see where this new chapter of your life and practice will take you.
Roz: I’m happy to tell you what I’ve learned through doing this stuff. Teaching just makes me excited every day. I wake up curious about what students are going to say, and I look forward to finding out what they’ll teach me.
Roz Crews (b. 1990) is a white artist, educator, and writer whose practice explores the many ways that people around her exist in relationship to one another. Recent projects have examined the dominant strategies and methods of research enforced by academic institutions, schemes and scams of capitalism, and the ways authorship and labor are discussed in the context of contemporary art production. Her work manifests as publications, performances, conversations, essays, and exhibitions, and she exhibits it in traditional art spaces…but also in hotels, bars, college dorms, and river banks. She works at a public elementary school as a full-time art teacher in rural North Florida.
Emma Mitchell (b.1995) is a project-based artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, OR. She is the Director and Curator at the Portland Plant Museum, Artist Mentor at KSMoCA, Founder and Creator of the Sexual Violence Symposium, and teaches within Portland State University’s School of Art and Design. Emma is in her third year of pursuing her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.
On art fairs, strikes, grants and building audiences
Text by Diana Marcela Cuartas
Translated by Camilo Roldán
Spanish version below
“With the pandemic, it also became clear that arts institutions can’t be conceived of from a contextually marginal position, and the necessary link between artistic practices and social practices has become more visible.”
Espacio Odeón is a project for artistic creation in Bogotá, Colombia. It emerged in 2011 as a contemporary art fair in a heritage building located in the historic district of downtown Bogotá. Over the course of nearly ten years, it has been the site for a broad range of events that, in addition to the yearly art fair, have included theater, site-specific installations, performances, unforgettable parties, and a constantly active public program that I was in charge of, until I moved to the United States in 2019.
In its seventh year, the project renounced its commercial aspirations and focused on establishing itself as a space for interdisciplinary discussion and exhibition projects that respond to a state of emergency. Here, I interview my former coworkers about working as a team, institutional culture, as well as how audiences transform artistic projects and vice versa.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Let’s start with your roles. What do each of you do as part of the team?
Tatiana Rais: I’m the director and cofounder of the space. I’m in charge of the administration and strategic planning. My role has been to put together the work team and to look for ways to ensure our existence in the long run as an open space.
Marcela Calderón: I do production, which is to say, the execution of the exhibitions, and I also work in public engagement. Recently, I’ve focused on looking for strategies to connect more with people who live and work in the area around Odeón. My role has been a mix of those things.
Alejandra Sarria: I’m the curator for the space. My role has been to define a direction for the themes and artists we’ll be working with each year, and I also work a little bit on the public programming that accompanies those exhibition projects.
Diana: Do each of your roles and responsibilities somehow influence the way you’re building the public program? Is there a team consensus when defining what’s important in Odeón’s current programming?
Tatiana: In a way, the exhibitions kind of set guide posts for the year, and based on that, we start to work on a large part of the public program. At the same time, the public program has its own concerns, and some activities are done separately from the exhibitions, and on that front there’s more consensus and team work. Overall, this is in regards to issues that you might call “institutional decisions,” like supporting or not supporting the National Strike (1), creating a mutual aid fund during the pandemic, or those kinds of more contextual things that aren’t directly related to the exhibition program.
Diana: I’m very interested in that—how does one establish the culture of a team? I’m referring to issues like supporting a strike, which is a step few arts institutions would take, at least in Bogotá.
Marcela: Last year, we had a consulting firm perform an audit, which sort of helped us to think structurally about what kind of “statement” Odeón would make. It was a conversation aimed at understanding the position of each person in the project, from the building owners to the custodians. There was a big discussion about what type of commitments Odeón would make as an institution through its public events, specifically in regards to the current context and in response to a lot of things that have been happening.
Alejandra: I think our institutional culture has a lot to do with the personal positions of our team members. I mean, there may be some differences in the details, but in general, the political beliefs of the people who work in Odeón are similar as far as what we think is right or wrong, or what’s worth defending.
With the strike, for example, there was a big argument related to the audit, and with the other people involved in Odeón, about whether we should make that public gesture of support or not. But from our perspective, the three of us participated in the strike and we agreed with the demands of the strike organizers, and in a way, that also influences questions about whether the institution should also do it. I have a curatorial preoccupation with responding to what is happening, about speaking to urgent issues, and whenever I bring that up, there’s a consensus that it’s important, that we can’t not say something about it, especially after the NO (2) and up to the present.
Maybe we were more easy-going when we were organizing the art fair, making exhibitions that were more concerned with aesthetics or with something entirely different. But as the national reality has become more depressing, you start to feel that the programming should be responsible for addressing everything that’s been happening. Odeón also happens to be able to respond and react flexibly because it isn’t a museum institution with complex timetables. So, I think it has to do with those things, with the values of the people who work at Odeón and our ability to quickly respond to things.
Tatiana: I think it also has a lot to do with the audience. When we were doing the art fair, we felt it was our responsibility to appeal to an audience of collectors because they supported us through purchases or donations. So, in a way, there was an interest in reaching that audience and inviting them to participate. But over time, we realized that wasn’t the audience that came to Odeón, and it also wasn’t the audience that was supporting us. When we started to ask ourselves who our audience really was and what kind of events we were creating, we were able to start resolving other issues too. By ending the art fair, it became much clearer what kind of space Odeón is. We’re caring about inviting other agents from different disciplines to work with the space the way artists do, and that really opened up the conversation.
Another thing is that our priorities also depend on who’s part of the work team, and that’s really interesting to me because it also keeps Odeón in a state of transformation. Our initial interest was in creating a space for emerging galleries; later the focus was on producing site-specific installations. That focus is still there, but other layers have been added. I think that, with the pandemic, it also became clear that arts institutions can’t be conceived of from a contextually marginal position, and the necessary link between artistic practices and social practices has become more visible.
Diana: I think it also has to do with issues of class. As Alejandra said, after the NO and other things that have happened, the oppression is reaching other people who were previously unaffected. All of that depressing stuff seemed like something that only happened on TV, or in newspapers, or somewhere other than here…would you say that influenced the idea to quit the art fair?
Tatiana: I don’t know if you could say that moment in particular changed our outlook. I think it had more to do with realizing that there were important conversations that weren’t happening, and it was important for us to make them happen. For me, one of the key moments was when we did Quiero Un Presidente (I Want A President) (3), which was one of the first events where we took a political stance as an institution at a crucial moment. I remember, at the end, once all of the guest speakers had read their texts, people from the audience also got up to speak, and the way the audience reacted showed me that, through our events, we could get involved in these conversations and take a stance beyond the personal. In a way, we were already doing that through the exhibitions, which are always based on very critical questions regarding different subjects, but it was clear to me in that moment that it was worth building programming more centered on current events.
Diana: Odeón was born as an art fair that responded to a lack of exhibition spaces of a certain kind, attempting to seduce a certain audience of collectors, and over time you realized that what you were building was not that audience. This relationship with the audience is interesting to me. What has it been like to realize that what you were offering to one group was reaching another?
Tatiana: I think it has been a process of recognizing an audience that has always been there, more than building one. Obviously, we’ve reached a wider audience, but when you look closely, you begin to recognize the same people who regularly come to the exhibitions, to the public program events, to the parties, to the screenings.
I remember we once held a private cocktail party for a featured international artist, and you said something to me like, “But why are we doing this for people who have never been here? Why don’t we give this kind of attention to the audience that always shows up?” And I think that’s something really interesting to think about, to realize that the audience that actually comes to all of the activities and supports us is not necessarily an audience that is directly giving us money.
Marcela: But it also has a lot to do with where the money is coming from. The grant lenders don’t really care if the biggest collector in Colombia is coming. The grant lending institutions care about numbers. We currently run on grants, and we justify our projects based on the size of the audience that shows up. If we don’t pay attention to that, which is what ultimately supports us, we’re screwed.
It also has to do with the privilege that Odeón has in terms of infrastructure—having a small public plaza in front of the building, in this part of the city, or having a courtyard, and all these things that happen around the building on the fringes of our events.
Alejandra: There’s something we’ve discussed repeatedly and it’s the idea of affect. At some point we started to talk a lot about working through affect, working with the attachments we have. I don’t know if it has so much to do with the general public that attends our events, but more with the artists we work with and what our inner circle has been. We began to focus more on that, which has expanded to include others, and at some point, we realized how important those relationships were. It isn’t about convincing people who don’t really care about us; rather it’s about working more intensely with the people who do care about us.
We’ve also been talking for a long time about connecting ourselves more to the community, about functioning more as a space that has a sense of place. So, like Tatiana said, we stopped being an art fair space to become a space that is being thought about more in terms of community, which is a huge transition.
Diana: But it’s a two-way street, right? Because renouncing the commercial aspect also meant recognizing that the people who show up aren’t the ones who are buying.
Alejandra: Right, it also changes the audience. We no longer had to worry if there was a collector who could take on that investment, as in the case of the international artist.
I’m thinking about that period—the grants were really small, so we were more concerned about where the money was coming from. When you rely on grants that have bigger budgets, the possibilities really change for what you can do without worrying about whether you can sell something.
Diana: And what does the long-term sustainability look like with this new pandemic situation?
Tatiana: As we were thinking about what we’ll do to find money—without in any way compromising the program we already have—we talked with Marcela about how Odeón is also a producer. First and foremost, we produce well-developed art projects, and that has become a point of interest for other parties. From brands to public entities that hold events, everyone needs an artistic producer, and they can contract Odeón to do it.
Our normal functioning used to depend on grants, but mainly from renting out the space—that came to a complete halt and will be slow to come back. It’s also probable that the grant lending institutions will have dramatic budget cuts. So, we’ve been thinking about how to use the tools at our disposal, as well as the “services” we might be able to offer, as a way to get resources, especially in a landscape where the whole idea of patronage is very complicated. For now, that’s more or less a solution we have on hand. It’s like the price we have to pay to be able to do the other projects we want to do.
Diana: Which is very much along the lines of an artist’s life, but at an institutional scale, right? Working a side job so you can do your own work. But okay, on top of all that, what was the audit about?
Alejandra: It was a grant we won to have Odeón evaluated through the lens of business and viability. If the audit showed “positive results,” that would give us resources to buy equipment and things like that. But it was an exhausting process because the consulting firm didn’t have any experience with arts and culture, and it took a lot of effort to get them to recognize that we weren’t interested in making money, that we didn’t want to sell anything. It was really difficult and there was a lot of conflict.
For example, the national strike was a shitstorm because, for them, we were being too partisan. Like, it was precisely that idea of becoming more political and taking a position that kept us—in their eyes—from reaching the public, so it was a constant point of conflict. On the one hand, it was cool because it helped us to ask ourselves questions about how we operate, but on the other hand, it was really rough because, in a way, it delegitimized what we were doing.
In the end, the solution was to divide ourselves into two branches: one that had to do with what we do in terms of artistic programing without abandoning the focus that we’ve developed, and the other branch would host public events that lean more toward musical performances or parties, as a business. But when that was about to come into effect, well…pandemic!
The surprising part is that what has really saved us this whole time, what has motivated artists to donate works for auction, what makes people buy those works, what feeds the mutual aid fund we created and that the public supports, is precisely having been “lefty partisans.” Because people see Odeón as a space they can’t bear to lose.
Diana: And within this new stance you have taken, is there some concern about whether something is or isn’t art? How do you all see the relationship between interdisciplinary practices in an arts space?
Alejandra: I feel that up till now we’ve been able to maintain a certain balance. I do think that art doesn’t work as a way to talk about some things. For example, we wanted to hold a big symposium about memory that apparently had very little to do with art, and the question that the building shareholders put to us was, “Why are you the ones to do this?”
Sometimes we come up against those questions, but we have an audience and social circles where talking about these things has different implications than it does in spaces where those discussions typically happen, and that’s why it’s important for us to do it. And inasmuch as we have a more defined political position, it has also been becoming clear that it isn’t possible to be coherent with that position only through art objects, and this forces us to look for other interlocutors. It’s possible that there are people who visit our projects and ask themselves whether they’re seeing a work of art or not. But there are a lot more people who appreciate the projects and feel themselves transformed in a variety of ways, and in the end, I think that’s what matters.
(1) In November 2019, a series of protests known as the National Strike began against the government of Iván Duque in Colombia. Organized by unions, students, and Indigenous communities, the movement rejected some labor and pension system reforms, the murder of hundreds of community leaders since president Duque took office, as well as the death of more than 12 minors in a bombing during an operation by the National Army of Colombia. The demands included funding for education programs and the defense of the Special Justice for Peace. This mobilization, one of the country’s largest in 50 years, would last until February 2020, leaving dozens of deaths and injuries as a result of clashes with the police. It was eventually appeased by the restrictions and curfews imposed on the occasion of the pandemic.
(2) In 2016, a national plebiscite was held in Colombia to vote on the Peace Accords with the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). 50.2% of participants voted against supporting the peace process—what is referred to as the NO—which marked the beginning of efforts to sabotage the peace process and a worsening of the paramilitary violence against community leaders in various regions of the country.
(3) During the 2018 presidential elections in Colombia, Espacio Odeón and SALVAJE press invited a variety of figures from artistic and literary communities around the country to create texts inspired by Zoe Leonard’s poem “I Want A President.” These were read publicly by the authors and other collaborators in the small plaza in front of Espacio Odeón.
Diana Marcela Cuartas is a Colombian artist and current student in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University. She earned a BA in Social Communication at Universidad del Valle and has participated in multiple contemporary art platforms led by artists since 2010. Diana was Head of Public Programs for four years at Espacio Odeón. Formerly she was part of the non-profit art space Lugar a Dudas (A Place For Doubts), dedicated to promoting contemporary art with a global focus in Cali, Colombia. In 2019, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she has been working independently for the promotion and exchange between Pacific Northwest and Latin American artists. She also works as a family liaison for Latino Network, serving immigrant families through school-based programs at the Reynolds School School District in the East Multnomah County area.
Espacio Odeón is a non-profit art space focused on promoting experimental and transdisciplinary processes within the arts in Bogotá, Colombia. Since its founding in 2011, it has produced numerous site-specific projects, working hand in hand with artists of different trajectories and disciplines to create a program that critically responds to the context. Through a wide and diverse program that includes exhibits, curatorial projects, laboratories, study groups, performance, and parties, amongst others, it seeks to develop a space for participation and dialogue around art and other urgent issues. Espacio Odeón runs out of a heritage-site abandoned theater built originally in the 1930s. The group’s focus on experimental processes, set in a unique building, has constituted an important space for the development of artistic practices in that region in recent years.
Sobre ferias, paros, becas y construcción de públicos
Diana Marcela Cuartas con Espacio Odeón
“Con la pandemia se ha vuelto más claro también que las instituciones de arte no se pueden pensar al margen del contexto, y se ha vuelto más evidente el lazo que tiene que haber entre las prácticas artísticas y las prácticas sociales.”
Espacio Odeón es un proyecto de creación artística en Bogotá, Colombia. Surgió en el 2011 como una feria de arte contemporáneo en un edificio de patrimonio arquitectónico en el centro histórico de Bogotá. Tras casi 10 años de funcionamiento ha sido sede de una diversa programación que, además de la feria anual, ha incluido teatro, instalaciones site specific, performance, fiestas inolvidables y un Programa Público del que estuve a cargo hasta mudarme a Estados Unidos en 2019.
En su séptimo año el proyecto renunció a sus aspiraciones comerciales y se ha enfocado en plantearse como un espacio de discusión interdisciplinar y proyectos expositivos en contexto de emergencia. En esta entrevista converso con mis antiguas compañeras para hablar de trabajo en equipo, cultura institucional, y cómo los públicos transforman los proyectos artísticos y viceversa.
Diana Marcela Cuartas: Empecemos con sus roles. ¿Qué hace cada una en el equipo?
Tatiana Rais: Soy la directora y cofundadora del espacio. Me encargo de toda la parte administrativa y la planeación estratégica. Mi rol ha sido construir el equipo de trabajo y buscar maneras para que podamos seguir existiendo en el tiempo como un espacio abierto.
Marcela Calderón: Yo hago la producción, es decir la ejecución de las exposiciones, y también trabajo en mediación de públicos. Recientemente me he enfocado en buscar estrategias para acercarnos más a la gente del sector donde estamos ubicados. Mi rol ha sido una mezcla de esas cosas.
Alejandra Sarria: Yo soy la curadora del espacio. Mi rol es definir la orientación de la programación, los temas y artistas con los que se va a trabajar cada año, y también trabajar un poco en el programa público que acompaña esos proyectos de exposiciones.
Diana: ¿Estos roles/responsabilidades que cada una tiene influyen de alguna manera en la form una tiene influyen de alguna manera en la forma en que se está programando el espacio? ¿Hay consenso de equipo al definir lo que es importante en la programación de Odeón actualmente?
Tatiana: En cierta forma las exposiciones marcan un poco la pauta de lo que será la programación del año, a partir de ahí se empiezan a trabajar muchas cosas del programa público. A su vez el programa público tiene unos intereses propios y unas actividades que se hacen de forma independiente a las exposiciones, en ese aspecto sí hay más consenso y trabajo en equipo. Sobre todo como en temas de decisiones “institucionales”, por así decirlo. Cosas como apoyar o no el Paro Nacional (1), crear un fondo de apoyo mutuo durante la pandemia, o ese tipo de cosas más contextuales que no están relacionadas directamente con el programa expositivo.
Diana: Me interesa mucho eso ¿Cómo se establece la cultura de un equipo?
Me refiero a cuestiones como apoyar un paro, que no es una decisión que tomen muchas instituciones artísticas, por lo menos en Bogotá.
Marcela: El año pasado tuvimos un ejercicio de consultoría que de alguna manera nos sirvió para pensar estructuralmente cuál era el “statement” de Odeón. Fue una conversación para entender en qué posición estaba parado cada uno en este proyecto, desde los dueños del edificio hasta los que trabajan en mantenimiento. Ahí se puso mucho en discusión qué tipo de compromiso tendría Odeón como institución con su programación, justamente ante el contexto y a responder a muchas cosas que han ido sucediendo.
Alejandra: Creo que la cultura institucional tiene que ver mucho con lo con las posturas personales del equipo. O sea, puede haber algunas diferencias en detalles pero, en general, el pensamiento político de las personas que trabajamos en Odeón es similar frente a lo que creemos que está bien o está mal, o que se debe defender.
Con lo del paro, por ejemplo, hubo una discusión grande relacionada con la consultoría y con las demás personas involucradas en Odeón, sobre si debimos haber hecho ese apoyo público o no. Pero desde nosotras, las tres participamos del paro y estábamos de acuerdo con lo que el paro pedía y de alguna manera eso alimenta cuestionar si la institución también debe hacerlo. De mi parte hay una preocupación curatorial por responder a lo que está pasando, por hablar desde la urgencia, la cual siempre que la manifiesto hay un consenso en que sí es importante, que no podemos no decir algo con respecto a eso, especialmente desde el NO (2) hacia acá.
Quizás antes estábamos más tranquilas haciendo una feria, haciendo exposiciones que tenían un interés más estético o de otro orden. Pero a medida que la realidad nacional se ha vuelto más heavy , empieza a sentirse una responsabilidad desde la programación frente a todo lo que está pasando. También pasa que Odeón tiene la posibilidad de responder y moverse con flexibilidad porque no es una institución museística con temporalidades muy complejas. Entonces creo que tiene que ver con esas dos cosas, los valores de las personas que trabajamos en Odeón y la posibilidad de responder rápido que tenemos.
Tatiana: Yo creo que también tiene mucho que ver con el público. Cuando hacíamos la feria nos sentíamos en la responsabilidad de atraer un público de coleccionistas porque ellos nos apoyaban comprando o con donaciones. Entonces de cierta forma había un interés por llegarle a ese público e invitarlo a participar. Pero con el tiempo nos dimos cuenta que ese no era el público que viene a Odeón, y que tampoco es el público que nos está apoyando. En el momento en el que nos empezamos a preguntar quién es realmente nuestro público y qué tipo de programa estamos haciendo, se empezaron a resolver también otras cuestiones. Al dejar de hacer la feria se volvió mucho más claro el tipo de espacio que es Odeón. Nos hemos preocupado por invitar a otros agentes de diferentes disciplinas a trabajar el espacio como lo hacen los artistas y eso ha ampliado muchísimo la conversación.
Otra cosa es que también dependiendo de quién es el equipo de trabajo se plantean las prioridades y a mí eso me parece algo muy interesante porque hace que Odeón se mantenga transformando. Nuestro interés al principio era generar un espacio para galerías emergentes, después se enfocó en la producción de instalaciones site specific. Ese interés todavía se mantiene pero se le han añadido otras capas. Creo que con la pandemia se ha vuelto más claro también que las instituciones de arte no se pueden pensar al margen del contexto, y se ha vuelto más evidente el lazo que tiene que haber entre las prácticas artísticas y las prácticas sociales.
Diana: Creo que también tiene relación con cuestiones de clase. Como decía Alejandra, a partir del NO y otras cosas que han pasado, la opresión ha empezado a evidenciarse en otros sectores de la sociedad que anteriormente no se veían afectados. Todas esas cosas pesadas parecían algo que sólo ocurre en televisión, o en un periódico, o en alguna
parte que no es aquí… ¿Podría decirse que eso influyó en la idea de renunciar a la feria?
Tatiana: Yo no sé si se pueda hablar de que ese momento en específico nos hizo cambiar el chip. Creo que fue más algo de darnos cuenta que había conversaciones importantes que no estaban sucediendo y que era importante hacerlas nosotras. Para mí uno de los momentos claves fue cuando hicimos Quiero un presidente (3) , que fue uno de los primeros eventos tomando una posición política como institución en un momento coyuntural.
Recuerdo que todos los invitados habían leído sus textos y al final personas del público también se pararon a hablar, y la manera en que el público reaccionó me hizo entender que a través de la programación podíamos involucrarnos en estas conversaciones y tomar una postura más allá de lo personal. Eso de alguna forma lo estábamos haciendo por medio de las exposiciones, que siempre parten de preguntas bien críticas frente a diferentes temas, pero para mí en ese momento fue claro de que valía la pena construir un programa que girara un poco más en torno a las coyunturas.
Diana: Odeón nació como feria respondiendo a una falta de espacios expositivos de ciertas características, tratando de seducir a cierto público coleccionista y con el tiempo se dieron cuenta que ese público no era el que estaban construyendo. Me parece interesante esta relación con el público ¿Cómo ha sido el proceso de reconocer que lo que se está ofreciendo a unos les está llegando a otros?
Tatiana: Creo que sí ha habido un trabajo de reconocer un público que siempre ha estado, más que de construirlo. Obviamente hemos ampliado nuestro público, pero cuando uno se fija, empieza a reconocer a las mismas personas que regularmente vienen a las exposiciones, a los eventos del programa público, a las fiestas, a las proyecciones. Me acuerdo que alguna vez hicimos un cóctel privado para un artista internacional que invitamos y tú dijiste algo como “¿pero por qué le estamos haciendo esto a personas que nunca han venido? ¿Por qué no le damos esa atención al público que viene siempre?”
Y creo que eso es una cosa interesante de pensar, darse cuenta de que el público que realmente viene a todas las actividades y nos apoya no necesariamente es un público que nos está dando dinero directamente.
Marcela: Pero también tiene mucho que ver con de dónde está saliendo la plata. A las becas les importa muy poco si viene el mayor coleccionista del país. A las becas les importan los números. Actualmente funcionamos con becas y justificamos los proyectos con la cantidad de público que viene y si no le ponemos atención a eso, que es finalmente lo que nos sostiene, estamos fregadas.
También tiene que ver con el privilegio que tiene Odeón a nivel de infraestructura. El contar con una plazoleta pública en esta parte de la ciudad, o con un jardín, y todas estas cosas que pasan en torno al edificio al margen de la programación.
Alejandra: Hay algo que hemos hablado con recurrencia y es el tema del afecto. En algún momento empezamos a hablar mucho de trabajar desde el afecto, trabajar con los vínculos que tenemos. No sé si tanto con el público general que asiste, pero sí con los artistas que trabajamos y con lo que ha sido nuestro círculo más directo. Empezamos a concentrarnos un poco más ahí y eso ha ampliado a otros, y en algún momento caímos en cuenta de la importancia de esos afectos. No se trata de convencer a los que les importamos poco, sino de trabajar más fuertemente con la gente a la que sí le importamos.
También hemos hablado durante mucho tiempo de vincularnos más con la comunidad, de funcionar más como un espacio que tiene sentido en el lugar donde está ubicado. Entonces, como había dicho Tati, en el momento que Odeón decidió soltar lo comercial cambió para siempre, dejamos de ser un espacio ferial para volvernos un espacio que se está pensando en un sentido más comunitario, que es una transición tremenda.
Diana: Pero eso es algo que va en en las dos vías ¿no? Porque renunciar a lo comercial fue también reconocer que quienes vienen no son los que compran.
Alejandra: Claro, cambia el público también. Ya no teníamos que preocuparnos, como el caso del artista internacional, porque hubiera un coleccionista que pudiera soportar esa inversión. Estoy pensando en ese momento y las becas eran mínimas, entonces la preocupación por de dónde sale la plata era mucho mayor. Cuando se cuenta con becas que tienen presupuestos significativos cambian mucho las posibilidades de lo que se puede hacer sin la preocupación de que hay que vender.
Diana: ¿Y cómo pinta el panorama de la sostenibilidad hacia el futuro teniendo en cuenta esta nueva coyuntura pandémica?
Tatiana: Pensando cómo resolvemos para seguir teniendo plata sin comprometer de alguna forma el programa que tenemos, con Marce hablábamos de que resulta que Odeón es un productor también. Ante todas las otras cosas, hacemos producción de proyectos artísticos muy bien jalados y eso se ha vuelto algo de interés para otros, desde marcas hasta entidades públicas que hacen eventos, todos necesitan un productor artístico y podrían contratar a Odeón para hacer eso.
Nuestro funcionamiento normal depende de becas, pero principalmente de alquilar el espacio y eso se paralizó por completo y va a demorar en reactivarse. También es probable que las becas tengan cortes drásticos de presupuesto. Entonces, pensando en cómo utilizar las herramientas que tenemos y los “servicios” que podemos llegar a ofrecer para conseguir recursos en un panorama en donde toda idea de patrocinios está muy compleja, por ahora esa es un poco una solución que tenemos a la mano. Es como el precio que nos toca pagar por poder hacer todos los otros proyectos que queremos hacer.
Diana: Que es algo muy en la misma vía de la vida del artista pero en escala institucional ¿no? Hacer otro trabajo para poder hacer el trabajo propio. Pero bueno, a todas estas ¿qué fue la consultoría?
Alejandra: Fue una beca que nos ganamos para evaluar Odeón bajo un enfoque de líneas de negocio y viabilidad. Si la consultoría llegaba a unos “resultados positivos” nos daban recursos para comprar equipos y cosas así. Pero fue un proceso agotador porque los consultores no tenían experiencia en arte y cultura y costó mucho trabajo que ellos reconocieran que no nos interesa hacer plata, que no nos interesa vender. Fue algo muy difícil y hubo mucho conflicto. Por ejemplo, lo del paro fue un rollazo porque para ellos estábamos siendo ya demasiado partisanas. O sea, precisamente esta cuestión de volvernos más políticas y tomar posición nos estaba alejando de quiénes para ellos es el público, entonces fue una confrontación constante. Por un lado fue chévere porque nos ayudó a preguntarnos sobre la manera en que trabajamos, pero por otro fue muy rudo porque de alguna manera deslegitimaba lo que estábamos haciendo.
Al final la conclusión fue dividirnos en dos ramas, una de lo que hacemos en términos de programación artística sin abandonar ese enfoque que hemos logrado. La otra, hacer un programa inclinado más hacia lo musical/rumbero como negocio, pero cuando eso se iba a empezar a ejecutar pues… ¡Pandemia!
Lo sorprendente es que lo que realmente nos ha salvado este tiempo, que ha hecho que los artistas nos donen obras para subastar, que la gente nos compre, que se mueva el fondo de apoyo mutuo que creamos y que el público nos apoye, es precisamente ser “partisanas izquierdosas”. Porque ven en Odeón un espacio que no puede desaparecer.
Diana: Y en esta nueva forma de asumirse ¿hay alguna preocupación por hasta dónde una cosa es arte o no? ¿Cómo ven ustedes la relación entre las prácticas interdisciplinares en un espacio artístico?
Alejandra: Yo siento que hasta ahora se ha logrado mantener cierto equilibrio. Sí creo que el arte no da para hablar sobre ciertas cosas. Por ejemplo, queríamos hacer un gran simposio sobre la memoria que aparentemente no tenía mucho que ver con arte, y la pregunta que nos hacían los shareholders del edificio era ¿Ustedes por qué van a hacer eso?
A veces sí entran esas dudas, pero nosotros tenemos un público y unos escenarios donde hablar de eso implica cosas distintas a que se hable desde los lugares que siempre se habla, y por eso es importante que nosotras lo hagamos. Y a medida que tenemos una posición política más definida, también se va haciendo más evidente que no es posible ser coherente con esa posición solamente desde el objeto artístico y esto nos empieza a obligar a buscar otros interlocutores. Posiblemente haya gente que visite los proyectos y se pregunte si está viendo una obra o no. Pero hay mucha otra gente que los aprecia y que se ve transformada de muchas maneras, y al final eso es lo importante, creo yo.
(1) En noviembre de 2019, se iniciaron una serie de protestas conocidas como el Paro Nacional, contra el gobierno de Iván Duque en Colombia. Convocada por sindicatos, estudiantes y comunidades indígenas, la manifestación rechazaba algunas reformas laborales y del sistema de pensiones, el asesinato de centenares de líderes comunitarios desde la posesión del actual presidente, así como la muerte de 12 menores de edad en un bombardeo bajo una operación del Ejército Nacional de Colombia. Entre las demandas se abogaba por recursos para la educación pública y la defensa de la Justicia Especial para la Paz. Esta movilización, una de las más grandes del país en los últimos 50 años, se extendería hasta febrero de 2020 dejando decenas de muertos y heridos durante los enfrentamientos con la policía, hasta ser aplacada por las restricciones y toques de queda impuestos con motivo de la pandemia.
2) En 2016 se realizó un plebiscito en Colombia para refrendar el Acuerdo de Paz con las FARC. El 50.2% de los votantes optaron por NO apoyar el proceso de paz, marcando el inicio de un sabotaje con el proceso de paz en Colombia y el recrudecimiento de la violencia paramilitar en contra de líderes sociales en diversas regiones.
(3) Durante las elecciones presidenciales 2018 en Colombia, Espacio Odeón y editorial SALVAJE invitaron a diversos miembros de la comunidad artística y literaria del país a producir un texto inspirado en el poema “I want a president ” de Zoe Leonard, los cuales fueron leídos públicamente en la plazoleta de Espacio Odeón por sus autores y otros colaboradores.
Diana Marcela Cuartas es una artista colombiana y actualmente estudiante del programa de Arte y Práctica Social en Portland State University. Graduada de Comunicación Social en la Universidad del Valle, ha participado en múltiples plataformas y proyectos de arte autogestionados desde el 2010. Durante cuatro años estuvo a cargo del Programa Público de Espacio Odeón y anteriormente formó parte del espacio artístico Lugar a Dudas, dedicado a promover el arte contemporáneo con enfoque global en Cali, Colombia. En 2019, se mudó a Portland, Oregón, donde ha trabajado de forma independiente para la promoción y el intercambio entre artistas latinoamericanos y del Pacífico Noroeste. Actualmente también hace parte de la organización Latino Network, trabajando con familias inmigrantes a través de programas basados en el Distrito Escolar de Reynolds, en el área del Este del condado de Multnomah.
Espacio Odeón es una organización artística sin ánimo de lucro, enfocada en promover procesos experimentales y transdisciplinarios dentro de las artes en Bogotá, Colombia. Desde su fundación en 2011, ha producido proyectos site-specific, trabajando mano a mano con artistas de diferentes trayectorias y disciplinas para crear un programa que responde al contexto de manera crítica. A través de una programación diversa que incluye exposiciones, proyectos curatoriales, laboratorios, grupos de estudio, performance, fiestas, entre otros, busca desarrollar un espacio de participación y diálogo en torno al arte y otros temas urgentes. Espacio Odeón opera desde un antiguo teatro construido en la década de 1930. El enfoque del proyecto en procesos experimentales, sumado a las características particulares de este edificio, ha constituido un referente importante para el desarrollo de las prácticas artísticas en la región durante los últimos años.
Jennifer Vanilla Goes To Therapy
“The wish to attain as much connection with as many people in the world is an attempt to make up for the void created by that intense love.”
It’s been four years since the invention of my alter ego Jennifer Vanilla, the culturally absorbent prototype from the made-up world of Planet Jennifer. In that time, Jennifer has starred in her own public access television show, run laps around bars and concert venues (it’s her pre-show warmup routine), been followed by paparazzi (that she hired), and in a twisted expression of healthy narcissism, made an art form out of relentless self-promotion. Now, it’s 2020, I’m in year one of grad school, and I’m asking a lot of questions about Jennifer. How much of her is me? Does she help or does she hurt? Was she always this White? (1)
To begin to answer these inquiries, I reunited with my former therapist, the psychoanalytically-minded Adolfo Profumo who once remarked offhandedly, as we circled a New York City block on his smoke break and passed by a family from the neighborhood, “The child is the female phallus.” He also, on several occasions, told me to grow my own phallus. So I did. I named her Jennifer Vanilla.
Becca: Jennifer Vanilla has always been a highly social event. But as I convert this performance project to be more formally socially engaged, I want to do a retrospective and analysis of the project thus far, to really unpack what Jennifer Vanilla is. What were my impulses about? Why did I invent a separate character for myself? Basically, I want to take Jennifer Vanilla to therapy, so to speak, so that I can, in a way, move on from my own personal needs that originated the project. I want to settle the performance-driven aspect of it and push it towards being more of an idea, rather than a person. I’m hoping this will create some bridges to further iterations of the project that aren’t specifically about me.
Adolfo: And you would like for me to share memories that I have of our work?
Becca: Well, drawing from what you remember of me and my life during the time that we had together, if any connections come to you about why I might have made the choices that I did around this character. I’m also interested in your knowledge of psychoanalysis, and different ways that people find escape.
Adolfo: I accessed your name on Google and I saw you dancing in Times Square. It was quite delightful. I don’t remember who said it, but there is something of the Messiah in each of us. And so I think you’re pursuing your messianic…you know, we have to heal the world. Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, is a goal in the Jewish community, ideally. I think that to serve in a way that’s humbling and inspiring is fantastic.
Becca: I have, in a joking-but-make-it-fashion way, co-opted familiar phrases and slogans, some of them religious sayings, and substituted the operative word (God, for example) with “Jennifer.” As in, “Jennifer is my Copilot.” “Jennifer Save Us All.” Basically implying that there is a godliness about Jennifer. She’s a goddess of sorts. I glorify her, but I also see her as a kind of social custodian holding a big ring of janitor keys and filling in social gaps, the places where there aren’t connection. The only way that I have known how to do that so far is through performance, which tends to, so I’m told, elicit a lot of joy.
Adolfo: Yes, it’s very joyful. To take ourselves seriously and also not to take oneself seriously, it’s so vital, right? It’s a delicate balance to strike. Especially for an artist, because as artists we get so self-absorbed and self-centered and we can’t laugh at ourselves.
Becca: Yes. She came about as a funnel for my humor, and as a way to give myself permission to be big and bold in ways that I felt I wouldn’t be brave enough to do on my own, just as myself. It’s sort of a mask, or a costume.
Adolfo: Well, a mask and a costume, maybe there’s something reductive [about that]. It’s a manifestation of yourself. The self is a multifaceted diamond. It’s a manifestation of your diamond.
Becca: I guess I’ve compartmentalized it more than that. It’s been an exploration of my own psychological underpinnings, dredging up issues that I’ve had—guilt, shame, shortcomings, unexpressed wishes, longing for power— and creating an outlet for them through a “separate” entity. But really, you can see it like a map lifted from my own biography and transposed onto her. For example, the origin story of Jennifer Vanilla is that she’s from Planet Jennifer, and was born inside of a dewdrop atop the leaf of the tallest tree on the highest mountain in Jenniferia (a region of the Planet). She had no name, she was just an energy. And then she heard a name calling in the distance: “Jennifeeeer.” And through a kind of primordial intuition, she realized the name was for her. She gained consciousness and drifted down to Planet Earth, and came to life inside of me.
Adolfo: Yes, thank goodness.
Becca: [Laughs] It makes sense, if I was to analyze that, thinking about the way that I was conceived, with a turkey baster and a contract between two adults in a completely nonsexual exchange (2). Another detail, by the way, is that Jennifer Vanilla has no genitalia.
Adolfo: Ah, how interesting.
Becca: I was attempting to desexualize her. At the very beginning, she was very feminine presenting—she had a long fake ponytail, she exclusively wore pink. I was cosplaying a level of femininity that I myself have never been able to successfully embody (and have regarded at times as my own personal tragedy), because it’s really an unattainable goal. And so it was a kind of armor, declaring that she had no genitalia, was therefore impenetrable and perhaps even unconquerable. It was a preemptive disemboweling of the male gaze, and an attempt to take away that knee-jerk response to femininity: to conquer. At the same time, I thought of her almost as a doll or a toy, brought to life by witnesses, by spectators.
Adolfo: If I may offer interpretation—I never pretend to be right, but as much as I understand that idea of sexlessness, there might be a castrating attitude connected to that. If I cut off a specific part of me, if I cut off the potential for achieving or engineering a certain action, then I am also, on the surface, freed from the weight of that action. From all that the action in and of itself entails and contains and demands of me as a person. So, I would monitor that closely to make sure that, as creative as it is, it’s not possibly self-limiting. Castrating is too strong a word, it’s also very male invested, so, a limiting, a constraining, that kind of track.
I think that Jennifer Vanilla is not a character separate from you; it’s a manifestation of yourself. I don’t see it as an escape, I see it as a milestone on your existential path. And I think it does express a personal need, which is a very human need, to connect and to be seen in a caring, constructive way. If I have to free associate from what I remember of your relationship with your father, I think that it might be that your work is manifesting a desire to feel more connected with him, as you had a very intense connection with two mothers, and your father was, in my memory, a fairly distant presence. A physically distant presence, and from what I remember of your description of him, a fairly emotionally distant presence as well, not very communicative. So, your engagement in communicating with the world at large I think manifests a yearning for more direct dialogue or connection with him.
Becca: I’m sure that’s in there. Another thing I was thinking about is my relationship to friendship. I’ve always found the task of making friends to be so nerve-racking. Especially in high school, I remember, I was a very passive player; I never really initiated relationships, they kind of just happened to me. Simultaneously, I kind of resented, and resisted, in a way, my own friendships with my best friends, even though I loved and depended on them. Because they both were committed to our friendships being permanent and eternal. And I felt like I needed freedom.
Adolfo: When you say “I need freedom”—as distant as your father was, your two mothers were very present. You were an only child who received a very intense amount of attention. Not necessarily the kind of attention that made you feel safe in the world, but tons of love, right? And when we have to manage tons of love, we might feel a little overwhelmed. I think we’re afraid of being devoured by the need of the other. Your parents’ own needs were such that you felt, although it was very loving, I think you felt lost in the shuffle. And so the wish to attain as much connection with as many people in the world is an attempt to make up for the void created by that intense love. I think there are ways in which we can love judiciously and ways in which we love very passionately in an overwhelming way, and I think you were overwhelmed by that love.
Also remember, all of your parents were pioneers at the time. What they did was considered—talk about outer space. I remember people saying to me, “Oh these kinds of relationships are not acceptable, they are deleterious, they produce monsters.” So your parents were very courageous pioneers. I think that the act of writing or creating or doing all that you do, is a way also to manage the anxiety created by growing up in a family that was very torn in some ways, emotionally, or attacked from the outside, you know?
What made you choose the name, Jennifer and the last name, Vanilla? I like to think of the meaning of names. What does Jennifer mean? Where does it come from? Does it have a root that I am not familiar with?
Becca: The name popped into my head while I was gazing out the window of the Ava Luna (my old band) van while we were on tour, thinking of funny, fake punk names. Allen Wrench, Jean Jacquet, Steve Grocery. Then Jennifer Vanilla, and it stuck. Ever since I’ve been examining what that was. Jennifer is definitely a very 80’s name (3). It’s the decade I was born in. There’s an angle of childhood dream-come-true, getting to be that girl, some quintessential All American girl, which is an identity that eluded me in many ways. I fetishized normality and felt so far away from it. In terms of the phonetics and the sonic experience of the name, all of those round, resonant, soft consonants—je na fuh —are the exact opposite of my name, which is something I’ve always really hated—
Adolfo: RebeCCa Kauffman.
Becca: Yes, so many hard consonants, and I find it hard to say and it doesn’t roll off the tongue. So there’s that kind of ease to the experience of saying it. And to being it, doing it, hearing it.
Adolfo: And Vanilla. I mean, vanilla. It’s powerful, laden with meaning for me.
Becca: I remember when I first told you the name (in 2016), you immediately asked, what does it have to do with race? Is this about you being White? And I was like, “No, no!” And it wasn’t. But, it was. (4)
Adolfo: How have you continued to think about vanilla?
Becca: I first thought of vanilla as an open-endedness, a blank screen. And I mean that in the sense of a crystal ball, a divination tool that would permit you to see whatever you wanted to see, or a mirror in which you could see yourself reflected. The persona is crowd generated, crowd supported. It’s fully related to this feedback loop of identity formation/confirmation through being witnessed. Starting from my relationship to my moms, and existing via and in response to the attention that they showered on me. Then becoming a performer and being tied into that codependency between performer and spectator; needing an audience to activate you. The Performer’s Dilemma. Which led to this cartoonish scenario of Jennifer Vanilla essentially entering into a collaboration with the audience to nourish her and inform who she is.
Adolfo: I think my association with vanilla is—what is the American expression? “It’s very vanilla…” It’s something that’s not aggressive, that’s safe enough. It’s almost a: “I’m okay, I’m good. I’m not gonna devour you. I’m not gonna attack you.” It symbolizes a wish. It’s almost like a smile, rather than showing your teeth.
It might contain an attempt to contain an aggression, right? So I’m going to repress all my aggression instead. Jennifer Vanilla dances in Times Square, but maybe behind Jennifer Vanilla, instead of dancing so delightfully, you could dance screaming, “Motherfuckers” to all those who are watching. Filling the communication with expletives.
Becca: The concept of conflict is something that I’ve been thinking about with this project. I myself and the project by extension are very conflict averse and conflict avoidant.
Adolfo: Vanilla is conflict avoidant for me.
Becca: Yes, absolutely. But with the large scale social, cultural, global upheaval that has erupted in the past seven months, it’s clear that conflict is unavoidable, and necessary for progress. I thought it was possible to be effective while operating outside of conflict. But I wasn’t thinking about the relationship between conflict aversion and my privilege as a White person, really, until this year.
Adolfo: You have actually had a lot of conflict in your life, but you can afford the luxury of detaching from it or artifying it, rendering it art.
Becca: Yeah, but largely that conflict didn’t derive from my identity being problematized or under attack systemically, or in public spaces, the way it does for marginalized groups. I have a responsibility not to hide from conflict. Maybe that means making work that’s antagonistic and more confrontational.
Adolfo: That’s very exciting.
Becca: What Jennifer Vanilla has been is protagonistic work. I had this idea she could be a universal protagonist, and that I could generalize her in this way to make her an Everyperson. A new archetype, a stock character. But I also realize that ultimately there’s a limit to relatability, and what I reflect is limited to my own identity and experience.
So, to take it back to the topic of the name, I didn’t come up with Vanilla to consciously address Whiteness or explicitly talk about race, but I understand how it summons that association, and it requires pause and consideration.
Adolfo: Paulo Freire, who was a very important Brazilian sociologist, wrote a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. An important concept is that the oppressed becomes oppressor. Right? That’s part of the way I see it. It’s part of the process, no? So I think that as we work through our traumas—I mean, I know that as I work through the traumas that were caused to me, by my parents’ mishegas, my parents’ craziness, I acted in oppressive ways towards them. I made them “pay” with my behavior, for shit that they bestowed upon me. Now, retrospectively, it’s good to be able to own that problematic behavior, which was a natural consequence of personal history in [my] case. But ideally, we also learn to work through that conflict. I think that if we truly think through the suffering of the world, and we can own that, and we can own our suffering, we can empathize fully with another person. That’s the beauty of the potential of the human condition. I think that we are in an important historical process. But ideally, hopefully, we can work through it.
The weight of guilt is very powerful. If you’re honest, in terms of owning your history, you really feel like a shit, right? I think that nobody has the monopoly of suffering. I think that there is a difference between owning history, which is an essential part of life, and fixating into a state where we are frozen within history, in this history. That’s dangerous. If we remain fixated within a conflictual situation, we cannot achieve working through resolution, which also implies forgiveness of the self, of others.
Becca: I’m trying to take responsibility for my Whiteness in a way that I haven’t before. One thing that came up with my cohorts in the program as we were talking about this is the degree to which mainstream commerciality seeped into my psyche as a kid who consumed a lot of media. Jennifer Vanilla borrows from and regurgitates that influence a lot, and those nostalgic references expose the homogeneity of representation in that era. This project has been an expression and exploration of my childhood fantasies. And the influences on my childhood fantasies, really, were drenched in Whiteness. So, it’s time to move on from nostalgia.
Adolfo: Cleanse yourself of it. When you say drenched, it makes me think of…
Becca: A mitzvah?
Adolfo: ”Drenched” has a negative connotation for me, so the mitzvah, the deed, the good deed, would be to cleanse ourselves of the weight of history, which can be done by engineering social action and owning a number of things, and implementing a number of interventions in our own personal and social lives. That hopefully can help us feel…cleansed.
Becca: Yeah. How should I do that?
Adolfo: Well I think the very fact that you’re thinking about these things is very good, very positive, constructive, valuable. The mere act of doing that is—I believe in the power of prayer. To me, that’s a prayer, right? And prayer sends a, I hate to sound trite, but good vibration to the world. I’m a person who is willing to look at myself. I think we have to be compassionate. Don’t take yourself to court, you know? So you’re part of a section of the human race that enjoys a tremendous privilege comparatively speaking to the rest of the world. So, you do something good, you share. And you do your sharing, with your work. Keep sharing. Keep remaining open.
(1) 2020 marks the widely adopted capitalization of the “B” in Black in writing style guides, and subsequent debate about capitalizing the “W” in “white”. The press remains fractured on the topic, and for the time being, news outlets have made independent decisions (Washington Post: White; Associated Press: white) on the matter. Notably, there was strong support to formalize “White” as a racial category from the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Psychological Association Style Guide, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, who stated: “The detachment of ‘White’ as a proper noun allows White people to sit out of conversations about race and removes accountability from White people’s and White institutions’ involvement in racism.” As such, I am choosing to capitalize the racial identity, White, in this piece.
See: Eve Ewing, “I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize ‘White,’”; Nell Irvin Painter, “Why ‘White’ Should Be Capitalized Too”; Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Case for Capitalizing the ‘B’ in Black.”
(2) In 1983, my birth mother and father, who are both gay, coordinated an arrangement to have a child via at-home artificial (self-)insemination and share parenting responsibilities going forward. My mom partnered with another woman shortly after I was born who became an additional mother to me, and I was subsequently raised by a parenting trio consisting of my two moms and my dad.
(3) Jennifer was the single most popular name for newborn U.S. girls every year from 1970 to 1984 (the year that I was born).
(4) Jennifer is the anglicized form of the Welsh name Gwenhwyfar, or Guinevere. As it turns out, in Welsh, “gwen” = white/fair/blessed and “hwyfar” = smooth/soft or phantom/spirit/fairy. So some possible meanings would literally translate to “white fairy,” or “white phantom.” Also “blessed spirit,” or maybe, “soft phantom.”
Adolfo Profumo, LCSW, is an Italian-born, Manhattan-based psychotherapist with a deep commitment to literature and his Jewish faith. His Psychology Today profile reads: “Suffering is an integral part of life, the same way manure is an integral part of the farmer’s life. As a wise farmer learns to use manure as a fertilizer, I can assist you in understanding and using your suffering wisely, and learning to profit from it. I am silent when need be, yet I am also very willing to respond to your questions and to dialogue with you in a very direct way when necessary. I speak French, Italian, Spanish, German, and some Hebrew. I have lived in different European and Asian countries before settling in New York, in 1981, and I have a profound understanding of cultural and ethnic diversity.”
Becca Kauffman is a performance artist, vocalist, and voice over actor based in Queens, New York who works primarily within the fictional world of her motivational avatar, Jennifer Vanilla.
To Whom It May Concern
“They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.”
As the Letter Writer in Residence at the Living Letter Office (1) this term, I did not anticipate performing the role of a private scribe (2). While most of my postal practice during the residency consisted of discovering and sharing relevant information with new and established correspondents, it was not until I presented my work to the Art and Social Practice class that I encountered my first participant. A few weeks later, this person and I met via Zoom and they dictated a personal letter while I wrote it down, later typewriting it and mailing it to their recipient. Correspondence is a family trait, as my mother was a letter writer for the United States government in the late 1960’s. While her work was in the category of civic writing and mine in the personal, their intersection demystifies the perception that letter writing and reading are solitary activities.
Laura Glazer: Hi, Mom!
Rita Glazer: Hi! How are you?
Laura: I’m good! You’ve mentioned that early in your career, you worked as a professional letter writer. Do I have that right?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: What was the year that you started?
Rita: I started I believe, in 1967, which was the year I graduated from college. When I graduated, I went to Israel for eight weeks. And when I came back in late August, I think I went to work for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), sometime in September or October of 1967. I can’t be more specific than that, because it was a long time ago. And I was there for I believe, three years. Again, I can’t really be 100% specific.
Laura: What did you study in college?
Rita: I have a bachelor’s degree in sociology. I’ve been trying very hard to remember how I got this job and I can’t. I must have applied for it through college. But I feel like I knew someone that mentioned it to me.
Laura: Where did you go to school?
Rita: George Washington University.
Laura: Were you excited to start work?
Rita: I was excited! I was working for the anti-poverty agency, which is what I wanted to do anyway. I have a feeling that I applied because I really wanted to work there.
Laura: I’ve never heard you say that. Can you say more about why you wanted to work there?
Rita: It hadn’t been around for very long and I liked what they were doing. I mean, they had all these anti-poverty programs. I thought that they were doing really good things. This is the era of Bobby Kennedy and Sargent Shriver, who was our director, and it was the whole Kennedy family thing which just enthralled me. I liked what they were doing, I liked what they stood for. I felt like they were doing something for this country and I wanted to be part of it.
Laura: Did it crossover with your academic studies?
Rita: Well, I had a degree in sociology, and writing letters, which is not what I had planned to do with my life, to be perfectly honest. But there was a certain element of being able to respond to people properly and understand what they were saying and understand what we could do. I’m not probably expressing that the right way. But I think it did enter into it. I think a lot of what I studied and did, especially my senior year, and I can’t remember what that was, all kind of fit together.
Laura: How did it work?
Rita: When the letters came in, they came through our office. They were logged in by the office secretary and the manager assigned the letters to us, the writers. She divided the letters up based on our experience with the subject matter and on the relationships we had developed with the subject matter staff.
One of my areas was Legal Services, which we all fought over, because they had nice young lawyers there! But it was a nice group. We were all idealistic young people that wanted to work for the anti-poverty agency. I guess that’s it: idealistic. Do you want me to go into what we did?
Rita: Say we got a letter from a constituent or we got a lot of letters from Congress who would either be writing us directly, or they would be forwarding an inquiry from one of their constituents. I’m trying to think of what they might ask. “I live in a very rural area in Kentucky and I need some legal assistance,” they’d written to a Congressman. “And I don’t know how to get it.” This person knew about Legal Services, but there wasn’t anything there [in Kentucky]. What could this person do? So the Congressman forwarded it to us, because Legal Services was part of the OEO.
I kind of knew some answers. But the best thing to do was to go to one of the lawyers in Legal Services, which we did. He’d read the letter, and we’d talk about it and he’d give me, “Well, given where she’s located, which is like 200 miles from the closest Legal Services place, we would need to get in touch with that Legal Services agency there and see if we can arrange for them to meet.” I’m kind of making this up but that’s the kind of thing that we did and it’s been a long time since I did it.
I would write the Congressman back, not the constituent, because the Congressman is the one who initiated it. There was a format that we had to follow when we wrote a Congressman, which was easy. So we’d write them back and say, “We have researched this, we have spoken with Joe Smith, in our Legal Services division, and his recommendation is thus, thus, and so. If you wish we can attempt to make contact with her or you can, it’s your call.” Beyond that we didn’t do much in the way of follow up, it wasn’t our responsibility to follow up, our responsibility was to get the information out.
We would get letters like that all the time: “We need help,” or, “How do you resolve this particular issue in terms of community service?” There used to be community action programs and I wish I could tell you what they were. But they were like the programs that you see in your city now, helping people find housing, things that people need to be able to do to live in a community and to have a community be responsive to their needs, too. We had Legal Services, we had Indian Affairs, which is who Dan worked for—the guy in my building that I went out with.
Laura: You could get letters from Congress people as well as directly from citizens?
Rita: That’s correct.
Laura: How would they have known to send it directly to you? I mean, citizens.
Rita: Well, the OEO did not exist in a vacuum; many people knew about it. They may have seen a Community Action Program set up in their community and gone in there and said, “I would like to do ‘X,’ how do I do that?”
Or perhaps, you came in and said, “I have this idea for setting up a Spanish language program in four counties in the state, with this local Community Action Program, which is in a small town.” I would say to this person, “We can help you once you can get something established. What you should do is write to the federal headquarters in D.C. and tell them what you want to do and it will work from there.” I guess I’m saying it was a collaborative effort on the part of the subject matter people (the lawyers and whoever was working in the various divisions), Congress, and the individual citizens.
I can’t say with certainty that 50% of the mail came from Congress versus 50% from individuals. But a lot of our work was congressionally-based. We always joked that we would love to meet some of them, which is something we never did.
Laura: The people who wrote to you?
Rita: No, the Congressman and their offices. We always felt like, we supported them, we helped them out and that the least they could do was meet us. But it was okay!
I wrote a lot of letters. And we used typewriters. We didn’t have anything else. If you made a mistake, you whited it out. Eventually we got the typewriters; I think we got Selectrics at some point.
We had a secretary in our office, Elena Halfmoon. She was a Nez Perce Native American. OEO had gone to her reservation and recruited several people from the reservation to come to Washington to work for OEO.
Elena was just the coolest person in the world. She was very unworldly and the unfortunate thing is she got caught up in things that were going on and she became an alcoholic; she was not an alcoholic when she arrived. People looked after her and they got it straightened out. But she did eventually leave and we heard, much to our sadness, about six months after she left, that she committed suicide.
In theory, it was a good program to bring people from the reservations to D.C., but it really wasn’t. But they learned a lot from Elena and a couple of other people who came from the reservations and they developed programs for them. They recruited them to work and they wanted them to work, particularly the Native Americans, they wanted them to work in the Native American programs and that was the goal. Elena was not going to stay with us forever.
I have not thought about Elena in a long time. She was just a lovely woman. She was very talented, too. She wasn’t a letter writer; she was our secretary. But she would read the letters when they came in, and she would come up with suggestions. Then when we drafted our responses, every once in a while, she’d say, “You know, I don’t think this is a good answer.” She was usually right.
Laura: Let me make sure I have the process correct. Who would receive the letter? Like, would Elena get the letter and then route it to the correct letter writer?
Rita: No. Elena logged them in and the manager did the routing.
Laura: What were the other areas that the other three letter writers did?
Rita: I had Legal Services. And they gave me the Native American program. I can’t remember the exact name but it dealt with Native American reservations. I’m not sure that Elena did the routing. We had a woman whose title was something like
“Congressional Liaison.” Her name was Robbie.
Laura: How old were you at the time?
Rita: I was 21, 22.
Laura: What were the other areas? Like you were Legal Services and sometimes Indian Affairs, but what were the other buckets? They don’t have to be exact. I’m just trying to get a sense of the topics that were addressed. Do you need to look at that ashtray?
Rita: You’re so smart. [Exits the room and returns holding the ashtray.]
Laura: Let me take a picture of that. You want to hold it up? Hold it a little bit higher.
Rita: It’s signed on the back, “With best wishes from Sargent Shriver 1968.” Community Action Programs, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Foster Grandparents. Migrant Opportunities, Indian Opportunities, Green Thumb, Legal Services, Job Corps. VISTA, which is Volunteers in Service to America, which was the domestic Peace Corps. Upward Bound and Health Right Programs, which I have no memory of. Head Start, which was the preschoolers and in the center, of course, is the OEO emblem.
Laura: Do you think you ever used it as an ashtray?
Rita: No, never. I would never have done that.
Laura: For all of those units that you just read, was there a letter writer for each of those?
Rita: Not exactly. It got to a point fairly quickly when it was very clear that some areas were of more interest to me than other areas and the same for the other letter writers. I think it was the sort of thing where you just kind of fell into certain specific areas but you weren’t limited to those.
Laura: How many letters were on your docket at one time?
Rita: I suppose we could have written 15 to 20 letters a day, maybe more? A lot of it was boilerplate. “Thank you for your inquiry about whatever, of whenever.” This is what we did, we wrote letters. So 15 or 20 letters a day is not bad. Sometimes we would draft them on the typewriter and they would be okay. Or sometimes we draft them and we make changes and give them to Elena and she would type them. Elena could type like 150 words a minute. Unbelievable how fast she could type. If we were really busy we’d draft out a letter on our typewriters and give them to Elena. If we wrote them at 10 o’clock in the morning and gave them to her at 10:30, they were done by noon.
Laura: Would you draft a letter on the typewriter or by hand?
Rita: Yes to both, I think. Sometimes you just pick up a pen and you write—that happens to you, too, I’m sure. I think it was more typed, just because it was easier, but I don’t know.
Laura: So you would draft a letter and then would you take it to a subject matter expert to review? Or was that only certain times?
Rita: Possibly. We may have gone before with the letter that came in if we didn’t think we had an answer or if we got the letter and said, “I’m thinking that this would work,” we’d draft it out. Then, depending on our level of confidence, we would go with it or if we had had similar inquiries, we were comfortable enough to write our own letters using previous letters as guides. As the months wore on, we would spend less and less time having to do actual research, we knew the answers.
Laura: That was going to be my next question: did you know the answers going into the job?
Rita: No. We learned, we would study, we would collaborate.
Laura: What was the name of your division?
Rita: Correspondence Control Unit. Very unromantic. We were part of the Executive Office of the Director. The director’s office was on the top floor, I think it was the tenth floor and that was Sargent Shriver. We were on the third or fourth floor. We had a nice big space. We each had our own desk and Elena was in the middle of it and there was somebody on the other side. Then there were two separate offices, one for Bill who was the boss, and then the other one, Robbie and Jan were in. And they all smoked. Of course, we did too, at that point. Everybody smoked so you didn’t notice it.
We were all very close, we worked together. Even the lawyers down the hall—to some extent we didn’t have anything in common with them—but we did: we’re all about the same age—they were a little older actually. But I go back to what I said earlier, we wanted to be there. Grandma said it best years and years and years ago, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” You get along with these people. Believe me it wasn’t hard, they were good people, they were fun people.
It sounds like there’s a lot of responsibility. But it wasn’t hard. I think it wasn’t hard, because it was interesting. Because I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed the whole process of getting the letters, of trying to understand what it was that they were asking or talking about and talking to those who knew. I keep going back to lawyers because we had a lot of legal services questions. Being able to take what they said and make sense of it and write something back to somebody to whom it mattered. Every once in a while, we would get a letter thanking us from a Congressman, thanking us for helping out so and so, that we really did help them out and they appreciated it. We kept getting funded so we obviously we were doing something right.
Laura: Do you feel like you were really helping?
Rita: I think we all did. I think it was a time when that needed to be done. Not that it doesn’t need to be done now. But it was after Kennedy died and there was just so much going on. There was so much poverty and nobody was addressing it. LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson) came up with this Office of Economic Opportunity idea and ran with it. I was just on the inside, I didn’t physically do anything to help anybody because we were the headquarters. The headquarters people made the decisions that went out to the lawyers, the Legal Services offices, all these other offices, Indian Affairs and whatnot. It went out to those offices in the field and the country. The money went out there and helped people, made lives better. Eventually it went away.
Laura: Where did it go?
Rita: It got broken up after a while. There were people that didn’t believe in it at all. Some of these programs, like Head Start, in some form still exist, I think.
Laura: And so does VISTA, we know that.
Rita: So does VISTA.
Laura: When you say it got broken up with, which thing got broken up?
Rita: The Office of Economic Opportunity went away. And its programs were dispersed. Beyond that I couldn’t tell you, but we know for a fact that they still exist in some form or another. I don’t know if Head Start still exists as Head Start but it’s preschool; it laid the foundation for things to follow.
Laura: Here’s a question that’s brewing in my mind. How did you—who grew up as a white, middle class, Jewish girl in a family that had both parents and you had two older brothers and extended family nearby—have an awareness of what an anti-poverty program might be addressing? Because that’s not where you came from.
Rita: No, it isn’t where it came from but I came from a Jewish family. I came from a family whose parents and whose grandparents came from Russia and lived a very poor existence, were fortunate enough to find people to help them. Especially when they came to this country. One great uncle came here who came here first and left everybody behind. He managed somehow and somebody took care of him, I guess, through some Jewish social service agency, which was big in Europe. He did well enough that he was able to save enough money to start bringing his family here. But they never forgot how they became successful, they never forgot how they not just survived, but lived, when they came to this country. They never forgot that people helped them when they needed it. This is what we did.
Laura: When you were in this position did you have a visual sense of who you were helping? How did you envision the people you were receiving letters from?
Rita: Well, that’s an interesting question. I can tell you better by answering that we used to see people in the building. Constituents would come to the building. They weren’t coming to see us. They may have been called to come to the area by a Congressman.
Laura: Did you ever hear back from a citizen who contacted you directly?
Rita: Off the top of my head, I have to say no, I don’t think so.
Laura: Were there any requests for help directly from citizens that stand out in your memory?
Laura: Do you ever remember receiving a letter and being upset or sad?
Rita: Yes, I do. Every once in a while we would get a letter like that, where you just kind of put your head down on your desk. We got quite a few a week; we got more than we should have. But things were tough, we were just beginning to discover the levels of poverty in this country. Back in the mid 60s. That’s not to say we didn’t know it was there, but nobody did anything about it. And all of a sudden, people are realizing that we have people here who don’t have anything to eat. We have that now, too, for different reasons. But we had people that had no food. “Homeless” was not a word that you heard. But you did hear about people who didn’t have enough clothing to keep them warm and they didn’t have enough food—maybe food for one meal every couple of days and that was it. You didn’t hear much about that. But it existed. It still exists, even without all this, with COVID; there are a lot of people that don’t have enough food to eat.
Laura: Were the letters sent from all over the country?
Laura: Did you actually handle the original letter?
Laura: Were there lots of formats and handwriting? Were they handwritten or typed?
Rita: They were probably handwritten. I’m guessing that people did not have much access to typewriters. I honestly can’t remember.
Laura: That would make sense, though. I forget that during that time period, typewriters are very similar to computers in that they were expensive.
Rita: That’s right. Let’s face it, if it comes to a question of typewriter or shoes, I’m going to get the shoes.
Laura: You said that a lot of the letter was boilerplate. Do you recall a time when you included something very specific and possibly personal, like a personal response, in addition to the boilerplate?
Rita: We weren’t supposed to do that, it wasn’t appropriate. We did sign letters and I’m trying to remember who signed them. We must have gotten the lawyers to sign the letters, or the subject people to sign the letters. That would make the most sense. I wouldn’t have signed them.
Laura: It strikes me that you were a connector. You and I share that trait which I realize as I listen to you talk about letter writing. You were an intermediary between the constituent and the answer. Like connecting people to information that they need and don’t know how to find. Were you considered clerical?
Rita: No, we were not. We were considered professional.
Laura: Did you have to take a civil service exam?
Rita: No, not for this. I had done that before for some summer jobs. I applied for civil service, taking typing tests but not for this. This was considered professional.
Laura: Oh, before I forget—this will be the last question—on what occasion did you get this ashtray? And why were you given an ashtray?
Rita: You have to remember, this was 1968 and everybody smoked. That’s number one. At the time that these were being sent out they were not given to employees. I had a friend who worked in Sargent Shriver’s office. I went up there and they were in the process of wrapping these gifts which they were sending to Congressmen and people of influence. I said, “Can I have one?” “No, we can’t give these out.” I remember saying, “Who’s gonna know?”
Laura: Well, this has been awesome.
Rita: It was great to talk to you. This was the longest conversation you and I’ve had in a long time and who knows when we’ll do it again.
Laura: Okay, thanks, mom. This was awesome.
Rita: This was fun.
This interview was conducted over Zoom on Monday, November 30, 2020.
(1) An office and residency I created in the Art and Social Practice program’s classroom and studio space on the Portland State University’s campus
(2) Someone who writes (and sometimes reads) letters for someone else
Rita Glazer is a lifelong resident of the Washington, D.C. region. She worked in the defense contracting industry for over 25 years while raising her daughter and caring for her husband during his terminal illness. She is an active member of her synagogue, reads The Washington Post everyday, and dreams of sunny days in Hawaii.
Laura Glazer is a first-year student in the Art and Social Practice Masters of Fine Arts program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid letter writer, she is a member of the Portland Correspondence Coop and creates artwork at the intersections of photography, design, publishing, and curation.