What Qualifies You to Do What You Do?

“We all have pain and, yes, the pain is bad, but what I like more is looking at what gives you pain and how you can transform that into something that connects with others and subverts the pain.” 

– Brianna Ortega

I invited my friend and classmate Brianna Ortega to have a conversation exploring the connections in the roots of our practices. We gathered to reflect and respond to the questions we are each individually asking within our work, how our work exists in the world, and the links that exist between our work. With Brianna sitting at the beach and me on a swing outside while Zooming, we dialogue on the ways we navigate the boundaries of systemic qualifications, power dynamics, and expectations. 

Both of our practices include experience facilitating platforms or creating institutions that invite participation. Brianna created Sea Together, a global art project that celebrates, unites, and explores the women’s surf community through a print magazine, films, events, workshops, retreats, creative clothing, a podcast, and other participatory projects. Sea Together transcends the boundaries placed upon women surfers in the worldwide patriarchal surf culture. Projects of my own that emerge in our conversation are the People’s Plant Museum and Talking Tushies. The People’s Plant Museum works to preserve the history, stories, and relationships alive within the houseplants that people care for daily. The museum presents participatory projects, events, and collections of houseplants that are open for public contribution. Talking Tushies is a global art project that embroiders sexual violence statistics on patches for clothing items and invites survivors around the world to share their experiences with sexual misconduct. 

In a society that values and better enables certain criteria or qualifications to manifest history, we are examining the ways that artists can expand barriers and limitations by honoring embodied experiences and lending them agency. In thinking about how grassroots organizations or movements relate to social practice art projects, Sea Together is an excellent representation of this interaction for the way the project was formed out of a void of representation. In this interview, we discuss the ways we have responded to personal experiences in our art practices and how we have formalized these personal discoveries into a wider platform for community connection. 

Emma Duehr Mitchell: What do you think it means to be qualified to do something?

Brianna Ortega: The idea of being qualified is really interesting, because society sets up certain constructs for certain qualifications but not for other qualifications, like relationships or anything like that. A lot of things in society have nothing structured to support its knowledge. I was having a conversation with someone recently and we were talking about how to navigate one’s identity as a professor, and how some people will only see you as that one identity and not as a person as well. There’s no class to teach you how to navigate moving in and out of various roles and being a person at the same time.

Emma: I think the idea that one aspect of people’s identities creates a hierarchy over other aspects is based on social expectations of “fitting a mold.” This idea that having the qualification of being a professor or a teacher holds a higher value than other aspects of our identities. How can we switch what holds that value? Like if people in our society placed the same value or focus on qualifications acquired through relations or embodied experiences, then these social constraints wouldn’t feel so limiting and inaccessible. 

Brianna: Yeah, I think we can look at other aspects of our identity, like our personal embodied history, and see how that gives us a road to be able to navigate different projects. I grew up moving a lot and I have a mixed race background, so there are all these different aspects that I can usually tap into to connect with people on some level. We can find something in common between us. 

I like the idea of challenging what it means to be qualified, because everything I’ve done in the last three years has been self-initiated. Sea Together is an artist-run, self-initiated institution. I’d never had any experience with journalism or any experience interviewing people. I’d never had any experience with researching how to make a magazine. You know, some would say that’s bad, and that I should always research before working on a project to have a leg up or whatever. I think when you eliminate the feeling that you need to be qualified, or prioritize researching something before you do it, it puts a lens over your eyes of how society expects you to do something. 

For Sea Together Magazine, everyone said they noticed there was a different feel to it because it didn’t have the same constraints as a magazine. All submissions are based in creative writing and normally you wouldn’t see creative writing in a mainstream surf magazine. People would not normally see amateur surfers or surfers of different life experiences in a surf magazine, either. And here they were seeing really casual interviews, instead of heavily edited, altered, and manipulated conversations. You don’t really need to be qualified by society to do something, and that’s what’s really cool about being an artist. By putting on this role of artist, you can literally enter into a field doing whatever you want and frame it as art. 

In my work, I am exploring power and creating space for people to see the agency that they have. I am creating work that makes people think deeper about other things in their life. I am also creating space for myself, feeling like I haven’t belonged anywhere, besides surfing. By creating this platform I also in turn created a community that I could make relationships in. Before Sea Together, I had no woman surf friends. Now I have a bunch. Through the project, I am giving this agency to myself, too. 

Emma: You describe Sea Together as a grassroots movement and I’ve kind of been thinking about how social practice and grassroots projects connect. Can you share how you began to describe the project in this way?

Brianna: Mainly because everyone else was calling it a movement and I kind of just accepted it. I was apprehensive to call it that due to it being a small part of a larger narrative of women writing about surfing or creating space to exist in surf culture, but the project has definitely influenced surf culture. People have varying levels of agency to take up space in the world, and in surf culture, that usually means that women aren’t as valid as men. Through Sea Together, people who have been told they don’t get space in surf culture are now a part of this political uprising happening. It’s also making other platforms question the way they are doing things. I am now part of a larger story, as I see how corporate surf magazines or other publications are featuring surfers that have been a part of Sea Together. How do you feel in terms of Talking Tushies? You could call that a movement if you wanted to.

Emma: I pulled up the definition. “A grassroots movement is one that uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement. Grassroots movements and organizations use collective action from the local level to effect change at the local, regional, national, or international level. Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures.” I appreciate that you use “grassroots” to describe Sea Together because these projects focus on a very specific aspect of a larger story or history in collaboration with a group of people naturally invested in the issue. 

I feel the same way with Talking Tushies. The project is a community that was formed by a group of people looking to address sexual violence. I really connect to describing them as “sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures” because I think that really connects to my practice as an artist responding to my experiences. It’s just my natural way of working with what was happening in my life at that point and reaching out to people during times of isolation. Being able to connect with other individuals at the beginning stages of the project really shaped what the project is today. Now I am really invested in creating work that amplifies embodied experiences and creating a space to gather and share people’s experiences with power imbalances.

Brianna: When you have a feeling about something, you can bet that there’s other people that who have gone through the same thing. Sometimes I’ll send out a message or something to see if people have thoughts on things so I can get a feel for where other people are at. Besides the Sea Together project, a lot of my work is just me having conversations with women surfers all the time. I was actually interviewed recently for a sociological research study about women in action sports, and in the moment, I realized that I was just quoting all these conference sessions and conversations I’ve had in the last four years of working on the project. It’s weird how that happens, when having so many conversations with people and it all just adds up. I asked myself, Why would I be the person to interview? There’s got to be other people. Then I realized I have this art project that I’ve been working on for like three years.

Emma: Yeah I love that. I think the relationship between research and the presented projects is really interesting. Sometimes there are many aspects of the idea that don’t have a framing yet and are projects in the works. Sometimes the research for the project turns out to be the project. Sometimes the project is research. I really like that projects can be platforms to facilitate collaborative research and have the flexibility to be changed by what is learned through the project. I think that’s why a lot of my projects are ongoing. What inspired you to create Sea Together? 

Brianna: A few years before I started the project, I always thought about how there were no Black women surfers. I was like, There have to be Black woman surfers, but maybe the mainstream surf media just doesn’t cover them. It’s ingrained in white supremacy. Even Hawaiians are less covered by the surf industry, which makes no sense because they are the founders of surfing, and there are so many talented Hawaiian surfers in Hawaii that are on the world surf tour (professional surfing). It was just really strange to me. I’m mixed race, so also being marginalized as a surfer in the Pacific Northwest has been part of my experience. I was paddling out all the time and getting vibes from men expecting me to fail. They didn’t know me or how I surf, and they just expected me to fail. 

I also had the experience of people asking where I went two months into winter, thinking that I had gone on vacation somewhere for two months because my skin was “tan” to them. I had not gone anywhere. On the Pacific Northwest coast, you lose your “local privilege” (access to surf spots) if you leave for a large amount of time in the winter, and they were making assumptions about me—that I had left—based on the shade of my skin, when in reality, I hadn’t gone anywhere. Not to mention I am so pale here in the winter, and I don’t even tan in Oregon year round. I had all these experiences of feeling isolated in my identity as a surfer. I wasn’t seeing representation of women in surf magazines and I wasn’t really seeing a place for all these people doing cool projects. There are all these people in our society that I didn’t know about because of what mainstream surf media was leaving out. I really wanted to start a feminist art surfing magazine, and then I just did it. 

Emma: I think that is exactly what it’s all about. As artists, we are able to respond like, “Then I just did it.” 

Brianna: All of us are human beings and we’re all connected in all these different ways, so if you just move from a place of love and wanting to connect with people, then I feel like you can really do anything that you want to do. I think there’s a culture right now in society, where everyone is kind of hating each other and people are saying, If this person doesn’t believe this or this or this or this, I can’t talk to them and I can’t be around them. It’s such a divisive and sad state, and it’s prevalent in this country. 

For me, because of my experience moving so much when I was growing up, I’ve been friends with all different types of people—all different walks of life, all different spiritual beliefs and anti-spiritual beliefs, pro-religious beliefs and anti-religious beliefs. Whoever I’m with, I just try to be with that person, respect them, and honor them. They are a human being and it’s okay if they disagree with me. It’s not about converting them, it’s just about honoring that they have their own story of why they are the way they are, and why they live the way they live. 

Emma: I’m thinking about qualifications as something that can honor a person’s existence and the experiences they’ve had in their lives. I grew up viewing qualifications as a socially-structured pre-paved path or checklist to complete for any career or professional inquiry. Those structures create limitations and barriers on what kind of knowledge is considered qualified and are not responsive to the individual. I believe that embodied experiences can be the qualification to do whatever people decide to pursue. In our society, there are these social structures that say you need to do this to be a journalist, and you need to do this to do this. I think we can work to bypass these structures, barriers, or expectations that are set up by creating our own systems by honoring embodied knowledge. 

With Talking Tushies, I hold my experiences growing up female in the United States, experiencing sexual assault, and sexual harrassment. I do not need to study psychology or sociology to understand that there are more people like me that are looking for connections, supportive communities, and resources. I responded to this feeling during a time of isolation, where the Kavanagh hearings left me feeling defeated. I believed that there were other people feeling a similar way. I wanted that community connection so badly for myself, so I started a project to support that. 

Brianna: You turned your pain basically into this political statement. We all have pain and, yes, the pain is bad, but what I like more is looking at what gives you pain and how you can transform that into something that connects with others and subverts the pain. 

Emma: Yeah I love that. I think that’s a great question to think about for anybody starting projects.

Brianna With my project being a public platform or a big institution, I feel like there’s these expectations put upon me. I feel like people are trying to qualify me as something else. 

Emma: I think when someone does something familiar yet a little differently, those systemic expectations are questioned or challenged. People can get uncomfortable or confused by that. I think as artists, we really work to push, expand, or challenge these deeply ingrained expectations. 

Brianna: Yeah, because we’re using this framing for art projects that borrow from corporate institutions, so people assign those expectations to us and our platforms. But by using the framing of a magazine and what is expected of a magazine, I am playfully challenging the power dynamics embodied and perpetuated by corporate institutions. 

Emma: That is something I am thinking a lot about in my work, specifically with the People’s Plant Museum, where I am creating a formal institution and working to adhere to these certain standards while keeping my conceptual twist clear and vivid: I’m formalizing my personal houseplant collection, which is inside my house, into a public museum. So, for Sea Together, you created your own magazine which references this long line of history in publishing and in surfing, etc. The choice to bring something new to this history is what is unconventional about it. Initiating these changes can bring up questions for people, and that’s why we’re doing it in the first place. People are familiar with surf magazines, though they are not familiar with surf magazines that feature women, people of color, and people who do not appear in mainstream publications. That was an artistic choice and with that comes other artistic approaches. 

Brianna: Yeah, it’s accepted as a magazine or accepted as a museum, but at the same time we’re doing something just slightly different. They see certain expectations. It can be hard for me because some people think I’m a whole team of people running it or something, but no, it’s just me. I actually just handed off the instagram to someone else. I am in the process of handing over the blog as well for a couple months because I am stepping away from the project for a time. 

Emma: Yeah, even in your description of the project, it’s “an artist-run project facilitated by Brianna Ortega.” Do you think being an artist is what qualifies the actions we take, without having institutional power or traditional qualifications?

Brianna: I think it does, but I don’t think society necessarily sees it like that. That’s where I really love our program (the Art & Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University). It’s really trying to push the idea of an artist and what an artist is in society. What do you think?

Emma: Yeah I mean I definitely think so. Being an artist has lended me so much agency to explore multiple subjects that I am interested in. That is why I decided to study art in undergrad, because I couldn’t decide on one subject to commit to for the rest of my life. I wanted to align my life in a field that is always changing, adapting, responding to the world and not stuck in one subject. My projects have been platforms to explore and research subjects I am really passionate about and interested in. I operate a plant museum because I have a really deep emotional relationship with plants; I don’t know nearly anything about the scientific end of it. I don’t feel like I need to be an expert in a field, because I’m an artist, which means my lens is different from these social expectations. A lot of my projects showcase, archive, and distribute the research obtained through my exploration. I am navigating the space between these social expectations and the agency within every individual. I think describing these decisions as an art project opens up a lot of possibilities to expand those expectations. 

Brianna: Using the role of artist, I have been able to step into things that I typically wouldn’t have been able to. I just really love the questions: Who is qualified? What information is qualified to be a part of a space, or a global or local history? What are the things in place that prevent people from seeing their story or their voice as not important, or not valid, or not coming to the forefront of their consciousness? How can I create work that asks questions about power in spaces, so that ideas or people can shift in different ways in those spaces?

Sea Together Magazine Issue 001; 2018. Image by Ty Feague.
People’s Plant Museum; drawing; 2020. Image by Emma Duehr Mitchell.

Emma Duehr Mitchell (she/her) is an artist, educator, and curator living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her work centers collaborative storytelling, care, and exchange while working within domestic practices such as gardening, craft, and mail. Exploring the intersection between public and private spaces, her work challenges social expectations. With an emphasis on accessibility and engagement, public environments such as neighborhoods, metropolitan surroundings, social media, and museums are a few spaces which her work occupies.

Brianna Ortega is an artist, educator, writer, and surfer based on the Pacific Northwest 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, embodied and shared History, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation. 

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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