Keeping the Keepsakes Alive
On October 13th, an emotionally charged and energetic protest resonated through the streets of Portland, summoning individuals to stand together and raise their voices against the relentless atrocities and violence inflicted upon the people of Palestine. In my mere month-long stay in Portland, I found myself navigating the intricacies of the city’s public life and culture. As a newcomer to this land, I reveled in the liberating embrace of freedom of speech.
I stood here at my first protest gathering in Portland, a rare occasion in a time when the space for dissent was rapidly diminishing. Shyly clutching a placard, I hesitated to join the impassioned chants, acutely aware of my unfamiliarity with the city and its people.
A voice cut through the energy, calling my name—or so I thought. I turned, and my gaze met another woman, her countenance mirroring my own features. She stood boldly, fearlessly, raising a hand painted banner. It was then that I realized the call was intended for her. She noticed my confusion and introduced herself, saying, “Hi, I am Simi,”. I replied, “We have the same name!” This unfolded my first encounter with Simi Malhotra, a performance artist in Portland, whose roots trace back to New Delhi, much like my own. However, her artistic journey in Portland had started two decades prior to mine, holding a more intimate connection with the city’s public life and culture.
Simeen Anjum: Good Evening Simmi! Long time no see.
Simi Malhotra: Good evening Simmi! Yes. :) (We literally have the same names if pronounced by someone from Delhi)
Simeen: So would you like to begin by introducing yourself for my readers?
Simi: Sure. Hi readers! My name is Simi Malhotra. I was born and raised in Delhi, India, same as Simeen who is here with me, and I moved to Portland 20 years ago when I married my husband who is a native Portlander. Growing up the first art that I learned was Kathak (A classical Indian dance). I practiced Kathak from the age of six to eleven, and then I switched to Odissi and I learned Odissi (a dance-drama genre of performance art, where the artist(s) and musicians play out a story, a spiritual message or devotional poem) . I got trained with the Mahapatra family lineage. My guru’s name was Shri Dilip Shankar Mahapatra. And I learned that and I represented my school, my college, and my university, and my state in many state and national level championships, and I won a few also. In addition to that, I write poetry. I also sing— Sufi, Classical, harmoniums, and vocals. I also do Madhubani paintings.
Simeen: Wow! I am very curious about your poetry. Do you write in English?
Simi: I write in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, a mix of the three languages. I am interested in delving deeper into understanding the complexity of human emotions.
Simeen: Can you share an emotion that you’ve been engaged with in your work recently?
Simi: Yes, you see we’ve grown accustomed to encountering news about deaths through cold numbers and statistics, yet each number represents a unique world, an entire universe of individual experiences. Lately, I’ve been experiencing this realization more often. When we look at stuff happening in the world, it’s easy to say something like “so many people died,” or “so many got hurt.” But for those folks, and their families and friends, those are their whole worlds. It just makes you think about how life is both temporary and permanent at the same time. And how something we might see as no big deal can be the most important thing in the world to someone else.
Simeen: Absolutely, I completely get what you’re saying. It’s like we’re bombarded with news about death and violence all the time, and it can make us a bit desensitized. We see these numbers and figures, and it’s hard to really grieve or truly empathize with the people behind them. It’s kind of sad when you think about it.
It reminds me of something Susan Sontag wrote in her work Regarding the Pain of Others, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” It’s a powerful reminder that just being aware of the pain and suffering around us isn’t enough; we need to take meaningful action to make a difference and truly feel empathy.
Simeen: I am also interested in the fact that you have been doing all these various traditional forms of Indian art. Can you describe the transition you went through when you relocated to Portland and started practicing these art forms in a completely different environment? How did this experience contribute to your connection with the local community here?
Simi: I have mixed feelings about all of this, you know. When I started doing this here, I experienced two different kinds of reactions. On one hand, there were folks who were incredibly appreciative and welcoming. They embraced me with open arms, and there was so much warmth, love, and friendship in their approach. That was one side of it. On the other hand, there were also some folks who were pretty ignorant about it all. They either took it humorously and ironically or made fun of it, even going as far as appropriating it.
As an artist, though, this mix of reactions really pushed me to grow. You can’t evolve as an artist without both the positive and negative feedback from your audience. So, it turned into a kind of a constructive challenge for me. The people who were warm and welcoming helped me expand my circle of friends and acquaintances. But with those who didn’t get it, I saw it as a personal mission to educate them in a gentle way, without belittling or demeaning them. It was all about sharing my culture, my roots, my traditions. I knew that if I lost patience or reacted the same way they did, then there wouldn’t be any difference between us. So, it became an opportunity to grow as an artist, whether by gracefully accepting praise or by gently educating others about our culture in a constructive and informative manner.
Simeen: I can see that you’ve really created a wonderful place for yourself here with the work you’ve been doing. Do you think it would be any easier for someone like me, who’s recently moved to Portland, to draw inspiration from your journey? Or do you think I would likely face similar challenges to what you encountered many years ago when you first arrived? I’m curious about what you think has changed over the years in terms of inclusivity and how people of color like us are carving out their space in Portland.
Simi: Well, since I moved here, there have been some changes, but there are still areas that require significant work, and I’ve been actively involved in that ongoing effort. It’s not just me; it’s all people of color, especially those from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Within our cultures, there are various subcultures. For instance, I’m from India, so within the broader Indian subcontinent, there are further subcultures, and I’m a Punjabi.
For you, it might mean you’re part of all those larger identities, and then, instead of Punjabi, you identify as Muslim, right? These subcultures affect how people interact with us and what they think of us. Almost two decades ago, the challenges were different because people weren’t as aware. Thanks to social media, a lot of things have become more common for people to see, and there’s greater understanding.
Furthermore, with movements like Black Lives Matter and the increased emphasis on inclusivity and open dialogues, conversations have opened up between white individuals and people of color, as well as with other minorities. This dialogue has resulted in many improvements in various ways. Of course, there’s still much work to be done, but you’re going to face your own unique set of challenges, depending on the specific art form you want to pursue and build a career in.
The good news is that you’ll have more open dialogues. People will be eager to listen to you, and you’ll be provided with space to share your experiences. When I first arrived, I often had to create that space for myself, and it didn’t always work out. But I couldn’t take it too much to heart because the fight had to continue. So, you’re a bit more fortunate in that people are listening, educating themselves, and making an effort to understand and give space to those from minority backgrounds, allowing them to share their stories with the world.
Simeen: That’s great to hear, and I’m excited about creating my own space as well. Could you share your insights on how practicing these diverse traditional Indian art forms has influenced your path in terms of forming your identity and finding your space in this journey?
Simi: Definitely, these art forms serve as my anchor, keeping me grounded and deeply connected not just to the broader world, but especially to my community, culture, and roots. When you have a job, a family, and the demands of daily life, it’s all too easy to either forget or use the excuse of not having enough time for things that are inherently and culturally very, very important to you.
These art forms help me stay in touch with and preserve our traditions and cultures, whether it’s participating in festivals or establishing community partnerships that celebrate rising above differences in origin, beliefs, and backgrounds. For instance, they enable me to celebrate Eid with my Pakistani friends, and they, in turn, celebrate Diwali with me. Art forms are what initially connected us, and they continue to strengthen these bonds. And, it’s worth noting that Bollywood also plays a significant role in this connection.
Simeen: How do you feel when you read the news about your homeland and see how things are rapidly changing? And that you might not have the same kind of freedom for intercultural/interreligious dialogue there among different communities?
Simi: I feel that no matter which art form I dive into here, whether it’s performing or fine arts, I always make it a point to share it with the world that they cannot stop everybody from speaking up or prevent artists from speaking up or expressing themselves through their art, despite all the censorship and surveillance that might be going on there. I know things are difficult back home with increasing attacks on minorities and press freedom and activists. However, the fact that we’re living abroad and not directly in the midst of it grants us a unique kind of privilege. We’re beyond the reach of those who might want to silence us. This, in turn, places a significant responsibility on our shoulders. It means we can take action without worrying about what the consequences are going to be. So I take it upon myself as a responsibility, as my duty, as an Indian person of origin, that I as an artist need to speak up. I need to raise my voice against the ongoing oppression because my fellow artists, my brothers and sisters back home do not have the privilege and the freedom to do so currently.
Simeen: I am so glad I met you here, you know. I feel really comfortable just knowing that you are around.
Simi: You know, I used to celebrate all the Indian festivals outside, but now I see them as a unique opportunity for community building, especially for those who are away from home. I love to host gatherings where we can come together, feel a sense of security, and revel in our culture. I’m actually in the process of organizing a Diwali party, and I’d love to have you there. The aim is to foster camaraderie and strengthen our community bonds. However, it’s quite a challenge because we’re all leading busy lives, often dealing with our own share of ups and downs.
I was wondering if there might be someone who shares a similar mindset and perhaps has a bit of flexibility in their schedule. Teaming up with such a person could allow us to plan something special together.
Simeen: Definitely! I am excited. Can you share with us what you have been up to these days?
Simi: Right now, I’m in the process of writing. Mostly I’m journaling, which is kind of free flow narrative because of what’s happening, because I just don’t want whatever feelings that I’m having to just go in a vacuum, get lost in space. So that is why I’m trying to write those down in whatever form they come. I’m not trying to be too hard on myself for it to take the form of a story or an essay or a poem, but I’m just trying to let the words flow out of it. And when all of this is over, I can look back, relate and work on making a form out of them. Right now, I need to just feel.
In addition to that, I am in the process of designing a tote bag collection. I am working with canvas tote bags with hand painted Madhubani motifs. I also just finished a documentary with my friends called The World of Henna, which I helped them shoot in India. I have just finished doing the voiceover for that. Those are the three current things that I’m working on.
Simeen: All right, that sounds great. So I spotted you the other day at a protest demanding a ceasefire on the ongoing violence in Palestinians. Where else can I find you in Portland?
Simi: You can see me at most of the protests for human rights that will be taking place anywhere! I perform at various places in Portland, I do poetry and dance.
But other than that you can spot me at any of the diaspora congregations, whether that’s the Diwali Bazaar or if there’s an Eid or Diwali Bazaar,I would be there. And you can spot me at Bollywood nights at places around the city because I am Punjabi and I love dancing. I work at the Portland Center for the Arts. So all of the five big theaters in downtown Portland; The Keller, Schnitz, Winnix, Newmark, and Brunish. I work as a house manager at those five theaters. So you can see me at one of the performances that are happening over there. One of them coming up is Chelsea Handler and then Zakir Hussain is playing later this month. And other than that, I work at the community convention center.
I also run my radio show in Portland, serving the Indian diaspora and the broader South Asian community. I curate different playlists that resonate with our cultural experiences. I mostly play folk music of the southeast region of Asia and try to create a sense of unity, building a community where individuals from diverse backgrounds can connect through the soulful melodies of South Asian music.
Simeen: Thank you Simi, for giving me your time for this interview. Here’s my last question, If you could have anything from anywhere in the world for dinner tonight, what would it be?
Simi: Oh my God! Here’s two things. Khatta Meetha Pethe ki Sabzi with Bedmi, the Bharmapuri with the Khatta Meetha Petha, with the big achar from Mathura or Vrindavan.
Simeen: I haven’t had it, but I love how it sounds.
Simi: And the second one is the Amritsari Kulcha bread with nothing but just, like, a big dollop of white butter on it. The one with potato stuffing. And a big big big glass of lassi.
Simeen: Perhaps we can attempt cooking it ourselves sometime if we get together.
Simi: For sure.
Simeen Anjum (she/her) is a social practice artist and cultural activist from New Delhi, India. Locating herself in the disquiet of state suppression, surveillance, personal and collective trauma, she attempts to document,cherish and archive the smallest fragments of ordinary life. Through her work, she hopes to provide alternatives to established socio-political narratives. She works in direct interaction with her community and surroundings.
Simi Malhotra (she/her), a native of Delhi, India, has been a dynamic presence in Portland for the past two decades. Rooted in classical Indian dance, Simi transitioned from Kathak to Odissi, representing her school, college, and state in numerous championships. Alongside her dance prowess, Simi is a poet, singer of Sufi and classical genres, and a skilled performer.She also practices Madhubani, a style of Indian folk painting. Currently serving as the House Manager at the Portland Center for the Arts, she’s a multidisciplinary artist with a deep commitment to her art and social activism.
Image from Laura Glazer’s interview with Nina Katchadourian: Gallery attendant looking at Nina’s exhibit at The Morgan Library. Photo by Laura Glazer.
Our cover this spring comes to us from Laura Glazer, who took this picture herself while viewing Nina Katchadourian’s work at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City this year. You can find their interview in this issue under the title, “Listen to the Subject.” We loved this image because it felt so quintessentially “social practice” to us. The focus is the person viewing the work rather than the work alone. It is often those relationships that we are interested in exploring with our work.
Letter from the Editors
What makes the field of social practice dynamic and compelling is the vastly different themes people bring to the work. Within our cohort of 15, no two practices look the same. Because our medium is the constantly shifting public, the ways our work manifests are always changing. We respond to relationships and social contexts and we all respond differently. This is what makes the field exciting; the ability to engage with and learn from so many different ways of making. In this issue of SoFA Journal, our interviews reach across a variety of subjects. Olivia DelGandio gives us an inside view of the Art and Social Practice Archive at PSU, Marissa Perez talks to Ruth Eddy about what it really means to interview someone, and Morgan Hornsby interviews photographer, Wendy Ewald, about rural life and art. Each interview shows us just how fluid social practice can be.
As Becca Kauffman says of their interviewee, “Jeremy Deller knows the essential ingredient for making the kind of work you can see yourself in: he looks to what people care about.” We, as social practice artists, are often looking outward to the social sphere instead of inward for inspiration. Because we work in this way, each project turns into something new and different. As Wendy Ewald says, “I’ve learned to look and listen, and to understand that I have preconceptions always, and to learn to let them go or be transformed by the situation.” From looking and listening, we move towards making.
Just like we garner information from artists we’re influenced by, we also look towards the people we’re to closest for inspiration. You can see this reflected in Caryn Aasness’s interview with their mom and in Gilian Rappaport’s inclusion of their collaborator’s response to their initial interview. As social practice artists, we see the world and our art through the lens of these relationships.
In exploring these relationships and influences, we’ve put together an exciting batch of interviews for this issue. If you want to know more about Vietnamese memes, making molasses in Kentucky, or why Nina Katchadourian is interested in writing her own wall labels, you’re just like us, and lucky for you, we asked the right questions so you can read all about it here.
Olivia DelGandio, Caryn Aasness, and Luz Blumenfeld
(with Becca Kauffman and Morgan Hornsby)
Intimacy and Ritual
This spring, Harrell Fletcher (our professor and co-director of the program), invited his longtime friend and previous collaborator to visit one of our classes. It was through this experience that I had the opportunity to interview artist, writer, and filmmaker, Miranda July.
I’m not going to pretend that I don’t think it’s extremely cool that I got to interview one of my favorite artists this year.
Learning to Love You More, a collaboration between Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July, was a project where you could complete assignments from the artists and submit your work to the website where it would be posted and added to the growing archive. When I found the website, it was around 2007 (the project ran from 2002-2009). I was in high school and lucky enough to grow up in Oakland at a time where there were a lot of DIY community art spaces, like Rock Paper Scissors Collective, which still exists today. I was really interested in participatory artworks and artists who used the intimate details of their lives in their work.
I find that those things still draw me to socially engaged art; the everyday quality of it and how it often includes people outside of the art world. In my current practice, I’m making work about the immateriality of memory and the power of play. I’m interested in voyeurism and fantasy and the blurry line between public and private.
It was really cool to have a conversation with one of my favorite artists about some of our shared interests. I think that Miranda’s work can feel like an invitation into her private world and I appreciate how she let me into that world for a little while.
Luz Blumenfeld: I think so much about you being in the public eye. Do you feel like that’s changed the way that you make work? Do you ever find that there’s a hyper-visibility or something?
Miranda July: Well, I had about 15 years, from when I was a teenager to age 30, when I was working to create an audience, and I thought I’d done a pretty good job of that, you know, for an artist and a performer and someone on the fringes. And then when I was 30, my first movie came out. I was not used to being recognized so I suddenly had a different sense of myself in the world; it was a bit of a creative crisis, it felt sort of alarming. So while I stayed ambitious, I didn’t think, oh, and now I want to get even more recognized in the street. It was like, okay, this is good, if I could maintain this in such a way that I could always make my work, but not ever go beyond this level of anonymity, because that actually might actually prevent my work. So that kind of became the goal, to just maintain that level. Which I have done, so I’m really used to it at this point.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I would imagine that too much visibility would be hindering in a lot of ways. I mean, artists are already so inside of our own heads all the time about our own work and ideas, but I can’t really imagine the kind of constant input from the outside, or at least, that I think is more visible with how much social media there is now.
Miranda: Right, I know. But you tend to not end up in this space accidentally; you tend to want it on some level. Whether that’s healthy or what kind of wounds that comes from— people who don’t want attention have a very clear path to not getting it.
Luz: I’ve seen you use Instagram in your work in a really interesting way lately. It felt almost like a play to me, that piece that you did with the actor Margaret Qualley. That was a really interesting way to use the platform that I hadn’t really seen before. I want to know what you’re thinking about with how that platform can be used for something that it’s not really supposed to be for? And like, what making that work does?
Miranda: Yeah, I mean, though I had made these feature films and sort of normal-ish books, I kept being the same artist person that I always had been. So my interests have remained very curious as to what are all the different ways that work could be – not just distributed, but sort of…that the path the work takes to get to the audience [can be] part of the work.
So even though I’m surrounded by people who are like, yeah, I want to get my TV show made, or my movie made, there’s a kind of flattening through that whole process – you gain a lot but a lot is also ruled out by the process, no matter how organic or improvisatory you try to be. I think I became very aware of this while making Kajillionaire. On the one hand, I was so happy, I had a bigger budget than I’d ever had, a lot of trust. And it also gave me the space to see what it inherently wasn’t, you know. Even at its best, it wasn’t going to be spontaneous and immediate. With my wonderful but large crew I wasn’t going to be the way that I would be with just one other person—
Luz: Yeah, like that level of intimacy—
Miranda: Yeah, and then there was a year between the time I finished Kajillionaire and it coming out and in the meanwhile, I was making things and sharing them the next minute through Instagram— the complete opposite. And that made me so happy in a way. There was a purity to that; for all the dirtiness of Instagram and Facebook, there is also something that can be pure about cutting out all those middlemen— all the other companies besides Facebook. So yeah, I had had in my head, what if you could make a movie through Instagram? and actually, the original idea was to have it be decentralized. So you would have to jump from my Instagram to Margaret’s Instagram to other people’s, and you’d kind of follow it.
I met Margaret one week, and I wrote a little script and we had that first FaceTime, which is the script basically, the next week. So we didn’t know each other at all. Now, we’re good friends, but this was kind of how we got to know each other. And then Jaden Smith, I saw him in the comments, I saw he was following.
Luz: Yeah, that was wild. Was that actually an organic thing that happened? I couldn’t tell.
Miranda: Yeah, I mean, neither of us knew him. He did write a comment, just an emoji or something. And then I DMed him and said, hey, do you want to, like, play a role in this? And he was like, yes, you know, he just wrote right back. So I wrote out a four page script. He’s a really good actor. He memorized it really quickly and we shot it through FaceTime and screen recorded on Thanksgiving Day. He was into the idea that it was gonna go on his [Instagram page] first because I still had the decentralized idea. And we’re watching it together over the course of that day, and I was like, Not enough people are jumping— you know, it’s not working. I need to post it.
Luz: Yeah, the attention span is so wild with that.
Miranda: Right? I mean, it was just kind of an experiment. I just wanted to try it, but yeah, and so then I posted and it was really exciting. It was exciting for him and me and Margaret and all the people involved because it was very raw, and it was all strangers. And it was all in real time, roughly. Everyone involved… that’s what we’re here for; that kind of collaboration. Especially for someone like him, or even Margaret, who are used to having a lot of handlers involved, to even have the power to be like, I’m in and be doing it the next day, without signing anything… it’s a great feeling. A totally normal experience when you’re younger or in the art and performance world, but not in this business. Actual trust.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I feel like it was also really exciting from a viewer’s point of view because at the very beginning, I really couldn’t tell if it was like, a bit, or something that’s playing out in real time, or something kind of in between the two. Especially knowing your work and the way that you play with intimacy. So for a while, I really couldn’t tell, but I was like, I’m not sure it matters. Like this is really interesting, a way of interacting with this platform— artists connecting and using that in a way that is different from— I just feel like I use Instagram to like, very low key promote things and remind people that I make what I remember to post on there, but it’s really boring, and I don’t love it.
Miranda: Yeah, I’m in that same boat most of the time. I have something that I’m working on that I’ll do closer to next year, that is another very different but kind of Instagram-based project. And it is such a different way of— when it becomes your art, like with the Margaret thing or like this new thing, it [the platform] suddenly loses all of its power, its normal power, and only becomes this tool, like Microsoft Word or something.
Luz: Yeah. It’s like some sort of medium and also kind of a weird obsession at that point.
Miranda: Yeah, it’s nice to know that the mechanism itself isn’t good or bad. You know what I mean? It’s like other tools. The company is specifically gearing it in this addictive direction but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s part of why I always like to tangle with whatever the current technology is, just to remember that these companies are making choices that are not in our best interests. But we were always going to make these tools and there’s something hopeful about seeing ourselves still in the technology, I think.
Luz: Yeah, I think about Instagram and Tiktok a lot. There are certain parts of it that are kind of built into the culture that I do find really fascinating, and it’s also totally oversaturated. But you can scroll through people’s live feeds on TikTok and on Instagram too with the reels. It’s so voyeuristic; it’s like another thing I do sometimes which is to go to a camming site and just check out people’s rooms because it’s so intimate— sometimes the person has it all set up and it’s like a set and sometimes it’s just someone’s bedroom.
Miranda: So where do you look at that, like Only Fans or something?
Luz: Before Only Fans there have been camming sites. The one that I know about is called My Free Cams and the way the website is designed kind of feels a little old internet, like it’s all a grid of profile pictures. And then when your mouse goes over one of them, it gives you a preview of their room in real time. I think it’s such an interesting way to get a glimpse into someone’s private world.
Miranda: And it’s not just the room empty without the people in them?
Luz: Sometimes. If you catch someone at the right moment where they’ve just left the room to get something then you are just watching an empty room. And it’s fascinating to me because it is in real time. And I think for me it’s along the same lines of when Google Earth first came out, and it was like, oh my god, you can just see the world as it is. And that’s insane— almost like time traveling.
Miranda: Agreed. I haven’t dug into camming or Only Fans or anything like that, but because I worked in the peep shows when I was in my 20s, I often think, oh, right. That’s what I would be doing if I was in my 20s, now, probably, and it’s much better in some ways. So much safer. And that makes me curious about it. It still seems to have potential. And then it’s interesting Occasionally if I’m extra broke, I’ll think well, I guess I could be a cam girl…
Luz: Right? That’s always on the back-burner.
Miranda: …and then I have to sort of grapple with being a real niche taste now, being older. When you’re young, it almost doesn’t matter what you look like, because you’re young, right? But I’m in a special category now.
Luz: I was wondering if there’s kind of a medium or an area of art that you haven’t explored ever before, but you still want to, like, maybe that feels kind of out of reach for whatever reason?
Miranda: Well, there’s things that just aren’t gonna happen, like singing or playing the piano; I’m just kind of wistful, like, I just have no aptitude. It might as well be sports or something. But then there’s things like— I mean, in a way dance falls in that category of something where it’s like, Well, I actually don’t have a lot of aptitude. I can’t follow choreography or anything but there’s a colloquial form of dance that we all have access to, you know, just like dancing in a club.
But it’s funny. The other night I was being interviewed on stage by a friend, by Carrie Brownstein. And she was talking about dance in my work, and me dancing, and she said, but it’s always mediated by the phone, right? It’s on Instagram. Would you ever just dance on stage, like, do the same kind of dance? And I said, yeah, sometimes I have dreams where I do that, you know, when I’m asleep. And she said, would you do it now? And this was in front of 500 people. So I tried. I put on music—
Luz: Oh like, now now.
Miranda: Yeah, it was very shocking. But I’ve known her forever and she knows it’s hard for me to resist a dare. But it was interesting to see how I sort of couldn’t do it. I mean I did something, including some push-ups? And the audience was very nice. But I couldn’t think the way that I do when I’m alone in my room. And when I’m alone, I have time to sort of get into it, you know? And have it be bad, and then have it get better. And I have a mirror! I can see oh, that looks cool, or I can even record it and play it back. And this was without all of that. And I realized like, oh, I do have dancer friends who, given a stage and an audience, they would have endless things they could do, and I simply didn’t have that at my disposal, not with any immediacy, but it made me feel sort of hungry. I’d like to be able to be that kind of person. So maybe in a way, I’ve been in training, in my room, to figure out that next step. But I wouldn’t have seen the gap if I hadn’t tried in that high stakes way.
Luz: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, those ways of showing a dance are so different. I feel like with your phone and with Instagram, you have some control to a certain extent. And giving up control as an artist is kind of impossible for a lot of us, or just feels really scary.
Miranda: I think because I have these dreams so often, you know, like sleeping dreams where I’m dancing and it’s just all going so well. It was like I just wanted to see— it was like the equivalent of well, maybe I can fly, you know, and almost that dangerous. Luckily not fatal, but I did see like, oh no, I can’t, not yet. But I think I could get there. It didn’t seem impossible. I felt vaguely humiliated, but in a way that I felt I could survive.
Luz: I feel vaguely humiliated on social media, I think, and like, in my everyday life, just having a body and being perceived.
Miranda: Yeah, it’s awful. But it’s also like, where we’re at.
Luz: And so much connection can happen through that. I’m thinking about some sort of meeting in between the peep show and dancing on stage and wondering, when you were doing that work, did that feel humiliating? Or like you were really exposed? Or did it feel like you had more control? I’ve been interested in recreating a peep show because there aren’t really any anymore, just so that I can experience what it feels like to have the curtain be pulled back temporarily.
Miranda: Yeah, it was kind of interesting. I mean, they were all there in Portland too, where you are, but I guess they’re gone. It certainly wasn’t creative, although it does pop up in my work sometimes. There’s a peep show in one of my short stories. But at the time, you’re so concerned with like, am I gonna get people today, will I make money and so, it’s sort of deadening the way a lot of other jobs are. Yeah, the thrill is gone pretty quickly.
Luz: Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve done camming both for work, and also just kind of for fun to see what people do, and they’re very different experiences. I think you are really good at looking at intimacy in your work, beyond like, bedroom sexuality, and into the intimacy of people’s inner worlds and how weird they are. And like how universally weird they are. I think that’s something that I find that you’re really good at and I look for in your work.
Kind of going back to the work that you did with Margaret Qualley and the intimate 1:1 thing— I’ve been thinking about art projects that are really just for you and another person or just for you. And what does it mean to share that or share the existence of that, but maybe not the whole project? Or to share it at all? And what do you gain with either? Have you made work that’s really just for you, or just for another person?
Miranda: Yeah, that project with Margaret, weirdly, for how public it was. Part of why it felt so real is that I really needed a ritual in my real life to help me with a real problem. And I think, because it didn’t cost or make any money, you know, because it wasn’t created as part of a market in that way, and despite the large audience, I thought of it as very pure and, and the fact that it ends with a literal ritual…a nod to the whole thing being a ritual. I’ve talked about this with Margaret, how it worked. It was effective.
Luz: Like it felt like a closing?
Miranda: It shifted me into a different place forevermore, and this had to do with the specific people that I worked with and met along the way. Even the penny circle and even the audience, even people being invested in it was part of the ritual. We were talking earlier about fame or ambition, with this project I felt that I graduated to another level where it wasn’t so much a striving within a genre, but rather a ritual for myself. We sort of intensified it by being watched, but the spell was complete enough that it stayed sacred. And then I went on from that and spent the last four years writing a book that was a similar experience. I can’t believe it’s just a book because it feels like a four-year seance. I don’t know, I can’t quite explain this. In any case, this may have also happened when I was younger but frankly, I was completely entranced by just the goal of making a movie, or writing a story, you know, and having it be both true and honest and good took all my focus. So the witchcraft aspect of it – the thing that goes beyond the medium – wasn’t quite as available to me.
Luz: And then there’s that thing that happens, where you’re striving towards something for so long, and you get to it, and then everything shifts. I’m trying to get better at taking a step back and being like, oh, you’re here, you made it to that point that you were trying to make it to for a really long time. So, what are you looking for now? And I think it’s a great place to be. And it’s also fucking terrifying. Yeah, it’s actually so scary to be doing what you want to be doing. It’s weird, right?
Miranda: I remember when I was young, living in Portland, I would have these kinds of board meetings with myself, just in my notebook that were like, what do you actually want to do? I’d do it each week, so it’d be a constant refocusing. Just because you were so gung ho last week about this doesn’t mean – you keep refocusing. I think I need to start that up again, but not about work. Maybe not a board meeting but some other ritual.
Luz: I find myself drawn to certain Jewish rituals. I was raised Jewish, but more culturally than religiously. But when I was growing up we did practice Shabbat sometimes and it’s such a nice ritual to light the candles and have some bread and that ritual of closing out your week. And there’s another part of it on Saturday night, at the end of the sabbath, called Havdalah, where you light these braided candles and you smell this little spice box, and it’s supposed to awaken you to the start of another week.
Miranda: Oh, wow, that’s so cool. I’m half Jewish – Jewish enough to smell a little spice box.
Miranda July (she/her) is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her books include It Chooses You, The First Bad Man, and No One Belongs Here More Than You (winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award). July’s fiction has been published in twenty-three countries and has appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. She wrote, directed, and starred in The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know (winner of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance; re-released by The Criterion Collection in 2020). Her most recent movie is Kajillionaire (2020). July’s art works include the website Learning to Love You More (with Harrell Fletcher), Eleven Heavy Things (a sculpture garden created for the 2009 Venice Biennale), New Society (a performance), Somebody (a messaging app created with Miu Miu), and an interfaith second-hand shop located in a luxury department store (presented by Artangel). A limited edition of her most recent work, Services, was produced by MACK Books in 2022. A monograph of her work to date was published in April 2020. Raised in Berkeley, California, July lives in Los Angeles.
Luz Blumenfeld (they/them) is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator. Third generation from Oakland, California, they currently live and work in Portland, OR where they are a second year in the MFA in Art + Social Practice at Portland State University. Their first book, More and More Often, will be available this summer. You can see more of their work here.
I Was a Hero and Loved
Nate was a classmate of my brother’s at the former unaccredited, free collaborative school, Bruce High Quality Foundation University in New York City. We met in 2016 after he asked me to participate in a project of his. I did, and we began a strange and brief relationship of which the memories and timeline are fuzzy. I remember hiding a bottle of cheap white wine under the table at a seafood place in New Jersey, his son’s red plastic car shaped bed, empty on the floor of his studio apartment in The Bronx, sitting on a white leather couch at the 24 hour karaoke place in Chinatown, watching him perform in the pink light with awe. Following a fight on the street after seeing the film Psycho together, we didn’t speak for six years. We reconnected recently, and below is a brief conversation conducted via a shared Google doc.
Nadine Hanson: What did you eat today?
Nate Hill: Work mom gave me some food she cooked. It’s like chicken and Mac n cheese.. she also had a plate someone gave her of Mediterranean that she didn’t want so I took it .. Often I scavenge food from work..
Nadine: How did she become your “work mom”?
Nate: She wanted to date but she is not my type but she kept giving me food so we are friends .. me bringing her some food or something in return is long overdue I would like to reciprocate..
Nadine: What’s your favorite song on Lana’s new album (Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd?)
Nate: I like Paris, Texas a lot right now.. I like how she whispers Texas .. the melody makes me feel like I’m with some fairies in the woods .. I like feeling like I’m in a magical world .. This is a good escape from the noise.. what’s yours? It’s a lot the album is obviously rich..
Nadine: Paris, Texas is one of my favorites, too, but Fishtail is #1 for me. The line “I wish I could skinny dip inside your mind” reminded me of a text I sent to a man I was dating, where I said I wished he could carry me around inside his mouth and I could look at the world through the gap in his teeth. I meant it, I was obsessed. I broke up with him the next day.
Nadine: When did you last cry, and why?
Nate: I soft cry here and there like I don’t bawl it’s just a few seconds and maybe a tear or two comes out. Last time was yesterday I microdosed and of course got emotional about joy.. pain.. the past.. family .. exes.. my son..typical human things.. I cry in little doses there’s not like one big cry ..
Nadine: Do you believe in god?
Nadine: Can you name any artists / projects you have been influenced by?
Nate: When I was 20 or so I found a book in my college library about 2 performance artists (google tells me they are called the Art Guys?) who spent 24 hours in a dennys. It taught me you could do anything and call it art.. as a young man I copied their work. I spent 24 hours in a dennys then 24 hours in a tree in McCarren park ..
Nadine: Tell me about how your project Death Bear started and how you experienced it.
Nate: My son’s mom made it up with me.. I wanted to give people something nice that wasn’t ironic, hurt or disturbed them.. it worked it went viral .. I was a hero and loved.. it was nice to feel .. then I got burned out doing it .. during tho I loved it feeling like people were playing my make believe game and they were happy at the end it was positive lol .. it was the most wholesome thing I ever did that was also successful.. once a stranger on the subway handed me a note that just said thank you for death bear .. I felt like a good person
Could you talk a little bit about some other projects you did around that time? Maybe Free Bouncy Rides, Punch Me Panda?
Nate: well I don’t really do great at this point explaining what it was I did.. maybe I got too old or just don’t care.. but like I was completely out of control at this time.. uhh I was I guess unhinged? Like complete lunatic?? I felt fine and normal at the time but looking back I can see I was possibly out of my mind? It didn’t matter no one could tell me shit and if they tried to stop me they were no longer my friend as if that happened anyways .. I was only friends with other performance artists or outcasts at this time.. that’s all I can say for this time atm
Nadine: Are you open to talking about the project I met you through?
Nate: It’s ok
Darling Try Me
I haven’t looked at it in a year or 2..
ok I just looked back at it wow it’s pretty cringe lol
The facts as I recall are…
Around 2016 after I cheated on my wife while she was pregnant and got caught
I set up a website
Wore a paper bag on my head naked
Invited random women to my apartment
After hearing my confession of wrongdoing they could choose to do whatever they wanted with me
You came over and [redacted]
Anyways during my divorce my son’s mom printed out the website
Lots of drugs and sex
She brought it to court
She told my mother
I took the website down
There were like a dozen women who did it?
Idk it’s like it never happened
Nadine: What kind of work have you been making since you left the city?
Nate: I do byelol.com it is a black screen you can stare at online .. I host events where controversial issues are proposed and all are welcome to attend the black screen .. No discussion is possible yet people who disagree can be in the same space something less and less common nowadays lol
Nadine: What’s your favorite thing about being alive?
Nate: Hanging w my son and flipping over rocks stuff like that ..
Nadine: When you flip over rocks what are you hoping to find? / what have you done with the things you’ve found together?
Nate: Last week by the river I found a leech and put it in my aquarium .. he collects ants, studies them, and we bought some queens and have started a colony at home..
Nadine: What is your least favorite thing about being alive?
Nate: Idk I feel amazing
Nadine: Are you scared to die?
Nate: I have an 8 year old I want to be around now but before him I didn’t care as much
Nadine: Can you talk about your relationship to costumes?
Nate: I feel like a time traveler wearing this ice cream man fit.. it’s a way for me to dissociate and deny harsh realities..or feel unaffected or safe.. especially at work it makes me feel unique and not like part of a machine even if I may be I don’t feel it as much it is a buffer I need.. in the past costumes were ways to invent identities in performance .. I know how to capture the imagination through mask and make people believe and play along with me.. I like to play and need to play or I get sad
Nadine: Why an ice cream man?
Nate: I like a sweet facade with sinister hidden underneath .. I carry a fake cotton candy prop.
Nadine: What is sinister about it to you?
Nate: I’m hiding something …things that have been shared in my work.
Nadine: Could you work somewhere that didn’t allow you to wear your ice cream man outfit?
Nate: I have a plan to wear normal clothes for first month or so then transition
Nadine: Have you sold ice cream in your outfit? Would you want to?
Nate: No I heard you can get tendonitis from scooping
Nadine: What advice have you listened to regarding your art practice?
Nate: Not much. I was a bit self destructive and burned bridges throughout.. I had a chip on my shoulder, daddy issues, basically fuck everyone during most of my art career and used people to advance my art ideas making or maintaining few friends except those who were ruthlessly focused and driven on their own work or who supported me without question lol
Nadine: What’s your Mcdonald’s order?
Nate: Cheeseburger .. I like a filet o fish ironically
Nate Hill (he/him) is an artist based in New Jersey where he works in a lab taking care of fruit flies. byelol.com IG- @00000000000000oo00000oo
Nadine Hanson (she/her) is an artist based in New York City where she works as a waitress. nadinehanson.com
Sari, I Crossed Your Boundaries
In April 2023, my collaborators Danny DevitHOE, Mississitti Rivaaah, and I performed our piece, “Jell-O Bounce Jiggle Smear Slap Stick Ogle Ooze.” The piece involved three Jell-O cakes, our bodies, and 150 audience members at a party (Rubulad in Brooklyn, NY).
The party was called Fools Mold and was the most recent in a series of absurd art parties at Rubulad, an art space in Brooklyn, NY. The party was curated and hosted by glittermilk. My dear friend Alana Miller is behind glittermilk, and has been organizing these parties since 2020.
Almost a year before, our performance “Egg Fight” laid groundwork for our participatory mess performance explorations at Rubulad — and also crossed an unforeseen boundary with the beloved owner of the space, thirty year NYC nightlife vet, Sari Rubinstein.
The conversations that follow document our journey to sympathize with one another. Conversations were printed with permission of Sari and those involved in the making of this work.
Gilian Rappaport writes to Sari Rubinstein on Instagram (May 27, 2022):
Gilian Rappaport: Hi Sari! This is Gilian, I’ve got a performance that I’m planning for the glittermilk party, which Alana asked me to run by you!
So I’m thinking that it will be a durational performance, happening outside ideally under a tree that is also close to an outlet. I will be wearing a box around my pelvis that is lined with (fake) fur, and has an opening to the front. I will be standing in a fish tank filled with green water which will be lit, and then it will also have bottles in it of a drink that I make. (You might remember me from past parties when I served drinks there from foraged plants!) It will be a very small quantity and not served as drinks but more like part of the ritual.
I will have an Intake Daddy ushering people over to me to put their hands in the box. They will be timed for 30 seconds. Then I will crack an egg into the fish tank. I plan to put a tarp under the whole space.
How does this sound to you? I welcome feedback. I want to make sure it feels comfy for you!
Sari Rubinstein: It sounds messy. I don’t really want drinks served at all so maybe think of something else to serve (cookies) or just do the show without handing out stuff. Also a giant fish tank full of raw eggs, eggshells and water is not something I want in my yard full of electricity. Eggs are gross and hard to clean- so maybe you could modify this to be less gross/ dangerous- I’m sorry but you asked what I think.
Ps. I know Alana likes eggs but I really hate em and last time there were eggs everywhere after the show – it got cleaned the next day but -gross 🤢
Perhaps you can think of something more lovely and less disgusting to do in a durations performance – I would really appreciate that. Sorry to be blunt.
Gilian: Ok I appreciate that! Thank you! Can I give it some thought and send you a modification? I’m so sorry that it was disgusting in your yard!
Sari: Yes pls. I appreciate that! I really do. I don’t love asking.
Gilian: How does this sound? No tank, no eggs, no drinks.
I’ll wear the box, and prompt people to describe the box using cue words that I will either create or prompt other people to give me. Then they will describe the box, and I will record the stories. Maybe they will write them and pin them to a big piece or fabric or write them on a big piece of paper. If it pleases me, I can give them the option to tap or touch the forest box. It’s not fully fleshed out, it could change a bit in terms of how it works, but something like that. How does that sound?
Sari: Yes!!!! Thank you!!!!!! Hang them on a tree maybe. If near a tree.
Gilian: Yea that sounds cool! I’ll see what kind of materials I can find this week. I am missing the grotesque element a bit so I may try to find a way to get that in there in some way but do fully understand to keep in mind the requirements around the space!!!
Sari: Dang girl!
Gilian: I promise no egg smash or water tanks or booze
Gilian calls Sari, with the aim to learn from Sari (May 11, 2023):
Gilian: I wanted to have this call over Zoom, and you said “I’m not going to hop on this Zoom call right now, I just can’t handle that.” How do you set boundaries so unapologetically?
Sari: It’s Mercury Retrograde, all communications are broken.
Gilian: But is it broken? If you’re just able to say “No, that’s not gonna work for me”?
Sari: You have to know your limits.
Gilian: Have you always had a pretty good sense of your limits? Or is that something you’ve been able to understand more over time?
Sari: Definitely over time. I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time. You try things and they don’t work a bunch of times. So then you know.
Sari: It doesn’t work to be super loud outside at my space because then I’d get noise complaints. If we could be loud as hell, that’d be great. But, we can’t and still have this space.
Gilian: I did a performance with eggs in your space and that didn’t feel super good to you. I’d love to understand better about what crossed the line there.
Sari: I don’t like messy things at Rubulad because they stay there a long time. Once, Hungry March Band put gum in their piñata on New Year’s Eve. We were scraping gum off the floor for five years. Now I know. (Laughing). Gum doesn’t work.
Food outside, when I really don’t want rats to be invited, doesn’t work for me. I have no good way to clean gravel.
Also, it just so happens that I’m someone who really doesn’t like eggs.
Gilian: Do you not like even eating eggs?
Sari: Yeah. I don’t like them on my plate. It’s a food phobia or something.
Gilian: Well, I want to say that I’m so impressed with what I’ve seen at Rubulad. I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen there! Wild!
Sari: Oh I’m glad.
Gilian: (Laughing) Why glad?
Sari: Well, despite having certain boundaries that make it so that we can actually function as a space, it’s my very strong opinion that there are too many rules. So, as long as we can not have rules, the happier we’ll be; you do what you want to do, and I’ll do what I want to do.
So many times in life, you come up against someone who says, “Rules are rules,”
and you say, “This doesn’t make any sense, this rule,”
and they say, “I don’t care. Rules are rules.”
People say no just to say no. I try to not be that person if I can help it. But, then there are rules that are not really my rules.
Gilian: When are they not your rules?
Sari: Rules that affect my greater community. If I affect my greater community in a way that upsets them, then I can’t have a harmonious spot, which I so truly desire. All we ever wanted was to be able to do our thing without people interfering.
Gilian: Who’s the ‘we’ that you’re talking about?
Sari: The people of Rubulad. The people who set up and make the art and work there. Some of those people have been there a really long time.
Gilian: When was it founded? I don’t know the history.
Sari: Oh, well, we founded it in 1993. We are 29 this year. So you know, we have a lot of experience with these issues.
Gilian: Speaking of experience, I want to share one of mine with you. In 2011, I helped put on the first live painting action in the US by Hermann Nitsch, founding member of the Viennese Actionism movement. Nitsch’s initial notoriety was tied to his ‘Orgies Mysteries Theater‘ (1960s). During the two day event in 2011, titled “60. Painting Action // 60. Malaktion,” Nitsch and his assistants performed ritualistic painting acts with paint in a gallery. During the acts, one of his assistants peed under my desk. No questions asked, he just peed under my desk. For me, it was my limit, I was like, “I can’t do this anymore.” But for him, it was just part of his day.
How do you navigate when a yes for one person feels like a no for another person? How do you navigate different limits when it comes to extreme art experiences in your space?
Sari: (laughing) If it’s not hazardous to the space, I try to be hands off.
Gilian: Do you think that censorship is the same thing as rules?
Sari: What a great question. I kind of do, but we all have them. There are certain things I don’t want on my stage. So I try to be hands off. But, if someone is actively racist on my stage, I don’t enjoy that. And I don’t want Rubulad to be a place that presents that, even though I want people to be free with what they express. So we all have our limits.
We did a large benefit show for More Gardens, which is a group that was trying to make gardens permanent in New York. One of my artists brought in this tree, and she announced, “I’m gonna kill this tree in the middle of the dance floor so everyone can see how horrible it is to kill a tree.” Well, the audience at the More Gardens benefit went ballistic. People were ready to jump in front of the chainsaw to save this tree, and she was like, “What, it’s my tree, you don’t get to say what I do in my piece.” It was so upsetting for people, they were truly traumatized to see someone kill a tree on purpose.
Gilian: And then what? Was it a riot?
Sari: Almost! Things were getting really crazy. In a sense, it’s not her tree. It’s the Goddess’s tree. It’s a living being.
In a certain sense, I like to see Rubulad being enjoyable for people. I want it to be fun for them more than upsetting. I also like it to have a little depth, and sometimes I put in dark things. But in general, I try to keep it pretty happy because the world is harsh, and people need a place to go that isn’t harsh.
Gilian: True or false: art that pushes limits can also be fun for people to experience.
Sari: Well, it can be really healing for people. I’m a big fan of what we call “indescribable acts.” When you ask, “What did you see at the show?” And the response is, “well, I can’t really tell you because it was too weird.”
Gilian: “Indescribable acts” is something that is too weird to put words to?
Sari: Yes. Even if you told them the components of the piece, it wouldn’t create an accurate picture.
A lot of things at glittermilk are like that. Aside from the messy eggs, it’s pretty much a dream come true for me.
Gilian: I’m so sorry about the messy eggs, Sari.
Sari: (Laughing) Well, last month we had Jell-O.
Gilian: Did you think the Jell-O should happen?
Sari: Well, you all wanted it so I thought it should happen.
It’s an absurd response to an absurd world. We, at this time, are left with not that many great options.
Gilian: What is the intention behind Rubulad now?
Sari: We specialize in the art of celebration. Alana is really excellent at that. And plus, she’s weird. No one else is going to do what she does. No one else is going to say, “I want my theme to be Danny DeVito. Or, mold.”
Gilian: Since last year when you said, “can you please do something more lovely and less disgusting,” I’ve been curious to understand, what is lovely? What is disgusting?
Sari: Well I want to say that your probably-really-beautiful-egg-fish-tank wasn’t just about the eggs, but also about accidents of water electricity.
I would like people to find a gateway or a passage to another world through the experience of performance. This is a difficult to achieve idea, but you can change people’s mood, you can actually change them, you can broaden their horizon, you have this opportunity.
There’s a lot of gross. On my way to work, there’s people puking, there’s rats. There’s loveliness too, but there’s less loveliness and it’s harder to find and access.
For the Dada people, there was this terrible war. And the only legit response was just to be silly and ridiculous. They could be in a protected space and laugh. That somehow is awesomely powerful. Clowning silliness, zaniness, and nonsense are all very powerful to me.
Gilian: I love it. Thank you for making time and sharing your thoughts with me.
Sari: Thank you for being interested in what I have to say. I’m a fan of yours also. It’s a pleasure to get to talk to you and do anything with you guys.
Gilian: Thank you for saying that, I feel the same way!
Alana Miller responds through a phone conversation with Gilian (May 16, 2023):
Alana: One thing I keep coming back to is just how metal it is that Sari said ‘yes’ to our sticky, messy, risky idea. She’s so committed to supporting our art and trusts our vision. It speaks to the intention of the space [Rubulad].
It felt serendipitous hearing her mention Dada and (paraphrasing) how in troubled times, we need nonsense-for-nonsense-sake more than ever. That’s something that is important to me too and we had never directly spoken about it before. I feel so lucky that I am able to collaborate with the Rubulad community, it really feels like a match made in heaven.
Gilian: From what I remember, glittermilk was first about making space to connect, and as it’s grown and evolved, it’s become more about nonsense. How do you see the relationship between those two?
Alana: They’re the same thing. We can be ourselves in our silliness…there is joy and connection in our nonsense. When we can tap into a sense of play, we are free to connect because it’s less about ego or some sort of tangible achievement or future oriented goal. It’s more about asking “What is the fun of this moment? Let’s follow that thread.”
Gilian: Did anything come up for you in hearing Sari’s boundary around eggs?
Alana: I relate to the push and pull between supporting lawlessness in art alongside the need to respect the physical spaces we occupy. When producing an event, I feel incredibly supportive of all the weird messy performance ideas but there’s also the practicality around maintaining positive relationships with Sari and the space.
Gilian: Are there other examples from your art practice that involve that push and pull?
Alana: Immersive performance work can often feel like therapy work — it’s about meeting people where they’re at. I am always trying to balance pushing people out of their comfort zone while being receptive to who they are in that particular moment.
It’s also about knowing the growth zone potential of a particular context. Going too far might mean that something gets cut or is not welcome, and then you’re actually eliminating silliness because it’s too much for the audience to digest. If the right amount of push is delivered with finesse and care, the more impact we can have. I think there’s great skill in this. I think taking these edges seriously can make our public spaces and events more bizarre, surprising, and unexpected. There’s skillfulness in feeling out people’s boundaries, and pushing them just the right amount towards expansion.
My therapist identity gets to emerge in new spaces that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being therapy spaces, in a way that feels more profound than official clinical therapy work.
Gilian: Are there clear no’s for you, when it comes to art making?
Alana: I’m not interested in creating art that is pleasant for everyone. I think creating something that almost anyone could enjoy kind of feels like no one gets to enjoy it deeply. It’s like creating a food that everyone thinks is OK, but it’s not the bite of food that you actually desire. This is something I’m figuring out–how to balance specificity with surprise, delight, and strange encounters. It’s themes and ideas that aren’t for everyone, which can be transformative because the people who do show up are connecting more deeply…so there’s a greater potential for expansion.
Gilian: What are the wildest artworks that you’ve seen at Rubulad?
Alana: Just last weekend, I staplegunned a $20 bill to Phoenix Fvcktoy’s butt cheek!
At Fools Mold, Lady Bedbug pulled a glass mushroom out of their butthole and put it in their mouth.
One of my all-time favorite moments was at our first glittermilk party, “Disco Fish,” when we served breast milk White Russians and one girl on the dance floor was like “No, I can’t drink that, I’m vegan.”
I really enjoyed witnessing the lifecycle of a romantic love between the clown Connie Lingus and a rainbow dildo at Fools Mold. They taught me a lot about love and marriage and giving birth and tension and separation and rekindling of love — all non verbally with the rainbow dildo!
And the egg performance at Femme Fatale! The feathers, the singing, the crescendo! The way in which that performance built on itself was so epic! I don’t know if I’ve ever smiled so wide.
Oh and how could I forget getting Jell-O-cock-slapped in an inflatable bathtub in the middle of the dance floor at Fool’s Mold – that was a dream come true. Once the Jell-O dick hit my cheek, I felt all of my uncertainties dissolve into a puddle of Jell-O.
Mississitti Rivaah responds through a conversation with Gilian (May 18, 2023):
Gilian: Your creative imagination is so much of what is behind these performances. Where do your ideas come from?
Mississitti Rivaah: Oh, gosh! So much comes from silly conversations and bits. The Jell-O idea started when we were hoping that Alana would do a buffet theme for glittermilk. (Laughing). Then you and I got to Jell-O later at a beach bar that was serving them.
I have always loved getting dirty. I loved playing in the mud as a kid. I have a funny memory from high school of writing a journal entry while mushing a banana in my hands. So that urge existed before. I like messes, and I like moving around.
Gilian: I also have memories like that from childhood. I clearly remember playing in the sandbox in pre-school and making an ice cream stand with chocolate ice cream made of mud, with slugs on top. And trying to feed that to my friends.
Do these performances feel rebellious to you?
Mississitti Rivaah: It actually reminds me of my family! My mom was always playing in the mud and climbing trees, and she was a dancer so there is a connection there. And just dancing in general, my grandmother is a beautiful dancer. She is very contained and proper but there’s a lineage of connection.
Also, people in my family always have big emotions and chaos brains. One reason that I like dance is that there aren’t words a lot of times, so why not just shake it out?
Gilian: You often choreograph dances by writing stories. What do you like about that process?
Mississitti Rivaah: I definitely like a beginning, a middle and an end. And I like climactic moments.
Gilian: Tell us about your stage name, Mississitti Rivaah?
Mississitti Rivaah: For this whole piece, I’ve been asking “How do I bring Mississitti into my everyday life?” It’s challenged me to recognize how I bring my performative, messy, silly, grotesque self that I associate with more private expression or parties into my daily life. It’s reassuring when I fear that my job is stifling my creativity. It is important for me to have some separation, to be Mississitti here.
I have continued to be struck by you choosing to perform this as yourself — consistently being you in performance, or the other things that you do. It’s a funny and very serious version of rebellion, the Gilian Rappaport in a Jell-O dildo.
Gilian: I was closeted for a long time in my queer identities, so it feels important to me to be consistent (and ‘out’ in a way) with one name across my work. This also feels useful given that my work stretches across disciplines, locations, communities, contexts – I like the idea that people involved with one kind of project could come across another one through my name, even if it may feel different or challenges what they have seen before or know of my work.
I also see the fun and the necessity of a stage name. What is important for you about the separation?
Mississitti Rivaah: I worry about my students, and also my family. I work as a social worker at an elementary school and teach students about boundaries. I balance wanting them to learn and wanting them to not feel the bad kind of shame. We talk about how boundaries are different for different people. And how often, we have to make mistakes to discover what we need. And then be kind and forgiving for not respecting the boundary before we knew it was there. Sometimes, I have moments where I ask, “Am I squishing childlike silliness and expression?”
The harder thing would be to figure out a way to enable that expression and continue pushing against all of the people in the school who are so afraid of getting sued. I think a lot of adults lose the silliness that we’re talking about.
Gilian: How do you feel when you see the photos of the performances?
Mississitti Rivaah: I feel super proud. I’m proud of Mississitti, and I’m proud of Gilian, I’m proud of Danny DeVit-HOE. This is who I am, I’m not going to live in fear and not be silly and sexy because of what might happen as a result.
Sari Rubinstein (she/her) is co-founder of Rubulad. Like a tree that grows between sidewalk cracks, Rubulad continues to defy the growing corporatocracy and homogeneity of New York City, persevering in a radical inclusivity, joyful spontaneity, and handmade DIY aesthetic that resists commodification, since 1993. Now approaching three decades as Brooklyn’s longest-running underground art space, Rubulad has inspired a generation. www.rubulad.net
Alana Miller (she/her) is an artist, art therapist, producer, and aspiring clown committed to inspiring connection. Founder of @glitterr.milk, Alana creates a petri dish of unbridled self expression through her weird and wonderful events.
Danny DevitHO (Alana’s stage name) is the leftover pizza crust you put in your pocket for tomorrow’s mid morning snack. Danny DevitHo is the red Jell-O that wiggles right off your grandmother’s plate. Danny DevitHo is the sun tap-dancing with the moon while farting in quintets. Danny DevitHo has the dance floor energy of an inflatable tube man. Danny DevitHo sees and honors the silly in you.
Mississitti Rivaah (she/her), like her namesake, likes to get dirty, flow & thrash. A bizarro burlesque baby, Mississitti has been gracing the occasional stage since 2020. She comes alive in the descent into chaos, and loves making messes with mischievous friends. Legend has it that a Jell-O-slathered Mississitti Rivaah can be summoned by grabbing a loved one, laying on the ground, placing troll dolls on your belies, wiggling all your limbs in the air and loudly singing a gibberish prayer.
Gilian Rappaport (they/them) is an artist, writer, and naturalist. They live in Portland, Oregon and New York, New York. They give nature and movement art workshops for folks who like to get messy. Their interdisciplinary work often connects species together in playful, intimate, contemplative ways. Through invested collaborations with other artists, designers, botanists, and elders, they have realized projects in all kinds of places: beaches, forests, RV parks, bars, cemeteries, playgrounds, libraries, classrooms, backyards, billboards, skin (tattoos), theaters, newspapers, books, homes, and museums. gilian.space
Many thanks to Rachel Traub for her notes on this piece.
Peeling the back the layers
I lost my grandfather earlier this year and have since been navigating the complex layers of grief. After returning to work following my bereavement leave, I had a conversation with my coworker, Amy Bay, from Northwest Academy, where I serve as the Dean of Students. We discussed my desire to honor my grandfather’s memory by using his belongings to create something meaningful. Amy mentioned the work of Jodie Cavalier, who explores grief by incorporating her grandfather’s items into her pieces. Jodie’s exhibition, titled “Fool’s Gold,” was showcased at Holding Contemporary. I found Jodie’s work inspiring and was intrigued by her approach to grief. I wanted to have a conversation with her to gain a better understanding of her artistic practice and her relationship with grief. This conversation brought me comfort, as it allowed me to explore different ways of processing grief that aligned with my own experience within my family.
Kiara Walls: How are you?
Jodie Cavalier: I am doing okay. I have had a pretty rough year losing a lot of elders, so I feel I’m in the beginning and middle of multiple grieving processes. So it’s been a heavy start to this new year.
Kiara: Yeah. I can imagine. I resonate with that too. I’ve recently lost my grandfather over winter break, which has been my first close experience to grief. How have you been processing your grief? Because, you know, a lot of people refer to grief as a layer of an onion.
Jodie: I feel my onion has another audience that has grown inside of it. I think that when my grandfather died, it was very abrupt, even though he was older. He died from Covid, so the whole weight of the pandemic and all of those fears manifested in something. I think that people who have lost someone during the pandemic have maybe a different relationship to it because of that. I hadn’t really thought of that. Maybe that is part of the onion of grief, collective grief,around the pandemic. I do feel I started to process some of that when I was going through some of his stuff and then I was hit with both of my grandmothers dying in the last year, pretty close together. So it just kind of piled up in a way. I think I’m in the very beginning of it and trying to figure out what processing that is. I think that it’s so different for everyone and I don’t know what it is for me quite yet.
Kiara: I totally feel that. It also resonates with me what you were saying about how different people are experiencing grief at the same time, with Covid. That makes me think of the phrase “six degrees of separation,” but six degrees of grief and how we are connected in that way. I was actually introduced to your work through a coworker of mine over at Northwest Academy, Amy Bay. We were talking to each other about my grandfather’s passing. I was telling her about how I’m interested in collecting his items and somehow doing something with them. Then she told me about your work and your show at Holding Contemporary. I was really interested in your work and wanted to talk to you about your practice. I’m interested in hearing more about what helped you through this experience of grief and what your understanding looks like for you and how you process it.
Jodie: It was a natural kind of progression to make work about my grandfather in general. I actually made work about him before, when I was younger.
Kiara: What was that work of?
Jodie: That work was a lot about the body and when the body begins to fail. He had some health concerns and he had parts of his leg amputated because he had diabetes. I was really thinking about aging and the body and this kind of promise we think the body makes to us, and then breaks. We’re in this together and then our body starts to fall apart and you just feel betrayed by your own body. I think a lot of my work is really kind of based and seeped in the human condition. A big part of that for me and my lived experience is the relationships I make with other humans and even more specifically the relationships I have with my family. That has come through in the work for a long time in different ways. Some work is more overt than others. It came about pretty naturally to start to make work about or around him, ideas of grief, familial things, all of that kind of just came together. I was in conversation with Holding Gallery for years before we did the show, “Fool’s Gold,” together. I just didn’t feel what I was working on made sense in a gallery at that time. When they first approached me, I was doing a lot of community organizing projects and food projects. I don’t have a need for showing that for authoring the community work I was doing; the priority was different. When I started to make work that was more physical, fine art type objects, we revisited the conversation around having a show. I didn’t really think about it as processing of my grief. Now I think about everything as processing grief, in some way. But at that time I was just kind of going through the motions of remembering him in specific stories and his personality, and then going back to my grandparents’ house and taking random objects and remembering things from them. Then it kind of started to accumulate and just thinking about some of the things he believed in and hoped for, and all of those started to surface in a way where I was, I started having more fun with it. He would get a kick out of some of the things that I was making and messing around with, and whatnot. He was always a supporter of weird creative endeavors. He didn’t understand them, but was just supportive of them. I wish I could have shared with him some of the things I made. I think he would’ve got a kick out of it.
I made a lot of work and then kind of put it into a book form because I wanted to have them hold a different space. There’s a lot of writing that I had been doing for several years about my family, specifically my grandparents, but I wanted to have a place for those to exist alongside the objects. It was really fun. I got to work with Holding Contemporary and, and one of their designers, who is amazing. She basically just donates her time and service to working with Holding. She has a design job with a couple of other folks called Omnivore. Her name’s Karen Sue, we went back and forth with all of these kinds of ideas on how to put the book together so it didn’t just feel like another publication. We put a lot of thought and process behind everything.
Kiara: Yeah. This was beautiful (looking at the publication).
Jodie: Thank you.
Kiara: Was this at your exhibition opening?
Jodie: It was at the end. So we didn’t have a formal opening and instead we had a closing and book release towards the end of the exhibition. I was working on it alongside all the work, but in order to get the exhibition documentation photos, we waited until the exhibition was fully up and finished the design afterwards. My friend, Joanne Handwerg, wrote a really thoughtful introduction piece about absence and longing.
Kiara: I can see some of those details designed in the book. I’m wondering, on some of the pages we see the object and then on the page right next to it, there’s nothing there. Is that speaking to some of the themes around absence?
Jodie: Those two pages where there’s the image of the artwork and then next to it there’s a high contrast absence of the image. We talked a lot about ghosts and ghost images. Then also just the impression, something leaves too. There were a lot of really great conversations I was able to have where there were some aesthetic technical decisions, but they were all made from a conceptual and poetic place. It was fun to talk through what it means to have a certain kind of decision that impacts the reader and even things like paper choice and what that feels like. There’s also a clear film that also mimics that ghost quality.
Kiara: This is beautiful. It sounds like your process or approach with this body of work was an aesthetic approach, but also a theoretical approach, like bringing the ghost aspect into the work. I think the way that you present it is really amazing because from being the reader, I could sense some of what you were saying just now within this. Have you thought about where the work could live in the future? Once you’ve done this show, have you thought about presenting the work in other places? Or how do you feel about it being presented in other places?
Jodie: I’m definitely open to that.
Jodie: Yeah, they have lives, I think, where they exist in this one wave and then in book form. I was also pondering how objects could possess autonomy and be strong enough to exist outside of the exhibition. I’m not opposed to any of that. I have a practice, especially with object making, where I often Frankenstein old pieces together. I was brought up to be resourceful, so sometimes I take a piece apart and turn it into something else. I haven’t done that with any of these works, and I don’t know if I will, but I try not to be overly precious about some of the things. I think they have their own why, so why not.
Kiara: You said you don’t want to be overly…
Jodie: Precious, yeah.
Kiara: And you don’t.
Jodie:If I needed to use the base of this sculpture for something else and didn’t have the resources to make a new one, I would just have to make the decision to use it, you know? I also think that, for a lot of reasons, I haven’t had the luxury of having a place to store all these things. Maybe a storage unit or something, but I don’t want to end up with a huge collection of objects I’ve made just sitting there. It would be much better for people who enjoy and find meaning in them to have them. And many people do. That’s also why my work often fluctuates between objects and non-object forms, or even prints and works on paper that are easier to distribute or more accessible in that way. I guess I’ll have to think more about it, but right now, I can’t think of anything I would never give away, you know?
Kiara: Yeah, I get that. I believe social practice art could be an avenue where you don’t have to worry about those types of questions because there’s an ephemeral aspect to the practice. Can you talk a bit about how your work incorporates social practice art or share some projects you’ve done in the past that have incorporated social practice?
Jodie: Yeah, I never really thought of myself as a social practice artist, but I’ve had many conversations with other artists and curators where it becomes part of the conversation. I think of it as an intersection between my creative practice and social practice on a spectrum. Artists are probably somewhere on that spectrum of social practice. For me, I’ve been interested in the mundane, the domestic, and the human experience, especially as it relates to my family, storytelling, and narrative strategies. That blurs the lines between my creative practice and my home life, where a lot of what you might call social practice originally occurred, where those lines are blurred. In addition to that, my interest in teaching, cooking, and sharing experiences with others has built up in a way, as well as the community work I’ve done. So now there are different areas where you can say the community work I do is social practice, or the projects where I mail postcards, letters, and other print material, they have a history in that kind of practice. The way I bring those two ways of looking at the world back into the studio ends up being a blurry place where those two things exist. It’s not always clear, but sometimes it fluctuates. Over time, it changes. When I was a young student making a lot of work, I didn’t think about it in relation to the social practice art movement. I saw it as a separate thing, with some intersections with performance and music. Now we have a different language and a lineage of artists coming out of social practice, especially in this city. It’s a bit clearer now. I wonder how I or others might conceptualize or contextualize the work, not just the work I’m making, but the work others are making, in 10 years time. It could become part of that canon or have an offshoot or something like that.
Kiara: Yeah, that’s a really good question, and it’s something to think about. Before I found this program, I wasn’t really aware of social practice either. I believe many people have the capabilities of being a social practice artist based on what they do in their everyday lives. However, they may not formalize their practices in that way simply because not everyone knows about social practice. But I do sense that attention around it is growing, and I’m excited about that too. When I think about social practice, it makes me think about inclusiveness. It feels like a part of the art world or art scene that is more accessible.
Jodie: Yeah. I think that’s another intersection that I’ve thought about for a really long time, which is that I’ve always wanted my work to be accessible to non-artists. I think a big part of that was because I wanted my family to be able to experience my work and not being an artist shouldn’t be a barrier to experiencing it, and understanding it. That doesn’t mean that the work itself can’t be layered and have more theoretical or intellectual themes and experiences and takeaways from it. I think that for me, it’s so important when I’m working with an idea to try to translate it in some way, through objects or whatever installation, that is accessible.
Kiara: Yeah. That makes me think about how earlier in the conversation you were talking about how you were speaking with Holding Contemporary, and you were thinking about the work that you were making at the time, you didn’t necessarily want to formalize your community work in a gallery space. Is that also talking about how you’re translating these things? How do you feel about your role as an artist and when you’re doing social practice projects or events with your community, and how do you formalize those things? What are some thoughts you have around authorship?
Jodie: Yeah. That’s a great question. When I’m doing community work or collaborative work, I’m not interested in authorship. I suppose in a way, it’s important for my collaborators on those projects to share that value. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be aesthetic or considered in those ways but there’s definitely something else to prioritize in those contexts. I worked with Amanda Lee Evans, for example, who had a big project called The Living School. She brought me into work with one of the youths that lived on the site. It wasn’t a formal mentorship, but it was based on the social practice program’s mentorship program. I ended up coming over to work with one of the youth there, Zira, weekly for months. For me, the relationship that we built together around being curious about art, cooking, talking and learning about her and what kids are into,that became the priority, and everything else kind of fell away. I didn’t need to document the work we made or the fact that we were doing this. I remember thinking that I could go through those processes, and that this relationship was also a project, but I didn’t think we needed any more pictures of an artist hanging out with kids. I’m also not one to take a lot of photos,. I think that’s a very specific kind of thing. But for me it’s so much more about experiences than it is about an image or a specific aesthetic or something that might be clearly “Jodi’s work.” When you look at all my projects together, you’re like, oh yeah, there’s an aesthetic at play here.
Kiara: There’s an aesthetic at play?
Jodie: Yeah. There’s an aesthetic maybe at play, but it’s not stylized.
Kiara: I feel the aesthetic could be the experience.
Jodie: Yeah. There’s consistency. Going back to the full school exhibition, people talked so much about how they felt in the space more than they talked about the objects. That didn’t to me mean that the objects weren’t powerful. It was all working together, but it really is so important for me to think about , what people experience and what they walk away with. And so there were so many decisions made in that show to really guide viewers through that. And so, even when you see a wall of a bunch of old stuff, at a certain point you’re not even thinking anymore about it being an art show or a collection of works or what is real and what is old. You start to recognize the feeling of experiencing somebody’s collection of things where the handmade stuff and the real old stuff blend in together at a certain point. And it doesn’t matter anymore because you transcend into experiencing the entire installation as one big thing.
Kiara: I really appreciate that description cuzI’m a visual thinker, so when you’re describing these things, I’m thinking about experiencing the pieces and going through that. I wouldn’t call it a separation, but, out-of-body experience comes to mind because it seems like you’re zooming out, and that it’s bringing in more thoughts and feelings that are not necessarily related to the object or art itself. But those feelings are coming out of that experience looking at this piece of work.
Jodie: Off course I have an experience that I’m attaching to the objects and all of that. But again, there are so many visual cues that lead a viewer to, not necessarily interpretation, but just narrative, because I also think it’s, it is all about storytelling. I think that especially in this show, the objects are all about storytelling. There are lotto scratchers and tools that have been used, and other really handled objects, ceramics and clay that you have to handle and manipulate, so they have their own history. Everything is loaded with meaning and story. And so I’m guiding viewers into that. I’m welcoming them into that and guiding them through it.
Jodie: But I think the more meaningful things that can come out of it is how someone can be reminded of their own personal experience, and maybe their own experience with their elders. And I had a lot of people who were like, Oh my gosh, some of these objects reminded me of my father, my grandfather. Because they are not that special: there’s an old pair of pliers. And to me, those pliers are special because my grandfather held them and used them, but they’re also just anybody’s grandfather’s pliers.
Kiara: Yeah. It reminds them or it resembles something from their elders. Yeah. And I think you’re talking about storytelling, how the object has a story story in itself, but you’re also inviting the viewer to go through their own story by asking what memories are sparked from me looking at this object. And they’re going through that process of remembering. It’s that sentimental value. Although it is a common object, it’s able to spark sentimental value for viewers that are interacting with the work.
Kiara: Yeah. Definitely. This is my last question. Are you working on anything currently that you can share?
Jodie: Oh I’m always working on a bunch of stuff. It’s not all finished, but I had a show in Santa Rosa. I got that work back pretty recently, and so I’ve been unpacking that and figuring things out. I am also going togo back to that similar area in Northern California for a residency later this year. And I’m working on another publication. And I’ve been kind of working on this project in the background for a while now, I guess years now because, you know, the pandemic has warped us into years now.
Kiara: Yes. Definitely.
Jodie: But it is a book that has recipes and prompts and invitations.
Kiara: Hmm. Is it tapping into your interest in Flexis?
Jodie: In some ways, yeah. But it’s also related to the fragment of remembering
Things. Like how a lot of the domestic kinds of tasks that my grandmothers did and what I remember and don’t remember from that time. So it’s in the middle state. It’s not in the beginning cuz I’ve been working on it for a while. But I’m gonna be able to spend some time out at this pretty cool residency and they actually have a really nice cooking setup. So I think what I wanna do is focus my time more on some of the actual food projects that might be included in it. Cuz I have a lot of the other more poetic gestures that might be included. And I need to buckle down and get some of these more practical, straightforward recipes down on paper.
Kiara: That sounds really exciting. I just love and appreciate the fact that you’re creating work for your grandfather and now you’re creating work for your grandmother’s grandmothers, and I think that’s really beautiful. I’m excited to see the publication.
Jodie: Yeah. Thanks. We’ll see what it becomes. I’m excited to spend some uninterrupted time and really turn it into something.
Kiara: Definitely. Yeah. Well, let me know.
Jodie: Will do.
Kiara: Thank you so much for your time.
Jodie: Thank you.
KIARA WALLS (she/her) is a social practice artist, educator, and dean residing in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelors of Art in Graphic Design from California State University of Northridge and a Masters of Fine Arts in Art and Social Practice from Portland State University. Walls’ work explores the layers of Black sovereignty through creating conversations, film, and site-specific installations. Her practice often involves community engagement and collaboration, inviting participants to join in the creation of the work. Walls seeks to engage in dialogue and reflection on themes related to trauma, identity, healing and intimacy. In her project, “The Black Box Experience Series”, Walls’ invites audiences to join the conversation around “What would reparations look like today?” through stepping into an experience other than their own. Walls has completed residencies at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, California, and Sunset Art Studios in Dallas,Texas. She was awarded the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art Precipice Grant for her collaborative project “Kitchen”, which explores the relationship between hair and intimacy while centering the experiences of Black clientele and natural hair practitioners. Walls seeks to challenge and disrupt systems of power and oppression while empowering and elevating the voices of marginalized communities.
Jodie Cavalier (she/her) is an artist, educator, and artist administrator living in Portland, Oregon. She earned a BA from the University of California, Berkeley and an MFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been exhibited with Converge 45’s Portland’s Monuments & Memorials Project in Portland, OR; the Schneider Museum in Ashland, OR; the deYoung Museum in San Francisco, CA; the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA; CoCA in Seattle, WA; Practice in New York, NY; and Städelschule in Frankfurt, Germany; among others. She has participated in residencies such as ONCA in Brighton, England; the Center for Land Use Interpretation in Wendover, UT; Wassaic in Wassaic, NY; and AZ West in Joshua Tree, CA.
Việts on Venus
Lillyanne Pham with Kim Dürbeck
I’ve focused on offline place-based cultural practices in my past interviews; nevertheless, a large part of my art practice interweaves online and offline neighborhoods. For my last interview this school year, I wanted to highlight the power of digital cultural work, specifically an online neighborhood special to my heart; @vietnamemes__, created by Kim Dürbeck in 2017 on Instagram. Kim is a Norwegian-Vietnamese creative who has brought worldwide Vietnamese communities together through music and memes. The following interview expands on the impact of, the values behind, and possibilities of his memes.
Lillyanne Pham: How did @vietnamemes__ start and how does it function or where does the content come from?
Kim Dürbeck: I started doing memes because I used to work the night shift. It was very boring and I guess I had to be creative. I was chatting with my friend and I decided to make a meme to send to her. It was this meme; my very first meme.
It combines a trend “Netflix and Chill” with a Vietnamese legacy “Paris by Night.” I guess we all have “Paris by Night and Chill.” We all, as Vietnamese diaspora, grew up with the show and we know, “Netflix and Chill.” It kind of makes you feel like home in trending humor. I was very strict about not making fun of us as Southeast Asians, as most memes used to be back then. Humor like… “Only straight A students are Asian” or “All Southeast Asians are doctors and lawyers.” I wanted to focus on nước mắm, all the beautiful culture we have, and then present and combine all the richness of our culture in a Western world.
Lillyanne: Here is a photo of my mom’s reaction to one of the memes you posted. I regularly send them to her but she doesn’t always get it. As you can see, she “disliked” it. What have been the various relationships you’ve made through the memes? What kind of conversations are created around the memes?
Kim: I connected with many Viets who grew up around Europe. We connected because most of us were children from refugees. We all were in the same situation – parents coming to a new country having to start their life over again. Kids being bullied for being different. Everything on a budget. The struggle with growing up with trauma, PTSD, parents yelling at you, social control, different levels of assimilation, violence, saving money, and of course, combining our food habits with everything. Nước mắm all everything.
These topics were the beginning. I started only to get followers from Europe. A lot of people texted me and wrote that they could see themselves in the memes. This encouraged me to go forward and keep making memes. A lot of people texted me like, “Hello, I grew up in a small city outside (a capital city) and I was bullied,” or “My parents never understood me. Thank you for sharing memes. It makes me feel less lonely and understand my culture,” or “It makes me understand,” or “Cherish my culture even more.”
I guess I could find the similar pattern in our second generation by just referring to my own third culture or upbringing. I started to reach an even bigger audience when people started sharing. I reached Paris, Berlin, Canada, America and so on. I even chatted with the Vietnamese diaspora in Latin America and Iceland. Then jokes were, “OMG do you have nước mắm on tacos over there?” or “Iceland is so cold the nước mắm is always frozen around here!”
Then I hit another audience–Vietnamese students studying abroad; a whole new generation of lonely Vietnamese students texting me, “I miss Việt Nam so much and I am here all alone and I can’t go home,” because of Covid or economic reasons. Vietnamese students developing their identity abroad.
Many of these Việts also discover musical or art culture abroad. And I was combining music and memes where I often reach creative Vietnamese people. I try not to use too much of a commercial approach because I want to support the Vietnamese people who don’t get a lot of support from home because their parents never understand what they want to accomplish. For me, it’s very important to be yourself no matter what kind of culture you grew up with. Like, if you are Vietnamese, you could get pushed into studies you really don’t want to go for. Or these unwritten norms about how a Vietnamese person should be. I think it is important to support people to break out of the stereotype and go for alternative art, music or business. I think the humor and memes make this clear subconsciously or obviously, and maybe people can find themselves in the humor that also motivates them to go their own way for personal development.
I used my platform (@vietnamemes__) to discover and promote these individuals. This inspires and motivates more people in either fashion, modeling, music, art or food. I think it is a duty we all should have to support each other and our Vietnamese worldwide community.
Lillyanne: As a traveling artist actively researching different Vietnamese diasporas, what has impacted you most on your ancestral journey?
Kim: As a traveling artist pushing modern Vietnamese culture, I met a lot of people supporting the memepage and community. I was recognized in the streets and in the stores for my meme page and they often mention my music as well. I’m sure my music got more attention because of the meme community. I also developed some kind of aesthetics around the memes. And the way I post combined with my music– I started to get connections and invitations all over the world.
I also push Vietnamese electronic music in my stories and in my videos. So, other Vietnamese people can discover that, if you are Vietnamese, growing up like we all did, going for your dreams, you are not alone. People found each other, started working together, or even building each other. For me, it was so nice to see that there are so many like me all over the world. We understand each other. I think we have been longing to be understood; therefore, we support each other and end up working together somehow. For me, the art of music and DJing has been my platform. So many talented Vietnamese artists that I never would have found if it wasn’t for the community.
Lillyanne: How do technologies (digital or not) fit in your ancestral journey?
Kim: Social media has been everything. I know most Vietnamese people in Việt Nam use Facebook. But, if you are a little more curious, or from the newer generation, they choose Instagram and the next generation, TikTok. Digital has been the ultimate tool to build this community. I don’t think I would reach this level without digital tools. I think I was right on time to make @vietnamemes__ on Instagram when I think about how our second generation grew up and dived into Instagram. There will probably be different platforms where they need a community in the future. Maybe, there will be a metaverse Vietnamese community in 3D in the future where we sit on the floor eating dried squid and listening to Cải lương techno. Who knows?
And humans can’t live on Earth because of nuclear war. So humans travel to different planets. And the Vietnamese human diaspora choose Venus because it’s cheaper and you can grow herbs and fish much easier because of the weather or something. And Venus always has grocery sales in the supermarkets. Maybe Venus becomes the next Vietnamese planet just because Việts adapt so well.
But, without having to joke about this galactic Việt diaspora, I can say that digitally I have connected. Physically, I have traveled to various countries and met people just like me with the same upbringing. We ate together and talked about the same challenges we all had as the Vietnamese diaspora: how hard it can be to understand our parents’ mental health and our mental health and then try to make it work for everybody, how food is our love language and sometimes money but not talking about feelings, how people were bullied in elementary school or at work for being different, or topics about how hard it can be to be gay, or just talking or learning about sex in the Vietnamese community.
After a while, I combined my memes with pictures from google and then people started sending me memes to make it grow bigger. I have a combination of people sending me and creating memes from pictures I find online. Sometimes, I add a funny text or just the picture speaks for itself.
Lillyanne: When I see your memes, I know the references. They are on the tip of my tongue. I often think about how I never would’ve been able to make these connections in one meme. I grew up for eighteen years in a small town without knowing much about Vietnamese people outside of my family. Now, I live in the largest Vietnamese population in the US. But how I experience my culture is always hard for me to explain. What/Who/Where are your influences in shifting Vietnamese humor and music before you started making? And also your influences in your practice?
Kim: The influences came from my own upbringing and what I experienced myself. Vietnamese people are so strong in “doing it our own way.” I guess it brings a lot for us to see and laugh about that. Maybe we think it’s funny because we have both of our feet in the Western and Vietnamese culture. For us, we see a washing machine on a motorbike and we’re shocked, but for them it’s just moving a washing machine. I also follow a lot of Vietnamese accounts because in the beginning when I started the meme account I followed all Vietnamese people I could see on Instagram.
Lillyanne: I love how you talk about being basically a digital cultural worker, shifting how memes are produced about us and how humor can expand conversations on so many levels of our lives. Was this always your intention or did you discover this part of your practice during the process? Do you have plans to grow or change your meme and music practice in the future? Are you experimenting with other mediums or ideas?
Kim: I would say it changes all the time with the trends. My music also changes through time, it has happened before. Yes, I would say that I discovered this part during the process.
Kim Thanh Ngo aka Kim Dürbeck, Born 5 of October 1986. Norwegian-Vietnamese producer, composer and practitioner based in Sandefjord, Norway. Co-runs independent record label LEK REC based in Oslo. Play and produce electronic music like Ambient, urban club music, Experimental club music and scoring commercials or theater.
Lillyanne Phạm (b. 1997; LP/they/bạn/she/em/chị) is a cultural organizer and artist living and working in so-called East Portland. Their personal work centers on ancestral wayfinding, nesting, and communicating. Her current collaborative projects are a queer teen artist residency program at Parkrose High School, a canopy design for Midland Library, and a youth program at Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. LP’s work has been supported by Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Mural Arts Institute, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the City Arts Program – Portland, and the Dorothy Piacentini Endowed Art Scholarship. For more work visit: https://linktr.ee/lillyannepham
Social Practice is Gay and Being Gay is Social Practice: The Art And Social Practice Archive in Queer Context
Every Tuesday for the past three terms I’ve spent a few hours among the Art + Social Practice Archive at the PSU library talking to Marti Clemmons and Caryn Aasness about archives, queerness, and the inherent queerness of archives. Here’s a conversation we had on the topic with one of the founders of the A+ SP Archive, Lo Moran.
The Art + Social Practice Archive was founded in 2018 by Shoshana Gugenheim Kedem, Roshani Thakore, Lo Moran and Harrell Fletcher, and with the help of Cristine Paschild and Marti Clemmons from Portland State University’s (PSU) Special Collections and University Archives, to mark the 10th anniversary of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Located in the Portland State University Library Special Collections, the Art + Social Practice Archive is the first public archive dedicated to socially engaged art ephemera. The ASPA houses both physical and digital materials including posters, publications, flyers, zines, videos, sketches and other project documentation from past and ongoing artist projects.
Olivia DelGandio: I’m thinking about a conversation we had when Caryn and I first started working at the Art and Social Practice Archive with Marti. We were really into the idea that archives are inherently queer. I don’t know how this conversation started but we were like, it’s obvious that this is queer. What do you think about this idea?
Caryn Aasness: Maybe because we’re still at relatively early stages of social practice as a field of art, it feels like it has a sense of queerness to it. We’re kind of bending the rules and making something new here. In the archive we get to acknowledge multiple perspectives that are underrepresented in western art history and it holds such a variety of stories so it’s going to be a more accurate picture of what’s actually happening, who is involved, and what’s influencing this field.
Olivia: Totally. Living a queer life means questioning things and thinking about alternative futures. I feel like that’s what we’re trying to do with the ASPA; we’re making the rules and queering traditional structures of archiving. This space didn’t exist until recently and now that it does we’re gathering and putting material into the world to make them exist in the present so that they can continue to exist in the future. And I think it’s so gay. Also, look at us as a group of people involved in this project right now; if everybody involved in the archive is queer, the archive itself is queer. We’re putting so much of ourselves into this project even though what we’re actually doing is collecting other peoples’ things.
Marti Clemmons: I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think when I first started volunteering and
working at the City Archives and the Oregon Historical Society, I was very much afraid to place my identity in my work. As a student in the History department, I learned you keep yourself out of your work. But now if I see the words “queer” or “gay” in the materials I’m working with, I’m making sure that it goes in the finding aid, because historically that is not acknowledged. Any chance I get to put queerness in the collections, I do it, and I will continue to do so.
Caryn: Making the future. Yes.
Lo Moran: I’m thinking about the ethos of social practice; it’s about valuing things that are undervalued in our current systems and having trickster energy in your artistic approach. I feel like that is a theme, drawing attention to everyday moments or stories that weren’t traditionally paid attention to, and that is what queerness is all about too.
Marti: I think the work that we’re doing, not to toot our own horns, but it’s very
important. I think queering history is essential, especially since people are trying really hard to erase us from existence. We need to continue to place ourselves and what we believe in into our work.
Caryn: I feel like people have always inserted themselves into the history and the work that they’re doing, they just weren’t acknowledging their identity and what that meant. You have to acknowledge where you come from.
Olivia: Being a social practice artist also means putting all your different identities into your work. Thinking about the work in the ASPA, the breadth of projects is so vast, because all of our identities are in our work. WAnd we can’t separate our identity from the work we want to be doing. Caryn, your work is so much about how your brain works and you put your brain into every project you do. MAnd my work is so much about grief, and I put all of that into every project I do. These projects are archiving our identities and the people that we are at this point in time. I think this connects to queerness too because we can’t separate this major facet of our identities from the work we’re doing.
Caryn: There is so much generosity in putting your identity into your work and allowing audiences to see into your personal experiences. It just makes things richer.
Olivia: It just feels like social practice is gay and being gay is a social practice.
Lo: I think we should end there. That feels like a good ending.
Lo Moran (they/them) creates interdisciplinary projects that are often participatory, collaborative, and co-authored. They aim to experiment with and question the systems in which we’re all embedded by organizing situations of connection, openness, and nonhierarchical learning. Lo desires to develop sites for accessibility, and reimagined ways of being together. They are currently living and working in Berlin, Germany.
Marti Clemmons (they/them) is an Archives Technician at Portland State University’s Special Collections and University Archives. They are interested in using archival work as a means of activism, especially through a queer lens.
Caryn Aasness (they/them) is a queer disabled artist from Long Beach, California living in Portland, Oregon. Caryn wants to invite you into their brain. In it we explore mental illness, and the folk art of coping mechanisms. We investigate queerness and how it forms and severs multiple selves. We look to language and learn how to cheat at it.
Olivia DelGandio Olivia DelGandio (they/she) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through their work, they hope to make the world a more tender place and aim to do so by creating books, videos, and textiles that capture personal narratives. Essential to Olivia’s practice is research and their current research interests include untold queer histories, family lineage, and the intersection between fashion and identity.
The Interview is Only as Good as the Relationship
This is an interview about interviews. I don’t think I’m a good interviewer and Ruth is the best interviewer I know, so who better to ask my burning interview-related questions? When I first met Ruth, she was writing a story about a business called “America’s Noodle” for her neighborhood newsletter. I was impressed by her curiosity and her boldness in going to talk to the people at “America’s Noodle” and I wanted to be just like her. Now, it’s five years later and I still want to be just like Ruth.
Ruth: First, I wanna look up what “interview” means. Like, what’s the definition? Here it is: “A meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation.” Hmm. Yes. Interesting. A structured conversation where one participant asks questions and the other provides answers.
Marissa: There we go. That’s a good one. Because I was just thinking about how this kind of interview is different from a job interview, you know, but they’re both interviews.
Ruth: Wow. I don’t know why I’m immediately having so much fun, thinking about the definition of interview. But it’s hard to know, especially because you are also my friend and I have conversations with you and we ask questions and give answers in those conversations too.
Marissa: That’s cool. I wonder, though, because the definition was when one person asks questions of another, but I wonder can it be people interviewing each other? Can people interview each other at the same time?
Wow. Yeah. But then, is that just a conversation? Does an interview need a power dynamic a little bit? Or roles?
Ruth: Yeah, I think you’re right. This is so funny because I feel like having this conversation slash interview with you makes me feel so good. I think in some ways interviews can be more comfortable because they’re structured, but then they can also be so much more rigid.
Marissa: Ok then, the first question is, what is one favorite question you like to ask people? Which I realize is a hard question.
Ruth: I think I actually know this.
Marissa: Oh, yeah?
Ruth: Well, I guess I should shout out to Anna Deavere Smith. Is that her name?
Yeah, Anna Deavere Smith wrote a book called Talk to Me, and she’s a theater lady. She was an actor who would interview people and then perform as the people she interviewed, like monologues.
Her whole thing was getting the essence of a person. Through speech, I guess. And she said that there are three great questions to ask. I think one of them is where were you born? The next one is, have you ever been close to death? And I can’t remember the third one. I think that those are hard to get into, but I do find myself asking people a lot where you were born. Sometimes we say, where did you grow up? Or, where are you from? And those things can be hard to get into like a conversation around.
Where were you born feels just like a great starting place, because we were all born.
Marissa: Yeah, it’s a good question because it’s an easy question that leads to more questions. Okay. Question number two. What do you think makes an interview good? When I read that question out loud it sounds weird, but it’s the question.
Ruth: Okay, well now this is gonna get really meta, because what if what makes an interview good is when you can also ask questions? And so then I ask you, what do you think makes an interview good?
Marissa: You’re setting the terms and then using them to say that what makes an interview good is me getting to say whatever I want, so I’m gonna say whatever I want…but that wasn’t your answer. Yeah, I don’t know what makes an interview good. Because there are different angles. I’m critical of the question now, because I’m wondering “good” for who?
Ruth: Yeah. And like we were saying at the beginning, there are different types of interviews too.
Marissa: Yeah. We kind of know the rules for a job interview because there’s a goal, you know?
Ruth: And what makes that interview good? It’s probably different from this interview.
Marissa: Okay. Question number three. Who do you want to interview the most? I guess it’s another way of asking, who are you curious about right now?
Ruth: Okay. The first person that comes to mind is Justin Bieber. And I feel like that’s been my answer for a while. I don’t know why.
Marissa: How long is a while?
Marissa: Yeah. He’s changed over the years.
Ruth: I know. I think it’s something weird, and this is why it feels embarrassing, because it feels like that’s more like some reflection of me as an interviewer. It’s because Justin Bieber’s at the top of some access pyramid. Along with the president, but I would rather talk to Justin Bieber.
Marissa: Maybe that’s the answer to a different question too, which is: if you could interview anyone, who would you interview?
Ruth: Yeah. Yeah. But what is the question though?
Marissa: Who do you wanna interview the most right now?
Ruth: I don’t know. I think maybe for someone outside of my world I would need more of that rigid structure, like an interview, whereas the people I wanna talk to are just people that I see around. Like, I would maybe want to interview my postman, but I feel like I don’t want that dynamic between us. I’d rather just have a conversation.
Marissa: Asking someone to interview them sets up a certain dynamic, which sometimes you don’t want, because you just want to relate in the roles that you are already in. But there might be a reason if you’re like, “I want you to come on my radio show,” then there’s a reason to change that dynamic. But when there isn’t, it can feel kind of bad.
Ruth: Yeah, and I think I need to remember that like, I made my radio show to have that reason, but it still doesn’t feel like enough. Okay. Um, what was the question? Did I get it? Justin Bieber. You got it? Justin Bieber.
Marissa: I’ll listen to it later and either I’ll include everything we said or I’ll just include Justin Bieber.
Ruth: The power of editing.
Marissa: Next question is, do you have any advice for me as a novice interviewer compared to you, Ruth, an experienced, mature interviewer?
Ruth: Well, this interview is going great.
Coming up with questions ahead of time is great. A lot of times you want to see where the conversation goes, but as an interviewer, it is good to at least prepare the questions beforehand. It’s also good to abandon them as necessary, which I think we’ve already done.
I kind of wanna say, you don’t have to say, “Question number three, next question,” but I’m also kind of enjoying that right now. So I don’t know how I feel. I think you totally know how to be a great interviewer. Advice… listening. Listening. That’s the number one thing.
I think sharing a little bit about yourself is important. And maybe that’s where these roles are inherent to the interview structure, but also a good interview is going to be based on your relationship that you have with someone.
If it’s someone that you already have a relationship with, then probably the interview will be better. If you don’t have a relationship or not a big relationship with the person you’re interviewing, I think it’s important to try and build a relationship upfront and whether that’s just getting through technical difficulties or just having a little chit chat about yourself to build a better relationship because the interview is probably just as good as the relationship.
Marissa: What do you think about silence? I feel like you’re good at silence.
Marissa: You can’t answer it in silence. It’s an interview.
Ruth: I’m doing it. This is representative.
I guess I have two thoughts on that. Especially interviewing for audio, which is my area. I’ve really gotten better at nonverbal communication, which is basically just nodding instead of saying mm-hmm, or all the other things that we usually say out loud. Being able to do non-verbal communication while someone is talking shows that you’re listening without your voice being heard. So I think practicing non-verbal communication is great if you’re trying to record an interview. It’s also a good practice that allows for silence because silence can be uncomfortable only when it feels like there’s a disconnect and you’re like, “Are you hearing me? Can you hear me? Are you paying attention?” And if you can communicate in other ways, like with eye contact or with nodding, that you’re paying attention, then the silence can exist and not be uncomfortable. And usually that gives time for someone to think and then they can share a new idea that they came up with when they’re just being quiet and thinking.
Or it could just be silent. I don’t know. Silence is cool. Makes me just wanna be quiet now.
Marissa: I know. Now I’m nodding and being quiet more.
Ruth: Okay. There’s another thing about silence and audio recordings, especially when you’re doing an interview that’s going to be edited. You are tasked with gathering what’s called room tone, which is just the sound of a room, because every room you’re talking in is gonna have a different sound, and so you wanna have like two minutes of silence in the room, which is always hilarious.
Marissa: Do you do it at the beginning or at the end or both?
Ruth: I think usually I do it at the end, but now that I’m thinking about it, it feels like it could be good at the beginning too, but it definitely is too weird I think to do at the beginning.
Marissa: Okay. Oh, this is kind of changing the topic, the question is… we talk a lot about time. Have you had any new thoughts about time or seen any good clocks?
Ruth: Okay, this is like a great interview question because you know about our relationship. It shows that you know who I am and what I like to talk about.
I’m always seeing good clocks. And, I mean, it’s spring. I feel like more than anything, this feels like the time of the year where I feel most like connected to time, like in the biggest way possible, just like cycles of life.
Marissa: Well, right now in Portland, it’s the time where it’s like, here’s the next thing blooming and the next thing blooming and the next thing blooming.
And that can stress me out. Because I wanna see it all, and I don’t wanna miss a thing because everything’s so liminal. In winter the branches are going to be bare and tomorrow they’re still going to be bare.
So I haven’t been thinking about time, but I think I’ve been feeling it, you know?
Ruth: Yeah. A plant can really just come up overnight or bloom.
Marissa: Is it warm there?
Ruth: It is. This weekend spring was unlocked. It was in the seventies this weekend. And the trees have buds. Things are happening.
Marissa: Okay, last question. What would a dream radio show be? Or what’s a radio show you’re dreaming about right now?
Ruth: This is exciting because this is what I love to talk to you about, just my dreams, and then figuring out if they’re good ideas or bad ideas by saying them out loud to someone else.
Um, okay, so I have a radio show today. And I’m kind of excited because I think I have a map of what it will be and I want to include some voicemails that I got. I went biking in Yellowstone and right in like the middle of the park there was this payphone, but it actually wasn’t a payphone, it was a courtesy phone, which means you can make local calls for free, and I think local is defined by the area code and the whole state of Montana is in one area code.
So I called my own radio show and left a voicemail. And then I really wanted to put a sticker up because the booth was covered with people’s Instagram stickers or whatever. But I didn’t have a sticker with the phone number on it.
But then I hung around there and some other bikers came by, and then I wrote the phone number in the snow. So I think I got like two voicemails from the courtesy phone in the middle of Yellowstone National Park that I wanna play.
Marissa: From the phone number you wrote in the snow?
Ruth: Yeah. So I wanna play those. And then yesterday a friend came to visit and we drove out a ways, just up into the farmland and mountain lands to this spot that Eben used to go to as a teenager, this abandoned homestead. And I was recording audio there. It was very windy and I kind of like wind because it feels like it bends the rules. Wind is supposed to be the audio recorder enemy, but it’s also such a good sound. It’s like, let’s just play the wind, let’s really listen to the wind. So I wanna play a bunch of wind and this interview with Eben, my friend, in this abandoned house that he used to go to.
And I also just wanna give a shout out to you because when I was in this abandoned house recording yesterday, the way that I phrased it was not “Can I do an interview?”I used a phrase that I think I got from you, which is “Can you give me a tour of this place?”
And that felt so nice to be anchoring it in space. And I wanna do that more. So that’s a dream.
Marissa: Yeah. And I like that. It’s more like, let’s talk about this thing together. Or let’s talk about this place together and you walk me through it, or let’s go on a walk or, can you show me?
Ruth: Yeah, I think I would like to try and maybe do that more.
And I was just gonna end this interview, but I wanted to say I found the questions. Okay. So the three questions from Anna Deavere Smith are: have you ever come close to death? Do you know the circumstances of your birth? And have you ever been accused of something that you did not do?
Ruth Eddy (she/her) is the host of Radio Hangout on www.KGVM.org Tuesdays 5-6 MST . She is a collector of sounds and trash, lives in a tiny shiny trailer and produces podcasts in Bozeman, MT. www.therutheddy.com
Marissa Perez (she/her) grew up in Portland, Oregon. She is a printmaker, party host, babysitter and youth worker. She’s interested in neighborhoods and the layers of relationships that can be hard to see. Her dad was a mail carrier for 30 years and her mom is a pharmacist.