Letter from the Editor
A transcribed conversation isn’t always deeply revelatory, but it can be. In the participatory field of social practice, we honor the potency of dialogue and combined perspectives. If our art projects don’t take place in solitude, why should our research and creative inquiry? It’s only natural that conversation be a primary method; sometimes it’s even the artwork itself. For the socially engaged artist, conversation can be a hinge, a connector, a keystone, a debrief, a record. No matter what, it’s always a material.
In the Fall 2021 edition of Conversations on Everything for Social Forms of Art Journal, we share conversations using a traditional interview format, and approach the co-authored publication assignment as what I might call social practice praxis. As students in the PSU Art + Social Practice MFA program, we each come from different creative backgrounds and training, including: photography, design, dance, illustration, textiles, set design, publishing, curation, theater, herbalism, and cultural organizing. We find our way here because we’re drawn to the social component of our various disciplines, and we’re interested in spotlighting the parts of our artform that necessitate people, interactions, and collaborative contributions. We shift the focus from the picture (or the book or the play) to the process by which those things are made, and the people who work together to make them.
As a result of this shift, conversations become a significant and intentional medium for us all. “Social practice frames potentially ordinary or common actions such as dialogue and conversation,” first year student Luz Blumenfeld reflects. “It’s really helpful to understand that the things I do in my everyday life are a part of my work.”
That’s because a part of social practice praxis is formalizing what we’ve already been doing. Third year Shelbie Loomis offers, “Conversations and interviewing have been in the depths of my practice (existing in different forms, in different lives), but only recently, through reframing how I look at the act of conversation, did I realize how much…interviewing feeds my artform and practice.”
I relate to this as well. For years, I recorded conversations I had with friends and strangers, capturing the collectively-generated musings, theories, aimless chit chat, and impromptu laughs ping ponging between us to make sure they didn’t evaporate forever. The impulse was similar to taking a picture, and the result became an audio snapshot, which I could transcribe for my own amusement and/or re-perform as a script. Mostly, I put them on an obscure tumblr no one read, and assembled a semi-private album of memories that encapsulated the inherent value of people talking to each other. Many moons later, it’s thrilling to now have a framework to understand my instinct, integrate it into my art practice, and have the opportunity to channel it into a formal publication.
It led me to wonder how the practice of conversations and interviews is actively informing the broader work of my classmates. How has the practice of interviewing influenced their art making/thinking? In what ways are conversations valuable to their practice/s right now? How do they integrate the art of interviewing into their art practice? What did my colleagues find valuable in the process of conducting interviews for this issue?
For third year student Rebecca Copper, “an interview can open up space for exchange, to lean into an inquiry, to uncover, and to potentially understand. It’s a basis for questioning— questioning for curiosity.” That joint act of digging deeper together resonates with third year Mo Geiger, as well. “It’s a way of relating. Conversing is a trippy way to excavate something with another person.” Second year Laura Glazer agrees: “Having a conversation helps us figure out what we can do/make/explore together, and find shared points of curiosity and excitement.”
This exchange has the effect of expanding our practice and giving it artistic definition. “If conversation can be interview, material, medium,” Luz concludes, “it can also be research. And since I’m finding a lot of my practice to be research-based, it’s really helpful to understand that the things I do in my everyday life are a part of my work.”
For second year student Caryn Aasness, the interview gives structure to a familiar routine: “I think I’m always interviewing people, so it’s nice to formalize it. I always want to know what everyone is thinking and I love to try to convince them to think out loud. Or to work through on the spot something they have never really thought through before. Being sent into the world with ‘interview’ as an assignment really parallels the way I already thrust myself into the world with ‘interview’ as the imperative.”
The assemblage of these perspectives illuminates the utility of conversation as a tool for investigation, not only into our own subjects of interest, but into the importance of human-to-human exchange. In this issue, we hear from a scientist on his far reaching approach to mycology, a jazz professor on healing, a neighbor on her domestic art collection, a Ukranian immigrant on his transition to Portland, Oregon, the Bing Crosby Fan Club president on what it means to be invested, a librarian with a vision for collaborative learning, and much more. We hope you enjoy the material.
-Becca Kauffman, Editor
with contributions from Caryn Aasness, Luz Blumenfeld, Rebecca Copper, Mo Geiger, Laura Glazer, and Shelbie Loomis
Touch the Things, Make the Sounds
During my first year in the MFA program, I tried using an art studio on campus. I filled it with my favorite supplies, inspiring books, and uncluttered surfaces. But when I was there, it did not feel vital to my practice. I relocated it to another room with a huge window, hoping that it would be invigorating to see activity outside. Instead, the studio remained quiet and lonely, with few opportunities to respond to the place.
When Elsa and I talked for this interview, I was captivated by her vision of including spaces for art studios in the library, and I imagined relocating my under-utilized studio there. But even in my daydream, it still wasn’t a place I wanted to go. So, I started constructing a version of what a studio in the library might look like for me as a socially engaged artist: no walls, doors, or desks. Instead, there is a large table near the existing library study carrels and stools on wheels tucked under it. Nice paper and pens are available for free, and a special stapler for making zines is nearby. And anyone using the library is invited to sit down and work there. When we need inspiration or have questions, we can explore the books in the stacks and collaborate with Elsa.
This vision of a public art studio reveals an evolution of my creative practice, going from creating a private space that didn’t feel right, to envisioning a public space like the library as a studio space, and shaping it to respond to that site. This ideal place is not a space where I work in isolation. Rather, it is a large desk with space for me and other people to work, study, and create together; it is a place to be social in public.
Laura Glazer: I was trying to figure out a good place to start and what came to mind was how I’m haunted by something you said in our conversation last August. I have this really clear vision of what you described at OCAC(1), where you would have a pot of coffee and students would come in all the time. But at PSU, you were saying it doesn’t work at this scale. And you said, “I need help inserting myself into their practices.” Where are you with thinking about that?
Elsa Loftis: You know, I always feel re-invigorated when I’m able to do the instruction sessions because that’s when I start to get contacted by students. You know, when I get in front of them, and I do my little dog and pony show: here are the databases and this is why they’re so useful and look at all of the fun things you can look for and find. And then I will get emails after that from students who say, “oh, you visited my class and I’m doing this.” Then I get excited about the actual connection between working with people who are seeking information and hopefully assisting. And that’s the person-to-person stuff that I really enjoy. And that’s difficult because I’m waiting for people to kinda come to me. Whereas I would like to just sort of be out wandering around and saying, “Oh,” you know, “how are you today?”
I think very much about the library as place. The library is symbolic in many ways of a place for information. It’s a place to have solace and quiet and reflection, but there’s also kind of this element of, it’s a place to be. It’s a brick and mortar building and that is more or less important now than it ever has been.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the library is definitely more than just what’s inside the four walls, it’s absolutely more than that. Not only because of our electronic resources and things of that matter, but it’s also kind of a headspace. It’s sort of a way to think, reflect, and work. But it’s also just the actual challenges of the proximity of where I am; in my past lives in other libraries, my office was sort of right out there where students were running around. So, if someone had a confused look on their face, I could just intercept them at their point of need. And where I am now, my office is in the cataloging and acquisitions space, which is behind locked doors so I have to actually physically leave my office to go look for students.
So that’s just a way that the space is elemental. And just having the energy of the people around me when they’re in their seeking phase of their research.
Laura: What does it mean to be an academic librarian?
Elsa: It’s a good question. It just means I’m a librarian in an academic setting. I’ve worked as a public librarian before, so that was a different experience. I mean, it’s not that different in a lot of ways. It’s a service orientation and you’re a public servant, you are meeting different needs in different spaces so you adjust your pedagogy or your workflow. You certainly are dealing with different kinds of collections. The range of people that you meet is certainly a little more narrowly defined in an academic library setting. Although most of the time we’re open to the public. Although we aren’t currently open to the public because of the pandemic. But we do offer spaces for the public to come in and share our resources and share our space. The PSU motto is “Let knowledge serve the city,” so we take that very seriously. We have that as an important role that we play, to offer information and services to people that are beyond our community.
And we also are a government document repository library. People need access to their government information and we provide that.
Laura: Where is the ideal space for you to work in? And it can be in a magical world!
Elsa: I think that in my magical world, the library is in the center of campus, in the heart of the physical space that students inhabit. I would love for there to be studio space in the library. In fact, I used to experiment with some of that.
I would try to put small little pop-up library collections in the studio spaces so that people could have reference resources while they’re throwing pots or welding things. [Laughs!] And when we did that, it was difficult to gauge the engagement with the resources, because a lot of times there’s no way to really track usage if it was just sort of like, Here’s some stuff you could look at it, you know, go nuts.
When you’re trying to work with students and getting folks to get engaged with your materials, you just throw stuff against the wall and see what sticks. We used to do those little pop-up libraries—these little mini curated things—and I thought that was really nice; I wanted people to be able to have access where they were. Not have to be like, Now I’d like to venture over to the library and look at some different examples of what I might be thinking about doing right now as I’m sitting here in the studio.
I would love to have that integration of classroom, studio, and library space all in one. And that might be a completely difficult thing to realize but I think that I always want the library everywhere. [Laughs]
Laura: That is a beautiful quote! “I want the library everywhere all the time.”
Elsa: Well, because I want people to feel like they own it. I think that libraries can be daunting spaces. When I talk about the library as “place,” that’s often very loaded, I think, for some people. I think of libraries as sanctuaries and places to explore and places to go on these adventures. And I think that maybe not everybody feels that way. I think that sometimes they can be sort of vaunted spaces. They’re sort of cold and quiet and maybe you don’t feel like you belong. If there’s one thing I want is for students to have agency over their library, because it is their library.
Elsa continued: We’re not here for any other reasons; we’re here for service. You want to humanize it, familiarize it and make it feel like their workspace, not as some sort of museum or a place where they aren’t supposed to touch the things or make sounds. That can be loaded in a way because I think the library as place is very important and I think that research can be done in so many different environments and formats. You can do a lot of research online; people are very good at doing research online. We’ve spent a lot of time here creating a lot of learning objects(2)(3) and ways that you can access materials virtually, and you don’t have to be in the library, but I also think that the space is important.
And again, that really depends on what kind of learner you are and how you like to interface with things. But I think one of the nice things, and especially for art students and art practice students, is that element of research that’s that really kind of almost haptic practice of research, like you get in there and you’re engaging with physical materials.
For some learners that’s really a big element for their practice, for their understanding: how you process things—physically and mentally—and work that into your creative practice.
And then there’s also that kind of iterative feeling of being in the lobby. You start… it’s like you search and you research, there’s this cycle. It’s not just searching, it’s re-searching. You keep coming back, you keep doing it again. And for some makers, it’s that kind of repetition.t’s that iterative process of research and it being a discipline, you approach it in a disciplined way. And that’s evidenced in a lot of different, physical practices of making art, too.
That’s what I also like to relate to people, is that the parts of the brain that you’re using when you’re doing research are creative parts of your brain. It’s part of art practice, too. You’re using those same kinds of problem solving connectors, the same little parts of your brain light up when you’re doing research as when you’re creating things. And I think that that’s a really useful way to look at it because it’s creative problem solving, just like you’re doing when you’re making work.
Laura: Where do you land on reframing the concept of research for a studio artist and a non-studio artist like myself?
Elsa: Well, it’s a really good question and it’s a really important issue. I think that all over the academy, not just in the arts, we are asking ourselves these questions and mostly from the library’s perspective: what do we collect and what voices are being centered; what voices are being left out; who is considered an expert in their field; what’s considered scholarship?
There are a lot of silenced voices in that narrow definition of what constitutes scholarly research and those definitions are opening up. We see this now and it’s our job as the library to be on the front lines of that and leading that, and collecting and valuing and centering—I don’t want to say alternative research, or maybe just non-traditional resources, I suppose—narrative things and people with learned experience and lived experiences, being thought of as experts, not necessarily attaining some sort of degree that makes them all of a sudden worthy to hear and listen to.
So, for a studio artist and a non-studio artist, I think that those paths are somewhat parallel. But it’s also difficult to wedge that into a traditional expression of scholarship. If you were doing a research essay and you needed five peer reviewed sources or X amount of primary sources versus secondary sources, and this is how you format your bibliography, it can be a little bit daunting to put this sort of non-traditional research into a traditional kind of scholarly product. I think that our instructors are more open than ever to that. You could speak to that better than I could. Do you feel that that is something that’s encouraged or at least tolerated?
Laura: I don’t know yet. I’m really taking my first class outside of the School of Art and Design this term in the History Department where I’m taking a class on museums and memory. We have to write a research paper, which I haven’t done since the nineties. [Laughs] So I am looking at the list of requirements, like six primary, secondary sources and thinking, huh, how can I bring the lens that’s relevant to me as an artistic researcher to this requirement? And I’m in a pretty good dialogue with the instructor. I want to be careful not to push her too far because I think she’s more traditional in how she approaches research papers and so are my classmates, but that doesn’t really work for me cause that’s not what I want to produce. I guess in undergrad, it was very traditional, very structured and I just didn’t do it.
Elsa: Well, you’re not alone in that. I think that we hear that a lot more and I think that that’s becoming more accepted. It’s not like, Oh, well, this student just doesn’t want to produce what I want them to produce. Even my son—he’s nine years old—his teachers are talking about, Okay, maybe you could make a video, maybe you could do a presentation rather than a paper or something like that, just being more inclusive to people with different learning styles or different storytelling. That’s been really central to a lot of more evolving scholarship, talking about things in terms of storytelling.
Laura: Definitely, which I’m always excited by and that’s the route I’m taking for my museums and memory research paper.
Would it make sense for a student to think of a librarian as a collaborator?
Elsa: Oh, yes. I hope so! [Laughs] Yes, because that’s how I think of myself. I think about myself as playing a supporting role. I love the idea of the librarian as a collaborator, yes. What that looks like in practice is a very interesting question, it can take a lot of forms. We’re in these roles as faculty, but we can do research together.
One of the things that I’m always trying to get to the root of is, how is that being engaged with, or is it being engaged with? And what can I do to better my pedagogy and my skills to share these research methods and these research resources and how can I do that better? I’m always, in a way, collaborating with students, whether they know it or not, to see how that’s going. Whether or not it’s a measurable outcome depends on how it’s being measured, I suppose. There’s traditional metrics of, We could give a pre-test and a post-test, or I can analyze people’s bibliographies to see if they found great sources or things like that, which is not really an active collaboration.
So, I’ve done things in the past where I’ve done focus groups with students, had them come to the library, tell me about what their needs are that we’re not meeting. What are we doing well? What could be improved? And again, trying to lend the agency to the students so that they have an active hand in creating their space, their library.
I’d love to collaborate with students on their independent projects, I think that would be wonderful. But mostly from my side, I am interested in collaborating with students to create a better library for them and a better learning experience for them. But I think it could happen on both sides.
Laura: When you say create a better library… I’ll tell you the vision that is in my head and it’s narrow: I think, Oh, get different books, more books.
Laura: Tell me what it means to you?
Elsa: It means community. I think it means an inclusive place where people feel welcome and where they feel productive. New books are nice but it’s also about active space and active engagement. There’s a few different ways to think about it.
More books, beautiful environments. Certainly, it’s nice if the chairs are comfortable and the colors are pleasing to the eye. But yeah, obviously the resources, the best possible resources that reflect our students’ needs and their interests, really inspire them and encourage their own growth.
Sure, the best possible library would be: you walk to a shelf and the thing that you were hoping for just pops right out. But what also is even better is that that thing didn’t pop out, but you got this other idea because the thing that was shelved next to it was sort of interesting. And so you pulled that out, and then you started walking around, you know what I mean? I love the serendipitous browsing, which is why we kind of create these cataloging systems where everything’s co-located.(4) So if you’re on the right track, you’re kind of on the right track. Sometimes that’s not true. Sometimes you gotta go to a whole different floor of the library if you want painting, but now you’re interested in aesthetics where you have to go down to the basement.
But that’s just the nature of the size of the collection, which is wonderful. You want a big, rich collection with lots of different formats and things kind of jump out at you in different ways. If you have the special collections, zines or ephemera or things like that, it’s just fun to kind of go through that stuff and get ideas. And then if you’re in the stacks, you’re kind of looking through the physical spines of the books and sort of getting the smell and all the physical and psychological cues that go with just sort of roaming around the stacks and having those kinds of serendipitous experiences. That would be the perfect library, I suppose.
And then you’d have a relaxing place to be, or where you were stimulated by all the cool stuff that was going on around you, where people were discussing great ideas. And then you’d have your studio right there and you could just go in and start working. That’d be pretty nice. Coffee wouldn’t hurt! [Laughs]
Laura: As a sidebar, I recently had that serendipitous experience at the downtown Multnomah County library and it was so special. I had to work for it, had to really pay attention to my inner voice, leading me around. It was triumphant and it changed my research path.
Laura: I’ve had that happen a little bit at the PSU library. It’s only been open for a little while, so I’m still finding my bearings there. So as you’re describing this magical library experience, the perfect library experience, I’m thinking of the different elements: in one way, you’re describing (in my mind), like a coffee shop and sometimes there’s a lot of activity and sometimes it’s really chill, without a lot of activity. And then I’m imagining a research lab for a scientist, like things bubbling over. It’s a really dynamic space, what you just described.
Elsa: I think the best libraries are, and it fits with our mission. But I also think that part of our other mission, just as important, is to collect and preserve. I mean it’s really important that we are keeping the human record, right? And that’s what we do. I think that a lot of what we do that is important, is curating a collection that is valuable and instructive to our students and also to the community at large.
And so we need to be very intentional about how we use our resources to provide those things. Resources are limited and not just in terms of budgets, but also in terms of space and our priorities and what we can provide. And that’s where librarians come in and use their expertise to get the best, most relevant information in front of a searcher– a researcher.
Laura: What’s informing you as a librarian, right now?
Elsa: In terms of what to collect or in terms of just how I’m spending my time?
Laura: Referring to how you collect, because you were just talking about that, the intentionality of a librarian. So that leads me to wonder: well, what’s informing your intentionality?
Elsa: We need to be responsive to the needs of our departmental faculty. So, of course instructors and professors will be telling us what they need to support their curriculum.
Another good indicator for me is when new courses come up, we are asked to write a statement of support from the library, so I get to see syllabi and make sure that our collections can support the teaching and learning endeavors of the new classes that are starting. So, that’s really wonderful for me because then I can see what’s being assigned. Certainly, I’m looking at making sure that we can support the assigned reading lists, but also just kind of getting a sense of where things are going in the departments. And so that is really informative to me.
It’s also informative to me when I’m in my instruction sessions, because I have an idea of what the assignments are, the research projects, working with students, finding out what they’re interested in and then that leads me to kind of explore. And maybe we don’t have everything that they might need and that’s when I go and I find it.
I also read a lot of academic book reviews, new things coming out by certain publishers that I really value or appreciate, but I’m also still looking for things that aren’t as well represented in our collection. We need to have a sense of where the gaps in our collection are, what might be overrepresented or underrepresented. Do we need another book about Renaissance painting, or are we more interested in collecting a new exhibition catalog about yarn bombing? I don’t know. [Laughs] It doesn’t mean that the other one isn’t useful and necessary. But where do we fit in the conversation and are we representing what’s going on currently in our students’ practice mostly and what’s being taught in the curriculum.
The other consideration we have is we are part of this wonderful big consortium. We have 37 other libraries from universities and colleges in our area that also have their collections and we share that catalog. So, we call that cooperative collections development.
While I might not need to buy everything… I can’t buy everything. But the University of Washington might have one and Portland Community College might have one. Reed College might have one. Willamette University just acquired PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) and now their library collection is part of our catalog. They have some really amazing parts of their collection that might not be represented in the PSU collection, but I can get it.
So those are other things that are kind of informing my collection development and what I see as a need for our library. As wonderful as it is to have all the things on the shelves in the library space, where you’re looking and searching and having those serendipitous shelf moments, there’s no way that we can have everything on the shelf right in front of you. So that can be a frustration. People like to just go and browse and that’s awesome, I get that. But there’s so much more to our collections. They’re all over the region, they’re all over the world, and they’re in the online environment. And so some of those things do get missed when you have a researcher who just really likes to browse the shelves.
Laura: I read your article, The More Things Change: The Collaborative Art Library, and I’m a huge fan of the inclusion of “collaboration” in the keyword list. But I want to back up a little bit and ask you, does PSU have an art library and actually what is an art library?
Elsa: Ah, that’s a really good question. We have our central library; we don’t have any sort of satellite library. Some departments have their own collections, but they aren’t under the purview of the library.
But an art library you are basically focused on art but it’s not to the exclusion of everything else. I’ve worked in art libraries and it’s mostly to support a specific kind of learning activity, the study of art in this case. Museum libraries are much the same, they’re there to support the research of the curators or visiting researchers who come in and would exemplify a kind of collection focus that a museum has. The Museum of Modern Craft, when it was around, had its own library and those had obviously a very specific scope and focus.
At the OCAC library, we definitely built our collection around what was being taught in school, so the different kinds of craft concentrations, but also art history. And there was a lot of social history too, you know? Libraries take many forms and many shapes and the art library is not a monolith of one kind, but you would certainly find more art books in it. [Laughs]
Laura: Thinking about the art library: so PSU’s collection isn’t considered an art library?
Elsa: Well, it would be the art section of the library. Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Laura: Okay. Got it. Cause as I was reading the article, I was like: oh no, are we not included?
Elsa: Oh my gosh, no, no, of course not. We have wonderful, wonderful art in our library. And I mean, an art library can be conflated to mean so many things. It could be a library of art, it could be a bunch of paintings lined up. A library is terminology that can mean any kind of collection, I suppose, as long as it’s organized and preserved in some way.
We use the Library of Congress classification system so most of our art books are in the Ns and they’re sort of located in a way that’s find-able and together. But other parts of “art” are not in the Ns necessarily. They might be in more technology-related things. So like photography will be in the Ts and aesthetics and the study of beauty and things like that are going to be in the Bs, which is more in the philosophy area.
That’s what’s wonderful about the multi-disciplinary part of that, and you can look all over the collection and that can inform your art practice, certainly.
Laura: When you think about yourself as a collaborator with a student researcher, what do you make together and what do you wish you could make together? We talked about maybe a bibliography, but what are some other things? I’m trying to really wrap my head around what that collaboration is like with you as a librarian or even with the library as space?
Elsa: Well, I think that one thing that was fun that I’ve done in the past with students at the Oregon College of Art and Craft Library has been for a guest student to curate a book display which was always really fun. We have had students do that in the past where they go with the theme and find things that they’ve connected with and arrange it in a way that’s pleasing or just accessible for people.
We’ve had people do art shows in the library, certainly utilizing not only the space, but also elements of the stacks and the books themselves. One example of that is, I had a student that made all of these really delicate ceramic books and he would kind of inner-shelve them in the space and it was really neat. We had students take over the space in a lot of different ways with their physical work.
Then rearranging the library space to facilitate other kinds of making and doing and even if it’s something as simple as having a knitting circle going on in the library and we would pick topics to talk about as we were doing that, readings that we all might have done, or just sharing favorite stories or something like that. I suppose you could mean a collaboration in that way. Students collaborating with the librarian themselves or with the space or just the different ideas of use.
We had one student one time who was exploring repetitive practice stuff and she put a big trampoline outside the library and she would go and be on the trampoline for at least two hours a day, not jumping necessarily, but she would be sitting out there or just being in that little space. That was outside of the library and certainly everybody else was welcome to use it, [laughs] and it was just kind of this fixture. It wasn’t necessarily anything that I was doing or collaborating with myself or even the space of the library, but it did take on a form of its own because it was this sort of feature that was happening and people would talk about it and she would start to try to help generate those conversations, too, because that was part of her inquiry.
I prefer the ones where the space is being used, reused, and remixed and the collection is part of that. And anything that people are using to connect. That’s what I hope for when I collaborate with students or have them collaborate with the space or the collection.
Laura: Anything being used to connect ideas? People?
Laura: What are you meaning with that connection?
Elsa: I mean specifically people. Again, having ownership of the library, having agency, and feeling like they belong there and that the library can change to support them rather than the other way around, if that makes sense. Because when you come into the library space, you have to kind of conform to it in a way, right? You need to position yourself where you need to find the things and there are rules: you have to go to the circulation desk, you have a checkout period, you have a loan period. So there’s sort of these other things. But I think that the library can also transform and be a space that can be used and enjoyed and people can connect.
A really great example of our collaboration was with that subject guide that we created.
Elsa: That can be a work in progress and it can be molded and shaped. That kind of learning object is really wonderful because I think that it fits a need and it wasn’t a need that I knew about until you told me.
That was a great example of a collaboration. It’s a positive step that now exists and it’s something that can continue to change and be added to. There’s a lot more things like that that we can do, I think, that I’d love to see students engage with and make it their own, in a way. I can’t exactly let everybody edit that guide, but I can garner all kinds of input and feedback about it and adapt and change and be agile enough to create new things out of it.
Laura: You mentioned including things in the collection that maybe aren’t in the traditional way we think of a collection being developed. And one example that comes to mind is publications by artists. How do you see those fitting into an academic library?
Elsa: You don’t mean like a monograph, you mean like kind of ephemera or like zines or…cause that can take so many different shapes.
Laura: I think zines are a good example. I’m also thinking about small press publications, things published that aren’t easy for an institution to buy.
Elsa: Right, right. Absolutely. Well, it gets challenging. We have the usual constraints of where to get it and how to collect it comprehensively, I suppose. And so it’s helpful if you wanted to have a concentration of some kind, like artists from Portland, for example, or an artist working in a specific kind of thematic area or medium or something like that. I suppose if we were to kind of pinpoint that sort of thing then it’s a little bit more scoped rather than just like, oh, you know, kind of anything we come across, we get.
Our special collection is a good place for some of this stuff, especially when the formats are a little unstable. Case in point, with a zine, I couldn’t really throw that on the shelf, it would get kind of destroyed, right? There needs to be a special place. And digitization of that kind of thing. Then that can go in our institutional repository, like PDXScholar, if it was somebody from our community, that would make a lot of sense. So there’s room for that and it tends to be kind of in what we think of as our special collections. Just for its own kind of protection, just physically, so it doesn’t fall apart.
Some libraries have very specific collections based on that. You know, ephemera collections, and postcard collections, for goodness sake! The New York Public Library has an amazing historical menus collection and things like that, it’s wonderful. It goes library by library and a lot of that has to do with the institution that it’s supporting.
Laura: I saw there was a faculty announcement that you are an associate professor.
Elsa: Oh no, I’m an assistant professor assistant. I haven’t gotten tenure yet.
Laura: Sorry, I mix them up. Do you teach classes?
Elsa: Librarians have faculty status at Portland State, or they can. We have faculty status and so we do teach, but teaching is defined as provision of library services. So our kind of pedagogy is providing information. We do teach, I teach instruction sessions. It’s kind of defined as, provision of library services is what teaching is, which means that we are providing the ability to do the research; that is our process.
Well, how is this going to look? What is the theme of this journal?
Laura: There is no theme for this issue. I bring the theme. For me, my practice is about books, collections of knowledge, selecting pieces of knowledge, libraries as spaces, people as collaborators. When we talked in August, I was like: oh, Elsa is a great resource. I need to understand more about what you do.
There’s a woman in Montana who does a traveling bookstore. And she goes all over the country and she comes to Portland. So I’m thinking about interviewing her in the winter. Kind of along this theme of books as spreaders of knowledge and trying to figure out where do I fit? Why is that a part of my practice? So, that’s why I’m talking with you. I’m like, why am I so drawn to the library, books, and collecting?
Elsa: I love that idea of the traveling bookseller, that’s really neat.
I had a colleague at OCAC, she’s at Reed now, she’s a book artist, Barbara Tetenbaum. And she was doing this really cool project where it was called The Slow Read and she was using Willa Cather’s book My Ántonia and she had these display monitors up in various places, and in different cities, too.
It would be just a display of one page of the book. And so people could kind of come and read that page. And then the next day there would be a new page. The idea was sort of like this community read, but also really slowly.
Laura: At the library?
Elsa: We had one of the monitors up at the library. But she went out all over the place and it was centered in Nebraska, because that’s where the author was from.
Laura: And she’s at Reed College now?
Elsa: Yeah. She and I used to teach together and she’s wonderful.
Laura: I’m looking at the website right now.
Elsa: Oh yeah, you got it? Okay, great. That puts me in mind of what you’re talking about, right?
Elsa: Yeah. Pretty neat, huh?
Laura: Oh, my goodness. Where did you teach with her?
Elsa: At OCAC. She was the chair of the Book Arts department. Yeah, and then she and I co-taught a student success class for incoming freshmen. It was basically like a college skills class. I think we called it College Skills or something like that. But it was me teaching research and then also just how to be a student and how to succeed in school and even like financial literacy and stuff like that.
So she and I became good friends because we designed the whole course together and she was in the middle of this whole project in the last year that I was there and I was so blown away. You know, talk about collaborative and text as experience, right?
Laura: Oh my gosh. Text as experience. Did you just make that up?
Elsa: I just made that up and I don’t know, [laughs] maybe it flew in from somewhere. She’s one of those people that’s really quite amazing.
Laura: I’m going to have to spend some time with this. See, I already benefited from talking with you! I would not have known, oh my gosh!
This issue of SOFA Journal won’t come out until mid December, I think. And I will keep you in the loop. And just so you know, I personally publish it as a printed zine. And lucky you, you’ll be a lifetime subscriber. So you’ll get a copy of every one that I do in the next year and a half. And then I’ll also send you the back issues.
Elsa: Well, they’re beautiful. I’ve been looking at them on PDXScholar. I’ve never seen a physical one, but I’ve been enjoying looking at them, they’re so rich and pictorial.
Laura: Awesome. Thank you so much for your time.
Elsa: Have a wonderful weekend!
Laura: Thank you! Bye!
(1) Oregon College of Art and Craft was a private art college in Portland, Oregon, from 1907 until 2019 when it terminated all of its degree programs.
(2) A learning object is a digital, open educational resource that is created to assist in a learning event. M, Vanessa, and Jane C. “What Are Learning Objects?” Instructional Resources, October 15, 2021. https://blog.citl.mun.ca/instructionalresources/what-are-learning-objects/.
(3) From Elsa: “I was specifically talking about the Library Guides and from our website, Subject, Course, and How to Guides, which are created by Portland State librarians to help you! These guides provide helpful resources, strategies for research, and tutorials.”
(4) Co-located means having multiple things located together—like the sections in a library—the painting books are near the other painting books, Portuguese language books are next to the other Portuguese language books, and so on. Definition provided by Elsa Loftis.
Laura Glazer (she/her) is a student in the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University. She graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a BFA degree in photography and lives in Portland, Oregon. Her curiosity about people and the visible world guide her as she uses research, conversations, and collaboration to create projects. She processes and organizes research through publications and local, free distribution methods of printed matter and visual culture such as brochures, flyers, and postcards. See her projects and process notes on lauraglazer.com and Instagram.
Elsa Loftis (she/her) joined the Portland State University library faculty in 2018 as the Humanities and Acquisitions Librarian. She is the subject liaison to the College of Art + Design, and the Film Studies, World Languages, and Literature departments. Prior to her arrival at PSU, she was the Director of Library Services for the Oregon College of Art and Craft, worked as the librarian for Everest College, held positions at the Brooklyn Public Library, the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives, and the Pratt Institute Library. She received her MLIS from the Pratt Institute, and her BA in International Studies at the University of Oregon.
They Call Me ‘The Mayor’ at Riis Beach
Riis Beach, known for its history as a gay destination for sunbathing, swimming, and community, is a short walk from my apartment on the Rockaway peninsula, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, in Queens, New York. For this issue of Social Forms of Art Journal, I interviewed Ralph Hopkins, who they call The Mayor at Riis Beach. Ralph is a 73 year old native New Yorker, former chef, gold medalist for the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug, and a US army veteran. An elegant man filled with pizzazz, he described the beach parties and interactive fashion shows that he threw at Riis Beach in the ’90s, as well as his personal history marked by six decades immersed in the scene at Riis. We discussed art making at the beach, creativity with the queer community, and fashion shows as a socially engaged form of art.
While living in Rockaway, I have been on a quest to learn more about my dwelling place. As a native New Yorker, my connection to Rockaway dates back to my ancestry, with visits by my grandmother, Gilda Selby, in the early twentieth century. As a queer artist and herbalist, I have been researching queer ecologies and geographies, focusing on beaches. I have been engaging the intersections of nature, play, stories, and sensory experiences to explore queer possibilities.
Ralph, his work, and the history that his life expresses has been a great gift.
The following conversation took place on November 2, 2021.
Gilian Rappaport: Will you tell me a little about yourself? Where are you from?
Ralph Hopkins: I grew up in Greenwich Village in Manhattan… A lot of my friends don’t know, but I went to art schools in Newark [New Jersey]. When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. Come to find out, my mother and I end up having a little restaurant in Newark. It was called Bernice’s Snack Bar. So I worked there as a cook.
Gilian: Was your family in the restaurant business?
Ralph: No. Prior to [opening the restaurant], my mother was a beautician. My grandmother was a beautician, my cousin was a beautician. The beauty parlor was in my grandmother’s house that she owned, on the ground floor. My mother got tired of it, so she decided to open up a restaurant.
Gilian: When did you start throwing parties at Riis Beach?
Ralph: In about 1994, I was on Riis Beach with my friends, and we were saying maybe we should have a little party or something. Just as friends— everybody brings a drink, food, or something like that. Everybody will come in white. That would be pretty on the beach. So I thought, Okay, let me get to work. From then on, it was always the third Sunday in August.
Gilian: Will you tell me about the decorations? Did you do them yourself?
Ralph: Yes. I said, I have to do something to make it nice for everybody. I’d like to make the party look as nice as possible. I knew this area [in Manhattan] where they sell these discount toys, things like that, down the street from Macy’s. I went there and I bought like two dozen hula hoops. Then I looked up a balloon rental place on the East Side of Manhattan. I rented the balloons with the machine that blows them up. So the day of the party, I brought the hula hoops [and] I buried them halfway in the sand, so only half would stick out. And I tied the white balloons to each hula hoop so they would float in the air. To make it look pretty. And we brought food, and I cooked a little food. My friends bought drinks and food also, it was a little small table. And I brought my little boombox, and we had some music. We had a nice time, and everybody said, Wow… Other friends around saw and wanted to join. They said, Oh, well next year we’ve got to do another one. We had so much fun.
The next year was a white party again. Only I did it much bigger. The second party was at least, I would say 75 people. Then beach people started to notice. At the beach, they said, “What kind of party is this here?” To make it sound nice, I said, “This is my birthday,” so they would be more lenient. Any drinks, we kind of hid in the cooler. A couple of friends started to put my parties on the internet. I said, Oh my god. I was getting a little nervous. I said, I didn’t know it would get big like this. So I said, I got to up my game with the decorations.
So I had to get into my art mood… I went to the lumber place, and I picked up six 10-foot poles. They could barely get in my living room, so I tilted them in [there]. And I went to the fabric store and I got yards of fabric. It was only a dollar a yard at that time. I would have the fabric from the top of the poles come all the way down right into the sand as decorations. And I also had this ribbon that I got at this warehouse that a friend of mine worked at, luckily. Everything was like falling into place. And this warehouse, as I walked in, I felt like I was walking into a wonderland. All these treasures, everything is in this place. He said, Go take what you need, what do you want? It was stuff that companies would donate, they didn’t use anymore– restaurants, and whatever.
So I found my runway, it was a mylar fabric that coiled. It looked like you’re walking on water. Which I still have, the runway. I found this glitter ribbon, which shined like diamonds in the sun, like real diamonds. You could see it from across the bridge coming to the beach, that’s how they shine. So I added those to the top of the poles as decorations. Then I had to rent some tents. For the first party, we made our own tents. Through the years, it got bigger and bigger. I had to get three more tents– real tents– for the models to change. And I had to get a permit, because I had a DJ– music, the DJ, and I had a generator, everything.
Gilian: So the parties would happen once a summer?
Ralph: Always the third Sunday in August.
Gilian: And did you have a name for them?
Ralph: Well, it was “Ralph’s Beach Party.” And then every time I had to get the permit, they said I had to give a company name. I can’t remember what I said at the time. And they said, “Okay your name.” I paid them, it was $50 for the permit to have these big tents on Riis. They told me “If you have music, speakers, or a DJ, you have to have a permit.” Luckily, I was really friendly with the guy who was the head of the permits. He said, “Okay, Ralph.” Every other year.
Gilian: Did you have any fears when making these parties?
Ralph: The main thing that made me nervous was the weather— I couldn’t cancel the party and reschedule if it rained because I was working! And the food was already cooked, and I couldn’t do that again. Luckily it never rained at any of my parties!
Gilian: Where did the clothes come from?
Ralph: I found friends of mine who were students at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology]. So I said, “Would you like to be one of my models?” And they said, “It’s fine, sure.” One friend of mine worked at FIT, and he said, “I can get more models for you if you need,” and he’d bring me the clothes. I said, “You never know if somebody will buy your things, you never know who’s in the crowd.” So they donated their time and knew other students that had their own clothing lines, so they donated their time too. I had like four or five different designers. Through the years, it got bigger and bigger. The main designer was my friend Everett Clarke. There were other friends of his, students at FIT. They would design outfits you had never seen before.
Another designer was named Wa Renee. That was the name everyone knew him as. He died years ago. Like a male Grace Jones. Very out there, very futuristic clothes he used to wear. Very famous in the community.
Gilian: Would you say it was mostly the same community who was hanging out at Riis Beach at that time? Or was it other people from the city who were coming there?
Ralph: Basically, people would come out to Riis, every week, every day of the week. But then after the word got out on the internet, they were coming from DC, upstate New York, and other places that are out of New York. And the Bronx. People were bringing me gifts because they thought it was my birthday party. People were coming up to me and saying, “Oh, happy birthday Ralph, happy birthday.” I said, “It’s not my birthday, my birthday is in May.” Memorial Day, May 30th. But I would tell them, I’d say, “Okay, nobody can say I can’t have my birthday party months later. So this is my birthday party.” So that’s what I did. I never even met these people that would bring me… I mean really nice gifts and stuff: bracelets, vases– which I still have. And some gave me some money, which shocked me.
Gilian: Because they wanted to thank you for throwing the party?
Ralph: They would come up to me and say, “Thank you so much.” Even up to this day they would say, “You know, I met my girlfriend, I met my boyfriend at your party.” “Your parties were so good, I had so much fun.” Everybody was nice. I never had any fights. Everybody was really nice.
Gilian: What was a typical run-of-show like on the day of a party?
Ralph: My DJ would come, the show started at three o’clock. Sometimes he would come a little late, like 3:30 or 4:00. When he came and set the music, he started playing as we’re putting down the runway. The models were in the tents getting ready, I’m getting ready too, because I opened. At the first parties I would close the fashion show too, with a show that I would do.
Gilian: What was your show? Were you dancing, or walking?
Ralph: I walked. I did Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey. She’s one of my favorite singers and I’m a James Bond fanatic, and I love Goldfinger. So I came out in all gold. Complete sequin gold. I was in a sequin gold bikini, my body was gold dust all over me, gold mask. I had six guys that I wrapped in gold mesh. They came out before me, like as the music started. And they would have in the fist of their hands, gold dust, which I still have some of that. And I told them, “Hold it in your fist to the very end. You will spray the gold dust all over everybody in the crowd.” I would come out in the middle of them, and I would touch each one of my dancers, while the music’s playing Goldfinger, because I’m Goldfinger. Another one, I came out as a… I was like a pimp. And that was to the music, “Money, Money, Money.” [singing] Money, money, money, money. And it was a coat with a long train. And I had a pimp hat on. And I had a fist full of fake money and real money. And I would throw the money into the crowd. And they were scrambling for the money, you know. It’s for fun. And I had six other dancers in that one. They would come out before me and I wrapped them in green mesh. And connected to the mesh was dollar bills all over the body. They would go out and I told them to face the crowd. They would just hand out the fake money, the fake dollar bills to the people in the crowd until I came out.
Gilian: Why was this at the beach, as opposed to somewhere else?
Ralph: Like I said, the first party, I just said to myself, You know, I want to have a party out here. And I wanted to have it in August, the end of the summer. At the end of the summer everybody will have their deepest tans. And your body will look really pretty. So I said, “Everybody come in white.” With your nice golden tan on your body, with the white bathing suits, and the girls bathing suits, the guys will look really pretty. White balloons and everything. And when they said, “Do you want to have another one?” I said, “Okay, one more, we’ve got to change the color.” That’s why we moved to red, blue, and neon.
Gilian: But always one color?
Ralph: That was the thing. I called it the color code. If the color code was blue, it was shades of blue. And we had another that was called Circus by the Sea. I had my friend, he’s a very good designer. I would say, “I need a ringmaster’s hat.” So he knew how to make that, he made the hat. He made a big ringmaster’s red coat. We had to make that in my hallway because it’s so big. With a long train.
At a fashion show you want to see really exotic, beautiful things that you’ve never seen before. I wanted you to know that I knew you were coming. I wanted something for you to see that you hadn’t seen before. And to have a good time, and feel that you’re part of it.
Gilian: Why is that important?
Ralph: It makes people want to come back for more, they want to see more. See something you have never seen before. You know? I’ve always liked dressing up, even when I was small. I love fashion. People who know me now, the clothes that I wear, you don’t see that with regular guys. The way I put it together. I don’t do it to show off. This is me, that’s just how I am. I like different things. People see me and ask me how old I am. No one can ever believe I’m 73.
Gilian: Did you realize that we are both wearing fleece today?
Ralph: Oh! I didn’t even notice that we matched.
Gilian: It seems like you were born with a sort of innately radiant sense of style. WIll you talk a little about style in your everyday life?
Ralph: When I sit on the beach, they walk up to me, [and they] notice my necklaces, my stones. I get a lot of compliments there. I wear it because it makes me feel good and has good energy. I’ve been doing this for many years with stones. People know me for my stones.(1)
Gilian: What is your setup like at the beach on a regular day?
Ralph: I only have my king-sized white sheets. I’m the only one. Been doing it for years.
Gilian: The beauty of a simple white sheet.
Ralph: I feel confined in a chair. I like to stretch out, and I can have guests come. I have room, I have a king-size sheet. For my friends I say, “No, sit down. I got room.” I’ve always been like this. I know so many people on the beach. They call me The Mayor at Riis Beach.
Gilian: And where on the beach do you usually sit?
Ralph: It’s the end of the beach where most of the gays sit. Mixed people sit, which I call “the Village.” Years ago, they used to be numbered back then. That was bay one. Back in the late ’60s. That was mostly African Americans, Latinos, and a few whites. Through the years it started changing, different people started coming to that area. And you had a mixed group of people who would start coming here. But it has always been nice, no fights.
Gilian: Tell me about the younger Ralph. Did you ever feel threatened in any way when you first started going to Riis?
Ralph: You know, when I started to experience tension— or even have any conflict that was highlighted— it was mostly when the beach was nude. It was nude twice over the years. The first time it was nude was the mid ’60s. One girl I knew saw a guy had a camera hidden inside of a boombox. She went up to him. She pulled out a knife, she’s like, “Give me that film.” Everybody was watching. He got nervous and he opened up the boombox and the camera was in there. He had to pull out the film. She took the film and she stretched it out. And everybody started clapping! But now, most people are half nude anyway. You know, g-strings, the girls are topless. Nobody’s bothering anybody. For me, it comes down to fun.
Gilian: How does it feel for you now to be there? We’re going through this pandemic, and more disconnected in a way from each other. How does the community at Riis feel now – compared with how it felt then in the ’60s?
Ralph: Well comparing the beach now with the way it used to be back then, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s: it was a more “up” feeling, and more fun. The different outfits, people would just come out with robes on. And different girls who had different fabulous bikinis that you would see in Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue. Stuff like that. Some models used to come out there back then. You would catch a famous model sitting in the area. It was just more fun back then. The atmosphere was more fun.
Gilian: More playful?
Ralph: Yeah. And on the boardwalk area there were more places where you could eat restaurant seafood. Game rooms. It was just more fun back then. Things to do. And you didn’t feel threatened with all of it, you could go to the boardwalk, nobody would bother me. Things like that. Today, now you have a younger crowd coming in the Village area. The new kids are now there. They’re nice, they’re really nice. They’re in their own little groups. It’s just different. But it’s still very nice. Now we are getting a lot of people from Manhattan coming here now. A lot of the people from Staten Island are coming in here now, because now they have ferry boats that come from Manhattan, Lower Manhattan. The crowd at Riis, you don’t see at Fire Island or Coney Island. With the kind of clothes and dresses… it’s just more fun at Riis.
I just recently had a girl tell me that the big building… I call it The Big House, it’s a big brick building on the boardwalk.(2) They’re going to make it a hotel.
Gilian: Oh yea. I heard that too. What do you think of that?
Ralph: Personally, I think it could make the beach look nicer. Hopefully it could bring Riis back to where it should be: more glamorous, more fun, fix up the roads [and] the boardwalk. I don’t think it will necessarily make us move the Village area. How could they do that? Well, it’s public, but it’s a federal beach. They have their own rules.
Gilian: That’s an interesting perspective. Some organizers I know believe it could displace the Village area.
Ralph: I don’t think so.
Gilian: Would you like to get back to the parties? What made the shows feel so different than what you would see in an average fashion show?
Ralph: People would ask me, they would [say they’d] like to help me with things. I said, “No, I didn’t need the help. I know what to do in my mind.” They didn’t realize, where I come from— my background in design, fashion, and stuff like that— that I knew how to do all this by myself. I know exactly how… I know how I want the tents; what direction I want the speakers to angle the water, so the sound goes over the water— not down the beach to bother anybody, things like that; where to put my tables for the food. I want the poles lined up around the host area, so everybody will be inside the ten foot poles, because everybody will sit along the runway. My designers would design outfits you believe you had never seen before. Things like something Grace Jones would come out with, stuff like that.
Gilian: How about the participatory aspect of the shows?
Ralph: I would snatch people out of the crowd. If the design needed another model, I would go out of the tent and I’d say, I need a girl size 10, or whatever size, and I would just grab any person in the crowd that’d like to come in, because the fashion show was for anybody who wanted to be in it. I mean my friends who wanted to be models, I’d tell them, Go in the tent, put on the clothes and walk the runway! So it involved people in the crowd also to make them more part of it. And then, they had more fun.”(3)
Gilian: Were there other parties like that going on at Riis, besides yours?
Ralph: While I was having mine, another group of black guys who called themselves The Black Pride started to have a dance party out there. Their party was three weeks before mine. There were four or five of them, and they put a little money together. They had big tents, a dance floor, and a performance later. They had more connections than I did. The main thing, after their party was finished, they would leave garbage and trash– dirty– all over the beach. A real mess. The beach people hired a cleanup crew to clean up their mess, and they tried to present the bill to them. I heard that The Black Pride guys said, “We’re not going to pay that.” So the beach people said, “Oh, you’re not going to pay for it!? Okay, no more parties for nobody on the beach anymore.” So that one messed me up. That’s why my parties stopped. That’s why I couldn’t have mine. And I had nothing to do with them. I didn’t even know them, these people. So since then, up to now, that’s why I haven’t had my parties. Maybe now, I probably could get a permit.
Gilian: Did it matter that your fashion shows happened around so much nature, close to the ocean, with the sun coming through, and all the dunes there? I’m thinking about the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the rose bushes, dolphins swimming…
Ralph: Having this kind of fashion show on the beach made it a little more exotic. The audience felt relaxed in the hot sun; being basically half naked, with no clothes on, watching the show. Seeing the people come with beautiful colors— in all red against the white sand, or all blue. The outfits everybody would come in. All because I would say the color for that year. I said, Let’s have a neon party. Could you imagine the neon colors that came on that beach? Over 200 people in neon colors, and overhead, neon fabric comes from ten foot poles. That was the most pretty, out of all the parties.
Gilian: Did you ever feel like the stories you wanted to tell through the parties were about the ocean, or about the dunes, or the dolphins that are sometimes out there?
Ralph: Occasionally we saw dolphins out there, which is very surprising. I think the first time I started seeing dolphins out there was the early ’70s. We saw them jumping, we couldn’t believe it in this water. Everything was just so beautiful at the time. Even now, it still has this magic to it.
Gilian: Did you know that jumping is sometimes a way they communicate with a mate or another pod?
Ralph: Jumping has this magic to it, it’s beautiful!
Gilian: They’re pushing off the water and meeting the air on all sides! It’s so open and light, and also so present. Communities want to fly, windmilling around, and also want to feel at home. Right here, but also free completely.
Ralph: Even now a lot of people still don’t know where Riis Beach is. In Manhattan, they ask, “What beach do you go to?” I say, “Riis.” They say “So where is that?” I’m not surprised that people still don’t know. It is kind of nice, because it kind of makes it a more private beach for us. I’ve been a beach person all my life. Riis Beach, from day one, I loved it right away… I used to go every weekend by train or by bus. It was just, you felt more at ease at Riis. It fits my personality, I would say. It’s more fun.
(1) That day, he was wearing a beautiful black fleece and an onyx necklace from Brazil.
(2) The abandoned Neponsit Beach Hospital, known as the Neponsit Children’s Hospital. It once served as a tuberculosis sanatorium and operated from 1915 to 1955. Neponsit Beach Hospital mostly treated children, but by World War II, began to also treat military veterans until the hospital’s closure. The hospital was later converted into a Home for the Aged, a city-run nursing home that closed in 1998.
(3) I was reminded of Vogue’s article “2016 Was the Year Real People Took Over the Runways”, which cited luminaries like Hood By Air, Eckhaus Latta, and Chromat as pioneering this tactic of placing real people on runways.
Gilian Rappaport (she/they) is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and herbalist based in Rockaway Beach, Queens. She was born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. A descendant of Russian and Polish migrants, she is a gatherer, and seeks to engage the intersections of nature, play, stories, and sensory experience to explore queer possibilities. She is also known for her design and research work, supporting the vision for regenerative projects that are renewing, restoring, and nurturing our world. For updates on upcoming projects, sign up for her newsletter and follow @gilnotjill.
Ralph Hopkins (he/him) is a 73 year old native New Yorker residing in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Known as The Mayor at Riis Beach, he threw participatory beach parties there in the ‘90s involving fashion shows, DJs, and food, and has been a consistent presence for the past six decades. He is also a former chef, and in the ‘70s, became a five-time gold medalist — and one bronze — at the Madison Square Garden Harvest Moon Ball for the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. He is also a US army veteran. To get in touch, contact Ralph on Facebook.
Uncomfortable Conversations: Money
In the last five years we have found ourselves in a cultural moment of reckoning, in which survivors are being listened to and supported and perpetrators are being held accountable more than before. However, what emerged is also a culture in which any infraction results in the call-out and cancellation of the individual in question. I believe that this kind of tipping of the scales in the opposite direction serves as an usher of transformation, but that it is not a sustainable or regenerative space to remain in. To create a culture that embodies values of cooperation, pluralism, and collective and democratic stewardship (like a Solidarity Economy(1)), we must be able to acknowledge the histories and experiences we come from in a generative way. And yet, we find ourselves in this moment where people are afraid to learn because the fear of getting it “wrong” is more powerful than the fear of their own ignorance.
Informed by my experiences as a biracial Mexican American woman, bodyworker/somatic educator, dancer, and cultural organizer working within the Solidarity Economy, I am observing a need to cultivate the skills to navigate conversations around topics and realities like race, white supremacy, gender, money, and any and all subjects that surface discomfort. I am engaged in an effort to use my personal forms of knowledge as strategies to help develop this as a cultural practice. It is a series of intimate meetings I’m calling, Uncomfortable Conversations.
Uncomfortable Conversations explores discomfort as a place of discourse and connection. Both verbal and non-verbal dialogue serves as the medium that traces back pathways to locate the roots and home of discomfort that reside within us as individuals, and form our social and cultural sinew. And then there are the bodies— our bodies— that have navigated these systems of oppression and have both delivered and endured violence across generations. Bodies that are doing the work of abolition and liberation. How do we bring them into all that we do in a way that acknowledges their labor, and understands them as places of discourse?
In Uncomfortable Conversations, we are invited to observe what our bodies are telling us. In this conversation, artist and cultural organizer, Caroline Woolard, who I met through our work together for Art.Coop’s Study-into-Action(2), beautifully mapped her somatic responses (see diagram below) as memories surfaced. Her sensations served as a dialogical partner as we explored the stories and lineage around the word ‘money.’
Uncomfortable Conversations places equal value on the topics and words we discuss, the somatic responses that emerge, and the skills that we cultivate to navigate discomfort with curiosity and resiliency. It is my hope that as these conversations continue to happen, that instead of the isolation that is felt from exiling discomfort from our ‘selves’ and society, we can embrace and understand that discomfort as a place of shared belonging.
Caroline is an artist, organizer, and thinker whose work offers a reframing around economies and exchange that is collaborative and disrupts the status quo of who defines ‘economy’ and how we participate in economic exchange. I want to acknowledge and honor the trust that Caroline placed in me by agreeing to have this conversation together and share it with each of you.
*Caroline and I have never met in person as she is currently in Berlin, Germany and I am in Northern California, U.S. Our conversation was conducted over zoom.
Marina Lopez, Cartography of Discomfort (Caroline and Marina), 2021
Drawing from moments and sensations in our conversation, these images begin the process of mapping the somatics of our dialogical exploration around money. The images function as a way to create a visible bridge between the intellectual experiences and how those surface in our bodies.
Marina Lopez: So I’ll share with you some of the guiding questions because they’ve been helping me ground a little bit in this work:
How can we learn to become better stewards of vulnerability?
When, in the history of humankind, did emotional vulnerability begin to register in our brains as a threat and therefore our bodies?
What does it feel like to listen/hear, and to guide/follow with curiosity?
Caroline Woolard: Yeah. Cool.
Marina: Do you have any questions or comments?
Caroline: Yeah. Thank you! It’s so beautiful to hear this other side of you. It’s vulnerable for both of us to be and share this creative side and practice. So that’s nice. Yeah, it’s really exciting!
Marina: Yeah, thank you [giggles]. It feels special and sweet to share this first conversation in the project with you.
Caroline: I’m excited. So tell me, where do we go? [Both laugh]
Marina: So I’d love to start with this experience we had while we were co-organizing Art.Coop’s Study-into-Action. We were wrapping the seven-week series and making sure all of the artists and facilitators had been paid or knew how to submit an invoice. One of the artists invoiced for a lot higher than what we had thought we were paying them. We went back into our correspondence to check in about what the agreement had been. You, me, and Nati had this exchange internally about how to proceed because the invoiced amount was actually higher than what we had agreed to. I thought it was interesting how we all had different inclinations for how to handle the experience. What stuck out to me about it was that you had said something like, I don’t like having conversations around money. Or, I don’t want to have that conversation. So I became really curious about that. One, because I’m still getting to know you as a person so it was interesting for me to learn that about you. And also I found it interesting because your work has been so much about exchange and economics. And then Study-into-Action specifically was bringing together this money world and creative world so I was really like, Huh, I want to explore that a little more with you. Like, what’s that about? So do you want to share anything about that experience?
Caroline: Yeah. The part I’m remembering is that the artist thought she was getting paid $500 per session and we had thought it was $500 for the whole thing, four sessions. We thought it was $100 a session rather than $500 a session, so it was so much less. So maybe what I meant to say is, I’m uncomfortable talking about money and paying people less. And the convo around, we actually want to pay you $500 rather than $2000— it’s that gap that makes me so uncomfortable: it’s the conversation around someone’s value with dollars. That’s the part that triggers so much rage and a sense of being controlled. Speaking of the body, this somatic feeling, like a tightness; feeling like I’m trapped. The way exploitation feels. I feel like it’s deep in my eye sockets. A feeling of hot tears welling up. [Hands are scrunched together beneath eyes] Or in my throat or in my chest. A tightness. [Hands in loose fists at center of sternum]. It just feels SO wrong that people can’t have what they need in order to survive. And so a lot of the work that I’ve done is not about money, it’s like, how do we not use money, even though of course we have to. So it’s about, how do we engage in exchange or barter or mutual aid or gift giving, or share our resources abundantly. Like I have a place in Berlin where people can come and stay here. I can help with this, I can help with that. But when it comes down to, maybe she [the artist] thought that she was going to pay rent with that, I just go into fear. Total fear. Like what you were saying about, when did vulnerability make us as a human species feel that we were being threatened and go into a space of fear, or fight or flight?
Caroline: Yeah, it feels like that. I guess there’s also this feeling about feeling let down around it [money] in particular. Like expecting something and not receiving it and having a sense of unclarity. And yeah it just brings up a whole family history going back for so long, where you thought you were going to have whatever. Like my grandfather thought he was going to have a job on this tobacco farm but he didn’t get it. That’s why he tried to rob a bank. That’s why he failed and changed his last name. And why my dad was born with a fake last name and didn’t know that he had family. And then came back to the farm when he was 10 and was raised in this very abusive family. And then my dad fled, and managed to go to college and make money, randomly, which is a long story, which we could get into. But he wanted to be a philosopher. He was drafted into Vietnam, all these things happened. He eventually became a doctor and actually made money and then raised me in this world that he didn’t feel comfortable in.
But then also my parents got divorced when I was 18, and they were so emotionally devastated with each other that they basically abandoned me. So then when I was in college, I had an expectation that I would be taken care of, like also financially, because I was raised totally owning class. [I] had money growing up from my dad and he wanted me to be comfortable in this world of owning class people. He put me in private school and was like, you’re gonna learn this world that I didn’t learn. But then when I was 18— he supported me a little bit and also I went to Cooper Union, which was free— but then once I was 22, he was like, No you’re done, which I had not expected at all. And emotionally he was also like, I can’t even think about you, because I’m so depressed. And so it brings up all this feeling of expectation and love and care. Like I just feel it in my throat [brings hands to throat]. It’s like [snaps fingers quickly across face] and then the rug gets ripped out from you. And so [these kinds of conversations about money as it relates to someone’s value] has this feeling that triggers all of that in me.
And I think that’s generational too. Like, Oh, you thought you’d have a family and a farm and help your mom on the farm. But no. And then my dad was, I don’t know what he thought. I think he just wanted to get out from the youngest age, and that sentiment echoed from his dad.
And then for me, I thought everything was amazing. I’m just living this fancy life. Everything’s going to be easy. And I kind of knew it was a fancy life ‘cause my dad had always told me how he hadn’t had running water. And reminded me that, You’ve got this fancy thing, or, I’m going to give you everything.
And then it was like, just kidding, good luck. You’re in the arts now, there’s no money. And you live in a warehouse that’s dangerous with rats [laughs] and drugs. There were so many things that were just very unsafe and I was very unsafe. So yeah, it brings up all of that. Like how to survive and not knowing. Also, because it brings in so much around class, race, and coming from a background that was so comfortable being white, and being so much more likely to be able to access resources.
So that’s all also coming up. And also that we’re doing a Solidarity Economy program, but then being like, Actually there’s no abundance. And so I feel like I can learn so much from you. Like, yes, all of these things are true and we can hold that emotionally in an embodied way [brings palms to chest] and talk about what’s possible on the material plane in this moment.
I just don’t know. How do you stay in the material? Or hold all of them: the emotional, material, and the vulnerability that you’re talking about? And especially at that moment, I felt so maxed out with all the other things we were doing. That was a lesson in expecting that there will be a need for spaciousness. And I didn’t feel emotionally, or even just literally, schedule-wise, like, how would we hold a good conversation with the artist? And you did some amount of that, absolutely. How did it feel for you?
Marina: Thank you so much for sharing all that. I mean that’s deep. That’s deep lineage, generational wounding. And it’s really fascinating to me how each of us responds and holds that differently. Like I have my own experiences around money and class and race that are different and have made me uncomfortable talking about money, having money, not having money. So it’s interesting to think about how my own experiences influenced my desire to have that conversation with the artist, and then how we had that conversation. I was definitely aware of the dynamics of race within that conversation, for sure. And that’s something that I’ve struggled with in myself as well, being biracial and growing up in an upper middle class white environment where I was like the most diverse person in the room, which says a lot.
Like my mom telling me, I didn’t even think about you as being Mexican. So it was like this weird space where I was both fetishized and shunned for being other, for being Mexican and living in these two worlds. So I was definitely cognizant of my position within the conversation with the artist in regards to race. And then also in regards to the power dynamics of who’s holding the money and who needs the money.
[Pausing to think] I don’t think I went into the conversation with an expectation of, she’s going to say this, or I need her to say this. I think I wanted to know what her needs were. I wanted the opportunity to express what Art.Coop’s needs were and to find a way to advocate for both. And that’s how I approach conversations in my own bodywork practice with clients around money. Asking, what are your needs in terms of your body? What are your economic needs? Is receiving this work going to threaten your ability to survive? And if it is, then I don’t want to participate in that, so how can we figure out what works for both of us? And that’s, I think, the place where I always come to in that conversation, is this question of, what works for both of us? Because I think I’ve had experiences where people take advantage of or exploit that generosity. Because there’s this scarcity and fear around there not being enough, and money being a big trigger for scarcity. So if someone gives them the opportunity to like, not have to pay for something, it’s like, you’re getting a deal. And because there’s a scarcity, everybody wants a deal. And that has felt really yucky to me because then I don’t feel valued.
Caroline: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I recently was on this call with someone who said, I run this print shop and I no longer do sliding scale because the only people who ask for the low end of the sliding scale are people who don’t need it. Mainly white people. And he also said that for a lot of people, there’s a dignity in paying the full price. So how do you navigate that in the conversation? Like who also is comfortable being real with you? How do you do that?
Marina: Yeah. Well, when I came back to work in late 2020 after things were locked down because of COVID-19, I did away with my sliding scale for the first time since I’d started my practice in 2010. I just stopped offering it from the get-go. Because that is also what I found: I would have clients who would tell me about how, oh, they used to own a private plane and they’d fly to LA or Europe for weekend trips. And I was baffled. Why are you paying me at the lowest end of the scale then? It felt gross and weird. And it bred a lot of resentment toward them that I didn’t want present in the treatment room. So what I do now is I offer a really gentle invitation into the conversation about payment by saying, I don’t want this to compromise your ability to provide for yourself or your family. I also offer that at this point in my life, I’m financially stable enough where offering you a session at a price that works for you isn’t going to threaten my safety or security. And I also have clients who pay me more than my rate, so that allows me to be able to offer sessions like this. So I think that when people know that your wellbeing isn’t going to be threatened, it makes them feel a little bit safer to consider their actual needs.
I do have a few clients who are like, well, I could pay $50. Or I can pay $25, but I also made some sauerkraut and some ghee this week for you. And I also love opportunities to barter or trade. Like I trade with my mechanic, and our contractor and I trade with other bodyworkers. I’m very curious about what that barter system could look like if more of us participated in it.
Caroline: Wow. Yeah. I have so much to learn from the way you approach it. I think also energetically.
Marina: That’s where I think the discomfort piece has come in for me. There’s so many pieces to that: there’s discomfort around my own self worth and value and not feeling like I belonged in any world, which resulted in me not feeling like I had value in a space. So working through that deep shit and finding and recognizing my own value has helped give me confidence navigating discomfort around conversations about money and payment. Because when I believe in my own worth and then others try to question it, I know that their behavior is not a reflection of my value, but rather has more to do with their own experiences. And I think that realization was a big one in regards to my relationship to discomfort around money.
Caroline: Yes. Yeah that’s amazing!
Marina: I love thinking about these things and how other people think about them. I really appreciated the way that you mapped what you were experiencing in your body. Because that’s also part of what I want to create with this work is our cartography of discomfort. To create this body map to physically/materially visualize it. Because I think that that’s a really interesting piece to this. Like when I used to be stressed about money, it always presented in the same place in my upper shoulders [brings hand to upper shoulder and neck]. I came to know what it felt like in my body, even before I was conscious of it in my mind.
So I really appreciated that you were naming those places as you were also naming the experiences and emotions that correlated with them. It’s a really beautiful quality and awareness to have.
The word ‘expectation’ came up a lot in what you said, and I’m just curious about your relationship with expectation. You shared a little bit about your childhood and your father, and you having this expectation of being cared for and loved and then feeling abandoned. Would you talk a little bit about expectation and abandonment?
Caroline: Uggh. Marina. Ooof.
Yeah I have to think about it. I’m like, oh, it’s such a season of unmet expectations and unmet needs, like in a familial way. Like ugh! Leigh Claire [Caroline’s Wife] and I were just crying about that last night. So, in a way I’ve cried it out. So maybe I can share and it’s less welled up. ‘Cause it definitely was coming out all yesterday. Also in terms of you doing this work, and the dialogical versus the safety of not sharing, it’s very interesting. This is a whole world that I also am curious about.
Marina: Oh, that’s so hard. The holidays bring up so much too, because there’s so much expectation. And then all those dynamics that are present, but never really talked about or reconciled. They don’t just go away. You just have to step back into them.
Marina: Yeah. I’m so curious. This is like a very personal question. You don’t have to answer, but I’m curious too, because of my own experiences of expectation, caretaking, and abandonment, for so many years I never wanted to be a mother or a parent. I was like, nope, not interested in taking care of anybody else. Like I have been there, done it. Don’t want to do it again. I’m curious if you had any of that come up for you?
Caroline: I just need to breathe and probably cry, but okay. [inhales deeply and brings the tops of hands across her face to cover eyes] I think, like normally I [voice starts to quiver]… Well, maybe I will do the somatic. As if I were working with Alta Starr from generative somatics(3), which is where I learned the talking and the somatic at the same time— which is amazing. You talk and you have space and you like, feel it.
I feel this welling up in my chest [brings finger tips to chest] and I don’t know, in my jaw. Just like a quivering. I think it’s also, the season is so sensitive. I feel so much expectation or hope, ridiculously, to be cared for. And it became very important to me, somatically. Especially when I had this revelation that it’s been three generations of running. Of cutting off. Of canceling. Not reconciling. No transformative justice. No healing.
And it was just normal to me. I thought, that’s just what parents do. And so when I decided to become a parent and I was pregnant, I prepared. I had a whole somatic centering that I would do every day that was welcoming Lion to come through me. I would say, “I can love my messy self, my needy self, and also that we can transform the pain in community. And we can ask for our needs with love, through love.” I had a whole thing that I would say every single day.
It’s so intense. And to me, this cutting off [that my family has enacted] is how you keep it raw. But it also is hard for me because I really want to shift somatically and go toward the conflict. So that’s why I’m also very interested in your invitation or request to go into the money story and do it with all of this reality.
Marina: Yeah. Interesting. And I think that this space for me, the way I’ve come to understand it, at least for now, is that there may not be any answers. There may not be resolution. But, what if we became really literate in discomfort? What if we knew what that felt like? And like you did, really beautifully, name what you were feeling in your body, where it was, what was coming up for you and it helped you through the story and helped you through your memories. It helped you through that pain. That’s part of what I want this space to offer— awareness and skills that so many of us don’t know how to or need practice finding and being in.
I think about the brain as well and how all of these experiences that we have create these pathways in our brain that are then associated with these belief systems: I’m not worthy of love. Or, I am worthy of love, but only if I show up in this way. Only if I caretake. Only if I’m the good girl. Then I can be worthy of love. So we then seek to affirm those belief systems in our relationships, in our work environments. So how do we create new beliefs about ourselves? And then how do we practice those beliefs? It’s about practicing. It’s not necessarily about finding a definitive answer or a right way. I appreciate you sharing so openly. And there’s so many pieces there that I really resonate with as well.
Caroline: I’m so curious— I’m like, I know in 10 minutes, we’re going to end and like, I have to do other things. In generative somatic language, I’m an ‘away’. They have three types. One is a ‘toward,’ which tends to be people who do healing work [chuckles] and also domestic workers because it’s a survival strategy. So when they’re organizing with the Domestic Workers Alliance, they’re talking about these different shapes.
A ‘toward’ is like, oh, there’s a problem, let me move into that. And then there is a fight one. They’re interested in the tension, but I think they kind of clash with it, that’s their way. And then mine is [an away], I already left. Like I’m ready. I already cried, I’m ready, boop, boop, boop. That’s the Capricorn robot.
Marina: Yeah. But it’s like that kind of compartmentalization. How has it served you?
Caroline: I mean, that’s how I have a career, I think. And these are the different parts. And I think the people who really know me, who collaborate with me, they know the really introverted, vulnerable Caroline that’s like, What?! How are there all these people who know who I am, or follow me on Instagram or who want to meet with me? Or they are liking these photos or think they know me? And then there’s the compartmentalized Capricorn, that’s just like, I am very organized, efficient, and loved. I showed up in all the right ways and I did all the grants. And I wrote all the emails and I’m always on time. And in my next meeting, I won’t even seem like I cried. And they need to fuse. I think that’s my hope with you, is that we can create space for more wholeness to be held between us as humans and colleagues. So that there is more integration between our whole selves and the work we are doing together in those spaces.
And then we can make a culture like that. Like you’re talking about. That’s the work. So there doesn’t have to be this fear there, where I think I’ll only get invited or loved or whatever, if I don’t cry, have my shit together, sound smart, answer the email, do more than you thought I was going to do.
Marina: Yes, yes. All the expectations! I feel that so deeply.
So I presented on this project in class this week and a big part of that presentation was mapping all the different parts of myself and then being like, this might not seem relevant, but it’s a hundred percent relevant because I have never been allowed to show up wholly in any space. And always had to isolate and choose who I got to be. Or not choose, but have to be only one piece of myself. And so I think what you just said is so beautiful. How can we create more places where we can be authentic and show up with all the parts of ourselves? And I think that’s where I see the connection with the Solidarity Economy work.
Because in the Solidarity Economy, each piece is intrinsic to the whole. So if we don’t bring in all the pieces, it doesn’t work. I think that that’s where I’m seeing the connection here with this kind of explorative, truth-seeking wholeness and how it fits into this economy that we’re working so hard to create, visualize, and explain, teach, and learn, because we’re doing that work with the bodies and the selves and we want to invite that fullness into those spaces.
I think that’s part of why I’m so curious about choosing this one word or subject because this conversation came out of the word “money.” There’s so much there. And that’s part of it too— I’ve found in my bodywork practice with clients that, you think you have a pain in your neck [points to right side of neck where it meets the shoulder], but really there are ten stories that are your mother, that are your father, that is your childhood best friend, that’s your boss, and it’s living here. And so, let’s explore what that is, so that you can understand it and then talk to it and move through it.
Caroline: Yeah. Wow. Alta Starr from generative somatics said something like, “The pain will move through you if you let yourself feel it.” [laughs] I was like, Oh God. [both laugh]
Marina: But it’s true, right? Like you have real emotional releases because finally, you can’t not. It doesn’t matter how many meetings you have scheduled or work things, it comes through at some point. And you’ve just got to do it.
Caroline: Wow. Well, I’m excited to talk. I’m like, in my ‘away.’ I’m like four minutes until my next meeting… [both laugh]
Marina: Yeah. Can we do a little bit of movement?
Caroline: Yeah, that sounds great.
Marina: Okay, cool. And you’re welcome to go off camera or keep it on. It’s totally up to you. And then whatever feels good if you want to stay seated or if you want to sit down. I think I’m going to stand up.
[Both remain on camera. Both stand up and rearrange their spaces.]
If you would like to join in the movement that Caroline and Marina shared to integrate all the stories, memories, and sensations that we experienced and expressed, please follow along below.
If you have space, begin by standing up. Slowly start to rotate your torso from side to side, allow your arms to move freely as you do this.
Feel what that twisting movement feels like all along your spine. From your neck all the way down into your tailbone.
Notice how your hips respond. Are they moving? Still? Where in your body is the rotation being initiated from?
The movement of your arms across the front and back of your body, touching opposites sides of your body acts as a bridge between the left and right hemispheres of your brain.: connecting to the emotional, the intellectual, the spiritual; integrating the words and sensations with your memories and associations.
When you feel ready, bring you breath into your movement in a conscious way. Notice where your breath begins. Notice the quality and texture. Places where it feels easeful and places it sticks.
Then as you’re swinging your arms, start to bring one hand to the opposite shoulder maintaining your motion. Feeling the fullness of your palm as it makes contact across your pecs underneath your clavicle.
Start to slow down your movement, until it’s just your hips rotating. Coming to a pause.
Still standing, place one hand on your lower belly, right below your belly button. Place the other hand, right above your belly button where your rib cage meets your sternum here. And at that point where the rib cage meets the sternum, there’s this really tender spot of ligament.
Gently find a little pressure there. Then a little circular motion with the palm of your hand pressing into that area. Start to broaden that movement to cover a bigger surface. Keeping a circular massaging motion around your belly. Palpating the softness. And places where it feels a little hard and stuck.
Then letting that movement go.
With your hands still on your abdomen, slowly with soft knees, begin to bounce and let your hands move freely on your belly. Feeling the weight of your body, moving into your heels, going back down into the earth, feeling your hands across your belly, generating heat, reinvigorating your Qi, your life force, your energy, your stories, your identities.
Inhale. Exhale through your mouth with a sound.
Good and keeping that bouncing movement, taking your hands off of your belly and letting them just shake.
Breathing in and exhaling “shhh” through your mouth.
Slow your movement until you find a pause.
Clap your hands together in front of your face. Rub your palms together quickly back and forth until they are hot. Place your palms over your eyes.
Last big inhale and exhale when you’re ready.
Last brushing movements or anything you want to do before we come back.
Caroline: Wow. Mmm, thank you. Yeah, I think luckily I’ve been doing like seven years of therapy… Once you know that thing and you let it move through, it’s like you feel it, but not in the same way. It’s like, Oh, it’s that wound.
Marina: Yeah. Absolutely. Any last thoughts? Questions?
Caroline: Um, yeah. I’d love to interview you or just have these storytelling moments more in our integrated selves practice.
Marina: I love that. Let’s do it. I imagine this project as ongoing conversations.
Caroline: One thing I was thinking before I go that maybe is interesting for this is, I don’t know if I ever said to you, “I don’t want to be a tightwad bitch.” Did I ever use that term? Very specific and very somatic for me. And it’s completely related to this whole history. And when you texted me about intimacy at first, I thought, Oh God, I don’t want to talk about sexual assault.
That’s the first thing that comes up. And then I was like, Okay, what else would I want to share? And then I was like, Oh, giving birth is literally like shitting in public, which is my biggest fear. And I had to do it. And for me, in order to give birth, all the somatic people I worked with were like, it’s about opening your sphincters; your throat [moves hands to throat], your colon, everything, your body. And that is what felt like a liberation. And it also is related to being able to be more in the present and be less controlling. Which is also related to controlling money, being constipated, having a tight clenched jaw. So many things with white supremacy. So I think to me, there’s a connection between shitting and money.
Marina: I love it. I’m so here for that!
Caroline: But yeah, I was like, I need to tell you that, because it was my first thought and it’s very somatic. Yeah. We can talk about the sphincters.
(1) The New Economy Coalition defines the solidarity economy as “a global movement to build a just and sustainable economy where we prioritize people and the planet over endless profit and growth. Growing out of social movements in Latin America and the Global South, the solidarity economy provides real alternatives to capitalism, where communities govern themselves through participatory democracy, cooperative and public ownership, and a culture of solidarity and respect for the earth.” See Neweconomy.net for more information.
(2) A seven week series in the fall of 2021 that connected over 100 cultural innovators from grantmaking institutions, to artists and organizers working within the Solidarity Economy. Together we socialized, studied, and collectively dreamt so that we could build the cultural economy we want.
(3) generative somatics is an organization whose mission is to “support social and climate justice movements in achieving their visions of a radically transformed society. We do this by bringing somatic transformation to movement leaders, organizations, and alliances. Our programs engage the body (emotions, sensations, physiology), in order to align our actions with values and vision, and heal from the impacts of trauma and oppression. We aim to advance loving and rigorous movements that possess the creativity, resilience, and liberatory power needed to transform society” (“About Us,” Generative Somatics).
Marina Lopez (she/her) is a Mexican American performing artist and aspiring social practice artist, massage therapist/somatic educator, and cultural organizer. Her experience as a bodyworker is essential to her practice as an artist because we can’t separate the art from the body that makes it. Care work is culture work. As an artist, her work is an interdisciplinary weaving of many voices that links to history, social movements, and tradition. She is a co-coordinator and creative collaborator with Art.Coop and co-coordinates a national Arts, Culture, Care and Solidarity Economy working group. Marina seeks to create work that articulates and provides an embodied cognition of the ways in which art, culture, and care are foundational within a thriving society and brings these undervalued, but essential elements into relationship within a public sphere that creates access to embodiment as an experience, but also as discourse. Her work challenges the status quo of who we as a society uplift as expert voices, and inspires curiosity, collaboration, and solidarity. @connectivesomatics
Caroline Woolard (she/her) is a tall Capricorn who makes sculptures, platforms, and events to imagine and enact relationships of mutual aid. Right now, she is creating Stones that Hold Water and organizing Art.Coop with Marina Lopez and Nati Linares to grow the solidarity economy movement in the United States. She is also the Director of Research and Programs at Open Collective, a collectively-owned tech platform that enables a network of 600+ nonprofits and co-ops to support 7000+ groups to legally raise and spend $30M+ each year. While making clothing, furniture, and sculptures, Woolard has co-founded a number of initiatives, including TradeSchool.coop (barter skillshare), StudyCollaboration.com (collaborative methods), BFAMFAPhD (cultural equity in education), and MakingandBeing (collaborative pedagogy). Woolard’s art and systems-change work has been featured at MoMA, in a monograph, and on New York Close Up, a digital film series broadcast on PBS. Caroline is currently learning to use her type-A skills when asked and to slow down to be present for the pains and pleasures of interdependence. She aims to say “yes” as her 1.5 year old Lion and her wife Leigh Claire La Berge invite her to transform, daily. www.carolinewoolard.com
Immigration, community, and a play about war / Імміграція, спільнота та п’єса про війну
Illia Yakovenko with Elvin Rzaev / Илья Яковенко и Эльвин Рзаев
Immigration, community, and a play about war
I’ve been living in Portland for the past couple of years, and during this time I learned that a large number of immigrants from the former Soviet countries live in the Pacific Northwest. The majority of them immigrated here as refugees persecuted for their religious beliefs after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I have always been interested in what is going on in the local immigrant community, but in reality, I haven’t been in touch with folks much. Folks whom I sporadically encountered in Portland reminded me of the cultural and political context that we come from. Our interactions triggered in me both the collective trauma our societies have been going through and my individual traumas of growing up in eastern Ukraine during the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some interactions brought up more recent political conflicts that were especially painful to be reminded of, because the wounds are still fresh and bleeding. I’ve also noticed how some local organizations attempt to tap into folks’ religious beliefs and values with the purpose of converting them into political support of a conservative political agenda in the United States.
At the same time, I came across a publication on the Slavic community in Multnomah County(2), published in 2014 by the Coalition of Communities of Color and Portland State University. This report brings attention to the numerous challenges that the community faces, such as economic difficulties and access to jobs, housing, education, and culturally-specific services that have taken up a systemic form. The report emphasizes that “the experiences of the Slavic community are best understood through a lens of racism” and that the community experience has much solidarity with other communities of color.
Based on the information provided in this report, in my opinion, the reinforcement of the ideologies and institutions of settler colonialism and white supremacy offered by the advocates of the conservative political agenda doesn’t benefit the community or bring that promised salvation from economic hardship. Rather, it exacerbates the systemic inequality experienced by the Slavic immigrant community, and further polarizes U.S. society. I see the path of solidarity with BIPOC communities and common action toward equity and social justice as a better long-term solution for the community.
This year, I founded the Center for Art and Human Cooperation (CAHC), an artist-initiated institution committed to supporting mutual understanding and solidarity through art and culture at the cross-communal, cross-cultural, and international level. In Portland, Oregon, CAHC plans to support and create opportunities for learning and exchange among diverse Portland communities, and bringing attention to the diverse experiences and values of immigrants from the former Soviet countries. CAHC has recently launched art tours in Ukrainian and Russian languages with a focus on cultural events organized by BIPOC artists, creators, and organizations. Other programs include the International Acquisition Committee, an art-centered education program at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), and occasional food-based events.
In the framework of the CAHC’s Ukrainian and Russian-speaking community outreach program in Portland, I talked with Elvin Rzaev, a Ukrainian playwright and sous-chef, about his experience of immigration to the United States and his life in Portland, Oregon. With Elvin’s permission, I am also sharing here an excerpt from his play, ‘ATO. Monologue of a Military Psychologist,’ which was written using the verbatim technique: based on an interview with a real military psychologist who went through the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Illia Yakovenko: Hi! How long have you been living in Portland? What do you do here?
Elvin Rzaev: September marked five years since I have been living in Portland. Currently, I work as a sous-chef at the Victoria Bar.
Illia: What made you move to the United States and how did you end up in Portland?
Elvin: My aunt, uncle, and two cousins live in Portland. This is why I came here. I got a green card because they have lived here for a long time. I visited the U.S. every summer break, and after I graduated from college I realized that I feel myself limited in Ukraine, and so I decided to move to the U.S..
Illia: We are going to publish an excerpt from your play, but for some reason you have introduced yourself as a chef at a bar rather than a playwright or a writer. How do you identify yourself professionally?
Elvin: I was trained as an actor in college and I can say that I’m a playwright. But right now my occupations are Chef and Manager. But nothing prevents me from doing all of these professional activities at once.
Illia: Why did you decide to become a playwright?
Elvin: I started to write plays the same year I got accepted to the acting department at Kyiv Karpenko-Kary National Theatre, Cinema, and Television University. I was annoyed by the lack of new plays at my college. They had only Kaidashev’s Family.(3) During my studies I didn’t fit well into the format of my program. I was different because I didn’t like this antiquated system and school. I was more interested in new texts and a new vision of theater.
Illia: How has your move to the U.S. affected your opportunities for creative professional development?
Elvin: It hasn’t had any impact. I was able to creatively develop in Ukraine. But now I’m not an actor. I don’t work as an actor. And nothing prevents me from working as a playwright here, or in Ukraine, or elsewhere because people read and perform my plays everywhere.
Illia: Before you moved to the U.S. you had been immersed into the Ukrainian reality and you had been writing plays which resonate with that reality. Were you able to find topics for yourself that resonate here in the U.S.?
Elvin: Yes, my plays are more in tune with Ukraine, it’s true. But my last play will resonate with Ukraine and with other places such as the [United] States, Europe, and I don’t know… Because it’s a global issue. In the States my plays haven’t been performed yet, but I just sent one of my plays to an American film director in Portland. Let’s see where it may get me.
Illia: What topics did you explore in Ukraine?
Elvin: In Ukraine, my play, Diary of Maidan,(4) resonated a lot. I’m one of its playwrights. And I’m a playwright of the play, ATO.(5) Monologue of a Military Psychologist. And it had a resonance in Ukraine and Europe and with current events that keep happening. And I also wrote mundane plays, so to say, about everyday hard life in Ukraine and beyond.
Illia: What is your last play about and why do you think it is relevant everywhere?
Elvin: Because I bring up themes such as drugs, sex; transgender, gay, and lesbian [identity]; breast implants, etc. I think these days it’s going to resonate everywhere.
Illia: Do you feel connected to Ukraine while in Portland?
Elvin: It is a difficult question. I think I feel connected to my family from Ukraine who stayed in Ukraine. But with Ukraine itself, probably not anymore.
Illia: Do you feel yourself connected to Portland’s community of immigrants from Ukraine or from the former Soviet countries in a broader sense?
Elvin: No [laughing]. No. And once again: NO! And please don’t cut it out, publish it the way I said it. It is a matter of principle. I’m allowed to speak the truth, right? When I moved to the U.S. I decided that I won’t interact with the so-called community because of a number of different reasons, which I won’t tell.
Illia: Do you consider yourself a part of some other community in Portland?
Elvin: I do not associate myself with any community.
Illia: What difficulties have you encountered after moving here from Ukraine?
Elvin: Health insurance, which annoys me, and closed gay communities. It seems like things should be more open, but a few closed gay circles or communities have formed in Portland that never take new people in. They are very isolated in relation to one another.
Illia: Turns out you interact and are in touch with Portland’s gay community.
Elvin: I’m in touch with people from this closed gay community. Sometimes. When I just moved, I tried to enter one of these closed circles and realize that I do not belong there, because people see me as fresh prey. Because I’m so new in this town, no one knows me, and everyone wants to get close with me.
Illia: Do you have any favorite places in Portland that are in some way connected to Ukrainian culture or culture from the former Soviet Union and your experience of growing up in Ukraine?
Elvin: Russian grocery store. I buy sardelki and selyodka [sausage links and pickled herring]. I miss sardelki and selyodka.
Illia: What advice would you give to immigrants from former Soviet countries based on your experience of immigration?
Elvin: Stop being limited with who you interact with. Stop going only to Russian grocery stores. Learn to go to other stores, go to different places, communicate with different people outside of the community. Communicate with Americans. Because we live in the United States and we moved to the United States, not to stay among ourselves and get green bills. This is my advice and experience. Maybe it will, to some extent, answer your previous question of why I don’t keep in touch with the community.
Illia: Where can folks go to expand their experience of interaction with other people, where exchange can take place?
Elvin: It depends on a person and their age and what they are interested in. Younger people may go downtown and get some beer in a bar and meet a million new friends and start hanging out with them. Go and buy coffee, not from babushka Valya, but from Claudia Schiffer. Just leave the house and meet people.
Excerpt of ATO. A MONOLOGUE OF A MILITARY PSYCHOLOGIST
Written by Elvin Rzaev, Andrei Mai
translated by Illia Yakovenko. Italicized words are cities in Ukraine
(NO CHANGES AT THE EASTERN FRONT.
HOW LONG CAN IT STAY WITHOUT CHANGES?
IRON GETS HOT BEFORE DEATH.
AND PEOPLE IT TOUCHES GET COLD.
DON’T TELL ME ABOUT SOME LUHANSK.
IT TURNED INTO HANSK LONG AGO.
LU– GOT LEVELED DOWN INTO RED ASPHALT.
ME FRIENDS ARE HOSTAGES BUT DO—not able to get to—NETSK TO GET
THEM OUT OF THE BASEMENTS AND FROM UNDER THE BASEMENTS AND DEBRIS.
YOU WRITE POEMS AS BEAUTIFUL AS VYSHYVANKAS.(6)
YOU WRITE POEMS WHICH ARE PERFECTLY SMOOTH.
HIGH POETRY, GOLDEN.
NO POETRY POSSIBLE ABOUT WAR.
ABOUT WAR ONLY FRAGMENTATION EXISTS.
ONLY LETTERS AND ALL OF THEM ARE RRRRRR.
PERVOMAYSK GOT BOMBED TO PERVO AND MAYSK.
YOU CONSTANTLY WORRIED, AS IF IT’S THE FIRST TIME.
WAR HAS ENDED THERE AGAIN.
BUT PEACE HAS NEVER BEGUN.
AND WHERE IS
WHERE IS MY
SOSURA(8) WILL NEVER GET BORN THERE.
NO PEOPLE ARE GONNA GET BORN.
I’M LOOKING AT THE COLOR HORIZON.
IT’S TRIANGULAR. TRIANGULAR.
AND THE FIELD OF SUNFLOWERS TURNED DOWN THEIR HEADS.
THEY’VE BECOME BLACK AND DRY.
SAME AS ME, TERRIBLY OLD.
AND I’M LUBA NO LONGER, ONLY BA.)
After my last trip. About two weeks ago. I was on my way to Debaltsevo and…toooooooo… the areas that are near Debaltsevo. Hmmm… curious why? Because psychological work is carried out before the military action, during the military action, and after the military action.
And there I had my first… emmm… experience of psychological support during the military action. Hmmmm… and very, very interesting, and… emmmm… I was there… emmm… about twelve days and in these twelve days… emmm… I had experienced many emotions and I felt that a whole year had passed. Emmmm… because our mind remembers only the most vivid moments and the ending. It doesn’t remember the rest in the form of a coherent story. And down there everything was happening in vivid moments.
I more or less knew where I’m going, and that I’m going. And, by the way, until then I had never used an assault rifle… emmm… and never rode an armored vehicle. Because we haven’t had such things before. At all. Even in the army. So. And down there… emmm… we got equipped with everything necessary thanks to volunteers. Warm clothes. Because if I had waited for stuff from the military… emmm… I would have gotten frozen to death. [Drinks something]. They gave us a bulletproof vest, a helmet…aaaand… I headed off.
Emmmm… What I find interesting? There I realized that I need to wear contacts. Because… emmm… of the strong wind, when you’re moving on top of the armored vehicle, the wind blows right into your eyes. So you should wear a balaclava. But the vapor from the balaklava flows up to your glasses and you get completely blinded. Aaaaah… and you have to constantly be looking out for people with grenade launchers who try to shoot at you.
Emmm… Some houses are standing destroyed by artillery. Stepped outside, someone made a shot and that’s it. A sniper. They can shoot from… emmm… the distance of two and a half kilometers… A sniper… A shot… That’s it… I worked with a division. Aaaaah, we got to the command center. It is located right in Debaltsevo. And then we headed up to the area where the military confrontation had been taking place. Area where we were was also an area of military confrontation, but we headed further up to the first line of defense.
If you look at the anti-terrorist operation map… emmmm… you’ll notice that the line somewhat goes straight, and then there is an area that stands out and then it continues straight. That area is Debaltsevo and its suburbs. So we went straight there, eeemmm, to the frontline. When… Wait. I’ll tell you what I was doing there. But first. After I got back. I didn’t pay attention at first. I thought that everything was alright. But my friend told me that some of my hair turned gray.
I got prescribed tranquilizers and sleeping pills. Because at first I didn’t sleep well. It was bad. We got hit by artillery seventeen or twenty times a day out there. Aaaaand… out there, you get used to the noise somehow.
But back here, when you get back… aaaaah… go to bed, the silence is very scary. And this is the reason why… you’re in Kyiv, you’re running errands all over the city, then you go to bed and dream about Chechens who torture…. Emmm… arms torn off and things like that. Emmm… And it’s curious how I learned to distinguish the sounds…. Distinguish if an incoming shell was launched from a Grad rocket launcher, a self-propelled artillery, or something else.
What were the main challenges out there? We got to a battalion. Its command center was located in an abandoned coal mine. What was good about that? Because it was a bomb shelter. You could react in six seconds and try to run down to the shelter. And the divisions of the battalion are like checkpoints on the terrain on the ground… They call it a valve. Meaning, those who let in and out. First, in a kilometer or two there was a valve that belonged to the separatists. When we got there, everyone was surprised that we wanted to stay with them.
Because since they got stationed there two month ago no one from the military came to visit them. One commander came, saw an incoming shell, said “Hang in, fellas!,’ and took off. They were completely separated from everyone. In terms of armed vehicles…emmmm… I’ll keep stressing it out, it is the frontest line of defence! You couldn’t go any further than that. The battalion had only one armored vehicle. And it was broken. Their wifes were looking for missing parts at street markets in the Volyns’ka Oblast and then tried to pass them along with volunteers to the frontline, so they could somehow fix this armored vehicle. Technical supply— NONE.
The temperatures dropped below -20°C degrees Celsius (-4F). Normally it was about -10°C, -12°C (10F). We had to take a bath in the river. Hilly terrain, constant blow of wind. So you took a bath in the river… aaaand… you get immediately blown all over your body with the wind. So I realized what I need to feel happy.
One time someone gifted me valenki(8), and I realized that I’m the happiest person in the world. Because in order to…. to communicate with people, I had to spend time with them at the outposts and I had to fight back during the attacks, when… emmm… the fire was coming in from the side of the adversary. Aaand… to coordinate the movements, to look where snipers were shooting,,, emmm…. But the most difficult part was to spend the whole night at the outpost, when it is so cold, and you realize that you’re not different from anyone else there. When I got valenki, I realized that I’m the happiest person in the world. Aaand… later I realized, when they once took us for a half an hour to the main control center, and we had an opportunity to take a shower. I took it two times. And that’s it. Now everytime I go to bed, I aaaam grateful, I’m a religious person. I thank god for the opportunity to keep my feet warm and to take a hot shower regularly.
Emmm… a significant problem with the local population. They can’t get their salaries or retirement payments for 4-6 months in a row, and children have to walk for 40-50 minutes to get to the nearest checkpoint where they might get some food that volunteers bring to soldiers. So they won’t starve, because there is no bread in villages. Someone must take care of these people. They didn’t have electricity for three months.
The military came and fixed the electricity. What else? More interesting memories. We lived in trenches, in a dugout. The dugout was dug… emmmm… by people and thus…. Emm… it was very narrow and… emmm… was for the most part only able to protect from the wind. It was a meter and seventy five centimeters (5’9”) deep, and I’m a meter and eighty five centimeters (6’1”) tall. The width: a meter and fifty centimeters (5’) and the length: two and a half meters (8’). And there are two of us inside. We had a makeshift bunk bed. We lived there. I occupied the top one. I had 25cm (10in) from the ceiling or the logs that served as our ceiling. Every time I turned from one side to another I touched the ceiling with one of my arms.
Emmm… After getting back I found out that my lungs are messed up. Because we had a bad potbelly stove to keep us warm. The fumes were getting out. And so we had a choice to either freeze or breathe the fumes. This is why I always slept wearing a buff to avoid suffocation.
What else is interesting about that? The warm air was rising up and all the smoke was rising up as well. This lieutenant colonel—who occupied the bottom bed—he is… emmm… a larger person and there was no way he could climb onto the top bed. So I was the person who was inhaling the fumes… emmmm… but another interesting thing is that we had no protection from the artillery. If only we had had a bomb shelter… The only place we could hide was the dugout. But we already were inside the dugout… And if a shell lands in… a shall lended in 200 meters (650ft) from us, or from me, because… emmmmm… where it landed the fragments ripped off… emmmm… part of the head… emmm… of one of my colleagues, and the second lost his legs.
Emmm…. This is why when we heard rattling… emmmm… Your first reaction is that you should run somewhere and hide… emmm… but you already were in a most protected place out there and so there was no need to run anywhere. But if you get hit by a… you understand that you’ll… emmm… get smashed under the debris or… eeeemmmm… if it’s a direct hit… but it’s better to get a direct hit… you’ll get instantly killed then. If it is not a direct hit you’ll get stuck under the collapsed dugout and will be dying painfully and slowly. Or you’ll get a disability or something else… This is why… emmm… the value of life in and of itself… emmm…. It increased in value. Because you can’t plan your life even for the next 5 or 10 minutes… emmmmm… The artillery is constantly firing… constantly…
(1) The interview was conducted in Russian. The play, excerpted after the interview, includes both Russian and Ukrainian. Translated by Illia Yakovenko.
(2) Curry-Stevens, A. & Coalition of Communities of Color (2014). The Slavic Community in Multnomah County: An Unsettling Profile. Portland, OR: Portland State University.
(3) a 19th century play
(4) Maidan is one of Ukraine’s main public squares where the revolutionary events of 2013-14 took place
(5) Anti-Terrorist Operation abbreviated
(6) a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt
(7) a prominent Ukrainian poet
(8) felt boots
Illia Yakovenko (he/him) is an artist from Ukraine, the founder of the Center for Art and Human Cooperation (CAHC), and a Fulbright MFA Candidate in Art + Social Practice at Portland State University. Illia grew up in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, and spent a major part of his life there. Illia’s family still lives in his hometown, so he has kept strong ties to the region and cares about its well-being. Unfortunately, Illia’s home is currently going through war. In his art practice, Illia explores ways of creatively addressing conflicts and supporting cross-communal, cross-cultural, and international mutual understanding and solidarity by means of participatory and socially-engaged art making. His goal is to support and create spaces for collectively imagining and enacting a just, equitable, and peaceful present(s) and future(s). https://illia.cf/
Center for Art and Human Cooperation: https://www.instagram.com/cahc.art/
Elvin Rzaev (he/him) was born in Kyiv, Ukraine, and currently lives in Portland, OR. Elvin’s parents met at a shashlyki (a culturally-specific barbecue), which, in his opinion, makes complete sense for an Azerbaijano-Ukrainian family. Since then, his life has been unfolding in the southern steppes of Khersonshchyna, on the Baku seaside, and in the Portland mountains of North America. After graduating from the specialized School #91 and performing his first theater play at the Young Spectator’s Theatre, Elvin continued his education in a theater college. In 2012, Elvin got involved in the movement called the New Ukrainian Drama and started to write plays. Soon his play, ATO. A Monologue of a Military Psychologist (directed by Andrei Mai; written by Elvin Rzaev and Andrei Mai), was staged in Moscow in an underground fashion to bypass censorship. Since then, the play has been performed in Austria, Slovakia, Northern Macedonia, and Ukraine.
Українська / Русский
Я живу в Портленде на протяжении последних двух лет. За время моего пребывания тут я узнал, что в этом регионе живет довольно значительное количество иммигрантов из пост-советского пространства. В основном это люди иммигрировавшие после распада Советского Союза в статусе беженцев преследуемых за свои религиозные убеждения. Мне всегда было любопытно узнать, что происходит в сообществе, но в реальности, я не был особо в контакте с ним. Люди, с которыми я сталкивался в Портленде, напоминали мне о культурном и политическом контексте тех мест, откуда мы родом. Наше общение триггерило во мне коллективную травму, через которую прошли наши общества, и мои личные травмы взросления на востоке Украины в годы после распада Советского Союза. В некоторых случаях в разговорах затрагивались текущие политические конфликты, и это было особенно болезненно, потому что конфликты по прежнему не разрешены и приносят боль. Еще я обратил внимание на то, что некоторые местные организации пытаются обращаться к ценностям и религиозным убеждениям сообщества с целью их конвертации в политическую поддержку консервативной политической повестки в США.
В тоже самое время, я наткнулся на публикацию «The Slavic community in Multnomah County», опубликованную в 2014 году the Coalition of Communities of Color и Portland State University. Этот отчет уделяет внимание многим проблемам, с которыми сталкивается коммьюнити, таким как экономические трудности, доступ к работе, жилью, образованию и специфическим культурным сервисам и указывает на то, что эти проблемы обрели систематический характер. В отчете отмечено, что опыт сообщества лучше всего можно понять через призму расизма и что этот опыт сопоставим с опытом других communities of color.
Исходя из информации в этом отчете, на мой взгляд, усиление идеологий и институтов колониализма и белого превосходства, которые предлагаются адвокатами консервативной политической повестки, не улучшает условия жизни сообщества и не приносит обещанного спасения от экономических трудностей. Напротив, оно только усиливает системное неравенство, которому подвергаются иммигранты из постсоветских стран и глубже разделяет американское общество. Путь солидарности с другими BIPOC сообществами и совместная борьба за социальную справедливость мне видится более эффективной альтернативой.
В этом году, я создал Центр мистецтва та людської взаємодії (CAHC) — само-инициированную институцию, которая средствами искусства поддерживает взаимопонимание и солидарность между сообществами и на интернациональном и межкультурном уровнях выстраивая фундамент для совместного действия и социальной справедливости. В Портленде CAHC планирует поддержку и создание возможностей для обмена между разнообразными портландскими сообществами и привлечение внимание к различному опыту и ценностям иммигрантов из постсоветского пространства. CAHC недавно запустил художественные туры на украинском и русском языках с фокусом на культурных событиях организованных BIPOC художниками и организациями. Другие программы включают в себя Комітет міжнародних придбань, художественная образовательная программа в Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), и спорадические события с едой.
В рамках программы Центра мистецтва та людської взаємодії по сотрудничеству с украино- и русскоговорящим сообществом Портленда, я поговорил с украинским драматургом и су-шефом Эльвином Рзаевым о его опыте иммиграции в Америку и жизни в Портленде. С его согласия я также публикую отрывок из его пьесы «АТО. Монолог военного психолога», которая была написана в 2015 году в технике вербатим, на основе интервью с реальным военным психологом прошедшим через войну на востоке Украины.
Илья Яковенко: Привет! Как давно ты живешь в Портленде и чем ты тут занимаешься?
Эльвин Рзаев: В сентябре было пять лет как живу в Портленде. Сейчас я работаю cу-шефом в Виктория бар.
Илья: Как ты переехал в Америку и оказался в Портленде?
Эльвин: В Портленде у меня живут тетя, дядя, две двоюродные сестры, поэтому я оказался тут. Из-за того что они живут здесь долгое время у меня есть гринкарта. Я приезжал каждый год в Америку на летние каникулы, а когда закончил университет, то понял, что мне стало тесно в Украине и я решил переехать в Америку.
Илья: Мы собираемся опубликовать отрывок из твоей пьесы, но ты почему-то представился шефом в баре, а не драматургом и писателем. Как ты себя идентифицируешь в профессиональном плане?
Эльвин: Я по образованию актер и могу сказать что драматург. Но сейчас я по профессии повар и менеджер. Но это не мешает соединять мне две эти деятельности вместе.
Илья: Почему ты решил стать драматургом?
Эльвин: Когда я поступил в Карпенко Карого [Київський національний університет театру, кіно і телебачення імені І. К. Карпенка-Карого] на актерский факультет то в этот же год я начал писать пьесы для театра. Меня раздражало отсутствие новых текстов в университете. Там была только «Кайдашева сім’я». Когда я учился я не сильно попадал в формат моего курса. Я отличался тем, что мне не нравилась эта старая система и старая школа. Меня больше интересовали новые тексты и новое видение в театре.
Илья: Как твой переезд в Штаты повлиял на твою возможность творчески реализовываться?
Эльвин: Никак не повлиял. Я творчески реализовывался в Украине. Но я сейчас не актер — я не работаю актером. А драматургом мне ничего не мешает работать здесь, либо в Украине, либо еще где-нибудь, потому что мои тексты читают и ставят в разных местах.
Илья: До переезда ты был погружен в Украинскую действительность и писал пьесы, которые с ней резонировали. Нащупал ли ты для себя темы, которые бы резонировали здесь — в Америке?
Эльвин: Да, мои тексты конечно больше резонируют с Украиной, это правда. Но последний мой текст должен резонировать и с Украиной и с разными местами: и со штатами, и с европой, и не знаю… Потому что это такая более глобальная история. В штатах мои пьесы пока не ставились, но я отправил один мой текст одному американскому кинорежиссеру в Портленде. Посмотрим что будет.
Илья: С какими темами ты работал в Украине?
Эльвин: В Украине резонировала пьеса «Щоденники Майдану». Я один из ее драматургов. И я драматург пьесы «АТО. Монолог военного психолога». И она резонировала в Украине и в европе и с нынешними событиями, которые продолжаются. А также у меня были более, так сказать, обыденные пьесы про более обыденную суровую жизнь в Украине и не только.
Илья: О чем твоя последняя пьеса и почему ты считаешь, что она актуальна глобально?
Эльвин: Потому что поднято несколько вопросов, такие как наркотики, секс, трансгендерность, геи, лесбиянки, искусственная грудь, много всего… Мне кажется она в нынешнее время резонирует везде.
Илья: Ты чувствуешь связь с Украиной находясь в Портленде?
Эльвин: Сложный вопрос. Больше наверно я чувствую связь со своей семьей из Украины, которая живет в Украине. А с Украиной, наверно, уже нет.
Илья: Чувствуешь ли ты при этом связь с портландским комьюнити иммигрантов из Украины или в более широком смысле иммигрантов из постсоветского пространства?
Эльвин: Нет (смеется). Нет. И еще раз нет! И это пожалуйста не вырезайте и опубликуйте именно так. Чисто принципиально. Можно же правду говорить, правда? Я когда переехал жить в америку я чисто принципиально сказал что я не буду контактировать с так называемым коммьюнити по разным причинам, которые я не скажу.
Илья: Частью какого коммьюнити в Портленде ты себя считаешь в таком случае?
Эльвин: Я ни с каким коммьюнити не ассоциирую себя.
Илья: С какими проблемами ты столкнулся после того как переехал из Украины сюда?
Эльвин: Медицинская страховка, которая меня безумно раздражает, и закрытые гей коммьюнити. Казалось бы все должно быть более открытым, но в Портленде образовалось несколько закрытых гей компаний или коммьюнити в коммьюнити, которые никогда не пускают новых людей. Они законсервированы между собой.
Илья: Получается ты все таки взаимодействуешь и в каком-то смысле соприкасаешься с портландским гей коммьюнити?
Эльвин: Я соприкасаюсь с людьми из этой закрытой гей коммьюнити. Иногда. Я когда переехал, я попробовал войти в одну из таких компаний и понял, что мне там не место, потому что на меня люди смотрят как на свежую жертву. Потому что я очень новый в этом городе и меня никто не знает и все хотят очень плотно познакомиться.
Илья: У тебя есть любимые места в Портленде, которые как-то связаны с украинской или постсоветской культурой и твоим опытом взросления и жизни в Украине?
Эльвин: Русский магазин. Я покупаю сардельки и селедку. Я скучаю за сардельками и селедкой.
Илья: Чтобы ты посоветовал иммигрантам из постсоветских стран основываясь на своем собственном опыте иммигранта?
Эльвин: Перестать быть законсервированными. Перестать ходить только в русский магазин. Научиться ходить в другие магазины, ездить в разные места, общаться с разными людьми не только из коммьюнити. Общаться с американцами, потому что как никак мы живем в Америке и переехали в Америку не для того чтобы жить среди своих и получать зеленые бумажки. Это мой совет и мой опыт. Наверно это в какой-то мере ответит на твой прошлый вопрос о том, почему я не общаюсь с коммьюнити.
Илья: Куда можно пойти чтобы расширить свой опыт общения с другими людьми и где мог бы возникнуть культурный обмен?
Эльвин: Это зависит от человека и от его возраста и чем человек интересуется. Молодым людям можно поехать в даунтаун выпить пива в баре и встретить миллиард новых друзей и начать с ними общаться. Пойти купить кофе где-то не у бабушки Вали, а у Клаудии Шифер. Просто выходить из дома и видеть людей.
Отрывок из пьесы «АТО. Монолог военного психолога»
(НА СХІДНОМУ ФРОНТІ, БЕЗ ЗМІН.
СКІЛЬКИ МОЖНА БЕЗ ЗМІН?
МЕТАЛ ПЕРЕД СМЕРТЬЮ СТАЄ ГАРЯЧИМ.
А ЛЮДІ ВІД НЬОГО, ХОЛОДНИМИ.
НЕ КАЖІТЬ МЕНІ ТАМ, ПРО ЯКИЙСЬ ЛУГАНСЬК.
ВІН ДАВНО УЖЕ ГАНСЬК.
ЛУ- ЗРІВНЯЛИ З АСФАЛЬТОМ ЧЕРВОНИМ.
МОЮ ДРУЗІ В ЗАРУЧНИКАХ І ДО НЕЦЬКА, МЕНІ НЕ ДІСТАТИСЯ. ЩОБ ВИТЯГТИ З ПІДВАЛІВ, ЗАВАЛІВ І З ПІД ПІДВАЛіВ .
А ВИ ПИШЕТЕ ВІРШІ КРАСИВІ ЯК ВИШИВАНКИ.
ВИ ПИШЕТЕ ВІРШІ, ІДЕАЛЬНО ГЛАДЕНЬКІ.
ВИСОКУ ПОЕЗІЮ, ЗОЛОТУ.
ПРО ВІЙНУ, НЕ БУВАЄ ПОЕЗІЇ.
ПРО ВІЙНУ Є ЛИШЕ РОЗКЛАДАННЯ.
ЛИШЕ ЛІТЕРИ І ВСІ ВОНИ РРРРРР.
ПЕРВОМАЙСЬК, РОЗБОМБИЛО НА ПЕРВО І МАЙСЬК.
БЕЗКІНЕЧНО МАЄТЕСЬ, НАЧЕ ВПЕРШЕ.
ЗНОВУ ТАМ СКІНЧИЛАСЬ ВІЙНА.
АЛЕ МИР, ТАК І НЕ ПОЧАВСЯ
А ДЕ БАЛЬЦЕВЕ?
ДЕ МОЄ БАЛЬЦЕВЕ?
ТИМ БІЛЬШЕ НЕ РОДИТЬСЯ СОСЮРА.
УЖЕ НІХТО ІЗ ЛЮДЕЙ НЕ РОДИТЬСЯ.
Я ДИВЛЮСЯ НА КОЛООБРІЙ.
ВІН ТРИКУТНИЙ. ТРИКУТНИЙ.
І ПОЛЕ СОНЯХІВ, ОПУСТИЛО ГОЛОВИ.
ВОНИ СТАЛИ ЧОРНІ І СУХІ
ЯК І Я, ВЖЕ СТРАШЕННО СТАРА.
І Я, БІЛЬШЕ НЕ ЛЮБА, ЛИШЕ БА).
После последней поездки, недели две назад. Ехал вввв Дебальцево и… ввв… районы, которые возле Дебальцева находятся. Эмм… интересно в чем? В том, что… ммм… психологическая работа, она идёт до боевых действий, во время боевых действий и после боевых действий.
И там у меня был первый… ммм… опыт психологической помощи во время боевых действий. Эмм… и очень такие, очень интересные, и… ммм… я там был… ммм… дней двенадцать и за эти двенадцать дней… эм… ну, было очень много эмоций и ощущение прожитого целого года. Эм… потому что ум, он у нас запоминает самые яркие моменты и конец. Всё остальное не запоминает в какой-то истории. А там этих самых ярких моментов, было очень много.
Я приблизительно представлял куда еду, что еду. Ну, причем я до этого момента, никогда с автомата не стрелял… эээ… на БТРе тоже не ездил. Потому что не было у нас как-то такого. Ну, вообще в армии. Вот. А там… эээ… спасибо волонтёрам – снарядили всем, чем надо. Одеждой теплой. Потому что, что от армии, я б там… эээ… замерз. (что-то пьет) Дали бронежилет, каску… иии… поехал.
Эм… В чем интересно было? В том, что… (молчит) я понял, что мне надо ездить в линзах. Потому что… эээ… сильный ветер, когда ты едешь сверху на броне, постоянно задувает в глаза и поэтому ты должен все время быть в балаклаве. А с балаклавы поднимается пар в очки и ты слепой. Ааааа… ты должен максимально следить, чтоб никто не выставился с гранатометом и не стрелял в тебя.
Эээ… ну какой-то дом стоит разбомбленный. Вышел, стрельнул и всё. Или снайпер. За два с половиной километра… эээ… могут стрелять… Снайперская… Выстрел. Вот. Работал с подразделением. Аааа… приехали мы в штаб. Он находится непосредственно в Дебальцево. И поехали потом уже в зону боевых, ну там тоже зона боевых действий, но поехали в первую линию обороны.
Если посмотреть на карту АТО… эм… от она идет, потом от такой аппендицит и идёт дальше. Вот этот аппендицит – это само Дебальцево и все в окрестности. Мы как раз были вот тут вот в самом… эээ… передку. На самом передке. Када…. ну сейчас я расскажу, чем я там занимался. Когда я приехал. Я за собой не сильно заметил. Думал, всё нормально, но мне друг сказал, что у меня тут де-то шесть или семь волос поседело.
Выписали транквилизаторы мне и снотворное. Потому что первое время было, был очень плохой сон. Там нас по семнадцать-двадцать раз в день бомбили. Ииии… там, ты как-то привык к грохоту.
А тут ты, когда приезжаешь… ааааааа… ложися спать, очень страшная тишина. И поэтому…. или вроде в Киеве вроде, вроде везде бегаешь, ложишься спать, а тебе снятся как чеченцы пытают… эмммм… руки оторваны и всё остальное. Эмм…
И причем интересно, что… нууу… начался уже различать звук. Это град летит, это саул, это еще что-то.
Эммм… какие проблемы там основные были? Мы пришли в батальон, штаб которого находился в заброшенной шахте, и плюс в чем? Что там было бомбоубежище. Там хотя бы за шесть секунд можно среагировать… иии… эээ… и попытаться добежать до бомбоубежища. И подразделения батальона – это как блокпосты только просто местность и на месте… Это они называют клапан. То есть, кто пускает и выпускает. Находилось восемь клапанов. Первое, ну через километр два километра было уже, был клапан сепаратистов. И что, я не думал что, ну так, когда мы приехали туда, они очень удивились, что остаёмся вместе с ними.
Потому что за всё время, там два месяца уже подразделения находится, ни один начальник…ни один не приехал, увидел что летит снаряд, Сказал, «Хлопці, тримайтесь!» и уехал. То есть полностью оторваны от всех. Из бронетехники… эммм… ещё раз – я буду и дальше подчёркивать – это самая первая линия обороны. Ну, первее уже некуда. В батальоне только один БТР. Который не едет. Жёны с Волынской области, ходят по рынкам, ищут детали и как-то стараются передать волонтёрами на передовую, чтобы они как-то починили этот БТР. Техническое обеспечение – никакое.
Была температура минус девятнадцать зафиксирована. Ну, в основном гуляла минус десять и девятнадцать. Мылись в речке. Ну и причем были на возвышенности, постоянный ветер. То есть, ты помылся в речке… иии… сразу тебя обдувает. Поэтому я понял, что мне надо для счастья.
Один раз мне там подарили валенки и я понял, что я самый счастливый человек на свете Потому что для того, чтобы… ну… был контакт с людьми, мне нада было с ними стоять на постах и нада было отбиваться с ними же от атак, когда… эээ… эмм… был огонь со стороны противника. И стрелять мне нада было с ними в сторону противника. Ииии… координировать движения, куда летят снайперские наряды… эээ… Ну больше всего это ночь выстоять на посту, когда холодно, и ты понимаешь, что ты такой же как и он. Вот.
Когда подарили валенки, я понял что я самый счастливый человек на земле. Иии… потом я ещё понял, нас нуу один раз отвезли на полчаса в штаб, и там была возможность помыться. Я помылся два раза. И всё. И я щяс каждый раз ложусь спать, яяяяяя благодарю, я ну яяяяяя верующий человек. Благодарю бога за то, что у меня есть возможность… эээ… держать в тепле ноги и каждый раз мыться в горячей воде.
Эмм… очень большая проблема, с местным населением. Которое по 4-6 месяцев не получают зарплаты/пенсии и дети ходят на… эмм… блокпосты по 40-50 минут. Для того чтоб им дали волонтерские, волонтерскую еду, которую передают военным, для того, чтобы они не умерли с голода, потому что даже нет хлеба. В селе. Этими людьми тоже должен кто-то заниматься. То есть они три месяца жили без света.
Приехали военные и провели свет. Что ещё? Ещё интересные рефлексии были. Мы жили в блиндаже. Блиндаж был вырыт… эээ… людьми и поэтому… ну… он максимально тесный и максимально… ну… только от ветра спасал. Метр семьдесят пять в глубину, а я метр восемьдесят пять, ростом. Ширина, метр пятьдесят и длина – два с половиной метра. И мы там вдвоём. Первая и вторая полочка была. Жили. Я жил на второй. От потолка, то есть от брёвен, было 25 сантиметров. То есть каждый раз, когда я поворачивался, я чиркал… ну… одной или второй рукой.
Эммм… еще была у меня проблема с лёгкими, когда вернулся. Потому что была плохая буржуйка для того, чтобы топить и шёл угарный газ. И тут выбор: или ты мерзнешь, или ты дышишь угарным газом. Поэтому я спал… эээ… всегда в бафе для того, чтобы не задохнуться.
В чём ещё интерес, в том, что всё тепло поднимается наверх и весь дым тоже поднимается наверх. Тот подполковник – он был со мной внизу – ну он более… эээ… крупногабаритный был чем я и на вторую полку ему залазить не вариант был. Я всем этим дышал… эээ… но не так са….. но интересно было, что нам не было возможности защититься от ударов. Если там хотя бы было бомбоубежище….. Единственное, куда мы могли спрятаться, это был блиндаж. Так как мы были уже в блиндаже, а он, если метров от нас, ну метров двести падал от нас снаряд, а точнее не от нас, а от меня, потому что… эээ… там, где упал, осколки разорвали… эээ… полголовы… эм… одному коллеге, а второму оторвало ноги. Вот.
Эммм… и поэтому когда гремело… эээ… Ну по сути надо как-то быстро собираться и бежать, а ты находишься… ну… ввв… месте, ну максимально который ограждает от опасности эм и потом даже выбегать никуда не надо. Ну еси попадёт то просто ты понимаешь, что тебе раз… эммм… завалит или… эээ… ну если прямой снаряд…. но лучше чтобы прямой был – тя сразу убьет. Если непрямой – тя завалит, ты будешь умирать длительно и долго. Если не прибегут. Ну или останеся инвалидом или ещё что-то. Поэтому… эммм… как таковая ценность жизни… эээээм… поднялась в такие разы. Потому что ты не можешь спланировать свою деятельность на 5 на 10 минут… эммм. Постоянно гремит ии ии ии постоянно…Так.
Эльвин Рзаев (он/его): «Родился в Киеве, живу в Портленде. Мои родители встретились на шашлыках, что было вполне логично для азербайджано-украинской семьи. С тех пор моя жизнь идет в южных степях Херсонщины, на бакинском взморье и в портлендских горах Северной Америки. Получив образование в специализированной школе №91 и сыграв свой первый спектакль на сцене профессионального театра ТЮЗ (Театр Юного Зрителя), я продолжил обучение в театральном университете. В 2012 году я познакомился с движением «украинской новой драмы» и начал писать тексты. Вскоре в Москве прошел «партизанский» показ спектакля «АТО. Монолог военного психолога» (режиссер Андрей Май. Драматург Эльвин Рзаев, Андрей Май). После этого спектакль показывался в Австрии, Словакии, Македонии, Украине.»
Ілля Яковенко (він/його): Я художник из Украины, основатель Центра мистецтва та людської взаємодії (CAHC), и стипендиат Фулбрайт на магистерской программе Art + Social Practice в Portland State University. Я вырос на востоке Украины, в Мариуполе, и провел там значительную часть своей жизни. Моя семья по прежнему живет там и поэтому меня волнует благополучие региона. К сожалению, теперь у меня дома идет война. В своей художественной практике я занимаюсь поиском творческих путей разрешения конфликтов и поддержки взаимопонимания и солидарности средствами социально-вовлеченного искусства на межкультурном, международном уровнях и между сообществами.
Центр мистецтва та людської взаємодії: https://www.instagram.com/cahc.art/
A Love Letter to Brown and Black MFA Seedlings
In my first three months of being in the Art and Social Practice MFA program, I had many intimate conversations that made me feel held by my communities. One particularly honest and funny conversation was with writer, educator, and fiber and social practice artist, Aram Han Sifuentes. It reminded me of my time spent between and after classes at Reed College’s Multicultural Resource Center during my undergraduate experience which ended last year. Here, I exchanged tears, rage, and juice with BIPOC peers and staff about being in YT spaces. It was a means of catharsis for me.
Since then, I have found it grounding to recreate similar sacred spaces, for further intimate conversations with my communities; it has guided my practice as an artist and organizer who works with youth of color in Portland, Oregon. I often think about how to support them if they choose to enter the art world. One way has been revisiting the complicated questions that I’ve encountered the past three months: What does my socially engaged artwork look like in a white space? How do I take care of my rage? Another way is suggesting that you all listen to Aram’s song recommendation, “달라달라 DALLA DALLA” by ITZY.
Aram Han Sifuentes: When I read transcripts, I realized I like to start a sentence without finishing it. I say, “you know.” My classic California comes out: “like,” “you know,” “yeah,” “right.” So I feel sorry for you. You have to listen to it and transcribe it.
Lillyanne Pham: No, it’s totally okay. I very much like an interview that sounds like an actual conversation versus like something we just emailed over. I’m excited.
Aram: I’m on my headphones. Does it sound okay? I know it’s sort of windy where I’m at.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I think it sounds okay. It’s picking up the sound. We originally met at the Mural Arts of Philly(1) training, where you showed us how to make our own protest banners. I mentioned how my grandma had a garment sewing factory in Vietnam. And when my mother became a refugee, she sewed our neighbor’s clothes to make extra money. As a kid watching my mom create something so pretty, I was inspired to create my own clothing line. And I came home one day to find all my work thrown in the trash. I disappointed her, but it wasn’t about creating something. She had her reasons. And when I mentioned this to you, I felt that you had a really good response in terms of how to navigate that relationship with my mother and then also connecting it to my practice. I was wondering if you wanted to say more about that.
Aram: Yeah, I relate to that story, definitely. Because my mom was an artist in Korea, and an art educator. She had a hard time in Korea, so she did not want me to be an artist. She didn’t teach me how to do the sort of painting and calligraphy that she is master of, right.
And so when we came to the United States, my parents started working in dry cleaning. And my mom started to do all the sewing because she had already known how to sew before. She had always made her own clothes, and things like that. And so she actually taught me how to sew at a young age because, you know, it was just, I think, sort of practical. And I would help, right, with the seam ripper, rip out the zippers that didn’t work anymore, things like that, even though I was very little.
And when I started, when I told her I wanted to be an artist, she was really upset by that, right. Because she knows how hard it is. And she wanted my life to be more sustainable. Right. And then, when I started incorporating sewing into my art practice, she was really sort of heartbroken about that. Because she told me she spent her whole life sewing, so that I didn’t have to do that. And so seeing that I was doing that for my art practice, just really hit her in a really hard way, you know? So, I can relate to that. Like, your mom not wanting you to do that.
Lillyanne: Yeah. Oh, sorry for interrupting. I was going to mention that I feel like when I do tell people— like outsiders— about this kind of story that I feel like they think of the tiger mom narrative. Right.
Aram: Right, right. My mom and my parents are actually very cool and very progressive. And, you know, I think they gave me a lot of freedom to find what I was what I want to do, and gave me a lot of support, even though, you know, I think, when I chose to be an artist, it was sort of like, the most challenging thing for them to sort of learn how to support me through that.
Yeah, I think, you know, it’s really hard work. To sew, it takes a really long time. Like, your mom’s story, to be able to sew is such a skill, right. I think, particularly women of color, immigrant women, who have learned that growing up, when they do that type of work here, it really is like, I don’t know, I guess I’m sort of tripping on my words, but it provides financial stability to some extent, right.
Like, if you know how to sew, you could hem people’s clothes, for, you know, $10 here or there. $20 here, there. And that adds up, you know, and I think like, it actually is such an amazing skill that a lot of our mothers, grandmothers, and our aunties have and hold.
Speaking for myself, my parents didn’t want me to do that. Because they wanted me to, you know, have a different kind of stability, or maybe, like, a white collar job, or, you know, I think that’s what they’ve been working for. So that I don’t have to do the sort of demanding hand work that they do. Which is really hard, right? My parents work six days a week. They’re at the shop, at least 12 hours a day. And then my mom brings extra work with her to sew at home. So it’s crazy hours. I think my mom really just didn’t want that for me. You know?
Lillyanne: I also was wondering how you would advise other children of immigrants and refugees to essentially come out saying that you want to be an artist or pursue an MFA. When I first applied for my MFA, folks asked me what my family thought about my decision to apply. And I’m thinking, “Why would I tell my family that I’m applying to an MFA when I haven’t even gotten into the program?” After I got in, people just kept asking me, “What does your family think?” And I was like, “Oh, I really don’t tell my family about these certain things.” So I was just wondering how your process went?
Aram: Yeah, that sounds a little bit like … So I think for me, the advice I give is that— I mean, there’s a lot of advice, but I think the one thing I would say is, I think it definitely comes from a place from our parents and our family, not knowing what options there are to be an artist. They just automatically think we’re gonna become starving artists, right.
Aram: And suffer from financial insecurity our whole life. Right. And to some extent, like, it’s difficult being an artist, because our income isn’t so stable, or so regular, like, you know, being a doctor, or these sorts of things that our parents understand— what those jobs and what that financial security means. But I think like, just letting your parents know that there is financial stability to being an artist.
Aram: There are opportunities for artists. There’s many career paths that we can take as artists. So I think like, having those conversations and sort of opening that up for our parents, or our family or communities to understand that becoming an artist doesn’t mean that we’re going to be starving, you know. I think that’s like one of the steps.
And also letting them know that it isn’t so clear of a path. You know, it isn’t like, we study pre-med, then we get into med school, and then we do medical residency, and then we become a doctor. It’s not like that; we have to be creative. And piece things together here and there, or this sort of contract or that sort of grant or whatnot, but that it’s totally doable, you know? So I think that is a big thing. And then I think we have stories to tell.
Aram: Rather than letting other people tell our stories, or us being absent, you know. In a way, we’re never absent, but, you know, we have stories to tell. I think becoming an artist is so exciting because this is my opportunity to use those skills that my mom has taught me, like sewing and looking at our story as immigrants in this country, and using art to tell my own story is so important. It’s really rewarding and exciting, and necessary. And so, I think, you know, as best we can, we have those conversations with our community.
Lillyanne: Yeah, so I recently had my mom find one of my poems that was published about my experience, growing up with domestic violence, but then also weaving with Asian fetishization in the U.S. And she was super embarrassed. And then I got into this kind of debacle where it was like, you know, I didn’t ask for her consent to talk about an experience that is hers, yet also mine.
I’m also going to bring in some ideas that you wrote in your article, “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School.(2)” You mentioned how folks are criticised for their work being too personal. “‘It’s art therapy, not art.’”
It’s a balancing of sharing your personal, lived experiences, and then tackling that within your own family. I feel like I talk a lot about my story to folks outside of my family, because I need to connect. And I feel like I didn’t get that connection within my family. And it’s helped me process my relationships in my family, too. But at the same time, I definitely feel like me and my mom should probably talk about this. Maybe I shouldn’t talk about this. I don’t know if that made any sense.
Aram: Yeah, I mean, it’s delicate. And it’s definitely complicated. Right. I think, my family too, we tend to be very … quiet … about our family matters. We don’t want to expose the dysfunction, the sort of trauma, the pain that happens within our own families, in our experiences. I think it’s such a delicate balance. And, I don’t have a correct answer, I don’t really have a right answer for it. But, I think you’re doing the right thing, in terms of like, telling your own story, through your own perspective, you’re not telling it for your mother. But, it obviously has to do with her personal life as well. Right. But, having those conversations with her as well about how important this is for you.
And it’s really unfortunate, you know, that in the art world and in art education, that it’s so shunned upon to make really personal work, you know. I think that’s so essential, to actually even make personal work. Because why would we make something or say something or tell a story that doesn’t have a connection with our personal life? I think it’s absolutely necessary to tell our own stories from our own perspective, and from our own lived experiences. It’s absolutely crucial, you know. I don’t believe in making something that’s too personal or making something that’s art therapy and not art. I don’t think that exists. And I think, again, those are sort of these categories and terms that white supremacy puts on to us telling our own stories and suppressing that right. I think it’s so important that we do more of that.
Lillyanne: I was wondering how you felt after completing My Mother’s First Exhibition(3)?
Aram: That was really emotional artwork for me, for sure. Because I had an opportunity to have a solo show. And I had just given birth to my child. And my mom started drawing and painting again after 24 years. And it was so amazing to see, and so exciting.
So I asked her during that time, “Do you want to show your work for this solo exhibition opportunity that I have, so that it’s your solo exhibition?” At first, she was really sort of nervous and upset about it actually. [laughs]
She got sort of nervous about the pressure because she was like, “I’m just doing this for fun and now you’re making me do an entire exhibition on it.” [Lillyanne laughs] She sort of freaked out that way. And I was like, “Okay, just think about it. I’m not pressuring you.”
And then it was so funny because she sent me a photo of the next painting that she made and I called her. I was like, “Oh, nice. That’s a really nice one Mom. Wow, you’re just cranking these out.” She’s like, “Yes, it’s for my solo show.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” That was my answer right there. [Aram and Lillyanne laugh together]
And so it was really exciting because then she created all these works. And it was the new works that she was making after 24 years of not making the work. It was so beautiful. I think, thinking about an art practice when you’re an artist, like for my mom, when I was talking to her about it, she’s like, “I love art. I always knew I loved art. It was such an important part of me.” And coming to the United States, like not being able to practice art, because she had no free time. And it was so pressing to make a living for the family, right. She sort of let that go.
And she was telling me that she thought for a while that it had left forever, that she would never make art ever again. It sort of came by surprise. And I think it sort of surprised everyone in the family and even herself, and all of a sudden, with the birth of my kid, and then my parents hired one more person at the cleaners to help them. She had a little bit more time. Then she started setting up her own painting studio, next to her sewing station at work, because they spent so much more time at work than at home. Then she just started making and it was just so beautiful to see that. And, when she walked into the exhibition, the pride that she took, and she was going around, saying hi to everyone, explaining to people how she made the works. And it was just… it was just so exciting to see that.
Lillyanne: Do you feel like it influenced your practice for your later works?
Aram: Yeah, absolutely. It’s really been important for me that we know that there’s so many artists and creative people within our communities, particularly in immigrant and refugee communities, right. There’s so many artists and creators. A lot of them are still creative in some kind of way, or making in some kind of way. And, if we sort of open our eyes to seeing that, it’s actually everywhere. I’ve been really excited to sort of dig into that and ask those questions.
There’s a sort of corner store here in Chicago called Kim’s Corner Food and Thomas Kong(4). He’s a Korean American immigrant. I think he immigrated here a very long time ago. He’s in his 70s. And he does all this collage in his store and covers every surface with all these collages that he makes.
There was a cafe here, not far from me, a few blocks from my house. And it was owned by Korean American immigrants. The guy that was running the store was building these Soju sculptures, like in the backyard, on the patio of his cafe. Just seeing this, I was like, “There’s so much art in our community. We’re just sort of not calling it art, or we’re not really paying attention.” So that’s been really important for me to think about. Access, right. To art. Who gets to call themselves artists, on what terms? And so, sort of trying to rupture. That is something I’m interested in doing more and more.
Lillyanne: Yeah, that’s also something I’ve been thinking about, as I’m only in my third month in my MFA, like, do I need to continue? And, on the other hand, I’m like, “Wow, being someone who is brown and getting an MFA.” That’s something that’s great to complete or something I’d want to achieve. But, at the same time, it’s like getting an MFA in social practice, when in fact, everyone I know in my communities are technically socially engaged artists. They just don’t have an MFA. It’s just really hard to process that.
Aram: Totally. Yeah, I mean, I think it is… You’re totally right. It’s like –– like I said, there’s so much art and creating within our communities… Like yeah… social practice … [Aram laughing] Exactly. Right. So many people are doing social practice. They just don’t know that that’s what it’s called, or they don’t call it that, or they don’t call themselves artists. And I think that’s hard to navigate. But I think, as an artist in the art world, it’s been exciting to then open those doors. Or not necessarily open those doors, but it’s like, whenever I get an opportunity, I bring other people with me.
Aram: Using my ability to go through those doors, like using my privilege, in order to bring people with me. I think that that’s something that’s pretty important to do. When you are able to access those PWIs (Predominately White Institutions) and get those degrees. You know.
Lillyanne: Mhmmmmmm. So I was wondering, how have you navigated using whiteness as a character within your work? I think for example, Messages from my Ancestors to Our Colonizers, and then the Taking Receipts project, the Citizenship Test Sampler, and then the Official Unofficial Voting Station. Using art to activate a topic around white supremacy and giving people of color agency and their voice, I was wondering, how has the role of whiteness changed in each of those projects? And where do you hope to go further with it?
Aram: What I’m always trying to do is center immigrants, center people of color, center who I am and my needs and my communities’ needs. Maybe it isn’t the first thought that I have, to fight whiteness. I think the first impulse I have is to center my communities. Just centering ourselves, it ends up being a statement against whiteness. Because that just tells us what kind of society we live in. In a lot of ways, it’s just about centering ourselves, telling our stories, and creating opportunities for us to connect with each other through art.
I think in a lot of ways each project sort of focused on different parts of it. So, I think the part where I am directly thinking about fighting against whiteness and white supremacy is Taking Receipts. The Cute Rage Press is a project in collaboration between Ishita Dharap and I. We started creating these stickers and books. Really silly, silly, sort of… it’s a silly project, right. Because how it started was like… Ishita is from India. And we’re both these sort of bubbly, cute, Asian American femmes. You know? We often talk about our cuteness as our weapon. So, we could call out more things, we could get away with more things because of our cuteness. We were thinking about this with the discrimination we were facing. I was like, “You know, I need a log all of this because ultimately, if I ever need to like file a complaint or go file a lawsuit or anything, I need like a meticulous log of all this discrimination I’m facing in my workplace. And that’s how the idea came about for the Taking Receipts book. It was book for us to log our incidents of discrimination so that we are armed with the tools to protect ourselves if we need to. You know?
Aram continued: And then the cute Put it on Blast! label-it stickers came from an also similar conversation where it was just like… There’s so much BS around me. I wish you just had stickers that said, like, “you’re racist,” “you’re sexist,” and “I hate you.” And I just wish I had these stickers. So, I could just label everything around me and give them to people. That’s how these stickers came about. That one, I think, is a direct response to the discrimination and just the bullshit we have to face as people who are marginalized by society.
But the other projects, in a lot of ways, I talked about them as rupturing dominant narrative. And sort of turning it on its head. With the Official Unofficial Voting Station, voting for all the people who really can’t, you know, this rhetoric around voting is that like, “We all can vote, we all have to change the world by voting.” Which is… true. But, we never have that conversation that talks about the fact that more than 28% of the population can’t legally vote.
Aram: Right. And so when we keep talking about, Voting is for everybody. Voting should be for everybody, then let’s do that. And I did that in my art project. Sometimes it’s rupturing that Western liberal language that makes a lot of people invisible, and sort of making it true, or putting it on its head to be like, this is actually not true at all. And this is actually… You know… democracy is always meant to keep certain people—people of color, right— it’s always meant to exploit… and it’s always to exploit us to keep us invisible. You know.
Lillyanne: You mentioned at the end of your article, “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School,” that we need a chance to be able to call out each other. You use the word… I think it was nice — no, not nice! I don’t use the word “nice.” But it was like… gently, gently calling someone out during class, and treating everyone with respect. And then I was wondering how… When I get mad, I get mad. And I want to say whatever I want out of my mouth. And you do mention that for some of your students, it’s clumsy and muddy. But the balance of taking care… like BIPOC students taking care of themselves in an MFA program.
While white students be like, “Don’t do call out culture! Don’t cancel us.” And then, you know, like as one of the only brown students, It’s like – no. You can’t use those words. Those words aren’t for you. And it just makes me frustrated.
So I was just wondering how to balance the two in an MFA program, like gently calling someone out, but then also taking care of your rage. And then also a comment on when white people use, “Don’t cancel us.”
Aram: Yeah, yeah. I wrote in that article that white culture is really good… Like, they’re really, really good at appropriating the things, like the critiques that are against them, and using it against us without any self-awareness. Right? And so I think that is definitely what’s happening. People who are always complaining about ‘cancel culture’ just don’t understand what that means. You know. [laughs]
Lillyanne: Uh.. YEAH.
Aram: It’s like, so devoid of context. Right. And so I think that definitely happens.
I think it’s really difficult, for sure, what you’re talking about, because I think in your situation and in a lot of people’s situation, it’s not on you to create that environment. You can’t create that environment, that safe environment by yourself. Right.
So if you don’t trust the people in the room around you, of course, you’re just going to be angry and you’re not going to call them out gently and trust that that will be taken as with love and care. Cause I think, you know, being Korean American, being Asian American, calling each other out is definitely an act of love.
Lillyanne: YES. [ laughs]
Lillyanne: YES. OH MY GOD. [Aram laughs]
Aram: My mom does that. My dad does that. My aunties do that. Like everybody does that. You know. And its cultural. You know?
Lillyanne: YES. IT IS.
Aram: Sometimes it goes far.
Lillyanne: Oh, no, I’ve cried a few times. But, at the end, it’s like “you know we love you.” And I’m like… [Lillyanne and Aram laughs]
Aram: So, there needs to be a balance there. [Aram laughing] But I do think it’s really important that we can tell each other when we’re doing something wrong. We can, you know… And I try to enforce that, of course. Like, my parents hate that you know… when you do something wrong, I’m not going to just wash it over, you’re gonna face those consequences. But, it’s like an act of love to make my child face those consequences with support.
Aram: I think it’s really hard to create that environment. And I think, as a teacher, I’m able to do that in my classroom. Because I’m creating this small bubble. I’m hoping that this small bubble will have an impact that goes outside of the small bubble. Right. And I think that’s why I’m a teacher. That’s why I love being an educator. I can model that. I could create support for students of color, for students who are marginalized, I can provide that support, you know, for all students, right. And if people get it wrong–– not to, not to jump to, you know, being aggressive or hurtful towards them, but also letting them see that this is an opportunity to learn, you know.
Aram: And so I think in that way, it’s difficult because that environment and that culture needs to be there, where people can call each other out, and feel safe doing it. I think we need to talk about that more in terms of, just as a culture, to talk about it more, like calling each other out, telling each other we’re doing something wrong. It’s actually really an act of care.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I feel like caring about wanting to make this space better for yourself, and then also for the future BIPOC students who come in the space. I definitely agree. And, those are my main questions. And I think the final questions would be, where are you going now with all this work? And what is your current work? Anything that you would like to say to end? And any guiding questions that you have for? Or love? Letters of love? Or a sentence of love? For BIPOC students?
Aram: Where do I start? [laughs] I am walking my dog, Bubble Tea Sifuentes (B.T.S. for short). [laughs] Today’s my studio day. I have two upcoming solo exhibitions, early 2022. So, I’ve been really busy working on that.
Aram continued: One body of work I’ve been diving into that sort of really exciting for me is … it comes from the Protest Banner Lending Library.(9) It’s where I’m working with different makers and designers and artists. And we’re creating protest garments. So it’s called a Protest Garment Lab.(10) And thinking about safety, right. I wanted to create these garments that had secret pockets that you could open up and appendages that you can open up, then they turn into these protest banners. And it’s been exciting, because yeah, when it opens up, it highlights this moment of transformation. And then it really emboldens the wear, you know, and then you could put it back away and it becomes discrete again. So, I’ve been working on that at the moment. It’s been really fun.
And I think that’s something that’s so important that I tell young people is that sometimes we get sort of bogged down, or, not bogged down, but we have this sense of responsibility that we have to tell these very serious stories, because what we address is very serious.
But never forget that we also come from, you know, joy and play and, you know, even! even! In our most hardest moments, I think, as people, we always come together and find ways to have fun. I think that’s been really exciting for me, to have so much fun making this new body of work.
I think the sort of advice and love letter I have for BIPOC students is that the art world needs you. [ laughs] You! You! We need you so badly, and it’s so important that you’re making the work that you do by telling your own stories, connecting to your communities. Just don’t forget that. Cause a lot of times being in a PWI… It’s hard and you are constantly negotiating, Should I even be here? But, we need you, you should be here. I need you!
And I’ve been trying to get my child who is six years old to listen to this one K-pop song just cause it’s so affirming. And so I think you guys should listen to that. It’s awesome. It’s called 달라달라 DALLA DALLA by Itzy. But it’s just the best. The main chorus is like, “I love myself, and I’m a little different, different.” I just love that song and I was playing it for my child all morning.
Lillyanne: Yeah, I get to design the webpage for the article. So I’ll definitely put the video as the first hyperlink.
Aram: I know! Isn’t it so cute that there’s like this K-Pop song that just talks about how I love myself because I’m unique and I’m different. This is so cute. This is the future. This is what I need.
Lillyanne: Yes! [Lillyanne and Aram laugh] Well, thank you so much for your time.
Aram: Yeah, thank you. Let’s be in touch. Let me know what you’re up to. Send me updates, add me to your newsletter and things like that.
Lillyanne: I’ll start a newsletter just for that. [Lillyanne and Aram laugh] Well, have a great day. Bye bye.
(2) Aram’s “How Internalized White Supremacy Manifests for My BIPOC Students in Art School,” Art Journal Open, 2021.
(3) Younghye Han: “My Mother’s First Exhibition, 2016.
(4) About Thomas Kong.
(5) Messages from my Ancestors to Our Colonizers, 2016.
(7) Citizenship Test Sampler, 2012-present.
(9) Protest Banner Lending Library, 2016-present.
(10) Protest Garment Lab, 2021-present.
Lillyanne Phạm (LP) (they/bạn/she/em/chị) was raised by Việt refugees in a trailer park near cornfields and suburbs (b. 1997). LP is a multimedia storyteller, placekeeping artist, social media scholar, and cultural worker. LP grounds their work in ancestral knowledge, the world wide web, and community-powered safety/sanctuary. Since graduating from Reed College in 2020, LP and their work has been rooted in East Portland exploring the power of BIPOC youth decision making. LP also builds community as a member of Metro’s Equity Advisory Committee (EAC), the Contingent’s SINE and ELI network, 2022 Atabey Medicine Apprenticeship, and the O82 Art Crew. You can follow LP’s work on IG: @lillyannepham or website: lillyannepham.com
Aram Han Sifuentes (she/they) is a fiber and social practice artist, writer, and educator who works to center immigrant and disenfranchised communities. Her work often revolves around skill sharing, specifically sewing techniques, to create multiethnic and intergenerational sewing circles, which become a place for empowerment, subversion, and protest. Her works have been exhibited at Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (Chicago), Hyde Park Art Center (Chicago), Chicago Cultural Center (Chicago), Pulitzer Arts Foundation (St. Louis), MCA Denver (Denver), and Moody Center for the Arts (Houston). Upcoming solo exhibitions will be presented at moCa Cleveland (Cleveland) in January 2022, and Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles) in April 2022. Aram is a 2016 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, 2016 3Arts Award and 2021 3Arts Next Level Awardee, and 2020 Map Fund Grantee. Her project Protest Banner Lending Library was a finalist for the Beazley Design Awards at the Design Museum (London, UK) in 2016. She earned her BA in Art and Latin American Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MFA in Fiber and Material Studies from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is currently an associate professor, adjunct, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. https://www.aramhansifuentes.com/
Be in the Play That You’re In
What does it mean to be of service as a performer?
The pandemic dovetailed with my first year in the Art + Social Practice program, and by the time I began school, I felt worlds away from my former life and priorities as a performer. I was sure I’d be hanging up my showman hat forever, in order to do something that was actually useful. New age composer Kay Gardner’s words— “May the work that I do be used for the greatest good”— became my motto. I didn’t perform for the next ten months. By the summer of 2021, though, New York nightlife had resuscitated, and suddenly I was being asked to play one show after another. I said yes to them all— there’s nothing like an opportunity to flex what you know how to do. August, September, October, November— I was back, baby.
But was I useful? As I enter year two of my MFA pursuit, I remain uncertain as to how I can be of service as a performer. Those of us trained to flourish in the spotlight sometimes get a bad rap for being self-interested, and as you’ll read below, we are often caged into a restrictive, fame-driven notion of success. But in fact, a performance is a practiced offering; it gives us a reason to gather, a sight around which to congregate, a collective experience that leaves us changed. Performance is its own form of dialogue with a public. It’s a mutually beneficial transaction. So, then, can entertaining be an act of hospitality?
Turns out Jibz Cameron, the Los Angeles-based performing artist I interviewed for this issue of SoFA, has had similar questions on her mind as of late: “What is it that you’re actually doing? Why does it matter? What is it for? Who cares?,” she asked emphatically over our video call. It is simultaneously relieving and disconcerting that Jibz, a longtime professional artiste and recipient of impressive art grants aplenty, still experiences existential crises such as these. If anything, it underscores the timeless utility of creative reflection.
Best known for her prolific 20-year output as Dynasty Handbag (the disheveled lesbian madwoman who functions as her performance vessel), Jibz’s work as a performer, actor, and visual artist spans comical live solo shows, multimedia performances, musical green screen videos, pervy drawings (see: Untitled Orgy #3), and a forever in-progress cable television show. In the midst of all this, Jibz also hosts and produces a wildly popular monthly variety show called Dynasty Handbag’s Weirdo Night at LA music venue Zebulon. Weirdo Night was initiated to fill a void in the Los Angeles scene, which was notably lacking in support for cross-genre artistry. This stitching together of comedy, music, video, and performance art resonated with locals and forged a community of devoted attendees.
An iconic solo performer, I was curious how Jibz’s outlook on performance might have been reshaped by her experience as a host in support of other wacky artists doing their thing. Spoiler alert: it did. We talked about performance as a service and a collaboration; and we talked about letting go of ambition and the importance, as a host, of creating a unified space for the performers and the audience.
Becca Kauffman: I was curious to know what a day in the life looks like for you, as a working artist. I’m just asking in terms of isolation, because I spend all day alone. I work from home, I live alone, and I zoom into grad school from thousands of miles away. I feel like, bizarrely, as a performer, my life is highly solitary considering that my work necessitates the presence of other people.
Jibz Cameron: Can I just say what you just said? Except for I don’t live alone, but yeah, it’s very isolating. But it’s interesting, because it’s different now. I guess I’m wondering, is this COVID or not COVID? Like, just regularness? I [live a] pretty standard, not very exciting lesbian life, you know? I take pretty good care of myself, though, I have to say. A lot of my life is about regulating my mania, and my workaholism. So I have to temper that a lot. I have to exercise a lot, I have to talk to a lot of people on the phone and check in. I’m sober, and in recovery. So I do a lot of maintenance. A lot of maintenance.
Becca: It’s a responsibility to do that. I also have a lot of self-help and self-healing practices in my daily life that sometimes I ask, is this really indulgent or selfish?
Jibz: It can be if you don’t have a goal— the point is so that you can be of service, that’s kind of where I’m at right now. Like, I have to view everything as service now. Not in a people-pleasing kind of way, just more a way of like, if this is going to benefit me being able to do my job better, being able to be a better friend, a better person, or not even better, I don’t even want to use that word, just like, more at peace— useful. And some of that includes like, a lot of napping, sometimes it’s really intense work. But I’m always trying to balance it, you know, because I have a tendency to go one way or the other. It’s all nap, or all work.
Becca: I totally resonate with your idea of service. That’s how I’ve started to think of my approach to performance in the last two years, as well. For me, there are parts of performing that are personal, process-oriented expressions and expulsions that need to happen, but at the same time, I can tell that there’s also a benefit for the other people who partake in those experiences. So how can I refocus my energy toward being of service to the people that come into the orbit of an idea or project that I have? Did your idea of service start to develop more because of the pandemic, or was it fermenting before that?
Jibz: Well, it’s been fermenting for a while. I think part of that was developing Weirdo Night and having to go through a process of giving it away and being like, this isn’t really even mine anymore. Because I would get on a lot of ego trip stuff, a lot of fear, and, Oh, now it’s really popular, so it has to be amazing all the time. I would just stop remembering that it’s for the people that are there; that it’s one show at a time, and people are there because they want to be, not because they’re like, Let’s see what you got. Maybe there’s one or two of those people, but who gives a shit?
Coming back into [performance after the pandemic], I was like, Okay, some shit has to be different now. Because I really wear myself out and overdo it, overwork. And I was like, that needs to stop. Because it’s not even possible anymore. Like, physically, I’ve slowed down— just the regular COVID shit, we’re like, Oh my god, this is hard. But also just mentally, it’s, who cares? Like, it’s fine. Just letting go of ambition and striving. I just want shit to feel good.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this too, where you thought a lot about what performance is, and what the relationship is, like what is it that you’re actually doing? Why does it matter? What is it for? Who cares? Because everybody was questioning what their place on Earth was, you know? A lot of like, Does my art matter, blah blah. I think it’s this weird symbiosis between, nothing matters because we’re all like, going down— the apocalypse is happening. It’s not like, not going to happen. So [art is] really important, but then it’s also not important at all. So it’s like these two things kind of converging in the middle. I think it’s important for the Now. But the future of it doesn’t matter. Your future doesn’t matter. Your success doesn’t matter. Whatever you deem matters in the future, doesn’t matter. And so that helps me a lot, thinking about putting Weirdo Night on again, which is what I just did for the first time. I had to keep that in mind a lot. You know, instead of this larger scope of like, The show is back! What’s it going to be like, how am I going to navigate the world? Who knows, maybe we’ll go into another lockdown in a month. There’s no planning anymore. There’s like, vague goals.
Becca: It’s like a reframing of ambition, because meaning and purpose is all chopped and screwed. The future is truncated, or like, what happens later, or after, or in some distance ahead of time, basically becomes irrelevant because we’re in this chaos soup with no bowl.
Jibz: Yeah, no bowl for the soup. And all those cliches of like, “Be here now” and “Love the one you’re with”— it’s like, Oh, right. That’s what that means. It just means like, your side of the street, taking care of your community, your neighbor, your stuff. Like what is in your hula hoop first, you know?
When the ‘plandemic(1)’ first started, I was about to make this little TV show. And we turned in our scripts, and then the next week was lockdown. And we haven’t heard back since. And that was what I thought my life was going to be. But I kind of just don’t even care. I’m like, I don’t know, what business do I have knowing what I’m supposed to be doing?
Becca: I had a similar crisis during the pandemic, where I was like, Fuck, I literally only have soft skills. How am I supposed to make myself useful during this time? I decided emotional catharsis is one way— trying to make sense of things by using your body and your psyche as some kind of vessel, being thoroughly explorative internally and then willing to fish it out and dredge it up for sharing. That’s a form of offering that also justifies taking care of yourself, tending to your well being and making sure that you have tools to find clarity within yourself so you can communicate or create some kind of collective experience that allows people to realize emotions they are having that they might not have been able to access before.
Jibz: Generally what art is for: moving you through feelings or concepts or thoughts that can’t really be expressed through language in the same way, or written. Anything that makes you think about anything differently is valuable, I think. That’s why I’m kind of like— maybe this is just a lame excuse, but— not really having a gauge or an interest in high or low art and just being like, anything that makes me see something different is totally valuable. And if it propels me in any way, and it’s not boring, I’m there for it. And I think it’s useful. Like trash TV, or whatever it is.
Becca: You’ve talked about your impetus to start Weirdo Night being the creation of this kind of between space, a container for genres that didn’t really have a meeting point in Los Angeles. Providing a place where people can go, belong, and feel included in a new genre.
Jibz: I personally have never really understood where my place in any genre was. I really don’t still. And I like that, that’s the cool thing about being an artist, is that you can do whatever the fuck you want. I sort of thought I wanted to be a theater actor. I went to art school and then I went to theater school. But it’s too small. It’s too narrow. It’s too one-thing for me.
One of the things I always think about is, a really great time for me was in San Francisco in the late 90s and early 2000s. Even though I always kind of hated living there because it’s really haunted and creepy, and I kind of just wound up there. But there was a moment there where I felt like, everybody was doing stuff, you could afford to live there, and there was no question of whether or not you were going to get famous by what you did or make any money. It was already accepted that it was never going to happen, especially there. And then when I moved to New York, I was like, Oh, everyone here is looking to be discovered. Because you can be discovered in New York, but you could not be discovered [in San Francisco]. There’s no one there to discover you. So I think that’s part of it, is just that age old stupid thing of like, art for art’s sake, just cause you want to.
Becca: So a blissful time in your creative past was a period in which there was no spectre of, interest in, or ambition towards fame and recognition, being discovered. But then you moved to New York, and after that you moved to LA. I feel like part of a narrative I’ve picked up from you over the years, through jokes and asides that you’ve told, is you trying to “make it in Hollywood;” and this failed TV show, which sort of tidily folds into the essence of Dynasty Handbag’s schtick: being a mess. I’m curious about the relationship that you now have to fame and ambition. You had the 90s in San Francisco, where those things weren’t on the table, and now post-pandemic, where it’s also not really on the table— maybe it is, but we’re not thinking that far ahead. Where does ambition lie for you? When you’re workaholic-ing, what are you working for, in your mind?
Jibz: So the workaholic-ing, it doesn’t really have ambition behind it. It has getting-high-off-of-anxiety behind it, which is something that I had to figure out: that I was like, I feel like I’m really ambitious, but I’m actually just an addict who wants to feel like I’m on drugs all the time. When I am in a creative place and I’m making work that I like, I don’t feel like that, I just feel happy and in the zone, and energized in a regular way. But when I’m manic— it’s really the “-aholism” that’s important about it. Like, working isn’t bad, working hard isn’t bad. It’s just the intention. So I have to calm myself down a lot to make work that is not fueled by mania. I think this goes back to what we were talking about before: I’m gonna have these projects and do my thing, but I’m not gonna grip onto them as though I know this is gonna be the thing. There’s no thing.
Becca: So you’re not looking for a thing anymore?
Jibz: No, not really. I just want my projects to be fun and to be with other people. And to have energy and maybe get folks paid, maybe get myself paid. But I don’t really know what that is and I don’t really care anymore. I have things I want to do, for sure. Like I would love to make a TV show because I think it’s great and I love all the people I was working with. But my writing partner Amanda Verwey and I have a pact that, if it started to be not fun, we would stop doing it. Because there’s a lot of miserable people in LA trying to get their TV shows made… I don’t know what’s best for me, is all I’m saying, success-wise.
Becca: I think as a performer, especially, there’s a singular expectation of what you want, or what you should want, and what other people want for you— for everyone to recognize your greatness— which means, become famous. It’s a huge burden because it makes it challenging to just enjoy small accomplishments; they’re never big enough or good enough.
Jibz: And they never will be, Becca, they never will be! Because I’ve reached every single milestone that I thought I wanted. I’ve literally done above and beyond what I ever thought was possible for me. And I’m still fucking shit for brains crazy. And I still have the same hang ups.
Becca: Okay, so I’ve been thinking about hospitality as an aspect of performance, especially in the role of a host.
Jibz: You are the fucking master stewardess of the universe.
Becca: Ah, haha. Thank you. I was wondering if the idea of hospitality, being hospitable as a performer, sets off any sparks in your mind in terms of how you approach being on stage, and creating an environment and a culture inside of your shows?
Jibz: I’ve seen a lot of drag queens in my day. I really think that model of hosting is where I get my inspiration from. I think the main thing about hosting is acknowledging the space that you’re in; acknowledging the reality of what’s going on. And helping people to feel like there’s someone in charge. I mean, with Dynasty Handbag, the fun part is that she’s in charge, but, do you really want that? It could go totally awry. But that’s the fun part. Because if you go to my shows, you know that it’s not going to go totally off the rails. It’ll go off the rails enough to keep it fun, but I’m not going to let anyone get hurt or say anything super fucked up— I’m not gonna make chaos for no reason, or make anyone feel bad. So that’s the main thing, is acknowledging what’s happening. Like, Oh, welcome to the show. So glad to be at Zebulon. I see we have blah, blah, blah, here. Watching drag queens is like that and then taking a piss on the whole thing, especially if it’s in any kind of a low brow situation.
It’s all these departure points of like, Oh, we’re all together. I like to talk about, Can everybody see? Oh, you can’t? Well, that’s too bad, because we’re in a class system. And the people who are more advanced got here earlier, and they’re in the front. So, just making it so that it’s like, the things that are awkward or uncomfortable about it are acknowledged. And I think it’s the same thing with hospitality in terms of when you go to a restaurant. I worked as a waitress for a really long time. All you need to do is smile at someone and say, Hello, I see you. I know you’re there. I’ll be with you as soon as I can. And then they calm down. If you go to a restaurant, and no one looks at you and you’re standing around, the person’s going to be angry in like, one minute. It’s just like, I see you. I see you’re here, I see you made the effort to get here. I like to acknowledge the fact that [Weirdo Night is] a gay space, queer space. You’re harming me if you’re heterosexual, and you’re here. But, you know, you can make it up to me by giving me your firstborn child. Because there’s always straight people that come to the show, and sometimes I know they feel weird. Because they’re like, Oh I’m in a queer space, am I allowed to be here? And I’m like, Yes, you’re allowed. And everyone’s a target, so we’re all on the same level. But I make myself the biggest target, so it can calm things down.
[At Weirdo Night] the tone changes a lot; you’ll have a really serious kind of thing that you don’t know if you’re supposed to take seriously, and then a comedian that you know you’re supposed to laugh at. My job is to weave it all together and make it okay; [so] that the experience is, We’re just here, checking things out. Like we’re really here just to support people that have a weird thing they do. And be entertained, and be in a live space that’s entertaining.
Becca: You’re reminding me of the eclecticism of Weirdo Night, and how prescriptive so many other spaces that performance takes place in can be. Like if you go to a music venue, your expectations are set to just see some bands play. And if you go to a comedy club, you’re primed to laugh, no matter what. So your job at Weirdo Night, because it’s beyond genre– like genre transcendent– is to keep holding that space of open-ended experimentation, and to create this lens where people don’t have a script of how they’re supposed to behave or respond to what’s happening.
Jibz: They don’t have a script. Exactly.
Becca: What’s the difference between how you approach your work on stage as the host of Weirdo Night versus when you’re doing a solo performance as Dynasty Handbag?
Jibz: It’s a pretty different thing. Weirdo Night is like, I’m thinking about this big macro thing that’s happening. Sometimes I forget to even plan what I’m going to actually do. I’m just thinking about putting the show together, collecting all the videos– you know, people walk in and there are videos playing, and that’s one of my favorite things to do, is find weird videos to play. I think about that too much. And then figuring out what I’m going to talk about, how I’m going to open the show. It is like a [late-]night show, like on TV, because I always reference things that are happening in a particular way. It’s like what you were saying, hospitality: Welcome to the space. I’m gonna guide you, here’s what’s going on, here’s the reality that I’m creating. And when I’m doing a solo thing, I can just go up with my laptop and just do whatever the fuck I want. You’re at a Dynasty Handbag show. But [Weirdo Night] is way more about the audience. Like at my own solo shows, I don’t care about the audience. [Laughs]
Becca: You did have everyone rearrange themselves according to height at the show I saw last week.
Jibz: I did. That’s true. Because that’s just basic, annoying shit, for people. And I really don’t like it when I can’t see the stage. It sucks. It’s like, you all paid the same amount of money.
Becca: I’m obsessed with trying to impart spatial awareness to a crowd of people whose attention you have. I did this show the other night, and I borrowed that request of yours. I said, Okay, you have one minute to arrange yourself according to height, shortest to tallest, oriented towards the stage. Go. And they all did it. It was very satisfying.
Jibz: Oh, I’m gonna steal that. Just as, like, a performance. You’re all in a performance now. Go! Quickly!
Becca: That’s what I’m trying to do— I was talking to you about this after your recent show at Union Pool in New York. I’ve been researching larp (live action role play) as a way to rethink what I’m doing onstage as less of a performance and more of a structured improvisation through character. Eventually I’m trying to rope everyone else into it, too, and decenter myself somehow. Not in an annoying, like, Can I get a volunteer from the audience, kind of way. Because I hate that.
Jibz: I should be like, Can I get a volunteer from the audience to leave? Because it’s real crowded in here. Someone needs to give up their seat. Can you take a later flight, please?
Becca: You can give them a voucher.
What does Dynasty Handbag mean as a character? Is it a character? Or is it just a formal name to you now, for when you’re operating in a performance state of mind?
Jibz: I think it’s that [just a formal name]. I mean, I do think it’s changed a lot since I started hosting, because when you’re hosting, you have to acknowledge reality. Even if it’s skewed, and you’re making things up. It would be disrespectful for me to not say who was coming on the stage and just make something up. I need to frame it for people that are there. I need to be respectful of the artists. I can’t just live in Dynasty Handbag’s reality. So they’ve definitely melded a lot more, because I have to be in whatever this reality is. And if I’m just doing my solo thing, I don’t have to do that, really. Like I don’t have to engage in anything that isn’t conceptual. Unless I’m like, Can I get something in the monitor? You know, like those moments. But as Dynasty Handbag, I have to incorporate that reality and sort of filter it through her, and make it funny. So that’s how it sort of ends up coming out.
One time, there was a kitten that [accidentally] came onstage at Weirdo Night. And that was… For real, Dynasty Handbag left the room. I became like, lesbian Jibz— animal rescuer, vegetarian nerd took over. I did not know what to do, it was so weird. There’s an alleyway [below the venue] and the kitten was living down there. Somehow it got upstairs and got on stage. And I was completely derailed.
Becca: I mean, I don’t know you very well, but I feel like when I’ve seen you perform, I’ve been watching you and Dynasty in dialogue. I gather there’s a lot of improvisational moments and responsive decision making, and that sometimes I’m witnessing, as an audience member, a discovery that you’re making about what you chose to do as Dynasty. So I don’t feel like you’re absent. And also people have their own kind of wrapped-in-plastic idea of the person in the spotlight; everything and anything you do is generally accepted and understood as a purposeful, in-character move. The idea of you feeling like you broke character to take care of the cat— a lot of people might not have even seen that you stepped into full Jibz in that moment.
Jibz: I don’t think they did, but my body did. I left that consciousness. And usually when I’m on stage, I don’t leave the consciousness. Even if something kind of throws me a little bit, I can quickly make a decision that it’s Dynasty Handbag, like exactly what you said. I can stay in character, what have you. I can method act my way through moments, you know. So if there’s a real thing happening that needs to be dealt with, I can deal with it as this person. I can make that happen pretty quickly. It’s cool to hear it reflected that you observe decision making, but that’s what improv is, is just watching someone decide things and you’re like, What? How did that come out?
Becca: My favorite part of that process, as a witness, is seeing an actor surprise themself, or notice what they did and react to it. It’s like a live laboratory.
Jibz: Like when you’re watching SNL and you know someone’s improvising and their scene partner is like, losing it.
Jibz: It’s the best moment— you know they’re just being like, You are so fucking funny I can’t stand it.
Becca: Yeah, exactly. It’s like a hyper presence, too, because you’re riding the line of reality and the fictitious world that you’re inventing in real time. It’s magic.
My own performance persona, Jennifer Vanilla, is for me an imprint of influences that I need to purge somehow through my own interpretation.
Jibz: Purge and celebrate. It’s the same with me. Even Weirdo Night, my dream is to have that as a series, like make more of the films, but then have a set, too. It would be like all the stuff that I was totally hypnotized by as a kid, The Muppets, Soul Train Solid Gold, all the variety shows I loved, like Carol Burnett. I was so into that stuff. That stuff kind of saved me. And it’s all in there. I didn’t know what I was even laughing at, but I knew that women who were exaggeratedly feminine and ridiculous were funny. I didn’t know what that was, but I knew it was funny. And I knew that I identified with it. I know what it is now, because gender is ridiculous… I didn’t feel like a woman in the right way. I never have. I always felt repulsed by any kind of femininity that was subscribed, you know? I just didn’t get it. So I feel like Dynasty Handbag is a lot of that. And also my mom was kind of a hippie. She came from Vermont and she was from a farming family. So she was very sturdy. She never wore makeup. She was not a “together” woman. She never looked feminine, she didn’t really know how to put that all together, really. She was also pretty mentally ill. So there’s also that part of it. She’s definitely in Dynasty Handbag, in that way— a reality that no one else is experiencing around you.
Becca: You grew up in a commune kind of scenario, is that right?
Jibz: Commune adjacent. To be fair, the commune wasn’t dysfunctional. It was really my particular set of parents. I mean, there was dysfunction there, of course, but they weren’t abusive, or culty, or freaky. They were just like hippie-activist-clown people.
Becca: There’s something about growing up outside of the mainstream in that way, in terms of a family arrangement. I have my own version of that— I have lesbian parents and a gay dad, and I was very consciously brought into this world via turkey baster in 1984. There’s this plasticity that your work and my work share: the interpretation of the human condition, the complicating and operating outside of gender norms. Neither of my moms or the women that they eventually got involved with after they split, are decidedly femme or butch. They don’t express their queerness in fixed, cookie cutter terms. There was no one feminine in my family, and no one really particularly masculine either. I wonder what the effects are, just hearing about your background too, of growing up with nothing nearby to rebel against or be repelled by.
Jibz: Yeah, the thing that I’m repelled by, are hippies. [Laughs] But I’ve thought a lot about my mom, because I get this sort of label of “failure of a woman,” putting it all together wrong, and stuff. And I think that’s part of it, is that I never had that modeled… Most of the women models in my life were really scrappy. You know?
Becca: Yeah. And is that okay?
Jibz: Like there was no makeup in my house, or heels, or like blow dryers. Do you know what I mean?
Becca: Yeah. Were you drawn to any of that? Did you bring it in?
Jibz: I was drawn to it. But in this very weird way. I had this obsession with— I loved it, but I knew that it was sort of theatrical; it was always a play thing— my friend and I had this thing where we would play hookers. We didn’t know what hookers were, but we knew that they smoked cigarettes, and we knew that they wore pumps. Because it was the ’80s, so every ’80s woman looked like that, right? So it was this thing of like, dragging, that I grew up with. I didn’t have any real model for that, so it was all TV and films. I didn’t know any women like that. It always seemed like just something that was only on TV, you know?
Becca: Do you think that growing up outside of and far away from mainstream norms make them seem exotic, glamorous even, because the only way we accessed them is through the media?
Jibz: [My] first introduction to art was crazy hippie clowns who were being activists and getting run out of town because of their antics. That was what [I] grew up with. I grew up with political lampooning. And so I was really drawn to that stuff, the glamour and all that stuff, but I knew that there was something inherently not good about it. That it was all a sham. And, you know, that the government lied, and all that stuff. This commune that I grew up around, they started a summer camp for kids for performing arts and circus arts, and my parents both worked at it. I went there from the age of six to age 12 or 13. And it was by far the best thing about growing up, it was so much fun. It was Wavy Gravy’s camp, the emcee of Woodstock, the hippie clown. So he was my improv teacher. And everything was, you know, making fun of the Man, it was all beatnik humor. But underneath it is very earnest… weirdos, like weird people. Not like peace and love hippies with patchouli, like weird people.
Becca: It’s like a consciousness that you were imbued with from a young age, a commentary or an outside perspective where people poked holes in structures and systems. Maybe that’s how you learned to do it. And it’s sort of been the perspective that you operate from ever since?
Jibz: But I’ve always been that way. I know that just from things that my parents have told me about what I was like. I was always sort of… I was disruptive and disrespectful of authority and systems. I didn’t buy it, or something, like even before I knew what it was. I don’t know why I was like that. I was always suspicious. That’s not entirely true— I remember being in school when I was really little and enjoying it and stuff. But once that crack in the psyche comes at like, 11, 12, forget it. I was like, No, this is all wrong. I’m getting out of here.
Becca: What purpose does music serve for you in your performances?
Jibz: I think more than any other medium, I’m inspired and moved by music. I love to listen to music. It sounds stupid. It’s like when people say, I love comedy. It’s like, of course! Who doesn’t love music? Duh. But I’m very compelled physically by music. I cannot-not dance if there’s music playing that I like. I’m really a dork in that way. I’m one of those people that, I hear a song, I want to hear it a million times, I memorize all the lyrics. The timing is really important to me too. I think about song structure and I like thinking about, like, what goes into music and how difficult it is, and how it’s like this magic thing that happens. It makes me happy, I’m moved by it. I have to listen to music every day, I like to listen to music really loud. It can make me have feelings, if I need to have a feeling. I can listen to a song and, you know, lay on the floor and cry or whatever. How it works for me now is to help a narrative or a story, or help me move. A sound can help me move on stage.
Most of the time, what I want to do is like, a cover of a song that’s really fucked up. Like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song or something. I really love working with the familiarity of something, something that everybody knows. And then you’re like, What is Dynasty Handbag gonna do with this? And what is this interpretation? That’s what I’m good at. Nobody wants to see me actually play a cover of that— who cares? So I have to think a lot about, What do I need to get this thing across that I’m trying to do? And am I working too hard at it? And is it actually funnier and more interesting to just have like, a stupid reference to this thing instead of actually build a background or make a fancy costume or make a set? It has to really serve Dynasty Handbag, and most of the time she doesn’t really need that much.
Becca: Performing a song that produces a collective recognition in the crowd, like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, creates an instant release in that moment. It just made me think, that’s kind of what your persona, and sometimes a persona in general, does: draw in and interpret a set of disparate-but-familiar references to produce this trippy experience where little glimpses of recognition come through for people at different times. That’s like the meat of it.
Do you have a goal for your live performances? How do you conceive of your role and purpose as an entertainer, when you go out to do a show? Let’s say, specifically a solo show?
Jibz: I mean, besides just making people laugh, and maybe we’ll have a good time. Freaking people out? I think that’s internal, but I don’t actually think about that before I go out. I don’t think about it in terms of a goal. I do sometimes have to tell myself, These people are here because they want to be here. They’re not your enemy. I don’t have to prove anything. I’ve already got the job. I can stop auditioning, I can stop applying for the job that I already have. So just do your job. That’s kind of what it is. And sometimes I’m scared and I’m not in the zone. But as you know as a performer, you get there. You have little things you can do onstage to refocus or, sometimes I close my eyes if I’m just like, Okay, I’m not connecting with the audience. I need to go inside, to connect to something. And then that’ll come out, and I’ll get connected. Or I have to totally dissociate and go into an imaginary place. Did I do that thing at Union Pool where I’m like, in the woods?
Becca: With the guided voiceover? Yeah, I’m obsessed with that.
Jibz: When I’m doing that stuff, I really am, like, in the woods, like I’m there. I’m thinking about everything that that voice is saying. I’m basically just being in a play. So I guess the goal would just be, to be in the play. Be in the play that you’re in. That I wrote. Or that’s being written by me and the audience in the moment. Be in that place. And that’s really what people want to see, too, is you just experiencing something, and, what you said, filtering it out and embodying it and stuff. And now that I have enough of an audience, there’s this other relationship in place where, if I’m performing for an audience that I know doesn’t know me, my shit is a little bit different. And if I’m performing for my audience, you know, there’s a language there already set up. Not everybody’s like that. Some people just get up and they do what they do. And that’s what they do. And that’s also totally rad.
Becca: But there’s something cool about making adjustments, being aware of who you’re engaging with and making choices to help people who aren’t familiar with your work access it, and get the gist of it all. Also, it helps you have a more successful show and feel understood.
Jibz: Yeah, you’ve got to comfort yourself, too, you gotta familiarize yourself with it. Making a joke about the space you’re in is always a great entryway. Like, you know, Does anybody smell a fart? Whatever it is. Or did anybody get intimidated by the person who took your ticket? Anybody feel like they don’t belong? Anybody scared? Bringing my own vulnerability first.
Becca: It seems like, potentially, now that we’ve gone through the pandemic, and as performers kind of bottomed out or felt sort of taken out of the equation for a while; now that we have audience back, and the opportunity to be inside of a real space with people, there’s even more of a desire to collaborate with the audience in real time, because it’s a fleeting moment, more pronounced than it was before. Is there a collaborative element between you and the audience?
Jibz: Yeah, always, that’s what a live performance is. It’s a collaboration. It’s not mine, it’s ours, in a lot of ways.
(1) This came out of Jibz’ mouth as a hilarious and accurate flub of speech
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a performance artist based in New York City with an interactive, genre fluid approach to their multidisciplinary solo work. Their self-guided career through art, music, comedy, theater, and dance converges in the cultivated pop persona, Jennifer Vanilla, a world-building fantasy vessel through which Becca creates original voice-oriented dance songs, choreographed stage shows, musical albums, radio shows, videos, and merchandise-as-conversation-pieces. Becca was a member of the experimental Brooklyn pop band Ava Luna for ten years, and is now a second year MFA candidate in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University, where they are working to incorporate socially engaged art strategies into their performance work. They are currently exploring the potential of live action role play to carve out new social and relational spaces and possibilities. A catalogue of projects past and present can be found on their website, and portal to all things Jennifer is @jennifervanilla.
Jibz Cameron (she/her) is a performer, visual artist and actor. Her multi-media performance work as alter ego Dynasty Handbag has spanned over 15 years and has been presented at arts venues such as The New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Broad Museum, The Hammer Museum, REDCAT, The Kitchen, BAM, Centre Pompidou among others. She has been heralded by the New York Times as “the funniest and most pitch perfect performance seen in years” and “outrageously smart, grotesque and innovative” by The New Yorker. She has written and produced numerous performance pieces, dozens of video works and 2 albums of original music. Jibz produces and hosts Weirdo Night, a monthly comedy and performance event in Los Angeles. She is a 2020 Creative Capital Grant awardee and a 2021 United States Artist Award recipient. She recently sold a short series to FX network titled Garbage Castle, which is on hold due to Covid. Her film Weirdo Night, directed by Mariah Garnett (a movie version of the live show) is a 2021 Sundance Film Festival selection. She lives in Los Angeles.
I’m Curious About You?
This interview, conducted over the phone, is a collaboration between H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams, Desire Grover, and me. During the Fall 2021 interview for SoFA, Desire asked me a question that we chose to leave unanswered until we had the space, but it certainly needed to be answered. This interview is a follow up on that previous conversation, where Desire gets the opportunity to interview me.
This series of interviews is a part of an ongoing dialogue and serves as an entry point into a project Williams, Grover, and myself have been developing since 2017: a collaborative book project titled Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze. At the epicenter of this critical collaboration are two sets of images: the work I completed as a photographer and journalist, covering the city of Chester, Pennsylvania from 2008-2016, and photographs from my childhood archives. Using the latter, we built a visual glossary of white racial tropes to unpack my relationship to whiteness. We use this framework to reconsider my work in Chester, along with other contemporary and historical local media coverage of the city, to elucidate the ways the white gaze reflects its own values when reflected off of the bodies of Black people.
Chester: Staring Down the White Gaze will be published as a collaborative book project of co-authors from the city who tell their own narratives: Desire Grover, illustrator; Wydeen Ringgold, citizen journalist; Leon Paterson, self-taught photographer; and Jonathan King, activist and educator. Throughout the pages of the book, the co-authors are in conversation with me about my images through handwritten text that analyzes, critiques, questions, contextualizes, and interprets the nature of the white gaze that is placed on their community.
Desire Grover: Actually, I’m curious about you. I’m curious what it is that you were looking for when you decided to come to Chester with your camera? Why couldn’t you just go in your own community? And have you gone into your own community with the same expectations? What were those expectations about Chester that are not the same for your own personal community, where you grew up?
Justin Maxon: I came to Chester for two main reasons: I honestly didn’t see myself as white as other white people, and I was seeking connection with my camera. Which is ironic because photography is all about control right? How can you have connection with an undercurrent of control? That’s how whiteness seeps into play. This contradiction was pressed upon me being a white son to a white father. I learned connection through my own historic trauma being a white person. My subconscious thought that the camera would lead me to connection. The reason I was looking for it in Chester ties into the fact that growing up, I never felt I had “my own” community growing up in Humboldt County, CA.
Justin: My father lived on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation my whole childhood, and my mother lived in Eureka, CA. My time was split between the two places. So, I never felt settled in one place. Growing up on the reservation as a person racialized as white, I was always reminded that I wasn’t part of this space. I wasn’t part of this community. Eventually, that became familiar. The things we seek out as adults in many ways are recreations of the dynamics at play in our childhood.
Desire: Not to throw you off or anything, but I’m kind of curious – in a nutshell, are you saying that pretty much you saw yourself as experiencing on some level what it meant to be other?
Justin: Yes, problematically so. It’s the cool white boy, right? He is the white boy who takes on the traits of BIPOC folks.
Desire: My man.
Justin: Exactly, they extract Black aesthetics from Black culture. When white people feel like they don’t belong in the fold of whiteness – when they’re on the fringes – we have the sensation of what it feels like to be the other. I never felt accepted. I didn’t grow up with family on both sides. It was me, my mother, and father. They both moved away from their families.
Desire: Did you interact with the community there?
Justin: Definitely. Just some context to my living conditions there: my father was extremely poor. We lived in abject poverty. He was disabled, obese, and had a serious mental illness. He slept all day, like he was literally in bed all day. And so, I just did whatever I wanted. I had a handful of friends that were my age that were indigenous and we just did whatever we wanted. They’re familial experiences were similar to mine. We didn’t have parental supervision growing up. My whiteness was reflected back on me. People saw me as the white kid that hung out with Carlie [my best friend growing up in Hoopa]. It just became accepted, like what happened in Chester.
Desire: For you, that seems familiar, you just gravitate to it. It’s your norm. It’s just water, yes?
Justin: Yes, exactly.
Desire: Yeah, it’s how we cope.
As social animals, what we do to accommodate our needs for acceptance and community engagement is nature. It’s not natural for anyone to not want to engage another human being. It’s deeply a part of what we are as humans. To me there are these little funny moments, where I feel like we’re not even talking as much about race as we’re talking about the need to be accepted, the need to have community. Certain cultural norms can either hinder that or help that.
Justin: That makes sense.
Desire: I believe that racism is a privilege. And the reason I refer to it as a privilege is because it is something someone can do when they think they can afford it.
Justin: That makes complete sense.
Desire: Right, for example, when you think about what happens to some of these bigots who go out in public and do crazy things right, and they start crying as soon as there’s backlash. They start falling apart. You just get blown away like, Wow, they were so full of arrogance just five minutes ago. That act of shunning is very powerful. Either they double down even harder because it’s hit them so hard or they completely flip the other way. To be shunned is not a simple thing; it’s not a little thing [for us] as human beings.
I noticed in my life so many people who have been bigoted that I’ve had to engage with, oftentimes would not give me eye contact.
Justin: The connection, they feel like they don’t need it?
Desire: Two things I feel like are happening. One, they don’t want me to be human, so they can’t look me in the eye. That would mean they might see humanity and then it makes them feel some kind of way. Or, secondly, the power of robbing me of that connection is what they’re utilizing in that moment. I can steal from you the acknowledgment of your humanity.
Justin: At the same time they’re robbing themselves of their own.
Desire: Right, right.
Justin: The reason why they can’t afford to do that is because they have this perception, right.
Desire: Yeah, they think they have this endless support system.
What happens when that same bigoted man is in Nigeria and is looking for someone to relate to? He hears my voice speaking with an American accent, and gets excited because someone speaks English in a way that is familiar [laugh].
Racism is such a sham. It’s not what we naturally do. It’s what systems empower us to be able to do. Even now, this whole lie about the election, they’re seeing there’s a power dynamic shifting, so they have to build up another foundation to keep things status quo. We’re not going to go by these rules anymore. You know how kids do in the sandbox? They play in a game, and then the one starts losing and then they destroy the whole game. Now nobody can play! That’s pretty much what is happening right before our eyes.
I insist that racism is a privilege and a lot of people who exercise racism wouldn’t dare if they were in that minority position.
Justin: Exactly. I think what we are talking about is more connected to conservative white America, who feels like they have that wealth of connection in their own white space, so they don’t need to acknowledge someone else’s humanity. Circling back to my own experience with racism, i.e. my desire for connection. For white liberals that grew up, such as me, disconnected from white spaces, they feel like they have to find connection to humanity in whatever space they are in. Because I had that proximity to a BIPOC space, I felt like some part of me belonged in a non-white space. That I could work in a BIPOC space as a professional. That I could operate with the mechanisms of power in a BIPOC space in a way that was useful. When I went into Chester, I honestly thought that I was being useful. Obviously, that screams white savior. Because the criticality of whiteness wasn’t part of my education, it wasn’t part of my parental upbringing, I was able to cause tremendous harm because of my comfortability within BIPOC spaces. Harm that conservative white America could never cause because of a lack of proximity. This is something I’ve read, that white liberal folks cause the most harm to the bodies of BIPOC folks on a daily basis.
Desire: I find it fascinating how often my liberal white friends, or acquaintances, more so, have a tendency to carry a lot of the same assumptions as the so-called conservative. But they’re not honest about it, they wait until they’re in crisis, and then it comes out. It can be very dangerous. [In my graduate program] we were just reading Audrey Lorde, Sister Outsider, and there’s a part where she’s talking to a fellow colleague, a white woman in the feminist movement, who uses her words without consent and within this bizarre context that puts Black women in this negative light. Well, long story short, we ended up having a discussion as to why Audrey would embarrass this woman in front of everyone – not initially, she tried to have a private conversation with her, but she didn’t get any real engagement from her colleague. I was the only Black person in class [laughs]. I was just like, Oh, here we go. It is not uncommon for white people who regard themselves as my friend, and so on, to end up failing when it counts. Black people are so used to that. Like when you were talking about [how] there’s a certain kind of social living that you were used to, and you kept trying to recreate that, right? There’s a certain level of low expectation that I must have or I will be devastated way too often. It’s to the point where certain scenarios have happened, and I’ve been able to predict the outcome. Oh, ok, this move they’re going to be this defensive, they’re going to stonewall me here, they’re going to do this number. It all plays out, because the truth is, it’s very difficult for folks to know who they are until they’re in crisis.
The work you’re doing to yourself is so exceptional, so uncommon, that on some level it kind of scares me.
Justin: It’s scary because of how elastic whiteness is. So, even in this context of me confronting myself, whiteness can still rise to the top. Best selling author Robin DiAngelo is a prime example. DiAngelo confronted herself and now she’s getting paid tens of thousands of dollars to go and lecture for an hour. So, this criticality is now a commodity good to be bought and sold.
Desire: Audrey Lorde talks about how there’s certain conversations that only white people can have with white people. I do think there is a certain level of conversation that I just can’t have. It is dangerous for me. People are rejecting your lived experience. Oftentimes, I don’t feel like I get to have the conversation I want to have and then that compounds the trauma. They’re responding to someone who is not like them in their minds. So, this conversation really is supposed to be between white people and white people.
Justin: Maybe we shouldn’t have this conversation now?
Justin: I was just trying to honor what you just said. Forcing you to have this conversation would be the last thing I wanted to do.
Desire: No, no, I totally agreed to it. I actually instigated the conversation because I wanted to finish it. I feel like we have conversations that I definitely want to have.
When it comes to the population at large and how white people respond, really there’s nothing that a non-white person, I think, can say or do, as powerful and dynamic as hearing it from another white person.
Justin: Which is unfortunate.
Desire: Is that unfortunate or is that just how humans respond? Like there’s certain conversations you can’t have with Black people, Justin. It’s just not happening. You can try and then end up with eggs and tomatoes. You could even say exactly the same things I’m saying, and they could be 100% true, but it’s coming from you. There are certain conversations I can have with evangelicals because I know stuff. I know what you’re thinking, I know what the manipulation buttons are. So, they can’t play me in the conversation like they might a Catholic person. We need to be open to the leverage we have in certain communities and just have to bear the brunt.
Justin: Yeah totally. I think just for me it’s relevant to look at DiAngelo as an example, in relation to who’s labor is fairly compensated within the context of conversations around critical race theory. After many conversations with Herukhuti, he has mentioned that while working within white spaces for decades, his time and energy has never been compensated fairly. So, for a person like Robin DiAngelo to be made a celebrity overnight, it’s bypassing the labor of BIPOC scholars and thinkers. This is certainly a trap of whiteness that I could see myself falling into. If I am gaining social capital from this work, how am I distributing that?
Desire: So, in what way is Robin on some levels substantively impacting the conversation of race beyond becoming a guru of some kind? Yeah, that’s always tricky business and I’ve heard this word “grifting” being used a lot more. Man, capitalism don’t give any fucks. It will manipulate anything, and nothing is sacred.
I used to be a very anti-platform person. I just hate the idea of being that front person. I grew up as a preacher’s kid, so giving praise to somebody just because of the position they are in is weird. I hate it, so I understand the aversion, but at the same time, there is a role that someone has to fill. If nobody’s filling that space we’re going to have compounded problems. We will reward someone to the point where they become useless. That’s how the platforms are; they try to over expose you so you’re the only voice they will tolerate.
Justin: Yeah, that’s it! That’s how whiteness slips through. If there’s only a singular voice allowed to speak, it doesn’t become something that’s on everybody’s tongue.
Desire: Exactly. These Messiahs they put out, oh, they’re allowed to dissent. They do that to comedians. We gotta laugh at all of it. Let’s laugh. Haha. They are so wise, let’s laugh with them. Then you just go home and do nothing with it, because you laughed it all out.
One of the tactics the police would do when we would do sit-ins, they wouldn’t come in with force. They have these police officers that are more well trained than the ones you have on the street. And they played little mind games with you. Say if you are in a group obstructing traffic, they’ll send police officers, but they don’t look like police officers and they don’t talk like police officers. They actually will listen to your concerns and go, “Ohhh, okay.” They’ll let you just talk it out, talk and talk it out and by the time people are done all their frustrations are down because they’ve had this conversation. And then they’re able to pick you off one by one, away from the line. Like, “We want to just talk to you, do you really think the others should be here? Because we can set up a meeting…” They do it more so in places like Harrisburg and [Washington] DC, the closer you are to the politicians. If you are out and on the block, they’re just gonna tear gas your face.
Oftentimes we are given these Messiahs that can talk about it, and because it’s being said, we think it is being taken care of.
Justin: That’s interesting psychology, I never even thought about that.
Desire: It’s a game. Human beings wanted an excuse not to do anything. Ah, I just want my latte. Cheeseburgers and fries right now, can we not deal with this? But now the Internet has made it dangerous. Now you have these weird wanna-be prophets everywhere. They’re in people’s heads all the time. On a loop. YouTube will loop the same video over if you let it.
I find it intriguing, where you, as a young white man, put yourself in the position of the other. I find that to be a fascinating thing, because most human beings don’t want to be the Other. They don’t want to be the odd one out. You know, they just want to fit in, be normal. I would be curious about that beyond just the issue of race? There has to be another narrative unfolding?
Justin: I was most certainly an outsider in any context I was in. I was disempowered my whole childhood. I was shunned deeply because of how I embodied my masculinity. My failure to meet the criteria of my outward appearing gender identity was dangerous for me. I grew up drowning in hypermasculinity. I was terrorized every day of my adolescence; I had ten bullies, and one was in my home. There was no escape. I never felt I could be myself. In subsequent years, I came to realize Oh, I’m not straight, and Oh, I can express my gender in a way that’s not so binary, and it’s acceptable.
But again, we are talking about proximity again, right? When you look at the intersection of power and privilege, I don’t think you can get any more dangerous than my childhood. As as white person, with a disempowered youth, who learned how to pass at being cis and straight to survive, even though I’m neither, I have forward access to the mechanisms of power. I caused harm without recognizing it because of this intersection within my identity.
Desire: What did it take for you to even realize you had power and why? You’re someone who was bullied, and I would imagine there was a period of your life where you didn’t feel you had power.
Justin: I think the camera. I started to come into my power when I had a camera in my hand regularly. I started to see myself as being worthy of my humanity. I still cling now to it, as an almost 40 year old man, the validation that comes through the things that I do with my camera. I rely on it more than the validation that comes from the human being I am. Becoming a photographer didn’t happen overnight. It took me many years before I could just go up to anyone and talk to them. Eventually when it became second nature, that’s when I was like Oh, I’m strong. I can go and put myself in any space that I have the courage to. That is extreme privilege. At the time, I saw it as more personal power; Oh look, I’m overcoming the limitations of my childhood. I’m overcoming the traumas of my adolescence.
Desire: The camera was a kind of a force field.
Justin: Exactly. It makes sense that it would be the thing that I would use to cause the greatest harm right. This makes me think about the way in which white people can cause harm; their greatest accomplishment causes the greatest harm.
Desire: The camera is a powerful tool. It brings a vulnerability out of perfect strangers and it gives context to why you are there. You’re the camera person.
Justin: What is so troubling is that I was there for that reason. People in Chester would call me up and I would photograph countless parties, birthdays, and weddings. I would print out the pictures for free. But, at the same time, I was working on my own “project,” for a white audience that wanted to hear what I had to say. So, on the one hand, there was this genuine generosity, which allowed me the access, but there was this deep harm that was also happening at the same time.
Desire: Because you were responding to what you thought that audience wanted to see? You weren’t going against the grain of their expectation.
Justin: The audience that I was speaking to were not interested in the snapshots of people’s lives. They wanted the drama.
Desire: The Black death.
Justin: Yes, exactly.
Desire: I wonder what else are we willing to let happen on camera?
Justin Maxon (he/him) is an award-winning visual journalist, arts educator, and aspiring social practice artist. His work takes an interdisciplinary approach that acknowledges the socio-historical context from which issues are born and incorporates multiple voices that texture stories. He seeks to understand how positionally plays out in his work as a storyteller. He has received numerous awards for his photography and video projects. He was a teaching artist in a US State Department-sponsored cultural exchange program between the United States and South Africa. He has worked on feature stories for publications such as TIME, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, Mother Jones, and NPR.
Desire Grover (she/her) studied digital illustration & design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She’s been an illustrator for 18 years. She illustrated the four-book series called Hey L’il D by Bob Lanier. Over the years she has done art workshops for her community. She published her first children’s book, For the Love of Peanut Butter, and is currently working on a graphic novel called, The Fatherless Messiah.
H. “Herukhuti” Sharif Williams PhD (he/him), is the founder and chief erotics officer of the Center for Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality. He is a playwright, stage director, documentary filmmaker, and performance artist. Dr. Herukhuti is the award-winning author of the experimental text, Conjuring Black Funk: Notes on Culture, Sexuality, and Spirituality, Volume 1 and co-editor of the Lambda Literary Award nonfiction finalist anthology and Bisexual Book Awards nonfiction and anthology winner, Recognize: The Voices of Bisexual Men. Dr. Herukhuti is a core faculty member in the BFA in Socially Engaged Art, co-founder and core faculty member in the Sexuality Studies undergraduate concentration at Goddard College, and adjunct associate professor of Applied Theatre Research in the School of Professional studies at the City University of New York.
We often discuss interdisciplinary communication and collaboration in the Art and Social Practice Program at Portland State University. Our classroom is populated by people from different backgrounds, which challenges us to find points of connection. The group’s composition changes every year and evolves with individuals’ new research, opening up space for unpredictable shared discoveries and debate. As a student in my third and final year in the program, I am now considering ways to maintain this kind of interaction beyond the classroom.
William Padilla-Brown is a self- and community-taught citizen scientist whose approach resists categorization. His constantly expanding work and research includes mycology, phycology, molecular biology, 3-D printing, writing, rapping, singing, foraging, and living. His Cordyceps Cultivation Handbook (Volumes 1 and 2) were the first books on the subject published in English. All of the images that accompany this interview appeared on his active social media accounts, and he has built an international following from his home base in Pennsylvania. Radical sustainability, skill-sharing, and cellular-level health are at the center of his work with permacultural approaches.
“Nothing is new” is a phrase that William states multiple times in the following interview. He says this not in defeat, but as a straightforward belief in infinite possibilities. This idea recognizes that all knowledge throughout time builds on iteration. I reached out to him because our work is related through core concepts, but not in direct practice, and neither one of us can explore these concepts in isolation. We both use a mixture of disciplines to investigate similar ideas, and I hoped his perspective could be a jolt of energy—helping me consider passed-down, embodied, material knowledge in a scientific context.
In my work as a skilled generalist moving between trades and mediums, I am informed by multiple perspectives gained through experience. This method of working is intentional, and it affects my existence in an economy that values specialization over generalization and independence over collaboration. As artist, educator, and advisor Sheetal Prajapati says of generalist practice, “you can be building skills for one identity by working toward another.” Her statement is a contemporary echo of others such as Buckminster Fuller, who advocated for humankind’s “comprehensive propensities” in his still-resonant Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth in 1969. Conversation between disciplines remains important, and it suggests that a path toward more advanced identities and relationships can be continuous knowledge exchange. In practice, interdisciplinary work expresses the multiplicity in an individual’s mind while at the same time reaching out from that sphere toward other people.
Since we live near each other, William and I met up at Borough Park in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania to talk about his work and the way it relates to art, science, and communication.
Mo Geiger: Looking at your work, from what I know—it’s action-based and accessible to people. Sharing information seems really important to you. Is that a fair statement?
William Padilla-Brown: Yes, it’s 100% super important to me. You know, we live in the first time ever where information is publicly accessible and free flowing. And I think it is imperative that everybody knows that.
Mo: Absolutely. I think to many people, it seems like everything’s being commodified. But when you really get down to it, there’s so much free access to information.
William: I mean, we can learn almost anything. And there’s not anything that’s ancient knowledge anymore, almost all ancient knowledge is accessible now. That’s the thing—once you start to learn again, you’ll get up to speed. And then if you’re actually inquisitive and passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll get to the point where you’re on the cutting edge of it. And that’s when you have to get through the pay gates: people that can afford the resources to experiment and learn. And the resources, like the actual tools to do those experiments, are millions of dollars. It’s like when computers were still a million dollars and took up a whole room to use. But then, when computers became publicly available, they advanced so fast. The human mind is rapidly advancing the technology to the point where we’re just so used to it—it doesn’t even faze us anymore.
Mo: This contrast between ancient knowledge and rapidly advancing technology: how do you exist with it? How does new technology interact with the way you do research and share it?
William: Nothing is new, is the other thing. Like nothing is new. We’re all just re-learning everything. So utilizing the ancient is what brings me into the future. My connection to ancient technology is what connects me to the future. What people see as “futuristic”— the algae and the mushrooms—it’s all here. Yeah, it’s old. I guess it’s because it’s small and has evaded the human eye for so long. And we’re the first couple generations of humans to actually be looking at this stuff again.
Mo: It’s interesting having to explain. In thinking about these other ways of doing (that you’re describing)—and often in the artwork I do—the way that people see them is just old. It just feels so foreign sometimes in conversations with people who see history and that type of practice as “just being history.” And new technology, for some reason, is separate. You know what I mean?
William: People think that we’re so advanced and so smart now, but the humans who learned agriculture knew all of the plants in their ecosystems. They knew how to follow the animals, they knew how to mimic animal calls, they knew how to do things that we could only imagine. They were probably way more intellectually engaged in the environment, in the world, than we are right now.
Mo: When you think about doing a public art project, and about sharing the beauty of the thing that you do with a public that has all kinds of belief systems, access points, and different levels of knowledge—do you think about how understanding can slowly build up? Does that make sense?
William: Yeah. I think that putting out art pieces like that is a message to myself—it’s a message to a part of me who will see it in a different way. And I think that the best way to look at reality is with no impositions, and to just be as you are in it. And I think that some symbols just hold super strong, especially ones that aren’t familiar. If I put a mushroom out there, and you’ve never seen that before—it’s a natural symbol. Like, if I put a mushroom out there, and you’ve never seen that before, it’s a natural symbol. You don’t even have anything to relate it to. So, when I used to show people mushrooms at farmers markets, they’d be like, “it looks like an alien,” or “it looks like coral.” And both of those things are “aliens” to people: both of those things come from worlds that people have no point of reference to compare to.
Mo: Even though these things are very integral to life.
William: Very terrestrial. I think it’s just like leaving little breadcrumbs for myself along the way to help remember. And through all the different beliefs and where everybody’s different, where everybody’s coming from, there’s a human element that connects all of us. We’re all humans, we’re all alive here. We all need to eat, we all need to drink water, we all want to have sex—it’s all human.
Mo: Forging connections?
William: I think we’ve forgotten how amazing we are, and what our capacities are. Because a lot of people are overloaded with stimuli from computers and television. Any kid that’s in high school right now, you can talk to them, and they will tell you 100 different brands. Yeah, it’s all symbols. But it’s taking up their capacity, when they could be looking at nature and knowing that this tree has associations with this mushroom versus this company has associations with this famous person.
Mo: A leaf is a symbol.
William: Yeah, it’s an indicator of relationships.
Mo: Do you think about how that perspective assists you in thinking forward in time?
William: Yeah, just like I said, there’s nothing new. It’s all patterns, everything that will exist, already exists. Time is nonlinear. The Mayan culture perceived time so vastly that they had a calendar that went all the way to 2012 accurately with star patterns. They weren’t thinking about minutes and days, months and months, and stuff like that. They were thinking about planets moving through space and stars coming in contact with each other.
Mo: In a sense, their knowledge was more spatial?
William: It’s not even that it was more spatial. It’s all about how you treat your consciousness. We’ve been born into a system that treats consciousness very, very badly—a system that utilizes humans like a battery to perform work functions.
Mo: For you, is that part of sharing things with a wider public?
William: You know—the way that we look at time—humans are only ever looking in the microscope and never look up even further. But you can. I can show people timeless things through organisms. It’s just a different type of agriculture, a different type of living, you know. I’m recreating an entire holistic system that utilizes technology: the way that people understand modern technology, as well as electricity and everything like that, for biological and natural functions. Because that’s what it is. Life is life. Taxonomy makes it really weird to classify organisms down to species because you can go forever, but there’s not that many organisms on this planet. They’re just variations of each other.
Mo: Do you see your work as being part of an alternative to this current economy?
William: Yes, yeah. 100%.
Mo: And do you think that the community that you’re building by putting things out into the world and making public actions is part of that economy?
William: Yes. I’ve inspired so many people to fuck the system. And they don’t say it in that language. But I understand it in that language, because I inspired them to do what I do, which is fuck the system. Because this system sucks. And it was made by old kings and queens that died a long time ago. We’re following the same fucking rules of operation that Europeans came to this country with. We’re still following laws that were written back then.
Mo: [Laws that were] a response to another fucked up system. I think there is value in talking about the very act of colonization—how all of our bodies have been acted upon by colonization.
William: I mean, I’m the product of colonization, I’m Nigerian DNA mixed with Eastern South American genetics, because of slave trades. The whole reason I exist is because of colonialism. So I mean, like, we could talk about it all day. And I’m glad I exist because these genetics are pretty freakin’ cool. My body reacts very well to different compounds, based on my genetic lineage. And I know it to be true because I study molecular biology. I’ve been studying it specifically, selfishly, to understand why the hell I was born. Why do I feel this way? And why am I existing in this form right now? Why was I disturbed from my bliss?
Mo: You’re thinking about your own biological existence, and in your work you’ve utilized music, visuals, and all kinds of techniques to share this with people, to put it out into the public realm.
Mo: Is using those forms intentional?
William: It’s another language. I’m speaking in symbols. I understand that the human tool is capable of understanding higher linguistic complex patterns, life is language and humans are just tricked into thinking that auditory language is the only linguistic structure. The human scientific tool is programmed by nature to understand symbols as a language: DNA is protein syntax uttering itself into existence. And the human being is the operating tool for translating the symbols. That’s why kids can talk in emojis before they can talk in English. My little boy could send emojis early on, because it’s a symbol.
Mo: Identifying emotion.
William: And so I think that as mature humans, we’re capable of understanding the most complex patterns that the universe has to offer us. Yeah. And I think that offering your life as a symbol is the most powerful language that you could speak. So every movement that I make is a living language that I’m speaking to the world, because I don’t even have all the tools necessary to express myself the way I feel in my head.
Mo: Yeah, when I was thinking about talking to you, I was thinking about limiting the need for verbal explanation [in the project]. That’s important to me when I do things—explaining ideas with the materials themselves. But that’s more difficult with this kind of intense science.
William: I mean, it’s all about perspective. Because, like, you know, I don’t think it’s intense. Whenever I started getting into all this, when I was younger, everybody was telling me I’m a genius and stuff like that. Which was scary to me, because I thought everything I was doing I should have already known when I was a child. Because all of this—it’s all biological science. How do I identify the plants that are around me? What is edible that is growing in the nature around me? My six year old son knows way more edible plants and edible mushrooms around the area than grown adults who have lived there their whole lives here. So by the time that he’s in his late teens, I can’t even imagine where he will be. And I think that’s just normal.
Mo: Is that the reason that you think you have resistance to language? Because the symbols are more important?
William: I don’t have a resistance to language. I feel like language is crippling once your brain has evolved around it. I really like what the Rastafarians do with English. They don’t use curse words. They don’t say good morning—you mourn when somebody’s dead. They don’t even say “you,” they say “I and I,” and they’ve deleted linguistic structures that create mental instability. It’s all very vibrant, the way they speak.
Mo: Do you spend time with that community to learn about the ways they use language?
William: One of my best friends is Jamaican, Anthony Rodriguez. He’s working on the documentary, “Growing Back To Nature.” And his family’s from the island. We’ll be talking and he just changes his whole linguistic structure. He will sound like he just came off the island, and you would never know that he knows how to speak [American] English.
Mo: Totally. You start to see in multiplicity—splintering. When you’re studying an organism, are you thinking about that?
William: I mean, I feel like it’s a better way of seeing it. I don’t know. If you can understand the environment, and you can understand what that is doing—it’s just the language structure. I was really blessed when I came into this world. I was taught auditory language by two English professors. My grandfather learned English by going to the church to do sermons in Latin because he grew up in Jim Crow Virginia, and he couldn’t go to public school. So, he went to church to learn Latin sermons. He learned English by learning Latin first, and he taught me to use this linguistic structure from its origin structure. So, I already knew that this language had a proto-language from the time that I knew how to use it. He always showed me the phonetics, the syntax, and suffixes and prefixes from the beginning. I lived with my grandparents when I was first born.
Mo: Do you think that has influenced the way you think about your research now?
William: Um, yeah, the linguistic structures are such a big deal because I’m a molecular biologist, I look at the language of life. Like if I didn’t know the language like that, I don’t think I’d be able to look at the language of life this way.
Mo: That reminds me of the way we were talking about “time” before. How do you think about yourself in this moment?
William: For me, I’m just trying to stand on the fine line of being in the present moment and loving my family right now. And in preparing for what’s next. Because all of my actions are in preparation for what’s next. I’ve solidified some level of social equity, which fulfills my very human need of having some nuts buried away. The very animalistic need of having some sort of security. I’ve secured some social equity.
Mo: Yeah, and [you’ve done that] in many parts of the world.
William: Because homeostasis cannot be achieved without symbiosis with local systems, both biological and social. So once you’ve achieved homeostasis with your biological and social systems that are right around you, then you can achieve symbiosis at national- and international-level biological and social systems. I’m reaching into symbiosis with international biological and social systems which allows me to free flow through them.
Mo: You’ve got an internal cycle and you’re introducing your body into another cycle. looking further down the road.
William: Yeah, everywhere I move, I’m taking care of. My body is nourished. Not just nourished—taken care of to the highest degree. Everywhere I go, I’m at the dopest farm that exists there with the people that have achieved the highest level of consciousness there. It allows me to consistently not need to worry about myself.
Mo: When you think about yourself moving through space, do you think about yourself as an organism?
William: I think of myself as a consciousness entity operating a biological computer moving through space. I think of myself as a space.
Mo: So when you picture yourself, there is a machine element?
William: Um, it’s a biological mechanism. Consciousness is a free-form space and timeless thing, right? And I don’t think that it’s always organic, because I think that artificial intelligence can be created. I have no opposition to technology. I think that tools can be used to crush societies or build them. What I’m doing is in opposition to suffering. And that’s it. The only thing I oppose is suffering. That’s why if I could say I exist for anything, it’s to be a part of ending suffering. Suffering is anti-evolution. Like—how can we use energy for more complex experiences?
William: And we’re getting there. I mean, it all started with little freaking bacteria that could barely use energy, and then they figured out how to use solar radiation. And now we have nervous systems. What’s next? You know—it’s all for higher levels of complexity. I think that we are the fruits of this experiment. We are the fruits of the planetary womb, incubating under the nuclear star for hundreds of millions of years to the point where life has produced high consciousness that’s capable of entering into the realms of higher intelligence. We’re capable of taking our physical biological bodies, re-altering our structure into light, and exploring multiple dimensions of reality. And that’s the one thing I’m trying to figure out. Because I think that’d be really fun.
Mo: Because why not?
William: Yeah, I mean, it’s all in our code. I’m just trying to figure out what phrases and which code language makes my body turn into light. So I can move through dimensions again.
Mo Geiger (she/her) is an artist and graduate student in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice MFA program. Trained as a theatrical designer and technician, she began her career working in live performance and continues to do so now. Since then, she’s created interdisciplinary, site-specific artworks, designs, and research projects seen in art galleries, theaters, museums, public places, and local organizations. She is a co-founder and member of Valley Traction performance collective, and she is based in Boiling Springs, PA. More info is available here.
William Padilla-Brown (he/him) is a Multidisciplinary Citizen Scientist practicing social science, mycology, phycology, molecular biology, and additive manufacturing. Interested in the mix of Contemporary Ritual and a nuanced modern Urban Shamanism, William spends his time vlogging for social media, writing, researching, rapping, singing, and loving his Beautiful Lady Lydia and their son Leo. William holds Permaculture Design certificates acquired through Susquehanna Permaculture and NGOZI, and a certificate from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences. William regularly teaches youth and adult classes at schools, universities, clubs, and events, as well as in private consultations. More info is available here.