From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

Bubbles, narratives, identity, and empathy.

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bubbleMy work is often involved with narrative.  I am interested in how we describe ourselves and each other, and especially in challenging those definitions.  I like to lead people into a space and thought process where they encounter things in themselves and other people they don’t expect, or where something puts them in a position to realize that something they had defined, perhaps without even thinking, is not actually so simple.  It never is.

I love liminal space.  It is that space between things- ideas, places, definitions, roles… We usually think of it as transformative space, the way a journey is often transformative, or a ritual space like college (where you go apart from your normal life with the express intention of growing and changing).  It is uncertain space.  Undefined space.  It can be scary, and many people don’t want to go there.  They want things understood, defined and nailed down.  …but it is where we must to go to grow, because growth by definition is not nailed down, and never the same.  There are some people though, who like to live there, and we often make art, and we often make people uncomfortable because we cannot be nailed down.

In the past few days I have encountered a barrage of voices talking about a set of related ideas dear to my heart which I have held for as long as I can remember, most especially the danger of staying within our own boundaries- staying within our own circle of understanding, and the importance of stepping outside of it to achieve empathy and new perspectives.  The first was a moment of Barack Obama’s farewell speech about how fortified we are in our bubbles and how we cannot be if we want society to function together as a whole.  It made me think about a favorite TED talk by author Elif Safak, but searching for that, I found another TED talk I had not yet heard by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It held overlapping messages.  One in common was the way writers who are not straight white males (and I will add artists, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, dancers…) are pigeonholed into telling a story about an identity the world already thinks it has nailed down- a flat identity.  “Tell us the story of the Subjugated Middle Eastern Woman” (because as a Middle Eastern Woman, that will be “authentic” for you).  “Tell us the story of the poor starving African” (ditto).  If you try to tell a story that doesn’t mirror the narrow box you are believed to occupy, then it must be “inauthentic”, precisely because we only hear single, flat narratives about what is perceived as a “group”.  Today on the radio I heard an interview with an artist I have long admired the work of, but never heard interviewed (Yinka Shonibare).  In a flight of serendipity, he was talking about the exact same thing.  I suggest listening to all of them.  Each is eloquent in their own way and addresses different perspectives on the issues.

In recent years I feel like one of the casualties of the very important struggle to honor the different experiences of different people (especially marginalized people whose many stories are not told or are not heard enough if they are) is that we have divided ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and categories which do not communicate.  There is an idea that people outside each group can never understand… and a chilling subtext that we shouldn’t even try because it isn’t possible.  In such a climate saying one might even begin to understand is seen as dishonoring and invalidating the experience of the other person instead of an act of empathy.  In addition from being discouraged from these kinds of engagements of empathy is the idea that we cannot comment, we cannot respond… which means we cannot communicate about these ideas.  I know this is a correction swing from the voices in power’s “comments” and “responses” actually being about silencing, distorting, talking down, and even taking from these stories without the credit where it is due.  We cannot let that false dialogue stand, but if we go so far that we cannot genuinely communicate across boundaries in both directions and allow each other to imagine what it is to be on the other side, then we are on the path to widen those divisions and build higher fortifications.

In an absolute way, no one will perfectly understand another person’s experiences in exactly the same way as that they do.  No one has the exact same life experiences and identity.  When you cut the experiences and definitions fine enough, you end up with a “group” of one.  No one has your experience.  But we do have common human experiences.  We do have feelings in common, and more importantly, we have imagination.  That is the currency of the arts.  When an author writes from the perspective of someone of a different age, gender, nationality than herself, or even creates characters unlike herself, she is engaging in an act of empathy and imagination.  When she does this she is creating a bridge for others to follow that empathy, to imagine themselves as that person, to step into their skin, to find common ground.  This is as close as we get, and it brings us closer together.  If we look at the plethora of social psychology studies on the subject, it also makes us more likely to help and not harm people the more we understand them and realize what we share in common.  This is essential work.  It does not steal experience, it multiples it.  

Right now I am creating a Participatory Installation in response to the book of another author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) at a college to try to help students connect to the book and to each other.  Like other work of mine it will invite the students to share their own experiences within the frame of the piece.  In this case the frame of the piece is taken from my interpretation of the book’s major themes and stories.  I almost turned this commission down a number of times.  I have lost sleep over it.  You see, I am a white woman, and in this cultural climate I am not supposed to engage these topics because they are outside of my bubble.  More fairly, artists of color are underrepresented and should be sought out first.  Knowing this, I asked if they hadn’t considered asking an artist of color first (they looked, but didn’t find the kind of work that I do, which is what they were excited about), or having the author come speak (they did, he’s too expensive for their budget, though I am glad to say they are having someone from the local NAACP speak).  They came to the conclusion that what they needed wasn’t an artist who matched the demographic of the author, but an artist who specialized in getting people to connect and understand each other, who worked with narrative and identity, whoever that artist was. They came to me because of seeing Identity Tapestry, which does all of these things.  I took the commission in the end because I don’t know someone who fits the demographic box of the author and does the work kind of work they want, and more importantly, I don’t believe in boxes.  I believe in bridges. My art is all about making them, and I like to think that makes me someone who can answer this call.  The project is about responding to this book and getting the students to connect with it.

Response must be open to everyone.  The attempt to understand, to empathize, to connect and to imagine must be open to everyone.  It must be or we cannot break these barriers.  We can’t have a separate set of rules and dialogue for art and expression for “white people” and other set for “people of color”.  One set for “men”, and another for “women”, for “queer” and “straight” and on and on, cut more and more finely…  Who is to say what each “group” is and who fits there?  We need dialogue that passes through the boundaries and boxes and bubbles and definitions to our shared human experiences, our empathy, and our imagination.  That is where we grow and learn. That is the crazy liminal in-between space.  That is where hope for connection and understanding is.

 

Thoughts on Performance Art- my Ritual Space approach

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img_0414-2So I have a lot of thoughts on performance art.  Many of them come down to the idea that when you push it to the extremes (which is one of art’s natural habitats) it becomes about enacting extremes on the body.  Extreme pain (so many), extreme pleasure (Seed Bed comes to mind), sex, nudity, privation, stillness, repetitive motion… so many extremes of what the body is and what it can take.  An extension of that is the extremes of emotional exposure as seen in and through the body.  There are many interesting, important approaches to this, but I feel like it is ground well covered, and not what I’m interested in for my own work.

My work isn’t about me or my body or extremes, it’s about creating a platform, structure, even a ritual space for others to engage with ideas I present: with each other, with themselves, and now, possibly with me.

Ritual space is something I have been interested in for as long as I can remember. It was central to my studies in my first undergrad in History of Religions. I took a wonderful anthropology-based (Turner-centric) course on Ritual, but I saw ritual in everything from folk tales to architecture and football games. Ritual space is throughout our secular and personal lives- the ritual space of a hot bath with candles, a classroom, a bar, a gallery or a public library. These spaces have forms, rules, and roles which set them apart from other spheres and spaces in our lives and they create feelings and thoughts unique to those spaces. In these spaces we are ourselves, and yet ourselves in a specific role or character to fit the space, observing certain rituals of that space (a 3rd grade teacher will be themselves at both a bar and their classroom, but different selves).

In #DadaTarot I am creating a ritual space for the action to happen in. That action requires a mediator with a certain level of otherness and authority. A slight change of clothing and demeanor is enough to create this. I am still very much being myself, but I have given myself certain rules (some of which I specifically gave myself permission to break).   The rules, the clothing, demeanor and the simple object of a table give me the structure of a ritual space for the piece to work in.  Given the nature of Dada I didn’t even allow myself anything fancy for the table- it is a ready-made cocktail table and the covering was the first plain black piece of fabric on the top of my fabric pile, not sewn or tidied in any way.

For this piece, the Role of Barker/carnival worker has to be there to set the interaction apart from other gallery interaction, but also to get the participants to enter in a questioning way. These roles are known for being untrustworthy.  I want people to come to this project with skepticism. For this piece I would absolutely not dress in any kind of clothing associated with actual fortune-tellers with very good reason: my role does not actually involve doing the fortune-telling. That I leave to the participants. The barker’s role is to bring bystanders into the action and tell them what the rules of the game are, which is what I do.

Me in the role as artist would to explain the piece and how it fits into my work. In the case of me performing in this piece (as opposed to someone else performing the piece while I stand next to it as Artist) I mostly steer clear of this. If they press, I mostly answer as Barker, not artist as to the nature of the piece.  That said, I am remaining myself.  This performance allows for expressing what I want to say, holding back, and then allowing myself to be pressed for an opinion, even as I say I should not really be giving it… which is what good Barkers do too.

I suspect more of my work is heading in this direction. Most of the participatory works need some kind of “baby sitter” during interactions to explain the interactive process to people and to keep people (especially drunk people) from breaking them or walking away with parts of the art.  Mostly the ritual space of Gallery with the role of Gallery assistants covers this. Now that I am looking this aspect of my work in the face and acknowledging that what I am creating with my installations is ritual space (inside the ritual space of gallery/museum/etc.), it logically follows to incorporate ritual roles for certain works.

*note:  I am fully aware that not all performance art involves extremes, and there is a lot of performance art out there (physically extreme and not) which I admire.  A lot of it is politically extreme and I applaud that too.  This studio blog post is about my own artistic path.

 

#DadaTarot at SFAI Alumni Show

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img_0414-2#DadaTarot at the SFAI alumni show (curator Katya Min of the Yerba Buena Center) was especially interesting because it was right after the election (November 13th and 14th).  There were unsurprisingly a fair number of questions about the direction of the country.  Notably a few of these were answered with a U-Turn sign.  One question about whether “It was going to be okay” (post election) was answered by a picture of Trump making a rude gesture with his fingers, a plane and a car.  Definitely an intense and rattled climate here in liberal San Francisco at an art school.

The gallery environment of the Diego was more open space with people coming into the gallery in a steady stream of singles and small groups for hours.  The pace people approach a piece and how much they see of what other people do first really changes the dynamic.  In this case people were greeting it almost on their own, or one group at a time.  One of the best dynamics in this case was two strangers wanting to do the piece, but lacking a partner they knew.  There were people who looked like they had little in common (age, clothing, etc.) who seemed deeply skeptical of each other, but in a couple cases embraced after doing the piece together and found they had ideas to offer each other.  This was one of my hopes for the piece.  Really, it has worked out to be everything I hoped for and more. While the records are interesting, the interaction itself is the core of the piece.

Written by marycoreymarch

December 13, 2016 at 9:29 am

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#DadaTaroT at Pata Dada for Citylights Dada Anniversary

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#DadaTaroT was at Pataphysical Studios’ special exhibit on the ‘Pataphysics of Dada’ as part of Citylights Dada World Fair.  Here are the participants from the Nov. 5th event.

Written by marycoreymarch

December 7, 2016 at 6:14 am

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#DadaTaroT @ open studios

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I did a less formal version of the #DadaTaroT piece at this fall’s open studios.  I am really enjoying this piece!  A lot of people asked some pretty intense questions, and many interesting interpretations and conversations arose.

A few odd things keep happening:  out of the (4?) times people have asked about Trump winning the election (the piece was made during the primaries), Elvis has been drawn three times out of the nearly 100 media cards.  What is one to make of that?

Another thing that has happened at least three times is that pairs of friends have picked the same card after the entire deck was shuffled.

Two groups went as three people together instead of a pair.

In this iteration, a questioner asked about the nature of the artist as a child, and the person answering was actually quite right.  Another person made an offhand comment that the questioner would get a tattoo on their hand… which it turned out they already had.  A surprising number of people asking about their own mortality.

Narratives upon narratives.

Apologies… the notes on the  two responses seems to be lost.  I’m working on recovery and will post them when and if I get them.

Open Studios Friday the 23rd.

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Come be part of the creative process!

Join me for the Opening Reception at the Art Explosion

Friday night (9/23) only 7-11
2425 17th St, SF, CA
Studio 2A (keep right as you enter, studio door on right side in the first room).

More info at: http://www.artexplosionstudios.com/events/events.php

Dada Tarot2I take a different sort of approach to Open Studios than many artists- I actually work during it, mostly because most of my work is interactive and part of the process is input from many people.  I like having many different perspectives other than my own when I create these pieces, and I like to road-test them, so the crowds of open studios are ready material.  This means you can not only see art, but be a part of the creative process!

Right now I’m working on a piece about Access, and I can’t wait to see what personal experiences and reactions visitors will share.  What I learn will almost certainly shape how I chose to make the future interactive piece.

#DadaTaroT (my most recent interactive and participatory piece) will also be up for people to experiment with (minus the formal performance).  Unfortunately some of the cards were stolen at the Dada Here and Now show (no fault to the curators, they were fabulous), but perhaps the theft is part of the element of Chance.  You can judge for yourself when you try it.

I look forward to seeing many of you there.

Written by marycoreymarch

September 17, 2016 at 1:15 am

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#DadaTarot: the first readings

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I created this project for a show celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dada.  I made the #DadaTaroT deck out of two sets of images: 21 red wood and laser-etched cardboard symbol cards, and over 200 media image cards on laser-etched cardboard.

 

The method was simple: a pair of people (strangers, lovers, friends…) would be invited by the performers dressed in carnival-esque gear to each ask a question which they could not at that moment know the answer to.  One person would ask (aloud or in silence) and then select one red card and two brown cards.  The partner would then use the cards to attempt to answer the person’s question.  Then they switch.  I documented each one in rough and ready fashion with a photo and hastily hand-written notes.  These are the results.

The Dadaists were coming out of the horror of WWI that left many of their generation feeling that life was meaningless and absurd: Religion, Government, Philosophy and Art seemed to have utterly failed to provide meaning in the context of that horror.  The Dadaists embraced and exposed the absurdity.

I used Tarot because it seemed to be a perfect intersection of the randomness that a lot of dada art has employed through the use of games of chance together with a random assault of media and symbolism wherein we search for meaning.  In the end it is about what each person brings to it and what they _want_ to find, but as in all interactions it’s not just our interpretations, but the interpretations of those around to us, or even close to us that have an effect.  Our negotiation of those interpretations of our world together are what interests me as an artist.  This exchange provided a platform for mini exchanges and negotiations of how we interpret our shared world.

So many interesting things happened during this project, only a few of which are visible in these records- the best of it was within the interaction.  It is very much is about what people bring to it.