From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

Posts Tagged ‘participatory art

Natural Dyeing for Sukkah Project

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I’ve been invited to inhabit the Sukkah at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) on October 8th for one day of the holiday of Sukkot.  They invited six artists to each take a day to create an open studio or installation project inside the frame of the Sukkah.  I decided to take the opportunity to do a new Participatory Installation piece within that frame entitled Refuge of Leaves.

Process

These are photos of the dyeing process for this new project.  These are the first three batches, using pomegranate dye, rhubarb dye and artichoke dye.  Each dye changes depending on if I scour the paper first, or if I add a mordant, or if I add iron.  I did every combination on four kinds of paper to get a wider variety.

As I’m going, I allow the paper to show some marks- wrinkles, the mark of the iron, irregularities, etc.  Showing their history, that they have been through something, a difficult process that may even damage them seemed like a perfect parallel to individuals seeking refuge, to people who had a story to tell.

About the Piece

Traditionally a Sukkah is a symbolic ritual space of refuge in the wilderness created for the holiday of Sukkot in the Jewish faith and tradition. “Refuge of Leaves” creates a Sukkah as a space for reflection where people from many backgrounds can reflect on and share their personal experiences of refuge from “wildernesses”, whether physical or metaphorical. As a Sukkah it symbolizes a liminal space of safety within the wilderness between worlds.

I followed traditional aspects of the Sukkah in using natural plant-based materials in the form of a variety of papers from different places and times, including papyrus as well as paper that could be put through a modern printer.  These are for participants to write responses to their choice of prompts on the subject of refuge.  I am hand-dyeing the papers with natural dyes to mimic the color range of plants one might build a traditional sukkah from. The dyeing processes also makes each piece of paper individual in color and texture, just like the people writing their responses.

The word “leaves” in the title functions in a number of ways.  The individual leaves of paper in a larger book, the plant leaves that form a traditional Sukkah, and the nature of a this kind of refuge as a temporary shelter (not a home) that eventually requires one to leave.  The structure is very literally a refuge made of leaves that each participant leaves behind.

As part of this project I will be there from 10AM until 4PM to discuss my work and facilitate the process.  Please join me.

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At College of the Redwoods

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img_1958Today Between the Lines (experience exchange) went up with the help of the head of the Black Student Union and the Professor heading the Book of the Year project. There are always hiccups, but now it looks exactly as it did in my mind and even though the official opening isn’t until Thursday it already had some participation.Some of the students who will get to participate are taking correspondence courses from prison, and I’m so glad I was able to get something of the piece to them, because having a place for their stories to be told is important.

My interview for the local NPR member station is here.  It doesn’t have the image and specific link yet, but it is the Feb, 21 one.

The piece works much like Scales did. Participants write a response to a writing prompt on a hand-painted paper and exchange it for someone else’s.  Then they read that person’s response and tie it to the frame which they feel it belongs most to (Repression, Expression, Privilege, Opportunity, Love, Hate (fear), Resistance, Compliance, Accepted, Suspected, Hardness, and Openness).  Being asked to place it not only gets them to read someone else’s experience, but it also gets them to think about it in the context of the themes in the book.

I wrestled a lot with the themes and questions.  I had to tailor the themes and questions for people who might not have read the book yet (half the students read it in the second semester), and also to make it approachable.  So much of what is wrong with the world that we need to change is things we cannot bring ourselves to engage with.  My job is to engage people, so I find myself walking the line of bringing up difficult issues in such a way that people can approach at their own speed, even in a way that seems fun and colorful.

I’ll show more about this new work later when I have more pictures of participation, but tonight I’m thinking about the screening of 13th at the college and the thoughtful, powerful discussion moderated by the Black Student Union afterwards.  The students I have met here have been wonderful and I am honored to be here.

in-process on “Between the Lines (Experience Exchange)”

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sprectrum-side These are the first set of “pages” for participants in Between the Lines (Experience Exchange) to write on.  The materials are translucent acrylics on vellum with bookbinding thread sewn into the tops to tie them into the structure.

The piece was commissioned by the College of the Redwoods for their annual Book of the Year celebration.  This year’s book is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The structure of the piece is a large sculpture created a s a physical framing of some of the book’s core concepts  (I saw them, but also based  on interviews with the author, reviews, and discussions with other people).  The questions also derive from the book, and will ask participants to respond with their own related experiences.

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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.