Heather Lynn is a Chicago artist best known for the band Pure Magical Love, the opera Templehead, and running Church of Templehead gallery with her partner, Michael Perkins. Her newest project, Genesis and Nemesis, set to open in September, is a three-act play that blends elements of traditional theater, performance art, video, installation, ritual, music, Reiki, classic special effects, and dance. Staged in an immersive environment, the audience is invited into a post-apocalyptic compound for an experience that is part celebration, part cautionary tale.
Genesis and Nemesis video stills courtesy of the artist.
Although Lynn is the writer and co-director of this piece, and plays the role of Mary Malachai, it is by no means a solo project. The work is being developed in collaboration with a group of Chicago-based artists, musicians, healers, and activists, including Efrén Adkins , Kaycee Conaway, Sky Cubacub, Zach Hebert, José Hernández, Zachary Hutchinson, Veronica Hyde, Andi Jane, Paul Klekner, Bret Koontz, Kalina Malyszko, Sarah Marie, Isabelle McGuire, Ariel Mejia, P. Michael, Michael Perkins, Jon Poindexter, Travis, and Julia Zinn.
In anticipation of this forthcoming production, I sat down with Lynn to ask her a few questions. Imagine a backdrop of shining, multi-patterned tapestries being meticulously constructed from dollar store treasures, mismatched fabrics, glitter, trash, glue. They are beautiful, in an obsessive, maximalist way. Heather and I sit at a small table on chairs she has reupholstered with dark and glittering fabric.
Can you tell me about your background as an artist?
There’s really no one defining thing. I feel like by the time I’m known as “that girl who does that thing,” it’s time to move on. I’m an untrained artist; I dropped out of high school. My only training really is dance, and I think that influences a lot of the way I work. I had my own dance company for a while. When I was younger, I was in this band that got a lot of attention. I went through a phase where I did watercolor paintings. [Now,] people keep asking me how the new opera is going, like “oh, she’s the girl who does the operas.” I believe that the best of us comes out when you’re creating a structure that you need to exist. And for me it’s about changing the context.
How has your dance training influenced other aspects of your practice?
Take ballet: you learn these really repetitive mundane things, but you learn them to shape your body into the type of machine that can make these amazing things. It’s that idea that if you do it every day, you put the work in, that’s what matters. I’m very work-oriented. The work I like best is work where I can see the effort behind it, effort is often more interesting to me than a beautiful result.
My favorite job was when I worked at Fannie Mae. When there was nothing to do, there were just pans and pans of chocolate in back, they all need to go in little white cups. There’s no way you’ll ever get them all done, but there’s always some to do. So you just do it, and it’s about finding pleasure in the task. You can put art into anything you do, even if it’s just a game you play in your head. You do the peasant work, but you act like a goddess.
If my brand is anything, it’s relentless sincerity and hard work. I’m never really worried about anyone ripping me off. What are they going to steal? The hours of intensive work I do myself? The feminism and politics? Please, steal that!
Do you feel like there is a common denominator across your shifts in medium?
Community-based, a lot of work, constantly topping myself, really DIY. Creating my own world. I have a world in my head, and I feel very at odds with the outside world. Another defining thing was sorting out my mental illness—or what we call mental illness. I think a lot of it is just being sensitive in a world that doesn’t stop to acknowledge all the ways it’s fucked up. And [art] is my way of sorting through that and surviving. A lot of my mental health stuff sorted itself out when I started really manifesting the things I see in my head with [the band] Pure Magical Love. I wrote these mythologies that were about expelling certain demons. Everything I do is me trying to be normal, but everything in my head is so crazy it comes out all fantastical.
The way I work it’s usually about transforming something, whether it’s myself, the space I’m in, the pile of garbage into something beautiful to worship. We make choices all the time, every day, and we are constantly transforming things. I like to take control of that—being mindful of the transformations I make.
You do a lot of community work in your gallery, and much of your artistic work is driven by community and social issues. How does that fit into your artistic practice?
I’ve always been really sensitive about social issues. I had a lot of spaces when I was younger where I didn’t feel safe. If you can’t change the world, change what’s in front of your face. For me the biggest tragedy is any living thing unable to follow its own design, and I grieve for all the living things that don’t get to do that. A lot of my work is a response to displacement. Making a space where you can. I feel like for so long no one wanted me to do anything, so just that act of being visible, of taking up space, was very defiant. You’re part of a sexist scene? You’re part of a bunch of shitty stuff? Put more of you in the room than them. There’s this crazy sincerity about what I do, and it makes some people so nervous.
So can you talk a little bit about this new project?
I feel like this is a companion to [the post-apocalyptic opera] Templehead. I didn’t feel done with it. Templehead was about these people who have been displaced. They’re about to go extinct, but they find beauty and meaning when they can. [Genesis] is more about who survives, who benefits, who knows this is gonna happen and doesn’t stop it. People with money access would end up safe. When you’re dealing with money, it becomes abstract, and you’re not thinking about how having an extra three points on your stock is going to affect a town, because you’re not thinking about the community. Money can become a mental illness.
I wanted to reimagine [the Templehead story] where we don’t have to die, and we can evolve to meet the challenges that we’ve created for ourselves. Templehead ended on this sad, bittersweet note. This is going to end on a very uplifting, empowered note. One our collaborators practices Reiki, and at the end we do this ritual spell to activate the entire room. A bunch of people in a room, caring about the same thing, can have a positive impact. That’s kind of what this play’s about: the different gifts we have, how they can come together and fight something.
Where does the title, Genesis and Nemesis, come from? In your work there is often creation and destruction occurring simultaneously, and that title feels like a good encapsulation of that.
In this world in the future, there’s this fable about a boy named Genesis and his sister Nemesis. After the Unrest, they find this beautiful beach with all these minerals that could be used to rebuild the world. He wanted to find people to help them transform the minerals into materials, and she thought the beach was beautiful and wanted to protect it. They fought. He went off to find people, she warned him not to come back or she’d have to kill him. He comes back and she’s dead, she didn’t have anything to eat. It’s this story to instruct people to value the greater good over nature, a way of making people think about things a certain way. [But] Genesis and Nemesis were actually one person, turned into two. The way we remember always has an agenda.
We wouldn’t need to create if there was no destruction. But this is the world I live in, so I create and destroy with equal joy, and I’m very upfront about it. Collapsing the binary, for me that’s what it’s about. I don’t want like a nice story that wraps up neatly, I want a good story where we dig into this shit about ourselves that we’re constantly learning.
At the end of the day, in spite of it being about all this global stuff, it’s really about my journey. I see things that aren’t there, I constantly have to second guess what I’m seeing and feeling, but that actually worked to my advantage, because I’m not afraid to not know. I’m not afraid of what a mess it is; you’re part of the mess. Anyone that says artists shouldn’t be narcissists doesn’t really know what it means to tell yourself that you’re good enough to send something into the world. You have to start with the ego, you have to know what you want for yourself. You start with the things you care about, and it spirals out. I think you connect systems of oppression when you start with yourself.
Looking at the visual aesthetic of the things you make, there’s certainly a sort of controlled chaos.
For me it’s creating new ideas of luxury. Because it’s not all about money. Capitalism wants you to think it is, we have this idea that there’s not enough to go around, and if we want beauty we have to exploit someone, and we think it’s worth it. But you can make something special out of nothing. It doesn’t look like luxury like Versailles, but there’s something elegant about my little reupholstered chairs with my favorite fabric. It’s my own type of luxury, not waiting around for someone to tell me that I can have something nice. I can make nice things. We’ve created such a surplus of bullshit, both physical, emotional mental and it’s time to transform it. That’s where I’m at with this play; I really do have hope for the future. I know because I’m so scared all the time, so I must have hope.
How has this project been collaborative?
Before I fleshed out any of the characters, I got [the performers’] permission to write them into the story. Not to say that every little thing is literally what someone would do, but I really did try to think about giving them choices to naturally commit to. We do a lot of workshopping. Everyone has say. I love this, because it’s a room full of people talking about characters that I wrote, it’s like playing Barbies, but with my brain.
One of the workshops we did, I had everyone come in and tell me: what is it about your character that makes them both awesome, and suck. The thing that makes you awesome is the thing that makes you suck. That’s something with this play I’ve really tried to emphasize: there are no villains. If there’s a villain, it’s a system that is the result of human error. I don’t believe in evil people. I think the minute you’ve decided that someone is just the bad guy, you’re not going to figure anything out. I’m a little nervous about this play, because people want a strong hero and a strong villain, and this isn’t that. There’s definitely a force that needs to be destroyed, and another force that needs to be protected, but you can’t walk away “yeah, these bad guys totally got their asses kicked.”
My friend Sky (Cubacub) is helping with some of the costumes. In the story, I do all these crazy costumes, and I’m not skilled, but people see me doing it they start making these mass-produced really nice costumes. That’s what I feel like I do so often—I’m not really technically good at anything, but people like that I’m obsessed.
And how do the video segments fit in?
There are a few different ways we use them. There are these transmissions that are happening between this giant government that’s in control of everything, and this small group of people in hiding. It’s kind of uncanny… I got this idea for this, and after I started writing it I started hearing about ISIS, and in the months after that they really kind of developed that war through social media.
Working with video is very challenging for me, it’s sort of the opposite of what I do, but I have enjoyed working with video. As a dancer, I’m getting older, my body can’t do all the things it used to do, which is so hard for me to accept because I’m a hundred miles an hour no matter what. But as I can do less, maybe I can make video choreography. I’m interested in exploring it, but I don’t think I’d ever make a straight-up movie. I am really invested in doing work you have to experience live. I think it’s in reaction to the Internet and it being so easy to generate, repost stuff. I want to make things where you have to be there. This has to happen at this point in time because these videos are with these people, these people have busy lives, when this is over we’ll probably never do it again. It has to be seen in person.
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