Interview with Lise McKean

Carron Little came to my attention in 2013 when we launched a conversation at the opening of Chicago 1968, an exhibition of photographs by Stan Rosenstock that she curated at Eyeporium Gallery. Her work in performance and installation includes the Out of Site festival in Wicker Park, the inimitable Queen of Luxuria, and events at 6018, Defibrillator, Chicago Cultural Center, Chicago Park District, Beverly Arts Center, Gallery A + D, and many other places in and beyond Chicago. She’s also an innovator when it comes to teaching and cultural policy in support of public art and the livelihood of artists. This interview was prompted by reading Carron’s short essay in the new book The Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, edited by Sharon Louden. Her essay left me curious to hear more.

The Queen of Luxuria, Uptown Trilogy

LM: Since I’ve just read your essay in Louden’s collection, let’s start with some questions about that, and we’ll improvise from there. At the beginning of the essay, you talk about your parents’ involvement in Iona Community and its mission of applying the Bible in contemporary life. What did that entail in practice?

CL: My father was a theologian. The Iona Community’s philosophy was to look at the world as it is now and to provide a moral and ethical code to the way in which we live together. It wasn’t a literal application, but rather more about responding to the current needs of local communities. Part of their work involved moving into impoverished neighborhoods in Scotland and help give agency to the local people. Our family was one of five Iona families that moved into Easterhouse in Glasgow, which at time was the roughest public housing in Europe. One family that lived there had fourteen kids, and half of them had stunted growth. I lived there from ages two to five and have specific memories from that time that were really violent. Some families had nothing except a TV. Not even a bed. The poverty they lived in was inhumane. One Labor Party politician visited and said that he never knew anything as bad as that existed.

So I was exposed to that landscape. And then we went to Iona Island off the west coast of Scotland for our vacations. It was a paradise. A place for the privileged. So from early on my life was shaped by this landscape of paradise and hell.

LM: Does Easterhouse still exist? Have you been back?

CL: They knocked down much of it. It’s too dangerous. Fiona, my best girlfriend from Iona Community whose family lived there for eight years, went back once. All of the children of the Iona parents are working in culture—artists, musicians, in theatre. Fiona is on a cultural committee working for an independent Scotland.

Still from performance video short made with Ralph Kuehne, 2016

LM: So the children of Iona are working at the crossroads of culture and politics, coming at it from the cultural side.

CL: Something I’ve observed in my lifetime is the relationship between culture and social development in cities. I’m passionate about every child growing up in a safe city and the need for public policy and a supportive social system that provides a high quality education for young people and supports families living in cities.

My brother and I joke that I was born in North Carolina and he was born on Rotten Row in the Easterhouse Estate. The buildings there were mixed high and low rise on the outskirts of Glasgow, dislocated from the city. You pass it on the motorway driving into Glasgow. All gray concrete. We had to walk across the bridge over the motorway to go to the nursery. The only memory I have of nursery is being sick and falling asleep.

Let me back up a bit. Before Iona and Easterhouse, in the 1960s and 1970s my father was in graduate school in North Carolina and my parents were involved in the civil rights movement. My father worked with the President of Duke University to facilitate the desegregation of the University.

Women Mobilized for Change Ensemble, Chicago Park District, 2016

LM: It would require a strong personality to work in that capacity. Your father must have had quite a presence.

CL: He was charismatic. My father was a comedian. People wanted him to go into television. He was the kind of father that when you’d be in public, you’d wish he would just be quiet. He was very gregarious. He’d talk to everyone. Both my parents were very charismatic.

I grew up with this cultural heritage of civil rights, women’s liberation, and the contrast of Easterhouse. Then I moved to Devon in England where my dad was a college professor. It was beautiful. The contrast between heaven and hell. Moving from a deprived place to utopic landscape. Dartmoor is barren but the southwest of England near the coast is an idyllic part of the world. At the same time it was a very difficult place. Everyone knew each other. I grew up the alien other. I had a Scottish accent and there was a lot of prejudice against Scottish people.

LM: It sounds like you had a number ruptures, moving like that as a child.

CL: These experiences gave me a sense of justice from a young age. My primary school was a Church of England school with only 90 students. It was very parochial and limited. I got most of my education at home from my parents. When I was 10 years old I argued with my teacher. He insisted God is a he. Being brought up by a theologian, God didn’t have a gender. My father would use the term Shim. I would get into debates with the Principal who wanted me to accept that God is a he.

These experiences also relate to my color palette. It’s about creating a utopian landscape. In my recent show at Gallery A+D the color transformed the space. Luce Irigaray relates color to the divine feminine in prehistorical times. This idea about how color can create an atmosphere of liberation is important to my practice as an artist. I’m interested in creating an atmosphere of liberation through color in the environment. Walking into my studio one is hit by the color, it’s a uptopic sensation.

Little’s Chicago studio, 2017

LM: I’m not sure all this pink, blue, and silver sure would be utopic for everyone. I can imagine people who would want to get out fast. Can you explain more about how you’re using utopic and it’s relation to color.

CL: I’m interested in the friction. Using this vibrant color palette to draw in the spectator. In creating a spectacle, something that is vibrant color that draws people in. Like the Queen of Luxuria piece you came to at the bank in Uptown. It becomes a much deeper conversation about inequities of pay.

LM: So what is the relationship between vibrant color and deeper conversation? Are you saying the more vibrant the color, the more intense the conversation?

CL: Irigaray relates vibrant color and feminist practice. If you imagine walking into a woman’s body. The intensity of a vibrant woman, of vibrant femininity. Men are put off by that. We have established a fear that dislocates people from their bodies.

LM: Going back to what you said about the friction between colors, why do you use pink and blue? What’s the friction there beyond the gender codings of pink and blue?

CL: We talked the utopic and hellish landscapes. Iona was paradise but on the west coast of Scotland. It had blue sky, pink rock, and silver sea. I’m definitely drawing from my memories of that landscape. I’ve spent a lot of time there. Obviously, there are the gender codings. The belief we all have masculinity and femininity. It’s just variable. I’m definitely using those signs. I’ve always used a limited color palette. At Goldsmith, it was pink, black, and silver. When I went back to London after doing my MFA at SAIC, it was black and gray, black and white.

Chicago is my utopia because it’s where I live, where I’m alive. When I moved back to Chicago, the pink, blue, silver palette starts. I’m always thinking about the audience. How the audience engages in the work. That’s important as a performer.

Uptown Trilogy

LM: I’m going to go back to something curious you said in the essay. You said that studying at Goldsmiths College gave you the tools to live a creative life. What tools do you have in mind and how have you used them?

CL: At Goldsmiths the schedule was four days of studio work and one day of critical work. So we had four days to work on the development of one idea. That was vital. I like to be focused on one thing and to develop it in a deep way through ideas, materials, and research. I didn’t do well the first year.

LM: What happened?

CL: It was a difficult time. I had three deaths in the family. When I came back for the second year, I was brought into the office by my practice advisor Janet Anderson. I said, “I have a choice to stay or leave. I decided that this is what I want to do. I want to invent processes of 3D tapestry.” Janet told me to go on a walkabout. I took my camera around the neighborhood. I walked down Deptford High Street, close to Goldsmiths. I was drawn to all these hairdressers shops and the sensuality of these spaces. There is this sexuality, it’s a space where the body is taken care of. So I built automated sculptures that moved in sync. I was influenced by Rebecca Horn. And I had a film installation.

LM: You talk in the essay about the second wave feminism of your parents. How would you describe your own feminist practice? How does the Queen of Luxuria exemplify your feminist practice?

CL: I grew up around a lot of lesbians. My mom became a lesbian when I was thirteen and with her moved to Yorkshire. I grew up with this feminist, lesbian library. Then I went to Goldsmiths and I was being taught by feminists. This training is really the language that I work in.

Part of feminist practice is thinking about the community as a creative practice. Creating Out of Site, creating a financial structure to support artists, is a big part of what I do. Yes, I’m in the studio. A lot of my work happens on arts committee and getting public funding for artists. After developing policies for Out of Site, I was asked to write a consulting report for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affair. It  addresses the need for a living wage for artists and what artists need to create the best work they can: wages, materials, and policies that are inclusive of diversity of cultures, races, ethnicities and it’s not just the white male aesthetic being projected and represented in the world.

The Out of Site jury panels were instructed to take affirmative action. After final selection, we made sure there was a diversity of voices, aesthetics, and ideas. This is important because Out of Site takes place in public space and it needs to mirror diversity of the public itself.

Spare Rib Revisted, Gallery A + D, 2017

LM: Earlier in our conversation you talked about utopia in terms of being the place you live. In the essay, you write that you saved up and moved back to Chicago, the “the city I love.” What makes Chicago loveable and how is it utopic?

CL: It’s definitely where I feel alive.

LM: Alive in term of creativity, free? What kind of alive?

CL: Living my life to my fullest potential as a human being. Going back to this idea of utopia and dystopia and how I need the two to function. How I need that.

LM: Are you saying that this tension is a creative force for you?

CM: As an artist I’m responding to the environment. Thinking about this goes back to the abject. When we go through horror we can reach enlightenment. I think that’s an important aspect of my practice. Looking at the problems in communities, for instance the Neighborhood Magic project in Beverly here in Chicago. I interviewed eight people over the age of 70 about their life stories. The history of America is in those eight people. Some had been involved in Civil Rights, Gay Liberation in San Francisco. One was a lawyer whose life’s mission was to create racial justice in America. Through that project there were conversations where different generations were in the room to listen and hear the stories. Those conversations continue to impact the local community and the work people have gone on to do. That’s part of the important work we have to do as artists—bringing people of diverse backgrounds together and talking about difficult ideas.

LM: So that brings us back to Chicago. Most cities are both utopic and dystopic. So why Chicago? Why now?

CL: Our lives are made up of the people in them. At SAIC I became part of my community. I formed strong friendships here that have been the most important in my life. When I first lived in Chicago, I was part of a diverse community: artists, thinkers and filmmakers. That drew me back after 10 years. I’m very career oriented. My artist career has always been the most important thing in my life. If I could not make my art if I was in a relationship, I left that relationship. My art career comes first. I never got married. I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. It’s about ownership.

City Alive with Dreams, 2014

LM: I’ve always a problem with the word career. To me it connotes conventional narratives that are based on externals such as rewards and recognition—or the lack of. Maybe it’s not served me well, but something in me has always resisted pursing a career. Though job interviews demand otherwise, I usually stubbornly distinguish between how I make money and the narrative of my life. What do you mean by career?

CL: It was very important to my mom. She wanted her daughter to have a career. It’s not easy for a woman to have a career as an artist. The majority of women are written out of the system because of their gender. It’s not okay for women to say I. So for me to say I want to have a career as an artist is outside what the patriarchal structure allows. It was really important to my mom that I could live an independent life and support myself. And I have.

LM: Was she able to do that herself?

CL: My mom was very influential in international politics. Later on she worked for the British Government to create health systems in Hungary and Ghana. She was an amazing person and had a very logistical and practical mind. She got married when she was nineteen. She didn’t have the education I was able to have. She went back to study in her 40s. I have wanted a career in terms of teaching because I love that. I love giving people the agency to live their own lives. A lot of my teaching philosophy works in parallel to my social practice as an artist. There’s a lot of confluence between them.

LM: We’ve covered a lot and there’s way more I’d like to hear about. For example, talk about your process of coming up with ideas and creating a performance piece. Can you walk us through a project?

CL: I’m working on Spare Rib Revisited. I’m interviewing women ages 20 to 100 about their lives. I’ve written poems for each woman inspired by her life story. Last year I had a residency to do this in Lucerne, Switzerland. One woman was in the Katherine Dunham Dance Company and still teaches dance at the age of 91. Another was immigrant from Albania. She had 24 hours to leave her home at the age of five. Another woman was rejected from her hometown at the age of 19 because she chose to become atheist. She’s now the director of a Swiss Trade Union. Another woman is half Tamil and half Swiss. She grew up in small Swiss town. The prejudice she experienced in school and throughout her life is a disgrace. How this systemic racism emotionally impacts a person is something that horrifies me.

Spare Rib Revisited, Gallery A + D, 2017

LM: How did you meet these women?

CL: I was in Lucerne for a month. I worked with a gallery that created a list of women. I had an interview on a youth radio station and made connections through them. I performed the public poetry I had written in other cities at beginning of the residency. Some women signed up at that event. I allowed for chance situations. Whenever I do this I make sure there’s a diversity who engage and participate and take a diverse approach to open up the opportunity. This project is evolving. I recently did a performance as part of my solo exhibition at Gallery A + D in collaboration with Ragdale Foundation.

LM: What work was in that exhibition?

CL: Sculpture, painting and prints that I’m making in conjunction with the interviews and poems. The room at Gallery A + D was packed when I started the performance. I invited people to share an important life moment and then choose poems that connected with the audience experience. Everyone listened to each other. This listening created intimacy. Even people who knew each other discovered they had connections they didn’t know. One of the people in the audience said, “This is exactly what we need right now. We all need to be listening to each other.”

In “A Poem for Verena Haller,” based on the life story of one of the women I interviewed in Lucerne, I structured the poem around the city’s geography and around language as a space to think and breathe. Verena’s email about the poem said, “This is miraculous. I can’t believe you’ve translated our conversation in this way.

LM: What’s the format for these interviews?

CL: My philosophy for interviews is to take as long as it needs. Generally, it takes two or maybe three hours. Sometimes it takes six. It takes whatever time the person needs. I write notes while I’m listening. That helps me structure the poem that I later write. I interview the people in their home.

LM: Do you ask questions during the interview?

CL: No. I have a contract of care with each participant. It’s important that they’re happy with how their life story is translated into poetry. I ask them to talk about important life moments. I send questions in advance so they can think about them before the interview. We’ll talk through the contract, my intentions as an artist. They tell me if there’s something they talk about that they don’t want included.

LM: That kind of exchange is necessary to establish trust. And agency for the participant. You give them the final word on what goes out into the world.

Neighborhood Magic Choir, 2015

CL: With Neighborhood Magic, the ensemble performed for the participants before it went public so they agree to the execution of the work and performance. I had a private screening for participants when I made a documentary. They have a voice at every step. Everyone who participated in Neighborhood Magic were elated at the choral performance of their poems. There is a transformation for people who participate fully in the process. There’s something so special about someone sitting down and listening to you. How often does that happen in our daily life? I think this is so necessary. We have to listen to each other and understand our differences and where we come from. People bring so much judgement to others lives without having any idea about what they’ve lived through. I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of listening over the last eight months and how to integrate it into actual performances.

LM: Before we close, what’s coming up on the near horizon?

CL: On April 21 and 22, there will be three Out of Site performances on the bridge of the Blue Line’s UIC Halsted stop as part of the City of Chicago’s Year of Public Art. We’re working with Gallery 400 on these performances and they’re supported by Gertrude Wachtler Cohen Memorial Foundation.

Photos credits to Jamie Gannon, Emily Esperanza, and Lise McKean

 

Lise McKean

Lise McKean is a writer, editor, and anthropologist based in Chicago.