February 8, 2012 · Print This Article
This Friday, Steve Seeley’s painting show opens at Rotofugi (who not too long ago moved to Lincoln Park, so check the website for their new address if you’re unsure). Seeley’s figurative work often features the juxtaposition of human bodies and animal limbs, or heads. Sometimes alien parts make an appearance as well. He integrates old and new surfaces, incorporating the nostalgia of his childhood into a present assemblage. I grew more and more interested in something we didn’t talk about, namely the idea of the hero and how it charts through these visual, narrative landscapes. Seeley’s icons adopt the iconography of saints and superheros with all of the mystical proportions childhood bears with them. To re-erect and reexamine the Gods of childhood in effort, perhaps, to examine those ancient power structures. In Seeley’s case, they often become hybrid.
Caroline Picard: I’m really interested in the way you combine natural elements with mythical ones: for instance, the way your work often offers a kind of misty (and almost traditional-painterly) background with a vibrant superhero, or animal, alien or hybrid in the foreground. It kind of reminds me of old cartoons; in the Smurfs, for instance, you could tell the background was fixed to one surface, and moving figure(s) interacted on a clear gel over top. How did you come upon this strategy in your own work?
Steve Seeley: The backgrounds for me are definitely an homage to animation cels. I’m a child of the 80s and I grew up on cartoons; He-man, Thundercats, Thundarr, and the like, so that sort of nostalgic animation occupies a huge section of my creative mind. I started the “delicate matter” body of work in 2004 with the backgrounds being multi-layered and muted, almost ghost like, paintings, and at some point maybe three years ago, I transitioned to printed matter. I have always integrated things I collect into my work, I guess in a way bowing to my inner nerd. Thus the action figure-y, comic book-y and taxidermy look and feel. I also happen to collect antique chromolithographs. Mainly landscapes. So it was only natural for me to eventually incorporate/appropriate these into the work. The process involves buying a lithograph, scanning it in, messing around with it, and printing it out to paint on. By printing them out (opposed to painting directly on the print) I can control overall scale, color, direction and halftone size. And after all the other elements are painted, I get that stark dichotomy with the digital print and the paint, given that animated feel I grew up on.
CP: Your use of the bear, the deer, and the wolf feels very iconic, somehow, especially in those places where give your figures gold-plate halos. Can you talk about how your engage the animal world? Is the ram-figure any different from superman’s figure?
SS: Again, a great deal of my work ideas come from a nostalgia. The animals are a nod to growing up in the sticks of Wisconsin. I use animals that I used to see everyday (the deer and specific birds) as well as the animals my brothers and I feared when we played in the woods (the bear and wolves). I grew up in the super small town of Ringle which happened to be home to one of the largest wild dog packs in the state of Wisconsin. So I incorporate any number of dogs that I saw or that may have survived to be part of the wild pack (sorry chihuahua and pugs, I love ya but I you wouldn’t have made it).
As for the difference between man and animal, there isn’t a huge difference for me. In the “delicate matter” series, the story so far is that man has left earth for outer space because he becomes enamored with something he can’t comprehend, something that is entirely different from what he knows. He leaves earth on bad terms with the animals and while he is gone animals become what they were destined to be, a transformation per se, into heavy metal loving, super power using, pop culture loving creatures. When man gets to space he finds it to be less than he had hoped, and he tries to come back but the animals refuse. So man is stuck in space while animals take he’s place back on earth, essentially filling his old shoes, and becoming the new “man.”
There were a few years when I only painted animals (except in the “segue” paintings) but currently man has started to reappear. But only under the guise of a superhero since generally that means your true identity is hidden. Oh yeah and celebrities have always remained on earth, which is why the animals often chill with Miley Cyrus and let Sasha Grey ride around on their backs.
CP: At the same time, your figures are basically anatomically correct, and feature studied detail. Then of course there are places and points where you interrupt our expectations, creating a hole inside a bear’s chest for instance. Or giving a human torso a wolf head: how do these interruptions come about?
SS: The holes (along with the halos) are meant to lightly symbolize a religion, rather literally. The holes become an extreme stigmata of sorts. I am not necessarily a religious person but I am fascinated by what religion does to societies. It causes rifts and causes people to take sides, which can result in conflict… which is something for years I didn’t have in my paintings. Everything and everyone peacefully coexisted. It was thru adding the religious aspect that I was able to split the world I had created.
The head swapping was a way for me to even more-so humanize the animals. Initially all the human body, animal headed figures in my paintings were referred to as “saints”, figures that were idolized by the other animals and which usually also adorned halos. But once Saint Sasha Grey and Saint Cringer (from He-man) got introduced, I began to play with the animal headed figures as not only religious icons but also celebrity icons. For my upcoming show at Rotofugi there are 25 animal/alien/monster headed human figures all imagined as boxers or wrestlers. My intention is to make them a whole new breed of celebrity within the world they exist, at the same time causing additional rifts. Sport is such an easy way for people (or animals in this case) to turn on one another and choose sides.
see more of Seeley’s work by going here.
February 1, 2012 · Print This Article
Many of these discussions about hybridity seem to center on the borders of identity: those places we feel something might end so that another substance, or self can begin. Language is essential in the communication of those boundaries; it enables a consensual agreement. The very act of naming, for instance, differentiates one body from another. I am curious about how language is embodied and how an artist invested in movement-as communication might explore that position. I thought I could interview performance artist, Justin Cabrillos. He is particularly focused on how the body and language relate: what seemed like an additional progression from my last discussion with Vanessa Place. Drawing on elements of dance, performance art, poetry, and sound art, explores an inefficient use of breath, the valleys of nonsense and physical exertion. Cabrillos was an IN>TIME Incubation Series artist-in-residence at the Chicago Cultural Center, and a 2011 LinkUP Artist at Links Hall. He recently collaborated with Every House Has a Door in a performance for artCENA in Rio De Janeiro. He is the recipient of a Greenhouse grant from the Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum.
Caroline Picard: I’m interested in how you integrate language and the body: there is something about this process that makes a lot of sense to me, in so far as both the body and language are mechanistic. In your performances, you seem to embody the two at once, calling attention to the ways in which the body gives life/animates language. At the same time, I feel like you also illustrate a kind of twitch or glitch in both, as they merge — is there some way that you could talk about this?
CP: What is the function of breath in your work?
When following an agenda or thesis of some kind — in this case, my steady and probing look at hybridity — one often tries to fit multiple practices under one umbrella: there is a desire to keep everything neat and tidy, in order, I suppose, to embolden an intuition with evidence, to make that intuition feel reasonable, and therefore true. Theoretical exercises might resemble murder investigations in that way — one wants to find proof beyond the shadow of doubt. At least, that’s what I find I do, and in this particular case it’s amusing, because my original inquiry is centered on an unstable concept. Hybridity is intentionally resistent to categorical thinking. The minute categories are defined, the hybrid wants to transgress and muddle and undermine the categorical thought it inhabits. Thus, I take some deep pleasure in printing the following transcript. It shows how I began to get too comfortable with what “hybridity” might mean, and thus how I began to apply it, suddenly and smoothly, to anything. The following transcript marks a failure in that attempt. It is not so simple, (as I had originally and perhaps hastily presumed) to call Vanessa Place’s practice a hybrid one: yes, she is both an esteemed lawyer and experimental poet. Yes, her legal work — the plethora of accrued documents — has become, literally, her poetry. And with these two yes’s, combined with my own experience of her performance — during which she read, word for a word, a trial transcript — I imagined she was combining two worlds. I thought I could convince her to talk about her work in those terms, under my umbrella. Instead, Place calls attention to the slippery nature of words; meaning falls slick through our grasp like sand, ever sensitive to context just as it is always capable of transformation. In fact, words, like people, like bodies and chairs: are fickle, multifacted, both present and out of reach. Vanessa Place has published many books, including Dies: A Sentence (2006), La Medusa (Fiction Collective 2, 2008), Notes on Conceptualisms, co-authored with Robert Fitterman (Ugly Duckling Press, 2009), and The Guilt Project: Rape, Morality and Law (2010). In addition to her own poetry and legal practice, she is also the co-director of a magnificent, experimental poetry press called Les Figues.
Caroline Picard: In some ways, it seems like you lead a double life as a criminal appelate lawyer and literary force. These two occupations could require a split in your mind, but you have managed to integrate them: How did this possibility first occur to you?
Vanessa Place: It was more a matter of capitulating to the inevitable; one learns not to avoid the trap, but to walk into the trap and see if it can be trapped.
CP: Are traps generally trappable? Do they have inherent weakness (by virtue of being traps)? Or are those weaknesses a result of the expectations we impose upon ourselves? (For instance that one must choose to be one thing or another).
VP: Traps are always trappable. The trick is to want the trap: see Brer Rabbit. The other trick is to have no expectations.
CP: How is the poet most often trapped? How does this compare to traps in witness testimony?
VP: Both fall for the truth-trap.
CP: Is language itself a trap?
VP: Wittgenstein said so. If so, it is the unavoidable trap. As is meaning (though there is no difference in this).
CP: When I saw you read here in Chicago you read a transcription of a domestic assault trial as poetry. Would you consider that transcription a hybrid text? Does the hybridity rely on the performance/context? Or does it exist just as well in a court of law?
VP: It exists simultaneously as a legal document and as a poem. It’s not a matter of hybridity, but of transubstantiation. In other words, words only exist in context, in whatever language game in which they happen to be deployed. Content is context.
CP: Can the human body be similarly transubstantiated? Are texts and bodies synonymous? This would make us like chameleons, in some way…
VP: Not chameleon because the chameleon remains chameleonish. That is to say, it alters not when it alteration finds. Texts, like bodies, are capable of complete metamorphosis
CP: How is it possible to communicate meaning if meaning is always contextualized (and therefore, I presume, relative to each subject)?
VP: Subjects are always sobjects, amalgams of subjects and objects. Consider whether it is possible that we are meeting at the point of our mutual thingness rather than our mutual selfness.
CP: Is it possible that mutual thingness is an experience held in common by all things — living and nonliving alike? Would a text’s thingness be equivalent to a chair’s thingness?
CP: How much does your performance of the material influence that context? When I saw you read, for instance, it was as if each word was given the same treatment and weight, as though you removed the emotive passion of the spoken words.
VP: Performance is another context, thus creating another piece. Similarly, one performance context, such as a reading in a gallery, creates a different piece than the same performance occupying another context.
CP: Where does the animation come from? Is there anything especially remarkable about words said via breath vs. words written on the page, or on the ground, or letters scattered on a refrigerator?
VP: Not remarkable. They are different creatures, however. In other words, you tell me.
CP: Does something essential about that “found” manuscript transform when it is recontextualized by a poetry reading? Or maybe, more generally, what happens? (For my part, I remember being astonished both by the horrific violence you were relaying, what was nonetheless paired with a simultaneous experience of beauty — the beauty of language, for instance, the beauty of a vernacular and the beauty of appropriation, even the visceral experience of horror).
VP: What happens depends on the receiver of the text — all of the things you describe are absolutely true — for you. Another person might be blinded to any potential for beauty, another, aroused by the violence. There is nothing essential in the text itself: the text is dead. The context, on the other hand, remains quite animated.
CP: Is violence a necessary tool for animation? Or, more generally, what does violence do? What is its function?
VP: It insists on.
CP: How can an impersonal force contain insistence in all its manifestations?
VP: Think of shame.
CP: Does violence have a mutual thingness?
CP: How does violence impact a given page? Does the trauma it inflicts reoccur each time that page is read? Would that somehow be equivalent to someone who, in retelling the story of his or her violence, reenacts the incident in some way?
VP: Pages are people too. Like pages, they flip, depending on who they turn to.
CP: I have a friend who went to law school initially because he said he wanted to learn more about human language and (in his words) “the scaffold of reason.” How do you feel your relationship with language has changed with regards to your legal background?
VP: You assume it has changed.
This is how it has changed.
January 11, 2012 · Print This Article
Given that these weekly discussions address the subject of hybridity, it seemed worthwhile to expand the conversation beyond the bounds of art practice per se and foray into those scientific, philosophical landscapes which so often inform the art one makes. In this particular case I had the opportunity to interview, via email, Timothy Morton. Many of my questions about hybridity came into focus after reading his book, The Ecological Thought, (Harvard UP, 2010). You can imagine, then, how awesome it is to communicate with him directly, and especially on the heels of Tessa Siddle’s performative embodiment of plants and animals. In addition to The Ecological Thought, Morton teaches at UC Davis, and has published a number of articles, essays and lectures (a number of which can be read/listened to here). His first book, Ecology without Nature was published in 2009 (Harvard UP). Morton deals specifically with the interrelatedness of life forms— a framework that incorporates and integrates the society of all creatures.
Caroline Picard: I am especially interested in the interstitiary borders between species, animals, plants and (even) robots. In your book you suggest that those borders are not fixed, but constantly in flux. At a certain point, our attempts to differentiate a robot a non-robot are become arbitrary. (I love your example of a computer virus vs. a flu virus, for instance). Thus the human tendency to delineate and classify boundaries between this and that are both aggressive and artificial. It reminds me of this idea that, Adam for instance, had no connection with his environment before he began to name the animals. Yet in naming he imposed distinctions that separated different objects and creatures. Is there another kind of strategy to learn about one’s environment? Or should we think of our names and categories as temporary scaffolds that may change at any moment?
Timothy Morton: Well, one could think about science as assuming that we might be wrong about something, and then investigating the contours of a thing to assess whether we were wrong or not. One of the most inspiring things about Darwin’s work is that he was ready to let go of categories such as “species” and “genus” that had held since the days of Linnaeus.
But there might be a problem with this approach, not so much in the practice, but in the attitudes that swirl around it. There is a widespread assumption that things such as butterflies and chimpanzees have no intrinsic reality because they have no essence: you won’t, for instance, find a chimp-flavored piece of DNA as opposed to say a daffodil-flavored piece. The trouble is not science per se, but scientism, including the philosophy that thinks it’s above other forms of philosophy because it cleaves closer to what it thinks science is saying, namely that smaller things like atoms are more real than medium-sized things like horses.
When we see a horse not as a category or as a species, we see it as this unique entity galloping towards us. I think that the refusal to put too many labels on things doesn’t have to blur everything into grey fudge, but rather it could allow things to be just what they are, which in my view is totally unique. At that point it’s all right to say “horse,” because you know that it’s just an arbitrary designation. But the rippling, neighing beast in front of you isn’t nothing at all, nor is it a grey fudge sculpture. It’s a real horse, an actual horse.
There is a weird Möbius strip quality to this way of thinking, then. As you continue to dissolve concepts about things, the things themselves become more vivid. Ecological awareness, which is becoming the default mode of human being on this planet, just is this strange blend of vivid and unreal.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about the ways we have personified Nature in the past? And how your work disassembles that vision, in order to integrate our consciousness into it? (I don’t know if that’s how you would suggest using your idea of the mesh, but I had a feeling in order to embody that idea, something fundamental would have to shift with regard to my understanding of self, i.e. that I was somehow able to expand that idea of self, or imagine it porous and (also) fluctuating.)
TM: It is not so hard to imagine yourself as porous and fluctuating. Perhaps in the old days mystics only could do this, but now all you have to do is have a blood test or read a biology textbook. They will tell you that your body is full of mercury, radioactive materials, and so on. The book will show you mitochrondria, which are bacterial symbionts with their own DNA living in each of your cells, without which we would keel over unable to live at all. Mitochondria are in hiding from the environmental catastrophe they caused, the one we call oxygen.
Nature is not a concept we can take with us into an ecological age. It’s a relic of an agricultural life that has been dominant on Earth for three thousand years but which shouldn’t persist forever — remember that it’s responsible for an awful lot of global warming. We’ve just gotten used to seeing the world that way: as bounded, with a horizon — the sun comes up, the sun goes down, hopefully there are no windfarms on the hill to spoil the picturesque view. Nature just is a picture postcard, not actual coral or bacteria or aspen trees.
Nature is a product behind a glass screen in a shop window. The glass screen is the windshield of your SUV. You drive your SUV through the wilderness to get a couch potato experience of watching Nature as if on TV. Or you watch TV shows of other people doing it, so you don’t have to. Nature is a combination of agricultural framing of the world with its rolling hills and horizons and sheep; and of industry, with its processes and automation. Nature is a modern product that is antiqued to look ancient and premodern. But modernity is over — the writing is on the wall, or rather in the thin layer of carbon deposited from 1790 throughout Earth’s crust, beginning what is now called the Anthropocene. We created a geological era that now intersects with human history: think for a moment about how scary that is. Now we know it — so Nature, which just is “stuff over yonder” — is no more, because we now know that “over yonder” doesn’t exist: it has a real name, such as Pacific Ocean or wastewater treatment plant or neonatal tissue. There is no “away” to which to chuck things anymore.
CP: Do you feel like there is something fundamentally human? And (this may not be related, but I was curious nonetheless) what is the role of our imagination in all this?
TM: According to evolution science, there are two things humans do very well, but they are a bit of an ego blow: throwing and sweating. Everything else is also done by nonhumans, including consciousness, feelings, art, tool use, you name it. I am not a fundamentalist at all so of course, there can’t be something fundamentally human. Many philosophies and beliefs tell us we are uniquely good or uniquely evil, including some environmentalist ones. Those ideas are getting in the way of what we need to do right now, which is simply to recognize that nonhumans are, and always were, on “this” side of social, psychic and philosophical space. Crows and slime molds are already part of society: just think of the crows that use suburban streets and cars as nutcrackers, dropping nuts just in front of the wheels. This is not such a strange idea if there is no away any more. Everything is “here.” We have to widen our ideas about what democracy is: it includes cows, corn and clouds of methane.
Read more of Morton’s thoughts, interests and observations on his blog, Ecology Without Nature.
Tessa Siddle is a transgender video maker and performance artist based out of San Francisco. In her work she regularly embodies hybrid forms — bleeding her self between animal, human, singular and multiplicitous identities — in order to challenge a tidier, pervasive binary tradition. What I find particularly interesting about her work is the way in which it relies as much on the performative, physical body — make up and costume effects — as it does on technology advances, like the blue screen for instance. The effect is itself a hybrid of effects that coalesce to become an illusory, allegorical space. Tessa also organizes and curates an experimental film series, The MisAlt Screening Series, in the Bay Area.
CP: You often deal with hybridity often in your work — in your performances you sometimes embody animals, in other instances you are at once one person and two people at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you think of hybridity?
TS: I feel like a lot of people in the arts are talking about hybridity using very different (and I think more or less equally valid) definitions which occasionally leads to a little bit of confusion. I have often heard the term “hybrid forms” applied equally to visual depictions of chimeras and other hybridized figures and to the use of organic forms, mixed-media, and composite materials.
My personal interests in hybridity comes out of the convergence of my life-long fascination with combined human/animal/machine forms (most notably the chimeras of ancient myth, anthropomorphized animals in children’s literature, and human/machine/extraterrestrial hybrids of science fiction and UFO mythos) with my exposure to critics like Donna Haraway who use the figure of the cyborg and other hybrids to critique dualist social constructions and the idea of personhood and individual agency being bound within a unified and independent bodies. This exposure roughly coincided with the beginning of my desire to confront my long-time (and continuing) discomfort with binary gender and I was constantly on the look out for alternative theories of the body and I found the concept of cyborg bodies whose slippery existence is held together by constantly shifting relationships between humans, machines, animals, and institutions to be extremely exciting. It is largely in this spirit that I go about creating work in which I split
myself into various animal and plant versions of myself.
CP: It seems like there’s a way that hybridity can question assumptions latent in, say, gender binaries or species distinction. Even in terms of what you’re addressing with robotic/mechanical vs. organic/self-determined structures. It’s like you’re decentralizing ideas of self-hood and self-determination, while undermining traditional power structures. Having said that, I’m not really sure I know what I mean when I say “traditional power structures” except that I feel it manifests itself visually in my mind as a kind of monolith. A giant cultural pillar with neat and tidy assigned parts. Do you feel like your efforts are anarchistic? Or are you looking for a new kind of order? In other words, should the hybridity remain unfixed and unfixable? Or would do you aim to create a new kind of identity that is, say, part cheetah with human hindquarters and a robot arm?
TS: I feel that when talking about power structures it is important to distinguish between models of power (the ways of looking at power) and the organization of power into social institutions. I think that the traditional way of looking at power is the monolithic model of which you speak, in which power descends from a (often divine) pinnacle of authority on to the people beneath. There is also the bottom-up view of power, which is a democratic inversion of the monolithic model, in which the legitimacy of the authority on the top comes from the power of the people below. I subscribe to a model of power in which power is radiating from everyone, everywhere, in all directions — without a top, bottom, or center. I think that this is the structure of power regardless of the institutions and social constructions into which it is molded.
What the monolithic model and the bottom-up model share is that they are both preoccupied with the legitimacy of existing institutions and constructions. Things are the way they are, they say, because of divine (or scientific or natural) order or popular consensus. Under these models, binaries are presented as part of a natural or innate cultural order, part of the way things are.
I think that what hybrid figures do to binaries is to show that they are actually the way things are not (or that binaries, if they exist, are extremely rare). I think, for example, that the human/non-human binary falls apart as soon as we look really closely at the human body. A classical (humanist) reading of the body considers it to be a unified, holistic, 100% human form — the most human form — however if we take out our microscopes, look onto and beneath our skin, look deep into our guts (take a literally very close look) what we see is that the body is host to colony after colony of (mostly benign) bacteria, protozoa, viruses, very small animals, and fungi. From my limited understanding (I am not a biologist) the health of these colonies is essential for the health of the overall body to the point that we can look at the human body as already (and always) being inhuman.
I feel that in my own efforts, I am not trying to prescribe an anarchistic role to hybrids or to suggest a new world order, but rather I am attempting create semi-fictional realities in which the already slippery relationships between humans, animals, and plants are amplified in their slipperiness.
CP: Can you talk a little bit about how that slipperiness plays out in some of your work?
TS: I think in a lot of my work I’m attempting to create situations/environments/performances that play with the boundaries between things that are frequently placed in opposition with each other. When I perform as a community of fox/people, a family of rabbits, a bouquet of flowers, or a forest ecosystem I try to borrow equally from scientific, mythological, historical, pop cultural, autobiographical, and autofictional sources to create the text, structure, and logic of my characters and the worlds they interact with. My hope, is that by fusing these elements together I can create alternate realities that feel natural, magical, confessional, and opaque at more or less the same time. I also try my best to give these worlds a logic that seems coherent but also transparently artificial and frayed around the edges.