A string of questions: What is the discourse of power that we subscribe to? Is it constrained by capital or physical strength? Is it supernatural or material? Where is it located? Who participates?
Further: What are the material conditions that underpin these power plays? The currencies, objects, commodities? How physically present are they? Or, how virtual are they?
In Atlanta, three recent shows and a dance performance provoked these questions concerning the dynamics of power structures. Varying in methods of representation and subversion, the works materialize the many ways in which power pervades the multiple facets of our lives: spiritual, physical, economic, electrical, corporate, digital. While each of these, the exhibitions and performance, taken on their own offer a perhaps more simplistic notion of power, limited to a particular variable (some more limited than others), taken together, these works can lead the viewer to consider the complexities of our contemporary globalized world’s power structures.
Let this be an argument for synthesis. Individual artists and works do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an assemblage which the artist, discourse, institution, and viewer create. In keeping with my experience attending the 9/50 Summit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center which brought together arts organizations from around the southeast region, it seems important to address the issue of making connections. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the region determines the shows and the works within them.
Something that seemed to sit beneath the words spoken at the panel “Does Regionalism Exist?” at the Summit was the acknowledgement of one’s power or lack thereof. I realize how redundant and out-of-date this may sound in its Foucauldian inclinations and hints of institutional critique. However, I can’t deny that the ways in which I saw these works as an assemblage prompted the question: What is the meta-discourse here? As both a practicing visual/performance artist and a writer, I am always attempting to make sense of what I’m looking at, why it’s been placed before me, or why I’m before it. Sometimes it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it.
The institutions that house the exhibitions/performance I mention here run the gamut – from DIY resourcefulness to larger budget non-profit institution. Layers of authority and administration surround these works many times over — the specific histories, practices, and objects addressed as well as the sites in which they lived temporarily.
Simone Leigh’s solo show Gone South at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers the most complex rendering of power relations, providing the viewer with an image of the materiality, social history, economics, and spirituality of the South.
In Leigh’s installation Cupboard, she directly references the Mississippi restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard which is featured in the 1941 Edward Weston photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi. Using steel as the armature, Leigh creates what would be the skirt that the viewer/restaurant-goer walks into. However, instead of taking a seat and ordering pancakes, the viewer confronts Leigh’s 2013 work Topsy Turvy, which here reads as female reproductive anatomy. Since this biology is made from symbols of currency (the cowrie shell), stepping inside the skirt provokes anxieties. In the installation’s juxtaposition of histories, economies, infrastructure, and architecture, Leigh makes apparent the complexities of labor that undergird our current structures of capital.
The video work my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, made with Chitra Ganesh, seems to solidify this reading in its juxtaposition to Cupboard. We see a woman’s exposed back and then notice that her head is covered in stones. The back’s subtle movement shows she is breathing, but it seems only barely so. In contradistinction to the suspended cluster in Cupboard, the cluster of stones weighs the woman’s head to the ground, burying her.
Across town at The Low Museum, a potted plant in a virtual corporate office makes its way into actual space. In one instance, the potted plant is blocked from view by window blinds. A Starbucks cup is turned over in a virtual church. In an interplay of the virtual and actual, the digital and IRL, Cara Mayuski’s Area Moments confronts the viewer with a cheeky corporate (i.e., anonymous) visual language.
Commodities, if we’ve learned anything from Marx, have become virtual objects, divorced from the materials and labor that went into producing them. While Mayuski might not intend for this reading, (instead she focuses on the digital/IRL experience dichotomy), expanding the discussion of the virtual and actual makes for a compelling take on our everyday experience, with all of its social, political, and economic dimensions. She notes that in her research of spaces that have a “public or communal aspect to them,” she discovered that when she brought elements of these spaces together, they “created highly impersonal spaces that were culminations of mass produced and familiar elements.” 
Using the overhead balcony walkway of the performance space, Erik Thurmond and Nicholas Goodly created a viewing experience reminiscent of a Roman gladiator spectacle in their new work Meh Meh; the audience watches from above, the dancers move in the pit. At first Thurmond and Goodly, the dancers, displayed feats of physical prowess, strength, and agility. During this time, the two of them circle the floor, make eye contact with the audience, and point up towards particular members of the audience. As a commentary on masculinity and desire, Meh Meh brings together physical competition and gay club cruising. Meh meh means kiss kiss. However, when Thurmond and Goodly say it, scream it, at each other, the affectionate tone drops out and a bellowing of “ME” takes its place.
It seems important to mention where the piece premiered: the Druid Hills Baptist Church, a place that hosts the Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre, artist studios, and performances, notably that of Thurmond and Mary Grace Phillips. What are multiple levels of power plays here? Between the dancers? The dancers and the audience? Meh Meh and the church?
Meh Meh is a DIY and self-funded project that subverts many of the Atlanta arts funding institutions. It lies on the periphery of what is available to artists. Funny how this takes place in a church – the church standing in for one of the oldest economic and political institutions.
For Rich Gere, he started with a flashlight. He said that during the Millennium Juried Art Show (The Art Market Gallery in Knoxville, TN), he realized that “if the lights go out, we’re going to need light.” The flashlight: what you turn to in an emergency, a beacon of hope perhaps.
Gere says that this is all about the “management of power,” something that he has previously noted in interviews. This is apparent in the lightbulb of the flashlight’s beacon turned warning signal in the 2012 works We the People – Ideologies: four joules and We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts. Each Installed in a corner of Kibbee Gallery’s side gallery for his show Power Failure, the sculptures project audio at each other. For We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts, the audio is sourced from tape recordings of JFK’s and RFK’s conversations with the Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, during the James Meredith Standoff. Also included are recordings of LBJ in conversation with James Meredith. For We the People – Ideologies: four joules, the audio is sourced from a 1929 recording of Charley Patton, a Mississippi Delta blues musician who was oftentimes barred from recording studios because of his race. The recording featured in the sculpture was made in Wisconsin, a place usually easier for black musicians to access.
While the gallery installation wasn’t particularly compelling, I find the gestures towards both optimism (the flashlight as symbol) and despair or regret (the historical fact of JFK/RFK/LBJ/Patton) to be important. Issues of access and economies of power are still critical to examine in our supposedly post-race country, something that Gere describes. 
Refusals and Competition
I’d like to end with gestures of refusal: Two of the works in the Simone Leigh’s Gone South show make reference to Southern spiritual traditions while rendering their intended functions obsolete. Her sculpture Jug, made from lizella clay that is found and produced locally, references face jugs, whose American history originates in 19th century slavery, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Her sculptural installation Tree also makes reference to the warding off of spirits; the collection of glass bottles is reminiscent of the Southern, particularly Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. However, these works of Leigh’s do not perform the task they are meant to. Jug is not adorned with a face that will scare the spirit. Tree’s bottles and jars hang right-side-up; only upside-down bottles are successful at trapping what should be trapped.
In terms of the constellation of sources and symbols in Gone South — the cowrie shell, which is made from molds of watermelons, the mammy skirt, the plantain in wedgewood blue, the face jug, the bottle tree — Leigh’s simultaneous use and abuse of these symbols yields a potent historical/cultural/post/colonial mélange. This interplay, one that also incited Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, forces us to pay attention to the intricacies of what we decide to use as visual markers.
I have to admit that each of these shows needs more words. Each taken on their own would provide multiple other readings and engagements. In a self-conscious disclosure of power, what I claim here institutes a precarious authority.
Though these shows don’t necessarily speak the same language or even share the same discourse, I find it intriguing that multiple shows within a brief span of time all examine some discourse of power that suggest underlying economies of desire and material resources. This may seem like a vague topic, and in a sense it really is. However, in an attempt to identify a guiding thread that might indicate some sort of collective unconscious, this is where I’ve arrived. Considering the limitations that constrain Atlantan artists and art institutions, a problem that is not atypical for artists and organizations in the US, it seems to me that these works make apparent the overarching economic, and therefore social, infrastructures which limit. Many artists in Atlanta are both energized by what appears as endless possibilities, yet frustrated by certain constraints, namely, I would say, competition amongst artists for a limited pool of resources; the “winner” is usually easy to predict and tends to stay the same.
 Email interview with Mayuski.
 Phone interview with Gere.
As I mentioned yesterday, there is a great performance festival taking place called IN>TIME. Organized by artist Mark Jeffrey,Â IN>TIME features both international and local artists exhibiting in 14 diverse venues across the city between the months of January and March. Bad at Sports will be posting a mini-series of interviews and essays about this festival, including an upcoming interview with Mark Jeffrey himself. This particular post is dedicated to two concurrent exhibits atÂ threewallsÂ that are also part of Jeffrey’s festival. On January 11th,Â Mary Patten’s performance/sound/video installation,Â PanelÂ opened in the main space.Â Mathew Jinks’ began screening his new 73 minute, single-channel HD video,Â The Unreliable Narrator,Â in the project space. While these artists are distinct from one another, exhibiting independent projects, I was interested in facilitating a conversation between them, particularly as both negotiate film, performance, history and collaboration. These exhibits will be on view until February 23rd, with an artist talk from Jinks on January 31st at 7pm,Â as well asÂ a performance,Â SCHIZO CULTURE: A Collaborative Reading, and publication release of the catalogue associated with PANEL.Â On February 9th, there will be another performance,Â SCHIZO PANEL,Â at 7 PM.
Caroline Picard:Â You both call on speculative fiction in your respective projects. What does it mean for each of you to employ the fantastic?Â
Mathew Jinks: The idea of alternate histories is very resonant for me, not necessarily in the reconstruction of various alternative spaces, but aiding in imagining that sense of an â€˜otherâ€™ space that can be inhabited by a narrative. Fictive narratives do not interest me. They seem too comfortable as a source of abstract inventionÂ in some way,Â which I see as an escape from reality and a dead end street; a more complex and evocative device for me is to sow seeds of doubt, to introduce situations and characters with a set of dynamics which have been loaded from the start and see how they play out. The origination in my practice was at the point of departure from personal histories and the evolution of expansive political histories.
Mary Patten:Â Mathewâ€™s articulation ofÂ alternate histories,Â his desire toÂ â€œsow seeds of doubt,â€ the leaking or trespassing of â€œpersonalâ€ histories into the territory of â€œthe politicalâ€ are all-compelling to meâ€¦ and describe sensibilities or impulses that have shaped my own work for many years. Itâ€™s very difficult, maybe even pointless, to draw an easy divide between â€œfactâ€ and â€œfiction,â€ despite persistent claims of â€œobjective journalismâ€ or â€œscientific truth.â€ This is well-trodden territory: what â€œweâ€ (in the most capacious sense) collectively and cumulatively â€œknowâ€ is subject to constant revision and reconstruction. We understand that â€œfacticityâ€ doesnâ€™tÂ equal truth, and that what passes as fiction is not a series of falsehoods. One of the oldest cultural practices, the oral tradition â€” often taking the form of what we call fables or myths â€” has been a crucial element in constructing â€œhistory.â€ And yet â€œtelling storiesâ€ is still a euphemism for telling lies.
â€œSpeculativeâ€ introduces the possibility of wonder, a wandering imagination, the work of invention to heal or bridge inescapable gaps in any historical record. It is a kind of affective, archaeological process to make empirically un-provable connections between obscure, unknown or little-known histories. â€œSpeculativeâ€ need not connote the fantastical, however â€” at least not in the â€œspectacularâ€ sense. These words are funnyâ€¦ so interconnected, but full of paradoxes.
In the case ofÂ Panel,Â I was drawn to an obscure transcript, photocopied many-times over, given to me by the only participant still living, my friend Judith Clark,Â herself a survivor of a barely-remembered radical history, serving a 75-to-life sentence in Bedford Hills prison in New York State. (Judyâ€™s story deserves its own independent telling; I would ask readers to please check out judithclark.org.)
Judyâ€™s memory of the â€œpanel on prisons and asylumsâ€ at Schizo Culture is that the three men â€“ Foucault, Harp, and Laing â€“ did most of the talking. Thatâ€™s contradicted by the transcript, which is itself very odd, characterized by breaks and ellipses. We know from SylvÃ¨re Lotringerâ€™s accounts that the entire Schizo Culture conference was rife with outbursts and interruptions, including this panel discussion, although thatâ€™s not evident in the transcription.
In attempting to re-stage a little-known but somewhat exotic event, I wanted to resist any impulse to reconstruct or â€œnarrativizeâ€ the episode in any kind of â€œrealisticâ€ way. I didnâ€™t want a performance designed to dissolve the distance between the â€œoriginalâ€ event and its contents, both very marked by that moment of the mid 1970s, and yet eerily (and depressingly) prescient of our current traumas of the â€œsocieties of controlâ€: diagnosis, punishment, imprisonment, and torture. I didnâ€™t want to blend or unify these four amazing characters and social actors, two of whom (Foucault and Laing) possess an iconicity shimmering with all kinds of aura, with the people reading and inhabiting their words now. I am compelled byÂ bothÂ the â€œconnectsâ€ and â€œdisconnects.â€
CP: You share an interest in collaboration, but also work independently.Â How do you negotiate the role of an author who is also dedicated to fostering relationships in your work?Â
MJ: I have always felt uncomfortable in a lonely practice, with the idea of the studio Artist who appears after years of hermetic work with a portfolio under the arm. I began working for other artists in Chicago because I had always been a part of a DIY scene which to me was about skill sharing and enabling others to achieve their goals whilst you achieved yours, doing this I witnessed the evolution of a work through multiple creative minds first hand and this stayed with me. I introduce performers and artists into my works to have them re-interpret my ideas, for them to take the work in directions unknown to myself or to the work. It is quite stressful in many ways to work with others, although I am not precious about my projects I do have creative demands and I like to try to keep the overall affect of the work under my thumb. In return I try hard to become a tool for them to use, whether I am recording sound as I did for Maryâ€™s Piece, working as a Cameraman for Kirsten Leenars, or doing sound for Melika Bass. I simply try to gel with the process at hand.
The most important elements of my practice that I feel need to be under my control I will do myself, The Unreliable Narrator was shot, edited and mixed by myself, with voiceover recordings, studio shoots, post image production all done in my studio. I decided to use a colorist to step up my game a little and he really did a great job, I wanted some animation work for the chapter titles and again I used a great animator Han Han Li â€” the big key for this work was to employ a Producer, Parveer Singh Sohal. Without Parveerâ€™s connections in India the work would not exist, so that was an integral decision. I needed access. But Parveer is not a Producer, he is a Graphic Designer and so there were many discussions about what I needed and what he was bringing to the project.
MP: Mathewâ€™s discomfort with the notion of a lonely, hermetic studio practice and artistic identity is of course very much in sync with my own ideas, feelings, and historyâ€¦ although not without risks â€”Â losing oneself in the collective, for example. A good friend who shares a similar collaborative history once commented that itâ€™s possible that no one will know or remember that her labor and creativity helped form some of these projects, since individual authorship is so often dissolvedâ€¦ Iâ€™m obviously not talking here about the art worldâ€™s current embrace of â€œrelational practicesâ€ and the career building that goes along with that. But as Iâ€™ve said elsewhere, I continue to be drawn to collaborative ways of working, such as the Chicago Torture Justice Memorials Project, because itâ€™s urgently needed, and impossible to realize by a single or even a handful of authors. Most importantly, collaborations embody the kind of collective labor and passion necessary to any project thatâ€™s trying to makeÂ change.
As you, Caroline, and Mathew make very clear, the project of film and videomaking, like so many art forms, isÂ necessarilyÂ collaborativeâ€¦ Chris Marker makes this point beautifully during the ending credits of â€œGrin without a catâ€ which he dedicates to the anonymous and unnamed artists and technicians without whose clips, shots, sequences, and documents that epic film would have never been realized, seen, or distributed. To that point, I would like to acknowledge the thoughtful labor, participation, and support of performers Darrell Moore, Mikal Shapiro, Matthias Regan, andÂ Mark Jeffery; Directors of Photography Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke; Mathew for such great sound engineering; Alex Brown for assisting with camera; Ilan Gutin for helping with the large prints; and the lovely, hardworking, and brilliant Joey Carr who has worked as producer, compositor, and hardware/software engineer.
CP: You call on various histories, whether philosophical or psychological traditions, fortune telling traditions, Â â€” is it possible to collaborate with disciplines? Or do you think about the way you engage those traditions differently?
MJ: This is a wonderful question; tradition by nature is a stubborn legacy and confronting it head on is an antagonistic strategy. If you lay the threads down together: personal history and its discipline of remembrance, familial oral history, musical traditions as in Jazz, Cheiromancy, Homeopathy, Metallurgy, then these lines will touch and intersect like magnets picking up each other. It is a naÃ¯ve want to reshape these lines to any sort of permanence. I think of Francis Alys work,Â The Collector â€”Â with the magnet on wheels that he pulls behind him collecting metal from the street as he goes â€” the street will fill up once again with shards and paperclips. Francis creates a moment of being present, and itâ€™s this re-presenting and laying down with traditions in new almost aleatoric ways.
MP: I consider myself a visitor, a curious student, an interloper or trespasser in many disciplines, an auto-didact, or rather someone who has learned from many teachers and texts, â€œnegativeâ€ as well as exemplaryâ€¦
CP:Â How do you all think of beginnings and endings? Are those narrative touchstones useful to you?Â
MJ:Â No, I instinctively move away from creating narrative structure, arcs and so forth. I find the idea of conclusion quite arrogant in non-fiction. The episodic device is interesting because it introduces the idea of the â€˜false startâ€™, or the hidden track at the end of an album, or the prologue as in Bergman’s Persona, or â€˜rewindâ€™ in Jamaican dance hall, the stutter. This is why gallery installations are so useful: people enter and leave as they wish; this is a very considered position for my work, the ideal position.
MP:Â There are no real beginnings. Weâ€™re always starting in the middle, picking up someone elseâ€™s traces and tracksâ€¦ For me, in the realm of ideas, relationships, as well as many projects over the years, there are so many interruptions and breaksâ€¦ things are â€œleft for nowâ€ and unfinished or deferred. I find it much more habitual to abandon something, rather than â€œendâ€ it. Like Mathew, I am drawn to the episodic, to â€œfalse startsâ€ and â€œstuttersâ€â€¦ but when Mathew talks about resisting narrative arcs, I think he is perhaps referring to â€œmainstreamâ€ or what we used to call â€œHollywood narrative cinemaâ€â€¦ for me, there are so many wonderful, rich and complicated examples of â€œnarrative fictionâ€ that escape these constraints â€“ the films of Robert Bresson and Chantal Akerman, for example, but also so many more â€“ in cinema and literature, in expanded forms of the essay, in experimental non-fiction and media formsâ€¦
CP:Â How do you conceive of utopia? Is such a thing possible? Is it a condition of being? Or a place?Â
MJ:Â More than a construct, a Modernist ideal, pathological, LSD induced? I never conceive of utopia. Utopia and dystopia to me are devices, but they are not very interesting devices. They suggest spaces of utter happiness or utter sadness and isnâ€™t that a psychological state? Bi-Polar? There is no tension in these extreme spaces and it is too easy to create heroics from such static dynamics. This is exactly what popular culture thrives on. The fine-line-in-betweens, and the slippage that occurs within those minimal gradations is what art production responds to. The Â entertainment industry responds to thoseÂ other extremes. Even in a spiritual sense â€” in Buddhism, for instance, elements are in a balance, whereas in cults, the utopian ideals are offset by the leader sexually prowling its herd for ultimate control. Conceiving of utopia maybe undermines an art making practice? Desire is a more interesting space to work from for me. It has the same goal as utopia â€” the perfect space â€” but it is much more psychologically complex. Desire is fixated on process, and the moment. There is presence in desire without conclusion.
MP:Â Unlike Mathew, I donâ€™t think that utopian impulses can be reduced to mere devices, or that they areÂ necessarilyÂ tied to dangerous heroic narrativesâ€¦ maybe this is just a difference of language, because I find that his conception of desire as a transformative force is very akin to what I would call utopian longings.
Until fairly recently, itâ€™s been fashionable to dismiss â€œutopiaâ€ because of its attachment to so many terrible and failed agendas that promised brave new worlds and then delivered totalitarianisms. We know now that we should dislike and mistrust master narratives, totalities of certainty, and teleological schemes. However, I am drawn to utopian impulses not just because I was formed through my engagement with them â€“ to the point of political lunacy, perhaps â€“ but also perversely because they have been a despised or at best suspect category for so long.
Contemporary social movements and revolts against globalized capital, the fleeting â€œoccupys,â€ the movements of the squares, the queer utopias of so many interesting artists today, all embody what people call â€œprefigurative politicsâ€: â€œBeÂ the change you want to make.â€ The emphasis is on the here and now,Â againstÂ telos, embracing not only possibility, but doubt. Recognizing that we, and all matter, is/are in a constant state of becoming, that small and invisible shifts and changes are always (potentially) occurring, whether or not they are seen or recognizedâ€¦ this is what intrigues and provokes me. Brian Massumi is an extremely useful thinker and writer here.
Paradoxically, thereâ€™s a lot of interest in reclaiming utopian thinking now because of how hopeless and scary the world has become, how reduced and flattened to information, to bits and bytes everything seemsâ€¦ and all the ways that capitalism forecloses the imagination and desire, except as an instrument of and for the commodity, no pleasure outside of consumptionâ€¦ or the deadliness of an actuarial life, with its endless assessment debits and creditsâ€¦
CP:Â What does it mean to come from somewhere? What role does memory play in that reality?
MJ:Â The transition is interesting, to come from somewhere to go to somewhere else, and the translation from one meaning to another. There is a great deal of nostalgia and longing for previous inhabited spaces, especially if you have been formed by them in some way; that complicates memory. A new space can act as a lens from which to view the previous space and this is truly a unique position. You no longer belong to that place but the memories are attached to you, somehow the filtration from one’s current position gives a sober screen. I think it is essential but painful, and again that tension of knowing you need separation while at the same time being in touch with a sense of longing is the drive for this â€˜otherâ€™ space to be imagined in my work.
MP:Â Again, we return to the problem of originsâ€¦Years ago, I made a piece provoked by Courbetâ€™s â€œThe Origin of the World.â€ I was very influenced by Linda Nochlinâ€™s pivotal essay on that infamous painting, and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of locating an originary point â€” whether in relationship to that picture, which existed in several versions, disappeared, and re-surfaced over a long stretch of timeâ€¦ as well as the funny ridiculousness of imagining the universal vulva-cunt as the origin of us all, the Great Motherâ€¦ how much better to use the term â€œbeaverâ€? or just ordinary womenâ€™s names: a succession of beaversâ€¦
A more recent project was instigated by theÂ notes, translated from Arabic into English, allegedly written by Mohammed Atta in preparation for the hijackings and attacks of September 11, 2001.Â When I read these, all sorts of problems immediately presented themselves. Was this an actual document? Were the notes, in fact, â€œfoundâ€? or were they a fiction, invented to â€œproveâ€ a rationale as incomprehensible as the acts that followed? Was this a reliable translation?
The idea that translation is often slippery and inexact, and sometimes impossible, is widely acknowledged. Yet we like to pretend that complete transparency is within our reach, that vast differences of culture, language, and history can be breached, if only the right tools, technologies, and â€œmindsetsâ€ are available. And translation, like everything else, has undergone a renewed politicization in this ever-encapsulated world.
In a lot of my work, I explore spaces and distances between a â€œhereâ€ and a â€œthere,â€ a presumed â€œcenterâ€ and its â€œperiphery,â€ to work off the grid to the point of falling off a map completely. I work with images drawn from public, although possibly ephemeral archives â€“ things like newspapers, outtakes, margins of the marginsÂ â€“ to fictionalize them, at the same time as undermining the authority of â€œauthenticâ€ or alleged autobiography. Like Mathew, Iâ€™m preoccupied with the instability of memory,Â very enamored of the idea, the necessity of the unreliable narratorâ€¦ or the mute, opaque, or invisible one.
December 21, 2011 · Print This Article
Caroline Picard:Â This series started for me because I kept hearing the word hybridity â€” in multiple conversations about different art works or practices, hybridity started to sound like a buzzword. While on the one hand, I know what the word means of course, it also feels like a term that carries a certain amount of baggage. I was hoping to try and identify what that baggage was and, even, pin down (if possible) what hybridity means. Perhaps part of its intent is to remain fluid and unpinnable â€” as a kind of strategy resistant to traditional power structures â€” at least that seems to be an element that motivates your own work. Can you talk a little bit about more why hybridity is important to you? [As an aside, I’d add that this interview took place several months ago, at the inception of the Occupy Movement)
Gwenn-AÃ«l Lynn:Â Hybrid is a word originating from the biological sciences. It indicates the cross breeding of different species or plants, often through human manipulation. However I am using it in the manner that Homi Bhabha defined in the 1990s. So, in my case, it is really a cultural term. I’m actually pushing this definition a little further, because what I’m really after is creolization, a term used, in particular, by Edouard Glissant, a Creole speaking Martinican poet, who, sadly, passed away recently. Where Hybridity is the offspring of two entities (in other words it hinges on a binary system), creolization allows for multplicity, a mixture where the different parts remain autonomous, a place of endless permutation. It speaks of a process, of something in constant flux, instead of just two parts synthesized into one. I’m actually looking for an appropriate translation of the French wordÂ mÃ©tissage, and I think it is really interesting that there is no literal equivalent in English. There are many expressions like â€œmixed-race,â€ â€œbi-racial,â€ etc. but they all result from colonial racial ideologies, and I simply don’t believe that these terms are relevant to today’s society. Not that we should stop acknowledging â€œraceâ€ in America, but rather if our language is still predicated on colonial racial terms, we’ll never move forward. The mere concept of race is very confining. Meanwhile. the global world is mutating. Therefore I settled on creolisation as the closest meaning toÂ mÃ©tissage, an intercultural process (and cross breeding by the same token), that granted is a by-product of colonialism, but also gave birth to new languages: Creole(s); new religions: Vodoo, Candomble, Santeria; new ways of cooking: Caribean, Reunionese, Mauritian, Brazilian, Mexican, etc. And indeed these cultural phenomena, over a long history, often occurred under complex power structures (whether under the European Colonial expansion, or the various invasions that have shaped modern day India, or even the succession of empires around the Mediterranean basin.)
CP:Â How does this subject resonate with you?
GAL:Â I guess I should also specify that I am a hybrid, but not in a racial term, because I have a french mother and an American father (from California) and I grew up between two households, over two continents, speaking two languages. So, I’ve always had, at least, a dual understanding of the world. In fact, one of the key moments I became aware that I was not simply â€œFrenchâ€ or â€œAmericanâ€ occurred while visiting my former in-laws on Reunion Island (A French â€œOver-Seas departmentâ€(1) in the Indian Ocean) where a local journalist asked me if I considered myself a mÃ©tis [mixed race] because of my dual origins. I hesitated for a little while before answering â€œyes.â€ This answer would not be acceptable in a racially structured society like the United States (because I’m actually not the result of miscegenation, however I am culturally mixed), but on this island, where race relations are differently problematic, it was a possible answer, precisely because the Reunionese revel in creolisation. So when confronted with the North American way of dealing with race, creolization gives me a place that I can navigate, and more importantly where I can meet and share with other people, who are not like me, but who also possess this sense of belonging to a multiplicity rather than a single group or community.Â This creolized place is not only racially or visually motivated; it is linguistic (for people who command more than just English) transgender, and last but not least, political.
CP:Â It sounds like your understanding of creolization opens up at that point to include other kinds of mixes â€” like you say, mixes of sexual orientation, or gender etc.
GAL:Â Yes, I am naturally attracted towards other hybrids, and discourses, and practices, that embody such identity(ies). And, one of the things that have always disturbed me about the United States is that race theory, discourse, and emancipation has become very inward looking; we have all these very different hyphenated Americans (African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and the list is quasi infinite) but this hyphen does not provide any room for those who belong to more than just one ethnic community. And there are many historical reasons to account for these racial divides (like, for instance, the â€œOne-drop ruleâ€)(2), it is a bit like, indeed we are a melting pot, but the content of the pot never melted. However, we tend to forget that the civil rights movement, for example, even though it started in the segregated South by those very people whose liberties had been restricted for so long. The civil rights movement had only been possible, and became successful by uniting across racial divides as â€œpeople.â€ If you look at pictures from those days you see people from all walks of life â€” there is a majority of Black folks of course, but you also see Jews, Whites, and in parallel you have Cesar Chavez uniting farm workers in California, and the formation of the American Indian Movement. As a matter of fact my father recalls participating in a protest against a segregated Woolworths in Santa Monica, CA, in the late fifties. Angry racist Whites were throwing stones at the protesters. Yet it’s through efforts and sacrifices of this kind that change was enacted. And so, today, I feel that â€œWe Americans,â€ unlike other cultures that have also felt the yoke of colonialism, like India, Brazil, or Mexico, we do not embrace our creolized nature. And we certainly don’t give space to those who refuse to identify as belonging to a single racial, or cultural, and gender category.
Â CP:Â Do you feel like we should try to shed identity altogether?
GAL:Â Of course not. It is not about: “let’s all mingle and become so homogenous that there is no difference left.â€ Rather, it is about the possibility of having multiplicity within each of us, and to relate to each other while embracing our differences. I think, but I’m not sure, that this is one possible interpretation of what Antonio Negri calls the â€œmultitude.â€ So it becomes a multitude of multiplicities, the ferment for new democracy. On a simpler level there is a gastronomic metaphor that, I find, illustrates multiplicity very well:
Our preference, for miscegenation as thought, will go to the soup, for it is respectful of its components leaving them intact in a sober and tolerant broth.3
[From the Dictionnaire du MÃ©tissage
by Francois Laplantine and Alexis Nouss,
Paris, Pauvert Editions 2001]
CP:Â Where does that leave us now? And why do you think people are so interested in hybridity?
GAL:Â You know, there are moments when, I feel we are where we are, in the middle of the Great Recession, with a Black president, who is actually a â€œhybrid,â€ but who campaigned as a â€œblackâ€ candidate (instead of a mixed-race candidate, because of the â€œOne-drop ruleâ€ I was speaking of earlier) and decided to show his birth certificate to answer pressure from the Republicans, because it is in the interest of Capitalism to have us divided like this. Divide and Conquer is an old colonial strategy to gain the upper hand. So if the American people is divided along ethnic classes that makes more cheap labour for Capitalism, because we are not going to get together to fight back. It’s easier to blame the Mexican immigrant worker because he is supposedly taking our jobs, or vice-versa to blame the Black worker, or the Unemployed because, as a citizen, he has access to what’s left of the welfare system, medicaid, etc. It’s easier to blame each other for the situation we are in than to reach out, and try to organize each other across divides, to actually take control and decide for our own fate. It’s a lot easier to let a bunch of flunkies on Capitol Hill haggle over the debt ceiling for weeks on end, while it’s getting harder for all of us to put food on our plates. And this goes for artists too, we are workers, we are manual and intellectual workers, but we are divided along medium, schools, hell we are divided along race too! And many of us accept to work very hard practically for free. Some of us even put themselves in debt in the hope of finishing a project because we are at a point where there no longer is any viable support for making art. But who reaps the fruit of this hard labour? The art market. Has it ever invested into an ambitious artistic project? Does Sotheby’s give back to the community when it scores a big sale? Nope! It lets the local art council support as best as can the making of art, and comes afterward to harvest the product without even leaving a dime behind. And yet we all put up with this system, or rather we just witness its passing. There are some in the community who are trying to raise some awareness about this labor division within the art world.
CP:Â Do you have an example?
GAL:Â I am thinking of Temporary Services, for example, who releasedÂ a newspaper last year. There isÂ American for the ArtsÂ but they are really more of an Art in Education advocacy group in DC. How about a group who advocates for better â€œart making conditions,â€ for the possibility of being a full time artist, rather than an artist with three or four different odd jobs and no time for art making for example?Â Recently, as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there has also been Occupy Museum and Occupy Art.In France, some artists are trying to self organize under various headings to fight for more support and better policies, but it is one high steep hill. So, anyways, these are some of the reasons why I make work that addresses questions related to hybridity.
CP:Â How has this stuff influenced your own practice?
GAL:Â In terms of art projects, well there is this interactive Audiolfactory (4) installation I started working on in 2009, and for which I was awarded a CAAP grant dy the DCA of Chicago, but it’s unfortunately still in progress (I say unfortunate because I had originally planned on wrapping it in one year!).
CP:Â Doesn’t your work incorporate smell?
GAL:Â I started by engaging in conversation with other hybrids about their understanding of creolization and I asked them to relate their experience to smells, in order to garner scents that could be described as â€œHybridâ€ (again not in a chemical or biological sense, but rather as associated to a hybrid experience). In order to meet my interviewees I relied on ads placed on the CAR website, on Facebook, on fliers placed in key coffee houses, and on cultural centers such as the American Indian Center on Wilson avenue, the Center on Halsted, the Korean American Center, The Tibetan Cultural Center in Evanston, the Asian American Museum in Chinatown, the Japanese American Historical Society, as well as word to mouth communication. Methodologically I did not rely only on conversation (in other words on language) to determine what these smells could be, I also conducted a performative scent workshop to see if the â€œperformative bodyâ€ would suggest other scents, in which Sebastian Alvarez participated. This workshop actually led to other scents, but the unforeseen issue is that it has now grown into a performance workshop that I have been asked to conduct in several places (including Lithuania) with no particular connection to hybridity. Anyways, after all these smells were suggested, I then collaborated with two perfumers : Michel Roudnitska (based in the South of France), and Christophe Laudamiel (based in New York) to reproduce these scents. I am not disclosing what they are yet, because I want the experience to be fresh and unmediated when this installation opens to the public (no set dates yet), but some of them are really surprising and interesting.
CP:Â Does the piece focus solely on smell?
GAL:Â Sounds will be associated to each scent station, and for this section of the project I am collaborating with an experimental DJ: Christophe Gilmore aka FluiD, who is originally from Los Angeles, but is now based in Chicago, and is actually Creole. Some of the comments and observations that were made by the various hybrids I engaged with will also find their ways into these sound samples, but I have to work that out with them, making sure they agree with the edits, get their permission etc. But these abstracts will greatly complexify the definition of creolization I gave earlier.
CP:Â It sounds like your understanding of this terminology, and your investigation of that terminology, changes depending on who you work with.
GAL:Â One of the great things about working with people (rather than alone or â€œin the name ofâ€) is that it really gives you a plurality of meanings, and forces definitions to be very fluid and transient, but it is also hard because you have to make sure nobody is left behind or frustrated by the process. All of the participants to the project get credited in the end, but that’s a few months away. Each sound/smell station will be in the form of rice paper machÃ© sculptures (mostly because I need material that at the same time contains but let smells and sounds ooze through) in the shape of noses and ears, so as you can see the hybrid nature of this installation really resides in its scents and sounds and not so much in its visual aspect. And that’s a deliberate choice, because it is the eyesight that makes us see race (skin surface level). Whereas it is not so present (but not completely absent either) in our aural and olfactory phenomenology. As Stuart Hall once said: â€œrace enters the visual field.â€ There is actually a number of texts on visual hegemony and how this differs when it comes down to olfaction, but that discussion would take many more pages. But in a few words I can say that I’m addressing the question of creolization through smells to open up a new territory, not to be charted visually, but to practice rhizomatic studies to sense how identities, formed out of multiplicity, can get together and generate new sensibilities, new relations and hopefully new knowledge in how we can form inter-related and diverse groups of human beings.
(see note 5 for video details)
CP:Â Has your relationship with your various participants changed over the course of this project?
GAL:Â While working on the above mentioned project, my former roommate moved out, so I placed an ad on Craigslist to find a new one, and one of the respondents happened to be someone I had initially interviewed for the project. So he moved in, and we are getting along well. As the project has been taking so long to complete I have been hosting â€œhybrid dinnersâ€ at my house once a year to keep in touch with my fellow hybrids but also to let them know I am still working on the installation, and to continue our conversations. For one of these dinners, Hermes (that’s my roommate) decided to make a Black-Xican Pozole (as you may have guessed he is Black and Mexican, and a fantabulous professional chef). It’s a pozole made the Mexican way, but it also incorporates elements of soul food like collard greens, and ham hock. Shortly thereafter I was invited, by Alberto Aguilar and Jorge Lucero, to contribute to a show they were curating: Hecho en Casa, a program of events that verged on acts of domesticity. So Hermes and I decided to turn the dinner into a public performance.
Finally as a last example, I could mention a previous interactive odour and sound installation (2006) which, when I made it I did not think of in terms of hybridity, but looking back I think it would qualify, even though, at that time, I did not have the theoretical baggage, let alone the drive, to conceive of it as a hybrid project. It’s an installation that I made while being an artist in residence in the Netherlands, in Enschede, close to the German border, via the European Pepinieres for Young Artists network, Transartists and the media department of the AKI. I wanted to address the fact that in current European discourse, and in particular in the Netherlands, despite years of immigrant labor and influx from the former colonies, identity is still defined from the center, the White Dutch majority. For instance, the Dutch government passed a law, a few years ago, that forces new immigrants to be fluent in Dutch. Yet there are plenty of Dutch citizens who are from the former colonies, and speak other languages. From my perspective this definition is very problematic, so in order to come up with a postcolonial definition of the contemporary Netherlands I met and engaged with Dutch nationals who had some kind of affiliation with the former colonies. As expected I met many different kinds of people, some with very traumatic histories, because independence was not a peaceful process, others because when they came to the mainland they had to deal with blatant racism. Some of these questions and stories were integrated, along with music composed by Antony Maubert, into the sound part of this installation, and others (I had a lot of data) were indexed on an audio CD that was released with the opening of the show in Enschede. And as an answer to the push for monolinguism by the authorities, the soundtracks of this project total 8 languages (Afrikaan, Bahassa, Balinese, Dutch, English, Papiamento, Taki-Taki, and Zulu). Indeed, Dutch is not the only language spoken today in the Netherlands. So it is by no means exhaustive, but instead reflect the people I met, while in residence. This project was my initial collaboration with Michel Roudnistka for the smells. Looking back at that project, I tried to manifest ideas of creolization by using a non-dialectical structure. A sensory experience organized by associations in order to foster connections and expand ideas of communities, language, identities, etc.
But regarding hybridity specifically in regard to this installation from 2006, I think my most interesting find was that when Indonesia was occupied by the Dutch there were Indos who used the following expressions to describe their ancestry: the Motherland was Indonesia, and Fatherland described the Netherlands, because often, Indos were the children of a Dutch male civil servant who had married an Indonesian woman. This example was narrated by Johan Ghysels (an Indo photographer from Enschede) on the soundtrack associated to the odor of Kretek (clove cigarettes). In his words â€œwe were the in-between layerâ€ of Dutch colonial society, between the white elite and the Indonesian natives, rejected by the latter because more privileged, and despised by the former for not being â€œcompletelyâ€ Dutch. As a matter of fact, many of the people I talked to, in the course of this project, described themselves as â€œin-betweenâ€. When independence struck, many of the Indos had to leave for fear of being exterminated by Indonesian Nationalists who identified them with the oppressors. So they sought refuge in the Netherlands where they had some relatives but once there, as Gill Bollegraf, another Indo photographer from Enschede, told me, they were confronted by really strange behavior. An incident happened to her mother (Gil was born in the Netherlands): one day at the market, after her arrival in the Netherlands in the sixties, a little White Dutch kid lifted her skirt to see if she had a tail, because he thought she was a monkey. So a few Indos went to California to start a new life but the majority of them, nevertheless, stayed in the Netherlands. Today they have organized themselves into different associations (http://www.nasi-idjo.nl/), they have their own music, food, etc. It is a striving culture, but always remains at their core, this sense of having been forcibly displaced.
(1) Read: former colony, whose inhabitants decided to remain within the French RÃ©publique when the colonial empire broke down in the 60’s and 70’s. It boasts one of the most creolized population in the world.
(2) Meaning any person with “one drop of black blood” was considered as black under the Racial Integrity Act, despite the fact that many were mixed-race people.
(3) This quote is my rough translation of the following text, and operates a distinction between two kinds of soups: the potage -which is a soup where all the ingredients have been grinded and blended and a soupe where all the ingredients are left as they are, floating in their broth: â€œNotre prÃ©fÃ©rence, nonobstant nos penchants gastronomiques et leurs goÃ»ts respectifs, ira, pour une pensÃ©e du mÃ©tissage, Ã la soupe. Car elle est respectueuse de ses composantes qu’elle laisse intactes dans un bouillon sobre et tolÃ©rant. Le potage, lui, broie, mÃ©lange, passe, bref il fusionne, visant Ã l’homogÃ¨ne.â€
(4)Sound and smell
(5) Roots… (a speaking garden) 2010. Installation made while in residence at the PÃ©piniÃ¨res EuropÃ©ennes pour Jeunes Artistes in St. Cloud, France. A sound enhanced winter garden. Foreigners, and nationals with experience abroad, recommended the plants constituting this installation. While in residence, I met with them and conducted interviews discussing the metaphor of roots, as pertaining to one’s origins. During the exhibition, abstracts from these interviews were triggered by the visitors, whose displacements were monitored by discrete c-mos cameras and a computer where these displacements were analyzed by two open source software: Processing and Pure Data. Pure Data patch built by Ben Carney.
(6) This dinner took place at Cobalt Studios, located in Pilsen, and was sonified with a â€œPilsenâ€ soundscape. It was part of a series of event: Hecho en Case/Home made curated by Alberto Aguilar and Jorge Lucero. A program of events that verged on acts of domesticity.
(7) interactive odour and sound installation (2006). Detail of kretek diffuser (clove and tobacco). Scents, sounds, electronics, infra-red motion detector, MIDI box (an open source interface), software, computer. This project was realized while in residence in Enschede, the Netherlands, via the European exchange program for young artists: â€œEuropean pÃ©piniÃ¨res [nursery] for young artistsâ€. Collaborators: Paul Jansen Klomp (new media artist), Antony Maubert (composer), and Michel Roudnitska. (perfumer).
This installation has been shown in Enschede at Villa deBank in April 2006, in Eindhoven at De Overslag in March 2007, and at Casino Luxembourg, Forum for Contemporary Art, Luxembourg in September 2007.