“Out of the Mouths of Artists” is a new bi-monthly series on the Bad at Sports blog. The series presents a space for guest artist bloggers– of varying career statuses– to write, to reflect, to pontificate on their current situations, failures and/or successes, and ideas on what it means to be an artist. “Out of the Mouths of Artists” also gives readers a glimpse into artists’ portfolios and studios.Â
Relocating a Center
By Nicole Mauser
Just last week, a question was posed to me: â€œWhere is the epicenter of Chicagoâ€™s art scene?â€ This was part of a casual elevator conversation with someone who had just moved from the East Coast to Chicago. I was struck by this question because it made me pause and consider where I geographically invest my time and conversations about art and research. Having relocated back to Chicago from Kansas City, MO, for a second time this past summer, I found myself picking up where I left off.Â In some respects, I am engaged in existing dialogues and structures, while in other professional respects I have set out to tackle completely unknown territories and new challenges.
With the question, I realized how fascinating it is to be an observer on the periphery (even if only temporarily) and see what galleries have disappeared, endured, and emerged, while exploring a â€˜newâ€™ to me Chicago in terms of private collections and historic venues such as The Arts Club or Union League.
I had no short answer for the East Coaster-cum-Chicagoan: 119 Peoria has been all but dismantled (will Three Walls stay or go?); however, there is still a bastion of galleries in the West Loop on Washington. Mana Contemporary is becoming a household by name teaming up with various institutions. Each university with a MFA program from the universitiesâ€”Northwestern, UIC and U of Câ€”to the art schoolsâ€”Columbia College and SAICâ€”has is its own mini-epicenter with concentric circles emanating outward into the art scene. A handful (a few handfuls, really) of Chicago artists are being highlighted in the upcoming Whitney Biennial by Michelle Grabner and Anthony Elms. The MCA has gone through upheaval. Art Expo is back. Ultimately, there is no dominant discourse. In dynamic and thriving arts ecologies, there is a multitude of rich conversations happening. These conversations are being instigated by the artists themselves and to varying degrees by the institutions.
One thing I do know: my life now in Chicago is an inversion of the one I led in KCMO.
After an initial brief stint as an art handler in Chicago, I learned a difficult lesson that not all businesses touting the arts support artists; some exploit employees who make the ultimate sacrifice to pay their bills: no longer making their work. Currently, I juggle a full-time administrative job at one local art school while teaching painting as an adjunct at another local university. And I recently struck up a relationship with Reynolds Gallery in Richmond, Virginia, to exhibit a few pieces of my work. While all of these roles help me pay the rent and gain professional experience, they combine to make ends difficult to support a studio practice.
This is the predicament that many conversations with artist friends revolve around: balancing studio/research time with demands of a job to afford overhead. Whereas in KCMO, many artists cobble together part-time teaching, waiting tables, and selling work to afford three times the living spaceÂ andÂ a studio. In that smaller metropolis, it is a choice to leverage income to focus on the studio practice. It is an option to survive on much less. Therefore, it has become an environment that lends itself to risk taking and igniting experimental collaborations. I found that I was able to do many things, and still work to afford an artistâ€™s necessities. With a number of others, I founded and rigorously participated in two artist enterprises: PLUG Projects and Kansas Cityâ€™s Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC), both of which are going still going strong. The collaborative work I did (from 2011 to 2012) with the always professional co-founders and artists at PLUG was rewarding, and I am grateful to my conspirators there for their mutual desire to shape unique exhibitions and ancillary programming, all from the perspective of the artist as curator. Also, this time at PLUG helped me hone my ability to simultaneously hold down a full time staff job at SAIC and an adjunct teaching appointment at UIC. I believe my experience as part of KCPAC, in which I was working from observation in the elements, helped to erode any assumptions about the relationship between abstraction and perception.
Recently, in Chicago, a few artists and I rekindled a critique group consisting of grad school colleagues (and friends!) for studio visits. Inscribing this regular practice into our studio research is gaining terrific momentum. I truly value these relationships and the quality of our conversations. I am continually blown away by the multitude of in-depth cross-conversations, generosity, and ferocity of investment in each otherâ€™s development. In this context, which is a kind of epicenter for me, criticality is not a rebuff but a way of asking better questions. I find that I am now breaking rules that I once set for myself in the past. I am working to explore abstraction through a host of reference materials, including still lifes, photos, Xeroxed images, and art historical references, in order to push against my own non-objective proclivities.
Through it all, though, I find myself returning to ponder the eternal question, what is the healthiest scenario to support my work? It is the gallery system? Is it the academic system? None of these scenarios are necessarily the sustainable answer. Constantly having open conversations negotiating alternative models and redefining healthy arts ecology seems the best start for me.
In summary, it appears that the current epicenter in Chicago, and in all cities, is a moving targetâ€”for me and for others. This scenario seems to simultaneously present plural opportunities and elusive support mechanisms for oneâ€™s longevity in the arts. And yet, it feels like a great time to be an artist in Chicago.
I hope someone asks me where â€œthe epicenterâ€ is again in five years.
Nicole Mauser (b. 1983, Indianapolis) currently lives and works in Chicago, IL. She obtained a MFA from The University of Chicago (2010) and a BFA from Ringling College of Art & Design (2006). Her works have been exhibited nationally and internationally.Â Mauser was a 2011 recipient of a Post-MFA Teaching Felllowship atÂ The University of Chicago and a recipient of a Student Fine Art Fund Grant for travel and research in Berlin from TheÂ University of Chicago. Exhibitions includeÂ Ft. Gondo Compound for the Arts (St. Louis),Â Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), The Dolphin Gallery (Kansas City), H&R Block Artspace (Kansas City), DOVA Temporary Gallery (Chicago), Gladstone Community Center (Gladstone, MO), Center for Art+Culture (Aix-en-Provence) and AR Gallery (Milan). Collections include The Alexander (Indianapolis) and The Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Overland Park, KS). Mauserâ€™s writings have been published inÂ 8 Â½ x 11Â andÂ Art Practical. Mauser is also a co-founder of the artist run gallery,Â PLUG ProjectsÂ and co-founder of the Kansas City Plein Air Coterie (KCPAC).
See more of Nicole’s work at www.nicolemauser.com.
January 29, 2014 · Print This Article
Last year I was invited by performance company ATOM-r (Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality) to sit in on several rehearsals while they worked on their latest piece together, The Operature. Since that time, the work has had a showing in York, they have produced a book with Pinups Magazine, recently opened a two person exhibition at Julius Caesar in Chicago, and continue to work towards the Chicago premiere of The Operature at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (175 w Washington, Chicago IL) March 21st, 22nd, and 28th 2014. A collection of notes from their rehearsals follows.
1. Chrisâ€™ Back and Thigh
The theater holds between 200 and 300 spectators in six concentric galleries of narrow rows that provide standing room only. The bodies of the recently deceased are laid out as actors, like the dancer to the choreographer, the corpse submits itself to the movements of the doctor. The body following the request of the scalpel, as eager to articulate the interior secrets of the body as the doctor is to discover them.
2: Justin’s Kidney and Chest
From where I sit in rehearsal I can easily make out the performers as they move about the table. Even as they tower above me, dancing from corner to corner. I need only lift my head slightly to keep them in my full view. The table is to my left. I am thinking about watching, about the pleasures of looking at bodies, and of the duets that emerge from my gaze. The duet between these men, their fingers nimbly grazing their partners torso, weight shared across thighs, every movement mirroring the duet of scalpel and chest, doctor to corpse, witness to theater, and beyond to the dimly lit corners of the farthest circle, where the excitement of discovering the interior of oneself is imagined with each brushing shoulder.
3: Sam’s Ankle and Neck
Professor, tattoo artist, writer, and sexual misfit Samuel Steward kept a deeply coded and painstakingly noted account of his sexual encounters. Penile measurements sit alongside anecdotes and the occasional picture. A box of approximately 900 cards, the stud file is an archive of sexual experience and an attempt at exerting ownership over one’s body. Stewards thirst is that of the anatomical doctor, both delighting in the bodily pursuit, in the ecstasy that comes from leaning against the submitted frame.
4: Blake’s Pubic Bone and Shoulder
In rehearsal, at the moment, we are oscillating between the record of Samuel Steward and the technology of the anatomical theater. Movements are derived equally from sexual and surgical acts, both having striking similarities conceptually and visually. Through each week and each iteration of the work, I am left to ponder the watching of bodies as they are laid out before eager spectators, however they might be displayed in private or public exhibitions and however large or small the audience might be. This is how I understand the performance to function: as a technology of looking. The way a photograph captures a submitted partner or the way a surgical table in the center of an audience can amplify the form.
*Images courtesy of Christopher Schulz, Christa Holka, and Stephanie Acosta
Anatomical Theatres of Mixed Reality (ATOM-r) is a provisional collective exploring forensics, anatomy, and 21st century embodiment through performance, language and emerging technologies. Participants include Mark Jeffery (choreography), Judd Morrissey (technology & dramaturgical systems), Justin Deschamps, Sam Hertz, Christopher Knowlton, and Blake Russell (collaborators/performers).Â Â
By Kevin Blake
Abstract painting is coming off the walls. It is evolving. Zoe Nelson talks with Bad at Sports about her engagement and participation in the evolution of abstraction, which appears in her work, to be a deconstruction of traditional painting parameters. Through a physical dismantling of the imagesâ€™ supports, Nelson blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, creating perpetually shifting spatial dynamics.
Kevin Blake: Chicago artist Sophia Leiby recently turned me onto an essay in the Brooklyn Rail, Worlds With Us by Katy Siegel, in which she suggests, “In terms of art, unthinking the opposition between representation and abstraction is particularly vital to understanding art objects and practices afresh.” I’m wondering how you have arrived at abstraction. It seems to me that artists arrive at abstraction out of some sort of necessity that is the resultant of a struggle with conceptual as well as formalÂ frameworks. As I was looking through your archives on your website, I could see a departure from representation, and itÂ occurred to me that this was aÂ relatively common evolution for abstract painters. AbstractionÂ does not seem like something you just set out to do one day. I’m wondering if abstraction, for you, hasÂ been a product or a solution to struggling with the idea of representation and abstraction as polar opposites.
Zoe Nelson: When I started grad school at Columbia University in 2007, I was working on a series ofÂ portraits of friends with their demons. Imagining what my friends’ (and my own) demons might look like if they were externalized allowed me to begin to think about the entire space of the canvasÂ as a loaded psychological space, with all parts of the canvas (foreground, background, demon, person etc)Â having the potential to be equally descriptiveÂ of the psychological stateÂ of the person. It was at this point that a shift occurred and I started to become more interested inÂ the potential of the “background” orÂ psychological space around the person than in the portrait. As a challenge to myself, IÂ decided to try to remove the figure from the work, while continuing to make an interesting painting. I’d say that my first consciousÂ plungeÂ into abstraction occurred with this initial actÂ ofÂ negation–the negation of the figure.Â Absence and negation continue to be strong conceptual and formal frameworks for my work, as you can see inÂ my current body of cut-out paintings. What is cut-out or not depicted in my work is oftenÂ defined by- andÂ defines- the form and content of theÂ painting.
Going back to your Katy Siegel quote, I would agree on the importance ofÂ deconstructing a binary understanding of abstraction and representation in painting. I arrived at abstraction through representation, and in some ways one could say that I am currently working through abstraction to arrive atÂ a type of active, moving representation: a representationÂ ofÂ liminalÂ psychological spaces and shiftingÂ states of being.
KB: Literally cutting sections out of the painting seems like an almost radical action against representationâ€“in the sense of negating recognizable imageryâ€“and simultaneously, it might be seen as a way of evoking a discussion about the state of being represented. Opening the canvas to view the guts of a painting, so to speak, allows the viewer to look past the painted surface and into the physical space behind it, calling attention to its objecthood. In your recent show at Western Exhibitions, some of the paintings protrude from the wall rather than hanging flush on it, further interrupting the spatial dynamic while creating a dialogue with it. Can you talk about the paintings existing in the third dimension and how do these issues perpetuate this idea about abstraction and representation being more of a consequence of one another rather than visually articulated opposites?
ZN: As I cut into the canvas, I uncover parts of the stretcher bar support, which inevitably opens up a whole chain of questions regarding the relationship between support, canvas and the physical space behind and around the paintings. Each painting deals with this relationship in a different way, I believe, and the double-sided paintings evolved as a natural extension of the work becoming more sculptural. When the frame is exposed, all of the sudden there are edges and different physical planes to consider, and the next logical step was to consider the “back” of the painting as well. Through privileging all sides of the painting, I hope to destabilize the hierarchy of front over back, and hanging the work perpendicular to the wall is a playful invitation for the viewer to walk around the paintings and take part in this process.
The paintings and installation at Western look completely different depending on where you stand in the room, and these shifting states are integral to the form and content of the series. If multiple people are in the room, you might see a hand or head or shoulder through the cuts in a painting, and these people (or body parts) momentarily become a part of the work as well. Blurring the lines between artist, painting, and viewer in this way is conceptually exciting for me, and I think circles back around to how the current work still references back to my initial interests in representing the body and psychological states of being, albeit in a performative way, and while operating within a realm of abstraction.
KB: The first time you cut a painting, was it due to what you perceived to be a mistake? Looking at the evolution of your work, I sense a strong influence of painter Amy Sillman whose work seems to depend on the occurrence of mistakes and even more so on the corrective production emerging from those mistakes. Does your work engage with that dialogue?
ZN: Whenever I move to a new location, or even a new studio, I find that my practice often shifts with the move. After graduate school, I spent a year working on a series of process paintings about the idea of unwinding. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved to Chicago, that I was able to take the project a step further and actually start to undo the surface of the painting through cutting into the canvas.
Although my initial cuts into the canvas were not exactly a mistake, they did stem from a place of anxiety and fear. When I moved to Chicago in 2010, I didn’t know the city at all, barely knew the art community, and only had a couple of names of friends of friends to contact. Everything around me seemed unstable, unknown and overwhelming that year, and the studio was the one place that I was able to channel all of that anxiety and fear into artistic risk-taking.
I worked with Amy Sillman in grad school, and she continues to be a huge influence for me–both her work and in the smart discourse that she engages in around her practice and painting. I’ve noticed in my own practice that if I have an idea for a painting, and I execute that idea really quickly, the work often doesn’t hold up a few days later. I think this failure ties back to the importance of the mistake: perhaps the reason that these paintings often don’t hold up, is because that struggle–of making, identifying, and working-through the mistake–hasn’t yet occurred. When the work falls short like that, there is often a part of the painting that has seduced me, and it’s only through literally cutting out or removing the seductive part that I am able to rework the painting as a whole, rather than as a showcase for one special element.
I think that the importance of the mistake also ties into the importance of feeling and intuition. Amy Sillman has an awesome zine, the O-G v3, in which she challenges the hierarchy of mind over body when discussing and making paintings. At the end of the zine, Amy advocates for the conceptual possibilities of painting specifically through “the radical merging of mind and body!” While it is often easier to talk about formal or conceptual concerns in painting rather than trying to find a smart way to talk about intuition, I am of the mindset that the two are not mutually exclusive. In my practice, intuition, feeling, mistakes, and elusiveness are just as important to the process of painting as the formal painterly concerns that I am also responding to.
KB: When I listen to other artists talk about their work, I always look for a takeaway-something useful to apply to my own practice or in this case regurgitate as a means of preserving the idea in my frontal lobe. I recently listened to artist Cesare Pietroiusti speak in Boston, and of the many things I retained from his talk, he said something profound that resonates in relation to our conversation. He said, “when there is discomfort, fear, and anxiety-go there.” It seems you have intuitively done just that and this impulse has yielded some positive results. Have you been able to abandon these themes as you have gotten settled into Chicago and more so into the community? Or do they continue to be the driving force of your work?
ZN: Anxiety and discomfort continue to be strong themes in my work, though the driving force (or one driving force–there are definitely many) has become the work itself. I have grown to love living and working in Chicago, and have met fantastic artists and worked with great galleries here, such as Roots & Culture, Lloyd Dobler, and most recently Western Exhibitions. I think that anxiety, fear, and crisis are all incredibly powerful emotions (or psychological states), and they hold an equally powerful potential for risk-taking in an art practice. That said, I also think that it can be hard to issue rigor and restraint in a place of real anxiety or crisis, as everything has such urgency and there is a lack of control. Thankfully, I am more settled now and I find that the work is organically building on itself. Each painting opens up a new set of questions and formal challenges, which lead to new decisions and new paintings. Right now I am in the exciting place where I have a number of ideas for new paintings and specific installations, and am juggling these different trajectories in my practice. I am able to continue to explore themes of anxiety and crisis while mitigating those states with humor, play, and pleasure in the work. Of course waves of anxiety, failure, and fear play a part in this process, and no matter how thoroughly I conceptualize a painting before I start it, the beginning almost always feels like a shot in the dark.
KB: The end result being a complete departure from the pre-conceptualized form makes me think about conflicting loyalties. You have loyalties to your methods which allow all the nuances and intuitive moments to take place within the process of making a painting, and being loyal to yourself in these allowances is an important if not essential part of your practice. However, you also have a loyalty to what you might still do, or what the painting might still become, which always seems to be connected to the pre-conceptualized form. How do you negotiate conflicting loyalties in this sense? Are your sketches or ideas of a final product just a jumping point or do you struggle to maintain those forms throughout the process of making a painting?
ZN: When I start a new painting, I usually try to either identify a psychological state, or a feeling attached to a specific moment, that I want to articulate. I then respond to this initial idea by imposing a set of formal parameters on the work, which also define the subject matter. For example, the painting “Skype Breakdown” started with an idea to make a painting about frustration, blocked communication, and distortion. I made the painting (and most of the work up at Western) this past fall, while I was at a wonderful six-week residency called the Lighthouse Works. The residency was on a small island off of NY with spotty internet connection, and after looking at my partner’s frozen and pixilated face on the computer screen for the umpteenth time, I decided to channel my frustration (and objective interest in the abstracted image on my screen) into a painting. Using the idea of arrested communication and distortion as a starting off point, I began the painting by first making mask-like cuts into the top layer of canvas. Any discernible figure or face is cut-out and totally abstracted, and this act of negation also becomes subject matter.Â Circling back to you initial question about juggling pre-conceived concepts with method and intuition, I’d say that I try to stay true to the initial motivation and abstract idea behind a painting, while being open to chance, intuition, and the unknown in the process of making a painting.
KB: Speaking of making new paintings, what are you currently working on, and do you have any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?
ZN: I am working on a few different projects at the moment, including a nascent but exciting collaborative project with a composer, and paintings for a couple of installation ideas. Just a few days ago I was asked to take part in an artists lecture series called “Artists Now” at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee next spring, which should be a lot of fun, and I am working on an exhibition proposal for the fall of 2014 at the moment. Having the show at Western has allowed me to take some time to reflect on the work, and see the paintings in a different context. I am particularly excited to hole-up in my studio as the show comes to a close, and make some new work!
December 17, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Autumn HaysÂ
Over the last few years within the United States a growing interest has arisen in festivals that specialize in Performance Art, that offshoot of the visual Arts, whoâ€™s practices center around temporal body-based works. This festival-circuit format for showing performance based art works has already produced a strong development in terms of organizations and events outside of the United States. Often however itâ€™s difficult for American performance artists to break into these circuits. Although there have some who have successfully done so, many festivals go years without showing a single American performance artist. This could be for many reasons, but one is certainly the relative lack of funding. Often the diplomatic and cultural establishments of foreign countries, such as embassies and consulates assist artists with expenses so that they can make and show artworks outside their country of origin. In the USA however, we do not invest money in the arts to the extent of other countries and thus American artists often have less accessibility to funds outside of their own pockets.
Performance art festivals are often intensive endeavors, involving a diverse group of international artists. Always on very tight budgets, these festivals often seek to supply food and housing for the artists for the duration of the festival, often lasting from several days to weeks. Unlike showing at a, gallery the festival becomes a sort of community or summer camp. Here artists and curators network and meet performers from all over the world. Viewership is open to the public but there is a community of support at many festivals where artist see each-otherâ€™s works, often living together and sometimes collaborating on the fly. Festivals are often popular for performance art as spaces willing to show the work, or spaces aware of the needs of exhibiting performance art are often few and far between.
The good news for performance artists is, the USA is starting to develop their own performance art festivals. These festivals seek to bring international artist to the USA while showcasing local talents. It will be exciting to see what other festivals are brewing here in the United States and some in and near Chicago itself. Here are three festivals to look for this year:
Â Â Â Lone Star Performance Explosion
Â Â Â Huston, TX
Â Â Â February 19-23, 2014
This is the second time around for this international performance art Â Â Â biennale after a successful run in 2012. â€œLONE STAR EXPLOSION 2014 seeks to showcase performance art that pushes the artists and audience in new ways, especially performance art that questions fundamental assumptions about the way we experience time, space, relationships, the self, society, and sexuality.Â â€œ As many of our festivals on this list the line up features local, national and international talents in Performance Art. Lone Star Explosion 2014 is curated and directed by Jonatan Lopez and Julia Wallace. Confirmed artists include: Elia Arce (Costa Rica), Marce Sparmann (Germany), Natalie Lovleless (Canada), J. Morrison (NYC),Â Ryan Hawk (Huston), Roberto Sifuentes (Chicago), and over 25 more artists.Â http://lonestarlive.org/
Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival
June 5-15, 2014
This is year three for Rapid Pulse International Performance Art Festival, taking place here in Chicago. â€œThe RAPID PULSE INTERNATIONAL PERFORMANCE ART FESTIVAL aims to represent a range of styles and forms in order to provoke thought and stimulate discourse surrounding performance art.â€ This intensive festival features performance, Â video screenings, artistâ€™s talks and panel discussions. It includes a wide range of performance art from durational, public, and digital based works. Unlike the rest of the festivals on this list Rapid Pulse is centered in and around Defibrillator Performance art Space as opposed to being a wide range, multi-venue event. Artists have yet to be announced but the application period is closed and the curatorial process is beginning. Rapid Pulse is curated by: Steven Bridges, Julie Laffin, Giana Gambino, andÂ Joseph Ravens. Â http://rapidpulse.org/
Supernova Performance Art Festival
Super Nova first took place in June of last year and word is the event will be back again this year. â€œSUPERNOVA will bring together emerging and established local, regional, national and international performance artists to present an expansive range of positions and approaches to performance art.â€ Though not confirmed Supernova came together well last year showing and they have to potential to continue on this year. Tough mostly national based artists, Supernova has the bones of a strong festival and hopefully they continue. Supernovaâ€™s 2013 Chief Curator was Eames Armstrong.Â http://rosslynartsproject.com/
The question that arises with these projects and others like it is one of sustainability. Performance Art festivals are often struggle all year to find funding for the next event. Often performance artists who wish to see this kind of festival thrive in the USA produce these festivals. These factors, and the fact many performance art specific festivals around the world struggle to stay open make the running of an international festival a labor of love, to say the least. Even if these festivals eventually come to an end, the recent creation of these festivals might be pointing to a new trend in performance art exhibitions in the USA. Hopefully the adoption of the festival format international performance festivals will continue to propagate more opportunities in the exhibition of performance art. It will be interesting to see if the new trend in festival production will flourish in the United States and if festivals like these will run strong and multiply in the years to come. Perhaps, the appearance of American Performance Art festivals, and the participation of American artists in them, may lead to an increased interests in American practitioners of performance works both at home and abroad.
Autumn Hays is an Artist, Curator, Teacher and Writer. She graduated the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance where she received the John Quincy Adams Fellowship. She received her BA in Visual Arts at UCSD. Hays was the recipient of numerous scholarships, grants and awards including two major Jack Kent Cooke association scholarships. Currently she is assistant curator at Defibrillator and Co-Producer of the 2014 IMPACT Performance Art Festival. www.autumnhays.com
Guest post by A.Martinez
I was introduced to the work of Sara Drake at my first Brain Frame event, March 2012. Brain Frame is an event series that invites comic artists to explore the performative side of their work. That night, Saraâ€™s shadow puppet performance â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€Â Â truly blew me away. I try to avoid using the word ‘magic’ to describe work, but the kind of child-like captivation I felt in response to this piece was both unexpected and incredibly moving.
Bad At Sports last spoke to Sara just before her two-month teaching venture in Cambodia. It was this trip that inspired â€œThe Romance of the Tiger Ladyâ€, and it was also this trip that inspired her (most impressive) self-taught movement towards shadow puppetry. You can find Saraâ€™s work online at http://saradrake.info/;Â Â she is also the Â comics writer for Bad At Sports.
A.Martinez:Â How did you get from making comics into performing shadow puppetry?
Sara Drake:Â Estrangement. I had just returned to the US from Cambodia where I had been teaching comics, and every way I knew how to articulate myself became erroneous. I needed to communicate in a mode which wouldnâ€™t come off as abrasive or didactic within an insular arts community in Chicago. I wasnâ€™t ready to process my experiences abroad with other people yet. It takes me a long time to process anything, including my new found political awareness.
Shadow puppets signaled tedious, meditative sessions alone in the dark and allowed me to find a voice I was aware of in the back of my mind but wasnâ€™t sure how to wield. Â So much of my creative life is prefaced with writing and asserting justification for making things. When Iâ€™m speaking in shadows, I am literally fumbling around in the dark trying to find bits and pieces to a story.
Martinez:Â So to begin talking about your piece, The Romance of the Tiger Lady, I want to start with your trip to Cambodia to teach comics to a group of young women. When were you there and for how long?
Drake:Â I was there for two months in 2011 through an initiative called Independent Youth Driven Media Production in Cambodia. My former teacher, Anne Elizabeth Moore, was looking for creative responses to issues relevant to young women in Phnom Penh. I applied with a gendered comics and self-publishing workshop.
Martinez:Â How did living in a completely different country teaching comics influence your work?
Drake:Â I was there for such a short time! I wouldnâ€™t exactly consider two months â€œlivingâ€ in a foreign country. It did completely shift my life. As for my work I attribute it most to an entangling and dispossession of my morality, which Iâ€™m only just beginning to explore through comics.
I am definitely an advocate for travel if you have the means or opportunity to do so, but hesitant to encourage others to pursue a project like mine. There are unique risks and potentially hidden power structures at play. To walk into a community as an outsider with limited understanding could be devastating, despite how well-intentioned an artist may be.
Martinez:Â Did you watch much shadow puppetry there?
Drake:Â Only as a tourist. Not as someone who has the ability to talk about the medium affluently or with respect to a long, and important cultural tradition.
Martinez:Â Of all the comics you read while you were over there, what made you decide to choose this story to work with?
Drake:Â Thatâ€™s the thing. I did not speak or was literate in Khmer. I had to find comics in the market places and through word of mouth, typically through western expats. Cambodia is still rebuilding from and coming to terms with decades of illegal American bombing, the Khmer Rouge regime, civil war, and persistent corruption. Comics, like all artistic production during the regime, were completely wiped out. The Romance of The Tiger Lady, by Im Sokha, is a horror comics from the 1980s about a were-tiger lady who falls smitten for a hunter. Aside from it being a good story, it was one of the comics that was well liked and looked at often among the women that came to my workshops.
Martinez:Â So, you made a decision to make this into a shadow puppet performance, and then how did you begin this process?
Drake:Â I spend a lot of time writing and collecting fragments of ideas until I internalize and visualize moods and feelings. Then I have to somehow translate them into puppets. I am still a bit mystified as to how that happens.
Martinez:Â The piece is 17 minutes long. About how long did it take you to just cut out all the scenes?
Drake:Â For Tiger Lady, I wasnâ€™t just cutting out the puppets, I was also teaching myself how to make shadow puppets. The show took about three months to physically cut out. A clumsy, one foot after the other sort of business.
Martinez:Â Did you work mostly by yourself?
Drake:Â Yes and no! When Iâ€™m starting to work on a show there is a germination period of a few months, where Iâ€™m working solo on scripting out the story and making all the puppets. Then I get together with a group of puppeteers and a musician to figure out the rest.
Martinez:Â How did you decide to use an overhead projector for your performances?
Drake:Â They are the staple, it seems, for shadow puppet shows. The puppet community in Chicago is incredibly supportive. Julia Miller of Manual Cinema, another shadow puppet group, gave me a lot of pointers in the beginning. Knowing about their work was an invaluable resource in the beginning and their work is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Martinez:Â Comics are usually a very solitary act, so was it difficult for you to switch to an art that is so collaborative both in its making and its viewing?
Drake:Â I see this logic posed often to cartoonists and frankly, itâ€™s missing the point. Comics are solitary as a process sure! but similar to other art forms, communities have formed up around and about it all over the place. It would seem odd to ask a writer this question. Chicago is not as lonely as my cartoon predecessors would have most believe, yet certainly alienating at times. It bores me when artists use this paradigm as an excuse.
But to answer your question, there was never a time when I havenâ€™t been collaborating. Maybe the result isnâ€™t always a visual one or one whose end goal is something tangibly producible. Â For me, cultural production necessitates community involvement and being exposed to as many voices and encouraging access to as many voices as possible.
Martinez:Â When did PUPhouse form?
Drake:Â During the production of Saltwater Weather. Early on I realized that the project was going to be ambitiously technical and require a deeper commitment from the artists who stepped up to be puppeteers. Each of us had been collaborating in some form or another outside of shadow puppets. The range of mediums each of us is coming from is pretty protean: textiles, animation, comics, music, filmmaking, theater. PUPhouse, or giving our time together a name, became a way to reinforce what we were building together.
Martinez:Â Do you like working with a crew Â of people like that?
Drake:Â As with any group of humans, you can expect drama. I wouldnâ€™t have it any other way.
I mean, I couldnâ€™t have it any other way.
Martinez:Â What’s the strangest or coolest thing that’s happened to you while working together?
Drake:Â Being around other artists is strange and cool in general.
One of the perks of being in an experimental puppet company, is that no matter what event or show you are at, if itâ€™s going badly or is boring, I always have seven weirdos who I adore to hang out with on the sidelines. Eternal friendship lifestyle.
Martinez:Â How often do you meet and rehearse for shows?
Drake:Â When a show is in the works once a week. Sometimes two, three times a week.
It takes longer time than one would think to show someone how to move a small piece of paper from point a to b. . .
Martinez:Â What is the most difficult thing for you about shadow puppetry?
The physical and emotional labor that goes into it. Shadow puppetry may look effortless from the front but there is a flurry of movement, sweat, and awkward body positions happening backstage. It takes an exceptional group of people to be able to maintain strong friendships after tense long hours of being told their fingers need to act more like animals.
Sometimes puppets catch on fire . . . which, is definitely difficult.
Martinez:Â What are you currently working on?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m taking a break from puppets for a moment to make a new comic – but I donâ€™t want to share all my magic tricks just yet. On top of that, Iâ€™m heading out of Chicago for a bit to do an artist residency in Colombia.
Martinez:Â It seems like you like to travel to new places. Do you work while youâ€™re traveling? Or mostly just collect ideas?
Drake:Â I have a long-term, co-dependent relationship with wanderlust. I intentionally do not go to any place wanting to make work about it. Iâ€™ve found that traveling with a purpose in mind, mediates my experiences. It is however, important that all of the materials I work with are portable. This does two things. I like culture that is definitely small – thatâ€™s human sized and encourages people to relate to it. And of course, itâ€™s practical!
Martinez:Â Do you keep/have a collection?
Drake:Â Iâ€™m always leaving places. I do not like/enjoy owning things, maybe thatâ€™s why I work in ephemera and experiences. Although, I am a compulsive autobiographer. I keep a dated record of every book, movie, and art show Iâ€™ve ever read or seen since I was a teenager. I keep meticulous word lists of all sorts of things: new compound words I create, overheard conversations, turns of phrases that sound off, mood words, fragments.
Martinez:Â What is the most distracting thing for you while youâ€™re working?
Drake:Â Exhaustion. Or not feeling lucid and the feedback loop frustration that comes with that.
Martinez:Â Whatâ€™s the biggest revelation youâ€™ve had about the way you work?
Drake:Â The puppeteers always note that I exclaim â€œdo you hate it?â€ when I show new work or scenes to them. I have a parasite known to many as self-depreciation.
Martinez:Â Is there a certain time of day that you feel especially inspired to work, or when ideas come to you?
Drake:Â I do most of my writing and scripting when I am on my bike. Most days this tends to be the only alone time I have. And of course, shadows are more dramatic after dark. . .
Martinez:Â Does your cat hang out with you while you work?
Drake:Â Of course! We have a symbiotic working relationship. I cannot stress enough, how crucial a creative life in the company of other animals is to a human psyche.
Martinez:Â Is there a piece of advice, art related or not that you think of often?
Drake:Â When I was small, my dad always used to say, â€œWhat makes a good animal, a good animal?â€
This was meant to be soothing after some brutal animal world fact on television, a pet death, watching viruses destroy human cells on bring your daughter to work day, etc. It meant, what ensures that animal survives? Is being brutal or dark, something that a human animal might consider bad, a part of what defines that animal? Â â€œWhat makes a good human, good at being human?â€ This is how I move around in the world ad. infinitum.
All photos courtesy of Gillian Fry and Sara Drake.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.