Tessa Siddle is a transgender video maker and performance artist based out of San Francisco. In her work she regularly embodies hybrid forms â€” bleeding her self between animal, human, singular and multiplicitousÂ identities â€” in order to challenge a tidier, pervasive binary tradition. What I find particularly interesting about her work is the way in which it relies as much on the performative, physical body â€” make up and costume effects â€” as it does on technology advances, like the blue screen for instance. The effect is itself a hybrid of effects that coalesce to become an illusory, allegorical space. Tessa also organizes and curates an experimental film series, The MisAlt Screening Series, in the Bay Area.
CP:Â You often deal with hybridity often in your work â€” in your performances you sometimes embody animals, in other instances you are at once one person and two people at the same time. Can you talk a little bit about how you think of hybridity?Â
TS: I feel like a lot of people in the arts are talking about hybridity using very different (and I think more or less equally valid) definitions which occasionally leads to a little bit of confusion. I have often heard the term “hybrid forms” applied equally to visual depictions of chimeras and other hybridized figures and to the use of organic forms, mixed-media, and composite materials.
My personal interests in hybridity comes out of the convergence of my life-long fascination with combined human/animal/machine forms (most notably the chimeras of ancient myth, anthropomorphized animals in children’s literature, and human/machine/extraterrestrial hybrids ofÂ science fiction and UFO mythos) with my exposure to critics like Donna Haraway who use the figure of the cyborg and other hybrids to critique dualist social constructions and the idea of personhood and individual agency being bound within a unified and independent bodies. ThisÂ exposure roughly coincided with the beginning of my desire to confront my long-time (and continuing) discomfort with binary gender and I was constantly on the look out for alternative theories of the body and I found the concept of cyborg bodies whose slippery existence is heldÂ together by constantly shifting relationships between humans, machines, animals, and institutions to be extremely exciting. It is largely in this spirit that I go about creating work in which I split
myself into various animal and plant versions of myself.
CP: It seems like there’s a way that hybridity can question assumptions latent in, say, gender binaries or species distinction. Even in terms of what you’re addressing with robotic/mechanical vs. organic/self-determined structures. It’s like you’re decentralizing ideas of self-hood and self-determination, while undermining traditional power structures. Having said that, I’m not really sure I know what I mean when I say “traditional power structures” except that I feel it manifests itself visually in my mind as a kind of monolith. A giant cultural pillar with neat and tidy assigned parts. Do you feel like your efforts are anarchistic? Or are you looking for a new kind of order? In other words, should the hybridity remain unfixed and unfixable? Or would do you aim to create a new kind of identity that is, say, part cheetah with human hindquarters and a robot arm?
TS: I feel that when talking about power structures it is important to distinguish between models of power (the ways of looking at power) and the organization of power into social institutions. I think that the traditional way of looking at power is the monolithic model of which you speak, in which power descends from a (often divine) pinnacle of authority on to the people beneath. There is also the bottom-up view of power, which is a democratic inversion of the monolithic model, in which the legitimacy of the authority on the top comes from the power of the people below. I subscribe to a model of power in which power is radiating from everyone, everywhere, in all directions â€” without a top, bottom, or center. I think that this is the structure of power regardless of the institutions and social constructions into which it is molded.
What the monolithic model and the bottom-up model share is that they are both preoccupied with the legitimacy of existing institutions and constructions. Things are the way they are, they say, because of divine (or scientific or natural) order or popular consensus. Under these models, binaries are presented as part of a natural or innate cultural order,Â part of the way things are.
I think that what hybrid figures do to binaries is to show that they are actually the way things are not (or that binaries, if they exist, are extremely rare). I think, for example, that the human/non-human binary falls apart as soon as we look really closely at the human body. A classical (humanist) reading of the body considers it to be a unified, holistic, 100% human form â€” the most human form â€” however if we take out our microscopes, look onto and beneath our skin, look deep into our guts (take a literally very close look) what we see is that the body is host to colony after colony of (mostly benign) bacteria, protozoa, viruses, very small animals, and fungi. From my limited understanding (I am not a biologist) the health of these colonies is essential for the health of the overall body to the point that we can look at the human body as already (and always) being inhuman.
I feel that in my own efforts, I am not trying to prescribe an anarchistic role to hybrids or to suggest a new world order, but rather I am attempting create semi-fictional realities in which the already slippery relationships between humans, animals, and plants are amplified in their slipperiness.
CP:Â Can you talk a little bit Â about how that slipperiness plays out in some of your work?
TS: Â I think in a lot of my work I’m attempting to create situations/environments/performances that play with the boundaries between things that are frequently placed in opposition with each other. When I perform as a community of fox/people, a family of rabbits, a bouquet of flowers, or a forest ecosystem I try to borrow equally from scientific, mythological, historical, pop cultural, autobiographical, and autofictional sources to create the text, structure, and logic of my characters and the worlds they interact with. My hope, is that by fusing these elements together I can create alternate realities that feel natural, magical, confessional, and opaque at more or less the same time. I also try my best to give these worlds a logic that seems coherent but also transparently artificial and frayed around the edges.
Tonight, Tuesday March 8th at 6pm, SAIC alum Kori Newkirk is lecturing as part of the Visiting Artist Program. I first met Kori in Los Angeles when he was included in an exhibition of emerging Los Angeles artists that I co-curated at the Hammer Museum. Since then, he’s gone on to exhibit his art internationally, and was the subject of 10 year survey curated by Thelma Golden at The Studio Museum in Harlem in late 2007. Kori continues to live and work in Los Angeles. In thinking about the questions I wanted to ask him, I found myself most interested in finding out how Kori’s practice has developed “post-emergence.” Kori has always been fearless about charting new directions in his work, and I was curious to learn more about his experience of that category-defying space between “emerging” and “midcareer.”
Claudine IsÃ©: What do you have planned for your SAIC lecture?
Kori Newkirk: Well, I have to say that question has been almost keeping me awake nights for some time now. It seems like Iâ€™ve been talking about what I do for so long now, and honestly itâ€™s getting to feel a little dustyâ€¦so Iâ€™m trying to figure out how I can change it up a bit. These days Iâ€™m more interested in what artists think about and how we think about things rather than just the classic â€œ â€¦I made this and then I made thisâ€¦â€™ type of lecture. Sometimes that can be so painful, on both ends. Iâ€™ve been leaning in the direction of talking a bit about my relationship with paintingâ€¦since it was the department that I spent the most time in and thatâ€™s the department that brought me back, which is utterly fascinating to me. Iâ€™ll probably throw in some of the realities of what it means to do what I and we doâ€¦as well as some stories from my salad days in Chicago and beyond. Itâ€™s been 18 years since I graduated, but some things never change.
CI: You had a 10 year survey exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2008. I’m always curious about the impact that a survey or retrospective has on an artist personally, as well as in terms of his or her practice. Did working with Thelma Golden on that show change your ideas about your own work in any way? If so, how? I’m also curious about the knowledge you yourself may have gained from looking at your own survey – what was it like seeing a decade’s worth of your own work installed in one place for the first time? What pleased you? What surprised you?
KN: What an honor it was to work with Thelma Golden and the staff of the museum on the survey. I couldnâ€™t have asked for someone more supportive and understanding of the nuances of my practice. Seeing a lot of things together really didnâ€™t change the essential ideas I have about what and why I do what I do. It was amazing to see some of the earlier work again, as well as things that I never really got to spend quality time with before they left the studio. Iâ€™d say its like a mashup of a family reunion and your high school reunion, throw in a little rollercoaster ride, the best birthday ever, and a slight touch of fever and I think you get close to what was running through my mind. I will say that the show looked and felt very different in NY than it did in California, which I found interesting.
CI: Your sculptural objects and installations often rely on recognizable objects, some already culturally-charged, some more mundane. Some of your first widely-recognized works were the gorgeous “beaded curtains” made from colored pony beads strung in ways that created pictures when viewed at a distance, and broke up into abstraction when viewed up close. You also made striking wall drawings using hair pomade. These early works were spectacular and beautiful and to some degree recognizably iconic works by Kori Newkirk. I’m curious though, was it hard to “break away,” as it were, from the use of certain materials with which you had become so strongly associated? For all artists, it can be tempting to continue to make what everyone loves – but you’ve moved on. Was that difficult for you to do at the time, especially as a young emerging artist?
KN: Well the â€˜breakâ€™ from that work, particularly the curtains, was always going to be there I think. I really never expected to only make one type of thing, I donâ€™t think itâ€™s in my nature. Some things come and go depending on whatâ€™s required (for the work) and what Iâ€™m interested in talking about at that time. I never want to just be â€˜that bead boyâ€™! Thatâ€™s an important thing that I learned at SAIC, that it was totally ok not to have a singular/cohesive â€˜bodyâ€™ of work and that I could do whatever I wanted and needed to do. I work in service to the idea and not the medium. A very anti-romantic notion perhaps! Which of course has made an interesting practice and been good for my sanity and soul, but not always so great for the career.
CI: The Summer 2010 show you did at Country Club in Los Angeles looks like it was pretty amazing. For that project, you directly engaged the gallery’s modernist architecture (it’s housed in Rudolf Schindler’s 1934 Buck House). Can you talk about the work in that show a bit?
KN: I couldnâ€™t turn down that house! My partner used to live in a Schindler apartment here in Los Angeles so I have some intimate knowledge of how a space like that can and canâ€™t function and how I function in them as well, which I thought was far more important and interesting. Itâ€™s a very site-responsive show as compared to site specific. Iâ€™m only willing to say that it was important in the long range plans I have for myselfâ€¦like the great white sharks I deployed earlier, one has to keep swimming or one dies.
The School of the Art Institute’s Visiting Artist Program kicks off its Spring 2011 series tonight with Jose MuÃ±oz, chair of NYU’s Performance Studies department and the author of several books, including Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. (You can download a .pdf file of that book’s introduction here). The talk will take place at 6pm in the Columbus Auditorium, 280 S. Columbus Drive. In advance of Professor Munoz’ talk, I asked him a few questions about his work and the performance artists who inspired it. I’m very grateful to him for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer them!
Claudine Ise: Tell us a bit about what you plan to discuss during your lecture at the School of the Art Institute.
Jose MuÃ±oz: I plan to present work that bridges Cruising Utopia and my next book project The Sense of Brown. In Cruising Utopia I considered the work and life of figures from the historical queer avant-garde. I will discuss the life and work of Warhol superstar Mario Montez. Montez collaborated with Warhol, Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel and many other key figures from that scene. But Montez dropped out of the art and performance scene in the 1970s. He has recently reemerged and has great stories to tell. I look to him as a “Wise Latina” which was a phrase used by republicans who attacked Sonia Sotomayor when she was nominated to The Supreme Court. I describe Montez as a Wise Latina because she made a sort of “sense” that I think is worth considering today.
CI: The prose style of your 2009 book “Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity” is at once poetic and deeply rousing. In particular, I’m enamored of this statement from your book’s Introduction:
“We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing.”
I love the radical openness of that idea. Can you talk a bit about the ways in which you want to re/define the concepts of ‘hope’ and ‘utopia,’ particularly when it comes to queerness and what you describe as a ‘queer aesthetic’?
JM: I was advocating an idea of hope that refuses despair during desperate times. I reject naive hope and instead offer a version of hope that is counter measure to how straight culture defines our lives and the world. I was trying to describe an idea of utopia that is not just escapism. Queer art or queer aesthetics potentially offer us blueprints and designs for other ways of living in the world. In Cruising Utopia I look at performances and visual art that are both historical and contemporary. But what all the work has in common is the way it sketches different ways of being in the world.
CI: Which contemporary performance artists do you think best represent your idea that ‘hope’ can be more than just a critical affect, but can also present us with a viable methodology for mapping utopias?
JM: I am interested in so much work that happens under the rich sign of performance. For years I have been following the work of artists like Vaginal Davis whose performances always insists on another version of reality than the ones we are bombarded by. I could substitute Vag’s name in the previous sentence with that of artists like Nao Bustamente, Carmelita Tropicana, Dynasty Handbag, My Barbarian and so many other artists that I have encountered. I look forward to seeing more work that helps me glimpse something beyond the here and now.
Dynasty Handbag at Transmodern Festival, 2008.
December 9, 2010 · Print This Article
Tomorrow students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago will unveil four new exhibitions in the Sullivan Galleries, including Having and Being Had, a show that explores “the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums.” The latter exhibition also includes a website featuring Q&As on curatorial practice with Chicago curators, cultural practitioners, and me, whose ‘practice,’ such as it is, falls into neither category. All four shows look really interesting – an opening reception for them all will take place tomorrow evening, Friday, December 11, from 4:30-7:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries, 33 S. State St., 7th floor. Read on below for details on Having and Being Had, along with descriptions of the three other shows on view.Â All shows run through January 22nd (note that the galleries will be closed for the holidays from December 24 – January 2nd).
Having and Being Had
Having and Being Had stages a performance on the ritual of curatorial practice and meaning-making in museums. As the title suggests, curators and audiences are as much authors of a legitimizing narrative as they are framed by it. The curators of this exhibition complicate our expectations of museum display by inviting the dynamic participation and active imaginings of the viewer. Having and Being Had invites audiences to reconsider the ways in which language, collections, object value, and display technique seduce audiences with illusions of access and objectivity. Art exhibitions educate and entertain, but do they also mislead and deceive the viewer? Having and Being Had exposes curatorial hierarchy, dismantles curatorial voice, and manipulates display space to engage audiences in the power of their own experiences. On display are the ethics of curatorial practice and the viewersâ€™ imagination.
All the best,
This exhibition features new work by the artists and writers in Text Off the Page 2010, including collaborative projects, performances, installations, and language-based projects.
Featured artists: Shanita Bigelow, Troy Briggs, Annette Elliot, Sarah Jones, Nazafarin Lotfi, J.M. Lowe, Joel Parsons, David Scheier, Corkey Sinks, Jillian Soto, Hurmat Ul Ain, and Colin Winnette.
An evening of Readings/Performances in response to works in the exhibition will be held on Saturday, December 11 at 6:00 p.m. in the Sullivan Galleries.
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The eight artists participating in the Video Installation course attempt to investigate, analyze, and confront various aspects of this practice by focusing on issues of separation and contact. Their work tackles formal questions emerging from constructing multichannel installation, as well as from the intersection of a single-channel, time-based medium with a given space and performed actions.
Featured artists: Emilie Crowe, Lindsay Denniberg, Marco Godoy, Mikey McPariane, Brianne Milder, MZL, Wang Ye-Feng, and Courtney Bird Ziegler.
Stories of Relativity
How do we relate to one another? The nine artists in this exhibition explore the complex nature of human connectivity, considering how time, identity, and interpersonal tensions shape our relationships and affect our interactions.
Featuring recent work by: Hope Esser, Jang soon Im, Je Je Je Jiyeon Lim, Zihan Loo, Cheryl Pope, Casilda Sanchez, Chryssa Tsampazi, Andrew Norman Wilson, and Wei-Hsuan Vicky Yen.
Curated by Amelia Love (MA 2013), Curatorial Assistant, Department of Exhibitions
I’m off this week on vacay to sunny Sarasota, Fl., hometown of the Ringling circus and Pee-Wee Herman, too. Someday, there will be a museum dedicated to Pee Wee, and its curators will write sober wall text on the semiotics of the Big Shoe Dance and the erotics of chairy. But not today. Today, I bring you this video, which hopefully will not feel too much like a homework assignment. I personally was psyched to find it, anyway. Over the weekend, that ol’ leftie-pinko group the Platypus Affiliated Society sponsored an all-day conference called What Is Critique?Â Two School of the Art Institute critical-types, James Elkins and Chris Cutrone, were on panels, and though the ensuing discussions were predictably jargon-ridden, they were also pretty meaty. How do I know this? The organizers were nice enough to put the second of the panels on U-Stream, which I’ve embedded for your link-free viewing pleasure directly below. Enjoy. A brief description of the event follows.
What is Critique? is an all day symposium that consists of panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students city-wide that investigates the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day will focus on the nature and function of art critiques as a form criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day will be a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and art reception.