Friday, July 14, 2017

Interview: Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine

In the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, two of our most important resources are care and creative thinking. Artist-parents play a critical role in both, mindfully raising the next generation while also activating public imagination. Cultural ReProducers explore this intersection through a series of conversations with artists about the future our children will inherit, and the work we’re making in response. 

Hồng-Ân Trương and Jina Valentine are active artists, writers, mothers, and professors based in Durham, North Carolina, where they both teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Their practices share a deep engagement with issues of cultural identity and social justice, and they’ve joined forces through the community-based project, All Rise, which we were lucky to catch at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in April. All Rise combines strategies from two ongoing collaborative projects: Hương Ngô and Hồng-Ân Trương’s public performance And And And Stammering: An Interview and Jina Valentine and Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table, activating candid conversations over a shared meal.  As close friends and collaborators, Hồng-Ân and Jina also operate as a sort of extended family, which in turn has expanded their creative lives. As we sat down to have this conversation over Skype, Jina had just accepted a new teaching position in Chicago, a geographical change that is the start of a new chapter in life, work, community and collaboration.

Cultural ReProducers: First, could you briefly describe your kids? Ages, names, general temperaments…

Jina: My son’s name is Sylvan Miles Palm Valentine, and he is four and a quarter years old. He’s playful, exuberant, and he loves people. He’s also aggressively affectionate, like a Labrador puppy. And Xuân June -  she’s also very affectionate, but also very contemplative. And she’s compassionate, and wise in her compassion well beyond her years. 

Hồng-Ân: I know! Xuân June is two and a half and she is totally this really emotionally mature human. It’s just... I don’t know where it came from (laughter). She is joyful and loves to laugh, but her temperament is very thoughtful, serious, and considerate – she’s aware of how people are feeling and is always asking how they’re doing. And she’s not afraid of trying anything physically – she’s kind of a monkey. Xuân June and Sylvan are like brother and sister: sometimes they totally love each other and then sometimes they totally don’t want to hang out.

CR: What kinds of expectations did you have about what it would mean to be a working artist who’s also a parent, and how have those squared with the reality of it? 

Jina: I think I had some idea that it was a big deal, but I still remember going in to tell the Chair of our department that I was expecting. He has a kid, and he’s like, “I’m really happy for you, but you’ve been really active in the department and have been taking on all these tasks... and when you have a kid, things change.” And I said “oh no, it’ll be fine, I’ll still be on all these committees, I’ll keep doing all this extra stuff, and you know, going out every night… (laughter) ” I couldn’t imagine how things might be different. He said “It’s not that you can’t do these things, but where you want to spend your time may change.” I think that was one of the biggest surprises to me. In Creative Capital workshops, one of the things they ask about is your professional priorities. Before, the way that I prioritized my time had been something like… departmental service at the top, then teaching, studio research, and then family. Now I’ve been trying to figure out how to flip that whole equation: family first, then research, teaching, and service.

I didn’t expect the experience of motherhood to change my worldview so drastically, and change the
way that I work in my studio – I mean not just practically, but what I’m talking about in the work. I knew that having a child is an obligation, of course you have to take care of this person that you made. But I didn’t expect him to be a friend. I miss him when I’m working. I enjoy just hanging out with him.

Hồng-Ân: It’s hard for me to remember what my life was like before Xuân June, which is so bizarre.

It already feels like this very far away thing. I think I did have the attitude that, “I’m going to be just as busy in the studio as I ever was and there’s no way that anything is going to take me away from that. I’ll give myself six months and then its back to normal, back to evrything.” It’s such an understatement that everything changes, and you just don’t realize how it can alter the fabric of your everyday life, and really alter your priorities. But I also didn’t expect that it actually wasn’t going to be that devastating to not be busy in the studio. I mean I remember at first, when I wasn’t really in the studio at all, till she was really about a year and a half, really, I was like “huh” (shrugs) – I wasn’t worried about my art career, it didn’t cause me anxiety.

Jina: That’s interesting. I don’t know that I felt the same way. Sylvan is four, and it’s only in the past
year and a half really that I’ve been able to spend a significant amount of time in the studio. I feel so much healthier, spiritually, intellectually. It’s been good for me and it’s also good for him, cause I’m more… me.

Hồng-Ân: But that time period when I was on leave during the first year of Xuân June’s life was when I started to realize that I needed to focus on being present here, in Durham, in North Carolina. So that was when we actually first collaborated, when I worked on the first integrated Black Lunch Table with you and Heather. So I think there was a shift in priorities in that sense; I wasn’t busy working on my individual material-based projects, but was working on stuff that felt really meaningful to me in a different way than just going at it in my studio. 

Also, I was really lucky in that Xuân June was born in May, and I was off for a year, but the summer after she turned one I had a three-month residency in Dublin, so I think in my mind I was like “That’s when I’m going to launch back into my studio practice.” As an artist you’re always thinking in this future way that’s kind of unhealthy, about what’s on the horizon.

CR: What was that first residency with your family like? 

 Hồng-Ân: It was really… hard. (laughs) It was really great, I met great people and it was the most amazing, beautiful place ever. I love Dublin, and the Irish Modern Art Museum -- it’s in this old military complex, and the studios and apartments you stay in are old stables. But the thing that was hard was that my partner, Dwayne, was basically full time care for Xuân June. That was so stressful, and I felt guilty the whole time. I really shortened my days. I didn’t get to the studio until like ten in the morning, and then I’d break to nurse her, and then I’d finish up in the late afternoon. 

CR: You each have separate practices that activate dialogue around cultural identity and community, but you also do a lot of work in collaboration with others, including each other. Most recently you’ve brought together two of these group projects to develop All Rise, a performance and community-based meal that opens conversation about immigration and institutional racism. What do you feel is activated in merging your projects in this way? 

stills from Hương Ngô & Hồng-Ân Trương's And And And
Stammering: An Interview
(top) and Jina Valentine &
Heather Hart’s Black Lunch Table (bottom)
Hồng-Ân: Bringing Black Lunch Table as a central part really added this other level of engagement to the project. Before we did the discussions afterwards, the performance part existed and then we would have this casual, moderated conversation with the audience, but there wasn’t a way for people to engage meaningfully with the thoughts and feelings they were having while watching the performance. Working with Jina and Heather really activates a strong piece that was missing.

In general I really enjoy collaborations. I still have a need to make work on my own, because there are some processes in the studio that are not necessarily shareable in a broader way, but it’s so much more enjoyable to make work with other people. I feel like collaboration is such a more human way to make work.

Jina: I think also practically speaking, collaborations are really important, especially as a new mom… When Sylvan was really tiny I was working on this piece with Heather Hart and Steffani Jemison, where we did over a year of meetings over Skype, and we still talk about how in the screen grabs there’s always Sylvan sitting on my lap or breastfeeding. That was how I was able to stay productive, by having other people to be accountable to, and to have this kind of group conversation that could keep things moving even when I’d only slept three hours.

Heather and I had been talking about how to expand Black Lunch Table, and I think it was around January of 2015 when Hồng-Ân and Dwayne came over to have dinner with our babies.  And we sat and talked about the Michael Brown shooting and about all of these police shootings. We were like “what are we going to do?” besides hashtagging and re-posting and marching, which are also necessary. We ended up getting a little money from the Institute for Arts and Humanities to do the first iteration of the Black Lives Matter Roundtable, which was organized collaboratively with Hồng-Ân and included her amazing community here. We invited the Durham-based activists and the folks from the Center for Documentary Studies, and professors from both Duke University and UNC, and students, and preachers to dine together at two events in Durham and Chapel Hill. That was the first event in a series that we’ve since been doing around the country.

As for All Rise, this collaboration with Hồng-Ân and Hương... Black Lunch Table centered conversation around social justice issues.  All Rise was an opportunity to focus conversation on people’s family histories, or immigration specifically, so I think that was really good for us to do. We also thought that it was our part of our responsibility as professors here at UNC to bring in the community, which has been fairly reluctant to have these kinds of conversations.

This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

Hồng-Ân: When we collaborated for the first time I was on maternity leave. Xuân June was like six months old. It came together at a moment when I realized I really needed to focus on what’s here in front of me, and I do think it’s related to being a parent. There was a point when I said “I’m not going to fly to New York every other weekend like I used to do. I can’t do that shit anymore!” It made me recognize my desire to be more locally focused. This is the community that I’m raising my kid in. How does that relate to my life as an artist here, as a teacher here, as an activist here? So it was a really intentional choice to make work here. It was this other re-focus, without the anxiety of having an art practice that felt separate. It was so connected to everything else in my life as a new parent.

CR: For any parent, there’s always this question of what kind of world our children are growing up in, what challenges they might face, and what we hope for the future.  How does the current political climate impact your approach to raising your kids?
Hồng-Ân: I’m trying to think of whether I’m living my life differently now than if the situation was different. And I don’t know if I’d be doing anything differently if we were another era, or if Hillary or Bernie had been elected – there’d still be the same things out there. I think the Manchester bombing probably still would’ve happened. It brings up a larger question about global politics in general, and this state of powerlessness. I’m struggling with how to make sense of this era in some way, to temper my feelings of anxiety in having a larger view about the different conditions of violence that have always existed. It feels hyper intense right now. There are different levels of preparation for absolute crisis, and we’re preparing. If I wasn’t a parent I don’t know that I’d be doing anything differently in terms of all that. Do you think you’d be doing anything differently?

Jina: Yeah, I do. I know that I take better care of myself, for him. I started writing my will, and taking out life insurance. Stability is totally a priority. Even if the world is going to shit I try to maintain the appearance that everything is normal for him. Are things more extreme than they were in the cold war? I don’t know. James Moeser, a former Chancellor and now the acting Director of the Institute of Arts and Humanities at UNC, is a wise man who’s seen a lot of history in this state. He said to me, “Everything goes in cycles. I’ve been around for a long time.  The pendulum always swings back the other way.” This period we’re in cannot last.  But it’s also about the reality that the world might actually end. What happens when the glaciers melt? Will there be an earth for our grandchildren? If I was not a parent everything would be very different for me. I think I would be engaged in a very different way. You know? But now we have to engage in meaningful ways that are also safe.

Hồng-Ân: You’re right. In the early 2000’s I was on the front lines. I would be the first one to get tear gassed if… and now I wouldn’t. There is this other level of thoughtfulness around what is on the line. On the one hand there’s a lot more at stake about the future because we have kids now, so we should be working harder, and yet our bodies, our lives have a different kind of fragility and meaning because we have a child that we have to take care of. It has brought up this question of when I want to go to this protest, do I bring Xuân June or not? And then Dwayne and I have a conversation about is it safe, maybe just one of us will go.

Jina: We look for different ways to engage. We do things like Black Lives Matter Roundtable. Or we consider examples to model our civic engagement... like Pierce Freelon, hopefully the next Mayor of Durham, who’s the son of Nina Freelon and Phil Freelon, the architect of the African American History Museum. Or the activist and councilwoman, Jillian Johnson. You and I were just talking about what our roles are here in NC and at UNC... how do we change the system from within? Shit needs to be shaken up, and I see that as a kind of activism too.

Jina Valentine, Testimony (detail), iron gall ink and oxidant on paper, 2015

CR: So how has all this impacted your artistic practice?
Jina: I guess my first substantial body of work after Sylvan was about my inability to empathize with mothers who had lost their sons to police violence. I felt sympathy for them, and our relationship as moms changes to them because we want to empathize with them, but it’s your worst nightmare. When you’re hearing about Manchester, you’re thinking about the mothers of those people who were killed, not even necessarily the people who died. That kind of grief is pretty unfathomable. My most recent project is called Literacy Tests: Rorschach, looking at the most heavily gerrymandered districts in the country, which sort of look like Rorschach inkblot tests, and it’s also a play on the literacy tests that black folks had to undergo under Jim Crow. My work tends to inspire dialogue around the things I want to explain to Sylvan at some point.

Hồng-Ân Trương, On minor histories and the horrifying recognition of the swift work
of time
, phototex, voile curtain, pigment print on fabric, HD video, c-stands, lights     
Hồng-Ân: The big project I’ve worked on for the last year and a half was about my mom. And this other photo-based project that I worked with Hương [Ngô] was also a photo-based project based on our moms together, about women and labor. So the two full bodies of work that I’ve completed since she was born have been about my mom, and you know, not at all unrelated and having this other level of of intense, emotional attachment to my mom vis a vis her relationship with to Xuân June. A lot of my work links together my family history with larger social and political histories, the impact of those broader social and political histories on these more personal narratives. I had done several projects about my dad, who passed in 2013. It was kind of an organic turn to my mom.

CR: You have brought together your creative approaches within an art context, but you also collaborate in everyday life, as a sort of chosen extended family. Could you talk about how that network of support has worked for you as artists, and how it has evolved? 

 Hồng-Ân: It just started really organically. We bring our kids everywhere. We have our kids with us all the time, and by that necessity they’re automatically going to become closer. Jina and I have very different households in terms of what support I have and what support she has, so it makes a lot of sense to share resources, and work together to make it work better and be… more fun! There’s this blurring between hanging out, being a parent, and getting work done at the same time. If we’re both going to be at a faculty meeting, we share someone who’s taking care of both of them together. There were just some very obvious ways we could join forces. We can go out to eat dinner and Dwayne will go run around with the kids so we can talk for a bit. There’s a sharing of caretaking when we’re together, that’s an obvious way to relieve the pressure of being “the parent” in every situation.

Vietnamese as a culture and a language is very familial. So when Xuân June hangs out with Jina she calls her Dì Jina, which is Aunt Jina. Everything is relational, even with strangers, and so I really enforce it among my close friends. I want her to feel just as comfortable with Jina as if she was an auntie. I feel really strongly that that’s a really important way to develop trust in the world, and also have different notions of support and family structure. I foster that intentionally by insisting that she call certain people by auntie or uncle.

Jina: I don’t know if I’m as intentional or if my son is just that weird only child who feels really comfortable around adults (laughter).

Hồng-Ân: I think kids of artists are more like that, because they’re around adults all the time. And
just thinking about your comment about wanting to hang out with Sylvan - I want to hang out with Xuân June, but I want to hang out with… adults, too. So I want her life to have the texture of being… not insular. So texting Jina and saying, what are you doing for dinner, do you want to come over? I just like that fluidness between spaces that are not sacred to that nuclear sense of the family. I really am conscious of wanting that.

Jina: I echo everything you just said, and I would add that for Sylvan and I, there’s just the two of us. His dad lives around the corner and we see him on the weekends, so there’s this attempting to give a semblance of normalcy. I grew up in an ultra-normal suburban household.  My folks have lived in the very same house for 42 years, and have been married for a few longer than that.  Growing up, the five of us always had a sit-down dinner, my mom cooked, and the kids cleaned up. It was the same thing every night, and then we’d have homework, TV, bed. We don’t have that kind of domestic structure now.  But I think for Sylvan it’s like I’ve always had, in my adult life, this chosen family, the people that I text right after I just saw them. We also have his community, the kids he meets at school and their families – I feel like we’ve kind of chosen them together, but it’s a very different thing. You set the date a week in advance, it’s much more planned how long we’re going to be there, what we’re going to do. I feel like it’s really important to cultivate those kinds of relationships that are Sylvan-centric. As much as possible I try to blend those communities.

Advisors, mentors who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

CR: Who have been your models for artist-parenting or parent-artisting?

Jina: Maybe it’s an extreme example, but Hank and Deb Willis have an amazing relationship as collaborators, as friends.  I think about Hank a lot. I mean I think that’s the dream -- to be established to a point at which I want to be established by the time that Sylvan is a teenager or going to college, so that I can pass all of this knowledge and what not to do, how to survive, and also… create work with him.

Hồng-Ân: Deb Willis is an amazing example. She’s actually the reason I went to art school. I didn’t
know her when she was parenting Hank as a kid because Hank is exactly my age, but of course she is still and always a mom. Just thinking about what a powerhouse she is, and how did she do all of this while raising an amazing son. She’s powerful, kind, brilliant… so generous and so critical of the art world, and making her own way about how to exist as an artist and an intellectual. She’s definitely been my role model in general because she really embodies a really ethical way of operating as an artist and an intellectual. One of the most powerful things we can do is to model the way we think artists should exist in the world.

Jina: Other amazing Art moms... I used to have what I called “fairy godmothers.” Advisors, mentors
who are official and unofficial, those folks are definitely models for how we might care for the next generation of artists. I feel like that’s part of our responsibility too.

Lisa Sigal – she has two, three kids, they’re teenagers. She is a painter, and among other things, Curator at The Drawing Center. If she’s not there she’s in her studio, or she’s out in meetings with artists involved through the Drawing Center, or she’s having people over for dinner. She has children, and sometimes her husband is in town and sometimes he’s not, but it seems like it all works out.

Hồng-Ân: Around the time when I started thinking about having kids, a lot of my colleagues and friends had kids. I saw other people having kids and that gave me some sense that, okay, it’s possible. Not in the sense of holding someone up in high esteem, but just that there were people doing it. It’s not impossible. In the arts, you assume that people are parentless until proven otherwise. I think in the last five, six years that has really changed. I remember finding out that Simone Leigh and Saya Woolfalk were moms, and I was like “wow, badass.”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Not Your Mama's Residency

The following letter was shared by an artist who was recently awarded a place in a competitive residency program. For the sake of professional discretion, identifying details have been replaced with the letter X. Upon contacting them to work out the logistics of her stay, the artist was informed that some of the program’s policies and funding had changed (neither accommodations nor restrictions were mentioned on their website). After further conversations by phone and email, the program declined to negotiate a stay shorter than its standard two months. Her place will be offered to another artist, presumably one without family commitments. Given the months-long process of application, acceptance, and negotiation, this outcome is not just a disappointment but a professional setback. It will impact her ability to fabricate large-scale work for an upcoming exhibition and erases the recognition of such an award as she applies for tenure.

Dear X,

First, I want to thank you for inviting me for a residency in 2018. I was delighted to receive this honor. I spoke with X last week about some of the recent developments that are impacting whether or not I will be able to attend the residency. I’d like to share my concerns with you in this letter.

I applied to X because it was highly recommended to me by colleagues in the field. X is particularly conducive to producing large-scale sculpture and I have an important exhibition in fall 2018 featuring a large structure. I appreciate the opportunity to introduce my work to a new audience in the area, and the focused time for production in a rural area would be a welcome change from my practice in Chicago. Finally, as a mid-career sculptor who is also a mother, I find that most residencies are available primarily for emerging or childless artists who have fewer obligations. Rarely do residencies provide accommodation or the means for an artist-parent to bring their children. My friend and fellow artist, X, raved about his experience at X as a family-friendly residency. While the reasons stated above regarding timing, facilities, and location were all factors in my decision to apply, it was his glowing report of X as one that enables artist-parents to produce their work that was most attractive to me. The fellowship and generous family housing that was provided to him enabled him to produce his work and fulfill his role as a father, and is one that I felt I needed in order to make this opportunity work for me.

I was deeply saddened to learn that there is no longer any housing available for families and that children are unable to be present at the studio at any time. Additionally, the unfortunate loss of the fellowship is of great concern to me. As a parent, I wonder who could take care of my children while work, how I could afford that care, how I could possibly be away from them for such an extended period of time, and where they will stay during the course of my two-month residency. The stipend and family housing would have gone a long way toward making this possible.

As you are certainly aware, the benefits of artist fellowships are two-fold. While fellowships can make an opportunity financially feasible, they also serve as an honor. Funding for mid-career makers are few and far between in our current political climate. The chance to feature the stipend on my dossier as I apply for tenure in 2019 is particularly meaningful, as well as being an honor that can lead to other opportunities. If any small amount of funds becomes available toward the stipends in the future, it would still allow artists to have the honor of the award, if only a token of your original intentions. I also suggest that the policy of having no children or support for artist-parents be stated on the website so that future applicants can weigh that information in deciding to apply.

In light of the recent changes regarding X’s ability to accommodate artist parents, and to provide funding that could make this opportunity feasible for me, I would like to request a shorter residency of four weeks. While a two-month residency is ideal for many reasons, I feel that a shorter residency can still fulfill many of our mutual goals. Last summer I completed a two-week residency at X and found that the short time contributed to the urgency of productivity and I was able to make the most of every moment there. I made important contacts with members of the arts community, conducted research, and started artwork that is now going to be part of a solo exhibition at the same venue this summer. I propose to come to X, and bring my husband who will assist me in making the work, the scale of which will be physically difficult for me to manage alone. Having a shorter residency will significantly ease the financial burden and logistical challenges of this residency and enable me to accept this offer.

Thank you for your consideration and, again, for the invitation to a 2018 residency. I look forward to hearing from you.


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Residencies provide cultural producers with a range of important opportunities, often including the chance to enlarge their community and take creative risks. Every program is different. Some are only open to artists working in specific media, like printmaking or sculpture. A few are not handicapped-accessible. And while some are more transparent about it than others, quite a lot of the hundreds of residency programs worldwide are out of reach for artists raising children.

Researching programs with the flexibility to accommodate parenting artists can be a confusing process. Some programs quietly allow for it on a case-by-case basis and many make no mention of policies or restrictions either way. Among the few programs that do support artists with families in some capacity, that information can be hard to find and, as evidenced here, sometimes changes without warning. Underlying this is the assumption that parenting artists are the exception and not the rule. Can the arts operate beyond traditional capitalist models if they’re continually built around the myth of the lone genius?

Economic parallels between the arts and other careers are limited, since creative practice draws no reliable salary. Artists participate in residencies at their own expense, often paying for travel, residency fees, childcare, or taking time off from other, paid work. But let's look at those entrepreneurial models for a moment, since the professionalized art world seems bent on following their lead. Some would argue that you’d never expect to find a family friendly law firm or bring children to a professional conference. But in fact that’s exactly what’s underway as professionals in other, non-'creative' fields aim for more gender-balanced and productive work environments. If the arts are a space for open experimentation and social critique, it should not be so radical to imagine family life as part of the broader creative community.

participants at Kala Art Institute, which offers support for parenting artists
To be sure, there are practical reasons why not all residencies can accommodate artists with family commitments.  In 2013 the Sustainable Arts Foundation started a granting program to support programs working to creatively address challenges like safety and shared resources. Some provide children's activities and family housing during special sessions, while others offer flexible scheduling or childcare awards that allow parents to participate without bringing kids along. The Foundation states that “the goal of this program is not only to reward organizations with original and effective solutions, but to share the results, so that other residencies might learn from them as well.” Their list of funded projects serves as a valuable resource for any program working to better serve the creative community, as well as for artist-parents researching accessible residency options.

As Cultural ReProducers we recognize that incorporating children into the practice of creating culture is not always simple. We also know that there's a lot to be gained in that process. Not all programs can or will realistically support a diverse artistic community that includes parents, and that's fine. What we ask for is clear information about what residencies can and cannot offer so that we can do the same.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Interview: Soheila Azadi

Muted Uprising, installation detail

In the midst of social, environmental, and political unrest, two of our most important resources are care and creative thinking. Artist-parents play a critical role in both, mindfully raising the next generation while also activating public imagination. Cultural ReProducers explore this intersection through a series of conversations with artists about the future our children will inherit, and the work we’re making in response. 

Soheila Azadi is an interdisciplinary visual artist and lecturer based in Chicago and Iran. Azadi uses performance and participatory installation to explore intersections of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity within womens’ everyday lives. Born in the capital of Islamic cities, Esfahan, Azadi absorbed storytelling skills through Persian miniature drawings as a child, and her inspirations come from her experiences as a woman living under Theocracy. As a new mother her recent work creates spaces for cultural dialogue and addresses the barriers she has found as a mother-artist.

Cultural ReProducers: First, briefly tell us a little bit about your child: age, name, general temperament…

 Soheila Azadi: My baby’s name is Ario, and he’s 6 months old. He’s a very happy and curious baby.

CR: Before you had a child, what kinds of expectations did you have about how parenthood might impact your life as an artist? And how do those expectations square with your experience so far?

Soheila: I remember I had an interview when I was pregnant and I was like, “yeah, once I have the baby it’s not going to impact my work, my life that much.” (laughter) But once I had the baby everything was like, for three months, on pause. After he was four months old I started coming out of my cave. I think my expectations were that it would be easy, it would be like anything else. I consider myself a strong person, and I can do whatever I want to do, and although I had the same ideas once I had him, you are dealing with this fragile human being. He became my first priority, basically. There were times when people contacted me and asked me to collaborate with them and I had to say no. I was in shows while I had him, but I had to pause everything else.

CR: Do you feel like motherhood has affected your relationship with the art world?

Soheila: It has affected it, big time. I used to go to lectures every Friday night, I would go to openings, I was really active. Once I had Ario it was a matter of now my partner being able to accompany us. We are going to openings as much as we can, the three of us, but lectures, it’s just so – that really doesn’t happen unless I’m teaching and I take my class with me. I remember the first time I encountered the idea of motherhood within the art world was this panel discussion on motherhood, and I remember even then, there were people who came with babies, and they were talking about motherhood and one baby  started crying… and everybody looked back like (makes a surprised face) “Whoah, what?… there’s a baby here! Why are you crying?” So I think that was my first introduction to this whole idea. Once I became a mom, this became reality for me: I’m not going to be able to do some of the things that I was planning to do. In Europe you see babies walking and playing in galleries, and in the US … you barely, barely see that in the US. So that made me feel upset, thinking, “My child doesn’t really have a place here, you know?” But one thing to note is that even before I became a mother I always assigned my students a reading about motherhood in the arts. I always assign my students part of “Feminist Art and the Maternal” book by Andrea Liss. Although I was not a mother, I always felt it is my duty to contribute to raising awareness about mother’s challenges who are artists.  

Ario plays on the gallery floor during installation
CR: You bring up a good point here, which is that the conversation is very different in places where there is more support for mothers, where kids are more naturally welcome in the gallery scene. I say “the Art World” but really we’re talking about “this art world over here in the US,” where it’s part of a larger culture that tends to prioritize the needs of the individual over the community.

Soheila: Exactly – that’s another thing that I’ve been finding, especially in Chicago. In the US we hide babies. They are not visible. We hide older people. And I think that’s really problematic.

CR: What kinds of changes would you like to see that might better support artists raising children in the United States?

Soheila: As you mention, it’s the system of support. Maybe if the system was similar to Europe, for instance. If there was some support from the government… I mean, financial support, oh my God! It’s a real thing. It’s about survival. So that’s a systematic thing. But also I would say as educators we have a huge role in this. As mothers, as fathers, as human beings – I think it’s everybody’s responsibility to help each other, to come together to shape this.

I don’t know so much about the art world in Iran, because I never go there as an artist. But I know as a mother you have so much support. I went to a baby shower of a friend who is Iranian. I wanted to get food, and this lady came up to me and offered to hold my baby so I could get something to eat. I didn’t want to trouble her, and she was like “No, just relax.” It was something I had never experienced here. Nobody ever in this last six months… I mean, several times in the past I was struggling with the stroller, too many things on hand, my baby having explosions (laughter), and nobody even offered to hold the door! And now I am finally able to hold my baby and my food at the same time and you are offering to hold my baby so I can eat?  That’s the difference. It’s much easier because of the support you get from family, and people have a certain understanding of how family works, the support that you have to give. I have a friend now in Iran, she is pregnant, and I asked if she will be quitting her work or continuing, and she said -- and this is a saying there -- “With the help of everybody, I will make it happen.”

Soheila Azadi and Liz Cambron, Witch Hunt (video still)

CR: Your work explores issues of identity and division through your experience as a Muslim-born Iranian American. For any parent, there’s always the question of what kind of world our children are growing up in, what challenges they might face, and what we hope for the future.  How does the current political climate impact your approach to raising a child in the US?

Soheila: The more tangible it becomes, the more it affects my life. I think about… how will I tell my son that Grandma won’t be able to come, because of this government? Or we will travel there, but with the fear of losing what we call home. I cannot imagine how even a 4-year old kid would understand these things, but they sense your fear, from young age. Now more than ever, it is my duty to raise a feminist, for sure… but also to raise him an Iranian. Now it’s about pushing back. How does this impact his life down the road, but also how does this impact… millions? It’s about also my friend who has a 9-month-old child who doesn’t have any support here, and she won’t be able to exit the country to see her family. It’s about being landless. In summer I’m planning to go home. If something happens, I told my husband, I won’t be coming back here. I would rather deal with – it’s basically the same politics, as of now – and be with my family.  Being here, what am I gaining really, at this point? I’m still struggling with all these questions and ideas now. It’s still shocking.

Knife, installation view
CR: How will this shape the kind of work you put out into the world?

Soheila: I was interviewed for a year-long residency, and they wanted me to propose a project. I could not not think about what is happening now, and the place of Muslims in this country. I’m thinking of using fabric and glass, different densities of mirror – so in some places there will be crisp mirror where you see yourself, and others will be mirror where you can see through it, and drawing inspiration from Islamic patterns –- turning them into a quilt that is made from glass. People will be seeing themselves and seeing the other simultaneously.

I haven’t exhibited my work in Iran because of restrictions there, and because I talk about religion in
my work. My work situates itself on this edge that could fall on either side, and that could become really dangerous for me. When I go to Iran, I take down my website. I take any documentation of my work off my laptop, I just empty it out. I don’t want to risk anything. All my family lives there and I have to be able to go back. I’ve been away for fourteen years now, and at that point I was not making socially engaged art. I’m really hesitant to do that in Iran. On the first page of my website,  the image is sort of separating me from the viewer but also it says “this website is highly censored.” Highly public, highly private. 

I had never thought about reaching out to Muslim communities, which I was told I should – but for the first time I told my husband “I think I should do this.” So for the first time I am. I am working on a music video with my collaborator Liz Cambron, called Hijabi Mermaids, going back to this situation in France, where the government said you may not go to the beach and wear this thing [Hijab]. I started writing the lyrics and we are working with a musician in Ohio. The other thing was another music video called Witch Hunt which we made in 2015. When the Muslim ban happened we decided to upload it to Youtube and make it public as a way to protest the current loss.

CR: Has the current situation changed your relationship with the religion?

Soheila: It hasn’t changed anything. My practice is about raising the question of what happens when we separate people based on their sex and their race, which is the result of religion. In grad school what became very frustrating for many people is that I keep them in this space where I don’t say it’s a bad thing or a good thing – and for many people who were anti-religion, they were really frustrated by it. I was saying “I actually identify as a Muslim and hey, this is what it was like for me growing up, and it wasn’t too bad for me. It was bad for certain things you see on TV, but there are things that you don’t know about. Let me introduce you to those realities”. I think my work was actually more for religion than against it. It still has backlash, especially from Muslim-born people who do not identify as Muslim anymore. They absolutely hate the work -- they think that I beautify being Muslim. My work is more about creating spaces where dialogue happens – about sex, race… religion has always been a part of it. And the new work is creating a space where we can talk about motherhood.

Artist is on Maternity Leave, installation view
CR: Your recent piece, Artist is on Maternity Leave, was a manifesto installed on the floor of a group exhibition, with a spotlight to hold the space. Could you talk about how that expands on these ideas?

Soheila: This time I’ve placed myself within the work. Oftentimes before I would create spaces and then exit from them, which allowed for conversations for and against the whole idea. But for the first time I realized that this work was really personal. So yes, there was this space I was holding within the gallery – because I had to do that to survive as an artist and a mother…and for my child. The way I held the space was through my manifesto. It talks about how my identity now is torn between being an artist and a mother, and now my first priority is my child, Before it was my work, and where does that place me now? I was forced… to push people away to keep my space within the art world. Recently I was offered the chance to teach two classes at the School of the Art Institute. I had waited for one year for that offer.  I worked hard for it, but I had to turn it down because I was pregnant. I went to a few meetings without having any contract, so that they don’t forget me. I felt like I’m battling with the world, with all the people in front of me. So in Artist is on Maternity Leave, I was holding my “space”.

CR: You wrote about the experience of watching visitors pass over the piece without seeing it. You didn’t put the manifesto on a pedestal, or on a wall: you put it on the floor. It seems an apt metaphor for the lack of visibility many women artists find on having a child.

Mother is Present, detail from Skype performance
Soheila: Yes, I was talking about being a mother and an artist and finding your space within the artwork literally and metaphorically. At the opening, people came up to me and they’d say “I see your name here, but I didn’t see your work.” So they had to go back again to that part of the gallery to see it. This happened to almost all of my friends who came to see the work. A week ago, I went to the gallery and I realized that most of the text was ripped off, which showed that people literally walked over my work. It was black vinyl on gray floor, and there’s the light that hits that spot. So it’s hard to miss it. But they missed it. I know that happens within galleries. I thought, okay, this goes parallel to my idea of being unnoticed as a mother artist.

One week afterwards I was scheduled to do a Skype performance. Skype is very much a part of my practice, and now, being a Mom – I mean, we are Skyping now, and it’s great. So I wanted to do the Skype performance, and the day of they said, “We need to cancel. We have things happening here.“ I knew that they hadn’t even advertised for my performance ahead of time, where they usually do when a performance happens in that space. The work was called Mother is Present, drawing inspiration from Marina Abramovic’s work, The Artist is present. Basically they would be able to see me interacting with my child the whole time, without me being able to interact with the audience. I had to push for it, and one week later they said they had to reschedule. So we rescheduled. And again, it was supposed to happen on Saturday, and on Friday at 3pm I said, “are you not going to advertise this at all?” And they said “Yes, we will do it,” and finally Friday night it seems they did advertise it. I see that I have to push for this. I have to say “You must realize that this is an artwork, even if you don’t see it as art.” Later on, the person who runs the space said “why didn’t you come here with your child and do the piece here?” Which would have been a completely different piece. I was thinking about the space of home and the space of the gallery, and the space of being a mother and the space of being an artist, bringing those two spaces together. So I thought, “Maybe you guys fell short and now you’re thinking about changing my piece.” I was not expecting that from them. With performance art, whatever happens becomes part of the work. So they could have added to the piece by responding like that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Interview: Aram Han Sifuentes

For artist, writer, and curator Aram Han Sifuentes, needle and thread are a political tool, connecting the material labor of sewing with a social and performative practice to activate the cultural histories of immigrant communities. This approach was never clearer than in her recent solo exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition, where she chose to highlight the work of her mother, Younghye Han, an artist who set aside her painting practice for a steady job when the family moved to the US from South Korea more than two decades ago. Younghye returned to drawing and painting after the birth of Aram’s own daughter last year. Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share interviews with both artists.  You can find Aram’s interview with her mother here.

Aram Han Sifuentes’ work has been exhibited widely in the US and internationally, including recent projects for the Chung Young Yang Embroidery Museum (Seoul, South Korea), the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL) and the Elmhurst Art Museum (Elmhurst, IL). She the recipient of numerous awards, most recently including a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship and a public residency through the Chicago Cultural Center. Her current project, ​The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can't, is a massive multi-site collaboration with artists and activists in fifteen cities across the US and Mexico, commissioned by Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull House Museum.  

Cultural ReProducers: Briefly describe your daughter in your own words.  

Aram Han Sifuentes: My daughter, Nara Han Sifuentes, is 15 months old. She is a beautiful Chicana Coreana or Mexorean aka multiculticutie. It’s been such a joy watching her grow and to figure herself and the world out. She does new things every day and I am just astounded and floored over and over again. Today she learned how to squeeze her bath toys and aim the water coming out of them at my face. She was very serious for the first year but lately she is so silly and playful. She often wakes up in the morning singing, waking us up with kisses, clapping, and asking for her favorite cartoon “Pororo”. She doesn’t say “umma” (mom) much but she says Pororo all the time. She also loves giving all her stuff toys kisses.

Younghye Han: My Mother's First Exhibition, installation view
CR: In the project Younghye Han: My Mother’s First Exhibition you present this beautifully complex cycle of intergenerational influence, starting with your mother as a young artist in Korea whose creative aspirations shifted in moving to the United States. There is a circling back through your own creative practice and the birth of your daughter. How did this project come together?

Aram: As a part of my Bolt Residency at Chicago Artist Coalition, I had an opportunity for a solo exhibition in the Summer of 2016. In 2015 after the birth of my daughter, my mom started drawing and painting again for the first time in 22 years. She used to be an artist in Korea and even ran her own art center. When we came to the United States in 1992, she started two drawings and one painting which never got completed. After our first year in the United States my parents took employment at a dry cleaners and later came to own their own, where my mom became and still works as the seamstress. They work 70 hour weeks so there is no time for anything else.

Younghye Han, Nara on a Pillow, 2016
But they recently had hired someone to help them out part time and my mom started to create
wonderful portraits of Nara at the cleaners. My mom lives in California, and Nara and I Facetime her every day. She was showing us these beautiful new drawings and paintings with such pride. I was thinking through what I wanted to do for my solo exhibition and it dawned on me one day that it would be so great if my mom could show her work. So I asked her if she wanted her own solo show. She didn’t answer me right away. She actually freaked out a bit. She told me the idea stressed her out, but then she agreed. When we moved to the United States, my mom only salvaged and brought over three paintings that she made in the 80s. I told her I wanted to exhibit these as well.

I had never forgotten about those two drawings and that one painting she started in our first year in the U.S. but never finished. Those actually sat in my room for a long time while I was growing up. I’d stare at them all the time, wondering when my mother would ever return to them. I asked her if she wanted to continue them but she told me she wasn’t interested. They weren’t her style anymore. So I asked her if I could complete them in some way and include them in the exhibition. She was excited by the idea and that’s also how they became included in the exhibition.

CR: You address questions of cultural identity in your artistic practice, examining family traditions as well as the assumptions and barriers you find there. This is an important part of the work of your husband, Roberto Sifuentes, as well. How does this process of questioning, celebrating, and re-articulating spill over into the messy business of parenting, or family in general?

Nara has already lived one month of her life in Korea and one month of her life in Mexico! We also speak to Nara in English, Korean, and Spanish. I usually speak to her in Korean, and Roberto in English. Then we both mix in Spanish whenever we feel like it. I speak Spanish pretty badly and studied a lot of Portuguese in college so I’m always making words up. Roberto also attempts to speak Korean and then mixes Spanish into it all the time. So it never makes sense. So at home, we are definitely on our way into creating a hybrid language called Konglishñol. But we don’t ever understand what each other is saying. We also do this with food. We are working on a cook book called Korean Today, Mexican Tomorrow because I’ll cook Korean for dinner then the next morning Roberto likes to turn the leftovers into something Mexican. It transitions amazingly well. I think this is the way we both approach our cultural identities- we revere and love them but then really enjoy messing and riffing off of them. And we parent in this way. I Tiger Mom when I want to but then let her eat a bunch of chocolate and not brush her teeth at night when I feel like it.

Nara revisits artist William Pope L.'s performance, The Great White Way.
CR: So what was your process like for returning to a creative practice after having a newborn? What has been the most challenging and most rewarding, at this stage in things?

Aram: I had two exhibitions and performances back to back in different states three weeks after her birth. It was hard. I’ve been incredibly busy this past 15 months with amazing opportunities. I must say I have been much more active in my career than I was before Nara was born. Nara and my career taking momentum happened at the same time. It definitely hasn’t been easy. As Nara gets older, she gets more and more active, which means I get to do much less work while she’s awake. She slams her hands on my keyboard when my computer is open and there is no way I can do any hand sewing while she’s around. She would definitely grab for the needle. She isn’t much of napper but luckily sleeps well at night (8 hours). So the biggest challenge for me right now is that I can only work when she is sleeping, which also means I sleep a lot less. I’m one of those people who needs 10 hours of sleep a night so this has been really hard for me. The most rewarding is that it’s been fun for my career to grow at the same time as Nara. I try to take her to everything and she gets to witness it and be a part of it all. In this way, she sees different parts of the world and gets to meet all sorts of exciting people. I’m very lucky as well that Roberto is really supportive and takes care of Nara often while I install an exhibition or leave for a week to do a visiting artist gig, and etc.

CR: How has becoming a mother affected your relationship with the art world? In imagining an ideal creative community, what alternative structures or attitude shifts would be part of that?

Aram: I think overall I’ve become bolder in the world. I have more battles to fight and things feel more urgent and pressing because I don’t want things just to change for me, but I need them to change for my daughter. My relationship with the art world is the same. The art world needs more people of color and to represent us in all our complexities.

Official Unofficial Voting Station's Vox Pop: The Disco Party in collaboration
with Lise Haller Baggesen and Soundscapes by DJ Sadie Rock
 CR: Can you talk about what you’re working on now, and what’s on the horizon?

Official Unofficial Voting Station in Tijuana by collaborators Cecilia Aguilar
Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña
Aram: I currently have a solo exhibition at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum called The Official Unofficial Voting Station: Voting for All Who Legally Can’t. During this polarizing election season, I am working with 15 artists and radical thinkers all over the United States and in Mexico to create voting stations that are open to all, but particularly for the disenfranchised. There are at least 106 million people who live in the United States and its territories who are disenfranchised. These groups include: youth, non-citizens, incarcerated, ex-felons (depending on the state), residents of U.S. territories, and those without proper IDs (also, depending on the state). To engage the various communities of the disenfranchised, all of these stations take on different form depending on the collaborator. They range from participatory public artworks to radical performances to pedagogical tools. For example, my collaborators in Mexico City, Tijuana, and Acapulco, Cecilia Aguilar Castillo and Erick Fernández Saldaña, created a station where participants voted with fake blood then drilled screws and Mexican flags into styrofoam heads of Trump and Hillary to vote against them. On November 8th we will have a big public program at the Hull-House from 1-5pm where DJ Sadie Rock will be playing music, and Yvette Mayorga and I will be facilitating a workshop where the public helps us to build a piñata wall. When the wall is complete, the public is invited to help bash it. That evening, from 6-7pm on Nov. 8th, Roberto Sifuentes, DJ Sadie Rock, and I will be performing and asking the public to fill out ballots at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. All the ballots come from and are counted at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. After Nov. 8th the installation at the Hull-House then turns into a suggestion station and is on exhibit until the end of April.

After this project, I’m interested in gestures of mass voting that can happen across borders. I will be focusing on doing Official Unofficial Voting Stations in the United States for Korea’s 2017 Presidential Elections and Mexico’s 2018 Presidential Elections.

Nara casting her ballot at the Official Unofficial Voting Station

Interview With My Mother, Younghye Han

Younghye Han received her BFA in Traditional Ink Painting from Ewha Woman’s University and ran her own painting and drawing academy for children for five years in Seoul, South Korea.  She has been working as a seamstress and running Mainz Dry Cleaners in Manteca, CA with her husband for more than 20 years. She recently had her first exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition in collaboration with her daughter, Aram Han Sifuentes, an artist who combines fiber art with social practice to engage labor, cultural history, and immigrant communities. Cultural ReProducers is honored to present conversations with both artists, a testament to the intergenerational creative impact of mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. 

You can find our interview with Aram Han Sifuentes here. The interview below was conducted as part of the exhibition Younghye Han: My Mother’s First Exhibition, and begins with an introduction Aram wrote for the show: 

Younghye Han, Nara on a Pillow, 2016
My family immigrated to the United States in 1992. A trained artist in Korea, Younghye Han left that behind and has spent the last 24 years, working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, as a seamstress and running her own dry cleaning business in Manteca, California. It has been 24 years since her last painting. Inspired by the birth of her first granddaughter in 2015, she began drawing and painting again. This is my mother’s first exhibition. It features her works made in Korea, her most recent pieces, and my responses to her last unfinished drawings made in the first year we immigrated to the United States. 

These are the questions I’ve asked my mother. Some of these are questions I’ve asked again and again throughout my life and the answers have changed and evolved throughout the years, further complicating my mother’s story. Some of these are questions I’ve never had the courage to ask her before. This interview was translated from Korean.  

Aram: How did you decide to become an artist?

When I was seven or eight years old, I found out about an art contest at my elementary school. I went home and told my sister who yelled at me and told me to get money from our parents to apply. So I was crying when I asked my parents. They gave me the money and I went to school after hours to apply. This was my first time I participated in an art contest but I won a big prize. From then on I applied every year and continued to win big prizes. Later on I asked my sister why she yelled at me to apply. She said that she would see me draw and I didn’t draw like other kids my age. They would draw stick figures but I wouldn’t. She said I drew high heels particularly well and saw that I had talent. My sister wanted to study theater and our parents were opposed to it and didn’t let her pursue it. Then in high school our family went bankrupt and I wanted to go to college. I knew that artists wouldn’t be able to make much money straight out of school. So I was deciding whether or not to go into art or to go into nursing. Even though it would be hard, I decided to go into art. So I took the tests and got into art schools. My mother wished I wouldn’t pass. She didn’t even believe it when I passed the tests.

Aram: Why did you decide to move our family to the United States?

Younghye: Even though your father and I received our education from very good universities, our English wasn’t very good. So we thought that you and your sister could do anything if you knew English well. This is why we decided to move to the U.S.

Aram: What type of job did you think you would work in the U.S?

Younghye: I knew it would be difficult. But I just wanted you and your sister to learn English. Then you both would be able to do anything and get any type of good paying job. I didn’t think about myself so I didn’t know what type of work I would do. I just thought about your future. My parents weren’t able to help me so I wanted to make sure that I could help you both in any way.

Aram: You didn’t think about it?

Younghye: I thought that if other people could do find work and make it in the U.S., then I could do it too.

Younghye Han, Nara Sitting, 2016
Aram: Why a dry cleaners?

Younghye: When we came here, it seemed that the only jobs available to us were to run a liquor
store, ice cream shop, or dry cleaners. We didn’t want to work at a liquor store because during this time the LA riots were happening and they were targeted so we decided not to go that route. And I can do anything with my hands. I knew how to sew already and thought that working at a dry cleaners would be easier.

Aram: Did you think you would be able to practice art here?

Younghye: I knew that I would make art again at some point in my life before I die. It was too hard working at the cleaners. I gave up even though my mind was there and I thought about it often. But when I saw Nara, I started to make art again because I felt so inspired.

Aram: How did you feel about me becoming an artist?

Younghye: Now I feel happy about it. At first I was so worried. It is not an easy job and there is no stability. I know since I was an artist. It was so hard for me so I didn’t want that for you. It is too hard. Now that I have worked too hard for many years, I’ve lost my happiness. While raising you two and working so hard, my life and happiness has become lost. Now I am thankful toward you. Through you I was able to find my art again. You Facetime me every day so I can see Nara and you talk to me in Korean. I always thought that if you are kind, then life will be good to you. I gave up on this but this has come to me suddenly.

Aram Han Sifuentes, Mom’s Drawings of Roses (1992) Encased, 2016, Mulberry paper and wax

Friday, October 21, 2016

Events: Multimedia Time Machine, Family + Friends

Multimedia Time Machine
Saturday, October 22, 2016
10 AM - 12 PM
Gallery 400
400 S Peoria Street, Chicago

For a lot of us, 'family' events are a whole lot more interesting when they're not designed just for children. That's why Cultural ReProducers is partnering with Gallery 400 to present Multimedia Time Machine, a truly intergenerational workshop and live video performance next Saturday, October 22nd. Bring your kids, your parents, your college students, and yourself for a collaborative live animation with artists and musicians Ben LaMar, Selina Trepp, and Christa Donner. We'll transform Gallery 400 into a multimedia time machine using electronic and acoustic sound, overhead projectors, shadow forms, and transparent materials to create layers of past and the future. The resulting projection and soundtrack will be documented as a realtime video collaboration.

Families and Friends Matinee Series
Sunday, Oct. 23rd, Nov. 20th, and Dec. 17th 
12 PM - 2 PM


2200 North California Ave, Chicago

If you'd rather enjoy live music than make it yourself, check out Township's live concert series for all ages, continuing its second season thanks to musician, artist, and father Thomas Comerford, who started organizing the series for Township in the Spring. Families and Friends Matinee Series kicks off for Fall on Sunday, October 23rd, with the trancey, visual electronica of Spectralina and openers Son Monarcas, who combine Mexican roots with South American cumbia and tango. Bonus: you can order some excellent food from the Township kitchen if kids get hungry between sets. I'm pretty sure the cover is still $10 per family. Here's their full Fall lineup:

10/23, #7: Spectralina + Son Monarcas, noon
11/20, #8: Glass Mountain + Girls of the Golden West, noon
12/17, #9: Tselanie Townsend + Wes Hollywood, noon

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview: Jess Dobkin

Jess Dobkin, The Magic Hour (photo: David Hawe)
Canadian artist Jess Dobkin has earned acclaim for her boundary-pushing performance work, drawing from queer identity, personal narrative, and the female body. The first time I had the chance see her perform in person was this past Spring, as part of the exhibition New Maternalisms Redux at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, and the weekend-long colloquium that followed. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was also the first time her daughter, Yael, was a part of the audience too. It’s been eleven years since Jess became a single mother, and while she has performed around the world she now focuses much of her considerable creative energy within the vibrant arts scene of Toronto, where she lives with her daughter and partner. We caught up recently for a candid conversation about the challenges and choices in raising a child while taking on provocative content in her work, and the practicalities of parenthood in an increasingly professionalized art world.

Interview by Christa Donner

Cultural ReProducers: I'll start off by asking you to briefly describe your daughter in your own words.

Jess Dobkin: My daughter’s name is Yael and she’s eleven. It’s already an interesting question for me in terms of describing her and how she might define herself, the ways I set up boundaries of when and how I talk about her, and the hesitance I have about having her image up on the interwebs and such. I find I’m protective of her identity in a way that’s almost kind of a … joke in these times, as if any of our identities can be sheltered from an online presence. But in terms of how I would describe her, she’s… just very “Yael” (laughter).  She has her own Yael ways about her. I’d say that she is a pretty sensitive, intuitive person, and she’s a Gemini. But it is funny to me how I overthink this. I can also answer your question by simply saying, "She loves reading, math, ballet, and all things Hogwarts."

Cultural ReProducers: Your performance work often deals with pretty challenging, and sexually explicit content. How do you talk about what you do with your daughter? And related to that sense of protectiveness you just talked about, how does that conversation change as she gets older and more connected to the internet?

Jess: Yeah, it’s funny because it is changing. I knew there would come the day when she would learn how to use Google Image search. Like a lot of things with parenting, conversations happen so gradually, and organically… it’s not like you suddenly sit down and have ‘The Conversation’ about sex or drugs or like, “where did I come from?” It’s an unfolding process of integration depending on their age and what they’re ready to absorb -- and that has definitely been true around discussing my work. When I was growing up, the boundaries in my childhood were so… murky, that if anything If anything, I feel like I’ve kind of swung the other way to set clear boundaries and protection around sensitive issues and images.

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (David Hawe)
I’m so aware that everything is now an archive - even this interview is an archive in the making. It might be something that Yael doesn’t read now, but all information is just being compiled into the burden of our archives, where there really are no closets anymore, and your audience isn’t just looking at news of the now. There’s this sense of performing all the time, and that information is always accessible. Sometimes I’m future-thinking. I'm in the present moment but considering,“is this something she will access later?”

But as she’s getting older and with the mix and mingle of my art life and my home life she is learning more about the content of my work. So much of my work comes out of my own lived experience, so she’s also learning about who I am and my history and communities. I’m really enjoying being able to share that with her. And because I’m her mom, anything I do is embarrassing to her. We’ll be in the car and I’ll be singing a Joni Mitchell song and it’s so embarrassing. I can just be walking down the street with her and I’m so embarrassing, so I’m like, “oh my gosh… it turns out I might be a really embarrassing mom.” (laughter)

"There's all the energy and focus on the making of the artwork, but there’s also the work of figuring out grocery shopping and laundry and childcare and getting her to her piano lessons! That invisible production that’s always going on... the production of parenting."

CR: So on that note, I was thinking about your Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar, which came directly out of your experience of motherhood. Could you say a little bit about that piece for those who aren’t so familiar with the project?

When I first imagined the piece it was when I was pregnant with Yael. The concept was that it was going to be a breast milk tasting bar, and it would be my own breast milk and the milk of other new parents who were lactating. But when Yael was born I did not have success with breastfeeding, which is its own story - a story that is kind of woven into the performance. I had to find donors who would donate their milk for the performance, and these donor relationships became integral to the project. As part of the piece I interview the donors while I’m collecting their milk, asking them about their experience of breastfeeding, about their diet, about if they’ve tasted their milk, and if so, what they think it tastes like. And then as part of the performance I impart that information to the audience as they are sampling the milk.

CR: It’s an amazing piece to experience. I was lucky to be in the same audience with your daughter when you performed it at New Maternalisms Redux. I know you’re both pretty removed from breastfeeding at this point, but I’m so curious how it was for both of you to have her to participate … and if there were any interesting conversations that came up.

It was such a pleasure to have her there, because she hadn’t really had the opportunity to see much of my work before. Part of what feels challenging for me about having Yael present at a performance isn’t always about the content of the work but in my energy as a parent and as an artist. Bringing her to Edmonton was an experiment for me, because I find it really challenging to balance those two identities,  and to focus. So even at a gathering that was all about art and motherhood where we were digging into those particular issues, on the sidelines I was trying to just manage these different energies, these two different parts of myself.

In terms of what conversations she and I had, some of that happened as I was preparing for the performance, and speaking to her questions about our shared experience of her as a baby. It's exciting to have kids participate in that performance because of their perspective and their language, and how they are closer to the experience of being a baby. I’m always curious about how they relate to it, how they consider and frame the same things that we’re considering.

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (David Hawe)

CR: Who have been your role models for artist parenting or parent artisting?

Some of that I find among my peers. I feel lucky in Toronto to know so many queer parents -- and not necessarily just artists. When Yael was a baby, a few of us started this queer single mamas group that met quite regularly for a few years. The women in that group really inspired and encouraged me. Single parenting presented a particular set of issues and questions and challenges, so I found a lot of inspiration and support from knowing other fantastic, creative amazing women doing that. I also know some artists here in Toronto who have grown kids, and it’s been really important just knowing that they are still practicing artists who’ve managed to find themselves on the other side of that, having more time and autonomy and energy for their practices. As Yael grows I am finding those things getting easier… I mean, do you find that too? That balance of … I do feel like my art practice is another kid, where it’s this thing that I want to put time into and nurture and be with. There are times when there’s a synergy there, and other times it feels competing. It’s such a paradox of how parenting has really inspired my art practice, and then also in some ways it has made it very challenging, just in terms of my time and energy and resources. … eugh!

The Artist-Run Newsstand, Newsies the Musical (Nathan Hoo)
CR: It’s so incredibly complicated! Well, and to expand on that you have this intense performance practice that means you have to create, rehearse, and travel a lot… I’m sure there are things I’m leaving something off that list. You’ve somehow done all this mostly as a single mother. How have you made that work? 
The Artist-Run Newsstand, Safe Space Exhibition by Cecilia Berkovic and
Karen Frostitution (photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

Jess: It has been challenging, and I still feel the frustration that ‘the village’ isn’t there. In some
ways yes, people have networks of support, but I am also aware that it’s not really like … we’re not living on the kibbutz or within a communal structure or something. I think for me as a parent there have been times that it’s been very frustrating. I try to frame it as it being my choice: I choose not to do certain things because I am choosing to parent. And while that means that I’m not in a position to apply for some opportunities or attend events or have a more expansive social life, I remind myself that I am very content in the things that I am doing. It has certainly limited my traveling and… yeah. But being a parent has also connected me to these incredible creative spaces and so many fantastic folks, and it’s been really, really wonderful.

This past year with the Artist-Run Newsstand project, part of that was to do something that was really local. Like, okay – at this point in my life I’m not really in a position to be traveling around a lot, and I'm questioning my artist carbon footprint. I have to ask when and why I choose to travel with my work. Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not a priority. So it felt good to act locally and to do this project in my neighborhood, something that Yael was often a part of, a place where she could stop by and hang out – was really a working solution for me this past year.

When Yael was younger and I would travel to perform... There’s the production of the performance, but then there’s always the other "production" of parenting. I still feel that now. I’m doing a long-term artist residency at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, where I’ll be performing for two weeks in January. I’m already trying to sort out many months ahead what that will mean for Yael and her care during the run of the show when I’ll be performing each night. So there's all the energy and focus on the making of the artwork, but there’s also the work of figuring out grocery shopping and laundry and childcare and getting her to her piano lessons! That invisible production that’s always going on – the production of parenting.

CR: If you were to imagine your ideal creative community, or maybe community in general – what do you feel like needs to change to make the art world a more inclusive context for artists who are raising kids?

Oh my goodness, I think childcare for starters, not just for artists, but the world needs inspired and affordable childcare. People have asked me about bringing Yael to the piece I’m working on now and I’m like “Oh, no. This piece is NOT for children.” I don’t believe that kids belong everywhere -- there need to be adult-only spaces. But so many things need to change. The horrible misogyny in the world. When I became a mom I felt the inheritance of this whole other form of woman-hatred. Already as a woman artist feeling like my work is not taken seriously, but being a mom? Ugh. I think attitudes absolutely need to change. The understanding of the labor of parenthood needs to change, the valuing of what that is, what that requires.

CR: So you just finished the Artist-Run Newsstand project, and you mentioned this residency with the Theatre Centre. What are you working on now? 

The Magic Hour (photo: David Hawe)
Jess: The newsstand was envisioned as a one-year project. It ended in May, and there was a question
of whether it would continue, which then brought up these interesting questions of “When is something over? When do you move on?” I see this with festivals and even artist-run centres -- sometimes there’s this real need to question the expectation that something continue -- knowing when it’s time to take what’s learned and transform that energy into the next thing.

I’m working on a couple other things right now, one of which is this performance called The Magic Hour that’ll premiere in January at The Theatre Centre. By the time it’s presented I will have been developing it for almost three years. It’s been such a pleasure to have that span of time to develop a work, mostly due to support from The Theatre Centre. The piece is not about parenting, it’s not about Yael, but the experience of having her certainly has informed the work. Even though it’s not a piece she’s going to see anytime soon, she is seeing props and elements of it because it’s all here in our home… like the tiger head she was trying on this morning before school.

I’ve also been co-curating a project called MONOMYTHS with Shannon Cochran, who’s a performance artist and the director of FADO, an artist-run centre here in Toronto. It’s a year-long curated project of fourteen stages, a feminist revisioning of The Hero’s Journey. Not everyone presenting these stages necessarily identifies as a performance artist – one person did a lecture, and one offered an arts and activism workshop, so they’re all taking on these different forms, partly to raise questions about what constitutes a performance, and this interest in where performance art butts up against a larger narrative structure, to see what that brings. For me the project has also been about performance art as something that’s recently been more integrated into the mainstream capitalist art market system, and along with that, seeing this kind of lone hero, art star mentality. In my mind performance art is so much more about collectivity and community, and a practice of resistance and rebellion -- and a sort of interdependence, too. We’re looking at the exquisite corpse structure for MONOMYTHS, where each presentation impacts the others, and there is this connectedness among them. It’s not like a festival where one person presents their work and then this other person presents -- though even in those structures, whatever one person offers, it ripples and impacts our experience of the other things we’re seeing. I’m interested in all of that right now.

CR: That also seems like a metaphor for family, the way you just described it. It’s not like these characters operate as completely separate entities.

Jess: Yeah, that’s so interesting, these questions of how we might all be connected. One of the things I found to be so affirming and sustaining about the event in Edmonton was to have the opportunity to meet up with other people and find these points of connection. Yael had the time of her life there because of meeting Chloe [daughter of participating artist Courtney Kessel]. It was so cool for her to meet another kid of a performance artist. Not many of her friends in Toronto have moms who are, you know, lesbian performance artists (laughter). One thing that was so great about the queer single mamas group was that it was also a space for the kids to hang out. It was so valuable for Yael to be with other kids of queer single moms, to have that shared recognition. And Edmonton was an important experience for Yael to be around other mom artists. It gave her a frame of reference.

Yael behind the counter at the Artist-Run Newsstand closing party. Exhibition by Zanette Singh (photo: Tania Anderson)