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?

Aram:
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?

Younghye:
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

Township

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?

Jess:
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.

Jess:
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?

Jess:
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?

Jess:
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)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Who Cares for Whom? Parenthood in the Creative Community

Alberto Aguilar, Rest Area (Museo Picasso Barcelona), 2011

The Atlantic magazine has just bafflingly proclaimed the arts “A Field Where Working Moms Aren’t Punished” just a few months after New York Magazine published Kim Brooks’ essay with the provocative tagline “Is Parenthood the Enemy of Creative Work?” (a subtitle that was recently amended.) While many of us would be hard pressed to describe the arts as a supportive field from which to combine family and career, we also resist the long-held belief that the two are incompatible. Parenthood can be profound and generative. It can also, let’s be honest, be incredibly complicated to pursue a creative career while raising a family. It is also difficult to maintain an artistic practice while coping with a serious health concern, caring for an aging parent, dealing with political oppression, or any of the other situations that intersect our lives as human beings who make art.  Yet some of the most powerful art ever made has come from those living in the thick of challenging experiences.

Courtney Kessel, In Balance With, 2010
Unlike other professions, artmaking often happens in the (unpaid) time between other responsibilities, which means it’s the first thing to be pushed aside when any semblance of free time disappears. But here’s where being creative comes in. Eventually, when we’re ready, we invent new systems of production, we adapt creative practices to work in short bursts instead of long hours, we call on friends and family for help. We think and read and plan for a time when we’ll have more time.

So the making, it will happen. But what to do when we find ourselves excluded from artist residencies or dropped by galleries at the mention of small children? Or more subtly, when we find vast numbers of cultural events inaccessible once we’ve created another person, or come to take care of one? Why should this isolate us so profoundly from our artistic communities?

One response to structural and social problems is to work collectively. This has led to a growing number of projects including Enemies of Good Art (UK), the Mothership Project (IR), Broodwork (USA), (m)other voices (NL), Home Affairs (USA) Invisible Spaces of Parenthood (UK), and Cultural ReProducers (USA), a creative platform I have run since 2012. These groups create an important solidarity and a critical mass.  But reaching out can be daunting when you’re juggling personal and professional responsibilities on a whole new level.

GOING PUBLIC AS A PARENT

Creating systems of support can also happen one artist at a time. There’s plenty we can do as individuals that adds up to better conditions for all artists. On the surface there might seem to be few models for art world success for anyone raising a child. The autonomous (male) genius working late into the night is a pervasive ideal, even as diverse collaborative and social practices flourish.  Women have often kept their personal lives undercover to be taken seriously as artists, so while many have also been mothers, you’d never know without some digging. In an increasingly professionalized art scene it might still seem inappropriate to bring up family if it’s not the focus of your work. But owning our roles as artists raising children can shift assumptions and create space for parenthood as one of many possible options. Many of these ideas focus specifically on mothers or parents in general, but it should go without saying here that similar tactics can be applied to include the voices of other groups as well.

Sonja Thomsen, Trace of Possibility (installation view), 2013
* Mention parenthood during an artist talk. A few brief words on the challenges of reconfiguring studio time or seeing things from a new perspective can have a profound impact, making parenthood seem possible, realistic, and visible. While it is typically less damaging to the reputations of male-identified artists, it’s still rare to hear a father discuss his role as caregiver. Parental roles are changing, and these conversations matter.

* Acknowledge the impact of raising a child when applying for residencies and funding where it’s relevant. When they’re writing proposals, the performative duo Spectralina (Selina Trepp & Dan Bitney) put it this way:

We are committed to being creative and engaged with the world while making sure that this includes our daughter. Having her in our life influences our outlook and thus also our creative output. Our art is inspired by our reality, as most art is. We see her inclusion in our creative life as a cultural and political position. It is important that what is represented in the culture industry isn’t limited to the experience of single people; or to people who can afford and want a nanny; or to men who have wives who take care of their kids in the background. Art should be at the forefront of social change, and in that capacity it should offer models which allow for artist families to be visible and supported.

* Depending on timing and temperament, bring the kids to art events usually populated exclusively by adults. This can be far more stressful than staying home or digging into the budget for a sitter, but under the right circumstances it can benefit everyone involved. If you have a friend with kids (or a friend who likes kids), see if you can take turns to share the experience with family but still connect with other adults.

Sonia Delaunay, Couverture de Berceau, 1911
courtesy of the artist and Musée d'Art Moderne
* Know your foremothers, and reference them. Sonia Delaunay’s formative work of pure abstraction was a baby quilt made for her newborn son in 1911. Lea Lublin moved a crib into the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris to perform ‘mon Fils’ in 1968, caring for her seven-month-old son in public for the run of the exhibition. Housebound with a newborn, Candida Alvarez painted on linen napkins, a practice that still informs her vibrant work. Stories like these have been buried by years of taboo and gendered hierarchy. In her recent book Motherism, Lise Haller Baggesen calls for a repositioning of motherhood as a place of experience and indeed expertise, a valid point from which to speak:

What I am asking for here, I guess, is for mothers to occupy spaces and conversations within art and academia, to claim a voice, many voices, to speak within and against the canon, to reflect on the complexities of mothering and motherhood within that context.

* Reschedule. Timing is a practical barrier that can be hard to understand without the experience of early parenthood. The events through which an artist builds connections to their creative community – opening receptions, lectures, performances – almost always take place in the evening, in the midst of some precarious dinner-bedtime ritual. Last year I noticed several shows at prominent galleries in my city had openings scheduled for 2pm on a Saturday instead of the usual Friday night thing. Had the stars aligned? If so it was just because the exhibiting artists asked for a time that worked better for them. For at least one, it was so that his partner and two young children could join him for the event.

* Reconfigure. Beyond scheduling, there are other ways to make art spaces accessible to participants of all ages. The Ottawa Art Gallery recently announced it will pilot free childcare at art openings this year. Plug Projects in Kansas City, MO, sets aside a quiet, informal space in back with markers and coloring books so that parents can nurse or chat while their overstimulated kids take a break from the crowded intensity of the opening. This is also the room where the cold drinks are kept, so everyone passes through at least once. It’s a simple fix that can lower everyone’s blood pressure and allow people with different needs to participate.

* Ask what you’ll be paid. The question of how to financially sustain our creative lives is an issue
that affects all artists. When an artist is invited to do a visiting artist lecture or develop a new project, they're not doing it for ‘free’ if they have to pay a childcare provider or negotiate with a family member. Setting guidelines for compensation not only helps to support one's own work, it helps set a precedent for treating other artists fairly. Be specific and ask if there’s money to help cover childcare or production costs. By asking, you’ve made that part of the equation visible. 

Many of us also work with artist-run spaces that have no budget to speak of, run by creative people who are happy to support artists in other ways. While artist fees are sometimes just not possible, some spaces can offer professional photo or video documentation, while others might have part of an apartment to house your family out of town, or give access to specialized equipment.  Being clear about what we need and how we can support each other allows us to build stronger creative community.

For sliding scale fee calculators and other great resources for artists and art spaces visit CARFAC (Canada), W.A.G.E. (USA) , and Paying Artists (UK).  

 Christa Donner, grant proposal sketch for the Cultural ReProducers Event Series, 2013




 
Christa Donner is a multimedia artist who investigates the human/animal body and its metaphors. She is the founder of Cultural ReProducers. This essay is published in partnership with Temporary Art Review, an international platform for contemporary art criticism that focuses on alternative spaces and critical exchange among disparate art communities.