Monday, June 13, 2016

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home: an interview with Lena Šimić

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home protesting with UK Uncut in London, March 2011, photo: unknown protestor who was asked to take a snapshot

For artist / mother / academic / activist Lena Simic, art-activism and parenting are inextricably linked.  She and her family (partner Gary and children Sid, Neal, Gabriel and James) make up the artist initiative The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, which is based in their four-bedroom house in Anfield, UK.  Envisioned as a place where artists and activists can meet, study, protest, and perform, the Institute has hosted a number of events, residencies, and conversations since 2008. Their activities as an initiative are numerous and vary from participating in demonstrations to organizing reading groups to most recently presenting at the Playing It Up  Symposium at the Tate Modern in London.  In 2015 the Institute joined with 12 other families to form the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change.  The Institute joined with other members of the Network in North Wales this May for a performance including a reflection on The Paris Agreement on Climate change.  We are so grateful Lena was able to take sometime out of her very full schedule to share some of her thoughts on motherhood, art and activism.    

Lena and James at Time to Act Climate Protest
London, 2015. Photo: Gary Anderson

 Cultural ReProducers: As an artist, mother, and academic, in which areas do you face the most challenges, personally or professionally? Are there any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to maintain a creative practice while raising a family?

Lena Simic: I try to think of myself as artist / mother / academic / activist. My arts practice, activism, pedagogical and research work are all interconnected. The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home was set up in order to facilitate and name my and my partner Gary’s art-activist practice as well as our parenting practice. We are concerned to bring up our children critically and lovingly. This spills into our pedagogical work at university. As far as I can, I try to work across all of my roles/identities. However, I do find myself ‘having a break’ from one activity whilst doing another. I am currently on the train, having just been to examine a PhD practice element of a doctoral thesis which has to do with birth story telling and deep listening. I am away from the children, I miss them. I am still wrapped up in guilt for being away from them, but I am also grateful for this ‘time alone’ when I can be more focused and uninterrupted. I went for a run by the sea down the Aberystwyth promenade this morning and that felt like a real treat. My academic self allowed for this run. My personal life, if I choose to call it that as the Institute is about blurring the boundaries of the private and public and allowing them to infiltrate one another, is harder. Professional, institutional, academic life has its rules and regulations. No matter how committed you are to the role, you are on someone else’s time. You are a worker, and you are a member of a union, which gives you a sense of protection and security. Personal life is tougher. You are much less prepared for the challenges, which partnership and parental life throw upon you. The same can be said for friendships and artistic collaborations, with all their unpredictable demands. There are no rules, no guidelines, no contracts. Children are very demanding and in my case, having four of them, I also have to deal with the dynamics between them. They are each specifically positioned in our family, and therefore have very different needs and requirements of me, and their father, and each other. Family life is chaotic and erratic. Having our Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home helps us frame it, contain it and sustain it. The Institute is a foreign element, a shock/surprise/visitor/guest, who intervenes into our nuclear heteronormative unit and helps us be nicer and better and more accommodating. We act for it, with it.

As for advice to new parents who are artists, I would advise them not to be scared of having (more) children whilst young. There’s never a good time to have a baby. If you have them young, you will have more energy and fewer inhibitions. I loved having children in my 20s and just getting on with it. I grew up together with my children, and my career was always in line with my being a mother. There was no before the kids/after the kids divide in terms of my career as an artist. Having children has been transformative and the most creative thing I have ever done. Children and creativity are interconnected. You will have to learn to manage your time differently, but that’s a part of the experience. Embrace the challenge, enjoy it, work with it and all its ambivalence. And remember that you don’t have to do it all now.

Friday Records: A Document of Maternity Leave, 11122014
Photo: Lena Šimić
CR: How has the newest member of your family changed the structure or activities of your creative work?

Lena: James was born when I was 39. He is my last baby and he is my fourth boy. We tried for a girl, and instead we got another gorgeous, determined and strong-minded boy. Being the youngest (he’s now 2) he’s loud and willful; he needs to be heard amongst us all, he’s fighting for his position in the family. He’s just learnt to play us off each other – my dada, my mama. He understands his cute baby-boy power, probably not intellectually, but emotionally. James is our limit. He’s stretched us to the limit of what we are capable of as a family. We are beyond the comfortable now. Having two teenagers, a toddler and an 8 year old is hard work. Having four kids is on par with having one, I feel. Two and three was easier. That’s my experience. James brings us so much joy, intensity, love and chaos. It’s as demanding as it was at the beginning of parenthood – really intense.

James threw me back into my ‘maternal arts practice’. This was another chance at ‘doing-it-right this time’. With James I engaged in a blog project called Friday Records: A Document of Maternity Leave (2014). The project was year long, invisible and enjoyable in its loneliness. Even when I was recording my maternity leave online I never advertised it much. I wanted to experience it – semi-privately, semi-publicly. Now, once it’s finished, it’s a document. This was the development of a work I did with Sid, my third child, and which took the form of a journal, photographs and the text Contemplation Time: A Document of Maternity Leave (2007/2008).

I’ve noticed that, in the style of Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1977), many contemporary artists engage in a kind of durational maternal arts practice, for example Elena Marchevska, Helen Sargeant, Lenka Clayton, Lizzie Philps, Natalie Loveless, Paula McCloskey to name but a few. This arts practice contains a certain kind of ‘laboursome aesthetics’. We are all working so hard as mothers and artists, proving our creative work, intense, repetitive and everyday.

Medea/Mothers’ Clothes performance at Studio 12, Bratislava, 2016. photo: Jakub Čajko
Labour and repetition have always been present in my ‘maternal art’. When I first had Neal and Gabriel in the early 2000s, my arrival to ‘maternal arts practice’ was through the live art event Medea/Mothers’ Clothes (2004), in which I engage in the act of washing mothers’ clothes on stage in a baby bath. I juxtaposed Medea, the archetypal anti-mother with images of contemporary Liverpool mothers whom I photographed and who each gave me a piece of their clothing for the performance. I recently revived this performance in Bratislava, Slovakia – a jump from 2004, when it was made and my first two boys were 3 and 1, to 2016 when they are 15 and 13.

With James, I feel I am in a completely different stage now artistically. I am more interested in contextualizing, theorizing, writing, networking and organizing research events. Hitting my 40s has propelled me into a much more academic and facilitating – or should I say mothering or maternal – role.

The Institute boys, 2007 Photo: Gary Anderson
CR: Your practice exists in physical space that is expanded and disseminated online. As your sons get older has your approach to the virtual world of the internet changed?

Lena: I haven’t really thought about this much. When the Institute first started in 2007 and when we got out first website in 2008, the kids were 7, 5 and a few months. They weren’t using the internet at all. Now, all that has changed.  The Institute website is an important part of our identity, but the Institute has also thrived on being a real physical space where people meet, talk, perform, discuss, drink and have a domestic row. The children are happy with the online content of the Institute website and their representations on it, and at times I sense that they are kind of proud of the Institute, its difference and eccentric character. That changes all the time though.

As parents we try to emphasise ‘the now’ as opposed to an abstract ‘the future’, which can make you feel paranoid and overwhelmed. As technology advances we will find ourselves in different realities and in different human relations, but the Institute is interested in combating the immediate conditions and providing a living, breathing alternative. As things stand we haven’t really worried too much about face recognition software developments or any other spying/tracking devices, even when there’s a massive inquiry underway at the moment into unethical undercover policing techniques used by the British police force to infiltrate activist groups.  We are all less and less free and further restricted, but we live in the present and try not to obsess with the dystopian future. It’s so seductive to obsess about a bad future.

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

Lena: When we started I genuinely didn’t know many artist-parents as we were in our mid-twenties when we had babies. We were trying to make our careers as artists and trying to manage new responsibilities as parents. We didn’t really have any friends who were parents as well. We seemed to be the first ones with babies in our group of friends.

When we felt settled in Liverpool and started attending toddler groups, we found a new group of friends who were also parents and activists (not necessarily self-identified as artists). We used to talk about alternative, anti-capitalist and cooperative structures of living. We dreamt of setting up some kind of utopian autonomous spaces which would include home schooling/education, leisure, shared labour and lots of organic gardening. These conversations in toddler groups were really formative and important.

Once we had set up the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, our children were 6 and 4, and I was pregnant with a new baby. The Institute’s first year of residencies was primarily concerned with unpicking relations between art and capitalism and issues of financial transparency. Our children were around, but we weren’t necessarily focused on ourselves as parents/artists. We identified ourselves as anti-capitalists, activist, anarchist and feminist.

The Institute boys, 2015 Photo: Lena Šimić

In 2009 we were invited by Townley and Bradby to join ‘artists as parents as artists’ weekend at Wysing Arts Centre near Cambridge and whilst this was a memorable experience, we also realized that we weren’t necessarily interested in fitting in with a group of artists just on the basis of being parents. We identified with the art activist scene in the UK much more strongly and later on engaged in research around historical alternative pedagogical practices with children such as The Liverpool Anarchist Communist Sunday School and a number of similar schools from the beginning of the 20th century in London. In 2011 the Institute organized ‘family residencies’ in order to hold conversations about art-activism and the upbringing of children. We hosted Helena Walsh, Kevin Biderman and their daughter Ella from London, a place of their own collective from Sheffield, Townley and Bradby from Norwich and Reverend Billy, Savitri D and their daughter Lena from New York who were touring the UK.

In 2015 we set up the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change. We initially invited 20 families across Europe into the project – they all got a letter and a post card asking for slow-mail correspondence on the issue of climate change with a view that we all meet together in Paris for COP21, as a part of the social movement for ecological justice. 12 families responded and 24 of us, parents and children, went to Paris in December 2015 for demonstrations and actions around COP21 and climate change. Unfortunately some of the families dropped out of the Paris trip due to terrorist attacks in Paris last November, but for all of us who went it was a wonderfully memorable experience. All dressed in red, with toddlers and prams, with primary school aged children, with teenagers, joining in the Redlines march at The Arc de Triomphe, playing with Inflatable Cobblestones, eating croissants, feeling empowered by belonging to the social movement for ecological justice, travelling across Paris by metro, eating together in a brasserie, walking around Père Lachaise Cemetery. 30 of us from the Family Activist Network will now meet again for a weekend in North Wales in order to create a chaos-filled performance about climate change and family life, reflecting on our slow mail correspondence, Paris trip, The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, future generations and the dying planet.

Family Activist Network at Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris 2015, Photo: Townley and Bradby

CR: Every year the children decide if they want to continue being a part of the Institute. Would the dynamic of your family change if someone opted out… or if the Institute ceased to exist?

Lena: One of our favourite lines, when presenting the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, is to say that the Institute is always in the state of collapse. Whilst this is true, the Institute has also become too precious to all of us (except of course James). The Institute is our critical space, and a kind of political consciousness, but it’s also lots of fun. As I have already mentioned, the Family Activist Network are meeting soon to try to figure out a strategy on how to create a performance about family life and climate change. Our children are looking forward to meeting other artists/activists’ children again. This is effectively a working holiday.  Protests and demonstrations are fun family days out. Visitors to the Institute bring newness and excitement into our household. The Institute room is a space for weird kind of activities but also a spare room where one can lie down and, whilst looking over all the changing banners, leaflets, correspondence and post cards blu-tacked on the wall, reflect on one’s life and activities. Neal (15) recently said the Institute was his favourite room in the house.

Gary and I have had a few conversations about finishing the Institute – making it extinct, ‘selling it’, passing it on. We might invite a residency one day where we commission someone else to run it for a year. We were invited to Tate Modern to deliver a talk on ‘Beings and Things’ as a part of the Symposium  Playing Up: Live Art for Adults and Kids. Whilst it’s great to see that big cultural institutions like the Tate are becoming more open and interested in children as artists, this might also be a sign for us that the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home has become too easy to commodify. Therefore, we must remember to engage in ways that help us to stay real, radical and challenging because the world we all inhabit is itself radically unjust.

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Interview by Christina LaMaster: an artist and independent curator currently making her home in central Illinois. She is particularly interested in the concept of Maternal Gaze and the representations of motherhood within visual culture.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Mothernism: An Interview with Lise Haller Baggesen

Lise Haller Baggesen left her native Denmark for the Netherlands in 1992 to study painting at the AKI and the Rijksakademie. In 2008 she relocated to Chicago with her family, where she completed her MA in Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In the meantime, her work evolved from a traditional painting practice toward a hybrid practice that includes curating, writing, and installation work. Her ongoing transdisciplinary project Mothernism (2013-) stakes out the mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse through writing and installation that radically reframes the language of the mother-artist. The project includes a 152-page book expanding conversations about intergenerational feminism, art, career, and politics, with essays that double as personal letters from an artist to her daughter, sister, and mother.  Embodying this work is Haller Baggesen’s nomadic audio installation camp, complete with tent, library, and revisionist protest banners that reference both color field painting and feminist slogans. 

Mothernism has toured Europe and the US extensively, including exhibitions at London South Bank University (UK), Upominki (NL), Vox Populi (PA) The Elmhurst Art Museum Biennial (IL), The Elizabeth Foundation (NY), A.I.R. Gallery (NY), and a solo project for The Contemporary Austin (TX), where it’s currently on view through May 22nd. We caught up with Lise as she wraps up a new body of work for her solo exhibition HATORADE RETROGRADE, which debuts at Chicago’s Threewalls from May 6th through June 11th, 2016.

Cultural ReProducers: So Lise, could you briefly describe your kids?

Lise: My son Adam (16) is a super mellow, gentle, human being. Even as a small child, when I was getting in a tiff over something, he would take my hand and pat it and go “There, there, Mom. This too will pass.” I have learned a tremendous amount about patience, compassion, and endurance from him, if only by osmosis. His favorite subject is physics, which also just demonstrates how entirely different he is from me.

My daughter Eleanor (10) on the other hand, is so like myself it sometimes seems like she was born from immaculate conception. She is whip-smart, precocious even, and she will tell you what is on her mind. Her favorite subject is art, and she wants to be an author. They are both competing slam poets, which is a lot of fun and also puts their combined talents to good use. 
CR: You grew up in Denmark and then relocated to the Netherlands to study art. Both countries provide generous paid family leave and affordable childcare for their citizens, whereas in the United States… well, here we have nothing even approaching that level of support. What was the transition like when you moved to the US? Do you notice broader implications within the culture of motherhood?

Lise: Both my kids were born in Amsterdam. In the Netherlands there is (still) quite an ingrained “motherhood cult” and mothers are generally expected to stay home until their kids start school at age four, and also to be around to pick school-going kids up for lunch at home and such. As a result, a lot
of Dutch women work part time. It was something I frowned upon at the time, but not so much now, as I am getting more critical of the neo-liberal notions of “lean in feminism,” for women –and men—to be at the disposal of the work market at all times.

However, when I became pregnant with Adam, I had just finished a two-year residency the Rijksakademie, which has a highly competitive and professional environment. I did not count many parent-artists among my friends, and I, too, bought into the idea of child-rearing being at odds with a creative practice, so I sent my own kids to child care from pretty early on (about 9 months).  There was not much economic reasoning behind this but I really wanted to get back in the studio, and my painting practice at the time was not entirely child proof. 

too often are mothers expected to check in their motherhood at the door and instead don some kind of “male drag” to be granted re-entry to the arty-smarty-party of art and academia.  


Coming to the United States wasn’t much of a culture shock in that regard – but it did take me a while to find traction with my work here, as you (still) don’t meet many artists hanging around the playground after school. Being at home with my children (again) during this transition reminded me of ways that spending time with them was not only a hindrance, but also an inspiration with regards to my creative practice. It was something I had started touching on in the Netherlands, where it had not been entirely positively received – but which reconfigured itself over here through writing etc. It must be said that this didn’t happen overnight, though; it wasn’t really until I went back to school –initially with the intent of shaking myself of the “mother-artist syndrome” –that I fully realized how profoundly the child rearing and care work I had been engaged in the previous decade had changed not only my practice, but also my critical thinking related to it. That realization was the impetus for writing Mothernism, which originated as my MA thesis in Visual and Critical Studies.


CR: In Mothernism, you argue that regardless of childcare, studio time, etc. nothing will really change for mothers in the arts until we reframe how motherhood is perceived, inserting ourselves both within and in opposition to the canon of art history.  This is an important idea, and it’s no simple task. Do you have any thoughts on how more mother artists might take up this charge?

The art world – as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve hung around in it for longer than a minute — is not always as forward thinking as it would like to think itself to be. Despite its obsession with “the shock of the new” some pretty old-fashioned notions on creativity are still doing the rounds in contemporary arts education, for example. It’s all very Freudian and tied to the idea of creativity as sublimation, Lacan’s idea of the gaze etc. While enrolled in the MA program in Visual and Critical Studies (VCS) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago I became aware of psychoanalytical theories by people like Lou Andreas-Salomé, Bracha Ettinger, and Melanie Klein, who linked the creative impulse to what has been coined a “non-pathological narcissism;” a reparative state connected with prenatal and early mother-infant relations and bonding.

As you suggest, to make that paradigm shift is no easy task: matrophobia (which means not only fear of mothers, but also fear of becoming like your mother) is rampant in the art world. Like other forms of (self) oppression – such as racism, sexism, homophobia etc — it is both institutionalized and internalized to the point of becoming invisible.  It passes under the radar, and is perpetuated in particular by those most likely to be affected – in this case female artists.

As a mother/artist you are expected to get “back to normal” as soon as possible after childbirth – disregarding that this entirely transformative experience you have just gone through with your body, and your mind, is also entirely normal. Way too often are mothers expected to check in their motherhood at the door and instead don some kind of “male drag” to be granted re-entry to the arty-smarty-party of art and academia. While identity politics have been crucial to the art and academic debate since the culture wars of the eighties, and various sexual and demographic groups are represented way better than just a decade ago – and considering what this plurality of voices has brought to the table in terms of form, content and context—I think not only mothers but also others could benefit from the maternal voice being heard. It is astounding to witness the degree to which pregnancy, childbirth, and care work, is trivialized as sentimental and unworthy as subject matters (or at best: as women’s matters) in the arts, literature, philosophy etc. –something Julia Kristeva touches on in her inquiry “is there a female genius?” and her statement that “we need a new philosophy of motherhood.” I am perhaps not suggesting that everybody need to journal “baby’s first year” by way of an art project –although Mary Kelly has done that to great and minimalist effect in Post-Partum Document — but that your art may benefit from this new vantage point from which you now may view the world.

But wait, this was all about “why” should we take up this change, and you were asking “how” …okay so, first we need better childcare, and studio time, and a fifty/fifty division of labor, and gallery representation… no wait… okay so, I think one thing to keep in mind is to be unafraid of ghettoization, by which I mean that the art world has become obsessed with the mainstream since the turn of the millennium; whereas in the seventies they would build a Woman House and get on with it, we are now debating “are all-woman-shows good or bad for art?” But, what is this “art” of which you speak? Changes in the conversation will happen on the fringes before they reach the center, and nobody is a more deserving (or receptive) audience than the people in a similar situation to your own.

I think it is important to pick your battles, and to keep asking yourself: where do I want to go with this? Who do I want to reach? Would the next stop on the Mothernism Tour be a Mothernist Base Camp at Art Basel? Now, Art Basel, if you are reading this, I would totally Mothernize the hell out of you! But would it be the end game of Mothernism? I don’t think so.

Which brings me back to why and how I wrote Mothernism. “Why?” is because I became increasingly frustrated that in this environment that was the VCS department, where we were talking art theory, queer theory, feminist theory, intersectional feminism, body politics, etc. I found little willingness to consider my experience of mothering, and how it had affected my view on these matters. I felt like I was being sent “back to the Mommy-blog” with my musings –like it wasn’t academic material. So I thought alright, if nobody in this room wants to have this conversation, then I will make it the subject of my thesis, and then we will have this conversation! But, (and this is the “How?”) since I was still convinced at this point that nobody in- or out-side of that room wanted to hear about it, I just wrote it to impress a handful of people, including my three thesis advisors and some future version of my daughter (the fifth being myself, I suppose)… I was really taken aback when Michelle Grabner offered to publish it, and again when Caroline Picard got onboard and offered to help editing it, and again when so many people (mothers and non-mothers) wanted to read it. I had never imagined it would find the audience it did. But then again, if you choose wisely the first few people you want to impress, that will set the bar high enough. So I actually never doubted that the book was “good enough” once it was out in the world.

CR: You taught a course at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago based on Mothernism that I’ve been dying to ask you about. SAIC isn’t exactly teeming with young parents. Were there mothers in the class? How did you go about framing this content for a population for whom motherhood is an abstraction?

No, I had no mothers in my class, but as I had written in my “elevator pitch,” you don’t need to be a mother to take this class, but it helps to have one. Riffing off of what I just said, Mothernism at its core touches on new ways of understanding the creative practice –and through that, a
fundamental institutional critique. You don’t have to be a mother to sympathize with that. 

One another level, the term Mothernism relates directly to both modernism and feminism –both of which I understand as positive connotations—but could also imply negative associations along the lines of sexism, ageism and abled-body-ism; a certain “othering” projected at the maternal body/mind, which I have certainly felt on my own body, but could equally well be experienced by a colored body, a trans body, a queer body and so on. These are not abstractions, but directly felt and lived realities, which we navigate on the daily.

I have to say that although there were both generational and cultural divides to be bridged, my students went all the way in and responded to my ideas and the primary text with I shared with them, with amazing work and challenging critical thinking and writing. I am very grateful to have worked with them and I hope they feel the same way –it was a leap of faith from both sides, but well worth it.

CR: For the past few years your Mothernism project has continued to evolve as it tours the world. In the meantime I know you’ve been hard at work on a new series. What has been happening in the studio?  

Lise: Yes, Mothernism is touring and is currently up at The Contemporary Austin (TX). For this iteration of the show, the museum commissioned a new work from me, namely The Mothernist’s Audio Guide to Laguna Gloria. It is a glorious walk in the park, during which I talk about the sculptures on the grounds and the history of the site in relation to (art) history, personal anecdote and (pop) cultural lore. It is very much about regarding the art of (m)others in this particular point in space and time –something I keep returning to in my writing. I was a very rewarding experience to get to do this in collaboration with a team of museum staff, who helped me research their collections, and something I would love to do again in the future.

In May Mothernism will travel to Canada for the exhibition and colloquium New Maternalisms Redux / Mapping the Maternal  organized by Natalie Loveless at the University of Alberta. I will be the visiting artist for the symposium, which means that I will get to hang out in my installation with some of my most favorite (and some of the most brilliant) mother-minds in the world—something I am obviously thrilled about.

Here in Chicago I am cramming in a few more weeks before my solo show opening at Threewalls in early May. The show is called HATORADE RETROGRADE, and as the title implies it is somewhat darker and more dystopian than Mothernism. I see it as my “Coming to America” show and it is a sartorial and satirical vision of the US anno 2033, where everything is covered in glittery pollution. It is very much related to my experience of American material culture, and it is as American as tie-dye, but is also revisionist view of a European avant-garde, seen trough an American vernacular.

The upcoming show consists of a collection of costumes against a backdrop of “lipstick formalist” revisionism – paintings inspired by female avant-gardist Sonia Delaunay, and her retrospective, which you and I saw together when we were in London. What I really loved about that show was how entirely un-hierarchically artistic and fashion production was presented, with her paintings, costumes, and textiles completely level pecking. A lovely baby blanket is credited as her first “abstract” work, for example. It reminded me how much I always enjoy a good costume in a museum setting, but also of my love of dressing up, which was one of my favorite games as a kid, and still to this day. I found it very stimulating to see how the costumes and paintings engaged in a figure/ground relation, so I really wanted some of that in my next show.

This new body of work relates directly to Mothernism, as it is the third installment in a trilogy on female genius (the first being So Deep in Your Room, You Never Leave Your Room, an allegory on studio practice from 2012), but instead of speaking in an internal voice (So Deep in Your Room), or in a direct 1st person address (Mothernism), HATORADE RETROGRADE speaks in a cachophony of voices, for which I have commissioned an all female cast of poets, writers, and artists to write the audio for the show.

CR: You reference so many important mother-artists through your work. If you had to pick just a few, who has most deeply impacted your approach to combining parenthood with creative practice?

It may sound weird, but that is not something I think about a lot. When I think about my own artistic heroes, I don’t think about them so much as being great mothers, as being great whores. In the essay Mother of Pearl I asked the question “if all our heroes are whores, maybe whoring is heroic?” But I also lash out at Simone de Beauvoir and her truism that “housewives are prostitutes” with a “Don’t Ho Me If You Don’t Know me, Simone!”

In other words: the people who inspire me are often folks who “do whatever you gotta do, in order to do what you gotta do.” Some of the people I mention in the book, like Louise Bourgeois and Niki de Saint-Phalle are probably not the finest examples of how to reconcile mothering and art making in an inspiring way… but then again: the book was never intended as a manual for how to combine a mother/artist practice and make the best of both worlds.

Looking a little closer to home, of course there are people who have inspired me: my thesis advisors Michelle Grabner and Romi Crawford are the first who come to mind. In the world of pop, I like how Yoko Ono performs with her son on stage, or how Björk defends hers against the paparazzi. I like it when Kate Bush makes a comeback album on which she sings about washing machines and her loverly-loverly Bertie, or how Patti Smith, when asked by an interviewer how it feels to come back to the stage after more than a decade of “doing nothing” answers “Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? I was raising my kids and writing poetry, that is not nothing!”

Lise Haller Baggesen inside Mothernism

Friday, April 22, 2016

Cultural ReProducers Reading Group

Yes! Cultural ReProducers is organizing a monthly Reading Group to discuss writings on parenthood in the arts, artist-child collaboration, expanded concepts of motherhood, art and everyday life. If you’re looking to flex your cultural-critical mind from home and think through ideas like these with us, consider yourself invited.

The goal here is that no matter where you live or what your family situation is you can participate through live chat, a dedicated Facebook group and (coming soon) visiting artists and live conversations through Skype or other online video programs. We’ll be figuring things out as we go along, so your feedback is always welcome.

We'll discuss our first selection of essays live via Facebook on Wednesday, May 25th, 2016 at 8pm Standard Central Time. If you’re in a time zone where that’s not ideal, the conversation will continue through our private Facebook group. Interested in joining the discussion? Join the CR Reading Group and we’ll get you a link to the readings.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Interview: Oubria Tronshaw

Oubria Tronshaw is a writer, a mother of four, a collector and circulator of human experience. She received a BA in creative Writing from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and several years later earned her MFA at Chicago State University, a degree she began while raising three small children on her own and struggling to make ends meet.  An incredible tenacity and pragmatic optimism ground her writing practice, and in sharing experiences with other women she's discovered a new creative direction.  Her current project, Marrow Women, is an evolving archive of anonymous interviews that dig deep into poverty, sexuality, abuse, transformation, and everything between. 
CR: To start out, could you briefly describe your kids?

Okay, well first there’s Nzinga. She is eight, and she is very sweet, and very helpful, and also grown as hell and I just always feel like I’m never good enough for her (laughter).  Othello is seven, and he keeps lying about brushing his teeth in the morning. He tells me he loves me all the time, gives the best hugs, and … I don’t have a favorite, but if I did... it would be him. Free is four. She runs my life. And If Nzinga’s like a teenager then Free is the naked grandma who doesn’t give a shit. (more laughter) She’s done everything she needs to do and she’s ready to just have fun now – she doesn’t give a damn what you think. Amun is eight months, and he lights up my life. Just lights it up. I mean, even when I’m mad at him, his smile is just…. oh! So juicy. I love him to pieces.

CR: You pursued an MFA in creative writing when your children were little. Graduate school can be a challenge even without kids. How did you make the decision to go, and how did you make it work?

Well, I already had Nzinga and Othello and I started looking at MFA programs when I was pregnant with Free. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but I've always known I wanted to be a writer. I had a Bachelor’s Degree and I had a job writing online, writing articles for and stuff at $15, $20 an article. I’ve done almost 1,500 articles now, and that was paying the bills. It was nice to work from home, but it wasn’t joyful – it was such a grind, you know?  And then I got pregnant again and I was like “now I’m gonna need MORE money. This isn’t going to work.”

My mom took me out to dinner for my 30th birthday. I was pregnant, I was super nauseous, me and my husband weren’t getting along and I was thinking about leaving him, and my mom said to me – and she’d said this to me before, but somehow I didn’t really hear her ‘till then – she said, “an MFA is a terminal degree.” People always try to push you toward a PhD if you’re black and you’re smart - it’s a thing - and I didn’t really know if that was for me. But when I realized an MFA is a terminal degree in my field… and I realized I could get loans and I wouldn’t have to work so hard at this internet stuff and then maybe we could move and get a fresh start, I really threw myself into the application process.

So how did I make it work? I got a graduate assistantship. I’d left my husband before I started the program -- we needed some time apart. I lived with my stepmom who had a home daycare. So that was, you know, I don’t know how I would’a done it otherwise because I certainly didn’t have enough money to sustain us at all. At ALL! My assistantship paid me $630 a month. So between that and writing as many articles as I could, that’s how we did it.

CR: But I mean, how did you make it work as far as your own writing? Paying the bills is a serious part of things, but doing creative work is so…

Oubria: Yeah. I wrote a hundred and sixty pages of a novel for my thesis, and lots of ten and fifteen-page papers. But don’t forget, for work I had written about 1,500 articles, so I was used to writing with people crawling on my head. And even more so with the motivation of “I gotta get this grade,” but I was already writing for “well I gotta feed you tomorrow, so I gotta write through you being on my head.” Once you can do that…

CR: So many of us struggle to prioritize a creative practice, but in your case writing was actually putting food on the table! Time management aside, has parenthood affected your approach to the kind of creative work that you do?

Oubria: Completely. I’ve always had a gift for writing, but before I had my kids and my husband I really didn’t have much to write about. I’d write about, like, failed relationships or that angsty “I don’t know what the fuck to do with my life” feeling. But to be honest, there’s enough of that in the world, you know? If you’re an artist you want to contribute something real, and I just couldn’t find – I just couldn’t tap a vein that was deep enough to think, “this is what I was meant to share with the world.” I think that if I hadn’t had children I would have been perfectly fine with this vague, distant disgust with my life. Forever! I would have traveled with it, and had affairs with it, and had lunch and taken selfies and looked awesome with it, but I just would’ve been this miserable, lonely, super smart and sensitive and creative… unmoored person with no real purpose.

 We have so many privileges that other women in history didn’t have, but they just made it work. We’re not the first women artists to be mothers.

For me, the way I had children and the way I got with my husband and the way I had to parent -- through eviction and poverty and swallowing my pride and living with my Mom and living with my Stepmom, and breaking up and gettin’ back together and then his ex-wife and all these things about motherhood that no one explains to you! Like how you don’t always want to… more and more you just don’t want to. How tired you are. How sometimes you just don’t recognize yourself or your life. How you don’t have any time for yourself…. Your kids will never give you permission to have a moment or be sane. Ever. You have to learn to be an advocate for yourself. All those things inform my art.

I was having these conversations with other women, like my friend Sagashus who’s doing “Infamous Mothers.” She’s a single mom with six children, she’s in a PhD program, and we talk about how motherhood is changing our lives and ourselves. And we talk about how there is really nowhere you can go when you’re having a breakdown and you want to read that someone else is dealing with this. So my art became to just be as transparent as I can for anyone else who might be feeling the same way. I stopped trying to make up stories, because all I could do was just be like “no, this is some real shit… realer than what’s in that book!” 

CR: How did your project Marrow Women evolve out of that, and how does it work as an extension of your writing, your creative practice?  

Oubria: Yeah, I think about that. Am I selling out because I’m not ‘writing’? But it’s more important to me right now to create a resource for women who want the real. We always give people a polished version of life and that’s not what we need. We’re starving for reality.

When I was in undergrad for creative writing we had to write an apology for why you do what you do. Mine was that I just always want people to know that they’re not alone. And that I really would like to create an encyclopedia of human experience. This was in undergrad – I had no idea how I was gonna do this, but I wanted a giant encyclopedia from A – Z, like Abortion, Abandonment, Adoption, Betrayal, Betrothal….whatever. Whatever you were going through, like you… murdered someone? Here’s a story of somebody who murdered someone, and they’re okay! Like, oh God, there’s a space for me! (laughter)

When I was a graduate student I was talking to other women I met there. We would just talk all the time about our husbands and everything we were dealing with. There’s all this emotional labor, physical labor that comes with marriage that no one tells you about. And then another woman I was talking to was telling me a story, and… I can’t tell you the story because I’d have to mention where she worked. These women would tell me their stories and they were super personal, and I’d be like "damn, her story would help you but I can’t tell you because…" fuck it. I’m just gonna type down people’s stories, and then whoever needs it can read it. I don’t have to be a gossip, I can just put it there and if they need it, get it. I see Marrow Women becoming a series of books in volumes. I look forward to seeing how many volumes there can be.

CR: Who would you say are your models for artist-parenting?

Oubria: Tony Morrison. Buchi Emechata. She had a lot of kids, and her husband destroyed her first manuscript. Can you imagine? Lucille Clifton. They all talk about just writing when your kids are in the room. Lucille Clifton’s daughters talk about how the dining room table would just be papers everywhere, and the typewriter… I think it’s so important. You know, first of all, your kids are never gonna leave the room long enough. Second of all it is important for them to see that you’re an artist and not just a mom. And they may feel now that "aw, I should be the most important thing to you," but there’s gonna come a time in their lives when they have to [make themselves] the most important thing. And if they can see “oh, that’s what she was doing,” then they have a model for that. If you devote everything to them and you hide your art in secret… They’ve got to see that you’re a full person outside of them.

We have so many privileges that other women in history didn’t have, but they just made it work. We’re not the first women artists to be mothers, or even the first mothers whose art couldn’t be public but who had these artistic impulses. I think sometimes we say “I’m an artist and I’m a mother and that’s so important.” And it is important… but when you make it such a big deal I think you don’t make the art you might want to because it’s like “no, you have to take the children because we need to make art.” If you need to be an artist then you’ll find ways to do it.

CR: What was your process like for returning to your creative work with a newborn? Do you have any advice you can share with artists who are struggling with that?

Oubria: Do it right away. Because they sleep the most when they’re new. I know it’s hard for new moms because… you’re new. But if only you knew that this was the most time you were gonna get, then you would take advantage of it. As they get older you get your bearings, but what you realize is that damn, they slept 20 hours a day that first month! What did I do? Did I just try to invite people over? No! If you want to write, then write! When I look back at my journals when I started to write heavily, I have entries from when my babies are days old. You know, I’m sitting here with this newborn and then all this angst comes out, but it’s good writing. Don’t wait. Just do it.  Do it at the hospital if you have to, you know? Take your journal.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making It: Aviatrix Atelier, Berlin

Making It
profiles cultural producers creating the systems of support they need in the art community. The events, spaces, and other projects here s
upport the work of professional artists while also being accessible to families.

kids take over the child-height mezzanine gallery overlooking Aviatrix's café
Just down the street from Berlin’s  Tempelhofer Park - an expansive public part that was once the city's main airport - it might be easy to pass by the modest Aviatrix Atelier without knowing what's brewing inside. Its name invoking the adventurous spirit of female pilots, Aviatrix is a vibrant little social club, an evolving all-ages studio, gallery, and café organized by and for creative parents and their families, as well as the local community.

When designer and artist Renata
flexible workspace during the week = gallery + event space on the weekend
Faccenda first became a mother, she realized that bringing her baby into a typical shared studio cooperative just wasn’t going to work. Instead, she joined forces with other mother-artists in the city to make something new. After some early attempts at configuring child-friendly collaborative spaces with others she met Sarah Salters, a clothing designer and teacher who shared her vision for an all-ages studio with space for work, play, and public events. The duo secured a multi-room storefront space in the Neuköln neighborhood, and Aviatrix Atelier was born.

Aviatrix operates in so many ways it’s a little hard to keep track sometimes. On weekdays, its core group of parents share a dedicated studio in the back, while up front a high-ceilinged room equipped with wide tables, lamps, and wifi is rented out as co-working space. On weekends, its custom-built furniture (designed by Renata herself) folds up and away to serve as a pop-up gallery for all-ages exhibitions, film screenings, performances, and dance parties with great musicians and DJs. You enter all this through an adjacent café that doubles as a sort of social club for the creative community, featuring simple but
tasty food and drink and a small boutique selling the creative work of Aviatrix collaborators.

children emerge from the mezzanine gallery over the café during an exhibition
I felt lucky to experience the magic of this place during a solo show of my work there this fall. It felt even luckier to get to share it with my four-year-old daughter. To be sure, Aviatrix is a pretty cool place for adults to hang out, but Renata and Sarah are also deeply invested in the creativity of children: all exhibiting artists are asked to lead low-cost workshops for kids, part of the atelier's multifaceted children's studio programming. A kid-height mezzanine gallery built over the coffeeshop is the perfect space for young creatives to showcase their art for the public, curate their own exhibitions, or (between exhibitions) just contribute to the washable graffiti covering the mini-gallery’s ceiling and windows, while keeping an eye on their parents in the café below.

Berlin is a pretty special city in its approach to integrating family life into the larger culture: childcare is affordable for all, playgrounds double as sculpture parks, and there's an amazing array of “Eltern-Kind-Cafés,” relaxed coffeeshops and restaurants that include built-in sandboxes, toys, or indoor slides, and even playgrounds with adjacent beer gardens (a concept we can only fantasize about in the US).  Still, what Aviatrix offers is unique. Billed as "Berlin's only kid-friendly atelier,"  it’s not just for families, but truly supports artists of all ages. For more photos, videos, and news about events past and present, check out Aviatrix's Facebook feed and explore their website for more information.

Balloons - Tartaruga Feliz Solo Show from Tartaruga Feliz on Vimeo.

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Christa Donner reimagines the human / animal body through a range of media including large-scale drawing, printmaking, digital animation, and small-press publication. Her process often incorporates public projects and collaborations around narratives of bodily experience. Her work is exhibited internationally, including projects for the Museum Bellerive (Zurich, Switzerland); the Horst-Janssen Museum (Oldenberg, Germany); Kravets-Wehby Gallery (New York, USA); BankART NYK (Yokohama, Japan); Chiaki Kamikawa Contemporary Art (Paphos, Cyprus); the ANTI Festival of Contemporary Art (Kuopio, Finland); and the Centro Columbo Americano (Medellin, Colombia).