Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview: Jess Dobkin

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

Interview by Christa Donner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lactation Station Breast Milk Bar (David Hawe)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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