Monthly Archives: May 2013

Her/She Senses: a Curator’s Interview with Angela Ellsworth & Tina Takemoto

Tina Takemoto and Angela Ellsworth met in 1991 while pursing graduate degrees at Rugters University. Within their first year of of school, they began performing together under the name Her/She Senses in projects exploring feminist and anti racist politics through absurd and often comedic performances.

When Angela was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1993, they began a project called Imag(in)ed Malady.  At this time, the artists were living in different cities, so in order to share the experience, and understand it more fully herself, Angela began sending Tina photos documenting the effects of treatment on her body. Tina began staging “rhyming” photographs of her own body in staged recreations of Angela’s photos.

The mirroring photographs began as a way for both artists to try to understand the confusing dynamics of a sick/well experience, but when Ellsworth’s cancer went into remission, the parameters of the project became unclear and Takemoto’s trauma manifested in physical harm to herself. In a photograph she intended to “rhyme” with Ellsworth’s blown veins from chemotherapy, Takemoto taped five matches to her arm and lit them one by one. The experience landed her in the emergency room, and complicated continuation of the project.

Her/She Senses: Imag(in)ed Malady: Neck Marks

Her/She Senses: Imag(in)ed Malady: Neck Marks

For Strange Bedfellows, Tina and Angela are revisiting this collaboration by presenting three of the “rhyming” photos, and two performance videos documenting the project. I had the chance to speak with them about Imag(in)ed Malady, and about the role collaboration has played in their individual practices.

Amy Cancelmo: How did you meet, how did you start working together?

Tina Takemoto: We met in 1991 in graduate school at Rutgers University, which had quite a feminist orientation at the time. We met as painters—somewhat closeted painters–since it seemed pretty unhip to engage in the male-dominated, unique-object-producing, genius-myth-generating practice of painting. I think we initially bonded over our bad-practice choice.

Angela Ellsworth: Within the first year, we started performing together under the name Her/She Senses (initially with Jennifer Parker). Eventually, Tina and I co-organized For-Play, a monthly live art event featuring time-based performances by students and local artists.

AC: Tell me a little bit about the ethos at Rutgers at that time.  It sounds like it was a really interesting time where performance and Fluxus art was intermingling with queer politics.

TT: In the early 1990s, Rutgers had a lot going on in terms of art, identity, and politics. The work of ACT-UP, the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC), and identity politics all informed our thinking at the time. Many of our mentors (including Martha Rosler, Joan Semmel, Emma Amos, and Geoffrey Hendricks) were challenging notions of representation and power as well as engaging in art as everyday life.

AE: I didn’t really think of what was happening as queer Fluxus. I would say that performance and queer politics were happening alongside feminist and activist art practices.

Her/She Senses: Misfit Attire

Her/She Senses: Misfit Attire

AC: Fluxus art is interesting to me in relation to the idea of “queer” art.  In a sense, the concept of estrangement (ostranenie) that Brecht talked about is the making strange, the queering of everyday occurrence.  Can you talk a little bit about where queerness or queering shows up in your work, and what that means to you?

AE: I like the idea of “queering the everyday.” In retrospect, I think our work was very queer, although I am not sure that we were totally conscious of it at the time.

TT: We knew that our work was feminist and anti-racist, but I think in our own lives we were still working though the multiplicities of our desires (for women, men, and each other) without the language of “queer” to help us navigate this terrain. Nevertheless, there was something very queer about Angela tap-dancing with Hostess Snowballs stuffed in her fishnet stockings or my committing chopstick hari-kiri in geisha drag.

Her/She Senses: Misfit Attire

Her/She Senses: Misfit Attire

AC: Collaborative practice, like Fluxus, intentionally positions itself in radical opposition to commodification, and traditional concepts of authorship and identity.   Because you both work experimentally, identify as queer and work in performance, which is often associated with those conundrums as well, do you think it’s easier for you to work collaboratively?

AE: Since we met as painters, we were used to working alone. Collaborating in performance pulled us out of our solitary practice to navigate new ways of thinking about space and our bodies in relation to a live audience. In our collaborative work there is balance. We meet in the middle of where our more extreme parts reside. There is a trust in what we might not know. The more difficult parts are negotiating ideas, fabricating the props, and producing an elaborate installation for a two-hour piece. The easy part is the actual performance. I feel absolute trust once I start performing with Tina. It is where our most clear communications occur.

TT: I agree. For me, brainstorming with Angela is the most exciting, frustrating, and hilarious part of the process. We usually start with a set of ideas. For example, in Caffeine and Carotene, our point of departure was carrots, coffee, and medical equipment. Next, we spend hours developing ideas for gestures, actions, props and sets. Angela tends to focus on the overall visual impact guided by the philosophy that “more props + more materials = more fabulous!” I’m usually in charge of the nuts-and-bolts approach to making it all work within our limited budget and DIY aesthetic.

AC: Is it possible to ever be the single author of a piece?

AE: Most of my solo performance work involves other bodies, sometimes as many as 14 performers. Regardless of performing with other bodies, there are always many influences and supportive people around a production so single authorship seems like a strange notion. Single authorship is more for institutional needs and an outside desire to label something.

AC: Tell me a little about the beginnings of Imag(in)ed Malady, and how the rhyming photos began.

TT: When Angela was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she was living to Phoenix, Arizona to be closer to her family and I was doing doctoral work in upstate New York. She started sending me stacks of photographs that she took at the hospital during various cancer treatments as well as at home as she noticed various changes with her body.

AE: In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about cancer or chemotherapy. I thought, “I’m going to be throwing up. I’m going to get really skinny, and I’m going to be bald.” The photographs were a way of visualizing the fact that illness was happening. It was as if I needed to prove even to myself that I was sick. There was something important about seeing myself in these images—seeing my body changing and thinking about what others might be seeing when they looked at me.

Imag(in)ed Malady: Blue Feet

Imag(in)ed Malady: Blue Feet

TT: After Angela started sending me these photographs, I started restaging her photographs using everyday objects on my body as a way of reimagining or “rhyming” her medical images. I was acutely aware that my pictures could never capture the gravity of her cancer experience. Instead I tried to create images that could resemble or mimic her scars or sores, but in a clearly makeshift manner that emphasized the impossibility of producing an “adequate” visual equivalent.

AE: When I saw the images I was really moved. We looked at our photographs side by side and we knew we were on to something. The act of sending these pictures to Tina felt really important. I wanted someone else to have responsibility for them. I wanted them to be out of my hands. The chemotherapy took away all of my energy. I felt flat. I felt like I had no creativity left in me. So I relied on Tina to carry the work. I knew I could pass something along, and Tina would add the spark to it and make it into something else.

AC: How would you define your relationship at that time? I know you were not romantically involved, but the intensity of your connection raises interesting questions about queer relationships not fitting into clearly defined categories.

AE: Tina was my connection to a creative practice and a world I was familiar with.  Our collaboration was a key support system in my experience inside and outside a “sick” world. Although Tina and I were not lovers in a traditional sense, we were intimate and navigated a new form of love that was new to both of us. Although Tina lived across the US, she often visited me in Arizona and became the custodian for memories, artifacts, and exchanges within Her/She Senses. Tina encouraged actions that pushed the work beyond our intimate experience of illness towards other audiences. When we circulated our Visual Rhymes as postcards, we reached new audiences. New audiences included immediate family, uncles, cousins, hematology and oncology doctors, technicians at radiation clinics, and nurse practitioners who received our monthly mailings. Tina encouraged an artistic exchange around illness that was “a project.” Seeing what I was going through as a “project” positioned me in a place I understood. I didn’t have a solo practice during my illness. My energy was put into and kept up by the collaboration with Tina.

AC:  I read the project Imag(in)ed Malady as an expression of empathy, both cognitive and emotional.  The trauma of Angela’s illness obviously was affecting both of you in very intense and very different ways.  Can you talk a little about the concept of empathy in relation to this project?

TT: Looking back, I would say that Imag(in)ed Malady offered a way of expressing empathy, trauma, and grief in a direct and indirect manner. There was a feeling of urgency around Angela’s illness. In an irrational way, I thought if the visual rhymes continued to be “good” and our performances continued to be successful then, of course, our work would lead to her health and recovery.

AE: Ultimately, I believe that making the images and performing together really did lead to my health. My experience with cancer was being heard and seen. It made it seem worthwhile because my experience became much more than just this awful personal ordeal that I was trying to endure. During that time, my relationship to my family was pretty strained and complicated. But in our collaboration, I was supported and I didn’t feel forgotten.

AC: I’m interested in the way that this project it brings to light the confusing dynamics of a sick/well experience, and how the dominance of one person’s needs in collaboration can be catastrophic.  I read an interview in which you both talk about the benefits of your collaboration, and also the damaging effect that the end of the project had on Tina.  Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

TT: Shortly after Angela got news that her cancer was in remission, she went on a trip to Italy. I was elated for her but also worried that she might get sick while she was away. This was before cell phones or email, and it was the first time we would be out of contact for many weeks. After she left the country, I couldn’t stop myself from imagining and generating the visual rhymes. The images in my head were becoming increasingly graphic and extreme. Ultimately, I ended up taping five matches to my right arm and burning them as an attempt to rhyme her blown veins from chemotherapy. I had to go to the emergency room and almost ended up in the psych ward. My first thought was, “Oh no, I totally screwed up. I really failed Angela and our project.” Thinking back, perhaps it makes sense that I had an emotional breakdown while we were out of touch. All my fear and anxiety over Angela’s illness and the possibility of losing her was always present and driving the work, but never could be openly acknowledged. Angela’s health and her physical distance gave me a space to experience the gravity of these emotions.

Arm's Length

Arm’s Length

AE: I think that everything went haywire because there was too much focus on me. Even though the premise of our work was about the interrelationship between a person who is sick and a person who is well, we only focused on my experience of being sick. We were not addressing how it was affecting Tina. At the same time, there was a point where I just didn’t want to be sick anymore or always positioned in the sick role. I take responsibility for keeping myself in the “sick” role, but Tina also played a part. Even after my cancer was in remission, our work was being funded by grants and supported by publications. Also, it was some of the strongest work (or most recognized) work we had done up to that point.  When Tina burned her arm it was complicated because we were performing work that focused on my illness and not her recent traumatic event. This was a disservice to her. The new “sick” event complicated our understanding of the project and confused our goals.

AC: Can you talk about this project in relation to other collaborative projects you have done together?

AE: After collaborating for a number of years, and working through illness in both of our lives, we had to remind each other that no one was forcing us to continue to collaborate or work on illness. When we hit a moment in the collaboration when stress started to override the invigorating and encouraging aspects of our collaboration, we had to address it. We decided to work on Miming the Masters, a series of campy art historical remakes that would revive our previous interest in humor and absurdity.

TT: In our homage to Bernini’s St Teresa of Avila in Ecstasy, Angela appears as the dazzling mystic singing “You Light Up My Life” as I plunge arrows into her strap-on heart while dressed as her orientalist angel.

Her/She Senses: Eroto Electric

AE: We continued working on this series for a number of years. Our intention was to have a trilogy, but we only completed two pieces. Perhaps we needed to start focusing more fully on our own projects.

AC: How would you say that the experience of Imag(in)ed Malady has influenced your individual work, or collaborations with other artists?

AE: We have a good balance in our collaboration. What I learned formally in the collaboration with Tina continues to resonate in my own work. I often hear Tina saying “Angela, that is too much” or “Do we really need that?” I hear her voice when I am creating solo work and am getting too baroque with my choices. The support within our collaborative work informed works I have produced involving large groups of people engaging and participating in a project. I learned about the possibility of bodies in motion as actions for change and support.

TT: It’s funny because I often have Angela’s voice in my head too. When I am putting together a performance I often wonder, “How would Angela visualize this piece?” “What would make it more fabulous and absurd?” When I can’t conjure up an answer, I usually just call her and ask.

AC: What are you working on now?

AE: Since 2008, I have been working on The Plural Wife Project which navigates issues of the body in relation to gender, sexuality, and cultural history of the western United States through sculptural objects and performance. The work is embedded in excavating my personal history to understand my queer identity as an extension of homosocial communities established by my ancestors. As a fourth-generation Mormon, my ancestors were some of the earliest Mormons to pioneer the west. They were prophets and poetesses who spoke in tongues, lived within the construct of polygamy, and practiced mystical aspects of Mormonism. Focusing on sister-wives as a point of departure for discussing contemporary issues around non-heteronormative relationships, I reimagine this community of women with their own visionary and revelatory powers, as they pioneer new personal histories.

 TT: I am also working on a queer historical project. Looking for Jiro is a queer meditation on the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. As a fourth generation Japanese American, I grew up hearing family stories about camp, but no one ever mentioned the LGBT experience of imprisonment. My recent work is inspired by Jiro Onuma, a gay immigrant who worked in the prison mess hall and liked muscular men. How did this dandy gay Issei bachelor from San Francisco survive the isolation, humiliation, and homophobia of imprisonment? My project includes a queer musical mash-up video features drag king performance, U.S. propaganda footage, muscle building, and homoerotic bread making.

More about Tina Takemoto

More about Angela Ellsworth 

For more information on Imag(in)ed Malady see Tina Takemoto, “Love/Sick: A Conversation with Angela Ellsworth,” Theatre Survey 53: 1 (April 2012), pp. 105-114.

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It Is Our Duty to Fight: A Curator’s Interview with Adrienne Skye Roberts

Adrienne Skye Roberts (center) at the Chowchilla Freedom Rally

Adrienne Skye Roberts (center) at the Chowchilla Freedom Rally

Adrienne Skye Roberts is an artist, activist, educator, writer and curator based in Oakland, California. Her practice expertly navigates the spaces between these disciplines exploring issues of class, race, gender, sexuality and gentrification in a variety of media.   Her strategies of community engagement and political protest call to mind political actions implemented by groups like ACTUP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) and Gran Fury in the early days of the AIDS pandemic. Like many contemporary queer activists, her aim is to fight the oppression of all silenced populations. She is currently an active member of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. (CCWP), and will present an installation based on this work for Strange Bedfellows.  

The title of this new piece, “It is our duty to fight / It is our duty to win / We must love each other and protect each other / We have nothing to loose but our chains,” is based on an Assata Shakur chant that the CCWP says before and after most actions.

Hear audio of the chant below:

Adrienne collaborated with  three  fellow coalition members, and prison survivors, on an installation featuring  hand painted signs and audio based on  interviews  and audio from the recent Chowchilla Freedom Rally which they organized together.

Amy Cancelmo: Tell us a little about the project you are working on for “Strange Bedfellows.”

Adrienne Skye Roberts: In this project I collaborate with three prison survivors and fellow members of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. I interviewed each person and asked them the following questions: How did you survive prison? What do you need to survive now that you are out of prison? And what does a world without mass incarceration look like? These interviews were then edited together into an audio track with additional audio from the Chowchilla Freedom Rally, a mass mobilization to protest the severe overcrowding at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, CA in January 2013, of which myself and these three CCWP members helped to organize.

I then pulled specific quotations from each interview and created hand drawn and painted protest signs. The text on these signs are fragmented answers to each of the three questions. They only tell part of the story of each prison survivor (the audio offers more of their stories). Together the collection of signs offer a more emotive and personal side of protest and our collective work against prisons and for the rights of prisoners.

AC: What is your involvement with the California Coalition of Women Prisoners?

ASR: I have been involved with CCWP for three years as a volunteer member. I wear many different hats in this organization. I am part of a visiting team that regularly visits our members who are locked up in the women’s prison in Chowchilla—many of whom are serving life sentences—and I work in the county jail as part of Fired Up! a weekly self-empowerment group where I also do legal advocacy and support for people who are pre-trial and their family members. As an organization we are involved in various campaigns, protests and coalition work for prisoners rights—these days we are focusing our energy on the overcrowding in the California state prisons, the abominable medical care and putting pressure on the Department of Corrections to release people through the various programs they have designed but haven’t implemented. We also do a lot of public events educating people about the prison system and I do a lot of unglamorous but necessary administrative work!

AC: How does political organizing interact with your art practice?

ASR: This is something I think I will forever be figuring out. I believe in artists as agents for social change and in that sense, there is very little distinction between my political organizing and my art practice. The artwork I do emerges directly from the political context I work in and communities I am a part of. Organizing and art making comes from the same place for me emotionally—the desire to effect systemic change, to build deep connections with people. When I was working in tenants rights my curatorial and writing practice focused on local responses to gentrification and redevelopment and so, this project is a natural extension of my organizing with CCWP.

In many ways organizing and art making are also very separate in my life. I don’t have any illusions about the limitations of art making. In other words, I will never be satisfied only making art about the issues I care about because at the end of the day no matter how successful a gallery show is or a poster series, art will not address the very tangible and basic needs of someone getting out of prison or a family who is facing eviction. Art has the ability to communicate what a protest or meeting may not be able to, it can shift consciousness and educate and lift up certain stories and voices and we need that—and we also need political pressure, policy change, direct services, funding and more support. Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how I can make work that functions both to shift consciousness and educate and also be used for long-term organizing goals.

Postcard_front

AC: I’m really interested in how CCWP has recently used the phrase “Overcrowding = Death,” a nod perhaps to ActUp’s slogan “Silence = Death.” Do you see a connection between AIDS organizing, and/ or queer radical politics in general with prisoners rights?  

 ASR: It’s funny I never thought about the ACT UP slogan—even though I am super gay! “Overcrowding = Death” was part of the messaging we developed for the Chowchilla Freedom Rally which happened in January of this year and it is just the most accurate description of what is currently happening in California state prisons. Central California Women’s Facility is currently the most overcrowded prison in the state and as a result of these conditions the already horrific medical care is getting even worse and people’s lives are being threatened and three people have died in this prison alone.

CCWP was founded in a similar political moment back in 1995 when people incarcerated in this same prison filed a lawsuit against the state of California because the medical care was so bad it violated their 8th amendment rights. Some of the founders of CCWP on the inside were themselves HIV+ or living with AIDS—so there is a very obvious connection between these issues.

But I think there are less obvious connections, too. Prisons rely on a culture of silence—they are built on the silencing of certain people, the removal of those people from our communities, the silencing of dissent and the expectation that our voices will not be heard. In both the crisis of prisons and the AIDS crisis, silence becomes an instrument of a system that says some lives are more valuable than others. So, the organizing around both relies on breaking this silence.

I often say that organizing against prisons and for prisoner rights is like organizing in the belly of the beast. Prisons are places that make visible intersecting oppressions—racism, classism, transphobia, and so on. Being queer has made me aware of systems of power and privilege in relation to gender and sexuality and I feel fortunate to be given so many opportunities to push my consciousness beyond what is prescribed as a mainstream LGBTQ political agenda. Organizing from my queerness and my feminist politics, for that matter, means acknowledging this intersectionality and critiquing systems of power: patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism—all of which are the foundations of mass imprisonment. Prison abolition, like queerness, relies on imagining an entirely different world—and then not waiting for that world to be given to us, but working together to make it a reality.

AC: Tell me a little about your collaborators.

ASR: I collaborated with three people for this project—all of whom are survivors of prison and members of CCWP. I work with all of them in various capacities and as it goes in this work, they are family. Windy Click was released from prison in September 2012 after serving 17 years. She has been a member of CCWP for 10 years and an organizer inside and facilitator of many peer led groups. Windy was a core organizer of the Chowchilla Freedom Rally. Mary Campbell survived 5 years at CCWF (Central California Women’s Facility) and she is a member of the self-empowerment group at the county jail and we facilitate this group together. Misty Rojo is the current Program Coordinator at CCWP. She survived 10 years at CCWF and was a board member of the organization Justice NOW during her incarceration.

Hear an excerpt from Windy’s interview below:

Hear an excerpt from Misty’s interview below:

AC: Are you involved in other political causes? 

ASR: Well, there are only so many hours in a day! Right now my energy is very focused on anti-prison organizing and supporting people inside. I have a background in housing and tenants rights and feminist youth organizing. I really believe that our movements are intersectional and related to each other—for example, people with unstable housing are more vulnerable to arrest, so organizing for housing justice has a direct impact on keeping people out of jails and prisons—the same could be said about immigration and education.

AC: Do you differentiate queer activism from other forms of social or political interventions? 

ASR: I don’t personally differentiate or define my activism as queer or not—queerness is one of the many frameworks of my organizing and life. There certainly are actions that are more obvious queer like protesting San Francisco PRIDE’s refusal to name Bradley Manning as the Community Grand Marshal or protesting the Human Rights Coalition for their support of transphobic legislation. And there is a strong tendency to divide ourselves and compartmentalize our movements. But I think it is dangerous to develop political agendas that are only queer or one-dimensional. Our lives are more complicated than that and the injustices enacted on us are multi-faceted. We need complex approaches to address these problems and we need movements that allow for every aspect of ourselves to be acknowledged.

Speaking personally, I have learned and grown and felt more than I thought was possible in movements where I am acting in solidarity with people whose lived realities and experiences of oppression are different than my own and I am so grateful for this.

Adrienne Skye Roberts (left) with members of the CCWP at the Chowchilla Freedom Rally

Adrienne Skye Roberts (second from left) with members of the CCWP at the Chowchilla Freedom Rally

AC: What role do you see art playing in activism?

ASR: I ask so many artist-organizers this same question myself because I am desperate to know how people reconcile these things! I am indebted to Jeff Chang and Favianna Rodriguez who introduced me to the idea of cultural organizing; that culture and politics do not exist in a vacuum but actually influence each other. We need cultural organizers for so many reasons. Art provides another access point for many people who may not be inclined to attend a political meeting. Artists are storytellers and stories often speak to people more than statistics or a legislative analysis. Art facilitates healing. I also think artists are well trained in “thinking outside the box,” pulling resources and visioning and we need that energy in our political movements, we need artists to be at the table when decisions are made.

For this project there are overlapping goals—to tell the stories of three prison survivors in an effort to raise awareness about this reality, to create an audio track that can be used for various re-entry projects and funding for CCWP and to emphasize some spaciousness and visioning in this work. My art making isn’t necessarily a “break” from activism because the source is still the same but it feels so different.

 AC: Do you think there is something inherently queer about collaboration?

ASR: In my definition of queer, yes. Queerness, as a critique of systems of power, speaks back to the capitalist fantasy of the individualist and everything we are taught about isolating ourselves in our work or our nuclear family or when we need help the most. This is opposite of what so many of us—queers, radical thinkers, many marginalized communities—know to be true: that we rely on each other, that we need each other every step of the way for our survival, our resistance and our joy. This is my experience as an organizer, as a queer person, and as an artist. And it isn’t always easy—collectives are hard work, building community takes time and collaboration requires a lot of flexibility and humility but I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

Learn more about the California Coalition of Women Prisoners 

Link to Adrienne’s blog

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