on performing [ send and receive ]

I sat in a gallery, at a table, in a turret. This was semiprivate space. At Northern Illinois University, the gallery is in a building like a castle. The turret room has arrowslot windows. It felt well-defended. I had daisies, the signifier for the piece. I wore grey. I waited.

performance installation send and receive

send and receive installation

I had invited audience members to come to the gallery, to tell me a story about guns. My request inverted the art object’s signal flow. The audience usually comes to a museum to get something. Now they were asked to give something.

His father taught him how to shoot. What the gun actually does. How to respect it, what code of conduct was related to it.

I am no therapist. I listen when people tell me their experiences. I can be present for their narratives.

Beyond that personal skill, this work is the fruit of working directly with audience for years. I have hosted experimental art-video shows. I used to guard art in museum-spaces from drunk people. I guided museum tours.

This work is a long look at audience relationship with the mediated story [ the artwork itself / the stories in news and entertainment media ] and its authority.

My studio space [ a computer ] means I sometimes make art in public spaces, like coffeeshops. Making ungun I was working with decayed images of guns. The visible screen became an invitation to strangers to interrupt, to ask “Hey what are you doing? That looks cool.” To tell me about guns. About being American with guns.

It meant staying alive, to carry three guns through Bosnia-Herzegovina as a UN-authorized peacekeeper, discovering countless bodies in fields, barns, knee-deep in pits, bodies made by guns. 

Guns are surrounded by cocoon of silence spun, paradoxically, of fear and bombastic noise. They are intimately connected to issues of authority. Who has the right to tell a story about guns – a story that easily can, illusively, be corrupted, become, paranoidly, the story about –

How could she raise her sons and keep guns out of their hands?

 

send and receive performance installation at Northern Illinois University

send and receive [ turret space ]

I spent four hours in the gallery listening to the space, to the visitors. Very few people accepted my invitation.  That inversion of audience relation to public art space needs a different introduction, perhaps.

I listened to the gallery sounds, to the floor creaks, the oops its time for me to leave hustle footsteps, to the fear. Staff at NIU are most afraid of the young white men with baby faces. That’s what NIU’s mass shooter looked like.

She left the day he brought a gun home. Things were bad enough and she knew the statistics.

Good art encourages the audience to examine their own experience. Art about guns doubles the authority of the mediated story – doubles the illusion that truth is outside of onesself – for the audience.

This is tricksy, working with potentially painful or trauma-sourced content. What is only a signifier for the artist can evoke intense memory for audience members. Memory of lived experience powerful enough that it denies the artwork. It also can challenge the audience member’s ability to manage that memory.

The reality, for people who have survived gun violence personally, or whose daily lives are affected by navigating spaces shaped by that violence – the audience needs to retain that authority over their own difficulty. Ceding that authority to the art doesn’t work.

So – instead of censoring published media, give space for the audience’s voice. Give them a space other than they have to avoid the signal of information coming from the artwork in order to be OK.

I was thanked by members of the NIU community who could not look at UNLOADED.  It was the language of gesture, ameliorating the re-traumatization that can be provided by published media.

 

send and receive performance installation

send and receive [ daisies ]

[ taking things apart ] at NIU

Hello, Wednesday . . . Its sunny and quiet here in Milwaukee. I’ve had a few days to mull over my first-ever turn as a Visiting Artist, at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

I was invited there by Josephine Burke, the Art Museum director. She had programmed UNLOADED into the museum exhibition schedule. Susanne Slavic, UNLOADED’s curator, had included ungun in the show. This work – excerpted here – pulls at our media-presented gun, as used as an actor in films and other stories. The glitched image invites the audience to construct their own inward image, built of memories of either physical experience with the object or the media presentation of guns.

In making the work, I kept cutting through fear, frustration, and rage. People who saw the work in progress asked me to continue working in that way. This has happened with other past, difficult content – the audience pulling me along through something public, something from history, something painful, to make sense of it. The repeated “please make this” response to SPOILED HEAT and VIGIL, as I was making them.

I know the tension of not wanting to work with something broken ‘out there’ that I can’t fix in my creative life. I’ve chosen to do the work because of my need to reconcile with ’the pain out there’. I come from a family of doctors. To me its natural, to see and contend with ‘the disease out there’.

I have watched other artists and poets struggle with public pain in a variety of ways. And over the years, people have asked me, “how do you do this?” Mind you, I don’t deal with deeply painful content all the time. I do it enough of the time that I have a protocol of creative practice and self-care that facilitates deep consideration of traumatic material.

Coll IMJ,  photo (c) IMJ

Paul Klee, Angelus Novus [ the new angel ]

Historian Walter Benjamin invokes this image as the angel considering
the mountain of traumatic information inherited from history

Why teach this now? Well, our history is full of horrifying material; we can access disturbing simulacra of this material on the internet. Additionally, the internet reports new traumatic stuff to us at an overloading speed. At times, it feels like the horrors silence the joy. Or, rather, the overload asks us to silence our hearts in order to have the mental capacity to look at the litanies of awful.

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Some artists I’m connected to talk about getting flak for making ‘aesthetic only’ art during a time of great social upheaval, of great public pain. I think its revolutionary to remain creatively alive right now. It is also so important to do whatever brings us deep joy, that is not self-destructive, almost to inoculate us against the ‘news of the world’ by providing us with lifeboats of joy and satisfaction in our work, in art we can share with each other.

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The taking things apart workshop arose as the answer to the repeated question, ‘how can I move in that direction and stay sane?’ I also come from a family of teachers; I’ve been teaching or tutoring in many places to make my living since finishing grad school in 2002. Why not teach what I’ve learned?

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Artists know that good work often arises after long contemplation of subject material. What if the subject material is particularly emotionally charged? What if the people around us can’t talk about that content, and we feel alone with it? This methodology honors the mind’s quickness at apprehending information and the heart’s slowness at making meaning. It provides artist with an externalized routine and perspective that can serve as the protective gear for considering painful evidence from the world for long periods of time. Techniques for “putting it down” and respecting one’s own capacity for contemplation are built into the practice.

I taught an early version of this methodology last Friday morning at NIU. Each participant took to it to help work through immediate blocks or difficulties with their own content. Teaching the methodology was a privilege. Every student expressed gratitude for the new tool-set, which would help them each in quite different ways.

I’m going to build it out, of course. I look forward to teaching this workshop in other places. If you have ideas for where those places might be, put them in the comments!

‘guns & consequences’ cancelled by bomb threat at NIU campus last night

Guns And Consequences was a spoken word event I organized in conjunction with the exhibition UNLOADED, which is on view at Northern Illinois University’s Art Gallery through October 24. Sponsored by the Center for Black Studies, the event was scheduled for October 8, 2015. It was cancelled by an all-campus bomb threat.

Yesterday I travelled from Milwaukee to Chicago and from Chicago to DeKalb. Josephine Burke, the musuem director who had programmed the show, picked me up at the Elburn Metra station. Elburn’s like a big taxi stand with adjacent parking lot, in the middle of cornfields.

Jo apologized for being late, she’d gotten caught behind a harvester on her drive to the station, its bits and pieces of corn and hay or whatever scattering across the road. I asked how the show UNLOADED had been received. She talked about how some people had seen the show, some of the talks had been very well attended, and how some of the campus who live with PTSD from the 2008 shooting incident could not walk into the show yet.

She mentioned offhand how she designed the installation, how she pulled walls from the gallery so visitors could find the exit if they had a panic attack. Then she realized that “a person could walk in and strafe the whole show.”

There it is, that fear that comes up, again. While designing fliers to support my own appearances – the artist talk for ungun, the flier announcing the performance-basd installation where I listen to visitors tell me their stories about guns – the tension slick with fear. Make sure the send and receive flier is deeply inclusive. I want to hear their experiences. All of their experiences. I am not collecting stories to make an argument. This is art, not argument.

Later I was setting up cameras to document spoken word performances by Nikki Patin , Tara Betts, Reginald Eldridge, Billy Tuggle, Mojdeh Stoakley. A three-camera shoot, for once! With good tripods. Art people know what I mean, the luxury of time to set up documentation, to pick your shots. I was goofing with Reggie, who was going to use this amazing AV setup to do something with images and words together. The trustee’s boardroom includes a remote like a garage door opener that lifts a screen out of the furniture . . . And the security guard came in and asked us to leave, all the buildings are being evacuated.

Nikki arrived at the room as the security guard mentioned “bomb threat”. Really? Really? Later when we’re all huddled under a little cement hutch-thing we joked about how a group that’s majority brown people go to a mostly-white college campus to talk about gun violence and there’s a bomb threat.

Stephen, the gallery manager, snapped photos with his iPhone, risking water damage – the sky had opened up as well with a pounding rain. And as we puzzled it out, as we thought about Jo’s statement that NIU closed some smaller campuses over the summer and it’s probably someone who lost a job – the threat was directed at all the buildings on the NIU campus, it’s not about us – I thought about the white guy who called in bomb threats almost once a week to my high school. This was fall of my Senior Year. Is it bad that I remember his name? Or compassionate? He had so much hatred. He would smile and fake his niceness but the poison was there, controlling 1,000 high school kids from a distance, with his phone.

Eventually the bus bringing Billy Tuggle and one audience member from the Metra mades it. And Mojdeh drove in. She talked about the strangeness of driving to a place every car was fleeing from.

I had to get back into the building to collect my suitcase; Jo needed to lock up the camera equipment. I did the fastest teardown I could. Jo inadvertently alerted security to us being in the building by pulling down a shade in the window.

We were asked to leave again, this time by a gentle Hispanic security guard who said “We chose not to hit the alarms. That would be too much.” Instead they walked through every floor of every building. This is what you do when you have a bomb threat on a college campus that survived a thing.

I thanked him for that, profusely; the evacuation was triggering enough. He said, “I’m just glad I found you in there before the dogs came through. They wouldn’t have liked finding you.” He had a long night ahead. Bomb-sniffing dogs had to visit every building on campus.

interview link [ ungun in UNLOADED at Northern Illinois University ]

The entire show explores the social and political issues surrounding firearms. It has toured other areas and is now coming to a campus that was involved in a tragic shooting in 2008.

“[Guns are] uniquely part of American history compared to other countries,” Fenlon said. “This object is used to kill more Americans than any other consumable goods or consumable objects. The climate in America is so intensely wrapped in extreme attitudes about it and extreme fear or grief.”

Suzanne Slavick, curator of the exhibit and Carnegie Mellon University art professor based in Pittsburgh, said the university was very sensitive to that aspect of the show.

“With shows like these or any artwork that deals with trauma, there is a tension between opening wounds and doing further harm,” Slavick said. “I think this show tries to give a larger picture across the country and even abroad. Hopefully it’ll provide context.”

Adam Poulisse interviewed me yesterday morning; I’m humbled by the resulting article. In it, Mr. Poulisse introduces the show UNLOADED, currently installed at Northern Illinois University.

Gun Show: NIU Art Museum highlights guns in new exhibit