Tom Beckett: Where did/does art begin for you?
I suppose that, for me, it comes down to a certain way of seeing. Everything has an inherent art potential and somehow I have to see it. I have to find a way to have those kind of eyes.
The easy answer is that my work begins in my diary. Every morning when I wake up, I make a cup of coffee and get back in bed with my diary. I write for as long as I want. That flood of slang and swear words and totally ineloquent run-on sentences somehow rinses my eyes out. It cleans out my filters. I’m more able to see the art potential that surrounds every facet of my day. So maybe WORDS is the answer? For me, Art begins in the desire for language.
TB: I’m going to want to circle back in a little while to the response you just made, but what I need to ask you now is: if that’s the easy answer to my question, what’s the knottier one?
Haha! I knew I shouldn’t have said that!
Honestly, the question sorta stumps me. I’m not exactly sure how to answer it. I’m not sure where art begins for me because I can’t see where it ends. It’s such a big, banal part of my life that it’s hard to locate where art isn’t. So much of how I determine what is and is not my “art” happens in retrospect. And I’m pretty lenient when it comes to defining art. My practice itself is such a great big, wide open thing. Taking a walk is as much a part of my practice as actually sitting down to write or make a drawing. When I was really young, I had this masochistic outlook that I couldn’t call myself an artist unless I painted 6 hours a day. I was chalk full of these romantic ideas of what made an Artist and who could claim to be one, largely determined by cinematic representations and my own teenage longing for a romantic life. J Now, I can see how simply taking a walk down the street is as valuable as flinging paint around. Maybe even more valuable. I can see how going out and getting drunk with my friends is part of the process. I scribble about the experiences I have and sometimes they wind up becoming part of poem. And then later, that poem spews out a single line of text which snags my heart and won’t let go and haunts me as I walk to work, as I walk to get a burrito, as I walk home from the bar. It haunts me until I do something with it. Maybe that’s where the art begins: when the haunt of the thing forces a response.
TB: Was there a breakthrough thing you made or text you wrote that repurposed or reorganized your thinking about what you were capable of doing (or that really changed your direction as an artist)? If so, please feel free to include it as part of your response.
All the pieces I’ve made that felt really honest and really took a lot of self trust to make, feel like breakthroughs to me but there was a particular piece that really helped me turn a corner in my own practice. I made my first crochet artwork as a result of slipping a disk. I was trapped in bed, flat on my back, for a month. My art practice was at a stand-still. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t paint. I was in so much pain that really all I could do were things that required next to no movement. I had to crawl slowly down the hallway just to go to the bathroom. It was awful. But I could write and I could read and I could crochet. I decided to let that be enough.
At that point, I had a pretty rudimentary understanding of crochet as a skill. I knew a few basic stitches and, spending days inside the warm patience of a Vicodin haze, I was able to teach myself how to render lettering through tapestry crochet. My first piece was a table-runner that read: IN THE NAME OF MASS HYSTERIA. I was thinking a lot those days about female hysteria and what a horrible joke that diagnosis was… that a woman’s natural state was expected to be one of happy passivity and to be angry or dissatisfied was totally unacceptable. So unacceptable as to be pathologized.
TB: I had back surgery for two crushed disks when I was 35. So I’m familiar with the kind of pain you’re talking about. Familiar too with the Vicodin haze. I spent a good chunk of time in bed reading Blake and scribbling incoherently. Didn’t achieve, though, anything as elegant as your “IN THE NAME OF MASS HYSTERIA.”
That work, in its impulse and style, reminds me of the agitprop kind of pieces that Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer have made. Which leads to the question: as a writer and visual artist, who do you think of as your forebears?
Goddamn! Sorry to hear about your back! Makes my sciatica burn just hearing about it. Eeesh! I sympathize with that agony entirely. I think it’s hard for people to understand this level and type of pain unless they’ve sustained a back injury as well. It’s simply indescribable. Being born naturally optimistic, I’ve tried to find the silver lining to this particular physical ailment and I am, at times, genuinely grateful for the insights that have resulted; specifically those related to ableism in our culture. Being confined to bed is a unique experience that really turns up the volume on how we treat (and hide) disability. It makes me so grateful for every day that I am able to get up and walk. It makes me value my physical strength (when I have it) and the youth I still enjoy in a much deeper, more poignant way than I would have otherwise. It helps me appreciate my mortality in a more individual, solid, specific way: I can feel my mortality. This, in and of itself, has made me a much more thoughtful human being and a much more thoughtful, serious artist. Being trapped in bed for weeks at a time definitely gave me a lot of time to think. And read. And write. And it’s definitely in the landscape of crochet where my writing practice and visual practice finally found a place to overlap.
Jenny Holzer was an instant favorite and is an artist I routinely turn to simply for pleasure’s sake. I love looking at her work! I love how participatory it is, and how poetic. I love that her work makes room for poetry in places we aren’t used to finding it; poetry that has come off the page and scurries across the walls of museums and billboards. I appreciate this so much and her work just makes me so excited! Barbara Kruger too! Beyond the overlap of writing and visual art, we share an affinity for the black & white aesthetic. I’m not nearly as politically motivated as she is (at least not overtly), but I’ve been so encouraged by her work to continue in the feminist vein and not shy away from my politic. Not for a second. The work of Louise Bourgeois has been one of the biggest influences on my practice so far. I turn to her work constantly. There aren’t many days I don’t find myself looking at and thinking about her work. The details of the Cells… that blanket that reads “j’taime” over and over and over down the length of its’ entirely shook my heart so hard when I saw it… the way it makes art and emotion an actual space one can inhabit physically… like actually being able to curl up into a poem. I would think about that when reading the poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton and, later, Sharon Olds and Rebecca Loudon. I’d think, “God, I wish these poems were blankets that I could just wrap myself up in and hide under”. Had I not been injured, maybe I wouldn’t have had these thoughts? I wouldn’t have needed them.
David Wojnarowicz is also a major influence on my life and practice. It’s his refrain “smell the flowers while you can” that I scribble on abandoned couches on the street. I stole it from the postscript to his essay ‘The Suicide Of A Guy Who Once Built An Elaborate Shrine Over A Mouse Hole’. He’s just so fucking smart and so passionate and not at all afraid to be romantic… to make a show of his love for the world and for other humans. That’s a trait I admire and find horribly lacking in the world. Especially in the art world. I like romance. I like being and feeling poetic. It’s fun. These shouldn’t be slurs.
Annette Messager, Tracey Emin, Ed Ruscha, Kiki Smith, Terence Koh, and Francesca Woodman are total pillars in my life and bookcase. I’ve slept with my Francesca Woodman book in the bed next to me for weeks.
TB: We’ve talked a little bit about where you think your art comes from, a little bit about who you see as your forebears; and you’ve spoken a bit, as well, to how you want to be and feel poetic—the importance of romance in your practice. What I’m wondering is what do you think art can do? And what kinds of things do you want the art you make do?
I mean, honestly, I think art can do anything. It can also do nothing. Art can just as likely save a life as piss off an entire country or command absolutely no attention at all. There really are no limits to what art can do, be, and accomplish; or not accomplish. I think I stopped needing art to be some sort of cultural savior a few years ago when I realized that I personally didn't appreciate being put in the role of savior, nursemaid, or saint in my personal dealings with other people. And casting off those titles and roles, dealing with the painful fallout that can't be avoided from refusing such titles and expectations, taught me a lot about why new art is (at first) sometimes met with such disdain and contempt. Refusing to fulfill expectations is something art has always circled back around to doing. It's something art has to do and something I very much appreciate. But it's something I had to learn how to appreciate and I really struggled with that for a long time. I thought art had to be a certain way- be made with certain materials, deal with certain topics, yadda yadda yadda. It took me awhile to see that that is such a closed way to look at something. Anything, actually. And that the closed way I was viewing art actually belied the way I was thinking about and responding to my own life. Art needs to circle around to ignoring expectations perhaps because humans need to as well, to simply achieve being oneself... which isn't at all a simple thing. The openness of Art testifies to the openness a mind can achieve, and the openness the world can achieve. It makes me feel good when people like my work or experience a sense of kinship with me because of it but, honestly, that's totally out of my control. I can't force that type of response and I don't even think about getting that response when I'm writing or making something. I think primarily of myself and my own need to record and share my experiences; mostly in the hopes of finding out how absolutely non-unique my experiences are. Something happens in the process of writing and making that allows me to feel attached to my own humanity. Even in moments when I felt most alone and most isolated, the process of creation itself gave me hope that maybe that wasn't the case... the creative act itself reassuring me that, even if it feels like it, I'm not screaming into a void. Or even if I am, so what? The scream itself is valuable. The scream itself needs to BE. But I'm not sure I know what I want my art to do beyond satisfy my own need to get the scream out. I like feeling heard. Everyone does.
I installed a new yarnbomb a few days ago on a street corner and then went and got dinner. As I headed back home, it was a lot of fun to watch people stop and read the text. it felt good to watch them stop walking, tilt their heads to the side, and consider the sentiment in front of them. In this particular instance, it was a banner that read THE WAY YOU NEED TO BE LOVED and I really got off on seeing this. I didn't need people to know it was my work. it was more than enough to just have it be out in the world, working whatever magic it might work without me standing there next to it to guard it or explain it or influence the experience of others as they encounter it. I hope that people think about the way they need to be loved. If it provokes that type of inner dialogue, that would be fantastic, but what the piece has already accomplished is making me meditate on that idea. My art nurtures and challenges me. it makes me look at myself and then makes me look beyond myself.
TB: There’s a risk and an erotics in this. I have often remarked that the reception of a poem—or work of art—is akin to that prompted by an unsolicited kiss.
I like that! There’s certainly the risk of getting slapped, as it were, for stealing a kiss. Not everyone likes the stuff I do on the street. Pieces have been slashed and thrown in to the street. A few pieces were even set on fire. It amazed me that the work provoked such a violent response but you raise a good point: if the reception of these pieces is akin to how one might react to a stolen kiss, a violent response is justified. Especially since this work is taking place in public. I’m not asking permission to show the work. I’m not waiting for my turn to speak. I’m taking my turn and I’m taking up space. But back to the topic of erotics for a moment: it was definitely a pleasurable moment of voyeurism to witness other people read my work and know they had no idea that the artist responsible for the piece was watching them. Very pleasurable.
TB: I want to return to the point where, at the beginning of our exchange, you suggested that “For me, Art begins in the desire for language.” Could you flesh that out a bit? I’m interested in finding out more about your process. Maybe you could take me through how you came to make some particular work.
I mean, it’s very much like how children point at objects which are new to them and ask, “What’s that? What’s that?” It’s curiosity. But that sounds really thin. It’s a deep love of my own curiosity. And maybe even simply a deep love for the world at large. I want to know what things are. I want to know their names. In learning about the outside, I learn about the inside. During the last few years especially, I’ve become increasingly concerned with knowing who I actually am. Not who I thought I was or who I’d been brought up to be, but who I truly was. The embarrassing shit. The dark shit. The scary shit… The things that I perhaps once thought would never apply to me. One day you wake up and are confronted with the fact that you’re just as capable of being bad, selfish, and fucked up as everyone else. That was a reckoning. Still is. I appreciate those moments so much because those are the environments in which I’ve learned a greater depth of honesty. Or the true depth of my bravery… sometimes even the true depth of my cowardice.
My diary has called me out more than a few times. There have been these really strange, horrible mornings when I flipped back through previous volumes of the diary because I playfully wondered, “What was I doing on this day three years ago?” I find the correct page and am confronted with the horrifying fact that I’d been making the same complaints about life three years prior that I had just made that very morning when I was scribbling in the current volume. SO EMBARRASSING! Amazingly, brutally embarrassing! But it’s moment like those that have given me the strength to pull whatever trigger I’d been afraid of pulling. It’s moments like that which showcased my own cowardice in such a way as to give rise to a greater strength of will and a more solid self-esteem. Those texts are often the ones that become the basis of a blog post or a piece of art. With a few exceptions, pretty much all the sweaters and banners bare a sentiment that came straight from the pages of my diary. And usually the sentiments nod at (or straight up disclose) a truth I am uncomfortable with and feel called out by. When this project first started, I wanted to walk around with snippets from my diary on my chest as a way to get comfortable with certain facts about my life. I needed to make peace with my Self and my history. It became a test of courage to see if I could really wear certain statements out of the house. It didn’t really matter if other people “got it” or not. I knew I was exposing something fragile about myself. I knew I was turning my body into a billboard. I wanted to be dry-eyed and stoic, stomping down the street to work, while broadcasting a hard truth about my life. For awhile, I nicknamed the project “sweaters of death” because the work largely dealt with the massive trauma of my mother’s death. It was important to me to be open about a subject that our culture is so closed to. I wanted to offer up my experiences as common fodder for discourse or attack simply because I was pissed off that there aren’t many spaces in our culture to talk about death and mortality. The hardest sweater to wear out of the house at that time was the one that reads I WILL NOT DIE IN FRONT OF YOU. People would read it as I walked by and then I’d watch their faces crinkle up. It was a turn off. And I was okay with it being a turn off. I just had to learn to see this work as more than making sweaters. I had to see it for what it really was: performance. I needed to find a way to let the sweaters function as an armor as well as a billboard.
And then they went beyond the subject of my mom’s death into different realms. Desire, fear, loneliness, horniness. In that work, I’ve opened up about so many things that I didn’t foresee speaking about, at least not in such an overt way. There’s something about the meditative quality about crocheting though that helped me become comfortable with exploring sides of myself I tend to keep intensely private. Some of my projects take weeks to resolve. I’m meditating on the sentiment the piece bares the entire time. It’s a catharsis and a reckoning at once.
TB: Thank you, Angela.