Original article in German is available here: kunst
ART AS A TOOL
K.S. First of all, I am very happy that our paths cross again. Maybe you can, introductively say a bit about your background. What / where /who / when, was your entrance point into art?
J.M. I was introduced to contemporary art when I was 12, as my aunt was attending art school at that time. A few years later, when I started struggling with mental health problems I began seeing an Art Therapist (as I didn’t feel much empathy from the psychiatrists I was seeing). In therapy I was encouraged to paint and draw as a way of accessing my unconscious and as a method for expressing uncomfortable feelings. Later, as a young adult I started oil painting and was primarily self-taught. I was selling my works and reading a lot of literature and philosophy, was really isolated and struggling with my mental health. Then, after moving to Montreal in 1998, I decided to get my BFA and also got involved with the artist run centre La Centrale (which I was involved with for 7 years and ended up working there). My move to Montreal introduced other forms of art making to my art practice; video, performance, collectivity and installation.
La Centrale was a centre run by women artists for women artists (this was later redefined, after many years of struggle to change the mandate, as a feminist centre that supports contemporary art by all gender representations). At La Centrale I began a collective with artist Karen Spencer called Performance Chics. With this group of artists we experimented within the city and gallery, prioritizing collaboration and play over individualism and finished products. Later I joined the performance collective Play Group, which was more centered on collective embodiment and the use of sound, and also worked at another artist run centre with a social-political mandate (though they later removed this aspect after I moved to Germany).*
Working with animation, video, painting, drawing, installation and intervention, my interdisciplinary practice examines the complex position of culture within neoliberal capitalism and critiques modes of social control, while exploring the potential for art to function as a site of resistance and I am specifically interested in how modes of violence are perpetuated collectively through popular narratives, concepts of justice and denial of accountability.
Frequently engaging with communities and collectives, my practice eschews individual authorship in favour of collaboration. This has included an ongoing commitment to working with women and youth who are in conflict with the law, through the creation of art projects in prisons as well as at numerous centres that support marginalized people.
In 2008, I completed an MFA through the Public Art and New Artistic Strategies program at the Bauhaus University (Weimar, Germany). My work has been shown nationally and internationally in festivals, screenings, artist run centres and museums. I am currently employed as an Assistant Professor of Studio Arts at Concordia University.
*Many artist run centres (ARCs) were opened by groups of artists across Canada in the early 1970’s in response to the need for non-commercial spaces to present artworks. Over the years ARCs received funding through the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial arts funding. Though starting form more radical roots, in many ways they have become a new establishments themselves that reenforce a new status quo, so some centres are constantly rethinking their mandates and structures in an effort to revitalize the spaces. For Dare-Dare this led to moving into a mobile vehicle that moves to different locations throughout the city.
K.S. Looking at your production within the field of contemporary art today, your means are quite unusual, because they are, as you just mentioned, equally indebted to such diverse fields as documentary film, animation, political education, historical research and social work. Even though the ‘socialization’ of art has somehow become fashionable throughout the last decade – at least in Europe, one only has to think of the Documentas or countless Biennials to be reminded of what is entitled “political art” right now – this is only true for works, which do not develop from an equal relationship between these different spheres but rather use art to ‘visualize’ politics. In your work, the different levels seem to be articulated within themselves and thus able to relate to one another. How do you work?
J.M. My interest in working with marginalized communities and politics within my practice stemmed from two motivations. Firstly, I had my first solo show in Montreal and found it deeply unsatisfying. (I had proposed a piece in which I dust the gallery for fingerprints and also perform interventions in the city with the same action. This was an early attempt to address ideas of criminalization and new methods of border control, but I ended up doing a work in the gallery trying to address accessibility.) Secondly, I was finding it difficult to connect my life experiences to some kind of external social or political movement or reality. I felt alienated and isolated.
I started reading about how as mental health care facilities were being closed in Canada more and more people struggling with mental health problems were ending up living on the street. This was leading to more criminalization of homeless people and people struggling with poverty. I started thinking more about prisons and hoping that someday I could work on art projects with women there. That same year, instead of having another solo show, I decided to turn it into a residency and worked on an art project with women in the Isabel MacNeil House, Canada’s only low security federal prison (which was closed the following year in 2008 by our right wing government).
Together with the women we worked on paintings and drawings, whatever they wanted to do, that would later make up the animation We become our own wolves. I would bring books and images requested from the library (usually wolves and animals) and taught them some basic painting and drawing skills. Originally I had intended to bring in a camera and teach them stop-motion, but the prison suddenly refused this at the last minute. So with the works they created we decided as a group on what themes would appear in the work, and otherwise I reflected on the many conversations we had while painting to inform the direction of the animation. Later, I came back to visit and we had a screening in the prison.
One of the women painted some 600 paintings of animals that following year and accredited me with teaching and inspiring her! When I came back to visit she showed them all to me, some very incredible images.*
* She is one of the women participating in the documentary and was 74 years old at the time of the project.
A few weeks after this project ended I began working at Crossing Communities Art Project an art centre in Winnipeg for marginalized women and youth who are in conflict with the law. Soon thereafter I was working on a project in Montreal’s psychiatric prison, Pinel as part of a project called Agir par l’Imaginaire (hope through imagination). Although these scenarios were at first quite intimidating, I quickly started appreciating how intelligent, creative, articulate, thoughtful, generous, accepting and empathetic these marginalized people are. For example, when I’d come into Crossing to facilitate workshops women (sex-workers who are struggling with addiction and childhood trauma) would offer to make me breakfast in the kitchen. Some of these women have become my very close friends and are people I know I can turn to at any time for love, support and encouragement (hopefully they feel the same!). One friend who is serving a life sentence on parole is one of the most kind, hilarious, honest and thoughtful people I know. (When I would do “training” I would be told never to trust these people, that they weren’t safe or that they might stab me, etc. Basically I was told they were no longer human.)
So to answer your question, which I feel like it might actually take pages to do, I try to be self-reflexive in my practice, I try to place the well-being of other people before my career, I try to form long-term relationships with the people I work with and consider them as part of my community.
These relationships in turn have informed my own practice as, for example, I may not have continued on with animating had I not seen that it was a reasonably quick way to communicate differing perspectives on narratives and definitions/contradictions of human rights… and that through this medium I had an audience who would listen. Though I have maintained relationships with individuals I have had difficulty with some of the organization’s actual politics/policies. Now that I am teaching I feel I have so little time for my actual goals and interests regarding my practice, though I do try to engender collectivity, politics, risk-taking and empathy within my student’s practices.
K.S. Referring back to the last question – you are not conforming to the ‘rules of the game’, to what is institutionally acknowledged as a ‘high art’ practice – maybe most specifically because you make the social affections and bonds involved in your production visible in their processes and dissimilarities, whereas many artists do seek to hide these relations to distinguish their own authorship from them. Whats your relation to ‘art’?
J.M. Well for me, I think of art as a tool. It can help us communicate and express the inexpressible (trauma for example). It can also help us rethink the world we live in and the world we would like to live in. Art can also help us rewrite our narratives without mainstream conventions and allows for identities outside of the status quo. I don’t think I would have survived without art.
The “art world” on the other hand is more concerned with individualism, professionalism, power, status, fame, egos, and other capitalist agendas. It brings all sorts of other motivations and agendas to art, and I find it incredibly difficult to navigate this aspect of being an artist. For many people the art world sits outside of reality in a bubble somewhere. I think it is our responsibility to account for this system and its’ consequences on global politics, within and without of our practices.
K.S. You were elaborating on how you introduce yourself to the contexts in which you are working as a kind of ‘facilitator’ and ‘lever’ – offering your approach to art or the technical skills you had yourself learned in your studies to rather than represent the perspective’s of others – to rather enable them to speak or become more widely visually legible. How do you see the relation between representation and realization in your current works?
J.M. Yes, I believe it is really important to create new avenues for people to access the processes of art as I believe this allows for a political voice. With my more recent animated documentary “Where we were not” I collaborated with a few people that I have worked with and befriended over the years. In this case I asked them if they would be interested in sharing their stories of conflicts with the law or criminalization. I felt that there was a possibility for actual consent with a relationship and trust established, in a way that is not possible in many scenarios. I would later create an animation to their story, but they would also take part of this process by having discussions with me regarding symbolism, representation and consent. I received a grant for this project and all the women were also paid honorariums to participate.
So it has been a slow process so far to allow that everyone involved time has adequate time for reflection. I have interviewed the four women, then returned to have some of the women listen to all the interviews and give me feedback (and voice concerns). It has been a little difficult to visit them all though, as the women live across Canada. We had a screening and talk in Winnipeg that Alexus helped facilitate, this led to invitations for her to present the video at a Cop Watch Conference, next thing I knew her photo and quotes were in Xtra magazine! Now universities are interested in purchasing the video and we are intending to save the money to pay for her pardon, so she can travel outside of Canada.
In some of my other works I am starting to look at my own life story and address my personal experiences with trauma, poverty, mental health problems and childhood sexual abuse. Formally I am experimenting with mixing text, found footage and animation within my video work and have also begun a graphic novel.
K.S. I’d like to stick with the question of identification for a little more. You have been referring to your own experiences, traumas and struggles as a motor within your work, but also you do not treat art as a 1:1 medium of self-expression. Its much less the idea of an ‘unmediated’ expression which rises from your productions as far as I know them but much more an overwhelming sense of mediation as a very material social process. The medium where speaking in here, Hugs n Kisses, defines itself a ‘queer’ magazine – also the specific theme of this issue is ‘queer’ – what is your relation to the concept of ‘queer’ in your artistic production?
J.M. Hmmm, that is difficult. Other than the fact that I identify as queer, I have collaborated for years with various trans people in my work, and gender identity and transphobia have also been subjects of some of my works. Aside from that, I feel the low-brow aesthetic of my animations also makes them queer. They are accessible, I do not hide or try to mystify my artistic processes. Another big part of what makes my work queer is audience; the audiences that seem to most appreciate my practice are primarily queer/lesbian/gay/bi/exploring (but that is just about everybody, no?). I also have my videos distributed by feminist and queer-friendly centers (Bildwechsel and GIV).
K.S. Do you think that the fact that your work is focusing on marginalization and finding the terms of gender in that marginalization, rather than first identifying the gender to than look at the social role makes your work also more generally approachable for an understanding of ‘queer’ that consists in the potential social generalization of queer – rather than its identification as a peer group? or well, that s what I’ hope – what do you think?
J.M. Yes, I agree with you. I am discovering the many nuances of how gender and sexuality are informed by marginalization (and vice-versa). I do not see queerness as a primary identifier or foundation of identity, more as a method for structuring it. I guess the best way of putting this is; I am not seeking to reinforce my queerness with my work, but rather just keep ending up in the queer when pursuing the realities of marginality. Prisons are gendered, First Nations communities are destroyed by patriarchic-capitalist-colonialist agendas/genocide (including the destruction of beliefs around the important role of two-spirited peoples in a community), psychiatry defines mental illness and normality (including at one time homosexuality and today gender dysphoria) through analyzing and diagnosing the individual and not society, sex-work’s attempts at decriminalization are denied by feminist interpretations of victimization, etc. Power operates in ways that deny multiplicity of identity, including gender. (Though contemporary ideas of labour in global capitalism depend on the flexible personality*).
* see Brian Holmes, The Flexible Personality.
K.S. I remember that Ulrike Müller form LTTR once told me that she taught a course in Vienna at the Art Academy and she encouraged her students to find a German translation for the term – which did not work out but was in fact an endless process of twisting and turning the gender terms of German as a language, ending up, again and again at ‘entartet’ /’degenerate’. i think this is very interesting in relation to the usage of ‘queer’ in Germany, because in the simple repetition of the English term, no associations are made within the lived language and its politics, and it can easily be transferred into a simple label of excellence or of style. In how far do you thing ‘queer’ in art and politics can be used beyond such a mark of identification?
J.M. I would sincerely hope it is not just a mark of identification! I believe in shifting the ways we experience, look at and represent gender and sexuality, we simultaneously rethink the ways we think about identity, privilege, power, the economy, justice, migration, the body, health, race, ability, community, nations, family, survival, love, etc.
Kerstin Stakemeier (born 1975) is a writer and organizer. She currently works in a Berlin-based gallery and is a researcher in Theory at the Jan van Eyck Academy, Maastricht. Stakemeier is also completing her PhD in the History of Art at University College, London. Most of her practice is realized in collaboration with others, often with Christiane Ketteler and Johannes Paul Raether. From 2007 to 2008 she ran the Space for Actualization, Hamburg together with Nina Köller, working together with artists, musicians, and writers to actualize fragments of the past. Stakemeier’s writings are published in magazines such as Afterall,Jungle World, Phase 2, and Texte zur Kunst. She is currently working on reformulations of realism as a take on artistic production. Stakemeier lives and works in Berlin and Maastricht.