Artist Interview: Indira Allegra

Today we share a brief interview with Indira Allegra, an artist who works with tension as creative material through sculpture, installation, and text/ile performance. Indira Allegra is one of four artists featured in Take Care, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery through January 13, 2018.

Take Care is organized in partnership with the Metropolitcan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force and aims to shed light on systemic barriers to quality healthcare through the lens of breast cancer. This group exhibition explores themes of care and community, vulnerability and support, by way of painting, photography, immersive sound, and text.

Did My Tumor Exhale A Memory of You?, 2017, 4-channel sound installation, view from Weinberg/Newton Gallery

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your work in Take Care, Did My Tumor Exhale A Memory of You? (2017), is a 4-channel immersive sound installation that, at once, makes us feel as though we are inside the safety of the womb, while knowing we are in fact posited to be inside a malignant tumor. How did you arrive at the idea of placing the viewer inside the body, perhaps even inside a representation of your own body?

Indira Allegra: I truly believe anything with blood flow has memory and memory is a space that can be entered. We know tumors can be entered by blood or the steel edge of a scalpel so the question was never, “Can a tumor be entered?” but “On what scale must the tumor exist for the entirety of one’s body to enter that organ of memory?” Did My Tumor Exhale A Memory of You, makes this organ of memory large enough for our bodies to slip through its membrane. I’ve had two tumors removed from my body in two years – in each case I had to wonder what knowing these masses were holding for me. After this last surgery, I began to wonder how the memory in my tumor might actually be dispersed once it was incinerated – how something so unwittingly intimate could now be dispersed as smoke through the act of incineration and inhaled by other people. It startled me to think that perhaps I had been inhaling the memories of other peoples’ tumors my whole life. 

WNG: In your artist statement you talk about using tension as creative material, which we can certainly feel in this installation. It possesses a simultaneous sensation of comfort and terror, in large part due to the sound. The singing channel is particularly haunting and I can’t help but draw a parallel to the myth of the “siren song” – a deceptive seduction. Everything in the installation contributes to this feeling – from the warmth of the space to the vibrancy of color emanating from the corner of the room as one’s eyes slowly adjust to the darkness. All the elements draw us in towards the soft, lulling sound of your voice, but like the Siren draws a sailor to their death, you draw us into the cancer. Can you tell us more about your relationship to tension? And more specifically, about settling in and living/working in that space of tension?

IA: Ah wow. Yes. Well I relate to tension as a material as it is something I can feel with my body and also feel outside of my body in space or between people. Like other materials, tension seems to vary in density and quantity – with multiple tensions able to act on a person or place at once. Like other materials, tension can be created, carried, shaped or released. It is the stuff in our backgrounds that pulls on our personalities, and bends our bodies toward illness or injury. It is the stuff in our collective histories that ‘stretches us thin’ causing us to cycle through fight, flight or freeze responses in relation to politicians or policies. From the resistance of our bones to gravity to the resistance of social movements to the powers that be – tension is the medium all of us are made of. It exists in abundance.

When I arrived at the hospital last year for my first surgery, I felt a dense - heavy twist in my stomach when the man at the counter could not – for a moment – determine if my insurance was actually in-network. So suddenly, a primary tension was created between my need for care and the hospital’s desire to guarantee payment in a society where people who cannot pay often do not receive the treatment they need. A secondary tension arose for me surrounding my fear of being abandoned emotionally by white members of my care team due to longstanding histories of racism and racist abuse of Black and Native women by the medical industrial complex. Then a third tension developed –would the presence of my genderqueer partner be respected as my family member in this setting? The receptionist was looking us both over, asking again if my partner should be considered family to me…

In each of these cases, the experience of being pulled between forces - between my needs and boundaries and the hospital’s needs and boundaries - had a real impact on my body. These were tensions felt also by my partner standing next to me at the counter. The tension in the room was undeniable and palpable. For me, as a queer woman of color and as a low-income person, this palpability of tension is something I encounter multiple times a day on a daily basis. So much so, I have a fluency in the feeling of it. A hyper-literacy associated with the reading of social silence. And then what? How to work with a material that is both exhausting and inexhaustible in its supply? My training as a weaver affords me the patience to investigate pattern and structure (over and over again), my work as a poet allows me to craft connections between disparate bodies. My past experience as a sign language interpreter engenders an impulse in me to create texts through the movement of the body. 

Indira Allegra, Text for Did My Tumor Exhale A Memory of You?, 2017

WNG: Let’s discuss the title of this piece, “Did my tumor exhale a memory of you?” You also did a performance piece earlier this year titled, “What do tumors know that we forget when they are cut from the body?” – this line is embedded within the text of your sound installation, as well. Can you explain to us your perspective on tumors having memory?

IA: In my case, each of my tumors was a convergence of different kinds of tissues overpopulating a small area. But what pain from this overpopulation. I am lucky my tumors were benign medically, but energetically, there was nothing benign about them. Growing in the crease of my hip and another surrounding my ovary, each crowding of cells was an overpopulation of ungrieved events triggered by environmental toxins and genetic predispostions. I feel my body created a room for every ungrieved thing in these tissues. That is the double-edged, nature of the cell - it confines energies, people and objects even as it is able to multiply. Everyone has a (necessarily) different understanding of their tumor(s) but for me – my understanding is that my tumors were holding ungrieved memories that were too heavy for me to consciously articulate as a written or spoken text. So my body created another kind of text – ones that grew quietly until they could no longer be ignored.

WNG: You worked closely with Take Care curator, Kasia Houlihan, on the physical execution of this piece – communicating ideas and sharing sketches over many months together. As an artist, how would you describe that process of having an extensive project idea and trusting someone else with the care of seeing it through?

IA: Working with Kasia was a dream. Without ever having met each other, I felt we each extended a kind of trust to each other via email. She communicated her respect and professionalism to me outright by asking how much I would need to make the work. Her flexibility with my residency schedule at the Headlands Center for the Arts this summer, was another significant offering. Also, Kasia did not ask for every detail of the work to be described to her in one go, and that was a great relief  – to be able to reveal to her the shape of the work as it became clear to me. Because that’s how artists work – we discover things as we go along. Her questions were often helpful prompts for me to sit down and think – hmmm, what material should the floor be made of?.

When I stated a need around temperature, color, material, sound etc. Kasia sprung into action to see how we could make it happen or who she could talk to on her end to get advice about it. I loved that. I appreciated that so much. When, as an artist, a curator expresses equal investment (and encouragement) in the development of a work – it really, really helps. It was Kasia’s ‘let’s-do-this-and-communicate-in-detail’ attitude about making things happen and sharing information that made it a joy to trust her. I don’t know any artists who make work because it is easy or because they think art should be beautiful – I know folks who make work because it is best way they know how to articulate really difficult or really critical questions about or responses to aspects of the lived experience. That means making work can sometimes be very stressful. When you feel that a curator is on your team, it makes you feel that you can really focus on wrestling with the tension in the work instead of the tension in your body around upcoming deadlines.

Indira Allegra, Sketch of Did My Tumor Exhale A Memory of You?, 2017

WNG: You’re about to take off for a month long residency at Djerassi, what do you plan to work on while you’re there?

IA: Oh, I’m doing more work on the Bodywarp series in an old abandoned barn. It is a series wherein I get to switch roles and go from being the weaver to being the thread and put the tension in my body on the loom as creative material. I get to submit to the loom in a way, to trust the loom with the weight of me not just the weight of my expectations for the cloth being produced. You can see some of the work at my solo show opening January 6th, 2018 at The Alice Gallery in Seattle. Otherwise, I’m just catching up on the million little things that go into the business of being an artist – editing this, uploading that, updating this, re-writing that. At Djerassi, they talk a lot about giving artists “the gift of time” to “just be” and it is truly such a relief to be honest. I wish we did not have to contend with a society that is so completely bullied by the (perceived) scarcity of time. People forget that artists go through periods of rest, research, incubation and reorganization of our archives like everyone else. Sometimes days in studio include afternoons and evenings at the computer crafting paragraphs for grants and applications, statements and interviews. In this case, it was my pleasure to “just be” with your questions. 

To learn more about Indira Allegra visit her website and follow her on Instagram @indiraallegra