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

Artist Interview: The Think Tank That Has Yet To Be Named

Today we share a brief interview with The Think Tank that has yet to be named, a social design collaborative that initiates research, conversations, and actions that explore contemporary sociopolitical issues in the places where we encounter them. The Think Tank’s work is 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.

What do you do to support yourself that contributes to your quality of life?
, 2017, Mixed media, 20 x 24 x 20 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your work has a very important place in Take Care. It communicates information to the viewer in a clear, direct, yet intimately personal way. The design feels formal, yet invites us to scribble our fears & concerns alongside it. For Take Care, you transformed your ongoing project, Structures of Support, to focus on health and healthcare. Can you give us a bit of background on the evolution of this project and how you implemented it for this exhibition?

The Think Tank that has yet to be named: Structures of Support came out of an awareness of the conditions which allowed some people to take risks, fail, succeed, and have a safety net to fall back on. We were interested in trying to learn why that was and to share the stories of individuals. Our hope was that this would allow others to see invisible support they already had, share their resources with others, and build more robust support for those who were lacking. The project has been ongoing since 2012 in a variety of different forms–surveys, interviews, data visualizations, and workshops. For Take Care, we were invited to explore some of these same questions with a specific lens on healthcare. It was exciting to think about how this work would interface with other responses to the topic. How would data visualizations and participatory elements work next to sophisticated artistic responses to the notion of care? Another concern for us was working carefully with Weinberg/Newton Gallery in support of the Metropolitan Chicago Breast Cancer Task Force. We wanted to make sure that the stories and data we gathered amplified the profound work of the Task Force, and thus we had several back-and-forth conversations about the specific language used across the work.

WNG: All the text from your pieces is culled from a survey of poignant questions related to healthcare. I found these to be very thought provoking in their language. The question, “What support are you lacking? (emotionally, spiritually, physically, and creatively),” prioritizes the notion that healthcare and taking care of one’s self encompasses more than just physical health. And the pairing of the two questions, “How many people do you feel personally responsible to care for?”  and “Who cares for you and how?” both acknowledge the limits of how our healthcare system views us. Can you elaborate on how you choose the language that allows for honest and vulnerable answers?

TT: When we started this project, we began exploring different ways that we could collect individuals’ stories and share them in a public way through unconventional data visualizations. We worked with a social scientist with a background in creating ethical surveys, and she helped us to understand what, how, and why to gather information. We try to only ask questions that we know we will use in our work, which means we often avoid traditional demographic questions and instead focus on qualitative questions. These questions lead to richer answers, allow the participant to articulate their own experience through the act of answering questions, and allows the viewer to make connections between themselves and others while reading the collection. We learn a lot through making the work, and one of the things that has become clear through creating the work in Take Care is that we need to articulate the gaps between what the heathcare system is and what heathcare could be. What it means to truly care for oneself (and others) is so vastly different than what our system of heathcare provides. Perhaps through seeing some of those gaps, we can begin to develop other ways to support each other (within the system and beyond). 

How would you describe the healthcare system / your health?, 2017, Mixed media, 75 x 9 x 10.25 inches

WNG: What else have you all as creators learned from the healthcare based survey results? And, as social facilitators, do you have any strategies in the works for how communities can begin to address some of these shared concerns regarding healthcare?

TT: One of the things we have learned is how different the answers can be to the same question based on context. For example, we have asked “What do you worry about?” since the first version of this project. The specificity of the lens on heathcare allowed participants to delve deeper and explore their specific worries about their health and the health of the people around them. We are excited to see the possibilities of this as we work on other versions of the project. In regards to strategies, we work in different ways depending on the project; in an exhibition, visualizations work well because they can be experienced by individuals at different times. We have led workshops for community groups, students, and within galleries as well. We are interested in igniting a conversation through the patterns that are exposed in the work; we hopefully make space for greater understanding amongst our participants, but we try not to dictate strategies for how future projects develop amongst our participants. 

What do you worry about?, (detail) 2012 - ongoing,  Mixed media, 121 x 102 inches 

WNG: In your statement you mention that the underlying question of much of your work is, “What happens when people in communities see themselves and their own power?” – can you unpack this idea a bit for us?

TT: Our practice builds structures that allow people to learn from each other about how to meet real challenges they face. We devise ways to visualize community reflection–a place to locate and share knowledge, understanding, grief, and challenges. In so many communities, a pervasive feeling of invisibility affects the ability of people to recognize their own assets, much less strategically coordinate the sharing of these assets. Through reflection, communities can build knowledge by visualizing what they already have. And through this, they can see their own power. 

In this way, we are intentional about not designing for outcomes. We want the work to be a reflection, but hopefully also a spark that can sometimes lead to an ignition. As artists, our role isn’t to facilitate the solving of problems or the building of campaigns or institutions. We are careful not to colonize the work of others, so we make no suggestions or recommendations of how others do their work. Our intervention is intentionally temporary and purposefully focused on reflection as a tool for seeing the collective self.

Structures of Support: Health and Healthcare Interviews, (detail) 2017, Mixed media, 146 x 136 inches

WNG: It seems that research is a large part of your collective practice, you even include a section on your website devoted to compilations of reading material – free to download. What are The Think Tank’s various modes of research?

TT: Early on in our practice, reading together was essential. The Readers are a product of that practice. We would focus on a topic, or a confluence of ideas, then each set out to share readings over a set time frame. Those compilations felt especially valuable when grouped, so we decided to make them available to others. 

It was later, as we each individually engaged in both a co-design and community organizing practice in our “work life,” that we started to deploy different research methodologies in the Think Tank. From our professional co-design work together, we brought to the Think Tank an ethnographic research component including interviews and surveys. It wasn’t until the Structures of Support project that we really started to value the effects produced by both the qualitative and quantitative, and most importantly, the space between them. In fact, we’ve found in some cases the quantitative fails miserably to share a viable and useful story.  But when shown next to qualitative data, a richness emerges. These discoveries feel like good fortune, as we are not scientists. We need not even attempt to convey neutrality in the presentation of the data we collect. The presentation of the data is curated and designed for visual impact to distill a clear story of what we learned from the full data set, but also to forefront notions of support.

WNG: What are some of the sociopolitical issues you hope to address further in the future?

TT: We have a broad set of interests collectively and maintain a research methodology that allows us to tap into most ideas. Because of that, we are opportunity driven. Our process helps us engage in many different kinds of conversations, but we typically focus on making visible inequities and the possible support structures that bridge gaps created by inequity. We’d love to focus our energy more deeply on some ideas the SOS project has only touched on so far like: gender, economics, education and the convergence of place, landscape, and belonging.

Take Care Installation at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 2017
Structures of Support: Health and Healthcare Interviews, 2017 (left), What do you worry about?, 2012 - ongoing (right)

Stay tuned as The Think Tank takes over our Instagram this coming week 10/30 - 11/4

To learn more about The Think Tank that has yet to be named, visit their website.