Artist Interview: Judith Brotman

Today we share an interview with Judith Brotman, one of six artists that make up the exhibition, The Tip of My Tongue, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from January 26 - March 17, 2018.

The Tip of My Tongue is organized in partnership with the Chicago Literacy Alliance and aims to draw out the complexities of language as a tool not only for communication but also for connection, discovery, and growth. This group exhibition takes an expansive approach to the theme of literacy as it explores the many issues caught up in the web of words we each navigate, from notions of identity and belonging, to autonomy and self-expression. Through sound, color, book arts, and text, this group of works by six Chicago-based artists provides access points to a multiplicity of voices, ideas, viewpoints, and conversations.

New Word, 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Your piece New Word, holds a significant place in this exhibition centered on an expansive approach to literacy. New Word consists of 1,000 words uniquely invented by you and written across the gallery walls. Visitors are invited to cross out a word and keep it as their own. You’ve even created a contract for them to sign stating that you, the artist, promise not to give this word to anyone else. We’ve had an overwhelmingly excited response to this project, people seem struck by the notion of having a word that is all their own to place meaning to. You preface the work with a quote from the Zohar: “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” --a beautiful sentiment. Can you tell us a little about how you conceived of this idea and the origin of that quote?

Judith Brotman: The Zohar is considered to be the most important text (13th Century) in the Jewish mystical tradition or Kabbalah.  I find much of the Kabbalistic writing deeply moving although I am not a practitioner in any literal sense of the word.  The phrase, “I have been pursuing this word all the days of my life” (this translation is from Daniel Matt’s The Essential Kabbalah) is the inspiration for my project, New Word.  I take this passage to mean that we—each of us—have a central core focus.  If we live our lives with our eyes open—mindfully—we will come closer and closer to the essence of who we are over the course of a lifetime.  I don’t think of this as an easy process, quite the opposite. My hope is that the gift of a word might inspire you to engage a bit more deeply in this process.  On the other hand, the word is a gift and the “owner” is not actually obliged to do anything whatsoever. All of my work is concerned with the possibility, but not the certainty, of transformation.  I am extremely interested in the fact that we are faced with continual choices each and every day and in how these choices play out over a lifetime. Some, of course, matter far more than others, although it’s not always clear in advance which ones will be most significant.  Most of my projects, including New Word, involve what I call “complicated generosity.”  On the one hand, I am giving something away that is rather appealing.  However, I do have an underlying wish that in, accepting this gift, you might take on the obligation or challenge of pursing your word.  Defining what I mean by complicated generosity is a bit tricky. I certainly believe in generosity and think our world needs a whole lot more of it!  I also think people are complex and their motivations are, too. This includes the motivation to be generous. Rather than this being a criticism of generosity--it is not--I think of it as a reminder to be paying attention to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

WNG: An interesting conversation arose about this piece during one of our high school workshops. Someone posed the question, “Can words have ownership?” -- I’ve personally seen this piece as less about ownership of a word and more about the gifting of something more akin to a meditation phrase, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on that.

JB: Great question about the possibility of words having ownership! I worked with an attorney in the writing of the contract for this project and I was curious about that, too.  In fact, a word cannot be copyrighted and anyone can theoretically use “your selected word” from New Word.  If you read the New Word contract carefully, one of the things it indicates is that I personally won’t give your word to anyone else but it doesn’t (and cannot) prohibit anyone else from using it. That said, you are correct that the piece is not truly about literal ownership. It is about a kind of meaning, understanding, and value that has the potential of revealing itself over time only if you have made a commitment to paying close attention. The contract, which as I mentioned was drawn up by an attorney, also indicates that you can’t sue me in regards to your word!  This was not something I would have thought to add, but the attorney was quite insistent about its being in the document. I hope it doesn’t detract from the gifting aspect of the piece!

New Word (detail), 2018, 1,012 invented words, graphite 127 x 44.5 inches

WNG: You also have an audio piece in this exhibition titled The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You Are There). I’ve poured over this piece a number of times and find it incredibly evocative. The Chicago Literacy Alliance’s mission is not only to provide the tools necessary to be functionally literate, but also to promote a life-long love of reading and writing. Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others. Your audio piece in many ways exemplifies the second half of this mission. It feels very journalistic, like a record of personal history or even a description of an imagined future. Each section of the audio begins with the line, “One day when you are very far from home…” -- are you speaking to yourself in this piece?

JB: My intention in this audio piece is to narrate to “you.”  I have talked about complicated generosity and I think that it’s embedded in this piece, too.  I sometimes describe this piece (and others I’ve made) as a mixture of: 1) a horoscope for your future  2) a push for you to wake up and smell the flowers and 3) my need to be bossy. The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There) includes over 100 mini fictions of what will happen to you one day when you are far from home. They are all very different, one from the next, but just as an example:

“One day when you are very far from home, you will meet God during intermission in a concert hall. You have a lifetime of questions you’ve been saving for this encounter but you’re distracted by being insanely attracted to God. Instead of asking God why life is filled with so much pain and misery, you ask God out for a date. Things go well.” 

I began writing this piece while I was on sabbatical leave in Vienna and Prague; I was very far from home. Most of the scenarios have some tiny inflection of something I experienced while I was away. It is not typically obvious what that component is; I don’t intend for it to be. The rest is invention often in a kind of dreamlike/parallel universe way.  People often tell me these scenarios seem real despite the strangeness of them. I think it’s a result of the infusion of something that I actually experienced no matter how small that component is. The situations move rapidly from ordinary to ecstatic to erotic to disturbing and back again. Things don’t always go the way you might have planned…sometimes better than you ever imagined and other times not so much. I am, by my own admission, a Type A personality who wants to control 93% (actually 99%) of everything that happens.  For better and for worse, it just doesn’t work that way. I think many people struggle to locate certainty in an uncertain world; it doesn’t exist. My narrations are a nod to a world of certain uncertainty and trying not to miss any of it.

The Sensation of Air Upon Your Skin (and Other Things You Will Know When You are There), 2017, Audio 31 minutes and 27 seconds

WNG: Earlier during the exhibition you held a program called The Reading Project, where you asked participants to read aloud to you. How do you feel the act of listening functions in relationship to literacy?

JB: I think a lot about the relationship between reading silently and being read to. (I know I’m straying slightly off your question) I’m an avid reader and reading silently provides me with a kind of nourishment that nothing else does.  Being read to, while it can be an extraordinary experience, involves very different parameters than silent reading. For one thing, being read to involves a linear experience of the text. You cannot go back and reread the previous page or line.  You cannot savor the same passage multiple times. Reading silently is a private experience involving the reader and the text. Being read to, by contrast, involves a wider range of sensory experiences, including the sight and sound of the reader.  Also, at least for me, I find that my mind wanders more when I’m being read to and focusing takes greater effort. Returning to your question, I feel that the act of listening and the focus it takes emphasizes the empathy component of reading. Reading takes us out of our own heads and gives us perspectives we might never imagine.  Listening adds an extra relationship to the reading equation. Instead of it being simply your private relationship to the text, other components-- the reader and their relationship to the text-- are added. You mention in another question, “Literacy is a way to expand the ability to express oneself, to share stories, and to connect with others.”  Listening is an opportunity to connect by means of a shared story. I have strong feelings about the necessity of listening and spaces for listening. It is not easy to listen open heartedly and we live in times that are begging for these efforts.

WNG: Is there any project you’re working on now that you’re particularly excited about?

JB: I’m working on two projects that I’m excited about—one long term and the other more immediate.

I’ve been writing short multiple choice questions (on napkins) and posting them on Instagram.  They are questions for and about “you”; I don’t evaluate, respond or judge the answers. (Ok, I try not to do any of those!)  My main interest in putting these questions/choices out into the world is for you to ruminate on them. They are meant to be funny but (as is my usual when I’m writing) there’s typically something serious underlying what I’ve written.

The other project is an in-process work called 1001 Nights - More or Less and is composed of many (potentially 1001) small weavings on paper. There will also be an audio component in which I briefly describe (but not in a one to one correspondence to the weavings) 1001 odd tales. It will be the first time my audio work and an installation will function in such an interconnected manner.

Works in progress shared by Judith Brotman

JB: Thank you so much for these fantastic and thoughtful questions.  Everything about this exhibition was pure joy…..and this includes working with curator, Kasia Houlihan and exhibiting at Weinberg/Newton Gallery along with the extraordinary artists Kirsten Leenaars, Andy Moore, Huong Ngo,  Regin Igloria & North Branch Projects, and Udita Upadhyaya.

I also need to add that New Word would not have been the same (or even close) had the words not been transcribed on the wall so beautifully by another extraordinary artist, Tim Nickodemus!  Had I written the words, the selection process would not have been so appealing. I grew up thinking I was going to be a doctor and seem to have acquired the typical doctor’s terrible handwriting. My shift from  pre-med to art is another one of my transformation narratives; I seem to gravitate toward these stories!

Tim Nickodemus transcribing Judith Brotman's New Word on the walls at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

To learn more about Judith Brotman please visit her website.

Partner Interview: Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

Today we share an interview with Ken Bigger, Executive Director of the Chicago Literacy Alliance, our partner organization for The Tip of My TongueThe Chicago Literacy Alliance is an association of more than 100 organizations helping to meet literacy needs for people of all ages and backgrounds. It is dedicated to a mission of increasing the combined impact of the Chicago community’s literacy organizations by providing opportunities for creative and effective collaboration. Working together, the CLA and its members collectively envision a 100% literate Chicago.

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: The history of the Chicago Literacy Alliance is very unique and based not in competition but in collaboration for the greater good. In what ways do the individual CLA organizations work together to advance literacy?

Ken Bigger: Our member organizations work together through the CLA by sharing best practices and professional development programs. They develop organic, entrepreneurial connections that remain responsive to the constantly changing complexity of literacy education. These connections emerge into new programs, and in at least one instance, into new nonprofits. They serve as referral sources for one another. The Literacenter is a terrific tool in facilitating these collaborations, but it is not our only tool.

Although our members have strong, distinctive, and strategic approaches to driving greater literacy, no single tactic will cover all the necessary ground. One of the biggest factors affecting children’s literacy and prospects for success in school is the literacy level of their parents. To meet the challenges and break the cycles of illiteracy and aliteracy, we must be active among all ages and communities.

The Literacenter, hub of the Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: You joined the CLA community as Executive Director earlier this year. What about the organization drew you to this position?

KB: I’ve always been a writer, and I continue to work on becoming a better reader. I see literacy as essential to people reaching their potential—not just to understand the world, but to make themselves understood to it. Literacy is a fundamental human right, but there’s no switch that gets flipped from “illiterate” to “literate.” We can all become more literate. Elevating literacy as a value for all will help the people who need the most literacy support.

I also see literacy as a core capacity that addresses several challenges at once. Beyond fundamental goals of education and workforce readiness, it also addresses socio-economic inequality and social justice challenges. It helps us talk and listen to one another in civil society, informing our ability to be democratic citizens and to work with one another to improve our community.

Ken Bigger, Executive Director of Chicago Literacy Alliance

WNG: Being new to the CLA, do you have any particular visions for the ways it can grow in the future?

KB: We’re here to serve our members. We are constantly working to find new ways to provide meaningful collaborations and professional development opportunities that allow literacy organizations to be more productive and better connected. One of our biggest opportunities for growth is to be able to advocate on their behalf and on behalf of the cause of literacy. The Tip of My Tongue has been a wonderful way to elevate the visibility of this issue, which is a challenge that often goes unseen. We’re grateful to the Weinberg/Newton Gallery for making it possible. We hope to build from this effort and contribute to a broader public discussion. We are also looking for ways to bring more organizations into our “big tent.”

WNG: With an estimated 882,000 of Chicago adults having low literacy levels and 54% of CPS students not meeting reading standards, what are some of the biggest contributing factors to these rates? And are there ways we as a community can be proactive in helping to improve them?

KB: As I suggest above, I think part of the answer to this question appears in the pairing of those two statistics. Trying to fix one of those problems alone will not fix the other. A child whose parent can’t or doesn’t read stands a lesser chance of reaching their literacy potential. Our member organizations represent a wide range of expertise and are working together to ensure that people of all ages and backgrounds have the resources they need to be come literate.

Community members have multiple ways they can get involved. Many of our member organizations recruit, train, and deploy volunteers across Chicago to support adult literacy, school-based literacy, and early childhood literacy. Book donations to our member partners or to school libraries also give people a way to support the cause. Financial contributions to the CLA and its member organizations help add capacity and increase our effectiveness in pursuit of our goal of a 100% literate Chicago.

Finally, participation in our member programs that elevate reading and writing will help in driving the cultural change that will aid the efforts of all our organizations. One of the reasons that I love doing this work in Chicago is that this city is the place where many have come to write their American stories. There’s much to celebrate in that, and there’s much in there that shows us a path to realize our vision.

The Painted One, 2018, North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The CLA makes it clear that their goals are deeper than functional literacy alone; the organization also cares about developing and nurturing a lifelong love of reading and writing. Can you expand on the ancillary effects of becoming literate as an individual and as a community?

KB: Three things: understanding, empathy, and self-expression.

Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” contains the passage, “…she opened up a book of poems and handed it to me, written by an Italian poet in the 13th century. And every one of those words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off of every page like it was written in my soul from me to you…”

The power of this line is not about the delights of pre-Renaissance Italian literature. It testifies to literacy’s power to help us understand ourselves and each other. Through literacy, we learn in powerful and inimitable ways that we are not alone. We understand ourselves in the present day, we connect with others in the present day, and we learn that we have connections to those who lived hundreds or thousands of years before us.

One of the most prominent cultural phenomena of this decade has been Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton. It tells the story of a person who turned the world upside down through writing. The musical itself also exemplifies the power of writing, in this case Miranda’s, to inform our current values, aspirations, and conversations. The recent Hamilton Mix-Tape includes a new song, “Wrote My Way Out,” that taps into that spirit, evoking literacy’s capacity to allow us to transcend our circumstances—first in our imaginations, then in reality.

Literacy is key to imagining new possibilities for ourselves, both as individuals and as a community. It’s vital that we don’t just stop with making sure that children can sound out the words, we need empower everyone with tools to catalyze imaginations through self-expression. Many of our members do this. 826 CHI, for example, gives kids the tools of written storytelling as a way to find their own voices. Chicago abounds with past and present examples of people who “wrote their way out.”

The Painted One (detail), North Branch Projects movable book station, installed at The Literacenter

WNG: The Tip of My Tongue was curated with the CLA’s mission in mind. From your perspective, were there any particular artworks in the exhibition that you resonated with most?

KB: I appreciated all the contributions to this exhibit. Each artist helped unfold for me another way of looking at the power of words. If I had to pick one, I would say that Judith Brotman’s New Word captures my imagination for being so participatory, and through that, very evocative of the power of words both to allow us to say something distinctive about ourselves and connect with other people. New Word invites viewers to become active collaborators in her art by selecting a novel word of Brotman’s devising, adopt it as their own, and assign it a meaning. The word is unique, but exists within a context of English syllables and roots. It is personal, but inescapably shared.