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.

Artist Interview: Regin Igloria of North Branch Projects

Today we share an interview with Regin Igloria, founder of North Branch Projects, an artist-run organization that offers community bookbinding experiences and provides an outlet for exploring the creative process in places where few resources for the arts exist, or where the role of art may be viewed as secondary or insignificant. The studio community fosters an open approach to sharing work with new audiences and encourages collaboration and integration. North Branch Projects is part of our current exhibition The Tip of My Tongue, on view at Weinberg/Newton Gallery from Janauary 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.

Various handmade notebooks by North Branch Projects

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Can you tell us a little about the history of North Branch Projects? What made you want to create this organization?

Regin Igloria: North Branch Projects began in 2010 as an extension of my studio practice. I started it to create some kind of crossover between opposing aspects of my life, specifically as a way to better understand my role as an artist in the places I inhabit. At the time, I was really feeling frustrated about my involvement in the contemporary art world. The deeper I immersed myself in it (my job as an arts administrator and teaching artist), the further I seemed to be moving from the people I grew up with, such as my family and people close to me who were not artists. I wanted to have both worlds meet in a non-judgmental way, where they could appreciate and learn from each other without getting cynical, angry, or further detached.

I say this mostly because the art world I was introduced to as a young teenager, as far as I can remember it, was a lifestyle so different than my own. It wasn’t just money and the way people around me looked; it was a complete attitude that was both profoundly repulsive and appealing to my senses. It’s been a turbulent relationship from the start (lol).

WNG: North Branch Project seems to function in a thoughtful, cyclical manner. Each initiative feeds into another in some way. The biggest of those initiatives being the Community Binding workshops where you teach individuals how to bind their own notebooks. What impact do you find these workshops typically have on the community?

RI: Community Binding is the driving force behind everything we do at NBP. It’s the reason for making new work and allows me to stay excited and motivated. The initial concept is based on using education as a tool for breaking down barriers, but it’s also about getting people to spend quality time together. Bookbinding is slow and methodical, so people end up slowing down and get into a relaxed mindset. I think this is so necessary these days.

In regards to impact, I hope it moves people in the right direction, wherever that needs to be. I don’t know how much it does this (this is too personal of a distinction and immeasurable), but certainly after a workshop, people seem to be in good spirits, and that goes a long way for everyone. Ultimately they reach and connect with others in a positive way and that is cyclical itself.

Regin Igloria leading a Community Binding workshop at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

WNG: You have two pedestal pieces included in The Tip of My Tongue, one at the gallery and one placed off site at Chicago Literacy Alliance’s Literacenter. These movable, interactive book stations are part of NBP’s Everything On Wheels project. Where do these stations typically live and how are community members invited to use them?

RI: The pedestals are meant to be roving interactive stations, so they don’t have a permanent home per se. They exist wherever people can come across them, usually while in transit or in a place they would routinely visit. With permission, my goal is to place them in spaces where there is high public traffic, like school hallways, libraries, or cafés. Here they can be perused and experienced on a regular basis by the same people. The call and response to the books’ question prompts become anticipated and hopefully something people look forward to seeing. Then, if they feel up to it, the next step would be to write or draw something in the book.

After some time inhabiting these spaces, I would ideally host a bookbinding workshop to magnify those spaces as learning environments. Those learning moments don’t have to be too profound or revealing, but I do hope making books instill some sense of joy or meaning to the participant. After a workshop, you walk away with a tangible piece of evidence of one’s “maker” capabilities. The significance of making something with your own hands doesn’t solely exist because you end up with an object. It comes from having met new people, or because you’ve now seen the space differently after having spent time sitting there trying to figure out how to sew pages together. In this regard, everything about a workshop is critical: who shows up along with you, what topics come up in conversation, the reason(s) you came to the workshop in the first place, even the weather outside. All of these environmental factors work together to make an experience. In so many cases, people finish the workshop telling me they are going to give the book to someone. You can’t ask for more than that.

It’s an interesting scenario because phones and social media/technology make these moments so prevalent wherever someone carries their phone. You can be learning anything available on the internet if you have a phone, but those bits of information seen on a meme or a short video feel so arbitrary and wispy, just like the cloud in which they exist. With a takeaway book, you get hit harder, but in a good way.

The Pedestal Planter, 2017 (left) & The Painted One, 2016 (right)

WNG: The podium pedestal on display at the gallery includes a participatory prompt for viewers to answer, “How do you bring together what wants to come apart?” What was the motivation behind this question? And do the prompts typically have a theme you try to adhere to?

RI: The prompt stems from my disillusionment of politics, the current divisiveness that we hear and experience everyday, and once again, the frustration of two opposing worlds. In general I try to keep the questions fairly broad and open-ended. I didn’t want to ask why Republicans don’t get along with Democrats and vice versa, for example. But I do want to see how far people might define a word such as “opposition,” especially through an empathetic approach with their audience.

All of the questions I use have been prompted through responses from other books. Just as our conversations have tangential trajectories, these questions start at one place and lead to another. We even have a book that asks people to “ask a question then leave a question,” but I don’t even think that book is necessary. I find new questions in every written response.

Baker College Prep student interacting with North Branch Projects' pedestal during a recent workshop at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

WNG: You also have an upcoming performance/workshop taking place at Weinberg/Newton Gallery on March 10 that’s based on this same idea of “bringing together what wants to come apart” -- can you tell our readers more about this ongoing project?

RI: This performance/workshop/gathering was initially done as a site activation piece for the Art Institute of Chicago during their exhibition, “Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test” last December. Several other individuals and organizations were invited to use one of the gallery spaces of the exhibition at different times during the run of the show, so I invited some friends and colleagues to work on a book project (one thing I did was try to limit inviting other “practicing artists” as part of my goal to create crossover). Initially I thought I’d just continue with a Community Binding Session, where we would just sit and make books for a couple of hours.

However, the setting seemed appropriate for more of a reading and listening session. Collaborating on pieces yields a broader range of responses, and I wanted the readers to contribute their thought processes and collect those as well.   

I asked individuals to share readings without knowing what the book form would take. I had been producing these single-sheet fold books in the basic 8-panel zine structure and felt it was also a good format for everyone to play with in response. These could be an entire thought written out, just a list of words, or even drawings, and the end result could be bound into a volume back at my studio and then sent back to the participants.

At the end, it felt like something I could repeat in other spaces, which I am doing at WNG this Saturday. I am hoping to continue the gatherings regularly, like a book club of sorts.

Be sure to attend “Bringing Together What Wants to Come Apart” this Saturday, March 10, 1-2pm to participate in this gathering and learn more about North Branch Projects.

Artist Interview: Andy Moore

Today we share an interview with Andy Moore, one of six artists that make up the exhibtion 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.

ICANNOTWIN, 2014-2018, Clay, acrylic paint, pen, correction tape, aluminum foil, pre-fabricated blank book

Weinberg/Newton Gallery: Can you tell us about your creative process? You’ve mentioned that you conduct your studio practice on the on the train (specifically the Purple/Red lines). I’m fascinated by this. What is it about this environment that puts you into your artistic headspace? 

Andy Moore: It is a horrible place to work! The jostling and lack of privacy require constant work-arounds.  But I am in a relationship and we have kids…we require a lot of time together to stay close. I don’t know how I’d do it if I was off secluded in a traditional studio. I hate imagining myself hunched over, shielding the book from people’s eyes, furiously cross-hatching, but my objective is to make art books to the best of my ability. It is more important than my ego. Maybe it is more accurate to say I give up some short-term ego goals like being seen as a balanced, solid human being, for that one long term ego goal.

WNG: How did you come to start working with the book as a form?

AM: I began making books with the idea that I could reach people within my class, via a mass production model. I guess I am lower middle class. Anyway, I was inspired by things like zines, graphic novels, and free newspapers. So far, I have failed at that original goal as I have been making one-of-a-kind objects. They are sculptures and paintings as much as books, but that was the basic idea and it set me off on this trajectory. Book art was also extremely attractive to me because it was practical. I can take a book just about anywhere, work on it just about anywhere. And I am a hybrid writer/artist. The book form was not all that much of a leap.

Snowflake, 2013-2018, Ink wash, pen correction tape, acrylic paint, cotton balls, glue, paper towel, canvas, pre-fabricated blank books

WNG: In researching your work I kept coming back to this concept of cognitive literacy, which I interpreted as a desire to reach a profound level of self-understanding through critical introspection. Can you talk about the element of selfhood in your books?

AM: When I began the first book, John’s Luv, I was very conscious that I could not conceive a story that was not already present in the world. Even the ideologies that seemed central to my identity at that time were uncomfortably close to an act of convenience. Who I thought I was in some way depended upon chance. Who I met, which ideas I was introduced to, were all beyond my control. One thing that seemed solid was my attraction to art whose purported purpose was to uncover aspects of the subconscious. And also, certain kinds of abstraction that I felt gave form to inchoate aspects of experience. It was easy to decide to make this my artistic aim as well. The best thing about it is that there was always a surprise at the end. I was thrilled when something was made plain in the deep sense. I was always free to choose any art strategy or style as long as it helped me in these tiny incremental revelations. Most of all it gave me license to be intensely introspective. It seemed reasonable to assume most everything branched from one’s psyche. One’s experience of gender, race, sexuality, class, etc. One’s politics. And I found as I went along it was harder to fool myself. Harder to be fueled by destructive energy...I mean, in general. I am still very capable of being thoughtless and give in to assumptions. Still, I am more alert. I came into this world swimming in my community’s belief systems. It is near impossible to not internalize things, some good, some awful. So, the books presented an opportunity to go through it all with a fine-tooth comb.       

WNG: The visuals described (either through drawing or text) are often very mundane, relatable, everyday experiences -- dissonance with a boss, poor communication with a partner, the weight of parenthood, etc. What motivates you to dive further into these kinds of subjects?

AM: My hope is that I will connect with a reader through our shared experience of the mundane. My experiences are almost all mundane, so it would be dishonest to try to exclude it. I try to respect it by basing many of my stories in it. Sometimes I feel despair at how unremarkable my experience is, but I also suspect a great deal of foolishness can come about in trying to escape from it. Existence itself is profound and to my mind does not need dressing up. It's just our ability to reconigze it as such that needs to be sharpened. Simply sitting with someone and being present is the foundation for meaning, at least as I conceive it. Finding someone who will stay with you when you have a real conflict is an almost unimaginable gift, and also, I guess, pretty mundane. Maybe art is my alchemic effort to turn the leaden experience of standing in line at Jewel/Osco, with my half n half and my english muffins, into a golden one.


John's Luv, 2003-2018, Fabric, wood, watercolor, marker, pen, correction tape, enamel, black paper, acrylic paint, pre-fabricated blank book

WNG: Whether the stories depicted in the work are directly drawn from real life or not, the journalistic quality gives us, the viewers, a sense of voyeuristic titillation. How would you say you utilize this vulnerability in your work?

AM: This question stimulated my defenses initially, so I guess it was a good question to ask me, I might not have enough time in this interview to arrive at a satisfactory answer, so I want to state this all is provisional.  For whatever reason I think my art should function without regard to power. I should not be making political calculations, choosing which stories to pick-up or put down based on how they position me in terms of power dynamics. I guess politics can’t be completely escaped, so I should probably revise that by saying I want to avoid the pursuit of short-term political safety to the sacrifice of truth, specifically the truth of my vulnerability. The vulnerable aspect of my experience undeniably holds a lot of power. It animates much of my story telling. Maybe my sense of vulnerability uncomfortably relates to the male identity I’ve cobbled together, and so as a result, I am stuck ruminating. Like I am trying to figure it all out on the page. Maybe it is broader than that. It seems there is a strong cultural resistance to feelings of vulnerability that goes beyond gender constructions. People seem to go to great lengths to avoid occupying those feeling states. Admitting they exist...vulnerability and weakness kind of collapse into one another as concepts. It is a disease, a virus. But it could be a mistake to concentrate on its presence in my work. As if it was something specific to my work and not a more a general reality of existence, something we all share. It is too easy to then isolate the books and cast them off as irrelevant. Like I was imposing my neurosis upon the reader. Maybe it is the master who avoids feelings of vulnerability by a series of switches and substitutions, leaving others to carry the burden.

It could also be that honesty holds the more prominent role in my motivations and vulnerability is just a byproduct of that honesty. After all, I explore more than vulnerability in my books. But maybe honesty is not the primary thing either, but itself a byproduct of some other drive. Maybe I want a real understanding of myself and see honesty as a necessary tool in the acquisition of self-knowledge. I want some understanding of this life, and to some degree a bit of context, cosmic or otherwise... 

Baker College Prep students viewing John's Luv during a workshop at Weinberg/Newton Gallery

WNG: You’ve worked on some of these books over the course of many years. John’s Luv, for example took about 15 years to become what it is now. What is it like to spend so much time with one piece? How does your perception of it change over time?

AM: What is it like? I guess freeing in a strange way. The changes are incremental, so to a degree I am blind to them. It is hard to lift up my method as an example for others.  It seems tied to who I am. I do the best with what I have been given. I am near deaf and depend on hearing aids to hear at all. Group settings, especially if there are a number of people in a large, open room, are particularly difficult for me. I find myself among all these people and simultaneously profoundly separate. Recently I took part in Judith Brotman’s Reading Project at the gallery. She selected several readers to read aloud to a group. Each of us was to select a passage that had significant and personal meaning. After it got underway I found I could not hear what was read. I could hear people’s voices but could not differentiate the sounds well enough to piece them together into words. Each time a new voice spoke I would renew my effort to take in their content. Always I had the same result. At best I could make out a few words in a minute. Mostly I heard fragments. I always tried as I am teasingly close to comprehension. When all the other readers had finished, and it was my turn, I felt primed for release. All that I have experienced as someone with profound hearing loss was summed up in those preceding moments of the reading project. All the awful alienation. All the wanting and frustration and guilt. As I read my passage, a piece by Viktor Frankl, each word punched at my composure, squeezing my heart with my own voice, saying words that had sustained me. It was as if he addressed my particular condition directly, which of course is not true, but is. I think this is due to the power of Frankl’s broadly applicable ideas on meaning. Anyway, afterwards, as I talked to other readers, I lied frequently, pretending I had reciprocated the same gift they had given me. It was not true. I had read my part, which they heard, but I had not returned the favor of receiving a message. I felt like a child.

So to return to your question, I believe I can work longer at a solitary pursuit than would be average, largely because social interactions frequently contain a bit of pain for me, no matter how much I need and desire them. I choose to go inward in my explorations because outward trajectories put me at a disadvantage, some of which have nothing to do with my hearing but are amplified by it. I must organize my chaotic feelings, dealing with the loss, more than would be required of me, I’m sure, if I was otherwise put together. Each day I attempt to transform all this into a peculiar achievement as I sit down to work at my books. I have been near deaf for about 15 years.

WNG: Are there any brand-new projects in the works?

AM: I have been making easel paintings as well as continuing with two new books. When I was a young artist, my art heroes were the early modernists. The degenerate anti-fascists in particular. It seems fitting to return to easel painting in our present time. I am a bit worried about how my new books will be received, should I have an opportunity to show them. As I always am…

I am thankful to the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to exhibit my art alongside the work of Judith Brotman, Kirsten Leenaars, Huong Ngo, Udita Upadhyaya and North Branch Projects. I have not experienced a gallery remotely like Weinberg/Newton Gallery. It has been transformative.

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