Artist Interview: Marilyn Volkman

Weinberg Newton Gallery: You contributed not only a video piece, but a performance to The Way the Mystic Sees. As both are complements, how do you feel the performative aspect helps the viewer understand your NEO- CRAFT project? May you explain a little about the project first?

Marilyn Volkman: Immediately, I have to say it’s hard for me to speak about NEO- CRAFT outside of NEO- CRAFT. It’s about fully buying into the moment. NEO- CRAFT is experienced in real-time, so the video for ​The Way the Mystic Sees​ functions as a prelude to the event. At the same time, it’s an excerpt of one of the most didactic moments of the performance, which is about human connection being replaced by online connection. This ties back to the conversation of surveillance and data because I think most people feel like giving away their data is the most urgent risk we face in terms of privacy. But there’s also another gigantic danger, which is losing our capacities for human connection. That’s what the video is actually referring to. Data protection and human connection are both really important, but in NEO- CRAFT I try to talk about the latter as the most alarming of the two.

And about the project itself...

NEO- CRAFT is a fully integrated system of philosophical thinking tools allowing art producers to proactively engage with systems of power by utilizing the expressive potential of art for personal and social gain. Focusing on the creation of meaningful art experiences, the philosophy of NEO- CRAFT does not propose specific outcomes, but re-imagines the values of professionalism in free market economies with a special interest in creating ties between contemporary capitalism and developing arenas. NEO- CRAFT reaches the public through seminars, interactive workbooks, one-on-one sessions and takeaway objects.

WNG: In the performance, you take on the character of self-help guru of sorts. Have you had any training as an actor? Did you use any person(s) as a model for your presentation method?

MV: My automatic thought when you ask this is about who should answer. It’s going to be me, but that’s how I think about performance in relation to art. The way I see it -- an artist is not always the best person to answer a particular question. Acting for me is about finding the right mouthpiece to explore an idea for an audience. For NEO- CRAFT, the right person emerged as a motivational speaker pretty early on. Around that time I was also working a sales job, reading a lot of self-help books and I was very much into watching youtube videos of evangelical preachers. Immediately I felt a lot of parallels with the art world and figured it was a good idea to create a more obvious cult experience for artists. One that could lead to a new, or uncommon way of asking questions in art contexts.

But to answer your question... Yes, I do have training as an actor. I majored in theater on a whim after pulling out of an ROTC scholarship, but only for a semester. Sometimes I still act in theater productions in the Netherlands when I have time. In reality though, I owe that training to my mother and her side of the family. They’re all storytellers, actors, drama teachers and basically eccentric South Texas personalities with deep character. They taught me how to craft speech and stage presence in relationship to a particular audience from an early age. The first theater productions I was in were directed by my mom. So acting for me happens on a very biological level. It’s how I grew up.

WNG: You live in the Netherlands. Is the tech-savvy entrepreneur as prevalent in Dutch culture as it is in American culture, or do you find the critique you’re engaging in to be more pointed toward Silicon Valley and its cultural exports to places such as Germany and China?

MV: Well, they are really tech savvy in the Netherlands. In terms of surveillance, it seems like everything is monitored, at least at a government level. You have to register where you live, you have a national identity card that links to a database and tracks pretty much everything about you. It’s common knowledge that the government is watching you. Someone told me once that they received a letter letting them know their phone calls had been monitored for months during an investigation on a neighbor. So in a sense, they might be more tech savvy in terms of surveillance in the Netherlands, but from what I understand, it’s the government doing it and not businesses. Europe considers data protection ​by companies ​as a fundamental human right. So the tech savvy entrepreneurs exist, but I think they feel less free to do what they want than their counterparts in the US.

With NEO- CRAFT, there are multiple levels. When I think about surveillance and technology, whether it’s the government or a business doing it, it’s this sinister behind the scenes way of exploiting a public that I’m thinking about. NEO- CRAFT externalizes this by introducing a guru who takes advantage of the audience out in the open by selling behind the scenes secrets of how to do it yourself. This of course is tongue in cheek, because the end of the performance is about human connection. But you may also leave wanting a NEO- CRAFT t-shirt, so the way I engage with exploitation is by taking on the performative vernaculars of con-artistry to get at deep human need.

One other parallel is that all of these techniques that companies use to take your data and make money are algorithmic. NEO- CRAFT works in a similar way. I’m constantly taking note of how people react to certain elements of performance, speech, or gesture, and then use those ‘algorithmically’ to steer the audience through a narrative arc, ending with real questions about what it is we’re doing in that space.

Last week, I did NEO- CRAFT for the first time in China. It’s still very fresh, but something that surprised me was that the performance seemed to come across as more sincere. That might have been the limitation of my translations or the shift in context, but maybe it also had to do with Shanghai being a setting where projections of limitless entrepreneurial growth aren’t as absurd as they might seem elsewhere. I have a lot to think about.