On October 2, I previewed Lise Baggesen’s “Mothernism” installation at Ordinary Projects in the Mana Contemporary building (2233 South Throop in Pilsen). We took off our shoes and climbed into the tent that serves as an interactive centerpiece to the exhibition. What follows is an abridged version of our rich conversation about “Mothernism” the book and the artwork. (Matt Morris)
Newcity: What compelled you to write “Mothernism”?
Lise Baggesen: The book grew out of my thesis project, and the funny thing was that actually at the time the book was not supposed to have been written, because I was trying to escape making a formal written thesis. Visual and Critical Studies is a part of Art History [at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago], so a lot of the people in it, probably half of the group, went through it in a purely theoretical, academic track, and a lot of them have moved on to PhDs now. The other half of us had studio practices, but I think I was the only one in the group with a really long studio practice before I came to VCS.
At some point I got really frustrated, particularly in the first year there was so much emphasis on the theory. They were still talking about this post-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary way, but they were more talking the talk than walking the walk, I found. And so I did a project in Joseph [Grigely]’s Research and Production class where I started using this alter ego. The first one was Alice B. Ross, and she’s more of a loner than the subsequent Queen Leeba. Leeba is more family-oriented than Alice is. Alice is more of a hermit recluse who will go back to the studio and make love only once, but dream and dream. Her notes to self really became about the studio practice as this space where your voices can live. She dabbles in theories about quantum physics and David Bowie and Doctor Seuss and ‘un-slumping’ yourself and how the studio practice can be that un-slumping’ and how it can also be the slump that you find yourself in.
That project really became an eye opener for me about how writing could become a part of my studio practice rather than just being the writing you do about your studio practice, through writing artist statements and all this stuff. Suddenly it was a point when the writing informed the work while it was being made and dared me to go places where I wouldn’t have done. For instance, Alice made these really big velvet Morris Louis glitter paintings. I was not sure about that, but Alice would totally do it. I was in conversation with this voice I’d put into the world that then became a type of daring.
The first half of writing the thesis in VCS is a lot of group talk, you know, group think—throwing it out there, pulling it apart. Kind of rigorous… I’ve just said ‘kind of rigorous’ which is terrible. What happened was that every time I brought motherhood into this kind of conversation, there were a lot of people among my peers that really wanted to shut the conversation down. They were like, ‘We don’t want to hear about this mothering here. You can’t bring it up as a feminist in art discourse. We don’t want to hear about it, and we don’t want to talk about it.’
I was very lucky to be grad advising with Michelle [Grabner] at that point, so a lot of the conversations I had in Thesis I was able to bring back to my studio. Michelle and I were able to talk about why it was that way and how this is still a taboo in academia. You bring it in, and it’s always seen as something backwards, sentimental, a return to family values. And then I just became really, really stubborn about having this conversation in this group, at least as long as I’m writing my thesis. This is what I’ll be writing my thesis on.
All of a sudden, especially among my faculty, people were saying that I had to do this: you have to put this out there and claim this territory because no one else could be bothered to go there. Romi Crawford, for example, was my third reader. I was still in between a rock and a hard place in my studio practice, so I decided I would do it as Queen Leeba. I pulled her into the conversations and made this art. This tent that we’re sitting in is her camp, with her artwork and her library. The thesis writing is in here as an audio in which she’s reading letters to her daughter. Of course as the writing progressed and then developed into a book, there are overlaps between her voice and my voice. Pulling in these characters makes it easier going on a tangent about something or take some ideas to their conclusion somehow, without always making a disclaimer or whatever.
As I was writing it, Romi introduced me to a lot of first texts, like Cixous for example, that I hadn’t been familiar with. We talked about how historically letter writing was one of these forms that women could write and put their writing out in public without being shut down. It was either the apologia or a letter to the editor, sometimes under a pseudonym. Because it was so hard to find publishers who would publish women, you had to find other ways of doing it. Or it was letters directed very pointedly to a few people in power, or letters read in public, like Sojourner Truth. I figured that it was a really nice way for condensing some ideas without having the arc of a thesis where you have to rhetorically drive a point home. Here there were all these different things related to the same subject and had the same core or sensibility, but also pointed out into many different directions. It’s a whole different field of desire, and desires go out into a whole lot of directions. It’s not a binary, not as if you feel this way about it or the other. I thought that in the letter form I could have these different tangents that could come back to the same conversation but also that an idea could be brought to a conclusion and then be rebutted in the next letter. It’s an opportunity to take the authority to be in conversation with yourself, like ‘Oh, did I say that? Well now listen here.’ It’s a form of writing that came really easily, naturally. I used to write a lot of letters to my sister or whoever. I hadn’t done it in like twenty years, but it was like picking up bicycling again.
NC: Am I right in thinking that even while referencing the likes of Foucault, your feminism and politics are activist and seek tangible change?
LB: Yes, I’d like to see more inclusiveness in how we deal with one another. If I go back to 1979 as I do in the Margaret Thatcher essay, the way I thought we would live now is so different from how we live. Both in terms of what the world would look like—when I was really little, I was into the interior decoration magazines; Verner Panton was one of them, a Danish interior designer who made these multicolored mood rooms. There’d be pictures of how we’d live under the sea in big fish tanks by now, or on the moon, or whatever. I definitely was brought up with the idea that an equalitarian idea was within reach and that seems to have been moved further out of reach in a lot of ways. I also feel like both from the left and from the right, there’s this idea that you can just shut the conversation down when it becomes uncomfortable, whether it’s downright censorship or trigger alarms that is worrying. Of course I want to see a world where I can see my children grow up in it.
“No future” is not a stance you can take as a Mothernist. It doesn’t rhyme. Something has to change in terms of capitalism and the kind of ownership we have over each other’s bodies, both in private and in public. And yet at the same time, when you’re talking about activism, I think it’s not a “neighborhood socially engaged art project” that I’m after. It’s an intellectual conversation as well as a feel good thing. It’s about what kind of conversation you can have in this day and age.
Opinion is not always a binary. It’s one of the things I find really, really hard about America: everything comes with a disclaimer and comes back to the eventuality that we’ll see each other in court. That makes it hard to open up the conversation and bring in other things beyond a binary about this one or that one, straight or bi, pro-porn or anti-porn, pro-life or pro-choice. It’s hard to get nuance introduced into the conversation or to talk outside of the language of corporate law.
For example, the idea of consent which comes up in the rape letter: I saw this thing on the internet the other day. I was on a parental guidance forum that was telling me that I should tell my fifteen-year-old son that before he has a sexual encounter with a girl he needed to whip out his mobile phone and film her giving him consent. Which is crazy. It made me sick to the stomach to think that’s actually a thing that’s swimming around out there, that this is a sane thing to do to negotiate interpersonal relationships. It comes down to that binary that we will eventually see each other in court. Every time I bring my daughter to a birthday party, I have to sign off on her before I let her go on the big jumping cushion. That kind of thing. Where’s the common sense in this? I’d like to change that as the way that we deal with each other on the high level and also on the day to day level.
NC: Why do you think the art world resists conversations around motherhood as much as it does?
LB: It really bugs me that [the mother] is such a hot potato still. She embarrasses us in a way. It’s like what happens to the avant-garde when the mother laughs. One of my own starting points with the thesis was that I feel that she challenges the idea of the singular genius, particularly the male singular genius. She’s a reminder that we’re coming from somewhere; we don’t just pop out of nowhere. We popped out of somebody. That kind of connective tissue.
In an art world that is always concerned with the price of everything and the value of nothing, she’s an embarrassment to that kind of value making. In psychoanalysis, mothers get burdened with blame for a lot of things. In art academia, when you’re there as a student, there is this rebelling patricide that wants to define yourself against a patriarchal image.
When I was at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, Luc Tuymans was one of our advisors, and he was very explicit about wanting to teach because he wanted to have a legacy. He was an amazing teacher. He was so knowledgeable about how he wanted to teach and why. He had total recall, so he’d remember exactly what conversation you’d been having three weeks prior, which is amazing. He knew he wanted to make an imprint on the next generation so that he would have a legacy and his own career would last longer. He was super clear about that. A lot of people don’t know that they’re doing that and feel threatened.
Art historically, you have the virgin mother who doesn’t have anything to do with yo’ mama. I’m writing on a text right now that tries to talk about this certain embarrassment of meeting your mother in the art museum. She reminds you of the connection with her slippery insides in a temple that’s dedicated to the joy of sliding down the surface of things. There’s this phallic object and then this emotional mess of interconnectivity.
NC: What are the aesthetics of Mothernism?
LB: The aesthetics of Mothernism owes a lot to disco, just in terms of the color scheme. It owes a lot to color field painting and also some of them are direct references to Hilma af Klint’s works. And then there’s also the protest banners. They are this idea of “protest chic” that you could actually be protesting by day and chic by night just because navigating motherhood requires a certain kind of flexibility. How am I to celebrate that instead of making it a weak stance? At the same time that it’s critical, it’s also fan art in a way. I am a really big fan of color field painting and I couldn’t really go near it before.
I was actually a figurative painter for a long time, and I still regard myself as a figurative painter. In this kind of project the figure/ground relationship has changed of course. Essentially it’s still the same. I think Marlene Dumas said in an interview once that she didn’t understand the big hoopla about the difference between abstract art and figurative art, and I’m totally on board with that.
There are certain visual pointers that you want to give. There’s also the whole deconstruction of the whole thing, with the insides and so forth. I am really inspired by these interior designers in Denmark, particularly Verner Panton who had these really radical ideas of color theory that related in a way to Goethe about the healing properties of colors and how color can envelope you. I was hearing about these Snoezelen rooms for therapy that were invented in Holland in the sixties or seventies that were used for treating kids with autism and severely demented elderly people. They are these soothing, stimulating environments. They are usually all-black or all-white, but with colored lights, games that are interactive—really low-key, stimulating and soothing at the same time. I wanted this space to be like that.
Rather than only write a thesis about motherhood and art, I wanted to make a piece that worked something like a momma. You can sit in here and read the books or listen to the audio or have a conversation like we’re having. In my fantasy, we’d have mother groups coming in and breastfeeding their babies. It could be both a restorative space and also a space you could move through. I was really happy that in this one we chose to open the windows so that you could look out, because it’s also about a relationship to the world. It’s not cinematographic. The illusion doesn’t have to be complete. It can be a kind of place marker where you can say something like “the kitchen is over there, and the garden is over there.” You set the scene but it’s also that you know you’re going along and playing with it. I like that you can see the city, that you can see the industrial landscape outside. All the things in the whole installation relate to moments in the text as well. You could read the installation as footnotes to the book, but you can also read the book as the wall text for the installation.
NC: David Bowie comes into the text on the first page of the first chapter and makes appearances throughout the book, and disco shines in your text as a realized social idealism that was invested into by creative across diverse races, sexual orientations, and genders. Why are these touchstones in the book’s material?
LB: Bowie takes up a lot of space in my world, in my personal universe. When I grew up, I was really in the back of beyond. When I was twelve my parents moved me from Copenhagen to this small town in Jutland. I was really looking forward to it, for one I thought I was going to have my own pony. I did get my own pony, but other than that it really sucked. I like to think that if I’d stayed in Copenhagen I’d have been this proto-punk teenager. Instead I became this glam-rock misfit. That’s what we had. I was listening to David Bowie, particularly his Ziggy Stardust/glam-rock period ten years after the fact. Religiously quoting these lyrics on the backs of my school books. Cutting my hair in that mullet. That came just after disco for me. The whole of glam rock aesthetics became a personal kind of trope. So he’s not disco, although “Young Americans” has some really good disco beats on it. Of course he never committed to one style.
Glam rock is an opposition to glamour. Glam and glamour are two really different things: glamour is about distance and setting some kind of high standards, and glam rock is trashy and everything goes. It’s inclusive in that way.
That I went for disco as such a clear reference point is in part because Donna Summer’s “Bad Girl” was the first album I ever bought with my own money. I remember vividly that when I was still in Copenhagen, my best friend’s mom got a job in Brussels to work for the European Commission. I went to visit her and went with her dad. We were driving down through Germany, so that intro about the German Autobahn is also connected to the memory of that trip. We went down to Brussels where she was living in a flat above this Afro-American couple, and we would go downstairs and visit them. I was only there for a week, but we would go down there to hang out. They had this huge white, really deep, plush couch and this lamp that swung over it. We would sit on the sofa, and they would let us read their Mad magazines and drink Coca-Cola, and we would listen to Donna Summer. I thought that was the most glamorous life. I went back and bought this record with my pocket money. That was the first time, as a kind of counterweight to all of this agit-pop we were really into at the time that also was music our parents couldn’t identify with at all. It felt like a really big step up from Abba. When I started writing the book and was trying to imagine what Queen Leeba would be like, I thought Donna Summer combined with this proto-feminist, Scandinavian love goddess. That would be a good place to start. That would be a good skin to be in. There was something really important about not equating protest with punk because it’s been done so much. Punk has almost become shorthand for protest in a way. It becomes hollow rhetoric. I thought let’s give it a disco beat, infusing it was a playfulness.
NC: On page 34 you contrast the archive with the compost, offering that the latter is “alive and moves with an intrinsic agency, power beyond our control.” I’ve been seeing a return to addressing the archive this year (the Whitney Biennial, the queer archives issue of Art Journal, my own practice). Should we be trying to compost rather than reorganize these systems of information?
LB: I’m really keen on this idea of composting. I’m almost feeling like the archive peaked. It had a really big moment in the last ten years. I feel like the archive is so closely related to the end of history and also who gets to write history. Who gets to organize the archive? You can queer it or you can whitewash it, but it’s still writing things into a certain canon. We need to let go of the canon in a sense. I use the metaphor of compost in how I’m working but also the metaphor of the sourdough—this idea that you put some stuff in and let it bubble for a while, do its organic thing. Sometimes you pull part out and bake a loaf, but the sourdough remains as a generator for idea, for conversation, for new things that can happen. I sometimes like to throw old artwork in there and it will come back in new configurations. For instance, what I did for Expo a couple of weeks ago was a remix of an installation I’d done four years ago. Ideas and artworks don’t always have a definitive form or shape but we still need to revisit them. Also things we’ve thrown on the garbage patch or the tip of history. Maybe they’ve been brooding out there and we can find new ways of breaking things down. I’m not looking for a return to the seventies, but there was still, over the course of the twentieth century, a lot of brilliant ideas that were suddenly put in the trash by neo-liberal government. It is my hope that these ideas are still brooding out there somewhere and will come back to bite us in the butt unless we go looking for them. I’m all for composting in art history in terms of appropriation. Fashion works in that way too. Fashion is really democratic. The scarves are all also a fashion item. All the ones with patterns I found at thrift stores and then painted on them. As luxury items go, silk scarves are really good because they can keep you warm. I was thinking yesterday that in a post-apocalyptic society they’ll probably do you a lot of good.
Sometimes you can’t live your ideals, but you can still have them, still acknowledge and hold them dear, even if you have to compromise them.
You set out a certain set of rules, set it cooking and see what bubbles up. This idea of ideation is a term borrowed from séances with protoplasm issuing from people’s mouths, that ideas and thoughts can actually manifest physically, and they can be extracted from stuff that you’re making as you’re making it.
NC: As you write to your sister in the third chapter, you respond to her concerns about broader applicability or inclusion in a feminist legacy by saying “there is a specific female experience bound in great part to the female body that must be addressed.” (page 51) What follows is a quick nod to areas of feminist theory that deconstructs gender as performative rather than inherent. What issues do you take with a means of theorizing gender and sex that undermines both as fixed categories? The book also accounts for social constructions of gender identity (page 67), and I wondered how you organize a conceptual space that allows for a kind of standpoint specificity to a female position as well as the tenuously constructed components of a gendered identity.
LB: I have some misgivings about ideas of gender performativity, but what I was trying to get at in that chapter is that because VCS was so informed by queer studies, I felt there was a lot of assumption baked into the term “gender normativity” and what it means. You could hold that out as a kind of gold standard to set yourself off against. It was also, “Oh, yes, straight white male. That’s what we don’t want to be.” Mitt Romney is a straight white male who, for a lot of people, would represent a kind of gender normativity, but that’s not the kind of normal I want to identify with. In that chapter, I wanted to look at normal, what it means to be normal, because normal, in a binary, means not pathological. That’s a lot more inclusive than the kind of family values that people want to equalize you with when you’ve a mom living with your two kids and their dad. If we join the conversation about normativity, we can also inform and shape it. More inclusive then normal being this abstract idea that you can bang each other over the head with. Of course we all perform gender all the time, but we also have an interior experience of our own gender, sexuality, and sex.
Two days ago I was reading a piece in the New Yorker about a group that calls themselves RadFems that doesn’t want transgender women included. They said that they don’t have the same experience of womanhood as we do. They saw it as a kind of male privilege to have a woman’s body to be in, not only possess it but to possess it from the inside out. Of course a transgendered person will not have the same experience of womanhood as I have. I can’t say a transgendered woman is not a woman, because I don’t know if I’m a woman all the time. We all go through these stages—some of it is layered onto us from the outside and some of it mirrors our interior experience. When you walk down the street in the middle of the night, alone and in the middle of nowhere, you will have an experience of being in a woman’s body that’s very real and of that moment. I can’t escape how this body has shaped me. That chapter asks how we examine normativity. What does that mean, other than how it’s defined from the outside?
NC: One of the strengths of the text is how contemporary art issues are placed into the company of a consistent pop-cultural tempo as well as more sweeping implications of ecology and environmentalism, capitalism and biopolitics. For example, starting at page 128, you unpack the disturbingly strategic and complicated apparatus of the ultrasound, particularly the capitalist ploy of depicting an unborn fetus as a prospective healthcare patient. I couldn’t read this section as only a segue into ubiquitous material conditions of contemporary motherhood when it is in a book primarily concerned with art culture. How does your analysis of a tool that constructs personhood through imaging correspond to the visual art cultures that you analyze elsewhere? How is this critique of the medico-capitalist system useful for artists?
LB: I’m really glad you brought it back to artistic production. That is where I wanted to put the mother in terms of conversation. There are many feminist conversations that could be had around this topic, many gender political conversations that could be had, conversations about capitalism. She was always most missing in the art conversation. In each chapter I bring in an art critique. I was an artist before I was a mother. My whole experience of motherhood is informed by being an artist and being dissed as an artist because I had suddenly moved into this mother territory, and some of my galleries and dealers saw that as deviating from the course.
I also think in terms of image making and image production that for how fucked up the art world is at the moment, I’m convinced we are still at the frontier of image making and how we understand images. If we want to change the perception of the mother, it needs to happen here. If it’s not happening in the art world, it hasn’t really happened yet. Going through the book like an umbilical cord is this idea that motherhood is imagined. There’s very little in the art world about the experience of mothers.
About ten years ago I was considering having another baby. I had just quit teaching because I felt that the students were expecting a kind of mothering from me, and I thought that these were twenty-four year olds and I had a four year old at home. You’re expecting me to give you a kind of mothering that I can’t and won’t give you. And they weren’t expecting this from my male colleagues. They invited me to come along on a study trip to Madrid, and it was fun to hang out with them now that I didn’t have any responsibility to them. We were drinking a lot, and I went to the Prado Museum twice, and twice with a hangover, which is sometimes the best way to see art because it just goes right in. The black Goyas were amazing of course, but where I cried was in front of “The Adoration of the Magi” by Hans Memling. He’s one of those Flemish primitivists who are not primitive at all. It was just before the invention of central perspective, so they make really intricate relationships between figure and ground and picture plane. Everything is a little flipped. The way of using the picture plane is so economical; there’s this overlap between pattern and figure and figure/ground: it’s anything but primitive. There’s this painting of Mary presenting the baby Jesus to the three kings, and one of the kings is kneeling down and kissing the foot of Jesus. And they are so human. And it’s so tender and so touching. I’m not one for biblical tableaux, but they’re also so fragile and human and hoping. You need to have that sense of history and that you’re coming from somewhere, some kind of lineage, and the kind of connective tissue in all of this.
It’s about the kind of information we seek and how we ask for advice, and what kind of advice we can get and whether we can trust it. Sometimes we don’t always know how to read things correctly. We’re informed by the conversations we have all the time. In terms of sonograms and the future of painting… we can’t read these images ourselves, so we have to rely on someone to read them. It’s a little bit the same as when we’re talking about artistic quality or life quality. Who gets to set the parameters for this quality? And who gets to read these images for us? With the breast-cancer screening, who are we relying on for advice? When do we take control of our own bodies and when do we give it away? How do we critically inform the use of sonograms or the ways we read them?
What my hope for the future would be more than anything else would be that our sons and daughters would be able and willing to make their own autonomous decisions based on the information that is available. We seem to be all too happy giving that kind of decision making away at the moment. That has a lot to do with the invasion of privacy. That’s where I’m going with the comparison between the war on cancer and the war on terror. We seem all too happy to give that authority away. I’m not arguing against mammograms or sonograms—I think they’re super useful—it’s just a lot of information. How are you going to use it? How are you going to cope with it? Across the board, from women born women to transgender women, try a little tenderness instead of trying to square things out along these hard lines.
It’s about time to get past the cynicism of ‘anything goes.’ I talk with Sabina [Ott] about getting beyond this ironic and cynical space, and actually maybe being… not naïve, but a really informed position of knowing that there’s just not a way to get further down the road with this kind of hipster.
Mothernism is on view through November 2 at Ordinary Projects, 2233 South Throop. Hours on October 16 from 5pm-10pm, and Sundays, October 19, October 26 and November 2 from 2pm-5pm.