We talked at length about making more room in our art practice for skepticism, accessibility, representation, change, rest, and dialogue, but it was a challenge to get that into a mere 1700 words.
For me, there was a strong connection between what I was hearing in our conversation and my experience at the recent Creative Time Summit in DC, Occupying the Future. There, artist Tania Bruguera announced that she will be running for President of Cuba. I witnessed the premiere of her announcement, and also observed presentations by Peter Svarzbein about his creative projects as an elected city councilman of El Paso, Pedro Reyes, Carrie Mae Weems, and, quite notably, Alicia Garza who is the co-creator of the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.
Ultimately, I hope that in sharing Liza’s words, readers might also be inspired to continue to push the limits of what art can “do” in their communities.
Here is the exclusive, full interview transcript from our Skype conversation on August 16, 2016:
MAKING MORE ROOM IN OUR ART
Liza Cucco: When I was in High School I took a lot of specialist art classes, but I never really thought of myself as being good enough at anything to pursue art as a career option.
One of my teachers said to me at that time, that I was a really craftsman and illustrator, that I had a lot of skill to render things, but that I was lacking in a kind of conceptual basis, that I was more of a craftsperson than an artist.
I really took that to heart when I was thinking about what I was going to do with my career. I was starting to think about what I was going to study at University. I was thinking about different ways that it might play out.
And also in my religious background, being in a kind of very conservative Pentecostal church, there was a lot of suspicion toward forms of art that weren’t literally Christian. So I think I had some confusion around that as well. What I could do, what I couldn’t do, what was unacceptable for Christians to do. They didn’t encourage you to go to museums, or even go to the movies, or listen to music that was explicitly Christian.
I think that I kind of always knew that that stuff wasn’t very good, so I felt like there wasn’t really a viable artistic route. So, I considered studying architecture, or becoming a documentary film maker, and that’s what I was thinking.
But when I was that age I was really interested in… One of the classes that I took was a theater class, and I became really interested in set design. And that whole course, for me, became about set design and designing environments. So, when I went to University, I went to Biola. I was planning to study Anthropology and Film. In my head, at that time, I was thinking about documentary filmmaking, but when I started taking film classes at Biola I really got caught up in the whole idea of storytelling. Narrative storytelling.
I think being at a Christian University, and there being people who were quite confident that being a storyteller was acceptable, and then further that being an artist was a good thing for a christian to do outside of the realms of just illustrate the Christian faith, I felt more comfortable pursuing that with my life.
So I was edging toward the idea of being a set designer in the film industry and I worked on a lot of projects at school. And also in my free time I worked on projects with students at other universities, and little independant projects while I was a student, as well in the art department, all around that set design element.
At a certain point when I was an undergraduate student, I felt that the film department wasn’t giving me a strong enough… (ironically, based on the experience with my highschool teacher,) ..I felt like I needed a stronger conceptual understanding of the arts in order to… The film department at Biola was very technical, and not necessarily very artistic, so I decided to switch into the art department for a more well rounded perspective on making films.
But I was still looking at it in quite a utilitarian way, like if I understand colour theory I will be a better production designer, and that is how I viewed my education for most of the time that I was an undergraduate. I was developing skills that would help me be a better designer in film.
One of my professors in the art department really challenged my thinking on that because he questioned that either/or of “Am I into fine art?” or “Am I into film?” and told me that I didn’t have to live in a world where one had to choose to be in one thing over another. As an artist you could just do what you felt prompted to do, and also you had to do things to make money as well. In this way, I left with my undergraduate degree, having made a lot of big installations.
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I’d always been interested in English culture and when I was a kid I was such a geek for medieval historical fiction, things like that, so I was always interested in British history. At one point when I was looking at where I was going to go for university I was actually looking at the American University in London, but I chickened out of that. So, when I was at Biola I ended up doing a semester abroad in London.
The college that we went to in London had a really terrible art department. It was awful. It was the worst. Actually, I struggle to think of a worse program. But they had a lot of crafts, courses that I would not have been exposed to at Biola, and I took a class on making stained glass, and that was really interesting. I think the assignments we had to do in the class were super boring, but I developed the skill and learned how to work with glass.
Also [in London] there was a history teacher in the art history department who recognized that I was not the typical art student in this college. Most people who went there to study art wanted a degree, they were hobbyists, they weren’t really serious artists. [This professor] recognized that I was different than most people taking the course, and recommended that I attend some lectures at The Slade at UCL, and was encouraging me that the stuff that they were interested in at The Slade was the same stuff that I was interested in as an artist.
So, I always had UCL in the back of my mind as a place that, if I ever decided to go to graduate school for fine art, if I wanted to get an M.F.A. that it was a place I would be interested in from my exposure from my study abroad.
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So when I finished at University, I had started using video and I started to incorporate the techniques that I had learned in the crafts course about using stained glass. I did work that incorporated videos and projections and photography and stained glass and sculpture as multimedia installations that were… The two main things were the projections and the stained glass. I did that kind of work for maybe five years after graduating from University.
When I finished University I did continue to pursue a career of being a production designer in the film industry and I worked on loads of different jobs for about three years after graduating, starting in my last year at university, so about four years in the film industry. I did that by day and I was also making lots of sculptures, which I was mainly making for myself. I didn’t really show them to anybody or try and get exhibitions. I did it because I loved it.
I don’t work a lot with glass at the moment, but I always enjoyed working with a stubborn material. Glass is a really difficult material to work with and it takes a lot of patience. I always felt that it, even when I was doing more sculpture with clay… or in film photography, or video editing is like this too: making something out of a raw material. I always liked carving clay, I didn’t like building it up, and I liked the process of cutting and grinding glass from these sheets and then making something with it. I always liked that.
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BN: So there are these materials and ways of working that you are attracted to, but as with many artists, I know for a fact that you have experiences that similarly drive you toward certain content, just as you are drawn to certain materials. But I think the content is interesting not only because you said that you had this teacher who said that maybe, conceptually you needed to grow in that way, but I think that you did, as many artists do, draw on certain experiences in your life, and these are themes that are reoccuring, or images that are reoccuring. I wondered if you would talk a little about our experience of driving across country and your attraction to maps, and mapping, and how that works in, and maybe from there we will go into your experience with religion and the symbolism you are interested in, in a more abstract way.
First let’s just talk about the maps, briefly, then we will get into all of that.
LC: It’s something now that I am now super bored of. I lost interest in that. I think there is an over-saturation point for art about mapping. I felt like there was too much art about mapping and I had to stop doing it.
I got interested in making maps out of artwork based on, essentially because I moved so far away from home. When I was eighteen I moved three-thousand miles away from my family, to the other side of the country, intentionally to discover my true identity, because I felt like I was living a prescribed life. I felt like I was acting in a role, and that I would never be able to break free from it if I was around the people that I had been around for my whole life. I felt like the only way that I could really know who I was if I just got myself to some place where I didn’t know anybody. That is how I made the choice to go to college so far from home.
BN: And that also shows up in your work in terms of memory and memory re-creation, or memory as a narrative.
LC: I think that I became interested in the mapping because I was trying to figure out how to deal with identity. So much of our identity is wrapped up in the geography that defines our lives, and so much of our experience is about the space that we inhabit.
I was thinking about the arbitrariness of your identity being rooted in a specific geography, and then what defines the borders of that is just a decision that someone made to draw a line somewhere. I think being from New Jersey, for example, you’ve got a very strong sense of identity as someone being from New Jersey.
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So you’ve got this parameter of space in which this culture, this Italian American culture resides as well. That, along with looking at the world and seeing conflict in the world, and conflict being drawn on these geographical lines, and maps being recreated based on decisions made by politicians who are often quite remote from those lines. Before I knew anything about what was going on, for example, with the conflict in the Middle East, when I had no idea what the conflict in the Middle East was, and I was just surrounded by a bunch of Christian Zionists saying it was just a religious conflict. I knew there was something perverse about just deciding that this country will be here, and we will forget about what existed before it, with the redrawing of the Soviet Union. That happened when I was so young, the breaking down of the Soviet Union, and all these new states coming up, and the war in Kosovo, and all of a sudden there is Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, and I think I was aware of the reshaping of Eastern Europe.
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It was perhaps just a bit superficial.
When I started my M.A., I’m not even sure who said it to me or when it happened, but someone said to me that I was making this formal work. It was the same thing that was said to me when I was in highschool. I was making this formal, beautiful work, but that they couldn’t really understand what was at the heart of it. So, I started thinking about it.
Also, when I moved to England to do my M.A. I couldn’t make the work I had been making before, it just didn’t make sense to me anymore. And yet I was making the same work, but it was just empty because it was just formal. I had to get into what were the deeper questions behind that. And that is when I became more aware of what was in my mind when I was making the mapping projects before. That it was more about the emotional state of longing and identity and knowing who you are, both as an individual and as a part of a group.
So the maps were about that: Who are you as an individual? and Who are you as part of a group? But they weren’t really achieving that. No one else was thinking about that when they looked at the maps, just me.
So that is when I decided to get more into performance, and storytelling, doing video and photography, trying to find that from a different angle.
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BN: Can you talk specifically about how your early life as a Christian informed your artistic work? And then if you want to get into performance and the fictionalization of history and how that aides in having a complex conversation about both your past ideas around religion, as well as just creating more dynamic, interesting work?
It always bothered me, my particular… I don’t want to call it my upbringing because it wasn’t my parents that felt this way, it was my church, and my parents weren’t really bothered by how my church felt about art. I don’t think I ever once got taken to an art museum. My mom took me to a play for my birthday, then I got tickets to a play for Christmas because I asked for it, but my parents weren’t overly into art and culture.
My mom actually wanted to study art at University when she was young, but her father wouldn’t let her. She is creative, but it is just a different kind of interaction with art in my family. They weren’t opposed to it, but they had this suspicion from the conservative christian culture wars of the eighties and especially the nineties.
We were always boycotting Disney for endorsing gay people or there was always some kind of thing going on. And when I was older I always felt like I was living a kind of double life because I was really interested. Actually, my church did so much creative stuff, which was always, in their minds, required to be in support of the Christian message. There was lots of interpretive dance, choreographed dance. Non-choreographed dance was not okay, but you had choreographed dancing to praise music and that was really beautiful and encouraged. And often was really beautiful. We did these theatrical performances with elaborate staging, with a member of the congregation who used to be a special effects makeup artists, and all kinds of stuff. Whatever.
I was talking to my mom recently and she was saying that sometimes the plays that they put on would make her so uncomfortable because they would be slamming the catholic church or finding demonic things in just normal stuff. And she never knew how she really felt about that. [The church] was interested in these forms of creativity and I got involved in it because I was a creative person, but I always felt a little short changed by the limitations that were put on it.
I remember one night being in my friend’s room and laying on the floor, sleeping over, and telling her my real real dream was to make movies. [Gasp!] I felt like I was admitting that I was a child molester. I just wanted to make movies that weren’t about Jesus. I think it felt wrong to make something for any other reason than for the gospel.
Our church had a really utilitarian view. If something wasn’t directly increasing the number of people attending church then it wasn’t worth your time. It is such a distinctive memory thinking that it was sinful to want to do something that wasn’t facilitating greater numbers of people sitting in the seats at our church. Not even for the good of “the church,” but if it wasn’t growing our specific church, it felt wrong.
This was something I really had to wrestle with in my late teens and early twenties. What was the point? It is a question that all young artists who are Christians have to think about, which is really silly. Is there a purpose to being an artist if you aren’t explicitly leading people to Christ. I mean, there is a purpose to being a Doctor and not explicitly leading people to Christ. I thought about that a lot when I was younger. The church that I went to in particular, was kind of cultish in a lot of the ways that they did things. I had to unlearn a lot of the things that I was taught, which I instinctively knew wasn’t right.
As I have become more confident in my own thoughts, in what I believe, it has become an important part of my work to prompt discussion and thought around what it means to believe in things, and to challenge notions of charismatic leaders, and what is leadership, and what is belief, and what is the difference between something that is fraudulent and something that is genuine? And when does it matter?
I think that is my main objective now is to make people consider the implications of how they view the world in anything, through politics and religion. Over the years I’ve dealt with role playing and things like that, which is hopefully provocative.
I was in a show a couple of years ago and I was really worried because I knew that there was going to be a lot of more traditional evangelical people exposed to [the work] because of where the gallery was located. The work was video of my performing magic spells, like love spells, and I was worried that people would react negatively to it, as if I was performing witchcraft, when really what I was talking about was the futility of trying to control your environment through actions, through routines, and rituals.
These were white magic spells that I found on the internet that I performed in a very crappy way, and it was very funny. But I think a lot of people practice their Christianity as if they were practicing white magic, (or black magic, sometimes,) believing that if they do things, if they pray in a certain way, in a certain position, in a certain place, and use these specific words, somehow God is more likely to respond in a specific way to that prayer. Sometimes we are quite superstitious in the way that Christians behave, and we don’t really realize that are treating God as if he were a magician, or a genie in a bottle, trying to put the right incantation together so that we can get what we want. That is the sort of thing that I am interested in.
Sometimes I worry about crossing the line, or where is the line? I think that is something I am really conscious of, especially in performance type work. I don’t want to fall into the farce, which is a very easy comedic trap to just make fun of something, but rather I want to use humor a little bit, but also sincere. I try to be a little unsettling in order to cause people to evaluate and challenge the way that they think about things. But not to make fun of something, which is easier, but also gets blown off. There is definately work [like this] that I haven’t finished because I don’t know if I am doing it right. [Laughs.] And I don’t want to just put it out there.
I am working on project right now that is a collaboration. It has to do with some real serious, dubious, prayer systems. I don’t know when the project will ever really get off the ground because it is taking such a long time to consider what the appropriate angle is where it is actually provocative without being insincere, or being too melodramatic. There are all these tensions to juggle, so that you end up with a product (or whatever) that prompts thought and isn’t just a joke. An eye roll.
BN: Because it is part of your experience and identity, I want to ask briefly about your work at the Hackney Foodbank. You’ve been working there for several years, and I wonder if you can tell me about the changes in the neighborhood that have led to the sale of the current building?
LC: Who knows, the British economy is about to crash, so really who knows? Maybe it will all change.
The area where I run this food bank in is traditionally poor, lots of artists, lots of warehouse type studios and squats, but it has gone the way things go when artists move in and open cool bars and microbreweries. It’s become a very expensive, very popular place for people to live. I think in 2014 the price to rent increased by 18% in one year. Pretty much everyone has been prices out. Actually, our building has been sold because it is a church that owns it, and the church maintains two other buildings: a beautiful victorian building and a tutor church at which Elizabeth (the first) attended services. It is very expensive to maintain these buildings so they’ve sold off this other building that they own that we were occupying (not in the political sense, but we were renting.) They need the cash, really.
Everything is becoming really expensive flats for rich people to invest in.
BN: Can you comment on the British conception of charity work, charity shops, the history, and how the foodbank is in line with, or departs from that tradition?
LC: Actually, near to my office is where all the big guns from the Salvation Army were buried!
In the turn of the century, Victorian era, there was a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. People were either doing pretty well or they were living in complete squalor in very poor housing conditions. Really destitute. At that time, I think there were people who began to get a sense of, today, what we would call, social justice. That it wasn’t right in a wealthy society, to also have people living in squalor, and that there was enough to provide for everyone.
The Victorian ethic definitely saw people in poverty as being of a different class, and being slightly different in value; requiring the wealth to be their benefactors, and enable them to be educated and moral. There was a real link between poverty and immorality. So, lots of Christian charities got started and they would have workhouses where poor people could live and work and be taught bible stories, or schools, all sorts of stuff like that. It came from a good place and helped move society forward. The church definitely took the lead in helping people improve their lot in life.
Then around the turn of the century, actually 1899 the first low income housing was built in East London. That spun off into the Corporation of London building loads of affordable housing across the city, destroying slums, and building affordable housing. British society progressed from that place to the concept of human rights, asking “What do people deserve because they are human beings?” Really, after WWII, people started asking how the government could take responsibility, often people in poverty only had the charities to rely on, be it mother and baby homes or orphanages, all run by the church or wealthy benefactors. In the 1950’s, people were much more interested in workers rights and equality and the idea that everyone should have a base standard from which to come, this was the foundation that led to the British welfare state. (I think I am stating this accurately!)
It the 1950’s the National Health Service came around, so there was this boom in housing. Housing estates were built to give people clean, good, affordable housing, and the N.H.S. was meant to ensure that everyone had adequate medical care and treatment. On that foundation was built the welfare state, as it was known right up until the current government.
So there was always a need for charities to do work, but more recently, most of them were doing things like raising funds for cancer research or lots of medical charities. There is still the Salvation Army, working with people in poverty, there are still those big names who help people who are homeless or destitute for various reasons.
In 2012 the Hackney Foodbank was set up (and I joined them soonafter,) to help people from the point of when a crisis started until government provision would kick in. There was this idea that because no one should live below a certain level, everyone who finds themselves out of work (or they are sick and unable to work) gets a certain amount of benefit to prop them up, and there is a whole complex benefits system. But the present government felt that the cost of the benefit system was too high and people who could be working weren’t working, and it was costing the government too much. So in these past four-to-five years the government has been going through an exercise in reducing the size of the state so that a lot of the things that were put in place to ensure people would not fall below the poverty line have been removed or reduced. What has happened is that people who were normally picked up by this system and supported by government programs, those programs no longer exist, or they exist in a seriously reduced way. Therefore, charity organizations have been forced to take on the responsibility of looking after some of those people. And that is what we have seen with the food banks, as government services have withdrawn, more and more are relying on charitable help to meet their basic needs.
BN: What can you tell us about those who are in critical need that your organization is serving, it sounds like their numbers are growing as government services reduce, but is this maybe an indicator of larger social trends or change?
LC: There is definitely an increase in people who need immediate crisis support as, what we refer to as the Social Safety Net has been withdrawn. I do think that the larger issue isn’t the amount of benefits people get paid when they are out of work or how they qualify for those benefits, but rather that the system (to quote Bernie Sanders) isn’t working for everyone!
I think there are similar problems we see in the United States, they are similar economies. Our economy in the West, and especially in England and the United States, is based on the premise that if you enable people to make as much money as possible at the top then the money will trickles down. We have this trickle-down economics that everyone has been talking about since Thatcher and Reagan, but it doesn’t work.
There is a book that I read that talks about the change in our economy and the change of our labor force. “Labor” as in “Labor” when Karl Marx referred to Labor, or when people used the term Labor in the 1950s and 1960s they were talking about car manufacturing, coal mining, and steel workers. But as the way we live our lives has changed, as materials change, and increases to technology, and all the stuff that we know about, the labor market has changed. The unionized jobs that people relied on for good wages, steady income, and security, those sorts of jobs don’t exist! The jobs that have replaced those jobs do not have the same kinds of union protection that, I think, previous industries have had. So, we’ve got lots of freelance workers that work in the digital economy, people that work in retail, and stuff like that. Those workers do not have the same job security or stability or the same wage levels that people had in previous times. So, it is harder to have a middle class lifestyle where you might have had a job as a coal miner, and provided a middle class lifestyle for your family, now there are no coal miner jobs so you are a stockroom picker for Amazon and that job does not pay enough to support a family in a middle class lifestyle. Those workers will also not have the same protections that unionized workers once had.
So, I think what we are seeing is this total change in what the workforce looks like and our governments haven’t protected workers in the new economy. And you have companies that are doing exceedingly well, earning vast amounts of money for stockholders, but their workers aren’t able to maintain families and they are living in poverty.
One of the main reasons that the foodbank exists here, and, I’m sure, why food banks in America exist, is because normal people’s wages have not caught up to the cost of living and they are not able to support their families at a decent standard while working full time jobs that are not in higher professional sectors. Increasingly, people are not able to support families when they are in professional jobs, either! Which is the case with doctors in the U.K. right now.
The way that the economy has changed and the way jobs have changed mean that people don’t have the savings, they don’t have the buffer. We are also required to have computers, the internet, mobile phones, with 3G or 4G, we need those kinds of things as well, ya know? If there is no transportation available that is suitable, you take a car, if you do have a car, and if you do have a car then it takes gas, which is expensive because of the lobbying of big businesses. Our government’s’ priorities have not been to ensure citizens can have what they need. It’s very political, but it is true.
BN: You’ve been interviewed for your work at the foodbank, and published your own writing during your tenure. I wonder if you can talk briefly about how working there, and being socially engaged with that work, has in some way informed your identity and if that is or is not linked with your creative work?
LC: There are times when I have harbored a real bitterness about my job, taking me away from my work as an artist. There are so many days when I am just exhausted. I have this fantasy place in my head, which is this beautiful, wooded backyard with a studio. I’m drinking a cup of tea, and my hands are covered in clay. [Laughs.] And I think that is how my life should be, but instead I’m on seven phones, answering emails, and dealing with people in this Kafkaesque, government, crazy situations that they shouldn’t be in, and having no power to do anything about it. And I’m the person who is there trying to help weed through that, and I have no qualifications to do that! [Laughs, again.]
That has definitely been a challenge for me. I found it really impossible to maintain a steady practice while doing this job, because the job is so demanding, exhausting, and completely endless.
Who said, “Don’t be afraid of work that never ends”? It is a famous quote. Well, work that never ends is depressing. The weight of dealing with people in horrible circumstances, being there for them, and helping them, but also carrying the burden of their experiences that are quite traumatic.
So, certainly I feel qualified to have an opinion [about these things,] which is nice because I’ve always been kind of an opinionated person, but I’ve always felt that I had to be cautious about my opinion because I wasn’t really qualified… The last four and a half years have opened my eyes to a lot of stuff. Not just experiences that I’ve had first-hand, witnessing, or whatever, but because I have been working in the kind of non profit charity sector I’ve read reports, been to government meetings, and been exposed to things I was never exposed to when I was working in the film industry or an art teacher, or whatever. So, it has given me a sense of righteous anger and also I understand the problem. I never felt like that about anything before. It has given me something to say.
I am leaving this job in October and I’m trying to think about, what now? Especially because this wasn’t exactly something that I chose to do, it just happened to me in a lot of ways, and I was just faithful to do it.
Now, I am trying to think of how I can translate this experience. Living through it has just made angry. I’m angry. I feel angry all the time because there is so much injustice in just everyday life that we just accept. So, I’m thinking about how to deal with that.
BN: How would you say that your work at the foodbank differs from your work in the studio?
LC: My artwork has always had a couple of streams. I’m not an artist that has the one thing that she does, and I just do that thing, and explore that thing more deeply with every project. There are lots of artists that work in that way, sometimes I wish I could be like that, but it is not who I am. So, I always have a couple of things that I am doing.
I like doing crafts, which have nothing to do with fine art. Making nice things for people, or making nice things for myself, which occupies my hands and not my brain. I take photographs, and make little fiddly things. So, I have the craft things that I do, I’ve got the artwork that I make which is more like tactile that I enjoy simply because I enjoy making it, and then I have projects that I take on.
My projects are usually multimedia things that require lots of different props to make a video, or a performance, it’s got multiple levels to it. Those projects are really intellectually and emotionally consuming. For the last couple of years, especially, I have not really been able to complete this work, but I have ideas. What I have is an index file box, and when I get an idea that I know I can’t invest in I write it down on an index card, and I put it in my box, and then I can come back to it.
So, I haven’t been able to work like that while working in my job. The thing is that it is so emotionally taxing and physically exhausting work that I am doing on a daily basis, but I have been able to make things just for myself.
In the past year I have not really been in any exhibitions. I haven’t even shown things that I have made to friends of mine that are artists because I’m almost conducting art therapy on myself. With the exhaustion of my day job, it didn’t leave me anything left to make work from. I didn’t have the space to do it.
Now that I am finishing this job, I am working on transitioning my energy back to doing some projects.
What I have been wrestling with is that there is a wealth of experiences from these last four years, and I now have got something to say. I am thinking through what forms will that take. In the meantime I will always be making shitty little sculptures, or whatever. I returned to making stained glass, which I hadn’t done in years! I hadn’t been doing stained glass projects during my M.A. program, but then, maybe two years after, at least [I returned to it.] The past couple of years I’ve been making them because the process is soothing, and gives me joy. But it is not necessarily that I am going to make anything of that.
BN: It sounds like maybe this core work ethic that requires this all-consuming energy from Liza, it is almost as if you have a notion of work that you associate with your “high-art” practice, as well as the best work that you have done at the Foodbank. It is related to how much energy and focus you’re investing, maybe?
LC: The thing that I enjoyed about my jobs was the creative process of creating something out of nothing. Which is also that entrepreneurial activity that is a big part of the art that is important to me. The artwork is an entrepreneurial activity, ya know?
I never really thought I was an “art for art’s sake” person, but I am because I do make art of which I do not care if anyone ever sees it. For better or worse, though, I do not think of it as my “work.” That is probably be giving a [mischaracterization,] making it into something that it shouldn’t be, or maybe elevating something I shouldn’t elevate. I think of level 1: decoupage, level 2: sculpture, photographs, level 3: performances, videos. That is kind of how I think of it.
BN: The last time I saw you, Britain had just voted that they would depart from the E.U.. Rather than get into all of the nuances, the potential implications for artists and teachers who do have immigrant status in the country, as you do, I wondered if you could share a bit about how living life as an immigrant to that country has maybe changed some perspectives for you? This could be in how you approach your work, or more personally. Also, maybe talk about the distinction between your experience as an immigrant, but not a refugee, you could return to your country. Could you talk about how this affects you personally but also how you can engage with others on those topics?
LC: Well, first of all, it is a total position of privilege to live in another country by choice and by your own free will. Which is something a lot of people do not get about the whole refugee crisis, and what is going on with asylum seekers across the world. It is a real privilege to have a choice in where you live, whether you are choosing to remain in your own country or choosing to live in another country, choice is a privilege.
In my job I have met a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in the last four years. I have friends and those who I have helped that have spent time in detention centers who have been through really horrific things that I could not even imagine. No one who is not in that position really thinks too much about how much inherent privilege they have choosing where they live. We are so lucky to be able to do that, whether we stay at home or live abroad.
The thing that has stuck out the most to be about being an immigrant, living in England, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people who, experiences where they have gone off on immigration and how horrible it is, and how immigrants are changing the country, taking everyone’s jobs, lots of British or English people go on a rant with me in the room about immigration, but then I would say, “But you know, that I’m an immigrant.” But they would respond, “Oh, no, no, no, we like immigrants like you.” And I just think, well, what does that mean?
The racism and classism that surrounds the whole immigration debate is so huge.
I’m white. I’m a woman, so I am non-threatening. I am from America. I speak English like a movie actor, with a neutral accent. I’ve got a Master’s degree. It is like, I am an acceptable immigrant.
But if you hold up someone with the same background as me, same exact background, except they have brown skin and they are a refugee from Syria, and no one wants to know anything about them. You know, someone who is an educated, middle class person, who has brown skin. That has been really eye opening to me.
I think I still have the same feelings of displacement, of judgement, of being unwanted, on a daily basis I am repeatedly told that I am ruining the country. Not me specifically, but my category of people. Economic migrants. Just here to take their jobs. I mean, I’ve never been an anti-immigration person, myself, I never had that kind of sentiment, but I think it has been really interesting to be an immigrant, to have all the feelings associated with being an immigrant, but then to have the country that hosts you will look at you almost as if you are the same as them because of the color of your skin and the accent that you speak with, you’re not seen in quite the same way. It just opened my eyes to more casual racism and classism. Big time.
BN: Clearly, you are carrying around so many pieces of your identity with you when you are going about your daily life. You are living as an immigrant, working in your community for social justice aims, and you are also an artist. I wonder how the part of your identity that is an artist, how does that play out in daily interactions? We talked about your studio practice, but how does it affect these other aspects of your life? For example, do you identify yourself as an artist throughout your life, or is just in your studio time that you feel fully as an artist? Is it code switching?
LC: I really hate it when people call themselves artists, and you know they are an actor or something and they work as an actor, but they identify as an artist and it is the main thing of their identity. Or when someone identifies as an artist when they simply live creatively. I think it is pretentious, that is why I don’t like it. I think it is pretentious.
I also think being an artist is an active thing. Being an artist isn’t a passive thing. You don’t just be an artist, and then everything you do is art. I don’t feel like that. I think that when you have nurtured yourself as an artist. Dedicated time to developing your craft, or your practice, or whatever. When you’ve nurtured yourself as an artist it does change the way that you interact on every level of your live. Because I think that artists are, maybe naturally inclined to, but then trained to problem solve, to be resourceful, and to see underneath things. Having nurtured myself as an artist has made me a more insightful person.
If you are an artist, you’re looking beneath the surface as an artist, that is what you are taught to do and encouraged to do. I think that it changes the way that you do everything because you don’t take anything at face value. Not in a cynical way. There are lots of cynical artists, but it isn’t about cynicism, it is about understanding that there is layer upon layer, upon layer, upon layer beneath anything that you encounter. And yes, that might come naturally, but it is also something that you need to be taught to tease out in life.
When I am facing a problem that I am dealing with, the way that I tackle that problem is really due to the way that I have been trained as an artist. Even though it might not be artistic, it is that way of getting underneath the surface. It is a skill that I learned from artschool.
BN: We talked some about your early childhood experience in the church, but I know that you are still an active church leader in your community. Can we talk about how your work in ministry may differ from work at the Foodbank, and also differ from your studio time. In other words, do any of these parts of your life feel more like a “calling” to you, do you feel like these are equally part of you, or do you make any distinction? Are these compartmentalized for you, or do they blur together?
LC: I think that compartmentalizing things isn’t actually very helpful.
I think that generally, in life, it is important to be a whole person. And so to not be one part of yourself in one situation, and one part of yourself in another situation, but rather to develop a way of being yourself in any situation, even if you have to behave differently. Does that make sense?
When we were talking about what it means to be an immigrant, that is a good thing to reflect on because in scripture we are taught to be in the world but not of the world. We are sojourners, foreigners, strangers in a land. When you have that experience of an extended amount of time being a stranger somewhere, I’ve been in England for over seven years now, and I feel very invested in society even, in some ways, very British. But I am not. I am still an outsider. I’m not British, but I feel British. But then sometimes I feel apart. I think that this has helped me to understand what it means to be a Christian and living in this world, and for the world not to be our home, but to be where we are living out our lives. I think that this has been helpful.
In regard to the difference between ministry and my artwork, I think that the main thing that we are called to, as Christians, is that we are called to serve, to be servants of people. This should not be in a way where you lay down and let people trample all over you, or being kind of second class, but that we are meant to live out our lives in service of other people, and not just for ourselves. Sometimes that comes into serious conflict with being an artist because we are taught about this heroic artist identity who lives outside of the world, and sees everything differently, and has these mystical abilities. A kind of celebrity figure. That comes into conflict with what it means to be a Christian because it’s not all about us.
I think that trying to be generous with your life is really what it is all about when it comes to being a Christian. Everybody is afraid in the world, and everyone is worried about who is going to take care of them, and feels the need to look out for themselves – otherwise no one is going to look out for them. That is the prevailing wisdom in our culture. It is very individualistic and self-centered. Ministry is about not living like that.
To me, it doesn’t matter if I am making art, or giving a lecture, or writing an article, or giving someone a bag of food, or giving someone a shoulder to cry on. It is the act of living consciously of other people which I wish that I did successfully all the time, but I do not. But I think that is what ministry is.
I don’t think that ministry as a category is necessarily helpful because we should all be ministering to the situations that we encounter in our lives all the time. The thing that is important to me is that people feel encouraged, or loved, or considered, ya know? I don’t always do that, but I think that is what it means to be a Christian in the world. Unfortunately, that is not what the church is like, universally. Which is disappointing.
When I started my M.A. nobody knew I was a Christian. I did not advertise it. I did not share it. And when people eventually found out, maybe four months into the program, they were totally shocked. Because I didn’t behave like a Christian, to them. But I was acting like a Christian, but they think of Christians as judging and excluding.
My new thing that I am thinking about all the time is from a sermon that I heard a few months ago at Hillsong in London. The pastor was talking about policies of inclusion and exclusion. He was challenging the congregation to think about what policies of exclusion that they held in their lives. Christ came so that we could all be included, and so, living the Christian life is to live an inclusive live where you have enough love and consideration and welcome and resources and you have a home for everyone. That is what it means to be a Christian.
This is something I have been thinking about a lot. When do I choose to exclude someone from my life? Again, without being a total doormat. I think that it is sometimes difficult to maintain a Christian identity in the world when the world’s perception of Christianity is about exclusivity, and Christ is about inclusivity.
BN: In closing, is there something that if you had the resources and energy to focus on your artwork, what is a major project that you would like to tackle? If you were just completely given the freedom, in other words, what are you dreaming about with your artwork?
LC: Something that is important to me is how people access [art]work, how you reach people. I’m interested working along the boundaries of fine art and film and theater. You’ve got film and television which are really accessible art forms that everyone has pumped into their houses, so you’ve got a lot of crap that gets made, and you’ve got really amazing, amazing works done in film and television. And it is so accessible to people, they are really drawn into it. And then you’ve got fine art which is kind of a remote thing that happens in a gallery or in a community center. There are these different spheres. I know loads of people are doing all sorts of things to explore the options between these two worlds. It’s not a revolutionary thing to be interested in. But that is something that I think about a lot with my artwork; who is coming to it, or how are they getting to it, why, and what are they getting from it? I probably have Murray McMillan to thank for that, and that way of thinking. [Laughs]
Think that is where my head is at. I’m not sure what to say because I have a couple of things, but I am not sure what I am going to go with. There is about three different projects. One I’ve been working on for years and years and never doing anything with it, and now my thoughts are changing around it, and I don’t think I still want to do what I was going to do.
BN: Do you feel drawn to focusing more on your studio practice during this next phase of your life? Because you have clearly gone through a phase where you have focused a lot on your work/career in the community sector. But do you feel like the next phase for you is to focus on your art, or is it something else?
LC: I’m thinking a lot about film and the internet. I mean, the thing that I care about presently more than anything else in the universe is that we live in a hateful world where good people feel justified to behave, hatefully. That is the fire burning in my belly right now: That our society is condoning exclusion, rejection, and hatred, and the church is often turning a blind eye to it or often encouraging it. That makes me so angry. Angrier than anything has ever made me in my life.
Thinking on the issues that we face: How you explore those issues in ways that actually, legitimately challenge people’s way of thinking and perceiving? Everyone’s facebook wall is an echo chamber. Everyone watches the news programs that they watch, and I don’t think that people have the energy to outside of their sphere and think about things in a different way.
So that is the question that I am posing to myself where, there are these things that I feel passionate about, not because there is a specific political answer, but there is a behavioral response that can make us better. That is all caught up in politics that can’t be… We are caught in the mud. I just really don’t like what has happened to language in society.
So that is what I have been thinking about: How can I use my skillset to deal with that? Is there a media… That isn’t a specific answer, but I am trying to think through: What I can do to make the world a better place?
One thing that will not make the world a better place, is doing an exhibition in a gallery. Because no one is going to give a crap about it, except for a couple people that go to the gallery. A gallery is just as much of an echo chamber as my facebook wall is. But also I find that with community art projects, no one really wants you to have too much of an opinion because you don’t really want to offend anyone. There is all kinds of baggage around community art, and public art, and that is a whole other can of worms.
How can I make the world a better place? Challenge people to think about their, (I hate to use the term world-view,) their perceptions of reality. Maybe, I don’t have a Messiah complex about it, I don’t think I can… but that is what I am thinking about. How can I turn my anger into action in a way that isn’t just abusing art, that isn’t propaganda? There are all these big questions floating around. That is why I don’t have anything to do right now, because I’m not sure what the right approach is.
At the moment I am planning, maybe, a documentary, but not a straightforward documentary. But I am not sure that it is going to happen or not.
BN: Is there anything you want to reference that gives you hope that art can accomplish something like that?
LC: I haven’t seen anything like the thing that I am thinking of. But there are vast amounts of things that people respond well to. I’m not sure. I think that is part of the problem. At the moment, I am in a place where I am looking at everything that I see, everything I am doing, and thinking, “Okay, well, what is that going to do?”
I am confused about what will be an effective approach to take.
It is just very difficult to reach out to people in a way that is accessible and good and challenging without just doing something that merely perpetuates agreement. I’m horrible, I can’t talk calmly to people about politics, and stuff like that.
For me, I’ve lately been really challenged [by the fact that] having a political argument changes no one’s opinion. It doesn’t encourage anyone to think about the situations that they are facing. It doesn’t encourage thought. I don’t want to keep adding to all the noise. Because, I can write an article or make a piece of video artwork, and the only people that will see it will be the people that already agree with me, and they will say, “isn’t that great!” but what is the point?
I’ll get back to you.
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