Grace Ndiritu interviews Nancy Popp for Educating Rita 4.11.17
INTERVIEW #8 – EDUCATING RITA
Nancy Popp is a Los Angeles-based artist (born and raised) who creates performances, videos, drawings and photographs. Her politically charged art explores relations between body and site, often incorporating public and architectural spaces. She also has long-term Yoga and Teaching practices.
GN: So we are doing this on Skype. I am in Paris and you are in LA. Maybe it’s good to start at the
beginning in terms of where you kind of grew up, your family background and how you ended up in
NP: I grew up [in Los Angeles]. I went to school in California too. I almost went to school in New York; but then I did not.
GN: Was it because you thought the schools were better in LA at that time?
NP: No, no, I didn’t think the schools were better. I thought they were different. I also wanted more of a context in New York. I am a fourth-generation LA native so I thought, “I need to broaden my perspective a little bit. I need to make connections in other places other than Los Angeles”; this is why I was trying to go to school in New York. But it did not work out and I ended up at school in San Francisco. I ended up being a very West Coast person through and through.
GN: This was in the 90s, wasn’t it?
NP: My undergraduate studies were in the 90s, and my MFA was in the mid-2000s.
GN: And so how did you see the difference between when you went to school in the 90s and went to school ten years later? What was the difference, especially in that kind of Californian, LA art scene? What had happened in that time period?
NP: It was actually a very big time for LA in the early 1990s. Right before I started undergrad, there was big show at MOCA called ‘Helter Skelter’, curated by Paul Schimmel. Through his curating at MOCA, he helped establish Los Angeles as a more serious market city, an international art city. There had been waves of that periodically…but, you know, this is the time of Mike Kelley. The graduate programs in Los Angeles were becoming very renowned in the 1990’s. There was a lot more international attention on Los Angeles when I was studying for my undergrad and it just continued to balloon. ArtCenter College of Design (where I received my BFA) was probably one of the top graduate programs in the US in the late 1990’s. They were in the spotlight. It changed the way LA artists thought about themselves; it changed how they thought of their teachers. LA is an ‘artist’ city, not a ‘collector’ city, and it started to become more of a collector city. There were groups like the Light and Space artists, and others who were working and practicing in Los Angeles since the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. But the art scene had not really been geared towards the market, and with the economic boom in the 1980’s that started changing. More galleries started opening up here and started to make a name for themselves simply by being in Los Angeles, not by being affiliated with New York. And now there are so many people, so many New Yorkers coming to Los Angeles, and people from Europe coming here; they are establishing their galleries and in some ways it is covering over the identity of Los Angeles, taking away some of the regional characteristics. In a sense, when you come from a place, you look for similar things when you go to a new place. You don’t understand the new place [and it’s identity] because you haven’t been there long enough.
GN: Yeah, I understand.
NP: There has been a tremendous amount of transition in the last twenty years here. And I have never really been a gallery-focused artist. My work has not ever been about that and I knew I wasn’t going to be an artist who focused solely on the market, so…
GN: A longtime ago I was reading Chris Kraus, the way she writes about LA in the 90s, the Video Art of the 90s. I always had this feeling that through reading her books I was kind of experiencing the 90s LA version. But you went to live in San Francisco in that period. Is that how you got more into social activism and art?
NP: I was interested in that in the 90s when I was here in Los Angeles and was accepted to ArtCenter College of Design. In fact, my last show at ArtCenter was my first performance piece. It was piece for the camera, but it was a performance piece; it involved my body. And then I started getting involved in activism shortly after that — quickly, maybe within three years of finishing my undergrad. In 2000 the Democratic National Convention was in Los Angeles and I was involved in some protests around that through a group called Arts in Action. It’s funny, because some people who are good friends now were also involved [in Arts in Action] but we did not know each other at the time.
NP: People like Sandra de la Loza and Erin O’Brien. But then I got involved during the second Iraq
War under George W. Bush. There was a group of artists who got together- performance artists,
dancers, spoken-word artists. We formed a troupe called Corpus Delecti that was collectively working
with art as a form of protest, incorporating Butoh dance. And we actually would go out on the streets
and public space, and perform. Mainly we started performing at the rallies and marches; then we
started spreading out throughout other sites, such as the 3rd Street promenade in Santa Monica or
the Federal Building in Westwood, and we would perform on the street as a kind of protest against the
war. It was great! I am still in touch with many of these people, and they are amazing.
GN: I noticed that you have also done some performances for Occupy, obviously much later, but that kind of trajectory in your career has been going on for many years now, like, social activism.
NP: Yes, for at least 15 years. I went back to graduate school shortly after working with Corpus Delecti but I continued to do that kind of work when I was studying. I was teaching at the same time as I was studying and I was also working with public performances on the street. And then I started working collectively with a group based in Los Angeles called the LA Art Girls, a group of artists who came out of grad school and wanted to meet and be a collective- or a support group, is how it really started, for their art and then for each other’s artistic practices. At first, we started meeting and having drinks. Then we started going to each other’s studios. And then we actually started making work together and got invitations to shows.
GN: So this was kind of a follow-on from Guerrilla Girls and Chicks on Speed, that kind of thing.
NP: Not exactly. Actually somebody asked me about Guerrilla Girls the other day and I realized I have not replied to them. Someone was asking me because they thought I might know one of the Guerilla Girls. I was thinking “Oh shit, I don’t know.” Guerrilla Girls are pretty great; very, very feminist. I think of it as being in the same vein as Barbara Kruger, you know? There is a targeted message. [LA Art Girls] were not quite like that; we were very playful. We were more grounded in performance than anything else, but not everybody in the group was a performance artist. We had a big show at the Getty Museum in 2006 that brought us a lot of national attention. But we would argue with each other about whether we were a feminist group.
NP: Because some of us did not identify [as feminists].
GN: Why did they not identify [as feminists] at that time?
NP: Well, there was this kind of idea that we were in a post-feminist society, which I think is just [bull]…
NP: This is the same kind of middle-class feminist attitude happening in Second-Wave feminism all along, which is the issue of “I am white. I have privilege. I have spending power, discretionary income, sexual freedom. I am fine!” Feminist assault. It is impossible to have that attitude when you see different cultures around the world and how patriarchy is still so embedded within them, and how women suffer so much under it. So in some sense I was very frustrated with those conversations and I thought they were very narrow.
GN: Yes, it is because you are so political as a person. Ever since I met you that’s one of the things that I love is that you are really stuck in there. I think you have quite a layered way of thinking about things.
NP: I do, and I am, but I think that my appearance and my cultural and racial markers really counteract that in many ways.
GN: As an activist, you feel limited because you are a white, and I guess, a middle-class woman.
NP: I am middle-class. I am absolutely white. But I come from a very, very working-class background. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1970s, in a very working-class area. And I grew up with a single mom who was on welfare raising two daughters. And I have a lot of issues in my family – my father is an alcoholic, there is sexual abuse in my family, my mother is mentally ill. I did not grow up in a privileged background in the sense of how you would compare privilege to a lot of people, especially in the art world now. I have these deeper political ideologies from how I grew up. I went to private schools because my mom did not want to send us to public schools because the public schools were really starting to break down at that time in Los Angeles. It is kind of the opposite of England- the public schools are the difficult, underfunded schools and the private schools are the more rarefied schools. My mom sent my sister and I to religious Catholic schools, which are not that expensive but offered a higher quality education; through that there was a huge push for me to excel. My opportunities came through education and they came very early. That’s part of why I frame education in such a political way.
GN: I can totally relate because when I was in Birmingham, I was also from a working-class background, working-class neighbourhood. The first school I went to was a real dive and I got bullied. But the working-class area was next to a middle-class area. And there was a Catholic school in the middle-class area. I am not Catholic but I could go there. You just had to phone them and apply and they had tennis courts, they had fields, they had everything. I had to go to Mass. I had to do the rights and rituals, but I loved it. There were nuns and everything. And that’s what opened me up as well. Because I ended up having friends whose parents were doctors and lawyers. And I understood that I could negotiate all these different spheres of power. I could be with different people and still be myself and enjoy myself. And I think that really helps if you are kind of have that from a young age, because it allows for people like us to be in the art world. And I think having gone to that school that’s what has given me the edge. Because we are continuously in the art world surrounded by middle- and upperclass people.
NP: I agree completely. I also have something interesting to throw in. I was teaching in a very, very
exclusive school here in Los Angeles for many, many years – over a decade. These kids were the
privileged to upper-privileged; you know, celebrity kids, kids whose families were Hollywood producers
and bankers and investment people and that kind of thing. And the students would be extremely
motivated and disciplined and some of them really excelled in art; not a huge percentage but many of
them. And when I would talk to them about applying to art school, they would say “No, I can’t. My
parents won’t allow it.” As children of very privileged upper-class people they were not allowed to
pursue art as a career.
GN: That’s weird!
NP: It was, you know, quite interesting to see that very few of our students went on to become artists. In some ways I think that the middle and upper working-class are where artists traditionally come from. This is changing now also.
GN: Yeah, because look at the artist Dash Snow who died when he was twenty something and his relatives [he was the nephew of actress Uma Thurman and great-grandson of Dominique de Menil, who was heiress to the Schlumberger oil fortune and whose museum in Houston, Texas includes works by Magritte, Ernst, Duchamp, Matisse and Picasso as well as American masters such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning]. There are a lot of art kids who come from that type of background now.
NP: Yes, there are more artists who are coming from upper class or the upper economic strata now. The reason that it is changing is because of how art is now being used more as a commodity. The way people collect art has changed drastically in the past 20 -30 years. The way art is used as a kind of holder for capital is similar to the way the real estate is being used; very, very similar. Art and the speculative real estate market are functioning in the same way- to hold these vast, huge sums of money, and to keep it circulating. Because of that, more of the economic elites are being drawn into pursuing art as a kind of career, because they see it now as a kind of venture capitalist, moneymaking scenario rather than what it has been historically. I think this also ties into what we were talking about earlier — the history of Los Angeles and how Los Angeles has changed as an art capital. Los Angeles has long been a very working-class artist city. Cheap space, lots of artists doing all kinds of weird things, doing their own thing, and not giving a shit what everybody else thinks of it. LA artists don’t look for an institution to support them-they just do it. That’s very LA. There is no…you know, they don’t say “Oh, but we have to run it by that museum or gallery.” No, LA Artists just form our own nonprofit, or we are going to make a group or a collective or something and just do it. That’s happened here for 40 years, more than that!
GN: Okay, so that explains Alexandra Grant and her project, and how that could be successful. It can only be successful in that kind of economic structure, where you are allowed to get away with things, you know.
NP: That’s a good example.
GN: I mean in terms of grantLOVE as a profitable company that gives money back to charity through the sell of limited editions made by artists and run by artists — that’s like a rare thing within the art scene.
NP: It’s not rare in LA. That’s how people do it. They do their own thing.
GN: That’s interesting to know that, because I don’t think many people outside of LA understand that that it is actually quite normal here.
NP: It is. It’s common. And that’s what makes it an artist city. That’s part of what makes it such a great city. But LA is becoming less and less like that because of the rise in real estate value. Studio space is becoming less affordable. The traditional artist areas are now becoming massively gentrified, including the Artist District downtown where my studio is.
GN: So just to explain the context in which we are speaking. You are working in a school at the moment; you are doing some teaching. I feel like that it is very to your philosophy. You did a project called Alternative Pedagogies. How is that key to your reframing of things? Why is education so important? Why is it still important to you?
NP: We touched on it when we were talking earlier, about how education and the access that we were given to power structures through our education- namely private education and Catholic schools really helped us to see and open up to possibilities. If we had not had that opportunity, we probably wouldn’t have become artists. Or we wouldn’t have developed a sense of inner identity or confidence that would have allowed us to move in circles where we did not actually know what was expected of us. We were able to discover it; and this also gives us a sense of empowerment. And having that exposure early on and knowing that there are other options in the world is incredibly important, It is not that everybody is going to follow up on that but just to know that those options are out there is huge!
GN: So do you believe in the public school system because you have worked in public schools?
NP: Absolutely. If there were public schools that had decent art programs I would be teaching in them. And if I was going to teach in a university- which I have been trying to do for years-I would much prefer to teach at a community college or a public university, rather then a private one.
GN: That’s interesting!
NP: I was asked to apply to a position at CalArts last year. But I fretted a lot about it.
NP: Because I am aware of what’s going on in CalArts, [politically]. There is a big movement in the US in private art schools-and public schools also, but not quite as pronounced in these last few years – to unionize their adjunct faculty, because our education system in the United States is rapidly, rapidly disintegrating. The public schools are disintegrating through the use of Charter Schools and money is pulled out of public school funds to fund these private Charter Schools; they are essentially privatized schools. It is similar to what happened within our healthcare system in the past 30 years. You used to have doctors and patients who were working together and whatever care they determined was appropriate would be sent to the insurance companies. Well, now the insurance companies have
created a huge administrative bureaucracy that cuts off the doctors from the patients. The care is ‘managed’, and patients are funneled through these bureaucratic channels and it is all to control costs. But it does not actually control cost; the cost of healthcare has only risen ever since that happened. It is to actually make the insurance companies more money- and treat healthcare as a for-profit business rather than as a right. The same thing is happening to education. More and more levels of administration are being put into place at universities, both public and private. There has always been a level of bureaucracy in public universities, but there is still a lot of protection and support for their faculty. Private universities have really gotten out of control. Schools have sifted from maybe 60% of
the faculty being full-time and 40% being adjunct, to now being 20-30% full-time and 70-80% part-time adjunct teachers-who have no benefits, no job security, and are getting paid very low wages. It is a reflection of what we are seeing in the global labor market but in combination with this bureaucratization of education, which creates these unstable insecure workers who have usually gone to private art schools and paid top dollar, huge money, for their pedigrees.
NP: They may have paid $60-70,000 [for their degree]- more sometimes! Then they teach in those private art schools and they are paid pennies on the dollar of what they paid to go to those schools. It is really a very bad system because eventually the schools will devalue that artistic and teaching labor completely because they are not willing to pay for it. They want people to pay for the training but then when they actually go and work, they pay them very little. It is setting the whole system up to collapse.
GN: Exactly! Because CalArts has such a good reputation, especially for its experimental writing, its artist writing, art criticism, like Michael Snow. There is a huge history of great artists and writers who have been there. So it is really depressing you saying that.
NP: It is very difficult. And it is difficult for the people who work there, who try to form the unions. CalArts was trying to unionize last year and the union effort actually failed at CalArts.
NP: The union effort brought up all those fractures, divisions, and political lines at CalArts and the community. Some saw it as “Oh my God, trying to form a union did this to us!” I was saying, “No, these things were already there.” The union, the campaign and the vote for the union just brought it out. It made clear what was happening in terms of economic status.
GN: That’s so strange then. So did people expect the vote to go through?
NP: They were fighting really hard for it. The administration fought tooth and nail to keep the Union out. And there are a lot of people at CalArts and also at ArtCenter who are design professionals, who teach because of the pedigree. They don’t need the money. They teach to work with students and be involved. It doesn’t matter so much what they are getting paid. They don’t worry about other people who are actually making a living from being teachers and fine artists who are working in a more speculative economy where their work is not paid as much, is not valued as much. That makes it really difficult when you have those people who have had bad experiences like guilds, animation guilds, or musicians who tried to unionize in other types of work and that has not gone well. So when a union came through CalArts, they were very, very prickly about it, very sensitive. Some of those departments became very anti-union and they did not support the departments that were very prounion. There were a lot of political machinations and subtle differences that got played upon by the administration there.
GN: That’s so interesting because that’s kind of like what happened in England with the Brexit vote. Most people expected the vote to go through that England would want to stay in Europe. You would never think it would be possible that this would happen, that people would vote to get out of Europe, you know. And all the ramifications of it, I mean, it is endless.
NP: They did not think into the future. They are thinking so short-term and their thinking is based on fear, and not based on rational logic.
GN: Exactly. They are just thinking about themselves and maybe their children. But they are not thinking about their grandchildren, their children’s children. And how this affects the history. I mean for me it is really a reflection of what’s going on in Europe generally — the conservatism, you know, politics becoming more conservative and things — and obviously that’s reflecting what’s going on with Trump. The fact that Trump is the mascot for the Brexit campaign — that says everything, the fact that he is their hero.
NP: This is a strong reaction to Obama’s presidency in a sense that the base that Trump is activating now is akin to the Tea Party — which is a very poorly educated, poorly paid, lower-working class, poverty class, no college education for the most part — that put the Tea Party candidates in power and gave them access to government. These people have no idea how to govern. They are not interested in politics in terms of a long history of compromise and debate and being conciliatory. They are more interested in finally having some kind of power base and they are willing to throw a monkey wrench into the entire system in order to get their way or to feel that they are exercising some of that power on that larger scale. And it is incredibly destructive for the rest of the country. It is not how
politics work, but these people have been voted into power by this very right-right wing of the Republican party. So the only hope is that we can vote them out.
GN: I remember I was living in Texas for that year, and a lot of Texas is obviously very Republican. There is a Tea Party base there and stuff. But there is also a lot of black culture there. In the South, it is still a mix of white and black. People intermarry, they live together, they work together. I mean there is some sort of social segregation but there is also a lot of integration. In this time, you know, with all the police shootings going on and then the backlash against that and then this Trump thing. It is like a civil work, but it is hard to tell. It is not like before where, let’s say it was the 1950s or something, where you could say “This is the enemy! This is actually the wrong people. This is the right person.” Now people have lived together and gone to school together, married each other. The kind of racism
that it is bringing out now is so subtle and so kind of, how can I say it, so enmeshed. Because it is like you are going to hate your own family. If you do this vote, you are actually going to vote against probably one of your sisters or brothers is married to someone who is black or Mexican or whatever. It is not just white for white like before where people kept to their cultural groups. I mean everything is really mixed up there. Even in Texas everything is mixed up. So I can’t quiet understand, unless it is like what happened in England where there is a lot of first-generation people who came from India to England in the 50s and 60s. And they have voted for anti-immigration. And this surprised everyone, because you would think “Okay, you immigrated, you got the benefits, your family, your kids grew up and go to school and everything here, and education. Why would you vote against it?” But it is like a fear, you know. It is a fear that goes beyond logic and beyond colour-lines in a strange way. This fear, like in Europe, the fear of the Arab invasion, the Islamic invasion from Syria – it makes people act in ways that are just so irrational. The groups of people that you would think would vote against it — they are thinking about themselves. It is like such a level of selfishness that it has brought out. It is unbelievable. So there are arguments between the different generations. There are kids that go to universities who are falling out with their parents because their parents are voting to leave Europe. And the kids want to stay in Europe. And so it is causing all this friction. It is kind of like… I think, in America it is the same — you are getting this kind of new level of civil war or something that’s coming out. It is bringing out all the shit that has obviously been there and is still suppressed. It is in the ghosts of what happened before that had not been resolved obviously since the real Civil War and slavery and stuff. But now it is even more complicated because everyone is related to each other and married to each other and works with each other. So it is not as clear to say “Okay, why working class?” It is not like that. You can have black middle class that is just as idiotic and vote for Republicans and stuff. Because it is just about selfishness.
NP: Short-term thinking out of fear, I think. Short-term thinking out of fear, and people become selfish. And the only way to combat that is through education and showing people different ways of dealing with difference, right? But if you are not exposed to difference when you are really young, then it becomes something very frightening.
GN: Yeah, but it is surprising how many people who are from a middle-class background have have actually travelled a little bit [still voted for Brexit]. But they live in their own bubble.
GN: That’s the problem. It is not really they don’t actually go to places or meet other types of people, like in other-types-of-skin kind of people. It is more that they don’t necessarily meet other people with other view points. You can be white, you can be black, you can be Chinese. You can wear the same clothes, eat the same food, live in the same house, vote the same way, and stay in that kind of privileged bubble. It is only when you kind of get out of that bubble that you see “Okay, not everyone thinks like me”.
NP: Well, it is interesting. There are two things going on. What you are talking about is the long-term effects of globalization and how it affects us socially in our communities, not just economically. The rise of the Internet in the 90s was really what started to push things. In the rise of global communications, global trade, Internet culture, the money started changing hands, cultural influences started crossing borders, at a much higher rate, at much greater speed. But we don’t change that quickly as people. Now we are dealing with the social ramifications of globalization.
NP: And the reaction to that. People point back and say “No, this is threatening. No, I am going to
isolate. Now I am going to use these amazing tools that we have to foster international dialogue, and I
am going to use them to isolate myself even more, rather than cross some of the social, cultural,
economic differences. I am going to isolate myself.”
GN: So again it is about the social body. You know what I mean? Before the 90s there was the problem of the public and private spheres. You know – what was public, what was private. Now it is like what you were talking about- another layer of this social body in which corporations and the global language have a relationship to us as human beings. They cannot resolve this, money cannot resolve this.
NP: Money is just an abstraction, so the way it travels and the way it is invested in certain markets, including the New York market, is very abstract. But it has real, on the ground, person-to-person effects. I think that one place where education can have that effect. We are trying to fight this neoliberal slam towards education and putting our attention on groups that are self-organized education groups, people who are teaching themselves and teaching others.
GN: You mean home schooling?
NP: Small. You do it at a small scale. We have had discussions among the groups of what happens when you go beyond a certain scale. These are, almost by their nature, temporary. How do you preserve them? How do you preserve them? You have a couple of key people who are organizing but what happens when these people move on, or die, or get sick, or get old, or stop doing it for some reason? Then what? How do the institutions get fixed? They think, “Oh, we have to preserve this into the future exactly the way it is now, or try to preserve it as much as possible.” Then you start thinking more about the future than about the present and then you create an institution that is really rigid and that is looking out for its own interests. That’s what has happened to a lot of education institutions. They are thinking of themselves as more of an abstract concept rather than the group of people that make them up, which is changing, but it also requires certain reflections. How do you preserve? How do you archive? How do you address the historical impulse, the impulse to historicize, the impulse to keep a good thing going? Right?
GN: Yeah, exactly. Because you do want. If something is working you want it to keep working. And also usually the thing is you want to make a bigger profit, whatever that is, whether that’s at schools or prisons. You know we were talking about the prison complex in America. We were talking about how they do experiments on USA prisoners without really getting the permission, or how pharmaceutical companies see it as their playground to do whatever they what to. This has come out of prisons expanding. Now prisons are on stock market. Prisoners are worth stocks. They go up and down in their worth everyday. Is that not just a reflection of what we are talking about?
NP: Absolutely, but it is also a reflection of some really long, deep entrenched patterns throughout history, namely slavery. Labor, material and economic value and resource are really based on the body. That is the fundamental worth, or currency. And that is what you put on the line when you put yourself in the street.
GN: Because it is the only thing that you have got left — your body. After everything else is taken away, the only valuable thing you have got left is your body and you can sell it.
NP: You have got your ideas. You’ve got your ability, your relations, your networks. I’d say those are also extremely important – networks and relationships, and a body; because everything else is abstracted and can be co-opted. Even the body can be co-opted, you know, or essentialized. But there is a fundamental value to that body. And if you go deep into it, the body’s relationship with the earth and even the agriculture is just the body and the earth, right? And knowing and the knowledge and the skill set and the community that helps to harvest – these are the things that have always sustained survival, and now have been shifted towards GDPs and economic growth, but that’s the foundation of it with all these layers of abstraction.
GN: And you think that’s why performance is so important to you? Performances in collective spaces like the one you did in Brazil recently, using hammocks.
NP: I have been making these hammocks knit out of Mason Line, which the construction material that I use when I climb a architectural structure. I have been using this material for about 6 years. Before this I was climbing structures without a material, but then I started to climb structures and leave the material behind, when I started climbing buildings as opposed to vertical poles. I would create this drawing of my trajectory where I would climb on a building, kind of like a web or a three-dimensional drawing. I started using that same material to knit hammocks, which are also these very simple, long used forms that hold the body. It is a support network, and they are made usually in a network of people. They are installed in public places as resting places for bodies; it is holding a space for a body
in public in a secure way at rest. It is a non-productive; it does not feed productivity.
GN: Exactly, but that’s why it is powerful — because it is non-productive and because you put them in shopping malls and skyscraper kind of districts, business districts. This is powerful because you are saying “Actually not all labour, all activity in that district has to be productive.”
NP: Exactly, right. I looked to put them in very busy areas. The one I installed in Rio was interesting because I had talked with one of the co-founders of the artist residency I was at about the connection to a university across the street, which was literally next door to us. It was one of the biggest federal universities in Rio and one of the oldest — the Institute of Philosophy and Social Science (IFCS). We connected the two buildings — the residency and the university — with a hammock that stretched from one building to another and went over the street. It was a place for a body and a connection, a bridge, between these two institutions. The other performance I did in Rio was with the Occupy movement in the Ministries of Culture, which sprung up immediately after Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office, her temporary removal before she went to trial. When her Vice-President Michel Temer stepped in, one of the first things he did with his new cabinet was eliminate the Ministry of Culture. He basically said, “We are going to fold the Ministry of Culture into the Ministry of Education, and there won’t be a Ministry of Culture.” In Brazil, every major city has a building dedicated to the Ministry of Culture, a place for the bureaucratic maintenance of arts funding, and any cultural activity; it is an exhibition space, it is a public building. When Temer eliminated that Ministry, the artist population of Rio occupied the Ministries of Culture across Brazil. They actually moved into the buildings and started living in them. They organized workshops and trainings and education structures and performances and rallies; it was incredible. The Ministry (MINC) in Rio is a very famous building, one of the first Modernist buildings in Rio de Janeiro, built in the 1940s by Le Corbusier. I was with the occupation there and I got their permission and I climbed that building.
GN: So this was obviously a very tense situation. People were doing protest and group sittings. I remember you sent me a photo of one of those protests. It shows how performance can be used as protest and even by people who obviously aren’t artists, but are thinking in creative ways. For example, I don’t know if you have heard about this protest in Texas about “Cocks Not Glocks”. They wanted to make it legal for people to have glocks and basically carry firearms in university campuses.
NP: Yes, I have heard about that! A bunch of young feminists, on a Texas university campus, who were carrying dildos instead of concealed weapons.
GN: Exactly, and that was really controversial because it is illegal to carrying a dildo in public.
NP: Right! You cannot carry a dildo, but you can carry a gun. It is actually brilliant, because they connected the two. They asserted that basically guns are pseudo-cocks. And that was very smart.
GN: I feel like that kind of activism, as we spoke about, has perhaps come out of the era of AIDS activism. I just wanted to talk to you about what you have done during that time. That’s like 80s-90s. How did you get involved with the AIDS crisis and queer communities at that time?
NP: ACT UP was a little before my time. But I do have some friends who were very much involved with that. Some people with whom I am organizing with now were big part of ACT UP. But I did have a personal connection to that movement because my brother is gay and had AIDS. So that was a big deal when he was diagnosed in the mid-1990s.
GN: When you were in Brazil this year, it was the Olympics and there was that scandal about that journalist who pretended he was gay and went on Grindr to find out which athletes were gay, because it tells you the geographic location and how close in proximity another person on Grindr is next to you. And then he wrote an article and basically referenced and gave physical descriptions of which athletes were on Grindr. And some of these athletes come from countries where being gay is illegal and have the death penalty and stuff.
NP: So gross! I don’t even think I want to comment on that; it is so gross. I don’t even know what to say about that. That’s just disgusting.
GP: Especially in terms of the violation of human rights and using these new technologies with a neoliberal agenda is just part of the norm now. People who wouldn’t have been so selfish and only caring about their own community are now really tightening their belts and putting up barriers even more. To me that’s just a version of that. The fact that this journalist would think it is acceptable to do that. No.
NP: That’s not journalism, sorry! I don’t know what that is. That’s just somebody who is basically stalking others. I wouldn’t call that journalism.
GP: But he is a journalist. You know, he writes for Huffington. He writes for lots of different places. And this was like his way of going undercover. I mean, in his defense, I think, he thought he was doing something good in a sense that he wanted to show the fact that gay people have to hide nowadays still. That it is not open. So I think he thought, thought he might be doing something good. But obviously, from a privacy point of view, it is disgusting. That is where issues of the body and the body politics, and the public private come into it. Even in a sense of our discussions that we have talked about in terms of you being a Yoga teacher and your connection with friends who have used assisted suicide. To have that act against the body seen as an act of violence even though you are selfchoosing it….
NP: I guess I hear what you are saying. There are public uses of the body and there are private uses of the body. And it is really important to differentiate between them. One of the things we can do when we protest is engage in the public use of the body for private means. This is the AIDS crisis, right? You are used the body in public in a way as a protest but you are actually dealing with private issues and reflecting private issues. In an interesting way that Texas protest that you’ve brought up, which is about private use of a simulated body part, is about female pleasure as opposed to male dominance — so it is very complex. Judith Butler gave a talk in 2011 in response to the Arab Spring and the uprisings in the Middle East. In it she talks about the body in public and how the body can be used in very unique way to hold space, how important it is to hold space as a community body. The talk is called Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street. I used it a lot in reference to protest, especially around Occupy where you had these masses of bodies in public space. In Los Angeles at the of the turn of the century, there were so many political movements in Los Angeles — anarchists, publishers, union halls, lobbyists- and the history of much of those organizations were completely lost and not passed on. But it is important to realize how much action there has been historically. I mean, AIDS and ACT UP is very recent. There is a great printmaker and historian named Nicolas Lampert who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has written a book called The People’s Art History of the United States, taken off of Zinn — Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States. And in this book he links a lot of art practices that were supportive of political movements from the mid-19th century onward. It is a very, very, very long history. In LA in the early 20th century there were laws banning public gathering in public spaces. It was illegal to gather; it is nothing new. This is what the US was intended to foster, this kind of lack of public protest in reaction to a lot of the social movements that they saw happening in Europe for decades and centuries. The US was in some ways directly founded to eliminate that kind of possibility for public movements, social uprisings. It is hard to organize here.
GN: Why? Why is it harder than anywhere else, in other countries?
NP: There are laws that are on the books that make it illegal. For instance, when I was in Brazil, loitering is so common there. Loitering is the way of life. People are in public spaces all the time. They own these spaces. They own the streets. They gather there on a constant basis, every night. In the US, loitering is illegal. It is literally illegal. You cannot gather on the street. You have to have a permit if you want to gather with a group of people. You have to apply for this permit from the city. You have to be approved. The police know about what you are doing in advance. There are a lot of laws on the books that provide extremely harsh penalties for any kind of action that you do in public. This has been the case for some time, but after 9/11 it became even more pronounced and really, very draconian and extreme. These are things that other countries, like Brazil, for example, do not deal with. They don’t have laws that require them to get permits for actions. There are places in the public domain that people are free to gather, and the police don’t harass them.
GN: So how do you get away with doing your performances when you do them in America? Do you get arrested? Do you get fines? I mean how do you avoid this?
NP: Sometimes I get detained. I have never been arrested on US soil. The only places I was taken to jail are Istanbul, Tijuana and Buenos Aires. But there is only one place where I was charged and that’s Buenos Aires.
GN: Really? When was that?
NP: In 2012. I had climbed up a pole outside of Plaza Congresso, which is basically on the main government Plaza. I was up there for a very long time. They called a lot of authorities out and when I finally came down, they were very angry that I had not come down when they first asked me to. This also has to do with Argentina’s history of military dictatorship and the Dirty Wars in the 1970’s and 1980’s. There is a history there in terms of police oppression, much more like the US than, say, Brazil. Also, it was just after Kirchner was re-elected, and there was a lot of public protest and public rallies in the streets. It was kind of a sensitive time. Also the place where I made the action was right in front of a major government building, so it was a little bit risky. Private property is one thing, but with a government building authorities get very nervous; I think that was part of it.
GN: Yeah, it is interesting, because you know I have been living in Buenos Aires and I have seen a lot of protests, especially of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo— the women whose children and grandchildren were basically taken away from them during the dictatorship and then given to military families to be raised. Now those families are reuniting. I think there was 30,000 that were disappeared. So there is this whole act of protest around that that happens on a weekly basis. And it is usually, very sedate that it is not violent. So I am quite interested in your different ideas about the body as you are also a Yoga teacher. And I wonder if you see Yoga as a form of protest as well. How does that come into your activism and you art?
NP: I don’t think I use it directly. It is a discipline that allows me a certain kind of empowerment and ease in my body. Because of that I am able to do other things with my body. Anybody who does any kind of organizing work, whether it is direct action, whether it is supportive organizing or social services or anything like that, self-care becomes a huge, huge issue. There is so much that gets processed, so much pain and suffering and hardship that gets processed in doing any kind of organizing work that you absolutely have to care for yourself, in a really deep way. Otherwise you are not able to sustain the work that you do. Or you do it for the wrong reasons. You do it as a form of burnout or in an aggressive way, which absolutely does not help at all. It is really important to understand how self-care fits into organizing. There is a really wonderful piece of writing from an organizer in the UK that I was reading not so long ago about Regenerative Organizing. What this means is that when we organize, it’s not that we want to be sustainable, because we hear that a lot, but that we want to be regenerative. We want the techniques or traditions or the strategies that we use to actually regenerate us, and the people whom we are working with. This means through our organizing we have to create a sense of wellness, a sense of help, a sense of sustenance and prosperity. And I don’t mean financial, I mean in terms of community.
GN: Yes, yes. I understand because in England at the moment there is a massive movement about care, in terms of especially about artists and within art schools and curators; basically, the idea of protesting against this idea of social reproduction. Basically, artists and other volunteer culture like interns, and especially women, they are the ones that have to take care of society, and it is unpaid work. And they are all sectors of society, and it is just assumed that they will do, you know, this type of work. And so there is a lot of discussion about care in the UK at the moment. And I think that it is really a key thing, you know. I mean, for myself, I have to sometimes take time off and go to live in meditation centres and, you know, nature just to get back to normal. Because you know as an artist, we are working 50-60 hours a week or whatever, and we are doing it mostly unpaid. And we are doing it because we care. And we think “Oh, we want to change the world.” You know, we are trying to be conscious of things. But it is not sustainable unless we do take care of ourselves.
NP: Exactly, and also if you are educating. Certain professions — nursing, teaching — these kinds of professions are nurturing professions and they are paid less economically and financially. There are usually more women in these professions as a whole. They are not highly valued. There is a lot of dismissal about the economic value of them, similar to childcare. In in the UK, one of the things that you guys have always had is a very, very rich social contract with the government where there is a kind of social infrastructure for care. And that is being attacked. It has been attacked for a couple of decades now. But now even more.
GN: Especially with being an artist, because it is such a precarious job anyway. It is like the burden just falls again, you know on the artist. It is funny because I just went to a feminist conference from some tutors from Goldsmiths College. We were talking about art schools and how they have become mini corporations and the fact that there has been some accusations there of sexual harassment with students. But just as a corporation they have decided to make people sign confidentiality papers so the students cannot talk about it. Therefore the student is re-burdened just with that act. And so things like conscious raising groups, and these care forums, which people are starting are really key for this next phase. I think this is connected to our conversation about assisted suicide in a sense. Because
assisted suicide is the ultimate form of care. You know, like your friend Betsy Davis who decided to do this recently — she took care of herself. I mean, you have to be a very strong person to make that type of decision and to do it in such an elegant way, the way that she did it.
NP: Yeah, you do. But also you have to have a community that is willing to go there with you.
GN: I think she set a really good example of the community, art, love, the body you know, all the things that we are talking about in this discussion. And that is like the ultimate form of empowerment.
NP: Everybody has that right to decide how they are going to live and how they are going to die. The problem is that there is so many other organizations or social structures that tell you “This is how you do it. This is right. This is wrong.” Right? Betsy and I had times when we were close, and we had times when we were distant. We had falling-outs, and we had moments when we were very connected, and we worked together with a lot of harmony. It was like any other relationship, you know.
GN: She was a performance artist as well, wasn’t she?
NP: She was more a designer and a sculptor, and then she occasionally did some performance. When she got sick, I think she matured a lot. It grew her psychologically, a lot.
GN: You mean because she was terminal?
NP: Yes; she had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, so she slowly lost control of her body. In the early stages of her disease, she was able to walk and she did a few trips with close friends. And then she stopped being able to do that and she had to go with full-time care. She literally became paralyzed. It was very distressing to see this very vibrant very beautiful woman become house bound in a wheelchair. She was quite strong; she was a motorcyclist, we rode together. She loved to travel. She was totally interested in metaphysics and so many, so many things. I don’t want to give an impression that she was a saint, that she was perfect. Everybody has their quirks and Betsy had hers. We did not always get along perfectly; it was not like that. It was more that she was a beautiful human being and I loved her. And she handled her death with tremendous grace. I was incredibly proud of her — the way she did that — and I wanted to support her. Of course, I was really concerned when she first talked about assisted suicide. I told her, “I just want to make sure this is not coming out of a depression.” We had these long conversations and she told me, “No, I have been thinking about this for a long time.” And it was just the way that she decided to do it. I have another friend who has suffered from ALS for over 18 years and he is completely paralyzed now. He can only lift his eyes, but he is not taking that route of early termination of his life.
NP: I don’t know. It is his own personal preference, what he wants to do, what his family wants to do. It is just the way it is. Different people handle it differently.
GN: But it is really interesting with Betsy. One of the things that sticks in my head as you are talking is the way you said about losing control of the body. And this, in a way, is a reflection of what’s happening in society — that we are becoming paralyzed by consumerism, capitalism, neo-liberalism. It is squeezing us so much that there is no room to breath. I mean just in the fact of what happened in Brazil, the closing down of all those ministries. Basically, it is saying that creativity is not important at all. There is no value to creativity in today’s world and in today’s society.
NP: Well, it is either that or it is the other extreme which is the “creative class” or the “creative economy” which is monetizing and commodifying creativity. Like what happened at USC with the transformation of the Roski School of Art into the Roski School of Art and Design. This idea that creativity is about creating a clever product; that is how a lot of MFA programs function now. How can you create a clever product as your personal work?
GN: Yes, because that feeds into the whole TED culture, Google, and you know basically that’s the culture of how technology is taking creativity. Even in the fact of like, you know, the idea that all those people in the Silicon Valley, they are micro-dosing to go to work. So the way that they are experimenting with LSD or different states of being is still in the framework of having to be productive. Well, that was not the point of LSD. LSD was about having experiences of enlightenment and philosophy and connection to God and something bigger. Not in terms of how to make an app bigger, or how to make us consume things more, or to be more technically savvy. It was not about that, at all. So it is like a real corruption. And I feel like in all areas of life there is that same corruption. What you just said about how it has become art and design. It is the design part that is the corrupting force, because the art part, which would be normally linked to art history, or art criticism and experimentation, experimental filmmaking, and things like that, that’s the bit that is getting weeded out.
NP: I agree. It is being bastardized and re-defined; it is changing what our definition of art it. And you see this in the use of art and culture to gentrify certain places and certain neighborhoods. The mural culture is far from being what it originally was in terms of coming out of graffiti. Now they co-opt the aesthetic of it without any of the content.
GN: Yes, yes. That’s happened a lot in LA. I noticed on Washington Boulevard where all the galleries are based in Culver City. There are a lot of murals and some of them don’t seem to have anything connected to do with community, politics or protest. It is really about style and fashion, you know.
NP: Right. But it is not about style. It is not about fashion. It is not about commodification. Art is about lack of control in a sense not knowing what you are going to get — not as opposed to being able to commoditize and make a product out of something. That’s not what art is about. Art is about exploring. Betsy and I went to the same art college, and the president of the school talked about her and paid tribute to her in a talk to the graduates. He was saying how the generosity and the brave way that she handled her death arose from her creative practice- not a practice that was part of a creative class, but a creative practice, a creative approach.
GN: That’s interesting. I think what you have said is very interesting especially because it goes back to the first conversation we had, when we were talking about artists who make ton of commercial products as a way of — like, for example, Rob Pruitt or Alexandra Grant — of making products to be able to sell out to give money back to charity. This is a form of activism trying to make saleable products. I think that must be linked to that somehow. And even the fact of the grantLOVE house, you know, and how that was in the Watts neighbourhood which is traditionally a poor neighbourhood, isn’t it? It’s a poor black neighbourhood. How those two things come together. I mean, is that not the opposite side of art and design thing?
NP: Well, I think we just have to be really careful about how artists engage in that level of creation, that kind of product creation where they say, “Okay, I will make this and then it will go to this good cause.”
GN: Yes, because how do you make sure that you don’t get trapped in the same thing?
NP: Yes, or that you have control of how the work is seen?
GN: But I think because it is especially important when connecting with poor communities which are traditionally Black and Latino and the artists are usually white and middle-class. I think that’s where it becomes problematic. Especially, in terms of this idea of responsibility politics, you know, that has happened in the black culture, especially in America. I have to say, I agree with you in terms of like using the N word. For me, I still think of it and feel like it is a very offensive word, you know. In fact, just recently I had to stop being friends with somebody because of this issue. As we probably both know Australia is not the most forward-thinking place in terms of race. And it was a white Australian person who I was trying to be friends with but sometimes some crazy xenophobic sentence would come out of her. And the last time we ever hung out she suddenly out of the blue used the N word, and it was not like in a fun way or connected to do with rap or comedy. You know what I mean? It was not in the context of the conversation. It was like literally she was talking about being really tired and she said “What do you want from me? Do you want me to work like … (an N word).” And I was like shocked. And thought, “Why did that word come into your head? You could have used a word like “a dog” or…” You know what I mean? You could have said any other phrase.” And when she said it I was so disgusted and left with a very difficult choice. Either I could just be polite and laugh it off and pretend I did not hear it, or I have to stand up for myself and say “Actually, you can’t say something like that!” and point out what she was saying was wrong. And it was interesting, because her first reaction was like “Oh, stop being so PC!” And I was like “I don’t think you really get what I am trying to say.” And then I realised there is a lot of white people who are uneducated. They don’t really understand because they are getting mixed messages. On the one hand, MTV and movies and music are telling them that the N word is okay to use. And on the other hand, there is a lot of black people, especially older generations, who find it disgusting. So it was really hilarious the way she tried to make me feel like I was overreacting even though she was offending me. Therefore I would have been offending her by accusing her of being a racist.
NP: That is very common.
GN: Yeah, but it is quite complicated when you are friends with somebody, because then you are left with a very disgusting taste in your mouth. Either you have to forgive the person and their ignorance and continue the friendship, or you cannot continue the friendship.
GN: Because what scares me about that is that if that word was the first word that came into her head, is that what she is thinking about when she sees me or when she sees black people on the street? I mean obviously I cannot police everybody’s thoughts. Nobody can. But if you are friends with someone, you hope that they are not thinking of you in a derogative way.
NP: Of course.
GN: Because otherwise the power relationship is totally imbalanced and is related to white artists working in poor black and Latino neighbourhoods. It is complicated because it depends on the intention of each artist.
NP: Well, it is funny because I am just about to leave to go give a talk to a public high school and work on a public project there for the next few months, and it is a similar issue. I am working in a community where there might not be as much resource. I am also proposing another project to work with other communities in Orange County as part of a show at a museum there. It is really, really complicated, it is really, really hard. You have to acknowledge the imbalance right off the bat and you have to front the needs of the community over your own needs. There is no other way to go around it. I actually have to find a way to make sure that everybody’s needs are at an equitable level. Otherwise I just don’t see how any of that functions.
GN: Exactly, because otherwise you are just going to replicate the same thing. But I also feel it is somehow connected to this care politics again. Because artists are asked to basically do social work but in a form of art somehow, and obviously I am simplifying it, but within communities that lack resources.
NP: Well, there is a whole long conversation that we can have about this issue of how Social Practice art is taking the place of social funding and social support. It is also frustrating because community arts programming has been going on for decades and yet now we think that we are doing something different with Social Practice. All that Social Practice is a kind of ‘academizing’ of Community Arts and reframing it so that the museums and the institutions and elite-resourced power structures are more comfortable with it.
GN: But the thing is that is where it gets complicated, this is the job of the museum. Museum has to come to the people. It is not that museum has to stay up on the top of its mountain. So I guess social practice is the way that museums try to connect with the people. But I totally get what you are saying as well.
NP: About meeting community needs first.
GN: I totally get what you are saying about how it is only acceptable because it is in this framework of museology and fine art and art historical context and the academic. That is where community art and protesters become validated, really.
NP: Yes, and I am very suspicious of that. I have worked with people who try to work with Social Practice but they don’t know how to do community work. They don’t know how to do community building. There is a lack of ability to actually engage with people who aren’t at their economic level. They can’t engage a level of difference. This is really hard. Difference is really, really hard. It is always hard to work with people who are different than you, or don’t understand you. You have to have a lot of patience. And cultivating empathy… it is incredibly difficult, but that’s the process. This is completely the opposite of the design or the creating of product that then gives money. It is about relating to somebody and valuing where they come from, their values, how they feel, what their cultural views are, what their economic status is, all of this. It is all there. You have to somehow find the way to work with difference. It is not about making everybody the same or finding a common denominator. The tech industry is absolutely horrible at this. Everybody becomes abstracted and you have to have a certain technological position, mostly led by white men who are making the world over in their image, again, all for their convenience. It is such a dystopia. It just frightens the hell out of me. You were very right on in connecting this kind of design focus of the creative economy with the tech industry. It is absolutely right on.
GN: It is funny because both you and I are working with communities. I am doing these shamanic performances and enacting soul retrievals and getting people to connect with the part of themselves that they never connect with, in order to heal wider social issues, like mental illness or political issues and stuff. Yeah, this is work that takes patience. It does not have an outcome necessarily, anyway not the one that ticks boxes easily. And it is also about being gentle and vulnerability which is the opposite of the app culture and being hit over the head by “Buy this. Get this. Be cool. Click on this. Donate this. Kickstart this.” You know what I mean? That kind of culture. That kind of corporate art culture system. What we are talking about is actually much more subtle and hidden. And I think because of your background in education and working in schools for so long and being a Yoga teacher — I think that is probably why you are good at what you are doing. It is because you have those faculties and abilities to connect with people as people, as the being-ness of people, rather than just consuming machines.
NP: Right, and there are times we all suck at it too.
GN: Well, yeah, but that’s part of being a human being, isn’t it? Being a person. The only perfect thing, you could say, that is going to be a 100 % right nearly all the time is binaries, like codes. It is going to be something digital. It is going to be something that does not have emotion. Like in the Matrix, for example, you can really see that. It is the emotion of the people that starts to question about living in the Matrix that affects the change; that brings the change. It is like feeling is the stimulating factor. Otherwise why would anything change, if people did not feel anything?
NP: Yes, I think feeling is key, very important. It is the fire, the fuel. It is hard to regulate and control too.
GN: Exactly, and that’s what is interesting about it. Because, like you have said, art is about that. It is about that space that cannot be regulated and controlled, you know- like nature. Nature you cannot control. You might clip hedges and try to keep your lawn perfect and weed and clear it out, you know, Agent Orange it. So there is no difference. But that’s not how nature works. And I think that is the thing about Monsanto and corporations like that — they think they can control the way that nature and seeds act. But what about the wind? They cannot control the wind, can they?
NP: Well, this is the folly of capitalism and technology. This is one of the things in Brazil that I thought was so wonderful. There is so much money here in the States and so many resources here. It is obscene how much we have. Because of this we have an illusion that we have control. We have an illusion that we can do certain things, that we can make the outcomes the way we want them; we can put things into a certain place, the way we think it should be. In Brazil there is this sense that they don’t have control and that’s OK. The infrastructure is not as solid. The systems that are in place are much older. There is a lot of tradition there, but it is mostly flawed and often falls apart. There is this lack of resource that does not lead to an arrogant assumption that control is possible. When you realize that control is not possible then you can maybe start to see things a little differently. Interview with Grace Ndiritu and Nancy Popp
October 2016, via Skype