Pretty, Little, Thing (Castigada), bone china, silicone, perspex, dried lavender, 2016
INTERVIEW BY ZOE KOKE
In ppants (for Brad), we see the legs of a woman. Cristine Brache stands in faded blue denim pants before a wood cabinet. Her hands rest calmly at her sides. We see the red glow of a digital camera focusing before photographing her intermittently as she pees herself. The mark of urine in her jeans swells and spreads luxuriously. When she finishes peeing, she patiently turns around to reveal a large glistening wet patch. It’s as if she is showing off a prize, or is measuredly displaying the detailing of an ornate garment to a focused photographer. The viewer is invited to join what feels like the photographer’s bashful pride. This is a celebratory moment.
And because this is an act we know well, I grew nostalgic while I watched Brache’s video, made in collaboration with her partner, Brad Phillips. Nostalgic feels like a dirty word, it has been flattened by its ubiquity, and it’s not how I would describe Brache’s work. But her work, through its compelling familiarity, does evoke in me a desire to gather and celebrate the sharp pieces of myself that I often shut away. This inner search was romantic for me. As is the video, which Phillips later commemorated in a painting.
My romance and your romance and Brache’s romance feel different. But romance has many entrances and exits, and undoubtedly carries inexplicability and violence too. And maybe romance doesn’t apply here for you, but what I can say is that I feel like Brache’s work is a holding place for complex collective experience. Her diaristic videos, careful objects and audacious words mark a tender invitation to truly plough towards one’s own subjectivity, not the trends of the day, or the glow of empty politics. Her work is accessible and evocative, yet doesn’t live through masks of theory or explanation.
And so as I failed to write a larger piece about her art, I confess I did fall into the languid space of a certain breed of nostalgia when coming into contact with her work. I gathered shades of the discomfort I have encountered, to dissect, caress and hoard. I found a space inside me to soften these experiences. I grew sentimental for the time at 17, while working behind a coffee bar at a fancy Italian restaurant, I fully pissed myself. I recalled the pee falling between my black tights, apron and work skirt into a puddle on big flat orange terracotta tiles under the sexy lighting design. I re-witnessed my shame as I mopped up my piss. Yet, I also found the humour and relief of pressing paper towel against my wet thighs in a bathroom stall.
In learning more of Brache’s work, I unearthed my fear of intruders that withstood my teen years and still lingers, the painful places I have put my body only to remind myself that my heart and mind are cradled by flesh. I mulled over Paul Virilio’s idea about art being ‘victimological,’ born from violence and war, and how contemporary art is enjoying itself too much right now. I grew even more convinced by the notion that art is cut from the same cloth as suffering. Lastly, I found in Anne Boyer’s book, Garments Against Women, a quote that speaks to the grey area where I believe Brache’s work resides.
“Everyone tries to figure out how to overcome the embarrassment of existing. We embarrass each other with comfort and justice, happiness or infirmity. It is embarrassing to be pornography; it is embarrassing to not be pornography.”
ppants (for Brad), HD Single Channel Video, 2 mins, 2015
I guess firstly, I am interested in how intimate and direct your work is. Power and intimacy are clearly major themes. Your work resonates with me because you seem to be discussing oppression from a personal place that then becomes universal. Do you consider the work autobiographical? I mean, I am assuming, yes and no, but can you talk about how you source ideas from life for your work?
Power and intimacy are big themes in my work, yes, as is personal experience. I think that in the past I wouldn’t have said that my work is autobiographical. When I look at what I’ve made before 2014… I think I was using a lot of research outside of myself to talk about personal feelings and maybe recently, like in the past year I think I’ve finally come to terms with seeing my work as autobiographical, and there is a sense of comfort in it. I mean I like Lynn Hershman Leeson a lot, particularly her Electronic Diaries, it’s probably one of the most influential works for me… it’s very richly layered, calculated, both emotional and analytical. She basically recorded herself in a room alone with a VHS recorder and spoke into the camera kind of like how people do on YouTube now, but in the 80s. It’s so well-crafted, confrontational and she makes herself so vulnerable. Anyway, though the work could be and is to a certain extent confessional, she mediates it through her choices in editing. And she links her personal history of violence to collective histories of violence. The viewer never knows what’s real and what’s not so there is an element of performance and blurring the lines of what’s real. The title of the first part of the three part series is called ‘First Person Plural,’ the title implies that she is using the first person ‘I’, to talk about a plurality of experiences.
Jailer’s keys, white mother of pearl, red abalone, green turban, stainless steel, 2016
Jailer’s keys (detail), white mother of pearl, 2016
It does feel as if you, like Hershman Leeson, are linking your history to a collective history of violence. Because your work is so much about you, it seems to become about no one, or everyone. Do you identify with other artists working today who are blurring these lines of autobiography: Bunny Rogers, Laurel Nakadate, Amalia Ulman? Or with this idea of using the body as this site for a larger social narrative as well as owning/questioning the diaristic form and reclaiming personal experience? I am also wondering how you consider the potency of reclaiming the diaristic form (which was so new in the 70s/80s). How does this tactic hold weight today? On a related note, I guess there is a lot of controversy over using selfies in art. What do you think about this “controversy”?
It’s hard to say I feel akin to anyone I haven’t met. I do relate to the idea of using the body as this site for one of many collective narratives as well as owning and questioning the diaristic form. But I feel like any good artist, like the ones you mentioned above, has their own world and stories that are too distinct and I respect that space as much as I respect my own. The diaristic form will always hold weight because people are constantly living and experiencing things they can’t tell anyone, so many things are taboo, so many things need to be kept to oneself. We are constantly creating and sharing stories, so I feel that form will always be very rich and moving.
When you say ‘selfie art’ controversy, I think if you’re going to be making categorical statements using art, like feminist ones for example, you need to think a lot about what your work is doing.
Yes, it seems important to be clear about how your work is engaging feminism, which is why the criticality of selfie-use exists. When only some bodies are able to wield a certain type of power in that realm, it does seem to be exclusive or flattening of some of the criticality needed to really advance feminism. At the same time all forms of feminism are necessary and important.
It’s the commodification of feminism and it’s really muddy; it’s good that feminism in general is being spoken about on a mainstream level but maybe through its commodification the system then acquires it as an asset? I don’t really have a firm position on it, I don’t like to take specific positions, I try to avoid that with my work because I am always changing and undoing schemas. I don’t have a message or a statement. I can only offer what is inside me and how I feel, which often times can be very contradictory.
Apprehension, “come back for another look” (songforgirls), video loop, 2016
I think a lot of the work we must do, as feminists, is in embracing contradiction and complexity within how we have been conditioned, which can feel like hypocrisy. I personally find myself existing awkwardly between “extremes” not feeling comfortable at times with complexity. For example, it’s hard to know how to present strength so you are taken seriously, while also wanting to be sloppy and overt, or even at times, reinforced in traditionally gendered ways. There is just so much grey area, I guess. I think your work seems to live in this greyness.
Yes, the grey area is at the centre of my work. I think there is this hypocrisy, but maybe it’s too harsh to call it that, it’s just a lot of undoing of things that have been ingrained in us, culturally, and through media and whatnot. So I feel like it’s impossible to ever be completely empowered because we are still living in a system where we are born invisible. Rules are too totalizing, there are too many experiences to write a single rule for. It’s fun to self-objectify or be objectified when I want it, but there’s so much baggage and shame surrounding it, that sometimes makes it very painful to enjoy or do. It’s hard to negotiate feelings of shame and empowerment because I think sometimes they can be the same thing or one becomes the other depending on one’s mood.
Yes. I mean, also, I think you are shamed when you decide to be complicated. In itself it is both interesting and depressing that I would name that hypocrisy because really the whole experience seems to be a balancing of power and situation with consequence and good effects. Dancing, perhaps, or, acting between all these unknowns… It sucks that it can feel so deliberate. Lately, I have been thinking about the craft of acting as escapism, physically too because you are no longer assumed to be you, nor are you physically or psychically you, success (this is is my subjective opinion) can exist in this space of total transcendence of the self and submission to the form. Feminist performative/video art (today and historically) seems to be more reliant on the author as subject.
I find your work (and this diaristic quality in art) specifically brave because you are still you. There is this undeniable confrontational quality. There also seems to be a search for relatability in the objects you make. Like a commitment to opening the project to a broader audience, which is highlighted by the ubiquity of the objects? Do you relate to that? Is this intentional? Or is it more so an intuitive part of how the work evolves based on your interests?
It is both intentional and intuitive. However while the work is ‘me’ it’s mediated through my choices like the use of ubiquitous objects and cultural cues, so I do have a separation that I think opens up the work more. I don’t want to make anything too insular. Acting is role play, which I embrace. To step out of oneself and take on a role gives one the freedom to behave in a way without consequence. I suppose consequence would mean being shamed for what a person is enacting. I don’t necessarily feel that feminist performance and video art is reliant on the author as subject, I think that is where the audience gets fooled. The author is using her identity as a form of role play, mediating herself and fooling you into thinking it’s actually her. When women use themselves as subjects it can be quite dubious. Because the audience probably can’t even see her as a subject in the first place and she knows it. The audience’s first instinct is to see her as an object, so maybe she decides to play with your head a bit. We are so used to seeing women as objects, portrayed in certain ways, the cis-woman-construct is a format, an entire language unto itself. It’s a body that can be stepped in and out of because it is so hollow yet rich with cultural signifiers that most people understand and know how to read. There is a lot of room to play when occupying or stepping into the cis-woman as role play, regardless of how one identifies (cis or not). I think role playing affords people the opportunity to compartmentalize taboo desires, to keep them in a safe space and heal through the temporary act of owning and performing their shame.
Beware of Dog, parian ware on dying turf and soil, 2016
beware of dog, HD Single Channel Video, 9 secs, 2015
I think what you’re describing is very present in your ppants video. It’s also deeply relatable, but equal parts vulnerable. And it does feel dubious in a way. It’s kind of a classic “My kid could have done that” art project, in the sense that it’s simply provocative on this very general plane.
I think that the simplicity that you are describing in art making is what an artist should try to achieve. Simplicity is a complicated word to use, the same as one-liner because depending on how you think about the meaning, it could be insulting. However, in comedy, making a one-liner is one of the hardest things to do. I think when people use it negatively, referring to art, they mean the work is flat. When I think of the kind of simplicity I’m talking about, it hits you when you first experience it because all the carefully crafted cues are there, but then what happens after that initial shock is that the work opens up, revealing endless layers and depth. I think that handling and managing how a viewer perceives these layers, in that brief instant they give you of their time is difficult to do especially when it’s simple. It’s like it’s simple but it’s not, there’s the surface and you get it, but then you think about the language and what else is happening and it begins to unfold and reveal more and more. I think doing this is what’s hard.
Yes, I agree that simple often means that the ideas are condensed and translated efficiently, and serendipitously too, which is where that magical or spiritual part of art comes through. I also think that there’s this idea that if what you make is simple, you lack the depth to do something more “intellectual,” ultimately, something more exclusive, that the average person couldn’t do, but the artist is supposed to offer. I think that there’s usually a lack of commitment (or understanding of the language) by the viewer, who assumes something to be “easy.” When you feel shut out of something, it’s harder to care about the layers.
If a viewer thinks of something as ‘easy’ then the art is either not good or not for that person. I feel the magic and spiritual part of art happens when the artist can use visual and contextual keys to create a map or constellation of feelings that are between words. I feel like if I can do something that makes people feel, or connect, I’ve succeeded because I think ultimately I am the one who is seeking the connection and I am making the art for myself, for this reason. It’s like, do you know this feeling? I have this feeling, does anyone else out there have it? And when people respond, I feel happy and less alone.
That makes me hopeful. Making art can be lonely.
Art is lonely but being alive is always lonelier…and being alive and lonely is what compels me to make art.
Yes, same. Making art, I think for some, is like making home.
Yes, you make your world I suppose, if you are making this type of art. There are so many different types of art.
There really are. I am always wondering how people exist in the industry of art, in the density of it all. What are your feelings about the way information travels in the art world?
I am constantly confused, and exhausted, and also kind of a pessimist, and wonder how people navigate when there are a lot of complicated ways of interacting, meaning both through art, but also theory and history and small chat, posturing and so on. How do you navigate all of this?
Haha yeah, I don’t know. There are people who haven’t had much trauma or aren’t connected to it or maybe prefer to focus on other parts of art and life and I think that’s totally fine. I don’t really feel that there is a right or wrong way to make it. Very idealistically and generally speaking I think that any kind of art should exist. With the theory, I feel that it is just a hyper-capitalist way to create value in art. Essentially anything can be art now so I think that theory functions as brand-making. In academia, people need something to talk about, you can’t quantify cultural experience, but theory tries to do that. I think when people theorize about art, writing really convoluted, unreadable things about one’s work, it functions to create a movement but I think a more honest word to use is trend. It creates meaning and through that intellectualization and acceptance by academic institutions the market can begin to assign value to it. Once that value is assigned, one can sell it. It’s not bad to want to make money off of art, I am all for it, I guess I just mean that there is a lot of bad art out there right now because of these capitalistic processes that begin in academic institutions. I think that if you have a good story to share and people connect to it, you don’t need to rely on anything other than the work – and persistence. And I think that one of the few precious things we really have in life is the ability to connect, so I’m not really trying to make it hard for people to do that, or make it so that they need to read certain books or the language of art history to understand it because I think that then it becomes a more privileged experience and I’m not trying to connect with that privilege really. That privilege and language has excluded me from the get-go so why would I ever want to indulge it?
1999-2009 (detail), bone china, latex ribbon, 2016
1999-2009, bone china, latex ribbon, 2016
1999-2009 (detail), bone china, latex ribbon, 2016
I agree. I mean, I think that’s why your work is good. It doesn’t need to be about the theory. Obviously a lot of why the art industry is awful in these ways is tied to how funds are allocated as well as to how art is valued as luxury. The art market is justified by academia and vice versa, so there is a lot of pressure to make work that both relies on theory and has commercial appeal. Also, in North America (maybe everywhere), it seems that there is a lot of emphasis on self-promotion because without much funding, people need to get paid at the end of the day. It seems like being “famous” now means you might scrape by. Do you intend to stay in London?
Thank you. Yes, being famous doesn’t equate to getting paid. It doesn’t really matter how much press you get or how often you show, you could still sell nothing. I’m not going to stay in London. Though I love it here, it’s way too expensive and I wouldn’t even be allowed to stay if I wanted to. I am going to be between Toronto, Miami, and New York for a bit. I have a group show up now in NYC at TEAM Gallery, and I have two solo shows forthcoming next year, one in New York and the other in Miami.
What projects are you most excited about right now and why? Of what you have shared or otherwise?
I’m excited about moving to Toronto and just being in one place for a long time. I am tired of uprooting. I have a lot plans there and in the States. I have been working with ceramics and slip casting, so I’m really excited about that. Mostly, I’m just excited to work with my hands after working with video for so long. I am not abandoning it, just taking a break to make objects.
I like how you describe this emphasis on touch and wanting to make things that speak to that.
I like the silence that surrounds it. With video, I need other people and there’s a lot of logistical things that create a lot of pressure. I just want to be quiet and use my hands. I am also excited to live with my partner, Brad Phillips, we have some ideas about things we’d like to do together.
Video editing carries the same silence and it’s my favourite part of video-making but you need so much noise to get there. I hate the production phase because I have to deal with too many outside factors.
I wonder about your collaboration with your partner. I find you feature in his work often. How do you collaborate?
Well, in the ppants video he was the one photographing me. He had asked me one day if I would piss my pants and I said yes. He photographed me doing it, because he wants to photograph everything and it wound up as a painting, I think he’s making a second one now. But when we were getting ready to do it, I thought it would be great to have a video of it, with the flash going off during a long continuous shot. We didn’t really set up that situation for art making, it just was something we were doing. But then it became art.
I love that. And then he made a painting of you too.
Yes it’s very beautiful and romantic, I think. He was also very happy that I had made the video too.
The photo element is so wonderful. Feels like a weird runway show or like you just won a prize. It’s the most perfect.
Thank you. I hadn’t thought of it as winning a prize, but it’s great to hear you say that. I think the flash photography is what really makes the video. It implies consent, and also an embrace or exhibitionism of the action taking place. I suppose, it’s typically perceived as something shameful. But the photography disrupts that preconception and then there’s this feeling of being watched, but twice-so because there’s the photo camera and then the video camera. It’s hard for me to articulate it exactly.
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