A Conversation with Jody Wood


 Still from IN FOR THE KILL, performance, 2009. Photo by Jennie Thwing.

Still from IN FOR THE KILL, performance, 2009. Photo by Jennie Thwing.

~ printed in issue 10, conducted by Whitney Mallett ~

Jody Wood is a Brooklyn-based performance artist, and a lot of her work is about trying to make a connection. When she was feeling isolated in the small college town in Kansas where she was living before, her reaction was to ask strangers to fight her. In a minute-long video compiling documentation of these improvised brawls, you can watch her wrestle other women in public spaces like a grocery store, a bathroom, and a library. “Basically I needed physical contact,” she explained, “whether it was a hug or a headlock.” And while it might look hostile, she became far more intimate with the women she fought than the strangers who declined her offer. It’s not unusual for Jody’s work to put her in contact with strangers and estranged communities. In Denver, she set up a mobile beauty salon offering homeless persons free haircuts, and in South Korea, along with So Yeon Park, she ran an ESL poetry workshop at a welfare center for seniors. A desire to evoke transformations fuels many of her projects.

Is your work moving more and more towards a social practice and working with larger community groups?

I was always interested in working one-on-one with people. And even when I’m collaborating with these larger works I still do work one-on-one. But I also feel like I have to go back and forth between working with communities and working with my own practice, developing my own poetics because I feel like when I’m asking people to develop their own poetics—like the project I did with the aging in Seoul—I have to be working on my own.


It’s refreshing to see art that feels really useful. Do you think about the usefulness of your work, especially in projects like the one providing haircuts?

Well it’s interesting that you say that because the haircutting project was in a way providing a non-essential service. The shelter system would consider essential services like food and water. So what I was doing, giving haircuts, is sort of superfluous. It’s something that we don’t necessarily need, but it’s a part of our identity. When they saw themselves in the mirror, a lot of the participants talked about how it reminded them of who they once were. We take for granted being able to comb through our hair.  It’s about agency. If you want to have greasy hair and put it under a ball cap that’s ok if it’s a choice, but it’s different if you don’t have a choice. It’s also about just being able to blend in and not be stigmatized.

In a lot of these projects, I’m interested in affecting a transformative experience, but I’m also exploring my own fears as an artist. If you’re an artist working outside commercial gallery institutions and don’t have a trust fund, you really understand hand to mouth living and how easy it can be to not make rent. Homelessness is a reality that could be close at hand for many Americans right now.

Many people I worked with who were homeless lost their job because of cutbacks, couldn’t make rent for a couple months, and didn’t have supportive families, so were forced into the shelter system. When you consider cases like these, it’s shocking how quickly this can happen to anyone.

Stills from BEAUTY IN TRANSITION, 2013,
Community-Based Project by Jody Wood
A mobile, outdoor beauty salon serving the local Denver homeless population, and an audio/video installation within the RedLine exhibition space. Situated in-between RedLine and St. Francis, a local homeless day shelter, Beauty in Transition provides beauty services including a hair wash, cut, color and/ or style service to willing participants.

What’s your experience been in terms of getting these community-based projects funded?

Even the grants that have a stipulation that you engage with a community, because of where their funding is coming from, still want a video you can show in a gallery. I always have to think about the documentation and “what product do I have to show for this,” even if the project is site-specific and about that particular context. It can be hard to fit this kind of art into the institutional framework. But I think organizations like Creative Time, and even Blades of Grass, are changing this. I think institutions are going to have to start working with artists in this way. And some already are starting to have outreach programs like Queens Museum.

What are you working on next?

When I was working in the shelter system, it started reminding me more and more of prison. They treat you like a number. Everyone gets the same amount of food, the same blanket. It started feeling more and more like an institution like prison, so I started working in prisons. I’ve started working with death row inmates where I’m from in Oregon, exploring narrative and criminology. It’s always someone else telling these inmates’ stories, and they’re either a victim or a villain.

Collaboration with Mikel Bisbee-Durlam. Drawing inspiration from popular crime drama television, “Episodes of Violence” uses non-actors to stage meditative moments of implied violence in locations throughout NY. This montage of narrative moments exists in the space between the artificiality of cinema and the humanness of trauma, seeking a balance between suspense and meditation, violence and stillness.