May 2016/The Let Down Reflex:Part 1

In our May column we are pleased to feature the curatorial team behind 'The Let Down Reflex' Amber Berson from Montreal and Juliana Driever from New York.  During the month's of May, June and July they will bring to us a monthly column on parenting in the arts, with contributions by artists: Dillon de GiveHome Affairs (Arzu Ozkal, Claudia Costa Pederson, and Nanette Yannuzzi), Leisure (Meredith Carruthers and Susannah Wesley), Lise Haller BaggesenLoVid, and Shane Aslan Selzer, with an additional text from EFA Project space administrators Michelle Levy and Meghana Karnik. These columns will take shape in a series of interviews on revisionist approaches to accommodations and policies on the participation of families and parents in the arts and culture.

 Amber Berson, Montreal, Canada /  Juliana Driever, New York, USA.

Amber Berson, Montreal, Canada /  Juliana Driever, New York, USA.

Amber Berson is a writer, curator, and PhD student who conducting doctoral research at Queen’s University on the subject of artist-run culture and feminist, utopian thinking. She most recently curated The Let Down Reflex (2016); TrailMix (2014); *~._.:*JENNIFER X JENNIFER*:.~ (2013); The Annual Art Administrator’s Relay Race (2013); and The Wild Bush Residency (2012–14). She is a member of the Montréal-based Critical Administrative Practices Reading Group; sits on the editorial committee of .dpi, a feminist journal of digital art and culture; and is the Canadian ambassador for the Art+Feminism Wikipedia project. Her writing has been published in Breach Magazine, Canadian Art, C Magazine, Esse, Fuse Magazine and the St Andrews Journal of Art History and Museum Studies. She is a mother to a toddler named Paloma.

Juliana Driever is a curator and writer. Her work strives to create equity for art and ideas that exist beyond a perceived mainstream. She is primarily concerned with public space, site-specificity, and participation, and has worked on a variety of related exhibition, programming, editorial, and writing projects. Recent curatorial work includes The Let Down Reflex (2016, with Amber Berson, EFA Project Space, New York, NY), Socially Acceptable (2015, Residency Unlimited/InCube Arts), Art in Odd Places 2014: FREE (with Dylan Gauthier, New York, NY), and About, With & For (2013, Boston Center for the Arts). Her writing has appeared in numerous exhibition catalogs, and has been featured online with A Blade of Grass Foundation and Bad at Sports, and in the print volume Service Media: Is it ‘Public Art’ or Art in Public Space? She is a mother to a seven year-old named Jackson.

 


The Let Down Reflex - PART I
By Amber Berson and Juliana Driever

The Let Down Reflex is a project that began from a place of personal frustration. Weary from concealing our roles as parents in order to not jeopardize our careers, we set out to organize an exhibition that would act as a rallying cry to all parents with an investment in the cultural lives of their families. We were fed up with fighting for better work hours and better conditions at workplaces within the art world. We were exhausted by assumptions that our appetite for professional involvement would - and maybe should - change because of our parental status. And we were tired of feeling alone; alienated from the larger (art) world by our fear of speaking up about these issues.

What we desired was a forum in which we could safely discuss these feelings. As we dug into our research, what we found was a community as hungry for this discussion as we were.

The “let down reflex,” a term referencing the involuntary reflex that causes nursing mothers to produce breast milk, takes on a double meaning in this context, referring here to the reflexive tendency of letting down parents, and particularly mothers, within the flawed structures of the art world. As an exhibition, The Let Down Reflex  put forward a radical presence for families where they are typically absent: excluded from residency programs, low-pay/high demand exhibition opportunities, panel discussions, and the like.

In an attempt to continue and to enlarge the conversation that began with the exhibition, we’ve posted a series of questions to participants in the show. Not everyone who participated chose to answer, but most did - including Dillon de GiveHome Affairs (Arzu Ozkal, Claudia Costa Pederson, and Nanette Yannuzzi), Leisure (Meredith Carruthers and Susannah Wesley), Lise Haller BaggesonLoVid, and Shane Aslan Selzer, with an additional texts from EFA Project Space administrators Michelle Levy and Meghana Karnik.

The questions and answers that form this special series for m/other voices are also an attempt to speak with you - the reader. The full set of questions are posted below, and we would love to hear your feedback. We truly believe that working together we can make the changes necessary to create a better, more feminist future for (artist) parents.

 

  1. What are the accessibility accommodations you would like to see in the art world for parents.

             a) Do these exist already outside of the art world?

             b) What existed historically that you would like to see brought back?

  1. Why do you think the art world is so slow to include artist-parents and families?

  2. Tell us about your experience creating a new work for this show, considering the topic was not necessarily within your regular practice.

  3. Do you find that the experience of being a parent in the art world affects mothers differently than fathers, or primary caregivers more than non-primary caregivers?

  4. Tell us about an extremely positive art world experience since becoming a parent. What types of things have helped you?

  5. What is something you would change?

  6. What are some of the unique economic challenges that artists and culture workers face? How do you think these challenges affect those with families?

  7. Did you find that you had to make accommodations within your own practice after the birth of your child? How did you navigate this?

  8. How do you think cultural organizations can shift their policies and practices to be more hospitable to families?

 

 

Amber  Berson, Juliana Driever
May 8th, 2016

 

 

 

I.

LISE HALLER BAGGESEN

  Lise Haller Baggeson,   Mothernism  , 2016, Photo courtesy of the EFA Project Space, New York.

Lise Haller Baggeson, Mothernism, 2016, Photo courtesy of the EFA Project Space, New York.

What are the accessibility accommodations you would like to see in the art world for parents?
"I think briefly, historically there was a better understanding of children as cultural participants. Not only as cutesy makers, but also as audiences. I am thinking specifically about some shows that happened in Scandinavia, like Palle Nielsen’s “The Model,” in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet (1969) and the exhibition “Children are a People” at Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebaek, Denmark 1979). Those two exhibitions bookend a period where it was okay to expose kids to (sometimes difficult) art, and vice versa. It is something I remember fondly from when I grew up —although we weren’t a very artsy family, my parents found that tagging your kids along to museums were part of a cultured upbringing. And we would actually come along to the museum to look at art, and not to sit in the kiddie corner and “be creative." I feel like since then we have become more protective, and wary of confronting our kids with actual artwork —and to take the sometimes difficult situations or conversations that may arise. Last summer we went to Venice with whole family and I had a long conversation with my daughter, Eleanor, about feminism, upon seeing the installation “Shrine for Girls” by Patricia Cronin Installed in an off-site chapel in the city. It was tough conversation, because I had to explain to her some of the background to the work, but ultimately a rewarding. This is not a responsibility that can be put solely on the cultural institutions, but something that parents need to invest in themselves — a little like if you want to take your kids out for dinner in some place that is not Chuck E. Cheese’s, they need to learn how to eat with a knife and fork, etc."

Why do you think the art world is so slow to include artist-parents and families?
Because it is easier not to. Because there is not enough money involved, and because the art world likes to think of itself as “avant-garde” and in opposition to family life which is “bourgeois.” In other words, there are a lot of reasons, built on assumptions that are both contradictory and lazy. But, I think as artist/parents it is important to ask ourselves, which “art-world’ we want access to; is it the same old same old, or can we think of alternatives that might nurture us better?

Do you find that the experience of being a parent in the art world affects mothers differently than fathers, or primary caregivers more than non-primary caregivers?
Definitely. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard said about a female artist that “she had a kid and then she started making really shitty work.” I’ve never heard anybody say that about a man. Also, I have never heard of a man who got dumped by his gallery, or otherwise demoted (artistically or academically) because he had kids. Fathers are not expected to be as hormonally challenged by parenthood as mothers are, also they are not expected to be as burdened with care work as women are. I hate to say it, but it’s a little bit like the sole dad hanging out in the playground with his Baby Bjorn —everybody thinks he is totes adorbs! So they are not met with the same double negative expectations as women are when “returning to work," although they may face some of the same economical and (time) managerial challenges.

Tell us about an extremely positive art world experience since becoming a parent. What types of things have helped you?
It was extremely positive to open a show in Amsterdam of drawings I had made in collaboration with my then 4-year old son ("Stories For Boys" 2004), with him standing in the door to the gallery and welcoming everybody with “welcome to my exhibition!” It was also extremely positive to experience the reception my book and installation “Mothernism” and to tour Europe and the U.S. with a project dedicated to “stake out the Mother-shaped hole in contemporary art discourse.” I had written it out of frustration, because I didn’t think the (art) world was ready to breach this topic —but, boy, was it ready! So sometimes you are positively surprised. Next stop is to “put the Mom in Moma!” We’ll see...

 

 

 

II.

DILLON & PEREGRIN DE GIVE

  Dillon and Peregrin de Give,   By My Own Admission  , 2016, Photo by Ramsay de Give.

Dillon and Peregrin de Give, By My Own Admission, 2016, Photo by Ramsay de Give.

Tell us about your experience creating a new work for this show, considering the topic was not necessarily within your regular practice.
By My Own Admission was a new work undertaken for The Let Down Reflex. In it, my nightly bedtime routine as a father putting his 2.5 year old son to sleep was staged as a theatrical event. This project allowed me to be present with our son while preparing for the show, as we rehearsed at home. In addition to practicing his part each night, he assisted in making photographs of his security blanket, and documented his own bedroom with a toy camera. I think we both enjoyed a sense of getting this work done, injecting a different type of discipline into our ritual. We did this work together, and that is why he was listed as a collaborator. With the help of my partner I decided when and how to inform him of his participation in the performance. Even with his buy-in the possibility of failure (not achieving sleep, rejection of the situation or public meltdown) was a known quantity. A rehearsal nap in the space a few weeks out was key to establishing the premise, but the final details– that people would be watching us– were revealed only a day or so in advance. The script for our final stage play was based on possible responses to his mood. As it happened, my son actually fell asleep in front of the audience, slept all night, and woke up the next morning asking where they were! It had been necessary to negotiate a contract agreement for sleeping over in the gallery; actually doing it was a kind of adventure. This project became about testing and accepting the good will of an audience, and putting the wonderful/banal duties of a male “stay at home” parent in the spotlight. Producing this routine for public view also served as an explanation of my absence from certain prime time art world events, and a solution for being present.

What are the accessibility accommodations you would like to see in the art world for parents?
Since parents quickly become experts in evaluating whether or not a given situation is appropriate for their child, the art world need only meet them halfway to accommodate. The most important considerations can be undertaken quickly and without cost. In order of importance, my request list would look like this:

  1. For art viewers with kids: a smile, nod or other non-patronizing greeting. This is an immediate way of saying “you are welcome here”, a recognition of the human complexity in the shared situation, and a way of cracking the door to a channel of communication if the need should arise.
  2. In art spaces: a basic consideration of safety, seen from a child’s eye level (covered electrical sockets, removal of broken glass, fallen thumb tacks etc.) OR a posted announcement that the space has not undertaken any child safety precautions.
  3.  A word of explicit invitation in show/lecture/performance announcements can work wonders. “Children are welcome” should be understood to mean organizational openness, not “children’s event”.
  4. A slightly increased tolerance to child-produced sounds.

In my opinion more specific, “supportive” measures for artists with kids in an American context- such as dreaming up appropriate child care scenarios- can only progress with a staunch willingness on the part of institutions not be paralyzed into inaction by fear of legal liability.

 

June issue:  Home AffairsLeisure, LoVid 

 

 

 

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