June 2016/The Let Down Reflex:Part II
In our June column we are pleased to continue with the curatorial team behind 'The Let Down Reflex' Amber Berson from Montreal and Juliana Driever from New York. Over the three month period of May, June and July, Berson and Driever bring us a monthly column on parenting in the arts, with contributions by artists: Dillon de Give, Home Affairs (Arzu Ozkal, Claudia Costa Pederson, and Nanette Yannuzzi), Leisure (Meredith Carruthers and Susannah Wesley), Lise Haller Baggesen, LoVid, and Shane Aslan Selzer, with an additional text from EFA Project space administrators Michelle Levy and Meghana Karnik. In this month's column we feature Home Affairs (Arzu Ozkal and Nanette Yannuzzi), Leisure (Meredith Carruthers & Susannah Wesley) and Shane Aslan Selzer. These contributions 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 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 II
By Amber Berson and Juliana Driever
(Arzu Ozkal and Nanette Yannuzzi)
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?
Arzu Ozkal: Absolutely, it affects women more than men, in the art world, in academia, everywhere. When I took my teaching position, during the new faculty orientation, a male faculty said, pointing the female faculty in the room “whatever you do don’t get pregnant till you get your tenure!” Male faculty can have children anytime because “obviously” they have a “wife” to take care of the children. We are still dealing with these social and cultural norms imposed on our society. Glad to see more and more are questioning traditions and patriarchal value systems.
Tell us about an extremely positive art world experience since becoming a parent. What types of things have helped you?
Arzu: Very recently, I was invited to talk about a piece of mine at a gallery in San Diego. The event was scheduled in the evening so I had to bring my 4-year-old son with me. There was another artist with his 3-year-old daughter. Obviously our kids were having a good time, and interrupting the conversation a little bit, which was making me nervous. The curator (big shout out to Chantel Paul) asked one of the gallery attendants if she could watch the kids for the rest of the event. I am aware that is not in her job description to watch children, but she did an amazing job showing them around, telling them about the works. It was incredibly helpful to know that there is someone in the space who can keep an eye on my son, so I can focus on the conversations. It has to be the responsibility of the art space, and the curator to ask the artists if they need childcare during an event they are a part of, at least offer to pay for childcare that evening.
Did you find that you had to make accommodations within your own practice after the birth of your child? How did you navigate this?
Arzu: It is a struggle to remain active in your local art community. I am mostly a solo-parent, lately. I try to take care of everything while my son is at preschool between 9:00 AM till 5:00 PM. I have to be selective about the openings I attend as I can afford one babysitter a week. I am perfectly fine taking him with me to events, but I don’t like disrupting his bedtime routine, as we all know most events are typically scheduled during this time. Some would ask, you miss openings so what? As an artist attending art events and openings is a big part of your practice. You talk to other artists, organizers, meet with curators, etc. If you miss most of the events, sadly, you fall off the network. I am still trying to navigate this; I cannot say I am succeeding. I invite people to my studio for coffee during the day, so I can at least tell them it is not because I don’t care.
Nanette Yannuzzi: I should preface my answer by saying my children are 21 and 17 and my answers reflect this perspective, and yes, absolutely, my art practice radically changed after the birth of my children. Myself, and my husband at the time, worked in an academic institution in a rural town of less than 10k people and a forty minutes drive to the closest city. The childcare center in town, now a gleaming success story, was abominable back then and the only other daycare center was more than we could afford and had a waiting list of over a year. Daycare for our family became a time-consuming, revolving door of college students, who were great, but their priorities were, rightly so, elsewhere.
What we did was something we called the ‘tag-team’. I’d stay at home with the kids while he went to the studio at night; and he’d do the same for me and back and forth we went. The weekends were the only time we were in the same place at the same time with the kids and so instead of going to the studio, we’d spend it together as a family.
Having a fraction of the time I used to have, my work became more planned and perhaps more goal-oriented. I lost the studio practice I’d developed over the last decade, instead, my studio practice took place on the kitchen table or the living room/bedroom floor amid the bustle of family life. Distractions and stops ‘n starts, became the norm, and the extended time I used to have to contemplate or intensely focus, were rare.
What are some of the unique economic challenges that artists and culture workers face? How do you think these challenges affect those with families?Nanette: Artists and cultural workers in the U.S. face challenges related to a culture that is largely unaware of the importance of art and culture in their everyday lives, and a government that hasn’t embraced their artists since the Work Projects Administration of the 1930s. The needs of the majority of practicing artists, relative to costs related to studio rentals, equipment, and other art making material, aren’t even on their radar. Social programs directed at making the lives of artists who choose to have families, less stressful, are non-existent. Countries such as Ireland and Denmark offer tax-free grants or direct subsidies. Similar support is available in Canada. Not so in the U.S.
Because of this lack of support, almost every artist has a ‘day job’. If you’re a parent, you have three jobs; your art production, your day job, and your parenting, and that’s a lot of jobs, especially considering how demanding and important the job of parenting truly is.
How do you think cultural organizations can shift their policies and practices to be more hospitable to families?
Nanette: It would go a long way for cultural organization to acknowledge their centuries-long practice of male-centered programming and begin to discuss how to implement shifts in policy that acknowledge women, families, and primary caregivers as the wholly significant contributors to culture they are. It’s like any other kind of change. Think about life before recycling! I remember when no one recycled. Once the awareness took root, we found a way. Now, practically every community and most families experience recycling as the norm. Awareness, comes first, making a commitment to changing the doctrine follows and implementing that change, one-step at a time, is the next. That’s why it’s important for artists to stay on top of these issues. We’re bringing about the awareness. That’s what artists do, “understanding the world and understanding human beings” as Werner Herzog once said.
(Meredith Carruthers & Susannah Wesley)
What are the accessibility accommodations you would like to see in the art world for parents?
There are not many accommodations for parents and children in or out of the art world. The issue with the art world is that it is not a 9-5 job - it’s also your social world and it’s necessary to go to events in the evenings. Evening daycare can be prohibitive to cultural workers with limited salaries or uneven and unpredictable incomes. If you have a partner and you’re both involved in the art community, either as artists or as cultural workers, there is a trade-off there, and one of you always seems to be missing out. Either you're staying home with children while the other attends openings or, if you actually managed to get to an event with your children, one of you is always dealing with them and not able to engage with the art or peers. It is a cliche perhaps, but priorities do shift during the early years of having small children. Some of this has to do wit the physical reality - the little ones get up really early no matter what time you go to bed! But also perhaps in terms of drive, ambition and a general sense of sociability.
If some openings were on the weekend in the afternoon that would be helpful. Also a little table with crayons or play dough lets parents be able to have conversations with other adults while their kids are occupied - this makes a huge difference and is so simple to do.
The issue of residencies is difficult to resolve, but if some provided childcare, or offered several short residencies rather than ones that are a month or several months, they would be more accessible. As a collaborative duo - residencies have been an important aspect of our practice. Allowing us to focus and be connected in a way that allows for a shared intellectual and creative world. With three children now between us, creating that shared space of ourselves in the last 6 years has been one of greatest challenges.
Tell us about your experience creating a new work for this show, considering the topic was not necessarily within your regular practice.
Since we started working together, our shared practice has been a way to work out and think through questions we were grappling with in our personal and professional lives. At the beginning that might have meant navigating how we identified ourselves as practitioners, or how we interpreted where we are from both geographically and in terms of our generation. Increasingly, our relationship to each other (after over ten years of working together!) has also become part of this kind of inquiry. Although we often take a story, image or existing artwork as a starting point, inevitably all of our projects are grounded in this subjective dialogue between the two of us.
That said, the research elements of our work allow us to keep a kind of critical distance between ourselves and the work we are producing. In the case of this project, we felt the desire to put ourselves into the frame in a different way, including documentation of the everyday actions we observed our kids doing in the environments we have somehow created for them. We felt that this experiment was not completely resolved for the exhibition itself, but was very helpful in moving us forward in a new direction that we will surely continue to explore. For us, the exhibition was a moment to open up our dialogue in a different way and to make work relatively quickly within parameters set by the curators. Working with curators in this way is a challenge to our 1 to 1 dialogue, but ultimately makes for interesting new ideas to engage with.
What are some of the unique economic challenges that artists and culture workers face? How do you think these challenges affect those with families?In Canada it’s difficult to make a living as an artist. There is not much of an art market and some of us have less success at getting government grants than others. In the past Leisure would self-fund our projects, but after having children we had to stop that practice. Family budgets have become a bigger and more important part of our lives and we are also now dealing with the consequences of some of the financial risks we took early on to support our creative practices (credit cards!). Relating family with security is a very real concern that cannot be underestimated. This combined with the very real physical and time commitments of childbearing and rearing have played a role in the decision making of generations of women artists and there are so many aspects of this that we are still figuring out in our generation.
Many art-trained people facing the financial uncertainty of an art career, rely on positions as cultural workers in one way or another. For many this works, it is a way to stay close to the cultural world, and to balance creative work and find some stability. But these positions can further complicate the story, particularly when kids become part of the mix - the pay can be low and the hours can be long, often beyond 9-5, that sometimes it can hardly feel worth it. The desire to change professions so you can make more money and have more guilt-free time with your children - not to mention time in the studio - becomes very tantalizing.
Before becoming mothers we were both working full-time whereas after children our work situations became more piecemeal. For us this has also been part of the positive side of the family challenge, with time being limited, we have become increasingly focused on where we want to invest our time, what we really want to do and make. We realized we needed to do projects that could pay for themselves, and we had to focus on making that happen. More news on this in the next years!
Did you find that you had to make accommodations within your own practice after the birth of your child? How did you navigate this?
Having children made us rethink our entire practice on many different levels. So this is a complex question to answer. We had been doing a lot of curating as part of our shared practice, and after we each had children we decided to focus on our studio practice. After the arrival of our children, we had so little time to carve out to work together - we wanted that time to be devoted to our own art practice. We also found the desire to make things became much stronger after having kids. And we felt a new confidence in having something to say, something uniquely our own, and this was something we felt we could only do through a visual practice.
Another aspect was that previous to having children we had been doing residencies every two years or so. We did one very short residency when the first of our children was 4 months old, but we realized it was really not feasible otherwise. We couldn’t be away from our very small children for extended periods of time and we couldn’t bring them with us and get any work done. Even if there was room for our partners and children to come, we didn’t have the funds, and potentially our partners couldn’t get the time off. So, residencies are something we had to put on hold for a few years.
But in some ways having children was the best thing that ever happened to our art practice in that it made us realize how important our practice is to us, that it has to be a priority (even though that can be difficult with family obligations), and that we have to really devote ourselves to it and work when we have the opportunity to, there’s no messing about anymore.
SHANE ASLAN SELZER
Why do you think the art world is so slow to include artist-parents and families?
I think the phrasing of this question leaves out the keyword for my answer. CHILDREN.
Artists get compared to children all the time. Particularly in the US, we have a tough time being taken seriously as productive contributors in society. Artists are often referred to as being childish, self-centered, and irresponsible. Many of the models practiced in the art world seem predicated in part by the image of the artist as someone who can’t handle business (one who is child-like) and wayward in our ability to prioritize self care. Artists themselves sometimes perpetuate these myths around competency for a host of reasons, all tied back to the valuation of individualism and the lore of genius. We need to start asking what the stakes are that keep artists from visualizing themselves as family members in a range of capacities and capabilities.
As artists we reject society’s dismissal of our work. We do this daily, in the face of many micro-aggressions. We affirm self, –our ideas, our time, our bodies, our engagement with (an)other. But if we place parenthood outside of self care and we place artists outside of these stakes as well then don’t we exclude both from engaging the other?
For a wide range of reasons (both pragmatic and psychological) I find that many American artists make a decision early on in their careers to not have children. For me, this was in part an effort to honestly acknowledge that my decision to be an artist meant that my life would involve much more precarity than other paths would hold. I thought that in order to prioritize my art practice I would need to make sacrifices. They manifested in different ways, always it was about time spent, and resulted in time alone. But, I don’t think we need precarity for inspiration, I think we’ve been backed into a corner where we are tricked into thinking that we have to accept precarity as the price of committing to our own ideas.
I grew up in a family that loved and honored the presence and input of children. My own practice is very much influenced by the work of children and the developmental processes of learning in humans and animals. The physical presence of children feels pretty natural to me, in fact very necessary. Still, I thought that I needed to choose between my art practice and my desire to parent a child because the practice itself took all of my resources, time, worry and inspiration.
I did not plan my pregnancy. I hesitate to write this publicly because I am protective of my family’s privacy, but I also think that too many of us go through this process feeling isolated regardless of the choice we make and its outcomes. Shouldn’t we be able to tell and hear these stories in order to expand the ways we conceptualize parenthood? In graduate school I was fascinated by D.W. Winnicott’s writing on the child-mother relationship, and his ideas about the “good-enough” mother returned to me when I first became a parent. I think many parents wonder if they’ll be “good-enough” but artist-parents have a lot of outside noise telling them the answer is already no, you can’t be enough and if you are, the work will suffer.
What surprised me was how much I depended on my skills as an artist to face my fears about parenthood. I believe that, like so many artists, I am resourceful, hard working and self reliant in many important ways. I see the potential rewards in taking risks and committing to the process. These skills actually prepared me quite well for the challenges of parenting, particularly the parts that require quiet perception, trust in process, and lots of sleepless nights.
What also surprised me was how much my role as a parent has become essential to my practice. I have less time, so much less time, and certainly less money, but I am more focused, better able to parse out what’s essential to the work and what’s a distraction. You could say that parenting is a long game and so is an art practice. While I’m certainly not advocating for every artist to raise children, and I respect and honor the people close to me who decide not to be parents, I do think that the artworld would benefit immensely from considering children and families as a more integrated part of creative practices and how to sustain them. This requires a serious reconsideration of the value of children as artists, viewers and critics within the artworld. It means integrating children into programming rather than always separating them out. It means confronting and possibly embracing the messiness of our own relationships to self and other. I think children can teach us to bridge between internal and external schema by laying new foundations for thinking about the role of care within the artworld.