I first met Hazel Meyer in Toronto back in 2016, on what was my “first official studio visit” as a newbie curator. I was humbled by Meyer’s generosity as she walked me through her work in what is now the Ubisoft building in west Toronto, inviting me into her world. Meyer’s artwork was well-known to me, then, as an iconic queer artist whose work was advancing conversations about queer bodies and queer histories. I was a big fan of her No Theory, No Cry, which I first encountered at Art Metropole, and which encompassed the feelings of painful pleasure and strife of my own experiences reading theory in art school. Nestled in a womb of cheerleading pompoms, pool noodles, archival photographs of now-deceased Toronto lesbian activist Chris Bearchell next to photographs from kink and leather communities, Meyer and I had an easy rapport. We were enrapt in conversation about what it might mean to have a women’s anal erotics as part of the “queer theory” conversation (where's the feminist butt stuff?), as the artist’s jean jacket depicting little buttholes hung above our heads. When we stumbled upon the shared fact of our working-class/poor backgrounds, our bond solidified—we had found a rare kinship, and we weren’t going to let it go. Indeed, finding out this fact about the other led me to find some power humming below the surface of things—below the surface of the city—a humming loud like industry, and a bit hidden, like shame. It was true: being “out” as someone from a low-income family seemed all too rare in a contemporary art world, where the assumption of middle-class-ness and even, at times, upper-middle-class-ness was the norm. This, too, in the institutions that surround contemporary art ones (like the university).
Meyer has been working across fluids, and abjection in its most literal and metaphorical senses—from the diarrhea of Crohn’s disease, to lez sweat and the limits of the body in relation to other peoples’ delimiting, leaking bodies. Much of her work, as in the ongoing Muscle Panic, is fuelled by the energy generated when queer bodies are in space together, moving, performing and playing sports, as well as the ways queer and non-normative bodies can support and take care of each other. At the time, Meyer was preparing for Tape Condition: degraded, her collaborative exhibition with partner, researcher and queer media archives specialist Cait McKinney at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives; their ongoing collaborative relationship, now, often takes shape as performance lectures, as in their Daisy Chains or, most recently, How To Build a Ruin. In this conversation, Hazel and I sit down to talk about the topic we’ve been vibing about together for years but have never taken the time to process together out loud: class. We discuss Hazel’s recent works (2019-2021) What It Means to Grow Up Pour and The Marble in the Basement—the latest in her ongoing inquiries into the life and work of Joyce Wieland, and which include new experiments for the artist in puppetry and Super8 film. As we reflect autobiographically on “what it’s like to grow up pour,” we spill some of our own thoughts on the relationship between language and class, the role of humour and play in art, colloquial language, trusting our guts, and the limits of legibility and intelligibility. It’s like holding hot soup. . .
But what I’m trying to do more and more is to trust myself. Trusting that I have been doing this long enough, and that, not always, but often, my impulses will be good ones. I’m trying not to be too precious about things, but that doesn't mean I don't care as much about my desire to communicate—it means I’m trying to just fucking trust myself.
Lauren Fournier: In our very first studio visit, which was actually my first studio visit ever, we first bonded over both being from working-class/poor/low-income family backgrounds.
Hazel Meyer: Yes. And I also witnessed the first time you used a drill!
HA! I forgot about that.
Oh, I’ll never forget it. It was wonderful. It’s such a thrill to be around when somebody is first experiencing a power tool.
It does give you a real sense of physical agency!
Aw, and all of the tools behind you, right now, on your trusty pegboard ...
*Hazel is sitting in her studio in East Vancouver: behind her is a pegboard where tools hang*
So fast forward to three years later, when I’m watching your performance at TMAC in 2019. You announced your banner What It Means To Grow Up Pour during your performance of The Weight of Inheritance, and I got chills. I was standing there feeling anxious, in one of those “imposter syndrome” meets “complexly traumatized person/neurodivergent person” moments when I felt like I didn’t belong there in the contemporary art world of elevated discourse and articulation, that I am somehow “outside of things.” As soon as you said the words What It Means To Grow Up Pour, I felt seen. I didn’t see it coming. Chills went up and down my spine, like my whole body had been activated. You tapped into a well that was primordial for me. When you were done, I had to go to the bathroom and have a secret, private cry in one of the stalls.
What was meaningful for me, I think, was how the work tapped into these aspects of my lived experience that I’d never seen recognized in contemporary art spaces—class, but also poverty, the concomitant lapses in language, ideas of literacy, spelling, education level, acculturation…
Ahhh, Lauren, that means so much to me. Yeah, What it Means To Grow Up Pour was first conjured in that performance at TMAC as a part of The Weight of Inheritance, my ongoing project about inheritance, legacy and Joyce Wieland (the late Canadian artist and experimental filmmaker). I remember when I was writing the performance script, thinking I would use it as an opportunity to present a few ideas that didn’t yet have a physical form, such as the banner as well as a film I was really keen to make at the time. From experience I know that not all my ideas need to exist outside or beyond the form of an idea… that said, I am not always sure how to tell, or when to know… Fear and doubt can really fog up my understanding of how and whether an idea should start the process of… materialization. My intuition is strong, but fuck, doubt can sideline just about anything with a quick kick and an elbow jab.
So yeah, at the TMAC performance What it Means To Grow Up Pour was presented as an idea in search of a form. I had first settled on this text, these words, back in 2009 when I was halfway through an MFA. I had just worked on a large (6x8ft) felt and satin banner No Theory, No Cry (2009) and felt a real kinship with the form. No Theory, No Cry has a black outline of a doodle that is a face with giant eyes that are leaking tears; I was thinking about the force and the feeling of experiencing theory but also the frustration and sadness that can come along with having to understand certain texts and ways of articulating ideas in order to be understood (in certain environments.)
During my Master’s I was thinking a lot about class— stuff like imposter syndrome—but also other manifestations, like who your cohort is, who your colleagues are, and how so often there is an assumption of a shared background, like a shared socioeconomic background. I thought of the tears in No Theory, No Cry, when I was thinking about What It Means to Grow Up Pour. These are uncomfortable, porous concepts for me to sit with. It’s like holding hot soup. You know, nourishing to eat, but difficult to hold outside of a container, let alone knowing what kind of container to use.
So, with the TMAC performance I thought I’d will What It Means To Grow Up Pour into the world. I figured I would either be obligated to make it because I had conjured it, described it—or, I wouldn’t have to make it because it would already exist outside of me in some form. Regardless, I would’ve done the hard part... putting words to a feeling that still to this day feels raw.
What drove that specific play with language, in this work?
I used the word pour thinking it might be understood as a misspelling of poor which I thought might make the person who thought this think about their assumptions, or experiences with regards to education and class. I was also interested in pour as a verb for how it can suggest the force of gravity when something is being poured, the hard stream of liquid, and one’s inability to get out of the stream. I think that might be what poverty is like, or at least what it felt like to me growing up.
I also used pour because I hope it might lead to porous, the measure of void spaces in a material, like how porous materials absorb smells, liquid, etc… and that too feels very similar to how it felt growing up poor. It was in my pores, impossible to get away from. Not even the clear pink baubles I put on my ‘snowsuit fund’ jacket were enough to distance me from the other kids with identical suits, and all of us from the stigma those garments held. There’s not enough embellishment in the world! That said, I don’t mean this to be a sob story, I was warm, I imagine these other kids were too, and Ottawa in the 80s was cold, not only weather wise but with the cruel hand of Brian Mulroney’s conservative agenda. What this memory does is locate my lifelong love of embellishment and garment intervention as a political and sustaining gesture, in the actions of a small kid under the heavy pour of poverty.
Words are sharp, even though the ones in what became the What It Means To Grow Up Pour banner are soft, stuffed and possibly familiar in their hand-written scrawl. What It Means To Grow Up Pour tracks a whole lot of liquid into a kind of provocation, or a statement that is more of a path than an answer.
So, from first conceptualizing of the piece, or at least the text for the piece, till when it was made was about 11 years, which is like a quarter of my life so far, ha!
I find the work especially compelling for what it says about language and class—the deliberate misspelling of “poor” with the homophone “pour,” as if to perform a kind of illiteracy, while also introducing connotations of fluidity, liquid, abjection—so common in your work.
You know, I think this work really found its feet many years before I even found the words for it. I had this rather unpleasant experience when I was twenty years old or so—I took part in a symposium, like a diversity and inclusion symposium with workshops, where we did these breakout groups. One of the breakout groups was about class. It was such a strange workshop, and I would deal with it so differently now, but at that time I kind of just went with it. We were all broken into different socioeconomic categories of how we grew up. So the facilitator was like, what was your parents’ income growing up? Where would you place yourself? And I was the only person in my income group, the lowest one. So one of the facilitators joined me, so that I wouldn’t be alone. They gave us the question: how would you describe, you know, folks within that economic bracket? I understood what they were looking for me to say. I didn’t have the words or the knowledge that this workshop wasn't functional or beneficial to me. So when it came to me, the word I gave them was “intelligent.” I thought, I’m not going to give you what you want. I understand this is supposed to be pedagogical, but this is not my pedagogy.
So in using “pour,” not only was I trying to think of fluidity and this force of water, this force that is very difficult to get out from under, I was also thinking: when faced with this text, would a person just assume that the word is spelled incorrectly? And to my horror/surprise this happened, an acquaintance who saw the work remarked that poor was spelled incorrectly because a lack of education…“right”? And I was like, “dude!” though me being me didn’t actually say that but filed it away as something to process later. And that’s fine, right, they can read whatever they want into it. But in thinking through that awful workshop experience I had, I thought this is a way of having people address some assumptions they might have. Being poor isn’t some monolithic thing: it means so many different things to so many people. And that’s what I stand behind with this work: I’m not saying there is only one way. It’s not a statement, it’s not even a question—it’s just for each person who has experienced some form of poorness, or poverty, or a class distinction, a negative class distinction. It’s a provocation more than anything.
Could you tell me more about the form that this work takes?
Sure thing, but first I’ve got to say just how joyful it was to make! So much of my life is administrative: emails, sourcing materials (which often looks like somewhat directionless thrift store shopping,) meetings, etc... that it was such a deep pleasure to think through the work not only with my head but with my hands, by making it, by problem solving in the moment, on the fabric, with the fabric.
The work is a deep riff on Wieland’s 1969 Reason Over Passion piece that looks like a quilt, with puffy text, a puffy border and a scattering of puffy and appliqued hearts, it’s hung vertically on a wall. I’m especially fond of the border, which is white stuffed fabric and looks like poorly extruded bathroom caulking, all bulging and creased. Having had to recently caulk a bathroom tub, I really feel this border!
This was the first work of Wieland’s that I saw as a kid, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. I have a postcard of it that I bought when I was a teenager and have had it taped to the wall in my studio since starting The Weight of Inheritance. I’m not sure at what point the ideas overlapped, but the form of Reason Over Passion, and the text “What it Means to Grow up Pour,” pushed up and merged. I remember feeling exhilarated, just really high on how this text, form and reference finally found each other. Wieland’s exploration of emotion and excess, in both content and form, merging with how I think about class and leaky bodies… This piece would also be a way to introduce a conversation about class within the larger body of work about legacy, and (queer) inheritance, and, it so nicely located my discovery of Wieland’s work as a kid growing up pour, and all of those things.
When Wieland made Reason Over Passion, she worked with craftspeople to fabricate the quilted four large pieces of fabric that make up the main body of the work. I knew I wasn’t interested in quilting it myself and because I felt like I was figuring out the work as I was making it, bringing on technical help didn’t feel like a good idea. So, I sat with it, and went about life, hoping that an answer would present itself, and it did, in the form of moving blankets. The very form of a moving blanket is a quilted object. The stitching being what keeps the padding in place, much like a down jacket. Also, Cait and I had moved four times between 2016-2020, so I was very familiar with the form.
I thought, great, I’ll have the background of the work be moving blankets, ideally used ones, blankets with some life in them. These were surprisingly hard to find, when all my usual IRL and URL haunts didn’t turn up anything, I took to wandering the alleys in my neighbourhood hoping someone might have their garage open and a few blankets in view to which I could then offer to buy them! I actually did this, albeit with Regie with me, so masquerading the outings as “dog walks.”
It took about a month to find old cotton moving blankets, and the path to these blankets was one lined with the dander of many a lesbian U-Haul move, or at least that’s how I like to think of it. My good pal Vanessa Kwan’s partner Elaine Miller was kind enough to put word out through her network. Elaine has lived here all her life, she is an ex-pro-dom (professional dominatrix) who now runs a consignment leather store, her network is huge and robust—an ex-girlfriend of hers had four blankets that she was willing to part with and they are what make up the majority of the piece. I am presently making Tamara a coat for her dog in exchange for the blankets.
The outpouring of Pour as tying into this soup-y excess, this affective overflow, of passion that "reason" in Reason over Passion names and stands, it would seem, "above," but rendered emotional through its soft, puffy forms—to remain contained somehow in logic and legibility, for survival or otherwise (your casually, and I imagine perhaps holding back tears, saying "intelligence" as your word associated with your lowest-income income bracket in that workshop), and then the moments where that containment does not hold, when the tears do flow, when the words do leak.
I often thought of how you told me about the work really tapping into something for you (after the 2019 TMAC performance), and that was a real beacon for me to keep me going with it. I thought, oh my god, and I don’t mean this to sound dumb, or silly, or trite in some way, but sometimes I just wanted to make the work for poor and working-class kids that are possibly, no longer those things, but have the weight of that experience. And of course, not everyone’s experience of class struggle or poverty is the same, it’s not monolithic, and even though words tend to be directional, I’m hoping that these words, on these moving blankets, might provide a tool to chip away some of that shame, that looks so different for each person.
Totally! That was certainly my experience of the work—this foundational reality, for me, of poverty and classism being given words, being put to language, and this language lapses and becomes fluid like tears, like drool. In this way, the work continues your ongoing relationship to Joyce Wieland—herself, her artwork, her archive (York University Wieland Archives), and her former home and the architecture of that home in Toronto’s downtown east end (which is still standing today: the plaque outside of the home reads “Toronto Legacy Project and Heritage Toronto”). Wieland has been featuring through your work in recent years, with you in a sense re-casting her as a queer figure in Canadian art history. The text in Pour is similar to another Wieland riff, your Raisins Over Passion, a textile like Wieland’s infamous original (Reason Over Passion), from 1968. Raisins crop up, over and over. Why raisins, those little dehydrated grapes?
Wieland as a queer figure: I love that. I’m not sure I’ve thought of her in this capacity before, but she really functions as that for me and is the locus of what I’ve come to understand as the kind of queer inheritance I want to support and be part of.
In Wieland’s case it’s not her sexuality that defines her queerness, or as least as far as I’m plugged into her proclivities, but the way she moved through the world... Calling her a queer figure is an appointment after the fact, and I feel fine with that for my constellation of meaningful people. Her artwork and her ambition: I understand both as queer. Having come to her work early, and by early, I mean 10 or so, she provided a queered reality to what I understood as contemporary art, to what was possible in that world.
Ah, raisins! Dried grapes with their own nomenclature! I’ve had what feels like a really complicated relationship with raisins since I was probably 13. This coincided with a diagnosis of IBD and a subsequent well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt at cutting out everything and anything my teen brain thought would harm my intestinal tract. All the sugar and fiber packed in a raisin seemed to escape the faulty logic I had crafted…
Raisins Over Passion... that was me being funny?? But also… an attempt to insert a more intimate narrative into what felt like a public one, as a way of understanding my chronically ill and mutinous body in the embrace of this artwork that was so meaningful to me.
You introduced a puppet in your The Marble in the Basement (FADO, 2020): a puppet version of the now-infamous-in-your-practice Wieland-marble with a new-Jim-Henson-era face and tasty, raisin-coloured hair. Can you speak to your recent work with character—incorporating other characters in your performances, and playing them out yourself? Had you used a puppet before? What was the preparation process for that like? Did you teach yourself?
The Marble in the Basement was an extension of The Weight of Inheritance performance that you saw at TMAC and presents a narrative around Wieland’s marble, though from the perspective of a piece of Wieland’s marble. I think this partly came from me being tired of hearing myself tell the story of Joyce Wieland’s marble, being at the center of the chronology…I wanted to think it through from another angle. I wrote “only the marble will speak’ on a note, taped it near my desk, and that started to figure out who exactly marble was, and what was it like living with Joyce, then Jane.
I can’t remember where the idea to have the marble be a puppet came from… but once I got the idea in my head there was no other future.
A pal of mine, Jamie Shannon, fabricated the puppet, working from a written description and a few doodles I made. Jamie is a puppeteer, puppet maker, puppet savant, all of it. In the end we also had the help of Ali Eisner and Kanja Chen, proving that it takes a village to build a puppet of a piece of marble once owned by Joyce Wieland, and taken care of by Jane Rowland. Lolz.
So that was my driving force: let’s see what the marble would say. I am a huge fan of the Muppets and Looney Toons, I love big eyes, humor, slapstick, physical comedy, and so Marble the puppet took shape in light of all of this.
I met Marble a week before the performances started, she was being built in Toronto and I was living in Vancouver. I also met Moe Angelos and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, the two performers I’d be working with, that week as well.
Marble was originally going to be performed by Ali Eisner, a really exceptional puppeteer and person, but due to some intestinal mutiny, coincidentally the same kind of intestinal mutiny I have, wasn’t able to follow through. I remember the moment so clearly, it was a Saturday, the show was opening on the Thursday, and I had no puppeteer. My first impulse was to replace Ali with another trained puppeteer, but if you know Ali, you know that isn’t possible, not really, not at all… or, and I was so very uncertain about this, to puppeteer Marble myself. I was sitting with Shannon (Cochrane) who had invited me to do this project through FADO. I was laying on the VTape couch, in total angsty drama queen Freudian therapy couch kind of way, not knowing what to do, when Shannon reminded me of the function of fear and uncertainty in growing one’s practice and truly challenging oneself.
I had an hour-long crash course in the basics of puppeteering with another great puppeteer Kira Hall. Stuff like sight lines and working the hand like this * hand coming forward and back* and not like this *hand going up and down*, then a lot of singing Diana Ross with Marble in a mirror.
In the performance, Marble would sometimes be sitting alone on a milk crate looking like a puppet, other times, on my knee, talking through me, still looking like a puppet I suppose, but living in the way puppets do. I often talk about objects in an installation as part sculpture, part tool, part prop. I’ve always liked that slipperiness, that adaptability. Working with Marble was the first time I’ve done that kind of character work. Marble has a voice, which for anyone that knows Regie’s voice (my dog) it’s really just a higher pitch version of that.
I feel a real affinity to Marble. The first performance we did for an audience cemented this. The response from the audience was wild, engaged and joyful. In that moment I felt the decision for me to step in as the very green puppeteer was a good one in the end.
When Marble was speaking, I would be sitting on a milk crate that was strapped to a small skid with casters. Marble would be on my right knee with my right hand in her back hole, controlling the mouth and my left hand holding the rod that controls her left arm. Halfway through the performance Marble sings Diana Ross’ song “It’s My House” (1979.) We slowly scoot around the perimeter of the stage, having set the audience up on two opposing sides, facing one another. Marble is looking at the audience, and I’m looking at the audience looking at Marble, probably the closest feeling to being physically invisible. It was so interesting, I was right there, making no attempt to blend into the background, wearing yellow and Marble held everyone's gaze, or so it seemed.
One of the first things I did when the pandemic started last winter was make a sweatshirt for Marble that reads “Raisins Over Passion.” As we speak right now, that’s what she’s wearing and a pair of infant-size Adidas superstars that I bought at an outlet store. They fit Marble perfectly, as do an infant-sized pair of white socks. While this gives me such huge pleasure, imbuing Marble with something akin to life really, I have moments of wondering if it’s too much. Too kitsch? Too consumable? But what I’m trying to do more and more is to trust myself. Trusting that I have been doing this long enough, and that, not always, but often, my impulses will be good ones. I’m trying not to be too precious about things, but that doesn't mean I don't care as much about my desire to communicate—it means I’m trying to just fucking trust myself. Marble the puppet has been a big lesson in trust—in trusting this puppet and the impulse to make the puppet and have her continued presence in my work with her sharp tiny kicks on.
Marble was present in the Western Front show and features in some of the Super8 footage we shot within that exhibition. Marble also had a part in “How to Build a Ruin,” reciting a favourite passage about stucco and class from Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.
I think the hole of kitsch is a glorious one to go down and get lost in! But maybe that's just my own (queer) tastes talking! As Dave Hickey puts it in Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy (1997), “bad taste is [the only] real taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else's privilege.” (And for all I might disagree with Hickey in other ways, I think this view on taste is quite true.)
So, are you going to keep making puppets? When I was in Los Angeles a few summers ago I saw this great exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Centre called “The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited.” Curatorially, it followed Henson’s journey from experimental filmmaking to puppeteer/creator of everything from The Muppets and Sesame Street to Dark Crystal and the Labyrinth, from the 1960s through the 1980s. It was interesting to think about puppets as vehicles for character development and expression.
After performing with Marble, and still with the contact high, I became convinced of my need to make a puppet of a white Prednisone pill. Prednisone is an anti-inflammation drug that I’ve used at various points in my life and is used by folks with inflammation and chronic stuff, it has truly saved me, like literally saved my life at times, but it has really bad side effects that are lost on no one whose ever used it. One of my puppet mentors also has Crohn’s and had a flare up while The Marble in the Basement was happening, and they and I had a few dark recollections of our Prednisone days past, and sadly for Ali, present. The puppet would be hand-sized, being manipulated from a hole in its back. Big muppet-like eyes and a wide mouth with a felt tongue. I held a large scallop in my hand a few years ago when I was in Gros Morne, Newfoundland, this was a scallop in its shell, which blew my mind as I had never really questioned the origins of a buttery fried scallop. Anyway, I held it for long enough that it opened up and did something that felt like a burp. I want the pill puppet to remind me of holding this scallop… moody and not in the mood for affection. Also, my dream is to have my mom and her soft Croatian accent voice the pill, but I know she wouldn’t be game for all the cussing that would make up most of its vocabulary.
Where does Disneyland come into this? In “How to Build a Ruin,” you feature a photograph of you, Cait and Minnie Mouse in a fantasy-lesbian thruple. People have been speaking about the pandemic as “the end of Disneyland,” where “the end of Disneyland” is metonymic for the end of a certain era of amusement parks, a bunch of bodies sitting in the same seat, their sweaty palms gripping onto the metallic (safety) bars which have never been touched by a lysol wipe. The work is about ruin—literal, material ruin, in the degradation of former Yugoslavia, where you are from/where your family is from, the mouldy-lichen rot of rainy Vancouver, where you now live, and the eerie idea of Disneyland as, after covid, a “ruin,” marking the end perhaps, on some philosophical-symbolic level, of the postmodern era. I have memories of my Christian mother audibly praying behind us on a rickety-style rollercoaster ride so that we “didn’t die.”
How To Build a Ruin provided a generous form for Cait and I to think through our affinities to ruins, sex, cartoons, moss . . . via the Spomeniks of the former Yugoslavia, the moss, rot, and fecundity of Vancouver, a city that is always wet (!!) and speculation about what Minnie Mouse has been doing in Toon Town since Disneyland’s COVID closure.
I received a Chalmers grant a few years ago to do research about “monuments and the politics of scale,” this included a trip to Croatia and Bosnia to see the infamous clickbaity Spomeniks. The question kept coming up for us with regards to these monuments that had fallen into disrepair, were they ruins? This question of the ruin for who? Who is something ruined for? Disney was just yet another place to ask that.
Cait and I went to Disneyland just as we were leaving Los Angeles for Vancouver, and it was so joyful. I think what I loved so much about it is that ten years earlier I either wouldn’t have gone, or I would have been such a wet sock/critical asshole to experience it with. I’m interested in how to be a critical, political individual while still feeling as though it’s OK to enjoy going to Disneyland—you know? Young me would be like, “you could have given that money to some other experience,” and yeah, that’s true. But we didn’t, and I think that’s OK.
I have a very easy time being critical of things, and I’m actively trying to not have that be my knee jerk reaction to things. The kind of life I want to live—like, I don’t want that (criticality) to be my first reaction always, because life is complex (pauses and makes fun of herself, “I think life is complex,” like duh)! —but it’s so easy to be critical of Disneyland. Why bother?
Yeah—like a more affirming way of being in the world. Perhaps this ties back to trusting your gut instincts, and not overthinking certain things, not defaulting to the paranoid critical mode (to bring Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in here, a big queer influence on me, especially in the early days of my coming into my queerness in Vancouver).
Yeah totally, not having PCM (paranoid critical mode) as your default! Bless you EKS!
Your mother Cvjetka makes an appearance as a guest in that work, too, with you now getting this glimpse of the world of former Yugoslavia that she once knew but that you never did know. Is this the first time she has featured in your work directly?
We’ve worked together before for a project called Cvjetka Meyer's collection of 1037 handkerchiefs strung, hung and motorized or Snot & Tears. Which, as the title suggests, is her collection of handkerchiefs presented en masse. The last time it was exhibited was 2009, so it’s been a while…In 2013 she starred in a video that I only shot the footage for and never edited. In it she recites again and again the Eileen Myles poem “to the mountains”:
when I look out
how absurd to think
of Diet Coke
I’m flying through
and there you are
white and dangerous
who’s kidding who
Ha, sometimes I think it is my best work, never to be made. Cvjetka is a very compelling reader, her emotions are all on the surface, each read through is like a new poem. We shot the footage in St. John’s Newfoundland when I was there for a 4-week residency. Cvjetka and my sister came to visit, it was my mom’s first time flying since arriving in Canada in 1965.
For How to Build a Ruin, it made sense to work with her again (there are 2 recorded phone interviews with her) as the impulse to go to visit the Spomeniks was rooted in the fact that she grew up in the former-Yugoslavia, now Croatia and left when she was 16.
After the Yugoslav war (which honestly until a few days ago I would refer to as the Balkan war, which turns out is a whole other thing) my mom always said she was from the “The Former Yugoslavia,” never Croatia, which is what it was pre-Tito and Post-Milosevic. I never understood this, and would say “Mom, it’s Croatia,” but she would continue with “Former Yugoslavia”, and not until a few years ago did I start to understand why she did and still does this. I know it’s not as easy as going to see these monuments and suddenly BOOM understanding the significance of place and trauma in my mother’s life but seeing them did do something. She had a very rural life and has told me that she didn’t know about the monuments, which were made to further Tito’s ideas around a unified regime of his specific brand of communism. What she did know was that this regime was why she and her family fled Yugoslavia.
Also, like every older woman I would pass while we were in Croatia and Bosnia looked like my mother, and there’s something to that that I still don’t have words for. Feeling so outside of culture as a first-generation kid, to then come to the place of familiarity, where my mother’s name, Cvjetka, so familiar as to be a road name in Vis (Croatia.)
“How to Build a Ruin” was organized by Emilia-Amalia as a post-script to their year-long arc HOLES AND HOW TO FILL THEM, which feels like a very Hazel Meyer-ian title to me. When Annie Macdonell told me that title I was like, very excited about it!
Right? It’s titillating!
The hole is the locus of so much feeling. But then it’s also like, woah—is a hole all potential? A
hole that is not being engaged with: what is that?
It made me think of Louis Sachar’s book Holes (1998), my favourite book as a kid in the late 1990s. The cover image is permanently affixed in my mind—the shovel, the holes dug into dirt in the ground. I read that book over and over again in Elementary school—it was my favourite. As a working-class/poor kid growing up in an unstable environment, I really found refuge in reading and escaping into books.
Oh, I’ve seen that cover! OK, I’m going to get that from the library. I need some YA lit right now.
I wrote a text for Helen Reed’s Art Criticism & Other Short Stories called “Pone Bone,” there’s a part in it where I describe a photograph of Louise Bourgeois, ‘Her left hand is lost in the darkness of her shirt or maybe it is just out of the frame, or maybe she has not put her arm through the armhole of the shirt, maybe today is the day the arm will remain inside the clothes, just because there is a hole, does it mean we must go through?
I do love holes; I am very attracted to holes.
It’s the site of nourishment, of expelling things, of pleasure, of pain. The hole is the locus of so much feeling. But then it’s also like, woah—is a hole all potential? A hole that is not being engaged with: what is that? Can a hole exist on its own as a hole, or does something have to move into or out of it, to be a hole?
There were ruinous holes in yours Cait’s first collaboration together, too—Tape Condition, Degraded (2015)—at the Lesbian and Gay Archives in Toronto, now the ArQuives. To enter the space you had to crouch down a bit and walk through a ruinous hole that you guys had made, literally, in the wall of the archive in this ancient old colonial-style house. In the space there were daisy chains, tapes, scanners, tools, grid holes, cork boards, all these holes of potential…
Ah yes, that was a glorious, ruinous drywall and stud hole! I remember we made sure to have it be an accessible hole, one that could accommodate a mobility device! The hole was in honour of the false wall we had been told was suggested at a staff meeting when the Body Politic and CLGA shared a space. They kept getting raided by the police, so the idea to erect a false wall that would hide certain types of materials thought to be illicit or pornographic by the cops was thought to be a good solution. Although the ‘false wall’ was never actually erected, Cait and I fell in love with the idea, and it really guided much of the development of Tape Condition: degraded.
Behind this wall, through the hole was an environment of no specific time, microfiche machines bumped up against an iMac against VHS decks. There was a nook to watch VHS porn, a desk to digitize VHS porn and a repair station to lubricate the heads of a tape deck. VHS porn was the guiding technology for the work, and in making a digitization free and accessible to the larger LGTBQIA2S+ community we hoped that by providing the tools, that people would bring in their tapes, going home with the original and a digitized copy, and would submit a copy to the archive, further diversifying the collection.
What tools do we need for a ruin?
*The two laugh, and pause, before Hazel continues*
Or maybe it’s just a hole!
Just a bunch of holes!
So, you mentioned you are shooting on Super8 film now. Could you tell me more about what you have been shooting? Have you developed any of the film yet?
Yeah, 11 reels were used over 4 days. I worked with the dazzling Alysha Seriani whose tutelage and collaboration were dreamy. We shot in The Weight of Inheritance exhibition at Western Front, thinking about how to animate the objects, how to be with them as characters in a performance and how, in some way to respond to, or think alongside Wieland’s own practice of experimental filmmaking.
This was the first time I had used Super8 let alone any moving image celluloid. Super8 is such a gracious and flexible medium to start with, especially under Alysha’s care. Given its origins as a consumer technology, it really felt like I could get in there and figure things out as we moved along with the cameras. Unlike the performance (The Marble in the Basement) that came before the Western Front show, which was scripted, cued and plotted, we championed flexibility and play as our guiding structure for the filming. Part of this was in response to Wieland’s 1965 Film Water Sark, which radiates a playfulness that is in deep conversation with a kind of rebellion and criticality to the politics of the time (1960s). It was shot at Wieland’s kitchen table and uses a combination of liquids, reflection, refraction, and Wieland herself. Alysha and I collected a bunch of tools, vessels, containers, oils, liquids, mirrors, etc… everything was laid out and we moved through and with and beside it all. It was cathartic and joyful and felt like a feminist consciousness-raising in some ways: an honoring of a process by an elder with joyful reenactment… or something like that!
We had 2 cameras, and passed them back and forth, performing with the materials, performing with the camera, taking continuity Polaroids, documenting the document.
The first and last reels we shot were a version of a video I shot earlier in the summer called “An Oxford folder holding- The Weight of Inheritance.” We used the 3-minute duration of a reel to structure the shot, which was continuous, from above and of my hands sifting through the paper, pictures and scraps that make up my research file of the large The Weight of Inheritance work. It’s a gesture towards the mass of invisible work that supports more outward facing work, the ‘artwork’ that is made and is granted a kind of cultural capital.
The last reel is the same shot, of the same folder at the end of our filming and includes all of the miscellanea that came along with this kind of project. There are the continuity Polaroids, lunch receipts, notes, shot lists, etc… that form or were informed by the 4 days of shooting. These two reels bookmark the experience, an attempt to honour it as an experience, rather than just a means to an end.
While most of the reels involved Alysha and I enacting and performing with the objects as they existed in the exhibition, the lavender leather pants from This is an essay (ABOUT POWER) (2020), the two leather weight belts from WEIDER/WIELAND (2019), the puppet Marble (2020), the hooked rug from Hooked rug in the style of Joyce’s marble leaning against a banister draped with Jane’s hooked rug collection (2019), we did have one day where we brought in Cait McKinney, Vanessa Kwan and Regie (Hazel and Cait’s dog) and had them reenact an action from a future that hasn’t yet taken place- the carrying out of Joyce Wieland’s marble from Jane Rowland’s basement. We shot in the back area of Western Front where there is a short set of stairs leading into the basement. The marble was moved and up and down the stairs over and over, kind of conjuring this event, that as mentioned, never happened. Regie was there as the muse, the sweat licker, the lesbian child of the marble mover.
About a month ago Alysha and I watched the footage, first with a super8 projector then as the scan on a computer screen. It’s so wild, I love it. I’m feeling really excited about starting to work with it, and to bring in text, titling and audio description to give the images context and some narrative.
What is coming next for you?
I’m finishing up a community engagement project through Dunlop Art Gallery as a part of Muscle Panic and in lieu of the live performance that usually accompanies the work. I’m working with 5 folks connected to Regina in some capacity to reimagine the trope of “Greatest Sporting Moments.” Together we will develop our own methods and structure for an archive that centres queerness and desire at the centre of these “moments.”
From March till October Muscle Panic will be in The Art of Sport, an exhibition at Contemporary Copenhagen. When I first got their email invitation to take part, I saw some of the other participants: Catherine Opie, Yoko Ono, Paul Pfiefer—and thought it was a joke, like I was being scammed! Ha, I wish I was kidding. I’m so happy to have Muscle Panic alongside work and artists I really admire. Folks whose work has been so grounding and foundational for what I do and how I do it.
And so well-deserved! You belong there right next to them!