Interview by Jong Seong Lee
Amelia Winger-Bearskin is a performance artist that I interviewed for this blog project. The first video I watched of Amelia’s work was “State of Things” the language use and the change of her appearance in the video caught my attention, and that was why I wanted to interview her. In this interview, I ask Amelia Winger-Bearskin about her decisions to do performance art after training as an Opera singer, her perspective and experience as an artist, and commentaries for some of her videos.
Epic Sci Fi Rock Opera by Paper Landscapes a retelling of the Iroquois Creation Mythperformed at Volitant Art Gallery, Austin Texas 2007 with Joseph Winchester and Jonathan Aseron
Jong Seong Lee: How did you decided to do performance art, after having trained as an Opera singer?
Amelia Winger-Bearskin: I was an opera singer, a dancer, an actress, and I composed original music for operas and theatre performances as well as made a living as a dance choreographer for the new cabaret genre (including burlesque), before finding my place in performance art. While I enjoyed the world of opera and theatre enormously, something that I didn’t have in the theatre was significant participation with the audience. My artworks in the last few years has incorporated more and more participation from the audience, however it is actually not my goal to have ‘participation’ from the audience, I’d be happy to eliminate the concept of audience altogether and instead have a meeting place for something to happen, I like that sort of excitement, a place where something could happen and is less fixed. There was however one place in the theatre that created a feeling like that, here is a quote from the text I wrote for my most recent work Performance for an Audience of One:
“Behind the scenes, back stage, in our dressing room, before or after or during the show, we would be performing for each other while changing our clothes. We would trip over sleeping actors as we practiced our dance steps or singing our lines while sewing a split seam. We passed the time in hushed voices waiting for our cue, sometimes staring into each others eyes while we powdered our faces, and we performed for each other the way you can for your sister or your mother, we performed the way you do for a lover when we all know all the words. I felt an energy in the dressing room, I didn’t need the stage lights or the audience, here waiting with you, I was home.”
In this new performance an audience member gets an appointment time and then chooses from a list of words, each word represents a performance, I invite them to my dressing room where I host this performance for one person, however the performance is actually done equally by both of us, some of the actions include: drinking tea, brushing each others hair or listening to a mix tape, to name a few. They are things that you’d do with your friend, with your lover, and things that commonly occur backstage in dressing rooms between fellow performers. The backstage space is so intimate, its where you prepare to perform, its not the audience its not the stage, it is a third space, it is an in-between space, a no space where things are yet to be written or are waiting to end. I’ve often termed this conceptual place in my work a “hybrid no space”; it is a theme that runs through a lot of my work.
Improvisation with Tre Lent - 2006
JSL: Why do you use chroma key backgrounds for some of your videos (Back Up, State of Things, Improvisation with Tre Lent)? Normally, when people use chroma key backdrops they digitally insert another background.
AWB: I wanted a liminal space for the videos to exist. Since its beginnings, video art was frequently shot in the artist’s studio. A modern video artist’s studio often is portable and digitally based on their laptop or web space, this perhaps is the new artists studio, a virtual studio space. The chromakey indicates that the space is blank; it is also a source file in an open source type of way, rather than a product of postproduction, even though everything is postproduction once it hits the web. The use of chromakey is another manifestation of the “hybrid no space” I mentioned earlier.
State of Things - 2007
JSL: Your video, “State of Things” is the first one that I watched and I think the change of your appearance and language used in the video are interesting and mean something specific, but I’m not exactly sure what. Could you describe what the video means to you?
AWB: It is a reversal where through the repetition of language the performer moves from an adult back to a child learning to speak for the first time, it goes from performing the words to the action of just saying the words. It is a reversal of time in a hybrid no space.
Following Piece in Second Life - 2009
JSL: I was surprised that a video game captured could be considered an artwork. Would you talk a little about the process of making your video, “Following Piece in Second Life?”
AWB: Sophie Calle and Vito Aconcci both did “following” works early in their careers, I thought about what a following piece would be like today. The first time I used Second Life was for this video, when I registered I got to choose my first name, (I chose Amelia) then it generates a choice of a few last names, Coleslaw was the one I picked from the list. The avatar is modeled from the available free clothes, hairstyles and body choices that best resembled me. I went to the first city I could teleport to, NEWBerlin, I chose the first person I saw and followed him/her until they teleported away from me.
Iris/Anus 2 - 2006
JSL: The repeating action in the video, “Iris/Anus2” caught my eye because you were about to fall and step on the ground but did not. Would you tell me what are you trying to say with that action?
AWB: The soundtrack for this video is the sound of the windshield wipers and rain and the sound of voices while riding in a car. The video that is layered over the jumping is the road from southern Virginia to Washington DC, I took the video on the trip home from a funeral. I was a passenger in a car with former members of a multimedia theatre group that I was part of for 5 years prior to going to Austin for my MFA. We were a very tight bunch and one of us died suddenly, what was once the core group of performers drove together from DC to his funeral at his family’s church in Smithville, Va. On the way to the funeral it rained and rained, once we reached the tiny church the roads were beginning to flood. After the services the roads were closed and police came in boats to tell us to stay indoors and gave us a police radio to keep in touch. We were a large group at the funeral, the entire church congregation, our group, and other members from his family’s local theatre company. After a few hours, led by the preacher, we raided the church’s kitchen and made dinner together, we also drank quite a bit of the church’s wine. Strangers and friends drank and ate and laughed and cried, it was a very memorable day for me; it was also the first time someone so dear to me passed away. After the funeral I had a friend video tape me jumping.
Performance of Special Effects:
Look Like You’ve Been In A Fight Cabaret - 2009
JSL: You have participated in art shows in Beijing, and Seoul, and have been invited to the Gwangju art show this year. How have your experiences been being included in art shows in Asia?
AWB: I just returned from the Philippines on Sunday which was wonderful, in Asia there is a unique model for the support of performance art. In Asia performance art is supported through the festival format, which most resembles the film festival or theatre festivals here in the USA, however they are part of the visual arts and recognized as something separate and unique from music, film and other types of festivals. The interesting thing about the festival format is it allows for a variety of different artists to perform as well as collaborate with each other since all artists have to participate in person, it ends up working more like a short residency than a festival. I have learned a lot about performance art and how it changes or doesn’t change from country to country and I’ve learned a lot from other artists who were part of the fluxus movement, which is still a huge influence on performance art in Asia. The Asian festivals had us perform in a variety of venues: government municipalities, high schools, public squares as well as galleries and museums. The performance art is still very strong, even shocking, yet there is not the same sort of taboo about performing it for a diverse ‘non-art’ audience, I’d like to see that more in the USA.
Jonny My Love - 2008
JSL: Do you think of yourself as a “Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists?” Do you think terms like that one are useful or not? Do you feel like there is a separation between contemporary indigenous artists and the rest of the art world as represented by mainstream art magazines, biennials, art fairs, etc.?
AWB: I am not sure about the usefulness of terms, I think that since I am biracial I tend to feel uncomfortable in categories since I sometimes slip into the cracks, but I don’t think categories are inherently negative, I’ve mentioned before how I categorize my work taking place in this “hybrid no space”, but I also think of my LIFE and identity as existing there too. I think that more of us belong in this space than not, we are all hybrids of one kind or another. It is not about excluding myself from categories but rather finding a broad spectrum of possible ways to include myself and connect with people from many hybrid backgrounds.
JSL: Can you recommend another artist that we should interview for this blog in the future?
AWB: Joseph Winchester and Tahila Mintz. We went to school together at the University of Texas in Austin and it was great to work with other artists who were part Indian and had strong ties to our tribal heritage. They both work in film, photography and video. Two of my favorite artists!
Biography of Amelia Winger-Bearskin
Amelia Winger-Bearskin is currently an Assistant Professor of Studio Art at Vanderbilt University in the area of Video and Performance Art, in Nashville, Tn.
She was classically trained as an Opera Singer in Rochester NY at the Eastman conservatory of music, and then finished her Undergraduate degree at George Mason University in 2000. While at GMU she studied sculpture and time based art and received her BAIS in Performance Art. She went on to do her MFA in Transmedia (time based art) at University of Texas at Austin in 2008. She was in the group show Art in the Age of the Internet at the Chelsea Art Museum in 2007 and was a featured video and performance artist at Basel in Miami, Scope at the Lincoln Center and other art fairs consistently since 2007 as an artist at large for the perpetual art machine [PAM]. She has been focusing her performances primarily on Asian performance festivals this year as she finds that regionally Asia has created a unique method of support for Performance Art, she has performed at the 10th Annual OPEN ART Performance Art festival in Beijing, China, The Performance Art Network PANAsia ‘09 in Seoul, South Korea, the TAMA TUPADA 2010 Media and Performance festival in the Philippines and and she has been invited to perform as part of the GwangJu International Human Rights Performance Art Festival in Gwanju, South Korea in Fall 2010.