I met with multimedia visual artists Dani and Sheilah ReStack at TCU’s Fort Worth Contemporary Arts (FWCA) during their fourth day of install of their current show. Dani had fallen off of a ladder the previous day and broken both hands. Despite the stress accompanied by an unexpected accident, limited mobility, pain, and a looming install deadline, both artists were gracious and welcoming.
It’s always a treat to see behind-the-scenes of how a complex installation comes together. The pair’s sculptural-slash-architectural structures are made with everyday salvaged materials, assemblage-style. Videos are projected onto the structures, which serves to rupture and deconstruct the projected image, as well as giving it 3D form. This strategy allows the viewer to shift their perceptual expectations and experience.
Both artists live and teach in Ohio. Their evocative individual and collaborative work is highly celebrated. Featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, their film Strangely Ordinary Your Devotion explores domesticity, queer desire, and fantasy in a world under the threat of climate change. Their newest work, Stack for Martha’s Sisters, was commissioned by FWCA and is inspired by a hidden gem of Texas history — the Sanctified Sisters of Belton, Texas. During our visit, the artists spoke to me about desire, devotion, magic, bad-ass women, shedding the patriarchy, visibility and freedom.
Colette Copland: In the Michael Sicinski article, I’m intrigued by what Sheilah said about devotion: ”…what it is to be devoted to a practice at the same time that you’re devoted to a child, while you’re also devoted to being a lover. So it was like considering the splitting of devotion, where we usually think of devotion in a singular fashion.” After viewing Strangely Ordinary Your Devotion, plus your works Come Coyote and The Stack for Carrington’s Hyena, I started thinking about the liminal space of devotion and desire. How does the symbiotic relationship between desire and devotion manifest in the conception of the work?
Sheilah: I love how you found this quote — this question is so central to all of the work. Yet, I don’t know if there is a consciousness to the consideration of desire and devotion in the inception of the work — they are always just present. In fact, I think that the work exists in many ways to try to figure out what you describe as “this liminal space between devotion and desire.” The work provides a place for us to try to explore the idea of queer family, of children, of desire and sexuality, of living in this world, and the ways in which all these things touch one another.
When we make work collaboratively and individually, I think we both are committed to using what we have, and our experience, as a site for exploration and making out of that generative mess. I think the very fact that desire and devotion do indeed touch, bleed into one another, is something that is true, and yet our culture prefers to see as separate. I think there is something vulnerable, yet a necessary vulnerability, about acknowledging how relation, love, sex, children and survival are all mixed up. The misunderstanding, discomfort, messiness and, also, beauty of how it mixes is part of what we are trying to puzzle out in the work.
Dani: The question you posed calls up the beginning of our collaboration, and I’d like to tell the story because it relates to the complexity of collaboration and how we misunderstand each other. Our conflicts open up new territory. Sheilah was working on a text piece where she was doing daily writing about devotion. She asked me to silkscreen the words “Strangely Ordinary This Devotion” in yellow and white ink on newsprint so that she had pages for daily use. As I was printing, I became curious of this question of devotion, myself. I thought Sheilah was exploring her devotion to her daughter Rose, finding it ordinary. I find raising children in a consistent kind, patient, and connected manner extraordinary. Two years later, at a public Q & A, someone asked about the origin of our collaboration. I went on to tell the story I just told you. Sheilah got angry, jumped in, and said her devotion is not singular.
One of the beauties of Sheilah is her nuanced and complex understanding of things whereas I am quite literal and often see things in black and white. Part of how I contribute to the collaboration is in an impulsive way. I will suddenly grab a camera and shoot or make a cut in the timeline without thought. We do plan and construct shots in order to manifest an idea or further the narrative, but the documentary footage usually comes in an urgent manner.
A concise answer to your question about desire is that we make things we want to see. Lesbian sex doesn’t get much air time on the silver screen. We want to see it, so we make it.
CC: Expanding upon the Carrington’s Hyena work, the commissioned work Stack for Martha’s Sisters on exhibit at Fort Worth Contemporary includes a video projection onto a sculptural installation inspired by your research of the Sanctified Sisters of Belton, Texas, and the idea of alternative spaces away from the patriarchal order. You mentioned how ideas of freedom can be translated through time and locating oneself within these spaces. How did your research on the Sanctified Sisters led you to discover the Susan B Anthony Women’s Land Trust in Athens, Ohio, where you filmed the projection loops for the installation? And I’m also curious about the project and its significance showing in what has been traditionally a patriarchal city.
Sheilah: We were fortunate to come for a site visit in May and were spending time in the gallery brainstorming. As a way of just acquainting myself with a place I often will Google if any womens’ lands exist (or have existed) in the state/place. So, likewise I did the same Google search while in Fort Worth. As you say, because of the reputation of Texas, I don’t think I had been expecting to come up with any such spaces in my search. Neither of us have ever spent time in Texas before, and we were both surprised to find evidence (albeit little) on the internet of Martha McWhirter and her Sanctified Sisters forming in 1866 in Belton, Texas. The Sanctified Sisters come out of religion, as many such subversive artists and activists did, but ended up acting as a women’s separatist community.
[As the story goes] Martha had a revelation in the kitchen, and based on that, felt she had been sanctified and should separate from the church. She invited other women to join her. One of the tenets of her revelation was separation from husbands/ men and denial of sex; another was listening to dreams as decisions. For many years there were over 20 women and their children living in houses together in Belton. It has been called one of the first safe houses for women — many of the women were leaving situations of emotional or physical abuse. At first Martha and her sisters were vilified by the town — seen as disruptive to the patriarchal order. However, they eventually became economically self-sufficient, and even successful … they provided for themselves, and at one point needed a dentist, and so one of the Sisters became one. The Sisters bought and operated one of the major hotels in Belton. With economic success came greater acceptance of the group. The Sanctified Sisters continued from the 1860s until 1903, when they moved to Washington, DC. I found little evidence of what happened to the group after their move.
The show is in homage to these women willing to disrupt the patriarchal order, to imagine something new, to have a vision in the kitchen. There is a recognition when Dani and I make work that we all stretch horizontally — time moves sideways, not straight. We are trying to raise these largely forgotten parts of history up, and simultaneously give ourselves courage — as we try to imagine what family can look like, what spaces outside of patriarchal order can be, so that we can be inspired to keep going and keep trying.
We live in Ohio, and we wanted to pull that line of horizontal influence and intention to see what it could land on where we live. The Susan B Anthony Memorial Unrest Home (SuBAMUH) in Athens, Ohio was established in the 1990s in memory of Susan B. Anthony and as a place for women to gather. We visited there before, when we were shooting the video Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, and it was interesting to see how all of us (Dani, Rose, myself) felt so free in our bodies knowing that we would not encounter any men. We shot the loops for this project in that same space of the outdoor kitchen and outside the Star Cabin (a funky pentagonal construction on the land) as a way to pull the string of time and influence and place ourselves and our family in relation to this longer quest for autonomy, safety, and choice to be outside of the mainstream society demarcation of family, relation, desire.
There are three loops: one in the outdoor kitchen of Dani, myself and Rose stacked; one in a bed with all of us reading as well as a child we are fostering (you cannot see her); and one with me holding two horses outside the Star Cabin. In each case we are challenging what you can do with your body in a space that is coded domestic, and what you can make out of the domestic and personal interaction in the larger space of a gallery situated in the larger space of a (patriarchal) city. I hope it can act as a splinter — a wedge in understanding, a hiccup, a pause where something else gets imagined for a moment. It is sort of like the flickering of the projection — the projection is there mapped onto the structures we have built to highlight parts, emphasize — and then it flickers off and it is white light — all is revealed as abstraction — the image is gone but the memory persists.
Dani: We have come up with a term: “feral domesticity.” It is not definable, but it is an aspiration for our family. The term feral is the space between the wild and the domestic, or the controlled, groomed, and conditioned space governed by capitalism versus all-out anarchy. To live in the feral requires relentless effort. We are not inventing alternatives ourselves. We look to the women radicals who came before us who have cut the path (beat back the brambles and thorns for us). SuBAMUH was built for feminist imaginings and organizing. The Sanctified Sisters built their separatist community for similar need for freedom from white supremacist heteronormativity.
The domestic isn’t the place for respite; it’s the place for experimentation — we look to bell hooks, Donna Haraway, and now the Sanctified Sisters of Texas, who use dreams to make decisions.
CC: Sheilah, you said you all felt so free in your bodies, knowing that you wouldn’t encounter men. That resonates with me on such a deep level — the idea of feeling safe in one’s body, which is a foreign idea to so many women, as well the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities. Dani, you said that the domestic isn’t about respite or comfort, that it can be a place of radical experimentation — but in order for that creativity to flourish, a safe space is needed both internally and externally.
Sheilah: I agree with what you are saying about needing to feel safe in order to create — bell hooks writes about the way in which the homeplace is a site of resistance precisely because it is a place of regeneration and healing, away from the gaze of the patriarchal white supremacist society. I don’t think that they are exclusive, but necessary for each other. I think that is part of what collaboration brings for me; safety in working with another which gives courage to make things that disrupt the normative story.
CC: As part of the FWCA project, there will be a public event entitled Shameless Light, where five queer-identifying women from Fort Worth will read love letters with their visage projected onto buildings. This reminded me of Wu Tsang’s work Anthem currently on exhibit at the Guggenheim. Tsang made a collaborative work with singer, composer, and transgender activist Beverly Glenn-Copeland, who is projected in the rotunda on an 84-foot curtain suspended from the ceiling. There is a short documentary with Glenn-Copeland and his wife Elizabeth about their love story. The installation is so poignant and powerful — and speaks to me about visibility and power. Claiming and queering space. Being seen and heard — the anthem is a call and response, so that viewers/listeners have time to reflect on the images and sonic experience.
Here, in a part of the country where the masculine cowboy archetype is alive and well, it’s so important to occupy public space with an alternative narrative and framework for desire. How did you select the participants for the project, and how do you envision expanding the project?
Sheilah: We were really fortunate to be put in touch with Third Space by Sara Jayne and Lynné [of FWCA] — they are a local queer collective in Fort Worth. They gave us a couple of names, and there are a couple others (one a former student of Sheilah’s who is from Fort Worth, and one a friend of Teresa Hubbard who teaches art in Austin) who are participating at this point. We wanted to find people local to the area as a way of connecting what their experience of the place/space is, and a chance to make their desire and love audible/visible in this location.
Shameless Light started after the election of Trump, when both of us were feeling pretty scared, hopeless, and unsure how to proceed. We had an event during a residency where we invited people to read love letters, under the red neon of text spelling out Shameless Light. The project has evolved over time to be the two red neon megaphones, with letters by womyn-identified queers. This iteration is the first time it will be screened outside and projected. I am really excited about this possibility — of hearing queer love in public space and looking forward to the projection. It feels important to claim public space for queer desire. We are so trained to see [desire] as coded for private only, but public desire is an integral part of queer community. It is so sad to me how lesbian bars always close down and we have such a hard time having public space for queer women. I love all the gay bars of course, but just finding visibility for all kinds of women/femme/genderqueer who don’t usually have a public image is, like I said, exciting — it even feels necessary.
In terms of expanding the project, I don’t think we know at this point. The expansion that happened this time around, at TCU, occurred organically, based on the show and conversations with people from the city. Sheilah has a project documenting queer embrace on the enlarger bed as photograms, and so this idea of visibility, making public and ephemeral marks to declare existence, are embedded into our practices. We are open to invitations to imagine this [and] collaborate elsewhere.
CC: Through experimental narrative, your work incorporates the beauty of everyday experiences interspersed with magical fiction and realism. Sheilah stated that magic is the path of rupture. Your work ruptures heteronormative narratives found in culture, while embracing and celebrating feminine ritual, as well as what has been historically thought of as taboo. I’m interested in the notion of magic as a strategy for change. How do you balance the magic of the everyday with the magic of the myth through deconstructing archetypes surrounding love, family, power dynamics, as well as the connection to the earth?
Sheilah: It is so hard to even use the word magic, but you know what — it is a strategy. It isn’t just a glitter-and-sequin sort of woo-woo thing, or the domain of Disney. The magic I am thinking of is disruptive, frightening, messy, and uses what is available to open up possibility. I think that magic and imagination are words that should be considered together because, frankly, imagination is magical. Watching Rose play and transform a Kleenex into a character for her game that can go on and on is magic. Likewise, denying a child imagination leaves them no choice but to be in the world we are in. At a protest last year against police presence in Columbus public schools, a student spoke eloquently on how the presence of police is a killer of imagination. Without imagination we cannot leave the imperial white supremacist hetero patriarchal world we are in — so, call it what you will, but it is necessary tool of struggle and alternative.
In terms of balancing this in the everyday it goes without saying that some days are just really hard and it is all about driving kids to make it to appointments or school, or get to your own meetings and find a way to make dinner happen. There isn’t necessarily magic in that — but there are also moments that you can pause and make a poem or a ritual or notice something that allows it to be seen differently. Our collaborative practice, for me, is a chance to be intentional about that pausing — a chance to share ideas for what else could be made out of this space we inhabit.
I so appreciate sharing this with Dani, because she is always ready to try something. Hang a bag of water in the kitchen, sure. Submerge the GoPro in the dishwater, sure. That is the other thing — I think magic invites the participation and interaction with others, and/or the world. It is a calling in, often— standing with someone in making a ritual amplifies possibility into the unknown.
Dani: At Fort Worth Contemporary we built forms to receive the images; when the video is replaced by white light it becomes an abstraction of shapes and colors. This is the simple magic of reseeing, rethinking, understanding that nothing is only as it appears. You bring up taboos — making work about god in the art world is kind of a taboo, although it was the origin of art making for thousands of years. Goddess, or higher power, is revealed to me through the earth.
Sheilah said it’s not Disney magic we are after. In SOTD we do rituals with rocks, so that women can have children who don’t need water to survive the future [of] polluted water and desertification. We realize in Future From Inside that this magic isn’t enough, the children don’t need water but they are still sort of stranded without friends. The FFI magic is where adults help children imagine kin[ship] with animals. This idea of animal influence goes back to Donna Haraway, who writes about “the children of compost.” These children have butterfly wings, they travel the migration paths, they pick up knowledge, and share knowledge.
CC: I wasn’t sure how to add in the question about the head incision scene in SOTD. That was hard for me to watch. I wondered if that was the fear being cut out. But I also thought about how women historically were experimented upon and given surgeries against their will to cure their hysteria, and how women’s sounds have been marginalized and viewed as histrionic.
Dani: We are currently producing a book through the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York. It’s a companion text to the video trilogy. Some of the pages describe how sequences came to be. In Come Coyote I am doing a DIY insemination to Sheilah. Attachment theory shows that insecure attachment causes severe problems with empathy. I wanted my DNA infused into Sheilah’s baby to help me attach because I’m terrified of passing this kind of disfunction down to my child. So we went to Dr. Saul Melman to advise us how to infuse Sheilah’s baby with my DNA. He said, the only way to do it is for Sheilah to eat a large quantity of my flesh, which she refused. So instead, we did a symbolic gesture where Dr. Melman made an incision in my head to release my fear of motherhood.
Anyway, for me, this question is about thresholds, the differences between people’s capacity to look at the certain images. This is just a cut, an opening, but some people find it disgusting to watch. Some people think it’s sensationalism. One of my mentors in filmmaking is Steve Reinke, who talks about sensational images as a way to cleanse the palate of the mind. To me it is just acute observation which naturally includes the stenches of life.
CC: Dani, I read that you teach a class called From Fact to Fiction: A Course in Walking. This summer I took Walking as a Creative Practice class, taught by Sally Bazzuto online through SVA. Each week we focused on a different sense and created work from our experiences. It sparked a lot of creativity and ideas for current and future work. Learning to see and engage in multisensory perception is crucial for artists. That’s something I strive to impart to my students as well. I teach an upper level Contemporary Practices course at UTD and the emphasis is on generating creativity and interweaving a sustainable artistic practice outside of the university walls. How do you both incorporate walking or the act of being fully present as a creative conduit for your work?
Dani: I love the saying that if you have one foot in the past and the other foot in the future, you’re pissing on today. While walking, your body is engaged with gravity, temperature, and ever-changing shapes beneath your feet. Walking is a strategy for staying present. One of the walks we did in my class was in the Olentangy River. When we finished the walk, we made water colors. We all had a common experience that we interpreted individually. Walking is a cure for writer’s block; the world offers endless source material, not only using acute power of sight and listening — one can observe through their hands.
Sheilah: I love intentional walking and am grateful when I can do that, but some of the work I have done in the last seven years or so is to attach photo paper to my feet so that I can do another kind of walking, the need-based walking that is living a life, moving through a day. I wanted to use the medium of photography to make a cumulative photograph of the invisible time — labor of a day — my body moving through spaces to do boring things and still generating a mark. I wanted to make proof of movement in the spaces where this kind of labor occurs, which is often by women if it is domestic labor. The idea of certain kinds of walking being visible or seen as creative acts is often reserved for men, who move more easily in public space, and yet there is a lot of other movement (and walking) happening.
Of course, the walking for me is also about using the photograph as a performative medium — how can I press my body and experience into this silver gelation material and make a photo with the movement inside?
CC: I read that Anne Carson’s poem Stack inspired the decision to change your last names to ReStack. Carson’s poem was featured in the Carrington’s Hyena work. In listening to the audio, the repetition of certain phrases and play of vernacular surrounding the word “stack” reinforces the claiming of language for one’s own. But I also think about how repetition creates muscle memory. “Re” in front of “Stack” suggests repetition, but also references back/going back. Perhaps the repetition merges with magic to create change. How does a name/language/linguistics factor conceptually, practically and symbolically into your work, and the larger cultural context? Maybe that’s too heavy to end on.
Sheilah: I like this question — interesting to consider visual art through the paradigm of sound and the ways in which things are interrelated. It definitely relates to this idea of haptic knowing, narrative through senses, and other types of experience that are phenomenological, felt. We use sound, both diegetic and non-. We often work with Bonnie Jones, an experimental sound artist, who provides us with insight and electronic noises to use in the video timelines.
I think that sound is such an important way of creating connection, of calling a name or holding to something through language. I think that the Stack for Martha’s Sisters and other projection stack-work, like Stack for Carrington’s Hyena, has used this same principle of calling, re-calling, and making heterogenous order through repetition. Using the language available, to see if it can yield something more fluid, less predetermined by repeating it, jumping on it to see where it can bend.
It is important, too, that the work pulls sideways to embrace Anne Carson’s writing, and she, herself, pulls back and sideways to the Greeks to re-offer narrative and language. We have added new stacks to this iteration at TCU, those that speak (however obliquely) to the Sanctified Sisters. Stack for Dreams as Listening, Stack for the woman who became a dentist, Stack for the woman who was taken away, Stack for the hole in the door, Stack for the Grand Hotel — these are just some of the stacks in the work that are references to the Sanctified Sisters, specifically.
Dani: Colette, your questions pull so much out from me — this one about language is key. I was raised by a very opinionated, loud, Jewish man who is impulsive and inconsiderate with his speech, and by a mother who holds many secrets of her real feelings. I struggle with language, and one of the reasons I lean towards my father’s approach is because I found intensity of feeling in it. I trusted the feeling, even though the delivery was painful. This is something I continue to work with — what sounds mean, truth, and how does language convey feeling? A challenge I have with drawing is how to communicate abstract sensations — how does one draw joy, love, curiosity? I find it easy to draw fear. Black marks made fast, pressing hard into the paper, is not ambiguous. The drawing is a language, too. It holds sound.
Sheilah:I loved the essay you shared by Anne Carson, Gender of Sound, and how women are judged with these unstated requirements around the sounds we make — how racially and economically people are disadvantaged in these judgements, how to be loud is a strike against a woman, how sound we make has degrees of value. I think that was part of what felt liberating for me when we made a new last name. We became the ReStacks as a way to shed some of that patriarchal control of language, and ultimately, of our bodies under the control of men.
Through October 23 at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts. The Shameless Light performance event will be held on Wed., Oct 20.