Nicole Garneau is a performance artist from Chicago, living and working on the road. In 2005 she produced HEAT:05, in which she performed every day for a year to mark the 1995 heat wave disaster in Chicago. Starting in 2008 and lasting through the end of 2012, she has been doing monthly Uprising performances developed in site-specific contexts ranging from public spaces to art festivals to community meetings. Over the course of the last two decades she has been a central member of a number of Chicago performance, art and activist organizations. She was interviewed in January of 2012. Find out more at nicolegarneau.com.
Daniel Tucker (DT): Okay, so, what I want to talk to you about first is kind of centers around these long-term performance actions projects that I’ve been witness to..HEATO5 and Uprising. But I want to know about first is what you feel like some of the important pre-histories of those projects are for yourself. Either work you’ve been involved with directly or stuff that you were just kind of around that you feel like shaped the kind-of artist and set of concerns that you have brought into these projects?
Nicole Garneau (NG): Well, I have a background in traditional theatre. I just was an actor. I was trained as an actor just did a lot of theatre just did a lot of theatre…and, after college I worked at a professional theatre in Russia…and…then came back to Chicago and …at some point just became less interested in being an actor and I got more interested in different ways of making my own work. I was writing. I was interested in directing…and it just…I think at a certain point the construct of theatre, especially the construct of being in actor, didn’t feel like it was going to be enough. I just felt like I wanted to do other things besides that.
So, you know in the 90s I think I just started making my own performances and just started writing and you know, a lot of that was sort-of monologue based or different kids of installation or visual work. And one of the really important things about that time period in the 90s was that I got involved with Insight Arts. And, I got involved with Insight Arts around 1994…although I had seen a performance of Insight Arts before then…I think in ‘91…and had been totally impressed so that when I got back from Russia I kind of made a B-line for Insight Arts because I was like that’s what I want to be involved with in Chicago. I continually think of the influence of Insight Arts on my work and life.
And one of the things that was really important was that it was a really productive space where we had a lot of room to experiment and a lot of different kids of events where one could perform or work with other people. We had a number of active performance ensembles that I was a member of. And those ensembles worked pretty rigorously, especially in the area of like politics and intellectual work. So we would make ensemble performances, and, you know, at the start of it there would be like a stack of five books and it was like “here’s the books you are going to read as part of our ensemble performance making process.” And there was a lot of rigorous discussion of those books. They were good books, good political texts.
DT: And, encountering this and just diving in from the theatre background that is very collaborative in it’s own way but has a different organizational model…What do you feel like kind of changes you had to go through to acclimate to this other organizing model that was drawing from other traditions that were not necessarily theatre. I mean, do you remember that kind of process where you realized that you were part of a different kind of organization?
NG: Yeah, I mean, especially because the theatre I that I had been really in love with and with this director who had an artistic vision that was totally all-encompassing. So, not only was he the director but he was writing the scripts, he was plotting the lights, he was mixing the sound, he was sketching out the costumes. It was a total… And he is a genius…So, the results are very, very beautiful but you are definitely signing up for the individual creative genius of Velarie Velacovich.
And I think that is actually part of what I was kind of chaffing against, um…Not that I’m not good at taking direction. I’m a good actor in that way. I can just do what people tell me to do but I think the idea that that’s what I would do for the rest of my life, is sign up for the project of pleasing this one man…which is essentially what an actors job is…That is what seemed a little bit difficult. So I was already kind of chaffing against that. So for me to come into this environment of Insight Arts where there is already a number of different people working in ensembles and there’s like a lot of creative energy and we’re able to build something together…It was exciting for me and it seemed right. So it felt right and it felt like “Okay, this is a way that I want to work.”
And, I think it was also very connected to my history as a political activist. I had done a lot of activism in high school and in college and I was a member of the Women’s Action Coalition in Chicago and I did a lot of anti-war activism. And I think it was at Insight Arts where [that merged]…See, I had always felt like I was an artist and then I was an activist and there wasn’t really a way to kind-of make them come together. It was hard for me to understand how those two things came together in one life and one of the things I really credit Insight Arts with is that it was a active project of ours to question what is the role of cultural workers in political and social movements. And we didn’t come up with answers we just acknowledged that there was a role for cultural workers in political and social movements. We tried to figure out good ways of doing that work and having that be a part of our work.
And, so, in some ways like totally helped me relax in some way [about these questions]… And even, like, years later when we did that retreat and everyone’s talking about like, “what is the effectiveness of our cultural work and our artwork and are we stopping the war by making our art” and all this kind-of stuff… I felt like I didn’t need to sweat that. I don’t… Honestly, I don’t really feel the need to sweat that that hard because I never think that art is stopping the war, but I do think that artists are an important part of social movements, and social movements do stop the war.
So all that kind of stuff came together for me and the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) was doing a lot of highly theatrical actions. Like we were on the street. Things were extremely creative. There were costumes. We were doing a lot of things like putting our bodies on the streets. We were trying to do different things outside of the traditional kind-of demonstrating mode and making music and singing and having creative graphics and stuff like that.
DT: So I have two little clarifying questions. Can you explain a little capsule description of Women’s Action Coalition. What it was and what you were organizing around?
NG: Yeah, so the Women’s Action Coalition was a direct action feminist organization that was started in New York in 1991 or 92 and it launched around the time of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. That was, uh, that kind of catalyzing moment in New York. And then chapters of the Women’s Action Coalition, also known as WAC, opened up around the country. So I think WAC Chicago started around ’93 and then there were chapters in different cities… Minneapolis, Austin, I know there were some in California… And WAC Chicago met weekly at Randolph Street Gallery. And I think it’s important that it met at Randolph Street Gallery because there was a lot of women artists that were involved in WAC so there was a relationship between Randolph Street Gallery, which was a kind-of alternative or progressive art space, and the Women’s Action Coalition so I think that thing of space is really important. Like, going the Randolph Street Gallery every week. Being a part of Randolph Street Gallery programming…Seeing the exhibits…Having a meeting among the exhibits in that little black box space was really important and really influential.
WAC did a lot of organizing around reproductive justice issues. There was a lot of clinic defense. Um, work against rape. There were some significant actions against the Promise Keepers…If you recall that men’s movement…And, um, there were multiple issues. There was anti-war organizing. WAC also organized around a big women’s action or an international women’s day march every year, which was also coalition building between multiple organizations in Chicago.
And then when Randolph Street Gallery closed WAC moved to the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, which I also think is important because there were a lot of women in WAC that were involved in the movement for the liberation of the Puerto Rican political prisoners and some crossover with Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. So, there was also a relationship built between WAC and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and some organizing with them.
And then I think WAC Chicago came to a close right around the millennium I think around 1999 or 2000. And WAC also had a drum corps, which was pretty significant. At first it was an open drum circle for anyone who wanted to come and play drums and then those drums entered street actions a lot…we made a lot of noise with our drums…but then, gradually over time, formalized into a performance ensemble. The WAC drum corps started getting gigs and then formalized into a performance ensemble which we called “Big Smith,” which was a band, but kind-of lived beyond WAC and still kept a lot of that feminist sensibility so all of our gigs were real blatantly queer and feminist and stuff like that.
DT: Can you give some background on Insight Arts as well?
NG: Insight Arts is a contemporary arts organization that was…Oh my gosh, I think we just celebrated our twenty or twenty-five year anniversary. For a long time it was based in Rogers Park. We still have our offices in the east Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and Insight Arts has always been multi-disciplinary and multi-generational and is really dedicated to promoting cultural work that supports social justice and human rights. And that takes a lot of different forms. It’s a very open program. There has been a lot of free arts education for children when MOWFD was around we had a teen arts…
DT: MOWFD ?
NG: The Mayor’s Office of Work Force Development, which became Gallery 37.
So when there was money for youth job training in Chicago…Insight Arts participated in that by employing teenagers as writers and visual artists and performers through the summer. And now we have um…We provide free arts programming for a group of…mostly older people in Rogers Park. They have free arts education twice a week and that serves a population of mostly senior citizens. Also, people from a local mental health facility that get points for coming over to Insight Arts for that and a large community of burundian refugees. And Insight Arts is now doing programming out of Rumble Arts on North Avenue in Humboldt Park.
DT: How deep is your relationship to the organization?
NG: When I first went I was going to see performances and then they were going to do an ensemble based performance and they asked me to be in it and then the sound program needed some poetry teachers so I taught for two summers as an employee. Then Prudence Brown, Carrie G. Williams, me, and various other women produced events three or four or five years. One event a year that we called Women’s Performance Jams. So, that was a curated process that had an open call and we curated a weekend and produced it. So, we were producing events and sometimes we produced other kinds of events at Insight Arts.
Meanwhile, it was like, if there was any benefit I would always be performing or always be doing some kind of installation and then in the meantime I serving on the board in probably like 1996 and 2010.
DT: I’ve been aware of Insight Arts the whole time I’ve lived in Chicago and barely participated in anything. I’ve always understood it to be this interesting thing that other people were working on and it was in a specific community. Insight Arts is of a specific generation of community or cultural organization that is an authentic community that is messy in the way that a community is and it has stayed that way. It has remained that kind of organization that essentially precedes NonProfit Industrial Complex at it’s height…And one of the kind of characteristics of the nonprofit industrial complex is, specifically in relationship to community-based organizations and arts organizations, is that it often highly concerned with representing itself to a separate and distinct audience of funders and nonprofit professionals. So, there is often times with these kind of organizations (a lot of them do good of work) that are sort of from a period, maybe a late 90s early 2000s, were there’s a lot of money floating around and they were very concerned with their self-representation and therefore from the outside…One of the benefits to that is that it was easier to know what was going on …
NG: And access that.
DT: And access it. Now it may have meant…It many cases also that they were spending as much or more time self-representing than doing work. And so I have always just settled on this idea that Insight Arts is an organization that kind of like slightly predates the NonProfit Industrial Complex – not that it is outside of it – but it just sort of predates it, you know. And therefore it kind of exists in this other… more insular, in a good way, space. It is part of a community and that is it’s primary concern rather than self representation or representing to an outside audience. And so I don’t need to worry about what’s going on because it’s like “It’s not my organization, it’s something other people are working on.”
NG: Yes! I mean, are you kidding? I mean, is what has driven me nuts about Insight Arts…I have never stopped complaining for twenty years about the fact that we are the best kept secret and we refuse to tell our story…Not that we refuse actively but there is a stubbornness about our lack of PR and marketing jobs, or whatever telling our own story that has driven me crazy over the years. But I think you are right about a couple of things. First of all…The thing about preceding or being part of the nonprofit industrial complex is that Craig will tell you that when the group of people that was meeting at the United Church of Rogers Park got together and “we want to form a non profit” he was like “no way, let’s not do it. I don’t want to become a 501C3.” He was the lone voice of “I don’t want to become a 501C3” and all the other people out voted him so they became 501C3 and now he has had to bear that burden. And I think he’s kind of pissed.
One of the things that is kind of great about Insight Arts is that no one is in love with the NonProfit Industrial Complex. It’s like… No one is in love with being a nonprofit. No one thinks it’s automatically Awesome. Right? All we ever try to do is get by with the barest of legal considerations so that we can continue to do work and get grants and stuff like that but no one cares, right? So this is ethics. And what you are saying is that in other organizations where there is so much representation. They are so polluted in telling a story or marketing themselves but then when you scratch the surface there’s no there there. Insight Arts is the opposite. It’s all there. You go these things and you’re like, “How is no one writing a book about this?” That Troy Davis event IA just organized last year was off the flippin’ hook. I couldn’t even believe the political rigor that was in that room. The people that showed up. What they talked about. It was so…It makes me mad that no one is telling that story and no one is there reporting on it or whatever. But, I’ve come to accept that those of us that can tell stories about Insight Arts can do our best. And, I don’t know, maybe someone needs to write a book about it.
And the other thing that is beautiful about Insight Arts is that it has been unbelievably malleable in terms of its ability to shrink and expand depending on our resources. And I’ve been a part of a lot of nonprofit organizations and the thing that I can say about Insight Arts is that when Insight Arts has money they use it better than anyone else I’ve ever seen. There’s no waste. There’s no bullshit. There’s no waste. They get a grant; they do programs. They pay rent. They pay for the phone. Done and done. They don’t have money…They don’t pay rent. They don’t pay the staff. But there’s a sort of way in which there is access in the administrative overhead of like anyone wasting money and you’re thinking, “Why are you wasting money on that?” These people…If they get money they are so smart about it. They just use it for all the best things. Let’s hire some staff. And they hire the best staff. Some of the people that come through Insight Arts staff are really some of the better, smarter artist activists in Chicago.
So, your perception is correct. There is no PR machine behind Insight Arts and part of that depends on who is on staff. It just kind of gets better like now they have a website and Facebook page…Occasionally, things get updated…but you have to go look at it. There’s never pushing anything out.
DT: One more thing about Insight Arts. What is something that stands out to you that was particularly…that you felt like was IA at its best? Transforming sort of social relations or transforming people? Something that people don’t really talk about that much but which seems really central to me is the way that it changes people. The way that it changes people’s relations to each other or the relationship between internal transformation and more external kind of social transformation. It’s something that I feel like I have no language for… I don’t really know what I’m talking about but I feel like I see it. I see that happen. Where people change and they change each other. And it seems like one of these central things that happens in a lot of work that we are involved with now and a lot of the work that we care about but there’s so much emphasis on other kinds of effects that we don’t often figure out how to talk about it. So I guess I’m just wondering if there’s stuff that stands out for you with Insight Arts where you’re really kind of like that’s an example of a socially and politically engaged art practice that’s transformative. Something stand out?
NG: There are two things that I think that I’d like to highlight. One, for a long time when Insight Arts was at the United Church at Rogers Park. Which let me just say, this is another unbelievable resource Insight Arts had for a long time is that we had space in a church and super cheap rent and access to rehearsal space and performance space and that just cannot be underestimated… how important it is to have space and be able to do events.
So one of the events series that Insight Arts started programming was this thing called Nights of Insight, which there are now doing again at Rumble Arts. And the idea behind Nights of Insight is that there would be two or three, usually two, featured performers. So maybe a poet is invited to do a set and a dancer is invited to do half an hour or something like that. And they purposely chose artists that came from really different identity groups or really different political backgrounds with the idea that they really wanted to mash-up the audiences of those two artists, or those two ensembles, in order to sort of cross-pollinate those audiences with each other. Because there was a sense in Chicago that so much of our cultural programming is identity-based and marketed based on identity groups so if you wanted to go to the hipster-queer-like event then that has its own kind of marketing and, you know, if you want to go to the traditional Indian dance event then that has its own kind of marketing.
So that started happening and it was really interesting to see the audiences kind of two different artists all in the same space looking at each other’s work…the artists looking at each others work and the audiences looking at each others work. And I think for me one of the things that cultivated in myself…that I feel really grateful for…Is just a certain level of discipline and curiosity around…Number one. I don’t everything interesting going on. Number two.I might not have any background or frame of reference for what I’m about to see but I’m going to see it anyway and I’m just going to try to pay attention and I’m going to try to be in the space with these people who do know a lot of… have a good frame of reference for what they are looking at… and I try to humbly be in the space and learn something, and appreciate something, and not have to get it and not have to be the start of the show and not have to be the smartest person in the room and… I think that discipline has really helped me. That there is a certain amount of humility no matter how much you’ve read or done or anything like that. There are whole millions of worlds out there of other people doing really, really important work. So that’s one thing that I think really affected me.
The other thing is that I think that some of the ensemble-based work that I was involved in…There were certain kids of aesthetic strategies that we employed that for me were much more abstract than anything I had ever really done as performance because I had such a theatre background and you used words and you told stories and you do things with your body that makes sense in the story. And, so some of the other artists that I was working with and some of these ensemble processes…I mean, some of these gestures and the performance strategies got so abstracted from their original ideas that it was really, really different from theatre. And that, I think, helped me. I think it was very influential in terms of my comfort with things that are very abstract or nonlinear or don’t really seem to make sense from one minute to the next.
I think, at the same time that we were doing that work, we were also like going to see a lot Goat Island. We would always go see Goat Island. And, man, I remember when I first went to go see Goat Island I was like “What the hell is going on here? This is like so boring! And it’s so weird.” Like, but all that stuff was happening at the same time and I’m not saying we were doing Goat Island but a lot of it was happening at the same time and it was really freeing something in me to just let gestures be… Just let them be abstract. And you know, I know were they came from but I don’t have to… It doesn’t have to tell a story or make sense to anyone because a lot of it is like… The other thing about it is that the visceral tells the story so maybe it’s just like a visceral thing that’s telling the story. You don’t have to know the narrative or the background or anything like that. And, I mean, my work is very direct. I mean it’s usually not that much of a puzzle. So, understanding that I’ve already loosened up on the narrative tells you how attached I was to story and narrative before.
DT: Right. So let’s get into the other stuff. So, was Heat05 a project that was a departure for you and in what way? What did it change about your practice?
NG: Well, it was a departure. And I think that one of the ways have to contextualize the way that I did Heat05 is that I went to graduate school in inter-disciplinary arts from 2000 to 2002 and my masters thesis was an ensemble performance. It had music and it was theatrical and told stories but it was also still abstract and was very physically rigorous.
We performed a lot and we went on tour and stuff like that. And then I had a really serious health crisis in my body, like something really serious was happening in my body. I had just done a year of research and performance about menstruation. I made this whole ensemble performance about menstruation and pretty much one year after that I went in for a minor exploratory surgery and ended up like almost bleeding to death and had an emergency hysterectomy. So, I woke up from a year of doing nothing but thinking and reading and writing and performing about menstruation and I was thirty one and I was never going to have a period again and my body was jacked and I had lost all this blood and I was just sick. I was just wrecked.
So I was kind of like, “Holy shit! What just happened?” I was really reeling from that experience because I was like “What have I brought?” You know, I really felt like “What have I brought upon my body?” I’m a bad witch. I have done something. I have cast too many spells. I went all the way there. I don’t know, I tapped something I didn’t know how to tame or something like that. So it took me a couple of years of figuring out… First of all, physically recovering and then sitting with “Ok, what kind of artist do I want to be? And do I want to continue to make work and is it ensemble performance work or different kinds of things?” For me, I was looking for a different way of working. So that way, in 2004 when I was reading the Heat Wave book by…
NG: Yes, when I was reading Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave book and I was simultaneously thinking about different ways of working. I had been having this kind of artist angst like, “I just want to make art everyday! I just want that to be my job!” And so then I just felt like…”Garneau, what if was your job? What if you just acted like it was your job? What if you just did it everyday like it was your job and then so that can be a practice?” And I was also reading this Heat Wave book so I was like “Holy shit! Next year is going to be ten year anniversary of the heat wave and somebody needs to something!” And I thought for sure other people were going to do something. So, you know, that’s how these two things came together.
I was really interested in the content of the heat wave and it seemed like the practice of doing something everyday was going to work for me in my artistic practice. And then the other thing about that is I felt like, “Well…If you’re going to take a subject matter as serious as the death of 739 people, then you should do something serious and earnest.”
It should be kind of rigorous and a little hard. And so then I felt like this is a rigorous enough process to honor the victims of the heat wave who, if I am going to use them essentially…or use this material as the content of my work… I felt like that was a reciprocity that I could feel good about. So then I thought, “What does it mean to make a performance everyday?” And I started out and at first I just went to every open mic in Chicago. That’s interesting to do if you ever want to. Just do a survey of every open mic in Chicago. I had them mapped out on different days, what’s what. That was super interesting actually!
DT: So you started doing… You knew you were going to do a performance every day for a year. In the year 2005, right?
DT: And so you were going to do it every day for a year and then…And to start out you mapped out all the open mics?
NG: Well, first… To start out I did a dance on the stairs of the United Church of Rogers Park on January 1st where I was rolling backwards down the stairs of the church or something like that… I did an outdoor dance. I started doing outdoor weird dances… And also, if it was too cold or I didn’t feel like doing outdoor weird dances then I would go to open mics.
And I didn’t really know when I first started. It was like this thing that I do where I just say I’m gonna do it and I don’t really know how it is going to happen. I just have to have faith that I’m going to figure it out as I go along.
And so I just felt like, “Well, it’s a performance every day.” And the thing about it is that felt like there was something about the larger issues of social isolation that I wanted to address within these performances somehow conceptually. So there was something about making social connections and doing work in public and doing work out on the street that was, too me, a kind of combating the social isolation of me as an artist or me as an urban dweller. It was some kind of way of participating in the city. That’s how I thought about it. So it wasn’t necessarily directly every performance dealt with the content of the heat wave, although I felt very comfortable exploring the content of the heat wave from different perspectives. Like… Cold. Weather. Heat. Police. Isolation. Public space. Private Space.
DT: So tell me a little bit more about some of the process. Would you plan out…Did you kind of chart it out in a notebook…? Like, this is what’s going to kind of… Plan out a few weeks in advance…Where, when, here’s the back up plan. Or was it more spontaneous? Like you decide that morning what you were going to do that night. Give me a sense of how the decision-making happened within the project. And maybe how that changed over a course of a year?
NG: I always thought it was a good idea to plan and I was always felt like I should be planning more… And I never really, successfully did that good of a job of planning. So, sometimes I would plan in terms of I’d get a gig or I’d apply for something and then I’d have it and I knew it was on the calendar and I’d be like “Whew, that is taken care of.”
And also, I did plan when it came to the actual week of the heat wave anniversary because that’s what happened in Chicago is that it got really, really hot for seven days straight. That’s why people died, because the heat when on for so long and people never got a break and we got that heat island effect and it was super hot and humid for many, many days in a row. So, I knew that something really special needed to happen in that week and so some time around May or June I started to try to think about what was going to be in that week and I did have a plan for that. What quickly happened…And, I think, this taught me how to be more spontaneous…I would always feel like I should have a plan and I should announce where things were going to happen but I just got tired of announcing because I just… Honestly, I didn’t really feel like hustling an audience. I just felt like doing it for whoever was there and some of that really frustrated my friends. They were like, “Why don’t you ever tell us when you’re doing your things out on the street?” And I’m like, “because, I never know when they are and I can’t be bothered…” Because they’re just for whoever is there and that’s just going to be how it is. But the other thing that happened is that in early in January in 2005, both my mother and my grandmother had health crises. So I was trying to tend to them. Like, my mother was super sick in the hospital in the suburbs. She’s fine now.
But meanwhile, while she was super sick in the hospital in the suburbs, her mother had a stroke on the far south side and I became the representative of our family to go deal with our grandmother. So, what was happening is that every single day I was working all day long and then going to one or another hospital.
The Office of Community Arts Partnerships at Colombia College Chicago. That was my day job. And then I was going to one or another hospital and I didn’t have any time to do performances or whatever. So I started doing this thing of like, “Okay, I have zero time because I’m going down to 159th and wherever that suburban hospital is, then the performance either happens in the early morning before I go to work or it happens at 11:00 at night when I’m driving home.” And so I did a serious of … I was like, “Okay. Great. It’s going [to happen] sunrise Pratt Beach Pier.”
And it was freakin’ cold but it was so beautiful. That’s another thing. I do love the beauty of it, like the beauty of the sunrise on the lake and I’m out there doing a conceptual dance or something. So there was an element of the beauty of that that appealed to me even though I didn’t sleep that much…but there was a level of necessity of like “Well, I don’t have any time, and this is the only time I have to do it so this is when it is happening.” And then my grandmother ended up dying and then I sang a song at her funeral and counted that as a performance for that day. So then I started to feel like,”Oh, well there is…How do these things become integrated into my life?” Which, is partly necessity but also it got really interesting to integrate it into my life because then I would go out…I’d show up at a party of my friends and they’d be like, “Have you done any performance today?” And I’d be like, “Nope. It’s happen’ right here.”
I don’t know, maybe I would have a plan. I’d be like, “Okay people. I got to perform every day. Let’s gather around because here’s what happening. Everybody got your beers? Okay, good. What we are doing today is… Whatever.” A lot of times that’s how I got other people to do stuff, because I didn’t want to put on the Nicole show. I got interested in like, “Okay, we’re going to make something all together. Here’s everyone’s job. There was 739 people who died in the heat wave so there’s twelve of us…So, we’re going to divide twelve into 739 and get whatever that number is…” I don’t know, nineteen or something.
And then, “Everybody, take out your keys. So what ever the magic number is… If it’s nineteen times twelve. Then, when I say go, you’re going to hit your keys against metal nineteen times. And then we’re going to make a soundscape of 739 strikes of metal on metal and then we’re going to understand something about the number of people who died. We’re just going to try to understand it through our ears. Maybe we’re just going to turn off the lights and listen…” So, that was also part necessity, but I would just fall in love with how cool everyone would act, and how everyone would just want to participate and do stuff all the time. You know, people would try to act like they were resisting but then they were just so into it by the time it was over. So, I got into this idea of the push and pull in dealing with people’s resistance in trying to pull them out and bring them into the project. And, isn’t it all just so much better if we all do this together instead of me just performing for you?
DT: And then, in that situation, what did you think about the pedagogical component of doing a ritualistic long-term performance project about a subject that was largely invisible, for a variety of reasons… What did you think about highlighting it repeatedly for different audiences and different contexts?
NG: I thought it was so important to keep talking about the heat wave. Well, okay, here’s how I started to think about it. First of all, I quickly understood that even people who were around in 1995, myself included, didn’t really know that much about what had gone on in the heat wave because if you were a person who had air conditioning, or who had access to air conditioning, then you were experiencing that in your body in a really different way than people who were suffering in the heat. And, so, I remembered ‘95, and I didn’t have air conditioning, but my parents had air conditioning and my girlfriend and I packed up in the car and went out there… But I remember hearing about it in the news and seeing those shots of the refrigerated trucks lined up at the morgue…but it’s ten years later and some people have forgotten and some people don’t even know.
So, I quickly understood is that part of what I needed to do is have some kind of basic education about, “This is something that happened in Chicago ten years ago.” And have a few facts [available]. So, I usually…So when I would do stuff like that I would usually say what it was about and why I was doing this and I felt like that was important to say.
So, that part of just educating people about Chicago history was important, especially as the year went on and it became increasingly clear that there was going to be no official recognition of the heat wave from the city of Chicago whatsoever. Daley was mayor in ‘95 and he was the mayor in 2005 and he was not even really trying to put up a plaque. They were not really even trying to remember it. So, then it became even political. And Eric Klinenberg got involved in this whole thing too. Eric Klinenberg was like, “What is up Chicago? You aren’t even going to remember that this happened ten years ago and not you’re not even going to talk about it?”
And so then the talking about it became a political act. Also, I felt like that part of the pedagogy that I can think of now, looking back at it because I don’t know if I really got this then, is that I knew that there was something important of us doing something together. That was part of the project. That was part of the heat wave work.
This was before I read any theory of participatory art or anything like that. I just knew there was something important about us all. In some ways, having some kind of visceral or bodily experience where we are all in this together. We hear the information but we all do something. That part of it seemed really important.
And part of it I did… I got invited to a lot of people’s classrooms that year…Like, whatever, do a classroom visit or something… They’d be like, “Okay, come perform in my classroom.” And the way that I started doing those gigs, which I also think is a sort of pedagogy, is I would usually come in and without any framing or explanation whatsoever I’d be like, *snaps fingers* “I was thinking we could do something together.” So, I would just do the action right away first. “The number is 739…Okay, there is thirty of us here…Alright, let’s do the math. You guys have some keys. Alright, cool. We’re just going to do something first. Let’s turn off the lights. Click 739. Turn on the lights. Okay.” Then I would talk about what the project was. You know what I’m saying?
NG: I really liked when in the room everyone would just do something together first and they learned about what it was about.
DT: So, I’m going to speculate a little bit, based on what you said about…You transitioned from theatre to Insight Arts to activist stuff and drumcore. These things. All sort of triggering different kinds of processes that transition over time. You have this personal, transformative phase after grad school that precedes this HEAT05 kind of project. This is sort of like a re-coming out of a new way of working after this challenging personal/health moment and then… And you’re also changing things about your life and you’re changing things about the kind of art practice that you have and you’re doing this in a pretty integrated kind of way…you know, which is not always the case for everyone…They might change something about their art but not about their life. You know what I’m saying?
DT: And so, can you talk a little bit about… What did this teach you about the kind of art you wanted to make or the kind of life you wanted to lead? I wouldn’t ask such a broad question if I didn’t think you could handle it but I also feel like you’re responsible for these kinds of projects like this… That are so much about art and life…so…You basically have to answer questions like this.
So, the questions is, outside of the details about Heat05 and what it was about and what you were doing… You were doing these performances that were very much integrating art and life and so I’m wondering what you learned in the process of doing this and of changing how you have lead your daily life… What you have learned about what kind of art you wanted to make and what kind of life you wanted to lead? What did the project teach you?
NG: Well, one thing is that even though the art was very integrated into my life I always knew when it was art and when it was life.
Those two were never confused. I knew when I was doing something and I knew when I was just living my life. And one of the things that really…One of the ways that I knew that that was energetically totally palpable is that one time I did a performance where I was like, “I’m going to walk 739 steps around City Hall. Around the block City Hall is on.” I did not wear a costume. I did not do anything. I was like, taking a break from my day job. That was the only time I had to do it was like lunchtime at my day job. All I did was show up in my regular working clothes and walk 739 steps around City Hall and people stared.
And they didn’t even know what they were staring at. It’s sort of like the energetic field around you when you are doing something or when you are making art or you’re performing or something. Even if you’re not doing a show, it’s like a shimmer. And I was like, “Oh! Okay. It is!” It’s a different sort of bodily energy when I am intending to walk. And all I did was count steps. I didn’t even do it out loud or anything. I was totally silent. So, people were sometimes like, “How do I know you’re not performing?” and I was like, “Oh, you’ll know, you’ll know I’m performing. Don’t worry. You’ll get a full memo. Nothing happening that not fully announced.” It’s not secret. Unless it is secret. There were some secret performances but then they were intentionally secret. Anyway, so that’s one thing. I always felt like I understood what was life and what was art making.
But another thing that happened is that Hurricane Katrina happened in September of 2005 and so there was some kind of shift. And I had just been to New Orleans in March of 2005. Around the spring equinox. And then, at the end of August and beginning of September we have Hurricane Katrina. So I was already nine months into making all this work about natural disasters and about who suffers in natural disasters and I had all these friends in New Orleans. There was a way in which I felt so grateful to be doing the Heat05 daily work because I was so sad and scared and everything and it just felt like the only thing that made sense during those early days of September. It was like, “This makes total sense,” and it just helped the whole heat wave thing come into really sharp focus. It was like, this is just something that happens in America that like, when we have a terrible weather event plus a lot of political neglect, we have these tremendous social and political tragedies.
That largely could’ve been avoided. We have the resources to avoid them. Do you know what I’m saying? The social political tragedy of both the heat wave and Katrina is like, how freakin’ inept the American political system is. Inept at best. Actively racist and hating of poor people at worst. So, that felt really connected to my life and my friends and my community and things like that.
Then, the other thing that happened around that time period is that I…I had been definitely involved in the reception of alternative healing, so I had been visiting healers and been getting alternative healing on my body and participating in those kinds of things. Plus, I mean spiritually, I already had a good fifteen years in on some kind of pagan spiritual path of celebrating every solstice and equinox and having a coven…I mean, I was already on that. I was already all the way there on that spiritual path and so thinking of the spiritual energetics of art making but around the Heat05 and beginning of 2006, I also started to learn how to do some healing. I started studying Reki healing and learned how to be a Reki practitioner over the next few years.
And also started working with some different spiritual teachers in a serious way… What that did is that at a certain point I felt like everything is integrated. Right now, I don’t feel like there’s actually any art that I make that isn’t healing work. And not that I need to set out and be like, “I will now heal you,” but it’s not really about that. It’s about…Once you make a deal with the universe that you’re going to try to be a healer then everything needs to unfold or everything does unfold in a way that you can think of as healing work on a number of different levels.
And I do think of it that way. Even though I don’t make it all that explicit, I do think about it that way. So we can get into talking about the Uprising project later. But at the time, I got into doing these monthly dance parties, Northern Lights, and I think of that as healing work too. And I didn’t get that before. But it also comes back to this thing that that’s what I was seeking through Insight Arts. Like, how does it all come together? What is my job on this planet? What is my best work that I can do for the earth and for our communities and for social justice and for the struggle? What is the best me that I can be and how can I best be of service to use whatever little skills and talents I was given to focus my energy in the way that’s going to work the best for me and for my communities? I can’t do everything but I can do certain things, right? So I believe that we all have that path. That’s part of we’re all trying to do in the world. Figure out, with using what we have, what’s the best work we can do.
DT: So can you give an example, as you start to explain Uprising and more of the recent stuff, of how you conceived of Uprising? …Building on Heat05 and having this healing component? Because it is different work, but it’s similar. It clearly builds on it. And I have another question about the form and aesthetic because there’s some shared stuff across HEAT05 and Uprising.
NG: After I did Heat05, I went back and did some theatre. I just went ahead and did some dance theatre with Lucky Plush, played Hamlet, showed up to rehearsals that I didn’t have to organize, learned the lines, learned dances, got directed by the wonderful Peter Carpenter who was such a genius…That was so great. So I did some of that. Like, let me just sign up for somebody else’s art for a minute. Which is very rejuvenating for me. And I was starting to feel like, okay, I wanted another project, right? I liked the project structure. I had never really done that before either, just like, had a performance project. So, you know, it’s like 2007 and I’m thinking that it would be fun to have another project. I got to figure out how to do that and have a life or just make that work within the life that I had.
As you recall, in 2007, there was a lot of talk about the coming up of two thousand and eight. There was a lot of talk about that 68 ’08 forty year anniversary. Barack Obama was campaigning. There was a lot of energy around like, “Oh my gosh, things might actually change.” There was actual hope, politically, that I hadn’t experienced in all of my years as a voter. So there was a moment there in 2007 and I was thinking that this is kind of interesting. Plus, my spiritual teachers were talking about 2012. They were like, “Yo, 2012 is coming.” They were starting to talk about the end of the Mayan calendar. They were not like, “The world is going to end,” but a lot of the people in my life were talking about this idea that one of the things that they could encourage us to do is to start gearing up for and praying for and working for is a global shift of consciousness that might happen in 2012.
So these things are coming together for me and I did the math and I was like, “Okay, well if I started something in 2008…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Okay, twelve could be the last year. If I started next year, twelve could be five years later and that could be the last year. Five years seems like a nice number of a time period to do a project in. I had this one year every day but what it I tried to something for five years? That seems ambitious. What if you did something for five years but it is once a month for five years? That seems like a reasonable discipline but not too overwhelming…for those of us who have to work for a living or just want to work that way.” And I got interested in this idea of revolution, because everyone was talking about revolution, revolution, revolution. I started to think about the role of the healer in this revolution. What is the revolution I was to see or the revolution that I want to be a part of and how could that get in our bodies or how can I be a part of that?
And you know what? Sometimes, honestly Daniel, I was thinking about it today. The way that I sometimes think about my work is you know how when you’re rowing crew? I’ve never rowed crew, but you know how you see it in movies…how they row crew… and there’s a bunch of people in the boat and the boat is really hauling ass. Or you know the Vikings or any of those, you know, whatever the cartoon Greek mythology…Jason and the Argonauts or something like…It’s a big boat. It’s going somewhere. It has a focus. And everyone’s putting their life energy into it. And, so, honestly, I feel like I’m on the boat of the people who are trying to bring on a restoration of the earth and humanity and perhaps a global shift in consciousness for the healing and betterment of the earth and all of it’s living inhabitants.
That’s the boat and I’m just one of the people paddling. So, what is the way that I can paddle towards that goal while I’m an artist and an activist? So then I was thinking about all these things. And so, I was like, “what if the structure is once a month for five years,” and I wanted to make bigger scale things, because the Heat05 things had often times just been me and had been very small and personal environmental interventions. I wanted to scale it up with humans and bodies and bigger actions, but I don’t have a theatre company or a dance company. I don’t have any money to pay people so I thought, what if I just had a figure on a structure, because I had already practiced this in Heat05. I practiced coming into a space and being like, “Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Explaining it really simply and having it be a simple gesture and then getting people on board with almost no rehearsal and then we just do it together and then oh my god, we just made something. So, I thought, “Well, maybe I can work like this once a month for five years. Work with some group of people assembled as volunteers or in a space and make something with a big group of people in public that’s kind of performative.” In dealing with this idea of revolution, I thought, well,…In 2007 and 2008 I felt like we’re not in a revolutionary time so we have things we need to practice in order to get to a revolutionary time. But one of the things we need to practice is embodying a positive vision of the world we want to live in.
Part of the critique that I have…And believe me, I think there are really good reasons to protest, but I think that all of us in the social movements do a lot more protesting then we do envisioning how we want to things to go and practicing doing things the way that we want them to go. And that’s really, really hard to do. So I thought, maybe there’s a way to embody some practices that help us get to where we want to go. I guess they come from my head so they have to be my opinion about what we need to do… So, that’s how I started. And I also thought that I could document them, because if you can’t sell any…If you can’t sell any tickets to a performance because it’s all in public and it’s all free, then I thought there could be a way to support the project by documenting with these postcards that I call “Evidence,” and I sell subscriptions to postcards and then people all over the country get a postcard a month that documents the Uprising. Then that becomes it’s own work of art too, because the Evidence post card…I choose the image, I write the text. So it’s just me processing and filtering how I want to present that. So, that’s Uprising.
DT: Was that an improvement for you on the challenge of documenting HEAT05? Was that a response to the challenge?
NG: Yes. It was a response to the challenge of documenting HEAT05and how I responded was doing better at hiring professional photographers or roping people I’m sleeping with into documenting. Luckily, for a good portion for the Uprising project I had a lover who was an excellent photographer, so that person took a lot of really great photos of various Uprisings and then I would actually hire a videographer. Like, radical. Like, find a camera. Get a person.
Now, I’m not saying all that video documentation is good, but I really made a better effort at having good documentation. Although, to tell you the truth, the still images are often very beautiful and do a good job of telling a certain story… Here’s what I struggle with from the point of view of video documentation…. When you apply for things, as a performer, and you are supposed to submit video documentation… That Uprising video documentation never really demonstrates what went on because the most beautiful things that go on are personal interactions between people…and you cannot have a video camera in someone face. You know what I saying? You can’t go to Grant Park and be like, “Here’s 20 white flags. Let’s spread out across the park and go up to random strangers and ask them for their visions of the world and then write them on the flag and we’ll fly the flags…” To me, the most beautiful part of that interactions is when the performer goes up to a random stranger and says, “Hey, I’m doing this art project with these flags and, you know, if you want to tell me anything about what you wish the world was like… I’m going to write it out this flag and then I’m going to climb up that hill and fly it.”
You know what I’m saying? You can’t have a video camera in someone’s face for that. So the video is a challenge and it’s primarily a challenge because it’s this thing of how you demonstrate to anyone else in the world who might never care whose not there, right?
DT: Right. Maybe, kind of related to that…About illustrating certain things…I guess some thing I am curious about is about some of the aesthetic decisions you’ve made in the projects…but from my perspective, I notice the uniforms. Which seemed helpful in documentation, but what else?They’re sort of about calling attention to the performance process and the people who are responsible for shepherding or guiding you through that process, and then some of the decisions like the often frequent uses of people touching strangers in some way that unifies a large group of people that do or do not know each other…. and then the specific decisions of color on white …like dyes and things like that that you’ve done. I don’t what are all of the layers that are involved….but they’re things that are distinctly about delineating the performance space…making it a unique moment that has it’s own visual palette that is distinct from the rest of the event or the rest of life or something. Can you talk about some of the decisions you’ve made around that and how you’ve developed a visual language through repetition?
NG: Man, I got onto that white thing in 2001. That’s the first time I can remember performing in all white and that’s when I first started in with the beet juice and beets. I don’t know where that comes from but it just means so many different things and I just keep coming back to it…like, I can’t stop with the all white. First of all, I think it’s totally beautiful. I mean, the aesthetics of the all white. First of all, I always tell people…wearing all white…People dressed in all white…It’s one of the only colors you can wear and have it not look like clothes.
So, one person head to toe in all white looks like they’re doing something. Five people all dressed in white? They look like they’re doing something. In a way that five people dressed in black are never going to look. Even five people dressed in red, unless it was like totally all the same… Plus everybody has white clothes. It’s really accessible. You can ask people to wear white. You can ask people to wear white shirts. People can show up. And so there’s thing like…. It is a way of delineating that something’s happening here. The other thing is, on a practical level, it photographs really beautifully. So if you’re out in the city, which is busy and you have a busy and dirty background, or you’re out in a green space or anything, and you have people that are wearing all white… that just looks so beautiful in a photograph or in a video or something like that. I think. And then, should you want to do something like lie on a sidewalk and have someone pour a jar of beet juice down your throat while you sing a song then you have that stain of beet juice against white and that’s a very striking image…
So, all those things. The white has really been important and also it helps in the documentation when you can look at all the postcards together and pictures togethers and you have these figures…And it’s always different people and it’s a different place and different time of day but the visual unity of the project is this thing of white. I even usualy try to use those shirts that say Uprising as a further…They have a stenciled Uprising on them. But one of the things with the beat juice… I have to tell you, when I first started doing Uprising and I was doing research…One of the images that sticks out in my mind is this one image…and I feel like I’ve tried to recreate this over and over again in the Uprising… And I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this, but I have this picture at home of a protester from, I think the 68…
I think he was a Colombia University student… who was involved in a demonstration in ’68… Although, it could’ve been in Grant Park… Either way, it was in ’68 and it was a student wearing a white shirt and… So he’s in a white shirt and his head has been knocked in or he’s had a bloody nose or something, so he has this blood that’s running down his nose and down his mouth and it’s all on the front of his shirt… and I just got really interested in that. I feel very like I’m trying to address that image of that bloody mouth… You know what I’m saying?
So then, there were so many Uprisings that I feel like I’ve come from that. Like things about telling… Different ones that have been like, “Tell the truth. Tell someone something that’s totally true. Tell…” And some of the beet juice stuff… It’s a lot about that. The bloody mouth, the truth telling mouth, the…Like that struggle to sing or talk or speak or…Something along those lines I think is involved in the Uprisings. So yeah, it’s funny, the thing about the whites is like, I feel like either I’m getting lazy as the project goes on or I just…I’m realizing that it doesn’t really matter. Either one. Because a lot of times now, I do an Uprising where I’m the only one in white and I don’t really care that anyone shows up in anything else. So everyone else is just in their clothes or whatever. But I always wear white. I feel like it’s important for me to show up in a uniform.
DT: Yeah, totally.
NG: Even if it’s Northern Lights and it’s like sexy white or whatever… Like nighttime white. A little slip or something like that.
DT: Is that where a lot of the Uprisings are happening right now?
NG: I’ve done three. I think…Wait, is that true? Yeah, I’ve done three Uprisings at that bar. The first one in October 2010, and then I a December 2010, and then I just did New Years Ever 2011 as an Uprising. I
DT: My last question is about what you think has…What has happened by integrating these performances (specifically Uprising, but it seems like it grows out of HEAT05) in the fabric of so many already existing social spaces?…Often times, temporary ones, right? Like they’re temporary communities. They’re events. I feel like, you have illustrated some things about how culture is organized and, for me, something I interpret through that is that there is so much happening and there’s really no need to produce other events…and so there’s a highlighting of existing cultures. There’s an implicit critique of an overproduction of events in the way that you integrate your stuff into other people’s things rather than doing your own thing… but what is your take on that? And by integrating your practice into so many different social spaces, have you come any conclusions about the kind of cultural and political spaces that you want to be apart of in the future? Which you’ve already been part of a lot! So you’ve got some good research to go on.
NG: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Right now the idea of…You know, when I first started the Uprisings I would do them as seperate performances. Like, show up at this time and the Uprising happens in the Polish triangle on Sunday and 1 pm and it’s just going to be us, all six of us, and we’re going to do this thing…and people can come watch or not. I have no interest in doing that anymore. Not even at that level. You know what I’m saying? Not even at that level do I have an interest in organizing something seperate. I think you’re absoultely right, there’s so much going on. At first I had anxiety about crashing other people’s events…Sort of an anxiety about, “Am I crashing? Am I drawing attention away from what’s happening onto myself in a way that’s not productive?” But I feel like part of my practice has been…How can I add value, or how can this Uprising add value to whatever it is that’s going on?
And part of it is that I like participating in other people’s stuff. That is a radical choice. To show up to other people’s things. And if I need to knock out an Uprising while it’s happenign then so be it. That is like my discipline and that is what needs to happen. When they did like, what was that bookfair called? At UIC in Gallery 400 when Temporary Services did a great bookfair and there was a free store and everyone had their zines and alternative, independent publications out… and I just emailed Salem and I just told her, ” I’m crashing your bookfair with an Uprising that will take place on Saturday at 2 pm or whatever…” And then I just freaking crashed…But I felt like I added something.
I showed up in my whites, I had a tub of chocolate chips and a megaphone and the Communist Manifesto. And it was the anniversary of the Communist Manifesto’s publication and I just went around to all those little zines tables and I was like, “Please take a cookie and please pick out your favorite passages of the communist manifesto and read them out loud to this room through this megaphone.” Now, they were not planning on having performances there at that event…So I just felt like, well, first of all, I know these people and I know they know me and I know that they know that I’m not going to destroy their event. Second of all, everything is done totally lovingly. Third of all, how awesome is it to hear some passages from the communist manifesto at your bookfair? Okay, that’s got to be adding value. And so, I feel like it’s really trying to have some level of reciprocity or some kind of symbiosis or community or participation. I am showing up. Sometimes I am bringing people with me or whatever…and that’s good.
And this has happened a few times…like it has happened a few times that people have called me up and they say like, “Will you come do an Uprising at our event?” Now that is my ideal. That is my actual ideal. I would love to just be an itinerant performance artist/ceremonialist to add that little special something to your political or social event that serves my needs to do this art and also serves the event… I always feel like I’m trying to make the events sparkle. I am very intentional…I always ask, “Whatever are you trying to do with this event? What are you trying to make happen?” I really work hard to set the Uprising in total alignment with what is supposed to be happening at that time.
And that means time and place to. So, when I got invited to do an Uprising at this performance festival in New Orleans called “State of the Nation…” It’s a weekend long festival and they put me on Sunday morning at 11 AM right before the final closing, and I was like, “Oh. Okay. So that means this Uprising is a closing event” and so it needs to take into account where people are going to be, what are they coming off of, what’s the best possible space for us to gather in, what’s the best possible thing for us to do on Sunday at 11 AM? To close this event, to participate in this closing…So the Uprising becomes part of the closing. It becomes part of the ceremonial or the whatever needs to happen in there. That would be my ideal, is to just be for hire or available, to do kinds of audience participation actions within an event…especcially events around social justice and social change…
DT: So after 2012, when the Uprising project comes to an end, then do you have plans for continuing that kind of project or are you going to shift gears or are you waiting to see what 2012 brings you?
NG: Well, I am waiting to see what 2012 brings because I’m leaving Chicago and kind of doing all of 2012 Uprising on tour starting with a residency in Copenhagen for four months and then maybe a few more months in Europe… and then we’ll see what happens…other parts of the US after that. So, I have no plans to live or work anywhere beyond 2012 really.
So, that’s one thing, but lately I’ve been intrigued by the following idea. I feel intrigued by everybody else in the world who likes to do participatory art projects and I started thinking, “Well, maybe I’d like to take a break from making anything new and just be the ultimate participator in everyone else’s projects…” Which I have done to a certain extent, like karmically, if you ask me to do something then I’m definitely doing it. If I can at all, I’m definitely doing it. I’ve done a lot of Nance Klehm’s toilets. I did that totally as a karmic return on the Uprising. All I ever do is ask people to do things in my performances so if someone wants me to go to the bathroom in a bucket and compost it for the summer then I’m definitely doing that. Or if someone wants me to climb in their bathtub and tell them a secret for their photo video project then I’m definitely doing it.
But in order for that to happen, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of somehow tyring to do a project that’s an aggragation of worldwide opportunities to participate in people’s art project. I don’t know of such a clearinghouse. I know of clearing houses for like, “Hey, you can apply for this,” but I don’t really know of a clearinghouse for like, “Hey! Could you write a love letter and send it the following address.” Like things that have no commercial value Literally, other people that just want people to be involved in their things. So, I’ve been thinking about figuring out how to create that clearing house and then maybe doing something like participating in as many things as I can and documenting that process of other people’s art projects. So that’s one idea that’s out there and then 2015 is 20 years since the heat wave…Maybe by 2015 someone else in the world willl care about the Chicago heatwave besides me and Eric Klinenberg. So, maybe there’s something to be done there. I don’t really like nostalgic things so I wouldn’t want to do a nostalgic project of my own art but it might be interesting to figure out if there’s something else..