A Dallas Drinking Fountain: Interview with lauren woods
lauren woods is a conceptual artist who works with film, video, performance and site-specific installations that address systems of power and suppression – making the South (Dallas) a dynamic context for her to call home. Her work engages history as a lens by which to view the socio-politics of the present, particularly considering how traditional monument-making can be translated into new contemporary models of commemoration.
woods has exhibited internationally including, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, France and Malli and has work included as part of the Nasher Sculpture Center’s permanent collection. Recently, she has focused the scope of her work regionally to her homebase of North Texas with her work, “Drinking Fountain #1,” a new media monument to the American civil rights movement, past and present activists/organizers, and the spirit of resistance, located underneath the remnants of a rediscovered Jim Crow “White Only” sign. Part sculpture, part intervention, located in the Dallas County Records Building in Dallas, Texas, the installation is part of the larger public artwork, A Dallas Drinking Fountain Project.
I chatted with woods about the intersection of her life as educator and artist addressing platforms around the Black body, the rise of the alt-right as a vector of power, and our radically transformative moment to renvision the place of public monuments through artists’ interventions.
With so much of woods’ work dealing with the existential rifts within America’s psyche, we start with a question on most people’s minds since last November:
Lee Escobedo: Is the world coming to an end?
lauren woods: No. But I am feeling the heat more than I ever have in my lifetime. We are not at a fever pitch, yet.
LE: Fever pitch of what?
lw: Being completely done with the monstrosity of a self-disfigured psyche. As Baldwin said: “You can’t lynch me and keep me in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.” He is talking about the monstrosity of whiteness–a product of white supremacy, unregulated, unchecked. The monster is loose again, without a cloak, without a mask. Emboldened. Maybe that’s a good thing…to have the thing right in front of us, no mask, no makeup, no cloak, in all of its hideousness, so we can all be clear about it–so that our immune systems can raise our body temperatures in order to fight the disease its transmitting to us–to reach a fever pitch. But, of course, it doesn’t feel good…
LE: Well, your work has been sounding many alarms of injustice for years that we only now seem to be listening to. How has the current political climate informed the thinking around your work?
lw: My work travels across the United States and is connected across the digital agora of social media. It’s not the known and the given I have an issue with. It’s not the typical conservative, alt-right political territory. It’s the growing number of folks, particularly white folks, that previous identified as liberal that are slowly showing themselves to not be so progressive that has me fuuucked up. I stopped trying to reason with overt racists a long time ago, but now I find myself unknowingly falling into conversation with benevolent racists, sexists and other problematic types. There is this need to want to place blame for the rise of the Trump era and this political climate. These “liberals” say Trump is an effect of so-called “social justice warriors” and the “extreme” leftist discourse and action of the last eight years. They say that’s the cause of the rise of the alt-right that we are terrorized by today. This is just ridiculous. While we did get into some territory of reductive binary discourse from factions on the Left, it was in reaction to needing to make issues really clear, in order to have even hope of making structural shifts. The oppressed yelling, “Get your foot off my muhfucking neck!” is not the cause of the oppressor’s foot being on said neck nor the cause of his attempts to burrow down harder. Anyone who pays attention to history knows that what we are experiencing today is what this country cyclically experiences–the extreme swing of the pendulum, the power structure trying to regroup and shore itself up after a few years of attempted shift. We have been here before. Post-Reconstruction is the most obvious time that the monster unmasked itself in unapologetic hideousness after a period of an attempt to address. So, are progressives not supposed to unapologetically call out, resist, and struggle to dismantle the fuckery of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism out of fear of what the power structure will do to in attempt to maintain power? I mean that’s what those who identify as “liberal” but use SJW as an epithet are asking us to do. This country has never truly reconciled the problem of the Mason-Dixon Line, which is symbolic of race, class, economics, etc. and a source of power that fuel systems of oppression.
In terms of my work, I feel more compelled to “make it plain” – to speak more directly, boldly, and overtly provocative, to name “the thing” every chance that I can get…if only to keep myself sane. I’m not in the mood for abstraction or coding of anything. My work ultimately has always examined whiteness through the platform of “The Black Body” which is really a product of white psyche. My work has hardly been about “Blackness” unbound per se, although many critics attempt to locate it in that realm I am actually giving a performative lecture on this very subject soon in Seattle.
LE: How do you define Whiteness within this context?
lw: I want to be clear how I use the word whiteness, in that I am talking about the overarching invisible force that binds all this fuckery we are in right now. It is a structure and a vector of power. What I am concerned about in terms of the Trump effect is not the boldness of overt bigotry, it’s the self-identifying liberal with not-so-progressive values. The ones that have been biting their tongues all this time, because they cared about seeming politically correct, but are now absolutely #LIT with problematic behavior and thought…helping to undo many of the strides made in the last few years of in terms of discourse and bringing certain issues to the forefront. Because I grew up in the South, anxiety rarely comes from engaging with overt racists. I know what that looks like and what to expect.
When I first moved to California over a decade ago, people would say, “Oh my God, you’re from Texas…it’s so racist.” I would always respond, “I am having more of an issue here because I have let my guard down just to be low key insulted by some stupid shit.” In the South, in the land of Dixie, I could have a seemingly “redneck” man open a door for me or alternatively call me a nigger (although the latter has not happened since I was a child). There in Cali, no courtesies are extended on a regular basis and I got asked, “Why do Black people smell like coconuts?” or something dumb like that. I faced housing discrimination from a white male gay Republican landlord…something I would expect to happen more in Texas. At least in California, there is some recourse to address something like housing discrimination through state laws, as opposed to Texas, but the day-to-day interpersonal slights? In the South, resistance is somewhat easier when the problem is obvious. On the West Coast, things were a little more subtle and thus insidious, so I was constantly destabilized by what I witnessed in terms of racial and class politics…and anyways, North or South, police disproportionately murder Black people regardless of one’s red or blue state status, so no one really has space to point fingers.
I went to California thinking that I would find a sense of freedom there, to breathe a little bit easier. I did in small amounts, but not nearly as much as my optimistic 20-year-old self sought I am feeling some of the same anxiety that I felt when I first moved to California fifteen years ago because of this political climate, the feeling that who you thought were friends or comrades might not really be so. Polite neighbors–not-so-polite. I cannot shake this hyperawareness or the revelation of the facade and usually have to engage it on a daily basis–from online discussion and encounters at the grocery store, to literal arguments with PTA moms who three years ago were talking about how much they loved Obama and now completely flaunt entitlement and privilege in their problematic opinions. Folks are tripping right now.
LE: How do we fight this insidious form of suppression? It feels almost more difficult to pinpoint and defend against.
lw: We just need to keep addressing the issues boldly and soberly and be ok with losing “friends.” There has been a (self-)censoring effect, or maybe it’s depression and exhaustion…I don’t know. There are handfuls of people that are still doing it, just not in mass we saw in last decade. I was relieved to see the the Democracy Now! segment just yesterday, where George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University, spoke plainly:
You know, Trump makes hay out of the fact that white men, in particular, feel as though they’re the victims of this society, despite being in absolute control of it. And this is something that is powerfully dangerous, and it’s why we’re not seeing only the rise in violent attacks, more generally, and the rise of far-right movements, but we’re certainly seeing, you know, clearly, sort of some very serious incidents of mass violence, as well…
[W]hiteness is never seen as a cause, in and of itself, of these kinds of massacres, of other forms of violence, despite the fact that whiteness is a structure of privilege and it’s a structure of power, and a structure that, when it feels threatened, you know, lashes out. And so, that’s the kind of thing that we really need to think about, not only why is it… The far right, of course, jumps on any violence by people of color—and yet, you know, doesn’t want to talk about the real deep structures of white supremacy in our society, and again, not just the fringe, not just the Nazi movements, but what people are going through every day and what it is that is driving people to these kinds of situations, where they feel so entitled to dominance that when that’s questioned, they can explode in these very, very unpredictable ways—
I increasingly experience a lot of the smaller explosions on a day-to-day basis. It is difficult and extremely exhausting. I have yet to figure how to fight insidious forms of suppression and oppression on a daily basis because I am constantly destabilized by it. I am guessing that strides are made when you are absolutely at the point of having no more fucks to give, but I wouldn’t know, since I always seem to find one. Since I am perpetually optimistic about dialectics and diplomacy, I do often have to resort to trolling URL and IRL to relieve some of the pressure though.
LE: Recently, the Dallas City Council chose to remove the Robert E. Lee Confederate statue from Lee Park. What do you think should be done with the statue? Where should it go?
lw: All of the monuments should be decommissioned, re-appropriated, and used as material for another public work that would address the history accurately, as well as this present moment–that will ultimately become history. That, or destroy them…or make a graveyard for “fucked up American monuments” in the middle of Nevada or something and put them there. No museums. No “contextualization.” And for sure they should not be sold off to the highest bidder. That is the most disgusting of options.
LE: Dallas Morning News Art Critic Rick Brettell recently wrote a piece on why they shouldn’t be removed, under the pretense of its place within art history and it’s contextualization of the statue as an art object. I know you were critical of this approach.
lw: Yes, I thought his position was daft and tone deaf. Really? A conversation about pretty bronze horses and whether the sculptor was a “racist or not”? Really? This is the state of discourse in Dallas? From an art historian, no less? His position illustrates precisely what I have been talking about–and I am constantly throw’d by it. No Rick! You cannot disregard cross-sectional analysis, the larger political/social context that art gets made and lives in, to thrust into the public discourse on confederate monuments, especially during this political moment, a conversation about aesthetics, pretty bronze horses, or whether the sculptor was really a “racist or not.” As if. You cannot do this and also claim progressive politics in other areas. An art historian that neglects history? He intentionally omitted a discussion on the impetus behind memorializing and the need for white dominant culture to co-opt public memory; he completely sidestepped the very real fact of why there was a proliferation of confederate monuments in the South decades after the civil war in the first place.
What all cities that are confronting this issue must comes to terms with, in reference to the question of “What to do?” is whether art objects are truly sacred. I believe the right cultural producers could come along and appropriate…recontextualize the monuments to make greater works of art, but it takes a very particular type of practice. If the cities don’t want to support this sort of cutting edge visioning and experimentation, then I have to support the most baseline position, which is to take them down and put them away. I do not believe they should remain as-is in public, but the question of how to address them has the potential to be powerful…if we allow it.
People are attached to fast tracking the process because municipal processes and politics are hella bureaucratic and there is a fear of what could change inbetween and the possibility of not making it the the finish line. People don’t understand art and they don’t understand what the function of that object is in a public space. That’s why Brettell can manipulate public opinion. He is respected as an art expert, an elite field that feels foreign and intimidating to so many. No one wants to feel “uncultured” and so we rely on the opinion of the “experts” to justify opinions that really have more to do with power. What we don’t talk about is that the function of the field of western European art and art history is to block mainstream access in order to maintain authority and the ability to push the agenda and subjectivity of the elite; and so there is an inherent bias to begin with, especially from a traditionalist art historian. So, yeah, his opinion expressed was disingenuous. People don’t understand the technology built into art, and he did nothing to deconstruct these technologies, nothing to translate and “make it plain” to the larger public–and of course the larger public knows little-to-nothing of newer art practices that are socially engaged, that are not object-based, that are relational. The public has a limited ability to vision the possibilities, and that is fine because this is precisely the skillset of artists…but there is a mild, if not overt, distrust of artists and cultural workers to actually handle and lead on this issue.
LE: From the city’s perspective, what should be the first step in addressing what to do with the monuments?
lw: In order for us to unlock the potential of the moment we have to get rid of the idea that these statues are sacred objects. In Dallas, even on the the mayor’s task force on confederate monuments, not a single person went on record to propose destruction of monument. Destruction should have been presented as a possibility but the task force did not even consider a discussion on the merits and disadvantages of this option. This showed a lack of political imagination on behalf of the city in general. In Baltimore, they voted to destroy their monuments. The idea that Dallas isn’t even thinking to consider the possibility means everyone, including the people who want the monuments removed, do not want to see them destroyed. So, in essence, pro-removal supporters are buying into the political rhetoric that beget the sculptures to begin with, which was white supremacist in nature. That same authority has also attempted to dictate what art is, which aesthetics are valued and what is sacred for western civilization and beyond. What subjectivity has been privileged with power all this time to determine what is sacred in our society? Globally, the function of art is much broader and fluid outside of the context of white western european civilization and history. The only way we get to recontextualization of these monuments, which for me is the true space where historical and restorative justice can occur, is when we let go of the idea that the objects are sacred and we can fuck with it. This moment provides us with the opportunity for a radically transformative public moment. It is literally at our fingertips. We just have to sculpt it.
LE: Recently, you were invited to speak on a panel at Paul Quinn College in Dallas, discussing what to do with the Confederate monuments that included the president of Paul Quinn College, the co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, and fellow state-wide activists and educators. How did that dialogue go?
lw: How did it go? It went. I mean it was good for me, because it was the first time I really got to say my piece. I wasn’t invited to serve on the Mayor’s taskforce…despite [the fact] this very subject has been my work for over a decade. The artist who was on the task force was a bronze craftsperson and another man who is a portrait photographer. There were no artists with contemporary, socially-engaged, or public/populist practices on this recommending body, and yet meeting after meeting it was clear that these were the voices that were missing, these were the skill sets that were missing. The Lee monument is an equestrian statue, so many feet high on a plinth, nearly 20 tons of bronze–there is an relationship to body that forces the sculpture to remain in position of power. No didactic sign attempting to “contextualize its history” will divest that object of its power. Dismantling the power of this object can only happen when we begin to fuck with the object. What would it mean, what would be the effect of half melting it? Burying it underground up to the horse’s and Lees neck, or to suspend it and turn it on its head? You have to be willing to desecrate this object that we have been conditioned to believe is sacred to rob it of its power. People seem to not be able to not get on board with this because there is no time to consider and have considered debate. There is also no public education around the issue really, so what is ending up happening is that white western notions of what is art and how it should be treated get reified.
LE: You teach at Southern Methodist University, a typically conservative private college in a conservative city. What has been your students’ reactions to the current political theatre and how do you raise these questions in your lectures?
lw: It’s a mixed bag depending on age and experience. In regards to the confederate monument issue, I brought my second and third year students to one of the task force meetings. I was proud of how tuned-in they were in regards to many of the issues I’ve been discussing, given the conservative environment that they come from in terms of the university. Most of them have had me already in their first year, so they know what to expect from me and my classes by now.
In general, the graduate students tend to be forward-thinking creatives. There is a handful of undergraduates that are interested in larger social and political issues and cultural production and others that just want to make formal objects. For the freshmen, it’s mostly always a huge learning curve to take my class, but usually there is a small handful of first year students that are keenly aware. These aren’t millennials, these are centennials, so it is mainly a mindfuck for me at how different I am from the generation of digital natives – the fact that I am truly middle-aged! Most first year students starting out are uber-sheltered, coming from AP art programs where their idea of art is object production, usually painting and drawing. To have me as a lecturer…my teaching practice is very conceptual focusing on ideas and socio-politics. Basically a semester with me is a process of undoing all of their ideas about what they believe is “art.” For instance, freshman coming into my Foundations: Observation class think the class is about going to museums and looking at paintings. We do none of that. The class is structured around thinking mostly…about how seeing is socially-constructed. We are reading material, learning about artists, and going through processes that really deconstruct the act of looking and seeing and analyzing the larger social structures that dictate how we see. So, it’s really far from say…figure-drawing or looking at paintings in a museum. I approach some of the staple traditions of studio education, untraditionally. For instance, I do use figure models in my class, but I call them body meditations. Normally, when you are working with a nude model, what usually provides comfort is the distance between yourself as artist and the body in front of you as object to be rendered. It is clinical; confrontation with the body…that somebody in front of you is mediated by the easel and paintbrush or the sketchbook and pencil or the camera. In my body meditations, before any utensil is picked up to render the body, I destabilized this comfort, this distance between subject and artist, by having the students encounter a 45-minute session of standing and just looking at the nude model standing on equal ground in the middle of the room. I don’t let them know about the exercise until the day of so there is no time to prepare. It is a raw confrontation that is really a moment of self-reflection more than anything.
LE: How do these students (who I assume have very little experience with such conceptual encounters) react?
lw: The first year I did this exercise, it took 35 minutes for there to be complete silence and stillness. It was somewhere between a pack of wolves and a herd of cows circling the model in the middle. The tension and anxiety was high. At certain points, I usually have to use my own body to make interventions. I move in close to the model because there is usually huge circumference starting out. The only rule is you cannot touch, but you can get in the model’s personal space. When the body is unmediated by art supplies and techniques, you really begin the process of deconstructing how you feel looking at a/the body, a person as subject and object. It brings up ideas of erotics and desire. What comes up when you look at this body and how you account for it…it gets into issues of power. At what times do you possess power? What times does the model have the power? What happens when you look into the eyes of the body you have objectified? What happens when that body confronts your gaze with a gaze of its own? His own? Her own? The exercise unwittingly disrupts the traditional boundaries between observed and observer. It sets the foundation for an artist to be responsible for and accountable to how they approach future subjects. I have rebellions every semester – which, for me, is a mark of success.
Images courtesy of the artist.