The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home: An interview with Lena Šimić
For artist/mother/academic/activist Lena Simic, art-activism and parenting are inextricably linked. She and her family (partner Gary and children Sid, Neal, Gabriel and James) make up the artist initiative The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, which is based in their four-bedroom house in Anfield, UK. Envisioned as a place where artists and activists can meet, study, protest, and perform, the Institute has hosted a number of events, residencies, and conversations since 2008. Their activities as an initiative are numerous and vary from participating in demonstrations to organizing reading groups to most recently presenting at the Playing It Up Symposium at the Tate Modern in London. In 2015, the Institute joined with 12 other families to form the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change. The Institute joined with other members of the Network in North Wales in May for a performance that included reflection on The Paris Agreement on climate change. We are so grateful Lena was able to take sometime out of her very full schedule to share some of her thoughts on motherhood, art and activism.
Cultural ReProducers: As an artist, mother, and academic, in which areas do you face the most challenges, personally or professionally? Are there any strategies or advice you’d pass on to new parents struggling to maintain a creative practice while raising a family?
Lena Simic: I try to think of myself as artist/mother/academic/activist. My arts practice, activism, pedagogical and research work are all interconnected. The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home was set up in order to facilitate and name my and my partner Gary’s art-activist practice as well as our parenting practice. We are concerned to bring up our children critically and lovingly. This spills into our pedagogical work at university. As far as I can, I try to work across all of my roles/identities. However, I do find myself ‘having a break’ from one activity whilst doing another. I am currently on the train, having just been to examine a PhD practice element of a doctoral thesis which has to do with birth story telling and deep listening. I am away from the children. I miss them. I am still wrapped up in guilt for being away from them, but I am also grateful for this ‘time alone’ when I can be more focused and uninterrupted. I went for a run by the sea down the Aberystwyth promenade this morning and that felt like a real treat. My academic self allowed for this run. My personal life, if I choose to call it that as the Institute is about blurring the boundaries of the private and public and allowing them to infiltrate one another, is harder. Professional, institutional, academic life has its rules and regulations. No matter how committed you are to the role, you are on someone else’s time. You are a worker, and you are a member of a union, which gives you a sense of protection and security. Personal life is tougher. You are much less prepared for the challenges, which partnership and parental life throw upon you. The same can be said for friendships and artistic collaborations, with all their unpredictable demands. There are no rules, no guidelines, no contracts. Children are very demanding and in my case, having four of them, I also have to deal with the dynamics between them. They are each specifically positioned in our family, and therefore have very different needs and requirements of me, and their father, and each other. Family life is chaotic and erratic. Having our Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home helps us frame it, contain it and sustain it. The Institute is a foreign element, a shock/surprise/visitor/guest, who intervenes into our nuclear heteronormative unit and helps us be nicer and better and more accommodating. We act for it, with it.
As for advice to new parents who are artists, I would advise them not to be scared of having (more) children whilst young. There’s never a good time to have a baby. If you have them young, you will have more energy and fewer inhibitions. I loved having children in my 20s and just getting on with it. I grew up together with my children, and my career was always in line with my being a mother. There was no before the kids/after the kids divide in terms of my career as an artist. Having children has been transformative and the most creative thing I have ever done. Children and creativity are interconnected. You will have to learn to manage your time differently, but that’s a part of the experience. Embrace the challenge, enjoy it, work with it and all its ambivalence. And remember that you don’t have to do it all now.
CR: How has the newest member of your family changed the structure or activities of your creative work?
Lena: James was born when I was 39. He is my last baby and he is my fourth boy. We tried for a girl, and instead we got another gorgeous, determined and strong-minded boy. Being the youngest (he’s now 2) he’s loud and willful; he needs to be heard amongst us all, he’s fighting for his position in the family. He’s just learnt to play us off each other – my dada, my mama. He understands his cute baby-boy power, probably not intellectually, but emotionally. James is our limit. He’s stretched us to the limit of what we are capable of as a family. We are beyond the comfortable now. Having two teenagers, a toddler and an 8 year old is hard work. Having four kids is on par with having one, I feel. Two and three was easier. That’s my experience. James brings us so much joy, intensity, love and chaos. It’s as demanding as it was at the beginning of parenthood – really intense.
James threw me back into my ‘maternal arts practice’. This was another chance at ‘doing-it-right this time’. With James I engaged in a blog project called Friday Records: A Document of Maternity Leave (2014). The project was year long, invisible and enjoyable in its loneliness. Even when I was recording my maternity leave online I never advertised it much. I wanted to experience it – semi-privately, semi-publicly. Now, once it’s finished, it’s a document. This was the development of a work I did with Sid, my third child, and which took the form of a journal, photographs and the text Contemplation Time: A Document of Maternity Leave (2007/2008).
I’ve noticed that, in the style of Mary Kelly’s Post Partum Document (1973-1977), many contemporary artists engage in a kind of durational maternal arts practice, for example Elena Marchevska, Helen Sargeant, Lenka Clayton, Lizzie Philps, Natalie Loveless, Paula McCloskey to name but a few. This arts practice contains a certain kind of ‘laboursome aesthetics’. We are all working so hard as mothers and artists, proving our creative work, intense, repetitive and everyday.
Labour and repetition have always been present in my ‘maternal art’. When I first had Neal and Gabriel in the early 2000s, my arrival to ‘maternal arts practice’ was through the live art event Medea/Mothers’ Clothes (2004), in which I engage in the act of washing mothers’ clothes on stage in a baby bath. I juxtaposed Medea, the archetypal anti-mother with images of contemporary Liverpool mothers whom I photographed and who each gave me a piece of their clothing for the performance. I recently revived this performance in Bratislava, Slovakia – a jump from 2004, when it was made and my first two boys were 3 and 1, to 2016 when they are 15 and 13.
With James, I feel I am in a completely different stage now artistically. I am more interested in contextualizing, theorizing, writing, networking and organizing research events. Hitting my 40s has propelled me into a much more academic and facilitating – or should I say mothering or maternal – role.
CR: Your practice exists in physical space that is expanded and disseminated online. As your sons get older has your approach to the virtual world of the internet changed?
Lena: I haven’t really thought about this much. When the Institute first started in 2007 and when we got out first website in 2008, the kids were 7, 5 and a few months. They weren’t using the internet at all. Now, all that has changed. The Institute website is an important part of our identity, but the Institute has also thrived on being a real physical space where people meet, talk, perform, discuss, drink and have a domestic row. The children are happy with the online content of the Institute website and their representations on it, and at times I sense that they are kind of proud of the Institute, its difference and eccentric character. That changes all the time though.
As parents we try to emphasise ‘the now’ as opposed to an abstract ‘the future,’ which can make you feel paranoid and overwhelmed. As technology advances we will find ourselves in different realities and in different human relations, but the Institute is interested in combating the immediate conditions and providing a living, breathing alternative. As things stand we haven’t really worried too much about face recognition software developments or any other spying/tracking devices, even when there’s a massive inquiry underway at the moment into unethical undercover policing techniques used by the British police force to infiltrate activist groups. We are all less and less free and further restricted, but we live in the present and try not to obsess with the dystopian future. It’s so seductive to obsess about a bad future.
CR: Who have been your models for artist-parenting / parent-artisting?
Lena: When we started I genuinely didn’t know many artist-parents as we were in our mid-twenties when we had babies. We were trying to make our careers as artists and trying to manage new responsibilities as parents. We didn’t really have any friends who were parents as well. We seemed to be the first ones with babies in our group of friends.
Once we felt settled in Liverpool and started attending toddler groups, we found a new group of friends who were also parents and activists (not necessarily self-identified as artists). We used to talk about alternative, anti-capitalist and cooperative structures of living. We dreamt of setting up some kind of utopian autonomous spaces which would include home schooling/education, leisure, shared labour and lots of organic gardening. These conversations in toddler groups were really formative and important.
Once we had set up the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, our children were 6 and 4, and I was pregnant with a new baby. The Institute’s first year of residencies was primarily concerned with unpicking relations between art and capitalism and issues of financial transparency. Our children were around, but we weren’t necessarily focused on ourselves as parents/artists. We identified ourselves as anti-capitalists, activist, anarchist and feminist.
In 2009, we were invited by Townley and Bradby to join ‘artists as parents as artists’ weekend at Wysing Arts Centre near Cambridge and whilst this was a memorable experience, we also realized that we weren’t necessarily interested in fitting in with a group of artists just on the basis of being parents. We identified with the art activist scene in the UK much more strongly and later on engaged in research around historical alternative pedagogical practices with children such as The Liverpool Anarchist Communist Sunday School and a number of similar schools from the beginning of the 20th century in London. In 2011, the Institute organized ‘family residencies’ in order to hold conversations about art-activism and the upbringing of children. We hosted Helena Walsh, Kevin Biderman and their daughter Ella from London, a place of their own collective from Sheffield, Townley and Bradby from Norwich and Reverend Billy, Savitri D and their daughter Lena from New York who were touring the UK.
In 2015, we set up the Family Activist Network in order to discuss family life and climate change. We initially invited 20 families across Europe into the project – they all got a letter and a post card asking for slow-mail correspondence on the issue of climate change with a view that we all meet together in Paris for COP21, as a part of the social movement for ecological justice. 12 families responded and 24 of us, parents and children, went to Paris in December 2015 for demonstrations and actions around COP21 and climate change. Unfortunately, some of the families dropped out of the Paris trip due to terrorist attacks in Paris last November, but for all of us who went it was a wonderfully memorable experience. All dressed in red, with toddlers and prams, with primary school aged children, with teenagers, joining in the Redlines march at The Arc de Triomphe, playing with Inflatable Cobblestones, eating croissants, feeling empowered by belonging to the social movement for ecological justice, traveling across Paris by metro, eating together in a brasserie, walking around Père Lachaise Cemetery. 30 of us from the Family Activist Network will now meet again in May for a weekend in North Wales in order to create a chaos-filled performance about climate change and family life, reflecting on our slow mail correspondence, Paris trip, The Paris Agreement on Climate Change, future generations and the dying planet.
CR: Every year your children decide if they want to continue being a part of the Institute. Would the dynamic of your family change if someone opted out… or if the Institute ceased to exist?
Lena: One of our favourite lines, when presenting the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, is to say that the Institute is always in the state of collapse. Whilst this is true, the Institute has also become too precious to all of us (except of course James). The Institute is our critical space, and a kind of political consciousness, but it’s also lots of fun. As I have already mentioned, the Family Activist Network are meeting for a weekend in late May to try to figure out a strategy on how to create a performance about family life and climate change. Our children are looking forward to meeting other artists/activists’ children again. This is effectively a working holiday. Protests and demonstrations are fun family days out. Visitors to the Institute bring newness and excitement into our household. The Institute room is a space for weird kind of activities but also a spare room where one can lie down and, whilst looking over all the changing banners, leaflets, correspondence and post cards blu-tacked on the wall, reflect on one’s life and activities. Neal (15) recently said the Institute was his favourite room in the house.
Gary and I have had a few conversations about finishing the Institute – making it extinct, ‘selling it’, passing it on. We might invite a residency one day where we commission someone else to run it for a year. We have now been invited to Tate Modern to deliver a talk on ‘Beings and Things’ as a part of the Symposium Playing Up: Live Art for Adults and Kids. Whilst it’s great to see that big cultural institutions like the Tate are becoming more open and interested in children as artists, this might also be a sign for us that the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home has become too easy to commodify. Therefore, we must remember to engage in ways that help us to stay real, radical and challenging because the world we all inhabit is itself radically unjust.
This interview has been published in partnership with Cultural ReProducers.
Images courtesy of The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home.