Responsibility | Marisa Williamson


Performance Artist Marisa Williamson had quite the busy year. Starting with Mural Arts' Monument Lab project in Philadelphia, then in Charlottesville for the Ruffin Distinguished Artist in Residence at UVA, not to mention many other exciting projects! She took time out of her busy schedule to answer some of my burning questions.

Z:  Ok, so my first question for you is - when and how did you decide you wanted to be an artist, and a performance artist at that.

M: Um, I think when I went to graduate school. I’d say, as odd as it sounds, I wasn’t sure before going to graduate school if I was really going to be like an artist, like an artist professionally - but then in the middle of school I was invitied to do this residency in Maine, and after that summer I definitely started thinking more about taking myself seriously as a professional artist. Then in my second year of graduate school, I was with my advisor explaining the research that I had been compiling on Sally Hemings, and wondering how to kind of visualize the research and my, what it felt like, obsession with her. My advisor suggested that I think about what it would mean to kind of perform her, kind of inhabit that person.  

So I wasn’t drawn to performance art because of the performance itself, but out of a necessity, kind of the conceptual necessity, of having exhausted the effectiveness of metaphor, you know.  The problem was trying to create a chain of equivalency between things, trying to create a change between feelings of insecurity, or depression, or racism, and the ability to kind of name something or label something that could be a really impressive way, and in some way, step into her body or perform, could be a useful way of bypassing the trouble with metaphor, and instead just be the character, and force people to think about history not metaphorically but as a kind of living, still breathing problem.  So that’s what got me into performance!  It gave me a sense that people felt able to talk to me in a way that felt more productive about the questions I had, about like how racism could exist before and how it could settle.  

That’s a long answer, but yeah that’s some of the background!

Z: Yeah, no I understand completely! So do you base all of your work off of a historical context, or do you bring it into the contemporary by focusing on more “modern” issues so to speak - or do you think that both are relevant at the same time?

M: Yeah the goal is really to have both happen, both past and present be you know, fused together.  So in one of my first performance of Sally Hemings I was thinking so what kind of shoes should I wear?  So I have a dress that I had made before coming to the decision, but I was like what should I wear on my feet?  I don’t know if I want to wear kind of old-timey shoes - and so we agreed that wearing sneakers would be an important way of giving the character a way of being not fully believable, I didn’t want people to mistake me for a reenactor.  I wanted in some way to give a clue to the audience, or the prospective audience, that I wasn’t the real thing.  Some people want me to be the real thing.  Some of what has been amusing is the different types of beliefs that people bring when they watch me or interact with me, and how their desire to object plays on to me, plays out even as I remind them I’m not her and also present.  For me every performance, and every kind of work is about how do questions in the past play out in the present, how to questions in the present play out in the past, and moving back and forth.

Z: And so you were one of the Monument Lab artists this year with your work which is actually how I learned of you and your work! What was the creative process for that like in terms of planning more of like an interactive piece?   

M: Monument Lab was a really wonderful! I’d been trying to think about how to get away from my Sally Heming’s work for a while, and Monument Lab posed a really good opportunity, in that I could think a little bit more broadly and maybe without the burden that being Heming brings, as being a pretty difficult character to inhabit.  And so for Monument Lab I had been talking about that with Paul Farber about what could happen in this space, quickly gentrifying, I mean it’s done gentrifying and it’s very fancy now, but it had previously been a burial ground, and that burial ground was discovered maybe seven years ago, and people are still not sure what to do with the fact that there are bodies buried under a little playground.  I thought of making a swing set, I like the idea of people playing on it.  And that swing set would also have a map, and that map would include historical locations, and you know kids could drop off on the map used at different moments in history and moments of the city.  I was really trying to fuse the sadness of it being a burial ground with the sacredness of play, which I think is also important but we ended up not being able to build anything there.  

So I went back and kept thinking and thinking! I still liked the idea of playfulness and transportation, like when you go through a portal in a way to get to the past. Thinking about games not meant to be super super fun, but kind of like a scavenger hunt or a searching game, and out of that I developed the idea for a video scavenger hunt where people would use clues, literal, verbal clues, to find visual clues that were already in the landscape to help navigate through the neighborhood. Using the clues to transport someone into the past and tell a story about the past.  As that came together, all these other ideas fell into place, like creating an app. Working with the developers they had a lot of ideas about how to make use of the area. Then coming up with this character, Amelia Brown.  I’d found her in the beginning, her name was on a headstone that was excavated from the burial ground at the park, so I thought that she would be a good person to go through the scavenger hunt as this ghost woman.  Which is, in a way, what Sally Hemings has been doing for me up until that point, just being like a ghost who could take people all around and show them what it is they’ve had trouble seeing in the environment around them, in the past.

Z:  I thought it was incredible by the way!  It was definitely a different approach to the Monument Lab project and I thought it was a really great take--

M: Yeah, I mean it was fun to do and I also didn’t know if I could do it.  I mean that was the other thing, often I think of something and I think that would be cool but I don’t know how to do it.  So this one was particularly rewarding, because you know it’s really nice to think of something crazy and then finally to get it done!

Z:  And so, after doing the Monument Lab piece that was so interactive, do you think that’s going to influence your future work?  Is it something that you enjoyed and want to continue?  Or do you like it being more performative, as in you with an audience?

M: Um, I really liked performance for video.  I mean it’s really stressful to perform live and something that was something nice about representing other people, and so having a break from you know, having to be in all the work, and working with other people to think about what the black experience is. You know I had been creating work out of my own experience being black and that can be kind of lonely you know-- thinking about what it feels like today.

Thinking about that is hard. But being able to work with other people and having them perform the black experience was really enlightening for me.  And then, kind of the test was really interesting, I think that the people I partnered with- the developer- it’s been nice to be in contact with them and figuring out ways to archive the project and that is kind of becoming a different kind of virtual project, so in that way I’m continuing this virtual work.  I think it made me think of monuments as something that doesn’t need to be so static, and kind of evolving my practice in that way, in what a monument can be, what the intent of performing monument or memory can be. I guess in short, different parts of that process are influencing my practice.  I don’t think that I’m going to make another app or another virtual reality thing, but the language of virtual reality and thinking about what it means to alternate reality with virtual reality and what it means in a psychological sense.

Z:  That’s interesting because earlier in one of your answers, you actually kind of started to touch on my next question - you’ve built your artistic career on representing the African American/ female narrative or experience in your work - do you think one is more important than the other in terms of being female or African American or do you think both are inherently connected?

Sweet Chariot

M: I had an interesting argument- not argument, my mom doesn’t like it when I use the word argument, but discussion with my mom - I think it was years ago, are you a woman first or a black person first?  And you know, anyone can feel any way, but she felt that she was black first.  And I mean you know, she’s sixty years old now, and I think generationally people’s experiences are different.  But recently, with issues around sexual assault and people being heard when it comes to ways that the world is different for them as women, Black Lives Matter, there’s just been a real intensity about what you identify with.  

I think, I really feel like a black woman.  I feel like the intersection of those two identities is it’s own unique intersection, and I think I have trouble separating the two. I think that many of my collaborators and closest friends are women of different ethnic backgrounds, black men and the black community also….  I don’t know, I don’t know if I have an answer.  I think what it has meant, is that you have these loyalties that are constantly tested and that feels like the what those identities mean.  I really don’t have an answer I guess.

Z: No, no it’s fine! It’s an interesting question,  a few of my friends and I were at dinner the other night and we were talking about this in a way. It’s what sparked me to write the question- “which one do you identify more with if you had to pick one?”  It’s always a difficult question, and I can see it turning into an ‘argument’ talking about different generations...

M:  Well you know sexism is like… I think I feel with my gender a lot. I think I operate in the world as a woman,  as in I often feel like a woman when I’m scared, or I’m safe, or I’m interacting with others, that to kind of them and the prejudices that come with them feel pretty real and pretty urgent recently.  Like how do we defend and support feminineness and how do we fight sexism and violence against women.   Like how do we stop it all over the world?  So I guess when I was talking to my mom that’s what I felt was really urgent, and yeah, I guess… 

Z: Which leads me to the big question for this issue -- how has your perspective or approach to your craft changed, if at all, since the election? 

M:  Well a lot happened this year.  There was the election, that was a shock.  Again, experienced with my mom.  We went to vote, we were excited, also nervous but mostly excited.  And then, I think when I went back to New York that evening, it was just like, what had happened?  There was a lot of shock, and kind of just doubting your reality, kind of like being in a virtual reality.  Having made work for a long time about white supremacy’s premises, you know historically, and without calling it white supremacy that often, but just about slavery and the black experience, and then having white supremacy just emerge you know out of this political upheaval in a way that just felt very old-fashioned and made my work feel especially dark, and especially predictive.  Or then, on the best days it felt like a useful tool- that kind of changed how I viewed my work.  

Then coming down to Charlottesville, I had been invited to come down for the riots and the violence at this place that had been kind of transformed by that.  So yeah, it feels like the shift in politics has made my work feel more purposeful for me.  I had been planning to you now quit Sally Hemings, and even if I stopped performing her the political climate has given my work new meaning, and it has given me a little more enthusiasm, motivation, and interest in really trying to seek my truth.  And unearthing the past, and making sure that people are on the same page about the dangers of the past, and how important it is to keep those dangers from taking hold in the present. 

Z:  So with that being said then, do you feel like as a female feminist of color, do you feel like you have a civic responsibility to talk about these things?

M:  I mean, yeah, I mean I have always - and maybe that makes me different from other artists and sometimes I feel regretful- but I always feel like being an artist is a luxury and a privilege and it’s a place from which to speak and speak what you believe in the hopes of making the world a better place.  And that’s not for everyone, but it’s really real for me.  And it constantly makes me readjust what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and what form it’s taking, in order to be as effective as possible at communicating and for me, showing the world as I see it.

Z: Ok ok -  and then on a lighter note, do you have any upcoming projects you’re really excited about or are you debuting new work?!

M:  Yeah!  Well I have this film up at Brick in Brooklyn, and that show is the prototype called Fire, but it’s the prototype for a show called Steel Bed which I’m hoping can get installed down here in Charlottesville, which is a bed with a garden where the mattress would be and it’s kind of a monument to Sally Hemmings.  And I’m working with people here in Charlottesville to get it made, and hopefully find it a permanent home here in Charlottesville.  Because I’ve been interested of course as I said in monuments, in memorials, and I think it would be a really interesting way to fuse the past trajectory of my work with this conversation about monuments and its in a central place in Charlottesville, which was Sally Hemings’ home- where she lived and died.  And then yeah, I have some big projects that I’m thinking about in the back of my mind , trying to figure out how to have a conversation about slavery, how to bring that to the present.  There are slaves in the world.  So that’s very new, that kind of research, creative research, but I’m really interested in shining some light on slavery as it has evolved in a global sore spot that doesn’t have a lot of light on it.  It’s kind of on the margins of civil society.

This video is about Monticello Burning.

Zoe Rayn Evans