The best thing is the way we seep into each other’s lives. One day you’ve been friends long enough to make a tree…
I do think the question of how you translate visual material into language invites a lot of political questions as well. When you look at an art object which is also a commodity, the way that you choose to describe it motions toward several different parties that have colluded to create and present that object.
I’m sure I will regret this, but, I don’t know, I try to remember when I’m writing about anything and especially when I’m writing about art, it is important for me, Tobi Haslett, to maintain some sort of political fidelity to the project of dismantling capitalism. I know that that won’t occur because I’m writing in a glossy magazine. The most I can hope for is probably some slight futile reorientation of the reader’s sensibilities, and I pride myself on knowing that most people don’t even get that. So, when I think about what it actually means to translate visual material into linguistic material, I recognize that that’s also a part of an ideological process. I don’t say that as a way to deride it, but more as an invitation to kind of inject it with your own sensibility, your own thoughts about the world, and to be reflexive about the way that you have been taught or have taught yourself to interpret things.
When I was 17, I started looking for something… else on my high school library’s shelves. Voracious reader that I was, I enjoyed the texts my teachers assigned, but grew dissatisfied. The required reading did provide me with examples of the type of thinker I might be, and I admired literary projects undertaken by authors like Hawthorne, Joyce and Eliot, Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Salinger. But, I had this history and culture that I wanted acknowledged and reflected back to me in similarly symbolic or abstracted form in rigorous, innovative texts by Black authors in addition to those by the white American and British writers whose work we studied. In my mind, those possible books were out ‘there’ in the vast ‘away’ far from Boca Raton, maybe in ‘New York’ or ‘Boston’ or ‘Philadelphia’1.
I went ‘away’ to Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C. And in the first month of my freshman year, I saw on a wire spinner in the university’s bookstore African American author Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye. In that place, the title read like a dare, so I bought the book. Reading it in my dorm room, on the first page I found this passage:
I was stunned and elated and vindicated2.
- From the beginning of the second chapter of the “Winter” section of The Bluest Eye: “They come from Mobile. Aiken. From Newport News. From Marietta. From Meridian. And the sound of these places in their mouths make you think of love…. You don’t know what these towns are like, but you love what happens to the air when they open their lips and let the names ease out.” ↩︎
- from Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Community-Sourced Narratives and a Praxis of Contemporary Art, my MFA Thesis, © Copyright 2014, 2016 Allison Bolah. All Rights Reserved. ↩︎
I had a very good editor, superlative for me — Bob Gottlieb. What made him good for me was a number of things — knowing what not to touch; asking all the questions you probably would have asked yourself had there been the time. Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. Dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable — not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time. Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions. Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do. I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels. But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. I read books all the time that I know would have profited from not a copy editor but somebody just talking through it. And it is important to get a great editor at a certain time, because if you don’t have one in the beginning, you almost can’t have one later. If you work well without an editor, and your books are well received for five or ten years, and then you write another one — which is successful but not very good — why should you then listen to an editor?
These Hollywood archetypes and cultural stereotypes — a lot of that was used as propaganda. It keeps us from connecting with other people, because we get stuck on the historical stuff that’s supposed to keep us separated. We’re really not that separate. I have to work on that in my day-to-day life, because even as an artist, it becomes so insular. My work keeps me connected to something bigger than myself, where I can connect with people and have a dialogue.
I am hopeful that my mother will be around to share many more years with us. But I’m now attempting to find some comfort in the idea that I can keep her close to me for as long as I live by struggling to remain decent, the pursuit that I’ve seen conjure up incredible power during the course of her life. The world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold onto yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform, which is why seeing it done with aplomb is as thrilling as looking at dinosaur bones or seeing a herd of elephants. It’s an honor to exist on Earth with these things.
Depending on what stage of the project I am in, the process differs. Early on, I am sketching, doing drawings, working out characters, relationships, and connections between the paintings. That goes on for a few months in the beginning. [For this work,] I had just come off of a more research-based online project (John Brown Song! for Dia Foundation) and the paintings needed to absorb that material in a somewhat removed and tangential way. I don’t think of the two projects as explicitly related, but similar questions inform the works.
In terms of what happens in the studio, over time my activity becomes more regimented, more precise. An entire day could be mixing a background color and doing tests of that color, or a day could be devoted to what [the characters] are wearing on their feet, and cross-checking feet. I work on the paintings as a group so they are all brought along at the same time, and they are all finished at about the same time.
What’s the best way to watch it or interact with it? I can tell you, I did not watch it linearly. I watched the first two, then I went to all thumbnails and I clicked around there, then I went back to the original one and clicked through, then I went to the last page. So I was all over the place. You obviously put in a lot of time thinking about how you placed that, and then I just disrupted it.
I suspected that people would go into it in wildly different ways, though I suppose I do have my preferences for viewing it. I think it is also okay to mess with my usual ability to control things—as I would with paintings—because a premise of the series is that they’re asking artists to work in an unfamiliar medium. I mean, I didn’t even know how big a pixel was. I didn’t know what the refresh button was at the top. I worked with a technician who did the programming that made it all work. I designed what you are looking at on each page, all of the details, and how you move through the site. I chose the videos and the archival material and did some minor editing. The videos were made by the participants so you are seeing each person’s individual choices once you start playing the songs. Like YouTube, I wanted a button to get out, a button to pause, simple ways to give you maximum control. I wanted to give you choices because if you’re trapped with someone singing for that long and you’re not happy with it, you won’t want to stay. I went with what I like about looking at things on the Internet, and I have to be able to stop things. I don’t like being trapped, and I don’t like things that have a long load time.
One of the questions, given its simplicity: is the user experience going to be enough to hold someone who’s younger? My aesthetic is really pared down. If you look at my paintings, that carries over. Having it on a white background was a big decision. The guy I was working with was suggesting I could have things moving or changing or blinking and I came out of that conversation asking, “But could I have it on a white background?”
The older you get the more you think about what your beginning was like. So that I think the South has a lot of influence in my work. You can see that you’re responding to an environment that you may not have necessarily thought was still present.
I think of the color of plants, spring plants. The color and the presence of trees. Things that were outside that I discovered. If you live in Washington you discover azaleas or you see forsythia for the first time. And at some point of discovery, you think back to the first time that you noticed color in landscape. What were the colors that you see? In the South it would be evergreen, or particularly in Mississippi, that evergreen forest. And it becomes the models for instructing you to do things.
Well, I’m a daughter of the [G]reat [M]igration as, really, the majority of African Americans that you meet in the [N]orth and [W]est are products of the Great Migration. It’s that massive. Many of us owe our very existence to the fact that people migrated.
In my own family’s case, my mother migrated from Georgia, from Rome, Georgia to Washington, D.C., and my father migrated from southern Virginia to Washington, D.C., where they met, married and here I am. Had it not been for the Great Migration I wouldn’t exist, and yet I felt that the story wasn’t really being told from the perspective of the people who had lived this.
We didn’t know why they left or how they made the decision to leave. What were their lives like before they left? How’d they get the courage to leave the only place they’d ever known for a place they’d never seen, for an uncertain future in a place that was often cold and forbidding, anonymous and not welcoming to them, and how did they make it once they got there?
Those were the kind of questions that I had, and those are the questions that really help to give us a sense of how the cities came to be and how so many African Americans ended up in these cities – Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York.
I actually refer to them as immigrants. I refer to them as having the same kind of immigrant heart and motivations and desires and goals and dreams for themselves as any immigrant, as any person who might have crossed the Atlantic in steerage.
So what I’m looking at is the fact that what is it that propelled them is a human story, a classic American story, and how tragic is it that they ended up having to go to far reaches of their own country in order to find the freedom that they really would have been born to.
So when I use it, I’m using that, in a way, as a provocative term to get us to think about this migration differently. They were doing what so many other groups of people are often lauded for doing. In other words, they came to these cities without really any backup at all.
They lived in neighborhoods where they were confined to. They doubled up and tripled up in homes or apartments or cold water flats. They took multiple jobs and ended up often making more money in the aggregate than the people who were there already.
In other words, they were working very hard in order to survive, which is the classic American story, a classic immigrant story, and yet they had to do that within their own country, within the borders of our own country, and yet they were not immigrants.