elena harvey collins and liz roberts: soft regards

Marisa Espe: One aspect of your last collaboration, Downward Dishwasher, is your critique of personal wellness as a consumer good, like finding your Zen in those sayings on the Lululemon recyclable bags. In Soft Regards, you have the striking sweep of the exercise bands down the Weston’s staircase. Can you talk a bit about how fitness, or maybe the lifestyle surrounding fitness, takes shape in both installations?

Elena Harvey Collins: We both feel really conflicted about the role of exercise; specifically practices like yoga and meditation in increasing a sense of isolation or passivity–how they help fuel a retreat from the world. I have a personal and absolutely essential relationship to yoga—it’s my therapy and a place to get centered and purposeful, not to forget. And it’s taken me a while to find a studio and a practice that does that for me. Particularly since moving to California, I’ve felt the absence of anger or urgency among people I meet, and it’s really bothered me. Liz doesn’t practice yoga, but she thinks about it a lot—being sold the idea that freedom looks like a white woman doing yoga on the beach. There’s also the cliché of Californians’ obsession with bodies and bodily improvement, and while we both think self care is really important, there’s this point where it tips into indulgence or to not holding ourselves accountable. We are talking specifically about a type of yoga practice–let’s just call it white yoga, the Lululemon variety–that has co-opted yoga and meditation, and emphasizes the idea that taking care of self, letting go of anger, is not only OK but is the right thing to do. To be able to “let go” is to be in such a position of privilege, and I think it is a distortion of true yoga practice. I remember during Ferguson, this white mother was on the news saying how she was not letting her kids go outside or watch any TV news because she didn’t want them to be afraid. In my head, those two things are connected.  The messaging of white yoga and particularly the slogans on the Lululemon manifesto—decontextualized pop-psychology snippets like “your outlook on life is a direct reflection on how much you like yourself” or “do one thing a day that scares you”–is really reductive and we think it points to a wider issue: the way that neoliberal capitalism creates this unattached, individual who alone is responsible for their health, happiness, and success. And so if you fail, it’s all on you: you didn’t work hard enough/weren’t good enough. In Downward Dishwasher we were pushing back against the callousness of that idea, as well as lampooning the way that women are still expected to maintain these perfect bodies and homes, which is why you hear me reading parts of the Lululemon manifesto and twisting them while doing the made up exercises and sticking my head in the oven.

We chose to site that video in a really opulent, beautiful kitchen because we wanted to inhabit and bring complexity to the identity of the woman who attends a white yoga class. She’s white and suburban, but it’s never that simple. The piece is certainly a critique of that, but the intent is to criticize the culture without demonizing her.

For Soft Regards, we wrote a screenplay in which part of the action takes place in a yoga class that is also a survival class. The format of a screenplay is really rigid, all of the text falls into categories: transition, dialog, parenthetical, action. It’s a working document not intended for display that constitutes a set of instructions to the director. We played with the format and used those conventions to think about the space of the page, the text as a landscape. It’s really stripped down and sparse, and there are moments where it degenerates into poetry or shifts from real dialog (taken from conversations between the two of us) to an invented scene or a direct quote from a book. Language is a key part of our work, and we are often looking for double meanings or odd parallels. In Sanskrit, Savasana means “corpse pose” and we were thinking about how that pose (lying down flat on your back, with palms facing upward) is kind of like a rehearsal for dying or being dead. And then that led to us thinking about how children rehearse lockdown drills and how they have to be completely still and quiet; complete stillness is the goal in corpse pose as well. For us, that connected back to the Lululemon manifesto and the weight of (self) care on the individual, and the lockdown drill symbolizes how the body of the child is supposed to hold against the violence and dysfunction of society. It’s absurd and futile and speaks to the way that violence is always just beneath the surface, despite our cultural aversion to talking and thinking about death. We combined text from 100 Deadly Skills, which is a survival manual written by an ex-navy seal, with the patter of a yoga instructor, and we shifted gender focus; there are scenes that take place in a yoga studio, where the instructor is teaching mothers how to be both invisible but deadly.

Resistance is a simple play on words, too: it refers to the material, these exercise bands that have varied levels of stretch, but also to political resistance, and how we all need to stretch, both physically and metaphorically, in order to connect and resist together.

I’m especially interested in the survivalist manuals: from where and when are these sourced? There’s the caricature of the paranoid “prepper,” often highly armed white men and families hoarding dry food, etc. What are plausible alternative identities of a prepper? Who is the prepper against psychic attack?

Yeah, survivalism is seen as this paranoid, fringe activity and it is culturally owned by angry white men. But there is a lot to be valued in the practice of survivalism, a lot that feels pretty urgent right now, particularly the ideas of resilience, resourcefulness, and autonomy. So part of what we wanted to do with Soft Regards was to expand the scope of what would be considered a “survivalist text” or “instructional.” At the heart of the exhibition is a reading room that houses texts that have been important to us in thinking about this show. It includes titles like 100 Deadly Skills but also women’s health guides; Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; A Pattern Language (a human-centered urban planning guide written in the 1970s); and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which can absolutely be read as a proto-survivalist text with a Black female protagonist and leader who has this struggle of survival in the near-future southern California landscape. Becoming an Outdoors Woman by Christine L. Thomas, which offers a woman-centered guide to learning how to hunt, fish, and become wilderness wise, is also there. Thomas talks about experiencing dismissal and sexism from other men in the field when she was starting out. We wanted to correct the idea that only a certain type of person would find survivalist skills useful or has the right to be on the land and the idea that only an overtly instructional text could be urgent or practical. The six diagrams that we made reproduce storyboard-diagrams from 100 Deadly Skills and “annotate” them with excerpts from theory texts that have been really important for us. So for instance, a guide on how to dispose of a body by different means, including dismemberment or dissolving, is overlaid with words from Hito Steyerl’s “Cut! Reproduction and Recombination” from Wretched of the Screen, linking the idea of a cinematic cut with a bodily one and suggesting how new bodies (corporeal, political) can be assembled from these disparate parts. It is quite a simple or dumb connection to reorient the whole thing.

I’d also love to hear more about your explorations of landscape. Suburban neighborhoods, vacant shopping centers, commercial sprawl, all are peripheral geographically, but I also feel like these landscapes are rarely represented in the visual arts and instead focus is placed on either urban or rural America. You also investigate landscaping as motifs to define certain spaces, and even employ landscaping as an artistic practice.

We have both lived in many different places: I’m from London and spent eight years living in Ohio before I moved to California last year. Liz is from the Midwest but spent years living in NYC and New Jersey. You could say we’ve been feeling strange in different landscapes for years. Place is really important for me, to my identity, and I am painfully aware of how landscaping as a practice—you could also call it urban planning or landscape architecture—is powerful in creating a sense of unease or estrangement that can live deep in the psyche. We have used landscaping materials like mulch in our installations in the past, thinking about how mulch is used as an agent of control, and spreading out to think about how constructed landscapes control and direct our experience in a more direct way.

I think it is hard to talk about the suburbs without being reductive, but to us they represent a really interesting site. First of all, I get sick of how dismissals of the suburbs often seem to be, underneath it all, dismissals of women—”soccer moms”—underlaid with an assumption that the places they inhabit couldn’t possibly be sites of worthwhile cultural production. And then there is the fact that affording an “urban” lifestyle is unattainable for most people with families and, in fact, unattainable full stop for most of us. There’s this reverse white-flight thing happening right now, where young white Millennials are moving back to cities, which is a nice way of saying there is an inherently violent and racialized displacement of poor people and people of color to the suburbs or to new housing developments that have all the signifiers of suburb (big house, yard, space) but which suffer poor air quality (specifically in California) and come with devastating commute times. So the suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse, and though that is for terrible reasons, it is interesting to think about the enclosure and protection offered by the suburbs in terms of community autonomy and as sites of resistance.

Landscape is working on many levels in this installation. The mediation of landscape through film, through driving, is a central preoccupation for us. In film, landscape is often reduced to a location or backdrop. Our “film” is set in California’s Central Valley, in the city of Fresno and the tiny town of Los Banos. The valley is a part of California that historically has not had a huge cultural presence but is growing really fast as ordinary people can’t afford to live on the coast any longer. The fast growth and cheap land means there is a great deal of suburbs-without-cities springing up, creating this surreal, temporally indeterminate landscape: farmland being prepared for development, foreshadowing a domestic landscape. It already feels like a film set in many ways in that these places are unanchored from their surroundings, which is this dramatic, arid, wild environment. The harshness of the climate definitely informed the way that survivalism arose as a key theme for us, as it’s very much a part of the culture there.

We went about putting the installation together as if we were making an exploded diagram of a film. The process of filmmaking includes all these activities and disciplines that are made invisible in the final product. This includes research, screenplay writing, location scouting, set production, composing a shot. We undertook all of these tasks, without the intention of producing the film in the conventional sense, but with the idea of creating a filmic space that mimics the real-fake space of a film. So when you are in the installation space you are in the film space, and the individual works in the show also go between real and staged. The video No. 008: Use Improvised Body Armor is both an earnest attempt to recreate an instructional diagram from 100 Deadly Skills and a camera blocking exercise where we are rehearsing the shot: telling each other how to position our bodies in front of the camera, hold our arms out, how to walk, stand, etc. On our location scouting trips, walls emerged as an important motif for us as they are so prominent in the landscape of Fresno. Sure, there is the gated-enclosure variety, but also these patched, improvised, overgrown barriers that protect ordinary neighborhoods from smog and traffic noise. We combined several extended takes of these walls for the piece Protection, which we made while driving (very, very slowly) the periphery of these neighborhoods. The projections continuously circle the outside walls of the reading room. It’s a play on a location scout, dolly or virtuoso tracking shot. In projecting footage of walls onto walls, we were also thinking about how walls become screens, connecting back to the housing development film sets and to how film creates this illusion of space and depth. This piece is also about reorienting the gaze; Soft Regards means a way of looking that is gendered, a femme way of looking that is soft but serious, that addresses the power relations in how landscape is seen, processed and represented.

Has Soft Regards changed or adopted new meaning for you following the election results and ensuing events?

The climax of a film also doubles as a crisis; as we were finishing work on Soft Regards, the election happened. I think it has reaffirmed our commitment to complexity and complication, and representing those things now feels even more urgent.  After the election, we wanted to add a work that addresses the election more directly, so we made a series of four posters that quote or are inspired by our theoretical mothers, including Donna Haraway and Hito Steyerl. Together they form a sentence that can be read as a set of instructions to be expanded and built upon: Mother and destroy, refuse to normalize, stay with the trouble, and go off screen.

Elena Harvey Collins is an artist and writer based in Santa Cruz, CA. She has a BFA from Kingston University, London (2006), and an MFA from the Columbus College of Art and Design (2012).  She is an artist in residence at Kala Art Institute, Berkeley, CA, and has participated in exhibitions and screenings at SPACES Gallery (Cleveland, OH); Beeler Gallery (Columbus, OH); Enmedia Gallery and Production Society (Calgary, Ca); Videoholica (Varna, Bulgaria) and others. Her essays and criticism have been published in Art Practical, Daily Serving, Wow Huh, The Glassblock, and Temporary Art Review, in addition to exhibition catalogs. She was curatorial assistant at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, where her projects included Fatima Al Qadiri: Chinas of the Mind; image word song (curator, both 2015), and How to Remain Human (contributing curator, 2015).

Liz Roberts is a filmmaker and artist whose work has screened/exhibited at Ann Arbor Film Festival (Ann Arbor, Michigan), Chicago International Film Festival, New York Expo of Short Film and Video, Microscope Gallery (Brooklyn, NY), Wexner Center for the Arts (Columbus, OH), Grand Rapids Art Museum (Grand Rapids, MI), the Filmmakers’ Coop (New York, NY), SPACES (Cleveland, OH), Cranbrook Academy of Art (Bloomfield Hills, MI), and elsewhere. Roberts is a co-founder of the sound-driven video collaboration group Earcatcher and a member of MINT Collective. Educator appointments include visiting assistant professor, Department of Cinema, Denison University and visiting full time faculty, Cinematic Arts, Columbus College of Art & Design.

Marisa Espe in conversation with Elena Harvey Collins