A Conversation with Michelle Beck
1. What are you interested in regarding your work?
I am interested in the spiritual and ritualistic meanings of the human figure and how it has been represented throughout history and embedded in various cultural heritages. My work explores topics such as speech and the human body as the tools for social interaction, the relationship between time and the human life cycle, the mind/body dichotomy and the notion of free will.
2. Who influenced or still influences your work? Whose work do you admire?
I started out as a sculptor and was very influenced by figures of spiritual comfort and connection in other cultures. When I visited Asia, I was profoundly affected by the manifestation of the sacred in the Buddha sculptures, especially the monumental ones like the one at the Po Lin monastery in Hong Kong. I love being overwhelmed by the size of objects. Recently, this has been shown in my fascination with desert landscapes and the other-worldly rock formations found in Cappadocia, Turkey and New Mexico. At this time though, I no longer make large objects. I choose to articulate the vast interior landscape of our existential journey using performance and video.
My primary influence has been my life experience rather than the work of other artists. That said, there are many artists that inspire me such as Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, Maureen Fleming, Bruce Nauman, Abramovic & Ulay, Kiki Smith, Samuel Beckett and Hiroshi Teshigahara.
3. What’s a recent exhibit you went to which stood out, or who would you recommend seeing?
In December, I saw a performance by one of my favorite choreographers, Lucy Guerin, called Untrained. For this piece there were four dancers (two trained, two untrained), a square taped to the floor, and instructions on stage for them to follow as best they can. The performance explored how the trained and untrained approach the act of moving, and what it reveals about them as individuals. I was impressed by the freshness and generosity of the untrained movement. The trained dancers were certainly stunning in terms of dancing properly, but the untrained were beautiful and surprising in their quirky humanity.
4. During our interview we were speaking about your collaboration with artist Jorge Calvo, could you tell as something more about this collaboration? How did it come about, and what about it was really positive? How did you influence each other?
Jorge and I met in 1998 and had an immediate creative connection. Originally he was helping me with my video-performance work and after a short while we realized that we were collaborating. As collaborators, we never argued about the work, but just kept getting continually inspired by each other’s thoughts and ideas. Jorge is from Costa Rica, and his thinking is influenced by his culture and its connection to a surreal reality and the magic of dreams. Coming from the United States, I was brought up with a more concrete vision of the world, and my work tends to be more conceptual and psychoanalytical with a raw aesthetic. Bringing these two ways of processing the world together has been very rich for both of us personally and artistically. Furthermore, Jorge was trained in experimental theater and has a strong affinity to sound. His theater studies gave him a sensitivity to the presence of the body, which was something I was already exploring on my own. However, before I met Jorge, I was creating work about language and the body, but once we started collaborating, sound took the place of spoken language, until recently. Interestingly, the past couple of performances have begun to incorporate spoken text.
I always found my creative connection with Jorge to be something very special. I do think there is something meaningful in the meeting of our cultural and educational backgrounds, although in the end, I think our connection is beyond culture, language or logical thought. I always felt that Jorge and I were two beings made of the same soil. I think this transcends time and space and is why it has been so natural for us to create art together.
5. You mention dreams influencing your collaborate work with Calvo. Basically it’s his dreams from which you both collaborat. Do you feel that his dreams start to influence your dreams as a result of the work and the process of creating? Is it easy for you to align with that?
A number of years ago, Jorge told me about a dream he had that took place in the 18th century. In the dream, the essence of his being was trapped in the minds of three other people sitting in a room. As the dream progressed, Jorge realized that if he made minor changes in the cycle of being passed from one mind to the next, he would slowly change his present state. By the end of the dream, he had transformed from being a trapped entity to merging with the light of the universe. This past year, when we were coming up with ideas for a new piece he remembered the dream and wanted to use it as part of a new performance. He asked me to write a text based on the dream, and this is the text that is used in the performance Time Passes, which was performed in 2012. I think the dream is fascinating, but I never felt that it was mine in any way. Instead, I connect to the dream through ideas I have been exploring in my work with Jorge as well as in my own projects such as cyclical patterns, Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation, and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return.
6. How did you start working in performance art? What was the first move from being a sculptor to being a performance artist? Do you still feel that even if you express yourself through performance you are still thinking like a sculptor?
As a sculptor, I have always been interested in figurative forms. I started off by making life-size figures and occasionally monumental figures out of metal and cement. While I was completing my MFA in sculpture, the department had a camcorder for the students to document their work. The moment I got my hands on the camera I realized that instead of making a static figure, I could be the figure. By being the performer, I was able to give motion and sound to the body and articulate my ideas in a way that felt fuller to me. Within the course of a few months I made my first video Alphabet in which I taught myself how to speak and subverted the notion of education and the social construction of language. For many years, I performed for the video camera and didn’t perform live. The camera and editing process allowed me to manipulate time, space and the image in order to create an environment that evoked an interior world.
As much as I love performance and video, making sculpture and working with my hands is a visceral, intuitive and necessary experience for me, one that I have no intentions of leaving behind. I still work as a sculptor, making small figures out of paper and life-size figures from fabric as well as constructing objects used in live performances. Thinking in three dimensions and always considering how objects relate in space is a natural part of my thinking process and this is evident in my videos and performances.
7. Your work is based on visceral feelings. It has a huge emotional process behind it. Usually it’s a really heavy topic to take on alone. In your last video you show that the body is just a cover, something you’re wearing. There is beautiful music in background, and the performance is really powerful. It shows somehow the process of human consequences. It seemed like work influenced by Calvo’s dream. The interesting thing is that you are still working together even when you’re not. You must have a special connection together. That’s rare for an artist. What more can you say about your last video?
The most recent performance Jorge and I did is called Sitting. For this performance, a performer (me) comes onto the stage and puts on a full-body costume that looks like a second skin. Once in this skin, the performer sits down in a chair, and a voice reciting a poetic text begins. Theoretically, once inside the skin, the performer enters an alternative part of its consciousness, and what the audience is hearing is meant to be the figure’s thoughts. I wrote the text from a series of short poems that Jorge and I exchanged a number of years ago. In Sitting, the performer sits perfectly still for the duration of the text, and at the end, the performer stands up, takes off the costume, and walks offstage.
For the majority of the time Jorge and I have been working together, we have also performed together. Over the past year, I tend to be the only one performing on stage. I think this speaks to a shift in our practice and a desire to focus on one character at a time and delve deeper into its experience. It is important to note that I do not consider these characters as a representation of a specific person or his/her experience. When I make the costumes and create these characters, I choose to not give them defining features. I do this so that once the costume is on, gender, sexuality or social positioning can no longer define the performer. In this way, the costumed figure can be interpreted as a representation of a human being on the most basic level. The figure becomes a repository of questions and investigation about managing longing, engaging nostalgia, embracing the inherent isolation of living a corporeal existence, managing the gap of misconnection and ultimately of facing mortality. This exploration will be continued in our next solo show in November 2013 at the ISE Gallery in lower Manhattan. We will be showing a new video installation and performance called Passage, which was inspired by the Zen rock garden. Our intention is to transform the ISE Gallery into a meditative space that will invite the viewer to enter a deeper state of consciousness and evoke the kind of passage that D.T Suzuki refers to in this quote:
“When traveling is made too easy and comfortable, its spiritual meaning is lost. This may be called sentimentalism, but a certain sense of loneliness engendered by traveling leads one to reflect upon the meaning of life, for life is after all a traveling from one unknown to another unknown.”
About Michele Beck
Michele Beck creates performances, videos and installations that are extensive and in-depth researches of complex topics such as speech and the human body as tools for social interaction, the relationship between time and human life cycle, the mind/body dichotomy and the notion of free will. She delves into spiritual and ritualistic meanings of the human figure, how it has been represented throughout history and is embedded in various cultural heritages. These timely topics speak about the interconnectivity of past, present and future, at this time when mass media and consumer culture keeps the public largely misinformed about historical and current events. Her work is to illuminates the personal and the political in order create a space for reflection and greater self-awareness. She often collaborates with the artist Jorge Calvo.
Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues including: The ICA in London, The Blaffer Gallery at The Art Museum at the University of Texas Museum, Galerie Chez Valentin in Paris, The Bronx Museum, The Queens Museum, PS122, San Francisco Cameraworks, Sound Art Museum in Rome, Elizabeth Foundation, Gallery Korea, Recontre Internationales, Paris, Inport Video-Performance Festival in Estonia, LA Freewaves and the Kassler Dokumentarfilm und Videofest in Kasel, Germany. She is a recipient of grants from the Manhattan Community Arts Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the New York Foundation for the Arts as well as multiple residencies at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Michele completed her Bachelors in Art History at New York University and Masters of Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design. She teaches video production and New Media classes at the New School University and the International Center for Photography.
Exhibitions / Performances
2013 Passage, solo exhibition, ISE Cultural Foundation, NY, NY I Am Sitting, performance Dixon Place, NY, NY
2012 Water Garden, Space on White, NY, NY Time Passes, Space on White, NY, NY
2011 Imagination, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, Cave, Babayan Culture House, residency, Cappadocia, Turkey
2010 Currents, Pulse Arts, Housatonic, MA Pigeon House, Corporation of Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY
2009 Orange Echolon, Chashama Gallery, NY, NY STATIC, performance, solo show at St. Mark’s Church, NY, NY Blue Moon, Cave, Brooklyn, NY When the Stage Sets Collapses Radiant Movement, Long Island City, NY
2008 Cyclops, Ferment Festival, The Cave, Brooklyn, NY La Danza di Confine, Lerici, Italy My Little Membrane, NurtureArt Gallery, Brooklyn, NY
2007 Endoskeleton at Avant-Garde-Arama, PS 122, New York, New York Il Giardino Segreto, Primo Piano LivinGallery. Lecce, Italy between to and from Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ Experimental Video, The Incubator, Kansas City, MO Contaminate 2, Test, Boston, MA
2006 uneARTH, The Present Tense, Boston, MA Genius & Madness, Primo Piano LivinGallery. Lecce, Italy
2005 Serial Cases_1 Acquaintance,Sofia, Bulgaria Endoskeleton NurtureArt, In celebration of PERFORMA 05 Brooklyn, NY Chong Dam, Seoul, Korea Paper, Papel, Papier, NurtureArt, Brooklyn, NY
2004 Whirlwind White, ARC Gallery Media Room, Chicago, IL (solo exhibition) Video X, Momenta Art, Brooklyn, NY Contemporneity, Kyrgyz Republic. Curated by Leeza Ahmady Video Salon, Alternator Gallery of Contemporary Art, Kelowna, Canada
2003 Randall’s Tunnel, HEREart, NY (solo project sponsored by Dept of Cultural Affairs & NYFA) Biennale de L ’Image en Mouvement, Centre pour L’image Contemporaine, Geneva Single Channel, Blaffer Gallery, The Art Museum at the University of TexasMuseum, Texas SELF/PROJECTED, SF Camerawork, San Francisco, CA Immedia 2003, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan
2002 Multiplex, Galerie Chez Valentin, Paris, France Kinda Figurative, HEREart, NY, NY Zwishenraum vol. II, Satellite Project Space, LIC, NY
2001 Performance: The Art of Daily Life”, Columbia Medical Center, New York, NY. Zwishenraum, Satellite Project Space, LIC, NY Shelters for Women, Sofia Municipal Art Gallery, Sofia, Bulgaria BOX, Villa Julie College Gallery, Baltimore, MD Reaching the Heights, Columbia Medical Center, NY, NY
2000 Exchange: An Evening of Performance, 16 Beaver Group, NY, NY Snapshot, Contemporary Museum, Baltimore, MD Bulgaria, NY, Elizabeth Foundation, NY, NY (funded by The Trust for Mutual Understanding)
1999 XMAS, Kent gallery, New York, NY
1998 Reading Between the Lines, Rotunda Gallery, Brooklyn, NY Room, Bazar Gallery, Barcelona, Spain Creació Jove Mercé ’98, La Capella de la Santa Creu, Barcelona, Spain
1997 Making Light, 57 Hope Gallery, Brooklyn, NY Carving the Forces of Change, Artemisia Gallery, Chicago, IL
1995 Copyright Island, Bilbao River, Portugalete, Spain Sink, Parsons School of Design, New York, NY Drawings in Progress, Parsons School of Design, New York, NY
1994 Annual Exhibition, Sculpture Center, New York, NY Emerging Berkshire Artists, Image Gallery, Stockbridge, MA
2013 Festivalleitung Forum : : Wallis, Zurich, Switzerland 2012 Jinen Butoh, Center of Poetry, Avignon, France
2010 SanctionedArray, White Box, NY, NY Rencontres Internationales in Paris ArcheTime, New York, NY
2008 Eject 2: Mexico City International Videoperformance Festival Festival By Chance 7002 Pecs, Hungary Bac! Festival 2008, Barcelona, Spain SIMULTAN04, Timisoara, Romania Intimate and Public in Self-Portraits. Seoul, Korea
2007 Oral Action, Studio 27, San Francisco, CA Latin@ Media Festival, Toronto, Canada
2006 Inport Video- Performance Festival, Tallinn, Estonia Festival de Arte de Accion Zonadearte, Buenos Aires, Argentina Saison Video, Roubaix, France PI Performance and Intermedia, Poland & Germany Terminal Frontier Vancouver, Canada Digital Showcase, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, England
2005 Beyond Stills, Gallery Korea, NY, NY The Videodrome, Marseilles, France Fake Snow, Magic Lantern Theatre, Providence, RI
2004 Angle International Film & Video Festival, Xiamen, China Inport Video- Performance Festival, Tallinn, Estonia Festival Images Contre Nature, Cedex, France Fine Arts Theatre, Asheville, NC Hidden Camera, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth, England CEPA Gallery, Buffalo, NY. Drift, aRaMoNa Gallery, NY, NY. Whiz Bang, New York, NY. Curated by Meg Shiffler LABoratory Exhibition of Experimental Film & Video, Salt Lake City, Utah
2003 DUMBO Film Festival, Brooklyn, NY backup2003_festival.new media in film, Weimar, Germany New Filmmakers, Anthology Film Archives, New York, New York Experimental Video selected by the Video Data Bank, Sofia, Bulgaria Rencontre Internationales Paris/Berlin New Forms Festival, Montreal, Canada Antimatter Festival, Victoria, BC, Canada Bridge Magazine, Artists DVD Project Detroit International Film Festival, Museum of New Art, Detroit, MI- “Best of Show” Vertical Video, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY Spark Video, Beacon, NY Love and Other Difficulties, Rio Theatre, Santa Cruz, CA, Minna Gallery, San Francisco, CA, Firestation #3, Houston, TX, Cinema Obscura, Santa Barbara, CA Visual Affect, Remote Lounge, NY, NY. Curated by Susan Joyce Art in General Video Marathon, Art in General, NY, NY
2002 Digital Showcase, Institute of Contemporary Art, London, England Z Film Festival, Heaven Gallery, Chicago, IL Media[less]Medium, Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA Spark Video International, Spark Contemporary Art Space, Syracuse, NY Mash Bash Video, Bcat-TV, Brooklyn, NY LA Freewaves Los Angeles, CA MediaArt Friesland, Fries Museum, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands Video-Zone, International Video Art Biennial TA Cinematheque, Tel Aviv, Israel Photophobia, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Canada Tagawa International Short Film Festival, Japan Video 825, Gallery 825/LAAA, Los Angeles, CA Independent Exposure June 2002, Minna Gallery, San Francisco, CA The Experimental Show, Hotel Astor, South Beach, Fla. Screeners Club, Level X, Brooklyn, NY Nomad Video Film Festival, Fine Arts Cinema, Berkley, CA Music Video, Coolidge Center Theatre, Brookline, MA HiLow Film Festival, Victoria Theater, San Francisco, CA The Best of Z Fest. 21 Grand, Oakland, Califonia Tratado de Libre Video, Centro Multimedia, Mexico City, Mexico Art in General Video Marathon, Art in General, NY, NY
2001 Festival des Cinémas Différents, Paris, France Z Film Festival, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL. backup2001_festival.new media in film, Weimar, Germany Kassler Dokumentarfilm und Videofest, Kassel, Germany Leeds International Film Festival, Millennium Square, Leeds, UK EATOMSK, Toynbee Studios, London, UK Video Catalyst, Bronx Museum of Art, NY, NY Fully Human, Queens Museum of Art, Queens, NY Open Zone 6, Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn, NY The 2:30 Show, Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore, MD Expanded Media: (VIDEACY), Side Street Live, Los Angeles, CA Vancouver Underground Film Festival, BC Canada Axelgrease, Squeaky Wheel Cable Access, Buffalo, NY Wigged.net
1998 Festival Internacional de Video de Canarias, Palma de Gran Canarias, Spain BTV (Barcelona Televisión), Barcelona, Spain Escape, Sala Amárica, Vitoria, Spain Catacomb Micromedia, Winnepeg Manitoba, Canada Soros Center for Contemporary Art, Republic of Macedonia Kicking the Machine, Project 304, Bangkok, Thailand
1997 Artists Television Access, San Francisco, CA Independent Exposure, Seattle, WA The Sync, http://www.thesync.com/indexposure/arch1.html Talking Crazy Talk, Knitting Factory Video Lounge, New York, NY Museum of Modern Art/ Franklin Furnace Artist Book Collection
Grants / Residencies
2013 Manhattan Community Arts Fund, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Chunches del Mar, Costa Rica 2011 Babayan Culture House, residency, Cappadocia, Turkey 2010 NYSCA Residency Grant in Film and Electronic Media Residency at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, NY 2008 Crosspoint, conference and artistic collaboration at Art Center Vihroni, Sofia, Bulgaria 2005 Residency at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York 2004 Residency at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York – January, July – August 2003 Special Opportunity Stipend Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grant, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs 2002 Special Opportunity Stipend Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts 1998 Residency at ARTELEKU, San Sebastian, Spain
Education MFA, Sculpture, Parsons School of Design, NY, NY, 1996 BA, Art History, New York University, NY, NY, 1989
Visiting Artist Lectures
2013 The New School 2012 The Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD 2011 Art as Mental Health, MOMA Education Department 2010 The Honors College at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD 2009 The Erikson Institute at the Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, MA 2007 School of Visual Arts, New York, NY, Artist Talk 1998 “The Work of Valie Export”, Fundació La Caixa, Barcelona, Spain. Winchester School of Art, Barcelona, Spain, Artist Talk Women’s creative process”, Women’s Caucus for the Arts, Philadelphia, PA.
“Arte Moderna Tra Genio e Follia a Lecce”, Vito Caiati, Bari Sera, Oct 18. 2006 Voice Choices, The Village Voice, Kim Levin, Oct 29- Nov 4, 2003. “Love and Other Difficulties”, Eric Campos, Film Threat, Feb 13, 2003. Biannual film festival leave Berkley with a mouth full of spittle”, The Berkley Daily Planet, June 2002 “Video Voyage”, The Boston Globe, March 28, 2002. “Res Reports: Videacy and adHocArts.org” Res Magazine, July 19, 2001. “The Real Thing: Michele Beck & Adelina Popnedeleva”, Fair Play, April 2000. “Bulgaria, NY”, Novoye Russkoye Slovo, November 10, 2000. “Art on the Margins”, Review: The Critical State of Visual Art in NY, June 1997. “Something Big: Sculptor Michele Beck talks about her work” The Women’s Times, Jan/Feb 1994