text by Abbey Meaker
Science, alchemy, technology, and the process of distilling and translating bodily expressions – Amanda Turner Pohan’s art practice is rooted in processes that call into question the intimate relationship between bodies and the histories of embedded power structures. In one such work, Pohan has created a custom-formulated perfume using captured carbon dioxide exhaled during thirteen of her own orgasms. The milky concentrate of the artist's expressions of pleasure is contained within a glass jug, and its scent is emitted through a long plastic tube that meanders from the mouth of the jug to a dispenser across the room.
As an organizer, Pohan fervently seeks opportunities for connectedness, community, and collaborative practice, striving to create space that promotes inclusion and blurs the boundary between art and life. I had the pleasure of speaking with Pohan on a cold winter Sunday about her interests in alchemy, temporal expressions of the body, sexuality, and blended practices as artist and organizer.
Abbey Meaker: Hello, hello! Are you in the city or the Catskills?
Amanda Turner Pohan: Catskills!
Meaker: So tell me about your place there- you're interested in starting an artist residency called Diamond Notch? It seems like a more holistic approach to supporting artists and creating a community.
Pohan: I didn’t quite realize how much Temporary Agency and The Social Club really helped bolster this residency desire. I feel like the ideas we talk about up here mix the two, in addition to literally mixing the groups of people involved.
Meaker: I wondered how those two organizations came to be and if they played a role in your decision to take on this new endeavor.
Pohan: Temporary Agency was built in the spirit of collective practice, and we wanted to facilitate an open engagement with the work that we showed by pairing it with public events, remaining mindful of responding to what was happening socially, culturally, and politically at that moment in time.
It’s necessary especially in this climate. In nine months we hosted something like two shows a month and an event for each show: Poetry readings, performative lectures, screenings, round table discussions, the gamut.
Meaker: Did Social Club overlap?
Pohan: Yes! When I graduated, the first studio I got was at the Bakery Brooklyn, where I remain today and where the Social Club is held. But when we went nomadic with Temporary Agency back in 2015, our first event post Ridgewood gallery was at The Bakery. The studio and the Social Club have a similar sensibility to Temporary Agency. The Bakery was created in 2013 by Asa Pingree and Jason Kachadourian. It’s a wood shop that Jason and Asa share with studios built out in the back. Jason is a painter, furniture designer, and art events organizer. He's always worked in a collaborative vein and two years ago, around the time Temporary Agency formed, worked on creating a collective for artists and designers to think about showing work in way that isn’t "white cube." The collective concept ended up manifesting as the Social Club. Jason asked Asa and I to join him as the core group in organizing the monthly event in the gallery space built out from the wood shop, and the first one was in October 2015.
This year we are trying to introduce prompts that will influence peoples’ behavior within the space more pointedly. An idea that holds the Social Club together is giving participants agency over the vibe of their environment through collective actions and collaborative efforts, encouraging people to directly engage with the work.
Meaker: Would you define a scenario as a kind of happening, whereby the public comes in and isn't quite sure what's planned, what's real, staged, what their role is in creating the work?
Pohan: Happening, yes. It has a Fluxus lineage for sure. I also would hold movement based meditation groups in grad school, and while it was planned, what came out of it was always unexpected.
Meaker: Why do you think this kind of work is particularly important now? Why the interest in moving exhibitions, performances, etc. outside of the gallery?
Pohan: The idea of inclusion, of in-between-spaces, of art/life as one expression resists individuation. And individuation is what perpetuates this current polarization that is happening politically. To divide and conquer is so dangerous, particularly now. I am, and the collectives I'm involved with, are interested in individual empowerment and collective action. Or collective actions amongst empowered individuals. This may be getting a bit heavy handed!
Meaker: Does your practice as an organizer/curator inform your art practice?
Pohan: Yes. A lot of my work is about intimacy. Working in collaboratives is an intimate, emotional, and challenging experience. It helps me become more and more aware of my relation to others. That is a fundamental aspect of my work. I make work by spending a lot of time outside of the studio gathering experiences and allowing for them to digest and settle into my system.
I spend my time in these various pursuits and then enter condensed periods of time reading and writing. Then, I make the work. I would neither be making the work that I make nor be involved collaboratively without all of these wonderful people. If there is a struggle to do it all, it serves as the fuel!
Meaker: Do you consider all experiences as fodder?
Pohan: Yes. Fodder, I like that. Very apropos to where I am currently.
Meaker: I deeply admire that you've created a reality in which there is no distinction between life and work.
Pohan: I’m really serious about it. I've been working with a meditation teacher for about seven years now, Dina Kushnir, from whom I really came to understand the depth of this. But putting it into action is what makes it embodied as knowledge and wisdom, otherwise it’s just words. As I said before, Temporary Agency and Social Club served as the groundwork for Diamond Notch [Diamond Notch is the place upstate, its namesake is the road it's on].
Meaker: What are your dreams for Diamond Notch?
Pohan: Jason Kachadourian is my partner, by the way, and is also partner on this project. Part of the dream is related to the art/life blend, but more than just art. I'm interested generally in the question of how to live together; it structures my thinking on this residency/school/program, whatever it ends up becoming and then becoming again. Jason and I are both interested in how living, making, and working collaboratively might look like. So for now it’s the Diamond Notch Hiking Club.
Meaker: The frontiers of your work are so rich and layered, often translating and recontexualizing ephemeral expressions of the body—breath, sweat, orgasms into various media: video, installation, sculpture. These are often bodily processes we aim to conceal—where does your desire to capture these temporal experiences come from? There's a lot to unpack there.
Pohan: It is a good one whose dense answer ties my art and my collective practices together. My mother's death. Her death is what initiated the desire or longing for this capturing, de-coding, translating, and re-presenting the body both materially and immaterially through smell, sound, light, color, text, video, sculpture, a total immersion. Her death is also what partially financed the acquisition of the land upstate. Her literal dematerialization materialized a house on a property to facilitate a community as well as most of my art work to date. I have always worked with the body as a material, but eight years ago upon her suicide, it really put it into a different framework, allowing me to question and unpack my own subjectivity.
The capturing of the ephemera of the body using electronic sensors and digital devices utilized in my art making process are methods of data collecting and disciplining bodies currently used by power structures both in the public and private spheres. So from a very personal experience is tied larger politics of the disciplined body, the marginalized body, the incarcerated body, the medicated body, the working body, the female body, etc. I suppose also on a basic level, even as a child, I have been deeply curious about the undercurrents that move our lives, desires, choices, that which is more refined and ethereal than is typically seen, and I long to dig into that undercurrent. The fruits of those moments result in my work. My commitment to a meditation practice and bodywork method of releasing trauma from the body also serves as doorways for seeing the unseen, immaterial.
Meaker: How would you say sexuality fits into this scheme?
Pohan: Well, I did make a piece that was titled Orgasmic Exhalations and was represented in various forms. In one aspect, the orgasmic is a just an expression, it could have been a meditative exhalation, for example. In the end it’s about perception. The female orgasm is a form of production and a form of labor that is commodified by the porn and pharmaceutical industries, or to which Paul B Preciado would call the pharmacopornographic. A mouthful of a word, no pun intended.
The private experience of the orgasm, mine in this case for making this piece, this intimate private experience and the je ne sais quoi-ness of it all is recorded in a way that then abstracts it into numbers using an electronic sensor to record the orgasm. How? It’s always a hurdle for me to explain! I hacked a telemarketers headset, and replaced the mic with CO2 sensor. The sensor was connected to a microcontroller, which was hooked up to a computer running a software program that recorded the fluctuating values of parts per million of CO2 emanating from my breath. I took the numeric recording and applied my own scientific method to it, as you said. I took the data and massaged it, as data-ists and statisticians say, which I find so comical, and I created an algorithm from it. I applied the algorithm to two different instruments for output to produce both a scent and a form. I applied the algorithm to a perfume formula to create the scent. I plotted the algorithm in 3D space on a CAD software program, which allowed me to have it 3 dimensionally cut by a CNC routing machine. This produced a sculpture.
There’s a Neils Bohr law about light. It goes, you can observe light as either a particle or a wave, depending on the instrument you use to observe it. You see what you want to see, in short.
In this work, Orgasmic Exhalations, I represented this orgasmic breath in a semi scientific and aesthetically clinical way, but what is most important about it all was that the same breath, the same exhalation data, was used to make both a scent and a form, depending on the instrument I used to observe it. This work is about the production of desire as its base material, the digital distribution of intimacy as its method of creation, and results in two forms that confront the viewer with various perceptual questions. (I hope!) Answers to which are unknown. I like watching the process of inquiry. There is also something gendered about this, the perfume as feminized and the machine sculpted form as masculinized, and the space of the installation is what I’m interested in as the space in between this binary, between the zeros and ones of production.
Meaker: Can you describe the scent of the perfume?
Pohan: It happens to smell a bit like turpentine, a bit earthy, but also slightly like burnt plastic. I chose two essences, rosemary and myrrh, and the combination of the two and the alcohol to carry it produced this smell.
Meaker: It's interesting, too, that the expression of a woman's orgasm could be perceived as masculinized. Makes these definitions of gender all the more arbitrary, however hammered in they may be.
Pohan: There is something problematic in the potential male gazey-ness of it. Well the hammering in is what causes a lot of pain and suffering. Its real in that sense, a concrete effect on the body these constructs that are habitually reperformed binarily.
Meaker: Which brings me to the question regarding Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. In this essay she analyzes and rejects the boundaries that separate 'human' from' animal' and human from 'machine’ and calls for a need to move away from essentialism and toward the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender. Are you interested in the subversion of concepts related to the body and gender in your work?
Pohan: I think I am more interested in what holds together the structures and constructs that govern and form our understanding and relation to gender than a direct subversion of gender. I want a viewer to be confronted with their own embodiment, their own structuring, I think it offers the possibility of opening up to a level of vulnerability that I find compelling.
Meaker: Tell us what you've got going on now, outside of Diamond Notch. Where can we see your work?
Pohan: I have the work we discussed earlier, Orgasmic Exhalation Form and Device for body Spray, in a group show up now at The Knockdown Center in Maspeth Queens, up until Feb 26. I also have work in a benefit auction for the Rema Hort Mann Foundation, for which I received a nomination, on February 13 at Derek Eller Gallery. Opening March 19 will be The Whitney Houston Biennial where the perfume Linqox Criss will be on view with the work of many other female and female identified artists.