Pacing Around My Desire: An Interview Of Carmen Winant

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell Papers, #7822. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

interview by Abbey Meaker

In her new book titled Notes on Fundamental Joy; seeking the elimination of oppression through the social and political transformation of the patriarchy that otherwise threatens to bury us, Carmen Winant offers a poignant question: Does hope have an aesthetic? If it does, you may find it within the pages of this provocative book.

Designed by Jena Myung and published by Printed Matter Inc., the book is both an artist’s project and an historic collection of found images, photographs whose function was not only to document women-only communities formed in the 1980s across the Pacific Northwest, but also to subvert the pervasive dynamic in photography of man as subject, woman as object. Through these photographs of an almost unfathomable utopia of feminist & lesbian separatists, we can contemplate a world that exists outside of patriarchy. A safe, inclusive, fantastical space in which art is central to community making, connection, experimentation, and purpose. 

Meaker: Can you talk a little bit about the title and how you feel like it was relevant at the time the photos were made and how it’s relevant now? 

Winant: Part of the reason that I gravitated towards this material in the first place is because it held such promise and joy. I’ve known photography to occupy a space that can be more severe or competitive. The women photographers I idolized as a student, people like Francesca Woodman and Diane Arbus, all killed themselves. It wasn’t just that I felt that it was difficult to be a woman in the world. I also understood photography as entangled with that problem, that it was violent and incurred violence onto bodies, and onto the photographers themselves. And when I encountered these images, I felt inside them a whole new kind of promise—something that was bound up in the word joy, as well as world-building in this case of stepping outside of patriarchy altogether, and using photography as a new way to see the world. That felt really powerful. I was starting to do this research during the presidential campaign. It’s not a far reach to understand why I felt I needed to move towards not subverting the patriarchy from the inside, but instead looking at people who had just left it all behind. I understand that now that that impulse came from being confronted with the ugliest parts of our patriarchy. For me, the project is tethered to that moment in historical time.

Meaker: Looking at these images and thinking about these communities in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is it discouraging to know where we are now, and see that it failed in a way? Or did it?

Winant: Yes and no. When I first encountered the images, I had the same binary logic around it. But the longer that I researched, I started to feel that there was more nuance in this question of what it means to succeed and fail. There were so many thousands of women that cycled through these women’s lands, and even if the community ended up dissolving, that consciousness still permeated into those bodies, and that sort of changed the way they lived their lives, how they moved through space, how they related to other people, how they engaged with politics, community, relationships, child rearing, and so forth. This is what coalition building is. It’s messy, it’s difficult, people get pissed off and leave, and it’s not built to last. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t succeeded.

Meaker: Totally. When looking through the book, I felt that it was a fiction. It’s so hard for me to imagine existing in such a utopic place, free of the critical eye of white cis men. Man-as-subject, woman-as-object is such a pervasive dynamic in photography. Why do you think that photographs were central to these communities, and do you think it served as a medium of documentation as well as a kind of rebuttal?  

Winant: Definitely. And let me address the first thing you said too, which is the fantasy element of it. So much of my own relationship to this material is really romantic, and I brush off the things that don’t feed my fantasy, like the conflicts that happened, and the wars they lost with the landowners, and the bank, and the disabled women who left because there wasn’t space for them to survive in the country. Not to mention how few non-white women there were, and non-middle class women. It took me some time to come to this, but I realized that this is a part of the project, to follow the discordances. The way I teach feminism is as the prospect of world-building, and the imperative of a feminist is to imagine that a different world is possible. Without that imagination, we have nothing. We have no values, we have no politics, and we have no essential selves if we can’t imagine something outside of the world that we’re living in, or living under. And so, I think it’s really important to think about my own feminist politics as kind of revolving around that promise.

A lot of the different women’s lands built wet darkrooms, although the book in fact revolves around the ovulars, which are these photographic workshops that were offered on one particular women’s land, which was called Rootworks, in Oregon. An ovular is a take-off on seminar, which means the spreading of semen, etymologically. So, they instead called them ovulars, and the women who took them were called the ovulators. It was a new way to see themselves, and each other; to reframe desire, and kinship, and affinity and self, and sight, and insight, but also to stand as evidence. When so many of these women came out as gay, they were kicked out or they were left with nothing. Some of them had their children taken away from them. They had no evidence of their lives, in some sense. So it existed beyond the metaphoric idea of needing to reframe the way we see, and into something quite tangible, about how to make new evidence of our lives in this state of being reborn.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: Knowing that it was probably finite.  

Winant: It depends. When you read their accounts, some women feel as though it will last forever. And others that are far more skeptical are dipping in and out. So, I think there’s quite a big range. 

Meaker: Did the women teaching the workshops come in as photographers, or did that come from being a part of the community?  

Winant: So far as I know, there were six different organizer midwives that cycled in and out. They all went on to become pretty serious, and I think they were pretty serious already. They still remained on the margin, but they were dedicated photographers. The ovulars ranged from technical workshops to making lesbian erotica, or how to make photographs about love and sex.

Meaker: I love that art making was such a central activity. 

Winant: It really is difficult to live in the country, particularly when you are arriving with no skill about how to irrigate, how to you know plant food in the ground, or how to build structures. The fact that they carved out the space for this kind of production feels really critical.

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Honey Lee Cottrell, courtesy of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library

Meaker: How did you happen upon this work, and when did you know you wanted to do something with it?  

Winant: Years ago, I read an article in the New Yorker by Ariel Levy, and it was about the Van Dykes, who were a separatist community. I just remember feeling so amazed by the prospect of this. My work has been about looking for another world, and trying to imagine a world outside of patriarchy, so to come across this felt revelatory. I started to get deeper into it and I discovered this vast photography archive, and I was amazed. They felt like such important historical documents, and were also incredibly striking photographs. The project is an homage to these communities, as well as a platform to make the photographs exist in a public space together.

Meaker: These women were unknown, and you were naming them and crediting them. So many women artists are subsumed by their male contemporaries, so this was exciting to me. In your last book, My Birth, many of the photos are anonymous.

Winant: Yeah, all of them, in fact. That was really different in this project. Normally, the way that I work is I gather the images that I want, I remove them from their sources, I re-contextualize them, and I call it fair use. That was never going to be an okay way to work here for a couple reasons. It wasn’t possible administratively, but it also wasn’t possible to do in good conscience. These are art objects. We got the copyright for every image, we paid the artist for the image if they were alive, and we got permission to reproduce. To be honest, I’ll probably never work this way again because it was so time-prohibitive. Sometimes I spent days just trying to get a single image.

Meaker: And did you always imagine it as a book?

Winant: No. At first I thought it could be an exhibition. But as I was thinking through possibilities, Printed Matter reached out to ask if I wanted to make a book. I thought that that could be an interesting way for those photographs to come together. I’m delighted it’s in the form that it’s in, in part because in the archive, many of the photographic objects exist in some sort of magazine or pamphlet. It doesn’t exist as a conventional photographic archive, and so a book really made sense.

Meaker: It feels so intimate too. It’s nice to hold it and touch as an object.

Winant: I’m so glad you say that. We spent a lot of time talking about that.

Meaker: What attracted you to such era-specific imagery from the ‘70s? 

Winant: I think there are a couple ways to answer the question, the first being that that era is where so much printed matter lives. There is an enormous glut of books that are published from the late ‘60s through the early ‘80s as a certain personal-is-political kind of feminism comes to bear. Those books are replete with photographs. That doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. But it’s more than that, of course. So much of my interest, conceptually and politically, as a person and an artist, is about working to understand the feminism that begot my feminism, the history that begot my history, and the space between us. I look at the feminism that belonged to my mother’s generation, and it feels, in some ways, so foreclosed. My work has always been about trying to reach backwards and understand what it means to inherit a memory, what it means to reckon with the idea of women’s liberation fifty years later.

Meaker: And how do you think it changed?

Winant: It changed in so many ways. Regarding the name “women’s liberation,” I don’t think that we, for the most part, believe in the idea of liberation anymore. We don’t belong to radical feminism anymore, and we can understand that by looking at these photographs and understanding that they look like a fantasy to us. There are so many different qualities that have shifted, that have made it more progressive, and more inclusive, and at the same time, I mourn the loss of those things that I mentioned.

Meaker: The photographs in the book are of naked women, and their bodies all look similar. The world that is depicted in the book feels inclusive and safe, but the images of the women aren’t. How did that sit with you when you were bringing together these photographs?

Winant: There’s another scholar who’s done some research into the ovulars. His name is Andy Campbell, and he’s a professor at USC. He's said in a talk that I noted, “To leave everything behind can be a privilege.” I think, in some cases, he’s right. There’s one African-American woman who appears over and over in the ovulars. Her name is Lynne Reynolds, she lived in Brooklyn at the time. I’m always so struck by her presence in that place; she stands out as the only nonwhite participant, as far as I can see. It reminds an onlooker that there is an issue of who has the ability to participate in the first place. The ovulars were absolutely incredible for their radical inventiveness, for the creatively, for their dedicated feminism. I admire them from deep down. And they also make me wonder: who has the ability to leave it all behind?

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Carol Newhouse, courtesy of the artist

Meaker: To me, your broad practice has recurring themes relating to origins, materiality, the fecund body, and also, a drive to subvert the notion that the pregnant body is the ultimate representation of abstraction. In your book My Birth, the photographs are really aggressive and they demand to be seen. At the same time there is desensitization in the repetition of the images. What are your thoughts on that?

Winant: After I gave birth the first time, I was amazed, horrified, delighted, and terrified at what that experience had been. So much of how I relate to my experience is to try to make it intelligible through photographs, and it became very clear to me very quickly after giving birth that I couldn’t do that. It’s not that there were no photographs of birth, but there were vacuums. I didn’t recognize it anywhere in contemporary art, for instance, with very limited pockets of examples. I think some of the work was intended to fill up that space. But in a larger way, I understood that there was not going to be any photograph that would be able to account for that experience as fully as I wanted it to, for all of its sensate abjection. Part of the repetition was about working to insist on that image over and over, so it could be seen and knowable, and at the same time, doing so with the distinct understanding that it was a failed premise.  

Meaker: And where do you think the new work fits in with that?

Winant: It was an incredibly agitating experience to look at bodies opening up and pouring out. I needed to look at something that felt unabashedly joyful. It was important for me to find images to live with that occupied a different experience, a parallel experience.

Meaker: You pose a question in the book, which is, is there an aesthetic to hope? And I wonder if this project has offered an answer to you.

Winant: At the beginning of this project, I wrote a single note that I put above my studio desk: what does a free body look like? And I think there are a lot of different questions in that question. Do pictures look different when women make them? In that sense, do women have a different photographic aesthetic? Do lesbians? Do feminists? What does joy look like? How do we see it? How do we frame it? I’m really interested in the relationship between politics and aesthetics. These photographs feel so distinct, yet they have such deep echoes of one another that I have to ask, how has this experience actually changed the way that they see?

Meaker: Maybe it’s more a feeling than an aesthetic.

Winant: Definitely. That can be a really difficult thing to account for. As an artist, how do you come to learn and occupy a photographic feeling? 

Meaker: I think maybe it is an innate ability, because not all photographs have that.

Winant: I agree. It is innate to a person, but also to a place and a moment in shared historical time.

Down To Flux: An Interview Of Ezra Miller's Band Sons of an Illustrious Father

text by Darren Luk

Sons Of An Illustrious Father is a three piece indie band that's very DTF. Down To Flux that is. Based in New York, the quirky members Lilah Larson, Josh Aubin and Ezra Miller (who you would perhaps recognize as an actor in films like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or his role as The Flash) enjoy defying genre conventions and sharing center stage, alternating between instruments and vocals. They've once called their sound future folk and heavy meadow, but avoid being defined, always experimenting with their sound and making DIY video clips. Although they don't take themselves too seriously, the subject matters that they do explore within their music, continually contributes to social, cultural and political conversations that encompass racial, gender and other global issues. Having released a new album 'Revol' this year and been on tour, we thought it would be fitting to give them a call to catch up on what they've been up to, how their music comes together, issues they are concerned with right now and their favorite phone app.

DARREN LUK: Hey, how are you guys going?

LILAH: Hello! Good, how are you going?

LUK: Good, good! What's happening on your side of the world?

LILAH: I mean generally on our side of the world, it's freaky. We're not doing such a great job as a nation, but as a band in this studio, I think we're killing it.

LUK: You've had a busy year touring, playing at SXSW and released an album 'Revol'. How are you feeling as we come to the end of the year?

JOSH: It's been a roller-coaster.  It's been a wild year you know? There's been a lot of learning and feeling.

LILAH: You sound like you’re saying all the things you should say to answer that question.

JOSH: Isn't that what I'm supposed to be saying in situations like now?

LILAH: Yes Josh, yes.

LUK: How would you describe some of the best or worst things that's happened on tour?

EZRA: It's like looking for a book in a library and trying to choose one.

JOSH: …Or choosing your favorite page of a book. When you think of a book, you don't think of the individual pages but maybe a blurb of what the book was, and it's more about the essence of the book rather than the page.

LILAH: It's kind of a radical feminist speculative fiction à la Ursula K. Le Guin I would say.

JOSH: Yes, I would also agree with Ursula K. Le Guin.

LILAH: That's the book we've been living in, that we are characters of.

EZRA: It involves things like going to a park in Washington D.C. and meeting a group of circus performers and having one of them teach us about self realization.

JOSH: Did that happen?

LILAH: Yeah! Remember?

JOSH: Oh yes.

EZRA: Or wandering through a lightening storm and holding each other in fear and awe.

LUK: That sounds like a good metaphor!

LILAH: That's not a metaphor [laughs], that actually happened at SXSW.

EZRA: We are living metaphors.

LILAH: Yea, a lot of our experiences are good metaphors.

LUK: Do you have any interesting rituals you guys do like before gigs?

JOSH: Yes!

LILAH: We always hold each other and make eye contact, and sometimes sync our breath to become present.

EZRA: We give thanks. We tell each other that we love one another and that we're thankful for our time. That's the essence. There's a lot of secret rituals, layers and layers from there, but that's what we make sure to do before any show.

LUK: You are all talented multi-instrumentalists. What are your earliest memories of music and how you started?

LILAH: I grew up pretending to play instruments before I could play instruments. My earliest memory was being  around instruments and just knowing I was going to play them.

EZRA: I remember a specific drum when I was very young. Some sort of street fair, and there was a drum that could be played even by belligerent children.

LILAH: Yea, I had a tiny, very poorly executed replica of one of Elvis' guitars with his signature on it. It wasn't practically useful but I fake played it.

JOSH: My parents kept a keyboard under their bed, but I was too shy to play it when they were home. When they left the house I would sneak up into their bedroom and play the keyboard under the bed.

LILAH: I did not know that, is that real?

JOSH: Who knows.

EZRA: What was the keyboard really… in this real life metaphor? What's the keyboard beneath your parents bed?

JOSH: Well, just under the bed was a storage of space.

LILAH: Ah, a storage space.

LUK: How do you feel like the dynamic between the three of you influences the way you create your music?

EZRA: It's integral.

JOSH: It's integrated.

EZRA: [laughs] .. It's integral and then integrated.

LILAH: I think that the fact that we are so intimate with each other in our every day lives, and in our relationships in general, creates a space that allows us to be very exploratory in music. We all feel really safe to be weird and vulnerable together and I think that's crucial for whatever artistic goodness we achieve.

LUK: Within the band all three of you interchange between roles, singing and playing different instruments for different tracks. How does the music usually come together and what's the process like?

LILAH: Usually the songs either of us predominantly sing in, we have written at least the bulk of. But, increasingly there are songs that any one of us writes, some parts we feel a certain person should be singing. I think that's just another thing, knowing each other so well and being so comfortable with one another, it happens at this point quite organically. It's just a shared inner knowledge.

EZRA: It's cool because, on this work we are recording right now, there's a song that all of us sing different parts of, that two of us wrote different parts to. There's another song that was written completely collaboratively. There's an evolution, where there are songs that have completely come from a collaborative process instead of just one of us bringing a song to the band. That's always sort of our interest - to keep pushing the boundaries of that interpersonal communion further.

JOSH: We're learning to work together better.

LUK: It's an interesting evolution. In your latest album Revol, you have three songs each that you've each written separately and then worked-shopped together, but how do you choose what works more cohesively in an album?

EZRA: I think we try not to worry. The ship flies itself. We just follow the instructions and remember to work together…

LILAH, JOSH, EZRA: … As a space team.

EZRA: The real answer is that we go through funny dramatic processes to find ordering. A lot of it, is about feeling our transitions and how they give us a sequitur, psychologically or emotionally. So if one song ends like "ooo" then the next songs comes in like "eeeeeerrr."

LUK: What are some challenges you've come across being a band that seeks to defy normative standards in genre, gender and idea conventions?

LILAH: I mean, I think the first difficult thing for anyone in any context trying to defy normative standards is how much the external world wants to keep you inside those standards and maintain them. That's certainly true for us as a band. People have a lot of trouble, for one thing, with the idea that there are three singers and no one person only plays one instrument. It's mostly just about the difficulty, just like having the courage and conviction and righteous indignation, to remember despite what other's externally might impose, that we know what we're doing, we're doing it right, and that's true of person gender expression and also as band, being a weird band.

LUK: Are you guys experimenting on new sounds at the moment?

LILAH: We have a new drum called Tom Cat.

JOSH: Actually, we've kind of had two new drums, compared to the last album.

EZRA: Yea, we're working with more electronic sounds, digital and analogue. There's definitely a new sound. I don't think we've endeavored to attempt to describe or define it yet, but it's maybe we can call it…

LILAH: …Genre queer…our sound uses they, them and their pronouns (laughs).

EZRA: It's like alternative television show theme song.

LILAH: Yea, it's like if you took the instrumental from a musical theatre play and asked a moderately skilled punk band to play it (laughs).

LUK: Your music always explores and actively voices about social, cultural and political issues. What are some issues that you are particularly concerned with right now?

EZRA: Stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline in solidarity with Oceti Sakowin [Camp] and the confederation of tribes that are resisting this pipeline. It seems like it's becoming the paramount issue, one of the great fights of our lives. It's such a critical moment for Indigenous people, First Nations people drawing a line in the sand when it comes to environmental destruction, which is the brink we are on as a species and it's not a drill. I think that it seems like this pipeline becomes the living metaphor as well as the very actual dire call to arms for people interested in, even the short term future of our survival on this planet.

LUK: If you guys were the President for the day, what would you change or do?

EZRA: Enough stuff that we weren't the president anymore.

LILAH: I was going to say, just start a nation state, declare anarchy, formally disband The United States of America and renounce my imperial crown (laughs).

LUK: Ezra, being in an indie band and also working on Hollywood films as well, how do you feel, kind of walking the line between these two different worlds?

EZRA: I think that fine line is a strange way to put it, because at the end of the day we're all just trying to make good work in our various mediums. We come together as a band to be a sort of a single instrument, to have this single medium together. But that's just one of the things that really powers us. I think it's really healthy in the way that each of us express through our own channels separately outside of the band. It's like in a partnership where both people having good stuff happening in their lives.

JOSH: Something like that.

LUK: Are you working on projects separately, musically as well?

LILAH: Yeah, we're all always writing and playing in some capacity on our own. I'm releasing a solo album in January. We're always scheming and working, and scheming when we can be together as much as possible.

LUK: What would you say some of your music influences that you resonate with?

JOSH: The Muppets.

LILAH: The Muppets...let’s see…Patti Smith...

EZRA: The Band.

LILAH: Yea, I'm comfortable with that selection for the day.

LUK: Obviously you guys are tight-knit friends. What do you guys do outside of music?

JOSH: As friends or as enemies?

LUK: I guess, both!

JOSH: Laser tag is epic

LILAH: We're really into the show Daredevil. We watch it together.

EZRA: Yea, we also play Spaceteam the app game.

LILAH: We have a lot of really good meals.

EZRA: We're really into food.

LILAH: We're really good with meals.

EZRA: We do dance and we talk a lot.

LILAH: We talk so much.

JOSH: I spend a lot of time listening, and they spend a lot of time talking.

LILAH: It's not, not true.

LUK:Do you have any hobbies?

LILAH: I like to ferment things.

JOSH: I like the play games.

EZRA: I like archery.

JOSH: I like hiking

EZRA: I like hiking and camping, spending time with nature.

JOSH: Nature's a good thing to spend time with.

LUK: What's your favorite invention and why?

LILAH: I think that funnels are amazing. It's a principle for so many things. You need a funnel for making coffee. A funnel in general is a really important invention. You need them for cars, you need them for coffee.

JOSH: College parties.

LILAH: Any sort of pouring, beers, keg stands

EZRA: My favorite invention is Lilah's favorite hobby.

LILAH: Fermentation, pickling.

LUK: What's a secret talent you have?

LILAH: As far as skills, Josh has an eerie ability to name the year that a film came out.

JOSH: Try me.

LUK: Okay, hmm...how about Blade Runner?

JOSH: 1982

LUK: Let me Google this. Ok…you're right, it's 1982!

EZRA: Ohhh, that's amazing. When you test something like that and like, oh gosh is it going to work when you put this much attention on it, and it does, it's just spectacular.

LUK: What about you two?

EZRA: I'd say the edge where a secret becomes sharable for me in terms of skills sets, would be overtone singing.

LILAH: I'm really good at cutting hair.

LUK: If Sons of Illustrious we’re superheroes, what would be their power and saving people from?

EZRA: We would be a triumvirate sonic superheroes in the most basic sense, if we really analyze what's going on here, from a comic book perspective. We create this triangulation of sound capable of moving things, like the hearts of listeners anywhere.

LILAH: Through a synergistic, telepathic exertion we can heal and move the hearts of those around us.

JOSH: Sound power!

LILAH: A mix of telepathy and sound power.

EZRA, LILAH, JOSH: Working together.. as a space team.

LUK: What's this little thing about space team?

EZRA: It's the app that we told you about we play called Spaceteam.

LILAH: The great producer Howard Bilerman introduced us to this game and we are forever thankful.

LUK: And it's a multi player game?

EZRA: It's a multi player game. You control a spaceship together, sort of Star Trek style.

JOSH: You kind of don't control the spaceship, the ship flies itself.

LILAH: But, you try to prevent catastrophe together. You have to turn all the dials and stuff, and give each other instructions.

EZRA: What's great is that it's not only a great way to past time, but also wonderful communication game, where you have to listen and speak up simultaneously. It's very good for bands.

LILAH: It's perfect for bands.

EZRA: And it fills those gaps of time between a sound check and your show. We highly recommend it.

LUK: Cool I'll check it out! Do you have any upcoming projects for 2017?

LILAH: Well, we're in the studio right now, working on an album.

EZRA: There's literally a track being mixed in the room behind us. Oliver Ignatius, we're at Mama Coco's Funky Kitchen which is a place very near and dear to our hearts. An amazing recording studio, and sort of centre HQ of a musical familial movement happening in Brooklyn, New York. It's great to be back here. We've worked with Oliver for a long time and feel really comfortable with our process with him. He's such a gift to that process. There's a bunch of playing shows, making videos and releasing songs coming up.

LUK: Lastly, for people who haven't heard of know Sons Of An Illustrious Father. How would you describe it three words?

LILAH: Music for you (laughs)… terrible.

EZRA: Down to flux.


Click here to download Sons Of An Illustrious Father's most recent album. text and interview by Darren Luk. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE