Interview with Christa Donner

In Interview on December 13, 2009 at 8:44 pm

Interview with artist Christa Donner about her art work, imagining bodies and other things . . .

Interviewed by Bethany

B: I was reading a bit on your website and I am really interested in the idea of “misinterpreting the body.” I was wondering when you started working with that idea. Is that something that developed later and post-describes your work or were you originally thinking along those terms?

C: I think it still describes what I do. That’s a good question . . . when [did] I start thinking about that? I was interested in how people imagine what is going on in their bodies – just in general . . . it’s often a misinterpretation. People will feel a pain and they will imagine that it is “this thing” causing the pain when actually it is not. I’m interested in getting at what the sensation is as separate from what is correct or incorrect. Trying to figure out what that looks like or how that might manifest itself. I am also interested in: when we are misinterpreting that sensation, what are we imagining? The super interesting stories that I get when I’m doing field research and interviewing people . . . the parts of that research that really impact what I do and really get me excited about making work are the descriptions that might seem totally crazy. They are misinterpretations – but they are kind of creative misinterpretation. I had this friend that said: “Well I have this ear infection and I was putting in these drops. It was really swollen and I feel it was really red in there. I had this medicine from my doctor and when I put the drops in there it felt like this thing inside me that was turning into a white tree. It was really brittle and parts of it were falling off.” That is totally a misinterpretation technically.

B: Yeah.

C: But it’s so much better. Because she was able to visualize that and it was probably actually aiding her healing process. She was able to come up with this imagery for this unknowable thing. Maybe it’s not unknowable but it’s hard to actually visualize that stuff that is happening in a real way. So by picturing this really clear image of this tree that’s losing its life and falling off and crumbling and that’s the bad thing coming out. It’s a really visceral image and it’s a really useful image for her.

B: Its interesting that she is pretty aware that that is not what is actually happening – but if you go back a ways historically people had crazy ideas about what was happening in our bodies. They had just as bizarre of imagery. Do you prefer to work with content where people are aware of their misinterpretations?

C: I think I try to get them to misinterpret in a way. The project that I did, the Alternative Anatomies project, where I went and was working with this team of teenagers interviewing strangers, I had them try to think of a really memorable injury or illness and then describe that sensation as an animal. That was an attempt to get them to think outside of what their doctor had told them. Just to really get at what that felt like and to try to describe it to someone who doesn’t know what all these words mean or how would you just describe it as its own thing or its own entity. Sometimes doctors will be helpful in that way but sometimes they are not they will say “its probably this” and so you are operating under the assumption that this thing is causing a sensation when maybe it is something else. But to get at what is the actual sensation as its own thing and separate from any diagnosis. Or what does it feel like it is? And what does it feel like if you actually don’t even know what those organs are in your body. So yeah in a way I try to get them to misinterpret it, not for misdiagnosis, but just to try to get at the core of the sensation.

B: I was looking a lot at your work about reproduction. The zine that I’m working on is about how we lump together and really confuse sex, gender, and sexual orientation. One of the ways that we do that is by trying to [project] the idea of female and male. And we do this across species even though their gender system is so bizarrely different. I think your piece makes that really clear. I think it was the mollusks? Or what are the creatures that stack?

C: Oh the limpets.

B: Yeah

C: They are hermaphroditic or they change sex as they mature.

B: Yeah. It is just so different from our female and male but we still call it female and male. I think that there is a lot of interesting misinterpretation that can come from that. How often do you think the misinterpretation [in your work] is about gender and sex or is mostly dealing with pain?

C: That’s a good question. I was going to add to what I said before that when I ask people to misinterpret things is so that we are not dealing with this medical diagnosis that they may or may not actually understand. Instead you’re dealing with a kind of imagery so once you have that imagery . . . once you have your “little white tree” or your “it’s a field of flowers” or whatever it is . . . then you have an image that you can imagine other things happening to. You can imagine how you think the flowers would change if there were a big hormonal change or whatever. How it feels like it is changing or how you would like it to change. Its so you can visualize something and that can actually be a really amazing . . . that can actually cause physical things to happen. The way that I deal with it usually in my work has a lot more to do with sensation then specifically with gender but it is also so tied to . . . or it wouldn’t make sense . . . if it wasn’t for the history of hysteria which has everything to do with gender. It has everything to do with women in particular and the way that they interpret their bodies being dismissed. I may have these sensations or these feelings but they are not valid because you can’t see them under a microscope. So I have to make something up for it or someone else is going to make something up for me. They may say it is because my womb is wandering through my body or it is because I am crazy. I am very interested in the idea of visualizing and of making these things happen but I can’t separate it from gender because that entire history gives this work a context.

B: It’s interesting that your using imagining as empowering instead of someone else imagining it for you.

C: In the case of hysteria the doctors were just deciding things like “it’s the womb traveling and now it’s over here!” So instead it’s a matter of “well there is a hedgehog in here but I’ve decided that the hedgehog is going to do this!” then everyday I’m going to imagine the hedgehog doing this other thing. The aim of it is that it is empowering. Although I deal with it usually in the manner of sensation or more recently reproduction (which is very gender based I guess) it opens up the possibility of all kinds of things. As soon as you can imagine a reproductive system as a chandelier . . . you can do pretty much anything you want with that. It becomes its own character and it’s not limited in this way that we think of our organs normally being limited. Like “your ovaries can’t do that! Because that’s not what ovaries do!” But now that they are flowers maybe they could or now that it’s a light bulb . . . I don’t know. [Laughs] But yeah gender and sensation its all kind of part of the continuum.

B: When I think of misinterpretation I think a lot of it has to do with language and I find it interesting that you are working mostly with images. Is that because the type of misinterpretation that you are working with is image based – or do you prefer to work with images?

C: I think it is because its image based. Maybe that’s not true . . . but for me it is. If I’m feeling a sensation, (and there has been a number of books written on this) in the English language we don’t have words to really describe certain kinds of sensations. Language just doesn’t quite cut it. Language can do amazing things but to describe pain and the sensation and intensity that we are feeling we just don’t have enough language to really cover it. I think that the fact that when I ask people questions about their body they often describe things in these really visual terms. They won’t say, “Well it really hurt” . . . or I don’t even know how do you describe the sensation without attaching it to an image. So, as an artist, that works well.

B: What are you working on now?

C: I’m working on a couple things. There are a couple of little projects that I’m working on now but there is this body of work that I am doing the research for right now and I haven’t actually started making the drawings but I am doing sketches and doing a lot of reading. I don’t know where this came from exactly but I’ve been thinking about creating, designing, and imagining these three sort of tribes or cultures of women whose cultures and anatomy, which don’t actually exist, are based around a set of imagery. I can really loosely put them into these categories of vegetable, animal and mineral. The vegetable group or tribe is all about growing these things and they have organ systems that are based on plant forms that they can kind of remove but there are still roots attached. They can tend to them and they can put them back. Light is really important to them [tribe] water is really important to them and they have become cultural symbols and iconography. I’m also thinking about incorporating mushrooms and fungi into that which aren’t, strictly speaking, plants. But there are so many interesting fancy things that they do. I am putting them into these categories of vegetable, mineral and animal but that is really loosely it’s just generally how I am dividing them up in terms of imagery.

B: So are you researching plants then?

C: I am researching plants. They animal one will be much more based on animal anatomy and metamorphosis, which I haven’t done much with yet, and the idea of changing and transforming in these different ways. It may just be an internal metamorphosis, but I think there will be an adolescence phase where they actually change. Their clothing will be based in scales and fur and things like that. And the mineral one, I really need to do more research on that because it is probably the one that I know the least about.

B: Yeah how do you relate minerals to [bodies]?

C: Yeah. I found these really incredible eighteenth century drawings of minerals that were sort of sliced up. They were really weird drawings you wouldn’t necessarily know what they were if there was no caption. But they just had these really strange and really geometrical shapes that were happening. I was really interested in playing around with that because my work is usually really super organic, curly and ornate. I thought that that would be a really good way to break it down and deal with more angles, straight lines and geometric forms but still acknowledging that that comes from a natural source. Its still part of our natural world and it is the basis for a lot of things. There are all sorts of things that happen to the body actually, that calcification that happens and different things that minerals do to the body that could be really interesting to play around with. Each category in this group has its own sort of color scheme. I am doing character studies with the clothing but also with the color scheme. The mineral one is one that I will play around with having it be much more black, white, grey, brown and maybe one other color. The animal one is much more hot colors more hot pinks, reds, oranges and yellows. The vegetable one is going to use much more greens, blues and browns. It’s a good way for me to get really imaginative with the internal systems. Then I am going to see what would happen if there were trade between these cultures or what happens if they start visiting each other and liking aspects of the other cultures.

B: So are they all a mix between human and the other thing?

C: They are very human. I didn’t want to make aliens; I thought that would be super cheesy. They may where masks or something but I am much more interested in it is imaginary anthropology then science fiction. B: So imagining cultures as if they were here? C: Yeah, as a way of imagining new anatomies. So its sort of fo anthropology [Laughs] fo anatomy by way of fo anthropology. That’s what it is. We’ll see how it goes.

B: The more activist stuff that you’ve been doing . . . are you seeing this imagining and hoping as a more activist thing? Are you hoping that it leads somewhere better or is it a commentary on imagining?

C: When I started doing the work that I do, like that older interview that you were reading ( that is what started things. It came out of my own experiences as a teenager and being super uncomfortable with my body. Partly because of the outside but partly because I was just so mixed up about what was happening inside of it and what my health was or how fragile I was or wasn’t – how sickly I was or how stressed out I was and how stress was impacting my health. I think I went through a series of revelations about that and I just really wanted to provide for other people other ways of thinking about that – especially teenagers but also adults. I’ve never talked to a woman who didn’t have an issue in some capacity. Men often have those issues too but it is a little less potent for most of them. For women it’s just so in your face from maybe age twelve but sometimes even younger. You are just so aware of being looked at and the awareness of being looked at affects your awareness about everything else in your body and really really complicates it. I think that my initial approach was “oh my god this was this terrible thing” that took me so long, it’s not like I figured it out, but it impacted me so strongly that I just would really like to connect with other young women and have everyone thing about it critically or at least have everyone be aware that everyone else is thinking about it too. This is a huge issue and we are not going to solve it but that there are other ways to think about the body that could be really powerful, really magical, really different then the way that you are assuming is the way to think about your body. So that is where it is coming from. I think as I have gotten older I haven’t lost that at all. I still do a lot of projects specifically with teenagers and I am really interested in the ways that they especially think about their bodies and I am interested in changing that or opening it up. I think as I am getting older I am becoming more aware of all these other issues that come in and the complications that adulthood brings to what that groundwork as already started. If we had these issues when we were teenagers then when we are adults and issues of fertility come in . . . then what? Then we get older and our bodies start breaking down . . . then what? How does this all fit together?

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