Bad at Sports

Interview with Emily Roysdon

By Bad at Sports February 21, 2011

Bad At Sports is a weekly podcast about contemporary art. Founded in 2005, the series focuses on presenting the practices of artists, curators, critics, dealers, various other arts professionals through an online audio format.

Image: Untitled from Sense and Sense, 2010; chromogenic print. Courtesy of the Artist.

This excerpted interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad At Sports and Art Practical. The conversation with Roysdon took place on December 10, 2010, as she was in the final stages of preparing for her exhibition at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, Emily Roysdon: If I Dont Move Can You Hear Me? / MATRIX 235. The exhibition is on view through March 6, 2011.


Patricia Maloney: Emily, you’ve been here for a month now developing the work for your exhibition. Was Berkeley a place that was already familiar to you, or what unexpected sensibilities were you met with when you arrived?

Emily Roysdon: I have been to Berkeley before, and spent a summer here in college. I have visited friends in San Francisco for many years, but I hadn’t spent a lot of time here in several years. I did go to graduate school in Los Angeles, so the whole California thing isn’t foreign to me.

PM: I ask that question because much of your work is responsive to site. I am curious to know if you anticipated what you might produce here, or how much of it would be developed upon discovery and exploration.

ER: Yes, I very much like to work with where I am, and what’s around me, and engage a network of people that I’ve been developing for the past ten years. That’s part of how I start to develop projects. Berkeley in particular is fascinating for its legacy and its idea of itself as a liberal, if not radical, place.

I remembered when I visited San Francisco five to seven years ago there were things about it that just drove me nuts, and there was—I don’t claim that this is true, but coming from New York or wherever I was at that time in my life—a certain kind of perceived self-satisfaction with the idea of radicality in the past. That was the baggage of Berkeley that I was bringing to this project.

When Liz and I started talking, I asked for her to set up some meetings to see how real any of that was, or what I could find or who we could talk to. I fantasize about the people who live here. There are all these older people legendary for the way they have constructed their lives, and I wanted meet [them].

PM: I think that perception is a prevalent one. It was one that certainly I had. When I arrived here from the East Coast, the UC Berkeley Art Museum was mounting an exhibition of photographs of the Free Speech movement and of the Black Panthers. People spoke of it as if it was still very present and current.

Elizabeth Thomas: I just want to point out my favorite irony about the Berkeley campus. The Free Speech Movement Café, which has giant photo murals of that time, has furniture that cannot be moved, so no one could ever sit at a table with more than four people at once. I think that just perfectly encapsulates some of what Emily is talking about in that idea Berkeley has of itself and its legacy that it thinks is being executed in the present tense. It does things like make immovable furniture inside of the Free Speech Café so people couldn’t gather and have a conversation, let alone congregate and activate in some way.

PM: The extent to which things are conscripted and prescripted here is really something I find very interesting.

The Piers Untitled (#2), 2010; black and white silver gelatin print; 31 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

ER: I’ve been working through this very specific vocabulary in the past year, and part of that was thinking about use and regulation. Just to give you a little background, I’ve been thinking about the piers in the West Village of New York City. They’ve always been on my back burner of thoughts, being a young queer moving to New York and thinking about gay power history and AIDS, and all of these things that I see in the community that I joined there. I’ve always been interested in the piers and the arts, aesthetics, and the politics of them.

I just published a small artist book about it. This vocabulary of use and regulation came from there. It went with me to Stockholm and then also to Berkeley. It’s framing my year in a way.

But I have to say I was shocked about how hyper-regulated the campus is. Things like what Liz points out are really extraordinary. My practice is very much rooted in organizing people, whether for performance or publication, and just engaging ideas of self-organization. I felt stumped by the hyper-regulation and the constriction of what it felt like to be on campus and what felt possible. That surprised me.

PM: How did you work around that then, or were you able to work around that?

ER: You have to work around it. You have to work fast. Because as you mentioned, I’ve been here for four weeks, and of course I’ve been thinking about the project longer than that, but in terms of making work in that amount of time, it’s something that I set myself up to do, but it’s also very challenging, especially for me. As engaged as I am in organization and choreography—I felt like it was a place where there was no longer any movement. I couldn’t imagine what I wanted to insert into that as a performative gesture or in any way.

I don’t mean to be a downer on all the things that people are doing on campus. I’m an outsider. I know there’s a lot still going on. There’s a lot of evidence of that. It was a confrontation for me. So I resolved that in still images, instead of in video. I felt like I had to work it out more in terms of thinking about representations of movement and stills and layering, instead of bringing real people into real time into that real place.

PM: You mentioned that the work that you produced here is going to be shown alongside the work you produced in Stockholm. How did that disappointment measure up against your experience in Stockholm and what you produced there? Is it a counterpoint, or it’s just another point of investigation looking at these two pieces together?

ER: Disappointment can be a very productive thing. And Stockholm is in no way the opposite. It’s that I was working with a very similar vocabulary and looking at public space in a similar way. The disappointment that I mentioned, and I don’t want to keep saying that word to give it too much credence, but I didn’t feel there was a public. And that’s part of being an outsider and just feeling the force of the regulation that was all around. That was what I was disappointed in. I thought with this history of Berkeley that it would be more tangible and visible.

ET: I should say that disappointment isn’t necessarily only something that would be evident to you as an outsider, because the things that have been going on at campus are running toward degrees of absurdity. Students were being harassed for chalking on sidewalks. The amount of regulation or the lack of the ability to own that space as a public has been something that’s been contested for over a year now and continues. So I think there are a lot of people who feel they don’t have faith in the idea of that as a public space anymore.

ER: Yeah, that’s good, I just don’t want to be too heavy-handed. I don’t want to disrespect other people’s real disappointment and their real efforts. I’m really saying you show up and you can feel it.

PM: Can you describe the work that you produced in Stockholm?

ER: It’s a two-channel video that engages—there’s this place called Sergels torg, which is a central square in Stockholm. It’s sunken one level below street level, so there are surface streets just above it. This will become important in a minute. It also has a connection to the central transportation hub, and it’s also the square in front of the cultural house. It’s a heavily used, very public place in Stockholm. It’s also where all political protests and speeches happen. They call them manifestation demonstrations. Any march starts there. The third important thing to mention is that, coming from America and thinking about these kinds of things, it’s like a panopticon. As I mentioned, it’s one level below the street; I think there are three ways to get in, which means there are three ways to get out. [The surface] is a series of black-and-white triangles that form these parallelograms, so it’s also an abstraction. It’s this heavily patterned, very dynamic looking place. I didn’t go to Stockholm knowing that my project was going to revolve around this place, but for all that I had been thinking about, I ended up locating the project there.

The video is a collaboration with the performance artist MPA (Megan Palaima), who is a friend of mine and somebody whose work I’ve been following for years. I brought her to Stockholm and we developed this piece together. I proposed the challenge and we figured out how to do it together, and it was quite simple—I had her walk across the square on her side. I went to the very top to look down on it to flatten it out and recorded it, and she traverses the square, trying to make walking appear natural and easy, but she’s laying horizontally on the ground. So one channel is a very up-close, intimate shot of her struggling to make something look easy, and then the long shot, which is an uncut, fifteen minutes of her traversing the square while people engage, ignore, or look at her. But mostly it’s just people continuing to traverse the square as they do.

PM: This is a piece that has, in a sense, two parts to it, which is her performance and negotiation within the space, and then your choreographing her performance within the space. Do you make that distinction within this work?

ER: Yes. That’s why I consider it a collaboration. But it’s also not such a clear-cut thing.

PM: I’m curious about your role in directing this collaboration and directing the activity that happens within the collaboration, as well as typing those activities into this larger conversation about regulation, revealing that regulation and revealing how we attempt to negotiate that regulation.

ER: It’s often about what’s possible in different relationships and with different people. I’ve been in Stockholm on and off a lot for the past two years, so I’ve been thinking about the differences between this northern European social welfare



Listen to the full interview on Bad At Sports: Episode 287.

ER (cont.): state and my life in New York, and the ways that we organize our communities and our resistance.

I do tend to work in a way that is really engaging the dynamics between people and relationships, and thinking what’s possible for people to do together. So it’s practical and conceptual and political all at once. It’s like, what do we have in the room? What can we do with what’s here?

PM: But it’s not just about directing it, because it also seems to be about opening up fissures in expected interactions and expected encounters in space. How does that translate for you in producing a performance and organizing a group of people to work together on a collective activity? How do you ensure that not just the activity, but also all of the stresses and tensions that happen in between become visible as well?

ER: That’s the life of the collaboration. It’s a group of people or two people—it’s that unit—letting each other decide what they’re good at and what they want to challenge themselves to do. It’s not about necessarily telling someone how to do something, but trying to figure out how to do something together.

Untitled from If I Don’t Move Can You Hear Me?, 2010; silkscreen produced in collaboration with Studio SM. Courtesy of the Artist.

PM: I’m looking at one of the images to be included in your exhibition here. It is a monochromatic grid of twelve figures; it’s actually all the same figures of a man in different dance postures. Some of them seem to be very formal and others are just gestural. It’s almost an exercise guide that’s being presented.

ER: It’s Muybridge-esque. It’s silk-screened on top of mounted photo paper. I started with a few different locations, a few different series of images, and I collaged them together, using them like building blocks.

PM: It’s a collage of images that seem to include both very deliberate gestures and much more casual gestures. The conflation of the two opens up this space between a consciousness of what the body can do and what the what the body does unconsciously. That is something I feel comes out in other work that you produce as well. That’s what I mean by those tensions and fissures—it’s just recognizing the space between the consciousness and unconsciousness.

ER: It does point to a way that I’ve been working and that is evident even in one single piece such as we’re looking at, but on a larger scale it was about just having this person, Chris Vargas, show up to improvise some gestures and activities.

PM: That leads me to a question about ecstatic resistance as a philosophy and a set of strategies, which, as you describe it, is about making the impossible visible. How does that come into play in this body of work and these ideas around use and regulation?

ER: The way that I think about ecstatic resistance is an inspiration for my current practice and to developing projects. The vocabulary is very fluid through all of these things. The idea of me as developing the concept through the lived experience, of being part of these groups and being inspired by other artists’ work, is always about trying to step back and look at where I am and what’s going on. That’s on a larger, organizational, curatorial, philosophical level, and then of course, it also happens on a practical level. So it infects my practice in every way.

PM: You ask people to work in a way that’s really focused on movement and movement in relationship to space.

ER: It comes back again to this—I’m not sure if it’s an expansion or a conflation—but thinking about choreography as just simply a kind of organizing. I originally studied international politics and social movements before I identified as an artist and was making projects. It’s always been a root for my thinking and my practice.

I’m also very interested in representations of collectivity, in the gestural and in engaging my community through ecstatic resistance, and always maintaining this public thinking life alongside other dimensions of my practice as well. It moves through all these questions of representations of collectivity and social movements and about the minutia of those relationships.

PM: I want to hear more about the piers projects.

ER: Originally they were the train tracks that led down to the piers. They were industrial spaces for things coming into the harbor and moving up and down the Hudson. It was a working class, immigrant, industrial space, and you can see pictures of things such as cattle being moved through.

The thing that brought the piers into the phase at which I started to think about them was that they tried to build an early elevated highway along the West Side and it was a disaster. I think in the first few months of usage, one part fell down. It was already too narrow for the kinds of cars being built. Basically, [the highway] was only in operation for a few months or a year. And then the elevated track that fell down remained there for many years.

It became a boundary for the edge of a decent New York. You didn’t necessarily want to cross under that and go into this postindustrial place. So from the 1950s, when they tried to make the highway through the ’80s, you had to choose to go there. Why would you choose to go there? You were looking for an escape from the city. You were looking for sex. You were homeless. You had to find a place you could be. There are a million reasons why people make that decision. I’m interested in that decision.

I’m interested in the idea of a very simple boundary between what is a conventional civilization and the entry to this other space. So that street was called West Street, and the book that I just made is called West Street. It is all about crossing over there.

The piers became what I call unregulated public space, and during the ’70s and ’80s, they were populated largely by gay men, but also all kinds of people. So another part of my interest is exploding the myth that only gay men used that place and only for sex. In the true way of unregulated public space, all kinds of things were happening there.

The reason that they leave the pilings there isn’t as a monument to the lives lived or lost there, which is how I think about it, but because of pollution and fish. If they actually dug up those pilings, which go thirty to fifty feet into the floor of the Hudson, all of the pollution embedded in the silt would be put back into the water.

PM: From your description, regulation and unregulation is about activity: the movements that are visible and the regularity of the visibility, the extent to which such movement or activities can be reconstituted and enforced.

ER: Yes. I don’t want to glorify the piers too much as unregulated, because a lot of bad things happen there too, and I don’t ever want to whitewash that.

But I started thinking about this kind of regulation, thinking about the way people are living in New York City now. And I don’t really mean the state of humanity in New York City, but the way that I and people I know are able to live there. I think about what our community’s history was, and it’s emerging into a certain political consciousness through the idea of gay power and the struggles that were happening down at the pier. That’s why I started thinking about regulation and how they self-organized.

LTTR No.1 - Lesbians to the Rescue (cover), 2002; edition of 1000 (300 with limited edition artist multiples); 9 x 8.5 in; 32 pages. Courtesy of the Artist.

PM: You are part of a queer feminist community, which brings me to the journal LTTR. Could talk about founding LTTR and the role that writing plays in your practice?

EM: I left New York for a year, and while I was gone, I became very interested in writing. I think it was because I was alone and I let myself write. Instead of the kind of writing you do in school where all my teachers would say something like, you’re writing as if we have to struggle to understand you, whereas you’re actually at the point in your life where you have to struggle to make yourself understood. I moved from being forced to write a certain way, which is an academic, descriptive, analytical way, to having a year where I let myself write a different way. I came back and ran into old friends—Ginger Brooks Takahashi and K8 Hardy—and we we started to develop the first issue of LTTR. We did it for six years: five issues, one a year.

PM: How do you think about writing? That’s something I would love to get into with you, as a reader of your writing, and as somebody who also writes and edits. Because there’s an expansiveness in your writing.

ER: I’m just going to say this out loud and see how it sounds, but I think that I learn by writing, and that’s why it’s so important to me. I recognize that it moves through a bunch of different modalities. It’s a little bit about using and exploding vocabulary right next to each other. Using it in one way and then disabusing it very soon after, and creating instabilities in the text. I have to say that just comes naturally to me. Maybe somebody thinks it is a mess, but it’s how it comes out. It does take sometimes a good editor, and I have a few people that I send everything I write to.

PM: I think it’s interesting to have a comfort level with that instability, because that’s not something that I have with my own writing. I want things to be as tight and precise as possible, so when I encounter your writing and see the space that’s laid out on either side of words, which allows them to veer either into a theoretical realm or into a more lyrical one, I feel both simultaneously accosted by it and challenged by it. Accosted on a personal level, in how it makes me feel about my own writing, but challenged in terms of what you’re allowing language to do.

ER: I recognize my image-making practice is also all about language. I start projects between two words. It’s everything to me. Have you ever read Hélène Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing? When I read that I thought, “What’s up mama?” It was like going home in a way.

PM: That makes a lot of sense. Putting the work that you do—the collages against the choreography against your text—there’s this cognizance between those three things, which is about layering ideas on top of, next to, side by side, each other and giving them space.

ER: I always think of rubbing things up against each other. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable, if things get too close to each other.



Emily Roysdon is an artist and writer living and working in New York and Stockholm. She completed the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 2001 and an MFA at UCLA in 2006. She employs wide-ranging methods in developing her projects, including performance, photography, installation, text, and video, among others. Her work has been recently included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, Greater NY at PS1, Manifesta 8, and the Bucharest Biennial 4. Roysdon is editor and co-founder of the queer feminist journal and artist collective, LTTR.

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