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TIME TIME TIME Interview with Jenny Strauss by Paul Couillard

FADO (Paul Couillard): Let's start by describing your piece.

JENNY STRAUSS: INTAKE was working with projections of pigness -- both human and animal -- and all the ways that those images are created and projected in society. The piece presented many evocative elements in a large warehouse space. Along with my body, which I think of as part of the installation, there was a kiddie pool full of mud; 18 bales of hay, many of which were spread around the space to suggest a barnyard; and an old, ratty, thrift store easy chair with a flower pattern on it that rocked and turned 360 degrees. There was a bassinet with a pork baby in it, a raw pork roast dressed in baby clothes. There was a pile of 204 twinkies in their individual wrappers in the middle of the floor. There was a pile of dirt where I urinated. A large television played Charlotte's Web over and over and over again. When people entered the space, the first thing they encountered was a table with literature and a large friendly-looking piggy bank, which I named Clovis. People were invited to write down their comments, dreams, hopes, fears, and intimate thoughts on pieces of paper and put them into Clovis. I wanted to present the anthropomorphized qualities of pigs -- cute, adorable, little creatures needing to be rescued and petted and touched -- and also the more disgusting and grotesque aspects of 'pig'. That included not only the elements of the space, but also my body, which was naked, covered in mud, spit-up, hay pieces and whatever else accumulated on me during the piece.

FADO: There was also a growing mound of garbage in the room.

JENNY STRAUSS: Right, the garbage was near the entrance. People walking into the space would immediately smell garbage and then see this cute little pig. I wanted this tension of opposites.

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FADO: The garbage was also an interactive element. In the advertising you asked the audience to bring garbage to leave behind.

JENNY STRAUSS: Yes, I think a few people brought garbage. I heard garbage getting dumped onto the pile, and around three o'clock in the morning, when I was placing individual twinkie wrappers on the garbage, I noticed more garbage than there had been when I started.

I started the piece by entering the space on my hands and knees and sniffing all the garbage. Each thing had an individual smell -- 'oh, there's a banana peel; oh there's the smell of something molding; oh there's a nice smell of bathroom tissue...' I thought it might make me sick, but it didn't.

I think those were all the elements. Oh -- there was a blanket, which became quite important to me. I used it to cover myself and to keep warm. It became my friend.




FADO: I guess it was the one element of true comfort in the environment. There was hay for you to lie on, but hay isn't that comfortable.

JENNY STRAUSS: I have cuts all over my body from the hay scraping me. Hay is not something I would choose to have in my life as a comforting element.

FADO: You performed for 24 hours, from noon on Thursday, November 25 to noon on Friday, November 26 [1999]. You wanted to do the piece on US Thanksgiving.

JENNY STRAUSS: Thanksgiving is a very important holiday for me. It's a time when family comes together, and it's a very community-oriented event in my life. I have very good memories of it. It's also a time when people are shoving food into their faces, the beginning of the pig-out season.You start at Thanksgiving and you go through to New Year's. When I knew I was going to do the performance in November, I decided to choose that day, even though it wasn't Thanksgiving in Canada.

FADO: In Canada we have Thanksgiving a month earlier.

JENNY STRAUSS: Right, so you can start pigging out much sooner and have it last longer. Although I think we're generally a fatter nation than you are, so your pig-out season might be different.

FADO: Why did you want to deal with the idea of 'pigness' in the first place?

JENNY STRAUSS: As a fat woman I have been reacting to pigness my whole life. It's been assumed that what I am is a pig. Of course the qualities of pigness -- eating terrible food, and being filthy and dumb and lazy and huge -- don't match the actual creature. Pigs are smart and very clean. They are big, but that's because people stuff them. Pigs are a factory item to be manufactured and consumed, so we breed them to be as big as possible. Pigs have a bad rap, and that bad rap has always been projected onto me as a fat woman. We hear people called pigs all the time. It's something that I've dealt with, and I think in a larger context it's an issue in North American culture. I felt that there was a lot for me to explore both personally and metaphorically. I wanted to create a scenario where people had the opportunity to get in touch with their own process of projecting, both toward me and onto themselves -- their own process of making meaning.

FADO: Why did you choose to take on all of the negative projections, to live in a way that you would find disgusting in your everyday life?

JENNY STRAUSS: I would find it revolting. I'm a princess. I like to take three showers a day. I don't get into messes.

FADO: Except in your performance work.

JENNY STRAUSS: In my performance work I go places I don't go in my everyday life. Performance allows me to explore my Jungian shadow side, and the shadow side of society. It allows me to get dirty, to go into the muck. I find going down into what is difficult and horrifying to be a transformative process. It allows me to experience transformation and helps to create cultural transformation. I want to do work that affects people's thinking and allows changes to happen at a molecular level in the unconscious.

In the piece I wavered between going toward what was really hard and stepping back. I couldn't stay in it all the time, but at the same time I went much deeper into it than I could have imagined. I set up elements and think, 'ok, it's going to be 24 hours of living hell, and I'll do it '-- but it's impossible to imagine the experience. When you're in it, time takes so long. It drags and becomes very difficult. One of the reasons I do durational performances is because I feel that time is somehow my enemy, Time is this thing that runs me. It runs other people. It's slippery. No matter how much anticipation you have for something, that thing happens and then it's over. No matter how grueling that experience is, it becomes a memory. I'm disturbed by things ending.

FADO: But when time slows down, it's a kind of hell being trapped in that moment.

JENNY STRAUSS: Yes, I want to make time stand still, but I don't want to be stuck in it. Time is a conundrum I don't understand.

FADO: When you say that you think of your performances as windows for transformational experience, do you have a sense of what you hoped people would take away from this piece -- or what you would take away from it -- before you did it?

JENNY STRAUSS: I'm not sure that I knew exactly how I might transform during the piece, or how other people might transform. I knew that I wanted to present the possibility to the universe to create a transformation, to be very 'California' about it.

FADO: Which is, after all, where you are from.

JENNY STRAUSS: I'm a hippie chick, I admit it. An anal retentive hippie chick, but nonetheless, here I am.

I was creating a provocative scenario, and I know what happens to people when they encounter something provocative. It moves them, and they begin to think about their own lives -- in this case, their own encounters with pigness, with filth, with fat people, with their own bodies, with emotions, with stillness... I knew the work would evoke an emotional and intellectual response, and also a spiritual response. Anybody truly engaged in a process over time draws energy, and the space gathers that energy. I was allowing the opportunity for some kind of transformation to happen. But I can't be specific and say I wanted someone to suddenly decide 'I will never project pigness again.' That wasn't my point.

FADO: You weren't making an overt, two-dimensional political statement, like 'this is about rights for fat people.'

JENNY STRAUSS: I don't think of my work as political in that way, but it is politically layered. It's not about cause and effect, it's about having an experience. I think it's important that audience members encounter my endurance. That I am a fat naked woman enduring means something different than if it were a thin man enduring. There are levels on which the action takes on a very specific meaning. I'm trying to get deeper into my own psyche, to forge a spiritual connection with a force that I don't understand

FADO: Do you mean in the sense of channeling an energy?

JENNY STRAUSS: Yes, there were moments of that. For instance, I had been sitting in the chair -- it was late in the evening -- and shoving Cheetos into my mouth. I started by eating them, and then just shoving them in and then -- something happens at certain points in any work like this where you are no longer doing actions that you planned -- I started hooking Cheetos into the space between my lips and my gums, using my mouth as an anchor. I would run them along -- it hurt -- and try to find that hook place, until there were no places left. By that point, the Cheetos were sticking out and I felt like a wart hog, something with fangs. Then I started piling Cheetos one on top of the other in front of my face so that I was seeing the world through an orange screen, and there were just little chinks of light coming through. I suddenly felt 'not me'. Whether that's a channelled entity, or energy, or something else it's hard for me to say, but I definitely felt outside of the realm of my own experience. I left it there for a long time, until the whole thing fell down.

Then I decided to try it again with potato chips. I couldn't hook the potato chips in my lips, but I shoved them in my mouth and created a platform. I piled them on my face, up to the top of my head. I thought of Phantom of the Opera, where the face is half-iron covering something grotesque and half-human. That's how I felt: half a potato-chip-monster-god-goddess-thing and half human, looking at the world through a screen. Then I decided to get up and move as this entity, because I felt something new in my body. Some of the chips fell, but the ones that remained looked like a snout. I started moving in circles around the space. Then I felt an even stronger energy and I started bending my knees and spreading my legs out, walking in an animal, ritual fashion that felt like a channeled energy. I was being given strength in my body in a way that I couldn't have had on my own. I had been going for a long time and I'm a big woman, so it takes a lot of energy to bend and have all my weight on my knees like that, but it felt wonderful.

FADO: Your relationship to food developed over the course of the piece. Your first contact with the food was centered around eating, but as time went on the food became part of your environment. You made a bed out of twinkies. You made a mandala out of junk food.

JENNY STRAUSS: The food became amazingly complex to me as a creative set of objects, and I could not have predicted that beforehand. That's the beauty of durational performances. You get to such a state of exhaustion that you become free, and you start to explore out of desperation. I mean, you have to do something with those chips and you cannot possibly eat another one. You can only throw up so many times. Shoving food in my face became a tired image. I started where it was necessary to start -- consuming it, shoving it in my face -- but over time I was forced to use the food differently. I wanted to lay down somewhere soft, so I unwrapped the twinkies and laid them in rows and made a bed out of them. Later I used the chips to make a mask, and much later, I made a junk food mandala. I had made mud prints on the wall with my body, and with one of them I had created an image of the pig mother, which is a force that has been operating behind the piece for a long time. I felt the need to make her an offering, but all I had available was the junk food.

FADO: Tell me more about the 'pig mother'.

JENNY STRAUSS: About six months ago, I dreamt I was crawling around in hay and muck and filth in a dejected state of pigness. There was a mother figure above me, hovering in the corner, flickering in black and white -- not quite the Virgin Mary, not quite my mother, not quite me, but a figure. The sow is an ancient symbol with a lot of power. I felt a pig mother was trying to make her presence known to me and work through me. She was surrounding the piece and had something to say. She was a pig mother for my particular place in culture as a white woman, a dyke, as a fat woman in 20th Century North American culture, in the corporate world. She wasn't a tribal icon from somebody else's culture -- although there was meaning associated with her -- she was her own evocation.

FADO: The image you drew using the mud print looked almost angry.

JENNY STRAUSS: Yes, it was a Kali-esque image of a forbidding goddess. I don't think 'angry' is bad. She was full of a rageful energy or wrath, which is very sacred.

FADO: Why did you call the piece INTAKE?

JENNY STRAUSS: It was about everything that is ingested personally and culturally, everything we take in constantly -- food, projections, information... It was about everything coming towards and then, by definition, what comes out. Looking up the word 'intake' in the thesaurus, three words stuck in my mind: accept, admit, receive. All of those words have multiple meanings. Accept that something is happening, accept it into your body. Admit the hidden, admit the shame to the world, allow admission. Receive information, receive grace, receive projections...

FADO: Inviting audience members to bring garbage to leave behind at a piece called INTAKE suggested you would be intaking their garbage.

JENNY STRAUSS: Exactly. I'll intake whatever you give me.

FADO: I had a teacher who used to say, 'Life is like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.' Garbage is the same -- whatever you put into it.

JENNY STRAUSS: Garbage is revealing. I could have gone through every piece and exposed it, told a story about it, made an assumption -- so it's a dangerous thing to bring your garbage to a show.

FADO: I'm interested in relating this performance to the other work you've done. Can you tell me how you got involved in performance art?

JENNY STRAUSS: I come from a background of radical creativity.

FADO: Did your family identify themselves as artists?

JENNY STRAUSS: Not exactly, but they were definitely engaged with this process. Not being very good at visual art, not having a satisfying experience of being able to put my images onto paper, I did a lot of theatre. At some point in college I became less interested in theatre and more interested in interactive performance. I didn't know there was such a thing as performance art, but I knew that I loved experiential engagement. I have a very strong urge to create images, and I love installations, so performance art made sense for me. There aren't other media that make me think the same way performance art does. We're trained to have rote responses to paintings or theatre or television, but not necessarily to performance art, because it crosses boundaries.

FADO: If you had to give a definition of performance art, what do you think it would be?

JENNY STRAUSS: I describe my performances as creating an installation with my body as a sculptural element over time. My physicality, and the elements that surround me, and time are all part of a tableau that changes and moves. Performance art is an experiential process for the viewer as well as the artist. I also might say that it's odd. Performance art steps outside of the social agreements we have in life. It engages the mind, the body and the spirit of the viewer and the performer. Of course there are many different kinds of performance art. I'm working in one kind of performance art that's very experiential and improvisational.

FADO: Did you start doing performance art in art school?

JENNY STRAUSS: I started in college. I just didn't have a name for it. I did a piece I call FAT AND UGLY AGAIN, although it didn't really have a title when I did it. Working with four or five other people, we created an environment the audience could move through involving food and mirrors and signs telling the audience to be obedient.

In grad school, I did a piece with three other women called WHITE FOOD, examining the social construction of whiteness and its relationship to food and the refinement of food. My thesis, IDIO/PASSAGE: PRIVATE VERNACULAR, PUBLIC CATHARSIS, was a 24-hour endurance performance. By that time I had taken an art history class on performance art, and found out about performance art as a formal medium. I decided to work in a ritualized way with obsessive-compulsive disorder and time. I did obsessive-compulsive activities in a gallery, working with a tub full of honey, 140 knives, raw meat, dirt, clocks, lamps, charcoal... That was more like INTAKE than my previous work, although in IDIO/PASSAGE I was creating ritualized beauty, dealing with the rhythm of time and order, and in INTAKE I was going toward something much more grotesque.

FADO: I've only seen photos of IDIO/PASSAGE, but it seemed to involve creating beautiful patterned images -- the geometry of the knives on the floor...

JENNY STRAUSS: Right. In IDIO/PASSAGE I laid 140 knives in a mandala with the points facing out. I used primal elements -- iron, dirt, honey, meat -- to create a beautiful tableau. Whereas in INTAKE, the elements weren't necessarily beautiful to start with, and they got more grotesque and disgusting. They smelled a lot. Smell is very important to me. IDIO/PASSAGE had rotting meat, and INTAKE had rotting meat, but it also had an even stronger smell of garbage and twinkies -- the sweet sickly smell of twinkies and of piss and my own body. I let all the smells come out. For me, working with all the senses as much as possible is important. If somebody comes in, they might see the tableau, but they're also assaulted with the smell. They're hearing whatever noises are in the space and they're aware of walking across it or choosing not to.

FADO: Is it possible for you to take yourself out of the piece for a minute and imagine what your reaction would be if you were a visitor coming to see the piece? Certainly it evoked audience response. A lot of people put comments in the piggy bank.

JENNY STRAUSS: I asked people to share their hopes and dreams and intimate selves, and I got that. Some people brought garbage, and one person brought apples and a chocolate bar. People also came back to see what had happened. I had one person expressly saying she needed to know I was OK, which is a strong projection on her part. Somebody else who came back put the words 'SOME PIG' on the door, which comes from Charlotte's Web. There were times when people came in when I was very inactive. On the other hand, somebody might have walked in when I was standing in the mud running in place, sweaty and breathing very heavy.

FADO: Mud flying up onto the walls --

JENNY STRAUSS: Or they might walk in when I was shoving my face with food, or maybe when I was sitting on the dirt pile peeing. I could ask anybody who saw the piece about it and they would all give me different information based on what they experienced and their own projections.

FADO: There was a point when you were sitting, probably for about an hour, letting the mud dry on your body after being in the pool. Someone came in and said, 'ah, that's what animals often do, they sit there in a way we humans can't, because we fidget. We can't sit there doing nothing.' She thought it was a very effective evocation of 'animal'. She remarked that with the mud on your body, you didn't look naked at all. You looked natural within the artificial environment that you had created. And then she said, 'if she really were an animal, I would probably go over and pet her right now.'

I said, 'that's your impulse; you should go over and do it.'

She said, 'but I know she's human, so I just can't go.' I'm sure that gave her something to think about when she left -- the permissions of how physically we relate to an animal versus how we relate to another person.

JENNY STRAUSS: I would have loved it if she had come over and petted me. And I love it that she couldn't. Unfortunately, after sitting still for -- do you have any idea how long that was?

FADO: It was about an hour.

JENNY STRAUSS: it was probably the longest I've ever sat completely still, and my legs were completely numb. I couldn't feel them at all. I thought I had permanently damaged my legs by sitting in one position and cutting off the blood flow, so then I spent a while hitting myself extremely hard.

FADO: I could see that there were times when you were struggling. It's an inevitable part of the process, where you say to yourself, 'this is really stupid. Why am I doing this? Why am I here?' Part of the reason one does this kind of work is to confront these questions.

JENNY STRAUSS: At times I felt like a complete failure. There was one point that was a real low, where I started sobbing, because I had talked myself into a state of extreme emotion. I had a lot of extreme emotion in this piece, from hysterical laughter to incredible sobbing. It was great, because I got to feel things that I don't get to feel in my life in such a full way. I let it go as long as it could possibly go, and it was witnessed. To have witnessing without interaction was an amazing thing.

Later you suggested to me that even though I was having extreme emotions, they were an image that I was bringing to life, not necessarily me. That's something I need to think about more. INTAKE was an experiment and a learning process. I don't come to the work as an expert who's clear about where they're going and knows exactly how to deal with the medium. I come as a seeker trying to figure it out and learn.

FADO: Every answer, if it's the right answer, gives you more questions.

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JENNY STRAUSS's performance INTAKE was presented in Toronto as part of TIME TIME TIME, a 12-month series of durational performance art works by artists from the UK, US and Canada.

TIME TIME TIME presented works ranging from 12 hours to several days. Ritual, endurance, attention span, community-building, altering states of consciousness, boundaries between public and private, narrative, linearity and transformation were explored in the series by artists presenting their compelling, urgent visions of ourselves and our world at the end of the 20th Century.