Posts Tagged ‘Shiva Aliabadi’

One Giant Nervous Laugh: The Complex Work of Yoshie Sakai

October 4, 2017

Yoshie Sakai is one of the artists I recently had the pleasure of working with and curating in a show called Bitter Candy. I was eager to have her contribute her videos that address in vivid, metaphorical, funny, and sometimes quirky ways, real issues concerning eating habits and pressures on women to maintain a certain weight. Sakai’s recent work also tackles family and cultural dynamics, covering issues such as daughters being devalued in comparison to sons.

Over the years, her work has progressed in sophisticated content and use of digital technology. She plays with green-screen in order to place her characters (all played by herself in different costume) onto domestic and street scenes. In her recent soap opera, KOKO’s Love, characters are present in the scene, but not perfectly aligned or fluid with them so that they remain on top of the scene rather than embedded in it. As a result, there is a sense of disconnection and discomfort reflecting their emotional state and relationships. The characters seem to lack respite in their locales and their floatation creates a subtle yet palpable tension and anxiety.

KOKO’s Love and subsequent episodes bring us into the lives of a nuclear family where the father wishes his daughter had been born a boy and rejects her, seeming to wish her gone. His daughter eventually goes missing.

I asked Sakai about the missing daughter in the KOKO’s Love series:

Aliabadi: Yoshie, tell me about your missing child character. Yuki represents a cast-off child, coming into the world as the wrong gender and being raised under her father’s denial and sexist, if you will, interpretations of daughters. Her abduction seems very much a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, as Yuki’s mother points out in an argument at one point. Is this the kind of structure that you were exposed to growing up as a girl in your family?

Is this a particular aspect of East Asian culture that you are highlighting and if so, what do you specifically hope the viewers get out of it? The idea of a boy being the preferred gender runs across various cultures, either overtly or covertly (the West holds remnants of it in its general societal culture and hierarchies). But what are you offering on this particular issue with this dark soap opera genre?

Sakai: The whole KOKO’s Love soap opera series and related videos are loosely autobiographically based, and Yuki, the missing child character, is patterned after myself, as I am the only child and daughter in my family. Though I was not specifically exposed to the structure where my father was in denial (and yes, in the case of Hiroshi in KOKO’s Love, sexist) of my gender, I am trying to expose the latent patriarchy that pervaded my family and perhaps others. By particularly highlighting this aspect of gender inequity in my culture, and as you said, in many cultures, through KOKO’s Love, I attempt to articulate the complex frailty of familial ties and interactions, and of being a lost and misunderstood child. In my series, Yuki is trying to figure out how to be loved when she does not have the obvious power to change the situation. Being born biologically a girl, she cannot change her situation easily as a seven-year-old child, so to biologically become a boy, her solution is to take on drag.

For me the soap opera genre and its tropes is an appropriate platform to bring these issues of the normal dysfunctional immigrant family story and interpersonal relationships to the fore.

It’s funny how you mention the self-fulfilling prophecy for Hiroshi of Yuki’s abduction…. As you will see later (SPOILER ALERT), there was a big hint in Episode 2 that Hiroshi arranged for the abduction himself…. But the first hint was the phone call he received in Episode 1 when he was sitting on the couch one night with Keiko.


KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′, 2017

Aliabadi: I do really take to the use of the soap opera format to bring these issues forth, especially since the melodrama of soap characters and their relationships conveniently allow for, as you mention, tropes. They underscore tropes, if you will.  I love the introductory credits where your characters turn dramatically towards the camera– you had me laughing hard and elicited some sadness from me at Keiko’s turn and slight, forced smile. There are various funny tidbits in your work and those humorous moments seem to buoy your harder, serious subject matter. What are your intentions and concerns with humor?

Sakai: I find humor to be a very important and complicated intersection where all sorts of emotions collide, and as you mentioned Shiva, Keiko’s opening sequence with her turn and forced smile, are funny and sad at the same time. It (humor) is also a coping mechanism and necessary life tool for getting through hardships and injustices. It makes life bearable, although not always accepted. In some cases, for example, I have always had a nervous laugh where I would laugh or chuckle a little after I say something serious or uncomfortable, and I remember I would get scolded, told, or asked why I am laughing when what I said was not funny. But for me it was a “bad” habit or a necessary one to process the uncomfortable feeling I just spoke about. I feel like the whole soap opera series is one giant nervous laugh of all the wrong and difficult situations we are put through with our relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances. For me, joy and pain are two sides of the same coin, which is humor. I don’t think that something can be funny without understanding or incorporating both aspects.

When people are asked the question “What kind of traits are you looking for in an ideal partner?,” “sense of humor” always seems to come up, and I believe that it is because those who are “funny” can empathize with a wide spectrum of situations and feelings. Humor is seriously an important component of my work and also one way of committing things to memory. So if you associate something you want to remember with humor, there is a tendency, at least for me, to not forget something that is significant and shouldn’t be forgotten.

Aliabadi: Why did you decide to play the characters yourself rather than, say, hiring Japanese-American actors?

Sakai: In the end, I decided to play and will play all the characters myself unless (e.g. in Episode 2), the characters of the soap meet people in the outside world, like Yuki after she is kidnapped and her dream sequence takes her to adventures in New Orleans. Because it is in essence a story “loosely” based on my personal family history and narrative, it made sense and still makes sense for me to be at the core of all the characters. Many times I think it would be easier in a way to have actors, because it is difficult lip-syncing to all the voices, but it just makes sense to me to be everyone at the same time. This means all the characters will be aging along with my real-life aging.


KOKO’s Love at Torrance Shipman Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, Two-channel mixed media video installation, 14′ x 18′ x 14′ tall, 2017

Aliabadi: As you mention, the hint to Hiroshi being the abductor really sheds light not just on his, or patriarchy’s, devaluing of the female but also spotlights some kind of inherent dislike of himself, I think. Patriarchy could be said to dislike the female because of its own fears and confusion around the female and her differences from the male–attributes she has that he does not, by nature’s default, and his inability to process, relate to, and appreciate that. Which never meant she was better; but I often wonder if patriarchy’s fear is that she might be, and that ungrounded fear and lack of seeing equality and appreciation of each other’s attributes without hierarchy causes much toxic patriarchal behavior.

But, arguably, to hate something, you have to have insecurities in yourself that then are projected onto your object of hate. And I feel as if Hiroshi harbors insecurities that are easily projected onto the female, the daughter, Yuki, and then easily rejected (especially since society allows for and encourages that rejection anyway); those insecurities, deemed part of Yuki and not Hiroshi (in his mind anyway) allow him to then, he hopes, erase her for good.

Is that kind of self-rejection, projection, and failed erasure part of your creation of Hiroshi? Do you agree with this analysis of the dynamic between father and daughter?


KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′ tall, 2017

Sakai: I totally agree with you, Shiva, about this being the dynamic between father and daughter, Hiroshi and Yuki in KOKO’s Love, as this self-rejection and projection on the part of Hiroshi is his primal sign of weakness and fear of the female takeover, especially by a child who can become a grown woman with more power. Of course it is easier to lash out on a child, as he sees the daughter as a weaker female than the adult female– such as his wife, Keiko, who is stronger mentally and can fight and talk back as she does. Although right now Keiko does this within the confines of societal rules and standards. I am hoping that as the episodes progress that I can make Keiko a stronger person able to reject and combat deep-rooted patriarchy. Hiroshi is definitely insecure and fears the female bond between mother and daughter. Two against one in the Sakimoto family is how Hiroshi is sizing up the odds, not in favor of him.

KOKO’s Love can be viewed on Sakai’s website, I also asked Sakai about her earlier work regarding body image.

Aliabadi: As far as earlier videos such as Britney Scale Surgery (2008) and Come One, Eat All (2007), I see you tackling continually relevant topics of body image, eating concerns, or even disorders, and the constant exposure as a Japanese-American woman to representations of the blonde American woman (an entirely constructed image in itself). I see attempts to mimic that constructed representation– which is harder to copy for those not coming from European-American backgrounds, colors, and features. So that fitting in to this “idea” of an acceptable woman, look, weight, behavior, sexiness, and so on, is quite a challenge. It begs the question, how can we morph ourselves into what has been advertised to us as a norm of what to emulate?

Would you say these are the concerns of this work?

Will you be continuing to discuss this subject or are you more invested now in the content (though, not necessarily format) of the soap opera series?

Come One Fries Still

Come One, Eat All, Single-channel video, 04:54, 2007

Sakai: Definitely, topics of body image, eating concerns/disorders and the constant reminder that I, being a Japanese-American woman, am not the “blonde American woman,” are direct concerns of my earlier work (2009 and earlier); and you are so right, Shiva, that even this “blonde American woman” is a constructed image by the corporate media and this perpetual bombardment of this image and what is considered “acceptable” onto all women is a plague that invades our conscious and subconscious realities. It really sucks. And we will never be able to morph into this image and associated behaviors with any sanity; and so with “Come One, Eat All” and “Britney Scale Surgery,” I attempt to reveal the ridiculousness and sad and evil mind and body control of the mass media over our lives and our constant struggle to accept just who we are and be happy with who we are. These specific topics from my earlier work have always been with me even from when I was painting as an undergraduate in 2001 (paintings can be seen on

Although it may not seem that I am addressing these topics specifically in my soap opera series (some of these specific topics will come up in other related character vignette videos), I do believe that I have been making the same work since the very beginning, which comes down to the issue of expectations and the ability or inability to meet them– most of the time, the inability to meet them. I find this to be at the core of everything I have made so far from Come One, Eat All to KOKO’s Love. It could be expectations set by the media/big business, by our families and friends, and by ages and ages of ingrained patriarchy. But I find myself continually struggling to reaffirm that there is no rational need to try and meet these goals that are unrealistically set by external sources and forces. It has indeed become a lifelong battle.

20170813_235838 copy

Britney Scale Surgery, Single-channel video, 04:18, 2008

Of course, what Sakai and I discussed is only a piece of the many dynamics taking place in her work. Her videos entice the viewer to watch them more than once to access more and more societal and personal tensions and traumas. She takes you to and through the difficult arguments, conversations, and silences in an aesthetic trip worth taking.

Interview with Artist Tessie Salcido Whitmore

December 6, 2016

I recently had a chance to interview one of the L.A. artists whose work I have followed since I met her in 2010. Intrigued by Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s aesthetic production, I wanted to delve deeper into the conceptual motivators of those aesthetics. Her use of everyday and sometimes quirky materials, bright colors, and regionally and indigenously-tied tropes, all excited me.

I had been drawn, for example, to Whitmore’s use of Native American references because of my involvement in Native American traditions in my life where I have often taken part in sweat lodges for healing as well as Peyote Church rituals praying for sick members of the community. I came to those traditions sincerely and they taught me to look at my own indigenous ties— my mother is Kurdish— and I spoke extensively to a Native American member of my community about those connections. I am attracted to Whitmore’s use of indigenous signs from Native traditions stemming out of her ethnic make-up but particularly to her searching, even longing, to connect with a part of herself.

On the whole, Whitmore’s work has progressed in a very delicious manner over the years. The cake, in a sense, has been baking, is now finally out of the oven, filling the room with that sweet, decadent, chocolate smell, and I am excitedly watching the baker slowly drizzle the warmed fudge sauce intricately over the voluminous curves of the cake. Time to attack the gooey-spongyness with my fork.

Sitting down with Tessie Salcido Whitmore:

Aliabadi: I find titles to be a challenging part of the art making process. Questions come up as to whether the title will benefit the piece in any way or possibly get in its way. How does one find a title, I think to myself, that allows the work to continue to speak and yet adds enough without being didactic or smothering? Your titles are significant to the pieces, being chosen carefully for each artwork. How do you generate these titles? What influences do they reveal (since I note the Native American influence in some)? And what challenges do such titles bring for you as far as how they potentially affect the reading of the artwork?

Whitmore: Dealing with a multitude of disparate ideas in my work, I have always found titles to be challenging. A title can pigeonhole the expansiveness of work or it can open up the viewer to a new narrative. For me, I have found it is a great place to add an element of absurdity or poetic nonsense. For the past few years the titles are usually a lyric from a favorite song, or a saying that I start to call the work while making it. Taking a lyric out of the middle of a song or hanging onto a silly saying reminds me of a nonsense verse, possibly out of a Dr. Seuss book. I want the titles to be slightly ambiguous without feeling disingenuous.

The Native American influence you might be noting was specific to a body of work I titled Ichpochtli, Xochipilli, Xochiquetzal, and Macuilxochitl. Those sculptures felt like family to me, or lost ancestors.


>Saint of Circumstance. Bath towels, rubber bands, flagging tape, mason string, clips, embroidery thread, glitter glue, wooden dowel, duct tape, wood, 74″ x 16″ x 16″, 2014

Aliabadi: Noting the Native American influence in your titles and work, including some more direct signifiers such as teepee-like structures, can you tell us why you use that influence? Furthermore, how has the teepee (and other signifiers you’d like to address) played in your life such that it has now become a part of your aesthetic and conceptual framework?

Whitmore: A simple way to talk about it is that I am interested in the use of a pyramid form as a vessel for spiritual enlightenment. The more complex narrative is that I grew up without a father and was told tales that he was half Native American.

As a child I spent much time by myself. My single mother worked, at times, up to three different jobs. I often say TV was my babysitter and growing up in Southern California I was intrigued with Hollywood and movie making. Classic Western films were shown often on TV, usually depicting the Native American (a white actor dressed in war paint) as a savage. I knew from early on my ancestors had suffered a horrible genocide. I also realized white America felt no shame in their hostile takeover. Additionally, I have been interested in the idea of the “hippie” and how the culture connected to the idea of tribalism.


I’ll Get Up and Fly Away. Bath towels, embroidery thread, glitter glue, wooden dowels, rubber bands, mason string, duct tape, wooden stretchers, 67″ x 49″ x 3″, 2014



We Ate the Acid. Beach towel with pillow, bath towel, braided towel, glittery butterfly clip ornaments, synthetic hair scrunchies, feathers, hand-carved wooden cat, face mask sheet, vinyl-coated wire rack, elastic hair bands, gold rings, braided cord bracelets, wig, hula hoop, spiral wind spinner, 67″ x 65″ x 7″, 2015

Aliabadi: Yes, your artwork harbors aesthetic decisions that make me want to jump to the phrase “hippie culture” at times, that then tempts me to try and incorporate my impressions of that culture into “reading” the art. So then, the phrase “hippie culture” or word “hippie” are relevant to your artwork and production? If that phrase indeed belongs, in a sense, in interpretations of your art, does it reveal important conceptual ideas in your art– or, does it threaten to flatten the interpretation and potential effect of your pieces?

Whitmore: Hippie culture is a huge component of my work. I’ve always been drawn to different aspects of counter culture throughout the late 60’s, 70’s, plus the 80’s and 90’s. The idea of the hippie can be generalized to emphasize a form of escapism. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” told to millions of people at the Human Be-In by Timothy Leary is said to have become a mantra for the counterculture of the 60’s. My grandmother and uncle dropped acid at that time to try and find spiritual awareness.

The time I was born (1969), along with the narrative of escapism that fed the Southern California culture I grew up around, have continued to influence my aesthetics. I have been searching for what it means to be a “hippie” all my life. As much as I let my freak flag fly I never want to push the viewer into a stranglehold of narrative. I was told in grad school by one of my favorite professors that Identity Politics was passé. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to turn off that natural born need to cull from my own experiences. But I do want the work to generate its own ideas. So sometimes the specifics of whatever concepts I am working with feel as though they have the potential to collapse the viewer’s experience if revealed.


Crazy Fingers 2. Duct tape, oil on canvas, 10″ x 8″, 2012



Rings on Her Fingers. Beach towel, napkin rings, wooden rack. 24″ x 20″ x 7″, 2014

Aliabadi: I came to appreciate brighter colors when I moved to Los Angeles, having preferred darker colors from my original east coast palette. These are, of course, generalizations, somewhat, about the color palettes of the geographic art culture, and yet there are some truths to them.

Though, honestly, at first I was repulsed by how bright colors were in SoCal, because they sometimes read as attempts to be happy on the surface despite it all and that left me with an uneasy feeling. Over the past seven years that I have been living in Los Angeles, I started to see how bright colors are part of the environment and culture of the area– whether things are alright under the surface or not.

Looking at David Hockney’s work for example, one can’t ignore the palette color change in his paintings as he moved west and between cultures during the years of his production. In fact, his subject matter altered based on who was part of the L.A. scene, particularly the affluent west side. I am thinking of paintings such as American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) or any of the pool series pieces vs. something like The Third Love Painting which he made while at London’s Royal Academy of Art. (Though, as an aside and to be careful with my statements, I am not saying the gay cultural influences in some of the work were confined to one geographic area.)

Arguably, one’s environment becomes fodder for one’s art. Do you feel that the brighter palette of the SoCal and Los Angeles culture has influenced the color choice in your art?How does color convey what you want the work to do or say?

Whitmore: Hockney’s American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) painting reads as the epitome of affluent Southern California. I can feel the sun in that piece. I think the changes in those two specific pieces are really not about color but more about how light effects color. A great painter knows how to capture light and those are the shifts I see happening in those Hockney pieces. There are some great works I have seen recently as a response to Hockney’s pool paintings. One by Ramiro Gomez, titled American Gardeners (After David Hockney’s American Collectors, Fred and Marcia Weisman 1968), where he is talking about the invisible laborers of Southern California. Another, John Valadez’s Pool Party– that could or could not be a commentary but definitely highlights an American view of culture by way of the Southern Californian experience. Both of those paintings think about a more interesting territory and class structure while playing with concepts of light and color.

But I cannot say the weather, the light, and probably the schools I went to have not influenced my color choices. I have traveled the country numerous times, been to all but three states and a few (not enough) other countries, but have always lived in SoCal. I think the way I handle color could be part of my DNA or it could be conditional. I had been making black paintings with very small bits of color for a couple of years. I didn’t let color really seep back into the work until two years after grad school. I think I was very depressed. In 2014, I shed some of the anxiety I felt about color, as a painter, and started gathering objects with bright, sometimes obnoxious hues. It was a big shift.


Gotta Get Back Where You Belong. Soccer balls, beach balls, footballs, sling shot water balls, ribbon, satin cord, mason string, metal rack, umbrella. 72″ x 36″ x36″, 2015

Aliabadi: Are there other SoCal cultural aspects that work their way into your production? Are there non-SoCal ones that you want the viewer to be aware of?

Whitmore: I want some of my experiences, my upbringing and moments of “the now” to all be a part of the work. Growing up here, being inherently Californian, I want to push and pull on that narrative, but I don’t want to keep anyone out of the experience. I don’t want it to be an inside joke. I am a woman first, a woman who is aging, a woman who has experienced the patriarchy, a woman who is mixed race, a woman who has experienced much trauma, a woman who is an artist.

Aliabadi: I wanted to interview your for this piece because I was excited by the way you use towels, beach balls, synthetic hair, and other non-traditional, if you will, materials as your artwork’s language. It is a language that asks the reader to consider other ways of not only interpreting seemingly mundane objects and delving into the relationships among and proximity of the objects, but also creating a fresh way of speaking visually. I came to see the signs that you used over time as Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s distinct language and way of speaking and took joy in that, since it snapped me out of other visual languages I was already too comfortable with.

Will you continue to excavate these signs and speak in this language? Will you be “shaking up” the language with signs you have not used yet to alter, progress, or [fill in the blank with a verb] your art’s voice?

Whitmore: There is always anxiety present in understanding the choices I make regarding materials. I try to let myself have freedom without judgment and tap into an intuitive side. I see it much like painting when you are just in the moment and making certain moves that you can’t always explain. I have bought some pretty wacky mundane materials and thought “really?”. Some of those things might lie untouched for a while but the act of collecting them is always there. Earlier this year I watched a short video interview of Betye Saar in her studio and she talked about her process of going to flea markets, thrift stores, or antique stores and just waiting for an inspiration to come from an article that she finds. She said, “I feel that every object has its story about its previous life and sometimes I change that, but I like to have a lot unsaid so the viewer can kind of reinterpret what I am trying to say.” I love those statements. Building language by collecting, making, editing, and stepping back; those processes are all intermixed. I can’t always tell if it makes any sense.


Double-e Waterfall Over My Back. Synthetic hair, wigs, elastic hair bands, scrunchie, mason string, over-the-door rack, 50″ x 22″ x 5″, 2015

Aliabadi: What also draws me to your work is that it does not spell out what I need to read from it right away, even with the titles, but it also does not present me with an intentionally obscure presence; so that as a viewer, I linger to read further, rather than being turned off by obscure pretentiousness. (In terms of pretentiousness, I am thinking of instances when the artist hides behind obscurity because of unresolved aspects of the work, rather than making it a viable vehicle for her production). Are you even thinking about the obscurity of the objects and whether they will convey what you need them to, or is that not an issue or concern during your making time?

Whitmore: Obscurity to me personally doesn’t fit. I feel like it is a strategy for many artists that I appreciate from afar but don’t necessarily want to participate in at this moment. It has happened with some of the objects I make, like sewing a bath scrubby into a hair scrunchie. I have had people react to the unknowning of an object in a good way. And that can direct the artist to intentionally focus on making more obscure objects. In a past artist statement, I once wrote, “materials hold there truth” and even though that sentence is no longer present, I haven’t left the idea behind.

Aliabadi: On the heels of previous questions, do you have goals for your upcoming artistic language and production in mind that you can share?

Whitmore: Recently I have been making some drawings using bandanas, Halloween notions, and safety pins. I started feeling an attraction to bandanas earlier this year. Many of us have owned a bandana. In the past, I had a collection of 12 to 15 colors to use as fashion accessories. They have a strong political history and for many years certain colors were not to be worn in certain neighborhoods. Some of the original designs were made for political campaigns and called “little banners.” They are still worn by protestors to keep their identity hidden and/or as protection from teargas. Some of the things I have used in the past, including tie-dye and friendship bracelets, originally had a political intent. The trickle down and consumption of those ideas interests me.


Just a Little Light. Pom poms, safety pins, mason string, plastic spiders, clips, bandana, 22″ x 22″, 2016

Aliabadi: When did your art production begin? Were you always making art as a child? Did you have support for your art making growing up and how has that affected your production and even presence in the art world?

Whitmore: My answers are going to seem cliché because I was always drawing and had an intuitive sense of color as a child. There was a period of time where I had issues with the preschool I was going to; it was during a time they started busing kids to other neighborhoods. I think I was kicked out of the preschool for misbehaving, due to a lack of focus and the long overwhelming drives. My mom might say otherwise, but what happened was I became dedicated to drawing and painting. I would schedule a focused time in the morning to make work. This lasted for a year until I entered elementary school.

I always had support from my family; we often went to museums and I was given coffee table art books. But growing up, my view was you could never make a living from art making. I believed that you had to be a child genius or get lucky and be discovered. No one told me people were going to art school. I tried to major in other things but could never stay dedicated. It took me many years to bring my focus back to even finishing college and majoring in art. During my undergrad at CSULB [California State University, Long Beach], in the BFA program, we had the opportunity to have a small studio space and I reentered that childhood phase of focused studio time. It came easy to me and we had dedicated faculty that reinforced a rigorous studio practice. I’ll never forget my professor Linda Day telling me I had to be in the studio every day and she meant it. So I am a maker, even if I am not in the studio, I will draw, or collect objects, or take pictures. If I am not working on art in some form I will feel it, maybe in the form of anxiety or stress. I know many other artists who feel the same so it’s not a special feeling. It keeps me motivated and it keeps me busy.

Aliabadi: Are there other artists that have influenced your aesthetic and conceptual language? Do you find yourself fitting into any artistic niches in contemporary art making?Do you want to be a part of any niche or artistic tribe (that may possibly become a significant “movement” or “period” in art history)?

Whitmore: Just in L.A. alone there are so many incredible friends and artists who influence me in subtle and overt ways. I am excited mainly about the work of many women artists who are just badass makers like Lynda Benglis, the late Ree Morton, Amanda Ross Ho, and Katie Grinnan. Not to say thy aren’t completely conceptually driven as well. I also gather strength from painters like Sarah Cain, Allison Miller, and Rebecca Morris. John Chamberlain, Noah Purifoy, and Richard Tuttle’s sculptures have been influential as well. Since grad school I haven’t focused on any one artist or movement that I feel I am in dialogue with. Art movements seem to be nonexistent- we are in this age of everything goes. It’s all and nothing at the same time. The technological capacity to engulf and engage millions makes it an absurd time to claim that one certain movement is happening. Some trends have been given names like “Zombie Formalism” but time doesn’t even operate in the same manner as when art movements were conceived.

If anything I would like to be in a tribe of artists that are thinking about others, being generous, creating space to share, reaching out, being an ally, fighting the patriarchy, fighting bias, fighting racism.

Aliabadi: Are you hoping to have your work change, adjust, or add to the language of art history (painting, sculpture, installation, and even performance– since you read your prose-poetic piece at your thesis show)?

In other words, it is a tall order for us artists to create waves in art, even ripples, and yet it can be seen as a worthy goal so that the art actually “says something.” I know in my practice, I really aim at furthering conversation so that the field and its exchanges progress and it is a task to do so since so much has already been said and yet we must keep trying to say, to speak, to add voices and languages. Some artists think about that very directly while others can take it or leave it. How about you?

Whitmore: That’s a tough question for me. I truly appreciate that you aim to further the conversation with your work and I do see that happening in the pieces you have been making. It reminds me, I have a voice, as well. I do feel a responsibility to add to the language of art history. I also want to feel the freedom to play. I think if the work is bringing conversation to the viewer then it could create a ripple. I would love that to happen, but trying to put my own work into a context such that it might have an effect, feels selfish. So I guess I am trying to fool myself into thinking I don’t matter, so that I won’t get overwhelmed by history, while still making sure I am socially, culturally responsible, relevant and not ignorant. Really it is a weird stance to say no, especially at this moment. We definitely need to add voices and languages especially from women artists, POC artists, LGBTQ artists, Muslim artists, and any peoples who feel marginalized and underrepresented. Art history is problematic and more voices have to be heard and included. We need to continue to fight to further the dialogue and expel exclusion.

Aliabadi: Will L.A. remain your home-base or will you be branching out in any way geographically, and will that be tied to your artwork? I myself am trying to move around as much as is possible between work gigs to incorporate ideas, objects, and imprints (since I am currently working with those) from as many geographic and social sources as I can. But I need to be in each environment for some significant time to really take it all in and then start to incorporate aspects that would be appropriate to the language that I am developing.

Whitmore: I feel strong ties to Southern California and I think for now being in L.A. gives me so many great opportunities to see art and to have dialogue with great artists. I have been working with three women artists— Rema Ghuloum, Bessie Kunath, and Daniela Campins— in a group called Manual History Machines. We have been curating shows throughout the L.A. area since 2012. It has been an enriching experience and I want to continue working with them, meeting new artists, and creating space to discuss work.


Manual History Machines. L to R: Tessie Salcido Whitmore, Bessie Kunath, Rema Ghuloum, and Daniela Campins

Aliabadi: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss or mention in terms of your art pieces, process, and influences that I have not covered in my inquiries?

Whitmore: I want to just say thank you for a wonderful interview. Thank you for asking thoughtful and insightful questions that made me think and feel and dig. I learned some new things about myself and confirmed some other things I had known but had not spoken or written about. Also thank you for remembering so many details about my work and for making me feel real.

For more images of Tessie Salcido Whitmore’s work, please go to




Polyamorous Text

June 26, 2010

The following is my panel speech made at the SWP at Naropa University in Boulder, CO on June 23, 2010.  The Panel was named, Polyamory: The New Collaborative Writing.

A general definition for polyamory is, “participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships” (  If we consider polyamorous writing where there are multiple and simultaneous partners, what kind of texts are we talking about? What kinds of creative experimentation can we undertake if we want to create polyamorous content?  I’d like to briefly discuss three categories, sometimes overlapping, of such writing, namely, hybrid, polyvocal, and corporeal texts.

Playing with heterogeneous components that take part in a relationship is not something new.  We’ve already delved into written forms of polyamory via hybrid texts where the writer uses more than one mode of expression.  Fluxus artist Dick Higgins addressed such groupings when he coined the term “Intermedia” in 1966 to denote instances where artists combine incongruous elements into a single piece of art (citation).  A combination of prose, poetry, and visual art, for instance, involves three forms of text, or three collaborative partners.  So, polyamorous writing is ongoing.

The second category, polyvocal texts, also bears characteristics of multiple and simultaneous members, in this case, voices.  As an example, a friend of mine created an Exquisite Corpse-like activity in which a group of people write a sentence each, then pass the page to the right, read the previous person’s sentence and in response, draw a picture that illustrates that sentence.  They then fold the page over the original sentence, hiding the words, and leaving only the drawing exposed.  Passing the paper to the next person in the circle, each player composes a new sentence that describes the drawing above it—and so on, with sentences and drawings alternating.  This game comprises polyvocal writing where many different voices contribute to the production and performance of the piece.  More often than not, it eventually leads to drawings and sentences depicting comical and sexual acts.

Corporeal texts, the third category of polyamorous writing, involve the body and written text performing collaboratively.  I see this as a very playful and experimental category that includes any type of writing on the body and the transference of that text through a group.  To clarify, I played a game with Naropa students a few years ago where I wrote a word on a friend’s arm, a word of my own making but whose meaning had to be processed by the person on whom it was written.  This friend, after considering my word, then wrote another word on another friend’s body– this time, his abdomen.  The writing passed through several people, illustrating not only polyvocality but also collaborative corporeality.

Considering this and the previous two categories, my question for this community is how can you create more collegial written pieces that could be considered polyamorous?  I’d like to push the idea of corporeal text and the title of this panel to include not just bodies working with static texts, as in the game with my Naropa friends, but also malleable texts.  When I say malleable, in this case I mean body paint that can be rubbed off by another body.  What I’m proposing is the performance of concerted writing where members write prose or poetry on each other’s body and then transfer the text by way of physical, loving or sexual, acts; i.e. from partner to partner, where the text rubs off or smears from one person’s body to another.  What kind of text results? Are there any implications or meanings based on the interaction of the elements of such a performance?

Overall, I want to present these proposals, questions, and categories, so that we consider new forms of performing polyamorous text.

—Shiva Aliabadi


a twist on the essay

March 3, 2010

as i was preparing for an application to one of the art schools of interest, i found myself creating a type of essay i’d never crafted before. namely, an art piece/essay.  some kind of hybrid where i wound yarn around the tips of small branches.  and each branch (there were three) represented a paragraph of my essay.  i adhered the essay’s text (printed out on paper) onto the stem of these yarn pegs (i’m not sure what to call them yet).  and the three pieces together became my essay, each with a different colored yarn (color-coded paragraphs as my guide to the admissions committee noted).  i took photos before sending the essay off but it spawned a project of yarn pegs that i am currently working on.  it was one of the most stimulating essays that i’ve ever “written.”  –Shiva Aliabadi

the little things

March 1, 2010

I remembered a friend’s simple advice the other day while I was working on an art sketch in a small notebook that has become my religion.  During senior year in college, I had a moment of weakness and started to cry in the ladies’ bathroom in the center of campus during Spring Break activities.  My friend, someone who I got along with on and off, very nurturingly said to me that she always takes time to notice the little things.  That it has always been the little things that helped her along the way.  I found some grounding in what she said because I thought about how she had lost her mother at a young age and that she also grew up without a television.  I will never fully know whether these two factors had led her to pay attention to the little things and have them buttress her along the way, but they seemed appropriately associated to me.

I thought, when you lose what’s important and when you are not exposed to constant messages of having to have more to have more, it must make you wiser, calmer, and willing to pay attention to things of true value– the little things.  So over the years, I’ve put that into practice from time to time to see if it would really “work.”  In the beginning, I had to fake it.  I had to pretend that something as small as getting a cookie at the corner store was so exciting (especially as a stressed-out working adult).  There were days that I would note how “exciting” doing this tiny thing or that seemingly insignificant thing was.  Going to the store and returning a pair of shoes became a part of the list, for instance.  I made it important, because I was not only getting a task done, but I no longer had an extra pair of shoes on me that I wouldn’t wear.  I had “cleaned out the closet” and refreshed my life a bit by doing that.

Washing the dishes in the morning one day became something to note and be happy about.  The fact that I took the time to clean my environment and care for it, even if I didn’t officially own the place I was residing in at the moment.  Along the way I added some Bhuddist-inspired thoughts to the process.  I would try to wash the dishes mindfully.  I would take the time while doing them.  This undoubtedly helped my natural anxiety a bit.  In fact, all of these little things that have helped me to slow down a bit and realize that I’m alive even during mundane “tasks” have helped ease the anxiety. Slowing down and being mindful of the little things.

It has taken years to work this type of thinking, pattern, and work ethic into my system.  I still work on it everyday because it still feels somewhat like a new lifestyle to be going at things in such a fashion.  Somtimes I have to actively remember to be mindful even if in the middle of traffic when I’m in a hurry.  I think: If I’m mindful, I’ll be clearer-headed as I drive through the traffic.  I’ll make better decisions along the route, perhaps even decisions that will help me cut the time down a bit. (And no, I certainly don’t mean speeding, swearing, beeping, or careening down back-alley streets to make up for the bumper-to-bumper predicament that I can’t get out of, positive attitude or not.) I tell myself, I’ll get there when I get there.  I won’t have extra adrenaline pumping through my system when I do get to my destination so I don’t agitate the scene or myself any further (so that I come off as being ok, because I truly am ok).  And I think, if indeed I’m doing something “wrong” by just putting up with the reality of the traffic and doing my best, well… then the sky can fall on me if it wants.  I’m at least doing my best.

Self-talk and mindful practice, over and over again have helped over the years.  I’m still in daily practice of this, especially when I run into rude people while enacting those tiny tasks.  And I don’t expect perfection, I just want to have a calmer day, a happier one.  A day where the little things have value and I realize even if I just ran a bunch of errands, that series of activities were important to me and valuable on the whole to my life.  And my language about this kind of activity has changed slowly as well.  Now it’s no longer that I have just gone to the corner store to get a cookie and that is exciting.  Now it’s:  I just went to the corner store to get my favorite kind of cookie.  The “my favorite” grounds me, brings me back to me, shows me and tells me that I am that important (yeah really) to myself.  Never has the pronoun “my” felt so good as now, after years of that practice.  My, my, my.

These are tiny rituals and the attention to detail and the little things are a ritual and religion in themselves.  They help but they are not some sugar-coated advice from a self-help book or a list of affirmations that I have to cram into my head and deliriously believe.  They are actual actions, things that calm me, things that actually happen, and that I set off and enact.  Each one important in its own right… even if all I did was go to the coffee shop today, and type this.