Interview with Artist Virginia Lee Montgomery

I was first connected with Virginia Lee Montgomery last year while curating a show titled The Way You look at Me about the gaze and identity perception and presentation. I was on the hunt for a video artist to be a part of the exhibition when a friend sent me Virginia's Innovation Porthole. I was immediately drawn to the soundscape of this piece as well as the rich visuals, which featured symbols that surprised and excited me - a cheese danish and a long blonde ponytail for example. Virginia's work is visually stunning and meticulously produced. When I asked to interview her to learn more about her process and her metaphoric dreamworld...we immediately set up a skype meeting and I was thrilled to be able to connect with her in real time. Virginia had just moved to a new studio in Brooklyn and was rearranging props of past installations and projects to come. We talked about our grandmas and the weirdness of the professional art world. I didn't actually get to the interview then because we were having too much fun getting to know each other. Here’s what transpired later...

How do you describe your work?

Interdisciplinary video, object, sound, and performance work. It’s latently autobiographical. It’s about being a working-woman entangled in the sinthome (symptom) of American late capitalism amidst the Anthropocene. More and more, I’m starting to see my work as a meta-structural argument for what it means for spirit to pass through form. How does conscious move from system to system? What form does it take as it traverses the economic, ecologic, and emotive uncanny? How does it make itself known? Formally, I make work about circles - psychic or material ones, and what unexpectedly excretes out of open holes.

Did you always work in performance, sculpture, and video? Why?

It was the best answer to, “How can I best show my relationship with reality, symbols, and society as I move as a spirit inside the material world?” I’m interested in the moment when there is no separation between metaphor and the real. I’m into psychic materialism. I use a variety of materials and methods to entwine and reveal systems inside and outside of me. Working across different mediums I can better address the complex hybrid zones between economic, ecologic, and emotive issues of perception and production. I can survey relationships between bodies, hierarchies between objects, genders, sounds, or forms, and thus allow forth a message to emerge from these intersecting realms of cognitive awareness and sensorial participation.

How did you develop your visual language?

I stole it all from my subconscious! I started a dream journal to record and later recreate the spatial choreography of my recurring dreams. For example, in one I’m often inside a bright expansive space watching myself solving puzzles with props and passing from portal to portal. Each dream might be only 20 seconds long? I’d wake and then write, “Hole. I was moving fast and that’s how I knew I was alive. Had lots of things in my hands and many problems to solve.” And then in the shower I’d meditate on the form of a hole or a circle. I’d get dressed. Go to work at the office. And on my lunch break, I’d think back to my dreams. And try to bring that dreamscape into the corporate bardo I was already inside. I’d think of all the things I could pass through a physical hole if I were to model one in my cubicle right there, like yellow post-it notes, Sharpie pens, metal paper clips, or hot breakfast pastries from the break room. Maybe even my own blonde ponytail if I amputated it from me and shoved that through the hole too. At the end of the day, I would then return home and sit on the floor of my apartment studio and model the choreography of my mental “dream-hole” with physicalized “real-holes.” I just started drilling holes in everything with my Dewalt. And dropping small things inside to hear their sounds. Pings. Plops. It was extremely satisfying, and while I wasn’t always sure what was being said, there definitely was a building visual language. Two years of grad school at Yale helped explore that raw stuff coming out of me, but even more so allowed me to develop a practice to reflect, listen, hear myself speak, and pay attention to what my body was saying.

Was your upbringing influential in the progression of your work?

Yes. Texas is a very unique place. I personally grew up in a conservative, middle class Christian household on Houston’s Buffalo Bayou. Bible at church and Texas war stories at school. Clipping coupons at home. Hours watching TV infomercials. Yes, there was country western music and horse-riding. But I also grew up very dyslexic and spent much of my childhood in specialized language therapy. At a very young age I was very aware of cognitive difference and the contentious side of social norms. In Texas, having a body is an inescapable political experience. Women are socially groomed to be beautiful objects; there is a lot of pressure on girls from sorority culture aesthetics to impeccable southern Christian manners. The performativity never stops. Texas is a profoundly diverse state, but there are parts of Texas where the second wave of feminism never broke. I grew up in an area where the word “feminism” was a taboo and everyone watched Fox News. This wasn’t the 1960’s. This was in the 1990s, the 2000’s. My mother always worked and I really watched her successes and struggles. Thus, without the lost-in-translation effects of managing dyslexia, traditional southern Christianity, and class-awareness of American consumer values, I wouldn’t have the perspective that I have today. It’s a perspective with a lot of inherent skepticism, anger, and anti-authoritarianism, but it’s also one of deep, deep empathy. You never know what someone went through. My own childhood experiences made my later encounter with intersectional feminism and analytical philosophy sacred guides for understanding these experiences; everything is interrelated.

You also have a background working in a corporate setting. Can you talk a little bit about this? How did you go from a BFA to corporate America? How does this inform your current practice?

I graduated with my BFA from The University of Texas at Austin in 2008. I’d just moved to New York City to follow my dream of being an artist. Then the Great Recession happened. October 2008 was horrible. Gigs were impossible to come by as a young woman with a short resume. Fortunately and surprisingly, I found work at an experimental market research and business innovation company. They hired me because they wanted creative thinkers in the office. It was a very performative place. It was a very surreal experience. Have you seen Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self? That was my reality for many years. And then one day in a workplace creativity training workshop an outside visual freelancer, a Graphic Recorder, came into our co-creation session to visually transcribe the raw desires of respondents from the focus group. She was drawing live infographics. It was like dancing with information. I loved it. I decided soon to quit that agency and enlist as a visual scribe specializing in Graphic Recording. I wanted to be a linguistic-graphic mapper and also work in meta. This is what I do now; I travel around the country to big TED-like symposiums to synthesize and draw presentations live. I like it, though I wish I saw more diversity around me. Almost every professional business realm in the United States is still dominated by CIS white men. I am often the only woman amidst seas of men in suits… Do you know what it’s like to walk a conference floor passing man after man, after man, after man? To be the only working woman amidst vast seas of thousands of men? You become so aware of your own body... like many working artists operating outside a studio environment, I see a lot. I’m grateful for the hard truths that help me grow. I enjoy the work, especially with social non-profits, humanitarian groups, and global NGOs, though my own art practice significantly preserves a realm of sacred experience outside the concerns of my clients. It’s a secret space away from the economic world, and permits me to foster intimacy on my own terms. In a sense, I have a “front stage” self and a “back stage” self that I move between. Professionally, front stage, my currency is knowledge of knowledge. But, back stage, my art practice operates in the inverse. It is about not knowing anything. It’s mysterious and forgiving and a place of magic.

Can you talk about this exterior “front stage” self versus the more private, interior “back stage” self in relation to the gaze?  

Gaze always changes as you yourself change perspective too. There are many forms of gaze. When you look at an object, you are not only seeing the object itself but also building up a relationship with it by looking at it. Gazing provides us with a lot of information about our relationship with a subject or object. The gaze can reflect power structures or relationships between subjects or communities. Gaze awareness can be very unifying or very alienating. For me, I am reminded daily that others cannot see that I have a type of learning disability. Thus, gaze as a mechanism to pull data from others only goes so far. Gaze can also be constructed. Advertising is a great example of this. Working in marketing agencies, I’ve never heard anyone speak directly of gaze theory while building images to depict idealized person-to-product relations. But there is much talk of the “look/feel” of commercial imagery. If it is working or not and discussion of the emotive effect of looking upon something. In this sense, the gaze is understood to be a construction. That the gaze has form and that that form is malleable. There is ultimately an interstitial site cognitively defined between the two binaries of looking and being looked at. In my art work, I’m exploring awareness of that construction and also really giving myself permission to move between these positions in a metaphysical sense.

Are you playing a distinct character in your films, or do you feel that you are some iteration of yourself?

Business Witch is what I call her, but she is me. I don’t fundamentally believe in a coherent self, a coherent “I”. What you are seeing as a viewer when looking at my artwork is a construction of me on my own terms. There is a quote that best summarizes how I feel about it all from Hume, “I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” I really think coherency is an illusion. My experiences have convinced me that our selves are something we construct. It’s okay to be many things at once.

What kind of preparation goes into developing your pieces?

Gather what fascinates, delights, or unnerves to better understand it. Ask questions. “Can I soothe this object? What will happen if I pull this out? Will it make a sound?”  When making videos, I storyboard both actions and emotional affects. There is a lot of experimenting behind and in front of the camera. During editing, I develop a rhythmic visual structure, which later influences the soundscape I’ll build in the final stage. I always consider the work’s encounter as a form of experiential choreography. It’s important to me that all of my videos also function as circular loops.

Each of your videos is a collage of various symbols that come together to create a narrative. How do you decide on these? What do they mean to you?

Cheese danishes operate as complex metaphors. They represent a comically banal omnipresence. Body as bread is ancient, but the tragicomedy of the cheese danish lies in its gooey, fatty cream cheese interior. It melts with an unrelenting degree of pathos when left sitting out all day under corporate fluorescents. They’re temporal in that way, cheese danishes—little cathartic oases of oil. For me, I didn’t get this until I saw my 10,000th half-melted cheese danish at a corporate conference buffet. I was there in my business suit working away and suddenly it hit me how dislocated I was from my own physicality and from my own body. I was working so hard to be perfect inside the obstacle course of capitalism, but I just wanted to melt. I wanted to be that messy cheese danish. I needed to manifest a space on my own terms.

In our current political reality I've seen artists begin to engage more with themes of community – moving art practice from private investigation towards public community engagement. Do you feel that your practice is changing because of the political climate?

Yes, Trump’s election has radically changed my work. I started redistributing my time. Investing time in small support groups and understanding that my unique position as an artist with childhood social fluency in conservative politics allows me to resist Trump’s hateful agendas by speaking directly to his constituent base. I realized I needed to get out of my echo chamber, fight ignorance, and offer sanctuary. I was horrified to see 53% of white women voted for Trump, so now spending more time in Texas and confronting my demographic head-on is part of my work. My art work is changing. It is becoming much smaller in scale, and I focus on keeping it mobile. If Trump’s ethos operates under the rhetoric of “bigger is better” and social exclusion, then I am very interested in small, intimate objects oriented around hands; making melting coin work and letting objects of psychic materialism circulate as talismans. Small is where the soul is. I also recently made a sword.

I'd like to talk to you about audience. Your video work is meant to be watched, yes, but it feels almost like a call to action. You also have lead performative workshops. When is the audience meant to engage?

Alongside video and object work, I facilitate awareness-building workshops with rocks. In my performance workshops, I often ask people to hold rocks in their hands. Draw invisible rings with the rocks in the air to mimic invisible forces of influence around them and meditate on movement. It’s a very social exercise that slowly eases everyone into a materialist experience of cognitive awareness. And then I begin to weave into the conversation philosophies of metaphysical action theory as a device. I try to be mindful that everything I say or do has the potential to engage someone or conjure something. First step is to just know that you are alive as a body in the world both influencing and being influenced by others around you. It sounds simple, but it is true. Everyone is an audience to someone or something. Audiences are people. Audiences can be rocks too. Nothing is ever static, you know? Awareness enables engagement, engagement enables action. Action is always possible just as there is always potential for conscious to pass from form to form. It's a practice.