Justin Shoulder + Emily Parsons-Lord + Sara Morawetz

April 23, 2020

AE†. Photo Credit: Jordan Graham and Justin Shoulder.

When I conducted this interview with Justin Shoulder, Emily Parsons-Lord, and Sara Morawetz in Sydney in late February 2020, we could still gather in a room to talk in person. That simple act—of coming together, in a shared physical space, to discuss ideas and spend time in each other’s company—currently seems like an unimaginable luxury. Anticipating that in two months’ time we would be together again on the other side of the world in Austin, presenting these visionary artists’ works at the 2020 Fusebox Festival, we talked of the recurrent ideas that underpin their artistic practices and their hopes and fears about making art in a world that humanity sometimes seems intent on destroying. Although our plans—along with everyone else’s—have been scattered in a million different directions by the global pandemic of COVID-19, the themes raised in our conversation somehow seem more urgent than ever. Ideas of resilience and resistance brushed up against intimations of the apocalypse, of catastrophe, and the transformation of crumbling power structures into something new. We look back on these artists’ words as a means of looking to the future. —JEFF KHAN

JK: I wanted to start by speaking broadly about the constellation of works that I’m curating that are quite diverse but have some very common threads. One of the recurring ideas is that of bodies adapting to survive political weather. I’m wondering how this idea resonates with you, both in your practice and in terms of the work that you’re making.

JUSTIN SHOULDER: I’ve been thinking about my practice and what it means to make a new work, and I don’t think that these themes are new to me. I think that a body adapting, or a body that is resilient are ideas that I’ve been investigating for a long time. I’ve been reconfiguring my form with masks and prosthesis for most of my practice, and then articulating these altered beings through performance and dance. Within that, there’s always been an ecological narrative framed through mythology, science fiction, speculative future, and the making of queer futurity.

JK: I think what you’ve outlined so beautifully is the question of what constitutes bodies and these hybrid bodies. Would you like to talk a little bit about what they’re adapting in response to?

JS: My practice moves between bringing people together…so events-based practice where I’ll create events for mostly the queer community or the people of color community, and then telling them stories through my body or these hybrid future bodies. It’s always about holding space to imagine possibility or to imagine other forms of kinship structures, and I think those are modes of resistance. It’s funny, because I think for a long time I wasn’t really sure how fantasy forms become these modes of resistance. The more that I link them, specifically to particular biological models (for example, modes of threat aposematisms—these ways that insects and different animals use patterning systems to defend themselves—are something I’ve been really interested in as a mode of threat display) I realize that these modes of amplification can be made into a queer spectacle.

JK: So, It’s like a bodily transformation in response to a threat, which also brings me over to Emily and Sara. I think the idea that resonates most with me in terms of your work is political weather. There’s so much of your practice that directly engages with weather systems and the elements, but how much of these natural phenomena are culturally shaped or enhanced and modified by human activity? Is there anything about that idea that resonates in terms of this new work that you’re making?

EMILY PARSONS-LORD: I think about the survival of political weather. I think a lot about the scale between small bodies that are able to affect giant planetary sized changes and differences. I find it quite ridiculous that we can collect and make decisions that might have these far reaching consequences. In my work, I’m sliding a lot between scales of time and of space, and trying to understand what the human form does on this surface of the earth. There are a lot of narratives and energies that are emerging and are alarming. Everyone is wondering what to do about the coronavirus. The bush fires are another huge example of ongoing mismanagement. But that fire exceeds the mismanagement of the bushlands—we’re talking about a growing climate crisis that has been in the works for so long. I’m interested in how we’re making decisions to respond to that, as a body politic, in relation to these large scale events.

we live in explosive times, {the empty set} is Emily Parsons-Lord and Sara Morawetz. Photo: Jacquie Manning.

JK: I think that also taps into the fact that both of your work zooms out from our human time and scale into a much more vast, cosmic register.

JS: I guess I’ve been framing my work as a future folklore, so it draws from very old and ancient forms of storytelling, but also looks into the future and other modes of being. The new work is actually called Aeon Dagger. An Aeon, to me, is quite an expansive moment— something that feels almost infinite—and the dagger (†) is the symbol placed next to a species once it’s extinct. The idea is that a body of work exists in that in-between and this also connects to my deep interest in clowning and the non binary. It also makes me think about queer time, alternatives spaces of working and living, or nightlife. It conjures up ideas around what happens in those time frames. JK: That paradoxical notion of aeon and extinction really resonates with your work for me as well.

SARA MOROWETZ: Yeah, we’re living in this time that feels incredibly loaded. We think that everything is so immediate and pressing, and what Emily and I have talked about is that all of the moments before us were exactly like that as well. They all represent moments of change and moments of transition or audacity to think that we’re very important and that this moment is very singular in relation to all of those others. We have to recognize that things are going to change from now, and they may change for the worse or they may change for the better. We’re not really in a position to know that, and we have to let go of the idea that we will ever know that, but we can make decisions that will set a trajectory and that’s the only thing we get, that capacity to set a course, and we have a responsibility and a custodianship role to do that.

EP-L: We work with scale a lot as well, and the idea that some of the materials that we’re using have such cosmic and spectacular origins. We talk a bit about Iron in our work— that it caused the death of a star at some point and then fell into being part of our planetary crust, and that we can then extract and put it into purposes that can be as quotidian and inane as possible or profound and resounding. It can affect the stories that we have as humans as well. I’m always interested in those really deep time periods.

JK: It can be incredibly important as artists to bring nonhuman perspectives to your work—be it animals, rocks, minerals, or other forces that we struggle to understand rationally. Can you tell us a bit about the nonhuman and what your interest is there?

JS: I’ve always been interested in the form of the mythical creature, or how forms like dragons, vampires, or the sphinx feel like ancient and universal forms with which we tell stories. I found my access point through costume as a mode to investigate that, and then later through dance and other forms of performance practice. All the early forms are very much these amalgamations of cellular, base things through repetition of materials. Carrion was very much about a hybrid body, which is this recombinant figure of bird, machine, human, and tardigrade. The nonhuman is of interest to me particularly in this new work in that it’s about decentering the human. I’m interested in interspecies communication and alien life forms. I’ve been building a relationship to avians—I have two birds and I’ve been building an aural communication with them which definitely permeates my work, and it makes me think a lot about birds as descendants of dinosaurs. That’s my trajectory at the moment.

JK: I think that the decentering of the human perspective is a very palpable shift that happens. The experience of watching all of your work, and growing things out from the current way that we’re imagining crisis and zooming out to a nonhuman perspective on it.

EP-L: I think it’s this interesting narrative of following materiality through the life cycle of its stages, or that there is a narrative between us and the stars that we don’t think of when we look up at the sky, or a narrative between this building that we’re situated in and the ground beneath our feet. We’re tied to these pressures and these forces that are just so much larger than us and it takes us well beyond our scope and time scale.

SM: When you acknowledge that and start to interrogate that idea, you exist on these two levels of humans living in a constructed world and having to make meaning of that when you’re also thinking “oh yeah, we’re either going to evolve out or..”What does meaning-making look like when you can shift your thinking to accept that?

EP-L: You want to think about narratives that exist outside yourself. You contribute to this narrative, but you’re only a small part of it. You’re a tiny cog in a larger machine of this process and recognizing that everything you see will one day break down and become a layer beneath something else. Whether or not that includes humans or not is inconsequential.

SM: I think we’re also interested in the spectacle of that breakdown and the very human idea of the singular, cataclysmic explosive event of apocalypse. It’s such a human idea. But then you see all of these things that seem to be conforming to that narrative. So we’re quite interested in what that explosion is and what happens after the explosion. If you can imagine something that goes from order to disorder—what’s on the other side?

JK: And how does that question manifest in the work that you’re making, materially?

SM: It’s interesting to be experimenting with materials in this crisis of climate and of the bushfires, because we use the flame as a steady motif during the work and the idea of a fuse—that it’s running out and through space, that there’s a finite time. And hopefully we’re building into the work a cataclysmic event. An unknown one that will be both spectacular, but perhaps tragic as well?

we live in explosive times, {the empty set} is Emily Parsons-Lord and Sara Morawetz. Photo courtesy of the artists.

EP-L: We want people to reflect on what they’re actually aiming for. The fuse is such a loaded, symbolic gesture in our narrative that “time is running out,” but rarely do you actually watch one, and so there’s a weird spectacle to watching a fuse and its passage and what you actually hope for on the other side. You want to see it happen. You want to see an endpoint, but is that reasonable or is it something you actually want? And so when you abstract that out to a larger environmental political discourse, we’re doing that as well. You just want to push everything to extremes and say “let’s see what happens, let’s blow this thing up.”

JK: There is something about the idea of this cosmic death drive that is fundamental to the idea of Aeon Dagger as well because it’s some total extinction. There is an element in your work where that’s actually a fantasy. It’s actually a positive fantasy because what we evolve into is something greater than we could have imagined.

JS: For sure. It was very difficult for me to find the title for the work, because I was cycling through all of these ideas that felt kind of superficial because what I’m feeling in the moment in my body and my spirit and in every cell is a complete mourning. How do you communicate that in performance but also communicate hope? All of these people tend to read Carrion as an apocalyptic science fiction, and there are definitely elements of that and I play with all of these tropes related to science fiction which become access points for people to relate to. But the final figure in the work is this hybrid being — an amalgamation of everything that had come before it. You have the tardigrade, the humanoid cyborg, the bird, this prehistoric figure that emerges which is both super ancient but also a cyborg at once. Aeon Dagger is a continuation of that final prehistoric cyborg bird that’s wailing into the future. It’s a figure that’s trying to survive, it’s not a human figure, we may no longer be here, but I try not to intellectualize it too much. It’s about what I’m feeling at the moment and how I can communicate that as a form of storytelling.

JK: None of you shy away from catastrophe in your work, or the catastrophe that we create for ourselves and our planet. In fact your work is rushing to the catastrophe head on. How do you cope with that as artists and as humans? Are you optimistic about our collective future?

EP-L: I think it’s very anxiety-provoking and mournful, like you said. I think as humans living at this time and place, there is an energy that is very uncomfortable. You feel very powerless. That’s what’s driving the creation of the work—to try to put some focus on that feeling and prompt questions, like “what are we doing?” and “what is our role?” It’s really churlish to pretend that we have no responsibility or agency in the unfolding events.

SM: I think Emily and I have spoken a lot about spectatorship, that we’re in this moment where we feel like we’re witnessing rather than acting. I don’t know that I feel a sense of optimism but I also believe that artists who have an opportunity to start a conversation can return agency and provide a moment to be introspective and consider how this all works and what we can possibly do to change it.

EP-L: I think things are going to change but some life will conspire to survive on this planet. It may not include humans and it’s moralizing that it’s a human construct to make that a sad story when perhaps it’s not.

SM: Yeah, survival is about transition. And so optimism can be constructed from many things, but it doesn’t mean optimistic for us specifically.

JS: How do I cope with this as an artist? I think it’s multifaceted, so I make work about how I’m feeling to tell stories and make people connect. I also create events that bring people together, but more and more, I’m feeling that I need to balance my art making with other kinds of organizing. There’s been a lot of talk about climate change preparedness groups, so skill set groups around managing emergency. This is particularly within the queer community. I feel like I need to be optimistic because I’m also a father. As much as I like to entertain ideas about us not being the center, I care too much about the people around me. So I want to make things better. It doesn’t mean I’m optimistic because it doesn’t look good, but I’m committed to that. What the fires have brought forward is a lot more conversation around Indigenous sovereignty and the fact that a lot of people have been living the apocalypse for a really long time. What I’ve witnessed is that there is a desire for evolution particularly in the kind of communities that I’m within in terms of relationships and taking care of one another, but whether that exists within the space of the capitalist structure or our political structure is difficult to be optimistic about because that structure is dominant and powerful, and really it may take something very potentially violent to bring that down.

JK: I think that’s one of the roles of art and one of the ways that we can contribute to whatever that future might be is that insistence that you’re talking about in creating spaces where alternative narratives can be nurtured and resistance and adaptation and survival can be discussed in ways that it’s not being discussed anywhere else, or ideas that don’t have a place anywhere else can have space to be considered and tested.

JS: I certainly oscillate between feeling powerful as this small speck of dust and then feeling completely powerless, and also between art as completely meaningful and meaningless.

EP-L: When you see things happening and you can only imagine yourself as a political agent that can enact direct action, that’s a sense of feeling powerful as a human rather than as necessarily an artist.

JS: Yeah, maybe that’s what gives me hope—when I commit to that idea. Because it’s like when you have a bucket and you put it in the shower and you’re saving little drops of water and you think “I’m doing something!”

SM: I live in the United States, and one thing I’ve noticed in the last four years of living there, is that there’s been a rapid change. A huge, cataclysmic, social political change that has affected the fiber of everyday interactions for the worse. But I have to believe that if it’s possible to enact that kind of change so quickly, then it’s possible that we can revert or do something better, so if we can collectively be better and activate the kind of changes that we want to see then surely we can achieve similar ends. I have to believe that to get up in the morning.

EP-L: It is true to think that the apocalypse has already occurred for many people in many places, and this storytelling that tries to make the idea of apocalypse unified across the earth is probably a patriarchal narrative structure that I think a more feminist and queer approach can help to destabilize.

JK: Yeah, it’s like the William Gibson quote, “the future is already here it’s just not very evenly distributed.” We’re talking about privilege and that sort of imagined end, and controlling that narrative is a space of privilege as well and maybe what we can do as artists and curators is critique those narratives and speak from another position.

Jeff Khan is Artistic Director & CEO of Performance Space, Sydney. Jeff is a writer and curator with a particular interest in experimental and interdisciplinary artistic practices from the Asia Pacific region. At Performance Space Jeff oversees the curation and delivery of the annual Liveworks Festival of Experimental Art, alongside a range of residencies, laboratories and creative development programs. Jeff was previously Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Next Wave Festival and has held positions and guest curatorships at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Gertrude Contemporary and the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art.