Questions by Evelien Lindeboom
Many of our audience members know you from when you performed with your group the Johnsons at Paradiso in 2005, in Carré in 2009 and in Het Concertgebouw in 2012, as well as performing in Life and Death of Marina Abramovic in Carré in 2012. Over the years, the tone of your work has evolved. Your last album HOPELESSNESS was overtly political.
‘I would describe my music between 1998 and 2012 as pastoral, sometimes orchestral, and centered around a piano; there was always an acoustic quality to it. My latest album, HOPELESSNESS, was electronic, produced by Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never; this format offered me a new sense of freedom as a singer and a lyricist. The words on that album were more confrontational, though many of the underlying themes stayed the same. I am working on a new record now that is stylistically different again. My process is intuitive, but songs always generally lead towards a feeling. I consider all songs cries; we cry out for different reasons in songs, whether to express joy, sorrow, anger, or simply to remember that we are alive.’
For the Holland Festival you will be presenting talks, among others at the Gerrit van der Veenstraat, and two exhibitions. You lived in Amsterdam for a year as a child in 1977-78. Recently you learned that your neighborhood, Gerrit van der Veenstraat, had been where the SD headquarters of the Nazis were located during the Second World War, as well as the Zentralstelle für Jüdische Auswanderung, the building from where the purge of Dutch Jews was administrated. How did this lead to the project Disintegration Loops (for Euterpestraat), a program incorporating an orchestral performance of William Basinski's composition Disintegration Loops in the vicinity of the buildings?
‘My childhood eyes opened in a place that I later found out had been the headquarters for the genocide of Amsterdam’s Jewry, Roma, and others, thirty years earlier. Learning what had happened there disrupted my treasured memories. How could my family have been so unaware of what had transpired there? I hope that this project will help people to hold space for the layers of experiences that the neighborhood embodies, and encourage people more generally to have courage and allow themselves to feel connected to the histories of the land and places we inhabit.’
How is this question ‘What Is Really Happening’ present in your music?
‘Recently I have been catching up on reports from the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of America. There is an increasing sense of risk among scientists that 2 degrees of global warming could trigger what they call “Hothouse Earth” conditions, triggering runaway global warming. There is a lot of discussion about the injection of sulphur into the atmosphere, which will change the sky globally to a more whitish color, in order to try and control the amount of sunlight warming the planet, but it could also have disastrous side effects. No one I know wants to spend more than two minutes considering these scenarios, because it’s too overwhelming. We watch apocalypse tv all night and check social media, but we are stressed by a lengthy assessment of empirical truth. This is what I mean by “What Is Really Happening”, it’s when a truth lives like a cancer, hiding from itself as it takes the life of its host.
When I performed at the TED conference in 2011, I was confronted by a scientist who told me that 50% of the world’s species would be extinct by the end of the century, and there was “no use in crying over spilled milk.” I said to him that my job as an artist was to hold space for the emotional, psychic, and spiritual realities of what he had just said. For me, this is a small part of “What Is Really Happening.”
Many of us deny the existence of our own footprint. I am guilty of this. It is a failing survival strategy. Everyone wants to feel they are on the right side of these issues, so it can be painful to face my complicity, my hypocrisy. The only way to address a problem effectively is to truthfully assess it. Denial is one of the roots of our collective illness, and now it is so institutionally embedded. Everything is designed to comfort consumers, and to hide them from themselves.
Art and music use different neural pathways to reach people communicatively. Sound can be a useful tool to reach people, to talk about some of those issues. It might open up a different doorway into people’s imaginations. It’s easy to point the finger, but harder to investigate our own roles. I have attempted at times to model an investigation into my own complicity. I’m trying to figure out a way forward for myself that could also be useful for the community.’
What can you tell about this decision to stop singing publicly?
‘My intention is to be present as an artist in ways that I hope will be enriching for people as well as supporting my own well-being. I was clear about this with the Holland Festival team, and they felt that my curatorial input would be useful to them.
My sense of the transaction between an artist and the public has transformed over the years. It has been a learning curve for me. I feel so fortunate to have been afforded a platform to speak. Perhaps in former times, communities may have safeguarded people who they asked to speak or dream on their behalf. Now it is more like the Roman Colosseum. I have to protect myself, if I can. Societies can have an extractive relationship with performing artists in particular: we use them as heroes and as scapegoats. Neither role is fulfilling to me, or has my best interests at heart.
As a musician, performing is one of the only remaining avenues for income. Music sales have mostly been upstreamed to device and platform companies over the last twenty years. A lot of administration and work that an artist or musician does is unpaid. We function as small businesses. I am a small business that can afford to hire myself, and one other person to help me administratively for one hour per day. I just spent three years making a very beautiful book about a performance group I founded called Blacklips. I received about two weeks of income to do this work. This is not personal. The goal of late-stage capitalism is to absorb all small businesses, and funnel profits to corporations in other countries, such as Amazon, Spotify, Facebook and YouTube. Music has been reduced to a perfume now. It comes as a free gift inside the personal digital devices that people purchase and through which they live their lives. Most musicians get paid by advertisers. Twenty years ago we were paid by consumers. It was a more innocent and dignified arrangement. The situation is sad to me. I feel grateful to have had the first part of my music career before this paradigm took hold. I saved the money at that time to purchase an apartment, which created a lot of security for me. I only know rich and poor people in the world of art and music. There are very few people in the middle anymore, especially in America. But I still love music, and I have continued to record, along with my other creative practices.’
As this year’s associate artist, you are an intermediary for the festival. Can you tell what you wish to accomplish?
‘My challenge to the Holland Festival is to shift the focus for audiences slightly, to invite audiences to approach artists less as consumers and more as members of a community. It might be interesting for audience members to meditate on what it is they are searching for: do they seek clarity, connection, insight, relief? It seems to me that many people I encounter are worried about the future. If that is the case, let’s consider asking the creative people we invite into our communities from other parts of the world for help. Asking artists for cultural help is efficient, but it requires that we do not breach a mutual commitment of trust.
Many of us in the West descend from families that have authored or have benefited from the suffering we have imposed on others around the world, presently, or historically. We have strong defenses that protect us from our awareness of this. We seek to sit at the head of table of global consumerism without guilt or remorse, without awareness. This is a survival strategy.
It feels overwhelming to look at my part in things, and my ancestors’ parts in the stories of my society. The truths that we hide from threaten to overwhelm us. How can we transform? How can we forge trust in humanity, now, especially when global consensus is so necessary for our future survival, and for the survival of the biosphere? We have to start by holding each other’s best interests at heart. Does capitalism in its current form allow us to do this? Do our theological structures and our secular notions of hierarchies in human value allow us to sense that we belong to a global family, a single species, that might one day might be able to trust itself, to trust each other? Why do we suspect the worst in each other? Could the ways that we have historically enslaved other nations have contributed to that lack of trust? And why do we continue to feel comfortable allowing our corporations to enslave other nations and extract their resources, devastating communities? How are our ancestors’ behaviors impacting our lives and belief systems today? In my view, all of our ancestral intentions are still part of our contemporary landscape, and they are very much a part of “What Is Really Happening.”
In a hundred or so years, the Netherlands may be under water, along with many other parts of the world. Now is the time we should cry for the earth; now is the time for ceremonies in which we say we are truly sorry to each other, to the body of the earth, and to ourselves, for facilitating so much destruction. Now is the time for us to devote our lives to nurturing the resurgence of biodiversity, and confront within ourselves the sources of distrust that we have for one another, and have the courage to forge new neural pathways that might enable us to see ourselves more honestly.’
Is this why you are introducing ‘Elders’ to the festival – knowledgeable people that can give the audience guidance and useful context to performances?
‘Older people often have more insight, especially older women. In my life, older femmes and older women have been my guides. Many women have an under-utilized power to clarify things, using a balanced combination of rational, intuitive and empathic agency. Some men in our societies have been discouraged from developing these skillsets with any depth. They have developed different skills, that in other times helped us survive as a species. Most of our institutions today still turn away from what is perceived as archetypically feminine agency: emotional intelligence, intuition. The expressive presence of estrogen was looked upon within patriarchy as a shameful liability, even among earlier iterations of feminists. That idea is changing now. We need feminine people to step forward into positions of leadership. We need the insight of the feminine to help us to understand and prescribe a new direction forward, one that we have not abided in the West for thousands of years, and one that we have murderously suppressed. And yet what threat does femininity pose? Does anyone really doubt that feminine energy might not be useful in determining a more empathetic path forward, in relationships with each other and the rest of nature? Yet to most, this proposition seems preposterous. People can more easily imagine the collapse of the biosphere than a shift in our values around our systems of governance. Many men cling to their lonely birthright within the hierarchy of the genders, and many women still adhere to the idea that their performance as people who are “the same as men” is their only hope of finally earning any seat at any table of governance. Femininity has been the grounds for disqualification from any seat of power.
Older people hold the remnants of our former relationship with the rest of nature. Every year, technology and capitalism seek to create more walls between us and our memories of life in connection with the rest of nature. This phase of capitalism seems to be built upon the necessity of forgetting who we are and where we come from and what we have cared about, even across hundreds of generations. Elders are increasingly hidden away in Western societies, their currency exhausted. But it is precisely their age that makes them so uniquely valuable, because they remember longer stories about who we really are; they perhaps remember things that their grandparents told them, and those stories and oral histories are windows into deeper values; ones that transcend and predate the virulent culture within which most of us now live. By asking our grandmothers what is really happening today, we can learn a lot, by seeing things within a longer context. So I feel compelled to listen to the elderly among us very carefully, especially the oldest feminine people.’
One of the artists you have invited to the festival is (video) artist Lynette Wallworth. Can you tell how you met and what she means to you?
‘I met her when we worked together on a project with the Martu, an Aboriginal community in the West Australian desert. Lynette was creating a video portrait of a group of senior women who have a communal painting practice. She makes documentary and sculptural portraiture designed to help transform our understanding of our broader relationships to things. She did several projects in Australia and South America with indigenous communities who trusted her with their ideas and visions. She was willing to create portals through which they could express their dreams and insights to the broader world. Lynette has held space for difficult conversations in challenging environments. She has also made powerful speeches as an artist representative at the World Economic Forum at Davos, reaching people way outside of her comfort zone to forge connection, and attempt cultural interventions that might affect change. Not many artists do that. Many artists now have been groomed to be symptoms of our culture, rather than disruptors within it.
When I first saw her piece Evolution of Fearlessness (2011), an impressive installation that introduces each viewer to people of diverse origins in an intimate exchange. It reminded me in some ways of a concert I did with the film maker Charles Atlas called TURNING (2006). Rooted in a recognition of mutual dignity and consent, it created reverberations that affect others by drawing them into an empathic transmission.’
One of the performers starring in your work TURNING was your friend and muse Dr. Julia Yasuda. Your exhibition in Huis Willet-Holthuysen is (partly) dedicated to her. You made a book about her under the same name as the exhibition: SHE WHO SAW BEAUTIFUL THINGS. What can you tell us about this exhibition?
The house is part of the Amsterdam Museum. In my own work in theater, visual art and even musically, I collaborated for over two decades with a self-identified intersex person named Julia Yasuda, a professor of mathematics from Tokyo. As a young woman, Julia lived in the seventies and early eighties with her beloved wife, a photographer and artist named Erika Yasuda. Erika often took photographs of Julia and their mutual friend, Mako Midori, as well as portraits of their two cats. Erika died suddenly in her thirties, and Julia fled to NYC, where I first met her a few years later, after she had completed gender reassignment. We did many plays over the years, and Julia often introduced my concerts with a short poem. She starred in TURNING and was often featured in artwork associated with my music and in my photography. Julia herself passed away in 2018. A Buddhist, Julia had a theory that she and Erika would one day reincarnate backwards in time, to re-inhabit the bodies of those two cats that she and Erika had taken such good care of. Knowing how loved and treasured they were in life gave Julia a sense of security and a safe place to land in her imagination, fulfilling a kind of closed quantum loop of tenderness where she and Erika could shelter for eternity.
The bodies of people that identify as queer often belong to very sensitive and vulnerable members of that society. A place of private sanctuary becomes meaningful and valued to people who rarely feel safe.
I am staging a multilayered exhibition in two rooms on the top floor of that house that will include photographs by Erika Yasuda, as well as photography, video and sculptural works by myself. SHE WHO SAW BEAUTIFUL THINGS will address some of these themes I have described to you.
I use “veils” in the exhibit as a physical way to suggest that different layers of time might exist simultaneously. I like the concept of animism: that everything is alive, or has some aspect of meaningful, feelingful essence to it. Everything is breathing in its own way; materiality is always in a living process of becoming and transforming. I think of exhibitions as performances, in the sense that all the materials are alive and in motion, atomically, intentionally… Sometimes it is better to “watch” a painting than to “look at” it, let the material start to dance within it’s ethereal body. Perhaps materials even remember on some very deep level all their previous manifestations. I imagine that in the future we will be able to put a drop of water in a computer and it will tell us every organic body and memory that its elements have ever been a part of.’
Can you talk more about the role of feminism and femininity in your work? And what is Future Feminism?
‘I originally started using the words “future feminism” to describe the work of two of my peers, Johanna Constantine and Kembra Pfahler. Both artists are based in the downtown NY scene, although the impact of their work is mirrored and imitated in works by others now around the world. In very different ways both artists use their bodies as canvasses, channeling future forms, depicting models of feminine crisis and survival. They combined innocence and Kali-esque power, facing impending or ongoing apocalyptic realities; they existed as artists outside of traditional institutions of feminism, while performing prophetic expressions of the crisis awaiting women and the planet. It was in repeatedly attempting to describe the impact that their work had on me that I stumbled upon this terminology in about 2011.
In NYC, Kembra especially has functioned as a teacher and a connector of oral histories for generations of young, politicized performance artists. When I first arrived in NYC in 1990, Kembra, although only a few years older than me, was one of very few people who welcomed me without reserve and let me know that I was home, downtown; she has provided this same guidance and kindness to scores of young artists arriving to NYC from across the United States. Most artists are lucky if they have one really good idea, which we then elaborate upon in different ways over the course of our careers. Kembra is one of those rare artists who has created an entire alphabet upon which other artists elaborate over a long period of time. Johanna’s work is more solitary; she developed her practice as an expressive, balancing force. Since I met Johanna at the age of 17, her visual landscapes have provided the environmental context for my music. We developed our practices in parallel. In the mid 00s, we also met Bianca and Sierra Casady, and I toured with them around the world when I started focusing exclusively on music. CocoRosie have also been brave, enduring criticism for their willingness to advocate for the human rights of women and girls cross-culturally in their work.
The Future Feminism project started as a circle of friends in 2011. We wanted to have a deeper conversation about our thoughts and feelings about our experiences as women and trans femmes in the world. This was before the #MeToo movement, and before Trump, and the most recent wave of anti-abortion fundamentalism. It felt unfashionable to use the word “feminism”. Most older women artists didn’t use the word, feeling stigmatized by it, and younger people hadn’t yet grabbed it. We spent many hours together, sitting in a circle and slowly building consensus amongst ourselves… it was a time-consuming process… less hierarchical. It takes more time to forge decisions that are inclusive; only a second to make an extractive decision.
We began to imagine recentering archetypically feminine values and processes as central within a system of global governance. How does culture change when seventy percent of the people in charge are women? And what does society risk by leaning on a higher proportion of women, and femmes, to make decisions on all of our behalf? What might we stand to gain? We have never in Western history meaningfully explored this.
We called it “Future Feminism” because we were concerned about the future. We came up with thirteen ideas that we carved into round rose quartz discs. In 2014 we hosted a thirteen-day exhibition and free festival in a gallery on Third Avenue in NYC, inviting artists including Lorraine O’Grady, Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, Narcissister, Kiki Smith and Viva Ruiz to express their thoughts in relation to our work. Among the tenets were: “The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same” and “Relieve men of their roles as protectors and predators”. The thirteenth tenet was “The Future is Female”. That last tenet went viral and was marketed by others all over the world. But without the previous twelve prescriptions for change, the thirteenth tenet lost a big part of its meaning for us.
The reception of 13 TENETS OF FUTURE FEMINISM at the time was mixed: many younger women were glad we were raising our voices and trying to revitalize a space to talk about this stuff, while academic feminists and queer theorists who perhaps felt underrepresented in popular culture accused us of being naive “essentialists”. The rest of the boy’s club media viewed any talk of feminism as antiquated, offensive or embarrassing. It would be another four years before black trans feminists started using the word “femme” as a point of empowerment and pride, putting to rest the long-held critique amongst some older feminists that femininity was a liability rather than an undervalued asset, and that femininity shouldn’t be the presumed destiny of every woman, which, of course, is true. But my affinity group were all femmes, so we spoke from our point of view. Within two years of our exhibit, #MeToo started, and the conversation caught on fire in certain circles. Even Hillary Clinton said “The Future is Female” in a campaign speech. Our group had fractured from the pressure and stress of the public scrutiny.
Then in 2017, one of the key members of our FF family, a young mother who we all adored, lost her life in an act of domestic violence. It was devastating. I was invited to Aarhus in 2017 as artist in residence for European Capital of Culture. A smaller group of us created a new iteration of FF, focusing on our lost friend. We were shocked to find that a similar crime had taken place in Denmark the previous month, and the whole country was in mourning. Denmark projects an illusion that it is a post-sexist country, but many of the women confided in us that they were constantly being schooled by their peers to be quiet and express gratitude, because as Scandinavians, their lot as women was supposedly better than everyone else’s. Meanwhile there was only about one woman on the entire Aarhus city council! So many women’s stories are about avoiding predation. Generations of Stockholm Syndrome have reinforced our compliance.
Our idea was that the tenets were mutable, and that they should be adapted to serve any community to which they are introduced. Our job was to facilitate conversations that people in Aarhus felt they wanted to have. So we exhibited the stones again, and hosted discussions with local and visiting scholars, environmentalists, sociologists, and art historians. We hosted other communities and affinity groups: women from Gellerup, where refugees in Aarhus were being housed: those women wanted to discuss the ongoing policing of their clothing. Denmark had banned Islamic women from wearing any face coverings. Ironically, all the Danes would be wearing their own masks a few years later, without remorse or apology for their brutal treatment of Muslim women over the same issue. FEMEN came and presented an overview of their work. We had self-defense classes and performances, student groups. The leader of the Swedish Feminist Initiative, a short lived, pioneering prototype for a feminist political party, came and graciously spoke.
For 13 TENETS OF FUTURE FEMINISM Amsterdam 2023 we are presenting a simple program. CocoRosie, Kembra Pfahler and Johanna Constantine will each stage solo work in the Muziekgebouw. I will install the stones in the atrium, along with ancillary works, vitrines, and documentation of past FF engagements. Over a period of three days, we will hold additional events in the atrium, among the stones and in the adjacent classroom. The stones themselves will be on view for two weeks. We are pleased to share this work with the city of Amsterdam and hope it will inspire conversations among people here.
We stated in the first tenet that “The subjugation of women and the earth is one and the same.”. Today 60% of mammals by biomass are factory farmed animals. 36% of mammals by biomass are human, and only 4% remain wild animals. Most of the enslaved animals, representing the overwhelming majority of mammal life on earth, are female. Additionally, the 26 billion enslaved birds in the world are almost all female. Has humanity lost respect for femaleness, having spent hundreds of generations enslaving and controlling the reproductive systems of billions of female animals? Increasingly, I believe that this enslavement of female animals has served as a gateway to all subsequent human enslavement. Now we have enslaved the hills, forests, the seabeds, and the sky. We have dissolved our respect for nature. Our eyes are averted ever more heavenward to a male god, fundamentalists and tech moguls alike.’
When FF started it was criticized, among other things for embracing the feminine as a strength. To call oneself a feminist was often seen as a weakness. But it has aged well…
‘The idea of femininity as a viable expression of women’s power used to be seen as difficult for some people, having witnessed generations being disqualified or belittled for being feminine. Heterosexual women were hesitant to call themselves feminist in a world where women seen to be advocating only for women were considered separatist, or somehow rejecting of their husbands and sons; historically such women were ostracized, pathologized, or punished as witches and hysterics. That has changed very recently. But anything that changes quickly is unfortified. The collapse of women’s reproductive rights in the United States of America is a terrible harbinger.‘
Another artist you suggested to bring to the festival is adrienne maree brown. What can you tell us about her?
‘She is among the most compelling voices in the USA, articulating systems and survival strategies for people working on the front lines of social justice movements. She addresses how to move through the unprecedented present and maintain effectiveness as an agent of change. I want to invite her to share some of her ideas with like-minded circles in Amsterdam. Her current project embeds her philosophies within a music practice, and it is gorgeous to behold.'
Can you share something you have recently broadened your thinking about?
'A lot of the language that we employ in Western thinking seems limited in that the underlying concepts are based on the supposition of a binary root. Much of nature exists outside of this binary. Transcending binary constructs opens up new ways to perceive the world. That’s not to say that polarities don’t exist. But binary notions of black/white, good/evil, male/female, yin/yang may have outlived their usefulness. They are inhibiting our ability to behold the world in a more complex and spectral way. The order of the universe is not based on a weighing scale of opposites, dancing in a perpetual stalemate. Darkness, for instance, is not the opposite of light. Darkness is a massive universal ocean, and tiny balls of fire burn within it. Starlight is an event that is contained within a much greater darkness; so light and darkness are not equal and opposing forces. They are not proportionally identical and they are not made of the same stuff. So how exactly are light and darkness opposites? Yet so many of our foundational religious ideas are based on this model of light versus darkness.
Similarly, males and females are cast in our minds today as “opposite sexes”. Yet in my mind, maleness seems to be more of a subset of femaleness. We are all part of the body of creation, authored by and created by femaleness. Every child’s body is made from the tissue of its mother’s body. Maleness is not something that develops in parallel to femaleness; it develops within and from femaleness, and is born to support and serve femaleness as the source of its own life.
Before time began, I imagine that an un-living point of consciousness felt so terribly isolated and lonely that in an act of fantastic pressure it burst open and divided into two. I believe She created the big bang because She was feeling such painful loneliness that She decided to separate into two, as a survival strategy. By doing so, She could offer Herself comfort. Motherhood is the basis of life in the universe. I consider all maleness to be a part of a greater femaleness, or a subset of femaleness. This is not to lessen the value of men. By including men within the oeuvre of femaleness, I seek to raise them up and invite them to recognize their precious roles as part of creation within “femaleness” rather than as some separate species that managed to crawl out of and then enslave female bodies, over and over again.
My family members on the west coast of Ireland feel that they descend from pre-Christian, land-based people. Many indigenous people around the world have only had a few generations of exposure to any notion other than that. From my limited interaction with indigenous scholars, it seems that an indigenous sense of the world in many cultures is often more complex and multi-layered than an Abrahamic one. Our scientists, in their drive towards technological conquest, believe that their destiny is to pierce the veil of mystery that is Femaleness. They imagine that Her bounty will rain down upon them like golden lettuce heads on Mars, and they will finally have won the jackpot, when men can call themselves the authors of manifestation, rather than Her pilferers and Her slavers.
Regarding visiting artists, especially ones from indigenous societies recently colonized and terrorized by Europeans, how do we as Western consumers of their cultural offerings ask those artists to please help us? Where, especially, do the white, privileged people amongst us, whose ancestors are taut in their graves with guilt, find that humility within ourselves to start to excavate our own truths, or our own brokenness, in a productive, transformative, and right-sized way? Such a question, asked on a broad enough scale across Europe, would, I believe, signal the birth of modern European hope.
This is what I hope: that Holland Festival asks artists, “What context can we facilitate for you that would be of greatest service to you in communicating your vision to us as Dutch people? How can we protect you, and clarify the nature of this cultural transaction for you? We will place elders from our own culture as sentinels around your work to help protect you, and serve as midwives to your messages, and press teams will oversee and temper criticism leveled at these works, in order not to kill the messengers. It is our responsibility as the Holland Festival to protect the psychic and cultural health of visiting artists who take risks on our behalf.”’