A conversation with Mary Walling Blackburn

E%

 

You were already once in Sofia; and now you are returning. Is there anything you felt you should be more attentive to or conscious about?

2012: I passed through Sofia.

2017: I read before returning: read of tar and gender, stone runs[1] and sound art, communist-era playgrounds, witchcraft as represented in the murals at Rila, pre-historic hyenas in ice-age caves; read of the anti-materialism of tenth century bogomils claiming that wooden crosses and churches were made by humans (opposed to created by a god) and therefore unholy things. These Bulgarian signifiers flared but were not mine to gobble and discharge. I am aware that Americans, 5% of the world’s population, take 50% of the world’s resources. So, maybe I should plaster over my own mouth and anus? At the very least, I put a finger in a hole and staunch a flow.

This time I wouldn’t crib a folkloric gesture for the art club; I wouldn’t spread tar on the non-profit art organization’s door; I say tar because I read that after the sedankya[2], a jilted man might smear tar on the gates of a young woman’s home. I was imagining Bulgarian tar because sometimes the non-profit can be a home and the site of art can be a site of rejections, sexual and sorry.

How did you approach the idea of Laurel Ptak (curator of E%)  for an exhibition here, in Sofia?

I followed the line of older work I had done and traced the local and personal context of the American—this time in Bulgaria.

Globally, the American, whether we Americans personally desire this or not, enter other nations as soldier/spy or businessman/tourist, peddling capitalism and newer christian forms (or our particular synthesis of judeo-christian capitalism). I remembered that my formerly born-again half-sister had headed to Eastern Europe on a missionary trip in the early 90’s. So I started thinking about the soft invasion of evangelism. I researched evangelical tactics and located the term 10/40 Window in a glossary of missionary terms[3]. It refers to an area, targeted by christian missionaries, that “lacks christian work” and is impoverished. If you reference the map of the 10/40 Window, it is clear that is also a space historically looted by colonialism. Bulgaria lies just outside of this colonial band but within Occupied Fields. Occupied Fields is the missionary term used before 10/40 Window was coined; it was penned in 1911, by Samuel Marinus Zwirmer, an American missionary and co-editor of Our Moslem Sisters: a cry of need from lands of darkness. Bulgaria is included in his book. Contemporary American evangelicals travel to Bulgaria to loot the interior (of mental bodies) because they perceive a trifecta of resistances counter to their fundamentalist protestant ideologies (in their literature they cite muslims, orthodox christians, and communist lost souls).

What does E% means?

I dithered between E% or U% as the title of this show. I quote (op. cit.): E% refers to the percentage of a population (city, people, country) that have been evangelized. U% is a computed estimate of the percentage of persons in a particular population segment (world, country, people group, city) who are unevangelized. I chose E% because it is the same in English or Bulgarian. But I am cynical about my gesture because perhaps it is as thin an American chamber of commerce “sister cities” project- cynical because it is a smile that is also a wallet.

What is American?

When I moved to Dallas, Texas from New York City, S. sent a hybrid email—both condolence and love letter. One of S.’s sweethearts was from Dallas. He remembered staring out the window of a nursing home; framed by the glass, a guy walked a pitbull harnessed to a plastic sled, piled high with cinderblocks. Was the lover supine on hospital bed or standing beside him or was it lover dog trainer or lover straining dog or lover as the city itself? Yes. Was the Local nigh? Yes. But was the local mine? No. I am technically American but without region or state identification. There is a formlessness shy of statelessness. There is observation without inclusion.

Me, I have moved from California to Wyoming to New Hampshire to Vermont to Massachusetts to New York to California to Nova Scotia to New York to California to New York to California to New York to California to Utah to New Hampshire to Massachusetts to Wisconsin to New Hampshire to Utah to Montana to New Hampshire to Texas to New Hampshire to California to New Hampshire to Texas to Washington to Istanbul to Saigon to New Mexico to New York to Illinois to Texas to Indiana to New York to Texas to Vermont to New York to Texas to California to Texas to New York and.

As permanent stranger, I am both highly attentive to the micro-differences of the local but also spaced out, internal.

Then, how is Dallas?

Dallas had particular scents—hot cement, house mold, the manure of the DPD’s horse fleet, the salt water of the wealthy’s pools and the smell of rosemary clinging to the dog’s flanks after a neighborhood walk. The rosemary was thick and abundant but inedible. Some nights they sprayed poisons—via plane. American West Nile Virus: a government website listed the spray schedule. There were scentless things, too: beautiful flowers and trees without odor, depilated females. If local rapists came, and there were several in my specific neighborhood who targeted the apartments of women living alone, I could legally shoot any of them dead at entering. And if I wanted an abortion there was still an abortion clinic—in Jane Roe and Henry Wade’s hometown. And if the local bees, which were aggressive, began to swarm, one could dash into the Trader Joe’s, mechanical sliding glass supermarket doors sliding between body and bees. It was a fucked-up structure of reprieves and privileges—classed, raced, and sexed.

There as artist and professor, I needed to anchor myself to the local beyond history (the Dallas Garment Worker’s Strike of 1934 where, on August 7th, the picketing female workers, just outside of the factory walls, stripped the scabs of their clothing) and my intense love of cypress knees (the anatomy of the local cypress tree includes the cyprus knee, a distinctive structure that punctures swamp waters, emerging beside the tree’s trunk; its knobbly rounded bark form thriving in the inbetween, not deep water, not dry land). Alone, I wish to casually rest my hand on the cypress knee, like she’s my girlfriend in the inbetween. Togetherness in Otherness. I, corn. So corny…

How did you arrive at working with sermon charts, which are the grounds for the series of work we show in Sofia?

A local online archive, threw me a lifeline—meaning something I related to—American objects that expressed mobility, syncretism, crudeness, poverty, violence, desire, mystery and shame. (But I swap their biblical rules with my own ethical strictures.)

Abilene Christian University had digitized images of their collection: 70 cloth sermon charts from 1909 through the 1970’s. These charts were preachers’ graphic aids and were executed by the preacher on new, white, storebought bed sheets that varied from king size to baby crib, drawn with crayola crayons and stencil paint. Some stippled areas by flicking the paint from an old toothbrush, repurposed from the pastor’s mouth. The letters, which made up words cribbed from scripture, were most often stenciled. One preacher’s daughter describes her father working on the dining room table, sometimes hemming the charts with her mother’s sewing machine. In churches, the charts were pinned to altars with thumbtacks. During revivals, generally held outdoors, the charts were strung between trees via rope and clothespin. Used, folded, unfolded, reused, folded…I detected coffee stains, bleeds in the paint, weird smears.

When Tsipar a Xeh Ot was exhibited at Art in General, I received distressed emails from Lindsey Bereford and Kristen Chappa describing a woman visiting the gallery with an open container of white wine… she had spilled a bit of wine next to the sermon chart and saw that a small amount had landed on the bottom of the piece. Kristen and I blotted the spots with wine and allowed it to dry. It dried and the stain disappeared completely. The piece does not smell like wine either, so I think we are in the clear, but I wanted to make you aware just in case. There was no need to clean the stain as it was in keeping with the original trajectory of sermon charts: revealing contact.

Drove a couple hours west to the archive in Abilene. By Texas standards, this may not be local. Macgarvey Ice, archivist, was out for the day. The daughter of Wayne Mickey, my favorite sermon chart maker, was the Head of Special Collections. She unfolded her father’s charts without white cotton inspection gloves. Offline the charts were stranger to me and I was strange to them; perhaps, because I do not believe that christ lived and died for my sins, not accepting him into my heart as my lord and savior. As a child I refused to learn assigned biblical verse. It fell through my mind. I regress, I transgress. There, in the room, I wanted to keep our difference intact—a gnostic clause. I was coming to the missionary, or to her objects rather, and because the heathen is a christian crop, I was asking to remain unharvested.

Is “otherness” something you are interested in?

In general or the particularity of how a Bulgarian otherness may be generated by Americans?

All that.

In regards to otherness as a process in art making, I’d like to coax an object to roughly imitate what I might call my own otherness; let it hold it inside itself. This is a goal—not something I have achieved yet. I fantasize about these future forms enveloping my old core. I probably want this because I grew up on the outside surfaces of the US; our family bucked categories- religious, sexual, and economic.

We village people—300 of us—worked for large ski areas. My mother was a lift operator and my adopted father groomed the mountain trails. This was in the 80’s-during the War on Drugs, with Nancy Reagan as figurehead. At one point, I was bused from my small mountain village to a bigger, prosperous town school where the town school placed the mountain kids into remedial tracks. At some point, they sent home a slip to be filled out by my parents and returned. Is there a second language, other than English, spoken at home? My parents wrote: Martian. I erased it but the palimpsest reigned. This confirmed the institution’s suspicions. We were poor and ill-behaved subjects. At age eleven, I didn’t want my stoned parents to confirm our strangeness, which was labyrinthine, to the authorities. Now, let me say this in Martian: we refused to communicate with those wielding power. We raged against any other that held bureaucratic, monetary and/or arbitrary power. This was very tiring and I’ve made regrettable mistakes. I have also been mistaken: for bad witch, for capitalist, for spy, for evil. The pointing finger generally belongs to those who traffic in purities—the accusations stink of ideology.

In the past, I erroneously thought, as cultural producer, I should attend to anything repressed by mass culture- I was artist as Official Barfer. For example, if you aren’t going to talk about Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ivory dildo, ill means of production and nefarious collection, I will make an object that does! If you won’t reveal the horrific jokes that US soldiers craft at their Afghan victims’ expense, I’ll craft a performance based on this! And so on. I was throwing up on myself. I mean that the vitriol was close-circuiting because it was based on read history, youtube videos and analysis but not my own specific experience—I was not bombed or shot; not negotiating geo-political borders.

Tell me more about the crossing of borders. Also, where do you see borders between Bulgaria and America?

You invited me to perform at Swimming Pool, on the night of the opening. Laurel Ptak said I was not so much performing as summoning the crowd with my growling, chirping, imitating the sound of rain…I made sense by not making sense. And weren’t they tired of English and what it purports to report? After my gurgling set, I went about explaining one sermon chart, Egress. This chart “ordered” my on-the-ground observations of the illogics of border control in California, Arizona, and Texas. This included living in a town where the Border Patrol sector headquarters were located; collecting the night dreams of people living in a small border village where US Marines had shot a young sheepherder at dusk; tracing the path of a dislocated bridge (it had had spanned a narrow portion of the Rio Grande) ripped from the banks of ancient twin towns; staying at a nudist camp where informal crossers skirt leathery senior citizens grilling naked; interviewing informal crossers in Tijuana; visiting the points of entry in Arizona where the Border Patrol drove crossers across the border by imitating the behavior of UFOs; returning over and over again to the Border Patrol Museum because it was gross and in plain site—it was the institutional form of a private experience where I had sat on the porch of a former boder patrol guard, my hand full of trophy photos of humans snared and released. I used the sermon chart to order my thoughts on the corrupted border. On your roof, the mountain rising above me evoked the silhouette of mountains rising along the US/Texas border but Mount Vitosha is not a border mountain, the volcanic massif is contained within the country and transversed by ski lifts. Sofia Busmantsi Detention Centre (Special Home for Temporary Placement of Foreigners) is not on the border but it holds the border in it. Lion’s Gate is where the border loosens? “The Busmantsi center was established in March 2006 “as a civilized solution to the challenges Bulgaria faces as an EU ‘frontier’ country” (Kostadinov 2010). The facility has an estimated capacity of 400 (Savova 2010).” The use of the word frontier is a signal that imperial discourse is afoot. It also tells me that the American frontier and the Bulgarian frontier are overlapping: each allowing vigilantes to track illegal travelers in the hinterlands, for sport and leisure; both deploying daily racialized inspection and both erecting new fences on landward edges. But a difference is that for Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU, this is the required proof that Bulgaria is worthy; worthy to join Europe’s visa-free Schengen zone, worthy to serve as back door henchman. Maybe there are local visitations on the Bulgarian border, apparitions that understand that the border patrol and vigilantes are also evil spirits to expel—but to where?

What about the knockoff, the traded design copy? What is capable to translation, imitation, mockery—and what is not?

Regrettably, mine [Knock Off] is only the conceit of unauthorized consumption. Ina Valentinova , a Bulgarian, made the Bulgarian copy of Traveler’s Dick per my request. Ina Valentinova had some latitude: would the pubic hair be straight or curly? The penis circumcised or uncut? Additionally, the scribner was faithless (as any smart one would be); she would not robot replicate. She had a question about the translation… Traveler’s Dick as phrase does not translate into Bulgarian-so it became a cock that wanders. She indicated an omission in the original diagram: why include teacher and artist as categorically problematic but not curator? Right, the internationalized curator also flies Aer Phallus.

But at Swimming Pool, you are local. I borrowed a soft and aged sheet from your home to make my Bulgarian version.

The series on view relays on common categories while it unsettles their meaning. What are other spectrums of your writing?

Unsettling meaning– to always be that lucky….

My last official text was Gina and the Stars. It was published under BAHAR’s keyword ‘crops’ on Tamawuj, the online platform of Sharjah Biennial 13. A star crop, the astrological reading of a major CIA operative was worked into an epistolary form. It was intended for Gina Haspel, torturer, herself. But I also felt that the public should read her mail, a letter from me, as the government had read its citizens’ correspondence and their flesh. Redact, redact! I wish to redact that part of myself which is read in a government context. Redact, Redact! Sounds like a bird squawking.

Having in mind TsipaR a Xeh Ot, what are you thoughts on the potentials of text, especially its agency?

Spells often proliferate when and where laws fail; so the spell hanging in Swimming Pool is a cosmic bludgeon at best, a weird nudge to a rapist-visitor at mildest. TsipaR a Xeh Ot could also be called a bootleg of sorts—a deviated copy of American-Hungarian witch Z. Budapest’s spell, To Hex a Rapist. This particular spell was incanted in California in the 1970’s, and published in a book of spells my mother picked up at a feminist conference. In their preamble to the hex against rapists, the witches of the Susan B. Anthony coven make clear that they “didn’t bake cupcakes!”; craft was not play. Each witch and her coven decided the tenor of the punishment according to the crime. Some covens determined that death was an appropriate end; others simply ‘lobbied’ for incarceration. In northern California, in 1981, experimental choreographer Anna Halprin uncharacteristically dabbled in magic punishment, collectively enacting In and On the Mountain after a series of rape and murders on Mount Tamelpais. Her initial aim was to “reclaim the mountain” with local residents. Two days later, a call to the police led to the arrest of the suspect. Don Jose Mitsuwa, Huichol shaman, contacted Halprin and advised that the dance continue for five years every spring. Four years and nine months later, the rapist-murderer was convicted. Sometimes, civil law and sorcery meld.

This sermon chart will remain in Bulgaria. Its owner said the spell is needed. Is this the agency you speak of?

  • tsipaR a xeH ot woH, 2016. Bed sheet, pencil, paint. © The artist and Swimming Pool. Photo: Yana Lozeva.
    tsipaR a xeH ot woH, 2016. Bed sheet, pencil, paint. © The artist and Swimming Pool. Photo: Yana Lozeva.