A Conversation with Cindy Baker
May 16, 2018
Cindy Baker is an interdisciplinary and performance artist committed to critical social analysis and engagement. Transforming context and experience into her foremost medium, Baker engages with gender culture, queer theory, fat activism, and art theory. Baker holds an MFA from the University of Lethbridge, and currently splits her time living and working between Lethbridge and Edmonton, Alberta.
Shortly following the opening of Crash Pad, Jessa Gillespie from dc3 Art Projects and Cindy Baker sat down to discuss Baker’s relationship to, and history with performance art, as well as the underlying motivations behind Crash Pad. Baker’s solo exhibition Crash Pad at dc3 Art Projects is open to the public May 4th – June 16th, 2018.
< jessa gillespie > I want to begin by chatting about your personal history with performance art – how has your relationship to performance evolved through the years to where it’s at now?
< cindy baker > I did my BFA here, at the University of Alberta, long enough ago that there wasn’t even a hint of performance art taught in studio or art history. It’s changed – it’s not changed hugely – but there was no Intermedia. The Art History department also didn’t give me a sense that performance art was a thing, and when I left there I was really disillusioned with art. The background (in, mostly, Modernism) that I got, led me to believe that when people looked at art, as soon as they recognised: “oh this is art”, then they shut down. I think a lot of that public disinterest in art is thanks to Modernism, and how it’s all about the formal. It’s so introspective and inward looking, that people in the general public think it’s not for them. So while they can maybe appreciate what they see in a museum, they’re not versed in the language and so they feel alienated.
I left school wanting to make art that people wouldn’t immediately recognise as art; that people would say: “oh what’s this?” and have a curiosity about, and then maybe come to discover, once they had already opened themselves up to it, that it was art. So, I was doing a lot of knit and crochet work when I first finished my BFA, stuff that looked exactly like the paintings that I was doing, but also looked like something that your grandmother would make, or that you would find at a craft sale or something like that. And that’s also when I started performing; I just thought: “if I don’t have to make art that looks like art, I could do anything”. So it was not based in any sort of performance art tradition that I was aware of, it wasn’t based in a knowledge of performance art history, it was just based in a burgeoning knowledge that art didn’t have to look like what I was taught art was. I wanted to make an artwork that would show the public that artists work hard. I got the feeling that the public thought artists were elitists, that they spent all of their days in a lofty place and didn’t do real work the way that everyone else had to, to survive. So I built a plexiglass box on wheels – it was really heavy – open at the bottom and with hardware inside so that I could push it around, in the public, where people could see that I had to work really hard. It was super simple, but it was meant to embody all sorts of dichotomies, like being on display because I’m in a glass box, but maybe it’s more like a shark cage where they’re on display and I’m watching them (protected from them), or maybe I’ve got a disease and need to be protected from them, or tthey need to be protected from me. All of these different things all at the same time. And people really responded to it.
I was really excited by how much people responded to it, and by how simple performance can be. I can’t act and I’ve never been interested in being in front of the camera, but if I was just me going out into the world, putting myself in a context where people would have the opportunity to look at me, or be compelled to look at me and think about whatever it is that I was thinking about, then it could be really exciting. So that’s how I first came to performance.
Plexiglass Box, Dunlop Gallery, Regina, SK, 2003. Photo courtesy of the artist.
< jessa > This idea of showing people that artists are working, and within the context of that piece, because you’re physically and intensely working. I remember discussing this piece in the past, and you mentioning the sheer weight of it, and the impact that it had on your body. It feels like a big part of Crash Pad is about recognizing the limits of your body, right, so being kind to it becomes a radical gesture that not only criticizes the emphasis that the history of performance places on those who are able-bodied, but also on a larger scale, calls attention to hierarchies of value linked to ability and productivity within a neoliberal-capitalism framework. This form of physical refusal that you perform in Crash Pad feels like such an important gesture, and I’m wondering if you could unpack a bit the progression from the plexiglass box to Crash Pad. It started out as pushing the limits – as the history of performance art projects onto us – with the viscerality of seeing someone working strenuously. Crash Pad feels in direct opposition to this, so I’m really curious about that shift in your work.
< cindy > I think one of the things that makes it a little more contemporary is being very specifically responsive to the current neoliberal compulsion for productivity, as I’m resisting productivity. One of the very basic things about it, is that I’m just going to get in there and refuse to work. But, at the same time, it’s actually really hard work, and anyone who witnesses the performance sees that I’m actually working very hard and that it’s still hard on my body and that it takes a lot out of me. But looking at the plexiglass box, that work was even more difficult – it took so much out of me, literally took chunks out of my ankles. I would bleed, and it was physically so, so difficult. It was also hot in there all the time, and heat is really bad for my migraines. It was hard on me in a way that would be hard for anybody, but it was also hard on me in that it was designed to trigger those things that make me personally sick. And so every time I performed it I would be sick afterwards, it was so bad for me in so many ways and yet I felt like a productive and good artist. I felt like I was doing what performance artists are supposed to do: prove how very dedicated they are to their art by beating up on their bodies.
All of the performance art that I was looking at and learning about showed that the more you suffered for your art the more successful it was, and the more likely it was to end up in the halls of art history. I don’t think that’s any different from any other genre of art: we celebrate Vincent Van Gogh for suffering for his art. But performance artists do so in a way where the viewer is witnessing that impact on their body and so there’s an increased pressure to up the ante in terms of damage to our bodies. Here I think of Chris Burden. He performed such a simple gesture, but so physically destructive – being shot in the arm. That was so long ago too, and artists have only upped the ante since then. Not a lot of artists are actually being shot but it’s always more and more important to be that dedicated artist by demonstrating how much we’re willing to destroy our bodies for it.
With the plexiglass box, another important thing to note is that in that work, I recognized that I was being read as a fat woman; that it was being read as content. I’ve always been fat, I’ve always been a fat woman, and I’ve always been aware of it and interested in thinking about it. But, I had never before realized that I had to address it in my workx. And so my work became more about the body than I ever thought it would have to be. This piece that was about the state of the artist and the state of art in the world, became suddenly about bodies because of performance art, because of my body, because of how people read it. My work shifted to be very much about the body, and in great part because I had to, because that’s how people we’re reading it. It seemed so disingenuous to be like: “nah, that’s not what it’s about at all” even though everybody was seeing that in it.
< jessa > It’s interesting that in performance art versus practicing another form of art-making, your personal experiences around identity and bodies always come into play, but in a really different way with performance because you’re putting your body on the line. I think it’s interesting that in the plexiglass box, the performance is something you framed as something anyone – any performance artist could do. You were trying to meet that standard or be in line with this idea of upping the ante: pushing your body to great lengths in a way that an able-bodied person could, therefore meeting those standards.
Crash Pad has a lot of nuances that feel important given how much performance art – and most things really – have ignored disability and crip theory. Structures that are at large right now create the normal body which is impossible to live up to no matter who you are, but some people visibly don’t fit into that more than others. Crash Pad allows you to be attentive to your body, and it’s still obviously physically strenuous, but you’re actually allowing yourself opportunities to meet your needs, which is quite poetic.
< cindy > I think an important distinction, or addition, to make is that I’m not just trying to be kind to my body. I’ve tried to design a performance that allows me to do what my body needs to but – just as important – I’ve designed a performance in which that kindness and resistance to self-torture is meant to be visible. So even when I’m working really hard, hopefully people can see both that I’m working, and that I’m resting. I want people to recognise that I’m not just laying there, I’m not just sleeping, but I’m resting. I think that’s what makes Crash Pad different from other performance art projects that involve people sleeping in the gallery, those projects might be about really intellectual, arty things, but mine I think is a lot more grounded in the physical and the body.
< jessa > Yes, well it’s not purely about resisting productivity, there’s a lot of other nuances happening. This performance is not solely linked to the social and physical experiences of the body, but also the often intrinsic relationship that bodies have with medication. The audience’s initial encounter with this is the bed that you perform with, modeled after a single-pill blister pack. Could you speak to how the formal aspects of the piece were imagined, and the importance of having sculptural props that you can interact with?
< cindy > It was always meant to stand alone as a sculptural object and an installation, so when I’m not here performing it’s not like: “oh there’s nothing happening in the gallery”. I really want people to come in and have an experience with the work that can exist outside of my engagement with it. So I designed something to be beautiful and to definitely look like both a pill packet and a bed at the same time. I think that’s enough of a thing to throw into your head and bounce around for a while; then adding the images on to that – I feel it’s a fairly elegant way to talk about all the themes the work engages with in a way that’s quiet and kind of contemplative. Because most of my work is performative it was always built in that I was going to engage with it. It’s also probably important to note that almost all of my performance art ideas involve making something big and fabulous and performing with it; I just don’t know how to make performance that doesn’t involve these giant bizarre props!
< jessa > In relation to the actions that you perform with this prop, you’ve mentioned that occasionally you will perform actions that assume the mattress as a lover, or the mattress as something that is trapping you. Could you unpack this lover versus entrapment dichotomy, and the symbolic role of the mattress within it?
< cindy > The mattress represents the actual pill in the blister pack: it’s a mattress that I lie on which provides comfort, but also the pill I ingest that does things medically for me. So really it’s about having to take medication and how that’s become a part of my routine – my getting up and going to bed routine. It’s part of what lets me function in the world, but at the same time, also part of what can dull my senses; remove me from engagement with the world. Depending on what kind of medication, it can give me energy, take my energy, make me sleep, wake me up, make me happy, make me feel irritated… Crash Pad is a portrait of a specific pill but it also is meant to represent every kind of medication I’ve ever had to take, which can sometimes pin me down, whether it’s an antidepressant, an antibiotic, or something to prevent migraines like an anti-psychotic or anti-seizure medication. Science has designed these things to put into our bodies to change who we are in some way, whether that’s because there’s a problem with our bodies or because our bodies aren’t doing what we want or need them to do in order to function, but science has never fully understood why medications work or what ramifications they have on our bodies as a whole. The medical reasons why I have needed pills has evolved over the years but also, the psychological and emotional reasons I’ve needed medications have also evolved slowly, slowly, to a point where I needed them more than I really needed them, or I used them more than I should have, or I liked them more than needed them. I think because of that and because of the link between taking pills and going to bed – pills making you tired, or wanting to sleep through the bulk of the side effects and that kind of thing – the crash pad metaphor worked really well, of the pill as a bed. And very specifically, because of the pill that Crash Pad is a portrait of – it’s a pill that I would take and go to bed. It’s a pill that I would take, and go to bed, and have sex. So there’s that built into it as well.
< jessa > Right, I wanted to bring up this idea of portraiture with you. The toile de jouy drawings play a large formal role in this piece, with the wallpaper as your backdrop and the bed sheets carrying the hand-drawn pattern as well. In your description of the project you mention that “the drawings are in traditional monochromatic blue on white, referencing not only the historical fabric but the paper-covered foil packet of my favourite pill”. You also mention that the assistive devices/medications used in these drawings and in your performance can become portraits of relationships or have relationships projected onto them. Can you speak to the notion that you have a ‘favourite pill’ and perhaps frame your relationship with such a medication?
< cindy > The medication that Crash Pad is a portrait of is called Zomig Rapimelt, and it is a migraine terminator. I’ve had migraines since I was at least three years old – the first one I can remember having is when I was three – and I suffered with them for years and they just got worse and worse. Back then, doctors didn’t believe kids could have migraines so they were undiagnosed and untreated for my entire childhood. When they were finally diagnosed and I started taking medication, doctors would give me a prophylactic (or something to prevent the migraines) and they’d also give me a terminator to kill the migraines. So, on one hand I was taking migraine prophylactics, and I mean there’s no drug out there that’s designed to be a migraine preventer. Every pill that people take for migraines – it was discovered as a side effect that people were having less migraines when they were on these pills. These pills are antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-seizure medications and some of them are really, really heavy, with all sorts of unpleasant and dangerous side effects, and some of them stopped being prescribed for those purposes years ago because science developed better drugs for those things, psychosis and depression and epilepsy, which didn’t have those side effects. I mean, the drugs have gotten “cleaner” which means they just have less and less side effects, so they also don’t have the side effect of getting rid of migraines. And so doctors kept people with migraines on these really heavy medications. That’s one side of things: me being on these terrible medications that function to prevent migraines. Then there’s the terminators, which are not painkillers, but actually stop the function of the migraines. A lot of people take painkillers for migraines, (and also, a lot of people have headaches that they call migraines because it’s a really bad headache but it’s not the same thing), but for a variety of reasons, painkillers don’t work for me; painkillers make my migraines worse. Migraine terminators they function not to dull or mask the pain, but to remove the source of the pain. Contemporary science on migraines believes that when you get a migraine it’s because the blood vessels in your head, for whatever reason, a million different reasons, start to shut down just a little bit. They constrict a little, and your brain freaks out and is like: “this is a problem, this shouldn’t be happening”, and they blow open suddenly, all of your blood vessels blow open, and that’s what a migraine is, that’s what the cause of the pain is. Migraine terminators just help constrict your blood vessels again. Painkillers can dull the pain but can’t actually stop the problem, and pain is just one of the symptoms of a migraine. Being unable to function is really what a migraine is about. Some people go blind, some people can’t walk straight, slur their speech, can’t read; there’s all sorts of things because your brain is so messed up when you have a migraine – one of the worst symptoms for me is the inability to handle the pain; normally I have a pretty high pain tolerance, but a migraine just destroys my ability to mentally deal with the pain. That’s kind of a digression but, suffice it to say that I’ve had chronic debilitating migraines for so long that I’ve tried virtually all of the terminators; some of them never worked for me, and the ones that have I’ve taken for so long that eventually they don’t work anymore. There’s two classes of migraine terminators: ergots, and triptans. Ergots never worked for me, so I started on the triptan trail and used all of them one by one until I got to the one that worked really well for me: Zomig Rapimelt. It’s a tiny little white pill that dissolves in your mouth. It tastes exactly like baby aspirin, which the first time you take it is a little bit off-putting and then after that – it tastes nice, maybe you look forward to it a little bit. For me it had a really strange side effect of being arousing, which is totally counterintuitive, because it’s a vasoconstrictor and vasodilators (like viagra) are what arouse people. But I’ve always found that having sex is a good cure for a migraine, so it kind of went hand-in-hand; it made it easier to fall in love with the drug as a fun thing to do. And I was having more than a dozen migraines a month, the kind of migraines that would have me flat on my back and losing my whole day; half of my life was lost to migraines, for years. Eventually Zomig stopped working for me, but it still made me feel good, so it was really hard to switch to a new medication; on those days that were otherwise entirely miserable, literally half of my life, that drug was basically the only thing that made life worth living. It felt like I was losing something; a lover, a friend, a coping mechanism, an escape, even though it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do anymore.
< jessa > That’s a pretty complex relationship to have with a medication.
< cindy > Yeah, and I don’t even think it’s that uncommon. My specific experience is very personal, but everybody has that complicated relationship to their medication: I hate it but I need it, I like what it does for me but I’m ashamed of what it does for me.
< jessa > Definitely, and I feel like anyone who has experienced chronic pain has been through that not necessarily parallel process, but would understand those feelings. Having it be a lover’s portrait, means that even just looking at the bed alone could elicit a similar experience to that.
< cindy > That’s why the toile and the images are so important because the sculptural element is a bed, it’s a pill, people take pills at night – whatever – I don’t think the project quite gets all the way there, without seeing these intimate portraits.
Crash Pad 12, 2017, watercolor drawing.
< jessa > This was the first instance of the portraits being present in your performance, do you feel like it’s changed the way that it’s read?
< cindy > When I performed Crash Pad in Toronto, the literal watercolour drawings weren’t there, but the wallpaper was there and the toile on the bed was there. So part of it was present, although the watercolours bring something delicate to it.
< jessa > Having them on their own feels super important. You’ve done this performance before Toronto, correct?
< cindy > Sort of; the first time I performed it,was a workshopping of it during SubArctic Improv at Mile Zero Dance. There were lots of other things happening and I was just practicing moving on the bed – seeing what would happen in front of an audience. But the toile wasn’t done yet, so the images weren’t there in any way. Also, the bed wasn’t finished yet – it wasn’t painted silver, it didn’t look anything like it was meant to look like, and so it was just me playing with it. Then it was painted silver, packed up to be shipped to Toronto for its first exhibition – and it disappeared. So the performance I did there was very very different from what I intended to do. I won’t go into great detail about what I did, but basically we cut a foam circle, put my sheets on it, and I interacted with the stand-in pill mattress. But, it wasn’t the same at all, so I had to use other signifiers and types of movement.
< jessa > In that performance, you also had pills present in the space, so that was probably a signifier as well. Are you planning on doing something similar with this performance, or was that unique?
< cindy > No, not at all, those piles of pills were unique to that performance, just because I needed other ways to talk about what I wanted to talk about (pills/medication), to get me to where I needed to be. The round mattress wasn’t enough.
< jessa > So I want to talk a bit about vulnerability in relation to Crash Pad. Performance often comes from a place of vulnerability, but Crash Pad strikes me as being so intimate, affective and vulnerable because of the transparency and trust that it takes to respond to your body’s needs publicly. I’m curious about your thoughts, hesitations, uneasiness, etc. when imagining this performance and how you navigate such intense vulnerability while performing.
< cindy > I think my work has slowly evolved towards that vulnerability, towards an openness. Also, my work in general has evolved from a focus on intellectual considerations that I want to think about in the world, to be more and more about me in lots of ways. I don’t think that’s a straight line evolution, I’m sure it’s something that will ebb and flow throughout my career. It’s just where I am at this point. I probably would have said twenty years ago that I didn’t think that there was enough about me to make work about, to bother focusing on – and maybe there wasn’t twenty years ago – but there is now. And the Plexiglass Box you could say was about a vulnerability, about being on display and putting myself on display, but I was also protected in so many ways, or I had the illusion of being protected. A couple of boys tried to tip me over once, well they threatened to tip me over, and they easily could have. So even when my work has the illusion of being protected, it never, never is, and there’s always that fear. The Personal Appearance, when I’m in a mascot costume, again very much gives the illusion of being removed and very much about being protected but I’m not at all; I can’t run away. I’m super vulnerable in that place, and yet because people can’t see me, they don’t think of me as being human at all, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m so vulnerable. I think in Crash Pad it’s how apparent that vulnerability is that I think really makes it effective. It’s less for me about actual vulnerability and more about asking the audience to recognise the vulnerability and engage with it on that level. I think that’s why people are responding to it so well because right away people seem to recognise the trust that I’m giving them and the responsibility that they have to it.
< jessa > Absolutely, and I think for people who are at all versed in performance art, having a performer respond to how their body is doing, at that moment, in front of them, is something that doesn’t happen very often. To be watching you and seeing that you’ve been performing actions for a certain amount of time, that you’re tired, and then you taking that time for yourself and responding to your body – it’s a pretty unique thing.
To wrap things up, I want to discuss the structure of this exhibition, and your treatment of it as a form of ‘residency’. Throughout the month you have a number of collaborations scheduled with other artists, dancers, musicians, and family members. What was your motivation for opening up this performance to collaboration?
Cindy Baker performing Crash Pad in collaboration with Alana Gueutal at dc3 Art Projects, 2018.
< cindy > I’ve always been excited about working with other artists, but forced collaboration sucks, when a curator says: “we’re gonna put you two strangers together, and you make something” and I’m like: “I don’t know you, and I don’t know if I like you”. So I wanted to work with people that I know and like, or maybe that I specifically don’t know very well but choose because I want to see how we feed off each other or work against each other. I’ve performed in other people’s work a little bit, and I’ve done some performance collaboration which I’ve enjoyed and found generative. But the reason I wanted to open this iteration of Crash Pad up in this way is because when I’ve performed it so far, I’ve found that I’ve gotten into a routine that I think is kind of tiresome or will get tiresome really quickly, and I’ve started to develop this compulsion to “perform” for people when they enter the gallery. I don’t wanna get bound up in cliches, and have this work be about something choreographed: people come in and I do the thing, they watch it, they clap, they go away, and it’s actually not vulnerable and it’s not responsive to my body or to the concept behind the work. I really want to shake that up. So, part of shaking it up is the decision to perform so frequently at dc3, two times a week for hours at a time. Even during times when I expect there will be nobody here, or even at the opening when there are people here watching it the whole time, so going through that cycle of actions is not going to makes sense, because they’ll have seen it, and they’re gonna see it again. Partly I think of this exhibition at dc3 as a residency in that way, to give me all of this time to work out what I think the project can be. But then bringing people in is really going to help me open it up and develop this work, and hopefully impact future works. Each of the projects I do builds on the last and leads to the next one. So the first person I asked to participate was Jen Mesch, who was my choreographer-consultant for this project from the very beginning. Now that it’s here and done, I wanted her to come back and play with me. And then I asked Brian Webb, who’s a local dancer that’s been around forever, he’s like the dance guru in Edmonton. The reason I asked him was because he saw the brief performance I did at SubArctic Improv, and I know that he really responded to the work. I thought, wow this is my chance to work with Brian Webb, who’s body is so different than mine – he has a dancer’s body, I do not, he’s used to moving in a certain way and being on display in ways that I am not, he’s a man, I’m a woman, all these things I think would be interesting to play off of. I also asked Scott Smallwood, who’s an audio artist, because I wanted to see how the performance would be different if there was audio for me to respond to, or if there was audio that responded to me. He’s curating a set of nighttime sounds, and I think he’s going to be trying to provide a restful soundscape for me, to see if he can put me to sleep. I also asked Allison Tunis who’s a local artist and fat activist, because I wanted somebody else with my body type to come into the space and have a chance to have the experience that I have in front of an audience when making this work. I asked my sister because we slept in the same bed together until I moved away from home at 22. We each had our own bedrooms and our own beds but we were always really close in that way. I want to see what will happen if I bring her into this bed.
Cindy performed with her sister, Alana Gueutal, on May 12th, 2018. The two spent the day recreating bedtime rituals that they shared throughout their childhood. Upcoming performance collaborations include Brian Webb on May 19th, Allison Tunis on May 26th, Jen Mesch on June 2nd, Scott Smallwood on June 7, Richard Boulet on June 9. Solo Crash Pad performances occur every Thursday from 5-8 PM & Saturday from 12-5 PM.