In Conversation with Macon Reed: The Queer Artist on Creating Powerful Political Installations
I first came in contact with Macon Reed's work at PULSE New York in 2016 when I interacted with her installation Eulogy for the Dyke Bar. I was blown away by the obvious amount of research that went into every detail and the subject of the piece, looking at the very relevant and ignored phenomenon of the closure of dyke bars all across America. Recently, you may have seen her politically charged installation, A Pressing Conference, on view in this year's at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. I discuss with Reed her political installations, the research she puts into her works, female artists that inspire her, and what she has planned for the rest of 2018.
Alexandria Deters: I absolutely adored your installation, A Pressing Conference, at SPRING/BREAK Art Show this year. How was your experience with your first time presenting there?
Macon Reed: As you know, A Pressing Conference, is an immersive installation, participatory project, and resource guide for responding to the current political crisis...bringing together performance artists, organizers, historians, and others as a vibrant platform to talk about what we are going to do about all the shit happening right now. The installation is based off the official White House's press briefing room- with a podium, presidential backdrop, flags, columns, microphones and seating chart comprised of journalists who have been punished or harmed for doing their work. So viewers recognize the space...but then its made out of what looks like clay or something they cant quite name and all the colors are super saturated and it creates this sort of weird place-nonplace feeling.
At SPRING/BREAK, I focused on speakers and performers that could engage artist communities in particular so that it would be more effective given the setting. Along with the amazing Helen Toomer (who curated the project into the fair), I got to see the space activated for a full week and see so many people use the podium and respond to it. We had speakers each day, but also were able to experiment with opening up the installation to the general public with a live mic to record any statements they wanted to make about the current situation...or imagine the news they wish they could hear coming from the White House. Seeing diverse faces and responses behind the podium opened up a world between worlds in a way I hadn't fully anticipated. And Helen came up with the idea to use a hashtag (#apressingconference) to capture these moments that archived them all into one digital space to share, which gave people another way to subvert the way those traditional White House symbols exist in the world. One of the most poignant people to take the podium during open time was an incredible eleven year old girl named Maya, who read “Let America be America Again” by Langston Hughes...she was so grounded in her strength and chose the perfect words to share for the moment, it was really moving...the open format at SPRING/BREAK helped make that happen.
One of the things I love about your work is the amount of research you put into a project. What type of research did you do for A Pressing Conference? And how do you see the piece continuing?
A Pressing Conference was a way for me to digest all the things that have been happening both in, and to, the press since Voldemort took office in 2016...and really how the public was processing the obvious attempts to manipulate their perception of reality. I spent a wild amount of time listening to the news from various outlets each day, as well as reading books from periods in history at the beginning of authoritarian regimes and their attacks on the press. I read Berlin Diary, where war correspondent William Shirer is in Europe during the rise of the Third Reich- keeping a diary each day to record and analyze the movements and impacts of the emerging nightmare as I unfolded into the history we all know today. I read The Origins of Totalitarianism and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century (author Timothy Snyder actually spoke at the first A Pressing Conference installation), Dark Money, etc etc...even Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. I followed the Committee to Protect Journalists and their reporting of journalists here and abroad who were harmed in doing their work. Perhaps most importantly, I spent time meeting for coffee, building relationships with people to collaborate with and invite to speak at the podium. Building relationships that outlast the individual installations of the project is important- I don't want it to just be a representation of the press and truth under attack, I want it to actively respond and have an impact...which is an ongoing learning process of course.
"Seeing diverse faces and responses behind the podium opened up a world between worlds in a way I hadn't fully anticipated."
A lot of your work has to do with the history and politics of being a female and queer. Can you expand on Eulogy for the Dyke Bar which you presented at PULSE in 2016?
It was an immersive installation of a dyke bar that also functioned as a “real” bar- hosting story-telling nights, dyke trivia, panels with bar-owners and party organizers, DJ's, etc, etc. Part of the impulse of the project was to definitely address the mass closing of these spaces and the combination of things like socio-economics, assimilation, online dating, and shifting identities behind them and what it might mean for future community spaces...but what really stood out to me through the experience was the opportunity to bring queers/dykes of different generations together because there is a lot of tension, misunderstanding, and dismissal between generations around shifting understandings of lived gender experience and opportunities, of each groups' historical and contemporary contexts, of what it has meant to be a woman and/or queer in the world. It really became clear to me that the sculptural, historical, and participatory components of the story were all mutually supportive and important in creating that environment. And that my role was truly more of a facilitator and collaborator, creating the space for others to bring what they had to share than anything else. What I love is that its still going...a mini-version of the installation will be taking place this fall at the University of Southern Maine to host an oral-history collection project with elders there, I'm in touch with someone about bringing it to Poland at some point as well as San Francisco, and NYC Dyke March now does a regular take-over of a straight bar each month inspired by the project-which means it grew legs and I don't have to be the singular organizer anymore and people can really make it what they most want/ need...I love that.
"But what really stood out to me through the experience was the opportunity to bring queers/dykes of different generations together because there is a lot of tension, misunderstanding, and dismissal between generations around shifting understandings of lived gender experience and opportunities, of each groups' historical and contemporary contexts, of what it has meant to be a woman and/or queer in the world."
Has your work taken on a new significance for yourself with the political climate that we now live in? If so, in what way?
It definitely feels more urgent. And I think this is not because I am an artist so much as that its really more urgent for everyone...Not that all this mess hasn't been here and brewing for a long time, but its getting to a new boiling point...I believe all of us need to use whatever tools and networks in any field we work in, to respond to this madness and there really is not time to waste if we have learned anything from history...so this urgency does definitely dictate my practice right now, and some weird choices I never thought I would have to make!
You are personally one of my favorite artists whose work continually inspires me. Who are five female artists that have inspired you?
My BRIC Workspace cohorts were so badass, that was- Keisha Scarville, Aruni Dharmakirthi, (who actually goes by they/them), Sara Jimenez, and other artists that I admire such as Sasha Phyars-Burgess and Jennifer Reeder.
What is next for you in 2018?
I'm actually really curious about this myself- I'm feeling ready to challenge myself to use some new materials and experiment and take the work further... also to process some of how the political moment effects things internally, since most of the ways we talk about it tend to be about how its going down in external events. I'm also craving some time to play and get weird after all this presidential stuff...to cultivate the imagination as a source to draw from more intentionally.
Follow Macon Reed on Instagram: @macon_reed_studio