Artist Presentation
Vernal Bogren Swift: Dorothy Call Home... a Midwestern Artist’s Story of Shoes, Figments, and Maps

 

 

When I left a couple of days ago from Minnesota, there were tornado warnings and I was spending a lot of time in the cellar. So, it was nice to come away from there. You know, hair is what is used as a device for barometers, isn’t it? When the hair curls, you know something’s up with the weather. That’s always fascinated me, because I really think that we know of changes through our skin, not just weather, but all kinds of changes. I was thinking of a tree that lives in the Midwest that must be a relative of the locust tree you find all along the avenues here. I think it’s a thorn locust. When you just barely touch the edges of the leaves, the whole thing curls up on itself, it retracts. I’ve noted that when dogs know that weather’s coming, the hair on their back. Of course, they lift it a lot because they’re nervous about the weather. We have one crazy dog in our neighborhood, who, every time the weather becomes stormy, crashes through screens. If he’s inside, he crashes outside; if he’s outside, he crashes in. There’s something about the screen he feels he must penetrate. That’s sort of a barometric indicator for us, too. Chickens, of course, don’t do anything during a storm except go inside and sleep, because they think it’s nighttime. Last spring, I interviewed Jill for Community Public Radio. I said, Jill, what are people wearing in New York these days? And she said, Well, they’re wearing high loft, down coats, because it’s still chilly, but there’s also the comfort of having some loft between oneself and others. It just gives some distancing. I thought, what a great idea, to wear a chicken-feathered coat for the purpose of loft. I was thinking about the chicken and how, when it’s threatened, it puts all of its feathers out. That’s kind of the same idea as the coat.

Why are we talking about these things? The reason is that I wanted to talk about skin, anybody’s skin. We don’t have to stay in the same species. I want to talk about skin as a system of intelligence. Then, I want to cover skin with shelter, because it is that way. Finally, I want to take that sheltered skin, and anchor it in place, some way. That will take us back to the Midwest and after that I will stop.

(showing slides)

Jill, this one’s for you. This is about the idea of wearing somebody else’s skin shelter as your own, which is kind of a way of talking about intelligence. I want to tell you, from the start, that I think that we do create desire. When we create desire, when we take on, for instance, the feathers of a bird for our clothing, I believe we take on the desire to have that lightness and warmth. We don’t settle for just what we have on, we want even more of it. For instance, what I mean by that, is I’ve had different odd jobs in my life. One of them was planting trees. I found that after a day of helping to plant around 2,500 little tiny one-inch seedlings, I would fill my pockets with seedlings to take home and plant. When I worked in salmon canneries, packing salmon, I would find at the end of the season, I was always tempted to take home a case of canned salmon, or to buy salmon frozen and send it home. I’ve been really interested in why would I want more of what we take on? It makes me think that that’s just the way it is, that place and movement create the desire for more movement in that place. You know, when chickens are out in the chicken yard and wild geese fly over, the chickens, who have forgotten how to fly, see the geese, with their one eye to the sky. And the chickens take off and try to fly, and look quite excited about this for a good twenty minutes afterward, but they don’t try to fly again, because they can’t lift off. But they’ll always lift off, when the wild birds fly over.

For several years, I was a swimmer. The reason I was a swimmer was that I was working in the south Pacific, learning how to do commercial fishing, how to catch sharks and deal with their meat. I learned to do long distance swimming because I had a real dread of being attacked while I was unwrapping net from motors, or trying to free fish weirs. I thought that something might get me, and I believed that if I could be more like a fish and swim strongly, maybe I would be safe. Incidentally, most of the slides I am going to show you will be from my own work as a batik maker. I found that I often couldn’t finish the distance that I wanted to swim, because I had to get out of the pool to urinate. I thought that was odd. Because I was a fishery student, I did an experiment. I began weighing myself before and after each swim, to see if it was the increased cardiovascular activity that was affecting my kidneys and filling my bladder, or if I was taking in water through my body, the way fish do. I found that I gained a half a pound for every hour that I swam. I didn’t keep the weight; I just gained it, and over the period of the next four hours, I would lose it again. How odd, because this is what fish do. They have to cleanse their bodies and they have enormously intelligent bodies. They can be, for instance, in sea water, and when they have to be in fresh water, their bodies will adapt themselves morphologically to take in water, make the necessary changes inside their bodies, and then excrete the water through their bladder, just as we do. Fish have extremely intelligent skin. They have a complicated integument system that’s called a lateral line. You can see this line running down some fish, like salmon and tuna, and it’s not that it navigates by orientation to north, but rather that it allows the fish to have an enormous sense of place through its ability to discern temperature, depth, salinity, and even water quality. This means that a fish--let’s say a salmon--will be born and raised in a couple of inches of fresh stream water, leave that water to live for years in ocean salt water, hundreds of miles from home (just as we leave our homes and travel outward), and then when it’s time to spawn and die, the salmon, through their skin memory, are able to get home again to a specific two inches of fresh water.

I’m pretty interested in water and the changes that can happen to a person in water. I pay attention to what’s happening to me when I’m in the pool. I try to put my body into the trust of the water. When I’m in the pool for a long time, however, the quality of my thinking changes. Although I may have gone in the pool with the intention to be like a dolphin, as my eyes cloud with chlorine, I stop paying attention to seeing. I hear my own breathing, I feel the pull of my muscles, I can hear sound under water, I can feel that I’m in less gravity and in a way I begin to go into a daydream mode. I’m comfortable, awake and relaxed, and when I turn on my back to float like a resting fish, there can be a calling to mind of visual sensations. I have to call them sensations because they are evocative. Like the memory of, say, a certain side street; the sense that I am, right now, where I was some time before; or where I go into a patch of pool water that is being hit by sunlight and I have a memory sensation of green shutters on a window I passed that was hit by sun. You know that shimmering, warm sensation. These are skin memories from a place that I perhaps was or, because they’re so fleeting and evocative and can’t be tied down, perhaps these aren’t my memories at all. Perhaps they’re your memories, perhaps I have your memories because I, with my body of water, am in a larger body of water, and because the water may be carrying the memories for all of us, and we’re the same species, perhaps what I remember is what you experienced. I don’t know, because it’s the kind of memory that one doesn’t remember as soon as one changes the body’s position. When the movement changes--say, one turns the head to look at the clock, or flips from the back onto the front--the memory’s gone. You know this experience. So, here I am swimming in water, and my skin is this thin, thin barrier between intimate waters, my waters inside, and the impersonal body of water outside. I think that memory morphs as my and your arm muscle completes its pulling curve, and the head comes up for air. And the head down again, this time with the memory of the smell of diesel fuel or of old blood. I’m not the only person to have observed this, by any means. Jean Baudrillard asks, How are we to explain that we have in our heads the echo of haunting precise music, but are unable to recall the slightest note or word of it? Or even the timbre of a voice, but not the voice?

I think these are kinesthetic memories. They’re like dream images, but they dissolve with movement. They are connected with physical movement and that is why they are kinesthetic, they are muscle memories, skin memory, experienced in waking time as if they are the dreams from night. But how funny, those of you who know your psychology of dreams know that in order to dream deeply, one has to be, essentially, paralyzed in the neck. One cannot sleep if one’s neck is not totally relaxed, which is why the head falls forward when you fall asleep in class. We only dream when our necks have gone to sleep and when we reach a state of temporary but full paralysis. What’s the connection between a vivid, full dream in somatic paralysis and a memory dream connected with skin, with the integumentary system? It’s a question. I do know that when the body moves again, the kinesthetic memory moves, too. If there is no movement, there is no memory. That is, there is no daydream. Daydream comes, I think, with movement. You check it out.

These physical memories are not about the past, which is what we usually associate memory with. These old memories are actually meant to be a wet vitality held in parchment skin, mapped language deep in skin and at the roots of hairs, not at all for the purpose of getting back to something. Not at all, but rather for the purpose of apprehending the aesthetics of the present moment, to be oriented right now. The aesthetic flavor of what is right now present jumping in front of one’s face is understood in part right through the skin. This must be a kind of navigational memory, the kind the fish has. For example, I’m in New York now, and I was telling Cheryl, Allan and Merce that I had the feeling that I was in London, and they said, "Give it a break!" I thought, well, now, all right! But why would I think that, since this isn’t like London. You know what’s the same? My skin remembers a time of being in London when the temperature was like this. There was a body proximity that seemed similar to me. It’s a gross connection, but it’s the best this little skin can do. The heights of buildings are relational, so that my skin makes sense of where it is now and apprehends the safety and flavor based on something it experienced before. I may think the way that I do because of the work that I do. I said earlier that the more we do a certain kind of work, the more we want to do it, which is why it’s a very good idea to watch out what you’re doing! My craft is batik, it’s a very slow work that needs a steady, patient hand and an eye that can read layers of form dormant under wax. I think that everybody has aspects in their jobs that are like this, where you make small movements like lifting, pulling, and placing repeatedly and quietly. I believe these movements call up poetic notations from the imaginary pages of these travel atlases. In summary of this particular theme, one may lose track of time, but never place. One does not forget where one has been, though centrifugal spins and wobbles dislocate this kinesthetic memory from logic, from the logic of linear place and time. Anne Sexton has said it in a way that I like. She said, Your feet thump thump against my back and you whisper to yourself, child, what are you wishing? What pact are you making? What mouse runs between your eyes? What arc can I fill for you when the world goes wild? The woods are under water, their weeds are shaking in the tide. Birches, like zebra-fish, flash by in a pack. Child, I cannot promise that you will get your wish, that lie in your feet thump thump against my back. I think that Sexton has caught an interesting thing here. This ability to thump, this freedom of movement. I had thought that she was talking about pregnancy when she talks about this thumping. I have come to realize that it is probably not about pregnancy but about the fact that we didn’t always have the agility to thump our feet against any back. Because if biology is right on this, human morphology has developed, from the beginnings, as starfish. You know that a starfish is a thing that is covered with its own skeleton. It’s brittle, it’s bird beak, it’s insect shell, it’s backbone, it’s fingernail, it’s toenail. At one time, we were not "softies" as we are now, we were ‘hardies.’ I don’t think we consciously remember our hardness, but I am very intrigued by the fact that we seem to have formed stories to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we are soft and cuddly, like puppies and kittens. The way we admire soft things is interesting, and the way we want a change for hard things. You know the old story of Pinocchio, the wooden boy? His woodenness turns to real skin, to softness, when he learns to tell the truth, as if one can’t have a soft heart with hard skin. We project what we are, and we want more of just what we are. We can’t think beyond whatever it is that we are doing, and if what we are doing is being soft, then that’s what we want more of and that’s what we form our mythology around. We’re soft flesh wrapped around bone, like a carnival coney dog on a stick. This carnival coney dog has a seam, right down the face, down the nose, you know that cleft in the lip and the chin--that’s not to make us pretty, that’s because we’re seamed right there, that’s where we’re sewn together. And right down the belly button and down that scar where the hair grows. That’s our seam, all the way down, from the back to the front. If we were starfish, then we wouldn’t have to deal with a seam anywhere, holding all that softness together. If we were starfish, then we would just settle in there. We wouldn’t be kicking or thumping, we’d just be settled in there. We’d sleep inside the safety of our own self.

Well, I think about the comfort of a skeleton around all of this soft flesh. I think about being thick-skinned and horny, about being ambient to temperature. I think about it. I was going through a mail order catalog, Camponor’s Summer ‘99 issue, and I found a nice variant on the external skeleton. I found an area on tents, and I thought how when we go outside and we’re so soft, we have to find some shelter for our softness, even if it’s a tent. But it has to be a tent that is rigid. Here’s a Quick Draw Beachcomber Cabana. You set it up in ten seconds. You simply toss it in the air, and the coiled steel frame opens. Then you fill the four attached sandbags, for stability, so you can’t go anywhere, and you’re ready to use it. Doesn’t it feel safe and good, when you’re all soft and outside, to climb into some little shelter and stay there? That’s what we call camping! Because, ordinarily, we can’t even take the minimal shelter of a camping trip. We have to stay inside bigger and stronger structures. Most of the time, we have to stay inside and disguised, among our objects, because it’s safer.

In his Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard wrote of a poet called Bernard Pallassey and Pallassey’s imagining of a snail shell as the prototype for the perfect house to live in. The poet imagined this snail shell as morphed from tiny up to a size that would be as big as a house, or at least as big as a tent. And guess who wanted to take the place of the snail inside that shelter? Well, of course, it was the poet. What he said was, This is a wonderful house, that I imagine. When the masonry is finished, I want to cover it with several layers of enameling, from the top of the vaulted ceiling down to the floor. When this is done, I’d like to build a really big fire in it, until the aforesaid enameling has melted and covered the aforesaid masonry. When this happens, then the inside of this chamber, the inside of my house, will seem to be made of one piece, and will be so highly polished that the lizards and earthworms that come in to visit it will see themselves, as if they’re in a mirror. This is a strange idea. This is a man who wants to live in a shell and not come out. He wants the walls that protect him, that wrap around him, to be as smoothly polished, as if his sensitive skin really had to come in direct contact with them. I decided to assume that this man’s idea of a perfect shelter is not a house, where he can be in disguise among his objects, but a spiral place, a retreat deep into a place where sound and vibration are magnified around one. He wants to return to mother--of pearl.

We can’t deny that it is comfortable to be sheltered. We cannot deny that we are so soft-skinned that we get our feelings hurt easily. We are so thin-skinned that we must find shelter, that we must protect ourselves. We have to find the shelter safe. In this way, shelter is extrusion of the dweller. We don’t live in or among that which we cannot tolerate. This is very interesting, then, because that with which we surround ourselves, that we are sheltered by, gives a lot of information about the dweller. It gives information about our houses--what we put in them, how big or small they have to be--about our offices, our jails, our hospitals, and our art museums, too.

It’s been really sweet to my sensibility, these few days that I’ve been in New York this time, to live among the permanent buildings. In the Midwest, where I live, there is so much that is plastic and temporary. It’s an aspect of what we call urban sprawl or rural turning urban. Much of Midwest America is low, squat, and temporary. We call these places our shelters and our institutions. But they don’t feel good. It’s been so pleasing to me in New York to see the permanent buildings, that are meant to last a long time. I note, as I look on to this beauty of the permanent buildings around me, that many of the facades are decorated in a manner that has the relief of leaves, tree branches, flowers, wild animals. I think, isn’t that dear of us? Isn’t that just the dearest thing in the world, that if we’re not going to live in the country, then we bring the country to the facades of our shelters and say, Be here with us. Help to keep us safe, and help us to enjoy beauty. Because our shelters are extrusions of ourselves. So I congratulate you New Yorkers on permanency. I know there was a time in your past when permanency seemed almost out of the question. But, congratulations! It looks permanent, which is more than I can say for where I come from.

I was saying that it’s possible that the permanent shelters are the ones that we unconsciously build because, whether we think about it or not, we really intend them to last. It would be interesting, as a little personal check while walking, to see if permanent buildings reflect our truest values. Let’s check, for instance, churches? Banks? Well, banks where I come from are plastic, now, with big yellow arrows saying, here, drive here. Police stations? Gas stations? Did you ever see a brick gas station? Only the one in Wisconsin, that Frank Lloyd Wright built. Art museums? I think it’s an interesting, if not particularly intelligent, hobby to look at what makes a permanent shelter, if we identify permanence with shelters that are meant to last. And we identify shelters with our values. It’s interesting to look at what looks like it will be around for a few years. Art institutes are such places. When I go to an art institute, I always go right to the 13th century icons, because I like the way those painters saw things. I like those eyes rolled back in rapture. I like those perfect bird feather wings, joined perfectly and symmetrically to the scapula, left and right of the backbone. I like all the hair--in fact, best for me, is the hair. I like the feet and feet of hair. Mary Magdelene hair, that God gave her to cover herself when she went to live on the island after Jesus left. And Saint Lucy, with hair all over her body, except for the nipples of her breasts and her pink, tender knees, where the hair is probably missing--on her knees, that is--because of the hours spent on them in prayer. These 13th century artists made work, lovely pictures, that they figured would last a really long time, and they are lasting. We are interested in the ideas contained in the artwork that we hold in our permanent structures of museums.

While we’re on the topic of hair--do you know the story of Rapunzel? Can I give you a little review? Maybe you don’t know the same stories I know. I can’t assume that, right? Here’s a review of the story: a woman is pregnant and her husband is sent out to steal some special lettuce from the neighbor’s garden. But this becomes a habit, which is bad, because the neighbor is a witch. The unborn baby is promised in exchange for lettuce, and, when she is born, the witch names her Rapunzel and puts her into a very, very tall tower, from which she cannot get down. Rapunzel lets her hair grow, and it grows so long that the witch is able to use it as a ladder to visit her adopted prisoner-daughter. There isn’t much for Rapunzel to do in the tower, so she doesn’t do much. A prince comes by, one day, and, in a falsetto voice, disguises himself as the witch and because Rapunzel isn’t all that keen on making distinctions between one voice and another, she allows the prince to climb her hair. When the witch finds out, she is furious and she cuts off the braids and throws the girl out the window, leaving Rapunzel extremely light-headed. She has not only lost several pounds of hair but has, also, lost her shelter. This is a shelter-less, soft, morphing creature. Imagine the distress for the girl. She runs around, crying, trembling and stumbling, very off-balance, until she finds the prince and, together, they go away to the castle. But I don’t think that’s the real story. I don’t think that’s the way the story really ended, because, according to my calculations about our softness and our need for shelter, the castle is out of scale with what Rapunzel has known. And what has Rapunzel known? She has known hair. Who would ever have told Rapunzel that this soft, glossy, warm creature--that turned when she turned, that was comfort to her, that lifted and snapped and spoke to her when she brushed it--who would have told her that the hair belonged to her? Why would she not have thought that the hair was a gift from God, as the 13th century ‘special’ people had thought? Why would she not guard her hair very, very carefully as a sacred creature, and as a comfort and a shelter, a very responsive shelter? It was something to stand between her and any other, something, in fact, that became a ladder from that without to that within. It’s the way that we ourselves greet silky dogs on leashes while paying no attention to the master at the end of the line. There is something in us that has warmth and respect for hairy objects. I think that Rapunzel will be dithered, absolutely dithered, in the castle. When she reaches out with her arms and her hair brush and is unable to find her creature, or even to touch the walls of the castle, which are too far apart, and a ceiling that is too tall--I think that she will not accept the prince. We have to look at Rapunzel in a different way. I want to know if you are going to dispute this. I don’t think that I am over-stressing how important it seems to be to us to shelter ourselves. We come into the world in our skin and, within moments, we are wrapped, swaddled and cradled. It isn’t long before we are carried in hard shells, that revert to car seats. The infant, in the season that we know him or her now, is made safe through hard packaging. We’re on our way back to exoskeletal life. When we are dead and gone, it’s customary to wrap the body in best clothes and put the whole thing into a cradle that is a mobile home, a boat, a shell, of some kind, and to put that shell into the earth, into a cement vault and cover the whole thing with a lid. We compete with the ancient Egyptians in our desire to, somehow, stave off the softness of rot. The appearances that surround death are even more important than the reality of it. I know that the appearances are worth more than the fact, because when my father died, his body was too long for the coffins in stock. It was in a small town and there just weren’t that many choices. So my mother chose a casket and the mortician solved the problem of too long a body for the space paid for by doubling back my father’s legs at the knees and stowing the extra in a hidden chamber at the base of the casket. That’s why the caskets are so deep, just in case. I found it very eerie, viewing a tall memory of a father shorter by several inches than yesterday, as if the magician with the box and saws had come in the night. I am my father’s daughter, and now my legs ache when I can’t stretch out. At the end, though we try to shelter the form of the body in structures that compete with the Egyptians’, because we want a permanency similar to that in New York, the belief is there that there will be a risen body, so we want it intact. We fear the softness of the body and we also fear the loss of movement, because if there is no movement, there is no memory. Because the body is not asleep, there can’t even be dreams. This is frightening, and I think, as an artist with creative license, we do these things, these extrusions of ourselves because of our deep memories of how it was a lot safer and simpler when we were just covered with shell ourselves. At any rate, it’s a curious idea.

So, I think about these things, about the movement and the morphology. It takes me back to the salmon. Remember the salmon in those shallow beginnings? I ask myself, what is it that makes the salmon able to go home again? I never intend to go home again, myself. I know that it’s a very hard task for salmon to go home. I worked a lot of summers in salmon canneries, and I can tell you that the salmon looked like hell if they had too hard a time getting home. Here’s what happens: they’re in sea water and they get the call to go back to fresh water. They’ve already made the adaptation to the sea water by taking in water through their bodies, and now they’ve got to do it in return. But they’re several pounds heavier and many years older. You can’t really do what they have to do without tearing up your body. The fish get possessed and they orient to home. They’re like movie stars on the trip home. I saw the movie Episode I and I was intrigued by how they don’t eat, they don’t stop to go to the bathroom, they don’t sleep, they just move. They are in motion. As they move, without eating, they begin to age rather quickly and horridly, because of the salinity changes. Silver skin turns a khaki color, like cheap duck-hunting jackets, and a large lump grows on their upper side, like a hunchback. To cement the effect, salmon grow a lot of real teeth on their tongues, lips, on the outside of their cheeks and on the tops of their bodies. They turn into real frightening monsters. This is what is in your can, unless you eat an expensive kind of salmon. The reason this happens is that you cannot combine a trip of hundreds of miles with starvation due to glycogen depletion and come out with anything other than a morphologically changed creature. You can’t stay the same if you keep moving. Yet, that’s what we ask of ourselves in our lives, is to keep moving.

What are the ways we have for doing the right thing? I’ve talked about the intelligence of the skin in these fish. These are intelligent fish that we call not intelligent, and why do we say this? Because their skin is a little harder than ours, and it’s not warm and soft, right? This fish skin is like human skin in that there is an ability for discernment of aesthetic features through the quality of experience of the movement of our lives. I deny that it comes in through the brain, on the top of the head. It comes as an aesthetic sensibility through skin. Skin needs movement in order to have the memory that lets us ascertain the present. Otherwise, we’re dreaming. We’re asleep. But if this is true, I ask, what has the salmon got that I am missing? Everything I’ve said to you up to now I really believe. It’s a paradigm, and my work is based on this paradigm. The problem in the paradigm, for me, is that I personally have got no ability to find home, myself. I lack the sense of orientation that I’ve been accolading. I certainly can take things in through my skin and appreciate where I am and have that orientation that comes from my past experience, but I can’t actually get home again. I can’t even get back to the apartment, today, without help. I want you to remember this, because I want to talk about it in just a couple of minutes, that I don’t know how to get home. I was in the woods a couple of years ago, in my own back forty, and I never should have been lost because it’s just a forty. But the canopy was out and I somehow got lost. I knew that I was lost when, right through my skin, came a clammy kind of panic. I saw the sun shining on my left shoulder and I asked, now, what’s that supposed to mean? I realized that I didn’t know what that meant. I was aware, even while the panic was rising, that this was very interesting. I said to myself, here you are, physically lost, and you are now lost, mentally. Now that you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. In a real way, I was not existing, because I couldn’t identify a place to exist in. It’s like Rapunzel out of her tower, stumbling around, disoriented, without place or shelter--not knowing where you are because you’ve lost your shelter and your grounding. I did get back again, because, at some point, I recognized a landmark, but I don’t forget what it was to be lost. It makes me think about being lost a lot. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a relative who walked away from the place where he or she was supposed to be staying. There are all these stories of these. I had an old uncle who used to leave my grandmother’s house every time he could escape, and get out on the road to head, unerringly, for home. This uncle didn’t know his own name, but he could get home if he didn’t get run down on the way by a car. An old bachelor uncle with an addled mind--have you ever known anybody like that? They always say, no matter what, Take me home. They want to get out of there. It makes one wonder if what we call Alzheimer’s disease is, rather than being a mental dysfunction, is perhaps a breakup of a personal orientation. Perhaps it is a hardening of something physical in the integumentary system that disrupts kinesthetic memory. You feel if perhaps you could get out and head home, you might remember who you are. But your skin can’t handle the problem. It’s another way to think of disease. We’re such a brain-oriented group and, yet, that’s not the way it is.

The riddle is how, if you can find your way home, then I suggest that says something about the fact that you like that shelter. You want to be there. For persons like myself, who cannot find their way home, I would ask, is that because home is a paradigm or structure that was not a safe or pleasing shelter? Perhaps the extrusion didn’t fit. So, since I have no homing instinct, maybe I can’t even go around the neighborhood. Instead, what becomes home is a temporary, present shelter, or a creation. Perhaps creative thinking or thought comes to the homeless. There is a possibility that, if home as a hard fact cannot be gained, maybe one extrudes a new, fresh one in the present, as soon as possible.

I can imagine that each of us is homeless a part of the time. We’re surrounded by these computers and electrifying gadgets. It’s not easy to think of skin as the pre-electric communication system that it actually is. I’d like to suggest, in ending, that if we do, then the skin and our thin-skinnedness, may foster a self-sufficiency. If we pay attention to our movements and only move in the direction it’s right to go, then the experience will flavor the experience of tomorrow in a positive way. Paying attention to movement and the visual images that come from the repetitive movements in life may be a genesis for creative work. I could imagine each of us on a road to the creative home, if not the real home. Even paced, comfortably jogging, or in a steady walk, and thinking about nothing at all. Not being intelligent, and letting the ancient skin-based systems of morphological navigation and map-reading jiggle out pieces of the morphing puzzle of our creative selves. That’s it.

Question: Before you start on the questions and answers, could you go back and talk about the dogfish story?

Bogren: Let me take it one story at a time. I feature dogs often in the work that I do, because, in fact, I live with a dog and some other people. All that hair! I’m interested in the idea of, since we’re soft-skinned anyway, letting that soft skin let loose of all of its barriers and merge with other species of soft-skinned creatures. Why not try, in that kinesthetic behavior of, in my case, slow waxing and repetitive work, to see what can happen by paying attention to the images that come up while spending time with other soft-skinned hairy creatures? What is going to be the genesis of your work? Are you always going to be intellectual? Are you always going to be looking at concepts? Sometimes, isn’t the body itself there for its own exploitation? The body doesn’t have to be exploited sexually or psychologically, but it can be through merging. When we talked about this before, we talked in context of a ‘then’ time. What I answer your question now with is what’s on the mind now. My work is about physical morphology and physical memory. I like to take cloth outside and let rust and dirt and ice affect it first. I bring it in and live with it for a while, then begin to dialogue with it. I know that bleached cotton, which is what I work with, is actually a ghost of a live, green plant. I think that the cotton morphologically remembers when it was green and alive. I say to the cotton--not out loud--OK, remember? Remember when you were alive and moving in the soil? I say to the beeswax, remember where you came from? Remember, beeswax, when you were pollen, and the live, furry things came for you, carried you away and did things with you? Now you’re all mine and we’re all three together. We add some heat and we do some creative alchemy. I love the opportunity for the most outrageous creative thinking possible, and then to put that thinking physically down on the cloth as best I’m able, which isn’t very able. Most of us, as professional artists, are mediocre, as artists go. There’s a median for what is good enough and that’s where we get. It’s not like there’s anything outside of normal to do what we do. It’s just a paradigm that we choose to follow. What was the third question?

Question: But you didn’t answer them!

Bogren: I can’t. That was then!

Question: OK. Could you talk about the iron range work you were doing when you were making that grant proposal?

Bogren: Of course. In New York, you have got a diversity of persons to the nth degree. You can’t walk a half a block without seeing all of the world walking around with you. It is fantastic and so exciting. It’s all above ground. You have the variety of foods. And as I said, you’ve got these stiff buildings, made of rock, with the extrusions of the floral patterns, the tree branches and the wild animals, all staying very still, as they should. You don’t want them animated. You are animated! Where I come from, in northern Minnesota, we’re pretty much all the same, above the ground. All of us walk around, pretty much looking and saying the same things. We wear the same clothes and we don’t talk out loud our imagination. That’s not what we do over there. But, underground, northern Minnesota and the Lake Superior region is one of the world’s richest, most diverse and most ancient land cultures in the whole world. What I mean by that is any time you have an iron range, you have old land, because iron is formed from the old seas. It is the precipitation of green plants with ore to, symbiotically, form something that becomes, later, iron for mining. It’s formed when where we are now was south in a sea. Because the earth has moved around, the iron has moved around. Anywhere there is iron in the world, you have old land. Old land is diverse because it has caught the life in its strata from before Precambrian days. What’s that story, Precambrian Dreams? What a beautiful idea. In iron country, the land holds the diversity, the magic and the morphology, so that those of us on top of the land can be the same. You don’t live on iron country, so you can’t afford the luxury of being all alike. We’re a yin-yang. The country compensates in land diversity where the people are similar. Where the land is kind of boring, people are diverse. It is quite lovely. When I make work, I start with the rust, as I told you, and with the ghost of cotton. I say, let’s start with the thing perceived in the cloth, and with each panel or additional work, let’s see how that work morphologically changes. So, if there were fish teeth up here, what do dog teeth look like, down here? Memory forgets to do today what it did yesterday. It morphologically changes, so work changes, too.

Question: What about the iron breathing?

Bogren: The iron breathing! You know that? You know that iron breathes. I thought everybody knew that, of course. In the hemoglobin, it is the iron, carried lightly in globin, or protein, that makes a red blood cell. The red blood cell goes into the lungs, and it is the magnet of the iron that attracts the oxygen. We are iron people. In rocks, it is no different. Hematite, which is rust or iron ore, attracts oxygen and it is the oxygen being released that creates rust. When iron ore is taken from northern Minnesota and the Lake Superior region and brought over to Detroit and other places, and put in the foundry, the heat knocks the oxygen, the breath, out of the iron ore for a little bit. But have you noticed how, after about eight years or so, that any car you ever had takes a deep breath and begins to remember what it was, which was hematite. It begins to breathe and, as it breathes, it rusts. So that, knowing this, I know that rocks have memory. I know it isn’t just iron ore, but most rocks hold oxygen, so that which is beneath us is full of oxygen, as well as that which is above us. Except that, while we hold a breath for a lifetime, rocks are holding their breath, breathing and changing very slowly. But it’s a good thing to drop the barriers and identify the physicality of the self with the world, with the rocks even. It’s not just the plants that are breathing! That’s what we learned in school, but rocks breathe, too. Everything is breathing.

Question: I liked your idea about skin and how all of us gravitate toward skin, but I can’t help noticing that skin has holes in it. It’s in those holes that we have eyes, ears and mouths. It’s those holes that, in some way, become the senses. I was wondering how to reconcile the skin and the holes in the skin.

Bogren: That’s a pretty question. I don’t think there needs to be a reconciliation so much as there needs to be a dance. To say, I smell something--that’s olfactory. I’ve gained water weight--that’s integumentary. Biologically, they’re different systems. They’re friends, but it’s a fact that we can forget about the old paradigm, if we choose, that our sensibility is through our senses, excluding our skin. We now know that we absorb chemicals through our skin, that we absorb everything through our skin. According to Rupert Sheldrake, we resonate with one another through our skin. I think there’s a new paradigm coming in and we may as well begin to think about that.

Question: I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but do you believe in reincarnation? And, are you a vegetarian? Because your paradigm is such a belief system. I think it’s beautiful, and it’s beautiful to hear you talk. Your work is gorgeous. But these are the things I was curious about.

Bogren: Well, I try not to think about reincarnation because I have a fear that I would be the one to come back as chemical sludge. I mean, do you get to choose? So, I don’t think about that. And, I don’t eat anything that’s bigger than I am.

Question: I’m really attracted to what you said, and I’m sure I need to think about it--or, not think about it, perhaps! --a little while longer. But, I feel like you’re maintaining a split, a sort of mind/body, exterior/interior. I think you’re absolutely right that we experience things through the skin, but we need to process them with our mind. I’m wondering if maybe you can convince me otherwise.

Bogren: No. You’re right. Also, I was thoughtful enough to say, in the beginning, that this is not intelligent. That lets me off the hook of having to justify it. It’s a hunch, and it is, as you say, a belief system. I believe what I say but I’m hard pressed if you put me in a corner, except to evaluate your own experience.

Question: I’m also kind of floored by your talk. I hope that I can talk intelligent. I’ve always been intrigued by scars on people’s skin, and by the fact that so many people have scars but they can’t remember how they got them. To me, that’s about the body having a memory that the brain has forgotten. When I say that to people, they kind of look at me like I’m crazy. I want to know your thoughts about it, because it seems like you might not think I’m crazy. The second part is sort of a comment. There’s an Aztec god, whose name I can’t remember, who, according to legend, takes the skin of all of his ancestors and sews them together into a cape and wears the cape during religious ceremonies.

Bogren: That’s very beautiful. I haven’t heard about that. Regarding the scars, I’ve been discovering as I age that scars from my brother’s fingernails in my forearm when I was a kid are becoming apparent again. Scars that were hidden when my skin was young are showing up again as my skin wears. I think that both of those things are wonderful, because they’re related.

Question: You talked about how we can lose track of time but we never lose track of place. I was wondering if you could talk about that connecting to memory and what you were saying about your uncle being able to find his way home, even though he couldn’t go to the bathroom without help.

Bogren: I also said that I can’t find place, myself. So, it is a poetic notation, a poetic concept, what home is. I think that home is an extrusion. Home, and experience lived, becomes a poetic shelter that we are always oriented to, if it was good. If it wasn’t, then we extrude to new homes, new shelters. In the case of my uncle, I believe that home was good. Whatever the present was giving him, it wasn’t giving him home. So he extruded the idea of home and headed for the real home, because he’s a physical person. A creative person might head to a play, or a book, or a good cup of coffee, for home. Home is an extrusion, the way a spider extrudes something or bees extrude wax, or the way we extrude stories. It’s poetic. But, because we’re physical, it’s also real.

Question: I just wonder if we can have more than one home.

Bogren: I hope so, because it has to be. But I wonder what you mean?

Question: If you have more than one good home, it’s a good thing. But for you, is your work your home? Is that what you think of?

Bogren: I think that you’re right in that you can have a lot of homes. Because it’s a poetic notation and it’s a powerful, and real, one, it’s an idea or a paradigm that can be kicked about. Where I take it is into skin. Where you take home, would be your extrusion. It’s a creative idea for each of us who have interest in it to take it somewhere else. Just as skin is a creative idea that doesn’t belong to anyone. I think that it is so important, as artists, that we claim hold on poetic language. Who is it that said yesterday, art is the artificial, art is the virtual. It’s physical and real, but it’s also an idea. I’m tired to the teeth of thinking that I should use words, when I’m speaking about the creative process, that are linear, logical and of seventh grade English literature. I’m a creative person, as you are creative persons, and we can lay hold onto poetic language. It’s an effort. It takes study. It is the poetic language that lets us speak creativity. It’s at least as valid as the literal.

Question: You have a lot of different strands running around. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the personal self and the home, and the energies that are in the self. I think that’s one thing we’re sort of missing here. We’re talking about being sensory beings, having these holes, and needing to run to shelter, which is a home of some place. But what about our shelters within ourselves, and what about our own auras, our own selves, our own energy fields and how we connect with other people?

Bogren: Well, that’s your interest. I’m not interested, so much, in that. I’m interested in poetic language to think. Regarding one’s own auras or energies, I’m just glad if, when I wake up in the morning, I still want to be a creative person. Because being a creative person is the hardest work that I know. There is not a common support for being creative. There is not a common support for speaking poetically. The more we do a thing, the more we do a thing. So, the more we speak poetically and the more we allow our barriers of our physicality merge with other species, the stranger we become. The stranger we become, the more we have to remember to use the linear logic when we are with non-strange people. It’s like living a divided life. I just give you warning that, as creative persons needing to speak poetically so as to understand your own world, your own gift, and to allow the gift to flower, when you’re with the other guys, you have to say, "So! How’s it going?" That’s what interests me. I think it’s different for you. Besides, I am the one who has a hard time finding home, because I’m out here somewhere!

Question: Your talk was very poetic and provocative, but I’m not sure I followed you. You said that skin has intelligence? And you also said that skin is a shelter. Along the way, you mentioned a lot about dreams, about rocks and fish. I actually have two questions. I was wondering if you think of skin as a site of imagination? The second question is, even though you talked about a collective memory or imagination, accumulated imagery that runs through us, skin also is a site of separation. You can never get out of your skin. What’s your comment about this?

Bogren: I think what you said about the skin carrying imagination is wonderful, and I intend to say that myself in the future. And I will credit you with it! I hadn’t thought about that, specifically, but it makes sense to me. About the other, I remember passing a roadkill of a dead dog. The dog was so dead that only its envelope was left. I said, ha! An envelope whose letter has already been sent. The letter was, of course, the water inside and all the vitality--the electrical fields and the iron--was all gone. The letter went back to the big post office in the world, the physical world, leaving its envelope. We’re just envelopes, all of us. Dogs, fishes--we’re all carrying the same material. Squeeze the envelope shut, and the body’s gone. That isn’t answering your question, but that’s what I think about skin. It’s easy to think about different species, because what’s inside the skin is the same. It’s the physical world. I live in this world, I’m not living in the sky. This is physical. The skin is just a thin barrier that doesn’t have to keep me in here, because I leak. I have the opportunity to visit the other species, as long as I’m in the physical world, in a real way.

Question: We have to end this. I don’t know if I can get you to do this or not, but can you tell the story of the dogfish?

Bogren: I don’t know this story... Oh, that one. Why didn’t you say so before? If you spend any time in any part of the world outside of the United States, you get to be animistic. You get to understand that things have got life, and you don’t even have to try. I learned a story when I was in Alaska. I think it’s an Eskimo story. It’s a common story of Sedna. Sedna was an attractive young woman, and it was time for her to marry. Her father was a little greedy and hasty, and he married her off to a dog. The dog took Sedna to an island and put a leash around her neck. The leash was told to let her out to pee, but otherwise Sedna was supposed to stay in the house. Sedna was not happy about being married to a dog and made friends with the leash, so that when she went out to pee, the leash released her, and she jumped into the sea. She tried to swim to the boat where her mother and father were fishing. She got there and tried to climb into the boat, but her father, being who he was, started hitting her to keep her out of the boat. She tried with all her might to get inside, so he took a knife and cut her fingers off. Her fingers bled and went into the sea, and it became all the fishes and the sea animals. She put her elbow over the edge of the boat and he said, no! And he cut her arm off, which sank into the sea and became monsters of the sea. She was left without fingers, hands or arms, and she sank to the bottom of the sea, furious. She was free of the dog, but she was at the bottom of the sea. In her anger, she built herself a shelter. In the house were all the bones of all the people who had wronged her. When people, like her mother and father, went out fishing, she sent storms to them or she sent the monsters up to kill them. Then their bones floated down and she collected them in her room. But, she had a heart, and as the story goes, if you go out on the sea and you behave yourself, if you are good in your transactions, then Sedna will not take you. Your bones won’t float to the bottom. She will feed you, instead.

 

 

Synopsis by Ann Mansolino

 

 

In the midst of an age dominated by rapidly proliferating technologies and digital communication, the ideas of home, memory, and the self are increasingly being defined by the electronic information technologies that surround us. In contrast to this, the artist Vernal Bogren presented a pre-electric approach to information–in particular, a system of intelligence based on skin.

According to Bogren, skin possesses a form of memory. This memory consists of sensations; it is evocative and fleeting. It morphs as the body changes position, and can thus be thought of as ‘kinesthetic memory.’ Like a fish that can sense changes in water temperature, depth, and salinity, like the salmon who swim upstream to return to the conditions of their births at the time of their deaths, so do we sense our surroundings through our skin. It is through these ‘physical dreams’ of skin memory that we are able to apprehend the aesthetics of the present moment and to make sense of where we are now based on where we've been. These memories held in the skin and hair account for why one place resembles or feels like another. It is thus that we may lose track of time, but not place.

One of the defining characteristics of human skin is softness. Bogren explored the connection between this softness and the hard structures we build to shelter ourselves. She spoke of the return to an exoskeletal life: of our need to be disguised among the hard shells of our objects (such as cars, buildings, and eventually coffins) for safety and shelter. She posited that shelter is an extrusion of its dweller, and that the structures we surround ourselves with therefore function as a reflection of our values.

Throughout her presentation, Bogren showed slides of her own batik work, an art whose process mirrors her ideas about skin and physical memory. She says her work is about physical morphology, and that the bleached cotton which forms the surface for her batik pieces is the ghost of a large green plant that remembers what it was. She describes her artistic process as ‘creative alchemy.’

In contrast to the fish she discussed at the beginning of her presentation, the salmon whose skin memory allow them to return home to freshwater at the end of their lives, Bogren asserts that despite our own capacity for physical memory, many people have difficulty finding home. Lacking a sure sense of orientation, we find ourselves unable to get home again. Bogren sees this as an indication that our extrusion of shelter doesn't fit. When this is the case, the self must thus extrude a fresh creative shelter which becomes home. In response to this, Bogren calls for ‘skin-based mapping’ and for an investigation of the repetitive physical movements in our lives. It is through such things, she believes, that we will be able to locate both a point of genesis for creative work and a true sense of home.

 

 

Analysis by Bennie Flores Ansell

 

 

What is going to be the genesis of your work?

Are you always going to be intellectual? Are you always going to be looking at concepts? Or sometimes isn’t the body itself there for its own exploitation….

Skin needs movement in order to have the memory in order to ascertain the present.

Fish skin is like this for the ability for discernment of aesthetic features, not through the brain, but through the skin.

It is so important that we as artists take hold of poetic language, it is physical, it is real and it is also language. I am tired to the teeth, thinking that I should use words when I am speaking of the creative process. To use language that is linear and logical. Claim poetic language, it is the poetic language that lets us speak of creativity and it is at least as valid as the literal.

The language of Vernal Bogren Swift alludes to a sense of us trying to ground ourselves in something, to create a home base in which we feel comfortable. Her argument throughout this lecture was presented under the surface, in terms of her poetic language. Her claim being that artists create a barrier around themselves based in theory and lacking in bodily experience. She proves her argument using metaphors about our ‘soft-bodied’ beings which were once ‘hard-bodied,’ that are now looking to shelter our skin. She illustrates this allusion to theory in artist practices and today’s post postmodern art world relentlessly in her lecture.

Throughout her presentation she flashes images of her own work done in the ancient batik medium, colorfully and intuitively made with the materials which she knows has a memory of being what they once were in the living form. Thinking about not being intelligent and letting the morphological navigation, morphological map reading giggle out pieces of the morphing puzzle of her creativity. Bogren Swift’s work is about physical morphology and physical memory. She claims the bleached cotton is a ghost of a large green plant, and it remembers what it was. She calls this collaboration with the earthy materials a ‘creative alchemy.’

According to Bogren Swift, our human bodies are tools to listen to and guide us in the art making process. Meteorologists use hair in barometers for measuring change of the atmosphere; when the hair curls there is something in the weather. We know of changes through our skin. More specifically, she calls skin a system of intelligence and memory. The ‘Skin Memory Map,’ what she calls the pre-electric system, use it and forget the brain for memory, use the experience of yourself now in the moment as your guide in creative works. This is a call to work more intuitively and less cerebrally, without the need of a protective exoskeletal system/theory based in education/memory .

Bogren Swift used the example of salmon going back to their place of birth specific to two inches of place to express the need for us to go back to a place of creating art from our in-skin/bodily experience. The ‘skin map language,’ held in memories is not for the purpose of getting back somewhere, but to apprehend the aesthetics of the present moment. Her argument is that we as artists need to be present, to be oriented now, as understood through the skin, such as a navigational memory that the fish have. She uses this metaphor as a call to get us back to the place we once were as artists, pre-theory and ‘all’ intelligent in the creative process.

The idea of home was also explored in this lecture. Home was illustrated as being a constructed idea, good for some and not good for others. A place that some of us want to go back to and find and others not. The construction of home and self was explained by Bogren Swift in her words of, Our seam down our nose and down our chin where we are sewn, to the belly button. We are made, sewn, constructed, therefore we can make ourselves and our belief systems anything we choose.

The use of the Rapunzel fairy tale in this discourse is very poignant, for I believe it illustrates Bogren Swift’s point of the predicament of the artist today, who is solely based in the Ivory Tower of theory and becomes dithered when they are kicked out of the tower, stripped away from theory and protection. ‘Rapunzel is dithered.’ The artist without their locks of theory is dithered. In this analogy, Vernal claims that we too will be dithered in the nakedness without the shelter of theory and cerebral management in the art-making practice.

Bringing us back down to earth we can forget about the old paradigm in this time of technological advances. She claims a new paradigm is coming in and we may as well begin to think about that/her belief system.

When Bogren Swift presented it came as a flighty, irritating shift in our first week into the seminar, yet as I thought of it more and more, I realized what a refreshing viewpoint it was after all the talk of theory and art ‘experimental’ practice. Vernal Bogren Swift is grounded in her soft-bodied existence, creating work from a biological viewpoint and her own skin experience.

I don’t know if this new paradigm she calls for will happen on all levels of art practice, for it is a facile utopian idea/plea. Artists will always work on different echelons of thought and experience. And all of art is up for critique as prescribed by the art theoreticians, the art critics, and the art historians. As refreshing as it was to hear the ideas Vernal Bogren Swift touches upon, it is unfortunate that the artist who chooses to work in the way of ‘skin intelligence’ will be left out of the continuum of 'popular' discourse in art practice and find it to be a swim upstream.